The Visions of Emma Blau by Ursula Hegi

I cranked up Bruce Cockburn’s Bone on Bone this morning, washed up the stack of dishes sitting in the bottom of the sink and thought about the possibilities of the day.  The words of a meditation that was sent to my mail box was sitting with me, “For Bonaventure, the perfection of God and God’s creation is quite simply a full circle, and to be perfect the circle must and will complete itself.”  Bruce Cockburn’s words to Looking and Waiting.

looking and waiting — it’s what I do
scanning the skies for a beacon from you
shapes on the curtain, but no clear view
of you

you’re a warm bright window lighting up the rain
I catch a glimpse of the glow but I still remain
outside where the shadows pool and bleed
chimney silhouettes semaphore in a code I cannot read

looking and waiting — it’s what I do
scanning the skies for a beacon from you
shapes on the curtain, but no clear view
of you

you’re like the leaves that come down from the trees
a suggestion of a springtime to be
crunching underfoot outlined in frost
full of promise for the return of something lost

looking and waiting — it’s what I do
scanning the skies for a beacon from you
shapes on the curtain, but no clear viewv of you

looking and waiting — it’s what I do

Having recently suffered the loss of a friend…having written yesterday about being a grandmother…I do firmly believe that the Alpha and Omega bring us to a place in our journey where there is no distinction, anymore, between the two.  The circle.

What does any of this have to do with Ursula Hegi’s novel, The Vision of Emma Blau?  Previously, I have read Stones From the River and Floating in my Mother’s Palm and in my mind, the same themes are fundamental to all three books.

In Hegi’s writing, there is an unbelievable attention paid to the development of the pysche for each character.  It is as though she builds each person from the inside-out.  We know all of their fears and motivations, their crushing blows to the soul, before we know how this, then, is expressed through the events of the narrative.  If the reader is an empath, this is a deepening experience and the reading becomes rich and heart-rending.  Some of my friends would put the book down for this very reason.

This particular story takes us on a journey with Stefan Blau, a protagonist who teaches us as much about his lineage in the past as in the future, all the way forward to Emma.   Hegi writes this story’s beginning in the same fictional town as this reader encountered in both Stones From the River and Floating in my Mother’s Palm.  About this, I dig to learn more about the author and where better, but on Oprah.com…

About the Author
“When I came to this country as an 18-year old,” Hegi reflects, “I found that Americans of my generation knew more about the Holocaust than I did. When I was growing up, you could not ask about it; it was absolutely taboo. We grew up with the silence.” For this reason, when people asked Ursula Hegi where she was from, she used to wish she could answer Norway or Holland. Hegi soon discovered that it was impossible to leave behind one’s origins. “The older I got, the more I realized that I am inescapably encumbered with the heritage of my country’s history.”

While her first two books, Intrusions, and Unlearned Pleasures and Other Stories, were set in the U.S., it was with her third book, Floating in My Mother’s Palm, that Hegi took the important step of exploring her conflict over her cultural identity. As she explains: “My own acute discomfort at being German is very much at the core of my writing.”

In Floating in My Mother’s Palm, Hegi first introduces readers to the inhabitants of Burgdorf, a fictional German town loosely based on her hometown during the 1950s. With her “prequel,” Stones from the River, Hegi extends her portrayal of Burgdorf’s characters, and the exploration of her own heritage, by including the several decades preceding World War II and its immediate aftermath.

Stones from the River is Hegi’s attempt to understand the silence of towns throughout Germany that tolerated persecution of Jews during the war and enabled a community to quiet its conscience once the truths of the Holocaust were revealed. Hegi immersed herself in historical material on the Holocaust to write the book. “It was an important part of my journey, of integrating the past within myself.” She also asked to interview her aged godmother about the period, who, to her surprise, complied. Hegi is pleased that Stones from the River will be published in Germany next year.

She is currently at work on another Burgdorf-based novel, The Passion of Emma Blau, and a nonfiction work, Tearing the Silence: On Being German in America.

