Sunday, January 20, 2019

Peace Tower emerges at last against a complicated sky

Phew! Finally finished this last puzzle of the season. The image of the Parliament Buildings with the Peace Tower pops, and so it should, as the symbolic expression of our national ideals.

I first saw Parliament Hill when I was sixteen, on a tour to New York and the UN after winning an essay contest. Oddly, my daughter was the same age when we visited this place together, spending time in Ottawa when a power outage caused the airport to close, altering our travel plans.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Milkman by Anna Burns

The realism of this unreal novel is unbearably chilling; yet at times Anna Burns achieves a zany humour. To avoid thinking of the sectarian violence and sexual bullying that she's supposed to accept as normal, the 18-year old female protagonist reads while she walks. Soon this eccentric and socially unsanctioned behaviour causes neighbours to gossip. She resorts to running, another escape, and the story darkens as the violently sectarian "Milkman" begins stalking her. For the narrator, changing her route and practice means allowing "religious geography" to constrain her movements. The implicit threat to her is exacerbated by the gossip mill, which inists she's the lover of the married, middle-aged renouncer of the government.

Meanwhile, the community, including her mother, fail to acknowledge his creepy encroachment on her space. Trained to be polite, she finds herself unable to brush off the man: the stalker claims to know her brothers and her father, so is deemed safe.

In this time and place, "violence was everyone's gauge for judging everyone else." And the young woman chooses her "maybe boyfriend" because he doesn't get involved in it. References to routine fighting, drunkenness and violence begin in the first lines of the novel, and they hit harder, as the the narrator piles on images of decimated families, riots and shootings, like that of "Somebody McSomebody's brother."

Danger besets this narrator at every turn, and as an intelligent young woman, she does what she can to protect herself against it. Unfortunately, her carefully constructed protective mechanisms backfire. Her unusual practices (walking while reading, running in the park) are snatched away by the predatory behavior of the Milkman, but not before the emotional walls she has erected begin to alienate her from herself, as well as from her nosy neighbours. The description of the suffocating society she inhabits comes out in language like this: "A whole chivvy of mothers trying to get their daughters wed." In this mad place, even for the girl's mother a marriage to a "bigamous terrorist" will do, if it will save her daughter's reputation.

Burns uses a powerful technique of anonymity, never mentioning the specifics of her setting. Instead, she refers to the people of the "other religion" who live "over the road," while those who have left the country have gone "over the water." We never learn the name of the protagonist, who refers to the people in her life as Maybe-boyfriend and French Teacher, Tablets Girl and Nuclear Boy, and refers to her relatives as first brother-in-law, second little sister, and so on.

The tension ran high through this book; I both wanted and dreaded to find out what would happen. Yet I couldn't possibly have predicted or even imagined how it would end until it did. Then it made sense. Anna Burns grew up in Belfast during the Troubles. This novel won the 2018 Booker Prize.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim

I meant to read this book years ago. When it first came out in the mid-seventies, children's literature was quite a new field of study at UBC. Bettelheim's idea that fairy tales convey psychological support to children fascinates me still. After picking this well-worn copy from the VPL, I crossed the breezeway, got a coffee and rhen settled down to read.

Fairy tales, says child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, are "works of art which are fully comprehensible to the child." They "represent in imagination what the process of healthy development consists of," making this "attractive for the child to engage in." The author claims that "fairy tales make "great and positive psychological contributions to the child's inner growth."

He contrasts traditional fairy tales with more engineered forms of children's literature. Some children's books are designed to teach reading, but Bettelheim finds fault with the idea of trying to teach the skill of reading, irrespective of meaning, calling such efforts shallow. Modern stories written for young children, he says, often avoid the existential problems that "are critical issues for all of us." Calling the unconscious "a powerful determinant of behaviour," he warns of the dangers of repressing it, adding that "when unconscious material is...permitted to come to awareness and worked through in imagination, its potential for causing much reduced" and "some of its forces can then be made to serve positive purposes."

Besides, he says, reading is a difficult skill, and "becomes devalued when what one has learned to read adds nothing of importance to one's life." He supports this strong claim with arguments about the importance of achieving psychological wholeness. Life is a difficult business, and rather than belittling childish fears and other strong emotions, adults should support kids by giving "full credence to the seriousness of the child's predicaments, while simultaneously promoting confidence" in his or her future.

