Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Notorious when it was first published in 1976, and notorious again today after a cover image (not this one) went viral, Bear by Marian Engel has just been reissued.

The novel feels much more substantial than one might expect from its 141 pages. The backstory covers several generations, rather like a mini-epic in the manner of Robertson Davies.

There are frequent literary and cultural references to bears, and the important semi-wilderness setting is captured deftly and without fuss.

The characters are few but indelible. The protagonist Lou is a book-sheltered woman who meets a likeable rustic named Homer, and an ancient native woman who offers this advice:

"Shit with the bear. He like you, then. Morning, you shit, he shit. Bear lives by smell. He like you."

Combine all these elements with perfect pacing and an aura of danger, and you'll have an idea of just how good this book is.


The story is a modern fairy tale with a feminist subtext. The men have iconic names reflecting their status as males: Colonel Cary, Joe King, and the Director.

Homer's name suggests his role as a folksy patriarch, but despite his helpfulness he's not much different from other men in Lou's life. The way she resolves an issue with him is a key aspect of the story.

The three most important female characters all have masculine names. In addition to Lou, there is Lucy Leroy the native woman, and in a particularly clever touch the daughter of Colonel Cary, her given name bestowed upon her at birth to circumvent a will. Thus, she is Colonel Jocelyn, a tough capable woman "with big hands like a man" who could skin a lynx.

The bear, on the other hand, has no name. But it too is male, and in a scene I thought particularly humorous, acts like a typical guy:  

She put honey on herself and whispered to him, but once the honey was gone he wandered off, farting and too soon satisfied.

The Cover

When Bear first came out in Canada, the hardcover's dust jacket was bland and the paperback's cover lurid.

In reissuing the book, the publisher has come up with a new and much better design for the trade paperback. They also did something clever, inviting several artists to submit ideas. You can see them on the publisher's website.

For Canadian Notes & Queries, artist Joe Ollmann created an illustration in comic-book style. You can see the full page by clicking here or here.

Bear in Mind

Animals are fascinating, but their Disneyfication sometimes blinds people to their potentially dangerous nature. I myself have seen people do very stupid things with bears.

People, don't be stupid.

If you want to get close to bears, do it by reading. Here are a couple of books that I recommend. In The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle, a bear named Hal Jam becomes a famous author. And in a dark fantasy called Shardik by Richard Adams (he of Watership Down fame), a bear is worshipped as a deity by a primitive society.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Odyssey

A Pop-Up Book

Even the simplest pop-up books are fun, but when done by an artist like Sam Ita they bring smiles to readers of all ages. He's produced several adaptations of classic texts like Frankenstein, Moby Dick and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.  

Pop-ups, hidden flaps, and pull-tabs provide a sense of discovery, and engage the reader in a way that's almost magical. Often it's necessary to go through the books more than once to uncover all their secrets. (Somehow I kept bypassing the Trojan horse.)

Here's a look at the more spectacular pages in Sam's version of The Odyssey. What fun!

The sack of Troy
Escape from the Cyclops
Scylla attacks
Zeus intervenes

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

On the Tracks of the 
Great Railway Bazaar

“Writing about travel,” says Theroux, is “the nearest I will come to autobiography.” This book seems more personal than others because it reprises the 1973 journey that first brought him fame, The Great Railway Bazaar.

Back then he didn't mention the “domestic turmoil” the trip had caused, but in 2004 he “relived much of the pain.” Railway Bazaar, he tells us now, was written “in an agony of suffering.”

Other personal details include a gouty knee, double cataract surgery, his mother's verdict on his first book (“trash”). He reports the criticism of his former students in Singapore “who said, in so many words, what a horse's ass I had been,” and “rubbished” him “for having been a poor teacher.”

