Amid the archeology of literature, there are novels easily found, gauzed only by a light crumble of soil, and there are true artifacts: buried six feeAmid the archeology of literature, there are novels easily found, gauzed only by a light crumble of soil, and there are true artifacts: buried six feet under. Their chance encounter is particularly worth talking about because one has to wonder how in the history of the civilized world this pairing of ink and paper has not continued its glory, glory, hallelujah.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Helen Potrebenko was a cherished and important Vancouver writer, well known for her early writing in Pedestal, Canada’s first women’s-liberation newspaper, and for her numerous books that included short stories, novels, poems and plays. Hers was the significant working-class urban feminist voice. She also had jokes, good ones. Modern Times, a major bookstore in San Francisco, had a big sign telling customers that if they only read one book in 1975, it should be Taxi!.
New Star Books published Taxi! during a time when “political” was an urgent rather than a dismissed word. (The novel is now available from Lazara Press.) According to Potrebenko, “Women here were very concerned that there should be literature with which we could identify, and since most women are working class and find very little about people like us to read, we were going to rectify that.”
Taxi! rectifies a great deal more than that and enjoys a born-again pertinence today. It’s wonderfully refreshing and confrontational 34 years later, as we are humped by the recession. On Page 11, the ring from the line “Capitalism has begun its cataclysmic degeneration” would make Karl Marx sit up in his grave and nod, in unison, with the rest of us bamboozled by recent banking bollockology.
Shannon, a sharp and mordantly funny cab driver, delivers as many apt nuggets as passengers while she navigates, examines and confronts the city, clinging to her sanity, among the inane blather of those tripping into, out of and around her cab.
It is this perfect combination of the cab crisscrossing, taking the reader into distinctive Vancouver neighbourhoods, and the varied population who open and slam the door that situates the reader in place and time.
It’s a novel to read for then and now: Potrebenko’s unique voice and perfectly paced writing render it in witty exchanges and jazzy Chekhovian musings, such as: “She was sometimes a personable person. Sometimes people called her beautiful and sometimes ugly, which goes to show she isn’t a proper woman since with proper women there is no doubt whether they are beautiful or ugly.”
And: “Shannon fell in love with Ronnie in October but preoccupied as are all drivers with making money, he didn’t notice until several weeks had gone by.”
Or: “She would have preferred a woman friend but she hardly ever met any women. Few cab drivers are women and few women earn enough money to ride in cabs much.”
Or: “Sundays are always slow unless it snows and it rarely snows in August in Vancouver.”
The fragmented style of the novel conveys the fragmented nature of the job. Discombobulating images flitter though Shannon’s wing and rear-view mirrors, and the snips and snipes of conversation, or more accurately interrogation, gate-crash her ears. I’ve got no money. Airport. Do you ball? Are you married? How do you like cab driving? What sort of job is this? Where can I buy a woman?
Unusually for a character in a novel, but like many people currently, she is looking for a job. We learn of the extrapolations of scoring shifts as a cab driver, and the specific extrapolation for a female driver. Encore, Do you ball?
Vancouver was sleazier in 1975. Constant heckling of women and soliciting for sex, heroin traded where crack moves sleeve to hand now, but the same rituals existed. As Shannon observes: “The city never really changed: it had a way of transforming change like a great sprawling organism which absorbs foreignness into its own body.”
Resolutely class-conscious, Shannon elucidates on the class divisions in her city. Indeed, Taxi! contains informative mini-polemics on Canadian social, political and labour history. If you didn’t live here in 1970s, you can deduce plenty of clues about it from this novel.
The structure of the book mirrors a “work” shift, so we repeatedly meet Shannon and greet what and whom she encounters, much of which drives her bananas. Her world outside work mainly concerns visiting her friend’s baby, in whom she delights, and her pal Gerald, an unemployed, yogurt-eating James Joyce devotee. Taxi! establishes the rhythm of an ordinary working life at its core and acknowledges that to survive the day, the working poor need humour, quiet endurance and the neck of a stretched turtle.
A taxi driver cannot decide which social class or individual steps into her car, so in they all pile, frothing and flawed: businessmen, the 20-year-old kid, psych patients, junkies, people dodging cops, fat, old, bald, drunk, dirty, clean, flowery-dressed. What more drama could be needed when the binoculars are trained on the undiluted peculiarities of humankind?
Despite being warned against talking politics with the punters, Shannon argues full on with them over the status of women, capitalism and the ruling class. Drivers are also not to complain about safety to the safety committee, even though the cars are falling apart and there is the constant demand to turn in high sheets.
However, what the novel ultimately disputes is the simplistic notion there are better jobs to go to. For many people, there are not. It’s a faithful and forensic examination of work, the proletariat and the lack of choices therein. If we think of the increasing numbers of people who wake to face this reality, Taxi! enlightens us that the problem is not with them but with the problematic system that surrounds them and the diversity that is circumstance.
