This Is Not a Pity Memoir, Abi Morgan (HarperCollins 2022)
A Life in Light, Mary Pipher, (Bloomsbury 2022)
The Organist, Mark Abley (University If Regina Press 2019)
The Last Days of Roger Federer, Geoff Dyer (Canongate 2022)
They Have Bodies, Barney Allen (ed. Gregory Betts: University of Ottawa Press 2020)
This Time A Better Earth, Ted Allen (ed. Bart Vautour: University of Ottawa Press 2015)
The Abortion Caravan, Karin Wells (Second Story Press 2020)
The Freedom Convoy, Andrew Lawton (Sunderland House 2022)
Solace, Eva Kolacz (Black Moss Press 2021)
Apricots of Donbas, Lyuba Yakimchuk (Lost Horse Press 2021)
Books Not for the Beach
Reading in a recent New Yorker that James Patterson, the best selling thriller writer (over 400 million sales so far), accessed and then maintained his status by publishing several titles per season, supplying the outlines of his 260 novels to ghost writers who actually spill the words onto the page, and that his method is a repeat of the Stratemeyer Syndicate of the early 20th century that churned out hundreds of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys novels from a “legion of ghostwriters” tucked in behind the names Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon, rather put my teeth on edge as I prepared to contrast and compare memoirs to more literary memoirs. I was relieved to hear that critics complain of his “generic characters, workmanlike, plot-driven prose” and the whole scam of “churning out multiple titles with the aid of co-writers”, but yet somewhat disappointed to realize that a finely tuned and entertaining genre film like The Lincoln Lawyer, with great ensemble acting by Matthew McConnachy, Marisa Tomei and William Macy was sourced in such a paint-by-numbers typing pool.
Well, this happens and that happens, in formulaic novels as in life, and our charming naivete is slotted into the grimy comeuppance of unsightly corporate profits, some of which no doubt covers the ass of literary lost causes. The marketplace shows no mercy for those who would refuse its harness.
When Abi Morgan’s reminiscences This Is Not a Pity Memoir found its way to WordCity’s harbour I was intrigued to be reading the somewhat anguished testimony of an accomplished and insightful script writer, whose TV series The Hour and River had complemented her fine film scripts like The Iron Lady and Suffragette, impressing this movie buff no end. While its fast paced chatty delivery often outpaces the reader’s desire for a mellow escape and gets the breath going in anticipation, the subject matter is one severe and virtually terminal medical trauma. After witnessing her spouse falling foul of a new miracle drug to treat his MS, collapsing into incoherence and then an induced six-month coma followed by a recovery in which he recognizes everyone in the family but her, the poor woman goes through the fires of hell, waiting and wondering and waiting again. This is exacerbated by her very own diagnosis of breast cancer, followed by the usual trial by fire of chemotherapy, now familiar to us all.
This double whammy of almost unendurable suffering and mental torment continues for a couple of years while the author works on scripts, meets with producers and actors and, you know, makes ends meet. That there is a second home for these hapless Londoners in Puglia, with garden and pool, skiing vacations with the children, and birthday parties in reserved private rooms in bespoke restaurants and the now customary mask-wearing paranoia of the period seems only to embroider the gut wrenching pain of the life impasse stoically endured. I was filled with admiration for the endurance quotient of the entire extended family.
Morgan’s stacatto style, all Brit-chatty, rolling over itself with the emotive free fall women specialize in much more than men, certainly hurries the reader through the day to day dramas of the family in waiting, and its use of the conversational sets it apart from a more literary approach, where sentence and paragraph structure is carefully weighted against the emotional tenor of the memories accessed.
Such is the case with Canadian poet Mark Abley’s 2019 memoir The Organist, a deep consideration of his childhood and family, particularly his father, a church and theatre organist in both England and Canada, his lifelong struggle with melancholy and the pose of the misanthrope that often overtook his love of music and dedication to teaching its rudiments to the young. In the course of retelling Abley wisely chooses to include old letters and the memories of others to contrast with his own rather self-centered recall. His measured and meditative approach, combined with a poet’s sensitivity to language and expression sets it apart from the many celebrity memoirs that seduce their audience with all-too-familiar life lessons whispered in your ear.
