His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay – a review

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He didn’t know how to put it all together, life and death and things looming up.  Your heart lies in pieces on the forest floor and the days and nights keep coming.  p. 278

Elizabeth Hay’s new novel, His Whole Life, juxtaposes a family in a slow state of collapse, the Bobaks, against the decade or so surrounding the Quebec sovereignty referendum of 1995 – a time when Canada itself felt as though it might be in a slow state of collapse.  The novel starts with a question on a car ride from New York, where the Bobaks live, to a lake in eastern Ontario, where they vacation every summer.  Jim Bobak, ten years old, asks his mother, Nan, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

It’s a question that keeps reappearing in the book, both directly and indirectly.  And it’s a question whose answer requires regular revision.  Every character is a flawed human being looking for connection.

I’d like to be able to say that what I like best about this book is how well written it is, how rich and accurate the descriptions of people, places, and things; or perhaps how well developed, human, and understandable the characters are – all of them, even those who are not painted in the most favourable light – there are no broad strokes here.  I could lay the same praise on any of Hay’s novels, though.  What I love best about this one is far more personal.  My family was also in a slow state of dissolution in the 90’s.  We also split our time between New York and a lake in eastern Ontario.  I was also struggling with questions of loyalty and identity I did not feel well equipped to handle.  And all of what Hay writes rings true for my memories of that period.

As a natural extension to the question of the worst thing each character has ever done, the primary issue each (but most especially Nan) must resolve is the transition from avoiding to accepting the inevitable complexity of living.  In this way, the book recalls Hugh MacLennan’s beautiful line from The Watch That Ends The Night:

But that night as I drove back to Montreal, I at least discovered this: that there is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.

Hay, to her credit, does not let her charges off quite so easily as MacLennan does.  She allows their actions to explain themselves.  In a lesser writer’s hand, this (and the analogy between a family and a nation in a state of crisis) could have come across as ham fisted, but there is no such danger here.  The exchanges between her characters flow beautifully, even through the tension between them.

Through a combination of perseverance and acceptance (recurrent qualities in Canadian literature), Nan eventually does find resolution for the primary conflicts in her life.  She comes to a state of equilibrium, as does the nation after the Quebec separatist motion is narrowly defeated.  And equilibrium brings her forgiveness.

It felt like two rivers meeting insider her, one blue, one brown.  The brown of “George, you hurt me,” and the blue of “I’m still breathing.  I must have hurt you too.”  If that could be considered forgiveness, if forgiveness could be considered a kind of movement in one’s chest that made it easier to breathe.  p. 350

She had been hungrier than she knew to hear [Pierre Elliot] Trudeau praised after all the years of denigration and indifference.  And now the hunger was being satisfied.  “I wonder,” she said to Jim, “if the urge to appreciate and forgive is actually more powerful, if a good deal rarer, than the urge to dismiss and despise.”  p. 358

Towards the end of the book, after Nan and Jim have returned to Canada for good, Hay drops this beautiful little nugget into the text:

How vast a land this was in which people lost things that could not be replaced.  p. 360

To this, I can only add that some of us have also found things there that we feared we’d lost forever.

His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay is a gorgeous and evocative work.  It’s not just fiction; it’s literature.  If you’ve enjoyed her other work, you will love this.  If you’ve not yet had the extreme pleasure of reading her, it’s a great place to start (but by all means, make sure you read Late Nights On Air and A Student Of Weather, too).

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Great Big Sea at Ottawa Bluesfest 2013 – a review

I remember a few months ago, my trip to Minnesota with K to transport her apiaries in preparation for her and E’s move from Massachusetts.  We drove 26 hours over the course of two days, then spent a week at her parents’ house.  One night I spent 12 hours in bed.  I’d wake up every few hours and then fall back to sleep after a few minutes.  I’d never spent that much time in bed before.  I was wrecked; completely emotionally spent after months of emotional upheaval and heart break.  That trip was very healing for me.

At some point in the trip, K told me that I’m like a hipster, except that I earnestly enjoy the things that hipsters enjoy “ironically.”  I never would have thought to put it that way, but after a few months’ reflection, I think she’s right.  I do only enjoy earnestly.  The idea of enjoying an experience solely to mock it for its kitsch value is foreign to me; does not even sound like enjoyment, but rather the ghastly phantom shell where genuine enjoyment ought to live.

