Friday, January 30, 2015

Upcoming event: Hamilton, ON

I'm super stoked to announce my first public event of 2015: I'll be reading from Sad Peninsula at Westdale Secondary School in Hamilton on the evening of February 11. Regular followers of this blog know that I make an annual journey to Hamilton to do a classroom event at McMaster University, and my inimitable contacts there have worked to arrange this event, which will be open to the general public. So if you live in the area and you're free that night, please come out. I would love to see you.

Here are the details:

When: Wednesday, February 11, 2015.
What time: 6:30 pm.
Where: Westdale Secondary School. 700 Main Street West, Hamilton, ON.
Join the Facebook event.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, by Jonathan Rose

Whither the Great Books? In 2015, such a question is supposed to raise both problematic and programmatic issues among proper-thinking readers. How come the capitalization? Where are your quote marks of irony? Who deems what gets counted as a Great Book? Why their choices and not someone else’s? And, most severely, doesn’t the exultation of certain books simply reinforce and privilege one type of voice while silencing others? Great Books are supposed to be passé; we’d all be better off if we embraced more “diverse” fare that teems with many different voices, and had no need for outdated notions of so-called “classic” literature.

If this kind of thinking causes you some unease, as it does me, you probably like to have your beliefs in the importance of Great Books reinforced every now and then. Certainly you could do a lot worse than Jonathan Rose’s expansive, door-stopper of a study, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Over 500+ pages, Rose explores and dissects the reading habits of miners, millgirls, clerks, factory workers and others to reveal what role literature played in the development of their minds. The result is less a sociological opus and more a cri de coeur for classic literature itself. Rose, an unapologetic conservative, pulls no punches when attacking the claims against Great Books often levied by today’s cadre of academics who wield their theories like hatchets designed to mow down tall poppies.

Indeed, Intellectual Life grounds itself in two unique but interconnected thesis statements, aimed to discredit much of the thinking behind these theories. The first is that today’s literary criticism often treats readers as empty vessels waiting to be filled with whatever biases or prejudices the Great Books preach, failing to take into account how real readers responded to the books they read. Rose, through painstaking historical and sociological research, reveals that, far from being lemmings willing to buy whatever racist, sexist, imperialist views the Great Books conveyed, the working class read these tomes with far more nuance. Second, the erroneous notion that Great Books are the domain of only the most elitist class of society. This has never been the case. And Rose puts it:

The question of whether Dickens, Conrad, or penny dreadfuls reinforced or subverted patriarchy, imperialism, or class hierarchies has become an obsession in academics, literature departments and cultural studies programs. Although literary criticism has been narrowed and impoverished by this fixation, the question is a legitimate one, and it is addressed (alongside other issues) in this book. The failure of political criticism, as it is actually practiced, is methodological: with some exceptions, it ignores actual readers … If the dominant class defines high culture, then how do we explain the passionate pursuit of knowledge by proletarian autodidacts, not to mention the pervasive philistinism of the British aristocracy?

While Rose’s focus is on the British working classes of the 18th, 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, there is much truth in this passage for a reader in 2015. By ignoring the impact of literature on actual readers, academics are given a pass of convenience to impose whatever political discourse on a work of high or low literature they wish. Furthermore, to say that Great Books are only read by the elite is absurd. No matter the mix of people at a cocktail party, it’s usually the one-percenter CEO who is the poorest-read person in the room.  

Rose pledges his own allegiance to a more Arnoldian theory of literature, to the prismatic, aesthetic, mind-opening strength of reading Great Books, and the inherent value of solitary, individual and autodidact education. He posits that “promiscuous reading” is a way to both bring about a crisis of identity in the reader and provide him with the means to deal with it. This kind of experience was paramount in lifting the working-class person to a higher plane of self-awareness. As Rose puts it, “the Arnoldian ideal addressed one of the most basic intellectual hungers of the working-class student: the need to understand how his individual life fitted into the larger society.” True, some of these revelations came from reading the penny dreadfuls and local scandal sheets, but Intellectual Life builds a convincing case that many working class people turned to and reveled in what we still refer to today as canonical literature.

