Monday, December 28, 2015

beautiful dystopia

Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

This may very well be one of my favourite books of the year. Weeks after finishing Station Eleven, I still find myself thinking about the world that Emily St. John Mandel has created within its pages and of the people who inhabit them. I keep wanting to return to that world where wonder exists in the midst of seemingly insurmountable odds, where existence is so much more than just survival.

On a snowy night in Toronto, famed stage and screen actor Arthur Leander suffers a fatal heart attack onstage in the middle of a performance of King Lear. Despite the CPR administered by audience member Jeevan Chaudhary - a former paparazzo, now an EMS responder - Leander dies in front of his young protege, child actor Kirsten Raymonde. 

That same night, though, the tragedy unfolding in the theatre is overshadowed by a deadly flu that has arrived in the city on a trans-Atlantic flight. Quickly, hospitals are overwhelmed, people begin to die, and the world goes dark.

Fifteen years after the Georgian flu has wiped out 99% of the world's population, Kirsten Raymonde is an actor in The Travelling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who traverse the Great Lakes area performing Shakespeare in the small isolated settlements that dot the region. 

Station Eleven moves back and forth through the decades, from the post-apocalyptic world of the roving performers, to Arthur Leander's early years and rise to fame, and back to that fateful night in Toronto when Jeevan Chaudhary - cautioned by a call from a friend who is an Emergency Room doctor - barricades himself in his brother's highrise apartment and watches the lights of the city die.

The novel unfolds through the eyes of Raymonde, Chaudhary, Leander, as well as Leander's wives and friends. Slowly, the threads from their individual stories, separated by time, geography and circumstance, weave into a single strand.

Mandel is a gifted storyteller. She eloquently meters out the growing fear and ominous realization of that first night. She melds the survival instinct and resiliency that has become a critical part of life by Year 15 post-pandemic with a sense of wonder and a basic human need to elevate existence to something higher than food and shelter. Everyday occurrences of the past - like pressing a button that connects you to someone else on the other side of the world or the light that comes on when a refrigerator door is opened - have become things of legend, stories passed among those too young to really remember when these things were reality. There are even rumours of the existence of a Museum of Civilization in an airport terminal somewhere.

Through her weaving of timelines and stories within stories, Emily St. John Mandel gradually pieces together seemingly scattered tales into one beautifully interconnected work. 

Definitely recommended. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

solstication

Soon, kiddies, soon, the daylight will return. Infinitesimally at first, a few seconds gained at sunset, but lost again at sunrise.

But slowly, slowly, as we burn more candles and watch our stockpile of winter socks dwindle in the drawer, until we have no choice but to pull on the flimsy cotton anklets and declare it spring, the sun will wrench itself free of the frozen horizon. The corner will turn and this winter solstice day - an agonizing 8 hours and 39 minutes shorter than its summer counterpart - will be but a chilly memory.

In the meantime, please pass the shortbread.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

commence the advent

I've accepted the fact that the Advent calendar that I remember from my childhood will remain only a memory. 

For years I tried to find one just like it - a streetscape of an old German city centre at twilight, sparkling windows looking out over a main street where St. Nicholas is trailed by adoring young uns. St. Nicholas (no Coca Cola Santa Claus here) had just the right combination of German sternness and begrudging generosity. I spent way too much time gazing at those lighted shop windows, wondering what life was like in the apartments above those shops. There was just the right amount of glitter sparkling through windows that opened to reveal modest offerings of teddy bears and spinning tops. There were no cartoon figures or crappy chocolate.

This was one classy Advent calendar. Or, at least that's how I remember it.

I've given up trying to reproduce the magic. It belonged to another time. But I did recently stumble upon a lovely box of Advent calendar short stories. So I think I will start a whole new tradition. What better way to go through the darkness of December than escaping into a short story every day?

Saturday, November 28, 2015

probably not first

The Heart Goes Last - Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood has a track record of creating vast, deep and fully realized worlds, particularly in her eerily dystopian novels. She falls a little short in The Heart Goes Last, though.

The story is based on a compelling premise: a secure walled community thriving in a post-apocalyptic world, where every inhabitant is guaranteed a comfortable existence and full employment. For six months of the year. For the other six months, they swap places with their counterparts in the community's prison and become the inmates.

Stu and Charmaine have been living in their car since losing their house in the global economic collapse, trying increasingly desperately to scratch out a living. They are understandably thrilled to be invited to join the community, until they start to realize the insidious secrets that lie behind its success.

