Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Res Telluris RIP









Last year Res Telluris, the publisher of my novel Yellowknife, closed up shop and shut down its webpage. However, copies can still be purchased (from me) by clicking on the Paypal button to the right. You do not need to have a Paypal account -- you can use your credit card instead.

The cost is $20 Canadian and includes shipping. Trade paperback, 287 pages.

Or you can obtain a PDF copy of the book at no charge by emailing me at

Below are some comments from bloggers that appeared on the Res Telluris website:

Bella's Bookshelves
"...kept me up reading long past my bedtime."

Pickle Me This           
"The real joy in this novel, however, lies in the sharp, acerbic writing."    

Book Zombie 
"...no matter how great the characters and storyline are, the truly outstanding aspect of Yellowknife is the writing."

Brown Paper     
"At its most accessible, the novel is a hilarious satire, silly and absurd, but signs are scattered throughout the text indicating something deep down and more profound..."

evening all afternoon       
"One of the things I loved about it is the way in which Zipp conjures a bizarre, surreal atmosphere with (usually) straying across the line into magical realism."    

Bookchase
"Yellowknife, much like the early novels of John Irving, is not the kind of book that a reviewer can ruin for its readers by revealing a key spoiler or two. There is just too much going on, too many stories being told as the characters come and go, interacting with each other and recombining in ways that are sometimes simultaneously surreal and brutally realistic."

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Orwell Remembered

Orwell would have hated this book.

He requested that no biography of him be written, but he was too important a figure for that wish to be respected. This book, however, is not a biography as such, but a collection of reminiscences by people who knew him, and as such is more about the man than his works.

There are 52 selections organized chronologically as they apply to Orwell, with the first being a few diary jottings by his mother when he was a baby, and the last being obituaries written by two prominent friends.

The pieces vary in length, none of them longer than 14 pages. Many of them are drawn from transcripts of BBC programs, in particular a three-part special, Orwell Remembered, televised in 1984. Other sources are letters, interviews, and excerpts from the autobiographical musings of others.

Among the many luminaries who counted Orwell as a friend and whose words appear here are Alfred Ayer, Cyril Connolly, William Empson, Arthur Koestler, Malcolm Muggeridge, V.S. Pritchett, Richard Rees, Steven Runciman, Julian Symons, and George Woodcock.

However, many other selections come from relative unknowns, and include childhood playmates and school friends, Orwell's sister, his brother-in-law, his niece, a former girlfriend, co-workers, other adult acquaintances, and so on. In the introduction one of the editors, Bernard Crick, says: "I found that the evidence of ordinary respondents, by which I mean those people who were not professional writers, was often the more rewarding..."

Reading the many views expressed in the book give it a much more intimate feel than a typical biography, especially when some are less than complimentary. It is also worth noting that they do not always agree among themselves. Stephen Spender said that Orwell "disliked for instance the poetry of T.S. Eliot very much," while Canadian poet Paul Potts wrote that he "loved Eliot's poems, hoped their author thought well of him."

Dickens

One of the obituaries reprinted in the book was written by V.S. Pritchett. In it he states that Orwell "wrote the best appreciation of Dickens in our time." This seems to me a remarkable accomplishment for a person who was not a traditional academic, and got me thinking about the connection between the two men.

Orwell shared with Dickens a childhood experience that was never fully exorcised. Dickens's well-known shame over his father's incarceration in debtors prison and his own miserable time in a blacking factory have parallels in Orwell's sensitivity about his own family's lack of social status as well as his hatred of an "expensive and snobbish" boarding school he began attending at the tender age of eight.

With his family unable to afford full school fees, his attendance was made possible only by virtue of a scholarship, a fact he was often reminded of. The rich boys were favoured, the headmaster and his wife cruel, the education substandard, and so on. It was exactly the kind of school that he read about in Thackeray.

Orwell denounced his experiences there in "Such, Such Were the Joys," and although he claimed the school was not "a sort of Dotheboys hall," he gave enough examples to make the article Dickensian in content if not in style. "The scholarship boys," he writes, "were crammed with learning as cynically as a goose is crammed for Christmas."

There has been much discussion about Orwell's account, which was published posthumously, but questions about its accuracy seem beside the point. He nursed his hatred of the place for the rest of his life.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Daydreams of Angels

Twenty stories with a focus on mistreated children, particularly girls, but made palatable by the use of whimsy, fantasy, striking images, and unexpected developments.

