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The Ghost Road – Pat Barker

September 5, 2011

If I were an author, a serious author, somebody with a reputation and a skill, I think I would want my skill to be in writing something other than historical fiction. My assumption is that historical fiction can be quite an exhausting thing to write in terms of research and development and creating events and characters that fit into a narrative that is far grander than what can be captured in your story without contradicting it. But the reason I wouldn’t want to write historical fiction is because I don’t think I could do it as well as Pat Barker.

In The Ghost Road, as with the two previous books in her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker does something again. Something truly unique – so few words, but powerful. It is a clarity that is accomplished without the fantastical, verbose production of Mr. Rushdie, but by having reduced each sentence to what may be its bare necessities. This makes each of her novels in this trilogy a very short read – a challenge for the reader to pace rather than to read. To let it soak into your imagination and develop every single word that is placed on the page. That is what you need to do with Pat Barker’s writing:

Wansbeck’s predicament was worse than either of these cases. Siegfried’s apparitions vanished as soon as he agreed to give up on his protest and go back to France. The external demands the nocturnal visitors represented, and which Siegfried himself believed to be valid, had been met. Harrington had been enormously helped by the discovery that he’d behaved better than he thought he had. From that moment on, his recovery had been one of the most dramatic Rivers could recall. Neither of these outcomes was available to Wansbeck, who’d fought a perfectly honourable war until one action had made him in his own eyes – and in the eyes of the law – a criminal. Almost everything one could say to console him either obscenely glossed over the offence or was in some other way insulting, and would have been instantly recognized as such by Wansbeck. A lesser man would have borne this better.

Rivers wondered whether Sassoon and Harrington had been too much in the forefront of his mind while he was listening to Wansbeck. At best, on such occasions, one became a conduit whereby one man’s hard-won experience of self-healing was made available to another. At worst, one no longer listened attentively enough to the individual voice. There was a real danger, he thought, that in the end the stories would become one story, the voices blend into a single cry of pain.

The above excerpt is told from the perspective of Dr. Rivers, one of the two major narrators in this story. He has been a major player throughout the trilogy, with his role as a narrator having only increased. As a character he enters the consciousness of the reader – ironic, as he is a psychiatrist of those forced to return from their duties in France (during the first world war) because of mental instabilities that are preventing them from contributing. As a result, he punctures each page with a single sentence filled with insight and intelligence and lead up to casually. It is through Dr. Rivers that Pat Barker casually announces that, ‘there was a real danger, he [Dr. Rivers] thought, that in the end the stories would become one story, the voices blend into a single cry of pain.’ Of course, if you’ve been reading through the first two books of the trilogy, you’re mostly expecting this kind of insight, but each moment that it arrives you are reminded of Barker’s talent.

Barker also did something entirely unexpected with this book. There are essentially three stories being told, and they do not seem to intersect at first, though it is with subtlety that you realize just how significant the three stories are to each other. One is the story of Dr. Rivers, who is still in London (as he was at the end of the first book and throughout the second book), working to help those mentally paralyzed by their wartime experiences overcome their fears so that he can send them back to the front. Another is that of Billy Prior, the protagonist of the second novel and sometimes-antagonist of the first, as he prepares for being sent back to France for this fourth term of duty. And finally, entirely unexpectedly, another narration develops in the prose of flashbacks to Dr. Rivers’ earlier life in the East Indies, living and working with the ‘uncivilized’ persons of the East Indies. Thematically and narratively each of these interrupt each other, slowing down the pace of the novel, but adding substantially to the tension that the reader feels.Things happen in each and every one that is heartbreaking, alarming.