The Heart Goes Last doesn't quite work for me, because it seems to go for flippancy over depth, and because, frankly, I didn't really like Stu and Charmaine very much. I don't always have to be best buddies with a character in order to enjoy their importance in a book, but in Stu and Charmaine's case, they are also not terribly bright. And while I appreciate how challenging it must have been for Atwood to write using voices of dim and rather shallow characters, it made me long to spend time with some of Atwood's more thoughtful literary characters. 

The Heart Goes Last is an entertaining read, but not necessarily one that would give someone new to the Atwood-osphere a good sense of master storyteller's true brilliance.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

qujannamiik very much, music



Have a seat, take a load off, get comfy and indulge in a little clickety-clicking. Come along to Canada's far north, via my latest National Music Centre article, a Canadian Bands You Should Know feature on the high-octane Iqaluit band, The Jerry Cans. They'll have you singing, clapping, air fiddling, foot stomping and throat singing along.

Guaranteed.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

around the clock







Morning becomes electric.





By afternoon, snow bunnies recline on branches.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

winter coat

One minute, all the rabbits are two-toned and the next, it's winter.

No complaints are allowed, though, because we had an actual Autumn this year, i.e. longer than ten days. The shoulder seasons are very brief, here in the high plains desert, so I celebrate those years when they do linger.

I've actually been enjoying the after-dinner walks to pick up the mail, now that our flyers and bills are delivered to a community mailbox. My walks have been getting progressively longer, since the early darkness allows me to gawk into my neighbours' houses. That never gets old.

I expect the mail-fetching will get tiresome, however, once the sidewalks ice up and I start walking like a penguin, butt cheeks clenched to avoid slipping and pulling a hamstring. Everybody knows it's the gateway injury to falling and breaking a hip. 

Because just like that, you are old.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

dem bones

 Much as I hate surprises (and can generally/annoyingly sniff them out before they happen), I have to admit I was completely gobsmacked when the Offspring showed up on the doorstep the morning before Thanksgiving. I may even have gotten a wee bit misty. 

The Spousal Unit and the Offspring joined forces to surprise me for the catch-all anniversary/birthday/Thanksgiving weekend (and I believe that the cat's birthday falls in there as well). Can't come home for Thanksgiving, she told me, going to Victoria for the weekend

Nicely played, family! You got me good, real good.

It was a beautiful weekend and the Offspring and I indulged in several long walks to talk, take in the fall colours and work up an appetite for the massive turkey chowdown.

The Offspring has been creating art once again, after a bit of a hiatus. I love the blown-apart spinal column painting that she made for me. Not only does it appeal to my nerdy inner anatomist, it looks fabulous in our kitchen. Plus it makes me want to simmer up a big pot of beef stew.

Everything, it would appear, ultimately reminds me of food.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

glitter-core

When Everything Feels Like the Movies 
- Raziel Reid

When Everything Feels Like the Movies is the story of Jude, a flamboyant gender-bending gay teenager suffocating in a small bleak mining town. His mother is a stripper, his mother's boyfriend is a hard-drinking homophobic brute, and his best (and only) friend is sleeping her way through the entire male population of their high school. Jude faces the expected bullying with a mixture of nose-thumbing and a self-destructive embrace. He plans to escape to Hollywood, where he will become wildly famous and infamously lusted after.

This book has courted a lot of controversy. As a finalist in this year's Canada Reads competition, its inclusion was hotly debated, not just because it was the first Young Adult novel to be included, but because it is such a sexually explicit YA novel.

Personally I had no problems with the explicit sexual depictions, but they are relentless, even for a story told from the POV of a raging teenager. I did, however, have some other problems with the book.

Jude's outlook on life is, frankly, dead shallow. I wanted to root for him more than I did, but his obsession with appearances and instant gratification made him more frustrating than sympathetic. That too, I suppose, could be attributed to his being a teenager and all. As could his insistence on indulging in the same self-destructive behaviours over and over again. Those are all somewhat realistic character flaws.

My main problem was that of voice. Near the end of the novel, something happens that makes it impossible for the book to continue in the same narrative. Yet continue in that narrative it does. I found that very glaring and I wasn't able to entirely suspend my disbelief.

Despite its flaws, though, When Everything Feels Like the Movies is a novel worth reading. Because ain't none of us perfect.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

say it with cheekbones


The birthday girl. 

