Of Fubs and Feathers

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“Dick’s out of town,” she says. “He’s at another fub.”

My wife has her own way of describing my book events.  

Fub – short for Finger Up Butt.

I’ve sure done my share of standing around, ignored.  Book signings in empty stores, roundtables as the least popular panelist, and readings before an open bar. 

Awkward ? Yes. But not “ahhh-ch-ward.”  

At least I could say I have never had to perform parrot sex in front of my parents.

On the eve of his 2017 Leacock Medal win, Gary Barwin entertained his mom, dad, and others chewing on poultry at Orillia’s Mariposa Inn with an animated reading from Yiddish for Pirates.  The chosen excerpts told of piracy and persecution, love and lashings, the Torah and torrid parrot sex.

I know no one who doesn’t laugh at the book’s premise: a pirate story told by a five-hundred-year-old kibitzing African grey from a perch in a Florida seniors’ residence.  With a sip from the fountain of youth and hundreds of years to learn, the narrator, Aaron, absorbed many languages, many stories, and enough Yiddish to give life to his reminisces of high seas adventure on the shoulder of his master Moishe. Moishe, or, when opportune, Miguel, was a Lithuanian Jew whose life leads him through Inquisition-era Spain to the captain’s chair of a Caribbean pirate ship.

I like to laugh, read engaging stories, and even to listen to old timers parroting their memories. I enjoyed the book in this way.  But I can’t help reading stuff like Yiddish for Pirates through the lens of the Leacock Medal and my aspirations to be a writer with fewer fubs.

Obviously, the premise creates a powerful vessel that is easy to recognize as something different.  But it could have run off into a sea of clichés and corniness in my hands. 

Gary Barwin avoids the reefs with skill and imagination worth studying.  A composer, poet, and artist as well as author of twenty books, he executes the parrot and pirate idea with great creativity, and this might be expected. But he also brings in his affection for Yiddish culture and his knowledge of history in an elegant way that informs and inspires without ever pushing the story off course or taking the wind out of its sails by saying stuff like “avoid the reefs,” “off course,” and “taking the wind out its sails” – too much.

With the same mastery, Barwin uses the Spanish Inquisition, piracy, and people of another era to raise touchy issues of today and suggest why the persecuted might find recourse in terrorizing violence.  A parrot seeking a partner after months at sea, oblivious to the willingness, gender, and precise sub-species of the other also speaks to the interface of casual sex, loneliness, biology, and the mores of other animals.

Some book reviewers laud Barwin for a “postmodern” style and his “deconstruction” of the novel.  I think reviewers just like to say “postmodern” and “deconstruction” when they can.  It is particularly impressive if you can do it twice in one paragraph.

But I see Yiddish for Pirates as an homage to classic novels.  Aaron certainly reminds me of the narrator of Don Quixote, a translator of a second-hand account written in Arabic; and much in Moishe’s story (the book’s full title is Yiddish for Pirates: Being an Account of Moishe the Captain, His Meshugeneh Life and Astounding Adventures, His Sarah, the Horizon, Books and Treasure, as Told by Aaron, His African Grey) echoes Gulliver’s Travels (originally Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships).  The book also sits well beside earlier Leacock Medal works like Morley Torgov’s that introduced others to Jewish community and cares with humour and kibitzing stories.

Leacock looking down as Gary performs Parrot Sex 
Aaron, in fact, tells the reader at the outset that his tale will follow well-worn storytelling paths and will raise model questions like “and then what happened?” and “what happened next?” and “what is this treasure and where’s it buried?” Does he get “the girl?” And, additionally, what about all the balmelocheh, alter kaker, meshugeh, farkakteh, sheyneh, keneynehoreh, shvants, roytkop, sheygets, oysgedarteh, kvelled, meshugener, shmeckel stuff and parrot sex in between?

It hooks you and reflects the force of Yiddish for Pirates, which all flies out of that funny premise and the parrot narrator.  We don’t expect perfect grammar.  Whole sentences. Words that we should recognize.  Or even word-like sounds.  We accept candor and cover-ups equally.  It sets the stage for unconstrained and bold story telling.  

So my lesson here is that when feathered, you can be unfettered – and be more entertaining in book writing and book readings.

I will think about this a lot when I try to write future fiction, and maybe, I should buy a parrot costume and practice thrusting motions for my next fub.

Writing Exercise
Recount a 17th century expedition up the Ottawa River through the mouth of a voyageur’s edgy pet beaver Fub - throw in some aboriginal science fiction. (Here is my shot at it).

We're All in This Together - Amy Jones

(Scroll or click for other 2017 Leacock Medal finalists)

I put my hands around We're All in This Together, a shortlisted-2017-Leacock-Medal book, in an awkward, hesitant way - arms outstretched and wary.

Committed to reading the finalists and medal winners to come, I know I must take these new arrivals into the family. But part of me doesn’t trust them.