And each is imbued with Pat Barker’s keen eye to character development and, best of all, insight. Dr. Rivers talks about the damage of war to the winning nation, the story of Rivers in the East Indies is an opportunity for an intellectual man to explore the morals of his winning nation, and Billy Prior’s story, told through a diary, tells the story of a soldier and is filled to the brim with Pat Barker’s essential theses about the war as a social movement:

Five months ago Charles Manning offered me a job at the Ministry of Munitions and I turned it down, and said if I was sent back to France… “If if if if – I shall sit in a dug-out and look back to this afternoon, and I shall think, “You bloody fool.”‘

I remember sitting on the stiff brocade sofa in his drawing-room as I said it.

Well, here I am, in what passes for a dug-out. And I look round me at all these faces and all I can think is: What an utter bloody fool I would have been not to come back.

Within each of these are dramatic set-pieces and sections. As mentioned earlier, they are heartbreaking and alarming. And I don’t want to tell you much more than that, as I don’t want to ruin the story for you. But I do highly, highly recommend this novel to anybody who is interested in historical fiction. It is not without flaws (which, I realize I did not outline at all), but it overcomes them with the powerful moments that fill the pages. If you want the visceral, emotional experience that the novel contains – if you want to experience it as the author wants you to experience it – then start the Regeneration Trilogy where it begins, with Regeneration, and follow these characters as they adapt to the final year of the first Great War. If you don’t know if you have that kind of commitment (and I think you do!), then reading this novel is still worth it. I can’t accurately imagine it as a stand-alone as I have read the full trilogy, but I do think that there is enough contained in the novel to provide a full reading experience. Provided you’re willing to give it a chance – and you should (but definitely read the other two first…).


Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

September 3, 2011

“The moment I was old enough to play board games, I fell in love with Snakes and Ladders. O perfect balance of rewards and penalties! O seemingly random choices made by tumbling dice! Clambering up ladders, slithering down snakes, I spent some of the happiest days of my life. When, in my time of trial, my father challenged me to master the game of shatranj, I infuriated him by preferring to invite him, instead, to chance his fortune among the ladders and nibbling snakes.

All games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner; and for every snake, a ladder with compensate. But it’s more than that; no mere carrot-and-stick affair; because implicit in the game is the unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up against down, good against evil; the solid rationality of ladders balances the occult sinuosities of the serpent; in the opposition of staircase and cobra we can see, metaphorically, all conceivable oppositions, Alpha against Omega, father against mother; here is the war of Mary and Mura, and the polarities of knees and nose… but I found, very early in my life, that the game lacked one crucial dimension, that of ambiguity – because, as events are about to show, it is also possible to slither down a ladder and climb to triumph on the venom of a snake… Kepping things simple for the moment, however, I record that no sooner had my mother discovered the ladder to victory represented by her racecourse luck than she was reminded that the gutters of the country were still teeming with snakes.”

I have a secret. When I am reading a book and come across a particularly impressive passage – something that strikes me for any number of reasons – I turn up the bottom corner of the page. Many people say that this is some form of cruelty to the book and the author; to me, it is a way of coming back and reading some of my favourite parts again.

About 150 pages into Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie’s magical realist epic and the winner of the 1981 Booker Prize, the Booker of Bookers and the Best of the Booker prize, I realized that I was going to have too many page corners turned up. At the time it didn’t hit me that this meant I was going to want to read the book again; in retrospect, I don’t think it can possibly mean anything else.

As far as modern literature goes, Midnight’s Children may actually be legendary. Through the story of and experiences of a boy convinced of his own importance and failure to achieve his potential in the tides of history, we discover the birth of an entire sub-continent. India and Pakistan free themselves of their colonial shackles in the first section, with Bangladesh doing so (no longer being administered by Pakistan) in the second (or was it the third?). And, goodness me, does Mr. Rushdie ever manage to produce a world where it is just plausible enough that his character, Saleem  Sinai, is the centre of the universe – the hinge upon which a new nation grows and succeeds and fails.

