Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Review - Etienne's Alphabet by James King

The phrase “two solitudes,” referring to the perceived lack of communication between English and French speakers in Canada, and also to the lack of interest in redressing the situation, is well known in Canadian political discourse. The term was popularised by Hugh MacLennan’s novel Two Solitudes, but probably originated in a 1904 letter written by Rilke to a friend, about the changing nature of love between men and women, love born out of their individual solitudes. “This advance ... will transform the love experience, which is now filled with error, will change it from the ground up, and reshape it into a relationship that is meant to be between one human being and another... And this more human love... will resemble what we are now preparing painfully and with great struggle: the love that consists in this: the two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.”

Rilke’s optimistic view seldom crosses over to the political use of the term, but in Etienne’s Alphabet, by James King, both meanings come into play.

Etienne is half Anglo, half Francophone, and a complicated character. He objects with good reason, to the labels his doctor’s pin on him – OCD and schizoid – as the truth is much less tidy. He makes lists of the physical characteristics of the people he meets and would otherwise fail to recognise them, suggesting he suffers from face blindness. Letters speak to him, have colours and personalities– c and s are arrogant, d has humility, e attracts the colour green, F is the Hamlet of the alphabet, very indecisive, G is a fretful letter, h is a wallflower, I the letter of loneliness - words form pictures of their meaning, he can see smells, all of which suggests a complex synaesthesia at work. He has no interpersonal skills, makes no emotional connections to other people. Another character points out “you understand numbers but have not the slightest idea about people.” He is reticent, detached, brash, melancholic. He talks like a robot and never fits in with his confreres. He seems to be a high functioning autistic and is the embodiment of the two solitudes. Etienne’s Alphabet is his story, told through a series of dictionary entries that make his identification with the schism in the Canadian identity plain, at the same time as they reveal something of his extraordinary view of the world around him.

In an entry on Kaspar Hauser Etienne says “I am a riddle to myself. I have never been subjected to the inhumane regime inflicted upon Hauser. But like him, I do not know how I became the person I am. What is the mystery ailment in my soul that keeps me so desperately apart from others? His notes on Jean-Paul Riopelle point out that the artist wrote to Premier Duplessis in 1948”telling him that both Canada and Quebec were too isolated from the rest of the world. ‘You must open up,’ he had demanded. Of course, his plea was ignored.” The advice Riopelle gives Duplessis is the same advice Etienne’s colleagues and superiors at the bank give him, and it has the same result.

Etienne seldom speaks directly about his feelings, except when he finds himself in a rant about English Canada’s prejudices against French Canadians, We are left to infer, to piece together his life from what he chooses to tell us about what he chooses to talk about.

Aardvark: Charming looking little creatures with built-in suits of armour...

Alphabet: Letters obviously hold the entire world together. Otherwise, there is no order, no language, no significance...

Appearances: They are not really deceiving...

Weasel: Weasels are synonymous with deceit, trickery and false promises. When I began my drawings ten years ago, I promised myself no portraits of any kind because the genre is subject to those awful vices.... People are vainglorious, unduly complicated and, ultimately, beyond understanding. Why should I subject myself to such a dubious enterprise as putting them on paper?

Zigag: Life is a series of abrupt right and left turns. There is no clear path, as Dante informs us...

After his death, Etienne’s landlady, who has taken care of him all his adult life, finds boxes of brightly coloured drawings in his rooms, a remarkable body of work as refractive, brilliant, suggestive and teasing as his autobiographical notes.

The oddly chosen entries in his idiosyncratic dictionary reveal a fascinating mind grappling with an often incomprehensible world, and eventually imposing, as all artists do, some sort of order on it. His story is carefully, hopefully, tenderly presented. An opaque character grows translucent, we begin to understand a little of what makes someone very unlike ourselves tick, and by the time Zodiac – a complete circuit, the compass of eternity – comes round we face Etienne in the way Rilke dreamed we would, as two solitudes greeting each other.

Published by Cormorant Books - ISBN 9781897151877 | 5.5" x 8.5" | TPB with French Flaps | $21 Cdn.

