Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book #35: Looking for Madame Sosostris

"For years she had drifted into fantasy as she lay in bed at night or sat quietly looking at a book without reading it.  Now her fantasies began to serve a more urgent purpose.  It was much more bearable to be a princess getting tortured in a dungeon than a crooked little girl being tortured by doctors."  -Judith Rossner, Looking for Mr. Goodbar

Last week, my boyfriend took me to his office Christmas party, where I had my fortune told.  While mingling over glasses of bubbly, you had the option of slipping off to a table in the corner where an old woman with battle-marked skin and dangly earrings shuffled a pack of Tarot cards.  At first, I was skeptical about going up - I've never considered myself the new agey, occultist type, not since junior high at least - but one of the other guests told me that this woman had discerned all kinds of intimate details about her life and yielded scads of insight.  Curiosity got the better of me.

Whether working from intuition or mystical powers, the fortune teller did draw out a good deal about my life.  She knew (guessed?) that I am a writer and that I'm prone to stress and neck pain (maybe she could tell this just by looking at my posture).  But in any case, some cred had been established in my mind.  So when she said that something - some key ingredient - is missing from my current project, I sat up straight indeed.

Although she couldn't say what exactly it was, I knew what she was getting at.  It's something that has been lurking at the back of my mind, a shadowy territory I've been reluctant to explore in my memoir.

When I was eleven, I was diagnosed with idiopathic scoliosis, a curvature of the spine of unknown cause.  For two years, I had to wear a fibreglass back brace, and after that treatment failed to do much of anything, aside from giving me breathing problems, surgery was the only option.  Several vertebrae had to be fused and a metal rod was stapled to my spine and I was left with a bright red seam that both tormented and intrigued me for years to come.  (It's like the scar's a zipper into me... a reminder of my ability to become undone).

Since this event was so formative to my identity (my sexuality, my relationship to my body, my "escape" into reading and the life of the mind), it might seem obvious that I should include it in my memoir.  But I haven't, until now.  I haven't wanted to open that closet.  I've said to myself that it isn't important or relevant, but now I sense that just the opposite is true.

Thank you, Madame Sosostris.

So over the past few days, in between eating turkey at Christmas parties, I've been reading for inspiration Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Judith Rossner's 1970s bestseller.  Based on a true story, the novel tells a dark tale about a Catholic school teacher, who suffered from scoliosis as a child, leaving her with a sense of disfigurement that plays out in her games of seduction on the New York bar scene.  While her experience is no doubt different from my own (thank God!  I didn't end up being killed by a psychopath), I have to say that there are certain scenes dealing with memory repression, depression and fantasy that resonate with me all too well.  Now I have to curl up with my notebook and delve into that morass of my own memories.  A little light Christmas reading.

Photo from: here   

Friday, December 17, 2010

Book #34: Atavistic Atwood

"What impressed him that time, he even mentioned it later, cool he called it, was the way I took off my clothes and put them on again later very smoothly as if I were feeling no emotion.  But I really wasn't."  -Margaret Atwood, Surfacing

A few days ago, when I was at my favourite used bookstore, I stumbled across Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing. When it was published in 1972, Atwood was elevated to a new level of literary recognition for her caustic portrait of the Canadian wilderness and the wilderness within one woman’s tormented mind (establishing Atwood’s longstanding fascination with the seamy side of nature). But what I remember most vividly about this old novel – from when I plucked it off my mother’s bookshelf and first read it at age twelve – are the sex scenes. These were my clandestine thrills as an awkward, curious pre-teen – to pull an “adult” novel off my mom’s shelf, one day Atwood, the next day Danielle Steel. The high and the low occupied a level plane on her shelf, but I quickly discovered my own preference for the darkness and power games and animal-like perversion that characterize Atwood’s best novels.

These memories stirred at the back of my mind, as I began rereading Surfacing, reacquainting myself with the boorish quality of the nameless narrator’s lover, Joe. He’s not a bad guy. More skillful in bed than most, and good looking in a rugged way, if you go for a cross between a buffalo and a bear. She and Joe explore the extremes of their relationship during a week long trip to the remote island where she grew up – her crazy father has vanished there. Her search for her father is the ostensible purpose of the visit, but it soon becomes clear that the real purpose is to explore the cryptic nature of her own sexuality. Who is she? Why does she feel such malaise and lack of desire, even as she goes through the motions of seduction and falling in love? What is this mysterious “amputation” within herself she keeps referring to?

Reading Atwood becomes a form of self-exploration. There have been times when I’ve felt so depressed that my own world seemed to be folding back into the atavistic world Atwood depicts so beautifully, where bare animal survival seems a struggle. A few years ago, I found myself trapped in a career I thought I would love but ended up hating, living in a town of 5000 that, although picturesque on the surface, became reminiscent of a Lars von Trier film. I identified all too well with the Atwood narrator and the primitive, archetypal world she conveys so well. The bone numbing cold seeped in on me, and my libido curled inward and died.

But just when rejuvenation seems impossible in Atwood’s novels, nature shows her softer side. The wilderness works in sudden, mysterious ways to reveal unforeseen possibilities. And it’s for these subtle, always ambiguous moments of change and awakened desire that I love reading Atwood.

Hmmm…. Just the inspiration I need to start writing Chapter Nine.

Photo from: here

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

When My Mother Was My Age

When my mom found out I'm writing a memoir about my relationship with my dad, she was very supportive - partly, I think, because she was relieved I wasn't putting our relationship under the microscope.  But the truth is that I've always found my mother a deeply fascinating woman, and I'm hoping in a future literary work to use her as a source of literary inspiration.  Thus when I found out that Jane Friedman of Writers Digest was hosting a mother-daughter interview series at her blog, called "When My Mother Was My Age," I jumped at the chance to participate.  It seemed like a great opportunity to get to know my mom in a role other than "mother" and at the same time, stash research notes for the future.  As it turns out, she suffered from similar sources of turbulence in her life at my age.  My interview with my mom and my reflections can be read at Jane's blog.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Book #33: The Turbulence of Moving

"As he walked slowly about the empty, echoing rooms on that bright September morning, the Professor regarded thoughtfully the needless inconveniences he had put up with for so long; the stairs that were too steep, the halls that were too cramped, the awkward oak mantles with thick round posts crowned by bumptious wooden balls, over green-tiled fire-places."  -Willa Cather, The Professor's House

Sadly, I have not been able to write or blog much lately, because we're in the process of moving.  Our loft has been dismantled into a series of half-packed boxes and our magnificent wall of books is no more.  (When Chris first asked me if I wanted to move in with him eight months ago, the thought of combining our book collections to expand his already impressive library was most alluring....  But now, the shelves are bare, leaving my soul feeling a little barren.  Tools are cast on the coffee table and the place looks like such a construction site that we've even stopped washing the dishes.)

I was thinking about novels about moving houses....  The Professor's House came to mind.  It's a novel about a professor who should be on cloud nine - he's just won a prestigious academic prize enabling him to build a luxurious new house - but instead he finds himself melancholy and nostalgic.  In the midst of packing, he becomes lethargic and irrationally attached to his old house, which, despite all its inconveniences and shabbiness, is replete with the memories he associates with "home."  So he turns inward, recoils from reality.  Curls up in a ball in his attic study.  Memories of childhood give way to fantasies of his best student, a young man named Outland who died in the First World War.  But before his death, Outland and the professor became close and the stories that Outland told him about his youth linger on in the professor's imagination.  Outland spent one summer exploring a mesa in New Mexico, where he discovered the relics of a dead civilization - the treasures of antiquity.  The romance of Outland's life catches hold in the professor's mind as everything his own life is not.  Vigorous.  Manly.  In touch with nature.  The more he fantasizes about Outland's adventures the more paltry his own accomplishments seem.