Saleem is one of the Midnight Children; those 500-and-some children who were born in the midnight hour of India’s birth. Saleem, though, is one of only two of these children born at the very instant that the hands of the clock met at midnight. As all of these 500-and-some children are imbued with some form of magical power, it would only make sense that Saleem and his midnight-specific partner would have the most impressive magical powers; that these two would be diametrically opposed to each right from the beginning is merely brilliant plot production. And human deformations – don’t forget about those. Like all details in this novel, they play a very important part. This is how the magical aspect of the novel starts and develops. The realist part is very different.

The realist part hinges on history – that experienced by generations of family created and destroyed by nations that have never managed to be united and never managed to be separated. The story is presented as an oral memoir, told by Saleem to one of his servants (or admirers?), starting thirty-two years before the beginning of the Saleem’s life and ending thirty-two years afterwards. We meet his grandfather, a doctor trained in western medicine but living in the valleys of Kashmir. We meet his grandmother, a woman veiled in a white sheet with a small hole – frequently ill. We watch the two of them meet and fall in love and then, dramatically and immediately, fall out of love.

It is with this that the history of Saleem and the history of his entire continent is told. Symbolism, metaphor, history represented by magical impossibilities that are entirely unlikely but so impressive. And oftentimes you have no idea whatsoever that it is happening. In fact, there are moments where you are downright confused by Salman Rushdie’s direction. There will be moments when you will be angry at him. Tempted to put the book down and never pick it up again. And each time that he shows you that you can trust him your resistance to your frustration builds; if this isn’t your experience, all I can do is tell you to push through. Finish this book.

I encountered this almost road block at the end of the second part of the book. I was lost. I had no idea what story was being told – why it was being told. An enormous event had just taken place. I had no idea where Saleem, or Mr. Rushdie, would go. But I battled through this. And I am so grateful for having done so – the way that the book wraps up in the end is incredibly moving. Devastation filled with every gratuitous word possible, acts and crimes committed against Saleem by the Indian state in a state of emergency (remember, this is a historical novel – don’t allow yourself to forget this). And it hurts to read of how the Midnight Children, tied down to their fates by the hour of their birth, discover this pain that they assumed they were immune to. And, despite this, a spring of hope and a promise for a future. Your joy will be overwhelming.

And none of this is without purpose. Saleem Sinai’s story brings into question enormous questions of social science and history by providing a history. And, similar to Yann Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil, which I read earlier this year and recommend, it tells history in an incredibly unconventional but entirely meaningful way. And it is not just the history of an individual – somehow Mr. Rushdie truly manages to tell the history of the country through a single man’s experiences. The intricate nature of the novel is so impressive not only in the detail but in how the detail is used – historical realism this may not be, but effective realism it is.

Early in the novel Saleem instructs his servant (who, I believe, is actually meant to be the reader personified in the novel), “To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.” This novel is an impressive product of this philosophy – easily the most convincing of all of the books I have read this year, perhaps the most convincing of all the books I have ever read. I love this book more in restrospect than I did while I was reading it, but I was enamoured with it while I was reading it because I wanted to know how Salman Rushdie’s world of details that were yet to be resolved was going to be resolved. Do I recommend it? Absolutely! But prepare yourself for an endurance run of an novel that is, perhaps, the most difficult read you’ve ever read – and fight every urge to set the novel aside and never pick it up again. Every investment you put into this book will astound you with its returns.

How to follow up and not yet a review.

August 24, 2011

How do you follow up a work like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children? It is a pretty unique reading experience and it leaves you aghast. Absolutely aghast.

I keep on thinking about what Mr. Rushdie managed to accomplish in those 550 pages that I read. And the reality is that he accomplished so much more than I can begin to comprehend. Everything seems so valid in that novel. Everything that is included tells a story and, though you don’t realize it at the time, those minor details of character and description that he puts into the first hundred pages (then again in the next hundred, and the next hundred, and the next hundred) will come back later. You don’t believe it at the time, but it happens. And rocks your mind afterwards.

