Tuesday, June 24, 2014

book review: The Life and Remembrances of Martha Toole

Image from amazon.ca
The Life and Remembrances of Martha Toole by Jason Derr. Temple Foundry Mediaworks, 2014. (The ebook pdf version used for this review, 50 pages).

An email popped up on my screen in the middle of June offering me a copy of Jason Derr's latest work of fiction, The Life and Remembrances of Martha Toole, for review. Words used to describe the novella were "a magic realist exploration of nostalgia and reality" and "an epiphany in a single setting." I was sold! I clicked the link and ordered the ebook. I read it in one sitting yesterday afternoon and, I must admit, struggled a bit to enter Derr's magic world.

Derr's characters are richly painted, especially the matriarch Martha Toole. Her abrasive, direct manner makes one squirm with recognition (haven't we all had a fussy, old relative whom we have tried to avoid?), yet the obvious loyalty to her family is never in doubt. Each detail with which the author describes the southern family's strained interpersonal dynamics is vibrant with undercurrents of past struggles and scars. I found the father, Nathaniel, especially endearing with his endless tinkering and fixing in an effort to fend off intimacy or confrontation.

The critical moment when the artist son, John David, encounters the younger Martha in a surreal scene on the old family homestead, shifts the story from being about family relationships to one which focuses on Martha's transformation from a young, vibrant woman into a cantankerous, elderly matriarch. In theory, this device should have carried the reader into another world, a place between real and unreal where the past and present collide. In practice, I found the scene a bit clunky, and the integration of a younger Martha into the rest of the story, sharing the same time and space as the old Martha, underdeveloped. To me, the tale seemed to hover briefly in a magic place and then it thudded soundly back to earth. The subsequent interactions between younger Martha and the other characters lacked any ethereal energy, and the ready acceptance of a "ghost figure" into the family read like a missed opportunity, in my opinion. It could have led to so many dynamic interactions and interesting plot developments.

Another problem I had with the book was the lack of proper editing. On one page alone (p. 13) I found four errors (missing period, missing possessive apostrophe, inappropriately placed commas, and an awkward sentence in which the subject and the verb did not agree). There was one jerky transition which actually caused me to scroll back and forth a few times wondering if I had missed a paragraph (p. 23). I will admit that these mistakes distracted me from the story to some extent, and I believe the work would benefit greatly from a thorough going-over by a skilled editor.

All in all, this is a story with some good bones but it still needs work.

This book is provided to me courtesy of the publisher and SpeakEasy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

confessions of a non-morning person

Image by Jim Davis. Found on pinterest.com
I have been following a post by a colleague (whom I have never met but we have mutual friends and are both studying theology) in which he writes about his efforts to change into a functioning morning person, mostly out of necessity due to being a parent and a writer (his words). I am not a parent so I will not comment on the challenges that children present to sleep and work patterns, but I do a fair bit of writing and find myself chafing at the assumption that disciplined and successful writers do their best work in the early morning.  I am not sure that such a generalization is true or helpful.

It seems to me that there is a bit of prejudice against late-night functioning people. We can be viewed as somewhat lazy, undisciplined, still lingering in that teenage/student phase of staying up late and sleeping in late. Similar to the subtle disdain for introverts that our Western culture exhibits (social skills are highly valued), late night-ers are generally not championed as leaders, go-getters, or entrepreneurs who will change the world. And that is sad. Let us not forget all the roles which require late night alertness: medical professionals, emergency responders, truck drivers, musicians, construction workers, hydro-electric repairmen, security personnel, office cleaners, chefs, and members of the police force (to name just a few).

I am thankful that not everyone in the world is an extrovert (how loud would that be?) and that not everyone is a morning person (who would explore the wonders of the stars or watch over our cities as we sleep?). It brings variety and balance to the universe. However, having a dominant trait or being a certain type of person is not an excuse for selfishness or rigidity. At times I am called upon to function as an extrovert: to be friendly, chatty, outgoing, and hospitable. And this is good for me; it helps me develop character, compassion, and discipline. However, the cost is high. It requires more emotional, intellectual, and volitional energy than when I operate within my preferred/inherent role. Therefore, it is important for me to be aware of the cost and make sure I have adequate resources and the time and space to replenish them afterwards.  The same goes for early mornings. This past term I taught a university class at 8:45 am. I actually surprised myself at how well I could function at that time of day, but I was also aware that it was pretty taxing, much more than teaching an afternoon or evening class. I was able to function well because I came prepared, I gave myself a good amount of time for thought and contemplation before heading into the classroom, and I made sure I had a good meal and some downtime afterwards.

