Tag Archives: Reviews of the written word

How to flunk out of gender into something better

Gender Failure

Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon

Arsenal Pulp Press

265 pages, $17.95

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

And what a gorgeous failure it is.

Gender Failure is the new book by performers, authors and musicians Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon. Under its wry title, it succeeds on any terms you care to apply: as a work of art, a collection of autobiographical essays, the record of a stage show, and a gentle but firm declaration that if we do not honour each other’s authentic, struggling, and contradictory relationships to gender, then we fail each other.

Is this a brave book? Sure it is, but I don’t like using that word brave. We mean something good by it, but we also sometimes mean, “Brave, not like me.” We use it to create a little bit of distance between the brave person and our ordinary selves. When people called me “brave” after my own transition, I thought, “That’s not what it felt like at all.” Instead, I want to say that this is a powerfully vulnerable book, and that the more vulnerable the book gets, the more powerful it becomes, because it invites readers to take the same risk.

Fittingly, Gender Failure is a book that can’t be reduced to simple categories. It is based on the collaborators’ live show, and incorporates photos, illustrations, and song lyrics. There are no simple, fixed narratives of gender identity here. There are stories about gender transitions, yes, in the sense of transitions in how each author felt and thought about living gender. Yet Gender Failure is about transition in all kinds of other senses, too. A big part of Rae Spoon’s story is their transition from folk/country to electronic/indie musician, and beyond. Ivan Coyote transitions out of writing a long-term newspaper column. The authors describe physical and social transformations, transformations of wardrobes and pronouns, but ultimately the transition that matters is the one towards self-determination and self-celebration. It’s not a complete journey. How could it be, especially while gendered norms are violently enforced, even in spaces where we expect better? Spoon writes wrenchingly of finding that “the freedom that is part of the rhetoric about indie music . . .  is reserved only for certain people.”

In a section entitled “Do I Still Call Myself a Butch?” Coyote writes, simply: “Yes. Of course I still do.” It’s a reminder that these words—Butch, trans*, Spoon’s playful-yet-serious coining “gender-retired” – are supposed to make space in the world for people to live as their whole selves, not create new ways to exclude and shame each other’s difference. Part of what’s inspiring about this book is the way these two, as collaborators and friends, make loving mirrors of themselves for each other.

Here’s what I hope most of all: that Gender Failure marks the beginning of a new wave of declarations from gender dropouts and gender retirees, gender inventors and gender artists. May we all fail at everything that is wounding and constricting us. May we fail together into something better.

Reviewer’s Note: As good as Gender Failure is, it’s not the same as a live show with Spoon and Coyote. If you get a chance to see one or both of them, go. Meanwhile, clips are available on YouTube.

Julian Gunn is a Victoria poet and essayist.  

YA novel confronts life on Vancouver streets

Rabbit Ears

By Maggie De Vries

Harper Trophy Canada

232 pages, $14.99

Reviewed by Kyla Shauer

Every young adult novel I’ve ever read has concluded with some sort of bow-tied happy resolution. Usually the hero/heroine procures the love of someone dear, defeats their inner and/or outer demons and makes the world better. This is not that kind of novel. This novel discusses real problems from the streets of Vancouver. While it does not feature a brooding love interest, its complex characters give faces, voices and life to stories we normally hear as news statistics. Rabbit Ears shows that every story and person matters.

Many readers will remember De Vries from her compelling memoir, Missing Sarah, which focused on the author’s sister, who was one of the young women who went missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in the Robert Pickton case. A former editor at Orca Books, De Vries teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia, focusing on children’s writing. She has written eight previous books for children.

Rabbit Ears follows sisters Kaya and Beth as they navigate Kaya’s inner problems that lead her to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in late 1990s.

At 13, Kaya starts high school already at issue with her identity. Kaya collides with the return of a former friend Diana, whose presence at her new school pushes Kaya to run from her secret past. On one of her trips she meets Sarah, a prostitute and heroin addict, who tries to protect Kaya by shoving her onto the bus home. Soon Kaya returns and searches for Sarah but finds heroin instead.