You can read a preview or download an exerpt of Etienne's Alphabet at Cormorant Books

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Alchemy of Chance Recipes - Potato Gratin

There is something wonderfully simple about potatoes. It takes almost nothing to take them from everyday to extraordinary with only basic ingredients. When Didier and Maria started their meal with a potato gratin I could almost imagine the incredible smell that permeated the kitchen. The best part is it comes together so quickly that there is time to relax with that glass of wine Marie was pouring. I make potato gratin often, sometimes in a large dish that is placed on the table for everybody to pass carefully around or when I want something a bit more formal I make individual dishes, which I turn out on the plate. As with everything in Pete's book the recipe is pretty simple and you just adjust amounts to fit the size of the dish you need. I have used ramekins as small as a 3 1/2"creme brulee dish to a 4 1/2" ramekins for individual servings; it all depends on what else is for dinner. The important thing when make small servings is to line the dish with parchment paper on the bottom and the sides. It is a bit of work but it makes the end results much better as the potatoes slide easily from the dish to the plate; I have also lined a large casserole dish for serving 10 to 12 people; I still like to use parchment on the bottom of the dish because the potatoes take on a beautiful golden colour. I have even turned the large dish out on a serving tray and arranged other roasted vegetables around it.

The important thing to remember is that the first row of potatoes will become the top of your dish, if you are turning it out, so take the time to make it look good. I generally place a couple of small sprigs of thyme on the bottom and then start to place the potatoes in concentric circles around the dish overlapping just a bit. The great thing about cooking like this is that you can adjust the dish as you like, sometimes I alternate layers with sauteed mushrooms or with other root vegetables such as turnips, sweet potatoes or parsnips; no matter what else I put in it I always use onions. I tried a recipe in a magazine recently where you alternated layers of potatoes with oven dried yellow and red tomatoes;it was delicious and gorgeous on the plate.

Potato Gratin

2 cups whipping cream
3 pounds potatoes, Yukon Gold work well but you can use any good potato. Try to get them roughly the same size.
1 small onion
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
enough soft butter to coat the dish

Thinly slice potatoes and onion using either a mandolin or a good sharp knife. If you are making individual servings line the bottom and sides of your dish with parchment paper and butter the paper; or, alternatively, butter the bottom and sides of a 9" x 13" casserole dish. Arrange three layers of potatoes around the bottom of the dish, overlapping each potato slightly then add a small layer of onion. Top the third layer with onions and some of the salt, pepper and thyme. Continue layering potatoes and onion, sprinkling the onion layer with salt, pepper and thyme until complete.

Place dish on a cookie sheet, to catch any of the liquid that may boil over. Gently add the cream, pushing down on the potatoes to almost cover them. Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for 30 minutes then reduce temperature to 350 degrees and continue to bake until potatoes are tender. If you are using individual ramekins reduce temperature after 20 minutes and continue to cook until potatoes are tender, about 25 minutes more. The cream will be almost completely absorbed. Let the gratin rest for 15 minutes before serving.

This dish can be made ahead of time and reheated in a 350 degree oven until heated through, making it a great dish for taking to friends or to get a head start for a dinner party. Enjoy
Janet Beck

Friday, December 24, 2010

Alchemy of Chance - Facebook Page

You can now become a fan of The Alchemy of Chance on Facebook! So you should all head over there and hit the 'Like' button. Thanks!

That Time Is Past - Snakey Sex, Take One - Glenn Haybittle

The girl entering the olive grove had a shaved head and was dressed in a ragged red ball gown from another century. She carried very attentively a woollen bag of bright colour, swollen with coins that made a heavy fidgeting noise. She stopped suddenly on noting a flicker of movement in the parched grass up ahead. There was a black snake that seemed to be having an epileptic fit. On closer inspection she realised it was two black snakes, entwined, and moving slowly, sometimes in unison, sometimes in conflict, undulating together with sudden whiplash jerkings and leaps off the ground. She saw the open fangs of the snake that seemed to be the aggressor; it made several attempts to bite into its adversary’s sleek black skin just beneath the head. Then she understood that they weren’t fighting; they were copulating. She watched spellbound, following them at a distance as, coiled and lashing together in a fluid double helix, they slithered and gyrated over the bracken and crisp dry grass. There were quiet moments when they were aligned into an almost inseparable writhing unity of wave motion, as if swimming together with their tails gently touching. Then there would be another a sudden thrashing of violent outcry when an electrical charge seemed to bolt through the length of them and toss them up into air, like a rope trick. The girl in the frock spent ten minutes watching them.

Image - snakes mating -
Copyright 1997, COBB Publishing

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Glenn Haybittle's Review of The Alchemy of Chance

The Alchemy of Chance is about maps, the guides we use to make headway in life. These maps aren’t always visible configurations of roads and rivers: often they consist of tides, star pulses behind the appearance of things, magnetic forces that are not available to the human eye. The heart too is a map; and perhaps the most fateful map of all.

