THREE SOULS by Janie Chang

“We have three souls, or so I’ve been told.Three Souls

But only in death could I confirm this.”

“My first thoughts were confused, for clearly this was the real world. But surely I no longer belonged here. When would I take my journey to the afterlife?”

“My souls spiral down and come to rest on the altar.

We are ready now, says a stern voice, and there is a taste of mustard at the back of my tongue. My yang soul…he resembles my grandfather as I’ve seen him in photographs…

Yes, let’s begin. A new voice tinkles like wind chimes, accompanied by the scent of camellia. The bright ember of my yin soul dances in mid-air, circling the confines of the courtyard. She comes to rest beside the old scholar, a schoolgirl of fifteen with deep brown eyes below wispy bangs, a long pigtail over one shoulder.

Leiyin needs to remember, says a third voice. My hun soul flies down from the beams overhead and I feel my hair being pulled, a light, playful tug. Its image joins the other souls. It manifests as a silhouette of light, shaped like a human, as brilliant as the morning sun and as featureless.  Before she can ascend to the afterlife, she needs to understand the reason for her detention in this world.”

Leiyin’s yang soul goes on to explain more to her: “You could say its the afterdeath. And you’re still here because in life you were responsible for a great wrong.” Leiyin responds by saying that she does not know anything about a great wrong and her yin soul responds” “Relive your memories. Only then will you understand what you must do to ascend to the afterlife.”

Leiyin has serious concerns that her three souls will take her somewhere in her past and then abandon her: “So we will go together? You won’t go now and leave me here?”  Relief.

We are your souls, we’re part of you, my yang soul snaps. We can’t leave until you do. He glares at me through moon-shaped lenses.
Don’t mind yang, says my yin soul, who has finished braiding her hair. He’s not happy unless he’s berating someone.

Where should we begin? my hun soul asks. On the day of the party?”

All three souls agree that that should be the starting point and the hun soul explains that is so because that is the day that Leiyin stepped off the path that had been paved for her.

So begins the long process of recalling and reflecting upon her life in an attempt to discover what the “great wrong” was that she must make amends for before she can enter the after life. Some readers might find this premise too challenging to accept and this would be a shame because it would mean missing out on a beautifully written and incredibly thoughtful story, one set in a very interesting time in Chinese history. It is the time of the conflict between the Nationalists under Sun Yat-sen and the rise of the Communist party with a young Mao Zedong being given a mention at one point.

Song Leiyin lives on an estate, the centre of which is the Old Garden, a “huge private park with a man-made lake at one end large enough to contain an island of reeds and willows, home to families of ducks. Arranged around the Old Garden are  a dozen courtyard houses, each nestled beside its own, smaller garden”. Her father attended university in Paris and built up the estate in the french style when he came home. Leiyin is the Third Young Mistress and is very close to her oldest sister Gaoyin and her second sister Sueyin. Her mother died when she was four. She has two older brothers, Changyin and Tongyin. Her father supports the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and is thinking of moving to Hong Kong and/or Singapore if the Japanese take over China. Leiyin’s second brother Tongyin attended universiy in Shanghai and is according to Leiyin, “the vainest person alive. And he tended to dab on too much cologne.” Tongyin is attending gatherings which include a poet, Yen Hanchin, who has recently been to Russia and who has associations with the Communist party. The latter aspect of Tongyin’s activity is  unknown to his father and the Song family.

Tongyin takes Leiyin who hopes to go to university (her father does not approve of this as a suitable goal for a woman of her class) to a gathering where she meets Han Chen, the poet, and almost immediately is captured by the romance surrounding him as well as by his very attractive person: “Tall with hair just a bit too long. He was in his late twenties, perhaps as old as thirty.  His shabby linen jacket made all the other men, in their tailored suits and silk ties, look merely ornamental. He was lean and lightly tanned. Beneath intense brown eyes his cheekbones were sharp, angled escarpments. He was both beautiful and intoxicatingly masculine. He was a poet. For several moments I couldn’t take my eyes away from him. .” Leiyin compared her reaction to that of Anna to Vronsky in Anna Karenina which she has been reading.

Throughout the process of remembering her life and examining it from the outside, so to speak, Leiyin and her three souls who offer fairly constant commentary on her choices and actions share this journey into her life. The souls become our eyes along with Leiyin’s after-the-facts perspective upon a life. It is a valuable exercise that the reader shares and which cannot help but lead to serious reflection, either while reading or later, upon one’s own life and choices.