I spent most of last week in Ottawa.  Partly I came for Bluesfest (which I’ve been promising myself I’d make it to for many years), but mostly I came because being in Canada, especially being in Ottawa, is an experience which I earnestly, wholeheartedly enjoy.  The evening I saw Great Big Sea perform on LeBreton Flats was a capstone experience from my trip (at least, the Bluesfest portion of my trip).  There was something incredibly moving about seeing them play for an audience of 30 thousand, all of whom knew and loved their music at least as much as I do.  My tastes for Canadian cultural touchstones usually separate me.  They introduce an element of otherness.  To find myself in an enormous crowd of people who also knew every word to every song and were singing along at the top of their lungs transformed, for those moments, something that in my day-to-day life distances me into something that connected me.  I am so accustomed to the distance that I am scarcely conscious of it, but it does pervade.  To find that distance lifted, briefly, was validating.  I can think of no better word for it.

It’s not just about Great Big Sea.  It’s not really about them at all, though I did thoroughly enjoy the show (and the Waterboys who played before them – between the two acts, the evening felt like a giant céilidh).  But it wasn’t about the music.  It’s about Canada; but more than that, it’s about feeling validated in my experience; and even more fundamental than that, it’s about feeling connected.  There is a subtext here having to do with other issues in my life and not feeling quite right in my assigned identity, but I don’t want to overlook the text itself, the most obvious level of this.  My Canadian fixations are not simply a veneer for other things, attractive and tidy as that explanation may be.  I genuinely, earnestly connect with this place and love my experiences there by their own rights.

As far as the show itself – I loved it.  The band from Newfoundland (Great Big Sea) and the band from Ireland (the Waterboys) were unabashedly joyful in a way that perhaps only the traditionally downtrodden can be, and I found myself thinking about the conversation K and I had about hipsters and ironic enjoyment.  No one in the audience was enjoying the music ironically – and unlike bands that may curry greater favour with trend setters, Great Big Sea was not playing music which deifies ambivalence and mediocrity.  They were playing their hearts out on songs that they love; songs they’ve written about the people, places, and things that they love.  And we, the audience, were reflecting that beautiful, earnest, joyous energy right back, giving back 100%.  And that’s what was so validating for me – simply letting the soft animal of my body love what it loves, to paraphrase Mary Oliver, in the midst of many others doing exactly the same.

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Björk at Ottawa Bluesfest 2013 – a review

“Review” is perhaps not the right word for this.  My thoughts on the show are wholly unencumbered by any illusion that I understood what I saw or heard, so it’s hard to know exactly what to say.

As limited as this word is, the show was awesome.  Throughout, I kept thinking that this was what magic must look like.  I knew something amazing was happening, but I understood not a bit of it.  It was just amazing to watch.  My first intimation that this was going to be Something Completely Different was when a giant Faraday cage descended from above.  The  two van de Graff generators it contained arced across the gap between them during some of her songs.

Her backup singers were a choir of teenage girls from Iceland.  In addition, there was someone working the synthesizer/iPod/computery thingies and someone else on percussion.  That was it.  Björk in a blue dress, all of five feet at most in her heeled ankle boots and wild red hair wider than she was; some cute kids dressed like extras from an episode of Star Trek TOS; a guy at a desk; a guy on the drums; and a gigantic arcing electrical apparatus dangling from the ceiling that would have impressed Tesla himself.  Prior to her set, I’d noticed a few pipe organs on stage and had assumed they would be part of her show, but they were not.  Possibly they were part of a prior act’s set?  But none of the prior acts seemed very pipe organy.  Possibly Björk just likes having pipe organs on stage?

I didn’t know any of the songs she played, but that really didn’t diminish my experience.  Possibly it made it richer.  She played for a little over an hour, then gigantic jets of fire erupted from the stage, she played one song for an encore (“Raise Your Flag?”), and the night was over.  I was transported from whatever inter dimensional portal Björk had taken us through back to a field in the middle of Ottawa surrounded by happy Canadians.

