Coventry by Helen Humphreys

These are sad times. (hold that thought…lol)

I picked up the book, Coventry, and had it read in an afternoon.  I love it when an afternoon of leisurely everything allows for me to pick up a book, curl up under the wool blanket that Leah gifted me, and read.  At 175 pages of elegantly flowing prose, I highly recommend this one, as we move toward Remembrance Day 2017.

In 2015 I sat, gobsmacked when I watched the evening news…one historical/ancient site or artifact after another looted, destroyed and left in ruins by Isis.   We don’t talk about it very much anymore, but the destruction in Khorsabad as well as the revered sites of Nineveh, Nimrud and Hatra – (designated or nominated to be UNESCO World Heritage sites) – were attacked and left in shambles by the caliphate.

This book creates, for the reader, an image of what it was really like during the Blitz.  This particular novel, an historical fiction, deals with the event on November 14, 1940 when Coventry Cathedral was destroyed.  The story is told through the experiences of two females; Harriet and Maeve.  There are some excellent reviews on line about this book and I have arrived at some similar thoughts on events, especially.  For one, without posting a spoiler, there is a significant event that I felt was unnecessary to the flow of the narrative.  You will know the moment when you come to it.

Second to that, I was somewhat disappointed that Humphreys did not create a stronger relationship between the two protagonists.  I think that Humphreys writes such beautiful characters that it would have been very satisfying to delve more into their connection and build a stronger relationship.

There were times while reading when I had tears,…such devastation during a single event in our collective history!  Yet, as I look at what events are taking place in our world today…and just what a fragile peace remains in so many parts of the world, I find myself, almost daily, wondering why human beings have not learned from past mistakes.   An article that deals successfully with this very topic and the elegizing of literary content is written by Adam Haslett in a New York Times piece.

Dianne, on Goodreads, writes…

A new author for me and one in whose writing I quickly fell in love. Her sentences are so fluid, her words almost lulling, just wonderful. This provides a sharp contrast to the heartfelt descriptions of the bombing and destruction of Coventry during WWII. Can goods bursting, windows shattering, broken glass raining down, potatoes rolling on the now crooked floor, a man shaving one minute but gone the next, people running through the streets with metal pots on their heads, and of course houses no longer standing, piles of rubble and the bodies laying wherever they fell. The Cathedral which was the town’s pride and joy would be the only Cathedral in Britain to be destroyed during the war.

We inhabit such a beautiful planet.  It is difficult to consider the destruction that is caused by humanity.  I did not know about Coventry until reading this book.  Highly recommend this one.

A link to an excellent interview with the author.

Coventry

What Comes to Mind at the River

Reading and then meeting Kyo MacLear affirmed, for me, everything that’s been formulating inside me the past several years…about birding, art, nature and life.  Many things have formed me into this person who shows up at the Bow River around 10 on a winter’s morning, taking pause above the river and observing wildlife.

My friends and family wonder and ask…mostly not asking anymore, “What are you painting?  Why don’t you paint?”  and at those questions, I can only sit with who I am and be grateful for the grace of anything and everything that led me to this place where I find myself.  As I drove up from the parking spot this morning, I just kept saying, aloud, “I love my life. I love my life.”

I will paint again.  But, the truth is…painting was a lot about ego.  It was a lot about around-the-clock commitment.  It was about trying to balance full time work, raising children and keeping it all together.  My stomach sometimes hurt as deadlines for shows approached.  I was terrified in front of blank canvases.  I couldn’t assert myself with dealers, set boundaries or say what I needed.  I didn’t have money to buy those outfits that seem to be required if you are an artist, especially a female artist. Painting had lost its magic and so, when I paint again, it will be profound because it will be for all the right reasons, not for all the wrong reasons.

Doris McCarthy said, “Paint every day.”  I think more about her as days go by, without painting, than anyone.  She explained how those muscles work.  She explained how time also rushes by. Doris was my friend and she gave me a lot of strength. I think about Doris when I know that I will physically paint again.

