big fat book of flowers: stay/go? (a process)

It takes up a lot of room.

I never look at it.

No idea where I got it, how long I’ve had it.

But it’s about flowers so every time my hand reaches to pull it off a shelf and place it in a thrift-shop-bound box, it whispers but I’m about flowers… don’t you want to know about flowers flowers of the world??

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Sure. And so my hand goes back to minding its own business.

Until the next time.

Which is this time.

This time I take the thing off the shelf. I open it. And in between its massive pages are countless pressed leaves and wildflowers. They are countless because I haven’t bothered counting them. There are many. Every few pages, more. And they’re in lovely condition. I consider making greeting cards, then quickly come to my senses.

Some of the leaves look like marijuana. (I did say I’d had the book a long time.) But, nah, I’d have remembered that, right?? Oh. Wait.

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I google pictures of marijuana leaves and I see that no, mine have only five ‘petals’ not seven and they’re not serrated. (Also no cheesie stains on the pages, so that concludes that bit of research.)

It’s possible that the book came with the pressed flowers already in it, given that it likely came from some second hand/thrift shoppy source. It’s possible this is the first time I’ve ever opened it and noticed them. So much is possible.

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I consider keeping the book because of the dried flowers until it dawns on me that this is a stupid reason to keep a book whose only role all these years appears to have been to press flowers and questionable looking leaves.

In which case, mission accomplished.

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And so, today, after a flip through its alphabetical pages, as I look for honeysuckle on a whim and can’t find it because it’s listed under ‘C’, then morning glory, also not findable under the letter you would expect to find it (who can live like this?), I realize that despite its pretty pictures and informative text and the backing of the Royal Horticultural Society, this book is not for me. Oh, I understand the point of naming things in Latin, but I still find it annoying.

Book (and herbaceous contents) thrift-shop-bound.

Feels good to be decisive.

this is not a review: ‘a woman’s walks’, by lady colin campbell

The first thing I don’t like about this book is that she (Gertrude Elizabeth Blood), calls herself Lady Colin Campbell, which reminds me of the personalized stationery, little note cards on excellent stock, my mother-in-law (an otherwise intelligent and lovely woman) gave me, designed, I suppose, to obliterate any thought of whoever I used to be pre-marriage, being embossed as they were with “Mrs. (Son’s First Name)(Son’s Last Name)”. She explained that should I happen to send a card to a friend (who else would I send them to??) I was meant to strike a single line through “Mrs. (Son’s First Name)(Son’s Last Name)” and write in “Carin”. As if to say that “you (because we are friends) may call me Carin”. I still have the little copper plate that came with the box of stationery in case I ever need to replenish my supply. (hahaha) The fact that I don’t use anyone else’s name, neither first nor last (having been blessed with my own), is apparently beside the point. She, dear woman, came from an era of The Mrs.

The ‘Lady Colin Campbell’ syndrome is ridiculous. (And very different from adopting a family name, which makes a certain kind of sense in certain cases and to certain people. I do get why people do that.) But what sense can be made from using your husband’s FIRST name to identify you?

Especially, in Lady CC’s case, whose husband turns out to be an ass and they split up. Which is when she begins her worldwide wandering and writing.

But why keep the ‘Colin’???

So that was my first problem with A Woman’s Walks, by Lady Colin Campbell. Despite the rather promising cover.

The other problems relate to the privilege Lady Colin Campbell enjoys throughout her privileged life and incessantly complains about. It is a problem when a writer bores me as Lady CC does and I find it hard to plough through but I continue because I’m looking for a good walk. Unfortunately her idea of walking and mine are quite different. Hers involving much first class train travel and staff helping her get from one luxury hotel to another.

Two exceptions.

One was a stroll she took through a Venetian marketplace where she bought a captive bird, not to eat but to release. She felt very chuffed with herself about that. Her good deed for the day, which again says a lot about her and the era of that kind of privilege. Not to mention attitude towards ‘the little people’ who shop and work at markets for reasons other than amusement and who rudely eat the captive birds because they need protein and aren’t able to take a train to the next luxury hotel dining room to order their pheasant under glass.

I enjoyed seeing her hypocrisy on such magnificent display.

And of course markets always please me.

The other was a walk around Milan that ended, to her surprise, at a crematorium where she lingered, feeling comfort and solace in a way, she says, she never does in cemeteries.

Not a terrible read but not something that personally appealed overall.

The book is one of several from a London Library series: ‘Found on the Shelves’… collected essays on various subjects from “the modern cycling craze” with the invention of the bike, to dieting in the 1800’s, to trout fishing instructions for women. Etc. All of them from a time long gone and full of quirks by modern standards.

Though, really, who are we to talk of quirks…

Fun Trivia:

Turns out there’s another Lady Colin Campbell whose Colin also turned out to be a schmuck and who is not a Victorian essayist, but a contemporary writer of contemporary Royal doings.

Not only that but the modern Lady CC was originally named George William Ziadie (she had unclear genitalia at birth and her parents were advised to err on the side of male, which turned out to be wrong so at age 21 she had corrective surgery and became Georgia Arianna Ziadie). So then she marries Lord Colin Campbell who decides to sell her out to the tabloids who run untrue stories on how Lady CC was born a boy and had a sex change. So they divorce right quick. And yet… she keeps not only the whole Lady Campbell schtick, but the Colin part.