He provides updates on two of the more memorable characters from Bazaar. Molesworth, who later complained that Theroux had not used his real name, and Mr. Bernard, who read about himself with much pleasure and whose hotel profited from being mentioned in the book. Theroux is fondly remembered by Mr. Bernard's son: “We talk about you all the time. We have a copy of your book. You were up there in room eleven.” Theroux adds:

Nothing like this had ever happened to me among my own family.  Was this a motivation, the embrace of strangers, in my becoming a traveller? ... Without daring to anticipate such an event, it was the sort of reunion I had hoped for when I set out to repeat my trip.


Author photos from the two books
In 1973 Theroux was a minor novelist. In 2004 he's an established author who's asked to give talks in Istanbul, Ankara, Ashbagat, and Singapore.

His works are everywhere: Russian translations in Moscow bookstores, bootleg copies in Phnom Penh, and a guidebook that dismisses his views as “caustic.”

On the train he notices a fellow traveller reading Mosquito Coast, and in India chats with Prince Charles about the premiere of the movie based on it. His Singapore novel, Saint Jack, and the movie based on it, are finally available there.


One of the great pleasures of Theroux's travel books is how literary-minded they are. He always serves up a wide variety of quotes and references. A nice example: Thoreau's mention of ice from Walden pond ending up in India.

He hobnobs with other writers: Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shaka in Turkey, Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer in Japan. Their conversations are delightful, their literary gossip fascinating especially when the subject is other travel writers. Jan Morris is esteemed, Chatwin “a boaster,” and Hunter Thompson “one of the most timid travellers I've ever known.”

In Sri Lanka he visits Arthur Clarke, “so frail, so vague, his mind drifting,” his appearance “like the sort of alien he had described in his prose fantasies.” He also visits the bungalow where Leonard Woolf lived, and glimpses the small island where Paul Bowles wrote his Tangier novel, The Spider's House.


American foreign policy dictates some route changes. In 1973 he visited Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but in 2004 he swings around them via Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. 

In 1973 the Vietnam war was still raging, which prevented him from reaching northern Vietnam and Cambodia. Now he is able to visit Hanoi and Angkor Wat, and talks to former soldiers from both sides. Two Viet Cong vets, now construction workers, share a joint with him.

He quotes an alarming statistic from British historian J.M. Roberts: “a heavier tonnage of bombs dropped on North Vietnam than on Germany and Japan together in the entire Second World War.” In Japan, Murakami supplies this alarming fact: “the firebombing of Tokyo...killed more people than the atom bombs.”


“A country's pornography,” he writes, “offers the quickest insight into the culture and inner life of a nation.” Hence the justification for visiting a porn shop in Budapest, the red light district in Singapore, and sex shops in Tokyo. He chats with sex trade workers in Istanbul, Mumbai, Bangkok, and Hanoi.

“Talk, talk,” she said, irritated and impatient. She leaned over and tapped my knee. “What about fuck?”

In Japan he ruminates on the connection between manga and pornography.


Stuffed grape leaves in Turkey and “an eggplant dish so delicious its name is a catchphrase, imam bayildi, 'the imam fainted'”

Spinach pies in Turkmenistan and pigeon eggs in Uzbekistan

...amok, one of Cambodia's delicious national dishes, the snakehead [fish] simmered in coconut milk with spices”

Vietnamese eel soup (recipe included) and “snake wine (each bottle with a coiled cobra pickled inside)”

“Woodka” and “pissing dumplings” and bags of smoked omul in Russia


Thanks to the Internet and Google Earth, there has never been a better time to be an armchair traveller. I was particularly keen to check out the following places:

Chatrapathi Sivaji Terminus in Mumbai
“one of the grandest railway stations in the world”
Kuala Lumpur Railway Station
“a marvel of good design...any American city would have been proud to have such a station”

Palace of Congresses in Bucharest
“an impressively ugly and gigantic example of megalomaniacal architecture”

Shimoly Station in Tashkent
“one of the largest railway stations I saw on my entire trip, possibly the grandest, lovely even”