Moving, in other words, can be very dismantling to one's identity.  All the familiar objects that surround me in my everyday life feel strangely animate, touched with memories and emotions, as I rip them out of their familiar context and box them up.  Take them away from me and my very sense of "self" starts to slip away....

Since my undergrad days until present, I've moved thirteen times.  Maybe that's why I was so unstable during my twenties, while pursuing grad school, research fellowships and the peripatetic life of a professor peddling her trade, suitcase overflowing with scruffy books and crumpled syllabi.....  A lot of packing up house, a lot of purging (my books were always the hardest to part with).  I'm glad to have kissed that life goodbye.

Next week, Chris and I will be in our new place, and the front room with the bay window will be set up as our new library, where I will do my writing.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book #32: My Ideal Therapist

"From the beginning, I wanted to be a difficult case.  I wanted my therapist to feel as if she were being challenged, taken to the limits of her psychotherapeutic powers.  I wanted her to have her mind blown by my psyche."  -Micah Toub, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks

Back in grad school, I took seminars on Freud and Lacan, but no one seemed to be teaching Jung.  If such a seminar had been offered, I probably would have taken it, because psychoanalytic approaches to the study of literature/film greatly interested me at the time.  On the other hand, I have to confess that there always seemed in my mind to be something kind of hippy-dippy about Jung - I don't know exactly where I got this impression, but maybe it has something to do with how he's fallen through the cracks of the Ivory Tower.

Thank god that I've hightailed it from the Ivory Tower.

Coincidentally, it must have been three or four years ago, just as I was becoming disenchanted with the academic monastery, that I first met Micah Toub, a friend of my cousin Alex.  She took me to a party at his house and it must have been Alex who told me that he was working on this memoir about growing up as the son of Jungian psychologists, because I don't recall Micah and I exchanging more than an introductory greeting.  At the time, I was intrigued by the book concept, particularly because I'd just started therapy myself (sadly, my therapist wasn't a Jungian). 

Last week, when I saw Micah at a Spoke Club event discussing his memoir, I couldn't resist buying the book and this time we chatted about the vicissitudes of the memoir genre.  Over the weekend, while taking periodic breaks from working on my own memoir (chapter seven just about killed me), I read his at a leisurely pace and, I must say, reading about his neuroses was a lovely distraction from my own.  And I stand corrected in my earlier impression of Jung as hippy-dippy at all!  Jung emerges in Micah's book as offering a creative, flexible repertoire of tools for analyzing the self and tailoring an identity - so much less off-the-shelf than Freud.  The memoir skillfully cuts back and forth between elucidations of Jungian concepts and poignant, revealing anecdotes in the author's life, capturing the awkward, fumbling quality of identity formation and sexual experiences of all kinds.  I found myself laughing and indulging in that weirdly pleasurable embarrassment of self-recognition, recalling parallel moments in my own development, so excruciating at the time.

So now I'm ready to start therapy again.  Three years ago, when I was tormented about whether I should throw in the towel on my career as an English prof, and seeking utopian compensations in a bad affair, I started seeing my therapist, Harriet, but my treatment was not altogether successful.  She was a disciple of the new "positive psychology" which did not, so far as I could tell, have any philosophical depth at all.  I recall showing up at my first session with a little Moleskin notebook; over the past week, I had been assiduously recording fragments of my dreams.  But Harriet looked at me as if I were as outdated as a character from a Woody Allen movie.  I was disappointed to learn that according to "positive psychology," dreams don't occupy a special status or seem to be accorded much meaning at all. 

Too bad I'm not still depressed.  If I could do it again, I'd google a Jungian.

Photo from: here        

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Book #31: Not So Hard-Boiled After All

"I regret that in one respect my father and I were too much alike.  We both have a great natural reserve that makes it almost impossible to open ourselves to others.  I think he would have liked to confide in me more, but I wasn't ready at that time to push for a more revealing relationship."   -Jo Hammett, Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers

Yesterday evening, I was puttering around the library doing research on Dashiell Hammett.  It almost felt like back in my geeky grad school days.  But no, I'm not working on some dry dissertation, I'm writing what I truly want to be writing - my memoir about how reading changed my life.  One chapter deals with The Maltese Falcon.  My dad and I read this novel together a few years ago, during a rocky period in both our lives, when everything was spiralling out of control like in film noir.  As my dad and I were reading it together, I came to see him as bearing some remarkable similarities to the cynical, hard-boiled anti-hero Sam Spade, and the question of what had made him this way compelled me to delve into his past and discover some family secrets....  (More on this later....  I'm writing this chapter as we speak).

Anyway, I have to confess that the chapter feels like it's missing something, and I'm starting to feel very anxious about it.  Nauseous, actually.  I get that way when I'm writing.  Insomnia, teeth grinding, bizarre cinematic dreams.  So this was why I found myself at the library late last night....  I found myself wanting to know more about the author himself, because I'd gotten it into my head that the key to understanding my father lies in gaining insight into Hammett and Sam Spade.  Not exactly a logical leap, I'll admit.  But this is how my mind works.  

How lucky I was to stumble upon a memoir written by none other than Hammett's own daughter!  Jo Hammett's Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers gives an unflinching look at the man and the convoluted dynamics of father-daughter relationships, where the daughter is caught between idolization of her old man, guilt at having not done enough when he was dying, and an ever-present yearning to have been closer to him when she had the chance.  Hammett was no model father, indulging in bouts of drinking and womanizing and plagued by illness, yet Jo Hammett gives a surprisingly balanced portrait of her eccentric dad.  What emerges is a portrait of a very shy, self-conscious person, who needed drink in order to be around people at all, and his solitude was intrinsically tied to his ability to write.  Lillian Hellman, his long-time lover, understood this about him and often remarked on how his lust for solitude had taken its toll on her, cutting her off from society, especially as the couple aged. 

In a particularly moving scene, Jo Hammett writes about visiting her father at his San Francisco Post Street apartment, where he wrote The Maltese Falcon; she remembers the elevator, with its folding brass grille, closing.  For anyone who has read the novel, this memory is clearly reminiscent of the final scene, where the femme fatale is led out in handcuffs, yet Jo Hammett focuses instead on how trapped her father must have felt in that elevator - stomach constricted, air sucked out of his lungs.  He suffered from claustrophobia all his life.  Not a tough guy like Sam Spade, the Hammett she brings to life is full of vulnerability and depth.  Exactly the characteristics I want to bring out in my dad.

Photo from: here

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Book #30: The Travelling Life

"But the truth is also that there is an answering impulse of subservience in him, part of him wants to give in, I see shadows thrown up in grappling contortions on the roof of the cave."  -Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room

I was planning on giving this book to a friend for her birthday, but now, a third of the way in, I don't know, I just might have to get her something else.  Even if In a Strange Room weren't a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, I still wouldn't have been able to put it down.  What is it about this dark narrative that immediately drew me in?  The first novella "The Follower" is deceptively simple: a young white South African man named Damon treks through the mountains of Lesotho under the spell of a mysterious German man named Reiner, a philosopher of sorts.  Although Damon claims not be in love with Reiner - preferring to think of their relationship as a "dark passion," an accidental interlude - it soon becomes clear that he's deeply, obsessively in love with this man and his every attempt to maintain emotional distance is bound for failure.