The winner of numerous honors and awards, including an NEA fellowship and five PEN syndicated fiction awards, Hegi is an Associate Professor at Eastern Washington University where she teaches creative writing and contemporary literature. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her partner Gordon Gagliano and has two sons, ages 21 and 24.

To arrive at Emma Blau, readers must find themselves in the ‘magical’ creation of Wasserburg in New Hampshire.  The settings, with their intricate detail and description, come alive for readers and their beauty and mystery somehow create relief from the painful loss within the family, the separation, the hard work and the challenges of being German in a small community before, during and after World War II.

Of such experience of disconnection, Hegi writes, “To detect rot is often impossible in its early stages,” German-American novelist Ursula Hegi warns in “The Vision of Emma Blau.” “It starts beneath lush surfaces, spreading its sweet-nasty pulp, tainting memories and convictions. It entangles. Justifies.” 

It is a marvel how Hegi gets us to America.  We do the ocean crossing with Stefan.  We anticipate the marriages, the losses.  We sometimes feel bitter about what seem to be selfish dreams. His Wasserburg becomes an opulent return to the best of Germany, on the humble and wild setting of the American countryside.  Hegi writes about the ‘real’, not the imagined.  Wasserburg becomes a living, breathing presence that evolves over a century and with Emma, Stefan’s grand daughter’s birth, becomes an extension of her very soul.

If one is not concerned with ‘spoilers’ and doesn’t mind a lot of injected advertisements, this is my favourite review on the book.  If you take on this book, I’d suggest beginning with one of the other two; they have become known loosely as the Burgdorf Cycle.  I would also like to hear from my readers about how you feel about dear Helene Montag, a female character who is insanely frustrating.

This book was intended to be my ‘escapist’ novel over the Christmas holiday, but it turned out to be another connection with the abhorrent racism that lurks in the muck of the human spirit…just another expression of the same.IMG_3748

Inscription inside my second-hand book copy of Stones From the River by Ursula Hegi…love books that include an inscription…this one, perfectly, a sister to her brother, Gabe.

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And my own writing in the front cover of Floating in my Mother’s Palm by Ursula Hegi.

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The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of The Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

This is a quick post.  I read Michael Finkel’s book, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit in two evenings…it was more an experience, than anything.  Written about Christopher Knight, a man who at the age of twenty slipped into a thick wood and didn’t have a conversation with another human being for thirty years, this book is an unusual narrative, with moments of real revelation. I was fascinated by the story and throughout, couldn’t really come to terms with a mixture of emotions…revulsion, sadness, envy or curiosity (of the ambulance-chaser sort).

Honestly, I think it is the most interesting thing that Christopher Knight and the family that knew him, opened up to Michael Finkel enough for him to collect the content for this writing.  So, the process of research and respectful communication of this content was just as fascinating to me and generously included.

I had read, a long time ago, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.  I suppose one could make comparisons between the two books.  However, I think that Christopher Knight’s methodical approach to stealing food and supplies is what, ultimately, kept him alive over decades and in the end, led to his capture.  Enduring isolation of the northern Alaskan wilderness, Christopher Johnson McCandless was in true ‘survival’ mode, leading to the eventual and mysterious loss of his life, probably four months after disappearing.  It was obvious, in reading both, that there were motivations to disconnect from society, but both men did that in very different ways.

From Goodreads, I’ve lifted these words.  I like that Michael Finkel responded to the reader…

I haven’t read this but not likely to. The mere fact that he stole from people that worked hard for what they had…the fact that for 27 years this community in Maine lived in fear because of these unsolved burglaries that he committed is beyond shameful. He didn’t live off the grid. He lived off of other people who worked for a living. “He survived by his wits and courage” ?? No. I don’t think so.

