Monday, 26 February 2007

Friends, Foes, and Shakespearean Drama in Canadian Media

Like a lot of other Canadians I read Margaret Wente’s column in The Globe and Mail at least semi-regularly, and again as is common with many other Canadians I find what she writes to be problematic to say the least. I won’t get into why as it would take much more time than I ever want to devote to Wente’s work. If you’d like to read that sort of thing, Tyrone Nicholas of Wente Watch has done quite a good job of critiquing Wente’s columns. Unfortunately Nicholas has decided he will no longer be updating his useful blog, but its archive is still accessible, and he links to other Wente critics on his sidebar.

What I wish to discuss here has to do with the particular nature of Wente’s running commentary on Conrad Black’s legal woes — and not incidentally, on his wife, Barbara Amiel Black. The latest of Wente’s columns on this topic was published this past Saturday and can be found here.

I have to admit I’ve been keeping tabs on the Conrad Black trial drama with something resembling avidity myself. To someone who works in publishing or media in Canada (and especially in Toronto), this story is catnip. For those of you who aren’t Canadian and/or media junkies, Black was a huge media figure here, and internationally, for many years. Black began buying small Canadian papers in the sixties and by the nineties his conglomerate Hollinger International controlled 60 percent of Canadian newspaper titles, as well as hundreds of daily papers in the United States, England, Australia and Israel. Hollinger’s holdings are no longer nearly so extensive, and Black is not its CEO any more, but at the height of his involvement in media, he was the third-largest newspaper publisher in the world. He is perhaps best known in Canada for having founded The National Post (though he no longer owns it), and he has also written biographies on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Maurice Duplessis as well as his own autobiography. He’s also known: for cutting jobs at any media outlet he owned; for his extreme right-wing beliefs, (i.e., Canada should dismantle its universal health care system and its sovereignty to become part of the U.S.); for his marriage to Barbara Amiel Black, a well-known Canadian journalist and columnist; for giving up his Canadian citizenship in order to be inducted into Britain’s House of Lords as Lord Black of Crossharbour; and for many other telling biographical details such as the fact that as a teenager he was expelled from Toronto’s Upper Canada College for selling exam papers to his classmates.

Conrad Black’s current legal difficulties include the twelve counts of criminal behaviour for which he has been indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s office. The counts include mail fraud, wire fraud, racketeering, obstruction of justice, and money laundering and relate to his alleged appropriation of millions of dollars from Hollinger International’s funds. Black is facing a maximum 95-year jail sentence if convicted on all charges. His U.S. criminal trial is set to begin on March 5, 2007. And I won’t even get into describing the criminal prosecution he faces in Canada once the U.S. criminal courts are finished with him, or the several massive civil suits also lodged against him.

Perhaps even if you had never heard of Conrad Black before you read what I have written here, you have begun to see why Canadian media columnists — so many of whom have had dealings, pleasant or unpleasant, with Black — are so willing to discourse about the man’s legal battles, and about the man himself. Laying off journalists never makes for good press ten or twenty years down the road, but even to those without any personal grudge against Black, he and his legal difficulties are a meaty topic. This story has it all: hubris, well-known figures who have long raised much ire, business dealings on the grand scale, colossal sums of money, possible corruption, epic court battles, a beautiful and staggeringly extravagant wife, Black’s purple prose and pontificating, and plot developments such as Black’s caught-on-tape removal of twelve boxes of files from the Toronto headquarters of Hollinger Inc. (after an Ontario court order barred Black from removing documents from the Hollinger offices). Shakespearean plays have been based on less.

All this is a long preface to my saying that I don’t entirely blame Margaret Wente for writing about the Blacks the way she does. It's a story a Canadian columnist would naturally write about. And one could certainly argue that it's better for Wente to write about this than about global warming or Iraq, given her irresponsible coverage of those topics. But what I do wish to address is the personal dimension to Wente's repeated returns to this topic, which seems to have a certain viciousness beyond anything in other articles about the Blacks, even though so many journalists also know them.

Wente does freely admit that she is acquainted with both the Blacks. She was Conrad Black’s boss when he wrote a column for a publication she then edited, and she has sheepishly admitted that he managed to charm and/or railroad her into giving him the raise that would make him the highest-paid columnist in Canada. (The raise he got would have been less than pocket change to Black; he just couldn’t stomach being Canada's second-highest paid columnist.) In a past column she described the time she went out to lunch with the Blacks over a decade ago. According to Wente, the Blacks arrived in a limo and Barbara Amiel Black complained in her newly acquired (or reacquired) English accent of how petty and small-minded Canadians are.