Now…did the painting really stop?  I argue, “No”.  I have been intensely researching my next body of work for years now…having painted about 15 panels related to a Covenant series, I then began to connect again with the landscape.  It just happened.  It happened at the reading of two poems, the first,  The Wolf Between the Trees by George Bowering.  I used his poem, with permission, embedded in the poem along with a cup full of ash…remains of personal papers I had burned in the studio.  This is the painting…

Wolf

 

and secondly, a tribute poem written by Paulette Dube for the Caribou.  I’m including her words, here.  I hope you will read them.

In the new days, magic was on the surface of things, the shine of it all, quick and bright and fast as new rivers.

 Now Rivers winds Under Earth, has to be convinced, to play her deep song, entreated , to show herself.

 The Celts call these « thin places », where the other side is so close, the veil shivers your arms as you reach through.

 The First People travelled (sic) these sacred pieces of earth, to think on things in the presence of Creator.

 I know them as mountains.  I see them with my spirit eyes, walk them with blood and bone legs.  They teach, as clear as bird song or scolding squirrel lesson, bracing as clean water through moss.

 This alpine terrain is grey onion paper, thin as ash.  Feet must be wide to avoid lace-like flower and moss, spider web and lichen.        Be mindful.

 The Creator’s ear is earth as we do not see it.  Make joyous noise if you want to be herd.  Get yourself a song and string from bone to bone, a home of light and wind.

 She moves.  She feels her calf, inside, taking nourishment from her own bones and teeth.  The calf moves (as my son once did)  deep in the dreaming place.  The cow’s thickening body keeps the Small one warm, keeps him from hunger, keeps her     moving.

 Born where the dark forest gives way to lake, loon’s perfect call – silver sharp tremolo – traces the surface of this morning sky :  clear as mountain water scythes the earth.

 Loon calls from the lake face, that voice – shapes my form-    coming through the trees.

 The land reacts to our presence when we belong

 Noise of a sow grizzly and her two cubs.  To each a place, to each, a means of prayer and play.  To each, the necessary silence.

 Sacred whorl of grey and brown, blow open the gate.  Allow a wild glimpse of self.

 When you descend to leaf litter, feathered legs and all, you are an angel – touching Earth.

 The engine that is me, hears the song that is you…

 …coming together is a song I cannot bear for long.  Satiated by my own irregular rythmes.

 Promises shape who we are, what we will become –

we pray.

 His brow is unfurrowed.  Streamlined, he walks the wind, easily.

 Healing is water over stones, wind over grass, gaits – fearless.

Feral hearts wander – oblivious to fences of human design.

 Survival embodies existence but – does not define it.

 He moves through sunlight to scrub, deliberate – elemental – muscle.

 Hummingbird hears colour – Coyote knows crack in a leaf is direction – Bear walks trail made of wind.

 If Humans could once again divine the essential – would we find home ?

 A candle in a church is a thing of beauty – a flame in the wilderness is a miracle.

 Find something big to pit against – to throw loneliness into –  Amid bone, snow and stone –   caribou.  The precious, the delicate of design – we live here.

 Fire and earth – water and air – there is no room for anger.

 Memories permit us to speak of things –

our heart tends to in the night.

The resulting painting, upon hearing this poem is posted below.  The words to the poem are written into the painting.  It was at this punctuation mark in my life, at this painting and the other, that I realized my painting would always be about ‘place’.

Caribou 3

So, as an artist, what I’ve been doing ever since is sorting that out….the surface, the paint, collage, text, subject matter.  It might take a lifetime to make sense of it.  I don’t know.  But, in the meantime, I am energized and interested and creative and LOOK!  I write!

Everything I’ve been doing, in the sorting,  has made for this wondrous life of mine.  It’s taken me out into the landscape.  It’s caused me to notice more.  It’s manufactured poems, paintings, photographs and connected me with videographer, Liam of Beam Media and the photographer,  Jack Breakfast.

And this morning, I met Doug Newman.  It was after two cups of coffee at home and after two posts about books that I have read that I headed out into the cold with Max man.  The roads were bad, so I decided to get us down to a parking lot that edges the Bow River and to explore the first wintry day on the river.  There was only one other car in the lot…a man speaking on his telephone.  Max and I headed out.

This is what I wrote once back inside the car…and after snapping four photos on my cell phone…and after turning up the heat and settling in with CKUA.