Many of the stories are set in the past, as though it's a more suitable location for odd goings-on. In Messages in Bottles a pair of twins survive the sinking of an ocean liner in 1913 by floating away on their mother's cello. "This cello made such a mournful noise as it rode over the waves that a whale fell in love with it."

A fairy tale element underpins several of the stories. In Bartok for Children, a Canadian soldier is killed in occupied France, but brought back to life by a lonely toymaker who longs for a son. The ungrateful soldier seduces a woman by telling her whatever she wants to hear. With each lie, it is not his nose that grows longer.

In The Wolf-Boy of Northern Quebec Pierre-Loup tours with another feral child, George LeCurieu, and meets a girl in a red coat.  “Why, that girl's so cute, I could eat her up.”

Sex is another major ingredient and several of the characters are prostitutes, yet there's nothing graphic or lurid. In Where Babies Come From the infants appear magically, washing ashore. “You would see their little bottoms peeking up from out of the sand, and if you dug them up quickly, they would be yours to keep.”

The title characters of The Gypsy and the Bear are left stranded in a story a little boy is telling his tin soldiers. He is called away to lunch and they end up in a brothel.

Dreamlife of Toasters, in which two robots have sex and produce an unwanted child, reminded me of the skewed fables of Stanislaw Lem.  Other stories with science-fiction premises are Swan Lake for Beginners in which a Russian scientist creates batch after batch of Nureyev clones, and The Isles of Dr. Moreau where Grandfather dates a deer-girl, a lion-girl, a swan-girl, and a monkey-girl. 

Another aspect I liked is the way some stories take surprising changes in direction. In Daydreams of Angels, there is a shortage of senior angels because they've been sent by God to a beach in Normandy. Consequently a cherub is assigned to a girl named Yvette in Montreal. After they sneak into her room at home, the story switches to her father as he lands on the beach in Normandy.

In The Man Without a Heart a black heroin addict steals from a single mother. When he gets out of rehab, he returns in order to pursue a relationship with her ten-year-old son. The story defies the reader's expectations.

One of the best features of the stories are the marvellous images. “We cover our ice cream in maraschino cherries. It's like clowns were caught in an avalanche and all you can see of them is their noses.” From the same story -- The Conference of the Birds, which features an unruly welfare family with quadruplets named Jay, Robin, Sparrow, and Turtledove -- comes the following marvellous bit:


     Are you who you are when you are a teeny fetus? There are some people who will say that you aren't properly you yet. But of course you are.
     You are you even long before that. You are you when your parents begin to get dressed in fancy clothes on Saturday night. You are you when your mother, who is barely twenty-one years old, puts on a pair of yellow lace underwear. When she plucks her eyebrows in the mirror and when she puts on a red dress that is cut really low and burgundy lipstick: that's all about you, baby.
     You are you when your father, who is also twenty-one years old, pops a pimple on his forehead. When he puts on his fancy shiny shirt that was made by children in a sweatshop in Indonesia. When he isn't sure that he actually looks good—but he has been lucky twice before when wearing it.
     They are both riding the subway in opposite directions to meet each other and you have already begun. That is your beginning. You have just as much right to be as anybody.


My favourite from this collection, "Daydreams of Toasters," I'm adding to a short list of stories that fall under the category of SF/fantasy/magic realism, and that have stayed with me long after being read. The others are:

"The Garden of Time" by J.G. Ballard
"Descending" by Thomas Disch
"Buffalo Gals" by Ursula le Guin
"The Heat Death of the Universe" by Pamela Zoline

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Men Who Lost America

British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire

This book is so readable, the subject so fascinating, that not a single page escaped my highlighting pen.

The basic thesis is that the British did not lose the American Revolutionary War through ineptitude.

 "The perception of the British leadership as incompetent has disguised the extent to which the outcome of the war was in doubt until the very end. It diminishes the achievements of American generals like George Washington and Nathanael Greene, who won against enormous odds and able opponents..."  

Yet the author also maintains that from the start the war unwinnable for the British. First of all they were misled by the belief that there was a significant amount of Loyalist support in America.