De Vries utilizes the viewpoints of both sisters to tell the story from the perspective of the family and the runaway herself. Unusually, Kaya’s character is presented in the second-person point of view: “It feels weird being outside in the city so late all by yourself. You can feel the eyes on you. And the danger. You think briefly about your bed. Warm. Dry. Safe. Then you shake that off and march down the sidewalk.”

By contrast, the first-person point of view focuses on the emotional conflict that affects Beth and her mother as they search the streets for Kaya. “I’m on my way back downtown when I see her, standing right there on the corner, teetering on her high-heeled boots.”

The transitions between the sisters can be jarring, especially between multiple shifts within a few pages. De Vries evidently chooses the viewpoints to engage the reader by looking at teenage runaways, drug use and prostitution from different sides.

Rabbit Ears is a rewarding read for anyone wanting to understand what could make a person choose the streets when she had other options. This novel does not shy away from brutal reality but neither does it dwell on the violence or abuse. De Vries modeled the character, Sarah, on her sister and gave Sarah to Kaya as a guide and defender in honour of Sarah’s memory. I would recommend Rabbit Ears for later teens and adults.

Kyla Shauer is a Creative Writing student at UVic and a Communications Assistant at TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics.

An Informative Journey Beyond Down Syndrome

Writing With Grace: A Journey Beyond Down Syndrome

By Judy McFarlane

Douglas & McIntyre  2013

205 pp. $22.95

Reviewed by Janet Ralph

      Vancouver writer Judy McFarlane uses a personal and conversational style to invite readers into her experience mentoring Grace Chen, a young woman with Down Syndrome, who has a dream of becoming a famous writer. McFarlane is initially uncertain about the task but, after doing research into Down Syndrome and confronting her own fear and prejudice, she decides to work with Grace. 

       Hopes and dreams form the essence of the story— the most delightful being Grace’s retelling of the Cinderella tale, which includes Grace as the heroine, Ronald, a boy she likes, their honeymoon, an emergency helicopter rescue off the Titanic, three babies and a future career of espionage. In her next story, Grace plans to send the duo into space.

       McFarlane includes many other dreams in her book, including her own neglected childhood dream of becoming a writer, and her daughter’s dream of a career in theatre. She also looks at the hopes and dreams of adults with Down Syndrome for acceptance in schools, jobs, friendships, love and safe places to live their lives – in short, their basic human needs.

      Woven into the stories are quotes from Jean Vanier’s book Becoming Human, Robert Murphy’s The Body Silent and Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam. All offer insights into life with handicaps and prejudice towards people with disabilities. McFarlane refers to David Wright’s book Downs: The History of Disability to summarize the tragic treatment of people with intellectual disabilities in the past.

      Writing With Grace has a mosaic structure with six parts, each made up of short sections of stories and research. Although the title suggests otherwise, the author’s experience writing with Grace actually takes a back seat to McFarlane’s own life: her pursuit of a writing career, her parents, brothers, husband and children. 

            Sometimes abrupt story shifts disrupt connections between stories, resulting in some connections feeling contrived. McFarlane’s writing flows well when exploring research on high-functioning individuals with Down Syndrome. However, the discussion of Down Syndrome would be more complete if she had included information about the lives of families who are dealing with lower-functioning people with Down Syndrome as well.

     In the end, Grace’s venture into writing is a success. She is recognized in her community in British Columbia and in her birthplace of Taiwan. Her family bond is strengthened by a visit with her grandfather who finally accepts her as she is. Even better, at the World Down Syndrome Congress, Grace promotes her book and meets others who share her abilities and interests.

            The Jean Vanier epigram McFarlane chooses is apt for every human story: “Is it not the life undertaking of all of us . . . to become human? It can be a long and sometimes painful process. It involves a growth to freedom, an opening up of our hearts to others, no longer hiding behind masks or behind walls of fear or prejudice. It means discovering our common humanity.” 

