Tag Archives: canlit

A long time coming, but worth the wait

Fists Upon a Star

By Florence Bean James with Jean Freeman

University of Regina Press

298 pages, $34.98

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

If you like true stories about strong women, you’ll like this book. If you’re interested in live theatre, this book will engage you. If you have a vague notion that it’s important to fight injustice, this book will snap into focus your understanding of the human cost of government tyranny.

If, like me, you have a sparking interest in all three topics, this book will ignite you.

Subtitled “a memoir of love, theatre, and escape from McCarthyism,” Fists Upon a Star tells the story of Florence Bean James and her husband Burton, who founded and ran the Seattle Repertory Playhouse for 23 years, until Washington State’s House Un-American Activities Committee convicted them both of “willful refusal to answer proper and material questions.”

Ruined financially by the legal expenses incurred to fight the charges, they lost the lease on their theatre to the University of Washington. By December 30, 1950, the final curtain had descended on their last production, and, by November 13, 1951, Burton James had, according to his doctor, died “of a broken heart.”

In Seattle, the Jameses had devoted themselves to a “theatre of the people, by the people and for the people.” When Florence migrated to Canada in 1952 after being offered a job with the new Saskatchewan Arts Board by none other than Tommy Douglas, she finally found a “philosophical home.”

Norah McCullough, former executive secretary of the Arts Board, recalled a conversation she had had with then Education Minister Woodrow Lloyd. Concerned the Jameses might have been Communists, Lloyd asked about Recreation for All, the proposal Burton James had made to the State of Washington which had brought him under suspicion. McCullough had a copy and gave it to Lloyd. When he read it, he said: “Well, it sounds like the Saskatchewan Arts Board,” and she replied: “Yes, exactly.”

Already in her 60s when she moved to Canada, Florence James travelled “the length and breadth” of Saskatchewan by train in all kinds of weather conducting acting workshops and directing amateur theatrical productions in hundreds of communities. After her retirement from the Arts Board in 1968, Florence continued to work as a dramaturg with the Globe Theatre, the first professional education theatre company in Saskatchewan. In 1976, she was awarded the Diplome d’honneur by the Canadian Conference of the Arts, presented to a Canadian who has “made a sustained contribution to the cultural life of the country.”

In Canada, Florence James took up the job of finishing the book her husband had started before his untimely death. He had defiantly named it Fists Upon a Star, from a passage in Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem, John Brown’s Body, about the radical abolitionist who raided Harper’s Ferry in 1859.

Florence kept the title, wrote and, with author/actor Jean Freeman, rewrote the book and searched in vain for a publisher until her death in 1988 at the age of 95. Fists Upon a Star was finally published in 2013, after Canadian playwright, journalist and social activist Rita Deverell took up the cause and persuaded the Canadian Plains Research Center (now the University of Regina Press) to take a look.

Now we can all take a look. And I hope you will.

Fists Upon a Star includes a preface by Freeman, an annotated introduction by Mary Blackstone, professor emerita of the University of Regina Theatre Department, and an epilogue by Deverell.

It was a 2014 nominee for the Saskatchewan Book Awards in the categories of non-fiction, publishing, and publishing in education.

Joy Fisher graduated from UVic in 2013 with a BFA in writing. She is a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. 


Silent-film romance speaks eloquently

British Columbia writer Margaret Gunning just published her third novel, The Glass Character, with Thistledown Press.  Gunning, a long-time print journalist, columnist and reviewer, as well as a poet, has written two previous novels, Better than Life and Mallory.  She recently took the time to sit down in her office in Coquitlam, B.C., to answer questions  from Lynne Van Luven about The Glass Character.  The novel is a well-paced narrative that melds a young girl’s coming of age story with insights into the ambition and competition that drove the creation of silent films.

Margaret, for some reason the subject of your new novel startled me.  How did a sensible no-nonsense journalist (as I think of you) get so interested in Harold Clayton Lloyd, a 1920s silent screen comedian?

