Seeking Libya (The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar)

“Pain shrinks the heart. This, I believe, is part of the intention. You make a man disappear to silence him but also to narrow the minds of those left behind, to pervert their soul and limit their imagination.”

In The Return, Hisham Matar provides two stories: the story of Libya and the story of a dissidents’ disappearance and the family left behind. We gain more than a glimpse into Libya’s history – from its little know past and vague borders through the Italian-colonial period, revolts and coups, to political intrigue involving Egypt and Britain, to cultural insights into the Bedoin and a family saga, the impact of exile (“Guilt is exile’s eternal companion.”) and especially the struggle of a man to find his father.

Hisham Matar is a young man studying in London when his father disappears from the family’s exile in Egypt. At the time, Libya has been taken over by Gaddafi. Much of the first part of the book looks back at the history of both the country and the family. Of his father, he writes that “he was a writer responding to ghosts and to history.” As the story progresses, Matar questions official stories and contemplates what happens to those left after the disappearances of dissidents: the dearth of creativity, the shrivelling of the soul.

Through the passing years, Matar waffles emotionally, often succumbing to the likeliness that his father is dead. “But then hope, cunning and persistent, crept back in… .” We ride emotional storms and political frustrations as the search moves from a personal one to an international one. Slowly, over decades, facts leak out, and eventually there is a regime change. The son makes a visit to the now-empty prison.

Abu Salim is the last place Jaballa Matar was known to be alive. It’s the site of the massacre of 1,270 prisoners, “the incident that all those years ago had started a chain of events that ultimately led to the overthrow of Gaddafi.” He visits the prison but fails to find closure: “The body of my father is gone, but his place is here and occupied by something that cannot just be called memory.” And later: “My father is both dead and alive… . I live, as we all live, in the aftermath.”

Matar’s writing and research skills are clear throughout The Return (as they are in his novel In the Country of Men that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.) The memoir attempts a balancing act. However, I frequently found that he succumbs to an emotionally flat tone, and I wonder if it is a way to maintain a distance from the pain of loss and of grief forever raw and unresolved. But this is a small complaint given the scope of the story, its range across time, generations, the personal and the political.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between

Language’s Power (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See)

“For my entire life I longed for love. I knew it was not right for me – as a girl and later as a woman – to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my life.”

In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan we enter the life of 19th century women living in isolated Hunan Province, China. This is during the era when little girls’ feet were bound in order to make them beautiful in the eyes of husbands – at times hints of sexual overtones slip into the narrative, but these are not explored and remain subtle and innocent.

All I knew was that footbinding would make me more marriageable and therefore bring me closer to the greatest love and greatest joy in a woman’s life – a son. To that end, my goal was to achieve a pair of perfectly bound feet….

Lily was seven when the bones in her feet were broken and shaped over painful time into tiny arches.

Lily and Snow Flower lived in an era of matchmakers, during a time when a special bond, called laotong, might be formed between two young girls, and when fortuitous marriage matches were dreamed. It was also an era of girls’ and women’s isolation and of a secret written language called nu shu that was known only to women. Lessons – life-lessons – were taught in an upstairs women’s-only chamber. But when famine and war struck, all these beautiful-footed women’s lives became at risk. They could not run; they could barely, and only in pain, walk any distance.

Lisa See creates an intimate glimpse into women’s lonely lives. The narrative is packed with historical details that lend authenticity to the haunting tale of lives seen through the lens of Lily who was born in 1823 and who lived through the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864). Lily shares a lifetime of hopes and realities as seen from her eightieth year, from “one who has not yet died.”

The writers among readers will be fascinated with the lyrical story the two girls write on the fan that passes between them throughout their lifetime. The messages are poetic, while adhering (for the most part) to tradition. The rituals and conventions of the time are stark and vivid. See delivers them without judgement and with honesty. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan provides a look into how women understand their lives and how they experience what love they manage to find.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Bus & Mind Travels (Oaxaca Journal 2002 and The River of Consciousness 2017 by Oliver Sacks)

“[W]e deceive ourselves if we imagine that we can ever be passive, impartial observers. Every perception, every scene, is shaped by us, whether we intend it or know it, or not. We are the directors of the film we are making – but we are its subjects too: every frame, every moment, is us, is ours.”

Oaxaca Journal documents physical travel, a trip taken, a journal kept. The River of Consicousness time travels across ideas that are wide-ranging and far-reaching toward an understanding of systems both physical and of the mind. A truly renaissance man, Sacks seems always to be looking simultaneously at details and the big picture of our understanding and of what makes us human, a holistic approach to physical science, neuroscience, creativity, and consciousness.

