The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

I would probably never have read this book if it hadn’t been voted on by the majority of people in my book club.

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The description didn’t particularly grab me, but if I had “judged the book by its cover” as the saying goes, then I would have never discovered this excellent work of literary fiction that is the best thing I’ve read since All the Light We Cannot See.

There’s not too many times where I read contemporary fiction and elevate it to a modern classic, but I would with Mira Jacob‘s brilliant and lengthy debut that took her 10 years to write.

The main character, Amina Eapen, is the same age as me, and I think that had something to do with why I liked it so much. I could relate to her, even though my family is not Indian, I haven’t suffered a heartbreaking family tragedy, I am not a photographer, and I am no longer single and getting questioned about boys.

It didn’t matter because at the heart of this novel is a story about family and relationships, of holding on and letting go and living in the delicate balance between those two doors that we can all identify with.

The novel is epic in the sense of its length (about 500 pages), scope (taking place in 1970s India, 1980s New Mexico, and 1990s Seattle), and structure: two alternating storylines that hinge on two members of the Eapen family: one concerning her rebellious older brother Akhil, the other concerning her father Thomas, a brain surgeon. Despite the palpable grief that lives in this novel, it didn’t feel weighed down by it. And even though medical conditions come into play,  it didn’t ever strike me as a “disease”-type book in the way Still Alice is, where a medical diagnosis drives the plot.

No, this was a book rich in family dynamics that made me laugh out loud numerous times, that made me reread phrases because of the deft and beautiful way Jacob described some everyday thing, and that made me poke my nose out of the book and tell my husband to listen to this line so he could agree with me that “That’s exactly what it’s like!”

As a lover of similes and metaphors, Jacob’s prose is full of them. Here are some of my favourites:

She could feel her need to get off the boat as sharply as a full bladder.

Their parents, turning and returning to the dining room table to huddle over the old photo albums like caged parrots clutching at a shared axis.

“My parents. It’s weird. They go everywhere together now. The garden, the porch, probably the bathroom for all I know. It’s like they’re dating or something.”

“That’s sweet.”

“No it’s not. It’s like having the sun set on the wrong fucking side of the sky.”

And listen to this description of something I would never think to give this kind of attention to but as soon as Jacob says it, yes. I have seen my father be that mythical beast.

“Amina?” Her father opened her bedroom door on the last school night of the year. “Can I come in?”

Why do fathers always look ungainly in their daughter’s bedrooms? Like mythical beasts wandered in from the forest of another world?

And the dialogue is a bang-on, too. I especially loved all the repartees between Amina and her mother, Kamala, (or really Kamala with anybody) whose character comes to life so much based on the way she speaks.

“Wait just one minute, Mr. Big Horses!” Kamala yelled at Chacko. “Don’t you sit there yak-yakking for me!”

Or:

“I’d love to have dinner, Mrs. Eapen, as long as I don’t put you out.”

“Not out! In. I’m cooking.”

This is a book that, for lack of a better phrase, felt very true.

And the ending, just right.

 

Looking for the Character Behind So Much Wit

Yesterday, I saw Wit at Pacific Theatre by Margaret Edson. It was moving and brilliantly acted.

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The story almost all takes place in the hospital and in the present. 50-year-old Dr. Vivian Bearing, professor of 17th century metaphysical poetry specializing in John Donne, has been diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer. “There is no stage 5,” she tells us.

She narrates the story for us and we watch her when she learns of her diagnosis, when she is reminiscing about her successful academic career, when she is undergoing medical exams, when she pukes her brains out into a bucket, when she is screaming and writhing in pain from the effects of the full dosage medication the doctor gives her, and lastly, when she walks from this world into the next. Through this all, we see, as the play’s description reads, “her intellectual armour giv[ing] way to her need for human kindness.”

Katharine Venour, who plays Vivian Bearing, did a thoroughly convincing job as an unrelentingly hard academic and as a cancer patient whose pain, fears, and vulnerability felt entirely believable. Her dry humour and cynicism gave her a lot of funny lines and I laughed much more than I thought I would in a play about a woman dying of cancer.

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Photo by Emily Cooper.

In pondering the play more and more though, I can’t remove the niggling feeling that something was missing.

