Sunday, February 18, 2018

Peter Selgin cautions writers against "Nagging" the reader

A recent contribution to Jane Friedman's blog warns the reader about creating confusion with "Nagging False Suspense Questions" in a story opening.

Peter Selgin, a successful writer and experienced editor, offers one-page critiques and more. This book consists of short meditations on quite a large number of things that can go wrong in fiction.

The gems he offers are designed to keep authors on track. First, to maintain authenticity and avoid sentimentality and melodrama, "a story should generate its own actions and emotions organically." Writers may think they can generate emotion by choosing dramatic subjects from "drug deals and busts gone wrong" to "murder, madness, rape, war." Not the wisest decision.

With such "sensational raw material, how can writers go wrong?" The author has an unequivocal answer. "They can and they do." One danger that awaits is a "minefield of cliches." The author likens melodrama to crab sticks: "an inferior substitute" for the real thing.

Cliche is an eternal danger, and the antidote is authenticity. When Selgin teaches writing classes, he invites students to write one piece they think boring, and one that is riveting. these are then read aloud, with classmates acting as arbiters of which is which. Aspiring authors are often surprised when the readers find the "wrong" piece riveting.

How can this be? Turns out the "boring" piece has greater authenticity. Instead of trying shortcuts like "fisticuffs and shipwrecks," writers need to slow down and take the time and trouble to imbue stories "with authentic, rich, specific moments and details."

Sex scenes can prove a minefield, and should be used sparingly. If lovemaking is not to be reduced to soulless pornography, it must be handled "with respect for both physiological and psychological truth." Like other elements of fiction, sex is gratuitous when motivation is lacking.

Similarly, fictional "tears, vomit and other sentimental bodily fluids" must be handled with great care, or better still, avoided. Even so, Selgin wryly admits, "the bestseller shelves are brimming with sentimental fluids." Obviously, an author can choose to pour a book full of them, and add some "industrial-strength mush." Knowing it is "for the sake of commerce and not art," the writer can then "laugh all the way to the bank."

Authenticity is essential in fiction. A fictional "world" must be established in the first few pages of the book. "Otherwise, readers can't be blamed for trying to graft the elements of the story onto their own world, and finding the graft doesn't take." If the author wants the reader to believe that three pregnant women are about to rob a bank, some serious groundwork must be laid. Still, Selgin allows, actions, "however far-fetched, can be rendered authentic provided they are sufficiently motivated."

If you're not Shakespeare, writing about suicide, like the act itself, is "a last resort." A fictional suicide that fails to come off may be both "predictable" and "unconvincing," leaving the reader with two contradictory dissatisfactions. The onus is on the author to make this desperate act to seem "not only plausible but inevitable."

This book is full of gems, but it should be read at the right stage of writing or editing your novel. Too early, and you may forget much of the advice. Too late in the process, when your novel is nearly done, these cautions might prove so terrifying as to bring revision to a standstill -- at least until it becomes possible to face what's wrong with the draft and deal with it. If you're just copy editing or proofreading, or between novels, it's a nice ride, both for laughs and learning.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Betsy Warland shares writing wisdom with Canadian Authors

Last night, Canadian Authors hosted creative writer, teacher, mentor and editor Betsy Warland. After reading from three different works of Creative Non-Fiction, she described how Bloodroot came into being, reminding listeners that the narrative is always "the boss."

I enjoy the almost mystical way Warland talks about the writing process. "Underneath the language of craft," she informs us, "are other unnamed forces" waiting to be uncovered. She invites the audience of writers to consider this: "What are the stories behind our compositional strategies?"

Left: Betsy chats with participants.

Openings are critical. In order for the reader to follow, the writer must "put the scent down right away." Choosing the most appropriate narrative position enables a writer to tell a story that is easy for the reader to enter. Questions for the author include these: Who is telling this story? How am I identifying them? Am I using camouflage?

Another important principle is pacing. When too much intense material is packed together, the reader may be unable to process it all, and might set the book aside. For this reason, the formal presentation of the work should allow processing time for individual readers. This can be achieved by offering white space on the page.

Warland's 2010 essay collection Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing is a priceless resource for any writer. The author also calls it a "big teacher" for her. From Breathing the Page, she shares what she considers the best line she's ever written: "All lines require years of effort."