In this latest column Wente writes that Conrad Black is supremely confident he will be found innocent of wrongdoing and allows that he may in fact walk away from this trial as he says he will. As she writes, “Flying around on corporate jets, being a pompous windbag, dressing up like Cardinal Richelieu, and having a wife who says her extravagance knows no bounds” are not crimes. “Having lapdogs as directors is no crime either. The fact that the chairman of your executive committee frequently signed important documents without reading them, and that you made sizable investments in his company, is not enough to put you behind bars.” But Wente concludes that if Conrad Black takes the stand in his own defense, he may seal his own conviction by presenting himself badly. Wente comments, “For a man who has spent a lifetime in the spotlight, Mr. Black seems astonishingly un-self-aware. He has sometimes shown a remarkable inability to read an audience, or see himself as others do. He seems unable to grasp that fair-minded people might not think as well of him as he does, and that not everyone is won over by his brilliance and erudition.”

In this column, Wente also manages to sneak in a not really relevant and extremely unflattering description of Barbara Amiel Black by describing a notice of libel from Conrad Black. According to Wente, “The notice states that contrary to the malicious accusations in a certain recent book about them, the Plaintiff's wife is not a grasping, hectoring, slatternly, extravagant, shrill, domineering, vulgar, obsessively materialistic harridan.” I suppose Wente could technically defend this with a, “But I didn’t say Barbara was shrill or slatternly or a harridan! I said Black or his lawyers said she wasn’t!”

When you read the column I have linked to, if you’ve read the several past columns on the Blacks, do you get the sense of a very personal enmity that I get? I could criticize Margaret Wente for the lip-smacking enjoyment so evident in every one of her columns pertaining to the Blacks, but then in all fairness I’d have to say I read them with unseemly pleasure myself, and I know I’m not the only one. I could say she isn’t making the most responsible use of a national media platform, but it’s also true that the Globe editors wouldn’t allow it if it weren’t being read. We get the media we deserve.

So I will just say is that self-awareness is an excellent thing, and that Conrad Black isn’t the only person who could use more of it. Yes, Conrad Black needs to realize (among other things) that if he opines that Canada should become part of the U.S. and has renounced his Canadian citizenship to for the sake of wearing ermine, he may not be taken seriously when (now that it would be to his advantage legally) he calls himself a “demonstrative Canadian flag waver” and asks if he can have his citizenship back, please. And yes, Barbara Amiel Black needs to understand that if she writes in Maclean’s that Canada can’t afford universal health care or a minimum wage but should better support its national ballet company, and then appears in Vogue wearing an $11,000 dress, she may raise some hackles among even the noble and most broadminded of Canadians.

And no, I'm not done. Wente would benefit from increased self-awareness as well. I’m going to assume the fact that she was described as “a friend of Amiel’s” in this Guardian article was a touchingly naive mistake on the part of the Guardian. However, my jaw did drop when, in a Globe and Mail column written sometime back about Barbara Amiel Black’s snobbish disregard of people from her past, Wente supported this characterization by telling the story of how, upon meeting Amiel Black at a party, Wente offered to shake hands in greeting, only to see Amiel Black turn silently away from her outstretched hand.

How could Wente possibly expect Amiel Black to want to be friendly at this point? Frankly, given Wente’s gleeful commentary on the Blacks’ legal problems, dissection of Amiel Black’s outrageous spending habits, descriptions of Amiel Black as volatile, and repeated speculations that Barbara Amiel Black will leave her husband, I thought Amiel Black showed admirable restraint, and even dignity, in only cutting Wente in the social sense of the word.

If Wente continues to skewer the Blacks in The Globe and Mail, she should be honest with herself and with the rest of us about the personal nature of her actions and its consequences. Perhaps this self-examination will lead her to conclude she needs to leave the topic alone. Perhaps it will only mean a fuller disclosure about the nature of her relationships with the Blacks and her motivations in writing about them, because readers have a right to know about the conflict of interests inherent in a writer’s work. Wente will have to decide these things for herslef. But at the very least, if Margaret Wente has chosen to gloat in the national media over the Blacks’ failings and problems, she should know better than expect them to want to be friends with her.

Saturday, 17 February 2007

Sailing on The Dark Frigate

The 1924 Newbery medalist, The Dark Frigate, is about a young sailor named Philip Marsham, and his adventures and misadventures on land and sea. His father, a sea captain, has lost his life at sea, and nineteen-year-old Philip shortly thereafter loses what money he inherited when forced to flee his dead father’s promised wife’s pub after a mishap with somebody else’s gun. Penniless but undaunted he wanders the roads of England, thinks of becoming a farmer, falls in with a kindly Scottish smith, a madman, and then a couple of vagabond seamen. He glimpses his estranged grandparents, becomes engaged to a pretty bar maid, and duels with a gamekeeper before signing on to a ship called the Rose of Devon. And this is only in the first seventy pages. Crewing on the Rose of Devon means more adventures involving storms and pirates — which as one would expect leads in turn to more adventures yet.

