other people’s bookshelves

 

It’s Wednesday, which means I ought to be posting a mysterious photo or story prompt… more or less a self-imposed rule, which makes it easy to break.

Instead, I want to talk about bookshelves, other people’s, and how a recent snoop is connected to last Wednesday’s mysterious photo.

Snoop is a harsh word. I was more ‘browsing’ at the cottage where we stayed recently, a remote place in 300 acres of forest, on a lake, surrounded by trails and perfect snowshoeing conditions. We go to this place every year for the seclusion and disconnection from everything other than books, food, wine and fireplace (tea and starlight and thick blankets on the deck also allowed).

As always, my travel bag is mainly filled with books, even for just a few days. But if there’s a bookshelf where I’m staying, chances are I’ll be seduced. (There is something so satisfying in perusing other people’s bookshelves.)

It should be noted that my interest is not to see what they’re reading, as in current titles… bore bore bore… but rather what they’ve collected, the quirky books that might have been culled over time but were kept instead. Those are the ones I’m drawn to. Cloth covers and dust, that kind of thing. Also how the books are filed is interesting… alphabetically, by subject, theme, mood…

This place does it ‘by subject’, which subjects include theology, Shakespeare, political memoir, climate, history, nature, art, Ireland, novels about Ireland, and classic novels, the Brontes, etc., as well as obscure (to me) volumes of poetry such as ‘I Take it Back’, by Margaret Fishback, who strikes me as a sort of poetic Dorothy Parker for all of her delicious rhyming sarcasm as she comments on the state of society. (The rhyming, of course, is essential to the sarcasm.)

To a Baby One Day Old

It seems a sweet absurdity
to call so small a morsel ‘he’.

I mean, to think she was writing about gender identity in the 1930’s…

And this, a little tongue in cheek for, well, you know who you are.

On My Toes

I’m the pronunciation snob who knows
how to cope with the Ballet Joose…
nor does the Monte Carlo Ballet Russe
stagger me as it may do youse.

**

I also read about Lewis and Clarke and how Lewis was a bit of a jackass who thought very highly of his white self and neglected to give credit to the Shoshone wife of a member of the their crew. Her name was Sacagawea and without her they’d have been sunk as she was the only one who knew the terrain, the language and how to navigate the territory, including interactions with indigenous ‘residents’. Fortunately the transcribing of Lewis and Clarke’s journals fell to Clarke after Lewis’s death and he, being a much more decent bloke, gave her the credit she deserved (and which Lewis had conveniently left out of his own notes).

**

And I read about Emily Carr, who I’ve read, and read about, many times. But this was different in that the book I found was a rather obscure volume, written by one of her art students and life long friend, Carol Pearson. And not only was Pearson a friend of Carr, she grew up to be Aunt Carol to the people who own the cottage we were staying in. And not only that but Aunt Carol had a small cabin of her own in these very woods, which is now ramshackle (but the dish rack remains) and every time we’ve been up here I’ve passed it and wondered who it belonged to. And now I know.

This is what happens when you snoop in people’s bookshelves.

I mean browse.

Other (not always) wordless friends:

Cheryl Andrews
Allison Howard
Barbara Lambert
Allyson Latta
Elizabeth Yeoman

 

this is not a review — good night stories for rebel girls, by elena favilli and francesca cavallo

 

I only meant to peruse this book but ending up reading it in one sitting like a bag of chips… just one more, etc., until the bag was empty.

It was a beautiful few hours.

100 bite-sized entries (a single large print page each) of 100 women known and unknown, all of whom have contributed extraordinarily to all aspects of society.

Intended for children, it’s really a quite marvellous read for all ages, a kind of SparkNotes for anyone who’d like to be introduced to highly influential women of history (and present times), most of whom you’ve never heard of.

The condensed format is no small potatoes. As anyone who writes will know, making marvellous out of few words is hard work. (Consider the old saying….”Please excuse the length of this letter; if I’d had more time it would have been shorter.”)

And then there’s the art… beautifully coloured illustrations… one for each ‘bio’, each by various female artists from around the world.

In the Preface, co-authors Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo write “…trust is not something women get to experience very often… “  They’re referring in part to the women in the book who “…No matter the importance of their discoveries, the audacity of their adventures, the width of their genius… were constantly belittled, forgotten, in some cases almost erased from history,”  but this reference of trust is also for the ‘now’, in its acknowledgement of the overwhelming response to monies raised through crowd-funding in order to publish the book, people (from over 70 countries) who trusted and believed that a book like this was necessary.

