I am Seaweed

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As I read more of the books from my 50 Book Challenge, I find I am responding to them personally instead of intellectually. By which I mean, my reading feels like listening, like someone is telling me their story and I am there not to judge but just to listen.

I certainly felt that way as I read Arnold’s story in Road to the Stilt House by David Adams Richards. This is the first of seven of his novels I will be reading as part of my 50 Book Challenge (and Richards’ fourth novel overall) and, as I’ve read his books, I’ve developed the suspicion that I am one of the people he is chastising for their good intentions. I’ve read and not really understood why his characters make the decisions, poor decisions in my mind, they do. I’ve enjoyed the stories he tells, the craft of his writing, but the characters have been largely unlikeable. I have, as Richards has accused his critics, mistaken nice for good.

But, with Road to the Stilt House, I felt like I was starting to understand Richards’ point.

20160125_120015Stilt House tells the story of Arnold and his family. They are extremely poor. They fight. Randy, his younger brother, has just returned from being placed in foster care. His mother is ill. Her boyfriend and his mother poke and prod for sport. They are unlikeable and difficult and yet to pass judgement on them would only feed the source of their struggle.

The novel is one of Richards darkest but I found it made his point more clearly, largely due to the shifting narrative viewpoints from first and third person: being able to see inside Arnold’s head opens up a lot of understanding not because things are spelled out for the reader but because his feelings behind his actions are more evident.

Also, the personal toll of Arnold’s life – events outside of his control, illness, and universal sorrows – help retain empathy for him when he spits harsh words and lashes out at those around him. And they are not excuses for his behaviour; they are the roots of understanding him. His depression, ignored by those meant to help his family and used as a weapon by those within his family, holds him in place.

One scene in particular stands out. Throughout the book, Arnold deals with bad teeth. They are rotting and falling out. They have cut his mouth and his gums bleed. Finally, he works up the courage to ask the social worker assigned to his family to help him get his teeth fixed. She is embarrassed and asked why he didn’t go to the dentist years ago. I felt such rage toward her for asking that question. To punish him instead of helping. She waves it off by saying they cut back on teeth and he makes light of the problem but he is deeply hurt by the exchange:

And now Seaweed too. Even Seaweed was asking her favours!
He went upstairs. He sat down on his bed and put his head in his hands. His chest shook and shuddered.

He refers to himself in the third person by his nickname, which only highlights his perception of worthlessness, as a thing instead of a person, and hates himself for asking her to do her job. This woman is meant to help him and instead she increases his shame, his sense of powerlessness, his sense of being stuck. That kind of systemic failing is what I believe Richards’ is trying to impart. The problem isn’t Arnold, it is those who would judge him for something over which he has no control, including the reader.

While Arnold does eventually get new teeth, this, of course, does not repair all the damage in his life. It is a cosmetic fix that does nothing alter the circumstances that led him to need them in the first place.

By the end of the novel, Arnold loses control over his life and, in fact, loses his life. His loss of control is reflected in the novel’s structure as his cousin finishes telling Arnold’s story for the last 28 pages.

I can only hope that Richards, as he frequently does in his novels, picks up Arnold’s tale and fills in the how and why of the end of his life. To be left as he was at the end of Road to the Stilt House is an unfair conclusion to his life. But perhaps that is also point. That the structures in place that contributed to his end are the same that will brush his life and death aside as inevitable. That we shouldn’t care or look too closely at Arnold’s death.

After all, it was just Seaweed.

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And now a word from DAR

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I’m working on my post for David Adams Richards’ Road to the Stilt House and came across an interview with him from 1990. At this time, he had five novels published, the last being the Governor General’s Award winning Nights Below Station Street, and was soon to release Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace.

Well worth the read even if you aren’t familiar with Richards’ work as he discusses the book trade in Canada, a writer’s relationship with academia and critics, and the lives of his characters.

The interview is conducted by Kathleen Scherf for the journal Studies in Canadian Literature. Here is a little quote to pique your interest:

KS Speaking of shaping Canadian literature, what about the debate over government funding of the arts: does it encourage mediocrity, or provide for excellence? Is it possible to be a writer in Canada and to make a living without government funding?