Another memoir caught my attention during this traverse: A Life in Light, recounting Mary Pipher’s years from rural childhood to urbanized maturity, emphasizing those moments of blissful joy that interrupt the trail of the tawdry and boring that most of us travel through on our way to the somewhere we’ve been assured exists. While Pipher examines her journey, a fascinating one at that, through the lens of the trained psychologist and ‘cultural therapist’, Abi Morgan sees her drama as just that, a drama, a roller coaster ride through a circus of highs and lows that resolves itself in a release from illness when the show is over, graduation from schooling, a life less threatened and a studied avoidance of happily-ever-after chortling, and Mark Abley makes a poet’s map of the father-son territory in the light of such classics as Father and Son, each creator carves their life statue with the care appropriate to their tradition. And that such streams of expression continue alongside each other on the shelf, catering unabashedly to the democritisation of taste, speaks volumes to the modern myth of society being somehow post-literary.
It’s always good to have a few non-literary friends on hand, mainly to remind you that there is life outside the wordy bubble that so entrances you. The sort of folks who read books, often popular ones, but are a bit fuzzy on what literature actually entails. The ladies often will enthuse over the likes of Amy Tan, Jojo Moyles or Diana Gabaldon, the guys John Le Carre, Henry Miller, Hemingway or Sedaris. These were books they enjoyed rather than those whose reputations they’d been pumped up with and essays squeezed out reluctantly. You carefully avoided the more esoteric references that would challenge their assumptions, not to mention any Canadian other than Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood, relieved that they did not regard you as some kind of freak as they breastfed their babies and chattered about the Stanley Cup play-offs. Plus in my day they were always up for enthusing over the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell or Van Morrison, whose cultural contributions, let’s face it, could often be just as refined and hard hitting as any wordsmith. This, of course, is the world not only before hip-hop and rap but the 24/7 access to all of music history filed away in the many streaming services. It’s all there, if you can be bothered to track it down.
When I began my ecstatic trek through bookworld decades ago I was blessed with many examples in that category and it became known that I was now reviewing the works of others instead of fussing with my own. Somehow, amidst the detritus of memories, dreams and reflections that clutter up the brain function, I recall turning to one pal and commenting, more or less, ‘Well I’ve discovered that I have an opinion on almost everything’. Much to her amusement I might add. And so it has proven to this day, whether it relates to matters of content, style, wit or expression, reaction is rarely tempered by confusion. That is but for those mysterioso enigmas like Geoff Dyer, that literary iconoclast who smartly eludes any effort at pigeonholing with volume after volume of fiction, non-fiction, studies and memoirs, who continues his effortless meander through a mind refracted by the many lenses he has appropriated on his way to nowhere in particular and almost by accident creates a cultural road map to an undiscovered country he’d like to lay claim to, should he ever rest from roaming, which I doubt. It’s the journey not the destination that counts don’t you know. And for what it’s worth Zadie Smith thinks him “a national treasure”. The Last Days of Roger Federer, the latest of twenty or so missives from the adventure, is as enigmatically entertaining as any of its predecessors. Nominally about the fading days of tennis stars, the process of quitting/having death quit you, or cutting out early to set up the come-back, it soon morphs into a study of endings in many genres and art forms. Needless to say he glides effortlessly from painters to philosophers, writers and musicians.
Wagner, Nietzsche, D.H.Lawrence, Philip Larkin, Louise Gluck, Beethoven, De Chirico, Annie Dillard, de Kooning, Keith Jarrett, obscure blues artists like R.L. Burnside, all are mixed in with aging tennis stars like Borg and McEnroe, and going to gigs by The Clash and Art Pepper, attending Burning Man, giving up marihuana, experimenting with DMT and coping with the decline of his own aging joints and muscles, long strained by his own decades of obsessive amateur tennis.
All is delivered in a sleekly giddy ride through the author’s many loves and devotions, spiced with the self-mocking wit that has become Dyer’s trademark. Make no mistake, this lad is funny. Funny and smart, funny and knowledgeable, funny and writerly, stringing words into sentences and paragraphs, funny and philosophical as he fails to work out the kinks of his Nietzsche obsessions, funny and informative as he quotes diverse sources on his subjects of preference.