Oaxaca Journal:

Many of you will know Dr. Oliver Sacks from his book, Awakenings, or the movie starring Robert de Niro and Robin Williams. He was a prolific writer, often writing out of his observations and experiences from his medical practice, but not always.

The first book by Sacks’ that I read, Oaxaca Journal, is an adventure story, detailing his travels with the American Fern Society. The trip was “an introduction to a people, a country, a culture, a history, of which [he] knew almost nothing – this was wonderful, an adventure in itself… .” Sacks was a serious amateur biologist, an enthusiastic traveller, and also a lifelong journal-keeper. He had a keen eye for detail, was exceptionally curious, and he had an ability to weave a tale that keeps readers turning pages. He was anything but “a passive, impartial, observer.” For example, on this trip, he skips a bus tour to sit in the plaza, sees and analyses:

Tourists, pale-faced, awkward, uncouthly dressed, instantly stand out from the graceful indigenes… .
Writing, like this, at a café table, in a sweet outdoor square…this is la dolce vita. It evokes images of Hemingway and Joyce, expatriate writers at tables in Havana and Paris… . I love to write in an open sunny place, the windows admitting every sight and sound and smell of the outside world. I like to write at café tables, where I can see (though at a distance) society before me.

Oaxaca takes us on treacherous bus rides, roadside stops to examine ferns, inside a chocolate factory, and into plazas where children call “Peso, peso… .” We discover with him.


The River of Consciousness

We are also with him as he travels across eras – from Darwin’s ideas about evolution and his garden experiments in biology to the philosophy of the ancients right up to modern science and neuroscience on systems of the body and the mind.

Sacks is a weaver who could create a tapestry from disparate sciences and make sense of them, not just for scientists. One of my favourite chapters in the book is called “The Creative Self,” in which he explores play, mimicry, and imitation. “All of us,” he writes, “to some extent, borrow from others, from the culture around us. Ideas are in the air, and we may appropriate, often without realizing, the phrases and language of the times. We borrow language itself; we did not invent it.” And he also writes of the importance of incubation, “the hugely complex problems performed by an entire hidden, creative self,” often that come to us in the moments just before or just after sleep. And he says of creativity:

…that state when ideas seem to organize themselves into a swift, tightly woven flow, with a feeling of gorgeous clarity and meaning emerging – seems to me physiologically distinctive, and I think that if we had the ability to make fine enough brain images, these would show an unusual and widespread activity with innumerable connections and synchronizations occurring.

This, I suspect, is what the whole book might be about: the “innumerable connections an synchronizations” that occur across disciplines – arts and sciences.

For creative connections, playful curiosity, and a world of original ideas, one of Oliver Sacks’ fourteen books might be exactly where to turn. Oaxaca and The River of Consciousness provide just a glimpse.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Oaxaca Journal and River of Consciousness

Wanderlust (Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear)

“Day after day we are brave in our persistence”.

Wanderlust can occur at the most inopportune times.

When Kyo Maclear’s responsibilities make demands that keep her near home – her dad’s failing health, the experience of raising two young sons, and other of life’s challenges – she finds a unique way to address a kind of solitude that stymies her creativity.

She happens across a bit of film featuring a musician who has struggled and been lost. Summarizing the clip, she writes:

After years of wallowing in creative depression, he had quit drinking and found peace by birding in the inner city. “I didn’t even have to think about it. I just felt easier. I felt easy-hearted,” he said.

He had discovered his joy was bird-shaped.


“I made contact with the musician and arranged to meet him for a bird walk. I wanted to feel enraptured and inspirable.”

And so, a year’s traipsing begins. Slowly, she enters the world of birds, an observer, a thinker. On one of their jaunts, Maclear “follows the musician along the boardwalk to a wooded area of the lake.” She struggles…

to become one with the rock. And then, just like that, [she] settled in. The minutes and hours passed. A trumpeter swan retracted its neck and made a funny trumpet sound. Three tundra swans paddled up and down the shoreline, a reflection of my own inner drift.

She explores within the city’s confines, learning its nooks and crannies, its parks and waterways. Maclear often finds the outings challenging but also deeply rewarding. The musician does not lead her far geographically, but through their birding, she comes to understand some things beyond time and space. The excursions are as much inner journeys for Maclear as they are external, and she begins to find creative ways to express what had been lost to her.