I think it had to do with the fact that as sympathetic as Vivian was, I didn’t know her very well, and it’s hard for me to fully embrace a character that I don’t know. This is more an issue I have with the storyline.

Because Vivian is such a demanding professor who puts research above relationships, no one comes to visit her in the hospital (except at the very end, her old professor played by Erla Faye Forsyth shows up and reads her Runaway Bunny in one of the most touching and human scenes of the play).

When the young Dr. Jason Pozner doing his fellowship takes Vivian’s medical history, we learn that her parents have died and she has no siblings. This accounts for no immediate family members visiting her in the hospital, but what about an uncle, an aunt, even a cousin?  One of the best ways to know someone is to watch them with their family, but aside from one flashback between Vivian and her distant father, we aren’t shown any family. I know this is part of the point—to show how isolated Vivian is—and I know some people just don’t have any siblings—but I find it difficult to really know, and hence connect with a character (in a novel or play), if I don’t see them with people who share some common history.

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Katharine Venour  as Vivian and Dan Amos as Dr. Jason Pozner. Photo from soulfoodvancouver.blogspot.com

There’s a really funny line when Dr. Pozner asks Vivian some questions like, “Ever been married?” “Every been pregnant?” to which the answer is “no”, and then in his casually charming and completely insensitive way, “Okay, well that’s it for life history.” Vivian responds with one of her many wry asides to the audience that goes something like, “Yup, because that’s all my life history.” We laugh because of course there’s more to a person/a woman than marriage or kids, but the play doesn’t actually fill in those gaps of her life story so all we know is she’s an excellent and exacting Donne scholar and she has no family or friendships. I wanted a bit more.

On the other hand, you could say this missing piece highlights a central theme of the play in reminding us of what really matters in life (and death).

Thankfully, we witness a thread of friendship in the short relationship Vivian develops with a compassionate nurse named Susie.

Being a Donne fan myself, I highly enjoyed all the quotations and references to his work (the classroom scene was superb). His Holy Sonnet X got the most air time, and Vivian’s professor delivered a gripping speech near the beginning on why there should be a comma and not a colon between “more” and “Death” in the last line. It is not an awkward and abrupt semicolon that separates us from life and death. It is a breath, a whisper, a comma.

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.

My favourite audio version of this poem is in this opening to Canadian spoken word poet Shane Koyczan‘s Move Pen Move, which, no matter how many times I hear it, moves every piece of me.

Wit is showing at Pacific Theatre until tomorrow, June 11.

They keep saying they are happy

I didn’t participate in Bike to Work this week because biking from Vancouver to Surrey along Highway 91 is a) very long and b) a little dangerous, but I like to think I made up for it by biking from Marpole, the southernmost neighbourhood of the city, to the ocean at Jericho Beach today.

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And I was so excited by what I saw on my ride home that I’m on my computer now to share it with you.

I haven’t posted about a public artwork in a while but this one stopped me full-pedal and had me rummaging through my backpack for my camera.

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This LED screen at Point Grey Road and Collingwood Street containing short, pithy statements that rotate every few minutes was right outside a residential house in the affluent neighbourhood of Kitsilano. It was strangely discreet (except for the pink Vancouver Biennale sign) and yet obviously not something you’d expect to see on a scenic route.

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I watched it for a few minutes to see about three different narratives appear on the screen.

Called Vancouver Novel, it was made by Brazilian artist João Loureiro. The description on the sign says:

Inspired by the Vancouver Biennale’s 2014-2016 exhibition theme Open Borders / Crossroads Vancouver, Vancouver Novel by João Loureiro explores the shifting boundaries between public and private life in an era marked by social media and reality TV.  Situated in one of Vancouver’s most exclusive waterfront neighbourhoods, the installation cycles through a series of 23 sentences which weave a poignant narrative of daily life.  These snippets of domesticity, by turns banal and ominous, underscore our ever-growing appetite for updated information and continuous content.  Intensely personal and yet broadcast for the world to see, Vancouver Novel asks us to consider the narrowing chasm between our public and private lives.

While I was photographing the screen, I experienced an uneasiness between the public and private spheres because even though this was “public art,” I was taking pictures of someone’s home. Something like this ran through my mind: Do the the residents know this is here? They must! The artist would have had to get their permission, I’m sure. But they must have gawkers like me all the time just standing outside their home reading this sign. How annoying!

