Japan across time (Tale of the Gengi by Murasaki Shikibu)

“She was clever for her age, and she interested him. Difficult and unconventional relationships always interested him.”

In some ways, The Tale of Genji is a coming of age story. A handsome and charming youth, Genji has a way, as they say, with the ladies.

What is old—and this story is old—is new again. Written in the 11th century in the milieu of the political court of Japan, Murasaki gives us a story that is timeless. Just remove it from the privilege of palaces and the political intrigue and we have a story that could have been written today. Murasaki has managed a story that isn’t dated in language, style, or content.

The Tale of Genji has been compared to Gilgamesh and to The Iliad in timeless appeal, and it has the force of Shakespeare. As Shakespeare’s plays are interspersed with poetry, so too is Murasaki’s prose:

He plucked a few notes on his koto, but the sound only made him sadder.

“The waves on the strand, like moans of helpless longing.
The winds—like messengers from those who grieve?”

But the poetry she inserts is not hers. It is attributed to Chinese and Japanese poets of the past (that is, previous to the 11th century). And, like haiku, the quotes are pithy, descriptive, and timeless, and they totally relate to the passages they enhance.

My reading has taken place during the period of recent “Me Too” revelations and accusations. Clearly, while many of the women in this novel were willing participants and, like Genji, shed tears when the affair took a hiatus, there’s often that awful power imbalance. At least in one instance, there are uncomfortable circumstances involving a young girl he’s raising like a daughter. Genji’s behaviour can create shudders, yet Murasaki paints a feeling, sensuous young man who makes his way through a convoluted, political maze and … (ah, no spoiler here).

As to how I happened across such an ancient story, I read an article by Joe Fassner published on Atlantic online, January 23, 2018 in which he discusses The Written World, by the Harvard professor Martin Puchner who calls The Tale of Genji a “foundational text.” Fassner quoted Puchner:

The book was written about 1,000 years ago, at a time when a lot of literature was still produced by scribes, collected from various sources and cobbled together by editors. The foundational epics and religious texts in circulation then were very different from the reading material we’re used to. In that context, 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.

And that is what Murasaki did for me: she whispered in my ear during nights of bedtime reading.

She wrote her story at a time when women were not taught to read and write (apparently by listening from behind the paper screens to her brother’s lessons). Her topic is modern in subject and theme. The writing is accessible, despite the gap of eons and culture. And, adding to the magic, the story is illustrated with woodcuts that were first published in the 1650 edition of the Illustrated Tale of Genji. The world’s first novel is also one of the greatest, even if you’re not a Japanese aficionado, but if you are, you are in for a special treat.

31 The Tale of Genji

Note: I cannot locate a source for the edition I borrowed from the library (Vintage Classics Edition, June 1990) that is annotated and illustrated. The link (kindle edition) I’ve provided is also copyrighted by Edward G. Seidensticker and is most likely the closest to the version I read.

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Tale of Genji

Secrets & the Father (The Only Café by Linden MacIntyre)

“In war and politics there is a selection of facts.”

I opened this novel-based-on-facts three days ago and whizzed through all 418 pages. From the epigraph by James Joyce – “Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned” – I was hooked. Linden MacIntyre’s The Only Café is a book of secrets, secrets kept, lost, delved into, and secrets like ghosts that haunt.

At the story’s heart are war, Lebanon, a son bereft of family, and the strange turns life takes, turns that seem to be life-saving but that become life-destroying. It is also the story of that man’s son and the unraveling of a mystery. Clues come in a request, read as an addendum to a will, for an out-of-character “roast” to be held at The Only Café. They also come in clippings tucked into twenty-years of diaries that are in sparse notes-to-self jottings.

Like all good stories, this one has more than one thread running through: they intersect; split apart. And the story contains echoes. One that particularly haunts is the image of a woman with a basket of children’s clothes and pins that go flying.

Themes and sub-themes also run through. Like The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar (memoir, recently reviewed) this story explores the impact of an absent father. Pierre Cormier, however, was absent even before he disappeared.

One of the most disturbing threads exposed and returned to in the story is the massacre at Sabra and Shatila camps, the numbers beyond comprehension. And although a civil war was playing out in Lebanon, Lebanese are far from the only culprits in the unfolding of horrors. And this is where Ari comes in. Like Pierre, Ari has Middle Eastern roots, although Canadian-born. With Ari the mystery deepens and questions darken.