I didn’t bring a camera with me, but hiked the edge of the Bow River this morning. I watched a Bald Eagle fish, its wings, so powerful. Three times, it landed on tree tops to the left of me, by 200 meters. The geese, exhausted and resting, lifted off of the dark water, along with the cacophony of gulls each time the eagle dove toward the water. Two deer swam, gracefully, from this side and shook off like wet dogs, once arriving on the shore across from me. A perfect morning.

From an interview with Kyo MacLear, writer of Birds, Art, Life… this…

Q: In the book there’s a list, the “Pantheon of Smallness,” in which you compare items such as blackbirds and Rembrandt’s etching. Equating the arts with nature was deliberate, no?

A: It was. It was also a bit playful. I wanted the readers to come in and fill in their own ideas. The Pantheon of Smallness was a way of thinking about smallness differently. Sometimes we make small things, sometimes there are small bird songs, but it can have an enormous impact. Sometimes you have to whisper to be heard. Our culture is very much one of “bigging it up,” always upping the noise level in order to produce a louder signal. What you see in the bird world is sometimes that the smallest tweet can actually pierce through the cacophony in a different way. That became a metaphor for thinking about art. Emily Dickinson did quite miniature work that had a very profound, almost epic, impact, culturally speaking.

DSC_0267

 

While typing that paragraph, I saw the gentleman leave his car, carrying a camera and sporting a huge lens.  I watched, discreetly, as he took photographs.  I saw him pan as geese took flight.  I saw him quietly observe for quite a long time.  Finally, as he turned to get back into his vehicle, I rolled down my window and we began to chat.

It turns out that Doug also posts photographs to Alberta Birds.  We introduced ourselves to one another and I began to ask him questions about photography, equipment and we shared some of our ‘bird’ moments.  It is such a pleasure to discover another birder along the quiet pathways of my every day.  It was nice to experience his enthusiasm and his excitement.  He opened up his photograph of a goose taking flight and I was in awe of the detail and the strength captured in that single image.

I love my life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

Yes!  I’m getting caught up on my reviews…hardly reviews…but, posting a bit of feedback, for my own records.

A brief aside:  I’ve had a hit on my blog from Bangladesh this morning.  These things amaze me and I often do not notice, unless I am busy writing something as I am this morning.  I look outside at the blue-white day and am grateful for the steaming hot coffee on my desk and my dog, Max, who curls up at my feet.

I was with Hollee in the bookstore this summer when I saw a book titled The River by Helen Humphreys.  It was filled with maps and archives and bits of observation…all things that I relish about life these days. When I leafed through it, I knew that I wanted to read it some time…but, buying a book wasn’t in my budget, not at that time.  Now, these months later, I still have not purchased or read that book, but have read two other Humphreys books that found themselves on the very generous discount shelves of a book store, one is The Evening Chorus and the other, Coventry.

The Evening Chorus was of particular interest to me because the protagonist, James Hunter, who through unfortunate events, found himself a POW during the second World War and ends up keeping his connection with normalcy through the daily observations of a nest of Redstarts.  In the back Author’s Notes, one actually reads that while this is a book of fiction, it is connected with three historical and documented events.  I love history, and so, of course, this would interest me.   So, underpinnings to the novel include 1. There was a Wellington bomber that went down in the Ashdown Forest during World War II. 2. There was a German prison camp Kommandant who shared a family of Cedar Waxwings with a prisoner.  3. John Buxton was a wartime birdwatcher who wrote a book about the Redstart.  I could only dream to have a copy of his book.

I’ve discovered that I’m a detail lady and this book describes, very carefully, the challenges faced by James Hunter and his peers in the POW camp, the struggles of family back home and the simple act of documenting, writing about and drawing, daily observations of a family of Redstarts.  Retired and self-directed, I am blessed daily with the experiences of ‘slowing down’ time by entering into a process of observing nature.  I surround the words, ‘slowing down’, with single quotation marks because it is my intention that by entering into that process of observation of nature, time will slow, but in actuality, three hours can go by very quickly as I become immersed.

The fact that I share some of the rituals of the protagonist, I was very at home with this book.  Helen Humphreys is generous, lyrical and authentic in her portrayal of the motivation of characters throughout.

A terrific read and at a great price…but then, historical fiction is my favourite.