I just don’t get it.

joey’s box

 

My newest nephew is almost two, which means he’s well into the book loving years, which means books from this aunt will be in his future.

I’ve already given him a few, one of the first being The Wonky Donkey, which has resulted in him forming a friendship with a local donkey that must now be driven past any time he’s in a car so that he can wave hello and shout heeeeehawwww.

This is the power of literature.

Am currently putting together a whole slew of books from my own shelves because a) I am thinning my shelves, and b) yes I have a collection of kid books, and c) I also happen to have one of those wonderful pre-paid Canada Post mailing cartons that will send eleven pounds of books to Joey’s mailbox.

M is for Moose  by Charles Pachter. Oh my god, I love this for its brilliant simplicity. And art. The art!  Each letter of the alphabet gets a mixture of painting and collage and the stories at the back that explain these seemingly  minimalistic pieces that actually contain SO MUCH. The key is to look long at each page. And there are games to encourage the looking. (How many moose, barns, Queen of Englands, etc. in the book?) AND A BUTTERTART RECIPE  that I have copied for myself because at some point Joey and I will need to discuss buttertarts. All the words are spelled Canadian, as in neighbour, colour, favourite, which is always refreshing, but the best part is that it’s the kind of book you can grow up with… and continue to love as an adult.

Ted Harrison’s O Canada, is an illustrated edition of the anthem, but as it was published in 1992, it’s in need of updating, which this aunt has happily done.

The anthem, btw, originally read: thou dost in us command… and was changed in 1913 to in all our sons command. Changed again (thankfully)  in 2018. The book also includes wee blurbs on each province.

 

Are You My Mother, by P.D. Eastman alhtough I continue to think of as one of my favourite Dr. Zeuss books.

 

The Moon Watched it All, by Shelley Leedahl.

 

Alligator Pie, by Dennis Lee.

 

Seaside Treasures, by Sarah Grindler, because one of my hopefulest hopes for Joey is that he grow up to adore the sea and all it has to offer, not only through its treasures of glass and shells, stones, feathers and driftwood, the sand sculpting, swimming and barefoot walking… but the breathing.

It is my absolute favourite place to breathe and this is a beautiful book to introduce to all kinds of waiting-just-for-him joy.

 

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, by you know who, who knows about hopping Yops and Yinks who like to drink and wink and the sheep who walked at night by the light of the moon, by the light of a star, they walked all night from near to far, and Ned and his bed and the thing we found in the park in the dark who we will call Clark and honestly I’m beginning to wonder if I can even part with this book at all.

If You Could Wear My Sneakers, by Sheree Fitch. Beautifully illustrated by Darcia Labrosse, the poems address fifteen of fifty-four children’s rights listed in the United Nations Conventions, including the right to an education, the right to enjoy your own language and culture, disability rights, all written in Fitch’s inimitable style. On the subject of war, for instance, and a child’s right to protection, the poem has elephants thundering past to… fight a battle, thump-galumphing off to war. Did you hear a small voice say… “What are we fighting for?” and goes on to address a child’s fears and thoughts, all in the voice of a young elephant. At the back of the book are brief discussions of the poems and what they each stand for.

In “The Stinky Truth’, a child’s right to express their opinion is celebrated…

“What do you think?
Do you think that I stink?”
said the skunk.
“Do you thunk that I smell?”
“Well, I think that you stink
but I think for a skunk
that you smell
incredibly
well.”

Another alphabet book, and another Ted Harrison book, ‘A Northern Alphabet’ done with his usual bright illustrations of northern scenes, each page devoted to another letter of the alphabet and chock full of words and places beginning with that letter, all of them relating to the north.

 

 

 

Mice, Morals, & Monkey Business, is a book of Aesop fables, stunningly illustrated by Christopher Wormell. Each double-page spread contains the moral of the story and illustration. At the back of the book, are the fables themselves. Again, this is one I’m tempted to keep. But, okay, fine, yes. The noble thing will be done. Into the Joey Box it goes. There should be a fable about noble book gestures.

 

 

Mixed Beasts, by Wallace Edwards. Again with gorgeous illustrations and verses about such mixed beasts as the bumblebeaver, the pelicantelope, the kangarooster, written by Kenyon Cox. Utterly charming and I suspect when read by Joey’s mum they will give Wonky Donkey some competition.

 

 

 

 

 

To top things off and to bring the poundage to eleven, and because books are best read with bread and jam, a jar of our homemade best.

P’s peach jam.

 

 

 

miss rumphius

 

Remember her? The story by Barbara Cooney about a woman who sprinkles lupine seeds as she goes about her days – her contribution to making the world a more beautiful place.

The story is based on a real person, Hilda Hamlin, who immigrated to the U.S. from England in the early 1900’sSome lovely info on her (and lupines) here.

The idea of sharing joy.

How is it possible not to relate?