So intense are his feelings that he's devised a strange technique for telling his story.  The story is for the most part told in the third person, but every so often it slips into the first person, as in the passage above.  While this technique at first throws the reader off - for a moment, I thought there were three characters, a menage-a-trois - it's well worth the experiment.  For the technique pays off by opening up meanings and raising questions about what happens to you when you travel and fall in love.  The minimalist prose conveys perfectly the way that life and your identity get pared down to the bare essentials and the feeling of weightlessness can be very liberating at first; it's as if you have the freedom to create yourself anew, be anyone, try anything.  In this sense, it's as if Damon, the narrator-traveller, is watching himself in a film.  (I remember that feeling from my year in Berlin.  Back in grad school, I suddenly sold all my possessions, except my laptop and two suitcases full of books, and moved to Berlin, not knowing anyone, having chosen the place more or less randomly because I'd fallen out of love and I'd overheard some artists talking about how it was easy and cheap for foreigners to rent short-term housing there.  And all the while, I didn't feel like me, I felt deliciously free of me, like a girl in a film). 

This sense of distance, it seems to me, is what Galgut is trying to convey in writing most of the work in the third person.  And yet the "I" surfaces at key moments of passion, memory, betrayal - exposing how the work isn't entirely fiction, it hovers on the cusp of memoir.  

Photo from: here

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Book #29: The Art of Impotence

“Oh Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”  -Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Time to buckle down.  My heart still aflutter from the good news of last week, it was time to make headway on finishing chapter seven of my literary memoir.  This chapter focuses on The Sun Also Rises, which was an important novel for me and my dad to read together.  There's something strangely alluring about Jake Barnes' impotence, and I found myself remembering and reflecting on a conversation we had on this topic. 

"You really feel Jake's suffering," Daddy said.  "But he never seems wimpy or unmanly.  I like the guy."

Injured in the First World War, Jake has lost his balls, so to speak, but that doesn’t stop women from falling in love with him. I smiled. Daddy was becoming more observant about the text, ever since he took up reading as his new retirement hobby and asked me - his languishing English professor daughter - to put together a reading list.

I had to admit that I liked Jake, too. What is it about Jake Barnes that makes him so likable even though the guy’s a prick? He’s mean to friends who annoy him for being suck-ups, like Robert Cohn, but he’s loyal to a fault to other friends, like Brett Ashley, who walks all over him. Throughout it all, Jake affects an air of solitary cool; he seems the perfect lone ranger. At night, however, his true feelings come out.

After an evening of heavy drinking with his friends at all the hotspots in Paris, he comes home to an empty flat, piss drunk and alone. The waves of loneliness wash over him and the reality of his impotence comes crashing down. Although he tries to find the humour in it, the joke only goes so far and he breaks down in tears. Brett drops by early in the morning and through the haze of sleep, he mistakes her as a prostitute. So it’s fair to say that he doesn’t trust her, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s hopelessly in love with her. Brett’s demand for intimacy is tantalizing torture.

“What do you think of Jake and Brett’s relationship?” I asked Daddy.

“It’s painful to watch them together,” he said. “Yet they’re clearly so much in love.”

I could remember people saying the same thing about me and Josh, my old boyfriend from undergrad days. All our breakups and tearful reconciliations left our friends and families perplexed.

As I thought back, it occurred to me that perhaps this is the beautiful thing about Jake's impotence.  It allows us as readers to relive that turbulent, thrilling, adolescent feeling of being in love with someone with whom you just can't get it together.  The dynamics of desire and despair take on a life of their own.  Haven't we all been in that excruciating position before? 

Photo from: here

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

At Last ... My Book Has a Home!

I probably mentioned some time ago that I've been working on a book.  It's called The Reading List and it's a memoir about my miserable career as an English professor and search for a new career, which pushed me to the brink of a breakdown three summers ago, and all the while I was seeking distraction from my career blues by looking for love in all the wrong places, drowning in the Grey Goose.  My father, grappling with his own demons, decided to take up reading as his new hobby and who better to recommend a reading list than his erudite daughter?  Except I wasn't feeling very erudite at the time. 

Still, we bond over literature in other - unexpected - ways and this opens a whole new dimension to our relationship....  (More on this later).

Anyway, a few months ago, I sent my book proposal around to a few publishers and then waited.... and waited.... and faced some perfectly diplomatic rejection emails, which pointed out its merits and drawbacks, but no matter how many times I read them amounted to the same thing.  I pretended that I was fine with it - really, I was, I wasn't grinding my teeth at night more than usual, despite my throbbing jaw - and I could accept that my memoir (half written) might never see the light of day.  At the urging of a friend, I began work on another project, an historical novel, and half convinced myself that I'm a novelist at heart, not a memoirist after all.   

All this changed the other night, when I was at a friend's birthday party (my agent actually) and he introduced me to a lovely young woman, Sandra, who turned out to be a publisher.  She runs a small press that focuses on next generation multicultural literature. 

"She wants to publish your book," my agent whispered to me. 

I blinked and the room began to spin gently, even though I hadn't had a drop of wine (I was on cold medication, feeling very uncool to be at a party not drinking), but yes, my cheeks were getting hot, as if I might have quaffed an entire bottle.

"I've read your manuscript and I love it," Sandra said, smiling warmly.  "Let's do it!  Let's publish your book."

Sandra and I stood by the wall chatting in our high heels for the next four-and-a-half hours and we exchanged many giddy emails last week and this morning we signed a contract.  She and her father, who founded the press, shook my hand and hugged me and the room was filled with good karma, if I may say so myself, and I'm not the kind of person who usually says things like "karma."

Ever since I was six years old, you see, I've wanted to be a writer.  Much more than I ever wanted to be a professor.  That first godawful career was just a detour (which, ironically, has given me something to write about).

So now the clock is ticking.  I have until April to complete the second half of the book.

Photo from: here

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Book #28: Like Jewels and Stones

“The words, hard and bright, are like jewels within her. But they’re also like stones.” -Dawn Promislow, Jewels and Other Stories

I met Dawn Promislow about a year ago in a program called Diaspora Dialogues. It fosters the creation of diasporic literature by pairing established writers with emerging writers of various multicultural backgrounds. Dawn and I were both “emerging writers” and we gravitated to each other at a poetry reading. We started chatting about this and that – our favourite writers’ use of dialect, the colonial tragedies of places we know (I used to live in Trinidad and Dawn grew up in South Africa), among other lighter topics of conversation, like “following” Virginia Woolf in our heads…..

Last week, I was delighted to attend the book launch at Type Books for Dawn’s first book, Jewels and Other Stories. It’s a beautiful weaving together of such a variety of stories, all set in South Africa: a doctor takes an unexpected risk to draw his black servant’s son into the family; a young white girl tries to give her nanny the contents of her piggy bank, not realizing the wedge she’ll drive into the family; a receptionist and drug dealer’s love affair gone awry yields a strange kind of insight about love and chance. These are just a few of the vivid characters you meet in the fourteen stories, which flew by so quickly, too quickly. Now I feel I must go back and read them again.

The resistance movement gathering momentum in the 70s forms the backdrop of many of the stories, although the stories always remain focused on the characters themselves – ordinary people’s desires, fears, hopes. I felt they were all people whom I already knew in some way from my own life, and “Isn’t that the way we would react?” I kept thinking to myself, if we were caught up in violent upheaval and change.

I was struck by what Dawn said by way of introducing her book at the book launch; she said that some years ago she had wanted to write about South Africa, but felt ambivalent and paralyzed because so much had already been written. So she said that she decided simply to “create voices” and see where they would take her, and at the end, she’d found no answers. No answers at all. I thought about what she’d said and it dawned on me that this is the very thing about literature: it doesn’t need to deliver grand answers, it doesn’t need to judge. Indeed, my favourite stories have a kind of openness that teases the mind by providing a slice of life that, the more you think about it, contains a world that glimmers beyond the present. Gestures to more to come.