The first entry belongs to Ada Lovelace, a 19th century British mathematician whose bio begins, story-like….”Once upon a time, there was a girl named Ada who loved machines. She also loved the idea of flying. She studied birds to work out the perfect balance between wing size…” etc., and ends about 250 words later with this:  “Ada wrote the first computer program in history.”

While each ‘story’ begins differently, they all have their own tone. I love Ada’s for its tra la opening, all birdies and the fanciful idea of flight, followed by that big tekkie punch of an ending.

And so it goes, each double page spread a whole new person and their world.

Among the stories featured, a cyclist (who broke records but was ultimately forbidden from competing because she was a woman), a blind ballerina who went on to found the National Ballet of Cuba, the President of Mauritius (who is also a Scientist devoted to the environment), the 22 year old Canadian inventor of a flashlight that’s powered by body heat (and which won first prize at the Google Science Fair), a Russian journalist who risked her life to expose the truth about Chechnya, an Italian woman who is today considered one of the greatest painters of all time.

And how lovely to meet Astrid Lindgren (Pippi Longstocking), and Catherine the Great who did great things in Russia (including having her creepy husband Peter imprisoned, and Bolivian skirt-wearing mountaineers, Cleopatra (I didn’t know how powerful she was or that she was the last pharaoh to rule Egypt…. given how the focus on her, historically, has been her looks and that stupid asp; in fact her motto was “I will not be triumphed over.”). And then there’s Hatshepsut, another Egyptian pharoah. Huh, imagine.

And Coco Chanel and Cora Coralina, a beloved Brazlian poet and baker, and Elizabeth I who was locked in the Tower of London by her rotten sister Mary and who, when Mary died, became Queen and created a merry court of music, poetry, painting and theatre, a great admirer of Shakespeare. She was a very good Queen.

The book is alphabetical and I’m only at the E’s so, really, I shouldn’t go on, except that I will because from E to Z there are activists, politicians, Florence Nightingale, Frida Kahlo, computer scientists (one of whom was crucial to the success of the moon landing in 1969), a couple of pirates and a sailor, Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, war heroes, writers and astronomers, Jane Goodall, Empress Jingu of Japan who successfully led an army and who people assumed had magical powers because otherwise how could a woman successfully lead an army?, Joan Jett, Julia Child.

I’m leaving out several and haven’t even mentioned suffragettes and a formula one racer, an Apache warrior, astronaut, architect, doctors, athletes, a surgeon, a boxer, Malala Yousafzai, the Saudi Arabian woman who said screw it, I’m going to drive a car and you can too!, an archaeologist, paleontologist, a German naturalist who discovered the process of metamorphosis, Marie Curie, the first female tattoo artist, a surfer, Maya Angelou, trombonist Melba Liston (who began her career playing with Billie Holiday),  a drummer, a couple of spies, Queen Nanny of the Maroons who saved her people from starvation, the geneticist who discovered male/female chromosomes, Nina Simone, a Jewish scientist in Europe during WWII (a tricky thing to be), an explorer, a marine biologist, an orchestra conductor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg…

A nice touch is the very last double page spread, which is blank for the reader’s own story and self portrait.

“May [these] portraits impress upon our daughters the solid belief that beauty manifests itself in all shapes and colours, and at all ages. May each reader know the greatest success is to live a life full of passion, curiosity, and generosity. May we all remember every day that we have the right to be happy and to explore widely… [and] feel hope and enthusiasm [for] a world where gender will not define how big you can dream, how far you can go.”

This is a book for every girl.

Every boy too.

*

Also a web site which feels a little like a happy Revolution..

 

My source, Blue Heron Books…

(support indies!).

this is not a review: ‘everybody’s different on everybody street’, written by sheree fitch; illust. by emma fitzgerald

 
This morning I made a pot of lemon verbena/peppermint/orange mint tea with leaves from my garden and read Sheree Fitch and Emma Fitzgerald’s extraordinary Everybody’s Different on Everybody Street.

Is there a better way to start the day than tea and a (picture) book?

Answer: hardly.

And so I sipped. And marvelled over the brilliantly colourful, completely delicious illustrations… (birdcages on head, balloons up one’s skirt, laundry and tomatoes on the roof, street meditation in the presence of turtles [personal favourite], an empty fridge, a command to dance, someone in a wheelchair, others kissing in a tree, a homeless man, an angry woman, images of loneliness and images of joy, all woven against a background of a father reading a story to a young child who imagines this ‘Everybody Street’ as crowded with so many ‘others’ and who comes to realize all of those people are actually one…that we are all of those people and all of those people are us… “Yes… EVERYONE is travelling on EveryBody Street and EveryOne IS EveryOne and AnyOne you meet…”

And as I read I could feel emotions rising as the everbodyness  contained in Fitch’s buoyant poetry practically floated off the pages.