The first thing I ever wrote or published was poetry, so I have never really been all that sensible! But if it hadn’t been for Turner Classic Movies, I don’t think this novel would have happened. Not only do they regularly feature silent movies in their programming, they seem to champion Lloyd above all the others (including Chaplin).  So I first became hooked five or six years ago when I tuned in halfway through The Freshman, during a hilarious dance sequence when Lloyd’s cheap suit falls apart piece-by-piece.  But as a kid, I distinctly remember seeing a full-page black-and-white photo of Harold Lloyd, I think in a coffee table book called The Movies. It was the iconic photo of him dangling from a huge clock, and somehow his name fastened itself to that image.

Can you talk about all the research you did to capture the nuances and action of the Jazz Era in your novel?

I kind of did this backwards! I had already become enchanted with Lloyd, but at that point I was interested in a lot of things and was randomly picking my way through YouTube snippets. Then at some point – I remember the exact instant, when I was sitting in my office chair in a daydream and the idea hit me like a brick – I realized I was going to write about Lloyd. This filled me with woe, because at that point I knew very little about him. I had ordered a superb DVD boxed set called the Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection – take note, it has all his best stuff in it! – but by the time it arrived, I was already writing. So the research ran parallel to the work, and continues today because I am still interested – or should I say, enthralled.

Your narrator Jane is an inspiring character on so many levels.  Do you think “Hollywoodland” would be any different today for an innocent, star-struck teenager?

I think it would be totally different. In the novel, I use the cliché of the girl from a small town getting on the bus, headed for stardom. I figured if it was such a cliché, it must have been true in a lot of cases. Nowadays, a girl could not just walk on a movie set and get a part as an extra. At least, I don’t think so. The devouring machine of these TV talent shows is shark-infested water, as far as I am concerned, and no matter how gifted and determined you are, it’s a lottery with almost everyone going home heartbroken.

As I continued to read your novel, I realized that I had a subliminal memory of seeing the occasional Harold Lloyd movie, but that I was more familiar with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.  Do you identify with the ordinary guy/underdog epitomized in Lloyd’s many “Glass Character” roles?

Funny you should say that! Over and over again, when I told people I was writing about Harold Lloyd, I’d get a blank look. Then I’d say:  “You know, the guy dangling off the clock 20 stories up,” and then came the “Ohhh! Yes, I know who you mean.” He’s filed somewhere in the back of people’s minds, but one reason we don’t know him better is that he was overprotective of his movies. He literally locked them in a vault and refused to show them on TV. He seemed to be engineering his own oblivion. As for being the underdog, Lloyd described the Glass Character as “just a regular fellow,” so most of us could identify with him:  an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.

I noted that you make no mention of Lloyd’s involvement with the Freemasons at the height of his career.  He reached an exalted level within the Masons, and that association was always part of his life.  Did you skip that fact as just too cultish and unromantic for Jane to absorb, a fact just unhelpful to your fiction?

Oh, there were so many things I could not cover, because Lloyd was the ultimate Renaissance man, an amateur scientist, painter, 3D photographer, show dog breeder, magician, golfer, acoustic innovator, and on and on. Right now, Freemasons are looked upon as targets for all sorts of conspiracy theories, but when my Dad was a Mason in the 1960s, it was just something you did, a dull men’s club. So in many ways it was the most conventional aspect of his life – but perhaps he needed it to remain grounded amongst all the more pedestrian souls.


Book on English hilariously informative

The Rude Story of English

By Tom Howell

Published by McClelland & Stewart

300 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Bonnie Way

English is a patchwork quilt of a language, with words borrowed from other languages and “rules” applied arbitrarily.  We probably all memorized the “I before E except after C” rule in school and have seen the meme going around on Facebook that shows the exceptions to that rule.  In his debut book The Rude Story of English, Tom Howell attempts to trace the paths of English through time and place and find out how some of the words evolved—or didn’t.

