I have a penchant for small books. Not measured in amount of pages, rather with respect to the physical size. Small books are more convenient to carry on a journey, fitting easily into the side pocket of my leather briefcase without bulging or distorting its shape. They are comfortably cradled with one hand, left or right, the thumb marking your place, dexterously flipping the page when your eyes reach the bottom. I do not break the spine of the book consciously to avoid any evidence of wear, especially if signed, so this maneuver is reserved for my inexpensive paperback baseball collection.
Small books tend to be more inviting, tempting the reader for selection rather than imposing itself on the shelves by dominating the sightlines. Larger books exude the appearance of substance until you leaf through pages of white and oversized fonts. The beauty of small lies within the precision of type and design into a compact package to entice you with an equally concise and dense story. Some recent purchases of newly released Canadian literature fit this description prompting my theme this month to focus on small books. Each is very different in style and content, offering up a variety to attract a number of readers.
The month started with the purchase of What Strange Paradise, a novel by Omar El Akkad. Born in Egypt, he moved to Canada at the age of sixteen, earned a computer science degree before embarking on a journalism career with the Globe and Mail covering world events including the war in Afghanistan, military trials at Guantanamo Bay, and the Middle East uprisings of the Arab Spring. His background brings a lived experience with or at least a witness of the people he writes about in his new work. Like his first novel, American War, the subject matter is timely. You can read some of the accolades from the back inside jacket reproduced below.
The story revolves around a nine year old Syrian boy, Amir, who suddenly finds himself aboard a decrepit fishing boat loaded with refugees perilously floating across the Mediteranean Ocean to escape the horrors of their homeland. Crashing onto the shores of a Greek island, all the escapees, Syrians, Ethiopians, Egyptian, Lebanese and Palestinians, perish except for Amir who is rescued by a teenage girl, Vanna. She navigates his trek across the terrain, avoiding the clutches of the local military, out of sight of the valued tourist industry and into the hands of sympathetic countrymen. In the chapters which alternate between past and present, the reader is confronted with realities of a harsh world where hierarchy, ranked differently within each context, largely determines fate. In an argument aboard the boat of refugees, the refugees talk about a racist America but are cautioned about their own prejudices: Kamal pointed to the floor, below which the lower galleys hummed. “Look at the skin color of the people up here and look at the skin color of the people down there and tell me we’re any better.”
The novel is compelling. In it’s description of the people and the dialogue between them, the reader is asked to re-evaluate our own beliefs with this understanding of another person’s reality. I was humbled by the plight of one passenger, a pregnant Syrian woman who mothers Amir along the watery journey. Throughout she kept practicing her lines, focusing on correct pronunciation and a western accent, hoping the words would elicit aid upon their arrival: Hello. I am pregnant. I will have baby on April twenty-eight. I need hospital and doctor to have safe baby. Please help.
At the same time, we are asked to consider who provokes change and influences events. In a passage relaying the circumstances leading to the disappearance of Amir’s uncle during the protests of the Arab Spring, we are left to contemplate the potential role of the average person: Perhaps it was not the presence of a revolutionary at a revolution that so enraged the secret police who took them, but the presence of an ordinary man.
No one can read this book and remain untouched.
Rachel Cusk is only nominally a Canadian writer. She was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to British parents spending her very early years in Los Angeles before moving to England in 1974, according to Wikipedia. Second Place is Cusk’s eleventh fictional publication along with four non-fiction works including three memoirs. She may be best known for the Outline trilogy, beginning in 2014 with Outline, followed up with Transit in 2017, finishing with Kudos one year later. These books are purported to represent a new approach to fiction drawing high praise from critics and numerous nominations for major literary prizes. I purchased Second Place in part because it has been long listed for the Booker Prize and according to the bookies (yes, they bet on book award winners in England) Cusk is among the current odds on favourite to make the shortlist and win the 2021 award.
The book is told exclusively through the words of M in a book long letter to an unidentified person named Jeffers about the attraction and interaction with an artist known only as L. The reader is introduced to a number of other characters, all with names, all related to each other as family or lovers, cohabitating without ever stating the complete name of either of the main two characters. M is attracted to L’s work, invites him to stay in the second place on their rural property for the summer, where he lives with an art groupie, creating havoc among all the couples; M and her husband, Tony; their daughter, Justine and her boyfriend, Kurt; L and his latest muse, Brett.
Ultimately the book is about the role of art and our relationship with it: For the first time, Jeffers, I considered the possibility that art – not just L’s art but the whole notion of art – might itself be a serpent, whispering in our ears, sapping away all our satisfaction and our belief in the things of this world with the idea there was something higher and better within us which could never be equalled by what was right in front of us. The distance of art suddenly felt like nothing but the distance in myself, the coldest, loneliest distance in the world from true love and belonging. Tony didn’t believe in art – he believed in people, their goodness and their badness, and he believed in nature. He believed in me….
Labelling the two main protagonists by letters, and writing to some unknown entity was strange in the beginning, but I became accustomed to the style. I don’t understand the convention and cannot explain how it adds value to the literature. I find it too abstract, analogous to a painting with splashes of colour called “untitled”. I kept thinking the book to be self-indulgent, a cathartic exercise albeit with pearls of wisdom: “So much of power lies in the ability to see how willing other people are to give it to you”; “Unless we give back to life as much as we take from it, this faculty [for receptivity] will fail us sooner or later”; “If we treated each moment as though it were a permanent condition, a place where we might find ourselves compelled to remain forever, how differently most of us would choose the things that moment contains.” Although it may not have widespread appeal, the literary lover will appreciate the work.