In the distant future (when misogyny is just a myth we tell each other but which no one quite believes), archaeologists who discover footage of Björk will, I hope, look on us more favourably.  After seeing her perform, I am convinced that she is evidence of higher mental processes at work.

Maybe the best thing about this amazing, amazing show is that the next time someone wants to tell me about how great the National’s new album is, or Vampire Weekend’s, or the Decemberists, or whoever, I now have a perfect response.  Do they use a Faraday cage?  No?  Well, where’s the Faraday cage if they’re so great?

This should stop any conversation in its tracks.

Prior to the show, an image displayed on the screen asked in English (then French) not to take pictures as Björk finds it distracting.  I did take this one, surreptitiously, and although it is not the best photograph I’ve ever taken, I think it captures the quantum fuzziness of the evening perfectly.

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This review is dedicated to my dear, dear friend T, who desperately wanted to be at the show but couldn’t.  I was texting with her to tell her what was going on for the first few songs, but after the Faraday cage I stopped.  It just seemed cruel.  T, if it is any consolation, I kept wishing throughout the show that you could have been there too!

The Tragically Hip, 15th November 2012 at Clifton Park, NY – a review

I should probably start by saying that during the course of the hour and a half drive to the venue last night, I was alternately bawling and screaming.  It was that kind of a day.  I’m not going to go into why; I just want to set the scene.  I’d more or less worked out my issues by the time I arrived and I felt a lot better, but I was still raw.

This is hard for me to admit, but Tragically Hip fans are weird.  I don’t mean “Insane Clown Posse Juggalo” weird; I mean “How the hell do these people love the same band that I love?” weird.

I hate that I just used the word “Juggalo” in a post.  And now I’ve done it twice.  Damn.

It was a general admission standing show, and I got there early enough that I was pretty close to the stage, even after going to the bar for a pint.  I was about 4 rows back.  The trouble with being that close to the stage at a Tragically Hip show was that everyone around me was a Tragically Hip fan.  Gord Downie is pulling off an impressive slight of hand; he’s front man in a band that passes as bar rock.  But beneath the surface he packs his songs with more obscure literary references and unanswerable questions than you can shake a stick at.  Based on what I see at shows, I think most of the Hip’s fan base is there because they like bar rock.  On the other hand, I love the Hip mostly because of the lyrics.  Also, the rambling Gord does between and sometimes within songs is epic; major world religions have been based on far less than what he spews out off the cuff. I feel like I need an extra session with my therapist half the time after their shows.

Anyway, last night’s show.  I was way up close, sandwiched between a drunken bearded man who seemed to keep vacillating between either wanting to beat me up or wanting to make stinky Canadian hippie love to me (he eventually got escorted out for lighting up during “Ahead By A Century”), and a drunk young woman who kept trying to get me to finish her drink for her. I think she was trying to roofie me.  Or maybe she was just too polite, even when drunk, to just drop her drink on the floor as everyone else had done.  Which, you know, was kind of sweet of her.  My bearded associate, when he was not either:  1. Putting his arm around me and staring me dead in the eye while singing to me, 2. Grabbing my shirt in preparation for a fight, or 3. Telling all the women around us that I was hot for them – when not otherwise preoccupied with any of these noble tasks, my new bearded BFF/frenemy was himself hitting on every single woman within sight, including the woman who kept trying to give me the dregs of her gin and tonic.  She pulled me over at one point and slurred, “He’s a jerk!”  To which I replied, simply, “Yeah,” with a sympathetic nod and smile.  Because, really, what else was there to say?  But towards the end of the evening, I guess she’d put her grievances with him aside because they were grinding against each other, and I’d rather not picture what may have happened later.  Is this how Hip fans are made?  Gross.

The music – when I could focus on the music, when I wasn’t preoccupied with the fascinating antics of my fellow Hip fans – was, of course, delicious.  It really helped to pull me the rest of the way out of the funk I’d been in on the drive up.  Gord introduced “Gift Shop” by saying, “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry,” which for me was the best intro he could give to that song because pretty much every time I hear it the water works start, and last night was no exception.  “Fireworks” was fun, and slipping “Nautical Disaster” into the middle of “New Orleans Is Sinking” worked really well (I think that’s how “Nautical Disaster” began, actually – as a ramble in the middle of “New Orleans Is Sinking”).