Howell is a graduate of the University of Victoria who wrote definitions for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and thesaurus entries for the Canadian Oxford Thesaurus—an excellent background for this book.  He’s also worked for CBC Radio as in-house word nerd and poetry correspondent.  He is originally from London, England, and now lives in Toronto, Ontario, and has thus experienced firsthand the changes wrought in a language over time and place.

Howell begins his history of English by creating a hero—a personification of the English language whom we can follow and cheer for (or groan in disgust at).  To find his hero, he goes back to another word nerd: J. R. R. Tolkien, who also worked for Oxford’s dictionary department.  Tolkien also understood English’s need for a hero and chose Hengest, an “ancient warrior who had somehow gained a reputation for discovering Britain on behalf of the Angles, a tribe in northern Germany, thereby inventing the English language.”

From the opening pages of The Rude Story of English, Howell had me laughing out loud.  He sprinkles just enough research and fact through his story to make it believable, yet most of it is “asterisked” as he fills in the gaps of our knowledge.  The story is rude, irreverent, and hilarious, with penis jokes sprinkled among word jokes.  Howell lopes through the centuries, showing how English grew up as a language and mentioning key figures in its evolution, such as Beowulf,  Chaucer and Roger Williams.

Howell includes samples of poetry in Old English with his own translations.  In regards to various anonymous works of poetry and prose that have survived from English’s early days, he says, “I know several male poets.  The idea that they would contribute anything of significance without pasting their real names (including, often as not, their middle names) all over the material strikes me as implausible.  If Anon’s true identity was lost to the ignorance and carelessness of time, I bet she was an Anonyma, a woman who chose the pseudonym to dodge the biases of critics.”

The Rude Story of English is a book for lovers of words, puns, history, language and humour.  If you want a good dose of humour with a bit of learning thrown in, I heartily recommend it.  As Howell himself says:  “I’m often struck by how tenuously I know my own language, which is why I like to look words up in dictionaries—for the sense of reassurance that somebody out there has been keeping track of it all.”

Bonnie Way has a B.A. in English and History and is completing a second B.A. in Writing.

From Penguins to Paintings: CNF Night in Canada

By Liz Snell

It’s not often that invasive ivy, clumsy penguins, and cheap reproductions of famous paintings get to hang out together. At “CNF Night in Canada”, a precursor to WordsThaw, The Malahat Review’s annual literary symposium, the three non-fiction readers (Malea Acker, Jay Ruzesky, and Madeline Sonik) respectively covered each topic.

In the basement Russell’s Vintage, light glinted off the gold spines of old books around the little stage below the staircase. Malea Acker read from her book “Gardens Aflame”, which is about Vancouver Island’s endangered Garry oak ecosystem. Her hands gestured gracefully and frequently as she read about removing invasive species from Trial Island, an ecological reserve just off Victoria that is home to many rare species of flora. Full of specific plant names, Acker’s writing evoked the particularity of the windswept island environment.

Jay Ruzesky read from his book “In Antarctica: An Amundsun Pilgrimage”, which recounts his journey to Antarctica to follow in the footsteps of explorer Roald Amundsun, Ruzesky’s distant relative. He read an excerpt about asking for a bank loan to finance his expedition; the audience laughed as he recounted the employee’s incredulous response: “There’s no candid camera here?”

In an excerpt from the Antarctic expedition, Ruzesky captured the humour of penguins “clean as scrubbed potatoes” and their endearing awkwardness: “I think we love them like we do because of their imperfections.”

The penguin passage also touched on how serious discussions around the environment can often become, and how penguins are a kind of relief from that. “There’s something about humour that’s its own kind of reverence,” he read, which seems an apt description of his reading as well.

Madeline Sonik shared an essay about her childhood, when her father became obsessed with buying reproductions of masterworks from a local gas station. He gave his children a bogus education on the paintings’ significance, encouraging them to speak with “great pretension and confidence” about art, regardless of their knowledge. Sonik demonstrated a deft hand for capturing her family’s antics and kept the audience laughing.