Janet Ralph is a Victoria reader and writer.     

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. 


Deaf memoir speaks passionately

The Deaf House 

By Joanne Weber

Thistledown Press

274 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Margaret Thompson

There is a prefatory Note to The Deaf House by Joanne Weber that explains the difference between deaf/Deaf and hearing/Hearing as they are used in the narrative. For many readers this may well be their introduction to points of view radically at odds with their perception of profound hearing loss as a disability. That the Note needs to be there at all, on the very first page, is a clue to the frustration and conflict the deaf/Deaf face in their attempts to survive and thrive in the hearing/Hearing world.

Weber relates her own experience to illustrate that struggle. We meet her first as a small child, baffled and disturbed by the sounds in her head. Her hearing parents, especially her mother, throw themselves into the task of acquiring every scrap of knowledge and skill that would help them help her. The result is a child who is amazingly successful at school, despite profound deafness. She loves books, and thanks to her mother’s constant insistence on correction and practice, on learning sign language and lipreading, speaks clearly and grammatically. To all intents and purposes, she functions perfectly, although she guesses much of what is said; she is even paraded as an exemplar of what a profoundly deaf child can achieve.

Weber gives an impassioned account of the inadequacies of this way of life. There is a frantic quality to the events echoed in the tone of her writing. We follow the compulsive student, the affair with a married man, the single mother of two small girls who keeps moving house, the frustrated teacher, torn by the professional requirements that tie her to teaching practices she is convinced are useless. The simmering anger effectively conveys the turmoil of those years, but it is the quieter moments that provide insight for the hearing reader: the younger daughter, weeping, placing her hand on her mother’s throat, for instance, or the image of Weber’s ideal house—open, doorless, so that she can always see people talking.

The tensions inherent in a lifetime of trying to function in a world whose rules are predicated on being able to hear are most clearly exposed in Weber’s accounts of her interactions with her students and the education system. Her attempts to make her students more proactive and independent are frustrated at every turn. The students have cochlear implants and think they need nothing else; they rely too much on interpreters; the interpreters sign sloppily and inaccurately, using a code invented by hearing people rather than American Sign; the students think of themselves as disabled, belonging only to the hearing world rather than to the Deaf community.

Weber uses many fictional devices to convey the chaotic nature of her life. She plays with time, cutting frequently forward and back, to her childhood, to the early days of her relationship with her daughters’ father, often repetitiously, and sometimes, distractingly. She has conversations with herself, and introduces different facets of her own personality in dramatized playlets—Ms. Hearing Weber, for example, Little Red Deaf Coat, Joanne Maybe Hearing, It Depends. Such restlessness “on this weary walk in the desert” needs an antidote, and it does come finally with the appearance of Johanna, who can tolerate compromise and failure, and say, “I must stop looking for ways to escape my Deaf body.” Her voice is the last we hear, calming the turbulence:

“There is no solution, no cure, no rehabilitation, there is my body that just is. Fired into the world, my Deaf body has become the house.”

There is satisfaction for the reader in Weber’s acceptance, but also, perhaps, a sense of an opportunity missed. For those who can hear, deafness is an unfathomable state; how illuminating it would have been to devote more space to a discussion of the role of language, for example, or to explore the choice by the Deaf to not pursue technological or surgical remediation. Dwelling so exclusively on the personal engenders sympathy for an individual, but information and analysis may lead to understanding and action for a community.

Margaret Thompson’s new novel is The Cuckoo’s Child.

Study of unique map illuminates past

 Mr. Selden’s Map of China

By Timothy Brook

House of Anansi Press

211 pages; $29.95

Reviewed by Margaret Thompson

The key word in the subtitle of Timothy Brook’s work of historical detection, Mr Selden’s Map of China, is “decoding.” Even at the most superficial level the map is fascinating; for an expert on the history of China, like the author, it posed many intriguing questions. Bequeathed to the Bodleian library in 1654 by John Selden, an English lawyer and pioneer Oriental scholar, it was largely ignored for three and a half centuries until quite recently, when a curious reader asked to see it, and Brook was called in to inspect the hidden treasure. “The more I examined the map,” he says, “the more it troubled me.”