Even though many of the past Leacock honorees are imperfect and rough, I will defend them all when pushed.  I have too much invested to just throw them into the trash when something different comes along.

This new book, by Thunder Bay writer Amy Jones, also had a reputation.  It was said to talk of a young woman’s flight from home, return, and struggle with a chaotic cast and past.  It sounded like many other novels including some recent medalists and runners up.

Last year’s winner Republic of Dirt and shortlisted When the Saints are a pair.  I liked both, but from different angles. The first because it told its story through distinct mouths and minds, and the second because it made me laugh a lot.  The 2013 medal conqueror Dance, Gladys, Dance choreographed quirky characters into a family-like ensemble as well.

Before taking on Amy’s effort, I had been seduced by her shortlist sister Take Us to Your Chief and had already made up my mind that this other book had to be the mundane one. 

What could this new book do - other than make things more crowded and messy?

You can’t choose family.  So, I went home, spent a few nights with her, barreled ahead, and did my duty to the Leacock Medal community - like a chore to be completed just because it was time.

But the book is not the way it seems from the outside; it foams with a crazy kind of beautiful that “drops, bangs and flips” its way into your heart and radiates an edgy hopefulness. It blends a lighter version of dysfunction-based humour with a graceful invocation of different perspectives. It sneaks up and plants richer situations and people in your head before you know what is happening.   And if you’re a wannabe humour writer, you learn, change.

Different perspectives always come closer to the truth than one, and We’re All in This Together makes those synergized truths easy to absorb with quality writing and, as Amy notes often, not-a-screenplay authenticity.

Purported protagonist Finn Parker, a young woman with a master’s in English, ESL teaching time in Japan, and a technical writer job in Toronto, has distanced herself from her family, particularly her identical sister, who shared Finn’s DNA, appearance, and boyfriend.

But news that their mother Kate is in hospital in a coma brings Finn home. Sixty-three-year-old Kate went over Kakabeka Falls.  In a barrel.  

Finn and her mother provide touchstones in the story that follows, but many other characters take centre stage and many times, events are told seamlessly from different experience and different information bases, and, again, this is the feature of We’re All in this Together that sets the book apart in the Leacock Medal pantheon for me.  The characters really are all in this equally.

It is done so well – despite courting a “Jump the Shark” ending -  that I now wonder how it is possible to really care about characters if the author doesn’t use these techniques. 

I also like that the Leacock Medal shortlist recognized a story set in Thunder Bay.

My sister lived with her first love in the Lakehead city, and my son worked out of there forty years later. I have even written a book myself about a young woman with some career and family turmoil set in Thunder Bay and feel attached though I am Ottawa-distant. 

The city is a unique place.  Surrounded by the Kakabeka-kind of natural wonders, it also has an artistic and cultural side, a function, perhaps, of its separation from others and the magnified community that comes with it.  

So, another part of me, the one twinned with the distrustful side, wants to see the Leacock Medal evolve and thrive in the era of viral videos of people falling, chat room meetings, Facebook photos, and bumbling book blogs.  

This part embraces We’re All in this Together eagerly, and my two views come together and recognize the book as a place that fits those new techniques with the past to form something entirely different and better.

If this was a movie, I might clutch onto this excuse to revisit my own past, hop on a plane, and go to Thunder Bay.  But this is not a movie, and I spend all my money on books.

Writing Exercise:  

Describe events leading up to the April 2017 attack on the Champs-Élysées from the perspectives of attacker, the murdered police officer, and a Canadian bureaucrat walking up the Avenue to his hotel.

Drew Hayden Taylor - Take Us to Your Chief

May 2017 

The Leacock Medal
and Other Living Things

“Imagine if we all looked at the water, at the earth -  as living things,” he said. “Maybe, just maybe, it would be different, better.”

Mohawk Elder Ka'nahsohon Deer opened the 2017 meeting of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO with a song, a solo on a water drum, and those words about climate change, toxins in the environment, and the perspective of Indigenous people. His comments stuck in my head that week, in part, because they were echoed by my Kindle at night when I laid in the hotel bed reading Drew Hayden Taylor’s book Take Us to Your Chief.

In his first pages, Taylor, a resident of Ontario’s Curve Lake Reserve, says he wants this book to move the boundaries of aboriginal literature and to invite more of us to see life in all things. Take Us to your Chief opens this door by presenting science fiction with a twist. Lots of aliens, space travel, and the like.  But always with a substantive First Nations reference, angle, or association. 

A 2001: Space Odyssey-style artificial intelligence realizes it is an aboriginal consciousness, and this has consequences. Orwellian Big Brother is linked to the ubiquity of dream catchers, time travel is facilitated by petroglyphs, and aboriginal radio broadcasts lead to fights over roasted raccoon drumsticks. In the process of applying skill, a smart sense of humour, and the Indigenous bent to the space and robots subjects, I think Taylor moved the boundaries of science fiction as much as those of aboriginal works.
For me, the transcendence of the Take Us to Your Chief stories comes from the humour, the poignancy, and the craft. I will buy hard copies of the book and push them into the hands of people I like not because of the cultural references or even the different point of view, but because it is fun to read - even when  passing through the reality of teen suicide and the perils of alcohol.