As in The Return, The Only Café makes me aware of how superficial my sense of history and politics is. I knew scant facts about Libya’s politics and revolutions except perhaps about the Lockerbie bomb and its link to Libya and a bit gleaned from the news about Qaddafi’s dictatorship. I know even less about Lebanon, although I attended a reception at the Lebanese Embassy in in Washington D.C. while participating in an international conference. My dearth of knowledge is an uncomfortable admission. However, these two books have filled in many gaps.

Readers learn details of life in Lebanon, hints about the secrets refugees carry, and the complexity of memory (how facts shift and half-truths are essential for survival), about marriages that fail and those that hold promises, about the world of work and friends and lovers. Linden MacIntyre’s The Only Café can be read on many levels, but regardless of whether you skim or do a bit of side-research, you’ll think about the characters he creates on history’s slate and see that the essential truth in fiction is truth.

(Linden MacIntyre was host of the fifth estate and a distinguished journalist as well as an award-winning author.)

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Only Café

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.

22 Connelly Bks LR (1 of 1)

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.

Grief’s Response (After You’ve Gone by Jeffrey Lent)

“If love had a language, he’d realized it would be this, not words or gestures but the mellifluous richness he’d heard that summer evening, anchored between the pair of violins and the bass. The musician seated with his cello tucked between his knees, bent in concentration and intensity of focus that swept and fled, stroked and drew upon man, instrument and bow.”

Thirteen years separate the publication of After You’ve Gone and Doris Lessing’s Love, Again. Surely other novels exist about the discovery of love in later life, but these are  two that stand out for me. When Doris Lessing’s book came out in 1996, it seemed bold. Told in the voice of a sixty-five year old woman who didn’t imagine loving again but who became swept up in not one but two affairs of the heart, the story suggested hope and insight for baby-boomers heading into the seniors’ curve. Recently, I came across Jeffrey Lent’s novel told from a male perspective.

Henry Dorn’s son (Robert) and wife (Olivia) die in a car crash. He is bereft. His two grown daughters (Alice and Polly) try to comfort him but they have their own families and cannot fill the void in his heart. He begins a quest, first travelling to his birth-home in Nova Scotia seeking answers to family questions; then back in New York, he takes a steamer to Amsterdam hoping to discover older Dorn roots and to start life anew. He is lost in the way Rebecca Solnit describes in A Field Guide to Getting Lost: “Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration—how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?” In her book, Solnit explores the question philosophically. In After You’ve Gone, Lent explores it through fiction.

Ultimately, like Love, Again, After You’ve Gone is a later-life love story that plunges into deep waters where discoveries of the self are made. His journey is poignant. There’s the emotional journey of the first year:

The worst moment has not been the anniversary of the deaths, which was a peculiarly quiet afternoon of gentle spring rain, the day so long anticipated that its arrival brought no sudden thrust of grief but rather was almost consolation—in that year he’d passed all number of possible anniversaries that were unmarked and this was another he was helpless against, and the world went on raining….Ten days later he disembarked at Penn Station and porter and trunks in tow hailed a cab and set off for the pier and the Veendam II.

That first year slips by quickly enough. It’s aboard the steamer that he spots Lydia Pearce and where renewal begins:

A woman in the tight knee-length and sleeveless calisthenics outfit suddenly came upon him, loping in a steady slapping of bare feet….She glanced at him as she passed but the glance was empty as if she were looking toward some far distance greater even than the horizon. He…watched her go.

You know where this is going (and it does lead there). While love affairs are as old as the novel itself, Lent avoids clichéd traps. He gives us a beautiful read with a few twists and surprises. This is not a novel for the bereft alone, it offers insight and perhaps even wisdom for each of us into the very human ways of the heart.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: After You’ve Gone

Magic of the 8e Paris (The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson)

Reading The Emperor of Paris is a bit like picking up puzzle pieces one-by-one and slowly discovering the picture they create. In each short chapter, we peek into the lives of the people of the eighth arrondissement, Paris. It’s a particularly innocent era before World War I when the neighbourhood was a place disconnected from the larger city and world. And after the war we witness transformations – some difficult, others freeing.