Which itself is an awkward term. Rose acknowledges that “[t]hough canons can be changed, canonization is inevitable,” and later points out that what gets counted as part of a traditional canon is less a matter of politics and more a matter of time and inclination, which had less impact on a general readership. As he puts it:

A generation of literary theorists might argue that there is an irrepressible conflict between “canonical” and “nontraditional” literature, that the great books somehow “marginalize” or “silence” oppressed peoples; but to Dent and Rhys that would have been absurd, contrary to everything they knew about working-class readers. “Canon wars” are purely a campus phenomenon, the result of an academic economy of scarcity. If an English faculty is allowed only one new hire, they may have to decide between a Miltonist and a Caribbeanist; and they can only add Zora Neale Hurston to a survey course by bumping someone else, in which case Dr. Johnson may seem a fitting target. But this is an internal professional controversy, irrelevant (if not slightly comic) to general readers, who have time for both Johnson and Hurston.

From looking at the lending records of miners’ libraries to examining the unpublished memoirs of working-class laborers from around Britain, Rose paints a gripping portrait of this exact kind of general readership. There is something invigorating in his descriptions of weavers setting up books to read on their looms, of shop-floor workers discussing Shakespeare and Immanuel Kant on their breaks, and the young, upwardly mobile office clerks sneaking out for a lunch-time classical music performance or a lazy afternoon at the library. Rose has a great deal of fun bashing the Bloomsbury group – especially E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, two unrepentant snobs who wore their classism on their sleeves – for failing to see and embrace the intellectual vitality of this class of people. “Forster could not believe,” he writes, “that a clerk might be genuinely thrilled by literature. (That prejudice is not dead among academics even today.)"

Of course, all of this heady autodidact reading prompted many in the working (and clerking) classes to begin producing their own literature, which they did in abundance. There was an explosion in literacy following Britain’s Education Act of 1870, resulting in a boom of print journalism, and many working-class people with a flare for words – with the help of evening classes and mutual improvement societies – found it relatively easy to make the transition to writing articles, opinion pieces and even whole novels. Their efforts have not really survived, thanks mostly, Rose points out, to the relentless classism of modernists and the political biases of today’s academics. “If the Great Proletarian Author was never found, it was not because there were no candidates for the role. The difficulty was that leftist intellectuals were looking for a modernist in overalls, and that combination was hard to find.”

While the working class finds a huge advocate in Rose, there are times when Intellectual Life slides a bit offside in its descriptions of or theories about these individuals. There is an entire chapter, for example, that details how many in the newly literate working classes had a difficult time telling the difference between fact and fiction. Rose tells a story of one worker who “[a]ttending a performance of The Merchant of Venice … was so gripped by Portia’s judgment that he leaped from the box and assaulted Shylock,” and another of a woman who read the entirety of Tom Jones and thought every word of it was true. While these tales are no doubt accurately rendered, I think there may be a missing component to their telling. Rather than merely casting some working-class readers as naïve rubes unable to tell the difference between a “true” story and one that is made up, Rose might have reminded his readers that fiction itself – especially early prototypes of the novel –  often blurred these lines. Indeed, Moll Flanders, Tristram Shandy, Robinson Crusoe and other early entrants into the novel genre were originally presented to readers as “true” stories.

Also, there are times when Rose’s conservatism gets the better of him. While he does admit that there were ample quantities of literature, both high and low, that detailed and promoted British imperialism of the 19th and 20th centuries, he dismisses the affects that reading these materials might have had on working-class consumers. “So housepainter’s son Harry Burton might sing patriotic songs on Empire Days, ‘but it did us no harm because it never went very far,’ and no one knew where the Empire was.” Of course, just because a housepainter was ignorant of the broader scope of British imperialism does not mean that he didn’t benefit directly and indirectly from it. Literature, art and patriotic songs can imbue a culture with subliminal as well as liminal biases. It would have been better for Rose to fall back on his earlier, sturdier argument: that working class people could, by and large, read imperialist stories without being brainwashed by them; they had the intellectual capacity to weigh evidence, form their own perceptions/opinions, and judge the merits and demerits of imperialism on their own terms.

