this is not a review: ‘taxi!’, by helen potrebenko

 
 
Years ago a friend of mine used to take a lot of cabs. Partly for the usual reasons of not wanting to walk in the rain late at night or because it was faster or simply more convenient and she was feeling flush and in the mood for a bit of luxury but mostly she took cabs for the conversation. She loved discovering a driver’s story or hearing their general thoughts on life; sometimes she’d have semi heated debates and sometimes she was sorry to have to leave the cab because the chat was so good, better, she said, than most exchanges one has in a typical day at work.

So I was keen to tell her about Helen Potrebenko’s Taxi!  which is billed as a novel and narrated by ‘Shannon’, a Vancouver (mostly downtown east side) cab driver in the 1970’s, but which, in fact, feels more auto-fiction than fiction. Like her protagonist Potrebenko also drove cab in Vancouver’s downtown east side in the 1970’s. The style and structure of the book parallels the episodic and fractured structure of Shannon’s driving life, more like journal-keeping and there’s nothing like a traditional arc or through line or even a premise for the story other than this is what it’s like to drive a cab, in case you’re wondering.

Which in another’s hands might be a disaster but somehow Potrebenko makes it work beautifully. Not only makes it work but you step right into that cab with her protagonist Shannon, where you do NOT want to go (I assure you Shannon’s accounts of fares will turn you off any thoughts of pursuing this as a career), but this is exactly the point… she doesn’t ask you to join her. You simply choose to. And then you choose to stay for the ride. But her? She’s just doing her job, driving, revealing a slice of life that most people haven’t the vaguest idea about (including my conversational friend) because what we learn mostly from Taxi!  is that we have no idea how privileged we are if we don’t have to do this, or any job we despise, for a living.

Incidentally, the aspect of female cab driver is a whole other discussion on not only the times, the mid-seventies when things were still only beginning to change for women and men didn’t like it, but the double demeaning role of woman/cab driver and the inner dignity it must require to listen to the crap that riders dish out, the condescending comments, presumptions and attitudes. That and rules that applied only to women drivers such as not being able to work certain hours for reasons of safety.

What I loved most about the book was how Potrebenko managed to show us a gritty view of the streets and the sadness and horror of certain lifestyles, the futility felt by so many, yet contrasting it all with extraordinary humanity, creating a portal by which we see the not so rosy truth of ourselves as a society, the bits we’d sooner turn away from or pretend don’t exist, leaving others to the reality. And this is how the reality continues. For others.

Slivers of loveliness:

“A monotony of passengers gets in and out of the cab…”

“But there were two flights of rickety steps to go up. Why do poor people always have to deal with those treacherous stairs? Is it a commandment?”

“She was a beautiful young woman of about 16. At 5 a.m. she had split with her old man and she had no money and nowhere to go. Shannon gave her $2 for breakfast… She’s an Indian. A really beautiful and healthy Indian woman. There are no jobs for her. Nobody in this democratic society would give her a job. Indian men can get longshoremen’s jobs and a few other kind of labourer’s jobs, but there aren’t any choices for women…. Months later, Shannon was driving down Hastings with a passenger in the car when a woman tried to jump in front of it… she was no longer beautiful but covered with the spit and vomit of Hastings Street and it had only taken three months.”

“There was a man lying on the sidewalk by the West Hotel and Shannon stopped to see if he was dead…. he wasn’t… [but] there wasn’t anyplace he could be taken where he would be helped.”

Potrebenko chronicles the changing face of Vancouver… the increase in drugs, suicides, porn shops, sex trade, racism, murders, unemployment.

“There are more beggars on the streets. People think colourfully ragged young men playing a guitar are romantic.”

“In the afternoon, she drove a couple… to the airport. Aging swingers… on the edge of the ruling class… These people were a different type… Mean from years of cursing each other in private… and being polite with only sarcastic overtones in public. Seething with chronic mean.”

“The man worked for The Royal Bank… He asked Shannon if she was married then told her women shouldn’t drive cabs. [He said] I treat my women employees just the same as the men. I say to them: Honey, if you work hard you can go places. Honey? [Shannon said] Do you call your men honey? You know what I mean. [he said]”

“Shannon thought the fascist philosophy was a very comfortable one. You simply cheered for the winner, who proved by virtue of winning that he should have won. No analysis, no doubts, no troubling moral questions.”

“The man told Shannon it was attitudes like hers that retarded progress and she asked him Steinbeck’s question, which is how come progress looks so much like destruction?”