This book is a testament to community, and to joy. It’s also about mental health/illness in its many forms. And to be honest, the power of it kind of takes you by surprise.

Oh but we are in such good hands here because, as only Fitch can do, we are gently (playfully!) shown that all those people who look and act ‘differently’, who for whatever reason fall outside the punishing parameters of what society calls ‘normal’… are simply displaying aspects of being human that we all share.

The very young will only see peacocks and happy chaos… in the way of the very young, who don’t judge. But the message of inclusivity is there, the subliminal suggestion of non-judgement and, for those old enough to understand or who, in the company of a reader sensitive enough to explain, it becomes a thing to celebrate, to embrace, the beginning of meaningful conversation.

I look forward to sharing this with my eight year old niece. We will eat french fries at the beach while we read and we will talk about how we feel some of these feelings some of the time and we’ll notice people around us and make up lives for them… and remind ourselves that they have feelings too.

(The Afterword, written by Fitch, explaining the motivation behind the story, and the difficulty of taking on this subject, is an equally powerful read, in which Fitch says “I don’t like poems that tell me how to think; I like poems that make me think.”)

What a bold book.

And what an important one.

 

I got my copy at Blue Heron Books, and you can too!

Support indies!

 

this is not a review: ‘the book of marvels’, by lorna crozier

 
I have a fondness for the overlooked and easily abandoned, things that seemingly have no use or appear to be limited in their use or have the misfortune of being in the company of people with no imagination. I suspect Lorna Crozier shares this fondness because The Book of Marvels  is dedicated to exactly that… the easily overlooked, the rarely if ever thought about, things that are right there, like air and eggs, ironing boards, crowbars, darkness and the brain… “The brain thinking about itself is thinking about the brain thinking. The brain not thinking about itself is thinking about the brain not thinking.”

I could just stop right there and mull that over for half a day.

But I’m compelled to read on, to savour the next bite-sized morsel, one more beautifully presented, poetic prosey observation about something I’ve never thought of in quite the way I’m reading it here. I make my way through the book like it’s a bar of 85% chocolate.

About the sky… “The sky is a blouse snatched from the back of a woman. No. The sky is a muddle of clouds that won’t sit still in the lecture hall. No…”

And then I look up at the sky and ask is it a blouse?  Yes of course! And no.

About a clothes hanger, Crozier points out the “cryptic punctuation mark”, the “?” atop the ‘shoulders’ of the wire or plastic or wooden frame, shoulders that are hidden by clothes but the “?” is always visible,  creating within our closets a row of “?????????????”…  that “bring to your attention …the multitude of questions whose answers you don’t know.”

She refers to feet as our “nethermost telluric twins” and I’ve learned a new word. And then she goes on to reflect on the moment of their first walking out of prehistoric waters “… our spines straightening, our gills slamming shut, the salt on our skin crusting in the dry air, our hands astonished into being hands and not another pair of feet.”

The hinges of a bird’s wings, the way one word hinges on another… how this is where poetry begins.

The pointlessness of an ear lobe.

The way a stone is “… a clock whose face you can’t read.”

The book is small. The marvels take up no more than a page each, a short paragraph or two. They are listed alphabetically. The only item under ‘O’ is ‘Objects’ in which Crozier quotes William Matthews who said “… if an object fails to interest us, it’s not its fault but our own.”

Couldn’t agree more. The Book of Marvels  is rich with the fruit of paying attention to connections, to the minutia that surrounds us, the frippery that has nothing yet everything to do with how we live. It’s a book that changes how you look at a flashlight, an eraser or a doorknob.

And isn’t that just so refreshing?

__

 

The Book of Marvels  is available online at Blue Heron Books
and Hunter Street Books.

Support indies! (These are two of my faves.)

 

 

 

menstrual memories anyone?

 
A new anthology, called GUSH: Menstrual Manifestos For Our Times, is making some people uncomfortable… why must these things be spoken of??

And making others relieved… thank god we can finally speak.

Because I have a short piece in the book (about the perils of attending a pool party in the 1970’s), and because I believe in saying the word menstruation out loud,
I recently sat outside Blue Heron Books with a little sign that said Menstrual Memories?  —  And waited to see what would happen.

Young children were rushed past.

Men looked uncomfortable. Women too. One woman actually sneered.

But after a while, I noticed people coming back, and some of them stopped. Then many more stopped. It was as if they’d been initially blindsided by the question… but… now that you mention it, yeah, I do have some memories I’d like to share.

And so they shared.

Menstrual memories.

And why not?