Every time I blow the fluff off a dandelion I think of grateful bees. And the stones that have been painted with messages and left everywhere during the pandemic or the domino effect of a kind word to a cranky cashier or leaving money in a parking meter as a happy surprise for someone you’ll never see

– all variations of lupines.

**

I’ve been (again) paring down my bookshelves. This is a regular thing but I’m being more ruthless than usual and finding treasures to both read (why haven’t I read this??? I keep asking) and to part with. Some are donates, some are for a library I manage in a women’s shelter, others shout out the name of someone I know and demand to be taken or sent to them. This last part feels slightly lupiney if lupine work is meant to be something that feels good in the process of spreading smidgens of happy surprise.

I’m also going through old photos and finding things I no longer want to keep but that might mean something to someone else. The picture a friend sent decades ago of herself and strangers (to me) at an outback pub in Australia where a handwritten sign on the porch informs that a bush band will be playing that night. The band isn’t named. People sit outside at picnic tables and a young tanned girl, long blonde pony tail and red shorts, is running bare-chested, while another, older girl, twelve maybe, stands primly, shyly, in a below the knee length calico dress and ankle socks next to a man in a cork hat. Both look warm and not recently bathed. The pub is made of roughly hewn wood, thrown together in the middle of what looks like scrub land, a mirage you’re thrilled to come by for a cool one, and maybe a snake sighting while you sip. I’ve sent that photo back to my friend and can’t wait to hear the stories attached to it. Maybe I’ve heard them before… but it’s been a while.

To a nephew, now grown with his own family, I’ve sent a series of pictures I took when he was ten or so and skipping stones at the beach, complete with a final shot of him, both arms up in the hooray! position. His son plays baseball, thought maybe he’d like to show him where he gets his throwing chops from.

And the blank postcards I’m finding in albums. Sunsets and trolley cars, adobe houses. No point in keeping them, so they too are being sprinkled like lupines, with messages scrawled on the backs that sometimes relate to the images on the front and sometimes don’t.

And so on.

It’s brilliantly fun this finding and sending, apropos of nothing, attached to notes that open conversations that would never have been had otherwise.

**

So… Dear Miss Rumphius:  thank you.

 

 

this is not a review: ‘life in the garden’, by penelope lively

 

If, during these sheltering at home times, you’re lucky enough to have a garden, I’ll bet you’re embracing it. I know I am, with infinite pleasure. Not only in love with my own green space but ever more in love with gardens generally, including those of friends through shared pics and conversations and all the beautiful green energy that gardens generate.

Also books about gardens.

Most recently ‘Life in the Garden’ which is so perfectly titled how could I not be drawn to it given that these past three months it’s been my theme song and even now when the world is slowly opening up and I don’t think that’s maybe the best idea I continue to live, for the most part, in my garden.

A slim thing, 186 pp with not a wasted word, reflections on gardens and how they connect to art, to literature,  history, as well as the fashion of gardens (white garden in, wax begonias out, that kind of thing) and the inanity of the Chelsea Flower Show. This last observation especially endears me to the author. The point of it all being that gardens are as individual in appearance and purpose as those who create them and the natural environment in which they exist, and should never be influenced by trends, fashions or other dictates.

Not a new philosophy but what IS new? The writer’s job is not to invent the wheel, but to show it from a perspective that feels fresh, that makes us think differently about something familiar just when we thought we’d thought it all.

“I do not look at [photos[ with the same intensity that I look at a painted garden… The photograph reports; the painting examines, interprets, expands.”

I like how Lively distinguishes between gardening and creating, or allowing a garden to simply be. The former being weeding, etc., the latter everything else. While able to admire aspects of the fancy schmancy spaces with boxwood edges trimmed to mad levels of perfection, she prefers a sort of contrived disarray, enough hands-off so that plants can truly find their own space with only occasional intervention and nudging so that there is fairness to all and a limit on anarchy. This works against the principle of insisting the blue things go here and the yellow there.

“Gardening is not outdoor housework.”

She writes about gardens in various urban and rural settings and how, surprisingly, it’s the suburban gardens (those between city and country) that, despite a devotion to lawns, also tend to have the larger number of green spaces/gardens and the greatest diversity of plants.

There are bits about Virginia Woolf’s house near Lewes, purchased in 1919 when she was thirty-seven and her years of gardening there with Leonard and thoughts on the Garden of Eden and while… “God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and everything that creepeth upon the earth...” she would have been that much happier had there been some second thoughts when it came to creating vine weevil and greenfly.

She writes about The Eden Project, vast biomes housing a rainforest in Cornwall and how Gertrude Jeckyll was THE gardening guru of her time, her books the forerunner to Home and Garden magazine.

She writes about gardens as inspiration for art—German Impressionist, Max Liebermann’s garden at Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, Gustav Klimt’s, fin-de-siecle golden ladies, his ‘cottage garden’ flowers of 1905, Munch’s Jealousy in the Garden, (one of eleven Jealousies… including Jealousy in the Bath, etc.)

“Van Gogh said that he discovered the laws of simultaneous colour contrast while studying flowers.”