Btw, since completing Jewels, Dawn has a written a very beautiful, evocative story published in the online journal MTLS.  You can read her story here.

Photo from: here

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book #27: Better Than Therapy

“The butcher had come out and smacked his hands together and rubbed them back and forth, and he’d laid a steak on the stainless steel cutting board and turned on the saw, and he’d cubed it for her. Little stiff cubes with frost fibres in the purplish flesh, and this, Helen realizes now, is herself, her own heart, sliding back and forth under the blade.” -Lisa Moore, February

Life is a veil of tears for Helen O’Mara, when she loses her husband in the sinking of the oil rig Ocean Ranger during a storm off the coast of Newfoundland. Lisa Moore’s latest novel February gives a masterly glimpse of her struggle to hold together some semblance of normal life – taking care of her four kids, cooking fish sticks, trying to make ends meet by taking a crappy job as a cocktail waitress (and being mistaken as a prostitute on her walk home at four in the morning). These ordinary yet absurd moments underscore for Helen that her life will never be the same. For much of the novel, she is emotionally paralyzed just letting this fact sink in.

The tragedy of her husband’s death and its endless ripple effects replay in her mind with an immediacy that doesn’t allow her to assign the disaster to the past. Surely, this is why Moore chooses to narrate many of these memories in the present tense; they are all too vivid at the forefront of Helen’s mind to be told as flashbacks. The most mundane activities, like going to the butcher, risk overwhelming her, flooding her with raw emotion. Yet these moments are strangely beautiful because we see Helen standing outside herself and slowly, painstakingly, finding the resources to heal herself and move on.

Isn’t this the great thing about literature? The novels that I love reading over and over again – Toni Morrison’s Sula, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth – have this deeply therapeutic effect. Although I could never have admitted this in my former life as a lit prof (my colleagues in the English department would have scoffed), the truth is that I’ve never been drawn to literature because I wanted to learn more about a certain period of history, philosophy or theory of any kind. Literature offers a much more primitive kind of experience that consoles and helps me relive the moments when I was so depressed my whole body felt laden with weights.

I remember all too clearly, for instance, my ballet teacher putting her hands on my eleven-year-old hips. Monique her name was. She pushed and prodded my hips into an awkward position and I toppled over, but not before she had felt the imbalance, my imbalance. She told my mother that my spine curves like an S and my mother took me to see the doctor and he referred me to an orthopedic surgeon and thus began a surreal phase of passing from x-ray machines to a fiberglass brace to operating table…. I think I just sort of curled into myself and hid in a closet in my head for those three years…. I recall the struggle to get up and get dressed in the morning, the numb, disjointed feeling as if my body were a marionette puppet, hands and feet hanging limp in midair.

It must have been during this time that I developed a penchant for sadness and sad literature. To identify through reading with another’s grief and triumph over that grief can be a very consoling, beautiful thing. February brought all those extreme emotions back and I fell in love with the journey all over again.

Photo from: here

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Book #26: Outlaw Women

"My children were of me alone, of the wild blood boiling along the earth, of me and all that lived; of none and of all.  Then I found I had Jewel."   -William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

I've been sleepless thinking about who my grandmother really was.  You see, I've been toying with writing a section of my novel in her voice.  Over the weekend, I had brunch with my dad and we listened to a tape recording of her talking about her childhood, the war, falling in love in an internment camp....  My dad made the tape during a trip to Cape Cod a few years ago, shortly before her Parkinson's got bad.  The tape intrigues yet frustrates me, because all the while I feel that my grandmother is trying to say what's expected of her.  She's trying to preserve for posterity an image of herself as the good daughter, the self-suffering wife, the devoted mother.

I long to gain access to the other side of her identity - the secrets and unspoken truths she harboured all her life.  The moments when she surprised herself by acting out of character.  What she would say, if she could speak from beyond the grave.

This is the kernel imbedded in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, which I was reading over the weekend for the first time (even ex English profs haven't read everything by Faulkner).  It's the story of Addie Bundren on her deathbed and into the afterlife, told from the perspectives of fifteen different narrators, including her four legitimate children and one love child, Jewel.  Before dying, she expresses her wish to be buried in her hometown, Jefferson, Mississippi, and the novel chronicles her family's efforts to honour that wish, dragging her homemade casket by horse and carriage across the brutal landscape.  While all the narrators have their own unique ways of seeing Addie, the section where she reflects upon her life from beyond the grave makes all the other sections pale.  What we get is Addie's scathing denunciation of her marriage (which seems hardly more than a random occurence) and her ambivalent meditation on motherhood.  Motherhood seems to draw out her sadistic streak, and although she is possessive of her children, she is no less repulsed by them, a steady flow of babies who arrive without rhyme or reason.  Ironically, Jewel is closest to her heart, perhaps because he is the only one born of desire.  All these taboos are laid bare - with poignancy and beauty - in Addie's monologue.

I'm reminded of something Toni Morrison once said in an interview: "Outlaw women who don't follow the rules are always interesting to me, because they push themselves, and us, to the edge.  The women who step outside the borders, or who think other thoughts, define the limits of civilization, but also challenge it."  (No coincidence that Morrison wrote her master's thesis on Faulkner).

Listening to the tape of my grandmother, I find myself listening not so much to what she's saying as much as to her stammers, repetitions and evasions and I wonder what repressed "outlaw" possibilities they mask over.

Photo from: here

Monday, September 13, 2010

Book #25: That Accident Which Pricks Me....

"This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole - and also a cast of the dice.  A photograph's punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)."   -Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

Since my father retired, he has been digging into family history.  The other day while I was at work, he sent me the above photo, which he found upon googling "Minidoka" - the camp where my grandmother was interned during the Second World War.  "I think your grandmother is in this photo," his email read.  "Third girl from the right, in profile.  Zoom in."

And there she is. 

A whoosh of gratitude came over me - had the camera caught her a moment before or after, her face might have been obscured, like the girl on the far right.  Quelle chance!  Then weird thoughts started rushing through my mind.  I found myself looking at the styling of her hair and wondering how, while living in an internment camp, she could manage to keep it freshly curled and glossy (while I, from the comfort of home, can barely make the effort to blow dry).  But imprisoned and made to rake mud, my grandmother would not let herself go and, though I knew that should make me happy, it made me feel sad.  Her dress remains smartly pressed, despite everything.  And while the other girls are working, she appears to me to be only pretending to work - something about the whimsical tilt of her head.  She's caught in a moment of fantasy or denial, her mind a thousand miles away.

The frailties and defenses of her personality seem to be encapsulated in that image....  For the grandmother I knew some fifty years later was a complex, cryptic woman.  She was often cool and remote in person, but had a penchant for florid language (I recall receiving a postcard that said "the stars are like chrysanthemums" and thinking, Huh?).  She shied away from talking about the past, even when my father would press her, until the very final days of her life when she began to give in.  She was a woman who seemed ill prepared to be a mother or grandmother, preferring to play the role of a younger aunt, dressing half her age.

It was as if she always wanted to remain a girl - as if some beautiful moment in her adolescence had been stolen away.

Looking at this photo makes me think of Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, which I read years ago (back in my geeky, academic days).  At the time, I thought I understood what Barthes meant in coining the terms punctum and studium to describe two different and opposed kinds of experience upon looking at photographs.  By studium, he means the cultural and political dimensions of a photograph, all the ways in which it can be rationally discussed and made comprehensible to an audience.  By sharp contrast, punctum refers to a viewer's private experience of a photo - a purely subjective response.  To experience punctum is to feel idiosyncratic details jump out and grab you with such emotional force that you feel pierced, wounded. 