Wow.  I know a lot about the Hip.

The new material was very good, too, though I’m not as familiar with it.  I was a little disappointed not to hear “Goodnight Attawapiskat;” I kind of expected them to close with it.  Otherwise, it was a great show!  But I’m kind of glad that at least until the next time they tour, I can go back to enjoying the Hip on my own, without the peculiar ministrations of my fellow fans.

Canadian travels

I made my annual pilgrimage to Canada earlier this week; I spent a few days in Bon Echo Provincial Park, followed by a few days in Ottawa.  I’d never been to Bon Echo before, but had heard it was beautiful, and it certainly was.  I did some hiking, some kayaking, and some swimming.  Hiking in Central Ontario in the summer is in some ways a test of endurance; the insect life is voracious.  I had, of course, forgotten to buy DEET for my trip, but I remembered that I had some non-DEET bug spray stashed in the glove box of my car, so I tried that.  It worked surprisingly well; shockingly well, actually.  The one down side was that it left an oily sheen on my skin, which of course became grimy with dirt and dust from the trail.  I was a filthy mess at the end of that hike!  I was really, really grateful for the camp showers afterwards.  Later that day, I rented a kayak and paddled along Bon Echo Rock in Upper Mazinaw Lake, checking out the climbers on the cliff face and the pictographs left by first nations’ people.  Living at the base of the Shawangunk ridge, I guess I have a natural affinity for climbers, even though I don’t climb myself.  I see people splayed out on a rock wall hundreds of feet above me attached to intricate rope systems and shouting things like “Off belay,” and it feels like home.

Also, Bon Echo rock on the east side of Upper Mazinaw Lake is amazingly beautiful, especially in the light of early evening.

The thing that made me happiest at Bon Echo, though, was the diversity of people there.  Not everyone was white!  This is not always the case in rural Ontario.  I was staying in a campground, and the vibe was sort of summer-camp-for-families.  This was a little uncomfortable for me, since I was there alone, and didn’t know anyone.  The first night, my campsite was surrounded on all sides by sites full of teenage girls, listening to terrible music, singing along badly, and gossiping loudly.  It was pretty great.  The entertainment value was tremendous, and it harkened back to my own youth.  I did kind of feel like the one Hank Williams figure in a sea of Taylor Swifts, though.  Or to use a more nationally appropriate reference, Leonard Cohen in a sea of Justin Biebers.

Bon Echo Provincial ParkBon Echo Provincial ParkBon Echo Provincial ParkBon Echo Provincial ParkBon Echo Provincial Park, Shield TrailBon Echo Provincial Park, Shield Trail
Bon Echo Provincial Park, Shield TrailBon Echo Provincial ParkBon Echo Inukshuk, Shield TrailBon EchoBon EchoGraffito in Bon Echo underpass
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Bon Echo climbers!Bon Echo pictographNot-so-fine-art bannock photographyBon Echo Provincial ParkCamp site, Bon Echo Provincial ParkBon Echo Rock, Upper Mazinaw Lake

Bon Echo, a set on Flickr.

On to Ottawa.  This was my first trip to Ottawa solo, not to visit anyone, not with any specific agenda in mind, just to have a good time.  And so I did!  I stayed in the Jail Hostel, an old jail and the site, I believe, of Canada’s last hanging.  I stayed on the top floor, which was death row when the jail was in use.  So now I can tell people that I spent a few nights in the slammer on death row in Ottawa.  That should stop any conversation dead in its tracks.  Also, I bought a t-shirt at the hostel that says “A great place to hang!” with a picture of a noose.  Classy!  I’m looking forward to wearing it to yoga classes and scandalizing my fellow yoginis.  The thing I like best about staying in hostels is the fact that when interacting with other hostelers, the first task is always to figure out what, if any, language you have in common.  This does not happen in hotels.  I always feel stupider after a stay in a hotel.  There’s very little interaction with other people; the whole situation fosters isolation and anonymity.  Not so in hostels.  The situation fosters interaction.  And that rocks.