Todai-ji Temple in Japan
“this 18th century structure was the single most imposing building I saw in the whole of Japan”

Vladivostok Railway Station
“a weirdly pretentious example of Russian railway design”

Cities & Countries

“a city without benches, the subtle message being: keep walking”

"I was not prepared for people so poor to look so beautiful...even as beggars they had dignity”

a “wolfish landscape”

“...the paradox, that India's poor were her wealth”

“one of the most...hospitable cities in the world”

“...perhaps the only country I passed through where I met nothing but generosity and kindness. And the Burmese were the most ill-treated, worst governed, belittled, and persecuted of any people I met...”

“one big bazaar of ruthless capitalism”

“good manners are suspect” and blaming "a national vice”

“more machine than city”

“an emptiness of lizards and a landscape like cat litter“

“travel in Vietnam for an American was a lesson in humility”

“one of the Siberian centers of skinhead gang activity”


 “Travellers are always inventing the country they're travelling through.”


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Avro Arrow

The Story of the Great Canadian Cold War Combat Jet -- In Pictures and Documents

Published earlier this year, this book is proof that the Avro Arrow didn't die when the plane was scrapped in 1959.

It still exists in the numerous video clips that can be found on the Internet, in the feature-length film with Dan Ackroyd, and in the many publications that it continues to inspire, one of which -- Storms of Controversy -- is now in its 4th edition. The Arrow even has its own Heritage Minute.
But if you're new to the subject, this slim volume by Lawrence Miller is a great place to start. It's along the lines of a photo album and can easily be read in a single sitting. Even those familiar with the story will find in the photos a compelling visual statement.

The Arrow was produced by Avro Canada, which in the 1950s was a world leader in aircraft design. The plane was a revolutionary supersonic interceptor, its purpose to counter long-range bombers from the USSR that might penetrate Canadian airspace on their way to the US.

But the Arrow had the bad luck to be rolled out on the very same day that Sputnik was launched. Suddenly the Space Age had begun and warplanes seemed on the verge of obsolescence. Production of the Arrow was cut by the government after only six had been produced. Avro at the time was Canada's third largest employer, and released 14,000 people. Including subcontractors, 40,000 to 50,000 workers suddenly found themselves jobless.

Miller's book brackets the main story with interesting details about some of Avro's other projects, including the Jetliner that came out prior to the Arrow, and the “flying saucer” that it worked on afterwards. The former was a jet-equipped airliner much admired by Howard Hughes and the American press, but it too was stepped on by the Canadian government.

The Legend Grows

The government not only scrapped the Arrow, it ordered every vestige of the project be eradicated. Even the airworthy Arrows were cut up and destroyed. Later (with a smacking of foreheads) the government realized it needed interceptors after all, and had to make do with a number of used Voodoos, an airplane that it had rejected years previously.

Just how good was the Arrow? Well, more than 50 years later, Major-General Lewis Mackenzie claimed in the National Post that “the Arrow’s basic design and platform still exceed any current fighter jet” and was a cheaper alternative than the problematic F-35 with its ever-spiralling price tag.

Miller's book doesn't dredge up any of the tantalizing conspiracy theories surrounding the Arrow, or the persistent rumour that one of them escaped the cutting torch.

The Arrow remains a thorn embedded in our national psyche. Its sheer physical beauty, cutting-edge technology, and savage dismemberment have turned it into an aeronautical unicorn.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

t zero

A protean character named Qfwfq -- previously introduced to readers in Cosmicomics -- reappears in many of the stories here. 

The book is divided into three sections.  The stories in the first are surreal, while those in the second address the reader directly with rambling, playful, convoluted discourses about identity, love, and cellular reproduction.  

The last section, which is the one I enjoyed most, approaches stories like problems in physics.

Part One – More of Qfwfq

The Soft Moon
Mucus-like biological matter drips from the approaching Moon and covers the Earth. When the Moon recedes it takes with it pieces of glass and steel captured from Earth.