When Aurelie Pêguissoux loses her sight in a car accident she has to map out a new set of coordinates for herself. She sets out on a journey of rediscovery. Meanwhile, in Wales, Dafydd Williams is given a mission by his father – to find his missing brother. The only clues to his whereabouts are a sequence of postcards all sent from various parts of France.

The Alchemy of Chance impresses with the creativity and lively courageous intelligence that has gone into its design. The prose is consistently as crisp and confident as the footprints of a fox in virgin snow. This novel, about map making, is also a map in itself, a complex intricately drawn map. That chance has a design to it is of course the premise of pretty much every novel ever written: we make order from shavings and rinds, from stains and litter, from what is strewn and overlooked as much as from what is photographed and cherished, Peter Brooks though is drawing up a map of the map so to speak which is a fascinating and exciting idea. Once we have this idea of the map every detail has the eye-catching pull of a landmark, a pathway, a clue. We see what he describes in a conventional context but we also see it shifted into a poetic realm where its significance, its consequence is still buried, is accumulating meaning and force before it’s eventually unearthed and integrated into the overall pattern, becomes another part of the map. We participate in the drawing up of this map with the excitement of an archaeologist taking off the top soil of an ancient burial mound. We know this is a treasure map.

The Alchemy of Chance is a life-affirming romantic adventure into a world where the secret poetry of synchronicity is a constant guide and companion.

Glenn Haybittle, Florence, Italy

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Alchemy of Chance - Author Interview

An Interview with Peter S. Brooks, by Dan Holloway

DH: Can you explain what synchronicity means to you? The word makes me think of the hippy teacher in ‘Heathers’. And the introduction to the film ‘Magnolia’.

PB: I haven’t seen ‘Heathers’ but yes, I suppose ‘Magnolia’ is dealing in that currency, though in a very particular Hollywood style. The opening of the film has a lot in common with one of those bathroom booklets, which I’m not averse to reading now and then. Lots of little anecdotes founded on a single notion: ‘… at the precise moment that…’ One of my favourites is the true story about the guy whose life was a bit of a mess and he threw himself off the roof of the Empire State Building shortly after it opened. He hadn’t gone far when some kind of updraught sucked him through an open window on the RCA Radio floor while a live news programme was going out. So the newsreader stuck a mike in his face. You can imagine it: ‘Tell me, what’s it like…’

I simply take synchronicity at its root, ‘same time’, and apply it to the broader weave of my storytelling. Most would agree it’s an inherently compelling topic and capable of being treated in many different ways. My own version in The Alchemy of Chance is built on the thesis that apparently random cosmic urges do in fact have a pulse, although I consider it my job merely to try and describe them, no more. I make a point of resisting any sense of predetermination, or a label. I mean fate, or destiny or god forbid, God. As Aurélie says: ‘Things just are.’

DH: It's a fascinating concept. But as an author how did you avoid falling into contrivance? Were you conscious of this as a potential danger?

PB: In one sense, all plot-design is contrivance, but I guess you’re refering to that moment when it creeps up to the edge of artifice. I was aware of the dangers and I became pretty obsessed with avoiding implausibility. In order to do that, I had to distinguish between the implausible and the unlikely. Unless you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy, where perhaps anything goes, it’s an incredibly important aspect of our craft, even down to small matters of ‘staging’, narrating a character’s progress from A to B without unwittingly breaking a limb of theirs in the process. You don’t want an expert witness coming at you post-print with: ‘That simply could not have happened.’

On another level, I wanted to make sure that each encounter, each coincidence in time and space generated an echo of collective experience, an affirmative connection. ‘Yes. That’s just what happened to me.’ Or my cousin. Whoever. On their own, these kinds of coincidence are of limited utility, a part of the stock of material that we refer to for our stories. But I am drawn to the more complex notion of massed synchronicity and this is what the book is about. In my preface, I take a pretty serious mathematical stance on this and use the example of roulette. Forgetting the House, first time, there’s a 50:50 chance of throwing a red. Second time, there’s a 50:50 chance of throwing another red. And another, ad infinitum. All that we can say about the chances of throwing ten reds in a row is that it’s 50:50 each time (which is an axiom) and highly unlikely (which is an anecdote, though equally true). I happen to believe the universe works in the same way. I even thought about calling the book ‘Ten Consecutive Reds’.