A man asked if he could take a picture of the table. I asked if he had any menstrual memories. He said no. We laughed and I liked that the word was spoken between genders. It’s hard enough sometimes just between women.

And that of course IS the whole point of the book, i.e.Why are women made to feel awkward and embarrassed about a basic function of biology?

The first to stop was an 83 year old woman from Cape Breton who whispered about shame and flannel cloths worn like diapers, about the horror of washing them and hanging them to dry. After a few minutes she stopped whispering as one memory twigged another and her friends got into it, all of them swapping stories, and I could tell they’d never had this conversation or anything like it before. As she began to leave, she stopped, smiled and said thank you, this has been fun. She seemed slightly surprised that it turned out that way. And I have no doubt that part of the fun was the relief of speaking the words… at last.

Following are memories so many women shared with me… on a sidewalk, outside a bookstore, on a beautiful summer night… in their own words:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My aunt was on holiday in Austria and her ankles got so swollen she went to see a doctor and discovered she was eight months pregnant. She’d gained some weight but still had her period and so it was a complete shock. My cousin was born the next month and my aunt and uncle quickly got married and moved in together.

When I got my cycle at age thirteen my mum told me I had to carry a purse for “my stuff”. The way she said it was like it was the worst thing on earth.

My dad worked in a factory that made menstrual products and got an employee discount but was too embarrassed to bring them home in the company box, which ‘advertised’ what was inside and so made a whole production out of wrapping the box in brown paper so that neighbours wouldn’t be any the wiser as he brought it into the house from the car. It was treated like contraband.

I was an immigrant and there was a questionnaire at school. One of the questions had the word “menstrual” in it and I didn’t understand, exactly. But I didn’t ask what it meant. It was like I had an idea it shouldn’t be said out loud.

My mom left a booklet about “being a woman” on my dresser one day. In my closet, that same day, on the top shelf, was a box that had a lovely picture on it of a lovely woman in a long white gown. I was very excited about my new dress (which I assumed was inside!!).

My period started on the way home from school on the #28 Davisville bus. Me in my school uniform: white blouse, kilt, knee socks, blazer. I felt the ‘gush’ and when I stood up I was mortified. I tied the blazer around myself as I exited the bus.

I can’t remember what I said, nothing big, I’d simply mentioned my period in conversation to my boyfriend, who became (immediately) enraged. The details are a blur. All I remember is how angry he was that I said whatever I said out loud, like blasphemy or something. I have never, not once, spoken a word about my period to any guy since. Including my husband.

Boys made jokes about girls who were on their periods. (On the rag & worse.)

Try using an outhouse when you have your period.

When I got my period my mother took me aside and said I was to avoid boys now. She didn’t clarify why or which boys so I avoided them all, including my brothers, to the point that I was afraid if our elbows touched as we passed on the stairs. It completely changed our relationship.

Got my period at eleven. I was on a toboggan with two boys.

My favourite menstrual thought:  I look forward to menopause!

A menstrual memory for me is when I was in my twenties and playing softball. I was either pitching or shortstop, and I felt something. Uh oh…

My periods were heavy and I didn’t carry a purse. I worked as an auctioneer.
I used to keep extra pads down the sides of my cowboy boots.

I remember watching TV with my dad and my brothers and running from the room in embarrassment when Kotex ads came on.

My periods stopped the day my mother died. I could feel it starting as I sat with her in the hospital. She died that night, and my period proceeded normally for the rest of week. And that was it. I never had another. I was only in my forties.

We didn’t have products. We used flannel cloths, like diapers, and they had to be washed and dried and re-used. It was an embarrassment when it was your time because people would see the bulge of the pin through your skirt.

My periods were so bad I had to take three days off school most months.

I lived near the ocean and it was a real concern, people would tell you not to swim, to be careful of sharks, and they weren’t kidding.

 

GUSH: Menstrual Manifestos For Our Times available from Blue Heron Books

Support indies!

 

 

this is not a review: summer reading

 

A Celibate Season,  by Blanche Howard and Carol Shields

A Vancouver woman leaves her family for a ten month assignment in Ottawa where she works on the National Commission for Women and Poverty. This is the 1980’s and she and her husband communicate by letter and occasional phone calls (when the phone bill has been paid and the line functioning). There are a few meet-ups during the ten months but they increasingly parallel the changes that each partner is experiencing as they discover themselves and each other through ‘abstinence’. Beautifully written, in alternating voices by Blanche Howard and Carol Shields in a kind of nifty repartee that just doesn’t exist anymore. Pity. (Also a gorgeous through line involving lentils… brilliant, actually.)

 

Excellent Women,  by Barbara Pym

How not to love a book that uses the word slut in reference to a woman who doesn’t keep an especially tidy kitchen.

