Tag Archives: Paradise & Elsewhere

Year of Adjectives

ad·jec·tive
ˈajəktiv/
noun
 a word or phrase naming an attribute, added to or grammatically related to a noun to modify or describe it.
 
 
Ursula Le Guin’s  Steering the Craft includes an exercise called Chastity, which involves stripping all adjectives and adverbs from one’s writing. It’s an exercise I often use when teaching: the point is not to suggest that there is anything essentially wrong with adjectives, but rather to abstain from them temporarily  so as turn attention to the other parts of the sentence, especially the verbs,  the muscles which drive it along. Adjectives  do  of course play a vital  role in many kinds of writing, including, for example, book reviews.
 
Paradise & Elsewhere was launched in the spring of 2014 and the response to it has been one of the most cheering aspects of the past year. From the start, this book found its readers and they rose to meet to one of its challenges: how on earth to describe a slim volume (128 pages) which offers a kind of history of the world, plunges the reader into the back rooms of the psyche, and refuses to commit to particular genre?  Even I had struggled with this. In the publisher’s “About Your Book” questionnaire, used to help with publicity and marketing,  I drew a complete blank when asked to compare it with other books.
 
But early signs were encouraging. Amy Bloom baptized  the book with a  sprinkle of adjectives that included compelling, moody, and shape-shifting; Barbara Gowdy added  vibrant, startlingly imaginative, wise, smart, and very funny and very humane.  Even so,  as publication loomed, I began to be anxious about the possibility of reviews.  There were two adjectives that I was especially  dreading, both perfectly fine words and applicable to the book, but which have  accrued an unfortunate undercurrent of dismissal of disapproval: different, and weird.  Different, when used alone, suggests  the quality of being uncommon, at variance with the normal,  which on this side of the Atlantic often seems  to have  a pejorative ring to it;  weird means supernatural or uncanny, but it also  has the connotation of something (or someone)  preposterous, hard to identify with,  or beyond the pale.
 
Neither word has been used (in print at least)  and the book’s very first reviewer,  Charlene Van Buekenhout, writing in the Winnipeg Star, erupted in a torrent of adjectives that included  intelligent, sharp, raw,  sexy, unsettling, to the point, disturbing, beautiful,  realist, feminist,  and apocalyptic.   Since then, reviewers of Paradise & Elsewhere have  been inventive, authentic, prolific and generous… As you’ll see if you read the selection at the end of this post, the past months have been studded with adjectives. Common themes emerge, but what I’ve found  both humbling is the sheer variety of words that have been used to describe the book and/or individual stories, and the lengths reviewers have gone to in order to find the right combination of words. My favourites?   Surprising, astounding, startling and extraordinary and unexpected,  because I did very much want these stories to take the reader to somewhere  new.  Beyond that, it’s impossible: Transcendent? Sexy? Expansive?  Wicked? Wise? Lush? I’m spoiled for choice and grateful  to all those who so far have taken the risk of  reading  Paradise & Elsewhere, to my editor John Metcalf and all  the clever, passionate, and dedicated people who work at Biblioasis,  the super-indie publisher who took the book on.  Thanks, too, to all those who have talked with me or emailed or blogged about the book. 
 
Description is one thing, action another. Now it is time to  move deeper into new work: something completely different. Here’s hoping that in the coming year to come we will all write, paint, dance, print, sculpt sing, speak and dream new things into the world.

 

Beautiful, daring,  giddy, startling, intricate,  fine, always intriguing,  often dazzling – and while neither comfortable nor flawless – immensely  fun to read... Dan Vyleta, choosing Paradise & Elsewhere as his favourite book of 2014 in The Walrus

Dark,  haunting,  truly original… Scotiabank Giller Prize Jury/CBC Best Books 2014

Lyrical, fabulist, sometimes brutally cautionary,  unexpected, erotic… Shawn Syms, Quill & Quire

Sensuous, verdant, lyrical, wicked, fresh, exuberant, impeccable,  perfectly timed and executed, startling, surprising, horrific…  Stephen W. Beattie, National Post 

Immersive,  eerie, mystery-laden, restless, memorably skewed, neither imitative nor derivative,  simultaneously exotic and recognizable Brett Josef Grubsic, Vancouver Sun

Tight, strange, nifty...  Margaret Atwood on twitter

Compelling, unexpected, memorable… Tobias Carol, Volume 1

Transcendent, nuanced, strange, expansive, intimate, remarkable… Dustin Kurtz, Music and Literature

Lush, mythic…  Kate Hargreaves, Cover to Cover in Quill and Quire

Expansive, amazing…   Leland Cheuk, The Rumpus

Mind-bending, startling, singular, unexpected, capricious, uncanny, boldy illuminating, elastic, extravagantly outlandish… Malcolm Forbes, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Deeply mysterious, astounding, perfect… Caroline Adderson interview with Kathy Page in The New Quarterly

Brilliant, smart, deep, moody, incendiary, wondrous… Literary Press Group, Full of Lit

Well-honed; there is not an image or a word wasted,  full of surprises Lynne Van Luven,  Coastal Spectator

Heartfelt, shape-shifting…  Barnes & Noble Review selection for their Long List, wherein the author was  described as “the Alice Munro of the supernatural.”