DAR No. If no one got funding, then there might be two writers in Canada: Margaret Atwood and Pierre Berton. And as respected as these people are, I’d still like to see some others write, so government funding is necessary. And sure there’s going to be grants given at the wrong times perhaps for the wrong reasons to the wrong people, but there are going to be grants given to other people who certainly can use them and who will write fine work.

KS Some people make money by writing for film and television.

DAR Yah, well, I wrote a film script, but when it was finally produced it wasn’t very much like the film script I wrote, so I won’t even talk about it, but I did a CBC script for Nights Below Station Street.

KS Is there an art to writing television?

DAR Well, it’s the art of getting along with people because it’s so communal, and I’ve never been able to do that.

The link is below. Hope you enjoy!

Interview with David Adams Richards

Putting the Awe Back in Awesome

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Like a lot of great books I’ve read, I first encountered Pär Lagerkvist’s The Sibyl as part of an English course, in this case a second-year course on myth and symbol. As a young woman from a small, Christian community in a staid, mid-sized city, this course and this book started opening a lot discussion for me about faith, God, and religious experiences. I’ve read it two or three times before, but I reread it for my 50 Book Challenge because the characters’ encounters with god feel so unlike anything I’ve understood or experienced but, as the sibyl remarks, “I think I recognize that god.”

The Sibyl tells the story of two people: first, the story of a man who is cursed by Jesus for preventing him from resting against his house while carrying the cross to Golgotha, commonly known as the Wandering Jew; and second, the main arc of the novel, the story of the former oracle of Delphi, now living a disgraced and outcast life in the hills outside of the city.

Screenshot 2016-01-15 13.38.25My reading of this book then and now isn’t about good or bad. Reading this story is about taking part in something larger than yourself, something not completely understandable, something just meant to be experienced, incomprehensible, greater-than, awesome – in its truest meaning.

Awesome is not just the easy descriptor given to everything from that burger you had for lunch to the new Star Wars movie. Awesome means to inspire awe. It is means, if I may reference the OED, immediate and active fear, dread or terror.

Perhaps this is not the first way most Christians want to think of God, but throughout this past Christmas season, as I read the story of Christ’s birth to my children and attended church services from different denominations, fear was brought up a lot, though rarely honed in on.

The children’s Bible that my family reads pulls together in one Christmas story: the angel’s visit to Mary to tell her of God’s plan, Joseph’s doubts about their marriage and the subsequent dream of an angelic visit, as well as the traditional stable, shepherds with angel chorus, wise men and baby Jesus. Three times we read that the angels said, “Do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid. I mean beyond the startling experience of seeing an angel, commonly depicted as a glowing, floating figure that only Fox Mulder could believe in, why would meeting an angel be frightening? But three times we read do not be afraid. And this is a creature only next to God. Not God, but a servant of God. If an angel can inspire fear, how much more so could an encounter with God?

Which brings me back to The Sibyl. The man has come to ask the sibyl what his future holds now that he has been condemned to wander for eternity and to find no rest. Her response is her own life story: her childhood; her experience with god as the temple’s pythia; her great love of a neighbour, his death, and her pregnancy and resulting violent expulsion from the city. As they discuss their stories, the sibyl keeps coming back to the idea that an encounter with god is not simple experience.

He is not as we are and we can never understand him. He is incomprehensible, inscrutable. He is god. And so far as I comprehend it he is both evil and good, both light and darkness, both meaningless and full of a meaning which we can never perceive, yet never cease to puzzle over. A riddle which is intended not to be solved but to exist. To exist for us always. To trouble us always.

Her life, tied so closely to the experience of god, was lived in opposites. Life in the temple lifted her up but held her separate. She experienced ecstasy and terror by god’s hand. As a result, she does not deny that she hates god for the destruction in her life but also says she owes god her every happiness. The space created in this story to both doubt and believe, to feel anger and peace, to be part of and separate from God continues to fascinate me. The awe of encountering something incomprehensible, to be touched by God, bound up in him, has a certain pleasure that is irrationally appealing, as the pythia’s story reveals.

