Help! I’ve been abducted by Atlantic Canadians!

27 06 2010

Salty Ink is an excellent blog on Atlantic Canadian writers and books by Newfoundland author Chad Pelley. He does make the dated and for the most part unnecessary distinction between “genre” and “literary” fiction, but his coverage is broad, thoughtful, and really gets into the meat of what’s great about Atlantic Canadian writing.

Right now he’s running Atlantic Canada Reads, in which a panel selected six reader-nominated books for a no-holds-barred fight to the death over which book every Atlantic Canadianone should read this summer.

So I’ve been a little distracted from reading SF!

The nominees are Lisa Moore’s February, a story about a woman whose husband dies in the ocean ranger disaster; Kenneth J. Harvey’s Blackstrap Hawco, a tale of the beauty and the ugliness of Newfoundland; Lesley Choyce’s The Republic of Nothing, in which a small island declares independence and hijinks ensue; George Elliot Clarke’s George and Rue, a stunning prose-poem about the last public execution in New Brunswick, the crime that led up to it, and the way racism perpetuates inequality and crime in a bigger-than-its-britches city; Darryl Whetter’s The Push and the Pull an antidote to the nostalgic pastoralism of too much Atlantic Canadian (or pseudo-Atlantic Canadian *ahem* The Shipping News) writing, about sex death and bicycling; and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, about an intersex child born in Labrador’s ultra-masculine fishing culture.

Blog-readers get two choices. Even then, what a dilemma!

I haven’t read any of the books nominated, but I have read Clarke’s Governor General’s Award-winning Execution Poems, and I’m tempted to vote for George & Rue on that basis alone. When Matt Stranach suggests that Execution Poems may be the best book of poetry ever produced by an Atlantic Canadian author, he is not exaggerating; Clarke’s writing is spectacular and the book is one of the most powerful works of Canadian literature I’ve read.

But the other nominators make strong cases as well. Lesley Choyce is a hugely prolific author who has produced nearly 50 works of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction in the past 30 years. I’ve read about a dozen of them, and I can’t say that I’m a fan of his style, but I’ve always had a soft spot for micronations. The Republic of Nothing is probably a fun, light read.

In a violent storm, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank off the coast of Newfoundland in 1982, killing all 84 men aboard. In his office, my dad has a piece of cream-coloured card, beautifully printed with the words Amateurs built the ark; professionals built the ocean ranger. A quick Google to find the source of the quote tells me that the real expression refers to the Titanic (another Atlantic Canadian shipwreck) and that it’s meant to encourage amateurs to trust themselves, to ignore accepted wisdom, and to take risks.

In an engineer’s office, I always took it as a reminder of the importance of humility, of professional responsibility, of the fact that every project touches lives. It was from that simple, letter-pressed card that I first learned of the Ocean Ranger disaster. February is perhaps particularly relevant in the wake of the more recent oil rig explosion off Louisiana.

The book sounds like everything that’s delectable about so-called literary fiction; vivid descriptions of the every day, events drawn so skillfully it becomes impossible to miss the layers, the resonance, the deep connections that give meaning to human life. It’s passion, tragedy and heartbreak that’s palpable. This story, of families spread apart by the need to find work, broken by disaster at sea (even today), could be representative of life in the region.

I’m curious about Kathleen Winter’s Annabel – dying to read it – but nervous about it as well. I wouldn’t vote this one the book everyone should read without having read it because I’ve read few novels written by cissexual, cisgendered authors dealing explicitly with gender, transgender and intersex, that aren’t sensationalizing and dehumanizing. Trawling reviews, I’ve read that Winter’s story is carried by the characters and avoids being political (hmm…), and that Annabel’s condition is a device to explore “more conventional issues.” It is dehumanizing and exploitative to use the body and experiences of a non-cis person as a device to explore cis understandings of gender and sexuality. The Globe & Mail‘s review of the book gives me hope, but this remains the one book of the six that I’m the most unsure about.

Thanks to Nicole Dixon’s lucid, concrete pitch, Darryl Whetter’sThe Push and the Pull is high on my to-read list. It sounds like Dixon and I are frustrated by much the same trends in Atlantic Canadian literature, and she’s really convinced me to give this one a try. As a cyclist and perpetual pedestrian, I sympathise with Andrew Day, the main character of this Halifax-to-Kingston cycling odyssey as he faces down “the consequences of our car culture.”