Lloyd Alexander, in his 1971 introduction to The Dark Frigate, wrote that Charles Boardman Hawes “learned the sailor’s life from seafarers in Boston and Gloucester; from incredibly detailed research into ships’ logs, curious old volumes, and accounts of long-forgotten days” and also that Dawes considered the King James Bible “the greatest literary achievement of all time”. I haven’t a doubt of either statement. Both Dawe’s depth of research and biblical literary aesthetic are readily apparent from every page of this book.

The dialogue, the descriptions, the characters and the narrative all come across as authentically gritty and evocative with never a single nod to any popular conception of what seventeenth century seafaring life was like, such as a pirate-uttered “Yarrrr!” In writing The Dark Frigate, Charles Boardman Hawes managed to create that rarity in historical novels — one that is remarkably free of elements that date its actual time of writing. When I reviewed the 1923 Newbery winner, The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle which is set in the 1840s, I claimed that it was unmistakably a 1920s novel. The Dark Frigate, which is set in the 1650s, is a different animal altogether. If I did not know that it was originally published in 1923 I would have been at a loss to guess its publication date. I would definitely have known that it was a historical novel and not written in the seventeenth or even eighteenth centuries, but my estimated date of its writing might have fallen anywhere between 1850 and 1970. I can only hope I would at least have placed it in the twentieth century.

The Dark Frigate also does indeed echo the King James Version of the Bible in its literary tone. The KJV, originally published in 1611, would have made a fantastic resource for someone trying to recreate seventeenth-century diction and prose. But The Dark Frigate resembles the KJV Bible in another way that I am not convinced is so positive — in a certain spareness of its narrative. There is little if any exploration of characterization or internal conflict. The Dark Frigate is strictly a “by their works ye shall know them” affair. Characters are sketched out with flat, one-line descriptions such as “the woman had a bitter temper and a sharp tongue” or “Tom Jordon was an ugly customer when his temper was up and hot, but no man to nurse a grudge” and by what they say or do. Granted, there is so much action and the pace of events is so fast Dawes could barely have found room for things like internal monologues or extended conversations even if he had wanted to. And the characterizations are quite good so far as they go. Dawes paints no sentimental portraits of any of his cast, whether they be pirates and barmaids or gentlefolk and judges. There are no simple jolly souls or purely evil figures, his ruthless pirates do not have hearts of gold, and almost all share the rough humour and shrewdness a brutish environment engenders in all those who survive it.

However, as good as The Dark Frigate is as a story of adventure and as an evocative historical novel, I can’t help feeling that it lacks a certain depth that would have come from better characterization and more internal conflict. Though this may just be my contemporary sensibilities or personal tastes getting the better of me. Perhaps this only means Charles Boardman Hawes was better at entering into another time than I, but it could also mean that he failed to take me with him.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Advertising For Love In All the Online Places

For a special Valentine’s Day Orange Swan Review article, I've written a little piece about online personal ads. All the quotes in this article have been lifted word for word from some existing ad. All spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors in the quoted material are likewise courtesy of their original authors. I have not provided identifying information for any quoted profiles, because most people post their ads in good faith and they deserve better than to be publicly ridiculed. Why, in that case, am I ridiculing them at all? Because after the many years (alas, alack) that I have spent reading ads in which the writers declare that they are looking for someone to “compliment” their lives (superlative as I am sure their lives are), I must have my pound of flesh.

Profiles range from the excellent to the functionally illiterate, but most are undistinguished and generic. There are some heavily used clich├ęs in online dating profiles. They get endlessly passed from man to woman and woman to man like some sort of vitual STD. Here are some:

I’m looking for a woman who is as comfortable in jeans as she is in evening wear.
I’ll never settle.
I’m tired of the bar scene.
I never thought I’d try this online dating thing.
I don’t do head games.
I’m out to prove that nice guys don’t finish last.
I’m not sure what to write here.
If I peak your interest, get back to me.

Sometimes I wearily imagine there’s some sort of program out there that, for a fee, will concoct an ad for you out of these phrases, and sprinkle in “I love the outdoors” and a “No picture, no reply” as a free bonus. But then I read a few more ads with attention, and decide against that profile generator. Little gleams of personality come through almost every single one. This guy comes across as intelligent. That guy gives me an impression of energy and initiative. The next one works in a reference to Vikram Seth, Leo Tolstoy, and Guns, Germs and Steel (oooh!). Another seems illiterate and dull. Another refers to himself as a catch and declares he’s not spending his money on credits so it’s up to interested women to pay for the initial message if they want to talk to him. Some of the ads leave me intrigued; others prompt me to make a judicious use of the block function. Some of the ads set my teeth on edge for reasons I only half-define before clicking to the next ad. I have learned to trust this instinct.