Just as my experience earlier this year with magical realism did (Everything is Illuminated), I did not know what to do afterwards. I have been reading Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road, but it took me a long time to get into it. I had to reread the first thirty pages a few times because I just did not care. I had no recollection of the few events that had already taken place. My mind was still festering on the previous book. I could not move on.

And it still happens every now and then (though I must say that I am very much enjoying The Ghost Road and expect to finish it this evening – it is lying beside me at the moment just waiting to be picked up). Midnight’s Children is a startling novel, that will challenge you and everything you know about literature. I don’t know how to even begin to review it.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz – Mordecai Richler

August 22, 2011

“He writes with a swag.”

– Sorry, what was that?

“He writes with a swag. Him and John Ralston Saul.” I looked up from my book. My friend had clearly seen the title of the novel I was reading. We were in the mountains – I was reading, he was playing games with the other members of our wolf pack.

– I suppose so.

“I’ve never read anything by him. But the English teacher at the school I work at has always said that those are the two Canadian swag artists. He’s grizzled, smokes cigars. Reads a lot. He makes you think of England.” I wasn’t really following the logic of his story anymore.

– I just started. I’ll keep you posted.

This is how I was introduced to Mordecai Richler. In my hands and on the here-say of my friend’s tongue. Fifty pages later I closed the book (needing it to last another 5 nights, I had to ration my reading), looked up at their ongoing card game, and stated:

– I’m feeling the swag. I’m feeling like a man of 1950s Montreal, a Jew, fighting for my economic future against an ongoing tide of impossible factors.

They chuckled. So did I. Who says something like that in the mountains of all places? Did I realize how far away from that environment I was? And yet Mordecai Richler managed to send me there in the middle of an alpine paradise. Impressive.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is the coming-of-age story of Duddy Kravitz, an ambitious young man growing up on St. Urbain Street in the heart of Montreal’s Jewish ghetto. A fascinating character whose sole goal, that of owning land, is handed down to him by his grandfather who loves but is somewhat disappointed in his own children.

We start with Kravitz being accused of having ruined one of his teachers’ life by causing his wife’s death. None of this is proven true, but it is clear early on that Kravitz is willing to do things that are almost entirely despicable to prove his worthiness – he is a young man in a sea of young Jewish men desperate t make something special out of himself. And the world of St. Urbain Street – with its host of memorable characters – provides Kravitz with all of the encouragement and disbelief to push him to follow his dreams. And little by little, he does.

In the summer after completing high school, he finds his land and starts to imagine how he can collect it. There is a lake, with trees, and hills, perfect for a resort and a kid’s camp. Lots of land around it.  As a young man lacking money, he can’t comfortably purchase the first plot when it comes up, but he does anyways. Managing to collect the money just in time. An event that pushes his ambition to higher and higher heights – and begins to show his immense desire to succeed by his own standards rather than those of the ghetto in which he was raised. He was going to make it, no matter the cost.

And this becomes the characters tragic-flaw. Though Kravitz is never presented as a hero, though he is always somewhat crafty, and willing to take advantage of them for his own gain, though he becomes increasingly desperate, you fall for him. He becomes an anti-hero that the reader roots for – you want him to succeed because, somehow, he has hints of an honourable person. You become infected by this need to read more and more and more – and find out the result. And the ending, while not entirely surprising, is disturbing – you feel cheated by a friend that you started to trust (an emotion personified by Kravitz’s on and off again girlfriend Yvette). And when, in the final pages, he feels as though he has actually achieved something, despite all of his shame, you are shaken by his inhumanity.

Do I recommend this novel? Absolutely. Its characters are so well drawn out. Duddy Kravitz is immensely complex, and his family is so bizarre and interesting. Richler’s dialogue booms with movement and swagger and movement – it feels like you are in a room overhearing a conversation. It flows and feels natural. And there are themes developed here – one’s desire to succeed, relations with parents and grandparents, one’s role in family, socialism and anti-socialism, trusting people even when they tell you not to – this really is a tour-de-force. And it is not all that challenging to read (though you realize it packs a punch with every event that takes place); thoroughly enjoyable.