According to Betsy Warland, writing well requires enormous amounts of time and effort, and I doubt any writer would disagree with her comment that the remuneration is "ridiculous." Yet when a piece is satisfactorily completed, "a certain kind of elation makes it all worthwhile."

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Christina Baldwin's thoughts on journalling revisited

I read Baldwin's 1991 book, Life's Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Practice, shortly after it appeared. Scanning the introduction to this one, I was surprised to read that journalling as a writing practice was "not a thing" back then. But that changed, and Baldwin's career teaching journal-writing workshops took off.

Picking up this later volume, I was curious. How had her thinking on journal writing evolved? How had my practice changed since reading her work all those years ago? I've kept journals practically since I learned to write, but before reading Baldwin, the idea of applying a method never crossed my mind. This author says journals can be much more than a way of preserving travel memories or coping with sad times. Many journal writers today keep records of their inner thoughts in pursuit of self-discovery.

"There is a committee in the mind," says Baldwin, "and journal writing gives its members voices on the page." For her, journal writing is a response to "the challenge of learning responsibility," and that entails a commitment to "create a flexible, changing, updatable idea of what is in your power to control and manage." She connects questioning with responsibility, and calls it "a form of power which allows us to restructure our lives from the page outward."

Native Americans of the prairie tribes, she tells us, end their prayers with "All my relatives," and that includes "everything made of earth, air, fire and water." This is an expression of "their connectedness to life and their responsibility...a wide hoop inside which all life must be drawn in and considered."

In the same way, journal writing can serve as a way of reaching for this wide circle of connection. Alone with our journals, we can dialogue with "the greater intelligence" of our minds and even tap into the unified field of consciousness. Many writers report that they tap into this invisible source of information and "receive" or "download" the information they need for their stories.

This may sound weird, but we are told that "Writing for self-awareness implies the ability to increase awareness, and that means living at the edge of your current insight, choosing to ask for more insight." Even though asking is "risky, it is how human beings grow."

The world is changing around us at great speed and we need new insights. The only way out is in: we must look within ourselves to see what positive changes we are capable of. For those attracted by the idea of writing their way to new insight, journalling a great way to do so.

Over the past eight years, much of my own journalling energy has been subsumed into blogging. The discipline of expressing my evolving insights and perspectives in clear prose is a challenge that never seems to pall.

In 2005 Christina Baldwin published a book called Storycatcher, Making Sense of our Lives Through the Power and Practice of Story. It's a good resource for journallers interested in doing writing exercises designed for self-illumination.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Caroline Myss packed the Bell Centre last night

Last night I was part of a very large audience at the Bell Centre in Surrey. Young and old, women and men, we poured into the theatre, overflowing all three parking lots offered by the facility to hear the words of Caroline Myss. Years ago, I was introduced to this remarkable woman thorough her book, Sacred Contracts, one of many she has penned. Last night's talk was entitled The Power of Your Words. Though I wasn't sure what to expect, I followed my impulse to be there. I wanted to hear her thoughts about the words we choose and the consequences of these linguistic choices.

The speaker opened the evening with the comment that a benefit of aging is the rising awareness of the limited time we have left. Then she expressed her intention to offer the audience "something you can use for the rest of your life." Words, she told us, are the doors to entire universes.

She then proceeded to show and tell us how within our own subjective worlds, we all make rules for other people. You're not allowed to use that word with me. Don't take that tone with me. That is too much volume. You must not be so loud when you talk to me. Unfortunately, everyone else has their own rules, and nobody knows anyone else's. We laughed with uneasy recognition.

Boundary, she said, that word used to belong to geography. Now it's used in the context of emotions. But what does it really mean? And could it be one of the stubborn words we can't let go of? A medical intuitive, Myss informed us that what keeps us from healing our emotions and our bodies is embedded in language: the thoughts, stories, beliefs and ideas we refuse to release.

The word pride, she commented casually, "should be about lions." That word can "make or break your life." Consider the word fear, now so commonly used as an excuse for complaint and inaction. Time was, "before the therapeutic era, when people wouldn't pull out fear so easily." Where once we focused on courage and fortitude, now we discuss our fear and weakness. "We use our fear as if it allows us to deserve comfort."

Deserve is another toxic word. The objective of life is not to deserve sympathy, to have such a sad story that we will "never get over it," or "never forgive" those who wrong us. The goal of life is not to feel entitled to this or that, and be miffed when we don't get it. Entitled? (What are we -- titled aristocrats, who are owed debts of allegiance by our underlings?) Our lives would change for the better overnight, she assured us, if we made the choice to stop using words like never and always and lie and deserve. Inability to resort to those old claims would force us to think in new ways.

