this is not a review: ‘almost everything’, by anne lamott

 

The opening line is my favourite:

“I’m stockpiling antibiotics for the apocalypse, even as I await the blossoming of paperwhites on the windowsill in the kitchen.”

Therein, I suspect, lie big clues about Anne Lamott’s psyche. And the book kind of backs up that theory.

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, is a quick read… a hundred and eighty something pages of what feels like random thoughts about, well, almost everything from forgiveness and brokenness, possessions, the gifts of poems and wine and the way a family can suffocate from thinking they know each other so well but don’t and won’t buy that truth, to the meaning of truth, and the question: what is a story?. She alludes (often) to the current state of madness in the world as well as making a case for milk chocolate by saying the 81% is not food but best used “as a shim to balance the legs of wobbly chairs”. (my response: I  will happily eat those shims!)

All pleasant enough though not in any way rife with mind-bending insight… and despite Lamott’s tendency to whinge a tad too much and hide behind sarcasm, which feels to me out of place in a book that is meant to ponder deep(ish) thoughts. And chocolate.

Framed as wisdom imparted to a few youngsters in her life, it comes off a little too much like here goes know-it-all auntie, spouting off again. Albeit a pretty interesting auntie, one must admit.

Worth the time? Sure. In the way that having lunch with a friend who is slightly annoying and all over the place in her thoughts but still better than dining alone when you don’t feel like being alone is worth it.

“I spend a lot of time with old people who know things… More than any other sentence I have ever come across, I love Ram Dass’s line that when all is said and done, we are just walking each other home.”

♦♦♦

 

 

 

this is (definitely) not a review: ‘hotel du lac’, by anita brookner

 

I have no interest in writing anything about this book. I’d rather just talk about it endlessly and how I finished reading it today for the ??th time and how sorry I am that I haven’t kept a list on the inside cover of the places I’ve read it because then I could add —

Among the lily pads, in the marsh, in a  boat named Lulabelle, on this September morning while a family of swans that I’ve been watching all summer is out for a sail, the young ones still brown, and the way they follow their parents, not even the hint of a desire to break from the pack.

For anyone who has had the pleasure… some reminders:

… a tall woman, of extraordinary slenderness, and with the narrow nodding head of a grebe…

he disliked the more sociable aspects of his calling, but had nevertheless booked a table in a cathedral-like restaurant, where the patrons cowered in worship before the marvels to be set in front of them.

[the] good… always think it is their fault when someone else is being offensive… [the] bad never take the blame for anything.

… The pianist has worked out his engagement and would now return to his winter occupation of giving private lessons to unmusical schoolgirls.

… Edith was obliged to listen to Mrs. Pusey’s plans, which were as usual, extensive, without being awarded any interest in her own. Reciprocity was a state unknown to Mrs. Pusey…

 

For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure…. in a nutshell, the story is this:

woman stays in small Swiss lakeside Inn, observes guests, discovers meaning of life.

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘notes to self’, by emilie pine

 
 

A fairly quick (one afternoon) read of six essays more or less chronicling the author’s childhood and adulthood into her 30’s and early 40’s. I found the writing immensely readable, free of pretense and ego in a way that’s rare in memoirs by writers of any age. Pine comes off as being honest and open with events without giving the impression that she’s shining a light on herself in some haven’t I led such a fascinating life? kind of way. Refreshing.

She writes about her father’s drinking, his silence and absence in her life yet her deep connection to him, the separation of her parents, the difficulties with her mother, the closeness she felt to her sister, her wild child teen years and her subsequent inability to have her own children. She writes about how it never occurred to her that she’d been raped, that what she experienced was actually assault not merely “someone forcing themselves on her”. None of this is especially out of the ordinary but in her candour, there is also never a dull moment. Also, her hindsight perspective taps into something so raw that you can’t help but do a quick review of your own screw-ups and wonder what was at the root of them, why were they important, what have you learned.

