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.

Support indies!!

this is not a review, this is a list…

 

I read Karen Hofmann’s What is Going to Happen Next  while in Ottawa, where, when I wasn’t reading or eating I was at the National Gallery….. stickers from which I stuck onto the back of the book so the two are forever connected now.

I loved this book about a family that falls apart and the siblings who find each other, whole or in fragments, many years later. Hofmann’s writing is gorgeous, her characters are so real, so well-developed, the story so engaging that I would rush back from the gallery each day just to see what they were up to.

“There are a few dozen seconds, maybe a couple of minutes, Cleo thinks, when one meets someone one hasn’t seen for a long time, when they appear as strangers, and their faces must be read objectively. And then there is a switch thrown in the mind, and the physiognomy suddenly becomes familiar again, recognized, seen now subjectively as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts. And more significantly, this new face is superimposed in the visual memory over the old, so that it disappears, and only the new now exists in that catalogue or whatever it is of known facts.”

~~~

Next Year for Sure , by Zoey Leigh Peterson, came to me from the library initially because it was there and it was easy and because this is often my way, to test run a book and then buy it only if I fall in love. (fyi, not only do I now have my own copy, I’ve given the book as a gift or recommended it to so many people.)

More than a great story, it’s a way of thinking about our relationships, intimate ones especially… how are these things defined and by whom and must it be the same for everyone?

The conversations, the honesty of feelings that span all kinds of spectrums, the wide open qualities that characters possess, lifestyle possibility, curiosity, generally, as well as ever shifting perspectives… all of if making every minute of reading such a joy (have read it twice now)… ‘joy’ as in hanging out with these people just to see what ideas we’d be tossing around today. Such excellent company. A rare thing to find this level of emotional authenticity.

In a nutshell… a wonderfully imagined, beautifully written story of how friendship endures, though relationships may change, all of it wrapped in the insecurity we feel despite what we know to be true.

“And he remembers wondering what it would be like to kiss someone who used the word indefatigable.”

~~~

I bought A Pillow Book  on someone’s recommendation and then let it sit on my TBR shelf for a couple of years. I liked the cover, and the slim size appealed to me and I was often tempted to open it but for some reason (even though I’d read reviews) I had the idea it was about pillows in a way that I couldn’t muster up enthusiasm for. And then one day I just opened it and began reading about pillow history and pillow trivia, which immediately felt less like history and trivia and more like the memoir it actually is, propelled by tiny truths that are simply triggered by pillows in some form or other.

“Without dreams, we die quicker. No one quite knows the reason for this. We know less about what happens on our pillows at night than we know about the dark side of the moon.”

Sprinkled throughout are really quite wonderful lists of unusual things, the sort of lists you might recite in your head on a sleepless night (if you were extremely creative). From one called ‘Altered Proverbs’… When in Rome, stay at the Ritz, or To forgive is human, to forget divine.

Another nice touch are references to the original Pillow Book which was written in the year 1002, as observations in poetic, prose and other forms, by Sei Shōnagon. It’s this book, and its intentions in a way, that Buffam pays tribute to in her style and structure.

“There are times when the world so exasperates me, recalls Shonagon, that I feel I cannot go on living in it for another moment and I want to disappear for good. But then, if I happen to obtain some nice white paper, Michinouku paper, or white decorated paper, I decide that I can put up with things as they are a little longer.”

Long story short— LOVED it. Can’t bear to re-shelve it just yet so it sits on my coffee table to be dipped into whenever the whim strikes. And now that I know what it’s about, it strikes often.

“Pillows, I say, when people ask what I’m writing about… It’s a book about someone who can’t sleep… who’s writing a book about pillows. The more pillows I write, however, the more strongly I suspect that what I’m writing about pillows is as much about pillows as last night’s dream about getting lost in an underground parking lot at the mall was about getting lost in an underground parking lot at the mall.”

 

 

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘braiding sweetgrass’, by robin wall kimmerer

 
 
Oh nuts. Time has whipped by and my inter-library (thank you, *Trent Hills!) copy of Braiding Sweetgrass  is due back before I’ve had the chance to read more than a few of its essays.

This is down to a couple of things. The stacks of books and papers in my house being the only one worth mentioning. (Tho’ if you must know, the other is an obsession with watching taped episodes of Escape to the Country, which occasionally cuts into my extracurricular reading time.)

In any case.

I did read enough to know that I’m not troubled by having to give it back because I’ve decided I need my own copy of the book. In the same way and for many of the same but also different reasons that I needed my own copy of Theresa Kishkan’s beautiful Mnemonic…  a memoir through the memory of trees and, often, the houses and lives surrounded by them, not all of them her own — “All my life, I have wondered at the feeling I have in particular houses, usually ones in which no one lives any longer.”

And Peter Wohlleben’s The  Hidden Life of Trees , which I read in a Kawartha forest cabin and then wandered among the birch and spruce in a whole new way, alert and hopeful for a sense of the conversations I now realized were going on all around me.

And The Sweetness of a Simple Life, by Diana Beresford-Kroeger, one of those tiny eye/mind openers that change your world in the very best way. Every bit of clover in my yard is because of her.