Response from Michael Finkel: “Hello. I’m the journalist who wrote this book. Chris Knight — the hermit — is not portrayed, not for a page, as some sort of angelic hero in the book. Knight himself did not want to be portrayed that way. He confessed to 1,000 break-ins, one of the most extensive burglary cases in U.S. history. He tormented people. But — he also never physically harmed anyone, never carried a weapon, never stole anything of great monetary value, never shattered a window or kicked down a door. He had a wildly unusual idea for how to live, and he lived in a way radically different from any other human you will ever encounter, and he has an awesome and daunting brain — he is, I feel certain, a genius — and he has insights into modern society and solitude and the meaning of life that you will find nowhere else. “Take the good with the bad,” Knight told me, when speaking of how he should be portrayed in my book, and I did. I firmly believe that in the good are some incredible insights, and in the bad is a fascinating true-crime tale. And please note — Knight is receiving no money from this project. A summer camp for children and adults with mental and physical disabilities (The Pine Tree Camp), from which Knight frequently stole, will instead be receiving donations.”

Having read the book, I am glad to encounter this response, as it does represent the book very well.   I felt, at times, compassion for Christopher Knight, wondering what feelings and experiences within him, motivated such a disappearance and disconnect from his life.

As Calgary suffers such a bitterly cold winter, I also truly engaged the stories of survival that involved planning and revising a nest/camp.  The description of winter, alone, is enough to keep me from ever wondering about doing this same thing!

Christopher Knight told this story, as much as Michael Finkel did.  If my readers enjoy adventure or are taken by very unusual characters, this is the book for you.

It was good to meet Michael Finkel and to have him expand upon the narratives that connected him to his character.

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Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World by Michael Harris

I’m struggling with writing lately…it’s been so long since I’ve posted to my blog and yet so many amazing experiences have come and gone.  Something that is keeping me from the comfort of writing is that the past six months or so I have had a number of ‘floaters’ appear in my vision; first the left eye, then the right, and now the little squiggles have moved in my left.  It’s as though my brain is constantly having to edit out these obstructions to my vision and looking at a screen just makes it worse.  A symptom of aging, the eye specialists have assured me that, as yet, the retinas are not involved.  As a visual person, this has been disconcerting and I suppose I could write an entire piece about that, alone, but I’m here to write about Solitude.

I met Michael Harris at Wordfest.  The particular session I attended impacted me so much that I ended up purchasing books from each of the four authors and am happy to say that Christmas vacation was the perfect time to curl up and read them all, as well as others from my book shelf.  I had a very intense reading period through the holiday and I spent most of that time alone, eating a little too much chocolate.

I found the book, Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World, compelling.   If you troll the internet, you will see that reviews are either very positive OR are insistent that this is a book written for ‘old people’.  So mayhaps ONLY BOOMERS will like this book.  I disagree!  I think some very discerning and weary millennials are suffering the backlash of ‘real’ disconnection.

I am one of the ‘old people’ who, in retrospect, feel concern for the gradual erosion of our time alone, our sense of creativity and playfulness, our disassociation with ‘uncomfortable-ness’ and our loss of ‘written’ language’ and mark-making.  The past few years, I have become a part of a very odd little subset of humanity…people who watch birds…people who photograph birds…and in my encounters with them, I see a particular kind of desperation to connect with the innate need for genuine solitude and as a result, genuine connection.

Solitude (shortening the title for a matter of expediency) was a book that suited my constantly-inquiring mind and opened up some revelation about the current state of the human family inhabiting this earth.  From what I can see, in my very small sampling of that earth, the author is right on!  This was one of the most invigorating reads that I’ve enjoyed in a long time…well, since reading Kyo Maclear’s  Birds, Art Life and that wasn’t too long ago.

For the first many pages/chapters…I read, turning pages, while curled under a blanket on the red couch.  But it wasn’t long and I pulled out a highlighter.  My review will take the shape of the posting of some of the views that align with mine.  Here are some of my highlighted bits…please, don’t let these bits keep you from reading the entire book!

Do I get a thumbs up for this? (laughing, as I type)

Having driven the 401 so many times, all by myself, with Max, the chapter where Michael Harris explored our reliance on Google Maps and a GPS really spoke to me.  I’m ‘that lady’, out there, with paper maps and slipping in and out of small towns along the way.  I’ve been lost and I’ve gotten off the highway, using the wrong exit.  Those experiences created some initial panic at times but, in the end, I found my way.  I met new people.  I saw surprising things.