The map is one of a kind. It was drawn at a time when China had little contact with the world outside its borders, and actively discouraged the export of maps. This practice was maintained well into the twentieth century, as Brook can personally attest. The cartographer is unknown, but the principles by which he worked were original and sophisticated, and seem to reflect acquaintance with European maps of the area. Where most ancient Chinese maps focus on China itself, to the exclusion of surrounding countries and geographical features, and conform to traditional concepts of the country as a square, this map has the giant hole of the South China Sea at its heart, and features the other countries of South East Asia as well as the clusters of tiny islands in the sea. A further mystery is the intricate network of lines crisscrossing the map, as well as the inclusion of a compass and what appears to be a scale of some sort. As a final flourish, the map is full of place names, drawings of trees, mountains and animals, including two butterflies in the Gobi desert.

The expertise Brook uses to decode the map is probably available to very few people. His book, then, must explain a great deal that is not common knowledge in terms that are engaging and accessible. This he achieves. Mr Selden’s Map of China may be a meticulously scholarly argument, but it will also appeal to anybody who enjoys teasing deductions from enigmatic clues, or persuading the long-dead to speak and give up their secrets. In addition, the book contains a wealth of esoteric detail, little informational nuggets at every turn to enlighten and amuse as the reader follows the author along his winding path. Chapter 3, for instance, starts with the King’s Evil, and leads to a breakfast for James II in the Bodleian, a pair of globes, a food fight after the king left, a Jesuit translation of Confuscius, a conversation about the “little blinking fellow”—Michael Shen—his journey from China to Oxford, his translations, his portrait and its iconography, study of Oriental languages, the annotations on the map—and that takes us only halfway through.

This attention to detail, and the step-by-step construction of his thesis, makes Brook’s conclusions about the map, its construction, and its purpose all the more persuasive. He seems to agree with Zhang Huang that the duty of the scholar is “to amass the best knowledge and to make it available to those faced with real-world problems.” No surprise, then, when he concludes that the map reveals that China’s obsession about ownership of the islands off its coast, which is a significant source of tension in the area today, was already a concern in the seventeenth century. Like any good historian, Brook uses the past to illuminate the present.    

Margaret Thompson’s new novel, The Cuckoo’s Child, has just been published by Brindle and Glass.       



Anthology celebrates queer families

A Family By Any Other Name

Edited by Bruce Gillespie

Touchwood Editions

229 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

A Family By Any Other Name, editor Bruce Gillespie’s latest anthology, invites its authors and readers to consider what queer families might look like now. The anthology is, above all, a snapshot of a fascinating moment in queer history – which is to say, just plain history – the incredible transformation of the position of people who identify as queer and our relationships within Canada and the United States.

Shall we refresh our memories? It has been only nine years since the legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada (July 20th, if you want to throw a party). It’s eleven years since Ontario and British Columbia were the first and second provinces to recognize it (June 10th and July 8th, respectively. There’s nothing wrong with having several parties. Or one very long one.) There are still many American states where gay marriage is not legal.

Yet things have changed very quickly. Young people who identify as queer who were children when the laws changed are old enough now to be married themselves, and to have the same expectations as their straight peers about what marriage, fidelity, and family look like. And this is, on the whole, a wonderful thing. I think I’d have to be crazy not to be glad that a generation of people like me won’t be persecuted, isolated, and barred from the public recognition of their relationships.

You should know: this is a good book. The average quality of the essays here is remarkably high. I like to think people who identify as queer take it extra seriously when we set out to tell our stories, but it must also be true that Gillespie is a fine editor who knows how to inspire his contributors. A Family By Any Other Name has a lineage of its own. Gillespie has produced a whole series of anthologies examining the idea of family from all sorts of angles. Full disclosure: I am in one of them. It’s Nobody’s Father: Life Without Kids (2008), co-edited by Lynne Van Luven. A Family By Any Other Name is a substantial addition to the series. It may even be Gillespie’s best.