The Evening Chorus, when all is said and done, is a formally conventional but for the most part satisfying yarn; a quiet novel about a calamitous event whose most trenchant passages show the cast of Humphreys’s poet’s eye: “The song of the redstart begins as a melody and ends in dissonance, as though the song itself comes undone in the process of singing it, finishing up with all the right notes presented in the completely wrong order.”

Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor.

The Evening Chorus

 

IMG_1277

Little Sister by Barbara Gowdy

A couple of months ago, I scanned the book store shelves for something that I might not ordinarily read.  I’ve tried as much as I can to read Indigenous authors and content since before January of 2017, but thought, for variety, I would mix it up a little.  I was taking on a lot of sadness and anxiety around the topics that I had been reading, in both fiction and non-fiction.  I went into Chapters-Indigo that day, looking for some relief.  Hmmm….

Firstly, I DO look for Canadian authors and most times, female Canadian authors.  I hadn’t read anything by Babara Gowdy to this point and she has been nominated for all of the correct prizes.  That particular day, no fewer than three shelves were lined with Little Sister and so I picked up one of the copies in hard copy and read the descriptor.  And YES, I was attracted to the image on the cover.

Gowdy

Right away, the writing is described as “Fearless, inventive, and dazzling.” by Heather O’Neill, author of The Lonely Hearts Hotel.  Who is Heather O’Neill, anyway?

Hmmm…the word “existential” appears on the back of the jacket.  Can that be good?

I pulled up the Globe and Mail review on my phone.

Intelligent?  Enthralling?

As I read the descriptor I thought that, for certain, this book would pull me out of my comfort zone and possibly create some overlap with my past interest in Ray Bradbury and also Anne Rice.  I thought, “Come on, Kath…give it a whirl.”

Oh!  What a disappointment.

I write in the front cover of every book, once I’ve completed it.  This has been my practice ever since my cousin’s son came into my library space and asked, “Are you one of these people who collects books just to show off…how many of these have you actually read?”  Sometimes stories escape my memory, and so I began the practice of inscribing my brief thoughts on a title, in the case that one day (and I hope they do…for the most part) these books fall into the hands of other readers.  I love the physicality of books, and sadly enough, I find that most times that I go to the library, the titles I’m looking for are on hold for other readers.  I can wait weeks and weeks and I haven’t quite gotten into the swing of being organized that way.

As I open the front cover of Little Sisters…the inscription is sadly, negative.

IMG_1276

I’m not going to review the narrative…the characters are interesting, I guess.  I find the writing a bit superficial, lacking in depth, description or intrigue.  And yet, given that we all have our preferences,  there are countless reviews that are favourable and a lot of readers who loved this book…that’s just the nature of personal preference in reading.  I’m glad I took on a personal challenge to expand horizons and see what else is out there.  I never truly regret reading a book.  Every book generates new thought…the nature of the beast.

I’ll point you in the direction of another review for Little Sisters...the Globe and Mail is likely the strongest.  Here, you will see the book described as exploring empathy…also the relationships of sisters/daughters/mothers….I would agree, but I’ve read so many books that did better.  In order to deal authentically in the psyche, as a manifestation, in writing…it would take some kind of writer!

I’d be interested in seeing if any of my readers have a different experience of this book and/or if they have read other titles by the same author?

Some comments from her own website…

“For almost 30 years Barbara Gowdy has been cutting wildly surreal, sometimes hyperreal, paths into the kind of truth recognized with the heart as much as the mind… Little Sister is a supernatural domestic thriller and a crackling tour de force.  Thanks to Gowdy’s electric style and vision, the result is unforgettable.”
The Sunday New York Times

“Electrifying. Gowdy sucks readers into this suspenseful, supernatural story like a strong wind in a squall.”
Kirkus (starred review)

“Highly readable prose, an intriguing premise, and vivid storytelling.”
Quill and Quire (starred review)

“Gowdy’s new novel weaves an inventive, spellbinding tale of loss, regret, and redemption that takes a heartfelt look at what it means to be a mother, daughter, and sister.  A thrilling, captivating exploration of guilt, the female psyche, and the bonds of womanhood.”
Publisher’s Weekly

“Barbara Gowdy is a magical storyteller.  Little Sister is a gem, powered by Gowdy’s incredible fabulist imagination.”
BBC — “Must Reads”