Taxi! gave us a bold voice in 1975. Open it to be amused, invigorated and, well, outraged....more
I discovered Fred Booker's short stories in recent years through Commodore Books, an imprint that publishes BC Black Fiction. I enjoyed reading them bI discovered Fred Booker's short stories in recent years through Commodore Books, an imprint that publishes BC Black Fiction. I enjoyed reading them beside Potrebenko's Taxi! Booker reminds me of Ireland's William Trevor. His stories acknowledge that people go to work and document the delirium that can result in their jobs. That they touch on the interactions of a debt collector has a particular resonance in this period of economic hardship and calamity for many. A windscreen on social class, Booker's stories will chime for anyone who has worked in a job where you feel invisible.
"A baleful clamour rang beneath the chemical haze of the single industry-town"...more
This is a profound book. All the more profound for me as I read two chapters or segments to my son (age 12) the other night. The one about cars and thThis is a profound book. All the more profound for me as I read two chapters or segments to my son (age 12) the other night. The one about cars and the one preceding about English food. He laughed while I read and then remarked on the history of Citroen and added his own anecdotes.
I kept thinking what an extraordinary work that I can share it with my teenager and that the material precisely reflects one of his main interests (cars) and that he could happily relate to Judt's food descriptions and family food reflections.
Truly a treasure this book because of the bridges it offers like the one cited above, along with the courageous way Judt depicts his experience with ALS. He has such clarity in his sentences, whatever he is writing about.
Subject To Change by Renee Rodin: Rodin's memoir is a local literary treasure. It's a welcome relief from the spouting male memoirs that crowd our civSubject To Change by Renee Rodin: Rodin's memoir is a local literary treasure. It's a welcome relief from the spouting male memoirs that crowd our civic shelves. It's subject matter isn't brash or boastful, rather a reflective documentation of Rodin's artistic, family, and activist life. It fills in more recent literary happenings, city changes and the odd political encounter as Rodin ran a bookshop (R2B2) on Vancouver's West Side for many years. She also places value on her experience of parenting and taking care of her parents, but her prose is refreshingly free of the precious tones that can sometimes beset the topic. Subject to Change, comprised of essay pieces, is humorous, sad, and uplifting and reflects that to which we all aspire, an honest life, well lived and in which we are warmly loved.
"At an anti-war vigil on 4th Avenue packed with pre-Chrismas shoppers, I spied BC's Premier, Gordon Campbell, strutting down the street. In his pea coat and cords he looked kind of ordinary until I saw his dull eyes."
I am loving Mr. Fox. I am reading on my iphone and something in the small format adds to the text and the humour. It's very funny anReview in progress
I am loving Mr. Fox. I am reading on my iphone and something in the small format adds to the text and the humour. It's very funny and Oyeyemi's sharp sentences are delightful. Plus the form is playful and inventive and I expect may become even more so as it progresses.
Another author I did a reading with Tamara Faith Berger also raved about this book. ...more
Crossings is a startling and brilliant novel. It has recently been republished under the Vancouver 125 Legacy Books initiative. The novel starkly (andCrossings is a startling and brilliant novel. It has recently been republished under the Vancouver 125 Legacy Books initiative. The novel starkly (and sometimes uncomfortably) examines the unremitting nature of demented, violent relationships. Betty Lambert (who also wrote 74 plays) was unrelenting in tackling the difficult material that she could easily have shied from. Crossings uncomfortably digs into holes we'd probably rather not look. (Mick is a shuddering creation.) Even the opening of the novel acknowledges something rarely acknowledged in Vancouver fiction: the sense of the city existing beyond merely its cartography. That its workers, especially seasonal, have historically gone out to the bush, to fish, to log and returned to the city.
"'You can't destroy me,' he had said 'I've been destroyed by the experts.'" ...more
I recently read this poetry book twice after hearing Fred Wah read some poems from it at a reading benefit for New Star we both participated in at theI recently read this poetry book twice after hearing Fred Wah read some poems from it at a reading benefit for New Star we both participated in at the Western Front.
I thoroughly enjoyed the vernacular poems especially and the others. I was confronted with thoughts about the resonance of this collection at the current time.
The line drawings in it, well one in particular, of the outline of a man reminded me of a book that shall remain nameless but a classic 1970's jiggy title.
The book is a treat. It made me want to read more of the "Woodsy" poets and more work written about logging, forestry and the BC Interior. ...more
So excited to see that at long last, 52 years after it was published in French La Nuit has finally been translated. This edition also includes a detouSo excited to see that at long last, 52 years after it was published in French La Nuit has finally been translated. This edition also includes a detournement book in response set in London.
Hearty congratulations to translator Clodagh Kinsella and Book Works for bringing us this important book.