I searched my bookcases for the remaining two small books this month, ones which had eluded my indulgence in the past. Natalee Caple’s 2013 novel, In Calamity’s Wake drew my attention for it’s red colour and hardcover format designed without the paper dust jacket. Now a professor at Brock University in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, Caple has four novels to her name, several books of poetry and some short story collections as the editor. I enjoyed reading her debut novel, The Plight of Happy People in an Ordinary World when it was published in 1999 so decided to delve into this one.
The story is the fictional quest of Miette to track down her mother, the real life Martha Canary, famously known as Calamity Jane. The plot is best laid out by the protagonist herself in an explanation to one of the many colourful characters Miette encounters along the way: “Say you had a mother and by all accounts she was a liquor-loving wild whore. And say that in her wisdom, knowing herself, she gave you to a good man and in her wisdom she never contacted you, never wrote to ask how tall you were or if you were still alive. And say the one who had mounted her was a killer and he was dead before he ever knew about you. And say your real father, the man who was both mother and father to you, who made you a safe home and loved you – in his wisdom as he died when you could say nothing but yes to him – set you on a journey to find the woman who chose not to be your mother. Should you follow her wisdom and leave her be? Or should you follow his wisdom and find her and force yourself upon her?”
The lengthy quote also displays the general tenor of the book, replete with stories and characters and situations befit a good western. After several days on the road, Miette is talking to the boil on her foot, asking for advice on setting up camp given the oncoming storm. The description of the Pan-American Exposition, an exhibit of human nature, is hilarious with its endless variety of free soups, samples, sandwiches, cheeses and preserves; straight laced dames and tight laced dames and fair American girls; and the introduction of the latest gadgets like the Kodak craze or the latest thinking that the earth’s surface is concave instead of convex. In another chapter we meet Dora Du Fran who runs a brothel which was shut down by local authorities until her female lawyer convinced Dora to purchase cats for each room in order to demonstrate to the judge how the services were in fact a zoological exhibit, a residence for special felines and their personal guardians. Reminiscent of Chris de Burgh’s Patricia the Stripper, the judge declared, “After reviewing the facts, I find this ordinance is not applicable to cat houses. Case dismissed!”
The humour is deadpan throughout, contained in varying styles. Elements are in song; there are pages of lists, paragraphs of repeated phrases, chapters with only one sentence. If not a tremendous piece of literature, Calamity’s Wake is a very entertaining read.
The subject of Come Away: Song of Songs by Anne Hines is a semi comedic look at a current state of contemporary religion. The online descriptions of Hines appear to be dated, making it difficult to ascertain her current works. One site describes her as Canada’s answer to Erma Bombeck, stating how Hines began her career as a humour/lifestyle columnist for Canadian Living Magazine and is currently a contributing editor of humorous articles at Chatelaine Magazine. She is or at least was a part-time Masters theology student at the University of Toronto, which explains the content of what appears to be her second novel, Come Away.
The book begins in 537 BC in the ancient city of Babylon during the Akitu, the largest and most anticipated festival of worship in the year. It is a time when numerous gods were worshiped, male and female, led by priests and priestesses. Here we meet one priestess, Shahiroz and her family who were part of the people banished from Jerusalem that eventually travel back to their homeland. Leap ahead to 2007 AD where we meet Professor Reggie Niefeild, pre-eminent scholar and expert on everything about the Song of Songs, an unlikely and largely unexplainable inclusion in the Old Testament. Professor Niefeild’s life work on this scroll represents the last legitimate academic scholarship in the theology department of Hosana College in the University of Toronto. The book attempts to demonstrate the devolution of religion into one god, dominated by men and their interpretations.
Come Away is based on historical records which will have been nourished by Hines’s enrolment in a graduate theology program. The story of Shahiroz is a depiction of the actions leading to the change in worship mixed with subtle humour of everyday life in the time: “Worshipping a single god is blasphemy”; “If the goddess wanted men to be doctors, she would have made them women.”
When the book shifts to today, Hines viciously skewers the world of arcane academia, specifically the department of religious studies. Professors not having published in at least a decade; a renowned Professor Niefeild who publishes regularly but always based on a spin on the same topic; and departmental meetings focusing on how to remain relevant: “You can hardly use public interest to determine what matters, Cullen. Look at The Da Vinci Code. Sex. Titillation. Religion as entertainment. It’s just giving the people what they want.” Watch the mini series, The Chair, on Netflix to get a visual understanding. The two time periods are connected by the Song of Songs, BC with its original existence and AD with its attempt to uncover the mystery.
I found the book inconsistent in approach, wanting to educate on an important interpretation of events whilst entertaining us with moments of slapstick style humour. I certainly learned much about the Song of Songs, making me interested in its existence and ongoing interpretation. The book does read well, offering up a smile and some religious history for the curious.
How do you feel about the size of books? Send a line with your comments.
We are entering into the season of new releases, so September will be dedicated to new Canadian literature. As always, I welcome your suggestions. Until then, happy reading.