I’m not so sure Pine comes to a lot of conclusions, at least she doesn’t share them outright, but you can’t be this open on the page without having dug pretty deeply and maybe her conclusions are a still private matter, another book for another day.

In any case, the book as it is works. Not heavy reading, not heavy thinking, but something that stays with you in a way that makes you want to take an honest inventory of your own life.

Favourite essay: ‘Notes on Bleeding and Other Crimes’ in which she considers the shame inflicted on women (and girls) because of body image, the judgement of perfection/imperfection, the crime of hair where society says hair shouldn’t be and the bleeding – good lord, the crime and shame and embarrassment of bleeding. Never mind the pain. No one cares about that.

Sometimes I am doubled up in pain… I do not feel like a feminist hero in these moments, I feel like I want to go home and get back into bed. But in a world where women are still over-identified with their bodies, where women have to prove their intellectual ability over and over, what is the threshold for claiming this pain? If you have a headache, it’s strain from too much thinking (I’m so brainy, I’m so busy). If you have a sore back, it’s from overexertion (I’m so fit, I’m so active). A stress attack? (I’m so hard-working, I’m so important.) But a cramped abdomen? (I’m so female.) It’s unspeakable.

Later in the same lovely essay, she comes to the conclusion:

It’s time to recapture the childhood acceptance of our bodies as sign of who we are, of what we have done…. My cellulite thighs are strong, they have carried me up mountains and I love them.

Hear hear.

this is not a review: ‘treed’, by ariel gordon

 
 

There are certain books that become full-time residents on my coffee table or bedside table or table by the fireplace or sometimes, if the weather is good and the umbrella is up, the patio table. Weeks and weeks go by and the book is there, picked up regularly, set down maybe in a different place to be picked up again. And again. The more I love a book the longer it takes for me to shelve it. Re-reading is a favourite thing. I make meals of sentences, play a scene back in my mind, go back a page and work my way up to it again. I will read the same story or essay or poem over three days in a row, each time finding another layer of meaning or pleasure, some image initially missed.

Treed is one of those books. Currently living on my coffee table, this wonderful collection of essays makes me happy to know it’s there to fulfill any sudden craving I have for a discussion of tree love or a vicarious forest walk with one of CanLit’s most enthusiastic (and real life) forest walkers, the Winnipeg writer and poet, Ariel Gordon.

Gordon has a penchant for the urban forest and after reading about the trees of Winnipeg you practically want to book a flight and see it all for yourself. But you don’t have to… she’s very good at giving you the vicarious experience and her enthusiasm for woodland (& other) greenery is inspiring, the kind of person who instinctively sees, hears, thinks, imagines… who wonders and is constantly curious and learning, finding nothing in the natural world dull.

Just beyond the slough is a big old trembling aspen that has strange vertical scars on it at about chest height. It takes me a few minutes to realize that these are bear scratch marks, which makes me walk faster.

Gordon well knows that even along the same path through the same park or the same neighbourhood street, if you’re open to using all your senses, no two walks are ever the same.

When I was younger, I resisted naming. But I’ve realized, over time, that this tree, that tree, the other tree isn’t as precise as it could be. Names allow us, as writer and reader, to know that we’re talking about the same things. They’re suitcases that carry not only simply information but also historical allusions and memories of what it is like to stand in a field and be surprised by herd of white-tailed deer, for instance. It reminds us of the quality of the sun on their dun backs, little bluestem grass grinding between their teeth, the rattling leaves of trembling aspen on the breeze, the way the doe’s ears telescope at the least noise.

The next paragraph begins: I’ve started spying on barn swallows.

I love how she compares the community of trees to urban communities, the purpose of a tree’s architecture as important as streetlights, the grid patterns of roads. There’s so much to see and discover in her world of trees and, I’ll confess, while I, too, have never found a dull moment on any walk or in any part of nature, Gordon’s writing has made me see trees, specifically and  individually, where once I saw merely the beauty of the whole landscape.