Here’s the story of a time when I ignored my initial impression that a guy was a jerk. I read this ad on Lavalife:

Ladies, I have received more messages and smiles than I can handle at once. Please be patient with me as I comb through them all.

To avoid wasting your time or mine, I am forced to add the following.

* You can read and passed your grade 1 arithmetic class
* YOU ARE MY AGE OR YOUNGER. That means 34 and under NOT 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40 or 41.
* You are not a pathetic high school dropout. I require cerebral stimulation.
* You are not vindictive
* You are drug and disease free
* You are not a mentally unstable, professional chit chatter who has no intention of meeting anyone. I value my time and will not waste it on you. My brother is a psychiatrist, I will be happy to give you his office number.
* You do not have numerous fake profiles
* You avoid tacky lines such as "Work hard and play hard" and "Carpe Diem".
* You live within an hour of Toronto
* You are not self centered

On with the show

If you are happy, sweet, sexy, sincere, secure with yourself, love your life, love people, love to travel, shop, explore and have a GREAT personality please don't hesitate to contact me.

I'm multi-faceted, multi-dimensional and multi-talented. I love my life and seek someone else who loves their life just as much.

Please be sincere if you're going to write to me. I've dated some of the most beautiful girls in the world, but personality means far more to me than looks. If that wasn't the case, trust me, I'd still be dating them. I'm looking for someone that is as beautiful on the inside as the out. Someone with character, substance and integrity. I can meet and find ordinary any day of the week. I'm looking for extraordinary. You know who you are. I'm not into playing mind games so if you are, please pass me by if you're only passing through. :)

I was flipping through ads quite quickly that day and sent him (and about fifteen other people) a “smile”, which is a Lavalife no-cost feature and the way for its posters to find out if other posters are at all interested. He “smiled” back, attaching one of a list of pre-selected messages: “I couldn’t resist the fact… that we are complete opposites.” I revisited his ad. I was getting a vibe that made me very unsure that I should spend the necessary credits to send him a message. There are ways to describe the kind of person one wants that don’t involve using the sort of harshly arrogant tone he had used. However, I thought aside from the asterisk-starred list his profile was more or less unobjectionable, maybe he was just frustrated with the system, and that it had been so long since I found anyone at all promising that it was worth the risk. I wrote a brief, friendly message, in which I asked him why he thought we were complete opposites.

He emailed back a message that read, in its entirety:

You sound shallow and I am not. You look pyschotic and I am not.

And he blocked me from replying to his message. He had only “smiled” back in order to encourage me to waste my credits on him, and to give himself the consequence-free opportunity to be extremely rude.

He was correct that he and I are indeed complete opposites, but wrong about the ways in which we differ.

After this experience, if I am at all uneasy about the thought of smiling or messaging someone, I pay full heed to that unease. The profiles I respond to these days have to be genuinely appealing, with no warning discords. Sometimes this is an easy decision. On one occasion a man instant messaged me to ask:

when do uwant to have kids and will u move to Calgary

Tempting as it was, in a way, to message back, “yes i will live in ur house and i will have ur beebies send me $6000 plain fair”, I refrained.

But even as I go with my instincts, I still question them. I hope and believe I have basically good literary judgment. I’ve staked the existence of this web site on that belief. (If I am no judge of literary merit, I am sinking hours of work each week into making a public ass of myself.) At the same time I question my judgment, because I don’t think it excellent, just good, and I’m always afraid it isn’t even as good as I think it is. When I don’t like a book I frequently have tortuous, “is it me or is it the book” internal debates that last for days.

I question my assessments of profiles in the same way. I have had generally good experiences with online dating in that a very high percentage of the men I’ve met have been very decent people. But then a truly good experience in this context does not mean that I met someone who was an pleasant one-time coffee date; it means I found someone with whom I can share not only beverages, but meals, nights, camping trips, movies, visits to family, anecdotes of the day, and all those other homely things, on an ongoing basis. And this I have not found.

I wonder whether I am passing by someone good because I’ve misinterpreted something in his profile, or because he’s unwittingly put something misleading in his profile, or because he’s no writer. I worry I’ve unknowingly written a repellant profile myself. Recently I posted the text of my online ad on a community web log where I am known and invited everyone to critique it. You can’t appeal to everyone, of course, and I didn’t intend to try. But when the general consensus was that my ad was “too long and too intense”, I shortened and lightened it... to what has proven to be negligible effect. The thread became an interesting discussion of what constituted a good profile, and although people had thought provoking theories on the topic, no one seemed to know for sure.