So, yes, I’m looking forward to adding Braiding Sweetgrass  to that particular shelf and to continue reading Kimmerer’s gorgeous essays on nature. Here’s just a wee slice from ‘Asters and Goldenrod’ where she writes about the reason she chose to study botany in the first place… a moment from her intake interview at college:

“How could I answer, how could I tell him that I was a born botanist, that I had shoe boxes of seeds and piles of pressed leaves under my  bed, that I’d stop my bike along the road to identify a new species, that plants colored  my dreams, that the plants had chosen me? So I told him the truth. I was proud of my well-planned answer, its freshman sophistication apparent to anyone, the way it showed that I already knew some plants and their habitats, that I had thought deeply about their nature and was clearly well prepared for college work. I told him that I chose botany because I wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together.”

Kimmerer is my kind of guide through the natural world because she doesn’t see a difference between it and us. (Spoiler alert: she gets into botany school and learns the science, but never, thankfully, unlearns her innate connection and unique eye/heart/spirit for what is real.)

_______________

* That Trent Hills Library happens to be in Campbellford, a place I only discovered and fell into great affection with last year (they have a Stedmans!), is the kind of scrumptious serendipity that makes my heart sing. Also, I love the inter-library system.

 

this is not a review: ‘1979’, by ray robertson

 

I’ve said this before but am always happy to say it again:  my favourite books are those where nothing happens, except that whole worlds change.

Ray Robertson is brilliant at this seemingly nothing but really everything  approach to storytelling, most recently in his novel, 1979.

In a nutshell, the book is about a year in the life of Tom Buzby, 13 year old paper boy in small town Ontario. He has a mother, a father, an older sister, lives in an ordinary neighbourhood, has ordinary friends and pretty much lives the ordinary life of a thirteen year old paperboy in small town Ontario.

That’s the bit where nothing happens.

And it’s essential.

It’s the yin to the yang.

The yang being the part where whole worlds change, the part where you pay attention to life or you don’t. The book is about paying attention.

Three things are happening in the novel:

1— Tom Buzby goes about his ordinary life… ordinary for him, delightful for the reader… this is a kid who loves books and music  and is having his horizons expanded in both departments. Being privy to his inner thoughts is a joy in itself… so honest are his meanderings it’s hard not to flinch a wee bit as we recognize our own young selves (especially if we, too, were kids who loved books and music and our own company and felt a little different, a touch insecure and out of step with all the ‘supposedly’ cool kids). Tom’s the kid with the North Stars when everyone else is wearing Nike.

2—Tom’s family goes about their business. His mother has found god and run away with the local preacher to open a courier company. His dad is currently making ends meet as a tattoo artist, and his sister is figuring out a way to get to Toronto so she can lose her virginity. When she nearly dies Tom uncharacteristically says a prayer and plays (recently discovered) Glenn Gould “…because it’s the closest thing to religious music I owned.”

3— And here’s the best part… characters we never meet, or meet very briefly, also go about their business.

And we’re privy to that through regular interruptions to the the larger story by way of headlines and light journalistic type slice-of-life pieces (that you would love to read in actual newspapers) about people who appear in the book (and in our life) like extras in a movie. Those surrounding us in our communities, towns and cities, whether we know them or not, and whether or not we even notice them.

What it seems Robertson has done is create his own version of Spoon River Anthology,  by Edgar Lee Masters, a book that uses poetry to chronicle the lives of residents in a small town. Tom is introduced to the book by the friend of his older sister (and I’m introduced to the book by Robertson’s book, by this  book). The process feels a little like what’s known as the Droste effect, where the image you’re looking at is holding the image of what you’re looking at and so on. Like the old Pot of Gold chocolates cover.

These headlines are the stories we’d like told about ourselves… or that would be so useful to know about the ‘extras’ on our own movie sets. The waitress, the cashier, the history teacher, the widower, the lawyer (who, hilariously, if you like lawyer jokes, pretty much has no story), the guy who whistles for no apparent reason, the Camaro that drives too fast down a side street.

And the old woman who lives in a shack… and who one day dies “she just died… and there was no need to find out when or where she was born or what her last name was… and the only ones who really missed her were the cats… until they, too, forgot all about her.”

Even death gets its own headline, its own ‘voice’ through which it offers advice for the living, which could easily be cliche but doesn’t come off as such in this context. If anything, it’s a reminder. If you’re lucky, an epiphany.

Robertson also nails the era through language, music, politics, clothing, food and drink, the change to metric, the way the indie corner stores slowly became Mac’s Milk and how the product lines, the shelving, the lighting just looked and felt so different. He conveys small town Ontario, with its factories and clotheslines, beautifully, and with a nod of obvious affection, which it so richly deserves and too rarely sees in literature.

“Paul Lynde was our Oscar Wilde. Hollywood Squares was our Algonquin round table.”

A small part of the book but not a small part of the story is Tom’s near death experience in a sewer, which everyone assumes he must have learned so much from but which wasn’t the case. “It felt as if I’d be letting them down if all I told them was the truth.”  And therein lies the nub of it all, the thing every single one of us can relate to… this idea that on some level we’re fake, not good enough. As if the ordinariness of our lives just doesn’t quite cut it.

There are those who may only see 1979  as a book where not much happens… but they’d be missing the whole point. It’s actually more of a clever trick wrapped in a book and what it does most brilliantly is show us how we’re conditioned (in literature and in life) to notice only the shiny objects, the noise, to watch the magician’s hand, even though we know full well that’s not where the magic is.

Different Yet Similar….

Ray Robertson’s 1979 , and Brother, by David Chariandy. Totally different books in structure, voice and experience, and yet… similar in how they successfully use place as character, the attention to details that are never over done, but feel true, and the surprisingly and sensitive perspectives of young boys boys who are not like everyone else around them.

~j

Available online from your favourite indie booksellers, or mine…
Blue Heron Books
Hunter Street Books