In ‘Outage’, Gordon recalls a week spent in a farmhouse where she intends to spend her time writing but ends up paying attention to the stories and the life around her instead and we are so glad she did.

I come with my own stories and somehow land right in the middle of Sharron and Kerry’s, and through them, Ken and Alverna’s, to the first settlers on the land and the residents of Sandy Bay First Nation, moved and moved again to make room for those settlers.

In ‘Winter Walk’ she writes:

My favourite thing about a real xmas tree? Being alone with it…. I sit in the warm half-dark by myself and smell the tree’s piney scent. I sit quietly, sipping tea or sucking  on a shard of candy cane, and listen to my own heartbeat. I breathe tree.

A tree covered in vines that turn out to be tiny grapes inspires sentences like this:

Eating them – popping the grapes with my teeth and separating the flesh from the seeds with my tongue – is like completing a puzzle with my face.

In ‘Emergency Carrots’ she weaves various threads (including carrots), the memory of trees past and present, with concern for her husband’s health and safety, and it’s all so seamless. (It’s hard to pick a favourite from among the book’s sixteen essays, but this one’s a gem.)

And from ‘The Social Life of Urban Forests’:  

… every settled place across North America had elms and, eventually, an elm canopy. The arches of elm trees that we’ve cultivated here are just as much a construction as the streetlights, as the layout of the streets, their strange grids and confusions. Our communities of trees are as deliberate as the communities we build among ourselves.

The ending of this piece is simply beautiful… Gordon writes about trees that are marked to be taken down due to disease or other reasons, the stumps she finds in her travels, trees already felled… and if you weren’t at the start, by now you’re with her, not only in awareness, but empathy for the trees around us, those we take for granted on streets and boulevards, the urban canopies, the forest and field and farmland trees… and so when she tells you she sometimes stands on those stumps, stretches out her arms and reaches for the sun… you can hardly think of a sweeter homage.

 

 

this is not a review: ‘leonard’s flat’, by steven mayoff

 

Leonard’s Flat , a slim, beautifully made volume of ekphrastic poetry, influenced by the art of the author’s uncle, Len Fligel, who Mayoff credits with being the long ago spark that ignited his own “creative ambitions as a writer”… is a tiny gem.

Ten paintings, nicely reproduced on thick, glossy pages, represent a slice of one family’s history but it could be any family. The subjects are simple and relatable:  bread on a supper table, chickens running in the yard, laundry, musicians, domestic scenes. Add to that Mayoff’s insights and recollections, the adult looking back at pieces of art he first saw when he and his mother lived with the uncle in his Glasgow home for a short time, the meaning of which art eluded him as a child yet never left some deeper place in his memory.

Because isn’t that how art works when it’s working at its best.

These ten poems feel like so much more than an homage… more like a testament to not only how we remember, but how we see, not only the past, but the present. Because art in any form is always about the present, no matter when it’s made, no matter when we find it.

“…Gathering round your
Glasgow table when
I was a boy offered

a haven for the stranger
I was to myself…

—From the poem, ‘Meal’

 

this is not a review: ‘taxi!’, by helen potrebenko

 
 
Years ago a friend of mine used to take a lot of cabs. Partly for the usual reasons of not wanting to walk in the rain late at night or because it was faster or simply more convenient and she was feeling flush and in the mood for a bit of luxury but mostly she took cabs for the conversation. She loved discovering a driver’s story or hearing their general thoughts on life; sometimes she’d have semi heated debates and sometimes she was sorry to have to leave the cab because the chat was so good, better, she said, than most exchanges one has in a typical day at work.

So I was keen to tell her about Helen Potrebenko’s Taxi!  which is billed as a novel and narrated by ‘Shannon’, a Vancouver (mostly downtown east side) cab driver in the 1970’s, but which, in fact, feels more auto-fiction than fiction. Like her protagonist Potrebenko also drove cab in Vancouver’s downtown east side in the 1970’s. The style and structure of the book parallels the episodic and fractured structure of Shannon’s driving life, more like journal-keeping and there’s nothing like a traditional arc or through line or even a premise for the story other than this is what it’s like to drive a cab, in case you’re wondering.

