Better Read Than Never: Wendig’s STAR WARS: AFTERMATH

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“BRTN” is a periodic feature on, in which I write reviews/appreciations of books that are not exactly current. Today’s entry is, for me, rather timely; my last was on a John Updike memoir from 1989. The trouble is, time waits for no man — and neither does Chuck Wendig.

The second Death Star is destroyed. The Emperor and his powerful enforcer, Darth Vader, are rumoured to be dead. The Galactic Empire is in chaos….Optimism and fear reign side by side.

And while the Rebel Alliance engages the fractured forces of the Empire, a lone rebel scout uncovers a secret imperial meeting…


This is how Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig begins. If you need more background information than that, then you may not have been living in this hemisphere during the last number of decades, and maybe this 2015 novel isn’t for you. Wendig – about whom more later, but let’s just say now that he is phenomenally productive, and a review like this is at least three novels behind  – adds full-length sequels in each of the next two years. The seemingly unbreakable Star Wars Rule of Threes continues its reign. Together, the trilogy forms part of a “new canon” of official SW material beyond the films themselves. Aftermath and its children form a bridge between the events of films over 30 years apart: 1983’s Return of the Jedi, and the grizzled-Han and dowager-Leia reunion in The Force Awakens (2015). (Yes, I know, other things happened, too. Luke, for example. And ‘droids. And light-saber battles.) I’m not an SW junkie, and don’t go near fan-sites or extended universes or fundamentalist skirmishes over what is and should be in the Star Wars canon. But like this novel, I do.

It is fast, inventive, breathless and constantly in the present tense, a Wendig trademark. Unknown characters appear in rapid succession, but with references to more or less familiar faces and names from the movies (Admiral Akbar, who does not age at all; C3P0, with upgrades). We know where we are, even when jetting into new worlds. On Coruscant, in one of Wendig’s several “Interludes” — short set-pieces that add context and flavour, and offer a place for him to stow away extra ideas — emboldened former Imperial citizens pull down a statue of Palpatine; see Hussein, Saddam, formerly of Iraq. Imperial Admiral Rae (she’s a woman!) Sloane has a toady and untrustworthy adjutant typecast to remind us of the unfortunate official Force-choked by Vader in the original Star Wars film. Although Wendig takes bitter criticism (surprise!) from many of the Star Wars faithful, Aftermath is an agreeable confection that blends the familiar with the rather wonderfully invented bridgework, with only the occasional bump.

The Empire is going, not gone. Akiva, as tropical a planet as Luke Skywalker’s Tattooine was dry, is now again crime-ridden, with ex-Imperials and ganglords competing for the spoils.

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Marilynne Robinson (on writing, and labour)*

* And on writing on Labour Day. But that’s more about me than by her.

[3-minute read]
This is not my bride. But it *is* Marilynne Robinson, the gifted American author, about whom more in a moment.

This is not my bride. But it *is* Marilynne Robinson, the gifted American author, about whom and from whom more in a moment. (Guardian photo)

My bride asks me some hard questions sometimes. Labour Day Monday’s was, What do you want your blog to be? What’s if for, anyway? I mumbled my usual answers, which she cut short with a familiar refrain: I think it needs to be more focused. Who’s your audience? I get your latest posting and I never know what it’s going to be about.

She says that with the unmistakeable This Is Not A Good Thing tone. The Dissatisfied Client tone. I resist, naturally. I like writing about different subjects. Don’t you love it when you go to the movies and you find yourself thinking, Gee crappy, I don’t know WHERE this is going! I do. I find that thrilling, as long as I trust that I’m in good hands. Besides, writing helps me learn, and I have lots of things I like to learn about. Such would be my arguments, if I was feeling, say, defensive.

However, my lady is probably right: it seems most people like to be on familiar ground at Movie Time, and that people return to a Dave Zirin Edge of Sports column, or a Stephen King novel, or the latest reboot of the hottest superhero flick franchise – moving from the countercultural through the cultural to the culture-of-mass-consumption – because they pretty much know what they’re going to get, and they like that. Meanwhile, I expect my readers to enjoy running the gauntlet of my popping-corn enthusiasms, “madly off in all directions”, as Thurber once wrote. Well, sorry about that, readers!

It’s something to ponder, though.