At the time of reading Camera Lucida, I had been deeply moved by certain photos which I'd viewed in various museums, galleries and books.  But I cannot say that I'd felt pierced.  Until now.

Photo from: here

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Book #24: Impounded Images

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had archive fever. I’ve been reading a pile of history books on the Japanese Internment. I’m looking to gain insight into what my grandparents experienced as internees as part of my attempt to write an historical novel, centred on a secret romance in one of the camps. The idea is loosely based on snippets of stories and half-disclosures that my grandmother let slip over the years, giving me certain ideas (fantasies, really) about how she met my grandfather. The beginning of their strange, turbulent marriage.

But the problem with reading history books, I’ve come to realize, is that “facts” only get you so far as a writer. They’re full of quotations by politicians and statistical data, whereas I’m interested in accessing the taste (or lack of taste) of the camp food, the sounds and smells of the barracks, the feel of the floorboards against our heroine’s bare feet as she sneaks out at night.

So I decided to read something different. Or not read at all. The other day, I came across a collection of photographs by Dorothea Lange, who is best known for her portraits of U.S. migrant farmworkers and sharecroppers during the Depression. What is not so well known about Lange’s career is that she was commissioned by the U.S. government to document the Japanese Internment. She toured many camps in California and took a slew of stunning photographs: bewildered, beautiful girls clinging to the slip of shade outside a mess hall; the Inyo Mountains rising pale and ghostly behind the camp at Manzanar, barely visible through the dust haze; and internees gardening with the materials at hand – to describe just a few of Lange’s moving images.

More than simply documenting the group’s degraded condition, Lange’s photos distill a timeless, universal sadness to their plight. There appears something almost mythic about their suffering. Since these images were seen as so obviously sympathetic to the internees’ perspective, they were impounded by the U.S. government and not published until recently.

These photos are a wonderful source of inspiration. Looking at them, I’m able to imagine how the dust would feel sticking to my skin and mixing with my sweat and from there … the thoughts of my heroine start to come alive in my head. I can feel her yearning for some escape and becoming susceptible to the advances of a certain stranger who pushed his way into her life.

Photo from: here

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Book #23: Decaying Family Ties

“Kiyo and I were too young to run around, but often we would eat in gangs with other kids, while the grownups sat at another table. I confess I enjoyed this part of it at the time.” -Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, Farewell to Manzanar

It’s a story that’s both familiar and strange to me. It might have been my mother’s story if she’d been born ten years earlier or my grandmother’s story if she hadn’t been embarrassed to tell all.

Farewell to Manzanar is Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s fascinating memoir about coming of age in an internment camp during the Second World War. The camp, situated in Manzanar, California, housed over 110,000 Japanese Americans in 36 blocks of hastily constructed barracks on 540 acres of sultry desert land. Jeanne goes overnight from being a carefree seven-year-old to an internee. Her father, a fisherman, is seized one day by the FBI under suspicion that his radio is being used to transmit information to Japan. By the time her father is released, her mother and the rest of the family have been forcibly relocated to cramped, dirty quarters at Manzanar, where the communal toilets are not even partitioned and the food is so terrible that most everyone falls ill.

I wonder to what extent my own family members suffered such indignities upon being interned at camps in Minadoka, Idaho, and Sandon and Kaslo, BC.

But what I find most interesting and unsettling about the tale is the erosion of communal family life. We hear of children and teenagers left to their own devices, allowed to eat in the mess hall with their friends everyday - running from one mess hall to the next in search of more palatable food - and all the while their parents are either absent (interned elsewhere) or languishing in depression and alcoholism. Gangs form, governed by violence and their own secret hierarchies. And covert romances, too (one might speculate). Although the author only touches on these aspects (as a child, she was too young to be sucked into the group dynamics that led to the infamous Manzanar Riot), she is clear about the fallout – the loss of parental authority. It was in this kind of no man’s land that my own grandparents fell in love against their elders’ wishes and ran away after the war.

Photo from: here

Monday, August 23, 2010

Book #22: Racy Regionalism

"The xylophone player!  The xylophone player to marry her!  Yonder he is!"  -Eudora Welty, "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies"

Not so long ago, I spent four years of my life writing a dissertation whose key insight can be summed up by these two sentences: "It is by nature itself that fiction is all bound up in the local.  The internal reason for that is surely that feelings are bound up in place."  The citation is from Eudora Welty's 1956 essay, "Place in Fiction," which I stumbled across online.  A pang of sadness came over me - this essay would have been a goldmine back in the days when I was "dissertating"!  At the time, I had become obsessed with regional literature and was trying to show how all modernist art is in fact regionalist in its basis.  But now I saw that I could have saved myself three hundred pages.  Welty said it perfectly in two lines. 

(And yes, there was a touch of nostalgia for my old academic self: cuticle chewing, sleep deprived, masochistic, high on literary theory....) 

Indulging in a blue, second-guessing-the-past moment (the crappy weather wasn't helping my mood), I dug up from a storage box Welty's first collection, A Curtain of Green and Other StoriesI'd read a few of the stories back in grad school, but hardly remembered a thing about them.  Now, as I began reading the first story, "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies," I found myself thinking about the way Welty uses dialect and delightful references to local institutions - like "Ellisville Institute for the Feeble Minded of Mississippi" - to create her signature sense of "place."  But it takes more than just that. 

Her real speciality, it dawned on me, is sexual deviance.  A group of gossipy southern ladies are bound together around the scandal of the idiot girl's sexual initiation.  On the verge of being institutionalized, Lily Daw announces that she is going to marry a xylophone player, who has charmed and possibly seduced or molested her, throwing all the ladies into a tizzy.  Their shock and prurient curiosity charge the story with feelings that are tied to the specific locale. 

This is the kind of racy regionalism that fascinates me.

As I kept reading, I began thinking about my own grandmother, Kayaco, and how much she reminds me of a character from a Welty story.  By contrast to my other grandmother (about whom I was blogging in my last entry), Kayaco is a no-nonsense kind of woman, named after Kayaks River in BC, where her father first lived upon immigrating from Japan.  She is a woman who knows her roots and what she stands for.  But to return to my point, she has a keen eye for sexual impropriety and seems to take a good deal of pleasure in rooting it out.  I remember when I was ten, she told me that her mother-in-law had long had designs on my grandfather.  Incest, you say?  Not quite.  You see, her mother-in-law was actually my grandfather's stepmother, but for decades, she had lived in their house.  The family dynamics were fraught, to say the least.

Hmmm....  I got out my notebook and began taking notes. 

Photo from: here 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Book #21: History or Love Story?

“This is a story of how I fell in love with a woman who read me a specific story from Herodotus. I heard the words she spoke across the fire, never looking up, even when she teased her husband.” -Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

Last night, I was thinking about the historical novel and how its claim to being “historical” is a bit of a sham. A love story, tragically thwarted. This is what most historical novels boil down to. Or at least the ones I adore.

I was thinking about this as I was rereading The English Patient, which is no doubt at the top of my list, along with a few others like Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! History looms large in these novels – war history, to be precise. You learn a lot about bomb disposal during the Second World War by reading Ondaatje, just as you can pick up some interesting facts about southern Confederate history through Faulkner. But what ignites these novels on an emotional level is the love plot, wrapped around the secret of one lover’s mysterious identity. The English patient is burned beyond recognition. Charles Bon’s sophisticated, urbane appearance masks over a past that turns out to be far more southern and primal.