A bakery – Boulangerie Notre-Dame – stands at the centre of the 8e neighbourhood. Here we meet many of the book’s characters and glimpse their personalities, challenges, and their moods. In living quarters above the bakery we share an intimacy between Monsieur (which everyone calls the baker) and little Octavio:

Sitting in the attic window with his son nestled in his lap, Monsieur Notre-Dame would slowly turn the pages of the Arabian Nights. When he reached an illustration, Octavio would laugh and point.

A beginning then, Monsieur would say.

He told the boy his stories. They were conjured out of his head, tales that had little to do with the pictures in the book, the flying horses or the thieves in their treasure caves or the scruffy boy with his magic lamp. Monsieur told them not as the book might have, but as he saw them, jumping to life before his eyes.

This passage hints, or foreshadows, something of the man Octavio becomes. The imaginative “reading” instills Octavio’s passion for books and offers a glimpse into an affliction that eventually brings Isabeau Normande into his life.

The immigrant artist becomes one of my favourite characters. Even after being dismissed from studying, he draws obsessively, mostly in the park in all kinds of weather. CS Richardson paints pictures with words, and as this scene his sparse words show us what Kalb sketches:

Jacob Kalb, a stuffed carpetbag under his feet and his knees under his chin, hurried a last sketch of the old woman across the aisle. Since crossing into France he had managed a passable likeness of the woman’s pocked cheeks, the creases around her puffy mouth. In small vignettes he had made studies of her hands and their bouquets of arthritic fingers. On the page her hair looked like lengths of wire exploding from under her hat.

 Richardson creates scene after scene that unveil the community, allowing us to see inside the hearts and actions of his characters. For example, the Fournier family run a bookstall that reflects both the bookstall and, in many ways, the neighbourhood:

The Fournier bookstall held too much poetry, mixed its philosophies with its mechanics and its travelogues among its fictions.

But the eclectic bookstall is more than a metaphor for the varied personalities of the community. It provides the pivot that creates change involving both Octavio and the scarred Isabeau Normande. In subtle ways, by the end of the novel Richardson seamlessly places all the puzzle pieces together, creating a unified whole.

The Emperor of Paris is like a fable brimming with magical, imaginative images not unlike the Arabian Nights except for the specificity of place and time. Richardson’s tale created a movie that ran across the screen of my mind, an ultimately satisfying movie made with perfect words.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Emperor of Paris

Review: In a Landscape of Sand & Stone (The Painter of Birds by Lídia Jorge)

“I dread to think what they’ve told you about me!” He laughed, he was always laughing. “I bet they told you I was a wastrel, a soldier, and about a blanket I used to lie down on when I went off drawing birds. I dread to think what they told you about that blanket and those birds… They probably described me as a con man, a globe-trotter and an adventurer. I bet they poisoned your mind against me.”

In provincial Portugal not far from the Atlantic a family lives together in a dilapidated rambling house under the thumb of a tyrant father, Francisco Dias. Sons, daughters, in-laws, and grandchildren call the house home. The men provide the back-breaking labour on the farm. All, that is, except for the youngest son, Walter, who is The Painter of Birds. Walter is as free and migratory as the birds he paints. As you can imagine, this creates some trouble for his father and brothers. But this isn’t the only cause for distress in the house. The house and its inhabitants are all rife with the collusion of secrets.

Without giving too much away, in his youth Walter was a charmer of young women. When the parents of one of the girls discovers the rounding of their daughter’s belly, they take her to the doorstep of Francisco Dias. Walter’s brother Custódio marries Maria Ema and in due course gives birth to a daughter. It is through Walter’s daughter that the story unfolds.

This may sound like a hokey soap opera or melodrama, but it is not. The Painter of Birds is literary and lyrical. Lídia Jorge subtly reveals psychological and emotional insights into a time and place when families were held together by custom, poverty, and relative isolation from the larger world. It is a story of pent-up jealousies and resentments. And it is the story of a daughter’s quest for love and understanding. At the same time, Jorge’s story is metaphor.