Earlier, my wife had also had this question, given that it’s Labour Day, and our son heads back to high school tomorrow, and I’ve been teaching on that WonderDreadFul Tuesday nearly every year of my adult life. She asked, So are you having your teacher dreams?

This answer was easy, but I didn’t quite believe myself. Because the answer was NO. One sabbatical year years back, my late August was still filled with can’t find the classroom, teaching a subject I’ve never thought about, general performance-anxiety-ridden can I still DO this thing? mid-night theatre. Later on, when for three straight Septembers I was writing within the Canadian government, it was the same out-of-synch story. Weirdly, my subconscious believed I’d be back in the classroom even though I clearly wouldn’t be. But not this year, at least not that I can remember. I’m still surprised.

Not that I’m free of doubt, or my recurring claustrophobic frustration dreams. I am instead worrying about my writing and where it’s headed. (And basketball. The coaching dreams still haunt me, and that season’s coming up, too.) Which, you may be thankful to hear, brings us to Marilynne Robinson.

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Salman Rushdie (on whether we circle the drain)

In Canada, we have (steadily more meagre and occasionally even contemptuous) government-funded radio. Alarmists – unlike the always-judicious, ever-moderate me – might call the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation an endangered species. Last Chance to Hear! Broadcasters, Artists and Thinkers in Their Natural Habitat! It’s a pretty pale safari, but I’m on it. The CBC’s a national treasure.

Yesterday I listened to Q, Radio One’s flagship weekday arts ‘n’ culture show. It’s hosted by a grandson of Rwanda, a Canadian-as-socially-conscious-rap MC known as Shad. (By night, he’s a bouncy, smiling hip-hop groove-ster with a real band. By day, he talks to Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood and Darryl McDaniels, the DMC in rap/rockstar band Run DMC. In between, he’s Shadrach Kabango.) Actually, I was re-listening to an extended podcast recording of a conversation I’d heard part of earlier in the week. (I think I was sweeping. Or washing dishes?)

They were talking dystopias, especially regarding Rushdie’s new novel Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights. It’s full of malevolent genies, time travel, a corruption-exposing baby and a whole lot of thinly-disguised Now. It’s also apparently very funny, as Rushdie is no permanent pessimist and wanted to explore the “strangenesses” of our time with some inventive and comic strangeness of his own. He wasn’t trying to outgrim Margaret Atwood, in other words. (Though it must be said that her MaddAddam trilogy is nastily, wryly funny if you can suspend despairing recognition, at least for a moment.)

*Certainly* no pessimist! (This is not his daughter.) Padma Lakshmi was Mr. Rushdie's 4th wife.

*Certainly* no pessimist! (This is not his daughter.) Padma Lakshmi was Mr. Rushdie’s 4th wife.

This was only the first (and then second) time I’d heard Rushdie interviewed, surprisingly, and I found him an engaging and generous interviewee.

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Margaret Atwood (on sadness, in fiction?)

I’m reading Atwood’s weirdly witty near-future dystopian nightmare trilogy of runaway climate, corporate takeover, canyonesque income disparity and biotech gone to its illogical conclusion. In the second novel, The Year of the Flood, an overused and under-loved young woman named Ren leaves a decent, if menial, job because there’s too much pain there. She goes, as a backup plan, to Scales and Tails, a strip-bar/brothel whose chief pimp, Mordis, at least appreciates her dance training.

Ms. Atwood channels through this hooker’s-minder-with-a-heart-of, well, maybe not gold but apparently harbouring more careful attention to and protection of Ren than her mother ever showed. (Heart of cynicized bronze, maybe.) Mordis remembers Ren from when his SekSmart Corporation interviewed her at a job fair hosted by her seedy arts college, the Martha Graham Institute. Ren has no illusions about the work she’s getting into, and has only one qualm:

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John Steinbeck (On Fear, Self-Doubt and Creativity)

[In writing Of Mice and Men] “the biggest problem is a resolution of the will. The rewards of work are so sickening to me that I do more with the greatest reluctance….It is strange how this goes on. The struggle to get started. Terrible. It always happens….I am afraid. Among other things I feel that I have put some things over. That the little success of mine is cheating. I don’t seem to feel that any of it is any good. All cheating.”