Seven years old and still rocking the supermodel/Olympian look.


 

Monday, September 28, 2015

shoulder season shining

Autumn is very fleeting around these parts. It's why I have been taking the long way around the block (and maybe around the next block, too, while I am at it) to the newly installed community mailbox. Because I have a feeling that those after-dinner strolls to pick up the mail will lose their charm once the luster of the new experience wears off, sometime around February. Quite possibly considerably sooner.

But even more fleeting are those moments of absolute perfection that happen all too infrequently. You know those moments - the ones that make you stop, or at least slow your step - and tell yourself always remember this precise moment because life does not get any more beautiful than this very moment.

Many of the leaves are down now, but those trees that turn bright yellow seem to hang onto their leaves longer than most, and the evening was simply glowing in the late-day sun. As I rounded the corner on my take-the-long-way-to-the-mailbox post-dinner stroll, I spotted a new Little Free Library in front of the house up the road. Naturally I stopped to read the spines and, as luck would have it, spotted a book that I had been meaning to read for years. 

I tucked the book under my arm - grinning like I had just gotten away with shoplifting - and continued around the curve in the road. And that was where I was struck dumb by the moment. To my left was a green space, treed with those yellow-leafed trees that always look as though the sun is shining directly out of them. They had been transformed into brilliant orbs of light. I took a few more steps and, through a parting in the trees, had a perfect view of the river valley of Fish Creek Park across the road and beyond that the Rockies - the clearest I have ever seen them at that spot - silhouetted in purple against the evening sky. Directly ahead of me, the setting sun dumped a bucket of fluorescent yellow paint on the stand of trees through which it shone. 

It is a brief moment in time that I will add to my list of always remembers that I will pull out of my hippocampus as required and smile at having lived it.  

Monday, September 21, 2015

it writes itself

I heard a writer today, talking about how his various novels demanded to be written at different times of day. Some - which he described as awakening from dreaming novels - needed to be written in the mornings; another - which he referred to as a going into a dream novel - had to be written late at night.

Because my writing is primarily done to deadline, the time of day is not so much a factor. Lately, however, the place where I write has become important. 

I recently finished purging and reorganizing my office, turning it from a cramped and overflowing room that tried to be both an office and a spare bedroom - and succeeded at being neither - into a semi-minimalist office that works. There is now a sensible place for everything and everything is in its place. At least for now. 

But sometimes, the words just will not gel. Even worse, they will morph into corporate-speak. And then I have no choice but to pack up the laptop and move to the dining room. 

You gotta shake things up sometimes to keep them from getting stale. 

Where do you write? Does it make a difference?

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

no small feat

All My Puny Sorrows - Miriam Toews

It's been noted by people far wiser and more eloquent than me that Miriam Toews is hilarious even when dealing with the bleakest of subjects. Her latest novel, All My Puny Sorrows, certainly does deal with the bleakest of subjects - one sister who wants desperately to die, one sister who desperately wants her to live. So allow me to jump on the bandwagon here and state that All My Puny Sorrows is absolutely hilarious while being completely heartbreaking.

Yolandi is a bit of a mess. She tends to sleep around without really meaning to, has two kids by different fathers and scrabbles out a living by writing a Young Adult series called Rodeo Rhonda. She is now writing a "real" book,though, about a boat, that she schleps around in a Safeway bag. Yoli has returned to Winnipeg from Toronto because her brilliant, beautiful, talented concert pianist sister, Elfrieda, has tried to kill herself. Again. And now Elfrieda is begging Yolandi to help her to die.

Slightly screwed-up Yoli is enormously likable. (If Miriam Toews can't make it to my fantasy dinner party, then I hope that Yoli can come in her place.) She brings the funny to circumstances that should be anything but. Her self-effacing humour, even as she struggles to stay afloat, to keep various family members happy, and to keep her sister from killing herself, rings strangely true in a heartbreakingly tough situation. Because, of course, Toews drew from her own life to write this novel.

Toews wrote All My Puny Sorrows in the aftermath of her own sister's suicide. Like Yolandi, Toews grew up in the darkness of family depression, having lost her both her father and sister to suicide. 

She has said that as a child, she took it upon herself to be the humourous distraction in the family dynamic, the lightness in all that darkness. That deep understanding of the essential role of laughter within tragedy has resulted in unforgettable people in a remarkable book.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

tetherworld


Eventually, they could no longer lift their heads. Over the years, their neck muscles had atrophied to the point where their chins were permanently fused to their chests. Their field of vision had narrowed to a small sphere around their feet and, of course, their thumbs clicking rapidly on the tiny screens clutched to their torsos. 