On its surface, this is a small book in which little happens. We are nowhere and everywhere. But volumes happen within a prose that verges on poetry. Maclear’s awarenesses quietly stack upon one another. And this growing insight is sprinkled with bird and other stray facts that add substance for trivia aficionados. One such time, she ponders the name of her city:

As night fell, we stood together at the edge of a city named after the Mohawk word tkaronto meaning “where there are trees standing in water.” I tried to picture the area covered in aspen and poplar forests. Then I went back further and pictured the former shoreline as it would have existed 12,500 years ago, well to the north of where we now stood. I pictured us submerged in glacial lake water.

Throughout the year of bird-watching, Maclear searches to make sense of life in this world. And she becomes fascinated not only with the birds themselves but with the path they led her down. Maclear’s peregrine falcons also nudged a sleeping memory within me.

A few years ago, a peregrine built her nest directly outside my back door on a deck under construction. I couldn’t imagine a more inappropriate site with my constant coming and going. Nonetheless, the peregrines managed, and it was an amazing experience for me to watch the eggs hatch and to witness the dutiful feeding and, eventually, the fledglings’ evacuation.

The peregrines also nudge a memory for Maclear and she goes on a small search:

…I found the navy blue Oxford dictionary [my father] had given me for my seventh birthday. I confirmed the word peregrine means “having a tendency to wander.”

It clearly fit the peregrine falcon, which is known to travel vast distances, but maybe it also fit me and this book I was writing about being a little lost, this book of inward and outward travelling to the verge of life.

Birds Art Life lives up to its title. It is a lyrical and philosophical exploration of nature, love, and anticipated loss with lots and lots of life.

It’s amazing how much travelling can be done within a city’s limits (or your armchair).

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Birds Art Life

Time Travel: Culture Clash (Obasan by Joy Kogawa)

“There is silence that cannot speak.”

Sometimes we come to a book late. For me, Obasan, published in 1981, is one of those books. It is historically based fiction that reads like memoir – a hybrid, better than either genre. I’m reminded of a line from Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil: “A work of art works because it is true, not because it is real.” Obasan is a work of art, a hard-as-stone story beautifully told.

Through Obasan, I travelled to another time, another culture, another horror of war and misguided political decisions. But Obasan is not a diatribe on political incorrectness; it is an intimate glimpse into people’s lives, love and loss, what was endured. In the end, insight and something that lurks between acceptance and forgiveness, a moving forward.

The narrator, Naomi Nakane, knows that “All our ordinary stories are changed in time, altered as much by the present as the present is shaped by the past.” She struggles to understand her childhood from her adult view and to grasp what it all means now. Her childhood was protected to a great degree, but Aunt Emily’s life was altered, split-away, and she knew the depth of loss and fought it with letters, but to no avail. When Naomi is grown, she receives a package from her aunt. “The fact is,” she thinks, jarred by Aunt Emily’s clippings and notes, “I never got used to it and I cannot, I cannot bear the memory. There are some nightmares from which there is no waking, only deeper and deeper sleep.” Perhaps it is easier to leave the blinders on and to not remember.

Despite the story’s dark theme, Joy Kogawa’s writing is sprinkled with light and lyrical passages. In one passage that particularly touched me, Naomi recalls a walk with her uncle: “The laughter in my arms is quiet as the moon, quiet as snow falling, quiet as the white light from the stars.”

Obasan is an important story: culturally, politically, and artistically. It is a beautifully told story that takes readers into the heart of experience. It neither shies away from, nor dwells upon, the hard historical reality that tore people’s lives apart. Canada’s story, without Obasan, would be incomplete. It is hard to face political wrongs, but they must be faced in order to be whole, complete – for all parties. As Yann Martel wrote in Beatrice and Virgil: “Stories – individual stories, family stories, national stories – are what stitch together the disparate elements of human existence into a coherent whole.”

Please read Obasan and think about the “silence that cannot speak.” Kerri Sakamoto, in the preface to my edition of the book, writes: “It was the authenticity of those words that so shocked me; the distillation of shame and muted fury….In the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombing, families – including my own – were taken from their homes, separated, and interned in camps simply because they looked like the enemy.” These words should haunt us all and make us think of their relevancy today as with others who come to make our country their own.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Obasan


Post script: for lovers of Japanese-themed stories

Two other “Japanese” books that have survived weeding from my crowded bookshelves that I recommend are Epitaph for a peach by David Mas Masumoto, an American-Japanese story (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) and Snow by Maxence Fermine, translated by Chris Mulhern (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, Inc, 1999).