I’ll read more by Richler. And I imagine I will come back to this book in the future. I was thoroughly, thoroughly impressed.

On finishing a good book

August 16, 2011

Last night I stayed awake and powered through to the end of Midnight’s Children. I was about to set it aside with twenty pages left, but the ending of the second-last chapter is so intriguing that it is impossible to imagine putting it down at the end of it.

Intrigue is perhaps one of the best ways to describe my relationship with this book over the past two weeks. Total and complete intrigue. Oftentimes I wanted to come here and write about my reading experience, or to share a passage or a quote that I found particularly fascinating, but it was not long before I realized two things: first of all, if I were to have done this with every part of the book that I adored, I would not have possibly had enough space on the internet. Secondly,  it would have taken away time from my reading of the book that I was so thoroughly fascinated by. Intrigued.

I have so much to say about Midnight’s Children. Honestly, I cannot imagine being a reviewer of literature in the early 1980s and having finished this novel – there is so very much to discuss. It is so very, very dense with information to process and process and process again. How do you do that with a 500-word limit? I don’t know. I’m certainly not imposing one to try and find out.

I’ll have my review up in about a week. My review of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz will be up tomorrow. And then I will be caught up, and reading Ghost Road by Pat Barker to finish off this trilogy (which I have enjoyed so much as to want to start reading more trilogies…).

Making up for the mistakes of my youth.

August 11, 2011
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I am a young reader. Not only in the sense that I am only just going to be gliding into the absolute mid-twenties in the next six months, but also in the sense that I only fell back in love with reading fiction in the past two years. University, and even high school, demanded so much mental energy and time that I couldn’t imagine investing in a book that would take me weeks to read. 250 pages? I’m looking at three months.

Back then I viewed reading ten pages in a single night as an accomplishment (I suppose I never outgrew grade three, when I was first introduced to Power Rangers novellas and was enamoured with fight scenes involving robotic dinosaurs).

Those days are long gone, and though I still have my days when I can’t even get ten pages further in a book, I have my days where I read hundreds of pages out of sheer amazement. I am, perhaps, a maturing reader.

But in those first couple  months of my rediscovery of reading, I read some pretty heavy literature that, in retrospect, I loved. In retrospect, I also had no idea what was happening in them. I was not able to analyse them for anything more than their plot – and even then, there were a few books that completely baffled me. In fact, the beginning of my awakening as a more critical and aware reader likely only happened a year ago when, while reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi I was reminded of all of those things that I was told to watch for in my high school English Literature course. Thank goodness it had, but in that year of reading I read some great literature that I need to go back to with a critical eye. Are they truly as great as I remember? Or are they even better than anything that I imagined?

I don’t have the urge to revisit all of these books, obviously. Twilight will never need to be reread; I could feel the text scalding my fingers while I was reading it the first time. But a few do peak my interest all over again:

Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden – a tale about a lost neice and a battered uncle in the northern reaches of Ontario’s hinterland, I have often thought that I was ill-prepared for the content of this novel when I read it. But I remember really enjoying it – there is something to say about Joseph Boyden and his prose, and once I pick up this novel again I will be sure to say it. Between now and then, though, I expect to be reading his debut novel, Three Day Road.

The Last of the Crazy People by Timothy Findley – a tale told from the perspective of two very different creatures: a cat, and a small boy. All about the destruction of a mother’s sanity (or perhaps the ongoing tale of her destruction), the distant father, and a brother who is admirably trying to keep everything together and failing to do so (and eventually loses control of himself). I remember being torn when I read this novel, but in retrospect it is undoubtedly powerful. The ending is shocking – you would never expect it when you start the novel.