To my comfort, I keep remembering something I read once in some letter to the editor re: an article about dating. The letter writer was a married man who commented that in his experience it was only single people who have theories about how to find the right person, while contentedly married people shrug and say things like, “Well, we just met.” The letter writer declared that the theories were just a way of passing the time until one found a partner.

I think that letter writer is on to something, that so many of the dating theories and self-help books and Sex in the City-style analysis are nothing but a way for single people to take the edge of their frustration by giving them a sense of autonomy in a endeavour that is so largely beyond their control.

So I keep on blundering through this endless dating, having experiences that range from hilariously awful to blandly forgettable to bitterly disappointing to fun and enjoyable if dead-end to shattering. I make my decisions to the best of my ability on a case-by-case basis, hoping I’m choosing aright, trying to protect myself as best I can from the wear and tear of repeated disappointments and frustration, trying not to focus too much on a process that has taken so much effort and been so largely unrewarding, and always making the effort to both trust my instincts and be open to what life has to offer.

And if a man’s profile consists of this:

Let Hang out I think you and I could make a really hot couple. I want you to meet my parents this weekend. That would be groovy. Peace

or contains anything along the lines of this:

I am open-minded, but that does not mean that I willing to yield to amasculinating societal norms. I am intelligent, and with that intelligence comes the insight into realizing that a man being "sensitive" for sensitivity's sake puts him in denial of what it means to be a man. It will make him a both a sexual and emotional dud for a woman. I am gentle, but I am not a pushover. I am firm and forceful when necessary, with my wrath meted out fairly.

You see my dear, being a good lover requires striking the perfect balance between raging hormones (the inner rapist), massive intellect (the inner philosopher), and an intense love of women (the inner Cassanova). I have self-actualized and have therefore found harmony amongst the three.

... I don’t get back to him. As with unmistakably execrable books, forming my opinion of some ads involves no internal debate at all.

Sunday, 11 February 2007

Griffin & Sabine & the Long Wait For a Short Ride

Back in my college days, I bought secondhand copies of Nick Bantock’s irresistibly beautiful Griffin & Sabine and The Golden Mean. I decided I would wait until I had the middle book of the trilogy before I read them. In the end this meant that two books I had have travelled with me, unread, for thirteen years, sitting on various shelves in different buildings as I moved a total of six times, and remaining packed in a box for a solid seven of those years. I was always either too poor or too busy (if not both) to even think about getting the second volume. It was only when I moved the sixth time in this past December and was shelving my books that I came across them and thought that I really must get around to buying that missing volume — and kept thinking it. Then just last weekend I came across a copy of Sabine’s Notebook at Value Village for $4. And so at last, I got to read them, indulging in just one a night this past week so as to make the long-awaited experience last.

And… the experience was disappointing. The art is certainly very good, and Nick Bantock has created two very distinctive artistic styles for his two characters. The multi-media concept, that of presenting postcards and letters that must be pulled from their envelopes, is a terrific one. And the premise of two artists who live at opposite sides of the globe and have never met yet share a mystical connection is very intriguing. The dust jacket flaps promise the reader a “delightful forbidden sensation” in the “wonderfully illicit activity” of reading someone else’s mail. But either I’m less voyeuristic than the jacket copy writer assumed or the said mail just wasn’t juicy enough.

The narrative is so slight it’s difficult to discuss it without giving it away. So, if you haven’t read these books, I’ll warn you of and apologize for any spoiling I may do in this review. Griffin Moss, an English artist, receives a postcard from a mysterious Sabine Strohem, who creates art for stamps and lives on Katie Island in the South Pacific. She claims that she has visions of the art he is drawing, and proves that she can by describing changes he has made to his work while alone in his studio. They exchange letters and postcards and details about their lives and, with the kind of efficiency usually only seen in Harlequins and Hollywood romantic comedies, fall desperately in love by the sixth exchange. They talk about meeting, they decide to meet, they try to meet and fail, they are hounded by a threatening man who stalks Sabine and writes (sub par) postcards to Griffin, demanding to know all about their psychic connection, they worry about this man and each other, begin to despair that they will never meet, and finally agree on another plan of meeting.