Epitaph for a peach tells the story of an ending in California – the end of the peach farm – by a “third-generation Japanese American farmer [whose] lineage in agriculture dates back centuries. The Masumotos are from a solid peasant stock out of Kumamoto, Japan, rice farmers with not even a hint of samuri blood.” The U.S. experience of Japanese-Americans living on the west coast during WWII differed from the Canadian; there may have been hardship, but not the expulsion nor the confiscating of property.

Snow is a seeker’s story. It takes us on a lyrical search by Yuko through snow-covered mountains to find enlightenment…colour…and it is also an exquisitely told love story. If you like haiku, its simplicity and complexity, you will like Snow.

On my “to read” list: The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. According to Martin Puchner (The Written Word), Murasaki’s “epic novel, The Tale of Genji, became a foundational text that influenced Japanese aesthetics for centuries to come.” Written about 1,000 years ago by an 11th century Japanese lady-in-waiting, The Tale of Genji is a story Puchner compares to the Iliad and The Epic of Gilgamesh. Puchner says, “Murasaki’s diary felt to me like a turning point in the history of literature—it sounds so recognizable, so intimate, so modern.”

“The fact that someone living in an extremely different time, halfway around the world, a thousand years ago, could whisper in my ear in that way—it’s magical. That experience is part of what draws me to world literature in general, a reminder of the power writing has to transport a voice across time and space.” (Quotes from a January 23, 2018 article by Joe Fassler, “The Technology Shift Behind the World’s First Novel, The Atlantic online.)



The Art of Growing Up (The Great & the Small written and illustrated by A. T. Balsara)

“It’s the story of us. When I read history, I feel connected to people who lived ages ago. I think it’s because for them it wasn’t history. It was life. Just like ours is to us.”

Reminiscent of Ken Oppel’s Sunwing – a story of bats and their misuse in World War II research – A. T. Balsara’s The Great and the Small also features a laboratory, but in this story the misuse is imposed on rats. Neither bats nor rats are puppies or ponies – both are unlikely heroes to the human population – but in the end our empathy is swayed. In part this is accomplished through the whimsical illustrations that run through the text.

Balsara’s storyline develops in a city market and the tunnels running beneath it, and occasionally the setting shifts to a nearby suburban neighbourhood where humans live and the laboratory exists. The underworld of the city is populated by a colony of rats under the thumb of their leader, the “Beloved Chairman,” who convinces them to spread the bubonic plague anew in retaliation for the cruel treatment of rats caught among market stalls. His curious nephew, Fin, develops doubts about the plan and literally falls into a relationship with a young girl named Ananda. She happens to be bullied at school and she’s the daughter of the laboratory researcher. So the stage is set for adventure, a ratty love story, and rebellion.

This book challenges the usual categories with respect to target audience. In some ways it reminds of Sunwing, and it would appeal to middle grade youth. Books for these readers usually feature adolescent protagonists who face their first big choices. There’s a metaphorical dragon to be slain. As challenges are met, they grow in self-acceptance, confidence and wisdom. As they leave childhood behind, they discover how the larger, unknown world works and find ways to understand the human condition. Since these stories are written to elicit empathy of readers for the protagonists, readers usually learn (if only vicariously) about making choices and succeeding against the odds, and they learn important life-lessons. The Great & the Small reveals Ananda’s responses to bullying and idealism, and it also leads to her self-acceptance and more responsible confidence and actions. Elements of the story appeal to the developmental stage of adolescents.

In other ways, this book suits the young adult (YA) category of readers where the problems faced by protagonists are more complex and often enter challenging areas (such as death) and sexual/love explorations, although Balsara delves more deeply into the former. This is also the developmental stage where youth begin to form logical systems and hypotheses, explore abstract ideas, and focus on possibilities rather than realities. In large part, the story runs along a dual plotline: rat Fin’s for peace and Ananda’s for rebellion against cruelty to the rats.  Balsara prefaces chapters with vivid quotes from Stalin’s rule and from the era of the14th century plague.  These sombre quotations introduce another element requiring developmental maturity. However, the numerous, finely wrought illustrations counterbalance the dark quotes.  The Great & the Small bridges the abilities of both middle and YA readers.

In a radio interview, Balsara said The Great & the Small shares messages of  hope, resilience, and perseverance with young people. Its theme – good vs. evil – pits blind obedience against rebellion. And, she suggested she wants to remind readers about dark periods of history from which we can learn.

Balsara has written an ambitious book in which she combines issues relevant to young readers within the larger context of history, a history of cruelty and blind obedience, in which few rebel. From time-to-time, the “lesson” she advances feels too didactic for my taste, but that aside, she has created a moving and heartfelt story in which a young girl stands up for what she believes and a rat who eventually recognizes a painful truth and grows up.