And she writes about the rhododendrons of Daphne du Marier’s Rebecca. (which Lively personally doesn’t like for their aggressiveness and show-offy ways and which make them perfect for what they symbolize in the book)

Nor does Lively hold back her opinion of A Secret Garden, which she doesn’t love for its sentimentalism and heavy handed approach about the healing aspects of positive thinking which Frances Hodgson Burnett arrived at through Christian Science. (Here I might disagree with Lively. Not on Christian Science, of which I know zip, but that the power of positive thinking itself surely can NOT be a bad message. Though she has other issues with the book and I would need to re-read A Secret Garden to comment further.)

However, Lively (don’t you love her name) IS a huge fan of Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, and references a scene where Tom meets an old woman, Mrs. Bartholomew (once the young girl of the story) who she tells him that “nothing stands still, except in our memory” . The scene goes on a bit longer and Lively shares it all, then adds her thoughts: “For the boy Tom, this is a moment of maturity, a glimpse of the continuity and of growing up, and a reason why [the book] is one of the greatest children’s books of all time. But above all, it is a narrative of great elegance, simply told, and leaving you with insights into the nature of time, and memory.”

The Stone Diaries comes up (when Daisy Goodwill becomes a garden columnist). And Elizabeth and Her German Gardenabout living in Prussia and gardening not being allowed for ladies. Which Lively mentions must have been a Prussian thing because it’s long been okay for the upper class to get their hands dirty (but only in the garden, and with help of course).

My TBR list increased a fair bit thanks to Lively. I now need to add Anna Pavord for gardening advice and compost making. Also her book The Tulip.

Also Margery Fish, a pioneer of informal gardening.

And Karel Capek’s The Gardener’s Year (who employs tongue in cheek humour about the ‘joys’.)

I discovered what a landscaping ‘ha-ha’ is (an architectural term for an optical illusion) and that there was a tulipmania period from 1634-37. “…at its height one of the most prized bulbs changed hands for a price equivalent to one of the then finest houses on an Amsterdam canal.”  One of the special charms of the book is that every single thing she writes about is interesting and well presented but short. No eternal chapters devoted to just one thing. Tulipmania, for instance, is beautifully explained in a page with a perfectly acceptable sense of if you want to know more about it, look it up.

Where Lively and I disagree to some extent is on the use of the Latin to describe plants. I understand its helpfulness in terms of genesis, but it does take a lot of remembering of syllables and comes off a bit snotty.

“My beloved signature plant, Erigeron karvinskianus,comes from Mexico and is sometimes called Mexican fleabane, tough I wouldn’t dream of doing so.”

But fleabane is SUCH a much lovelier name! Come on now, Penelope.

 And then she’ll say something like this:

“The gardener ends up with a head crammed full of names…. but I have not yet stared at a rose wondering what kind of flower this is, and in fact plant names seem to surface more readily than those of politicians or celebrities, which is as it should be, as far as I’m concerned.”

And once again, we agree.

 

this is not a review: reading my shelves

 

My reading usually goes something like this:

See/hear about some new title and check library to see if they have it. If yes, then I put it on hold. If I fall in love with it after reading library copy I will order from bookshop. If not available at library but looks REALLY good, I will order from bookshop directly and hope to fall in love.

A good system but one can only read so many books so what happens is that the books who live on my shelves (or stacks on my floor) (including those from bookshop) get read last because all those books on hold come swooping in continually from the library.

Except during a pandemic when the library is closed.

One of the joys during this time of isolation has been the luxury (i.e. no other choice) of reading my own shelves. Some of which has included time with old favourites but the most fun has been had in reading books whose spines I’ve stared at for years but for whatever reason haven’t taken off the shelf.

A sampling mixture follows:

The Road Past Altamont is possibly my favourite recent long-on-the-shelves discovery. What absolute joy to be embraced for a few days by Gabrielle Roy’s gorgeous sentences evoking landscape in and around Manitoba, including Lake Winnipeg and the eponymous Altamont, which reminds one of the characters of her childhood home in Quebec and which serves as a metaphor for how everything is connected and how knowing that changes our perspective on, if not everything, then much.

In the preface to City Poems, by Joe Fiorito, A.F. Moritz describes the poems as “very short, shooting stars”. I like how the image ties these ultra urban scenes to something from the natural world, a subtle reminder that even in the darkest corners of street life, life IS nature. Human or otherwise. Fiorito is a pro at noticing the life that goes on in an environment where so much and so many are ignored. ‘Blink’ and the moment, the star, is gone.

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington is a mad romp in the company of a perfectly (enviably) eccentric ninety-two year old woman in a nursing home who eavesdrops and offers straight-up thoughts about the world and the people in it, which sounds simplistic and it’s possible to read it that way, but it also veers heavily into a tongue in cheek surrealism of commentary on age, gender, family, animal rights, as well as offering a loose blueprint for changes to the current sad state of earthly affairs via starting over on another planet “… peopled with cats, werewolves, bees, and goats. We all fervently hope that this will be an improvement on humanity …” 

Sheila Burnford is best known for writing The Incredible Journey in 1961, which was later Disneyfied in a movie. I haven’t read that book but will put it on my list because this is now An Author I Like based on The Fields at Noon which I’ve had on my shelves for who knows how long. An absolute joy for its themes of outdoorsy pursuits such as mushroom hunting and walking and toads and general love of nature. I also like that Burnford, who (from her author pic) looks every bit a housefrau of the 1960’s but comes off as someone who would absolutely rather have a beer on the porch than vacuum.