What there is in terms of narrative is pretty good, but there isn’t enough of it. Despite my year of visual arts training, I am still almost all about the text. I wanted to be drawn more deeply into this story, to have Griffin and Sabine’s characters come to life through the gradual accumulation of detail and demonstration of character, to watch their love for each other develop at a slower, more believable — and thus richer and more compelling — pace. But then I am aware that Nick Bantock and his publishers had to work within certain limits imposed by practical economics. Developing the story in the way I have in mind would have required making the correspondence (and the books) perhaps three or four times their current length and made them prohibitively expensive for most book buyers.

So we have them on our shelves in their present form, and the most compelling thing about them is their lush visual appeal and tracing the impact of their relationship and its resulting fervour and angst on their art. I will say this is not the least satisfactory of compromises. And that, to be fair, perhaps no book or reading experience could possibly live up to the kind of thirteen-year anticipatory build up these ones had.

Thursday, 8 February 2007

The Story of an African Farm... and of a Life

Olive Schreiner’s book The Story of an African Farm is one of those books that are more important and interesting for its cultural and historical significance, or for the always fascinating relationship between writer and what is written, than for their own literary merits. An African Farm is one of the earliest feminist novels, and one of the earliest South African novels, and perhaps the earliest example of the “South African farm novel”, which I gather is considered something of a sub-genre. I was startled by some of its content, which must have forced some of its Victorian readers to recourse to their sal volatile. One does not expect to find a transvestite in a Victorian novel. But for all An African Farm’s remarkable qualities, it’s not an artistic success. There is good material in it, but it’s something of a mess.

The Story of an African Farm narrates episodes from the lives of three children as they grow up on a farm in South Africa: Em, the English stepdaughter of Tant’ Sannie, the farm’s Boer owner; Lyndall, Em’s cousin; and Waldo, the son of the farm’s kind and deeply pious German overseer, Otto. The two chapters of the book sets up the characters and conflicts of the three children nicely. We learn of Waldo’s spiritual unrest, Lyndall’s fierce and far-reaching ambitions, and of Em, who is sweet and stolid but no fool, and we are immersed in an evocative description of a different time and place and a unique culture.

Then a man named Bonaparte Blenkins walks onto the farm. We don’t know his back story, but my best guess is that he’s a discarded Charles Dickens’ character who wandered into the wrong novel by accident and stayed because the pickings were good. He’s an ignorant, sadistic, devious, sociopathic, opportunistic man, and a bizarrely out-of-place caricature among the delicately realized children and even the less well-drawn Tant’ Sannie and Otto. He remains on the farm for some years, first as an incompetent teacher of the children and then as overseer and Tant’ Sannie’s accepted suitor, until Tant’ Sannie finally proves herself able to recognize Bonparte’s real nature, and equally able with a barrel of pickle brine when the occasion calls for it.

The whole eleven chapters concerning the impossibly evil Bonaparte Blenkins are basically one long derail from the narrative of the novel, and despite the fact that he was almost its only comic relief, I gratefully watched him walk off the farm for good. Then there was one more digression before the novel got back on track — an entire chapter dealing in the most abstract, meandering terms with Waldo’s transformation from tortured Christian to despairing atheist, which feels more Schreiner’s own spiritual biography than like an integrated part of the novel. Finally Schreiner pulls the novel back on track, and progresses in fine style through Em’s engagement to Gregory Rose, Lyndall’s return to the farm after years away at boarding school, Gregory Rose’s and Waldo’s respective passions for Lyndall, Tant’ Sannie’s wedding to a young Boer, and the appearance of Lyndall’s mysterious correspondent.

I’m not sure what I think of the novel’s denouement. I can’t call it improbable or contrived exactly (though are we really to believe that Lyndall, who is never, ever hoodwinked at any other point in the book, didn’t recognize a disguised Gregory Rose?), but I do have a sense that Schreiner copped out somehow. Lyndall, with her incredible ambition and shattering insight, is a woman ahead of her time whom no social conventions will ever hold — and who, like a rocket explosion in a horse-and-buggy world, leaves others stunned and damaged in her wake. Her character has such sheer force the book can barely contain her, and maybe Schreiner chose to destroy Lyndall rather than try to make the world of the novel a fitting environment for Lyndall.

But it’s entirely possible Schreiner really couldn’t envision a happy ending for Lyndall. Schreiner had finished writing An African Farm by 1880. Born in 1855, she was then only 25. At 21, while working as a governess, she had had a sexual relationship with a young businessman named Julius Gau. The nature of their relationship was known in the village where she then lived, and the village condemned and rejected her socially. Schreiner and Gau became engaged, and Schreiner may have become pregnant, but if so, she miscarried, and Gau broke the engagement. Schreiner then suffered a bout of depression and developed asthma. Over the course of the next four years as she returned to work as a governess and wrote An African Farm, she perhaps didn’t foresee that she would win out, remain her free-thinking, rebellious, corset-rejecting self, and live a successful, meaningful, happy life, and so couldn’t give Lyndall the same gift.