Often that wit is rolled into the rolling tide of reflections on this, that and the other and cannot be successfully exorcised for the quick quotable chuckle. And at times the comeliness of his construction stops you short on that quest: “You would think that works made late in an artist’s life would mean more to you as you get older. It seems no bad thing that I started listening to Beethoven’s late quartets when I was roughly the age he was when he composed them. Even if they were and will be forever beyond my comprehension musically, I was ready for them in other ways. At twenty-five I didn’t even try “The Wings of the Dove” or “The Ambassadors”; I deliberately left late James – let alone what one scholar calls ‘late late James – for later, and now it’s too late.”
And later, thinking over delays between purchase and reading, with Joseph Brodsky as the test case, we see “Something happened with Louise Gluck: I made only limited progress with poems 1962-2012
When it came out, but prompted by her Nobel Prize win, I went back to it and am now within her austerely embodied consciousness, its gaunt sensuality and granite lyricism. The unapproachable intimacy of her work almost insists on some kind of hesitation on the part of the reader as an appropriately faltering response.”
From time to time in the unfolding of his fragmented yet cohesive vision, where shifting from Andy Murray to Bob Dylan and back again becomes hardly deserving of further comment, he comes to the witness box and confesses: “During an onstage discussion with John Berger about his creative longevity, how he managed to write so many books over such a long period of time. It was, he said, because he believed each book to be his last. To encourage me my wife points out that I’ve been saying I’m finished as a writer ever since we’ve met, more than twenty years ago. During this time I’ve written a lot of books. In a Berger-like way it’s the belief that I’m finished that’s kept me going, but since the gravitas he brought to my question sounds entirely inappropriate, my now preferred explanation is that each book has felt like getting in an extra round before time is called. But at some point time will be called and I’ll be proved right. Keep saying ‘this is the end’ often enough, as I said on the first page of this book, and you will have the last word. It’s a reason to keep talking, to keep on keeping on. ‘I finished my book!’ I wrote to a friend. Now, after six months of doing almost nothing, I wonder if I got that the wrong way around, has it finished me?”
A musician not quoted by Dyer, despite contemporaries like Peter Hamill and Jim Morrison being consulted for stoner eloquence, Robert Fripp has been fond of saying that sometimes the band begins by playing the music, but then, if the alchemy is just poured in the correct portions, the music opts to play the band and we are all elevated into the zone. With Dyer, the writer enamored of all the arts and sports, he opens by plotting his course, or seeming to, but ends up with the course playing him for all its worth. And believe me, it’s worth it.
Those of you who care to recall college, particularly those who harnessed themselves to Literature, either the English or Canadian variety, will remember, with varying degrees of fondness or frustration, those critical editions of classic texts, often but not always novels, that attempted to place you in the driver’s seat for an author and epoch long gone, allowing you something more than glimpse as to what it might have been like to read, say, Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure shortly after its release. The University of Ottawa has a line of such editions and I am discovering that they can be as fascinating as our major league competitors from the US and UK.
Take a breather from Joyce, Fitzgerald, James or Woolf and allow me to introduce you to Barney Allen, scion of a prominent Canadian family who pioneered the creation of theatre chains in the days of silent film and whose dutiful participation in the family empire left him sufficient energy to compose a quartet of novels, ascending, as Gregory Betts points out in his illuminating introduction and analysis, from the modernist avant-garde to the “ripping yarn” of 1965’s The Gynecologist, where “all highbrow literary intentions were set aside in this story of a doctor’s steamy affair with his patient.” Regardless of his literary contribution or lack of it, Mr. Allen is a quixotic chapter in the rather stunted growth of the Canadian avant-garde and deserves further attention, as much for the repressive reaction to his then shocking modernism as its pallid reproduction of other’s innovations. The early novels of Hugh MacLennan, (Strange Fugitive/Such Is My Beloved/More Joy in Heaven) with their pointed societal critiques, serve that cause with significantly more aplomb. While it is easily recognized that the text does focus on the shape and substance of bodies (hairy chests/heaving bosoms/luscious thighs) and the fleshly lusts of both sexes, repressed by convention but ever ready to spring forth, there is also an inordinate amount of fashion plate detail to satisfy any Vogue aficionado. These folks are dressed.
