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Stoner by John Williams

I received this book as a gift from a very good friend and decided to start it immediately. I had never heard of it but knew my friend had very good taste. I was not disappointed but I was very sorry the book ended so soon. At 278 pages it is a relatively short read: one doesn’t need more of Will Stoner but one wants more.

StonerHere is the first passage I marked:

“Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world.  You’d let it hew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong. And you have no place to go in the world.”

The above was spoken by Dave Masters, a friend on the same staff as Stoner who, along with Gordon Finch, formed Stoner’s social circle.   The three young men met every Friday at a small saloon in downtown Columbia and discussed their teaching and study.

Masters maintains that the university was actually created by providence or society or fate “so that we can go in out of the storm. It’s for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world”. Stoner remembered Masters’ words later in life: “it gave him a glimpse of the corrosive and unspoiled bitterness of youth.”

William Stoner “was born in 1891 on a small farm in central Missourie near the village of Boonville, some forty miles from Columbia, the home of the University. ” He had duties on the farm from the earliest time he could remember: At age six, he milked the bony cows, slopped the pugs and gathered eggs. When he went to school, he walked the wight miles there and back and still did his chores. “At seventeen his shoulders were already beginning to stoop beneath the weight of his occupation.”

William believes that when he finishes high school in the spring of 1910 he will take over more of the farm work and he was aware that his father was getting slower and more weary but his father surprised him with news that there was a new school at the university in Columbia called a College of Agriculture and the county agent had come by and suggested that perhaps William ought to go there. There is a relative he can stay with and his dad says that he “could send you [him]  two or three dollars a month.” When William asks his parents if they are sure his father makes the longest speech William had ever heard him make and which h sums up by saying: “You go on to the University come fall. Your ma and me will manage.”

In the first semester of his second year, Stoner had to take a survey of English Literature. This course “troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before.” His instructor was Archer Sloane who “was feared and disliked by most of his students. Stoner found “that he could not handle the survey as he did his other courses. He fares no better than the other students who cannot relate well to Sloane and who are less than comfortable with the subject matter. But, in spite of all this, Stoner has would would most likely be identified as a life altering experience in class one day when Sloane speaks aloud a Shakespearian sonnet and in his second semester he dropped his basic science courses and interrupted his Ag School sequence, taking an introductory course in philosophy and one in ancient history as well as two courses in English literature.

He returned to work on the farm in the summer but he did not explain the changes he had made in his courses. When he finishes his degree he decides to stay on for further study. In a meeting with Professor Sloane he learns something that he has not yet voiced to himself: “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”

When his parents come to see him graduate, he must tell them that he is not returning to the farm. “He grieved for his own loss and for that of his parents, and even in his grief felt himself drawing away from them.”

John Williams writes pain, particularly emotional pain, almost as if he is painting it with a fine brush. He succeeds in making a reader sympathetic even towards characters which the reader may find hard to like or forgive. He somehow creates a safe place for both his characters and his reader to seek shelter from an inhospitable world: I think this is actually integral to his writing style.

It is difficult to convey the power of the experience of reading Stoner. I will borrow from the words of others:

In a Wikipedia article, Morris Dickstein is quoted: “a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving that it takes your breath away.”

From an article in The Globe and Mail: “Stoner …is a slim novel, and not a particularly joyous one. But it is so quietly beautiful and moving, so precisely constructed, that you want to read it in one sitting and enjoy being in it, altered somehow, as if you have been allowed to wear an exquisitely tailored garment that you don’t want to take off.”

From Tim Krieder in The New Yorker: “The novel embodies the very virtues it exalts, the same virtues that probably relegate it, like its titular hero, to its perpetual place in the shade. But the book, like Professor Stoner, isn’t out to win popularity contests. It endures, illumined from within.”

Oh yes, just one more thing: I forgot to mention that there is a very well written love story that occurs in the last third of the novel!

My Canada Reads for 2015

The focus last year was stated to be to find the one book that all Canadians should read to inspire social change in this country. Social change was not defined so the possibilities were infinite. I do believe that became problematic as participants and viewers/listeners tried to keep track of the focus and simultaneously monitor the panel discussions and manoeuverings. I just thought I would have a little fun thinking about “what I would have done if I were running the world/contest”  kind of thing. This year’s focus, by the way, is “one book to break barriers” which is a variation on last year’s focus it would seem.