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) had, by this time (1936) broken through as a writer, and the monumental The Grapes of Wrath was also in progress. As I take another tour through Of Mice and Men, it is oddly heartening to hear a Nobel Prize-winner lament his lack of will, and his conviction that his stuff jus’ ain’t what it oughta be. And yet, though he mutters in his journal that he finds it “sickening”, on he plods. This quote comes from the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition by the Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw.

WritersFest II: Men’s Night

There was a superb collection of brainy and passionate literary warriors last night in Ottawa. (I was there, too!) Session One of another evening at the Writers’ Festival was titled “Canada: The Imagination of Place”, and it took the often-banal national navel-gazing to a level of intelligent feeling that we don’t often don’t come near.

B.W. Powe discussed and read from his (again) newly revised A Canada of Light, which examines the philosophy and perception underlying the country. He is not without self-confidence, and describes the book as “my ‘Leaves of Grass’, my attempt to do for Canada what Walt Whitman did for the United States”. Or maybe he just meant that the centre of his life and thought is right there, and he keeps going back ‘til he gets it right. (Did Whitman do the same?) “We should celebrate the solitudes and the strangeness of this country,” he says, “because Canada works very well in fact, just not in theory!” Canada offers to the world, he argues, not a mirror but “a new premise, a new ethic” based on what he calls, oxymoron intended, a “radical rootlessness”. Yes, he invokes Innis and McLuhan, and has something of the wild-eyed romantic about him. Powe, eloquently and forcefully, puts forward a poetic vision of the country, one that opposes the ever-present forces that subvert hopefulness and joy. He wants us to understand what is in front of our faces right now, to “face the present! For the future is implicit in it.” Powe is passionate and lyrical about our country, its place in an evolving world, and would like for all of us to see it more clearly.

So would Andrew Cohen, whose While Canada Slept bemoaned our loss of moral (not to mention military and diplomatic) influence in the world, has now come out with The Unfinished Canadian. He examines the Great Northern Project from a more historic and political viewpoint — our collective choice of evolution over revolution — and his urgently practical manner was an interesting counterpoint to Powe’s visionary urbanity (“Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!”). Substituting as he was for Roy McGregor (who was puck chasing with Sidney Crosby and the Senators), Cohen told a hockey story to illustrate one of his strongest points. After the hail of criticism that fell on the Canadian women’s hockey team (and the women’s game itself) as they stir-fried their opponents at the Torino Olympics, star Cassie Campbell had to wonder. “Just what is it about this country that we get slammed for excellence?” Ah, the tall poppies. They must be cut down to size! Cohen decries our poor grasp of our own history, and our reflexive anti-Americanism, dismissing the recent bestseller Fire and Ice precisely because it panders to our desperate urge to see ourselves not only as separate from the Americans but, well, better than them. While there are real differences, Cohen finds it rather unbecoming to “protest too much” (and so inaccurately). He’s an unabashed nationalist, however. To the charge that nationalism is so 19th-century, such a violent albatross from the past, he responds with a call for civic nationalism: pride in our institutions, in the ethics and practices we have evolved and the good things Canucks have made and done in the world. It is, on the other hand, the ethnically based nationalism, he argues, that is limiting and has such rich harvests of bigotry, war and misery. It was all good stuff.

Next up was the third of the Writers’ Festival’s “Writing Life” series, featuring two men I’d never heard of and a third I’d never read. I find writers sharing their work unfailingly interesting, but I was particularly impressed last night. Neil Smith read from his debut collection of short stories, Bang Crunch. Having been a student in Montreal when the 1989 massacre of 14 women occurred – and with Virginia Tech reverberating in every mind – Mr. Smith read from a disturbing mass-murder tale of his own invention. He has an unusual reading voice and style, and was quite compelling. I’ll be paying more attention. C.S. Richardson is another first-time author, after a distinguished and ongoing career in the visual arts and design. (He was the designer of Smith’s book, for example.) What an engaging person and writer: his character descriptions flow beautifully, unpredictably, in his novel The End of the Alphabet. Because of what he selected, I have little idea of the plot, but sign me up – this is a novel I want to read.