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FYI: Book trailer

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Great & the Small

Journeys: a Writer’s (incomplete) Oeuvre (Prose: One Room in a Castle 1995; The Lizard Cage 2005; Burmese Lessons 2009; The Change Room 2017. Poetry: The Border Surrounds Us 2000; and Grace & Poison 1990 by Karen Connelly)

I know this. Our lives begin and end with journeys made alone.
“The Lid Over Europe” (100-101), One Room in a Castle

Karen Connelly makes many journeys. Travel introduces us to strangers and both her poems and prose reveal ways of understanding the other and experiencing ourselves.

In her 2017 novel, The Change Room, she notes two paths toward knowing: listening and storytelling. “Listening,” she writes, “was a way of pulling a stranger toward you without touching.” And so is storytelling: Shar or Shaharzad or Sheherazade – the great storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights – is the siren of enticement in The Change Room and the sensual “amazon” of the story. Listening and storytelling, strangers and borders, are common themes in Connelly’s oeuvre.

Writers’ recurrent themes interest me. I like their unfolding like fans, and their closing tight. I like the way they spread across continents and genres – always surprising, maturing, shifting but remaining, in important ways, the same. In Karen Connelly’s writing, the travellers and lovers among us glimpse ways of knowing ourselves and the other. This holds true from her earliest stories to the most recent novel.

In Connelly’s stories, strangers often become intimate in a variety of ways, sensuality being one. In “Esmeralda, a story” (One Room in a Castle 36-67), readers glimpse insights into what has matured into the novel The Change Room.

From Castle: “Our greatest similarity was our love of water, the freedom of motion it creates. ‘It’s flying,’ Esmé said. ‘It’s the closest we’ll come to being free of our bodies.’ We began to meet in the change-room before swimming….” Esmé swims; she is also a musician. Music, like water, is freeing and sensuous: “She closed her eyes, bent herself over the piano, and laid her hands on its black surface…. Then I leaned forward and kissed her eyelids.” These themes sown in Castle dominate in Room.

In The Change Room, the writing is more complex, layered and mature, but in the early work, we glimpsed seeds that later became mature fruit. (For more on recurring themes of individual writers, please also see my review of Bicycle Thieves by Mary di Michele.)

Connelly writes across genres, which leads me to think about truth in nonfiction and fiction. One Room in a Castle, for example, was published as nonfiction – purportedly as correspondence and travel. The Change Room – 22 years later — as fiction. It begins with an Emily Dickinson quote:

“Ourself, behind ourself, concealed,
should startle most.”

And we are left wondering about the difference between reality and imagination – a conundrum for writers and readers. Connelly does provide hints. For example, in “Extrah-dinary” (Castle 33-35) she writes “It is difficult to get to the truth of one’s self; how much more difficult to create an imaginary world and reveal its truth.” Still…. (For more on this topic of fact and truth, please see my review of Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel.)

I was introduced to Connelly’s writing through a book club reading of her mid-1990s memoir, Burmese Lessons, which still pops into consciousness despite the time lapse. But it’s the poetry collection, The Border Surrounds Us, which remains my favourite – especially section II – which I’ve read over-and-over again.  It is only recently that I discovered Grace & Poison, a compilation of Connelly’s first two poetry books. Even in 1990 her themes were clear and her voice strong. From that collection, a prose poem – “A Story for Suradev, In Bangkok” – stands out. In it we find her mature themes of intimacy/compassion, strangers/self. The closeness of her observations stand stark.

Her passion for travel and imagining the experiences of those she meets into story is continuous. Perhaps Connelly’s most intense book is The Lizard Cage, published in 2005, which drew me back to Burmese Lessons. Burmese Lessons is essentially a love story/a political story. The Lizard Cage is darker, taking readers inside a Burmese prison and into the isolation of an ancient man and a small boy, cruelty beyond comprehension, love, and survival. Somehow Connelly manages to maintain dignity, love, compassion, and beauty.

Karen Connelly began her writing career with the idea of borders, journeys from the known into the unknown: “Our lives begin and end with journeys made alone,” she wrote in her early twenties. In between life’s bookends, many other journeys are made and borders crossed: some geographic and cultural; some social and political; most intimate and sensual. They are all crossed personally, alone, and usually with risk of one sort or another. The intimacy with which she crosses borders can challenge us; she touches the heart, the soul, and the body.

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Various publishers have put Karen Connelly’s writing into print. Search her name or the name of one of her books and that will take you to a source. Most are available through your local bookstore or online.