These past years, since retirement, I’ve been circling a pond…I’ve been exploring my city…I’ve been traveling Canada by road.  I’ve been traveling inward and seeing magnificent worlds.  It is a different sort of travel…not better or worse than international travel.  The only thing about my sort of travel is that people don’t ask about it.  There is no sort of admiration or public support for my kind of travel.  While one person may see a pyramid, I might be seeing this. The same wonder is to be had…the same awe.

Reading!!  When a person shares something on a social media site, how many people ‘really’ read it, from beginning to end?  I agree with the following insight.If you have not yet read Rebecca Solnit’s A History of Walking…please do.  She is another one of my favourite authors, currently.
Ah….the lost act of letter-writing!  While my Christmas cards have yet to be written, I do try to write letters with intent and it always feels wonderful to put things in the post box. I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandson and solitude.  It’s natural when you’re a Gramma for the first time.

I really treasure the ideas captured in this book.  I hope that my readers will enjoy it as much.

In the meantime, I will continue to nurture and enjoy my solitude.  It has left me, recently, being honest about not enjoying large group events where I must mingle.  It helps me admit my enjoyment of being alone and apart, as well as helps me understand why I enjoy small group visits so much.

 

Booth’s Class Reads The Mitten Tree by Candace Christiansen

As we moved through Advent at what seemed to be warp speed, I had the opportunity to be with Ashley’s class of Grade fours for a day.  The students were bright-eyed and receptive…an awesome little group.  Woven through the day seemed to be a theme of gift.  So, the story book that I had packed into my bag at home, seemed like it would work just perfectly.

The story I brought was The Mitten Tree by Candace Christiansen, illustrated by Elaine Greenstein.

I felt very peaceful.  Ashley’s class knows classroom routines and the learning environment feels ordered and safe. As we shared a discussion about gift, a story of my own came to mind.

I shared with the class my son’s most perfect gift to me…so many years ago, and I felt emotional, thinking about it.

In the afternoon, I pulled out my book and read it aloud to the students.  No matter the age, students, for the most part, fall silent at the reading of a picture book.  It was no different on that day.  While I’m not crazy about this particular delivery, I did find the story on Youtube.

I would consider the painting activity to be an Expression lesson.  I did not focus too much on skills related to depiction or composition, but focused on how to hold a brush and the idea of stroking paint instead of scrubbing paint.  I guess the interesting thing about asking the students to paint two mittens is the idea that the patterns would match…so they were exploring two things in duplicate.  At some point, I adjusted my own system of sharing buckets of coloured tempera, but quickly fell back to my fail safe routine when I observed the chaos in trading that can ensue.  I had intentionally limited the number of buckets I prepared on this day for the simple reason that I didn’t want a big clean up at end of day, so I prepared 14 buckets for 24 students.  Normally, I would prepare 18.  So, you can imagine that, at times, you would hear someone belt out, “Are you done with the white?”

Thank you, Dana, for your wonderful assist.

The paintings, in the end, were lovely. The Pinterest crowd will find a whole variety of projects based on this story book including fabric arts, oil pastel drawings and paper cut outs…lots that you can do around a story. Advent and Christmas art abounds at the moment, I thought that these paintings might bring the spirit of winter into the classroom, for a longer duration.  Thank you, Ashley.  Thank you, Grade four students. I had a beautiful day!

 

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.

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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

 

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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.

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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.

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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”

 

The Poems of Clea Roberts

The poetry of Clea Roberts has been a source of great inspiration since attending a Wordfest session, Into the Quiet, this year.  Every poem is an elegant string of words, sparse but potent.  I am left, after reading, with a sense of wonderment about this world of ours.

Because of the immediacy of social media, I have been able to access other people’s travel, adventure and world exploration over months and years…Nepal, Venice, Spain, Croatia, Haida Gwaii.  I get the sense of how vast our life experiences can be…to eat seafood in Japan, observe the art of the masters in far off galleries, stand at the top of the Empire State building.  I enjoy all of this very much.  It all comes into my home, while I sit in my pyjamas at the keyboard, with my cup of coffee on the desk, to my right.

