Books

All Souls’

Rhea Tregebov
Vehicule Press
71 pages

All SoulsThe 43 poems that make up Rhea Tregebov’s slight but substantial collection All Souls’ combine to create the ghostly effect “of little fingers on your face.” This is what happens with good poetry. It lingers. This is why we read it. It is the catharsis that calls us back. The climax in this collection results from Tregebov’s unerring ability to strip her poems of excess. What she achieves here is the brevity and intensity of short story writer Raymond Carver whose poem “Late Fragment” begins the collection as an epigraph. “And did you get what / you wanted from this life, even so?” asks Carver. The ensuing 43 poems provide the answer.

Tregebov is associate professor in UBC’s Creative Writing Program as well as the author of the 2009 novel The Knife Sharpener’s Bell. She has penned six books of poetry for which she has received the Pat Lowther Award, the Malahat Review Long Poem prize, an Honorable Mention for the National Magazine Awards (poetry) and the Readers’ Choice Award for Poetry from Prairie Schooner. She has also written five children’s books and edited many poetry anthologies. This remarkable resume comes to bear in All Souls’.

All Souls’ travels “an infinite perimeter” from the traditional territory of the Musqueam First Nation to the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague to a Roman aqueduct in the South of France to Tregebov’s own family dinner table. Piled atop one another, the poems parse the tension between change and stasis. Land claims figure as solidly as unhappy marriages or vanilla, caraway and cherries. The effect is not heart wrenching or bathed in metaphor. What Tregebov offers is “a snippet of / being”.

In the end, the missing fragment of Carver’s poem is implied. “And what did you want? / To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved / on the earth.” These invisible lines are “the little fingers on your face” that linger even though they are not there.

The Blue Guitar

Ann Ireland, BFA’76
Dundurn Press
254 pages

Blue GuitarThe title of Ann Ireland’s new novel is taken from Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar”. The novel is Ireland’s fourth and appears almost 10 years after her last book, Exile. It is about an international guitar competition in Montreal and the musicians whose hopes hinge on winning it.

Main character Toby Hausner wants to redeem himself after an embarrassing breakdown at a competition in Paris 11 years earlier, when he was still a teenager. Underpinning Hausner’s outward desire to win the competition is his need to come to terms with Klaus, his aging father. Many sub-plots, such as a citywide virus reminiscent of the 2003 SARS epidemic in Toronto, thread throughout the story and as they unfold, it becomes apparent that, as the epigraph warns, “Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

Music underscores the plot, starting with a Beatles melody followed by a neo-classical sonata then a Spanish waltz through “a Lattice of styles” to the Tarrega, which “begins slowly and builds to a hectic middle section,” much like the book. It is here we meet competition judge Manual Juerta.

A “peeling poster” of Picasso’s painting The Old Guitarist, the inspiration for Stevens’ poem, appears on Juerta’s conservatoria wall in Cuba. Minor characters like Juerta appear in such great number throughout the book that the result is a series of interconnected tales, which culminate in the realization that “there will always be life going on at the margins.” The virus that threatens to penetrate the characters’ lives is the most obvious expression of this. More so is the distraction that undoes the artist, as with Hausner in Paris and a series of competitors in Montreal.

The Blue Guitar is such a pleasurable read that it would be easy to exit the world Ireland creates without a thought to the cleverness with which it was crafted. The competition creates tension and expectation but it is the musicality of the language, the complexity of the characters and the intricate structure of the novel that make it memorable.

Dollars and Sex

Marina Adshade, PhD
Harper Collins
257 pages

Dollars And SexIn Dollars and Sex, UBC economics professor Marina Adshade tells fictional, empirical and theoretical stories that illustrate economic principles. While economists like Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes are decidedly absent, Mick Jagger and Mae West appear to introduce concepts such as market limits and the institution of marriage.

Adshade suggests that the “Justin Bieber Effect” explains how the use of oral contraceptives has changed women’s preferences for a mate. She tackles topics such as why 66 per cent of black women are single and looks at how much the cost of an alcoholic beverage needs to be increased in order to reduce risky sexual behaviour. By the end of the book, a riveting romp of a read, it is difficult to deny that “almost every option, decision and outcome in matters of sex and love is better understood by thinking in an economics framework.”

This approach stems from Freakonomics, a 2005 best-selling book by economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics revolutionized the dry perception of economic theory by using it to understand topics such as how much the legalization of abortion affected the rate of violent crime in the US. Two books later, Freakonomics Radio continues to analyze topics such as whether or not expensive wines taste better or how much the US president really matters.

Similarly, Adshade uses concepts such as bargaining power, extensive and intensive margins and Pareto efficiency to understand love and the libido.

The research that provides the foundations for Adshade’s economic analysis is far-reaching with studies from Uganda, the Netherlands, India, Sweden and France. But what makes all the information palatable is the humour and insight offered by its author whose voice figures strongly. Not only does Adshade write well, she circles back on her themes the way a good professor does during lectures to link ideas in a course. Indeed the idea for the book came from students in Adshade’s undergraduate course at UBC, The Economics of Sex and Love, first offered in 2008.

While Adshade uses microeconomic studies, which seek to explain the behaviour of individuals, in the end, her argument is that macroeconomics, which is the behaviour of everyone in the economy, collectively, is what really influences the way we approach our own love lives. Not only is it hard to disagree with her, it is fun going along for the ride.

Standing Up with GA’AXSTA’LAS: Jane Constance and the Politics of Memory, Church and Custom

Leslie A. Robertson and the KWAGU’I GI XSAM CL AN
596 pages

Standing Up With GA'AXSTA'LASStanding Up with GA’AXSTA’LAS is the life story of Jane Constance Cook, a high-ranking Namgi’s woman from Alert Bay, BC, who lived from 1870 to 1951. Cook, whose traditional name is GA’AXSTA’LAS, appears in numerous scholarly studies and much contemporary literature about colonial history in Kwak’wala territories. In these representations, the dominant impression of Cook is unfavourable. Among other things, Cook is most remembered for her unorthodox stand against the potlatch, a traditional First Nations ceremony banned by the colonial government in 1885. It is GA’AXSTA’LAS’ stand against the potlatch that provides the impetus for this “collaborative ethnography” by Leslie A. Robertson (a UBC assistant professor of Anthropology) and the KWAGU’l GIXSAM CLAN.

Standing Up with GA’AXSTA’LAS took 10 years to write and incorporates extensive archival research, oral history and family meetings. The purpose of the book, termed affectionately throughout as the “Granny Cook book,” is to place Cook’s vocal and ongoing support for the potlatch ban within the complex political context of its time. The book holds a mirror up to the colonial history that Cook’s life encompasses and the family stories, which thread throughout, reveal how “memory is embedded in genealogical knowledge.”

GA’AXSTA’LAS existed in both the colonial and Indian world simultaneously. She was a wife, mother, grandmother, midwife, political activist, translator, and interpreter who served as the president of the Anglican Women’s Auxiliary for more than 30 years, translated weekly sermons from English to Kwak’wala as they were being delivered, interpreted the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission of 1912, worked with anthropologist Franz Boas and translated the 1922 Potlatch Trials. These are only a few highlights.

Her history is inspiring but what remains after almost 600 pages of her biography is an unflinching demand for justice “in the realm of land, law and marriage practices.”

The exhaustive research here, in combination with family reflection, reveals the strong and enduring morals that guided much of Cook’s personal and political life. According to Cook’s ancestor William Wasden Jr., “what a lot of our people are in denial about is what the potlatch became and why she was against it.” Standing Up with GA’AXSTA’LAS answers that question.

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