In the end, the man leaves her side believing the answer he is seeking may only be found in his endless wandering. The answer cannot be spoken but only lived.

I read and reread books like The Sybil to find more clues to the riddle that is God, to find the edges of my own understanding and belief. I accept that I will not find an answer to my questions or doubts, not for myself or for any others who come and question faith and the existence of God, but in reading and questioning and discussing, I live and search in hope of a truly awesome encounter with the incomprehensible I AM.

Writing > Reading

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For the past few days, I’ve put down the book from my 50 Book Challenge to take up a different kind of challenge – writing a short story. I was spurred on by a deadline from Writer’s Digest magazine of January 15. Every year they have the same contest. I’ve even written for it in the past (with no success) but shelved the idea for the past few years. In fact, this year, I let one, then two, opportunities to submit a piece pass me by. But when a third extension was announced, the best thing ever happened. A story idea popped into my head. A complete story. A story I knew I could write well. A good story.

So once New Year’s Eve past and a round of sickness left my house, I sat down and put that story to paper. Even with the beginning, middle and end all in my head, it was a lot of work to get down what I saw in there. I needed silence. I need coffee. I need to block Facebook and Twitter and the whole World Wide Web. I need to read it back out loud over and over again.

And tonight, I did it. I wrote the final word. You want to know how it felt? Do you remember that classic cinematic gem Romancing the Stone staring Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas? The movie begins with a voice over by Turner, who plays a romance novelist named Joan Wilder, reading the final sentences of her latest book. As she types the last words, the camera cuts to her face, covered in tears, and she says “God, that’s good.”

 

You see her face? That was me but with more fist pumping. Yeah, that’s good!

 

But, now I’ve got to tell you, after all the work I put in to write just 1,500 words, I’m ready to kick back with a good book. And that’s what I’m going to do tomorrow because on Wednesday I’ll be editing and fine-tuning so that I can send this story, my story, for consideration.

Wish me luck!

BJL

A prayer for a good book

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Hurrah!

The first week of my 50 Book Challenge and I finished the book! Is that too many exclamation points to kick off a post? I don’t care because I’m off to a good start with this challenge and I’m feeling pretty excited!

Seriously, every time I have a dry spell in finding a good book, I need to remember that I can always turn to Sarah Dunant. With reading Sacred Hearts I’ve finished all of her historical fiction, so I’ll have to try her earlier work, which is in the thriller genre, unless the follow up to Blood & Beauty comes out (fingers-crossed).

For now, I just enjoyed devouring Sacred Hearts. Published in 2009, Sacred Hearts was shortlisted for the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction. The story takes place in the convent of Santa Caterina in 1570 in the city of Ferrara. Serafina, a novice, is entered into the convent against her will and is placed in the care of Suora Zuana, the dispensary mistress. While Caterina and Zuana bond as they work side by side in the dispensary, the head of the convent, Madonna Chiara, manoeuvres to fix the novice’s place in the convent while maintaining peace within its walls. Through all this, Serafina is used as a conduit through which convent struggles to find a balance between the warring forces of the counter-reformation and a more well-rounded experience within the strictures of convent life.

Screenshot 2016-01-02 22.43.06At two moments in the book, I really wasn’t sure how the story would unfold and could see the plot spinning off in totally different directions. This is one of Dunant’s great skills – presenting the possible outcomes before pushing the chips in one decisive direction. The first break takes place as Serafina carries out a plan of escape from the convent and is confronted by Zuana. The second is as Suora Umiliana, the sister in charge of the novices, makes moves to unseat Madonna Chiara and change the lives of all who dwell in the convent. The way Dunant is able to unfold both these plot lines feels unforced and true to the world she has created. All at once, you believe the contradictory thoughts that everything is both an inevitable progression as well as the consequence of random decisions and moments.