“You’d hate sharing a kitchen with me. I’m such a slut,” she said, almost proudly.”

Or one who has no tea cups.

“I hope you don’t mind tea in mugs,” she said, coming in with a tray. “I told you I was a slut.”

(Set in the sluttish 1950’s.)

 

A Killer in King’s Cove,   by Iona Whishaw

A woman leaves England for a quiet life in the interior of B.C. where everyone seems on the elderly side and is suspected (or suspects) that most of the residents are running from something. The question is: who is, who isn’t?

I’m not a big mystery fan insofar as caring who dunnit, but I love a good story and this is one. Also, the fact that it’s set in the 1940’s and includes details such as a picnic where sandwiches are wrapped in brown paper (never mind the body that’s discovered in the creek at the same picnic)… and, well, you have my attention.

 

 

this is not a review: ‘the triumphant tale of the house sparrow’, by jan thornhill

 

I was surprised and delighted by the adulty appeal of Jan Thornhilll’s The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow … technically a picture book (with wonderful illustrations) but the kind that bears reading by all ages for a sort of Coles Notes (do they still exist?) version of a subject that can then be pursued in longer form if you need/want more info. Though, honestly, there’s plenty here, enough that after reading it will surely be  impossible to look at this bird quite the same way.

Given the title, and the opening sentence…

“Behold the most despised bird in human history.”

… we can (rightly) assume there will be some adventurous backstory to follow, i.e. how did it get from Most Despised to Triumphant?

Also, and not that I think about sparrows a lot, but I didn’t know they were so universally (and for thousands of years) disliked. I assumed some people just didn’t like them in the way some people don’t like clowns. (Which is completely understandable.)

But no. It’s much bigger than that and, most interesting of all, their dislikeability has a lot to do with us, with our lifestyle. Because what we know for sure is they love to hang around us, like those friends who think we’re all having such a good time that they forget to go home.

This wasn’t always the case.

What happened was, we invented agriculture.

We began growing fields of grain and the sparrow, a bird that used to migrate in search of food, suddenly didn’t need to leave town so it stayed and ate that nicely planted all you can eat buffet. It came into cities and towns too, because we had horses that were fed buckets of grain. And it hung around our houses because of crumbs from tablecloths shaken out the back door, and several other surprising sources. Long story short, it became a house sparrow.

And we got cranky.

In Egypt the sparrow surplus was handled by using them as pet food. (Often found in the mummified stomachs of beloved animals.)

In Germany there was a sparrow bounty, a required number of heads had to be handed in or fines were imposed.

In China people were encouraged to bang pots twenty four hours a day in grain fields to stop the birds from landing, which worked exceptionally well… so well in fact that zillions of birds fell from the sky, exhausted and dead, and the crops died from an infestation of bugs that would have normally been eaten by the sparrows.

In cities they were noisy and just plain bothersome. In one incident, a single sparrow found its way into a large hall where a Guiness-records-sized domino display had been set up with millions of dominos… the sparrow landed and over 20,000 toppled over before they could stop the domino effect. But the bird was still in the building and naturally they worried about the other ten trillion dominos so they hired a professional hunter to come and shoot the bird, which is now stuffed in a museum. (The bird not the hunter.)

In a way, the sparrow’s biggest crime is its adaptability and how its population tends to increase along with our own. (Though we seem not to complain the same way about people numbers.)

However, mysteriously, and for some very many years now, sparrow numbers have been in decline. The Netherlands, for one, has declared them a protected species and, as Jan Thornhill points out, this might well beg some attention:

“Because the House Sparrow normally lives its whole life in a very small area, it can be a living indicator of pollutants in that place. To scientists, it is just like a canary in a coal mine — except that coal mine is our urban environment. Since the House Sparrow lives where we live, wouldn’t it be smart to figure out why it’s disappearing? What if the culprit is something that is as unhealthy for humans as it is for the House Sparrow?”

I think this book, generally, deserves all kinds of attention, not only as it relates to house sparrows, but what it represents in how we so often look at nature, what’s taken for granted, the problems we ourselves have created and now blame on the natural world, much of which is merely doing its best to tolerate us.

The picture book format works well because the amount of text is just right for that Coles Notes gleaning. Any less wouldn’t do the subject justice. But it’s also too much for a picture-book age child to absorb on their own, so it becomes ideal as a read-aloud-and-discuss. Followed, of course, by a sparrow finding expedition, photographs, drawings, and chirping!

So much to love here.

Also, would be brilliant in schools. (Do they still do nature as a subject?)

 

 

Purchased at Books Galore, in Port Perry.

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