The Very Marrow of Our Bones, by Christine Higdon, is one I like to re-read for the pleasure of the characters. Don’t you just love a book where you enjoy being the in the company of fictitious folk, where when you put the book down you hope they don’t get up to anything until you come back even though you already know what happens. In a nutshell, and without giving too much away, the story is about a small community where two women have disappeared. But it’s not what you think. It’s not about the mystery, it’s about relationships and family, how they are forged, what they are based on and how (and why) they develop and how they evolve or de-evolve. Told in two alternating voices: Lulu, who grows up in the community, leaves and then returns. And Doris, who never leaves. There are roosters, beehives, greenhouses and gardens, barns and ponds, donkeys, a goat, an Airstream trailer, home preserves and foraging and among all this honest (never sentimental) beauty, there’s sadness too, and the contrast of life on the road as a musician and singer… and the sense of something that feels like a slow unravelling of darkness, but you’re never quite sure.

A few years ago Saskatchewan poet and naturalist Brenda Schmidt put out a call for culvert memories and experiences, explaining that she was working on a new series of poems that would incorporate selected comments within the collection. Published in 2018, Culverts Beneath the Narrow Road is now that collection, poetry and prose that feels like a collaborative Paean to the large round silver objects that transport the lifeblood of water across the country and which are mostly never thought about. Each piece is prefaced by an italicized line, a contribution from an anonymous someone (contributors are listed in the introduction but are not linked to their specific memories, which creates fabulous and mysterious connections in itself) and which has Schmidt tapping into her own memories and experiences from various and surprising portals. I love work that inspires story through unexpected means. Schmidt has done that beautifully.

How to Catch a Mole, by Marc Hamer, warns the reader that by the end of the book they will know more than they ever thought possible about moles. And he’s right. And it almost put me off reading the book because why would I want to know about moles? Well. Turns out that mole catching is a pretty interesting metaphor for life. But isn’t it cruel? Yes. And no. Like life. The book is a sort of casual memoir about this mole-catching-career slice of Hamer’s life, which had unhappy beginnings and which saw him homeless for many years. He made some money initially as an itinerant gardener, which turned to professional mole-catching, which in the UK is/was apparently A Big Thing. Also, there is a WAY of doing it that’s ethical, which I found hard to believe but by the time I’d finished this very slim volume of a book I saw the other side of what appears to be cruel and unnecessary work. Surprisingly, it’s not a book that makes you squirm. On the contrary, it’s filled with honesty and sensitivity. Not just about moles, but life. It’s really about life. Excellent.

All Roads Lead to Wells. I read a review about this a few years ago and it appealed to me because it’s the true account of a hippie community that moved into the teensy tiny town of Wells, BC in the late 60’s and 70’s and stayed off and on throughout the 90’s. One of the original members stayed forever and is now a member of the town council. Another, Susan Safyan, is the author of the book. Safyan’s own memories as well as those of many former hippies tell a great story about A Time. A time which really isn’t that different from This Time, when youth believes it alone can change the world. Then it was through returning to the land and forming a counter-culture by living simply, eschewing the establishment, and ‘not trusting anyone over 30’. Much of how they lived was admirable, much was questionable in terms of hypocrisy… some accepted pogey for instance. And they didn’t change the world exactly as they’d hoped, in fact many/most grew up to realize the difficulty of washing diapers by hand in cold water fetched from a stream beside your tumbling down shack and eventually sold out and accepted the gift of Pampers. But the hippies did make changes to the world, if not in diapers, they were instrumental in starting the organic and ethical food movement. Among a few other things. Lots of pictures and conversational material in the pages. A slice of history worth having.

Beth Powning’s Seeds of Another Summer about her move to the countryside many years ago. Full of gorgeous photos and a shoulder-dropping, deep breath inducing narrative of someone who misses nothing.

On a similar note, but entirely different, Catherine Owen’s Seeing Lessons about Mattie Gunterman, an 18th century “photographer and mining camp cookhouse worker”, written in poems and poetic prose about not only the times she lived but also the power of seeing and being able to retain something of what is seen.

 

 

The next batch stacked and ready:

Land to Light On, by Dionne Brand (because I love how she writes about the/her Canadian experience)

The Cat, by Marie-Louise von Franz (because it’s a tale of feminine redemption and because she was great pals with Carl Jung, so should be interesting)

Structures of Indifference, by Mary Jane Logan McCallum and Adelle Perry (because it examines one life, and death, which begins with the 34 hours an Indigenous man spent in a Winnipeg emergency room before dying, unseen and untreated)

A 1987 copy of the journal Fireweed, the ‘Class’ issue, because I think it will be interesting and because Kate Braid is one of the contributors and her bio reads that she is a “carpenter living in Vancouver who writes her poems on lunch breaks and at STOP signs”.