They developed an instinct, eventually, to avoid obstacles as they walked. But in the early years, before the instinct kicked in fully - back when some of them could still lift their heads slightly - there were countless collisions along sidewalks and in hallways. Sorry - they would text one another after bumping shoulders or striding into each other head-on - didn’t see you. 

The majority of them had by this time lost the ability to vocalize. They had become so proficient at communicating through keystrokes that speaking out loud seemed unnecessary, inefficient and boorishly outdated. Eventually the practice died out entirely, with only a few archaic holdouts uttering the odd LOL or WTF as they narrowly avoided yet another collision in the mall. 

None of them had looked directly at the sky in years. A few had tried, arching themselves backward or draping themselves, head down, off chairs, but in the end it wasn’t worth the effort. At best, they caught a glimpse of the clouds before the strain of fiercely rolling their eyes upward caused them to quit. At worst, they dropped their devices in the process and then suffered excruciating panic attacks while they groped madly, blindly, for them.  

Some of the older ones could remember a time when the devices were a mere convenience, an easy way to tell your partner that you would be late for dinner, to find out where your pals were meeting for a drink, to recall the name of that song by that band that you used to love.  

Gradually, imperceptibly, there was a shift from convenience to lifeline. Over time, the devices became de facto memory banks. It seemed pointless, really, to memorize all that information, all those facts and figures and tedious numbers, when all the universe’s knowledge was right there, easily retrievable, at your fingertips.  

Eventually, amongst the bowed heads, collective hippocampi withered away. Once the seat of human memory, cerebral cortices ultimately became nothing more than shrivelled appendages of the central nervous system. These once defining organs of humanity were now vestigial and slightly perplexing bits of tissue.  

No new memories were ever made thereafter or stored within the human body. All knowledge was relegated directly to the devices. It was just easier that way. Heads began to bow, increasingly, permanently, endlessly, to the power contained within one small stylish box.

But not a single fact was ever unknowable, and they considered it a fair trade-off.

Monday, August 31, 2015

return of the flash

Remember Flash Fiction Friday? For quite a while, I was an active member, but the online writing group, whose members posted new works (refreshingly unexpectedly) on Thursdays, faded to black a few years ago. 

Recently I came across some of the pieces of fiction that I wrote in response to the Flash Fiction Friday weekly prompts and, frankly, I am impressed. They are rather good, if I do say so myself. Something about the inclusiveness of the group, the talent and creativity that ran rampant within it, and the quality of the weekly quotes made me bring my best game.

So, I am very pleased to report that Flash Fiction Friday has been resurrected. The prompt for the inaugural week is obsession, a rather fitting prompt to throw at writers, I think, who tend to be a rather obsessive bunch.

Stay tuned to this station for my contribution. And, if you are so inclined, why not consider trying your hand at it as well? I would love your company. 

flashfictionfriday.com

 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Saturday, August 15, 2015

back in the arms of the city

I know the risks here. I know to keep an eye on my purse, to lock ground floor windows at night, to look both ways before crossing the street. I am in my comfort zone.

Out there, at the lake place, I see daily reminders that I am nowhere near the top of the food chain, that there is no buffer zone of humanity to shield me.

The strange scat deposited at the base of the deck one night was likely a calling card from the Fisher that lurks in the riparian zone. Ambush hunters, they list unsuspecting city cats as a favourite treat. 

Woodtick strip searches have become routine. The risk of Lyme disease may be small, but the ick factor is a powerful driver.

Emptying mouse traps in the crawl space and cleaning up the detritus of their late-night parties takes on the urgency of a level 4 biohazard lab. Work gloves and tea towels tied over faces fill in for hazmat suits. I count off the days since exposure and watch for symptoms of Hantavirus. 
 
This is black bear country. Locals talk matter-of-factly about bear encounters. They know what the scat looks like, they instinctively know how to park so that the truck is always between themselves and any black bears who may be feeding on the Saskatoon bushes. To the black bear who sauntered through the yard last year and swam effortlessly across the lake, we are a minor annoyance, nothing but a mosquito buzzing around her living room.

Back home, in bed after another ten hour trek across the prairies, I lie for a few minutes before drifting off, grateful for the faint glow of the street lights, comforted by warm pinpoints of light radiating from windows across my neighbourhood. In the distance, the soft lullaby of traffic lulls me to sleep.