Love of a Good WomanMy first suggestion would be that everyone read one of Alice Munro’s many collections this year and one of the same in each of the following years until the reader runs out of collections and must start again. If this is too difficult to do alone find someone else who is willing to join you. Don’t be one of the people who says “I’ve never read any Munro but I want to.” Just do it! Probably works out to one or two stories a month: how hard can that be?! After all, folks, it’s called Canada Reads. She did win a pretty big prize you know! Must be something to her stuff, eh?

My second suggestion is that we include a category not included at all in the 2014 Canada Reads but one that is timely given the demographics in this country:

Aging: some possible titles to start off with would beCR 2014 I

Exit Lines by Joan Barfoot; Natural Order by Brian Francis; Ragged Islands by Don Hannah;  Scar Tissue by Michael Ignatieff; The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence; Memoir of Mourning by Heather Menzies;  Making a Stone of the Heart by Cynthia Flood; Penelope’s Way by Blanche Howard; Kicking Fifty by Lisa Appignansi; The Memory Man by Lisa Appignansi. And from this year’s long list: And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier.

And for some of the other reading areas with the potential to break down barriers, how about the following?

Blacks in Canada: Childhood by André Alexis; Asylum by André Alexis; Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke; George & Rue by George Elliott Clarke; Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady; Any Known Blood by Lawrence Hill.

Canada’s Indigenous People:  The Victory of Geraldine Gull by Joan Clark; TheCR 2014 A Dream Carvers by Joan Clark; The River Thieves by Michael Crummey; Flint & Feather by Charlotte Gray; Napi’s Dance by Alanda Greene; The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King (on this year’s short list); Daughters are Forever by Lee Maracle; Seven Generations by David Robertson and Scott Henderson (Jan/Feb 2014: reviewed on this blog); Blood Sports (also Monkey Beach which is on this year’s long list) by Eden Robinson; Celia’s Song by Lee Maracle (Dec. 2014); The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King; The Diviners by Margaret Laurence.

Environment: The Once and Future World by J.B MacKinnon (Dec. 27, 2013); The Year of the Flood (the Mad Addam trilogy) by Margaret Atwood;  This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein (this year’s long list); The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King (Jan. 2015); Celia’s Song by Lee Maracle (long list 2015/Dec. 2014).

Gender : Bow Grip by Ivan E. Coyote (March 12014); Annabelle by Kathleen Winter; Natural Order by Brian Francis (March 2014); Sex of the Stars by Monique Proulx;  When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reed (this year’s short list); Gender Failure by Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon; (you) set me on fire by Mariko Tamaki (this year’s long list); Intolerable: a Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee 2015  short list).

CR 2014 JImmigration (or understanding the “other”): The Juggler’s Children by Carolyn Abraham (Nov. 23,2013); Jade Peony by Wayson Choy; Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa (Oct. 8, 2013); From Harvey River by Lorna Goodison; Watch How We Walk by Jennifer LoveGrove (Jan. 2014);  A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Dec. 4, 2013);  The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler; Cockroach by Rawi Hage; Everything was Goodbye by Gurjinder Basran; Diamond Grill by Fred Wah; The Year of Finding Memory by Judy Fong Bates; The Russlander by Sandra Birdsell; Ru by Kim  Thúy (long list 2015).

Do you have some additions and/or suggestions? Any nominations for an”urban culture” category? poetry? historical fiction? short stories?

Want to make your own list? It can be fun and also a reminder of some great rereads.

 Check out the 2015 long list here.  Short List here. 

P.S. The panel for 2015 demonstrates exceptional promise for a solid balanced discussion: here’s hoping they don’t get side tracked by the possibility of “winning”.

 

The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King

Possibly you would  laugh out loud if I wrote that this is the best fiction  book I have read in 2015 and rightfully so (it being January 5, 2015 at the time of this writing) although I believe there is a possibility that the statement might hold true a year from now. It will certainly be one of the top ten fiction books I will read in 2015.