Autobiography of an Elderly Woman, published in 1911 under no author’s name but research shows that it was written by Mary Heaton Vorse, a 37 year old Greenwich Village bohemian, journalist, and editor, who wrote it in the voice of her mother, and which (in 1911) has lines like this: “Each generation permits a different type of young girl, but the older woman must not change; her outline is fixed and immovable. She must be like [anyone’s] grandmother, ‘always there’.”

Portraits of Earth, by Freeman Patterson, a book of extraordinary photographs and contemplation on things like icebergs, leaves, wet sand, sky, air, forests, fish, water, driftwood… and how we mere mortals fit in. Or might if we tried.

Birds, Art, Life, by Kyo Maclear (a re-read because more beauty).

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, because I never have.

 

 

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘personal geography’, by elizabeth coatsworth

 

Personal Geography was published in 1976 when Elizabeth Coatsworth, an American woman of privilege, was eighty-three and reads as promised… ‘almost an autobiography’, written from journal entries spanning a lifetime, and including poetry, opinions, snippets and random thoughts as well as travelogues of requisite once-upon-a-time tours and junkets to places like Egypt, Jerusalem, the ‘Far East’, a cruise on the Great Lakes, Palm Springs, Toulouse. She writes about marriage to naturalist Henry Beston and their eventual move to Chimney Farm in Maine where they lived quite simply and how, after all the palaver of the ‘what one was expected to do’ years, it was the ordinariness of walking through meadows that turned out to be the highlight.

It can be tiresome to hear the privileged complain of their privilege, how their tiaras give them a headache, etc.,  and happily Coatsworth doesn’t do anything of the kind… she neither apologizes for her privilege nor regrets it, but simply says this was my life… I’ve come to prefer meadows.

“But after seventeen years of study in school and college I never noticed from what direction the wind was blowing. I didn’t know what to do for a burn, or the names of any but the commonest flowers. I could not have recognized a bird song, or gone to market and made a wise selection. I could not hem, judge a person’s character; and I didn’t know the names of the streets which I had passed by daily for years.”

She writes also about class systems, gender inequality, and various other subjects that resonate in the way of everything old being new again with bits of wisdom throughout that note, as a species, we are not quick learners.

“… I find I have a vast respect for close observation and an independently arrived-at conclusion. A world in which newspaper headlines and editorial opinions, or television news, or articles compressed from magazines for monthly digests form the basis of the intellectual pabulum is not very interesting. Most conversations are little better than quotations without quotation marks.”

 The kind of book that feels like letters from a favourite aunt.

“A personality, to be a work of art, must first have quality and second be ruthlessly simplified. You must be able to say of such a one: “The Eighteenth century is his hobby”, or “I never see squills without thinking of her.” A personality must have recognizably distinct likes and dislikes on almost every side. If a few of these are unexpected, so much the better…. In all this I am a lamentable failure. I can’t dislike even gladioli whole-heartedly. I do not know who is my favourite author… [but] a few things emerge… My favourite fruit is raspberries. I love the lonely ruins of civilizations. And if I could paint I should paint nothing but pools of water and their reflections… not lakes, nor rivers, nor waves, but wet New York pavements mirroring street lamps and the bright inhuman reds and greens of taxicab lights; and the dark grave reflections of grass in the long puddles of country ruts; and rainwater glazed with clouds in the granite hollows of a rock pasture; and the faces of people reflected back, small and intense, from the deep girandole of a well.”

Written of a specific time and place but, as the title indicates, the geography is more about the interior journey and the writing contains that unique something that feels timeless and borderless and taps a collective nerve and is easily relatable… if one is the mood for relating.

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘pilgrim at tinker creek’, by annie dillard

 

The pleasure of this book for me is that I can dip into it whenever I want to travel the Blue Ridge Mountain countryside, which has been a fascination for me ever since hearing as a kid the song ‘Country Roads’, which I sang alone in the backseat of my parent’s Oldsmobile as we drove north for summer holidays… me staring out the window at endless forest and imagining living a solitary life in those woods, making my own orange crate furniture… take me home, country roads…

Until my mother would inevitably say can you please put a sock in it. Or words to that effect.

Tinker Creek is in West Virginia. The narrator is unnamed but feels like Annie Dillard. Also Thoreau. Non-fiction pieces cobbled into chapters from reams of journal entries. The attention to details in nature thrills me. There’s no point in giving examples… the thing has to be read to be appreciated, otherwise I could as easily say frogs, bulrushes, English sparrow, landscape, polar ice, sunlight, rain, thunder, a gravel path, the egg cases of a praying mantis, the thin membrane of an onion, that sort of thing. The kind of person it would be a joy to walk with through the woods or along the shores of Tinker Creek but I suspect she is one who prefers to walk through nature alone.

I get that. So do I. For which reason the writing and the reading is the perfect vehicle for us both.

“Every year a given tree creates absolutely from scratch ninety-nine percent of its living parts. Water lifting up tree trunks can climb one hundred and fifty feet an hour; in full summer a tree can, and does, heave a ton of water every day. A big elm in a single season might make as many as six million leaves, wholly intricate, without budging an inch; I couldn’t make one.”