These lovers are lost souls caught in the revolving blades of historical change. While it would be nice to think that love provides salvation, just the opposite is true. Their passion for certain women turns into full-blown obsession, which in the end proves destructive and violent. Yet, as the reader, I always feel some inexplicable hope, some utopian horizon just around the corner….

I was mulling this over while thinking about my grandfather’s life. Kaz. He died in the 1960s, following a mental breakdown, long before I was born. I don’t know why, but for some reason I’ve got it in my head that his unraveling began during the Second World War, when the Japanese-Canadians were interned. I never met Kaz. But I can picture him in the midst of the dusty barracks, falling in love with my grandmother in those cramped quarters, the fury in his hot-tempered brain finding its only outlet in her seduction.  Her violent seduction?  Kaz, from all accounts, was a man who took what he wanted. 

The way that Kaz met my grandmother, Masako, was strange to say the least. Unlike most Japanese immigrants, Kaz wasn't forced into internment, because his father (my great grandfather) was a well known doctor who was put in charge of providing medical services at the camps. Yet, ironically, for reasons that remain fuzzy, Kaz chose captivity. He was free - on a road trip touring the West Coast -when he met Masako. She was a beauty queen who’d won a competition for Japanese-American girls, so perhaps Kaz saw her at a pageant, as she was walking on stage and slowly turning in her rented kimono. In any case, she must have made quite the impression. He became obsessed with her and after the war’s outbreak, followed her to the internment camp.

I will never know my grandfather, yet a vestige of him grows in my imagination every time I read….

Photo from: here

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Redesigning My Blog (& Life?)

Last weekend, I was strolling with my boyfriend through Grange Park, beside the Art Gallery of Ontario, enjoying the warm, leafy afternoon.  While he was taking photos, I was sitting on the steps of the Grange reading the novel that's always in my purse (that day, it happened to be The English Patient.  More on this soon).  On a whim, Chris took a picture of me.  Later that evening, he pointed out that it might make an interesting banner for my blog, which I'd been wanting to redesign.  I wanted to give my blog a more personalized look, but I'm not sure what my "personality" is at the moment....  Recently, I've been feeling less like a coherent "self" and more like a collage made from those ripped up magazine photos (wasn't it fun to make collages back in kindergarten?)  Whenever I get this feeling, it's a sure sign that another transition period is around the corner....     

In any case, it was lovely to have the photo before me.  I had a moment of pure recognition. 

Chris was very sweet in taking the time to photoshop it and even change the background -unfortunately, cherry blossoms do not in reality grow in Grange Park!   But the cherry blossoms seemed appropriate since they remind me of Japan and my long-lost Japanese heritage.  Ten or twelve years ago, I spent a summer in Osaka and I remember arriving during cherry blossom season.  The petals were falling all over the place, like streamers after a birthday party.  I was both excited and terrified to be in the country my ancestors had left over a hundred years ago.  Yet as the weeks wore on, I became increasingly melancholy.  It depressed me that I don't speak Japanese, while everyone there assumed I was a native.  Rather than confronting the cleft in my identity, I retreated into a shell.  I sat in noodle shops and cried all the time and rainy season went on forever.

Now, once again, I find the Japanese side of myself beckoning to me, mysterious murmurs.  But no longer do I want to visit Japan so much as I want to recreate the imaginary landscape of my ancestors.......

Photo from: here

Monday, August 9, 2010

Book #20: True Gumption

"We walk a few steps further down the path, and there, almost hidden from sight off the path, is a small grey hut with a broken porch camouflaged by shrubbery and trees.  The colour of the house is that of sand and earth."    -Joy Kogawa, Obasan

Obasan isn't an easy novel for me to read.  Usually upon reading an historical novel, I feel a kind of fascination - the luxury of reflecting upon events from afar.  But in reading Obasan, no such distance is possible.  The events are all too intimate and painful.

Yesterday evening I saw my grandmother at my mother's birthday dinner.  My grandmother is a half-deaf, gnomish woman with a habit of blurting things out at the most inopportune moments.  Right as we're about to serve dessert, she doesn't hesitate to butt into the conversation: "At the prison camp, there was this guard named Aidan who called us all lazy...."

What prison camp, Granny?  When I was a child, I had no idea what she was talking about.  As I got older, I realized that her life, typical of Japanese-Canadians of that generation, had been full of hardship and dispossession, the very story told by Joy Kogawa in Obasan.  Published in 1981, her novel broke new ground by telling a story long repressed in Canadian history - the story of the Japanese-Canadian Internment.  Like the narrator, my grandmother would often reminisce about the big white house on Gravely Street in Vancouver where she grew up and had tea parties in the garden by the rabbit hutch out back.  Later, she ran her father's two restaurants on Hastings and Powell Street.  But following the outbreak of World War Two, the government took it all away and put the Japanese-Canadians in internment camps.  "They assumed we were traitors," my grandmother says, her eyes flashing, as if she still can't get over her astonishment.

Never could she forget the shock of arriving at the camp, located in the desolate interior of British Columbia, in a ghost town named Sandon.  All the internees were crammed into log cabins, two families expected to inhabit each shack, and all the women had to cook at a communal kitchen.  My grandmother makes a hula hoop with her arms to show me the size of the vat in which she made stew for all the people who came to depend on her cooking - extended family, friends of her in-laws, hangers-on.  Constant labour, fatigue, the endless grey sky and the extremities of hot and cold - these memories and sensations come alive in her voice.  And even though it hurts, I can't help but want to know more.

Photo from: here

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Book #19: Memories of War

"In recalling your past there is precious little knowledge, which remains our most difficult quarry. In memory there are simply shapes that appear before the eyes of who you are now, and who you might've been, the shapes as incomplete and changeable as the times."     -Dennis Bock, The Ash Garden

What would be the most extreme, life changing experience you could have?  Losing half your face to disfigurement from the atomic bomb surely ranks at the top of the list.  In The Ash Garden, Dennis Bock explores this predicament from the perspective of a Japanese woman named Emiko.  An innocent child when defaced during the war, she is now a celebrated filmmaker who looks back on her life using her scars as a kind of lens for trauma and memory. 

But the fascination and beauty of this novel is that Bock never lets it descend into an all too easy tale of victimization.  For as much as Emiko has been hurt by history, we discover that her trauma bears a striking - ironic - resemblance to that of the man responsible.  Anton Boll, the inventor of the atomic bomb, provides the other half of the novel, told from his peculiarly guilt-ridden perspective.  I say "peculiarly" because guilt for him is no simple matter of confessing to a horrific act.  When he and Emiko are brought face to face, she asks, "Do you believe you need absolution?"  All he can reply is, "That is what my wife believes."

As I've gotten older, I've come to realize that the Second World War is no less muddled for my own family.  "They rounded us up," my grandmother would blurt out at Christmas dinner, "and put us in Hastings Park, where the horses were usually stored."  She made no bones about the fact that we - and all Japanese-Canadians living in BC - had been imprisoned and dispossessed.  She would tell her story to anyone who would listen.  Shopkeepers, strangers on the bus.

I love my grandmother and identify with her rage and sorrow, but in recent years I've discovered that there is another more complex side to our family history.  I don't understand this aspect and so it haunts my mind.  It turns out that my father's side of the family was never interned because it seems that my great-grandfather agreed - in exchange for their freedom - to be the camp doctor.  He uprooted himself and his family from Vancouver and moved to Kaslo, a ghost town in the interior of BC, where he provided medical services to the internees, who must have both revered and resented him.  He was free, where they had lost everything.  I don't know whether a sense of guilt got under his skin, but I've heard from certain relatives that he was regarded with jealousy and gratitude in equal measure. 