They Have Bodies comes to us as a novella (140pp) length narrative, once deemed offensive to Toronto society’s powers that be and forcibly removed from all sources immediately upon publication by those righteous defenders of public morality, the police, leaving the small US edition to fend for itself. As one critic reports in the contemporary jargon, it was ‘disappeared’. But only for a century. Only in Canada you say, pity.
Its sexual frankness, which pivots on the maid’s willing enthusiasm for sexual contact more than the expected power play of her employer, seeing her as a fully sexual being in her own right regardless of class, effectively joins the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Anais Nin and Barney Rosset in that cultural struggle to assert one’s erotic civil rights in the face of centuries of puritan condemnation and punishment. Internationally it will likely be seen as not much more than a fascinating footnote to those more ambitious works, but nationally, with our own cultural avant-gardists, Elizabeth Smart and Sheila Watson notwithstanding, so thin on the ground, it gains, and likely will retain, a significant niche. Its use of stream of consciousness, alternating with conventional narrative and gauche irruptions of the theatrical that ape but fail to equal the stylish wit of, say, Bernard Shaw, the work makes for a poor neighbour to the genius dazzle of an Ulysses. And as such professor Betts, being perhaps our most prominent scholar of the field in all its manifestations, while providing all the right signposts to further study, has a tendency to overlook its weaknesses. That the book was rigorously suppressed in its day fits with the timelines of state censorship ranging back to the 17th century, but stops well short of establishing any but the most paltry of literary achievement. In placing the then shocking findings of Freud in a fictional template, Allen perhaps fulfils a personal mandate yet fails to convince the reader of his characters’ reality outside of his authorial manipulations. The work may be, as Betts suggests, “the first sacrificial entry of the Canadian literary avant-garde” and a port of call in an ongoing voyage of discovery in one or more doctorates but rather falls flat in terms of literary excellence or even pleasure.
State censorship has been eroded by patient and fearless challenges over the decades but as we have seen in the past few years, not entirely pacified. Dissent can still come with a hefty price. I suspect it always will. When one challenges the established order, the holders and exploiters of power and control, with their exercise of hidden agendas and manipulation of us debt ridden puppets at their pleasure, one takes the wrath that is freely passed around by those functionaries afraid of their own loss of status.
In our contemporary geopolitical environment where contemporary autocracies compete with the fabled rise of fascism for depth of repression and infamy, the topic of the Spanish Civil War is never far from reference. The University of Ottawa’s series of reissues Canada and The Spanish Civil War hopes to remedy any lack in the cultural and historical crossfire. And as I recall from the arguments still resounding over George Orwell’s memoir Homage to Catalonia, those embers can easily be relit. As Pete Ayrton remarks in the introduction to his fine and perhaps exhaustive anthology No Pasaran! (2016), although a small war in comparison with the two giants on its flanks it “continues to punch above its weight in terms of cultural and political resonance.” With its forty odd contributions from the likes of Andre Malraux, Luis Bunuel, Arthur Koestler, Muriel Rukeyser, Joan Sales and John Dos Passos it can and does serve as one of several foundational texts.
Under consideration here is Ted Allan’s contribution This Time a Better Earth, edited and introduced by Bart Vautour. Author Allan will perhaps be better remembered for his 1952 work The Scalpel, the Sword: The Story of Doctor Norman Bethune, and his award winning screenplay for the film Lies My Father Told Me, this carefully fictionalized memoir belongs on a shelf with its contemporaries as the sobering distance of history shakes down the competing myths and ideologies to produce the balanced portrait we know is there, ready to instruct. The camraderie and naive idealism of the young men volunteering for what became the MacKenzie-Papineau battalion is admirably evoked as they buck up their nerve to fight off the growing threat of fascism as exemplified by Franco’s Royalist rebels backed up by Hitler’s bombers and Mussolini’s troops. It is still unclear whether Allan, as ‘Bob’, actually had the extended romance with ‘Lisa’, based on the very real war photographer Gerda Taro, whose death on the field of battle was turned into a useful martyrdom for the Communist cause with a cast of thousands at her Parisian funeral cortege, but the frank and unsentimental portrayal of their love bond is as convincing and touching as the male bonding of the men under fire and repeated bombardment. I must say I found the descriptive realism quite riveting, albeit in the small doses the novella supplies. Critical editions encourage the sober scholarly reexamination but I suspect even a casual reader could be enthralled with this slice of political and cultural history.