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And then when you watch this short clip, you realize the artist’s work is a fictional story about the occupants in the house, which takes it to a whole new level of voyeurism and discomfort.

 

Yet I think maybe we are supposed to squirm a little? If we had a sign outside our home, what would our story be?

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In some ways, we each already do. It may not be an LED screen and it may not be constantly running, but most of us turn to social media to provide status updates of what’s going on in our homes and lives. We’ve already made the private public, but I think why Vancouver Novel is so powerful is because:

  • Having your private life aired on a screen like a reality TV show where you don’t control who sees it is that much more vulnerable than putting it on social media where you can still put safeguards in place around privacy and security.
  • The “status updates” on this sign aren’t the “show how cool/beautiful/exciting your life is to make everybody else jealous” type of updates most people post on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram etc. Some of the sentences are banal but some are acutely poignant and even dark. In 23 lines, we witness the unhappiness, the struggle, the pretense, and possibly the demise of a relationship.

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  • There’s an assumption that affluent people have perfect lives because everything on the outside looks that way: their houses, their cars, their clothes, their vacations, their kids etc. Vancouver Novel reminds us that we really have no clue what goes on behind those pretty, perfect doors. Things aren’t always what they seem.
  • Vancouver is the city everybody wants to live in. It’s come under fire more recently for its high costs and inaccessibility, but there is still this golden aura to the city. I think the artist must know something about this, or why would he call it Vancouver Novel? He’s turning the narrative of the city on its head, cracking open its shiny facade and exposing its grimy underbelly.

This is what art does—exposes things. As much as I love my city, this Vancouver Novel needs to be written. João Loureiro may have intended it as fictional story, but I think there are elements of reality to it that we are all uncomfortably familiar with.

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Carried Along Kim Thúy’s Ru

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t posted as much in the last while. I’m not exactly sure what’s all been keeping me from blogging, but this has been one of them:

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Ru is the début novel of Saigon-born, Montreal-based writer Kim Thúy. It isn’t a very long book (145 pages) and not even all the pages are full of text (the chapters are more like vignettes that read like prose poems). Normally I’d read something like this in about a week, but it took me oh at least 3 times that long because I wanted to read it in the original French. (some French words are éparpillé [scattered] throughout this post so I can try retaining them!).

Ru reads like a memoir, recounting Thúy’s refugee journey at ten years of age, along with her family, from their palatial residence in Vietnam to Canada in 1979. She was a child of war, born during the Tet Offensive. (I didn’t know anything about the Vietnam War before reading this, so I also got a history and cultural lesson all in one). Before arriving in Canada, her family spent several months in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Mixed in this narrative that switches between past and present, memory and history, are vignettes of Thúy returning to her homeland as an adult to work with people from the communist north and capitalist south.

I know I didn’t catch every nuance, but even with my intermediate French, I can say this book is beautiful. In this CBC video interview, Thúy talks about loving words—how her first motivation for the book was to spend time with words. That certainly comes through. I’ve always loved the French language and this book only deepened that affection, which is why I’m going to concentrate primarily on her language in this “review.”

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What works so well (and why I could read the book) is because the sentences aren’t complicated or grandiose (though some are long and undulating). She’s not trying hard to be lyrical or emotional. The narrator, in fact, almost has a détachement [detachment] when she describes certain memories, even harrowing ones like a little boy’s death and a mother’s loss. But she’s not aloof with an “I’m too cool to care” attitude. Her prose is simply unadorned, stripped of embellishments and red herrings so the work is on the reader to sort out how we feel. Dépouiller [to strip, skin, undress] is a verb that appears in her story a lot, and it’s a good word to describe her prose. It also fits her journey—stripped of her home, her possessions, her culture, her language that became inutile [useless] once she landed in Granby, Quebec. In fact, Thúy talks about how as a child, she spoke very little, sometimes not all. Her cousin spoke for her, and she was her ombre [shadow].

This witty Vietnamese saying sums up her unadorned life and choice to not own too much stuff:

Seuls ceux qui ont des cheveux longs ont peur, car personne ne peut tirer les cheveux de celui qui n’en a pas.

Only those with long hair are afraid, because no one can pull the hair of those who don’t have any.