Beautiful, profound… Daniel Perry,  Malahat Review

As insightful as their older counterparts   Globe and Mail

Extraordinary, dislocating, dark, wonderful  Kim Forrester, Reading Matters

Thanks too to those who reviewed  the  new Biblioasis edition of my novel Alphabet,  which  earned starred reviews in Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and the Library Journal, and  its own collection of descriptors.

 

 

 

 

 

Double Review: Alphabet and Paradise & Elsewhere in The Rumpus

 

Leland Cheuk reviews both Alphabet and Paradise & Elsehwere in The Rumpus.

ALPHABET AND PARADISE AND ELSEWHERE BY KATHY PAGE

REVIEWED BY 

Studies have shown that reading literary fiction increases a reader’s ability to empathize. In her first books to be published in the U.S., Giller Prize-nominated British author Kathy Page puts that theory to a rigorous test. Would you like to spend 300 pages in the mind of a murderer? How about fourteen stories replete with the vengeful whispers from those vanquished by the injustices of globalization? In both the novel Alphabet and the story collection Paradise and Elsewhere, Page demonstrates that she is a master provocateur, unafraid to ask unpleasant questions about contemporary society, even if she risks being didactic.

Originally published in the UK and Canada in 2004, Alphabet is set in a high-security men’s penitentiary during the end of Margaret Thatcher’s reign. Simon Austen is serving a life sentence for strangling his girlfriend. Twenty-one and barely literate, he develops a hunger for learning in order to combat prison boredom. He learns to read and write. He completes courses that give him the equivalent of a high school education. He begins to answer newspaper ads under a false name from women seeking pen pals. To circumvent the prison censors, he purchases help from a fellow inmate using cigarettes and batteries. Page, who spent a year as a Writer-in-Residence in a men’s penitentiary, does not spare the reader from the cruel horror show that prison is intended to be. Eventually, Austen drops his false identities and sends out letters of increasing honesty. His foray into confessional correspondence can be read in a number of ways: as desperation, as self-education, and as a melancholy search for connection—just as it is for those who purchase newspaper ads and walk around free in the outside world.

Kathy Page

When his letters are discovered by the prison regime, they are so surprisingly articulate and intelligent that Simon is chosen to participate in a psychiatric program meant to help address his past, ameliorate his dysfunctional relationships with women, and prepare him, possibly, to one day be free. When Simon develops feelings for his psychiatrist Bernadette, the reader glimpses how far Simon’s emotional intelligence has come in one of his letters:

You are turning me inside out.

When I am with you I feel as if I could become the best of me that has been hidden for so long, and I burn with wanting to. I feel I could pass through an eye of a needle.

So how is the reader supposed to feel about Simon Austen, the murderer-cum-tortured-poet? Page thoroughly captures the voice of a man who has dissociated himself from his crime. She challenges the reader to forget and forgive the crime’s brutal nature and empathize with this bottled-up young man struggling to find the language to confront his disturbed psyche. Despite being repeatedly humiliated and victimized within the prison system, Simon doesn’t want to leave. After growing up in failed foster homes, prison is the best home Simon has ever had.

I could not help but feel deeply sympathetic to the narrator—a testament to Page’s skill. But the reading experience was harrowing. I’m interested to see what the reception to Alphabet will be in the US, where over half of the states have legalized some form of capital punishment. As a society, Americans have by and large accepted that the worst offenders in our legal system do not deserve rehabilitation—certainly not murderers of young women like Simon Austen. And yet the central question of Alphabet, both for society and for Simon himself, is whether he deserves to be rehabilitated.

In Paradise and Elsewhere, Page again asks the big questions, dramatizing interactions between modern societies and less developed ones to address issues of globalization, climate change, and feminism. The stories are very short. Many are under ten pages. They exist between genres, as Page leaps from realism to fable and back, often from page to page. The writing is totally distinct from Alphabet—a testament to Page’s range. In the 3-page gem “Lak-ha,” a family is dropped in the midst of a desert where an ancient tree stands. The wife dies of dehydration, her last tears wetting the wood, making it fibrous enough to braid into rope. A stranger arrives by sea and asks the starving widower for the rope’s price. In this amazing passage, Page hops from the mythic to the real, evoking the rise of civilizations:

Every year more strangers came by sea bringing food and goods in exchange for Hetlas rope.