And yet.

There are some great essays here. Victoria writer Arlene Paré contributes a meditation on the long gestation of her novel and the remaking of her family at the same time, “To Carry My Family in My Imperfect Head.” The well-known trans* author and educator S. Bear Bergman provides an exuberant account of his sprawling chosen family, “Hiddur Mitzvah.” Dale Lee Kwong’s “Created by Choice” describes the merging and multiplication of family through adoption, cultural community, faith, and profound friendship. In “What She Taught Me,” Ellen Russell describes her current partnership as a “blended family” because both partners are widowed: not children but the beloved dead are brought together in this new relationship. I cannot think of a simpler and more profound description of the infinite extension of the bonds of love.

There is also an uncanny similarity among many of these narratives; a similarity that I don’t think would have been present before 2003. Almost all of these stories are primarily about being part of a couple. This couple is usually legally married, and often raising children. If they’re polyamorous, or have unusual rules or configurations in their households, this isn’t usually part of the essay’s focus. A playful exception is “I, Didi,” which describes Dorianne Emmerton’s decision to partner, but not co-parent or cohabitate, with her beloved. Another is Bergman’s essay, describing the shabbos dinners he and his partner host. These dinners are the foundation of an expansive family built on all imaginable configurations of love and commitment: “now we have this kid of our own, a kid whose family tree is practically bent double with relatives of assorted kinds—blood, marriage, wine and glitter.”

Each of the writers in By Any Other Name is funny and thoughtful about  his/her/their own particular struggles, some of which are more likely to be found in queer relationships – the struggle to conceive a child, or the awkward act of donating sperm. It’s just that most of these essays tend to assume the two-person partnership as the family unit. If they extend the discussion further, it’s often to the parents of the spouses. And the chosen family, the queer network of friends and frenemies and supporters and allies? It’s here, but it’s in the background. Several writers make appreciative reference to those communities, but in the end they focus on their spouses and children.

I don’t want any of that delicious talk of spouses and children to stop, but I do want us to remember to spend some time talking about building and celebrating that other love. I think it’s still here, for these writers and for me – it’s just that it was never that easy to describe. We never really had the right language, and now marriage has overshadowed our other loves, at least for the time being. I would have liked, for example, to have seen stories here about the extended communities that came together to face the HIV/AIDS epidemic just a generation ago.

So: the world has changed – right now, in these places, queer lives are better. Being better, they are more ordinary. This is a victory. And yet. I want us to give honour and attention to those who still can’t, or who once couldn’t, or who just won’t, enter into conventional structures of love and connection. I want us to do more than remember. I want us to bring those crazy ideas into the culture at large. I don’t just want queer relationships to be changed by marriage. I want us to change what marriage means. And everything else, too, while we’re at it. As my mom would say: the whole fam damily.

Julian Gunn is a Victoria essayist and poet.  

Eriksson’s characters achingly genuine

 High Clear Bell of Morning

By Ann Eriksson

Douglas and McIntyre

256 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Arleen Pare

Few books make me cry. So I was genuinely surprised when I found myself crying when I finished reading High Clear Bell of Morning.  To be honest, I cried half way through too — well, I had tears in my eyes.  Of course, this is a terrifyingly sad story about a family’s struggle to come to terms with the mental illness that overtakes their daughter, Ruby, just as she enters university.  Ruby, it turns out, has schizophrenia – a painful twist in any family’s life.

The reader witnesses the undoing of Ruby through the eyes of her sympathetic father, Glen, who tries over and over to save her from her decline into addictions and deprivation.  We are with him through his initial disbelief, through his slow realization that life will never be the same, through his desperation to save Ruby.  From his perspective, there is no reason why he can’t help her overcome her illness and return to being the Ruby she once was.

Part of Eriksson’s brilliance in this, her fourth novel, springs from her choice to tell this story from two points of view: Glen’s, with whom many readers will identify, and Ruby’s as well.  We sympathize with both.  Ruby has her own reasons to feel unsafe, even if those reasons are not reasonable.  She articulates them, describing her impossible situation.  She tries to manage the voices that interfere with her family life, university courses and friends.  Of course, she can’t.   And because Ruby describes the problems, the haunting seriousness of them, the reader begins to understand too.  Eriksson balances these two points of view, Glen’s and Ruby’s, with respect and considerable neutrality, which leaves the reader aching for Ruby and for the knot that has become the family, the conundrum at the heart of serious mental illness.

At the same time, whales are dying.  Glen is a marine biologist who studies killer whales in the Salish Sea.  He collects data that suggests toxic waste in the oceans off the west coast of Canada is endangering whale habitat and whale populations.  Glen has two problems: Ruby and the whales — and he believes they might be related.

Eriksson is a novelist and an ecologist.  Both interests serve to create this very fine book.  She details the lives of killer whales and their habitat, as well as the lives of their researchers, with convincing authority.  Her descriptions of mental illness and its effects are believable.

High Clear Bell of Morning is not overwritten; it is to the point. All the details — emotional, scientific, medical, social — are presented with a credible, eponymous clarity.  But it is Eriksson’s ability to draw character with care and compassion that most successfully sustains this novel.  That is what made me cry.

Arleen Pare is a Victoria writer; her new book of poetry, Lake of Two Mountains, is published by Brick Books.

Author and artist collaborate beautifully


By Anne Michaels and Bernice Eisenstein

McClelland & Stewart

Unpaginated, $35

Reviewed by Karen Enns

            Correspondences is a deeply layered collaboration between poet and novelist Anne Michaels, and artist and writer Bernice Eisenstein (author of the graphic memoir “I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors”). It is a beauty of a book, seamlessly blending form and content in a unique design that invites the reader into a communal place of remembrance.

The pages open out accordion-style between two hardcover plates. Read one way, Michaels’ long resonant poem unfolds; read the other way, Eisenstein’s portraits of writers, musicians, and artists, whose lives were brutally altered by the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges, peer out at the reader from muted backgrounds. Opened out completely, the gallery of faces spans the length of a large room. Eisenstein’s subjects include Anna Akhmatova, Bruno Schulz, Albert Camus, Charlotte Salomon, Osip Mandelstam, Primo Levi, Charlotte Delbo, and many others. The haiku-like text that accompanies each portrait is often, though not always, a quotation. Opposite the face of Tereska, a young survivor whose photograph was taken in a refugee camp, and about whom little else is known, are the words, “I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you – Nobody – Too?”

The end of one side of the book becomes the beginning of the other, pulling the reader into an endless loop of mourning. “Our eyes register the light of dead stars,” a quotation from the work of André Schwarz-Bart, speaks to the relentlessness of that pull; the haunting gazes in Eisenstein’s portraits are as hard to leave behind as they are to see again.

Michaels’s book-length poem begins in the dark, lyrical tone that carries the entire work: “The wet earth. I did not imagine / your death would reconcile me with / language, did not imagine soil / clinging to the page, black type / like birds on a stone sky.” There is deep grief in this elegy to her father and to the historical figures that shared his century. “A life is inextricable from a time, place, language,” she writes in one of the brief biographical notes that introduce the portraits, “If we seek it, if we are fortunate, our sensibilities and our grief find a true companionship — with certain writers, painters, composers, activists. To remember someone is also to remember this ardour, these allegiances, this necessity.”

The poem is a tribute to this ardour then, and to the ways in which language becomes a necessary part of its articulation, a connective tissue between the past and the present, between the mourned and those who mourn, and between the survivors themselves—the ones who have lived to tell the stories. Language, says Michaels, can either complete or dismantle us, “each word the reverse of a word.” Referring to the correspondence between Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan, who appear as central figures (indeed, their portraits act as bookends on either side of the gallery), she writes, “For both, language was a leap of faith, staggering and minimal . . . .”