This is important because the book is short-listed for the 2017 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, and while the award has other criteria, influences, and agendas, being fun to read is a persistent one and the one I think is most important.
Nevertheless, I would bet that Take Us to your Chief might grab a few extra points in this year’s Leacockian competition because of its Indigenous associations and purpose.
Not that you could brand the Leacock Medal as an excessively First Nations friendly institution. The award carries the image of another era when homogenized small town Canada, the Mariposa of Stephen Leacock’s works, was celebrated as something distinct from the country’s aboriginal societies. Even though the inaugural Leacock Medal winner Ojibway Melody speaks with admiration of the Indigenous people around Georgian Bay, the book does so with the posture of something separate and observing. W.P. Kinsella’s Leacock Medal book The Fencepost Chronicles celebrated aboriginal humour and experience, but did so through the pen of an outsider censured for cultural appropriation, and passages in at least one early medal winner carried more than a little prejudice and offense.
But one element, besides the fun-to-read bias, of the Leacock Medal history bodes well for Take me to your Chief and may have helped it get onto the 2017 short list. 
A love of community.
It runs through most of the past winners of the medal and is glaring in the backdrop of Mariposa and Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches.
Leacock put an appreciation of community at the core of effective humour writing.
In defining humour as “the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life and artistic expression thereof,” Leacock did not demand, as some feared, that all humour be “kind,” but rather that we understand that all humour is peculiar to a community of shared experience and belief – our own kind, our kin.  For a long stretch, the accepted notion of “our kind” as reflected in the winners of the Leacock Medal, like many other Canadian institutions, did not shout recognition of many of the communities that form both modern and ancient Canada.  
Take Us to your Chief invites us into the affection and humour of the broad aboriginal community and, in doing so, to stretch the boundaries of our own.
Slowly, iteratively, over the years, the Leacock Medal has added a bit to its definition of “our kind” and, each time, added to its own credibility and that’s why I would give a few extra points in grading this book’s potential for success in this year’s competition. 
Like water and the earth, I think the Leacock Medal might be a living thing – one that must evolve and adapt to survive and to be different, better.

Writing Exercise
Tell how your life changed when you learned that your aboriginal parents had adopted you as a baby and that you were in fact an alien. 

Spiritual Story

Muh mère -  she was a beluga from up in de Saguenay.  Papa – castor - a beaver, of course.

A saltwater beaver -  liked to fight and liked the ladies.  Tabernouche.  No matter their skin or their ways.

So, that’s me.  A beaver with no fur – white and slippery.

The English, they call me “the fugging useless beaver” – “the Fub” – they say – and beat me with a cane - cause like I say – got no fur.

But I got me a beluga brain, big teeth, and a bit of a mouth so I get to talk and think – got away to tell my tale.

I got the other kinda tail too.  Not a bad one.  Kinda like a flipper hooked to me ass.

Anyhoo, the French and the Indians -  they leave me alone cause – like -  câline -  I got no fur, so I gets close to their camps and hear their talk and eat their scraps.

One day, Agonquin guy, he throws me some fish meat - and I come closer and he throws me some more and I come up to his hand. 

We're friends, and I decides I’m goin’ to let him come along for a ride up the river if he lets me sit at the front of the canoe and smell the breeze.

For the most of it, I keep quiet and listen – no talkin’ – but when I sleep, I dream, and I dream of the beatings and say “Fub, Fub … Fub.”

And that’s now my name – at least my name for this story.

So, we heads up the river til we get to the rocks and my guy and the others in the canoe get out, wade to shore, and climb up with their packs and pull up their boat for a hike through the woods.

Me. I swim and dive to meet them later on.

I find a nice rock and some sticks to chew - and wait.

But they don’t come  - and they still don’t come. 

So, I get bored - and do what I hate most.

I walk.

Through the woods, down a trail, and over some logs - and there by the swamp, my guy and his friends are standing, those that are alive - with hands in the air surrounded by guns and swords and red coats.

One of the red coat ones lifts his blade ---  and Algonquin guy turns his head.   He sees me in the bush and laughs and shouts “hey, Fub.”

The red ones turn and see me. 

My guy he says “oh great Spirit Beaver, bring scalding sores upon our enemies and break us free.”

The red coat puts down his sword and stares at me, then he stares at my guy, and then he stares at me again.

About this time, I figure it’s as good as any to break the silence and show off my beluga and beaver speech.

“Would you like me to put the sores on their eyeballs or their groins?” I say.

They left swords and guns on the ground as they ran up the trail -  my Algonquin guy and his friend picked up the best, threw them in the canoe and we heads up stream - me sitting at the nose, sniffin’ the wind, and trying to pass another mess of trout through my innards.