Our sacred purpose is to manage our own energy. One way we can do that is by choosing our words wisely, and staying open to grace. Banished along with other soul-related words, grace is a word we rarely hear today. Yet it is not medicine or even energy that heals us, but grace. Only grace stops us saying something we'll regret for life; grace alone brings the moment of holy illumination that the world is conscious and alive and that we are deeply connected to it.

Meanwhile, we are in a difficult moment on earth. If we're to make it into the coming "galactic era," we must each take responsibility, contribute our individual effort and energy to the shared goal of survival through the coming positive transformation. "It's a privilege to be alive now," but we must get over the deadly illusions that "everything out there is something we have to kill," and prayer is a magic formula "that saves us from our own stupidity."

Even though "this is the most narcissistic planet in the galaxy," Myss told us, we have enormous power to change for the better. This can be done by casting our attention on the words we are using, and making saner and healthier choices about how we talk to ourselves and others.

Everything we say, think or do either empowers or saps our life force. Stubbornly maintaining the belief that we must win at all costs, control others or earn their approval brings the inevitable consequences of resentment, angst, feelings of powerlessness. We pay with our life force. The psychic weight of such negative emotions robs us of health and ages us before our time.

We need to be humbler, and less afraid of humiliation. We need to focus inward, develop a strong sense of inner authority. A person without the need for external approval cannot be hooked into the destructive "pride game." Needing the approval of others is "a weakness, a flaw." What other people say about us, or "do to" us is never personal. Blame and shame are destructive emotions that keeps us stuck.

We constantly tell ourselves stories. Since "they're all made up" anyway, it's time to choose words that help us experience the world in a more enlightened way. When bad things happen, it is futile to regret, argue, blame, agonize, backtrack. We all experience good and bad times, and loss is not personal. "Until you see this," Myss assured us, "God will send it to your door." Yet the laws of nature also mean that "God has committed himself to bringing us spring after winter." That is how the universe works.

Using words like entitled and deserve, justice and fairness sets us up to take things personally, and perpetuates suffering. Feelings of entitlement, says Myss, lead to rage at the world, and this in turn brings physical ills, especially involving the heart, stomach, and lower back. To permanently heal from such pains, we must be willing to give up the deep-rooted ideas that anchor the negative emotions in place. Entitled people resent others, are not generous. Belief in entitlement is "causing the world to go on fire, and it must end."

We must become aware of our negative thought loops, change our language habits and make room for the power of grace in our hearts. Grace is "a silent force and presence that helps you save yourself from yourself."

Separation is an illusion. We are part of a single system with nature. We need to choose to see life as a web of interconnection, because we are all one, and "in this critical time, it is up to all of us to generate light."

Tomorrow Caroline Myss speaks in Victoria, and Thursday she'll be in Toronto. Her message is well worth hearing.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Secret Son by Laila Lalami

Before and After. That's how the world divides. Until he is nineteen, Youssef does not know himself to be a secret son. When heavy rain floods a Casablanca slum called Hay An Najat, he views it as another mektoub, a fate that would "split someone's life into Before and After, just as his father's death had done to him."

Rachida can never return to the time before she fell for her employer's assurances that he'd leave his sick and pregnant wife to marry her. Youssef can never return to the time before he learned his father was alive, wealthy and living nearby. Nor, once his mother has explained why she raised him as an orphan, can either of them go back to the relationship they had before the mother revealed to her son the stark choices that made up her history.

Neither can Youssef's father, Nebil Amrani, block out the knowledge that he has a son. On discovering he'd impregated his pregnant wife's maid, he'd let Rachida go, assuming she'd obey his instructions to have an abortion.

For Nebil's daughter Amal, the news that she has a brother is almost as upsetting as her parents' demands that she return home to Morocco. Once she's completed her degree in America, they expect her to leave her American boy friend to return "home." Torn between cultures, loves and loyalties, Amal seeks out her brother, only to have access blocked by another wall of lies.

For 19-year-old Youssef, the shocking revelation that his father is alive proves too much. Which parent should he choose? How can he abandon the mother who has sacrificed so much to give him a good life to follow the wealthy father who seems thrilled that he has a son after all?