One observation made by Leiyin as she studied her role as a wife to Baizhen I thought worth hanging on to was this:

“Only the living can inflict suffering on each other, I’ve learned.”

Another line which is repeated through the novel is the signature line which Hanchin uses at the end of each of his articles in the China Millennium magazine:

“You may lose all that you acquire, but knowledge and wisdom remain yours forever.”

A highly readable, rewarding novel. Janie Chang was born in Taiwan and now lives in Canada.


J.B.MacKinnon’s The Once and Future World


This book is a must read. It can change the way you see the world you live in. It will unsettle you in the first 45 pages and, if it doesn’t, it is describing you! Possibly, you have experienced a long-term pattern of amnesia, something that might be called “change blindness” which arises from a situation known as “shifting baseline syndrome” which means that “with each generation, the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation takes that amount as the norm” and so it completely fails to remember “what the world used to look like.” Here is an example that we can all relate to:

“…Marine biologist Loren McClenachan (in a study carried out in the Gulf of Mexico and adjoiningOnce and Future World Caribbean Sea)…compared big-game fishermen’s photos from the Florida Keys from the 1950s to the modern day. In the old black-and-whites, the biggest fish,strung up on the dock, are as tall and wide as the fishermen themselves, while the rest of the day’s catch – the fish have an average length of nearly 1 metre – is piled up in heaps. By 2007, the catch is dominated by snappers that measure just a little longer than a grade-school ruler; the “small” fish of past years are often larger than the trophy fish of present times. Most striking of all is that the fishermen look equally pleased with themselves through the generations – the same wide smiles, the same backslapping-with-Hemingway pride. Many of today’s fishers responded to McClenachan’s research with flat disbelief.”

“change blindness”: “In the most famous study of its kind, test subjects who were asked to follow the path of a ball being passed among a group of basketball players consistently failed to notice when a person in a gorilla suit danced through the scene. It’s a question of where you direct your attention: keep your eyes on the ball and you’re likely to miss the dancing gorilla. While being guided through a similar demonstration…I (author) failed to notice a slow but steady change to the background of a scene – despite the fact I was aware this was the purpose of the video. In fact, I messed the change three times straight. …suggested that I run the video in fast-forward, which made the change abrupt enough that I finally saw that about one-fifth of the wheat field I was looking at was being slowly reduced to stubble.

Most people do not believe that such experiments would fool them. In reality, change blindness effects even the expert eye….the belief that your own eyes will not fool you is persistent enough that psychologists have given the condition a name too: “change blindness blindness”. (Defined as “the failure to see that we so often fail to see.”)

Here are some interesting pieces of data included in this book:

“The last known passenger pigeon, named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.”

“…the tortoise as a life form has been on earth roughly 200 million years longer than the human model.”

“…as recently as the 1960s some six thousand sharks were being hooked off southwestern England; the same fishery brings in less than 5 percent of that number today.”

“Polar bears were once thought capable of swimming no more than an already impressive 120 kilometres, until a female was recently recorded covering 687 kilometres in an uninterrupted nine-day swim, without sleep, water or food, all while navigating due north using senses that no one yet can explain.”

“…Canada…where nearly a quarter of plant species have arrived in the past five hundred years.”

“Banff National Park…leads the world in underpasses and overpasses designed to allow wildlife to safely cross highways. Grizzly bears at first found them confounding; now they use them nearly every day.”

And some reflections by the author:MacKinnon

“Go to any corner of the planet, and the moment that Homo sapiens first shows up in that place will be roughly the time that many of its largest species begin to fall toward the void of extinction.”

“The crisis in the natural world is one of awareness as much as any other cause. As a global majority has moved into cities, a feedback loop is increasingly clear. In the city, we tend not to pay attention to nature; for most of us, familiarity with corporate logos and celebrity news really is of more practical day-to-day use than a knowledge of local birds and edible wild plants. With nature out of focus, it becomes easier to overlook its decline. Then, as the richness and abundance of other species fade from land and sea, nature as a whole becomes less interesting – making it even less likely we will pay attention  to it.”

“The nature that we live with is a choice. …No one, certainly no single generation, decided our trajectory from a richer to a poorer ecological world. Different arrangements of people have taken more or less from their environment in different places at different times, but as a general pattern each one gave itself limited permission to degrade nature as they knew it, then adapted to live with the consequences. It`s another maxim from historical ecology: we excuse, permit, adapt – and forget. We’ve been adrift as a species, making choices without remembering what our options are.”