Early in the book, Francisco Dias is called to the school where the teacher tells him:

…what extraordinary hands Walter had, hands that drew as if the memory of nature were concealed beneath their fingertips. A truly remarkable talent. …Walter used to lie down on the ground and wait for the birds to land, sometimes he would catch them in baskets and cages from which he would subsequently release them, but first, he would reproduce them on paper, copying their feathers and their shapes, giving their eyes in particular a special life. It was as if the wretched sparrows could speak, as it the thrushes were laughing, all because of those lines he added to their eyes or because of the way he drew their raised tails and their spread wings.

Much later, birds adorn the letters that arrive at the house. Birds. Well-travelled birds. But it is not only birds and Walter that will travel during the changing world of mid-twentieth-century-rural Portugal. This complex story explores timeless themes of family, dependence, and independence wrapped in a daughter’s yearning for truth. I particularly enjoyed the metaphors of travel and birds and would love to hear from other readers of The Painter of Birds.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Painter of Birds

Review (& Controversy): Into Northern Lake Country (The Last Woman by John Bemrose)

“I’ve come to think of her as a sort of Mother Earth figure. You know, Lilith, Eve, the first woman –.”
“I don’t know,” Richard says….”Looks more to me like the last woman.”

The Last Woman by John Bemrose is an elegy for the ending of love; for a forest, clear-cut landscape; for simple equity for the lives of people – in this case Ojibway – who are caught in the ugly transition from “what was” to “what is.” On one level, The Last Woman is the story of a love triangle, simple and straightforward. On another, it is the story of a clash of cultures, each trying to do things for the right reasons and each totally misinterpreting motives. It is about politics where truth and justice don’t matter. It is about a land claim, secrets, ambitions and dreams, art and logic, and the totally different way that indigenous people think about and live on the land. In short, Bemrose has written a complex story, weaving the personal angst of his characters into a web that includes greed along with cultural and environmental destruction. Bemrose’s writing is measured; he doesn’t rant, although readers will see where his sympathies lie.

Over the years, I’ve bought books by the few Indians (First Nations in Canada) who managed to get published. I think that Halfbreed by Maria Campbell was among the first, along with books by N. Scott Momaday. Later, books by Louise Erdrich made their way to my shelf and some by Thomas King, plus harder to read books like for Joshua by Richard Wagamese, poets like Lee Maracle and gritty Métis poet Katherena Vermette. I own Anne Cameron’s Daughters of Copperfield, a book that generated controversy in the early 1980s (that continues to rage) about who has the right to the traditional stories, to their telling. Of course, I have the well-packaged and easy-to-embrace collections of quotes from the speeches of elders, such as Touch the Earth. And yes, academic and anthropological work sits there too.

More recently, publishing has opened to First Nations people in a way that seemed previously closed, and there’s new controversy on the topic of who speaks for whom. The editor of Write: The Magazine of the Writers’ Union of Canada resigned over his editorial in the Spring 2017 issue. He writes: “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.” I suspect that farther down in the editorial his admonition to “Set your sights on the big goal: Win the Appropriation Prize” is what skewered him. I read it as inappropriate, as did many others – not political correctness, but a “middle-finger salute.”  Indigenous people in Canada (likely everywhere) are capable of speaking for themselves. They don’t need interpreters. But there is a blurry line, although both history and today’s reality badly need the First Nations’ perspective. So, back to The First Woman….

Bemrose walks a fine and informed line as he writes about the land claim and as he develops the character of Billy, of Billy’s loss over his cultural heritage, his land, and the trees gone to clear-cutting. He writes with sensitivity about the childhood attraction and, later, physical love that Billy and Anne shared, as he does with the friendship that once existed between Billy and Anne’s husband Richard.

I wonder what critics today would think about Martin, my character in Calla & Édourd. Martin is a fiction, who grew out of my experience living in Winnipeg. My empathy grew out of my grandmother’s reluctance to talk and her mother’s stories. Yet, now I wonder if readers would feel a line has been crossed. But, once more, back to the novel….

The excerpt that leads into this review fixes our thoughts on a painting and on environmental destruction and provides the title for Bemrose’s novel. But the story is about more than that, it digs and niggles down into a core fault-line. I would love to learn what readers – who have read the novel (and maybe mine) – think.

09 The Last Woman

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Last Woman