The third writer, Lawrence Hill, has made a sensation with his newest novel, The Book of Negroes. It is a shameful omission that I haven’t read him before. For one thing, he’s from my neck of the southern Ontario woods, but his background couldn’t be much different – intellectual American parents, a white mother and black father who came to Canada to escape bigoted attitudes (and laws) toward racially mixed marriages. He has been writing the stories of his own family, of the African diaspora and especially the North American experience of it. His reading from Negroes was outstanding. He has told this story of many stories in the voice of an African woman, from her youth in what is now Mali, her enslavement and her release from it after the American Revolutionary War, a Black Loyalist move to Nova Scotia and one of the first back-to-Africa voyages ever made by a black community. At the beginning of the novel, and again at the end, we listen to her as an elderly woman in Britain at the height of the movement to abolish the slave trade. With this year marking 200 years since that epochal change, Hill’s timing is excellent but, more importantly, he has the story and he has the voice. It’s funny: I’ve never read the man before, but one night in his company has made me a big fan. He is gracious, enormously eloquent, and there’s a quiet fire burning in all that he says and writes.

Chalk up another great night for the wordwatchers. And somehow, the Senators managed to defeat Sidney and the Penguins without me frozen in front of the tube.

The Heart and the Congo

Until recently, the American novelist Barbara Kingsolver was best known to me for an article she wrote in Utne magazine, something to do with the virtues of off-grid, off-the-paved-and-beaten-track, off-beat living. Translation? Going rural. Growing your own. A willing ignorance of haste and celebrity and media and the quest for higher consumption. This is how I remember the piece, and it was a thoughtful and eloquent one. I was well aware, though, that this was the Poisonwood Bible woman, she of the large sales figures and the Oprah stamp of literary approval. This may account, along with my own embrace of slow literary living, for how long it took me to get around to the Bible. I should’ve gotten there faster.

It’s a remarkable book, hugely ambitious and earnest and uneven. I found it thrilling and irritating, filled with gorgeous and poetic phrasing (especially in the interior monologues) alongside sometimes clangingly explanatory and unlikely dialogue, with characters both beautifully and cartoonishly drawn. It follows a Georgia missionary family, the Prices, that goes to the Congo in 1960, where it experiences brutal hardship of its own (mainly of its patriarch’s) making, but also that of the Congolese in general as they go from Belgian colony to “independence” under the brutal Mbutu regime. We follow the lives of the Price women, a mother and four daughters, and their mainly male-made problems. The rich characters are the women.

Men do not come off terribly well in The Poisonwood Bible, which when it errs does so on the side of the Nobly Suffering Woman archetype. (It also portrays the dignity of women under hardship in a heart-wrenching way, don’t mistake me.) The ultra-zealous preacher Nathan Price is a bully and a bad advertisement for Christianity, an extremist and even a sadist in his manic, ignorant spreading of a patronizing Word. He never quite feels real, though there are some belated attempts to explain the creation of this monster. (There is no attempt to explain the other bastards at all.) Meanwhile, the two benevolent male characters are upholders of a stainless, if eccentric, goodness. They never quite seem real, either, though they are sometimes interesting.

Reverend Price’s deeply oppressed wife, Orleanna, is a poetic voice of bitter hindsight, and the voices of two of her daughters are the narrative highs and lows of the book. The mute and brilliant Adah is a fascinating creation with strange, gripping perspectives on the occasionally comic but relentlessly painful events of the book. The lovely and skin-deep eldest daughter, Rachel, is the counterbalance to the female heroism mentioned above. She became increasingly annoying to me as the book went on, so unrelentingly vain and self-absorbed was she. My vain imagining is that Kingsolver just had too much fun skewering the vacuous cheerleader belles of her own high school days. (The malapropisms were amusing at first, but Rachel’s verbal mistakes get wearisome. Her comments about language students working on their French “congregations”, well, okay, but when she complains about someone not having the simple “confederation” to get drinks for everyone in the room? I’ve now forgotten the most irritating examples; suffice to say that they begin to smack of Kingsolver trying way too hard, or having too much fun, or not knowing when enough was enough. Let’s blame the editor.)