An open Q & A period followed the readings. In response to a question about how the authors see themselves situated in the Canadian lit scene, Ruzesky commented on the difficulty of keeping up with the constantly emerging talented authors. The three authors’ general consensus was that the literary community has been very supportive of their work, despite, according to Acker, “some fractiousness and disagreement, which is a healthy part of a growing community.” That support seemed apparent in the packed room. Though Canadian literary events probably won’t be filling stadiums with towel-swinging fans any time soon, “CNF Night in Canada” proved our writers (and readers) still have their sticks on the ice.

Authors reanimate Canlit for teachers

Reading Canada: Teaching Canadian Fiction in Secondary Schools

By Wendy Donawa and Leah C. Fowler

Oxford University Press

275 pp. $69.95

Reviewed by Susan Braley.

In Reading Canada: Teaching Canadian Fiction in Secondary Schools, Wendy Donawa and Leah C. Fowler rightfully name teachers as curators of Canada’s narrative culture. Teachers collect, preserve and interpret the literary artifacts of Canada and help students to recognize and understand these national treasures. Legendary books like Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind are among these artifacts.

But Donawa and Fowler also name a crisis: innumerable national treasures are missing from the “permanent collection” of contemporary Canadian fiction. Reading Canada, a dynamic guide, re-imagines this collection for Canadian teachers, pre-service teachers, and readers at large.

Reading Canada is spacious and inviting:  in each chapter, key thematic and conceptual principles, such as social realism or visual literacy, come alive in the discussion of new Canadian literature; following the discussion, a pedagogical essay explores how to “call students to responses, reflection and research” using this literature. The case studies at the end of each chapter – for instance,  “What Fear Makes Us Do: Beyond Fear and Bullying” and “Classroom Canada Reads” – are highly engaging.

Fowler and Donawa promote literary-quality, contemporary Canadian fiction for secondary-school students. They point out that teachers, under pressure to manage heterogeneous classes and achieve more standardized outcomes, often choose readings already enshrined in the curriculum. The readings they select are likely to be classics like To Kill a Mocking Bird or Lord of the Flies. Although venerable in their own right, these books do not depict “the sociopolitical, geophysical and imaginative landscape” in which today’s Canadian students live.

To represent this landscape, Donawa and Fowler launch an astonishing exhibition of current Canadian authors, all of them worthy of sharing space with the Atwoods and Mitchells in the existing collection. Many of these books enlarge the definition of “Canadian” and introduce crucial issues like belonging and otherness. For example, Lawrence Hill’s award-winning novel The Book of Negroes offers a powerful story of a black woman, who, after years of enslavement, struggles as a “free” Black Loyalist in Canada. This book and others situate the history and politics of race, too frequently seen as only American concerns, in Canada.

Young adult readers themselves often inhabit complex worlds where they deal with problems like poverty and isolation.  Reading Canada provides a trove of recent Canadian books wherein these readers may find their lives mirrored. Carrie Mac’s The Beckoners depicts the cycle of the abused becoming abusers; Sylvia Olsen’s White Girl follows Josie to a reserve, where she is the only white girl.

Such books also include models for problem-solving; for instance, bi-cultural Ashley in Jamie Bastedo’s On Thin Ice builds strength by connecting with Nanurluk, the Great Spirit Bear of her father’s culture.  Such stories provide students with literary examples of building empathy and hope, “one narrative experience at a time.”

Fowler and Donawa observe that the genre of speculative fiction addresses problem-solving on a large scale, its narratives “challenging the boundaries of the possible.”  The chapter on this genre exemplifies how judiciously Donawa and Fowler contextualize, in every chapter, the newest members of the literary “permanent collection” they envisage. In this case, they outline how myth has nourished speculative fiction, and how hybridity and intertextuality teach students to see the elaborate  “matrices” of thought in literature.

Reading Canada’s expansive matrices give the book energy and dimension: readers can compare new books with books already deemed canonical; contemplate digital forms of learning (for example, creating a book report in the form of a Youtube video); explore the “synchronous space between image and word” in graphic novels; and promote crossover texts and “cross-curricular resonance” in the classroom.