This explains the name of our village, Lak-ha, which some say means in the old language, “The place where the bargain was struck.” Others say other things. They ask, did the woman know the purpose of her weeping? Who invented the Hetlas rope—the woman, the man, the stranger, Fate? But I say forget it. Come inside. We have everything now: television, internet, iPod, cellphone, denim jeans, Barbie doll, same as you.

Alphabet and Paradise and ElsewhereParadise and Elsewhere, likeAlphabet, is about society’s fraying ability to connect with people. In Alphabet, strangers try to connect via the written letter. But in Paradise and Elsewhere, people try to connect through money, through material goods, and through perceived power dynamics. In “Saving Grace,” a news crew travels to a rural town to film a famous soothsayer only to find that what she has to say is not what they want to hear.

“I do apologize. Your fame has travelled, so to speak. Can we please watch you work?” asked Libby, smiling as hard as she could. “We’ll pay,” she added.

“I know that. Stay as long as you like. That won’t be long. None of your plans will come to fruit, you’ll fail completely.” The woman’s baleful stare seemed to enfold them all like a thick, stifling blanket. “You think you’re lucky to live in the cities. You think it’s kinder there and people are more generous, but that’s only because they’ve got more. You’re stupid, and you’re deeply mean. You don’t like your friends drinking too much of your wine. You count up favours and drop people if they don’t pay you back. You’re jealous of your sister Phil.”

“Saving Grace,” like most of the stories in Page’s collection, wears its themes like loud clothes. Each story is a cage fight between the rural and the urban, the tourist and the touristed, the modern and the ancient. In today’s increasingly polarized society, Page’s ironic paradises, so dense with vital questions, will echo and leave you wondering how you measure up to Page’s expansive empathies. Are you like her characters: only able to empathize selectively with so much day-to-day injustice on the planet?

 

Paradise, Elsewhere, Alphabet: interview for Volume 1

You can read/see Tobias Carroll’s interview with Kathy Page for  Volume 1 bookstore in Brooklyn  here, on their excellent site:

http://www.vol1brooklyn.com/2014/11/18/kathy-page-on-her-new-collection-and-tourists-right-at-the-burnt-out-end-of-human-history/

 

 

“The stories in Kathy Page’s new collection Paradise & Elsewhere revel in discontinuity. Whether exploring the ruins of a fallen civilization, finding unexpected tension in the interactions between tourists and the residents of the place they’re visiting, or borrowing from folktales to illustrate a tense, wrenching relationship, Page’s fiction rarely goes where you might expect. I checked in with Page via email to learn more about the book, along with her recently-reissued novel Alphabet

“The Ancient Siddanese” is evocative of many things at once: both an ancient culture and the myriad ways that tourists can take in ancient cultures. Were you inspired by any particular spaces or societies as you wrote this, or was your aim to create something more impossible?

My father had an interest in archaeology, and a quirky sense of humor. He once included some Roman mosaic tiles stolen from a dig he had been part of in the paving in front of our garden shed, with the aim of confusing future archaeologists. But I think it was when travelling in Mexico that I first understood how the explanations concerning archaeological sites depend on the skill and the point of view of the interpreter. Deserts are elemental and extreme landscapes, very compelling, and of course desertification is something that has brought more than one civilization to an end. I’ve been to the Sahara, and other very dry places, but the desert in this story is imaginary. It’s in the future, as well as in the past, because climate change is part of this story: these are tourists right at the burnt-out end of human history, and that gives the narrator, who seeks to create her own understanding of the site, a very particular perspective.

Tourism also arises in “G’Ming.” When did you first realize that the state of being a tourist could inspire compelling fiction?

I do find tourism fascinating: the interpersonal relationships and transactions, the meeting of cultures… In England, where I grew up, lower cost air fares made holidaying in Europe possible in the late sixties. The “package tour” was born…The premise was that everything would be cheaper there and you could live like royalty, as well as see exotic things. I remember playing with local kids I couldn’t speak to, and wondering about their lives. Very soon it was a huge industry. Many of the stories in the book feature travelers of various kinds and look at what happens when they turn up uninvited, or with an agenda of some kind. It’s a huge question: how do we treat the stranger at our gate, or behave towards the local community we are moving through. How does all this change us?

The way that “We, the Trees” evolves over time, paralleling philosophical explorations with an air of menace, made for one of the collection’s most memorable experiences. Where did that juxtaposition come from?

I was fascinated by a recent research from the University of British Columbia, which shows that trees use a fungal network to communicate nutritional needs and to share nutrients. In the story, the idea is pushed a stage further, in that the trees, given the desperate situation they are in, begin to reach beyond their own community into ours. I combined that with the idea of self-sacrifice, and some of my observations of young people at the university where I teach. There’s a huge amount of political frustration about ecological issues.