Fairy tales provide "a moral education which is subtly, and by implication only, conveys...the advantages of moral behaviour, not through abstract ethical concepts but through what seems tangibly right and meaningful." Such works "speak simultaneously to all levels of the human personality." This line of thought is much more than speculation from the ivory tower of psychology.

Undeniably "one-sided [reading] fare nourishes the mind only in a one-sided way, and real life is not always sunny." The author alludes to the "widespread refusal to let children know that the source of much that goes wrong in life is due to our very own natures, the propensity...for acting aggressively, asocially, selfishly, out of anger and anxiety." But, he warns, "children know they are not always good; and often, even when they are, they would prefer not to be," which realization can "make the child a monster in his own eyes."

"Reading and being read to are essential means of education," states Bettelheim, and I wonder now, only four decades on, how many people have given up reading to their children in exchange for sharing the rising tide of visual culture with them. I muse too, on how this dramatic change in child-rearing might influence the psychological well-being of future generations.

Returning to Bettelheim's fairy tale interpretations, we may begin with The Three Little Pigs. This well-loved story portrays the process of maturation. "The child identifies with each of them in turn, and recognizes the progression of identity." Since the story represents "stages in the development of man, the disappearance of the first two little pigs is not traumatic; the child understands subconsciously that we have to shed earlier forms of existence if we wish to move on to higher ones." There is nothing didactic in this message, and it permits children to draw their own conclusions, a process that "makes for true maturing, while telling the child what to do just replaces the bondage of his own immaturity with a bondage of servitude to the dicta of adults."

Another popular fairy tale is Little Red Riding Hood. In this story, "the kindly grandmother undergoes a sudden replacement by the rapacious wolf which threatens to destroy the child." Though we adults "may think the transformation unnecessarily scary," it is no more scary than feeling the sudden rage of a real granny, who may appear to have become an ogre when a fit of anger may make her "suddenly act in a radically different fashion." The story assures the child that "the Wolf is a passing manifestation--Grandma will return triumphant." Moreover, "the fantasy of the wicked stepmother...preserves the image of the good mother," and "helps the child not to be devastated by experiencing his mother as evil."

Interestingly, ten years before this book's initial publication, the song Li'l Red Riding Hood hit the top of the charts. Introduced by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, it was later sung by such popular groups as the Lovin' Spoonful, the Trogs, the Animals and the Rolling Stones. The lyrics make explicit the dark side of predatory male tendencies, along with a man's conscious rational decision to curb them.

Bettelheim explains the psychology of integration through stories of two brothers, or a brother and sister [Hansel and Gretel can be interpreted as opposing aspects of the personality functioning as a team and working to their strengths]. The powerful developmental stage of the Oedipal complex is portrayed through stories of damsels in distress and knights in shining armour. While a boy inevitably passes through the stage where he "wants Mother to admire him as the greatest hero of all, that means he must somehow get Father out of the way," and this idea "creates anxiety: one the one hand, how would the family thrive without Father's protection, and on the other, how would the small and relatively powerless boy cope with his potential revenge?"

Similarly fascinating interpretations are given for such well-known tales as Jack and the Beanstalk [moving away from the mother and achieving manhood] and Snow White [coming to terms with the sexual bleeding of menstruation, intercourse and birth, as well as oedipal issues].

Goldilocks and the Three Bears, says Bettelheim, is laden with meaning; though it "lacks the most important feature of a true fairy tale" (a happy ending), it "deals symbolically with some of the most important growing-up problems of the child: the struggle with the oedipal predicaments; the search for identity, and sibling rivalry."

Pointing out that fairy tales are common to all cultures, he also interprets a variation of the Genie and the Lamp, from the 1001 Arabian Nights. Called The Fisherman and the Jinny, this version of the tale, is "richer in hidden messages than other versions." Trapped in the bottle, the genie goes through the same stages of attitude and emotion as a child whose parent has left for a time. First, he will be happy and reward the person who releases him; then he decides to grant three wishes to the one who releases him. Finally, though, as more time passes with no rescuer in sight, he waxes "exceeding wroth" and tells himself that he will slay the one who lets him out. "The way the Jinny's thoughts evolve gives the story psychological truth for a child."