Forced into a series of false choices, Youssef is alienated from the life he knew Before. Bewildered, unemployed, and powerless, he falls into despair. He had wanted to be an actor since childhood. Yet until it is too late, he he has no idea of the ghastly role he is manipulated into playing, nor the dreadful drama that will come After.

Author Laila Lalami reveals another Casablanca that lies behind the smooth facades of the touristic hotels that host elegant international conferences. While poor Moroccans can barely afford bread, wealthy businessmen and corrupt government officials display their expensive cars, clothing and watches as they sell off their country's resources to foreign companies. Meanwhile, tourists are encouraged to visit Morocco, "the most beautiful country in the world."

In Nabil's hotel, the reality of life for ordinary Moroccans is kept well-hidden. A strict employee dress code means that while bellhops wear identical white jellabahs and red fezzes, other men must wear suits. Skullcaps, tribal tattoos, and "qualms" about alcohol are not allowed. Women in headscarves may work only behind closed doors, invisible to the guests. In this "sanitized" Morocco, "the restaurant was called Al Minzah, but the menus were printed in French."

Language is deployed in a complex system of social codes designed to maintain the status quo. Nabil normally speaks French with his wife, "using Darija Arabic only with the maid and the driver." But they resort to Arabic in front of their daughter's boy friend because they do "not want to risk being understood, in case Fernando spoke some French." In the end, keeping up his elaborate facades cannot protect Nabil from the sharp insight he must face: "life had caught up with him and dealt him a sentence of unendurable fairness."

With a sure touch, Lalami portrays ethnic, cultural, and economic gulfs in Moroccan society. Using judiciously chosen words, she describes The Party that arises in the slums, recruiting young men who have no income and nothing to do. At university, she baldly lists the divisions: the "headscarf and beard faction," with its girls looking "at once virtuous and threatening," the Marx-and-Lenin group, the Berber Student Alliance, and the Saharawis, who rally round the coffee machines under "a banner in support of the independence of the Sarharan territories." Skillfully, she deploys words like shame, blood, honour, respect, insider, betrayal, hope, and "appearances to keep up." And of course, there is always mektoub, fate.

This novel brilliantly evokes contemporary Morocco. Reading it, I learned a bit more about the country, and felt I was moving around the different areas of Casablanca with the characters. This story could have taken place in many other settings; the real power lies in its universal themes.

Secret Son was nominated for the Orange Prize in 2010. In 2014, this talented young novelist published The Moor's Account, which won several prestigious prizes.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The joyful habit of wide reading


I often have more than one book on the go, Also, as I get in and out of the car, I enter and leave the narrative that always accompanies me when I drive. The current story is The Silkworm -- JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith. Yesterday on the train I started reading another Lucilla Andrews. Think I'll start Leila Lalami next.

In recent years, I've been keeping track of my reading, and last year, I read 126 books. To my surprise, (and I learned this quite by chance), this count almost doubled that of celebrated author and blogger Mark Manson, who read 66 and stopped reading a few more. Apparently, instead of constantly escaping into books, he saves some time to write! Unlike his,  my list includes many women authors, and I love fiction, because it weaves together history, psychology, philosophy, sociology and more. Below is my 2017 reading list:

January


Madeleine Masson                      Christine: SOE Agent and Churchill’s Favourite Spy
Ian McEwan                                Nutshell (CD)
Donna Leon                                The Waters of Eternal Youth (CD)
Anne Perry                                  Revenge in a Cold River (CD)
Shakil Choudury                         Deep Diversity
Josephine Tey                             A Shilling for Candles
Alexander McCall Smith            Precious and Grace
Abraham Verghese                      Cutting for Stone (CD)
Julia Spencer-Fleming                In the Bleak Midwinter
Elif Shafak                                  Honor 
Elif Shafak                                  The Forty Rules of Love        11      

February

Julia Spencer-Fleming                To Darkness and to Death
Julia Spencer-Fleming                One was a Soldier
David Bergen                              Stranger
David Malouf                              Remembering Babylon, Short Stories          (both unfinished)
Julia Spencer-Fleming                Through the Evil Days      
Martha Nussbaum                       Anger and Forgiveness (great but didn’t finish it)
Elif Shafak                                  The Bastard of Istanbul
Trevor Noah                                Born a Crime (CD)
Julia Spencer-Fleming                Out of the Deep I Cry                                       9