Which in another’s hands might be a disaster but somehow Potrebenko makes it work beautifully. Not only makes it work but you step right into that cab with her protagonist Shannon, where you do NOT want to go (I assure you Shannon’s accounts of fares will turn you off any thoughts of pursuing this as a career), but this is exactly the point… she doesn’t ask you to join her. You simply choose to. And then you choose to stay for the ride. But her? She’s just doing her job, driving, revealing a slice of life that most people haven’t the vaguest idea about (including my conversational friend) because what we learn mostly from Taxi!  is that we have no idea how privileged we are if we don’t have to do this, or any job we despise, for a living.

Incidentally, the aspect of female cab driver is a whole other discussion on not only the times, the mid-seventies when things were still only beginning to change for women and men didn’t like it, but the double demeaning role of woman/cab driver and the inner dignity it must require to listen to the crap that riders dish out, the condescending comments, presumptions and attitudes. That and rules that applied only to women drivers such as not being able to work certain hours for reasons of safety.

What I loved most about the book was how Potrebenko managed to show us a gritty view of the streets and the sadness and horror of certain lifestyles, the futility felt by so many, yet contrasting it all with extraordinary humanity, creating a portal by which we see the not so rosy truth of ourselves as a society, the bits we’d sooner turn away from or pretend don’t exist, leaving others to the reality. And this is how the reality continues. For others.

Slivers of loveliness:

“A monotony of passengers gets in and out of the cab…”

“But there were two flights of rickety steps to go up. Why do poor people always have to deal with those treacherous stairs? Is it a commandment?”

“She was a beautiful young woman of about 16. At 5 a.m. she had split with her old man and she had no money and nowhere to go. Shannon gave her $2 for breakfast… She’s an Indian. A really beautiful and healthy Indian woman. There are no jobs for her. Nobody in this democratic society would give her a job. Indian men can get longshoremen’s jobs and a few other kind of labourer’s jobs, but there aren’t any choices for women…. Months later, Shannon was driving down Hastings with a passenger in the car when a woman tried to jump in front of it… she was no longer beautiful but covered with the spit and vomit of Hastings Street and it had only taken three months.”

“There was a man lying on the sidewalk by the West Hotel and Shannon stopped to see if he was dead…. he wasn’t… [but] there wasn’t anyplace he could be taken where he would be helped.”

Potrebenko chronicles the changing face of Vancouver… the increase in drugs, suicides, porn shops, sex trade, racism, murders, unemployment.

“There are more beggars on the streets. People think colourfully ragged young men playing a guitar are romantic.”

“In the afternoon, she drove a couple… to the airport. Aging swingers… on the edge of the ruling class… These people were a different type… Mean from years of cursing each other in private… and being polite with only sarcastic overtones in public. Seething with chronic mean.”

“The man worked for The Royal Bank… He asked Shannon if she was married then told her women shouldn’t drive cabs. [He said] I treat my women employees just the same as the men. I say to them: Honey, if you work hard you can go places. Honey? [Shannon said] Do you call your men honey? You know what I mean. [he said]”

“Shannon thought the fascist philosophy was a very comfortable one. You simply cheered for the winner, who proved by virtue of winning that he should have won. No analysis, no doubts, no troubling moral questions.”

“The man told Shannon it was attitudes like hers that retarded progress and she asked him Steinbeck’s question, which is how come progress looks so much like destruction?”

Should be included in the CanLit cannon as required reading. Doesn’t matter that cab driving has changed, the life she describes for women, minorities, and others, has not.