Should be included in the CanLit cannon as required reading. Doesn’t matter that cab driving has changed, the life she describes for women, minorities, and others, has not.

 

*Note: above-mentioned friend did not love the idea of the book as I described it. Too unpleasant, too raw, she said (I’m paraphrasing). But this is the experience of the cab driver, a character you say you admire. Doesn’t matter, she said, I don’t want to read about it. I respect her honesty and I suspect she’s not alone (this book remains relatively unknown after all) though it seems a lost opportunity to add a rich layer to her cabbie admiration. Of course she may yet change her mind. Will keep you posted.

 

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘savage fields’, by dennis lee

 

I’ve been doing some bookshelf cleaning — clearing out the excess to make room for new stuff. Only so much room and I really hate it when I can’t see what I have. Am donating or giving the prunings to various places and friends but before some of them go they will spend time in a new stack called “Stuff to Read Before It’s Definitely Given Away”.

Most recently plucked from the STRBIDGA pile was Dennis Lee’s Savage Fields, published in 1977 by Anansi. Its subtitle: An Essay in Literature and Cosmology  did NOT help it win my attention over the years and more than once I thought to just ‘donate’… but something made me keep it and I’m so glad I did.

Less essay than discussion of Lee’s theory that everything is either of (or about) the earth or the world,  including stories. (Earth being anything natural… World being anything man made.) The savage fields of the title refers to the friction caused when earth and world collide, which of course they constantly do.

His interest is in how that happens in literature, and so he dissects two books as examples:

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, by Michael Ondaatje (a combination of prose and poetry in which Lee theorizes that Billy is trying, constantly, to kill the earth and so is, in fact, killing himself)

and

Beautiful Losers, by Leonard Cohen (one of two novels by Cohen, which Lee suggests is about freeing a repressed Canadian history through liberation of thought)

I will forgive that both books are by men. Dennis Lee is himself a man. This is often how things go. I will forgive it also because Savage Fields is a fascinating piece of work nonetheless.

I’ll admit that I’ve read neither Beautiful Losers nor Billy the Kid.  The former strikes me as incomprehensible and the latter not up my street but, oddly, I really liked reading about them through Lee’s lens. I enjoyed his analysis and the way he takes the story of each book apart, illustrating his theory of how we continue to screw up the earth because, essentially, we can’t accept beauty when it comes our way, that we have this need to alter it, put our own stamp on it and make it ‘better’. (Better than what? It was trundling along just fine until we got involved.) Lee says that we turn earth to world because we can’t help it and even while knowing on some deep level that we are screwing ourselves.

We’ve been more or less doing this by various means since we invented agriculture, which is when we stopped living in harmony with ‘earth’.

Another of Lee’s theories is what he calls the Isis Continuum, which, essentially, is happiness (Isis being a goddess of Egyptian mythology, wise and unconditionally loving). Again, we, for some reason, often refuse the simplicity of happiness, creating chaos instead as if not believing happiness is truly possible.

Lee posits his way through both books, offering excerpts and outlines of the stories, analyzing characters and actions.

Savage Fields isn’t a difficult read, but it’s an unusual one. One that takes a pot of tea and a Sunday morning to find your rhythm with (best read whole or in two parts, but definitely not fragments). It’s the kind of book you want someone else to read so you can talk about it with them and apply Lee’s theories, to find the savage fields in literature or at least to keep the notion of it in mind.

“World and earth are shown as being at war, yet they keep turning out to be the same thing. How can we resolve the contradiction?… To conceptualize this unusual state of affairs takes a certain amount of effort — indeed, a willingness to bend one’s mind in unaccustomed directions.”

“I started this book in 1972. I knew the title before I knew what the title meant. There are months of drafts between the sentences. The voice kept sounding fals, excluding too much of who I was. Now I look at it, and find I have scarcely made a beginning.”

“Clear thought is an achievement of difficult beauty.”

The kind of book where most excerpts are pointless out of context. The kind of book that isn’t easy to quote from and details are soon forgotten, yet you feel inexplicably changed for the better for having spent time with it because suddenly ‘something’ feels clearer. Surely one of the best reasons for reading.

Dennis Lee was a founder of House of Anansi, which prided itself in the late 60’s and 70’s on its difference, its experimental style, and its interest in the Canadian story.

 

 

 

catching up and cleaning up (and thinning out books the NOT KONDO way and still feeling joy)

 

Feels like forever since I was here. Had some work done in the house and so my office was incommunicado and then after the work was done I needed to recuperate from the work. Not that I did much of it. Although I pride myself on a bit of painting, which, I swear I don’t understand how anyone can actually enjoy doing. As if colour selection isn’t crazy-making enough, the taping and spilling and wiping that goes on, the tedium of painting edges and around windows and baseboards. I know, I know, some people find it meditative and I love meditation so believe me I tried to find the zen, but I prefer my trances to include comfy cushions and closed eyes.

