Self by Yann Martel

The movie, The Life of Pi, is coming out soon…at least the television reminds us that it is.  The Life of Pi truly impacted me…its images, syntax and reflection on all that motivates the human spirit.  To journey on a small boat with a young boy endlessly…to contemplate survival…to be blown away by acute realization in the end…the book is powerful, engaging and has a forever-sort-of-impact.

It was for these reasons and more that I picked up the book, Self.  I was thinking that Martel wrote it after the Life of Pi, but nah… it was published in 1993 and this, according to Wikipedia.

Critical reception

Self was Martel’s first novel, and followed the publication in 1993 of The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, his first collection of short stories. The novel, in Martel’s own words, initially “vanished quickly and quietly”,[6] though it was shortlisted for the 21st Chapters/Books In Canada First Novel Award, then Canada’s most valuable first-novel award with a prize of 5,000 Canadian dollars.[7]

More critical attention fell upon the book when Martel’s second novel, The Life of Pi, won the 2002 Man Booker Prize.[8] A reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald, noting that Martel himself had called the novel “terrible” and expressed a wish that it “disappear”, agreed that the work suffered from a “serious crisis of identity”, and lacked the power of Life of Pi.[8] The Montreal Mirror went further, calling Self “lame… A pastiche of autobiography and post-modern plot twists, it was haunted by an off-putting tone of smug precociousness.”[9] The Toronto Star reviewer objected to Self‘s protagonist’s “self-satisfied air”, but praised the work for its deft touch and compelling narrative.[10] A writer in The Independent described the book’s handling of gender change as “crude confusion”,[11] while The Hindu described the book as “interesting ideas juxtaposed against not-so-inspiring writing”.[12]

I have struggled with this book and wonder, especially, why Martel’s male character becomes female (sublimates?).  As a female reader, I feel insulted by the supposition of what it means to be ‘female’.  I find myself thinking, “How does he imagine that this is how a female might experience this situation?”  This…unlike Wally Lamb’s book She’s Come Undone…a novel that successfully creates an authentic female character.  I feel as though Martel is trying to create far too many scenarios in a relatively short book…the reader is guarded, confused and left pretty ‘put off’…at least this reader has been.

I won’t be recommending this one although I know that the book is investigating the notion of identity…the self of the self.  I’d be interested in hearing from others who have ‘hung in’ through this book.  Some of the images feel too personal and too descriptive.  I think that the act of reading includes the reader as co-creator.  The reader needs to explore the themes from the place of prior knowledge.  The reader does not wish for the writer to put everything ‘out there’.

I suppose that I’m curious about his recent book, What is Stephen Harper Reading?

 “I know you’re very busy, Mr. Harper. We’re all busy. But every person has a space next to where they sleep, whether a patch of pavement or a fine bedside table. In that space, at night, a book can glow. And in those moments of docile wakefulness, when we begin to let go of the day, then is the perfect time to pick up a book and be someone else, somewhere else, for a few minutes, a few pages, before we fall asleep.” From the author of Life of Pi comes a literary correspondence — recommendations to Canada’s Prime Minister of great short books that will inspire and delight book lovers and book club readers across our nation. Every two weeks since April 16th, 2007, Yann Martel has mailed Stephen Harper a book along with a letter. These insightful, provocative letters detailing what he hopes the Prime Minister may take from the books — by such writers as Jane Austen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Stephen Galloway — are collected here together. The one-sided correspondence (Mr. Harper’s office has only replied once) becomes a meditation on reading and writing and the necessity to allow ourselves to expand stillness in our lives, even if we’re not head of government.”  Quote taken from here.

Hmmm…causes me to think about that feeling every artist must have…whether that be a writer, poet, film writer, thespian, actor, visual artist, musician…when they create that MONSTER of a piece…that EPIC piece that every one will remember and then they are left with that foreboding feeling of what to do next.  I’m wondering how that particular peek moment impacts the rest of the creative journey.

Sound of Collective Consciousness…the World’s Heart…this Santana interview causes me to think again about the creative process.

Local Architecture and Provenance: The Elveden Centre

Some might view the Elveden Centre here in Calgary as a bit of an eye-sore as compared to the high rises that are going up quickly these days.  However, as I looked at this architectural drawing by Charles Paine and Associates, employed by Rule Wynn & Rule Associates Architects and Engineers and read the notes on the cardboard backing of the standard frame, I knew that this was a project in the late 50s and early 60s that gave a group of people an abundant sense of pride and so I am also intrigued.  It is an interesting thing to discover such provenance in a bin at a second hand store and so I brought it home as one of those special treasures that I feel contributes to the history of our community…a mere $5.00 price tag attached.

I find the aesthetic of that time period to be pretty special, having been born in 1955.  I am including details here because I think that the cars and the approach to the drawing are, in themselves, interesting.  Charles Paine and Associates created designs that were mid-century modern and would have been constructed in Vancouver, British Columbia and Edmonton, Alberta as well as Calgary. One can clearly see a link between the Elveden Centre and the Oceanic Plaza, for example.