“It remains a beautiful world, and it is its beauty, far more than its emptiness, that can inspire us to seek more nature in our lives and in our world.”

I borrowed this book from the local library because I had read The 100-Mile Diet co-authored with Alisa Smith and also Dead Man in Paradise and been strongly affected by both although they are very different from one another. This book is different again and on a subject I find disturbing to the extent that I am seldom  successful finishing such a book. Well, I finished reading this one and intend to purchase my own copy and read it again. It is informative and introduces concepts new to me such as the theories of Clements and Donald Worster  and I.G. Simmons, the work of the Ladder Ranch workshop, rewilding, the science of ecological cascades, the whale-shit hypothesis, and the new epoch called the Anthropocene or Human Age.

Most important the book offers a possible solution but MacKinnon is realistic about what would be required:

“The history of nature tells us we have been a part of a great forgetting, and can now be a part of the reminding. … To live in a wilder world, we’ll have to find a way to weave nature into our identities, until guarding against harms to the natural world is as innate as watching out for ourselves, our families or our communities.”

It’s about your world: check it out.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

This was an exceptional reading experience for me. I had initially read over 100 pages but had to return the book to the library because there were a number of holds on it. I am so glad that I got back on the hold list and eventually got the book again. It had 37 holds on it so I read it right away and I am so glad I did that.

So many innovations in the form. So much risk-taking.So incredibly informative. Compelling.

I have yet to read the appendices (in a novel!) and to follow up all the interviews etc with Ruth Ozeki but those I have seen/read are impressive.A Tale for the Time Being

This is my first book completed in December 2013 and so it bodes well for the rest of the month. I hope there will be at least one book this rewarding in store for me in 2014!

It is the story of Nao (formerly a resident in California but for the duration of the book resident in Japan) and Ruth and Oliver who live in British Columbia. The lives and characters of each of these people and their families are fully developed and this reader felt very close to them i.e. they are drawn with warmth and sensitivity and their good points and their faults are made equally clear.  Ruth is an author, Oliver is an environmentalist in the broadest sense of the word although his specialty is trees and he is involved with planting or trying to plant some ancient species on the island they are living on at present. Nao is a school girl in Japan: she was not raised in Japan but rather in California where her father was employed in the computer programming field and so Nao feels American although ethnically she is Japanese. She is having a difficult time adjusting to school and life in Japan. Her father lost all his money because he had invested his earnings unwisely. He is very preoccupied with his failure and makes several suicide attempts including one in front of a subway train. He is supportive of Nao to a point but actually fails to see what is happening to her.

The two stories intersect when Ruth finds a plastic bag washed up on the shore of their island home and takes it home. In the bag, among other things, they find an Hello Kitty lunchbox and inside there is a diary and a package of letters written in Japanese.  The diary is inside an unusual notebook made by removing the pages of a novel by Proust and substituting blank pages so that it becomes a journal which was sold in a craft shop. The title of Nao’s journal, A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of lost Time), actually becomes a part of Nao’s own search for lost time and a major theme in this novel, one which preoccupies most of its main characters.

To make sure that her readers are not put off by the possibility of spending their time reading a teenager’s diary, Nao sets the record straight early:

“You will only be disappointed and wasting your time, because this book is not going to be some kinky girl’s secret diary, filled with pink fantasies and nasty fetishes. It’s not what you think, since my purpose for writing it before I die is to tell the fascinating life story of my hundred-and-four year-old great-grandmother, who is a Zen Buddhist nun.” (If you are one of those people who comb book jackets for important information before you start reading your books, you will already know that Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest! Ah, ha!)

Nao’s grandmother’s name is Jiko. Jiko is a very cool, tuned in priest. Nao has sent her a text message asking her this question: “How do you search for lost time?”

Jiko’s answer was a while coming back to Nao:

For the time being
Words scatter…
Are they fallen leaves?

Here are Nao’s thought’s upon receiving the above answer from Jiko:

“…when I read old Jiko’s poem, I saw an image in my mind of this big old ginkgo tree on the grounds of her temple. (Footnote: Ginkgo leaves are used in tea to enhance memory. Ginkgo trees were often planted on Buddhist temple grounds to help monks memorize sutras.) And it occurred to me that the big old tree is a time being, and Jiko is a time being too, and I could imagine myself searching for lost time under the tree, sifting through the fallen leaves that are her scattered golden words.”

“The idea of the time being comes from a book called the Shobogenzo that an ancient Zen master named Dogon Zenji wrote about eight hundred years ago…”

Nao explains to us (to the reader of her diary actually) that “The reason I decided to write about her in A la recherche du temps perdu is because she is the only person I know who really understand time.”

