Category Archives: literature

Voyage to the Spirit Mountains

Author and musician, Paul Quarrington, diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, eloquently describes his plans to live each day as though it is his last, connecting with singing and the Canadian landscape.

Torngat Mountains

“As we journeyed through the Torngat Mountains, I finally realized what this trip was all about, for me. First of all, let me get a little scientific on you. The Torngats-comprised of Precambrian gneisses-are amongst the oldest mountains in the world, almost four billions years old. They rise out of the water with enchanted austerity. Sitting well above the tree line, the Torngats are stark naked and make no apology about it. Torngat is an Inuktitut word meaning Place of Spirits, and it very clearly is. The mountaintops are usually shrouded in cloud, and it’s easy enough to imagine the Spirits assembling there, going through the itinerary for another year. In short, the Torngat Mountains took what little breath I have away from me. The thought occurred that I was on another planet, and that’s when I realized, no, I’m on this planet, I’m just none too clear on what it actually looks like. I realized that what I wanted to do was spend a little time getting to know the third stone from the sun; it has been my home for 56 years, but I have spent much of it confined in the settlements. I wanted to explore and examine, I wanted to interact – yes, in the broadest, most spiritual sense.”

“So there, basically, you have the two main components of my plan for (what remains of) my future: singing and (spiritual) mountain climbing. For example, I think I’ll go fishing this week, getting to know Mother Ship Earth a bit better. I think I’ll go stand in a river just a few degrees above freezing and toss a yarn-fly into the current, over and over again, in the hopes of convincing some chromium-silver steelhead that the thing is edible. Or, I may simply go walkabout, kicking stones and major rock formations. I will build inuksuit (did you know that was the plural? I learned a lot on my voyages…) and I will try to build them across as much of the landscape as I can. In the meantime, I will be singing, all manner of songs. I will sing in Porkbelly Futures, I will sing with fiddlers and button accordionists, I will sing in Gospel choirs and Glee Clubs.”

Torngat Mountains

Inuit mythology tells of the Torngait, the spirits that a Shaman or spiritual leader looks to for wisdom and power. Torngat comes from this Inuit name and the legends which hold that in this region the spirit world overlaps our own. White people have called this area the Ghost Coast and have commented how the sounds of the winds whistling through the rugged mountains bring forth the feeling that one is in another realm. If the earth is home to ancient spirits they would seek out this land where the rocks are among the oldest on the planet and the landforms hold an otherworldly appearance. Perhaps this truly is a place of spirits.

The Torngat Mountains National Park Reserve is the new name for this ancient place. It is the northern portion of the Inuit homeland of Nunatsiavut, located in northern Labrador. (Nunatsiavut means “Our beautiful land” in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit.) The park reserve encompasses roughly 10,000 km2 and extends from the deep waters of Saglek Fjord in the south, to the very northern tip of Labrador; and from the boundary with Quebec in the west, to the waters of the Labrador Sea in the east.

The human history of the park is rich and ancient. Within the park there are hundreds of archaeological sites including tent rings, stone caribou fences, caches, and ancient graves, all of which tell the story of the peoples and cultures, particularly the Inuit, who have made this special landscape their home.

Ramah Chert

South of Nachvak Fjord is Ramah Bay, home to a unique translucent stone called Ramah chert. This mineral holds an edge that is sharper than surgical steel. It was so prized by the ancient peoples of Labrador that prior to contact with the Europeans, some used this mineral almost exclusively in their arrows and blades.

Paul Quarrington: Each Day Like It’s My Last at National Post.

More at Wanderbird Expedition Cruises.

Ramah Chert.

For Sydney, and for Linda Gordon who loves the landscape.

Words the Dog Knows

Words the Dog KnowsJ. R. Carpenter’s long-awaited first novel Words the Dog Knows follows the crisscrossing paths of a quirky cast of characters through the Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal. Simone couldn’t wait to get out of rural Nova Scotia.In Montreal she buries her head in books about far off places.