Secondly (and perhaps most surprisingly) they did not have naval superiority. This was due to a period of peace in Europe, during which Britain's traditional enemies, France and Spain, were not distracted by conflicts at home. Britain meanwhile had to protect its interests abroad, of which its American colonies were only one, and at the same time be ready to fend off a threatened invasion from France. "Britain was more isolated than at any other time in its history, even more than in 1940."
         
Each of the nine chapters focuses on a major British figure in the war. What follows are a few factoids skimmed from the book.

1. George III

He reigned in tumultuous times -- not just the American Revolution but also the French Revolution, the Gordon Riots, the Spithead and Nore mutinies, and a portion of the Napoleonic Wars. Though "the driving force" behind the war in America, he was not the tyrant portrayed by colonial America, having "less power than virtually any other monarch in Europe." He was frugal, devout, accomplished, hard-working, devoted to his wife, mixed easily with his subjects, and calmly survived survived several assassination attempts. Thirty thousand people attended his funeral. Yet today he is best remembered for losing America and for going mad.

2. Lord North

North was prime minister at a time when this office was not official. In an age of great orators (Burke, Fox, Sheridan, the younger Pitt), he was one of the most skilful, able to speak for hours at a time without notes. He was particularly esteemed for his wit, and even enjoyed the barbs of his opponents. However, the job was so demanding that he pleaded with the king numerous times to resign. Eventually he went blind and had to be led to his seat by his son for his final appearance in the House of Commons.

 "It was a testimony to North's abilities that Britain remained solvent while France was bankrupted by its participation in the American War of Independence." 

3. Admiral Howe & General Howe

The Howe brothers were "famously taciturn" and known for their "almost reckless courage." Together they orchestrated the capture of Philadelphia, which put to flight the Continental Congress. It was a short-lived victory, for General Howe was ordered to abandon the city and criticized for the proceeding with the attack instead of supporting General Burgoyne's southward thrust from Canada. Both Howes resigned and "became an embarrassment to the government."

4. General Burgoyne

Vain and exceedingly ambitious, he was "a popular subject of parody in contemporary satires and lampoons." Despite initial successes, the army he led south from Canada finally met with defeat at Saratoga. He blamed others for the loss, and "together with the Howe brothers he aimed to obtain a court martial or parliamentary inquiry to clear his name." He wrote several successful plays but died "virtually insolvent."

5. Lord George Germain

The minister responsible for the war had previously been declared "unfit to serve his Majesty in any military capacity whatever" by a court martial following his role in the Battle of Minden in Europe. It was a humiliation that dogged him for the rest of his life.

6. Sir Henry Clinton

He replaced General Howe as commander-in-chief of the British army, but had at his disposal "fewer troops than his predecessor and a third of the naval support," which made him pessimistic of success. Although reduced to a mainly defensive stance, he won a spectacular victory at Charleston. Fearing he would be scape-goated for losing America, he repeatedly asked to resign, but ironically failed to do so when given the opportunity.

7. Lord Cornwallis

Unlike Clinton, to whom he was second-in-command, Cornwallis had the approval of the king due to his aristocratic upbringing and his boldness on the field of battle. His forces captured Daniel Boone and occupied Monticello, which later resulted in Governor Thomas Jefferson being accused of cowardice. Despite having "won every major battle that he had commanded in the south," he was trapped in Yorktown, where French and American guns pounded his army into submission while the French fleet blocked its escape. Despite losing the final battle of the war, Cornwallis returned to England a hero.

8. Sir George Rodney

Before the war, he had fled England to escape imprisonment for debt. He was "notorious for being unscrupulous in financial matters" and when charged with the defence of British colonies in the Caribbean, he captured and plundered the Dutch trading centre of St. Eustatius. Preoccupied with his loot, he failed to send timely intelligence to Clinton about the arrival of the French fleet, and then sailed for England to answer criticism of his actions. However, due to a later victory, he emerged as "one of the few British heroes of the Revolutionary War."

9. The Earl of Sandwich

This chapter gives a fascinating look at the state of British naval affairs. John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, was the first lord of the Admiralty, and despite leading a "lurid personal life" he worked tirelessly to build up and refurbish the overstretched British navy. Nevertheless he was so unpopular that "during the Gordon Riots in London in the summer of 1780, he was dragged out of his carriage and had his face cut before being saved by the Horse Guards."

George Washington

Though no chapter is devoted to American leaders, there are many peripheral comments about them. Two regarding George Washington I found particularly interesting.  One, that he was a tall man at six foot four. The other, that he was "the only person to receive universal acclaim from the British press."