The Origin of Birds
The sudden appearance of birds on Earth is described in comic-book form, and Qfwfq marries Queen Or after travelling to the Land of the Birds in the following fashion:

The frame is empty. I arrive. I spread paste on the upper right-hand corner. I sit down in the lower left-hand corner. A bird enters, flying, from the left, at the top. As he leaves the frame, his tail becomes stuck. He keeps flying and pulls after him the whole frame stuck to his tail, with me sitting at the bottom, allowing my self to be carried along.

The sudden formation of crystals -- "an invasion of angled blossoming" -- creates a rift between Qfwfq and his wife Vug, who appreciate them differently.

Blood, Sea
Swimming through a primeval sea/driving with another couple in a Volkswagen, Qfwfq and Zilphia fall to "fertilizing with a will" to outcompete the other couple with "me-sardines" and "Zilphia-sardines."

Part Two – Priscilla


Qfwfq, in love with Priscilla, remembers his life as a cell in the grip of reproductive forces.

To tell you properly the way things proceeded I must remind you of how I was made, a mass of protoplasm like a kind of pulpy dumpling with a nucleus in the middle. Now I'm not just trying to make myself sound interesting, but I must say that in that nucleus I led a very intense life.

"Characters are multicellular organisms." In this case, camels.

Reproduction and the desire to remain eternal is a battle that spills onto the printed page.

Part Three – t zero

t zero
A hunter with a notched arrow faces a leaping lion. "In a second I'll know if the arrow's trajectory and the lion's will or will not coincide at a point X crossed both by L and by A at the same second tx."

The Chase
A man is pursued by another man in heavy traffic. As he tries to plot his escape and anticipate the countermoves of his pursuer, it becomes unclear who is chasing whom.

The Night Driver
The narrator, who lives in A, quarrels on the telephone with his girlfriend Y, who lives in B. On being told she is going to call his rival Z, the narrator repents and jumps in his car to see Y in order to patch things up. On the way he tries to anticipate possible outcomes:

it would be terrible if I were to run to Y jealous of Z and if Y were running to me, repentant, avoiding Z, while Z hasn’t remotely though of stirring from his house.

The Count of Monte Cristo
Edmund Dantes is imprisoned (in a cell, of course) in an Escher-like Castle d’If. At one point a hole appears in the ceiling, and another inmate, the Abbe Faria, emerges and walks across the walls like a fly. Eventually Faria burrows into the study of Alexandre Dumas.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Unravelling the Franklin Mystery

Inuit Testimony

Discovery last month of the Erebus is good reason to plunge into this exhaustive analysis of Inuit testimony, though even dedicated Franklinophiles may require extensive page-flipping to check maps and keep straight (for example) the difference between Ukjulingmiut and Utkuhikhalingmiut.

And yet I read compulsively, for in these pages are the only eyewitness accounts of the Franklin expedition's demise. I felt closer to actual events than any with other Franklin book I've read.

True, the accounts are confusing and contradictory, but there are reasons aplenty for this. The physical evidence of the expedition’s passing is cryptic, and not just the muddled picture offered by the bones and relics, but also the few puzzling sentences on a single sheet of paper which is the only surviving written record.

Finally, with regard to Inuit testimony, cultural differences and translation difficulties cloud the issue, as well as references to other expeditions and the use of similar names in different circumstances.

For example, Woodman cites four locations known to the Inuit as Shartoo, all containing wreckage. Then there is Aglooka, "he who takes long strides," identified by Charles Francis Hall as Crozier, second-in-command. Yet the name was also bestowed by Inuit on at least four other Europeans: John Ross, James Clark Ross, William Parry, and John Rae.

So, with a quote from Sherlock Holmes and "a little judicious cropping," Woodman pieces together a cohesive scenario which...

...allowed use of all of the native recollections, solved some troubling discrepancies in the physical evidence, and led to some significant new conclusions as to the fate of the beleagured sailors.

