Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 25 plays for 2012

Two thousand twelve has likely been the most unusual year of my life to date, and I see the year reflected clearly in my Top 25 playlist from iTunes. I find the tenacity of certain songs amusing, the appearance of new music encouraging. Some of these songs make me think of clear summer mornings on my new bicycle, others of the persistent circuits of living. And some likely seem random and inconsistent — but I never forget the power of my inner fifteen-year-old girl.

Maroon 5, "Moves Like Jagger"
Muse, "Madness"
Deadmau5, "The Veldt"
ABBA, "Summer Night City"
Lady Gaga, "Judas"
Siouxsie and the Banshees, "This Wheel's on Fire"
ABBA, "Take a Chance on Me"
Kim Wilde, "You Keep Me Hangin' On"
Jenson Interceptor, "Tiny Thing"
Amanda Palmer, "Map of Tasmania"
Florence and the Machine, "What the Water Gave Me"
Hawksley Workman, "Smoke Baby"
Nickelback, "Burn It to the Ground"
Roger Whittaker, "Kilgarry Mountain"
Jimmy Rankin, "We'll Carry On (Prelude)"
Christina Aguilera, "Dirrrty"
Milla, "Electric Sky"
ABBA, "Waterloo"
Caramell, "Caramelldansen"
Kate Bush, "Be Kind to My Mistakes"
The Doobie Brothers, "Long Train Runnin'"
The Irish Rovers, "Lord of the Dance (Live)"
Hair Soundtrack, "The Flesh Failures"
Deadmau5, "Raise Your Weapon"
Loggins and Messina, "House at Pooh Corner"

I'm resetting my iTunes play counts on January 1. Through the music I'll chart the journey through the next twelve months. Looking forward to seeing what they bring.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Fifteen

Margaret Laurence, The Diviners

This extraordinary meta-fictional novel is one of my very favourite books ever. I adore this text! If I ever taught literature, I would teach this book; if I could think of a way to use it to teach either grammar or editing, I would teach this book. It is exquisite in its concept and execution, and I know I will read it again and again before I die.

The Diviners is the pinnacle text of Laurence's Manawaka books. It is the narrative of Morag Gunn, a writer who is attempting to tell an important story. When she is young, Morag is adopted and raised by parents scorned by the "good" people of Manawaka. She does, however, have a fleeting friendship with Jules Tonnerre, a M├ętis boy. As a young woman, Morag works as a local reporter; reporting on a fire drives her away from Manawaka and into university, where she falls in love with and eventually marries a professor. After several stultifying years as the wife of an academic, Morag leaves to follow her own art — and her own heart. This storyline is developed through extended flashbacks; in the present tense of the story, Morag is fighting with her own daughter, Piquette, who is becoming a young woman herself and wants to understand her family history. The resolution is not necessarily happy but represents the potential for new understanding, new beginnings.

There are so many issues in this novel: class and poverty, Canadian racism and biases, personal histories and mythologies, early feminism, an exploration of intellectualism, the artist's need for isolation and outsider status, the possibility of renewal... The writing is sharp and insightful, and the characters are rich and fascinating. The novel is also absolutely Canadian, rooted deeply in the land and place. This is literary writing at its best, inclusively so: it is high brow and conceptual while simultaneously critiquing these positions. Brilliant, just brilliant.

I cannot recommend this novel enough, yet I have met many people who haven't read it, people whose only exposure to Margaret Laurence is The Stone Angel (not one of my favourites but still a great book). The Diviners is also notorious in Canadian literature as a book that is routinely censored in Canadian high-school classrooms (especially in Ontario); as a result of its being censored, The Diviners is rumoured to be the reason Laurence stopped writing: it was her last novel. (The truth of this rumour is considerably more complicated, though, as biographies of Laurence have since revealed.)

If you want a book with the sweep of a family saga, the rough beauty of the Canadian wilderness, and a deeply personal revelation of various forms of freedom, The Diviners can't miss. I truly hope you will read and enjoy it.