With its deep appreciation of narrative text, Reading Canada transcends the confines of “textbook.” Even so, Donawa and Fowler describe their guide as provisional, a work in progress to be amplified by future teacher-curators in Canada.  Their book offers a vision of the permanent collection, not as unitary and official, but as open-ended and personal, to be shaped and reshaped by the “multiple discourses” and readers of English.

Susan Braley is a Victoria writer and former college professor.





Winning novel’s captures war’s high cost

Lucky: A novel
By Kathryn Para
Published by Mother Tongue Publishing

213 pages, $21.95

Reviewed by Jenny Boychuk

Kathryn Para’s debut novel and winner of The Great BC Novel Contest, Lucky: a novel, explores how we distance ourselves physically and mentally as a way to try to adapt to unthinkable tragedy and suffering.

Anika Lund is a photojournalist working on assignment in the war-torn Middle East when she meets Viva from Syria, a woman in search of her husband’s kidnapper, whom she believes to be in Fallujah, Iraq. Ani’s job is to take photos—of dying children, of broken buildings and dust—that will explain the state of the Middle East to westerners in a way words cannot.

Given the machine gun and the destruction of Murad’s house, Murad, perhaps, is the man she seeks, the one with ties to Zayid’s terrorist franchise that ripples through the Middle East. But on the ground, cradling his head, he looks less like a terrorist than an ordinary man. She takes another photograph of him, and the acid in her stomach lifts, swirls and threatens. Trembling comes next, followed by cold sweat. She lowers the camera and stows it in her bag. Maybe this trip will have been worth the effort. Maybe this time she has taken the photograph that will stop the war.

Ani joins Viva in hopes of finding the photographs that will change everything. Eventually, they are joined by a cocky journalist named Alex, with whom Ani has fallen in love. Together, and well-aware of the dangers that await, they devise an intricate plan to reach their destination. But when Viva’s search for her husband’s kidnapper grows fiercer, something terrible happens in Fallujah.

The novel alternates between the past in the Middle East, and the present in Vancouver, B.C.  Each thread is written in the present tense, which allows the reader to witness the urgency of Ani’s time abroad as she relives it. Para has done something structurally fascinating: like a camera lens, the story fluctuates between zooming the reader uncomfortably far into Ani’s mind post-trauma in Vancouver, and zooming back out to create distance as Ani, Viva and Alex fight for their lives in Fallujah. The pieces of the story that take place in Vancouver are written in first-person point-of-view, from Ani’s perspective, while the parts set in the Middle East are written in a limited third-person point of view, also from Ani’s perspective.

Back in Vancouver, Ani struggles to live with what has happened. Her therapist prescribes a concoction of different anti-depressants and tranquilizers, which Ani mixes with alcohol in an  attempt to escape reality. Then, at a party, Ani’s publisher introduces her to another journalist, Levi, who she thinks might be able to help Ani with her book, to persuade her to open the box of photos she can’t bring herself to look at. Levi is mystified by Ani’s brokenness and, though it isn’t long before the two become locked together physically, she won’t let him into her mind to see what she saw.  By the time a reader reaches the end of the novel, it is not difficult to see why.

Levi finds me later under a tree in the park. I explain that the willow roped me, twisted me around and hog-tied me like a calf, hid me under the dead leaves. My sweet Levi. My swagger man in his tight jeans, my cool-word man with his Mac computer, my investigator man with his laid-back methods. He waits for people to open themselves up. He’s a tricky man.

While the ambitious structure is successful, Ani’s internal first-person voice is much more engaging and interesting. The contrast between voices is obvious but not jarring, and mirrors the premise so well that Para can easily get away with it.

Lucky explores notions of reality and memory and how we skew them in order to try to move forward—or even just exist. The novel succeeds portraying both the deterioration of a civilization and the singular self—and shows how we continue to do the enemy’s work long after we’ve escaped them.

Jenny Boychuk is a BFA graduate about to launch post-grad studies in writing.