Back of the TurtleI could not put it down easily and I finished in a matter of two or three days even though there were others I had started before retrieving this from the library. It read so easily and it illustrated  so perfectly the non-fiction book I have just finished (This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein) that I was compelled to finish it while not wanting it to end.

It begins with a short prologue which as a reader you know is important but the story moves quickly to the image of a man standing on a beach in the shadows of some hanging cedars listening to the heavy surf run in from deeper water. The dog from the prologue bursts out of the underbrush, races past the man and gallops back to him snorting and trembling. The man builds a fire and studies a sign above the beach which blinks pale blue and advertises the Ocean Star Motel. The man examines more of his surroundings and steps into the surf and makes his way towards a cluster of rocks known locally as The Apostles.

“The dog moaned and looked back to the high sand.”

“”It’s okay,” said the man, “you don’t have to come.”

The man had been to the rocks before and had always retreated to the beach but he was determined not to retreat this time. His name was Gabriel Quinn and he wore a leather jacket bearing  a banner on the back that read “Powwow Capital of the World”.  He had a worn photograph in his pocket and he carried an elk skin drum.

He stripped off his clothes and sang, “aiming his voice into the heart of the fog. But the breakers were having no truck with ceremony. They surged over the Apostles and sent him sideways. The drum was soaking now, but it had never sounded better. He had never sounded better. Maybe singing in the fog was like singing in the bathroom. Maybe the acoustics were always better in wet places.”

“Something in the water touched him, grasped his leg for a moment and then was gone. A small fish probably or a piece of debris. Or maybe something larger. Something looking for a meal. He pulled his feet further up the rock and watched the ocean roil below him.

“At first he didn’t see it. Saw only the vague shadows of the running tide. And then there it was. A hand thrust out of the water, then an arm, fragile, a slender branch caught in a flood.”

Who is Quinn? What is he doing out on the Apostles at high tide? Whose hand does he see?

The setting is the Smoke Reserve. The Ocean Motel used to be the center of a thriving tourist industry. Tourists came to see the sea turtles at Samaritan Bay. The people in Gabriel’s photograph used to live on the reserve.

All that has changed now and Gabriel wants to kill himself but we don’t know why. His time on the Apostles which we have witnessed does not result in his death but in a somewhat unique experience which requires considerable reflection. When he returns to the beach after his ordeal he contemplates his singular failure to drown himself. He sees a figure moving towards him along the shore and she turns out to be carrying his shirt.

As she approaches, he warns her: “I’m naked.”

She replied, “sounding neither curious nor concerned, “I can see that.” She told him that she had seen him out on the rocks several times.

“I’m trying to kill myself.”

“You’re not very good at it.”

The rest of the characters are equally interesting and refreshing and the story is a retelling of sorts. As the blurb on the book jacket tells us, it “draws on Christian and Native mythology and on King’s own unmistakable instinct for mischief to give us a cockeyed Garden of Eden for our times.” It is cinematic, amusing and sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious while also being totally serious at the same time.

Some wee samples of reflections in the novel:

“Maybe that was Gabriel’s problem. Maybe he didn’t have a community, didn’t have anyone to anchor him to life. People weren’t single, autonomous entities. They were part of a larger organism.”

“…in the end, whether we was tossed or whether we was the architects of our own ruin, the end’s the same.”

“Do you know the fatal flaw of democracy?”

“People?”

“Democracy offers its enemies the means by which to destroy it.”

And this last one: Home is not necessarily, as Robert Frost said, the place you  go where they have to take you in. “Home wasn’t a place. At best it was a shifting illusion, a fiction you created to mask the fact that, in the end, you were alone in the world.”

Or was it?  This book will leave you thinking about a number of things for a long time and it will come back to you again and again.

 

Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

Facts that might be useful to be aware of or find out about before you read this book:Us Conductors

1. On the title page written below the title is the following:

“IN WHICH I SEEK

the heart of Clara Rockmore,

MY ONE TRUE LOVE,

finest theramin player the world will ever know”;

2. This novel was awarded the 2014 Scotia Bank Giller Prize in 2014;

3. On the page prior to PART ONE and its epigraph, are these words: THIS BOOK IS MOSTLY INVENTIONS;

4. Investigate what a theramin is and perhaps find a site on the internet where you can hear one.

Numbers 1 and 4 above are probably the most important.