March

Janie Chang                                Dragon Springs Road
Val McDermid                            Out of Bounds
Ian Rankin                                  Rather Be the Devil (CD)
Donna Leon                                Falling in Love (CD)
Yann Martel                                The High Mountains of Portugal (CD)
Julia Spencer-Fleming                A Fountain Filled with Blood
Rose Tremain                             The Gustav Sonata
Val McDermid                            A Darker Domain
Julia Spencer-Fleming                I Shall Not Want
Val McDermid                            The Skeleton Road (CD)                                    10

April

Marcus du Sautoy                       The Music of the Primes
Val McDermid                             Splinter the Silence
Val McDermid                             The Retribution
Alan Bradley                               As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (CD)
Alan Bradley                               The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (CD)
Alan Bradley                               The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag (CD)
Richard Wagamese                      Embers
Neil Ferrier                                  Churchill the Man of the Century, a Pictorial Biography
Lisa See                                       Shanghai Girls
Eric Lebege, Arnaud deLalande  The Case of Alan Turing
G.H. Hardy                                  A Mathematician’s Apology                                         11

May

Jim Ottanami & Leland Purvis   The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded (graphic novel)
Jennnifer Robson                        After the War is Over
Jennifer Robson                          Somewhere in France
Chris Cleave                               Everyone Brave is Forgiven
William Manchester & Paul Reid  The Last Lion: Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (CD)
Donna Leon                                 Earthly Remains
Anne Perry                                  Death on the Serpentine
Alexander McCall Smith             The Bertie Project
Craig Johnston                            An Obvious Fact (CD)
Leilah Nadir                                Orange Trees of Baghdad (unfinished)
Carys Davies                               The Redemption of Galen Pike
Joy Kogawa                                 Gently to Nagasaki
Lewis Thomas                             The Fragile Species                                                    13

June

Jennifer Robson                          Goodbye from London
Betsy Warland                             Oscar of Between
Neil Gaiman                                The Ocean at the End of the Lane (CD)
Dick and Felix Francis                Dick Francis’s Damage (CD)
Dick Francis                                Bloodline (CD)
Lawrence Block                          The Burglar who Counted the Spoons
Rauni Ollikainen                         Finnish Beginnings
Ian Fleming                                 Casino Royale (CD)
David Mitchell                            Cloud Atlas (CD)
Sonja Larsen                               Red Star Tattoo
Elinor Florence                           My Favourite Veterans
Heidi Greco                                 Flight Paths (poetry)                                                   12

July

Derek Bickerton                         Bastard Tongues
Ayelet Tsabari                             The Best Place on Earth
Dick/Felix Francis                      Refusal (RB Audio)
Annie Daylon                              Of Sea and Seed
Leila Abouleila                           The Kindness of Enemies
Noviolet Bulawayo                     We Need New Names (CD)
Betsy Warland                             What Holds us Here
Oliver Sacks                                Hallucinations
Felix Frances                               Front Runner
Dick Francis                                Triple Crown (CD)
Dick/Felix Francis                       Crossfire (CD)
Dick/Felix Francis                      Ten-Pound Penalty (audio)
Jennifer Robson                          Midnight in Paris                                                        13

August

Betsy Warland                             Only this Blue
Alexander McCall Smith            My Italian Bulldozer
Alexander McCall Smith            A Distant View of Everything
Julia Gardiner                             Portrait of an Era: An Illustrated History of Britain 1900-45
Dick Francis                               Second Wind
Dick & Felix Francis                  Even Money
Dick & Felix Francis                  Silks  
Dick Francis                               Wild Horses
Dick Francis                               Come to Grief
Dick Francis                               Decider
Dick Francis                               Twice Shy    
Craig Johnson                             Any Other Name (CD)
Sherman Alexie                          War Dances (CD)
Lucilla Andrews                         In an Edinburgh Drawing Room (CD)                        14

September

Sherman Alexie                          You Don’t Have to Say you Love me
Craig Johnson                             The Highwayman (CD)
Craig Johnson                             Dry Bones (CD)
Louise Penny                              Glass Houses
Louise Ehrdrich                          The Round House (CD)
Jane Duncan                               My Friends the Mrs Millers
Marjorie Nicholson                    What did you do in the war, Mummy?                           7