Thúy gives tribute to her hybrid identity (Vietnamese and Québecoise) in the epigraph of the novel where she defines what “ru” means:

En français, ru signifie <<petit ruisseau>> et, au figuré, <<écoulement (de larmes, de sang, d’argent)>>. En vietnamien, ru signifie <<berceuse>>, <<bercer>>.

In French, “rue” means a small stream, and figuratively, a flow (of tears, of blood, or money). In Vietnamese, “ru” means lullaby, to lull.

The book reads as one long “ru” or flow of words. You get a sense of this intention when you read her comments in this Globe and Mail article:

“I didn’t choose to write it or not to write it, or to structure it in any specific way,” she says. “I just wrote, and I followed its internal rhythm. For me it’s one breath.”

(Side note to aspiring writers: what a breath of fresh air to see a book can win awards like the Governor General’s without having a structure!) The book’s description on the Random House website of the English translation plays more on the metaphoric meaning of ru: “the flow of a life on the tides of unrest and on to more peaceful waters.”

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One thing I found myself paying attention to while reading is how many French verbs are taken from their nouns. For example, broom is un balai and to sweep is balayer. Piano is the same in French but the verb to tinkle on the ivories? Pianoter. How sensible is that? My new favourite French verb is papilloner, taken from the noun papillon, which is a butterfly. So what does papilloner mean? To flit from one thing to another. And that also describes how Thúy flits from memory to memory. The book is really one long game of word association where an image like an anchor or red leather will close out one vignette and open the next, even if only loosely.

Here’s an example of her beautiful language. She’s describing her Vietnamese neighbour in Quebec who survived, through writing, the horror of the reeducation camps operated by the Communist government after the Vietnam War:

Sans l’écriture, il n’aurait pas entendu aujourd’hui la neige fondre, les feuilles pousser et les nuages se promener. Il n’aurait pas non plus vu le cul-de-sac d’une pensée, la dépouille d’une étoile ou la texture d’une virgule.

Without writing, he wouldn’t have heard today the snow melt, the leaves grow, and the clouds go for a walk. He wouldn’t have seen the cul de sac of a thought, the remains of a star, or the texture of a comma.

There are so many evocative lines and reflective anecdotes that I want to gather from this book and share with you (but that might take me another 3 weeks!) Apparently the English translation by Sheila Fischman does it very good justice too.

And how winsome is she when she talks? Soft and rhythmic, comme une berceuse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getaway to Gibsons

To celebrate our 1-year anniversary (yes, already!), the Artist and I left the city for a few days and nestled into the charming marine community of Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast. We used Air B&B for the first time and greatly enjoyed waking up to this view from our studio suite by the sea.

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The last time I was in Gibsons, I was a child and don’t remember anything. So it was fun to be back and experience more of the culture of this artsy 4200-person town that almost seems like it has as many boats as people.

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Gibsons Marina

Tourism is the main economy here. Not a huge surprise when you read (all over the town) that this small coastal community became popular thanks to the longtime hit Canadian TV show The Beachcombers, which first aired in 1972 and ran until 1990. It was filmed in Gibsons, where Molly’s Reach restaurant and Molly’s Lane featured prominently (Molly’s Reach was a cafe in the show— it only opened as a restaurant after the series ended). We ate dinner one night at this iconic landmark decorated with newspaper clippings and photos of the cast on location.

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their classic fish taco

Persephone is the main character’s boat in the show, now sitting outside in a small park outside the restaurant. I have never seen an episode, but now I want to watch one after being immersed in this piece of Canadian television history. Crazy to think how CBC could make the longest-running Canadian comedy/drama about a log salvager who made his living travelling the BC coast looking for logs that had broken away from barges and booms and selling them back to lumber companies. “Beachcomber” means “a vagrant who makes his living by searching beaches for articles of value and selling them.” Small town coastal life in a nutshell, eh?

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Lower Gibsons (by the wharf) contains a variety of home and clothing stores, restaurants with great patios overlooking the water, a great gelato ice cream shop, the Gibsons Public Art Gallery, a visitor centre, and some professional offices. I loved their unique street signs and their wooden bird feeders decorating the street posts. So much charm and colour in this place.

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cute clothing stores in Molly’s Lane

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Gibsons Public Art Gallery

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IMG_3378And what would a post on Gibsons be without a few shots of the fabulous scenery?

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The Writer

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In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

By Richard Wilbur