Perhaps this is why decades after the war had ended, he returned to Kaslo as an old man.  Disoriented and probably in the early stages of Alzheimer's, he crashed his car and was found wandering on the side of the road.  It seems that he had dreams of returning to Kaslo and starting his medical practice anew.  I picture him mumbling about wanting to making amends for something he'd never managed to accomplish.  But shortly after he died of a heart attack.

Photo from: here

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book #18: The Elusive Life of Inspiration

“Just across from us, overhanging us, indeed, stood the mesa, a pile of purple rock, all broken out with red sumach and yellow aspens up in the high services of the cliffs…. It was the sort of place a man would like to stay forever.” -Willa Cather, The Professor’s House

I first read The Professor’s House in a seminar on American Modernism, halfway through my master’s. The professor appeared barely older than me – way too young to be a professor. Still, there was something wearied about the first grey wisp in her tendrils and the way she trudged into class, as though the epiphanies of modernism had long grown boring. She didn’t want to be there, and I couldn’t understand why.

But five years later, it was me up in front of the auditorium of students – now they expected me to be waxing lyrical and conjuring pearls of wisdom from the text. Pearls? I was more concerned with controlling the sweat drops on my nose. Dwarfed by their fresh-faced smiles and shining eyes.

It’s a strange thing being a professor. Everyone looks to you for inspiration, but what are you supposed to do when your mood plummets and you want to shut out the world?

This is why I’ve come to love The Professor’s House. It’s the story of a professor who has a mental breakdown. After decades of toil in the badly ventilated “office” of his attic, Professor St. Peter falls out of love with the life of the mind. Suddenly, he wants to break out of his head – he wants to do something real instead. His life of contemplation and critical navel gazing pales in comparison to the lives of the primitive men he studies (his discipline is Spanish colonial history). Sound depressing? Not entirely. For St. Peter has an active imagination. In the midst of his despair, he finds himself fantasizing about what it would be like to be one of his students, a young man by the name of Outland. Outland used to live on a mesa - a life as authentic as his name. As St. Peter gets to know him, Outland becomes his alter ego, casting light on the man St. Peter could have been.

(Since I have been warned by a certain follower not to give away too much – lest my entries turn into SPOILERS – I’ll leave off here. Suffice it to say that The Professor’s House is the perfect bed companion for anyone who has gotten used to going to bed alone, pondering how to go on when life seems to have lost all inspiration….)

There is a way to jumpstart your creativity. It begins with making up stories about other selves, fantasizing your alter ego....

Photo from: here

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Conjuring Books....

"She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain." -Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience

When I started this blog a couple months ago, I was a complete ingenue to the blogosphere. (Still am. A friend told me that most bloggers don't use words like ingenue. Alas, will I ever learn?) You see, for the past ten years I was a geeky grad student and then an English prof, and a lot of stuff happened during that time - Facebook, wikipedia and Survivor happened - and throughout it all I had my head buried in the dusty pages of a rare books library.

When I decided to cash in my chips on that socks-and-Birkenstock profession and rejoin the land of the living, I had some catching up to do. All these acronyms, like LOL, WTH or WTFH, left me feeling like an oblivious wallflower. But now, thanks to the friend who convinced me to start this blog (the therapeutic effects of blogging and sharing my experiences, he said, might be beneficial to my wellbeing) and the support of you kind-hearted readers, I feel as if I've at least got a toe in the twenty-first century.

The other day, a certain Bushpig left a comment that alerted me to a glaring oversight. He (I'm assuming Bushpig is a he) wanted to know where my actual reading list can be found. Considering that I've named my blog "The Reading List," it's a fair question. Thanks for pulling my head out of the dusty tomes, Bushpig.

Initially, when I was toying with the idea of blogging about the books that have uplifted and inspired me at crisis points in my life (moments when my career and love life were going so badly I was getting damned close to the edge of the rooftop), I envisioned "The Reading List" as an ever evolving, notebook-like compilation of scribblings about diverse books. The reading list would be more of an overarching concept than an actual list. Now that I think about it, however, Bushpig is right. A blog called "The Reading List" should include an actual list. So as of this afternoon, I've created on the right hand side a list of all the books I have discussed so far, and gone back to old posts and added the corresponding book numbers to their titles.

And if other readers have suggestions, please, pretty please, let me know - we Luddites need all the help we can get.

Photo from: here

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Am I Addicted to Tragedy?

"And besides, what was there to go home to? Nothing but the silence of her cheerless room - that silence of the night which may be more racking to tired nerves than the most discordant noises: that, and the bottle of chloral on her bed." -Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

The other day I got into a discussion with a new friend on Goodreads (this great site where readers from all walks of life talk about the books they can't put down. Also an excellent place for moral support and pure distraction). Anyway, this friend, this e-friend, this woman I'll never meet but instinctively like, broached an interesting discussion about Thomas Hardy, noting his tendency to favour tragic endings and heroines who remain trapped in their own circumstances. She was somewhat critical of Hardy for condemning poor Tess to sexual violation, backbreaking labour, lost love, and a fate too horrible to fathom. I saw what she was saying... and yet, what could I say? "The most memorable heroines for me," I confessed, "tend to be women like Lily Bart, Tess and Isabel Archer.... Am I addicted to tragedy?"

Recently, I'd re-read the ending of The House of Mirth, and found myself enjoying a good cry, lingering on the pages where poor Lily ends up addicted to this drug called chloral. It's her only escape from the drudgery of her job at the hat shop and the bleakness of the tenement house - a far cry from the ornate ballrooms and late nights dancing that consumed her youth. At the same time, I was finishing Shanghai Girls (I always like to have more than one book on the go), and this story is no more uplifting. Forced to flee their beloved homeland in Shanghai during the Second World War, Pearl and May survive rape, imprisonment and interrogation, before immigrating to America and eking a living in L.A. One thing after another goes wrong. Pearl's miscarriage. Persecution at the hands of U.S. immigration authorities. Tragedy compounds tragedy.

I wonder what draws me to literature that celebrates life as a constant drumbeat of sorrow. Ever since I was a kid, I was aware that something powerful - drug-like, almost - beckoned to me from within the pages of a good depressing book and a box of kleenex. Whenever something went wrong in my life - a friend made fun of me at school, or I didn't get invited to someone's party - there was something very comforting about losing myself in three hundred pages of someone else's turmoil. As I got older and acquired real problems - health problems, career blues, a slew of crappy relationships - I came to depend on tragic literature as my shelter from the world, my sacrosanct retreat from My Own Problems.

It was interesting that some readers wrote on Goodreads that they liked reading about characters pushed to deeper insights at their breaking points. Even though it's too late for them to save themselves, the reader is rewarded with an epiphany. I agree, but I also think there's something more primal at play. Back in grad school, I recall reading the anthropologist Mary Douglas. She writes about how in primitive society, people use ritual and art as a means of representing - and thereby holding at bay - the things that they most fear about themselves. In other words, there's something reassuring about exploring and making concrete the potential crises lurking at the back of your mind.

Lily, Tess, Pearl, Isabel.... If these tragic women embody elements of myself, perhaps getting it out in the open, through literature, holds the key to moving on....