DH: Does having a large ensemble cast make writing harder (keeping tabs of narrative arcs and the like) or easier (because you have to give up on graphs and trajectories and just get on with It)? To be filmic again, I can't help thinking of Robert Altman's The Player.

That’s interesting. I loved ‘The Player’, but the film that influenced me the most as I was coughing up this tale, was ‘Short Cuts’, where Altman uses originally unconnected Carver short stories as a springboard for a number of overlapping vignettes which all share a dénouement, a minor earthquake in Southern California.

As for the design, I thoroughly enjoyed that part of the process; so I guess it was easy. But I certainly couldn’t abandon ‘narrative arcs … graphs and trajectories’, as you put it. It’s essential to keep a handle on both the separate and the interlinked elements or else you never gain full control. Film-makers use storyboards of course, but this is writing as choreography, moving your main players around in relation to each other and to the broader scene. My way was to get myself a poster-sized artists’ sketchpad and a few pencils, and plot everything with boxes and bubbles, lines and arrows, dots and dashes. The result – to anyone else – was a mess, but I had to do that before I typed a word. Even then, I also had to set up a timeline spreadsheet, covering the main characters over the six months of the story, to the day, even down to the (real for that year) phases of the moon. Again, it’s down to plausibility. Perhaps I’m unnecessarily obsessed with it, but if I’m going to enter the world of Aurélie’s lunar cycles, for example, then I really should get it right. I can’t have her ovulating when she should be menstruating.

DH: How easy was it to write a blind character? Did you find yourself editing as you went, did you get into character before you started then stay there? Or did you let yourself get it all out and then edit for consistency? Did you find yourself "looking" at the world in different ways?

PN: Well I had to do some homework, that’s for sure. I interviewed a few blind people (though very informally, I must add), just to get a take on their take on their world. That was fascinating and instructive, but once I started, I was navigating by my own imagination, with the odd tip and anecdote thrown in subliminally.

One of the great things about writing a non-linear narrative with a multi-character cast is that when you’ve finished writing you can shift your chapters around with ease. I wrote all the Aurélie chapters in one sequence; so yes, I got fired up in character and let it all flow. Editing came later, when I’d completed the whole work. However, like many a writer before me, I allowed myself to get smitten by one of my characters. I think it shows; many have commented on it anyway. Aurélie would come to me, often in the car, usually late at night, and I’d look across at the empty seat and she’d be there with me as I drove through France. Many scenes came out of those moments, especially the ones where she sets off with Dafydd. It’s a form of madness, of course, but at least it’s only temporary.

Writing from the PoV of a blind person, with only non-visual predicates to hand, was a joy. It really stretched me and my outlook too. I found myself totally immersed in the senses for a while. And I’ll never go back. Whatever my next work is about – and it almost certainly won’t feature a blind person – I’ll be giving the non-visual senses much more say in the narration. I’m sure it was responsible for reinvigorating my lifelong love of food. And, looking back now, it corresponded to a point in my life when I took on new interests in horticulture and floriculture. I’d still hate to be blind though, that much I know. The other transformational thing for me was a reaffirmation of my attraction to people with handicaps. So often, their combination of vulnerability and openness seems to sum up the best of the human spirit.

DH: For someone of, er, my age, the 70s is a fascinating time, right at the edge of what I can remember. Do you see any aspects of historical fiction in the book, or is it just literary fiction set in the past?

Absolutely not. Rightly or wrongly, for me the term ‘historical fiction’ me doesn’t kick in until, say, World War 2. I regard the 70s as a while ago. I decided to set the book in that decade for two reasons: firstly, it was a time of great change for me, the arrival of adulthood I suppose. Above all, I was happy. I first went to France when I was 14 and I wanted to capture that intensely aromatic moment of being in another quite alien land. I decided to situate my wide-eyed innocence in the character of Hannah. I found I was able to plunder my memory bank with ease.

The second reason is to do with the modernisation of France. By setting this piece in the 70s, I found I’d created something of a requiem for a fast-dying culture, one whose time-distance co-ordinates would soon be ripped apart by TGVs, miles more autoroutes and cheap flights; whose metropolitan drains would finally be fixed, and – above all – whose momentary personal isolations would be removed, almost at a stroke, by the advent of the mobile phone and the internet. None of these stories could be the same today. Imagine Aurélie standing alone on that station platform. She’d have her mobie out like a shot

DH: Having grown up near the Mapa Mundi, mapmaking has always fascinated me, but did you ever feel you were treading a fine line between a great central metaphor for a "web of synchronicity" and hitting the reader over the head with the authorial preachy stick?