The Story of an African Farm, Schreiner's first published book, appeared in 1883. It was an immediate best seller and attracted much attention. Not all of this attention was favourable, of course, but she had her admirers, among them William Gladstone, who was at that time Prime Minister of Great Britain. Schreiner traveled Europe and participated in various social and political movements (she was way ahead of her time in her views on race, class, colonialism, pacifism and politics as well as in her feminism). At age 39 she married a progressive-minded South African farmer. She published four books in all as well as many pamphlets and essays, some of which she co-wrote with her husband. And so when I look at Schreiner’s life and at her remarkable accomplishments, I can’t be too harsh with An African Farm. The novel is a mess; its author’s life was not. Even though I wish both the book and the life could have been successful, I can’t help being glad that at least the success and failure weren’t reversed.

Monday, 5 February 2007

Getting Taken to a Place We've Been Before

Lynne Rae Perkins’ Criss Cross, the 2006 Newbery Medal winner, is a novel about a group of teenagers in a small town called Seldem, and takes place in what seems to be the late seventies. The main characters are Debbie, Hector and Lenny, but there’s also Dan, whom Debbie likes and who is in Hector’s guitar class; Phil, who is friends with Lenny and Hector; Patty, who is Debbie’s friend; Rowanne, who is Hector’s sister; and Peter, who is the grandson of Mrs. Bruning, for whom Debbie works. Almost all of these characters know one another and are connected in ways it would take too long to describe. The small town dynamic social web is among the many things this novel gets exactly right and that suits so perfectly its themes of connecting and the force of coincidence and happenstance that shapes our lives. Here in Toronto or in any urban centre your hairdresser is only your hairdresser. In a small town your hairdresser is also your niece’s Sunday School teacher and her husband is your boyfriend or girlfriend’s older brother’s best friend. And those are only the connections you happen to know about.

There is no real plot. I’m not even going to bother being careful about not including a spoiler as I usually am. These characters move through their days and a series of ordinary events. Debbie loses a necklace, and it passes hands, gets lost again, and is finally returned to her. Hector takes up the guitar and writes songs that aren’t very good but that may or may not lead to better things. Debbie, Lenny and Phil hang out in Lenny’s father truck to listen to the radio on Saturday nights. Hector likes a girl named Meadow. Debbie gets her own room and pores over her mothers’ old photo albums and yearbooks. Inspired by a Mamas and Papas song, Hector decides he wants to take Meadow somewhere she's never been before, and goes in search of such a place in Seldem. Everybody hangs out at the Tastee-Freez. It sounds banal, and it is banal, and that’s the point. The reader has to sift the meaningful from the chaff just as the kids do.

I’ve never read a novel that captures and evokes the adolescent day-to-day experience better. Although perhaps I’m assuming my own particular experience of adolescence was more general than it really is. Do you remember the long, meandering conversations with your friends that seem so tedious now but that at the time were by turns so riotously funny and so exciting because you seemed to have gotten hold of some profound truth together? Do you remember wishing something would happen, and gazing forward into a future you couldn’t imagine because you didn’t know enough about what you wanted or what specifically would be possible, although everything seemed possible? Do you remember how mundane or everyday things like a casual hello from the school golden boy or girl, a project that involved hours of work for a result that wasn’t what you envisioned, or wearing pants of exactly the right length seemed to assume an incredible importance? Do you remember the half-assed life theories you explained to your friends, and the way you tested them, together or alone? Do you remember how sensory experiences like that afternoon spent reading and getting sunburnt in the backyard or eating junk food at the fair with you friends seemed to soak into your bones? Do you remember talking to a guy or a girl and how something almost seemed to happen? Do you remember the deepening of your friendships, how for the first time you became aware of others your age as more than just kids to play with? And can you trace a lifelong passion back to its nascent beginning during, say, an evening out with your older sister and her friends? Lynne Rae Perkins evidently does, and her Debbie, Hector and Lenny and all their friends will know what I mean in 20 years if they don’t now.

Yes, adults have meandering conversations, get consumed by trivia, feel sunlight on their skin, and know what it’s like to have new passions flower into being from overlooked germinations. But these experiences aren’t the same for an adult as they are for a teenager. Adults file and discard new impressions more readily. They’ve seen something of the kind before, they know more about what will be of use to them and where they’re going — or think they know — they’ve developed a psychic shell that repels some experience. For teenagers it’s all almost entirely new, they might use anything, they need to explore more, test more, ponder more, and laze around in the backyard or on their beds with a copy of Popular Mechanics or Wuthering Heights or Seventeen and process it all.