All this work required things taken off shelves, filing cabinets emptied so they could be moved, closets, drawers, all kinds of removal and boxing up and then putting back. The best part of which is that you never put back exactly what you take out… if all goes well, there is quite an enormous difference in fact, with a load of bags and boxes to give away or shred.

So now I’m not even sure what’s making me happier, the new floors, the new wall colour, or the new ‘space’ everywhere. Not that I went all KonMari or anything, I did NOT, but I did discard the stuff that was (literally) blocking me from seeing the actual stuff I like or need to see or from reading the books I have that were so deeply stacked everywhere that I could hardly be bothered to approach any one stack, preferring, instead, the easier (and so very sweet) route of just buying new books. (To then read and/or stack, because they had nowhere else to live….)

The biggest difference (apart from having a functional office) is that my bookshelves are now welcoming spaces (to me and to new books) rather than overstocked storage areas and the best unexpected gift of all this is how the organization of it makes me feel like I suddenly live in my very own bookshop, a place that welcomes browsing, with titles you can read and books that you can easily find and take from the shelf.

I’ll admit that I do have a ‘new’ stack of books… (let’s not be coy, I’ll always have a stack of books)… but these are titles from my own shelves, happy surprises that emerged from the cleansing to say hello! you’ve always meant to read me, remember????

And I’m getting through this stack with such pleasure! The weight, the literal weight of so much unorganized and unread accumulation having been lifted is liberating. (And please understand, I still have shelves and shelves of hundreds of books… books that I actually want.)

The first of the ‘new’ stack that I read was a cloth bound 1937 edition of Letters to a Friend, by Winnifred Holtby, which I bought very many moons ago at Hannelore’s (an absolute brilliant fixture of a second hand book shop in St. Catharines). (The copy is marked with a stamp indicating it was once property of the Naval Vessels Reading Service in Halifax… one of the best things about second hand books is what you find in them.)

Winnifred Holtby was a feminist, a socialist, a pacifist, and pals with Vita Sackville West, Vera Brittain and Leonard Woolf, though these letters are written to Jean McWilliam, whom she met during her time with the WAACs. McWilliam is referred to as ‘Rosalind’ and Holtby signs off as ‘Celia’, a reference to the cousins in Shakespeare’s  As You Like It.

Here is a good outline of the book.

For my part I’ll leave you with a snippet, from the opening page where, in the very first letter to ‘Dearest Rosalind’, there is this… (which, if I should ever receive the like in a letter from anyone, I will insist that person never ever stop writing me letters.)

“The roads were fine and hard, made for walking, spreading themselves across the hills, and opening out at the crossways to tempt us on. We talked about burlesques an school discipline and Dostoevsky and porridge, and whether bread and cheese and beer are really better than stuffed olives and champagne, and neckties and dons and all the thousand and one silly things that one talks about on a long morning when the air is frosty and the roads are dry.”

And, for the record, based on the above, (I mean, Dostoevsky and porridge??? ) this is someone I would dearly love to have walked with.

More excavations to follow.

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘everybody’s different on everybody street’, written by sheree fitch; illust. by emma fitzgerald

 

This morning I made a pot of lemon verbena/peppermint/orange mint tea with leaves from my garden and read Sheree Fitch and Emma Fitzgerald’s extraordinary Everybody’s Different on Everybody Street..

Is there a better way to start the day than tea and a (picture) book?

Answer: hardly.

And so I sipped. And marvelled over the brilliantly colourful, completely delicious illustrations… (birdcages on head, balloons up one’s skirt, laundry and tomatoes on the roof, street meditation in the presence of turtles [personal favourite], an empty fridge, a command to dance, someone in a wheelchair, others kissing in a tree, a homeless man, an angry woman, images of loneliness and images of joy, all woven against a background of a father reading a story to a young child who imagines this ‘Everybody Street’ as crowded with so many ‘others’ and who comes to realize all of those people are actually one…that we are all of those people and all of those people are us… “Yes… EVERYONE is travelling on EveryBody Street and EveryOne IS EveryOne and AnyOne you meet…”

And as I read I could feel emotions rising as the everbodyness  contained in Fitch’s buoyant poetry practically floated off the pages.