Nicknames

Epithets applied to public figures provide an interesting insight into the times. Some are affectionate, others not.

The British:
George III - Farmer George
Admiral Howe - Black Dick
General Burgoyne - General Elbow Room
Earl of Sandwich - Jemmy Twitcher
Vice Admiral Byron (grandfather of the poet) – Foul Weather Jack
Major Patrick Ferguson - One-Armed Devil
General Charles Grey - No Flint Grey

The Americans:
General Anthony Wayne - Mad Anthony
General Daniel Morgan - Old Wagoner
General Thomas Sumter - the Carolina Gamecock
General Henry Lee (father of Robert E. Lee) - Light Horse Harry 
Francis Marion - the Swamp Fox
Andrew Jackson - Old Hickory*

* The nickname was acquired during the War of 1812. He was a boy during the Revolutionary war when he was scarred for life by the saber of a British officer after refusing to clean the officer's boots.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Brontes Went to Woolworths

I picked this up at a used bookstore because of the interesting title and attractive cover, and found the writing so engaging, so slyly humorous, that I read several chapters before realizing I scarcely understood what was happening.

I made an effort to be more attentive to the story, but a few chapters later was still rather lost, yet undeterred from enjoying the antics of the eccentric Carne family, composed of a mother, three daughters (Katrine, Deirdre, and Sheil), and a governess.

Most of the book is told from the POV of Deirdre, the literary-minded daughter who's written an unpublished novel and rambles on in a delightful but aimlessly dotty way. Katrine is studying drama, while Sheil, the youngest, is still in the care of the governess, Miss Martin, who grows increasingly distressed by the family's odd ways. 

I finally twigged to the plot when mention was made of a family "Saga." Much in the same way that the Brontes did when young, the Carnes amuse themselves by fabricating stories about their lives, their dog, their playthings, characters in books, and anything else that crosses their minds.

The fun ramps up when they meet a judge named Toddington, about whom they have been fantasizing as a family friend. He and his wife are amazed to discover aspects of their lives they know nothing about, but kindly join in on the charade so as not to upset Sheil, much in the same way that adults maintain the fiction of a tooth fairy for children.

The Carnes, then, are a humorous version of the Brontes (minus brother Branwell). Readers more familiar with that family of literary geniuses will likely be quicker on the uptake than I was. To top it off, the Brontes themselves make an appearance of sorts at the end.

The book was published in 1931 and at 188 pages is not long. I enjoyed it so much that, even before I was finished, I went online and ordered another by author Rachel Ferguson.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Nox

"A narcissistic exercise in bookbinding" is how a grumpy review in Walrus referred to Nox, an unusual work by Anne Carson that straddles the boundary between visual art and the written word.

It consists of a single sheet approximately 80 feet in length, but folded accordion-style to fit into a sturdy cardboard box.

It's an elegy for her enigmatic older brother, Michael, who died in the year 2000. He left the country to avoid going to jail, and spent the remainder of his life wandering about the world under a false passport.

Occasional postcards arrived but never communicated much. In death as in life he remained a mystery. His photo on the cover reflects this perfectly.

The departure point for this work is a brief poem by Catullus about his own brother who died in a distant land. It appears in Latin at the beginning of the book. Thereafter it is dissected, word by word, on the left side of two-page spreads, with all the various permutations that each word can take.

For example, an entire page is devoted to the word "et"!  Who knew such a tiny word could mean so much? Carson opens it up in much the same way the physical work unfolds.

On pages facing these explications are details of her brother's life. Translation thus becomes a metaphor for her attempt to understand him.

"I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch."

History is just as slippery. When Herodotus is invoked, it is with the caution that history often "produces no clear or helpful account."

Visually Nox is a collage, a scrapbook containing chopped-up photos and torn bits of paper. Even Carson's text appears on slips of paper. The single letter that Michael wrote home appears in pieces throughout as a sort of physical metaphor of Carson's fragmented knowledge of him.

Many pages are so brief, so elliptical, that the meaning is clouded, yet the cumulative effect is compelling. "No one knew him," she writes. He was mute in the sense of "a certain fundamental opacity of a human being."

It made me think of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle as applied to human quanta.

Nox is Latin for "night," a suitable title for a book about such a shadowy figure. In a way, we are all like Michael.