Dunant’s other great strength is her ability to weave historical detail into the story in a way that doesn’t just provide context but also enhances the characters’ personalities and moves the plot forward. The opening chapter sets the stage and players so clearly, you feel completely immersed in their world very quickly, mostly due to her eye for detail for the lives of the women whose story she is telling. On another day, I’ll do a close read of the opening scene and try to highlight the layers of history and character that Dunant uses to set the scene and lead in the reader.

Having finished this book makes me regret that I only put in one book from each author (excluding David Adams Richards) for my 50 Book Challenge. I count Dunant in my top five favourite authors and I’m really glad that I started this challenge off with such a strong book. I hope it bodes well for the rest of my choices.

One down, 49 to go!

BJL

A Journey of 50 Books

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Happy New Year!

I hope everyone got in some good reading time over the Christmas holidays. Sneaking in some time for a few pages of a good book is how I de-stress in the midst of multiple big holiday gatherings.

Finding more time to read is one of my goals for 2016 and to that end I am I taking part in a 50 Book Challenge. I spent some of my December putting together a list.

I have already organized which books I will read in each month (though not in any particular order) so that could build in reading breaks between heavy subjects or longer reads and will be able to prepare for what is coming up. Also, I primarily use the library to get books and, as good as the Toronto Public Library is at having a lot of copies of in-demand books, I didn’t want to have to worry about my holds coming in on time, so I don’t have any new fiction coming out in 2016 on my list.

With so many great books from so many lists and recommendations I had to narrow my choices. Here are some of the deciding considerations I used to make my list of 50 books.

A lot of my choices came in groups of six to help get me going without overwhelming me if I didn’t take to any particular group.

  • David Adams Richards: I love his writing and want to get through more of his work but the stories are not easy reads in content or style so I wanted to space them out every other month.
  • Non-fiction: I am challenging myself to read more non-fiction since I so rarely pick any up
  • Young adult: To balance out the non-fiction, I found six interesting young adult books to read. I don’t really read YA, but so much great work is coming out of this group that I didn’t want keep missing out.
  • Canadian: Even with Richards on my list, I added six additional Canadian writers to bring my country home
  • TBR: I have books on my shelf that I have never read, so six of them got added for this challenge

The rest are all a mix of books I found just in looking for this list, rereads of old favourites, and recommendations from one friend or online list or another. I’m really looking forward to tackling this project and sharing all my reads with you.

Let me know what you think of my list, if there are any books you loved (or hated) on there, and if you’re taking part in any reading challenges this year.

Happy reading!

50 Book Challenge Sword in the Stone

Sword in the Stone

50 Book Challenge 2016

January

Road to the Stilt House by David Adams Richards

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

The Sibyl by Par Lagervist

Getting Things Done by David Allen

 

February

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

 

March

Nights Below Station St. by David Adams Richards

Looking for Alaska by John Greene

An Orange From Portugal Editor Anne Simpson

The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu

The Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel

 

April

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

The Feast of Roses by Indu Sundarsan

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

The Devil You Know by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

 

May

Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace by David Adams Richards

The Last Great Dance on Earth by Sandra Gulland

Cosmopolis by Don Delillo

The Hours Count by Jillian Canter

 

June

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

After Alice by Gregory Maguire

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell

Scary Close by Donald Miller

 

July

For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down by David Adams Richards

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

All the Rage by Courtney Summers

Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg

 

August

60 by Ian Brown

The Imperialist by Sarah Jeanette Duncan

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Artic Summer by Damon Galgut

 

September

Hope in the Desperate Hour by David Adams Richards

Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

This Can’t be Happening at MacDonald High by Gordon Korman

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

 

October

An Inconvenient Indian by Tom King

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

 

November

The Bay of Love & Sorrows by David Adams Richards

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

What We All Long For by Dionne Brand

 

December

Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards

Outline by Rachel Cusk

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

All I Need is Love by Klaus Kinski

2015 in review

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I’m looking back as I’m preparing for 2016, so here is the 2015 annual report for re: read pages as prepared by WordPress.com. Thanks for visiting, and I look forward to reading and writing with you more in the coming year!

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 800 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 13 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.