Photo from: here

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Book #17: Wayson Choy's Phantom Homeland

"I close my eyes: older, long-ago faces, a few of them barely smiling, push into my consciousness. I hear voices, a variety of Chinatown dialects, their sing-song phrases warning me: 'You never forget you Chinese!'" -Wayson Choy, Paper Shadows

Wayson Choy's memoir Paper Shadows opens with the startling discovery that he was adopted. The woman whom he buried eighteen years earlier turns out not to be his mother - sparking a series of vivid flashbacks. Sometimes idyllic, other times frightening, his childhood growing up in Vancouver's Chinatown appears a mishmash of half-remembered fragments: a violent father, who was away for long stretches building the Canadian Pacific Railway; a vivacious mother, who liked to play mah jong until the wee hours, despite her husband's dark moods; and bachelor uncles and aunties who claimed to be family, for lack of any real blood ties in Canada. As the secrets of this community come to life in Choy's memory, the past appears ever more mysterious, estranged. Despite the warnings of the Chinatown elders, what it means to be "Chinese" seems to be slipping away, even as they speak.

Mother, motherland. Both are elusive. The woman he thought was his mother appears in his memory as a ghost - "a length of warm shadow stretched out along the far edge of the bed." She was his last tie to his ancestral homeland, but even that tie turned out to be based on a concealment, a lie.

Although I'm not adopted, Choy's feelings of loss and disorientation are familiar. There must have been a moment when I came to view my Asian heritage with this mix of fascination and fear. Growing up in Toronto as a fourth-generation Japanese-Canadian, my connection to Japan never seemed to go much further than dinners at sushi bars - where California roll was always my favourite - and the annual Japanese New Years celebration when we would all crowd around the Formica table in my grandmother's tiny kitchen, the oily stink of tempura and daikon radish filling the air.

And yet, my grandmother insisted that I was Japanese. We all were, in her mind.

The idea of our Japanese homeland was replete with meaning for her. I could sense it in her excitement, as she talked about growing up in Vancouver's Japantown, where she had run her father's restaurant and grocery store, before the place was razed during the Second World War. As she reminisced, her black curls quivered over her pointy ears, the skin smeared with indelible streaks of dye. She longed for the rugged beaches of the Queen Charlotte Islands, where she had been born, shortly after her father immigrated to Canada working as an "explorer" for the Japanese government. Supposedly, the government wanted information about the ways and lives of the Haida Indians.

Years later, I thought back to her stories and wondered whether they were entirely true, but at some level it didn't matter, for her words had caught hold in my imagination. Her memories were charged with the sadness and magic of a place that no longer existed.

Photo from: here

Friday, July 9, 2010

Book #16: Transient Family in Lorrie Moore

"For stray minutes we seemed like a family, laughing and chewing. I felt included. We were all in this together. But family life sometimes had a vortex, like weather." - Lorrie Moore, A Gate at the Stairs

When I read The Guardian review of Lorrie Moore's latest novel A Gate at the Stairs last year, I was still raw from throwing in the towel on my career as an English professor. After two years of teaching undergrads in small-town Nova Scotia, I found myself having a breakdown. So what Moore says in her Guardian interview hit a nerve. She talks openly about the transience of university towns like Madison, where she runs the University of Wisconsin's creative writing program, and reflects on still feeling like an outsider after being there for decades. Equally telling are Moore's doubts about whether creative writing should be taught in an institutional setting; she suggests that universities breed "niceness" in students and this is not a good trait in writers.

A Gate at the Stairs deals with this whirlwind of uncertainty and loss in post-9/11 America. The novel focuses on the relationship between Tassie Keltjin, a university student in the fictive Midwestern town of Troy (read: Madison), and Sarah Brink, an aging restauranteur who belatedly wants kids (despite the fact that she has reached the end of her rope with her womanizing husband). When Sarah offers Tassie a job as the part-time nanny for their soon-to-be-adopted, biracial baby, Tassie jumps at the chance. Sarah represents the allure of cosmopolitan sophistication. And in Sarah's eyes, Tassie's farm girl background gives her an air of homegrown authenticity. The two women improvise a household that actually works, in a strange way. For a while at least, until reality sets in.

In Moore's world, there are no simple, happy endings.

Sarah and Tassie's feelings of homelessness and desperate searching for some substitute home and family come through vividly, filling my eyes with tears. I can relate all too well to Sarah's plight as "one of those out-of-staters who'd moved here a while back but only had a pieced-together knowledge of the town." Many evenings I'd spent sitting at the bar of the one good restaurant in my little town, as students and locals walked past the window and stared in. There I was, alone with my martini. My awareness of being an anomaly, as the sole Asian person in town - save a few international exchange students and the couple running the Chinese restaurant - made me feel horribly isolated. As a fourth-generation Japanese-Canadian, born and raised in Toronto, I don't speak any language other than English. So when shopkeepers greeted me with "Konnichiwa," and other words borrowed from samurai movies, I was left stammering. They knew more about being Japanese than I did.

During office hours, I found myself staring at the wholesome, freckled faces of students who would come see me the day before the exam. While I droned on in a zombie-like voice about modernist aesthetics, all I could think was, I wish I could stop being a professor so we could really talk and get to know each other.

But they were stressed, eager to get their mid-terms over, so they could head home for the holidays. I, on the other hand, was looking forward to a turkey sub for Thanksgiving.

Photo from: here

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Book #15: Selves Like Costumes in Stieg Larsson

"In the bathroom mirror she looked at herself for a long time, examining her angular, assymetrical face, her new breasts. And the tattoo on her back - it was beautiful, a curving dragon in red, green and black." - Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Played with Fire

No one disputes that this novel is a page turner. The plot is propelled forward by a vigilante rescue of a woman about to be killed by her husband, a crime syndicate importing Eastern European prostitutes, and the murder of the husband-and-wife team investigating the johns and thugs - all this before I've even reached the novel's midpoint. It didn't take long for my heart to start pumping like a piston. I was expecting this adrenaline high based on the reviews I'd read.

But what caught me off guard is the idiosyncratic, original characterization.

These characters have a complexity that gets under my skin. Our heroine, Lisbeth Salander - hacker extraordinaire, world traveller, bisexual Don Juan - is particularly fascinating because she is comprised of multiple contradictory "selves" that she dons with the insouciance of costumes. Indeed, her identity seems to be a mystery even to herself. Looking in the mirror and admiring her newly implanted breasts (bought with the fortune she acquired in a recent heist), she seems to regard her own features as no more real or natural than the artful tattoo on her back. There's something marvellous about how she's able to reinvent herself from moment to moment, conjuring an identity that suits any situation. A hitman attacks her? Her keys turn into brass knuckles. She needs to furnish her new apartment under an alias? She throws on a blond wig, grabs a Norwegian passport and heads to IKEA.

Ironically, her theatrics and adaptation skills stem from how she overcame the sadistic sexual abuse inflicted on her during childhood. While the details of Salander's past remain obscure, we know from the opening scene (presumably a flashback) that she "lay on her back fastened by leather straps to a narrow bed with a steel frame" for more than 43 days, awaiting her captor's daily assault. Trapped in this horrific state, her calmness and clarity of mind are all the more striking. Although she is afraid, she isn't debilitated by fear, for with every passing second, she is channelling her fear into a plan for settling the score: "She had discovered that the most effective method of keeping fear at bay was to fantasize about something that gave her a feeling of strength. She closed her eyes and conjured up the smell of gasoline." The girl who plays with fire is born.

The abuse that could have easily paralyzed her for life has instead become a source of power and focus. I think this is why I find myself sympathizing and identifying with and above all liking this oddball heroine. Although an extreme case, she appeals to that universal desire in all of us to overcome our childhood traumas and humiliations, of whatever magnitude, and move on. Rather than letting her past control her, she has taken control of her past and transformed it into a new, creative identity.

(By the way, a few days ago I added a page called "What's Your List?" at the top of the blog. This is where you can post a list of your favourite books.)

Photo from: here


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.