Sunday, August 02, 2015

carry me back

There's something restful and a little old-fashioned about curtains blowing in the breeze. 

I think of farm houses on the prairies, abandoned now to the elements, hollow window frames looking out over overgrown farmyards, while staring blankly inward. 

Where sod-busting women once prided themselves on keeping a home, the foxes and the bats have settled in, disturbed only by the whispers of long-gone ghosts hanging clothes on the line, by phantom echoes of sheets snapping dry in the hot dusty wind.

Monday, July 27, 2015

best of the fest

Not all the highlights at the Calgary Folk Music Festival are of the musical variety. When you get 12,000 people/day on a tiny island in the river, you get some great humanity sightings as well. Horse head guy, leiderhosen fellow, green man, bee hive lady, nose bleed dude, smiley hippie dancer, and the featured misplaced Saskatchewan Rough Rider watermelon helmet guy are just a small sampling.

Although I had absolutely no complaints about the hospitality food, that I didn't even realize until partway through day two that my guest pass gave me privileges for, the food truck offerings had their ups and downs. The weather, with its occasional severe thunderstorm warnings, was a bit challenging at times. But the music and musicians, of course, took precedence. 

Here are some of my own personal picks for memorable moments from this year's festival:

Musician who totally delivered, despite the unreasonably high expectations I held them to:
 *  Frazey Ford

Highest-spirited party band who absolutely delivered the partaayy:
 *  The Strumbellas

Hairiest country band with the best choreographed dance moves:
 *  The Dead South 

Band I had never heard of who completely gobsmacked me:
 *  Lake Street Dive

Musician, from whom I had very little expectations, who wowed me:
 *  Rhiannon Giddens

Best blistering blues:
 *  Bombino and Cecile Doo-Kingue

Long-lived legends who have still got it:
 *  Buffy Sainte-Marie and Richard Thompson

Band that I want at every kitchen party I ever attend for the rest of my life (also recommendation that my sister was totally bang on about):
 *  The Jerry Cans

Guy I want hosting every kitchen party I ever attend:
 *  Socalled

Best breakfast workshop, complete with Phil & Sebastian coffee and Sidewalk Citizen oatmeal cookie:
 *  "Uncorrected Personality Traits" - Robyn Hitchcock, The Dead South, The Strumbellas, Jennifer Castle

Musician who makes my ears bleed, whose workshop I attended just to prove that I could:
 *  Colin Stetson

Most sublime folk fest moment:

 *  Slipping out of one workshop early to get to the 4:20 workshop we really wanted to see (which just happened to be at the only tented stage) and arriving just as the skies let loose with cold driving rain, and then being blown away by Socalled, The Leftover Cuties and the Jerry Cans, as they got the entire tent up on their feet and jump-dancing with sheer joy. And then, as the workshop wrapped up, the sun came out. 

How do you beat all that? I guess we'll see next year.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

ten years of words

On this day ten years ago, I wrote my first blog post. It was the start of an exciting decade of making connections and discoveries, exploring ideas and expressing opinions about almost everything. 

A lot has changed in the blogosphere in those ten years. 

Those early years turned out to be the golden age of blogging, at least in my circles. After publishing that first tentative post, I quickly gained a staunch following of readers, whose blogs I staunchly read in return, and we spent far too much time each day writing and reading and commenting and interacting with other bloggers. Good thing I was working at a job where I had next to nothing to do for most of the day.

Over the years, though, blogging changed. People started to blog a little less often, then gradually stopped altogether. The blogosphere, or at least my little corner of it, grew smaller and smaller. Partly, I am convinced, because of the facebookification and twitterization of the internet, partly because of increased responsibilities in the off-line world, blogging fell out of favour among my friends. 

For some reason, I continued blogging, albeit a lot less frequently than the daily posting and comment answering of those glory days. But this site remains important to me and, although this ten year anniversary is very different from how I once imagined it would be (I was sure there would be cake and champagne), to me it is still a significant moment.

To all my blogger friends, those stalwart few who still continue to write and read and comment, I thank you for hanging in there. Your resilience, your stubbornness and refusal to give in to the 142 character universe are heartening to me. To all my former blogger friends, those who have become my dear friends in the real world, as well as those who passed, however briefly, through my field of vision, thank you for your thoughts and words. You have made the past ten years brilliant.

Here's to the next ten.