To conclude, "Myths and fairy stories answer the eternal questions: what is the world really like? How am I to live in it? How can I truly be myself?" Sanitized and didactic works of literature do not provide the nourishing intellectual and emotional food that can be found in fairy tales. If these tales did not provide the developmentally supportive nourishment they crave, why would children insist on hearing the same ones again and again?

Friday, January 11, 2019

Patricia Sandberg presents on that elusive quality, voice

January 10, author Patricia Sandberg gave a presentation to the local branch of Canadian Authors. Referring to her self-published book Sun Dogs and Yellowcake, she talked about getting the voices of her fellow townspeople right, and described her project as a "memoir of a town."

Before assembing her fascinating work of Canadian social history, Sandberg interviewed over a hundred people who had lived in the temporary fifties boom town of Gunnar Mines. There she too grew up, playing in the tailings pond with other kids and handling yellowcake, partially refined uranium ore destined for the Cold War weapons buildup. Located in northern Saskatchewan, this purpose-built town grew into a warm community that left its former residents with warm memories even decades later. What remains are the memories and the ongoing cleanup.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019


Recently, I learned how the old word avatar is now used in computer parlance. Wikipedia describes it as the "graphical representation of the user or the user's alter ego or character." It's also an acronym that stands for: Advanced Video Attribute Terminal Assembler and Recreator.

The word avatar is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning descent. It entered English in the nineteenth century to refer to earthly incarnations of Hindu deities like Vishnu.

Today it is also used metaphorically as the embodiment or representation of a person or idea. And, it's the title of a famous 2009 film.

That cute little avatar in the picture is actually a stain on a cafe table, left by scraped-off paint.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Books Read in 2018

For the past few years, I've been tracking the books I read. In 2018, I logged 109 volumes in all genres. Down from 126 in 2017, but the good news is, I've been writing more. In fact, I finally finished my novel manuscript and am in the process of shopping it around. Hope my writer friends will keep their fingers crossed that I get an agent and then a publisher! Happy Reading Year, everyone. In 2018, I read the following books:

Ann Cleeves                  The Moth Catcher (CD)
Ann Cleeves                  Thin Air
Robert Galbraith           The Cuckoo’s Calling (CD)
Daisy Styles                   The Code Girls
Daisy Styles                   Secrets of the Bomb Girls
Christina Baldwin         Seven Whispers         
Stanley Evans                 Seaweed Under Water

Faroud Laroui                               The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers     
Leila Aboulela                              The Kindness of Enemies
Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)    The Silkworm (CD)
Ruth Montgomery                        The World to Come                                        

Lucilla Andrews                            A Weekend in the Garden
Leila Lalami                                  Secret Son
Sadeq Hedayat                              Sadeq Hadayat, an Anthology (read part)
Alex Berenson                              The Silent Man (CD)
Lucilla Andrews                            One Night in London
Peter Selgin                                   179 Ways to Save a Novel
Helen Simonson                            Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
Jack Knox                                      Hard Knox: Musings from the edge of Canada 

Paul Willett                                    Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms
Anita Brookner                              Hotel du Lac
Jo Nesbo                                        The Son (CD)
Robert Galbraith                            Career of Evil (CD)
Daniel Kalla                                   Rising Sun, Falling Shadow
Lisa See                                          The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane          

Lisa See                                          Dreams of Joy (book 2 of trilogy)
Elizabeth George                            With No One as Witness (CD)
Peter Carey                                     A Long Way from Home
Lucy Ribchester                              The Amber Shadows
Jane Friedman                                 How to Publish Your Book (book & CD)
Xiaolu Guo                                     Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth
Emma Donohue                              Astray (CD)                                                      

Simon Singh                                    The Code Book
Tessa Hadley                                    The Bletchley Girls (CD)
Xiaolu Guo                                       Nine Continents
Anne Marie Drosso                          Cairo Stories
Jacqueline Baker                              The Broken Hours
Jack Knox                                         Opportunity Knox
Margareta Magnussen                      The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning
Douglas Todd                                    The Soul Searchers Guide to the Galaxy
Douglas Todd                                    Brave Souls
Katherine Ashenburg                         All the Dirt: the History of Getting Clean
Katherine Ashenburg                         Sofie and Cecilia
Anne Marie Drosso                            In their Father’s House
Xiaolu Guo                                         A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
Amanda Quick                                   Till Death do us Part (CD)
Amanda Quick                                   The River Knows
Elinor Florence                                   Wildwood
Alan Bradley                                       A Red Herring without Mustard (CD)                    