Her best friend Julie gets her a job in the corporate world. Traveling for business cures Simone of her restlessness.

One summer Julie’s dog Mingus introduces Simone to Theo. They move in together. Theo is a man of few words. Until he and Simone get a dog, that is.

They set about training Isaac the Wonder Dog to: sit, come, stay. Meanwhile, Isaac the dog has fifty girlfriends to keep track of and a master plan for the rearrangement of every stick in every alleyway in Mile End. He introduces Theo and Simone to their neighbours. He trains them to see the jumbled intimacy of Mile End’s back alleyways with the immediacy of a dog’s-eye-view.

Words the Dog Knows isn’t a story about a dog. It’s a story because of a dog.

I never had a dog as a kid, which is surprising considering I grew up on a farm. We had every other kind of animal. Ninety head of cattle to keep the one bull busy. A pen of pigs to keep the one we’d eat company. A roost of free-range chickens run ragged by a mean white rooster. A hutch of show rabbits not good for much of anything. And thirty-five hives of honeybees – white wooden worlds unto themselves – each one run by a queen.

I had a housecat named Feather of the Fairies. Children below a certain age should not be granted the power to name. The barn had its own cats. They kept their own company, lived according to laws unknown to us, and came and went and fed and bred and killed in anonymity.

We had a horse named Red, even though he was brown. Red decided how fast or slow he’d go by the weight of his rider. The heavier you were the faster he went. My mother was barely five feet tall. But according to Red she weighed plenty. No sooner was she settled in the saddle than he was off and running. Splashing through the shallows of the cattle pond, up the slope to the rock wall, along its length to the northwest fence, and down again for a victory lap around the first pasture. Unable to rein in his canter, my mother did her best to avoid Red altogether.

My father was six-foot-two at least, and solid as a cast-iron skillet. He rode Red to a froth. The two of them lived for round-up. There were other dairy farms nearby, much larger than ours. Most ran round-up with dogs. On our stretch of the Sloane Road alone there must have been fifteen herding and hunting dogs. And that’s not counting over at the Doyle place where they kept a pack of sled dogs, twenty-four or more, chained all seasons. Their howled chorus blew our way on the same south-easterlies that made the power lines whine. It’s not that I wanted a dog. It’s that I was surrounded by something that was missing.

J.R. Carpenter website

Image: One Bark at a Time

101 Dalmatians or Faux Fur?

101 Dalmatians First EditionPongo and Missis Pongo are a pair of Dalmatians. They live with the newly married Mr and Mrs Dearly (their “pets”).

Missis gives birth to a litter of 15 puppies. The Dearlys are concerned that Missis will not be able to feed them all and Mrs Dearly looks for another dog to act as a wet nurse. By chance, she finds an abandoned Dalmatian mother in the middle of the road in the pouring rain. She has the dog treated by a vet and gives her the name Perdita, from the Latin for “lost”. Later Perdita tells Pongo about her own lost Dalmatian love and the circumstances that led to her being abandoned in the middle of the road.

Mr and Mrs Dearly are invited to a dinner party hosted by Cruella de Vil, an intimidating and very wealthy woman with one side of her hair coloured white and the other side coloured black. They meet her furrier husband and her abused cat, and discover her fixation with furs.

101 Dalmatians Storyboard

Shortly after the dinner party the puppies disappear. The humans fail to trace them but through the Twilight Barking, a form of communication by which dogs can relay messages to each other across the country, the dogs manage to track them down to Hell Hall, in Suffolk.

We keep 7.5 million cats and 6.1 million dogs as pets but do we know where that fake-looking fur trim comes from? Today in China over two million cats and dogs are killed each year for their fur and for their skins. Among other things, these furs are used as linings in boots and gloves, jackets and coats, blankets and rugs.

Pongo and Missis try to explain to the Dearlys where the puppies are but fail. The dogs decide to run away and find them.