Nao has some wise reflective thoughts about blogs (millions f people in their lonely rooms, furiously writing and posting to their lonely little pages that nobody has time to read because they’re all so busy writing and posting) and considers her message in her lunchbox to be “the opposite of a blog. It’s an anti-blog, because its meant only for one special person, and that person is you.”

There are so many subjects in this book that I would end up writing another book if I were to keep on in the style above. So I will have to just list a few things: there is an earthquake, a tsunami, an extended visit to an ancient temple, whales and massive Douglas firs,  a mock funeral of one of the main characters, a ghost, memories of a world war, instructions for zazen(mediation), a memory of the attack on the twin towers and a secret French diary. There is much more,  of course, like this amazing epigraph from Marcel Proust at the beginning of Part III:

“In reality, every reader, while he is reading, is the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument, which he offers to the reader to permit him to discern what, without the book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself. The reader’s recognition in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its truth.” (Le temps retrouve)

The more I think about this quotation the more I believe that it describes the experience of this book perfectly! I highly recommend that you try it and see if you agree.


Arguments with the Lake/Poetry by Tanis Rideout

The AUTHOR’S NOTE on page 1 of this collection is a very succinct explanation of what she wanted to accomplish and so I repeat it here:

“Marilyn Bell and Shirley Campbell were teenage swimmers, competing along the shores of Lake Ontario in the 1950s. In 1954, at age sixteen, Marilyn became the first person to swim across Lake Ontario, beating out champion American swimmer Florence Chadwick.  In 1955 and ’56 Shirley attempted the lake crossing twice, but failed each time. Marilyn went on to swim the English Channel and the Strait of Juan de  Fuca, then retired, married, and became a schoolteacher. Shirley lost her initial glory and for all intents and purposes disappeared from view.

These poems explore an imagined relationship between two girls, two women, and Lake Ontario. They are entirely the imagination of the author.”

Marilyn Bell returned to Toronto and the CNE in 2004 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her swim. She is in her mid seventies now and apparently enjoys the water but is dealing with a painful back condition that prevents her from swimming.

Shirley Campbell was nicknamed the Fergus Flash when she began racing but her life did not go as well in her later years. In 1953 she won $1650 and a trophy for Long Distance Swimming from the Egyptian Federation. When the Sports Hall of Fame on the CNE grounds closed, the statue went missing and in that period it was broken and the base was separated from the top. Campbell was reunited with the top part of her trophy 59 years after she won it.

I listened to Marilyn Bell’s crossing of the lake in 1954 on the radio and although I no longer remember the details I do remember how intensely we were focused on each new report from her coach, I think his name was Gus Ryder.

Here’s one of the poems titled The Fear of Silence:

A schoolyard dare. Patriotic indignation. A visit to The Star.
An American shouldn’t be the only one to challenge the lake.
Marilyn asked permission. Politesse and a smile.

The shoreline changes more than its citizens. The city
has leeched into the lake. Front Street really was the front.Arguments with the Lake
Fishermen docked at the market’s doors. It is as though
we want to live in that water – press into it, fill it up,
like empty hours filled now with digital detritus

and the fear of silence. Flo gave up before dawn, puking
in the white noise of tossing lake. While we creep ever closer.

And here’s another one about the lake itself titled The Pressure:

At thirty-three-feet the lake is the weight of another
atmosphere bearing down. On the beach a column
the depth of my body weighs two point two tonnes.
Stare at the shore. Point past horizon.

Maybe this is the weight of water after all? More than
metaphor, or a way to find the level. On Saturn’s moon,
another Lake Ontario shores up against a frozen world,
cradled by its own tides. I’m hovering there. Just
a little heavier than here on earth.

Here’s the Jury’s Citation for the CBC Literary Award which is on the back cover:

“Aguments with the Lake is a coming-of-age poetic odyssey told in mythic and sensuous language.  In these verses the poet engages the element of water to discover the many meanings of (her) life. McEwanesque in scope, Arguments with the Lake invokes in the reader a sense of timelessness and breathless wonder.”