Perhaps I am not the only late-night person who has read those Psalms about early morning prayer and felt slightly guilty (Psalm 5:3 for example). Does God want me to get up at sunrise to pray? Does it make me a more devoted follower of Jesus if I read my Bible before 8 am? I don’t think so. Just as both early morning and late night work take discipline, so both early morning and late night prayers require that we bring our whole selves before God. Psalm 4 is a night prayer which extols the provision of God and the ability to sleep in peace because of God’s faithfulness. The daily examen, an Ignatian prayer exercise which seeks to discern the presence of God in the events of the day, is done right before one falls asleep. Psalm 127 talks about the folly of both early mornings and late nights when they are motivated by self-effort instead of reliance on God. In the end, whether we are early risers or late night-ers, the issue is not what side of the clock we prefer, but whom we trust, cling to, and rely on. Let Jesus be Lord of every hour, both waking and sleeping. Let us embrace our natural, creative rhythms with joy and abandon them when we need to for the sake of love. With God all things are possible.

"Unless the Eternal builds the house, those who labor to raise it will have worked for nothing. Unless the Eternal stands watch over the city, those who guard it have wasted their time. God provides for His own. It is pointless to get up early, work hard, and go to bed late, anxiously laboring for food to eat; for God provides for those He loves, even while they are sleeping."
Psalm 127:1-2, The Voice


Monday, June 09, 2014

the dressing room dream

rack of dresses by airinisbomb
image from airinisbomb.deviantart.com

A week ago I had one of those dreams. You know, the kind that sticks with you for hours after you wake up and, like a C. S. Lewis masterpiece, pierces you with its truth and vivid images. This is what I dreamed: 



I was in a dressing room in a fashionable and rather expensive clothing store. I tried on several beautiful dresses; some I liked more than others. I wasn't really thinking about buying a dress that day but I thought there was no harm in trying on a few. The salesperson did her job well, bringing me numerous outfits, all quite interesting and lovely, so I just kept trying them on. The last item she brought me was a pair of shorts which were priced over $400. At that point I made a decision: I was not going to pay that much for a pair of shorts so there was no point in trying them on, no matter how nice they were.

After I made that decision, I suddenly noticed several things around me that I had not been aware of before. First, there was a small kitten sitting in the dressing room. It was a bit on the skinny side and seemed quite lethargic. Apparently it had not been fed for quite some time. Second, a person called out to me, reminding me that I had documents that needed signing and work that was waiting for me in my office. Third, I realized that days had gone by while I was in the dressing room trying on pretty clothes. I said, "I've kind of made my home here." Then I left the dressing room, fed the kitten and got to work.

Let me provide some background: We have been considering moving from our lovely condo to a place perhaps a bit bigger and a bit closer to downtown. With those two features come a substantial jump in price, so for the past few months I have been researching properties a fair bit and we even visited a few open houses, trying to find something in our price range. This dream brought me up short. In a good way. It made me aware that I was starting to get really at home in a sort of fantasy-land, a place where I dreamed about what could be, where I tried on lovely things just to see what it would feel like, where I let myself pretend for just a moment that I lived in a new, modern loft, that it was all real, even though it was beyond my means. The titillating world of "trying-on" can become so mesmerizing that we end up neglecting our responsibilities in the real world. We forget to care for the people and the things we love. We forget about the work that has been entrusted to us. We forget about the real and the mundane because the unreal and the fantastical feels better. But this is a dangerous place to make our home. It is the breeding ground for addiction and escapism.

I love my imagination and my research abilities; reading and writing projects can transport me to worlds that beg to be explored. However, they are not usually places where I learn the difficult skills of selfless love, of generosity, of service and sacrifice and humility. The dressing room of fantasy requires nothing of me. It allows me to float above everything real as if it doesn't matter, and that is a lie. The mundane tasks matter to someone. Whether or not I pay the bills or wash the clothes or feed the cat or answer the phone matter to someone. Whether I buy a new house or not matters very little. What matters is whether I am hospitable in my present home, whether I speak kindly to my present neighbours, and whether love and laughter and gratitude live here now, no matter how small or inconvenient the place might seem.

Time to get out of the dressing room, put on some work clothes, and joyfully engage in the life I now have.