This book is a testament to community, and to joy. It’s also about mental health/illness in its many forms. And to be honest, the power of it kind of takes you by surprise.

Oh but we are in such good hands here because, as only Fitch can do, we are gently (playfully!) shown that all those people who look and act ‘differently’, who for whatever reason fall outside the punishing parameters of what society calls ‘normal’… are simply displaying aspects of being human that we all share.

The very young will only see peacocks and happy chaos… in the way of the very young, who don’t judge. But the message of inclusivity is there, the subliminal suggestion of non-judgement and, for those old enough to understand or who, in the company of a reader sensitive enough to explain, it becomes a thing to celebrate, to embrace, the beginning of meaningful conversation.

I look forward to sharing this with my eight year old niece. We will eat french fries at the beach while we read and we will talk about how we feel some of these feelings some of the time and we’ll notice people around us and make up lives for them… and remind ourselves that they have feelings too.

(The Afterword, written by Fitch, explaining the motivation behind the story, and the difficulty of taking on this subject, is an equally powerful read, in which Fitch says “I don’t like poems that tell me how to think; I like poems that make me think.”)

What a bold book.

And what an important one.

 

I got my copy at Blue Heron Books, and you can too!

Support indies!

 

this is not a review: ‘the book of marvels’, by lorna crozier

 
I have a fondness for the overlooked and easily abandoned, things that seemingly have no use or appear to be limited in their use or have the misfortune of being in the company of people with no imagination. I suspect Lorna Crozier shares this fondness because The Book of Marvels  is dedicated to exactly that… the easily overlooked, the rarely if ever thought about, things that are right there, like air and eggs, ironing boards, crowbars, darkness and the brain… “The brain thinking about itself is thinking about the brain thinking. The brain not thinking about itself is thinking about the brain not thinking.”

I could just stop right there and mull that over for half a day.

But I’m compelled to read on, to savour the next bite-sized morsel, one more beautifully presented, poetic prosey observation about something I’ve never thought of in quite the way I’m reading it here. I make my way through the book like it’s a bar of 85% chocolate.

About the sky… “The sky is a blouse snatched from the back of a woman. No. The sky is a muddle of clouds that won’t sit still in the lecture hall. No…”

And then I look up at the sky and ask is it a blouse?  Yes of course! And no.

About a clothes hanger, Crozier points out the “cryptic punctuation mark”, the “?” atop the ‘shoulders’ of the wire or plastic or wooden frame, shoulders that are hidden by clothes but the “?” is always visible,  creating within our closets a row of “?????????????”…  that “bring to your attention …the multitude of questions whose answers you don’t know.”

She refers to feet as our “nethermost telluric twins” and I’ve learned a new word. And then she goes on to reflect on the moment of their first walking out of prehistoric waters “… our spines straightening, our gills slamming shut, the salt on our skin crusting in the dry air, our hands astonished into being hands and not another pair of feet.”

The hinges of a bird’s wings, the way one word hinges on another… how this is where poetry begins.

The pointlessness of an ear lobe.

The way a stone is “… a clock whose face you can’t read.”

The book is small. The marvels take up no more than a page each, a short paragraph or two. They are listed alphabetically. The only item under ‘O’ is ‘Objects’ in which Crozier quotes William Matthews who said “… if an object fails to interest us, it’s not its fault but our own.”

Couldn’t agree more. The Book of Marvels  is rich with the fruit of paying attention to connections, to the minutia that surrounds us, the frippery that has nothing yet everything to do with how we live. It’s a book that changes how you look at a flashlight, an eraser or a doorknob.

And isn’t that just so refreshing?

__

 

The Book of Marvels  is available online at Blue Heron Books
and Hunter Street Books.

Support indies! (These are two of my faves.)

 

 

 

this is not a review: summer reading

 

A Celibate Season,  by Blanche Howard and Carol Shields

A Vancouver woman leaves her family for a ten month assignment in Ottawa where she works on the National Commission for Women and Poverty. This is the 1980’s and she and her husband communicate by letter and occasional phone calls (when the phone bill has been paid and the line functioning). There are a few meet-ups during the ten months but they increasingly parallel the changes that each partner is experiencing as they discover themselves and each other through ‘abstinence’. Beautifully written, in alternating voices by Blanche Howard and Carol Shields in a kind of nifty repartee that just doesn’t exist anymore. Pity. (Also a gorgeous through line involving lentils… brilliant, actually.)

 

Excellent Women,  by Barbara Pym

How not to love a book that uses the word slut in reference to a woman who doesn’t keep an especially tidy kitchen.