About midway through this 650-page saga, the bloom came off what had been a terribly thorny but breathtaking rose. There were too many points to be made, too many clumsy character assassinations, social criticisms and historical observations that burst out of their literary clothing and lay there naked on the page. I was actually angry, at a certain point, because so much of the book had been so movingly, compellingly done up to that point. The story just went on too long, tried to do too much. But once I relaxed enough to accept what Kingsolver had in mind, I was able to enjoy the weaker back end of the book, though not quite with the wonder and alarm of the first half. Okay, she’s indicting the entire enterprise of African exploitation, American ignorance and materialism, male weakness and chauvinism. Let’s go with that. So I did, and I learned lots of history and context and continued to find narrative brilliance in some of the several narrators. The conclusion moved me again, and I felt content with the ending.

And a funny thing. (This reviewing of literature, I must say, is a strange and troublesome effort. I’m being forcibly reminded of what the producers of Brick, a literary magazine, place in the front of each edition, a quote from Rilke: “Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing to be so little appreciated as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and fairly judge them.” There is a wonderful lot to love in The Poisonwood Bible. That sounds lame now. Well, and there’s this, too, which should undermine some of what I wrote above: Barbara Kingsolver is a fountain of good writing, and even with respect to novels, only part of her mighty flow, the score is BK 5, JH 0. So there.) So reading, thinking about books we read and remark on: you know what? Aside from its frequently stunning portrait of the colonial project, I may remember this novel most for something that precedes it. In Kingsolver’s introductory remarks, she ends in gratitude to Steven (her husband?) for his belief that “a spirit of adventure will usually suffice…” I love the brevity and punch of that line. Of course, it most spectacularly did not suffice in the individual mission of the crazed Nathan Price, nor of the European and American mission to get from Africa what they wanted. But for this pale adventurer, the words are branded on my brain. They’re beside my writing desk, too.

On the Walrus Shelf

How lucky am I? Well, I’m David’s Dad, for one thing, and last night that meant an invitation to an amazing event. My kid is finishing up at Canterbury High School, the specialty arts school for this region. (We chose Ottawa, in large part, because of his successful application. And it’s public education, speaking of great institutins and lucky fathers.) CHS, with its Literary Arts program, took a strong role in hosting The Walrus magazine’s Ottawa instalment of its “Bookshelf” promotion, and My Dave was one of two student readers at McGinty’s Pub downtown.

Four novelists were there to read from their work. James Meek read from The People’s Act of Love. From the United Kingdom, Meek draws here from his years as a journalist in Russia. The novel sounds bleak and fascinating, though I found his writing about sex clumsy. (I find nearly everybody’s writing about sex clumsy, though Bruce Cockburn, oddly, is an exception. Maybe sex and prose don’t mix.) Rawi Hage, born in Lebanon and living in Montreal, read searing stuff on the adolescent idiocy of civil war from his début novel DeNiro’s Game. Jaclyn Moriarty comes from an entirely different authorial zone, and she was a delight. She is Australian, a lawyer with a Ph.D. and a practice she has left behind for writing. (It’s hard to imagine that charming and quirky voice arguing copyright law, but that’s my bias.) I Have a Bed Made of Buttermilk Pancakes is suburban fantasy, I suppose, and it was intriguing and funny. The remarkable Canadian Ann-Marie MacDonald closed with a superbly delivered (hardly a surprise, given her acting and performing background) series of readings from The Way the Crow Flies. (Wow.)

Yes, and my Dave and Fatima read their poetry, too, and hundreds of teachers and librarians (and the odd freeloading parent) absorbed beer and bar food and WordsWordsWords with rapt attention. The editor of The Walrus, Ken Alexander, spent several years as a high school English teacher. The Walrus Bookshelf hit 12 Canadian cities this year, and its partnership with publishers like HarperCollins, Anansi and Vintage Canada results in schools walking away from the evening with dozens of autographed copies of the novels at hand for use with their students (25,000 books, I’m told, across the country). It’s all about reading and the good teaching that encourages it.

And until Dave leaves for university next year, I have four signed hardback novels under my roof, and they are squirming to be read. (That’s me squirming, I admit it, especially since I still haven’t read MacDonald’s ridiculously successful first novel, Fall On Your Knees.) My guy was a bit overwhelmed, in his usual understated way, as we walked away: “I had no idea how prestigious this was.” That made two of us. What a great night to be a Dad, to be a (once upon a time) teacher, to be a writer with an itch.