 

*Note: above-mentioned friend did not love the idea of the book as I described it. Too unpleasant, too raw, she said (I’m paraphrasing). But this is the experience of the cab driver, a character you say you admire. Doesn’t matter, she said, I don’t want to read about it. I respect her honesty and I suspect she’s not alone (this book remains relatively unknown after all) though it seems a lost opportunity to add a rich layer to her cabbie admiration. Of course she may yet change her mind. Will keep you posted.

 

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘savage fields’, by dennis lee

 

I’ve been doing some bookshelf cleaning — clearing out the excess to make room for new stuff. Only so much room and I really hate it when I can’t see what I have. Am donating or giving the prunings to various places and friends but before some of them go they will spend time in a new stack called “Stuff to Read Before It’s Definitely Given Away”.

Most recently plucked from the STRBIDGA pile was Dennis Lee’s Savage Fields, published in 1977 by Anansi. Its subtitle: An Essay in Literature and Cosmology  did NOT help it win my attention over the years and more than once I thought to just ‘donate’… but something made me keep it and I’m so glad I did.

Less essay than discussion of Lee’s theory that everything is either of (or about) the earth or the world,  including stories. (Earth being anything natural… World being anything man made.) The savage fields of the title refers to the friction caused when earth and world collide, which of course they constantly do.

His interest is in how that happens in literature, and so he dissects two books as examples:

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, by Michael Ondaatje (a combination of prose and poetry in which Lee theorizes that Billy is trying, constantly, to kill the earth and so is, in fact, killing himself)

and

Beautiful Losers, by Leonard Cohen (one of two novels by Cohen, which Lee suggests is about freeing a repressed Canadian history through liberation of thought)

I will forgive that both books are by men. Dennis Lee is himself a man. This is often how things go. I will forgive it also because Savage Fields is a fascinating piece of work nonetheless.

I’ll admit that I’ve read neither Beautiful Losers nor Billy the Kid.  The former strikes me as incomprehensible and the latter not up my street but, oddly, I really liked reading about them through Lee’s lens. I enjoyed his analysis and the way he takes the story of each book apart, illustrating his theory of how we continue to screw up the earth because, essentially, we can’t accept beauty when it comes our way, that we have this need to alter it, put our own stamp on it and make it ‘better’. (Better than what? It was trundling along just fine until we got involved.) Lee says that we turn earth to world because we can’t help it and even while knowing on some deep level that we are screwing ourselves.

We’ve been more or less doing this by various means since we invented agriculture, which is when we stopped living in harmony with ‘earth’.

Another of Lee’s theories is what he calls the Isis Continuum, which, essentially, is happiness (Isis being a goddess of Egyptian mythology, wise and unconditionally loving). Again, we, for some reason, often refuse the simplicity of happiness, creating chaos instead as if not believing happiness is truly possible.

Lee posits his way through both books, offering excerpts and outlines of the stories, analyzing characters and actions.

Savage Fields isn’t a difficult read, but it’s an unusual one. One that takes a pot of tea and a Sunday morning to find your rhythm with (best read whole or in two parts, but definitely not fragments). It’s the kind of book you want someone else to read so you can talk about it with them and apply Lee’s theories, to find the savage fields in literature or at least to keep the notion of it in mind.

“World and earth are shown as being at war, yet they keep turning out to be the same thing. How can we resolve the contradiction?… To conceptualize this unusual state of affairs takes a certain amount of effort — indeed, a willingness to bend one’s mind in unaccustomed directions.”

“I started this book in 1972. I knew the title before I knew what the title meant. There are months of drafts between the sentences. The voice kept sounding false, excluding too much of who I was. Now I look at it, and find I have scarcely made a beginning.”

“Clear thought is an achievement of difficult beauty.”

The kind of book where most excerpts are pointless out of context. The kind of book that isn’t easy to quote from and details are soon forgotten, yet you feel inexplicably changed for the better for having spent time with it because suddenly ‘something’ feels clearer. Surely one of the best reasons for reading.

Dennis Lee was a founder of House of Anansi, which prided itself in the late 60’s and 70’s on its difference, its experimental style, and its interest in the Canadian story.