celebrating another sabbatical discovery: elizabeth hay and more...

What a delight to have stumbled upon Canadian author Elizabeth Hay. So far I have devoured three of her novels and look forward to working on the other three (plus a reflection on what it is like to be a Canadian in exile in NYC) as the year unfolds. Her novels craft characters with depth and insight into the human condition while her stories express some of the truths about discrete eras in Canadian history. Having read Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Can See earlier this summer - and enjoying it profoundly - I was ripe for some historical fiction. And what better genre for a sabbatical in Canada than the works of Elizabeth Hay?

+ Late Nights on Air (2007) tells the story of a cynical radio personality, Harry Boyd, who hits the bottom of his life while finding the bottom of a bottle in Toronto. He had been a rising star in radio journalism, but now works in the nearly forgotten Arctic town of Yellowknife. The misfits who dwell on the edge of civilization - including the First Nation tribes - find themselves drawn together in 1975 as Canada considered the consequences of building a pipeline.  Each of the individuals who find themselves working at this odd little radio station are wounded. It is a story of love and redemption mixed with loss, grief and a humble hope. I loved the whole thing and grasped a sense of Canada's intentionality about big decisions in a way that makes the nation unique.

+ A Student of Weather (2000) is a more complex read than Late Nights, but no less satisfying. It is set in the Prairie Dust Bowls of Canada in the 1930s and revolves initially around two sisters: Lucinda and Norma-Joyce. Lucinda is a stunning, self-deprecating beauty who eventually gives up on living after a number of heartbreaks. Norma-Joyce is a quirky, selfish and brilliant child who grabs hold of her life boldly onto to discover that some of her impetuous choices have ugly, long-lasting consequences that can never be undone. This novel moves from the Prairies to Ottawa and NYC and gives us the flavor of what Canada was like for those who lived through the Great Depression and WW II.

+ His Whole Life (2015) takes on the the ups and downs of a young boy coming of age in the 1990s. This was the era when Quebecois seriously wrestled with leaving the Canadian confederation - and only avoided doing so by a few electoral percentage points. This story is set within rural Ontario - with some connections in NYC, too - and invites the reader into not only the life of a young boy but also his parents and his mother's dearest friends. It is all about the hard choices we make in pursuit of affection, career and forgiveness.

Later this week another favorite Canadian author, Louise Penny, will release her new "Three Pines" mystery: The Nature of the Beast. Last year we went to the opening day book signing to hear Ms. Penny in Brome Lake, Quebec  but this year we'll settle for simply buying (and enjoying) the book. We will, however, make a pass through the town sometime next week on our slow transition out of sabbatical.

One last book find:  On Highway 61 by Dennis McNally. I picked it up at the start of the summer in Pittsburgh and have delayed reading it - and I am so glad for the wait. It is the perfect way to bring the intellectual aspects of this sabbatical to a close.  It resembles both Lewis MacAdams' Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop and the American Avant Garde and Ashley Kahn's Kinda Blue: the Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece in that all three synthesize so much history culture and political commentary.  McNally, interestingly to me, is also the author of two other volumes I am sure to explore this year, too: a biography of Jack Kerouac entitled, Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation and America; and, his 2002, A Long Strange Trip: the Inside History of the Grateful Dead.  Had I known McNally had become the Dead's official historian I probably would have read this sooner.

Nevertheless, upon opening On Highway 61's introduction, I knew I had hit pay dirt when I read: 

This is an idiosyncratic history of the American alternative voice, the counter voice to the materialist mainstream of American thought, which sees instead the essence of the American idea as centering on the pursuit of freedom... This works follow the concept of freedom as it moves through a sequence of connections beginning with Henry David Thoreau, who developed the grammar of freedom in Walden, and embedded it in the concept of the pastoral while simultaneously creating the sociopolitical philosophy that fundamentally responded to the fact of slavery. Mark Twain brought the pastoral to a triumphant fictional existence in Huckleberry Finn and in so doing linked it forever to the struggles of African Americans. His own life documents the evolving relationship of white America to the emerging African American culture, the first through minstrelsy and then through the spiritual of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
I mean, HOT DAMN, how can you go wrong with a set up like that? And, to my mind, the insights and prose keep getting better. So, indeed, I'm on another long, strange trip... and plan to keep on truckin!


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