Reading this book felt less like reading than like looking at pictures someone had secretly taken of me and high school era friends and our small town. I looked at it all, half amazed, half not, and thought, yes, yes, that’s the way it was, I remember this, I recognize this, I know this. I just didn’t know that it could ever be documented so perfectly.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Fast Forwarding Through History

The first-ever Newbery award-winner, The Story of Mankind, written and illustrated by Hendrik Willem van Loon, is difficult to review not because it isn’t flawed (flaws being meat to any reviewer) but because of the general conclusion I keep reaching that at least one of its main flaws were inevitable. The Story of Mankind begins its tale in the very dawn of the existence of our planet, when what we now call Earth was a ball of flaming matter, and ends with a chapter about the turn of the millennium, which tries to forecast the impact such forces as the internet, Dolly the cloned sheep, and ozone pollution will have on our future. The mere thought of the intellectual task it must have been to condense all of human history into less than 700 pages makes me feel in need of a lie down. Add to this goal van Loon’s intention to make this comprehensive history a book that children could not only read but would enjoy reading and you have a project overwhelming in its sheer magnitude. Reading the book can be a bit like being a passenger in a car the driver insists on driving too fast. The passenger calls out, "Slow down! I want to get a better look at that!" and the driver yells back, "Can't! We've got a lot of ground to cover before the perfect bound spine exceeds its page count limit!"

Hendrik van Loon wrote that he had but one rule in selecting material for his book: “Did the country or the person in question produce a new idea or perform an original act without which the history of the entire human race would have been different?” This is certainly a good rule, but van Loon’s application of it is somewhat problematic. His concept of the “entire human race” seems to have a definite bias towards the members of western civilization. As a result his idea of the defining events of history seems to be those events that shaped specifically western civilization, and so the book is Eurocentric. When I read The Story of Mankind I got a definite sense of a long funnel of events ever narrowing in scope until its last chapters (updated by various other people since Hendrik van Loon’s death in 1944) become unapologetically absorbed with purely American history. I cannot see how anyone using a “definitive events only” rule can possibly justify the mention of John Lennon’s murder or even of Watergate when the book includes nothing of the development of China’s ancient civilization. However, I will concede that it would be very difficult, if not impossible to write such a book without some sort of bias. And at least, when aiming for impartiality and a narrative schema, van Loon did not go to such desperate lengths as the producers of the 1957 movie, “The Story of Mankind”. The movie uses the premise of an outer space tribunal meeting to decide the fate of humankind, with the Devil (played by Vincent Price) and the Spirit of Mankind (played by Ronald Colman) arguing opposite sides of the case and providing evidence in the form of flashbacks from different eras of history. It all sounds so generally terrible in an enjoyable sort of way that I'm tempted to see it.

Another, less qualified, criticism of the book is that the updates added to the end could have been better done. The book is no Newbery winner in its current state. As well as I can trace the history of the updates, The Story of Mankind, originally published in 1921, was updated in 1926 by Hendrik van Loon, at some indeterminate point by van Loon’s son Willem van Loon, in 1972 by the publishers and several New York University professors, and in 1984 and 1999 by John Merriman of Yale University. I don’t know how much revision has been done to the original text of the book, but the added chapters feel very patchy and disruptive for the reader. If the reader comes across the phrase “forty years ago” and has to stop and use the copyright dates and updating information in the publisher’s note to figure out from which date to subtract the forty years, it’s time the book was better integrated. I can certainly understand why this wasn’t done. If the publishers revise the book to make it seamless they will risk losing the charming, grandfatherly voice and personal asides of Hendrik van Loon. But the present, jarring, juxtaposition of the original text with the updates is a bad compromise, and surely a better one can be found if the publishers and authors will dare to be less reverential. It would also be a good idea if the last part of the book were far less focused on the U.S., and I’m not just saying that because Canada’s name only appeared in the book eight times (only two of which mentions the indexer saw fit to note). I will say, though, that the line drawings added to the book by Dirk van Loon are if anything better than his grandfather's - they are as charming in their rough, amateurish way, and funny as well, which Hendrik van Loon's weren't. The sketch of a scientist squeezing identical sheep out of what looks like a large cake decorating cylinder (and which is marked "CLONING") is the wittiest of the entire book.

Reading back over what I’ve written so far, I feel I haven’t done justice to this book. So I will say that The Story of Mankind is truly is a notable achievement, and I so wish I had read and re-read it as a child. As I made my way through it I could feel my scattered bits of knowledge of the past slotting themselves into place in the framework Hendrik van Loon so ably built for us, and I wondered how much more historical information I would have retained if I’d the sense of its place and relation to the human timeline that this book could have given me.