Thankfully, Rose levies this excellent approach in the very best chapter of the book, “Alienation from Marxism,” a tour de force of lively, convincing rhetoric. Here, he shows little patience for Marxism’s heavy-handed, prescriptive, ideologically driven manipulation of workers and their intellectual worlds. He fires his first volley thusly:

[E]arly British Marxists dismissed as “bourgeois” the same canon of English classics that inspired generations of autodidacts, thus alienating the very proletarian intellectuals who might have been the driving force behind a more creative Marxism. Where Marxists defined exploitation in purely economic terms, Labour socialists, brandishing their Everyman’s Library volumes, promised beauty in life, joy in work, a moral vision for politics. Following a long line of radicals and mutual improvers, they proclaimed that knowledge (rather than ownership of the means of production) is power.

In other words, wide, promiscuous reading of the classics by the proletariat helped them to think for themselves, seize more control over and improve their situations, take moral accountability for their actions, and, most importantly, inculcate them in the need to question all ideologies – including the rigid, dehumanizing theories of Marxism. This is why those of the far, radicalized left despised classic literature, and continue to do so: because it can provide readers with a prismatic worldview that makes them less susceptible to easy, vacuum-sealed propaganda. Rose goes further. He says for all of Marxism’s bluster about the working class, few in the target audience actually found its writing compelling or even digestible:

In fact, most workers did have great difficulty reading Marx and Marxists … [T]he Marxists generally and glaringly failed to produce literature accessible to the working classes. If Ross McKibbin is right – that there was no British Marxism because Britain lacked an alienated intelligentsia, but developed a working-class party and trade union movement of the middle classes – that amounts to saying that Marxism is inherently a movement of the educated classes rather than the laboring classes. The latter were effectively and , one could argue, deliberately excluded by the difficulty of Marxist language. Any number of autodidacts registered that complaint.

It’s the “deliberately excluded” part of that quote that hits the nail on the head for me. This feeling of alienation from language might certainly resonate with anyone who has taken a graduate-level, Marxism-inspired critical theory course after having completed – and loved – a Great Books course as an undergrad, as I did. That sense of estrangement only gets compounded should you be a member of the working or clerking class.

Rose’s ultimate rejection of Marxism comes in the form of his ongoing love of autodidactic reading, which remains the backbone of and largest endorsement in this fabulous, spirited book. Of course I would say that, reviewing this tome on a blog called Free Range Reading. But this notion is where Intellectual Life finds its greatest strength: in the way it reminds us of the inherent value of solitary, individualized, unideological, intellectual pursuits. A person’s intellectual life is a garden within himself that he tends to, a place for quiet reflection, for sowing new seeds, and for weeding when necessary. Rose’s book is a much-needed palliative against arguments that say otherwise, a reminder about how Great Books can both disrupt and connect us to our sense of self, and this ultimately makes that garden within us a more enriching place.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Waterloo Record reviews Sad Peninsula

So this came rolling over the Google Alert transom on the weekend - a review of Sad Peninsula in the Waterloo Record. Reviewer Julie Najjar writes:"[W]hile the history I learned was heartbreaking, the two stories, separated by decades, come together in unexpected ways and lead to the discovery of life purpose in one case and the courage to overcome personal guilt and shame and find inner peace in the other." Check out the full review.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Most anticipated - Spring 2015

For the second season in a row, I've made the 49th Shelf's "Most anticipated" list. This time round, it's the website's Most Anticipated: 2015 Fiction Spring list, for my forthcoming collection The Secrets Men Keep (out April 15 from Now or Never Publishing). It's great to be included in this selection, and with so many other great titles. Books I myself am looking forward to include my fellow Dundurn author Suzanne Alyssa Andrew's debut novel Circle of Stones, as well as new works from Michael Christie, Mark Anthony Jarman, Priscila Uppal, Alexis von Konigslow, and others. Anyway, it looks like it's going to be a kick-ass spring. Check out the full list here.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

My Quill and Quire review of Paths of Desire, by Emmanuel Kattan ...

... is up on the Q&Q website. It had been a while since I'd read what is essentially a crime novel, but I liked this one well enough. Here's a quote from the review: "Kattan wins us over with the sheer strength of his prose and emotional range, especially in the last quarter of the novel. What starts out as a rather contrived metaphor about Israel and Palestine couched as a mystery eventually turns into something devastating – a beautiful reflection on love, loss, and the senselessness of violence."