But he does not claim to have reached "incontrovertible conclusions."

Even the picture thus formed is incomplete, a corner here, a bit of coherent background there. These too can be arranged in other patterns to reach quite different results.

The result is a variation on the "standard reconstruction" of events with minor differences in chronology, and a scenario that makes sense of the seemingly disorderly retreat of the crews. The departure for Back River on the mainland, as recorded in the note left by the expedition, may have referred to a hunting expedition, not a wholesale evacuation.

One of the ships is believed to have ended up in the vicinity of O'Reilly Island on the west side of Adelaide Peninsula. Woodman suspects it was the Terror, that it had been remanned, and that Kirkwall Island is a more likely spot to search for it.

Woodman also observes that the arrival of such a large group of men may have had serious consequences for the local Inuit. Their numbers appear to have declined drastically around this time, perhaps due to the depletion of game caused by the hunting efforts of the ships' crews.

Modern Searches

Since the book came out in 1992, Woodman has himself taken part in several searches. His "interpretation of the Inuit testimony," writes John Lorinc in the summer 2014 issue of Canadian Geographic, "has inspired most of the search missions undertaken since 1997."

In 2008 Parks Canada initiated searches of their own, and drawing on fresh Inuit testimony added a new search area -- Victoria Strait between King William Island and the Royal Geographical Society Islands.

The Erebus was found by the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition, a discovery welcomed by many as a validation of Inuit oral history. The exact location of the ship has not yet been revealed.

Parks Canada search areas (Canadian Geographic, summer 2014)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Contemplations on Farming and Ecology
from Horseback

Bondrup-Nielsen got his first horse at the age of 11. He was living in Denmark then, and was taught to ride by a woman whose barn was cleaner than her home. At 13 he came to Canada and now, several horses later, lives in rural Nova Scotia at the north end of the Annapolis Valley.

It's the perfect setting for a day-long ride.

There are orchards and vineyards and fields of vegetables, patches of forest and salt marsh, dykes and tidal rivers, sandy beaches and crumbling cliffs, and a sizeable basalt ridge that separates Annapolis Valley from Fundy's cobbled shore.

He visits them all and, endlessly curious, muses about nature, farming, riding, and the idiosyncrasies of his horse, Bucephalus. He recalls the excitement of a simulated fox hunt, and remembers that horses in the past wore wooden clogs while working on the dykelands.

Being mounted contributes an extra set of eyes for spotting wildlife and also provides a useful metaphor. A good rider becomes one with a horse, each responding to the other's subtle changes of body position. "To me the relationship with a horse is one of symbiosis. Should it not be so with all relationships?"

That's not the case with large-scale industrial farming, whose practices are damaging soil that took thousands of years to create. Irrigation, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, the destruction of farmland for development (after which it can never be restored), the buying practices of large grocery chains -- all are contributing to the problem.

Our infatuation with economies of scale brings forth this observation from the author:

The most depressing picture I know of is not one of giant smoke stacks pumping out pollution, of extensive clearcutting in the Amazon basin or of urban sprawl, but rather a photograph of a small shorebird, a stilt, trying desperately to incubate an egg much larger than itself.

Yet the tone throughout is genial, not hectoring, and the book itself is a beautiful artifact with thick creamy pages, original pencil drawings, and a textured handprinted dust jacket.

There's interesting trivia -- earthworms are not native to North America, mammary glands are modified sweat glands, oxygen in 3 out of 4 breaths comes from oceans.

And unusual characters -- a Hungarian hussar, a farmer with brass knuckles in his pocket, an orchardist who controls the grass beneath trees by rolling around on it.

And, best of all, examples of successful strategies used by Valley farmers -- going organic, adding value (eg turning apples into cider), bypassing large grocery chains to sell directly to consumers at local markets. "Eat local" is a frequently heard rallying cry.