The recent reversal on abortion rights by the US Supreme Court has returned the spotlight to civil rights issues we thought resolved decades ago. The tributaries to this resuscitated river of raging patriarchy are many, and deserve a deeper study that I can give here, but of interest to Canadian readers is the recent account by Karin Wells of 1970’s The Abortion Caravan, where a couple of vans and a car with approximately seventeen women, made their way across the country from Vancouver to Ottawa to alert the populace and then Liberal government lead by Pierre Trudeau to the plight of the many women dying from botched backstreet abortions and the dire necessity for the loosening of restrictions. Such were the times, an epoch still smarting from the fifties’ commie paranoia, that these women liberationists were seen as dangerous lefties by the RCMP and their progress carefully monitored for any eruptions of threatening radicalism. Don’t forget this is 1970, (about five months before the eruption of the October Crisis and the invocation of the War Measures Act), when long distance phone calls and the odd newspaper headline were the paltry means of news transfer as the women made their way through the prairie provinces and into Ontario, gathering more supporters along the way.
Women’s Liberation groups were well established in many towns and cities by this point, but this seems to have been their first collective action and the growing pains of diverse competing agendas, with some looking to smash the stranglehold of patriarchy and others the complete overthrow of capitalism, now looks quaint and naïve. Now we might man the barricades while making plans for next weekend. Yet their bravery and determination in the face of a government satisfied with the previous year’s establishment of therapeutic abortion committees in hospitals to which women could appeal, only through their doctors of course, has to be admired. It should be noted that approximately 19 out of 20 requests were refused. And in the face of the US anti-Vietnam protests, huge after the shootings at Kent State, their own protest seemed somewhat insignificant, even to them in their fervour. But they followed through and wound up in Ottawa with hundreds joining their march to 24 Sussex Drive, where they spontaneously squatted on the lawn and eventually deposited the symbolic coffin, topped with those gruesome reminders of suction pumps, knitting needles and lysol, on the porch of the Prime Minister’s residence for the grand irreversible gesture. This was more or less repeated in the following days in Parliament, where, with fake id’s, ladylike clothing, white gloves and hidden chains they quietly occupied the public galleries and began to shout their slogans one by one, confusing security and bringing debate to a halt and humiliating headlines to the following days’ papers.
Their efforts, mostly self-funded and what you might call barebones, certainly brought public attention to their cause, although the laws were not modified for many years, those same years during which Henry Morgentaler repeatedly challenged the status quo with his independent clinics. With this book author Wells has served the cultural history of Canada well and with honour, reminding us of the long struggles until the repeal, under then new Charter of Rights in 1988, of the shaming and injury of women seeking to return control of their bodies from those male elites who assume they know better.
That comparisons can be made to Andrew Lawton’s very recent book length report The Freedom Convoy might surprise and even offend some, yet I feel they should be indicated. Determined idealists crossed the country, initially on their own dime, convinced that government policy was harming a goodly portion of the populace while trashing our cherished civil rights and were adamant that their demands should be met, or at least listened to. The distance between 1970 and 2022 can be measured in a number of ways: diversity of participants; sudden amassing of finances; instant, or close to it, communication between community members and on out into the world. At times it became like a continuation of the Vietnam-era chant: “the whole world is watching!” It seemed like our national response was somewhere between pride and embarrassment: pride that we were finally being paid attention to, embarrassment that we’d been caught with our pants down. But that’s just me; in the raucous debate that the convoy aroused there were many mes with pointed opinions.
Lawton’s recounting of the unfolding drama strikes me as a sober and relatively unbiased assessment of the confusions aroused by the numerous online commentators, the misrepresentations of the mainstream media and the dysfunctional and uncoordinated response of the various levels of government. Every claim and assertion is carefully footnoted for those who might suspect otherwise. That further accounts will appear in the months to come is a given, but this is a fair start.
Eva Kolacz third book of poems is a very welcome addition to her growing accomplishment. The lyrics show a maturity and what I might call a more pungent lyricism than was previously shared. Ribbons of underlying melancholy are resolved into gifts of submission and acceptance. As the poet charms herself into an embrace of the stern blows of fate’s severities we too are charmed by the beauty of the language on which that embrace travels as it performs those shapely incisions in our perturbed defenses. This is a collection I found myself turning to in those odd moments of distraction, when the small gifts of insight can render confusion radiant.