**

Here is the Country Roads (John Denver) version I remember. Still gets to me and now, in these strange times, also reminds me that as a kid singing this, it didn’t occur to me I was singing about somewhere in another country… I was simply singing about nature, affected by the effect it has, which is everywhere and belongs to no one. Borders are human-made and humans aren’t bright.

Sending the world a little love. Without borders.

 

~

(Also, as a Briny Books Bingo marker… it goes on ‘A book that’s been sitting too long on your TBR pile’.)

 

the story of rebecca of sunnybrook farm begins with bingo

 

Actually, it begins with a precocious eleven year old girl arriving in a small country town via horse and buggy, driven by a soft spoken older uncle type who is charmed by her precociousness. (Yes, she is poor and has lively big bright eyes and braids. No they are not red, but black. More about that later.)

But the story of how Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm came to be in my house in the first place begins with bingo.

The Briny Books Book Bingo Challenge, to be precise. A new thing created by the wonderfully bookish mind behind the blog Pickle Me This (and in partnership with the simply wonderful Blue Heron Books).

I love stuff like this.

So I started with the first square (you don’t have to go in order though… it’s bingo for god’s sake!), which happens to be “A Book From a Little Free Library” and wouldn’t you know it but that very day I happen to pass a little free library I’d never noticed before.

This is how the universe works.

Unfortunately it was crammed with stuff that held zip interest for me but I was committed to THIS Little Free Library and from THIS ONE I decided I must take a book and read it. Because if I was going to get all choosy then I’m controlling things and that is NOT how I want to play my bingo. But Robert Ludlum? Um, no. And tekky books, macrobiotic diets… egad, what was the universe trying to tell me? And then… squished to one side, there was Rebecca. She was the best of what was on offer but I was still not very happy about things and I seriously considered leaving her there and trying another little library. But it was too late. I WILL NOT CONTROL MY BINGO had already become my mantra and so I took Rebecca, who I knew nothing about except wasn’t she supposed to be some overly cheerful chick like Polyanna?, home. (note to self: read Polyanna)

Well.

Turns out that not only is Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm delightful and the story perfectly fine and not intolerably sweet and, in fact, very funny even, but it led me to a whole THING insofar as its connection to Anne of Green Gables. The parallels and samenesses cannot be missed. I mean it’s REALLY very similar, not only in storyline but snippets of dialogue are word for word the same, characters (including Anne being a red-haired version of black-haired Rebecca), also voice, tone, descriptions, settings, relationships. I had no idea of the Rebecca story before this and as I read my jaw kept dropping further and further.

Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca came first (1905), and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne in 1908, which is heart-breaking and makes you wonder: what was Montgomery doing, essentially copying Wiggin’s story??

I researched various reviews and discussions on the subject and while there is no doubt the books are bizarrely similar, there seems to be no broadly accepted WHY. At least no one’s daring to come right out and use the P word.

To make matters worse, Anne, of course, went on to become an international superstar and icon and entire industry. Whereas Becky was pretty much a non-starter outside the U.S. and over time even fizzled away there.

Hardly seems fair, right?

One theory has it that the Rebecca story is more overtly patriotic and American, while the Anne story focuses mostly on the oh-so-quaint village of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island, and while Canada is named and there’s no doubt where the story is set, the overall emphasis is more on landscape than ‘nation’… thus making the argument that the Anne story was more widely and internationally relatable at the time of publication.

All of which doesn’t explain what Lucy Maud was thinking. My personal theory is that she made her book so BLATANTLY the same as Wiggin’s as an homage, as her Canadian version of a story she loved. Because surely she could not have supposed it would be taken as a completely original tale.

Pure conjecture. I haven’t read anything to this effect so it remains a mystery. But if my theory is correct, it would have been a classy move to acknowledge Wiggin’s book right up front, even putting it in the dedication. Or at least have gone on record afterward and explained her reasons for ‘using’ so much of it.

That said, I’m thrilled with my first bingo pick. Who could have guessed it would lead to the discovery of what amounts to a possible literary scandal brushed under the literary rug.

Next up… hmmm.

Not sure.

Because I don’t have to go in order…

… it’s BINGO.

Might just see what comes my way.

Will keep you posted.

 

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘the outport people’, by claire mowat

 

I have no idea where I got this book nor how it came to be included in my winter reading. I haven’t been talking to anyone about Newfoundland or outports and the only aquatic thing I’ve had on my mind recently is the Georgian Bay trout we get via a local fisherman. But there it was on my To Be Read pile so I casually opened it and wondered if (assumed that) Claire Mowat was related to Farley. She is. His wife. And it was with Farley that she lived in an outport on the southwest coast of Newfoundland from 1962 to 1970.

That pretty much right there is the story. Except for the details. Because life in an outport, apparently, is/was not heavy on drama, intrigue, or big-time action, but details… oh yes. Oodles.