The disconnect between an urbanized population on the one hand, and nature and agriculture on the other, was underlined at the book launch last week when a teacher in the audience related an anecdote: a student on learning that milk comes from udders vowed never to drink it again.

Soil is irreplaceable. Farmers too.

Think about it.

Author's website

         Back cover                    Without the dust jacket

Thursday, August 28, 2014

George Orwell: A Life

At one time I worshipped George Orwell. I had read all his books, and on long winter trips near the Arctic Circle I took with me a volume of his letters, essays and journalism. When I read at night, his lucid prose resonated with the endless miles of snowy immaculate scenery beyond the tent’s canvas walls.

Later when I became a bureaucrat, I placed his picture in a dimestore frame and sat it on my desk. I wrote a poem about him and sent it to a literary magazine, but the response I got was odd. One of the editors referred to Orwell as "sometimes a badtempered narrow sonovabitch." The comment bothered me more than the poem’s rejection. The editor in question was not old enough to have met Orwell, so his opinion was based solely on hearsay, or something he read.

His comment was at the back of my mind as I read this bio of Orwell. It's a rather intimidating book, 400 pages of eye-watering 10-pt type, not counting the 60 pages of footnotes and index. The author, Bernard Crick, was the first to have access to Orwell's papers, and sifted many other sources, including unpublished correspondence and such farflung sources as the files of the Rangoon Gazette, the Burma Police Manual for 1899, and the Civil Pension Books in India.

He corrects an error of fact repeated in a number of books about the date of Orwell's arrival in England (1904 not 1907), and about the school where he taught. These are relatively minor matters, but illustrate the degree of scholarship involved.


The picture of Orwell I now have in my mind is that of a man whose life was shaped by oppression. He experienced it at St. Cyprian's, a prep school he was sent to at the age of eight, and he inflicted it on others in Burma, where he spent five years as a policeman. The guilt he felt after Burma made him seek the company of the downtrodden, as described in his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London.

In the Spanish Civil War he was shot through the neck by a fascist sniper, and narrowly escaped imprisonment or worse due to falsehoods spread by pro-Soviet communists.

When WW2 broke out he tried repeatedly to enlist but due to his health was only able to join the Home Guard. His wife Eileen worked (ironically) in the Censorship department, and her brother (a doctor who had treated Orwell) was killed at Dunkirk. Their London home was wrecked by a bomb. In the final months of the war Orwell got the chance to go to Europe as a war correspondent.

A Melancholy End

He was in Germany when he learned of his wife's death during a "routine operation" in England. His own health, which had been undermined by numerous bouts of bronchitis, pneumonia, and tuberculosis, grew steadily worse until he was hospitalized for seven months in 1948. Treatment included collapsing one of his lungs and he was not allowed to type.

Even when allowed out of hospital he was in such a weakened condition that he had to spend half the day in bed. Unable to find a typist, he resumed smoking as he typed the revised manuscript of Nineteen Eight-Four himself. As a result he suffered a relapse at the end of 1948 and was taken to a sanatorium.

It was clear that he was destined to be a permanent invalid, but he thought he might live longer if he were married. He proposed to several women, and finally succeeded in marrying Sonia Brownell. The ceremony took place in a hospital in October of 1949. Plans were made for him to be relocated to a sanatorium in Switzerland in January of 1950, but about a week before departure his lung haemorrhaged for a final time. He was 46.

His Legacy

Animal Farm was finished in 1944, but refused by several publishers due to its political content. It finally came out in 1945 just after WW2 ended. It made Orwell famous, although in America it was widely misinterpreted as being anti-socialist. Tyranny and oppression were what he hated, and he found it in imperialism, fascism, communism, capitalism, and Catholicism. He was also against pacifism.

He wrote that "every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it."

His fame was solidified by another political book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, once again misunderstood in America, where it was seen as anti-Soviet when in fact it was a warning about totalitarian tendencies in modern states.