However, nothing moves me more than these poems.  Because somewhere in these images, lies the remembrance of camping with my parents, the smell of woodfires burning, the soft conversations as neighbours drift off to sleep.  The childhood listening.

It was some years ago that I spent time observing this schematic, the scale of the universe.  I realized even before encountering this illustration that just as there are so many more places to explore beyond our own communities, there are a multitude of places to visit in our own intimate surroundings, and to go deeper still, there are internal landscapes to explore.  The universe offers so many compelling and endless possibilities for discovery that it is an easy thing to become fascinated with the world that lives even on the petals of a flower.

The poems of Clea Roberts take me to that beautiful intimate place of connection in a much smaller place, full of limitless possibilities.

In the meantime, for two weeks, I have been observing a single Horned Grebe on a pond, hoping to capture a just one focused photograph.  I have watched muskrats frantically building winter homes in the cattails on the north side of the fence while bulldozers plow and reshape former dwellings.  I see miracles every evening as the sun begins to set.

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One poem to share this morning…from Auguries by Clea Roberts

If Suddenly My Dreams Are Premonitions

There is music or
there is snow falling
on the white-tailed deer.

They strip the ash berries
with precise, needful tugs.

There is music or
there is the gliding silence
between their hoofbeats
as the wind changes.

An introduction is made.
A small part of me
goes with them.

 

Where I Live Now by Sharon Butala

It was 1996 when I received the gift of Perfection of the Morning from a friend.  Sharyn had grown to mean so much to me over the years, having taught my children and worked along side me for the strength of Fine Arts in Education.  Her gift was a blessing and I began to list Sharon Butala as one of my favourite authors.  I felt Butala’s work really move my life forward in positive and meaningful ways.  Interesting that yesterday, when I looked over my shoulder from the front of the crowded room at the Fish Creek CPL, I should see Sharyn sitting in the back row.

The book on the program for readings and discussion was Sharon Butala’s Where I Live Now.  I was flanked on either side by two dear friends, Pat on one side and Denise on the other.  I had never met the author and was beyond excited, packing up all of my books for Sharon’s generous signing before the session began.  Because Denise knows Sharon personally, it felt as though I was sitting down next to a friend when she sat in the front row, with my stack in front of her.

This short post is a snapshot of the afternoon, not so much a personal book review, although as I’ve written on this blog since 2005, there are posts along the way that were impacted by my readings of Butala’s books…one being Wild Stone Heart and Other Matters.

Art to Adore

The Globe and Mail review, written by Alix Hawley, eloquently expresses…

For all that, Where I Live Now isn’t a map of grief’s progress in the mode of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, to which it refers several times. Butala’s quiet and unusual book is an excavation of the Prairies, rural life and, above all, herself. She declares: “With this memoir, I hereby claim forever my portion of that country whose many layers … still resonate in my imagination.” She also claims an archeological knowledge of her own soul, now that she is in her mid-70s, and the right to take us through it. We’re lucky to go along.

And that is how I felt yesterday…blessed…enriched…treated to a very special moment on a Sunday afternoon.  Sharon’s eyes lit up as she enthusiastically described her experiences on the ranch, her memories, transitions and disappointments. In good humoured and delightful fashion, she talked about the prizes of writing and the surprises of writing. Vulnerable, she spoke of loneliness, identity, and hope.  The topics in discussion were ones that often cross my mind as a 62 year old woman, single in the world.

I think that one of my favourite moments, related to the book, was the recollection of the special day when Sharon edged the top of a ridge, to look down and see her husband, Peter, sleeping in the grass in one of the fields…I felt as though she had let us in to a very private and pivotal moment in her experience.  I felt very touched by that.

I enjoy the company of my friends and treasured conversations with Denise, Pat and Sharyn.  What a lovely way to spend Sunday afternoon.  Thanks again, CPL.