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Review: Invasive Species, by Claire Caldwell

I had the great pleasure of sharing a stage with poet Claire Caldwell back in November at the Pivot at the Press Club Reading Series. Her debut collection, Invasive Species, was buried at the bottom of a stack of review copies I had at home, but I plucked it out after watching her performance. I’m glad I did: her poems are just as luminous on the page as they were recited aloud, and the collection ended up making my top 10 list for 2014.

Invasive Species covers a number of broad themes, from familial history and the bond that siblings share to our fraught relationship with the animal kingdom. These poems are as poignant, assured and cagey as poetry gets. Caldwell shows an incredible deftness for building the tension and emotion in a poem up to a pulverizing finish. On several occasions, her closing lines left me short of breath.

Here is an example of what I mean: this is the final stanza from her piece “A Seamstress Considers the Fourth Dimension”, a poem that plays with multiple meanings of the words skin and fabric:

Later, I’d be revered for my role
in emancipating the spiders
and silkworms. I’d live to see my silhouette
patchworked into public squares. Still,
there’s be no way to stop the great unravelling.
 I would tan my own hide to save it.

That final jolt comes out of nowhere, with a self-deprecation that startles us with its cleverness. I found something similar in “There Is Nothing Left of Your Great-Grandfather.” Here, Caldwell begins by frontloading an inventory of possessions and attributes belonging, presumably, to her long-dead Great-Grandfather – the clothing and hair and books and fingerprints that were his touchstones of individuality, now gone. Yet, watch the ironic about-face that the poem makes at its conclusion:

No, there is nothing left of your great-
grandfather but his name,
its syllables knocking into one another.

A choppy harbour,
two red fishing boats,
hulls bumping like lips.

This may very well be an allusion to an alliterative name, and a brilliant one if it is: the “syllables knocking into one another” and that explosive closer, “two red fishing boats,/ hulls bumping like lips.” The irony is that this name’s qualities do live on – in Claire Caldwell herself, since the words in her own alliterative name do exactly what these lines describe.

Beyond the references to close family bonds, what stands out most in this collection is Caldwell’s attention to the fragility of the animal world. In pieces like the title poem, as well “Bear Safety”, “The House with Snakes in its Walls” and others, we see gentle acts of metaphor and imagination alert us to this delicateness. She positions her images not to glorify animals or hit us over the head with a didactic message about protecting the environment, but to re-sensitize us to the beauty that comes with sharing this planet with other living things.

In short, Invasive Species is a startling debut and Claire Caldwell, at the age of 26, has announced herself as a natural-born poet.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A couple more Sad Peninsula reviews to share

So two more reviews of Sad Peninsula appeared on the web this week, and I thought I'd share them with you.

The first comes from a Goodreads user in the U.K. named Mandy, who wrote a lengthy post about the book on December 28. In her five-star review, she writes: "Sampson has meticulously researched his subject and relates the plight of the comfort women with compassion and sensitivity but without shirking descriptions of the atrocities they endured ... It’s a compelling and moving novel, with vivid descriptions, realistic dialogue and characterisation, well-written, thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable." Read the full review here.

The second comes from a blogger in the U.S. named Amy de Simone. In her review, de Simone calls Sad Peninsula one of her favourite reads of 2014, and says: "Sampson delves deeply into both of these characters’ stories. He paints clear pictures of the emotions and situations that both Michael and Eun-Young are experiencing. This was a book that I continually wanted to get back to reading." Read the full review here.

Thanks to both both readers for their thoughtful commentary.