After a journey cross country, they are met by Lieutenant Pussy Willow, a tabby cat and the Colonel, an Old English Sheepdog who shows them Hell Hall, the ancestral home of the de Vil family. He tells them to rest overnight and that they will see their puppies the next day. They then discover there are 97 puppies including their own 15 and many others who later turn out to have been legally bought. They also discover that the puppies are being kept in Hell Hall by Saul and Jasper Baddun, two crooks who work for Cruella de Vil as caretakers of Hell Hall.

According to government estimates, 500,000 garments sold in the United States every year are trimmed with bobcat, fox, rabbit, or other animal fur, potentially with nothing on the label to indicate there is any fur on the garment. With the labeling loophole in place, consumers are left in the dark; they have no idea that their new clothes may contain fur from animals—even dogs and cats—whose treatment can include being skinned alive, anally electrocuted, or held struggling underwater to drown.

Cruella DeVilCruella de Vil appears in the middle of the night and tells the Baddun Brothers that the dogs must be slaughtered and skinned as soon as possible because of the publicity surrounding the theft of the Dearlys’ pups. Pongo and Missis devise an escape plan and agree that they must take all the puppies with them, not just their own 15. They escape on that same night, the day before Christmas Eve.

Pongo says that they need a miracle and find one when they are offered a lift in a removal van. The Dalmatians have rolled in soot to disguise their white hair, and they are able to hide in the darkness of the removal van with the help of a Staffordshire terrier whose pets are the movers.

The fur trade does not deny that it deals in dog and cat skins and it is quite legal for products made from this fur to be sold in Britain and Europe. Fur products do not have to be labeled by species. One cat fur coat alone requires the killing of up to 24 cats. 12 to 15 adult dogs are killed to manufacture each coat made from dog fur – and a horrific 40 or more if puppies or kittens are used.

Arriving back in London, they go to Cruella’s empty house. Her cat is still there and invites them in to destroy Cruella’s collection of animal skins, fur coats and mink bedsheets.

When the Dalmatians return to the Dearlys’ house where they are not recognized because of the soot. Once they are cleaned up, Mr Dearly sends out for steaks to feed them.

Presently, China is the second biggest commercial partner of Canada. According to Industry Canada, the Canadian fur and retail industry imported $5 million in animal pelts and $28 million in fur trimmed apparel from China in 2004. Despite the distinct possibility that many of these imported furs are from dogs and cats, the government has indicated that it has no intention of prohibiting these imports. By the year 2010, the Canadian government hopes to double commercial trade with China.

Later, the cat drops by to tell them Cruella has fled. The shock of discovering her furs have been destroyed has turned the black side of her hair white and the white side green. The Baddun Brothers have also been arrested. Hell Hall has been put up for sale and Mr Dearly buys it with a sum of money he has been given by the government for sorting out a tax problem. He renames it to Hill Hall and intends to use it to start a “dynasty of Dalmatians” (and a “dynasty of Dearlys” to take care of them). They adopt the cat, and promise her a white persian husband.

Finally, Perdita’s lost love, Prince (the one hundred and first Dalmatian) shows up. His “pets” can clearly see that the two wish to be together and allow him to stay with the Dearlys.

101 Dalmations was originally written in 1956 by Dodie Smith, and illustrated by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone.

Bill Peet and 101 Dalmatians

Bill Peet storyboards for 101 Dalmatians.

Ecological Fur

Faux fur or not?

Blemished but Brilliant

Anna Karenina“There was a lot wrong with it and it was flawed in many ways…almost nobody liked the ending.”

Not the words you would expect to hear from the chair of the judges awarding a prestigious literary prize. But that is exactly what Times columnist Matthew Parris said, after he had handed over the £25,000 cheque for the Costa Book of the Year earlier this week.

In the end, Matthew Parris explained, many great books are also flawed in their own way, saying that even Shakespeare’s play The Tempest has a bad ending.