Offering me only a few seconds at a time of yourself
Is not enough.
Did I miss the point altogether when asking you, solace,
to give me back my peace of mind?
I long for the loving song of nothingness.
In other words, I’m here, waiting
behind the ornament of a smile covering my true appearance;
there is always more than one could see –
the length of unwanted thought inside the flesh, aching.
I’m older now, still balancing
on the tightrope six feet above the ground
with no mat below, not forgetting where I came from-
although my disconnection with you seems to be unstoppable.
As the cancerous poison of war makes its way around the planet, stirring tribes and ideologies into murderous rage and thrusts of vengeance, our sympathies flow to those struck down by ruthless military might, whether armored and uniformed or scruffy and militant. Once it was Yugoslavia, the former, then Rwanda then Serbia now Ukraine, with the many eruptions of the Arab Spring filling in any gaps. While the futility of neutrality feeds our sense of same and purpose, we try to tend the wounded, feed the hungry and provide safe haven for the refugees. Journalists, activists, diplomats, poets: each have their role, even as they criticize the other. That’s how tragedy prompts humanity.
Apricots of Donbas, bi-lingual collection of poems from one of the leading lights of contemporary Ukrainian literature, Lyuba Yakimchuk, and midwifed into English by three translators, Oksana Maksymchuk, Max Roschinsky and Sevtlana Lavochkina, is something of a poetic passport to that region’s suffering. And it is brought to us by Lost Horse Press in Sandpoint, Idaho. While many of the poems reflect the hostilities in the region of Luhansk where the author once lived in the 2014/15 period, there are a number which approach the ‘warfare of the kitchen and bedroom’, the politics of the familial and personal, some of which reek of the acerbic and satirical, drawing our grins and chuckles in this landscape of the grim.
As the bulk of poems were previously included in the 2015 collection “Abrykosy Donbasu” and 2009’s, “, iak MODA”, little of the text reflects the current hostilities of the Russian invasion and more the internal conflicts of the nation itself, which, like all civil wars, have deep historical roots. And whether we as readers choose NATO or Russian propaganda as our online influencer of note, the poetry stands or falls on its own merits, which I would say are mixed.
While there is much to recommend in these pages, it is marred by occasions of the clichéd and obvious, marring its potential for sublime. Whether that lies at the feet of the poet or translators is beyond my remit, but the recitation of awards, prizes and praise given to Yakimchuk, accolades for her spoken word performances, description of ‘a fashion icon for VogueUA’ and being ‘the mother of a ten-year-old’ seem somewhat superfluous to the actual architecture of the stanzas and stirs some dull suspicions.
we want back home, where we got our first grays
where the sky pours into windows in blue rays
where we planted a tree and raised a son
where we built a home that grew moldy without us
but the road back home blossoms with mines
needle grass and fog cover the open pits
we come back bitter, guilt ridden, reticent
we just want our home back and a little peace
if only to go there, to breath in the scent of mold
pulling yellowed photographs out of family albums
we’re going home where we won’t grow old
parents and graves and walls waiting for us
we will walk back even with bare feet
if we don’t find our home in the place where we left it
we will build another one in an apricot tree
out of luscious clouds, out of azure ether
Return to Journal
Gordon Phinn has been writing and publishing in a number of genres and formats since 1975, and through a great deal of change and growth in CanLit. Canada’s literary field has gone from the nationalist birth pangs of ’65 – ’75 to its full blooming of the 80s and 90s, and it is currently coping as well as it can with the immediacy and proliferation of digital exposure and all the financial trials that come with it. Phinn’s own reactions was to open himself to the practices of blogging and videoblogging, and he now considers himself something of an old hand. His Youtube podcast, GordsPoetryShow, has just reached its 78th edition, and his my blog “anotherwordofgord” at WordPress continues to attract subscribers.
Phinn’s book output is split between literary titles, most recently, The Poet Stuart, Bowering and McFadden, and It’s All About Me. His metaphysical expression includes You Are History, The Word of Gord On The Meaning Of Life.
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