Buffalo Jump by Howard Shrier

The Toronto setting is/was a very appealing character in this novel for me and I will give some examples of this but here is some background to the story first. Jonah Geller is a Toronto investigator working for Beacon Security. He was working undercover as a security guard for Ensign Tobacco and was shot in the shoulder because he “blew the case by making mistake a raw beginner shouldn’t have made.” As a result. two organized crime enforcers walked out of court. An OPP officer was a paraplegic and Jonah’s girlfriend dumped him. Then, to top things off, it turns out that one of the enforcers wants Jonah dead and the other, Dante Ryan, wants Jonah to help him stop an assassination of a pharmacist, his wife and young son. And this pretty much all happens before the novel gets seriously underway! During the development of the latter stories many interesting, colourful characters are introduced and a large number of specific geographical locations are a part of the setting in both Toronto and Buffalo. Here are some of the appearances that the setting makes as the story progresses:

page 35: “Heading home on an eastbound streetcar, crossing back over the Don Valley, I saw the ornate inscription on the west side of the bridge glinting in the sun : “This river I step in is not the river I stand in.” White plastic shopping bags floated on the surface of the Don River. Pop cans and milk jugs bobbed alongside them. Near the west bank a rusting shopping cart lay half-submerged. What you couldn’t see – the chlorine and other spilled toxins – was even worse. A truer inscription would have been, “This river I step in will give me a wicked rash.”‘

page 47: “The man’s name was Jay Silver, Ryan told me, a pharmacist who owned a large outle called Med-E-Mart on Laird Street just south of Eglinton. He lived in Forest Hill, where even the most humble abodes cost at least a million dollars.”

page 71: “I was parked outside the Silvers’ home on Richview Avenue, which ran paallel to Bathurst where it crossed the Glencedar Ravine. Richview wasn’t quite the heart of Forest Hill, with its mansions and gated lots, but the homes were large, verging on stately, mostly in neo-traditional styles.”

page 109: “Danforth Avenue, known simply as the Danforth, is Riverdale’s main drag, a continuation of Bloor Street that begins on the east side of the Don Valley. Thirty years ago, Riverdale was a relatively quiet neighbourhood centred on Greektown and its many expensive restaurants, cheese shops and grocers and the odd dingy bar like the Black Swan. Then people started getting crowded out of downtown neighbourhoods like the Annex by high rents and discovered Riverdale homes were similar in style an size, the streets just as leafy, and it was only three subway stops from the geographic centre of town at Yonge and Bloor. Today rents and mortgages in Riverdale are as high as in the Annex and other central neighbourhoods.”

page 110: “The only busy place was the ice cream shop in Carrot Common, where families gathered on benches in a shaded courtyard, licking cones and ducking wasps drawn by the smell of the sweets.”

And this is my favourite reference of all of them because, although it was published in 2008 it remains excruciatingly true in 2013:

page 144: “I dawdled over a second cup of coffee (in a diner on the corner of Broadview and Danforth)…The Blue Jays had lost in Kansas City – Kansas City! – when one of their serial arsonists trotted in from the bullpen, blew a couple of sharp bubbles with his gum, then laid a fat pitch in over the plate that was last seen heading over the fountain in centre field.”

This last section of dialogue is a long one but I am including it because it gives a strong sense of  Jonah and Dante Ryan’s relationship and because it explains the title to those unfamiliar with the phrase:

“We’d get a lane number (they are crossing the Canadian-American border at Fort Erie) from Looch, load up our goods and head out on a Buffalo jump.”

“A which?”

“What we called these runs of our. Come on, we were kids. We had our own code words like everyone else. With us a smuggling trip was a Buffalo jump.”Buffalo Jump (Small) (Medium)

“It means something else out west,” I said. (Jonah speaking)

“Out west where?”

“Alberta. It was a kill site for Indians.”

“Hey, my kind of topic. What kind of kill site?”

“They harvested buffalo by running them over a cliff.”

“No shit.”

“This was before horses came to the New World. The Plains Indians hunted on foot with spears.”

“Not too productive.”

“No. So they came up with a system for mass killing.”

“The human spirit,” Ryan said. “You just can’t keep it down.”

“They’d fence off runways that led from the grazing area to the cliffs. Then one would imitate a buffalo calf crying in distress. The lead buffalo would move toward the sound and the herd, being a herd, would follow. Then a few guys with capes and blankets would run up behind and start a stampede down these fenced-off lanes. The leader couldn’t see what was in front of him until he roared off the cliff ad dropped thirty-feet onto solid rock. The whole herd would come crashing down behind him. Any that survived were finished with spears.”

“And they called it Buffalo Jump? asked Ryan.

This a great read with a distinctly Canadian flavour. I am interested in trying more of Shrier’s work to see if I find the settings as appealing. His other titles include Boston Cream, Miss Montreal and High Chicago.