Friday, January 2, 2015

Review: The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis

The term satire seems wholly insufficient to describe what Amis has done in The Zone of Interest, his latest novel and the second he has written about the Nazi death camps. Not only does this new book skewer the various tropes and clichés of Holocaust fiction, but it also pierces through its own parody to reach a level of transcendence rarely seen in literature. Amis knows the daunting task of trying to say something new, something fresh, something unpredictable about the Holocaust – he has already done so once, in his deeply experimental novel Time’s Arrow (1991) – but he also knows that satire alone is not equal to this immense task. The Zone of Interest, therefore, bends the structure of satire to nearly its breaking point, warping it in a way that creates a platform upon which a wholly original statement about Auschwitz can rest.
Amis does this by making the framework of the novel a petty love triangle set inside the petty office politics of a death camp. Only an author of Amis’ acumen would have the writing chops to pull off something so outlandish. The novel’s chapters alternate between a variety of characters’ perspectives – the main ones being the two men caught up in this love triangle: Angelus Thomsen, a mid-level Nazi official in the death camp, and Paul Doll, the camp’s alcoholic and impotent commandant. The woman caught in the middle is Doll’s young wife, Hannah. The sheer triviality of the two men’s braggadocio and posturing over Hannah gets amplified to comic proportions, but Amis does this for a particular reason. What we hear around the margins of Thomsen and Doll’s suffering hearts is real suffering – the sound of thousands of Jews being put to death all around them. The great paradox is that because Amis pushes these voices to the periphery, we hear them all the more vividly:

That last word was still on her tongue when we heard something, something borne on the wind … It was a helpless, quavering chord, a fugal harmony of human horror and dismay. We stood quite still with our eyes swelling in our heads. I could feel my body clench itself for more and greater alarums. But then came a shrill silence, like a mosquito whirring in your ear, followed, half a minute later, by the hesitantly swerving upswell of violins.

To be fair, The Zone of Interest does open with a disappointment – that is to say, it doesn’t possess the kind of breathtakingly singular opening we’ve grown accustomed to with a Martin Amis book. Is there any other writer today who knows how best to begin a novel? One only needs to read the first 500 words of Time’s Arrow, or Money, or The Information to see Amis’ immense aplomb for opening salvos. But The Zone of Interest's first page lacks this kind of immersive quality. Thankfully, it doesn’t take long for the story to establish its hyper-satiric parameters. By page 25, we get this bit from Doll’s perspective, a boilerplate performance he puts on for the Jews arriving by train to the death camp. There is something very Arbeit macht frei about the tone of his deception here to innocent people he is about to lead to their deaths:

Greetings 1 and all. Now I’m not going to lead you up the garden path. You’re here to recuperate and then it’s off to the farms with you, where there’ll be honest work for honest board. We won’t be asking too much of that little young’un, you there in the sailor suit, or of you, sir, in your fine astrakhan coat. Each to his or her talents and abilities. Fair enough? Very well! 1st, we shall escort you to the sauna for a warm shower before you settle into your rooms. It’s just a short drive through the birch wood. Leave your suitcases here, please. You can pick them up at the guest house. Tea and cheese sandwiches will be served immediately, and later there’ll be a piping hot stew. Onwards!

It’s not merely our recognition of the gas chambers that makes this anti-comic passage so harrowing. It is the intonation of Doll’s subterfuge (required, necessarily, to prevent revolt there on the train platform); it’s the ironic allusion to Marx (“Each to his or her talents and abilities …”); it’s the specificity of his lies (“tea and cheese sandwiches” – such exacting detail); and it’s the implication that this is the beginning of something great for these people (“Onwards!”) rather than their grisly, barbarous end.

Of course the chief barbarian in this slaughter, Adolf Hitler, is never mentioned by name in the novel itself (Amis does name him, naturally, in his detailed afterword); he is rendered phantom-like through a series of euphemisms, and this absence lends another absurd quality to The Zone of Interest’s fictive world. The hyper-satire never wavers: the novel is rich in historical detail while still loyal to its cruelly comic diegesis; and the unspeakable-ness of Hitler’s name helps to define the boundaries of these Nazis’ self-awareness as they enact the 20th century’s greatest crime.

Martin Amis has made a habit of annoying or confounding critics with his unflinching ability to inhabit the minds of abhorrent characters, and he just can’t seem to score a break when it comes to reviews. Most critics, indolent in the face of objectivity, take shortcuts by labelling him a misogynist, sadist, or worse – not realizing that they’re constantly holding his novels to a higher standard than others because they don’t like the characters who occupy them. But readers should ignore the mostly negative reviews this novel has been getting. We should read The Zone of Interest with an eye for its caustic panoramas on evil, human morality, and the very language of fiction itself. The master is once again at the top of his form.