I prefer Whetter’s stories of educated women torn between heart, crotch and briefcase to outport Gran’s poultice recipe for the croup. – Nicole Dixon (Yes! – Ed.)

I’m finding Blackstrap Hawko a little difficult to grasp, because Perry Moore’s pitch for Kenneth J. Harvey’s 825 page behemoth talks a lot about Newfoundland, and what Newfoundland isn’t, but not a lot about what Blackstrap Hawko is. I know I want to read it, but I’m not sure why.

So this, Jessica Grant‘s delectable Come, Thou Tortoise, Farah Mendlesohn’s terrific, Hugo-nominated The Inter-galactic Playground, and an abortive attempt at reading Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love (does anyone want to talk to me about Bold as Love? Because it’s really not working for me and I’m feeling painfully un-hip over the whole thing) have kept me from my project. I’ll be back on track before long.





I didn’t like “The Female Man.” It will probably take three posts for me to tell you how much.

21 04 2010

I’ve read about four books since my last post, and I am terribly behind on the blog. If there is any excuse for this, it is that one of them was The Female Man by Joanna Russ, it made me extremely uncomfortable, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about it. The books I read between The Female Man and this attempt to write about it have given me some insight and direction, but I still haven’t come to terms with the book. Perhaps the time has come to force it.

In The Female Man, we meet Janet, Jeannine, Joanna, and Jael, who live in versions of reality in which the conflict between men and women plays out in different ways. Joanna’s reality is the most like ours, that is, the most like ours was around the development of Second Wave feminism. Jeannine lives in a reality in which the Great Depression never ended and women’s role in society is quite restricted. In order to become a whole person, Jeannine must marry and produce children. Though she is not comfortable in this role, her family members remind her of it regularly, and she gives up hope for a better life. Janet is from a planet called Whileaway where all the men died in a plague about 800 years before the story takes place, and the women live a strange, communal lifestyle in which very young children are raised together in nurseries by mothers enjoying the one year of vacation they will experience in their lives, older children roam the world learning, young adults travel and do physically demanding work, and eventually join families, and the older women do sedentary, intellectual tasks. In Jael’s world, men and women are at war with each other – literally – and Jael uses violence in her interactions with men because she has long ago learned that attempts to achieve equality are futile. The book offers us insights into the feminine condition by sharing each woman’s reaction to the lives and difficulties of the others, potentially inspiring us to think about our own experiences as women.

Some critics describe The Female Man as one of the most influential and important works of feminist SF ever written, so it must have made it through to someone. There are certainly many works of wonderful feminist SF out there now, and Joanna Russ is responsible for blazing that trail, I am glad for this book. I don’t know enough about the history of feminist SF to guess at whether or not these claims are exaggerated. But there are other works of feminist SF from the 1970s that are much more radical and that resonate with me today. This one just makes me cringe.

My first minor complaint is a stylistic one. Each J-character takes the role of narrator, sometimes telling the story from an omniscient point of view, sometimes from a more limited first-person one, and it’s not always obvious when these transitions take place. At times, it is difficult to differentiate the narrative voices. This is surely a stylistic device, intended to demonstrate that the characters are in fact the same woman, nurtured by the environment in different ways, proving that women’s apparent weakness is the result of their upbringing, rather than any natural feminine deficiency, but it made it difficult to keep track of where the story was going and, more importantly, why the story was going there. I don’t need an easy-to-follow literature for dummies structure to appreciate a story – there are plenty of postmodernist texts that I adore and have no problem with, but reading The Female Man, I was more frustrated by the deliberately disconcerting structure than enlightened by it.

My second and third complaints – the important ones – are that The Female Man is surprisingly misogynistic, and horrifyingly transphobic. I realize that Joanna Russ is apparently no longer anti-trans, but the incredible, sexist disgust with which Russ portrays trans characters in the book is downright creepy by my standards. The fact that she no longer feels that way and that societal values are different from what they were when she wrote it doesn’t make me like the book any more. But more on both of those topics later; each one deserves a rant of its very own.

Currently Reading: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest