Sunday, December 30, 2012

Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy

Tamas Dobozy was born in Nanaimo, British Columbia, in 1969, and he received a Ph.D. in English from the University of British Columbia. He has published more than 50 short stories, one of which earned him the O. Henry Prize in 2004. He was recipient of the inaugural Fulbright Research Chair in Creative Writing at New York University in 2009. He currently teaches in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Ontario.
Siege 13, a collection of 13 short stories inspired by the ways the siege of Budapest by the Russians in December 1944 impacted the lives of the Hungarian people, won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize in 2012. Part personal essay, part exploration of collective memory and identity maintenance, and part alternate world construction, these stories are above all else case studies of "the passing of trauma from one generation to the next" (p. 183).
There is no question that Dobozy is a master storyteller, and his characterizations are magnificent. My issue with this book is that it rapidly becomes too much of a good thing. Reading one or two of these stories would suffice, both in terms of satisfying and educating the reader and with respect to demonstrating the author's mastery. No need to obsess and saturate. I got bored; not by the writing, but by the inevitable sameness of these stories.
I enjoy reading short stories, and in reading this book I came to two realizations. First, I like my short stories to be short. Once they reach 3000 words, they are forced to move beyond singular events or circumstances and thereby cry out either to be divided into separate stories or to be expanded into a novel. Dobozy had enough material here to create a marvelous extended character study in the vein of some of the greatest late nineteenth and early twentieth century epic fiction. Second, I like short story collections to be comprised of works by multiple authors or, if from a single author, to be poly-thematic. Variety is the key, at least for me.
I would have had a much more positive response to these siege stories if I had encountered one as a standalone entry in a literary magazine, or as part of a collection of Canadian short fiction. However, to give the author his due, I have been sufficiently impressed by his writing that I will seek out other examples of his work.

Friday, December 14, 2012

CanLit Adventure

Recently, I won three books in a contest run by Access Copyright, a not-for-profit agency with the mandate to ensure that Canadian authors, artists, and publishers receive fair compensation when their works are copied. The three books were all major award winners: Tamas Dobozy's Siege 13 (Thomas Allen, 2012), winner of the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, Will Ferguson's 419 (Viking, 2012), winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and Linda Spalding's The Purchase (McLelland and Stewart, 2012) winner of the Governor General's Prize for Fiction.

Now, let me be brutally honest about my relationship with Canadian literature. When I entered the contest, I had no idea of who these authors were, what they had written previously, or what works they had beaten out to win these prizes. Having attended high school in the 1960s, my introduction to CanLit was more in the nature of the force fed diet of standard works that typified pedagogy and national identity maintenance at the time. So, I dutifully slogged my way through early Margaret Atwood (The Edible Woman), Margaret Laurence (The Stone Angels), Robertson Davies (A Mixture of Frailties), and Mordecai Richler (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz). After that, when I read literature, as opposed to popular fiction, it was more often than not either British, or translations of German and Russian works. My tastes over the past few years have shifted more towards the Middle East.
So, by way of engaging in a sort of reclamation of national literary identity, I am embarking on an adventure in CanLit. I am determined to read all three of these prize winning books in their entirety (something I found it difficult to do in the sixties) and publish reviews on this blog.
On a final note, as a Canadian writer of non-fiction (although I am working on my first novel), I was happy to get my check from Access Copyright. At the very least, it signals that someone out there is aware of what I have written.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

I can see clearly now

During this past week, I attended the annual meeting of the Canadian Research Knowledge Network (CRKN). The organization came into existence just over a decade ago for the purpose of leveling the playing field with respect to providing access to scholarly journals for academic researchers and instructors across the country. The primary mechanism for attaining this goal was through negotiating subscription packages with journal vendors as a national consortium. Of course, since its inception, several key variables have changed. The economic well being of Canadian universities, large and small, is not what it once was. The percentage of journals available in electronic form rather than paper has increased dramatically, as has the actual number of available journals. Major vendors have acquired most of the small specialty publishers, thus creating super packages of journals that cover a broad spectrum of disciplinary output. The list goes on. Needless to say, a major assessment of the future value of CKRN needs to take place. However, this is not my immediate concern.

It is commonplace when attending conferences and meetings to acquire various promotional mementos such as tote bags, binders, key chains, and pens. These are usually accompanied by session handouts, tourist maps, discount coupons, and evaluation forms. This year, perhaps as a means of demonstrating fiscal constraint, CRKN decided to provide everyone with a simple name tag and a lens cleaning cloth. No great reams of paper or other clutter to take up room in your suitcase; just a lens cloth.

Here it is, in all its glory, being put to its most obvious of uses. Looking beyond the obvious, and reflecting a more tech-savvy worldview, a colleague pointed out that the cloth was perfect for cleaning the screen of a smartphone or tablet. It's not the usefulness of the object that bothers me. Rather, I'm disturbed by the deeper meaning it potentially conveys.

At the most mundane level, this small token of appreciation could be interpreted as a sympathetic acknowledgement that the vast majority of members attending the meeting had spent decades working as academic librarians, with all the attendant eye strain that such a vocation suggests. While this may amount to forgivable stereotyping, I read a bit more into it. Perhaps the staff of CKRN anticipated that members would be wondering if they were seeing things clearly, as the harsh realities of our current situation were presented to them in various charts, graphs, and lists.

Perhaps the cloth is a metaphor for CRKN itself. In order to see clearly through the great morass that is scholarly publishing, in order to give Canadian researchers and instructors any hope of competing with their international counterparts, in order to prevent the inevitable balkanization that will emerge as rogue institutions decide to fend for themselves, either because they think they can do a better job on their own or because they can no longer afford to do much at all, it is only CRKN that can provide the clear way forward.

To quote Shelley, way out of context: "Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!"

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Three Apples

I finished reading Kingdom of Strangers by Zoe Ferraris several weeks ago, but I was uncertain about how exactly to follow up on my previous post (July 7). When I had only just started reading the book, I was immediately drawn to the author's use of a well-known, yet little understood, verse from the Qur'an (74:30), in which the number nineteen plays a key role.

At the risk of providing too many spoilers, let me just say that the serial killer, who is the central villain in the novel, arranges the many murders he commits in the form of a trilogy designated by three apples.

The 'Story of the Three Apples' can be found in the anthology we generally refer to as the Arabian Nights, but is more correctly called the Thousand and One Nights (alf laylah wa-laylah). The framing narrative for this collection concerns the fate of Scheherazade, who tells a series of nightly stories to her new husband, the Persian king Sharyar, as a means of avoiding being put to death. Sharyar, it seems, is paranoid about the potential for any of his wives to commit adultery. Consequently, he kills them off once their marriage has been consummated. This leaves him in perpetual need of a new virgin to marry, and, from our perspective, probably qualifies him for the title of fiction's first serial killer.

The content of the Arabian Nights, like the content of the Qur'an, is well known by the majority of Muslim Arabs. However, while reading the latter text can be considered an obligation in Islam, reading the former text is largely forbidden.

Kingdom of Strangers is a laudable piece of contemporary crime fiction, albeit one that relies more heavily than most on its context. Ferraris does a commendable job of portraying the sociocultural complexity of Saudi Arabia, and is particularly adept at using the stark, arid geography of the region to accentuate her story. I do have a couple of small criticisms, and a caution for readers.

First, from a readability perspective, the book does get bogged down about two-thirds of the way through, as what are perhaps a few too many sub-plots wrestle their way towards resolution. Second, as a service to her readers, Ferraris provides a brief glossary of the Arabic terms she uses throughout her novel, but there is an interesting omission. On page 317, she has Katya say to herself, "Ya majnoun," just as she has her big aha moment about the three apples. This expression, which means something like, "Oh, you retard," does not appear in the glossary.

For those readers whose knowledge and experience of Islam and the Middle East are somewhat limited, one should be cautious about equating the culture of Saudi Arabia with the culture of all Islamic societies. And, perhaps even more importantly, one should be cautious about equating the official Saudi interpretation of Islam with the broader and highly variable interpretations of Islam that exist across cultural and ethnic divides, in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Q 74:30 - Nineteen Guardians of Hell

I just started reading Kingdom of Strangers, by Zoe Ferraris, which opens with the discovery of the bodies of nineteen females, who had been murdered, mutilated, and buried in a sand dune. Reflecting on the number of victims, one of the police officers refers to a verse in the Qur'an (74:30) which states that there are nineteen guardians of Hell. This verse, because of its use of this particular number, has always been one of my favorites. I do not think for a moment that the appearance of the number nineteen in this verse is in any way random or trivial. Rather, I am confident that it is a highly deliberate, extremely sophisticated, complex trope, designed to humble even the most erudite Qur'an scholars of any era.

The number nineteen displays a variety of interesting mathematical properties, including the fact that it is a prime number (a number divisible only by itself and one). It is also the number of constituent hexagons in the only non-trivial normal magic hexagon, but for those of us who don't engage in number theory or visual recreational mathematics, it might be difficult to see how any of this would be significant to our understanding of Hell, or the Qur'an for that matter.

The number nineteen also possesses a long history of associations and interpretations in the mystical systems of several ancient civilizations. For example, from a cosmological perspective, nineteen defines the Metonic cycle, which was used by the Babylonians, Hebrews, Greeks, and Chinese to predict the occurrence of solar eclipses. However, within numerology, and more specifically within gematria (the assignment of numerical values to letters of the alphabet and their subsequent interpretation), nineteen has remarkable significance.

Within Islam, nineteen is the number of letters in the basmalah, the invocation that appears at the beginning of all but one of the chapters (surahs) of the Qur'an. When the letters of the basmalah are converted into their numerical equivalents, the total is 786, which some Muslims use as a numerical shorthand for the invocation.

The number nineteen is also highly significant in Baha'i, a religious tradition that emerged in Persia in the 1840s, with deep roots in Islam, where it symbolizes, among other things, the dynamic tension between the one and the many, unity and plurality. This association is based on the observation that the numerical equivalent of the word for one (wahid) is nineteen. The centrality of the number to the Baha'i faith can be seen in the fact that its calendar consists of nineteen months of nineteen days.

The most extensive, and by far the most controversial, effort to establish a mystical relationship between the number nineteen and the text of the Qur'an, was proposed by the Egyptian-born, American biochemist Rashad Khalifa, who carried out a complete numerical analysis of the Qur'an, and set out to establish his own school of thought with Islam. He was assassinated in Tucson, Arizona, in 1990, after a fatwa was issued against him by the Islamic Legal Council of Saudi Arabia, for his heretical ideas.

I have not progressed far enough yet to know just exactly how Ferraris develops her use of this number or the related verse in her novel, but I'm sure I'll have something to say about it when the time comes.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

University Involvement in the Community

On the first of June 1970, 25 university professors and community leaders got together in Gardiner Mines, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, for a seminar entitled, University Involvement in the Community, organized by Bill Shaw, Don Arseneau, Greg MacLeod, and George Topshee. While the topic could have wide-reaching interest, the seminar was convened specifically with reference to the institution now known as Cape Breton University.

The participants observed that:
there was a disconnect between the University and its surrounding community,
faculty have an obligation to offer constructive criticism with respect to public policy and planning,
an interdisciplinary approach should be taken when offering solutions,
a formal interface should be established between the University and the community,
a faculty member wishing to become actively involved in community work should be provided with relief from their teaching load,
students should part of any related initiative,
and that the ideals and values of society should be questioned and evaluated.

Among the methods suggested to act upon these observations, the participants specified that:
the University must take a new form, one in which it would be immersed in the work-a-day world,
the University provide a breeding ground for interchange and creation of ideas,
an institute be established as a center for interdisciplinary research into regional problems,
the University provide a budget ($25K) for the institute,
the University provide staff support for the institute,
and a committee be established to seek out appropriate research proposals.

If such a seminar were held today, I wonder if the outcomes would be any different?

An introductory overview, together with a copy of the seminar program, and the papers presented were bound, and placed in the Bras d'Or Collection at the Cape Breton University Library.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Gibson Girls and Library Treasures

Any library that has been around long enough will house some random treasures, usually donated items that some good-natured librarian could neither refuse nor discard. One such example from our library is a signed limited edition of "The Education of Mr. Pipp," a series of illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson, published in New York by R. H. Russell in 1899.

Gibson (1867-1944) became a very wealthy man from the many satirical sketches of high society that he created over a 20-year period starting the mid-1890s, and the Mr. Pipp series depicts a selection of events in the life of a young man, as he makes the transition from bachelorhood to well-trained husband. Augustus Thomas created a stage play based on the sketches in 1905, and a silent film version was produced in 1914.
Of course, the primary subject of the sketches was not Mr. Pipp, but rather the woman he married. The so-called Gibson Girl was the de facto model of the ideal American woman - beautiful, well-shaped, well-dressed, independent, spirited, and definitely in charge.

The early models for the Gibson Girl included Gibson's wife Irene Langhorne, and the Belgian-American stage actress Camille Clifford, famous for her hourglass figure and big hair. In the early 1900s, the popular artists' model Evelyn Nesbit came to dominate the image. With the advent of the First World War, the Gibson Girl faded in popularity, to be replaced by the new standard of American womanhood - the flapper.

Gibson's memory lives on through the cocktail that bears his name, reflecting his preference for gin martinis with a pickled onion garnish.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Diderot's Dangerous Idea

In the late 1740s, bookseller and printer, Andre Le Breton, approached Denis Diderot to undertake a French translation of Ephraim Chambers' Cyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences.

Instead, Diderot decided to produce an original work that would encompass all branches of knowledge and challenge conventional ways of thinking. From the outset, the project was viewed as a threat to ecclesiastical and aristocratic power, in that it advocated religious tolerance, freedom of thought, and the value of science and industry. The first volume appeared in 1751, but in 1752 a court order was issued to cease the project. With the help of sympathetic supporters, Diderot was able to continue work in secret, and a second decree was issued in 1759 in an effort to suppress the work. Despite continual harassment and loss of friends and associates, Diderot carried on, with the final volumes of the 28 volume set finally being distributed to subscribers in 1772.
The photograph inserted above shows the title page of the first volume. This volume is part of a complete first edition set from the collection of about 400 rare books, that until recently were held at the Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The collection has been moved to the Beaton Institute at Cape Breton University, where it will be maintained in the archive and be made available to researchers.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Organ of Love

The Valentine's postcard pictured below dates from 1908. It comes from a collection of personal papers held in the Beaton Institute at Cape Breton University, the official repository of historically significant records pertaining to life and times in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Its seemingly unromantic caption reads: "Take back your heart. I ordered liver." Whatever personal message the sender was trying to get across to the recipient may be gleaned to some extent by the handwritten line on the card's front border and from the text on the back of the card. However, what caught my attention was the curious wordplay on internal organs, that was obviously penned by a commercial copywriter and considered worthy of mass production as a greeting card.

St. Valentine's Day was instituted by the Roman Catholic Church, on February 14th, 496, in commemoration of a priest martyred in Rome. Perhaps due to its pagan association with Cupid, or possibly because it had become such a secular and commercial phenomenon, the official observance of this day was removed from the religious calendar in 1969. The first association of St. Valentine with romantic love can be traced to Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fools, written in 1382 in celebration of the first anniversary of the engagement of Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. However, given the date of the engagement, Chaucer's reference to St. Valentine appears to be linked to the observance of the feast day of Valentine of Genoa on May 2nd. How the linkage between romance and the feast day of Valentine of Rome on February 14th was established is not known, but it is often spuriously linked to Lupercalia, a Roman fertility festival, that was celebrated in the middle of February.
Personalized Valentine's greetings date back at least until the middle of the 18th century, with commercial card production starting in England in the early 1800s. The mass production of Valentine's cards was started around 1850 in the United States, thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of Esther Howland, the daughter of a stationer in Worcester, Massachusetts. The addition of candy and flowers appears to have emerged in the second half of the 20th century, as other sectors capitalized on the marketing opportunity established through the greeting cards.
What exactly is the message of this card?
In ancient Greek philosophical writings, as well as in early physiological works, the liver is associated with the dark emotions (wrath, jealousy, and greed). Dating back to ancient Egypt, the heart is seen as the seat of truth and the soul. So, is our seated diner rejecting love and asking for anger? Is this some curious variation on the old chestnut that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach? Is this a card that a man would give to a woman, or a woman to a man? Given the time period, is it logical to assume that this is the man's wife? Otherwise, what is she doing feeding him? Whatever the intended meaning might have been, in today's world, a card like this would be more likely to conjure up images of Hannibal Lecter, than it would to evoke some expression of love.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

One of a Kind

To my knowledge, this is the only photograph of my paternal grandmother Mary Jane Baillie/Campbell/Cannon, with her four children, their respective spouses, and her two grandchildren (one of whom is me).

I have no idea what the occasion was, but this photograph was taken some time in 1957, in the living room of my uncle Jack Cannon, my father's half-brother, who is seated at the far left of the picture. To his right is his sister, my father's half-sister, Mary Cannon, who never married. Third from the left is Doug Liddle, who was married to my father's sister Jess Campbell, and next to him is his son Doug, my only cousin on my father's side.
In the middle is my grandmother, who by this time was a widow twice over. To her right is my father's sister Jess, and to her right is Jack's wife Alberta. At the far right is my father William Campbell, and to his left is my mother Claire Elizabeth McLeod. As you might have guessed, I am seated in front of my parents, looking rather bemused by the proceedings.
I have had no contact with my cousin Doug in over forty years, and as far as I know, with the exception of my mother and he and I, all the others pictured here have passed away.