The Today programme asked two distinguished writers, to nominate some great, but flawed, works of literature.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Magnificent, but it does go on… many, many whale-related digressions. Only its terrific drive and characterization carry you along.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. That famous opening, but no one seems to remember the way Dickens goes on to hammer away at every possible subsequent variation on a theme of – it was the tallest, it was the shortest, it was the driest, it was the soggiest, it was the creamiest, it was the grittiest…

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy Wonderful book, but possibly marred by all those digressions into agricultural theory and the incident when Vronsky accidentally snaps his horse – a slightly unlikely passage that no one ever seems to remember.

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller Great concepts and characters, but the humour does tend to fall into a repeating pattern.

Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow by Peter Høeg. Again, a fine book – the giant sea worms at the end appearing like a dead weasel on the face of a much-loved friend.

More at BBC News

The Star Thrower

Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war. . . Mostly the animals understand their roles, but man, by comparison, seems troubled by a message that, it is often said, he cannot quite remember or has gotten wrong. . . Bereft of instinct, he must search continually for meanings. . .

starfishIn a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud.

“It’s still alive,” I ventured.

“Yes,” he said, and with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea. It sunk in a burst of spume, and the waters roared once more.

…”There are not many who come this far,” I said, groping in a sudden embarrassment for words. “Do you collect?”

“Only like this,” he said softly, gesturing amidst the wreckage of the shore. “And only for the living.”

He stooped again, oblivious of my curiosity, and skipped another star neatly across the water.

“The stars,” he said, “throw well. One can help them.”

The Star Thrower is part of a sixteen page essay of the same name by Loren Eiseley (1907–1977). It was published in 1969 in The Unexpected Universe. The Star Thrower is also the title of a 1978 anthology of Eiseley’s works (including the essay) which he completed shortly before his death.

Loren Eiseley has been described as the 20th century’s answer to Henry David Thoreau. He writes in a thought-provoking, almost mystical style. He is a naturalist, poet, realist, existentialist, haunted mystic, evolutionary anthropologist, environmental advocate, historian, and human being.

This book is an anthology of his best work, selected from several past publications including some of his poetry. His reflections on humankind, time, evolution, the Earth, the natural world, the unknown, and even the very nature of existence itself are more powerful than the most dense scientific formulae or the most sacred tomes of Scripture. He looks at our mysterious universe with the eyes of a human being, and he looks at his own soul in the process… This is not the work of a theologian or a secularist; these are the stories of a complex human being who admits that there is far more in heaven and earth than we dream.

Review excerpted from Amazon.

Hotel of the Saints

Hotel of the SaintsA dying dog, a pair of doves, blindness and an old hotel feature in eleven deceptively light tales of isolation in Ursula Hegi’s Hotel of the Saints, a collection that spans about twelve years of Hegi’s short fiction. These are stories of ordinary people leading lives of quiet desperation, estranged from society, from relatives, sometimes from themselves,. They are left to forge an uneasy peace with a sorrow-tinged existence.

In the title piece, Lenny, a seminary student trying to find his faith, helps his frail and incapable Aunt Jocelyn overhaul her newly inherited Hotel of the Saints after the death of her husband. The old hotel rooms come alive as sunny Mediterranean colours and whimsical themes replace the drab greyness, and Aunt Jocelyn and Lenny are transformed.

It always comes back to sitting alone at a desk,” she said. “I do between 50 and 100 revisions. So the way I used to write is the way I still write.

In The Juggler, a mother tries to protect her daughter from marrying a man who is going blind. The mother’s anxiety about her child quickly leads to conflict about the nature of their relationship and what it means to rely on another too much.

I do it to really go very deeply into the characters to understand the characters, to explore the characters. And a lot has to do with language. I write fiction as if I were writing poetry.

In one of the briefest but most powerful stories, titled The End of All Sadness, Hegi gives voice to an abused woman who finds a place of peace amid a life of violence. A single mother brings home a man who’s been sleeping on the ground by the pond. She marries him after he hits her for smiling at the postman. In her strange euphoria, she has no space even for her daughter.

After I’ve written a story, after I’ve gone through it 50 or 100 times, each time I feel those feelings. I go through that experience with the character. And after I have finished the story, on an emotional level, it has become my experience, and I am altered.