PB: When I started out on this, Aurélie came to me almost all in one go. She was blind of course, slightly eccentric and adventurous, a crazy astrologer with an odd byline in twinning. But the mapmaking came later. It just slipped in through the back door. And I think that’s because it’s one of my own ‘trainspotting’ quirks, which I’m a little hesitant to admit to. By including it as Aurélie’s original trade, her reason for getting up in the morning, it struck me as yet another loss from which I could have her recover.

There’s a clue in the story, when she’s playing tactile Scrabble with Dafydd, and she refers to the ancient power of graphic representation and analogues. I love them! They’re so quintessentially human. No animal could invent the clock or make a map.

Although, as I have said, the structure of the piece was carefully plotted, any idea of mapmaking as ‘a great central metaphor’ must have been subconcious. I simply didn’t plan it that way. It’s interesting that you posit this, because shortly after arriving on Authonomy, Radek – one of the finest reviewers up there – said about Alchemy:

‘This novel, about map making, is also a map in itself, a complex intricately drawn map. That chance has a design to it is of course the premise of pretty much every novel ever written.You though are drawing up a map of the map so to speak which is a fascinating and exciting idea.’

So it’s a meta-map. Which I like. But I honestly didn’t realise until it was pointed out.

Dan Holloway is author of Songs from the Other Side of the Wall; a spoken word performer, a founder member of Year Zero Writers; and curator of eight cuts gallery.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lost - The Alchemy of Chance with Technology


You put my postcode
Into your Sat Nav
So you can find me.

But how we get
From where we are now
To where we want to be
Is a mystery.

Lost was written by Libby, at Poems4people and has been quoted with permission.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Alchemy of Chance - UK Launch

The Alchemy of Chance was launched in the UK on Saturday with a party in Cardiff. My spies tell me it was a good time and ended with the author dancing in the kitchen. I'll have an official report in a few days, hopefully with photographs and details of the dance step involved. I'm hoping for a tango, and a picture of Peter with a rose between his teeth, but I deal with disappointment fairly well.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Sunshine Girl and the space time story fracture.

“So, sunshine girl, what's your name?” I asked.

She was sunshine girl because it was pouring cats and dogs and she was smiling and the metaphor was apt. Her smile is like that. It just floods you with warmth and light.

“Abigail,” sunshine girl said. “And you're...” she frowned, “Andy?”

“Andalucia,” I told her. “Not Andy in a very long time. Luce usually, or Luci.”

“Andalucia,” she repeated.

“It's a place in Spain. My parents fucked there. I was conceived.”

She frowned for a moment.

“Oh,” she said, “I just am. I sprang, fully formed from the earth. In my nice shoes.”

I sort of believed her, too.

I’m reading an extraordinary manuscript, involving, among many others, a child called “sunshine girl.” In her world things don’t behave as you expect. Narrative time isn’t linear, but it isn’t a series of nice comfortable flashbacks or a “wibbly-wobbly ball of timey-wimey... stuff,” either. Nothing you could conveniently traverse in a blue police call box.

It’s more like a hall of funfair mirrors – fractured, fragmented, reflecting, refracting, folding in on itself. Splintered time. Origami time. The world is warped in ways that haven’t been explained. It’s a trial by immersion, like baptism in a very quickly moving river, when you can’t trust the person holding you, and also like the way one celestial body obscures another, then reveals it again. It’s a place full of love and death and sex and recreational pain and absolute moral judgements, full of beautiful, slightly unreal characters who have done a lot of damage to themselves and each other. There’s a luminous white haired girl who keeps head severing throwing stars in her leather corset, a rhino guy with infinite eyes, a monk with no eyes at all, a perfectly ordinary absent minded professor with half eaten biscuits on his desk. There are monsters, and not just under sunshine girl’s bed. In some of her strange moments of clarity she’s become aware of them. They’re getting to Luci. They sit on her eyelids, and cast shadows under her eyes.

Not really my cup of tea, except there’s tea everywhere. It’s the number one drink of choice, which makes it all seem so civilised, in spite of the blood and single malt running neck to neck for second place. According to sunshine girl there are also teacups that feel neglected if they aren’t used in their proper turn, which I can definitely identify with. All in all, there are story worlds you might be wise to avoid, but somehow find yourself inextricably involved in. One thing there doesn’t seem to be is a title. I’ll have to get back to you with that.