Our online meeting went fairly well. Then we set about our tasks for the week, which involved a certain amount of downloading from the server. That wasn't quite so smooth.
I think we all know what happens when a sufficiently large group of people tries to access a site at roughly the same time.
Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai (1994).
In 1994, I went to hear the great Canadian writer, Robertson Davies, give what would be one of his final public readings. Davies was one of a kind, with his mythopoetic realism and neo-traditional style, his wizard beard and his clothing, seemingly bought in a nearby universe. The octogenarian author was in fine form, and he gave the kind of powerful, theatrical performance of his work for which he had become known. Opening for Davies that evening was an up-and-coming literary star, Shyam Selvadurai, the other Sri Lankan-born Canadian writer, a man roughly my age. His first novel, Funny Boy, had been published to acclaim, and he was able to hold a stage beside Davies. I fully intended to read his debut.
A quarter of a century passed before I did.
In six chapters-- the first of which has seen print as a self-contained short story-- he relates the tale of Arjie, who grows up male, a member of the Tamil minority, and queer in the traditional, Sinhalese-dominated culture of Sri Lanka during a time of political upheaval and violence.
"Pigs Can't Fly" takes place during early childhood. One Sunday each month, his extended family assembles for social time. The adults visit and talk, and the children play, usually in gendered groups. His tough female cousin Meena plays cricket with the boys. He himself associates with the girls, often taking centre stage in "Bride-bride," a recreation of a wedding ceremony. While we hear little opposition to Meena's choices, Arjie becomes a figure of some mockery, and his elders fear he will turn out "funny." Measures are taken.
Selvadurai returns to themes of gender and sexual orientation in later chapters, and we also see Arjie's growing awareness of the complexities of life and the dangers of his larger world. The book takes its characters to the riots and violence of 1983, when Arjie and his family flee to Canada. Although the story unfolds in specific times and places (and the novel includes a glossary of terms that might be unfamiliar to many English readers), Funny Boy will resonate with readers who have had different experiences in different lives.
Selvadurai has a strong voice and writes with a powerful style. He often finds humour in the face of adversary. He has since 1994 written four more books and retains an impressive reputation, though none of his subsequent novels have achieved the level of acclaim and fame as his first.
The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore by Kim Fu (2018)
Vancouver-born Fu's debut novel, For Today I Am A Boy (2014) focuses on a conventionally masculine environment, though its protagonist is born female. Her second she has set in the world of girls and women. Its protagonists, Nita, Andee, Isabel, Dina, and Siobhan head out one summer for a west coast camp. The annual highlight, a canoe trip, takes smaller groups for an overnight stay on a site each discovers on their own, guided by a counsellor.
This particular group's tour takes unexpected turns, and the children must survive and return on their own. The novel alternates the tale of the lost girls with accounts of their lives before and after these fateful events.
Siobhan narrates the events at the camp itself. As the story of those events, and the novel, head towards conclusions, we're acutely aware that we've read nothing yet about her subsequent life.
Some of the less positive reviews I've encountered appear to be written by people who were misled by the title. The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore suggests horror and, while the work contains some dark flashes of that genre, it is not a horror novel. Lena Afridi in the National Book Review describes it as a female take on Lord of the Flies and although she then disavows that descriptor, it has been much-used. Taken without proper context, it fails the novel. Fu wants to tell the story of the very short time the girls must survive on their own, but she's more interested in their characters, and where their lives as survivors and women take them.
These life stories could be read separate of the novel's larger context, but much would be missing. I found Nita's the most memorable and disturbing. Andee's, told from her sister's perspective, gives us a credible depiction of a life that had gone off-track long before an essay competition gained the girl a spot in a camp her family could otherwise never afford. At least one story leaves readers to wonder if the particular girl's life would have been any different if the fateful summer had not occurred.
The novel explores, without being too forceful, the diversity of contemporary North American Society: three of the girls in this group are from Asian-American/Canadian backgrounds. More than anything, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore is a character study, and well-crafted.
Midnight at the Well of Souls by Jack L. Chalker (1977)
This celebrated SF novel begins with an archaeological expedition on one of the now-uninhabited planets once occupied by the ancient Markovians (warning: that write-up contains spoilers). This apparently extinct species built planet-sized computers of unknown purpose, and left their mark over the galaxy before disappearing. The story turns dark when one of the members begins a murderous rampage, and the survivors send a distress call. A portal takes several characters into the Well World, a place of interconnected ecosystems.
Those transported-- with one notable exception-- find themselves transformed into the local sentient species of their specific destination. Wu Julee, for example, becomes a centaur of sorts on a bucolic world reminiscent of a 1970s fantasy novel. Datham Hain, an unscrupulous "sponge trafficker," becomes a female member of a monstrous insect-like race who live in a nightmarish, authoritarian culture. Perhaps the most fascinating and famous species is the Czill, walking, sentient plants with a brain in each foot and the need to put roots down overnight. Chalker does a decent job of showing us the transformation of thought that comes when the characters assume new bodies, though each species remains, on a fundamental level, improbably human.
Of course, the Well of Souls must serve some purpose, and two of its recent additions want to pervert that purpose for their own ends. What function does the Well have? Can the villains' plot be stopped? And why has the ship's mysterious captain remained in human form?
The novel develops into a fairly conventional quest, set in an unconventional and often interesting world. I enjoyed this influential science fiction novel, but I feel no great compulsion to read the rest of the Well of Souls series that follows.
Hendrix & The Summer Of Love 1967: The Year That Changed Music! (2007):
A find from my last trip to the Goodwill Used Book Store at the beginning of March, I found the title beguiling. When I went online, I fully expected to learn that they published this with various covers highlighting different performers because, save for the fact that Jimi Hendrix gets a little more print, it's really not about him. The thick (146 pages) magazine rather contains sundry articles about the pop-musical scene in 1967, examined from a perspective of forty years later. It also delves into politics, fashion-- Granny Takes a Trip-- and the broader cultural context, and the fact that the mainstreaming of "hippie" and psychedelia occurred mostly after their death knell had already knolled.
Much of what I read I knew, at least in a general way, though some 2007 interviews provided interesting context. I nevertheless discovered many things I'd missed, both as a child and later a fan of the era's music. It's one thing to read yet another article on The Beatles. It's another to realize I've been completely unaware of Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, whose off-kilter, Asian-influenced hit "Kites"--"pure exotic kitsch"-- charted in December of '67. The Sound disbanded soon after, and the core reformed as Gentle Giant.
What would follow would be psychedelic echoes, blowback, backlash, and pockets of meaning(?)ful revival. Goo goo g'joob.
Today, the World Health Organization announced that the death toll from COVID-19 has exceeded 40,000, with a true total impossible to determine. Turkmenistan's government, allegedly, has banned all reference to the virus by name, and any wearing of masks. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls it the world's worst crisis since World War II.
I will be working from home for another month, at least.