Old School by Tobias Wolff – if you can imagine a school whose greatest prize is awarded annually to its most creative and impressive creative writer, then you’re far more creative than I (it would only be a dream, no?). In this school, filled with amateur critics each trying to outdo the other, we watch a young man fall in love with the leaders of American literature in the 1950s, strive to meet them, and then be disappointed by them. Two of the authors mentioned, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway, are very different – and I hope to read something by Mr. Hemingway before returning to this book. I myself fell in love with Ayn Rand for a moment or two when reading her book… so I think I will read it far differently than the first time I read it.

Winter in the Blood by James Welch – mostly, I want to reread this novel because I don’t remember what it was about. I remember seeing images of drunkeness and small communities, extended families, and I remember them all being inexplicably connected by the protagonist, a First Nations man. I was almost offended by it – so I think I missed something in the story.

The Oath by Eli Wiesel – the greatest mystery of this novel is in the title. A grandfather has made an oath to never recount the tale of the pogrom that destroyed his village and family and friends when he was younger. I never could figure out why he would do such a thing – my sense of justice was not sufficiently clouded to be anything other than confused. I don’t think I allowed myself to listen to the heart that was beating beneath Eli Wiesel’s prose.

Animal Farm by George Orwell – I read this long, long, long before I was ready for it. I was fourteen, my brother had told me about this novella about animals and communism, and I had just made my first purchase of a major literary work (The Complete Works of George Orwell). I needed to jump into something – anything. So I jumped into this one, and missed all of it’s genius. Last summer when I read 1984 I was disturbed. I imagine Animal Farm has the potential to do the same when you are no longer fourteen when you are reading it.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I needed a book to read on the plane ride from Germany to Canada in the summer of 2008. It needed to be short – I had almost no space in my bag. I thought the book was interesting, but I never picked up on the satire for which it is famous. In retrospect I am not sure how it is that could have missed it – the characters and their motivations are so carefully drawn. The perspectives that the reader are granted.

I’m curious if there are any books that you would like to reread – books that you’re certain you didn’t get the first time and yet you managed to enjoy anyways. Do you want to go back to them?

What to do?

August 9, 2011

I’m working on my review for Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. I can tell you right away that it is going to come out with a recommendation, but if you want the full joy of the review, expect it at the end of this week. It is a little prolonged in development, but that is largely because I am getting through Midnight’s Children quite slowly.

There are a couple factors in this.

First of all, I also simultaneously started another book. Non-fiction. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. It is fascinating – and a much easier read (how often can you make this comparison between fiction and nonfiction). I tend not to be able to manage two books at once very well, but it is going well so far. I suppose it helps that I am thoroughly enjoying both books.

Secondly, I am preparing to move two and a half provinces away – from my heartland of the Canadian prairie, a city  built on a bribe, to the West Coast, to a city built on a mountain. Burnaby and Simon Fraser University, and my graduate studies in Canadian History, await me. In three weeks from today I will be in a car, traversing the mountains and thinking of everything I am leaving behind and everything I am arriving to in my life. These preparations also may be permanent – so I have to take them somewhat seriously (and so far I have been doing this poorly).

Thirdly, I spent this weekend at the Regina Folk Festival, taking the opportunity to enjoy some live music in my beautiful city’s beautiful downtown. How can I be expected to read in that kind of chaos. I did try, but even I knew that I would not succeed.

Regarding my impressions of Midnight’s Children so far – I’m thoroughly, thoroughly enjoying it. Every now and then I read a sentence and am so impressed. Constantly I read a paragraph and am flown into another world that I can’t even begin to understand until well after the paragraph is over. In some books this would be maddening (indeed, it is even so with this book occasionally), but I have learned to trust Salman Rushdie and his imagination.

I’m looking forward to finishing this book, even if it likely won’t be until next week. After that I need to finish the Regeneration trilogy. Between now and then, trust me, there will be many things worth sharing. I’ve many ideas.