October

Steven Pressman                        The War of Art
Sue Grafton                                Y is for Yesterday
Brendan Burchard                      The Motivation Manifesto (not finished)                
Florence Scovell Shinn              The Power of Intuition                
Lucilla Andrews                         No Time for Romance
Mary Walsh                                Crying for the Moon
Joan Flood                                  Left Unsaid
Ann Patchett                               Truth and Beauty (CD)
Anne Hillerman                          Song of the Lion (CD)
Regina Martino                           Shungite: Protection, Healing and Detoxification
John Mortimer                            Rumpole and the Reign of Terror                                11

November

Emma Donoghue                       Touchy Subjects (short stories on CD)
Anne Perry                                 An Echo of Murder
Ann Cleves                                 Cold Earth
Kate Quinn                                 The Alice Network
Ann Cleeves                               The Seagull
John Mortimer                            Rumpole’s Last Case (CD)
A.S. Byatt                                   Ragnarok: the end of the Gods (CD)
Ben MacIntyre                            Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS
Bill Richardson                          The Bachelor Brothers Bed & Breakfast Pillow Book        9
                                                                                                                            

December

Mark Manson                             The Subtle Art of not Giving a Fuck
John MacLaughlin Gray             The White Angel
Tracy Chevalier, Editor               Reader, I Married him
Robert Galbraith                         The Call of the Cuckoo
Daisy Styles                                The Bomb Girls                                                5

When the mood struck me, I blogged about books I particularly liked.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Curious Case of Dassoukine's Trousers, by Fouad Laroui

Two things lured me to this book: Laila Lalami's name on the cover and the hint of sly humour the title suggests.

Fouad Laroui's work is not widely available in English. He left Morocco as a young man to pursue further studies in France, and now teaches literature in the Netherlands. Lalami helped have this collection translated.

Shot through with sharp yet gentle ribbing, these versatile works contain many references to history and politics. The hilarious title story features a tall Moroccan government economist whose pants are stolen shortly before he is to attend an early-morning meeting in Brussels to buy wheat; he's obliged to show up in charity shop golf pants. The  play "Fifteen Minutes as a Philosopher" delivers drama in a dozen pages. The final short piece is a chilling nightmare.

"Dislocation" employs a bittersweet tone, and "What was not said in Brussels" is also narrated in a serious voice. Like so many writers from his region, Laroui studied abroad and lives away from his original country, and these stories allude to the poignant feelings of dislocation that result. "Why," wonders one Moroccan, now married to a Dutch woman and living in Utrecht, "does man distance himself from home...make himself a foreigner?"

"Bannini's Bodyguard," "The Invention of Dry Swimming" and "Born Nowhere" evoke student days in the Cafe de l'Univers in Casablanca. On a hot and slow-moving afternoon, the table is littered with glasses of coffee, mint tea, and pomegranate juice. While half a dozen young men talk philosophy, make jokes, and tell stories that poke fun at the antics of the government, the reader sits invisibly listening, unnoticed like the cat who sleeps on a nearby chair.

In the course of their conversation, the students look back on the days "when you could drink a beer without triggering a heavy fire of fatwas, without provoking questions from Parliament." Setting the context, one storyteller reminds his audience that in the early seventies, when all matters "related to the Palace made the masses tremble with fear." This was a time when the man who buttoned the shirt cuffs of Hassan II "had more power than a minister," and the king's bootblack commanded generals.

In the context of dry swimming, the youths also wonder why, if everything is divine creation, people "rhapsodize and roar...when faced with a waterfall, a beautiful tree, or a cloud, and say nothing when staring at a pebble or listening to a braying donkey."

Getting back to pants, the writer waxes poetic as he evokes the vicissitudes of history, trade, and social life through a pair of pants worn by a character called Jilali. "Originally corduroy," they've been modified by "rubbing against the back of CTM bus seats...the abrasion suffered from rough chairs" and "entryways waiting for a door to open." The trousers have also spent time sitting on the sidewalk, "waiting for the forces of Law and Order to hand over an identity card," and made contact with "the trees on the boulevard; the stadium bleachers; the deteriorated, discouraged walls" and even "the asphalt, if there was a skirmish."

This veritable poetry of pants is followed by a similar flight of fancy on Cherki's shirt, which begins "in the age of the Hittites, falling cleanly on Assyrian buttocks," and going downhill from there to reach its sadly worn condition of today.

Thanks to my students at SFU for suggesting the idea of a reading list, now under construction. Fouad Laroui will definitely be on it.