However, Bernard Crick, the author of this biography and founder of the Orwell Prize for political writing, says that "much critical opinion now locates his genius in his essays."

This is because what Orwell is most famous for is "that colloquial easy plain style that became his genius." He made a "connection between totalitarian habits of thought and the corruption of language." His writings are often used in teaching ESL.

In his will he asked that no biography of him be written. He also wished two of his novels, A Clergyman's Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, not to be reprinted.

The Man

Orwell was six foot three inches in height and wore size twelve shoes, which he had difficulty in finding. His clothes were "famously casual." His voice was weak and monotonous due to the wound he'd received in Spain.

A friend said there was "something very innocent and terribly simple about him. He wasn’t a very good judge of character... But he tolerated in others faults he did not possess himself."

He "made a virtue of ordinariness and common decency." He was tenacious, and hard-working, but he was also prickly, had a morbid streak, and was "aggressively anti-hypochondriac."

A comrade in Spain described him as "a slightly comic figure," yet "absolutely fearless."

He loved cats and birds, nature and fishing, but had a phobia about rats, and nightmares from which he'd awaken screaming.

E.M. Forster remarked on his "peculiar mixture of gaiety and grimness."

There was "his strange mixture of personal gentleness and ferocious writing."


Other pseudonyms that Orwell considered: Kenneth Miles, H. Lewis Allways, and P.S Burton (a name he’d used whilst tramping).

Alternate titles for Down and Out in Paris and London: Lady Poverty, Confessions of a Dishwasher.

Nineteen Eighty-Four: alternate title, The Last Man in Europe. The hero Winston was named after Churchill, and Julia was modelled on Sonia.

He had a dog named Marx.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Sitting in the Club Car Drinking Rum and Karma-Cola

A Manual of Etiquette for Ladies Crossing Canada by Train

An American woman boards a train in Vancouver for a mock-noir excursion into metafiction. She's wearing a pillbox hat with a veil, and is on the lam for paperhanging in Seattle. "Call her, Our Heroine."

Hot on her heels (and other parts of her anatomy) is a skip-tracer masquerading as a railroad dick. He wears a fedora and boards the train at China Bar, an unscheduled stop in the Fraser Canyon. "Why has the train stopped for this man? For the plot, of course."

He walks into the club car, "and there she is: Sitting in the Club Car Drinking Rum and Karma-Cola, like a book title. Is this a detective novel or what?"

They occupy adjacent compartments like "two different frames of a love comic," and travel across Canada in chapters as brief as this one:

His address is, at this point, nothing but train. On a stretch of bad track his entire past falls out of the overhead rack and spills on the floor like underwear or playing cards.

"Drop something in there sir?" says the porter, who was passing by out in the aisle.

"Yes but it's alright," says the Man from China Bar. Lying on the carpet is his identification, the real one, and his purposes, which are large and high-calibre. He shoves it all back into the suitcase. He looks at his shoelaces, which cross each other like two single-minded arguments, and wonders how he got here, wearing feet like this.

The novel's point of view jumps around, and at times Our Heroine addresses the reader directly. ("Remember that.") The writing is playfully existential, and as imaginative as one would expect from a winner of the G-G for poetry.

American money is long and narrow like Virginia Woolf’s feet.

The train is going through evening like a detective through someone’s drawers.

Her hair falls down her back like a lot of wilderness resisting agriculture.

The train is pulling him forward like a zipper...

Author Paulette Jiles called the book a "mini-novel." It came out in 1986, weighs in at 105 pages, and ends - like a famous noirish film - at an airport.

Could Iqaluit be the Canadian equivalent of Casablanca?

Monday, June 2, 2014

Heat and Dust

The novel’s opening sentence tells us immediately that Olivia, the wife of an English colonial official named Douglas Rivers, ran away with the Nawab of Khatm.