An outport, by the way, is a small, isolated fishing community almost always without roads. Access to ‘anywhere’ is by boat only, which means during the LOOOONG winters… there is no access to ‘anywhere’. Due to their isolation these communities became a lifestyle unto themselves and in their own way thrived up until the 1970’s when outside influences entered into things and changed that lifestyle (not for the better), after which residents were given incentives to move inland. Many moved entire houses, floated them along the coast, because they had no money to buy new. And a way of life vanished.

Mowat was there, unknowingly, for what would be the last decade of that old-world outport life. She shares those remnants by being an excellent observer of nuance and keeping herself in or out of the story in all the right ways.

The Outport People is billed as a fictionalized memoir but it’s generally acknowledged that the only fictionalized bits are names and the occasional need for artistic license in order to make whole cloth of the ‘details’ and shape the story. Capturing the essence of this now lost way of life was, after all, the point of writing the book, something that’s clear from the reading. You can tell Mowat was truly in love with outport life and deeply respectful, in awe even, of the people who lived it.

What comes off as most extraordinary is that they, the residents, seemed oblivious to the increasingly modern world going on around them. More importantly, that’s pretty much the way they liked it. Most people never once in their life set foot outside their remote community and when then did, didn’t much like what they saw.

“In 1939, when war broke out, Ezra was one of the first men in Baleena to volunteer for service in the British Merchant Marine. He was then close to being fifty years old. He made many stormy crossings of the North Atlantic in submarine-hunted convoys, oiling machinery in the throbbing engine room of an ancient freighter. In the port cities of England he first encountered a way of life that was not the way of Baleena. He had never seen so many buildings so close to one another and he marvelled that human beings could bear to live like that. No one ever invited him into a house there, and the pubs and teashops he visited were damp, chilling places that numbed your feet and soul. He was never warm in England. Even the poorest house in Newfoundland, he reckoned, had a kitchen that was warmer than an English castle.”

Once that ‘modern world’ began creeping in via telephones and televisions in the mid to late 1960’s (but remained a rarity in most homes); when the post office was rebuilt and the postmaster of 35 years, who knew everyone by name, retired and was replaced with a key to your own P.O. box so that there was no one to speak with at what used to be a communal hub; when the occasional car began to appear and the fish began to disappear along with the fish plants along with the young people who could no longer hope to make a living, changing the cycle of families so that elderly parents who were once cared for by their kids were now left to grow old alone…  nothing was ever the same or as good in its maybe-it’s-crazy-but-it’s-worked-for-generations way.

But all this comes at the end of the book and the end of the decade. By which time Mowat has painted a picture of a strangely beautiful world… beautiful despite the fact that no one has more than a few dollars at any given moment,  no reliable medical services, no actual shops (back to no one has any money to buy anything), limited food sources, and despite the howling cold weather and brutal life of families who fish for a living or work for the fishing industry (and receive ridiculously little $$ for it)… despite all that and more, there’s a warmth, from the people themselves, from the way they share what little they have, looking in on neighbours to make sure they’re okay, the way children have ten thousand chores but are also free to run and play and discover their enormous yet tiny world because there is nothing else, not a single other thing, to distract them. There’s a complete absence of fear (other than what weather and sea and fishing companies pose).

And the colours! in this grey landscape where no deciduous trees exist… the bright shiny orange of kitchen walls, a red painted floor, yellow table, lime green chairs, a turquoise exterior. (The fishing boats, however, are all proudly dory buff. A kind of beige. Which makes no sense to me… I’d have thought it would be an advantage to have brightly painted boats.)

Mowat also notes cultural peculiarities, what is considered polite conversation, the way it’s absolutely normal for anyone to walk into anyone else’s house and sit down, almost always in the kitchen, and talk or not talk. The tradition of mummers, the difficulty of unions in environments made up almost entirely of closely linked families, what’s important to people, most of whom, have never been or even seen pictures of… anywhere else.

“The economic history of Newfoundland was a subject as taboo in their house as a discussion about religion in Belfast.”

The reason houses and roofs are specifically shaped and why windows rarely face the sea…

“The Roses’ children had long since left home and their house, which once had had two storeys, had been decapitated. Removing the second floor of a house was a common alteration made by elder couples since it reduced both the amount of fuel need to heat it and the housework needed to keep it clean.”

Oh, yes, and the sea.

The book feels like listening to a friend tell the story of living eight years in a place she was initially only curious about but came to deeply love… including, and maybe especially because of, the tough moments. And what’s more brilliantly beautifully Maritime than that?

(All of which aside, I’ve read that in some cases, residents of Newfoundland outports have not found the book as charming as mainlanders have, but that may be a case of being in the forest, unable to see the beauty of the trees. There were occasions Mowat outlines, where residents wondered why she was taking pictures of the water or the boats, things they found so ordinary. There is also the possibility that residents interpreted Mowat’s ‘details’ of outport life as being meant to be demeaning, when in fact it’s all about respect, admiration and awe, with more than a dollop of envy.)

“I wondered if anyone [on the mainland] ever stopped to think, as they laid the fillets in the pan, about the men who had caught them, or the people who had cut them and packed them, or of the risky voyage[s] made to bring all this fish to them. Only rarely do we think about the complexities of the production and distribution of food. It is so mindlessly easy to ignore the human involvement when we simply reach into a freezer.”