“You’d hate sharing a kitchen with me. I’m such a slut,” she said, almost proudly.”

Or one who has no tea cups.

“I hope you don’t mind tea in mugs,” she said, coming in with a tray. “I told you I was a slut.”

(Set in the sluttish 1950’s.)

 

A Killer in King’s Cove,   by Iona Whishaw

A woman leaves England for a quiet life in the interior of B.C. where everyone seems on the elderly side and is suspected (or suspects) that most of the residents are running from something. The question is: who is, who isn’t?

I’m not a big mystery fan insofar as caring who dunnit, but I love a good story and this is one. Also, the fact that it’s set in the 1940’s and includes details such as a picnic where sandwiches are wrapped in brown paper (never mind the body that’s discovered in the creek at the same picnic)… and, well, you have my attention.

 

 

this is not a review: ‘the triumphant tale of the house sparrow’, by jan thornhill

 

I was surprised and delighted by the adulty appeal of Jan Thornhilll’s The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow … technically a picture book (with wonderful illustrations) but the kind that bears reading by all ages for a sort of Coles Notes (do they still exist?) version of a subject that can then be pursued in longer form if you need/want more info. Though, honestly, there’s plenty here, enough that after reading it will surely be  impossible to look at this bird quite the same way.

Given the title, and the opening sentence…

“Behold the most despised bird in human history.”

… we can (rightly) assume there will be some adventurous backstory to follow, i.e. how did it get from Most Despised to Triumphant?

Also, and not that I think about sparrows a lot, but I didn’t know they were so universally (and for thousands of years) disliked. I assumed some people just didn’t like them in the way some people don’t like clowns. (Which is completely understandable.)

But no. It’s much bigger than that and, most interesting of all, their dislikeability has a lot to do with us, with our lifestyle. Because what we know for sure is they love to hang around us, like those friends who think we’re all having such a good time that they forget to go home.

This wasn’t always the case.

What happened was, we invented agriculture.

We began growing fields of grain and the sparrow, a bird that used to migrate in search of food, suddenly didn’t need to leave town so it stayed and ate that nicely planted all you can eat buffet. It came into cities and towns too, because we had horses that were fed buckets of grain. And it hung around our houses because of crumbs from tablecloths shaken out the back door, and several other surprising sources. Long story short, it became a house sparrow.

And we got cranky.

In Egypt the sparrow surplus was handled by using them as pet food. (Often found in the mummified stomachs of beloved animals.)

In Germany there was a sparrow bounty, a required number of heads had to be handed in or fines were imposed.

In China people were encouraged to bang pots twenty four hours a day in grain fields to stop the birds from landing, which worked exceptionally well… so well in fact that zillions of birds fell from the sky, exhausted and dead, and the crops died from an infestation of bugs that would have normally been eaten by the sparrows.

In cities they were noisy and just plain bothersome. In one incident, a single sparrow found its way into a large hall where a Guiness-records-sized domino display had been set up with millions of dominos… the sparrow landed and over 20,000 toppled over before they could stop the domino effect. But the bird was still in the building and naturally they worried about the other ten trillion dominos so they hired a professional hunter to come and shoot the bird, which is now stuffed in a museum. (The bird not the hunter.)

In a way, the sparrow’s biggest crime is its adaptability and how its population tends to increase along with our own. (Though we seem not to complain the same way about people numbers.)

However, mysteriously, and for some very many years now, sparrow numbers have been in decline. The Netherlands, for one, has declared them a protected species and, as Jan Thornhill points out, this might well beg some attention:

“Because the House Sparrow normally lives its whole life in a very small area, it can be a living indicator of pollutants in that place. To scientists, it is just like a canary in a coal mine — except that coal mine is our urban environment. Since the House Sparrow lives where we live, wouldn’t it be smart to figure out why it’s disappearing? What if the culprit is something that is as unhealthy for humans as it is for the House Sparrow?”

I think this book, generally, deserves all kinds of attention, not only as it relates to house sparrows, but what it represents in how we so often look at nature, what’s taken for granted, the problems we ourselves have created and now blame on the natural world, much of which is merely doing its best to tolerate us.

The picture book format works well because the amount of text is just right for that Coles Notes gleaning. Any less wouldn’t do the subject justice. But it’s also too much for a picture-book age child to absorb on their own, so it becomes ideal as a read-aloud-and-discuss. Followed, of course, by a sparrow finding expedition, photographs, drawings, and chirping!

So much to love here.

Also, would be brilliant in schools. (Do they still do nature as a subject?)

 

 

Purchased at Books Galore, in Port Perry.

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