But this book is an artistic collaboration. Two art forms in dialogue can do more than one. If language seems inadequate at times, if it can make the leap only minimally, we have the visual to intensify the palette: “not two to make one, / but two to make / the third, / just as a conversation can become / the third side of the page.”

The accordion-style format means the reader has to physically support the book to keep it together. It is this act that adds a final dimension to the experience of Correspondences. The reader must also bear some of the weight.

Karen Enns’s new book of poetry, Ordinary Hours, will be launched in Victoria April 29 at 7:30 p.m. at Open Space as part of a group tour sponsored by her publisher, Brick Books. The three other poets featured include Arleen Pare (Lake of Two Mountains), Jane Munro (Blue Sonoma) and Joanna Lilley (The Fleece Era).

What is it to be an asshole?

Assholes: A Theory

By Aaron James

Published by Doubleday

201 Pages (plus Appendix), $25.95

Reviewed by Michael Luis 

We’ve all experienced the wrath of assholes, whether this is every day at work, at home, or—perhaps most commonly—in traffic. In Assholes: A Theory, American philosopher Aaron James contends that “asshole” is more than just an insult for an unpleasant person, but a specific type of human being indelibly ingrained into our society.

James is an associate professor of philosophy at The University of California, Irvine and is known for his book Fairness in Practice: A Social Contract for a Global Economy. He holds a PhD form Harvard, and like many of us, has presumably dealt with a lot of assholes.

Right away Assholes establishes its mission statement: “What is it to be an asshole? The answer is not obvious, despite the fact that we are often stuck dealing with people for whom there is no better name. (pg. 2)” This question is examined, and inevitably answered over the book’s seven chapters which feature such titles as “Newer Asshole Styles” and “Asshole Management.”

James applies his experience in both moral and political philosophy to dissect the asshole. I found the former style of philosophy to be the most engaging and interesting. Though I have very limited experience in academic philosophy, I was still able to relate to James’s musings, as I’ve had many run-ins with assholes and found it interesting to look at their make-up from an intellectual perspective. Explorations such as the difference between assholes and psychopaths (pg. 53) and the way we will cuss the word “asshole” even when the asshole can’t hear us (like in traffic) piqued my interest and answered questions I already had going into the book (pg. 127).

The book is also splashed with humour. The part in the second chapter “Naming Names,” where James shows us different types of assholes using relevant pop-culture examples, had me smirking as I flipped the pages. Richard Dawkins is the quintessential “smug asshole” for example; “He writes cocksurely that the views of millions of reasonable and intelligent people have no merit whatsoever… (pg. 40)” Rush Limbaugh and Oasis’s Noel Gallagher are “boorish assholes,” yet Winston Churchill is “boorish, but not quite an asshole. (pg. 47)”

However, this humour almost ends up being the book’s downfall. Assholes is trapped in a strange scenario: the way it examines a brash term with an academic tone could be mistaken for satire; however, the book ultimately ends as a solid moral and political philosophy book with some colourful language. I made this mistake initially, and it took me a little while to realize my misinterpretation and regroup.

I also struggled when the book shifted from moral to political. The political sections felt forced, like James was trying to apply the asshole sheen to the other end of his expertise. The examples within the “Asshole Capitalism” chapter were significantly less concrete than the book’s earlier portions, and were very hard to grasp for a casual plebe like myself with a very limited knowledge of political science (pg. 153). However, I was able to understand his sections on “royal assholes” and “presidential assholes” which combined the political with moral examples such as former American vice-president Dick Cheney (pg. 58).

Though Assholes: A Theory is accessible enough for a philosophy newbie like myself to gain knowledge and entertainment from certain sections, ultimately, this book would be better appreciated in the hands of a philosophy student or enthusiast. I can firmly say this is a much nicer summary than “Fuck this book. I’m better than it.”

As I just learned from James, that’s something an asshole would say.

Michael Luis is a Victoria student, writer, filmmaker, and musician. Check him out at www.michaelacluis.wordpress.com.