Asa Briggs                                             Secret Days: Code Breaking at Bletchley Park
Alan Bradley                                          The Dead in their Vaulted Arches (CD)
Alan Bradley                                          The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place (CD)
Susanna Kearsley                                  Bellewether
Oliver Sacks                                           The Mind’s Eye
Laurel Deedrick-Mayne                         A Wake for Dreamland
Amanda Quick                                       A Perfect Poison
Amanda Quick                                       Otherwise Engaged
Frank and Joan Shaw                            We Remember The Blitz
John Lawton                                          Friends and Traitors
Elizabeth Claire Prophet                        St. Germain’s Prophecy for the Millenium    

Amanda Quick                                       Burning Lamp
Alan Bradley                                          Speaking from Among the Bones (CD)
Alan Bradley                                         I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
Laurel Deedrick-Mayne                         A Wake for the Dreamland
Kamila Shamsie                                     Home Fire
Rachel Lebowitz                                    Hannus
Ahmad Danny Ramadan                       The Clothesline Swing (didn't finish; lost interest)
Simon Winchester                                 Atlantic (CD)
Simon Winchester                                 Pacific (CD)
Ian McEwan                                          First Love Last Rites
Dean Radin                                           Real Magic: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Science, and… 
Marlo Morgan                                       Mutant Message Down Under                     

Dennis Bock                                          The Communist’s Daughter (CD)
Agatha Christie                                      They Came to Baghdad (CD)
Michael Ondaatje                                   Warlight
Benjamin Black                                     The Silver Swan (CD)
Jeffrey Archer                                        Mightier than the Sword (CD)                        
Kate Atkinson                                        Case Histories                             

Dr. Russ Harris                                     The Happiness Trap (partly read ebook)
Agatha Christie                                     The Mystery of the Blue Train
Kagiso Lesogo Molope                         This Book Betrays my Brother
Amanda Quick                                       Garden of Lies (CD)
Alexander McCall Smith                       A Time of Love and Tartan
Alexander McCall Smith                       The Quiet Side of Passion
Keith Ogilvie                                         The Spitfire Luck of Skeets Ogilvie
Jeffrey Archer                                        Best Kept Secret
Jeffrey Archer                                        Be Careful What you Wish for        (CD)
Lloyd C. Douglas                                   Summer of the Red Wolf                                          
 Jeffrey Archer                              Only Time will Tell (CD)
Susan Crean                                 Finding Mr. Wong
Jeffrey Archer                              Cometh the Hour (CD)
Jeffrey Archer                              This was a Man (CD)
Simon Winchester                        Outposts (CD)
Sisonke Msimang                        Always Another Country
George Saunders                          Lincoln in the Bardo (not finished, bored)
Stuart Hylton                                Their Darkest Hour: the Hidden History of the Home Front
Ian Rankin                                    In a House of Lies                                                       

Tana French                                In the Woods
Tana French                                Faithful Place (CD)                                
Malebo Sephodi                          Miss Behave
Bill Johnson                                A Story is a Promise
Aminatta Forna                           The Memory of Love (not finished, lost interest)
Alexander McCall Smith            Chance Encounters (CD)            
AJ Pearce                                    Dear Mrs. Bird                           
Wanda John-Kehewin                 Seven Sacred Truths
Robert Galbraith                         Lethal White (CD)
Donna Leon                                 The Temptation of Forgiveness (CD)
Anne Lamott                                Almost Everything: Notes on Hope
Tana French                         Broken Harbour (CD)

The lines between separate months. I didn't read in December because I was frantically writing, and then it was Christmas and puzzle season.

Apologies to Jarvis et al, and thanks for the lesson

The mythical Jarvis, along with his putative confederates, has earned my apology. Impugning his reputation was wrong.

Turned into a life lesson. With our long history of jigsaw anomalies, I expected something odd to happen again. Thus, I unconsciously created it, by accidentally misplacing one piece and failing to notice the empty slot for another.

This came to light when my husband insisted the missing piece had to be somewhere. With his encouragement, I found it under the table, and then discovered the gap where the other fit. Anway, putting together the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was a big challenge and provided an interesting lesson in art history, not to mention a close look at a place I'll probably never see.