The month of October passed into the next without the completion of a single book. I did start with a new memoir by Donna Morrissey, Pluck and attempted to read each night just before my head went to the bottom of the page to stay. I managed only a few before the lights would be turned off.
So, instead of a review of books from this month, this post will talk about novels from the past, focusing on quotes which I recorded in my notebook, words which compelled me to write them down. As an illustration, let me begin with a couple from an unknown source. This passage is found on page 354 in a book for which I had neglected to include the title:
“Institutions are amoral” he said. “We should never lose touch with our individuality. Once you lose that you lose touch with the basics. The right and the wrong of things. I have to think we are conditioned to do the right thing as people. But not as institutions. There’s no morality in an institution. It’s just a thing.”
It is a message which resonates among those who have encountered a bureaucracy, subjected to the rules in apparent odds to the humanity of the circumstance. I think of our federal government yet again appealing a court decision on the neglect of providing indigenous child services even though compassion would be the most logical response especially given the apparent acceptance of the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations. It seems as if they have entirely missed the message to help heal the wrongs of the past: The true act of contrition has to be a deed, an action that somehow leads to change (page 205).
My first foray into book collecting began with Hugh MacLennan. His book, The Watch That Ends the Night was a standard in Ontario secondary school curriculum. Many years later, I discovered the novel at a used book sale and reread it a second time. The indulgence sparked efforts to purchase the remainder of his works, all focused on Canada, all well written, several winning the Governor General award for fiction, some finding their way into the political lexicon, such as Two Solitudes, or into popular music, such as the Tragically Hip’s Courage (for Hugh McLennan) :
There’s no simple explanation
For anything important any of us do
And yeah, the human tragedy
Consists in the necessity
Of living with the consequences
Under pressure, under pressure
When I realized the source of these lyrics, I read The Watch That Ends the Night for a third time. In hindsight, it is the political story, the polar feelings about participation in the Spanish Civil War, the prevailing dynamic of the merits of socialism which captured my interest. In so doing, I copied another profound quote into my notebook:
Passion has a way of spilling over into all aspects of the human mind and feelings. It is the most dangerous thing in the world whether it focuses itself on love, religion, reform, politics or art. Without it, the world would die of dry rot. But though it creates it also destroys.
Hugh MacLennan passed away in 1990. I believe some of his books can still be found in print and you could most certainly find copies of his works in a Canadian library. I enjoyed them all.
One of the benefits of travel, particularly international flights, is the opportunity to read. The long hauls provide lengths of undisturbed time to really dig into a book, ploughing through significant portions in one sitting. In 2018, on a work trip to China, I brought along the newly named winner of the Governor General Award for fiction, The Red Word, by Sarah Henstra. It is the story of a young woman attending university where she is caught up in gender politics and becomes a victim of the rape culture on campus. The writing had an impact on me as I found several lines which resonated:
The purity of vision itself becomes a kind of violence.
Pleasure is political… Enjoying something is a political act.
The latter has found its way onto my home page where I employ several quotes for consideration. I am not always clear what is intended by this statement. The words pop into my head as I reflect on how we live and its impact on others.
Time and age has also changed my perspective on my youth, on my education, and my ideals, particularly looking back at the early years of work. A quote from The Red Word probably captures it best:
We all thought we were different, but we weren’t. We all thought were resisting something, but we weren’t. We all thought life would be like this forever but it wouldn’t. …. From here on in, it would be nostalgia.
Sarah Heard is a professor of English literature and creative writing at Ryerson University here in Toronto, so I can imagine her book reflects stories from campus and her own lived experience through the system. Recent headlines emanating from the start of this past semester suggest the messages of The Red Word remain timely and relevant. It is a very worthwhile read.
Another quote you will see on the home page of my blog comes from Craig Davidson’s book, The Saturday Night Ghost Club:
Reality never changes. Only our recollections of it do. Whenever a moment passes, we pass along with it into the realm of memory. And in that realm, geometries change. Contours shift, shades lighten, objectivities dissolve. Memory becomes what we need it to be.
The quote is a constant reminder to myself as I uncover old photographs, conjuring particular memories which vary with those of others who were part of the same experience. They recall elements which I have forgotten, or somehow subconsciously have chosen not to remember. I think as much about the events where I can no longer recite the details as those I write about with vivid scenarios spurred by a picture or artifact or experience. The idea of memory being what we need it to be haunts me as I proceed with the memoir writing course, attempting to complete the exercises, reflecting on the time, the circumstances, the emotions.
Craig Davidson has written several novels, largely centered around the illicit, seedy world of dog fighting, dog racing, and bare knuckle boxing in the Niagara region here in Ontario. In his book, The Fighter, he writes of parental relationships, particularly father and son: Bonds of family are the fiercest and can only be broken by the most extreme strokes. I am increasingly reminded of the truism of that statement.
I have enjoyed all of Craig Davidson’s work, including a memoir, Precious Cargo, and his horror books under the pseudonym, Nick Cutter.
From my perspective, the best novels have well written prose and insight into the human condition, images to mirror our world, words to induce reflection, situations which give us pause.
Let me finish with several statements which found their way into my notebook:
When it comes to understanding others…. we rarely tax our imaginations – Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes.
“You cannot know the true nature of another’s suffering.” “No. But you can try your damnedest not to worsen it.” – Esi Edugyan, Washington Black.
You get what you want, but never in the way you want it. – Steven Heighton, Every Lost Country.
Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. – author unrecorded.
Until next time, happy reading.