Ursula HegiIn Doves, a quiet, lonely single woman finds herself in a country bar. “A lean-hipped man asks her to dance, and as she sways in his arms on the floor that’s spun of sawdust and boot prints, she becomes the woman in every song that the men on the platform sing: the woman who leaves them; the woman who keeps breaking their hearts.”

The woman with the dying dog in Lower Crossing comes to realize that she keeps herself busy with trips to the local cafe, work in her plant shop, living with her middle-aged sister, and occasionally picking up men at the hardware store, as a way of coping with the loss of her best friend.

Ursula Hegi is the author of five novels: Intrusions (Viking Press, 1981), Floating In My Mother’s Palm (Poseidon Press/ Simon and Schuster, 1995), Stones from the River (Poseidon Press/ Simon and Schuster, 1995), Salt Dancers (Simon and Schuster, 2001), and The Vision of Emma Blau (Simon and Schuster, 2001). She has also published nonfiction, as well as two collections of stories, Unearned Pleasures (Scribner Paperback, 1995) and Hotel of the Saints, (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

Stupeur et Tremblements

Stupeur et TremblementsJapan beckons, alluring and elusive; foreigners pay court, but their attentions often remain unrequited. The relationship between Japan and the foreign suitor — a dance of seduction, misunderstanding and rejection — has inspired its own literary subgenre.

In Amélie Nothomb’s Stupeur et Tremblements (Fear and Trembling), the protagonist is excluded because she are foreign and typecast because she is a woman. The novel offers a grim, sometimes mordantly funny, vision of a Japan that seems determined to keep outsiders outside — where they belong.

When well-meaning but all too often obtuse Westerners bump up against Japanese standards, the comedy in this novel — and its underlying sadness — emerges. Stupeur et Tremblements takes place at the headquarters of a Japanese corporation in Tokyo.

Elegantly written (as translated from the French by Adriana Hunter) and now — elegantly filmed — it is a chronicle of the startlingly rapid fall of a young Belgian who tries to find a place in a Japanese company. Amélie, the heroine, is a child of foreign diplomats who spent her early years in Japan and so is fluent in Japanese. But it is soon clear that she is hapless when it comes to translating what isn’t said.

She fails her first test: understanding a lesson in humility that her boss tries to teach her by repeatedly tearing up an assignment without telling her what she’s done wrong. Amélie stumbles again when she takes the initiative by performing a task that hasn’t been assigned to her. Yet her fatal error is more deeply personal: failing to understand the psychology of the beautiful, brilliant and underappreciated Fubuki Mori, the woman who is her immediate superior. Amélie senses Fubuki’s desperate wish to be married — achieving a status that would free her from the tyranny of the company but confine her in a different sphere.

Amélie doesn’t see that her own success may be a threat to a woman who has labored for years to attain what little status she has in a country where women are often denied opportunities for promotion. And then she makes the classic Western mistake of attempting to talk over a problem with Fubuki rather than finding unspoken ways to make amends. Matters become even more complicated after she clumsily tries to offer sympathy when Fubuki is rebuked by her own boss. By witnessing Fubuki’s humiliation, Amélie has shamed her, and Fubuki proceeds to exact her revenge.

Nothomb (herself the daughter of Belgian diplomats who served in Japan) demonstrates a shrewd understanding of the intricate ways Japanese relationships are made and spoiled. And she has the classic Japanese corporation dead to rights, sketching out the often mindless and capricious hierarchy, the dangers of spontaneity and the condescending superiority with which many Japanese regard Westerners. While at times the level of cruelty in her novel approaches caricature, Nothomb also has compassion for those Japanese who are imprisoned in this system.

At times, Stupeur et Tremblements may seem unduly bleak, and they offer only glimpses of the kindness and decency of those Japanese who do open their hearts to foreigners. Yet each book captures a truth that the foreign suitor might use to find some degree of peace: loving without blinders means accepting the inevitability of distance.

Excerpted from: Susan Chira, Lost in Translation, New York Times, March 25, 2001.