The novel opens this way:

“I was Leon Termen before I was Dr. Theremin, and before I was Leon, I was Lev Sergeyvich. The instrument that is now known as a theramin could as easily have been called a leon, a lyova, a sergeyvich. It could have been called a clara, after its greatest player.”

It all began when Lev was fourteen years old and one of his teachers introduced the class to glass cylinders also called vacuum tubes. These came in wooden crates and were “wrapped individually like wine glasses”. One holiday the professor allowed Lev to take a vacuum tube home with him and he experimented while his parents thought he was practising piano and violin. When he returned to school and sent a letter to his professor in which he proposed doing a demonstration at a Family Day which was approaching. He had arranged to have vacuum tubes distributed to the audience of parents and he had strung up fourteen lines of criss-crossing copper wires on the ceiling of the gymnasium. The induction coils had been hidden in a broom closet. The professor instructed the audience to lift their vacuum tubes and they did so one after another.

This was Lev’s reaction: “The feeling I had was the feeling you get as you pass through a gate and into a walled garden. As each vacuum tube entered the electrical field of my lacework of wires, one by one, the Geisslers [vacuum tube] began to glow.

I felt then what I have felt many times since. It is the moment you forget the electricity…and for a hot, proud instant you think it is you who did this, who made the tubes glow, you clever mouse.”

“This is the hubris of the inventor. It is a monster that has devoured many scientists. I have strived to keep it at bay. Even in America, among ten thousand flatterers, I tried to concentrate on my machines, not their maker.”

Lev was born in 1896 (see bio here) and in his student years at Petrograd University invented something he called the radio watchman which was a “magical box” that set up an invisible electro-magnetic field and, if a human body passed inside that field, the circuit would close and an alarm would go off. You might imagine how this invention is applied in our modern world.

Lev worked at the Physico-Technical Institute on the outskirts of Leningrad where a number of chemists, mathematicians and physicists were employed doing research. In the book, Lev describes himself at this time: “I was not like the other physicists. My bicycle was ordinary, with a bell that played middle C.”

It was during his time at the Physico-Technical Institute that he had the idea for the theramin. He describes it as “more or less a combination of its precedents: the soundless watchman, the hissing gas monitor. I was monitoring human movements as if they were the fluctuations of a gas, and adding sound.”

“In November 1921, I was invited to demonstrate the theramin before the institute’s mechanical engineers and physicists, my first formal audience. ”

“I named and indicated the transformer, the oscillator, the unlit vacuum tubes. I closed the cabinet, concealing the components. I cleared my throat. “And so,” I said, and I turned the theramin on.”  See/hear him play it here.

Late in 1927, Lev went to New York and he was met by harpists hired by Rudolph Wurlitzer who wanted to license the theramin on the spot. Wurlitzer envisioned a theramin in every home in America. Lev did not sign the papers Wurlitzer had brought.

He had his debut in the Plaza Hotel’s ballroom and those present included Edsel Ford, Charles S. Guggenheimer and Vincent Astor as well as Sergei V. Rachmaninoff and Arturo Toscanini whom Lev met after the performance of Schubert and Offenbach.

In his studio on West 59th Street, Lev worked on building the commercial potential of the theramin and on prototyping new devices. He gave concerts to large numbers and met with marketing people for companies like RCA and Wurlitzer and he trained students. Among the latter was Clara Rockmore mentioned above. And so begins another chapter in Lev’s life in New York.

The author pulls the reader in effortlessly and the reader is compelled to continue. The glitzy New York world is juxtaposed with the darker Russian world of  Thermin’s early and later life. As a reader, I experienced the entire story almost seamlessly and simply soaked it up one page at a time.

The Giller was well deserved and I recommend the book wholeheartedly.

 

Celia’s Song by Lee Maracle

Celia's SongI read the first chapter of this book three times before I continued into the actual story. It had a very powerful effect upon me although I was at a loss for words to explain what effect that was. I think it had much to do with the very first sentence:

“There is something helpless in being a witness.”

This particular witness is not identified for another three or four pages but that is almost irrelevant as far as it relates to what the witness says or experiences. I think I identified totally with the witness.