My first day in Ottawa, I took a long walk around Parliament Hill, across the river to Hull, past the Museum of Civilization, and back across the river to Ottawa again.  As in Bon Echo, I was happy to see the diversity of people and overhear a diversity of languages.  Unfortunately, not everyone shared my enthusiasm.  On the Alexandra Bridge on my way back to Ottawa, I heard an altercation behind me.  A pair of young women, apparently, had wandered into the bike lane on the bridge (which was not well marked), and a biker was directing an angry tirade at them.  Actually, it was beyond angry; he was rageful all out of proportion.  And he ended his lengthy, loud, and wholly unwarranted temper tantrum by calling them “Chinese fucks.”  So I don’t think his anger was about what they had done, but rather about who they were, or rather, who he believed they were.  Frightened and angry myself, I didn’t know what to do.  I’m still not sure what, if anything, I should have done.  He was much bigger than me, and clearly pissed, so confronting him probably would not have been a good idea.  Plus, I was wearing ladybug earrings in my ears and my hair was in pigtails.  A realistic appraisal of the chances of him treating me more respectfully than he’d treated the girls was not overwhelmingly promising.  I didn’t think it would help to run back and see if the girls were okay either, though maybe I should have.  I wanted to tell them that not all Canadians are like that, but who am I to tell them that?  I’m not Canadian.  And for all I knew, they may well have been Canadian.  On the chance that they weren’t, though, that they were just visiting, it saddens me that some bigoted jackass did his best to poison their trip and their opinion of Canada and Canadians.  Come on, Canada.  You can do better than that.

That was really the only dark spot marring my trip to Ottawa.  Monday night, I sat on the green in front of Parliament Hill and watched a multimedia presentation on the history and culture of Canada displayed on the front of the Centre Block building.  I loved it; I totally choked up whenever the strains of “O Canada” played.  Before the show began, I was wandering around behind Centre Block.  Saw a pair of young women, clearly in love, holding each other and gazing deeply into each other’s eyes.  That brightened my day a lot, and ameliorated much of the bitterness I still felt after witnessing the altercation on the bridge a few hours earlier.  Also, there were statues of Canada’s past prime ministers, and I noticed with great amusement that there was a stream of pigeon shit trickling straight down the face of Diefenbaker.  Even birds give him no respect!

Tuesday, I spent the morning in the National Gallery and the afternoon on a tour of Centre Block.  The National Gallery didn’t impress me much; I though the art museum in Montreal was much better.  There was a sculpture in the Inuit exhibit that made me smile, though; it was titled “The Aurora Borealis Decapitating A Young Man.”  And there were a handful of very good pieces in the permanent collection.  I was struck by how similar some of the early Canadian art was to the Hudson River school work from the 19th century; I wished my friend E were there with me, so that I could discuss it with her.  Unfortunately, I had the same problem in the National Gallery that I usually have in art museums.  The work progresses from older to newer, and at some point, usually around 1930, the production of art begins to strike me as an exercise in who can out-clever who.  I lose all emotional connection to what I’m looking at.  So I spent a good bit of time in the old part of the collection, but pretty much rushed through the newer work.

I really enjoyed the Parliament Hill tour.  The architecture and the ornate details of the building were stunning; especially the woodwork in the library.  Absolutely gorgeous.  And part of me, of course, was excited at now being able to visualize the place that Canadian legislation and policy are debated.

I returned to the states on Wednesday; as usual, I was remorseful that my trip had been so short, and I promised myself that it wouldn’t be so long before I returned.  Beyond my (obvious) love of Canada, simply stepping outside of my daily life for a few days altered my perspective.  A few years ago, when we were in Guatemala, I told my friend K that “The benefit of travel is seeing home differently.”  Walking around Ottawa, I thought about how profound the writing and performing that I’ve been involved in for the past few months has been; how that work has been pulling me out of a quagmire I didn’t even know I was in, and giving me direction.  “Profound” and “unfolding” were words that kept coming back to me in Ottawa.

This isn’t the best piece of writing I’ve ever produced, but I’m sick of editing it so I’ll just post it as is.