“Low Tide” has echoes of a number of folk tales, but there’s also a sense of Gothic isolation there. How did you come to bring these two together?

The stories in this collection are instinctively written, more so than is normal for me. I find the starting point, get inside the story, and let the subconscious do the work of finding out where it goes. But looking back, yes, there is something very gothic about lighthouses: isolated towers in remote, storm-tossed and dramatic landscapes. I had wanted for a long time to set a story in a lighthouse. And I was very interested in the Selkie myth, which also calls for a watery setting. So it began with the land/seascape. The lighthouse and the rocks and the water allowed the woman, and then the story to emerge.

Your publisher also reissued your earlier novel Alphabet this year; do you see any points of comparison between it and this collection?

On the face of it, they’re quite different since Paradise & Elsewhere is in the fabulist tradition, and Alphabet is a grittily realistic contemporary novel. But I do see connections, quite a few. Alphabet may not be obviously mythological, but beneath the surface  it features an archetypical struggle: a man who has to face his (inner) demon. It’s a story about transformation: the slow progress Simon makes through the prison system and in his understanding and remaking of himself and also, of course, the other, more dramatic processes that another prisoner, Victor/Charlotte undergoes. I think there’s a gothic element to Alphabet, too: the closed world of the prison. Both books look at the question of how we understand and deal with the other, which as I mentioned, is one of my themes. And Alphabet was of course an exercise in entering into a reality very different to my own, just as the stories were.

Of the societies, philosophies, and cultures detailed in Paradise & Elsewhere, which was the most difficult to create?

I had such fun with this book – none of them were difficult to invent. But the subsistence sheep-framing community in “Lambing” was the hardest to spend time in: very harsh and patriarchal, and perhaps rather too real, in a way.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle +, our Tumblr, and sign up for our mailing list.

 

 

 

A mind-bending collection of stories about transformation and adaptation

Minneapolis StarTribune review of Paradise & Elsewhere

BOOK REVIEW: A mind-bending collection of stories about transformation and adaptation, full of startling ideas, capricious characters and uncanny goings-on.

“Paradise Elsewhere,” stories by Kathy Page.

Readers can only take so much of happy lives and promised lands in fiction. We are a cruel bunch who revel in Schadenfreude: Characters must suffer to be believable, their hopes and loves challenged and hard-won. Kathy Page, a British-born but now Canada-based writer, knows this, and has delighted readers with strange, unsettling novels where outsiders struggle to get their bearings in hostile environments.

“Paradise & Elsewhere” (Biblioasis, 160 pages, $15.95) sees Page doing what she does best, but in miniature. Her second collection of short stories, 14 in all, gravitates more toward “elsewhere,” the far side of paradise. In her author’s note, Page describes her tales as being an exploration into “the hinterland between realism and myth,” her worlds’ alternative realities “in which readers can both lose and find themselves.” Even if we end up more lost than found, it all makes for a singular reading experience.

Many stories take travelers to off-the-beaten-track locations. In “The Ancient Siddannese,” a guide shows tourists around the ruins of Sidda, a city built by the blind. In “G’Ming” and “Lak-ha,” Page impresses with her treatment of landscape and language, constructing the former while dismantling the latter. And in “Of Paradise” and “Saving Grace,” new arrivals to remote towns risk losing everything they possess.

Other stories come across as tall tales, extravagantly outlandish, such as “Low Tide,” where a female sea creature emerges from the water, sloughs off her sleek skin and goes to live in a lighthouse with a man who claims to be her husband. We learn to suspend disbelief and simply go with Page’s flow. Along with these tales of the unexplained are several tales of the unexpected: “We, the Trees,” “Lambing” and “I Like to Look” beguile us with their oddities, then knock us sideways with their endings.

The deeper we immerse ourselves in Page’s fantasies, the more disoriented we become. On the few occasions that she allows us secure footing by switching to conventional characters doing conventional things, we appreciate the purchase but soon yearn to fall back down the rabbit hole to be flummoxed all over again by otter-like women, sisters with Medusa stares and twins called Right and Left. Some stories conjure up a magic that makes us think of past fabulists such as Angela Carter and Italo Calvino. Those stories that restructure language and subvert accepted norms are reminiscent of present practitioners like Ben Marcus. Indeed, Page’s story “The Kissing Disease,” about a deadly kissing virus, comes from a similar mold as Marcus’ “The Flame Alphabet,” a novel in which children’s speech is toxic.

“Language stretches between us,” Page tells us at one point, “a new country, vast, intricate, ours.” In another story we hear that windowpanes have been “faulted so that the whole world can seem drunken-strange.” “Paradise & Elsewhere” is composed of such elastic language and distorted reflections, each story boldly illuminating as it playfully confounds.

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.