“No one comes here anymore, just me. I can’t seem to resist coming to the place where everyone died.  Some kind of illness overtook them, burned them with its heat; the monster illness disfigured them before taking their lives. It’s so quiet. ”

Up to this point, any variety of catastrophe might be being described. Given the state of our planet it doesn’t take a super imagination to empathize with the narrator.

The place actually referred to is the site of the last  longhouse in a particular village and “the bones fret inside the decrepit structure. The people were here one day, then gone. Some small part of me resents their departure nonetheless. …Still, I empathize with the petulance that simmers inside the angry bones. The intensity of their rage grows with time. The bones wait; wait for burial, for ceremony, for their final resting place. They shift and rattle their discontent.

“I breathe deep. There is not much I can do but visit and witness for them.”

The witness tells of a two-headed serpent that used to guard the longhouse and was mounted on the front but is now hanging by a thread because no one has fed or acknowledged him in a very long time.

“The humans broke their contact with the serpent when they stopped feasting and singing for him. This breach granted permission to the serpent to slide from the house front and return to sea, but both heads did not want to leave – just one did, the restless head, the one that preferred shadowland. Current living humans did not seem worried about this breach with the serpent. In any agreement, both parties must hold up their end in a timely manner for the deal to be secure. I guess in these days of cars and electric fires, it may not appear all that rational to restore old practices.”

I felt like the words were addressed to me directly, not in the sense that I was responsible for any of the destruction but, in the sense that I too felt and continue to feel like a witness as I learn more and more about the destruction that is being perpetrated upon this planet and upon its people.

I think about all we have lost and have yet to lose and I understand the “intensity of their rage” and I know why they “shift and rattle their discontent”.

Celia is also a witness. Our narrator thinks: “I need to witness this. There is no one else. The screaming wind, the flying debris, and the pelting rain are too much for me.” Celia hears the narrator. She is watching a severe storm. She hears the narrator say” “This is how it is to die in a war, nothing heroic about it.” Celia knows this to be true.

The narrator repeats: “I am a witness. I am obligated to watch the destruction.”  Don’t many of us feel this far too often these days? I had never quite figured out what it was I felt as I learned more and more about the devastation of our world. Witness is the perfect word to describe what I felt and continue to feel: witnessing is what we do and what we witness is a source of pain and deep disappointment and/or sadness.

Celia thinks she hears the bones in the longhouse talking: “Someone has to pay for the decades of neglect. Someone has to appease our need for respect.” “This is the first time she’s heard bones talk.”

Celia is a seer; the narrator is a shape-shifter who most commonly appears as a mink. Celia’s homeRavensong is in southwestern British Columbia. She has a large family, all of whom this reader enjoyed meeting and recognizing their uniqueness and their simultaneous universality. Many of them appear in Ravensong, Maracle’s 1993 novel, which I have now started to read. I am so glad to have this novel and to learn more about the characters in Celia’s Song. This will expand the world I have been immersed in in Celia’s Song and which I know I will have to return to after I read Ravensong. Opening Ravensong was  rather like finding an old family album that one didn’t know was still around or meeting a person who knew all the people you had met in a town you used to live in but haven’t seen for decades.

In Celia’s Song, the intimacy established by Maracle’s voice is  something I have not come across very often. An interviewer recently stated in Quill & Quire that she was aware of “the response of my  body and my emotions” and of the high degree to which she trusted the author. She also believed, as I did,  that her response had something to do with the opening sentence cited above: “There’s something helpless about being a witness.”

The interviewer (Leanne Simpson) is an indigenous woman and she wrote that she knew the novel was going to take her “to some dark places” and that she would have “to witness what was there and face” herself and “things that happened” in her own life. I am not an indigenous woman but I had the same experience. Maracle said that she “was looking for the everyday language that is so beautiful when we’re talking about difficult subjects.” She says that she “wanted the person reading it to be totally relaxed, so the language is quite soft all the way through. It’s as beautiful as I could make it. It’s as true and honest and deep as it needs to be so we can swim in it and come out with understanding.” In my reading experience, Maracle succeeded in all those things.

For me…probably my top read for 2014.

Also reviewed in 2014: Daughters Are Forever which will probably tie with Celia’s Song for the position of my top read this year!