Friday, December 28, 2012

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Fourteen

Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ

This novel arrives on my list by way of another of my long-standing interests: censorship. In 1988, when the film version of The Last Temptation of Christ was released, it was censored around the world. Not only did theatres refuse to show it; religious groups organized protests and violent acts were committed in an effort to silence an unconventional artistic exploration of one of the West's most significant figures. When the film finally played at the Princess theatre, of course I had to see it. I found it an overwhelmingly moving and provocative text.

So naturally I read the novel on which the film is based. Kazantzakis is well known as the author of Zorba the Greek, a text I thought I was familiar with through popular culture (and, although I have tried, I have not yet read that novel). At the time, I was an English Honours student, thoroughly immersed in the discovery of history, philosophy, and literature. The novel The Last Temptation of Christ was a profound reading experience for me. It is rapturously, gloriously written and offers a fascinatingly human alternative portrait of Jesus of Nazareth, full of doubt and sensuality. For someone raised outside of Christianity, it was — and is — a culturally defiant and life-affirming text.

One of the lines that remained with me for years is this: "There is only one woman in the world. One woman with many faces." The feminist I was at the time read this line as confirmation of the transcendent being of Woman; the feminist I am now (especially after attempting to read Zorba the Greek) is not so sure. The Last Temptation of Christ remains, however, one of the most intellectually provocative and artistically accomplished texts in my personal canon. For years, I bought copies of the novel as gifts, much as I have done with other books that have moved me deeply. I don't know how the novel struck those readers — if they even read it — but I have always hoped it would speak deeply to them about their own questioning of fate, of determinism, and of the larger cultural story. And not about religion.

It's unlikely that my experience of reading this text will encourage anyone else to read it, and there is of course a massive formal literary apparatus available to anyone who feels inclined to explore the book or its critical reception. For me, however, The Last Temptation of Christ is unquestionably a novel that changed my life, by opening my mind to a different way of reading one of the West's most significant texts. It also reinforced my commitment to freedom of expression, even for those texts I'd rather not see, hear, or understand.

Monday, December 24, 2012

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Thirteen

John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany

Perhaps it's because I read it between my third and fourth years at university, when I reading a great deal about Christianity and forms of belief, that this novel was so resonant for me. The plot follows two boys, John and Owen, from their childhood to their mature lives. John is the present-day narrator, having left the United States to settle in Toronto. Owen believes he is an instrument of God, born to enact a divine purpose; while the story follows this direction, there is much else going on as well. While there are many familiar Irving-esque themes in the book, there are also some particular ideas and explorations that raise the book above Irving's earlier absurd and sometimes simply comic interests.

To be fair, I should also list The Cider House Rules as one of my five-star books, but Owen Meany reaches slightly beyond Cider House for me because of the character of Owen Meany himself. The Cider House Rules is a novel about extraordinary circumstances with a cast of unusual characters. And for that matter, I might list The Hotel New Hampshire, too, although it's not really a five-star novel despite giving me a long-standing creative motif. For me, A Prayer for Owen Meany is the story of the formation of an unusual character. If you haven't read this book and love character-driven narrative, you should really enjoy this novel.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Twelve

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

While I love all of this novel, what made it a five-star book for me is a line of description of Tea Cake, one of the characters the protagonist marries. It begins, "Ready with his grin." Something about this passage sticks with me even now, years after reading this novel.

But there are many reasons to read Their Eyes Were Watching God. The language is certainly one of them: it's dazzling. Most of the novel is presented in dialect, so acutely captured I can imagine voices speaking the story. It is a Modernist novel, although it defies the sterile and emotionless wasteland that had by the 1930s largely become the Modernist space; Their Eyes is sensual in a wide-ranging way, far beyond sex and sexuality. Their Eyes is also something of a romance, albeit involving a very complicated series of relationships, some of them bleak. Most importantly, it is the text of a black woman writer from an era that would happily have silenced her voice, and simply to read her story is to experience a world that we might never otherwise have known.

This book was not well received on its original publication; apparently the novel required feminist rediscovery and the rise of race studies in the 1980s and 1990s to find its real place in the canon (assuming, of course, that there is such a thing). Another reviewer succinctly captures my wish for this book: "Just read it. Please." Indeed.