What follows is an account of the events leading up to this scandal in 1923, based on letters that Olivia wrote to her sister. These letters have come into the possession of the grand-daughter of Rivers and his second wife. She has come to India is to learn what happened to Olivia after she ran away with the Nawab.

The stories of these two women weave back and forth as the grand-daughter acquaints herself with India, and although she says Olivia "was everything I'm not," she ends up replicating many of Olivia’s experiences. She too has two lovers, one English and one Indian. She too becomes pregnant, seeks an abortion, and finally follows Olivia into oblivion.

This double narrative is packed with other ironies, many of them subtle. Olivia for instance refuses to go into the mountains during the hot season with other English wives, whom she finds dull. She insists on remaining with her husband, but since he is away at work all day, she falls into company with the Nawab as a way of avoiding boredom. Thus her desire to remain with her husband sets up the circumstances for leaving him. And where does she end up? In the mountains where the Nawab buys her a house, and where she remains for the rest of her life.


She "longed to be pregnant; everything would be all right then – he [her husband] would not change, she would not change, they would be as planned." She finally conceives but only after her affair with the Nawab has begun. Both men are delighted, their reactions virtually identical: "You’re not afraid? You’ll really do this for me? How brave you are." Then she has an abortion.

The Nawab

He is a minor prince, handsome and dashing, "a strong forceful character." But by the time he is 50 he has grown fat and womanly, and divides his time between his wife, his mother in Bombay, and Olivia in the mountains. When he comes to London he does not bring Olivia. He dies in New York City, and the palace is inherited by his nephew, Karim, who lives in London.

Inder Lal

He is the modern counterpart of a minor prince - a government official. His office is located in the house where the grand-daughter's great-aunt Beth (one of the women that Olivia found so dull) once lived. He sublets a room to the grand-daughter and has an affair with her. Like the Nawab he has a wife who is mentally ill.

The Grand-Daughter

She initiates her affair with Inder Lal at the same place (a shrine) after following the same custom (involving red string) as Olivia with the Nawab. Her abortion attempt begins in exactly the same fashion as Olivia's, although she changes her mind and stops the procedure. After visiting Olivia's house in the mountains, she heads for an ashram to have her baby.


Before going to India the grand-daughter meets Karim in London. He is as handsome and charming as the Nawab, and has the same admiration for their violent ancestor Amanullah Khan. He is just as interested in looting India as the Nawab, and is in partnership with a British couple who are described in terms similar to the Nawab's dacoits.


The Nawab and the grand-daughter/narrator remain nameless throughout the book. The Nawab’s Indian wife is nicknamed Sandy, while the grand-daughter's English lover, who has come to India seeking enlightenment, is known only by his Indian name, Chidananda.


The grand-daughter says, "India always changes you." Major Minnies says, "India always finds out the weak spot and presses on it."

The Nawab says, "These people will never learn. Whatever we do, they will still cling to their barbaric customs."

Inder Lal says of his co-workers, "You don't know what people are like or what is in their hearts even when they are smiling with friendly faces."

Dr. Gopal enumerates the diseases of India and concludes by saying, "I think perhaps God never meant that human beings should live in such a place."

Chidananda returns from a pilgrimage a changed person. "All he will ever say - the only explanation he gives for his changed feelings toward India - is how he can't stand the smell."

The Book

Heat and Dust won the Booker in 1975. Its title reflects the squalor of India. Its brevity (181 pages) and personal tone belie its density.

I particularly liked the ironies, the ambiguities, the inconclusive ending. I also liked the twin timelines with the mirroring of events and characters - devices that are essential to the book's message.

But how palatable is that message? Perhaps the grand-daughter's departure from Olivia's path (deciding to have her baby) is an effort to blunt the book's negativity and end on a hopeful note.

In 2008 a retrospective review of Booker winners by Sam Jordison in The Guardian offered a damning verdict, calling the book "pedestrian...dull and pointless...literature for people who hate literature."