Squirrel masonry!  On Confederation Building in OttawaHull BixiGraffito, Alexandra Bridge, OttawaNotre Dame, OttawaNotre Dame, OttawaNotre Dame, Ottawa
Giant Spider attacking Notre Dame, OttawaChamplain!Ottawa National GalleryParliament Hill House of CommonsParliament Hill House of CommonsParliament Hill Senate Chamber
Lion with indigestionVomiting UnicornCentre Block, Parliament HillLe Chateau Laurier

Ottawa, a set on Flickr.

Alone In The Classroom, by Elizabeth Hay – a (brief) review

Pretty good.  (Is that too brief?  I should say a bit more, maybe.)  I didn’t enjoy it quite so much as her other novels, A Student Of Weather and (especially) Late Nights On Air, but maybe I just wasn’t in the right space for it.  The writing was delicious, as her writing always is.  I did find it a little difficult to keep track of characters; the story spans several generations of women.  Rather than say much more about it, I think I’m just going to quote a few favourite passages.

p. 171-172:  What she had missed in Europe was what she had missed out West, a landscape full of swimming lakes and pine needles baking in the sun and rock you could walk across like banquet tables.  Jacob’s pillow wasn’t so hard to imagine here, how he might have rested his head on a stone and dreamt of a ladder rising up to heaven, and then years later met up with the brother he had wronged only to find himself forgiven.  Like Esau, this part of the world was a wild and generous place.

Elizabeth Hay is the only writer I know of who venerates the Eastern Ontario landscape as much as I do.  And she nails it, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere.  I can smell the pine needles and feel the scraggly pink granite under my bare feet when I read passages like this.  I like that she compares the land to a person, Esau; I am reminded of Neil Gaiman’s personification of Fiddler’s Green in the Sandman series.  (I’m pretty sure mine is the only review of Alone In The Classroom that will compare it, however briefly, to a graphic novel.)

p. 273:  My grandfather, her second child, would become the tenderest of fathers.  There are the stories my mother tells, that when she was small, she sat in her high chair beside him and held his hand while they ate their supper.

Something about that imagery is incredibly sweet to me.  Such a well chosen detail; it really illustrates the idea of tenderness.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter – a review

Annabel is a novel about an intersex child born in a small town in Labrador in 1968, his parents’ decision to raise him as a boy, and the effects that that decision has on them all.  It is inevitably but unfortunately compared by most (if not all) reviewers to Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex.  I say “inevitably” because both are recent novels which deal with the subject of intersex children, so the comparison comes easily.  I say “unfortunately” because whereas Middlesex was dry, interminably dense with the history of the city of Detroit (which added exactly nothing to the story), and thick with uninteresting characters, Annabel is impossible to put down, written by someone who clearly knows her way around a sentence, and contains characters who are complex and sympathetic, even when their decisions are clearly going to lead to hardship.

It’s hard for me to pick a favourite passage; the chapters build themselves so well that it’s hard to excerpt just a sliver.  But here is one passage I enjoyed from early in the book:

“You get used to something unusual when you’re the one it happens to,” Jacinta said to Thomasina.  “If Wayne had two heads I’d get used to that in a few months, and I would wonder why anyone would want to change him.  There’s something good to be said for any circumstance.  That’s the way I see it.”

But it was not, she knew, the way others saw things, and it was not the way Jacinta herself would have seen them had another woman in the cove had a baby who was a hermaphrodite.  Sometimes you had to be who you were and endure what happened to you, and to you alone, before you could understand the first thing about it.  So the fact that Wayne had ever been a girl as well as a boy was hidden and never spoken of, and no one in Croydon Harbour knew except his parents and Thomasina.

The characters, also, are very well developed; especially Treadway Blake.  It would have been very, very easy to paint him in broad strokes resulting in a one dimensional character, but Ms. Winter did not do this.  He has his own motivations, his own complex approach to the world, and clearly, his own very deep love for his child.  In fact, he was probably the most interesting character; certainly, he underwent the most development over the course of the novel (with the possible exception of Annabel/Wayne her/himself), and he did it with very little dialogue.

So, summary:  Annabel was great.  Plus it’s Canadian.  So two thumbs up.  Read it.