William M. Smith must have felt significant pride in the project, given his precise labeling.  I have a great respect for any individuals who archive carefully for the sake of history and future generations.  Bill was one of those people.

An excellent resource regarding building projects in Calgary at the time can be found at Monuments to Progress produced by the Glenbow in 2004…an interesting read for any of my readers interested in local architecture.

Finally, the loved ones of Bill Smith left beautiful words behind…words that reflect deeply who William M. Smith really was.  In his life, he sat on committees and obviously led a successful life, but truly, the greatest magic was in how he lived his life.

“He loved to learn and was always diving into new subjects, soaking up details.  Learning Spanish, questioning science and religion, following news about Mars and life beyond, naming exotic plants and trees, Bill saw the world as an endless playground of facts that he should know about,  His enthusiasm was contagious and spread amongst a wide mix of friends and family – if Bill knew it, the rest of us should know it too.

But his most beloved hobby and a lifelong passion that he took from his Mama, was reading poetry.  He could recite countless poems and was forever delving into the works of a new found poet.  Whatever the occasion, Bill could pull up just the right poem from his mind’s database and put to words what we wanted to say.”

Among all of his accomplishments also included in the newspaper, I would have to say that these sit with me as his most important.

This morning, I sort of felt guilty.  I woke up.  Another September 11th morning.  And the first September 11th since the two towers came down eleven years ago…and my first thoughts were not for those who lost their lives…and not for their surviving family members.   After an encounter with an image…an image of two huge towers in New York City…somewhere in the media…I took pause.  I remembered.

Now, writing…and encountering the Provenance of William M. Smith…I am thinking about the blessings of each and every individual’s life.  We are each here as a smattering of light.  It is important that we think about what is truly important for this moment.  Inspired by Bill, I’m going to go and find a poem to read while the dinner sends out beautiful aromas from the slow cooker.

Changing a Pond: One Latte at a Time

March 2, 2011 10:00 a.m. Weather -3 degrees and sky is a beautiful blue, with long whisps of thin white cloud.  I focused on a small section today, a slope that moves directly into the wetlands pond…a section that edges on the highschool.  This is the precise area where two loons nested last spring.  In fact, I feel some urgency to make inroads on this project before the birds return for the summer.

We make our mark.

Today I worked exclusively on picking up Tim Hortons and Wendys cups, with plastic lids.  Some unusual finds were teacher’s schedules, more burned text book pages and countless sandwich bags.  I failed to mention that yesterday among my finds were a set of structural blue prints for the sports center that is nearing the end of construction. 

Focus on discarded cups.

I’m beginning to think that I am going to lose a connection with people over this project.  I met John, a photographer, while edging the pond and he snapped a photo of Max and I. 

John's Photo

I got the sense that he could hardly wait to get away from me.  Is there an actual aversion in society to people who act directly on issues around the environment?  Are those people typically the prisoners and and homeless?  The mentally ill?  I try to talk to the witnesses to this project about the “One- bag-at-a-time-concept“….but perhaps it just seems weird?  One construction worker preferred to talk about his fear of dogs, rather than why I was archiving the journey…or what the journey is about.  That’s why Max is along!

Day 4: An entire bag filled with discarded Tims and Wendys cups...and nothing much changed at the bins.

Ironic that as I sat at a red light, approaching 22X, I should see on the side of the highway?….yet another Tim Horton’s cup!


Writing is a struggle against silence. Carlos Fuentes

In the Classroom

I played two songs for my students this morning. One was Deja Vu written by John Fogerty and the other was Wake me up When September Ends by Green Day. I thought there were common themes in these two pieces of writing and that the melodies were rich, emoting ‘stuff’ that the students could think about, given the circumstances in Iraq.

Just recently they have been considering Ray Bradbury’s short story, All Summer in a Day…and there are also some parallels there; with the seven years of rain….and issues of isolation, sadness and abandonment. The image of the sun gives us some insight about hope and its potential in very dark moments.

After listening, I distributed both sets of lyrics and led some rich discussion about ‘seeing the writing on the wall’. I felt pleased that the people sitting in front of me were going to take some learning with them.

As a follow-up, they will first write a comparison of the two songs and their themes and then go on to discuss which song they prefer and why it is preferred.

Finally, they will find a pathway into the lyrics and write their own narrative based on thoughts that surface as a result of considering the writing of these two powerful songs. I was excited when one of the boys came to ask me if he could write from a voice in the song Vietnam by Creedance Clearwater Revival. Good! I told him that I was especially pleased that he had extended the suggested activity as it will mean more to him this way.

It was a very rewarding day in the classroom.

This writing has provided me a brief shift in posture and in focus. Now I must return to the studio where work is really pushing forward. I hope that the energy can be sustained.

Image borrowed from the Kevin Webb 22 website.