this is not a review: ‘in praise of retreat’, by kirsteen macleod

I have my own preferred forms of retreat, not the least of which being an annual solitary escape at xmas to a tiny highway motel about an hour north in the country. The kind of place (I have discovered) divorced men go to lick their wounds and couples whose house burned down await insurance dollars and where you park your car in front of your room, where there’s a metal chair beside the front door if you feel like being conspicuous and a wooden one out back on your tiny private patio. It’s the latter I choose and sit wrapped in a heavy blanket under an awning on a snowy night with a glass of wine or a mug of chai; more stars than at home, the dark is darker, the silence more silent. I’m the only holiday traveller to this lonely sweet place at this time of the year where everyone leaves everyone else alone. I read and write and every night I stamp a labyrinth in the snow behind the motel as I watch the sun set. I eat wonderful meals from my cooler and in the morning I have a square of dark chocolate in bed before breakfast.

I can and I do all of this at home too (not the chocolate in bed and maybe that’s key) but on my retreat it all feels different. That too is key. Not what you do but how it feels.

I’m thinking a lot about all this currently and in the way of how things find you when you need to be found by them, I was found by Kirsteen MacLeod’s ‘In Praise of Retreat’, in which she writes of various retreat-ers, from Thoreau and Celtic hermits to E. Jean Carroll, Emily Dickinson and others whose lifestyle or parts of it demanded serious and regular isolationg from society. A gorgeous and enlightening read in which I’ve learned so much about ’emptying’, including that ‘kil’ is the Celtic word for ‘cell’ and refers to the caves of hermits up and down the Scottish coast.

Each of those place names that begin ‘kil…’ indicate they were once an inhabited space by some monkishly minded soul.

Written in my favourite style, heavily researched but conversational in tone, like lunching with someone whose every word you hang on to the point your soup gets cold and you don’t care one whit. In personal stories of yoga retreats, writing retreats, high and low end, historic and new-fangled retreat facilities in various corners of the world as well as accounts via third parties, MacLeod knows exactly how to balance research with a good anecdote. She tells of people who are drawn to retreats and the different and same things they, and we, are all looking for.

“A retreat is a place, but it is also an act of independence. A resolute effort of will is required. While it’s easier to go with the powerful tide of the mainstream, which requires no thought or cultivation, we can choose to withdraw our attention, step back. Like prayer, piano playing, tennis, yoga and meditation, retreat is a practice –the effort you put in shapes what you get out of it. The practice of retreat attunes you to the extraordinary, to the sacramental world.”

I’ve read other things on solitude that can get preachy or downright ho hum but not here. There isn’t a part of the book that feels heavy-handed, overdone or slow moving including a lovely section on Leonard Cohen that feels fresh with insight, in which she quotes him with this that I love because I love seriousness and it makes me happy to see someone taking it seriously:

“I think there’s an appetite for seriousness… [it] is voluptuous, and very few people have allowed themselves the luxury of it… Seriousness is the deepest pleasure we have. But now I see people allowing their lives to diminish, to become shallow, so they can’t enjoy the deep wells of experience.”

I’d like to paddle in this stream a bit longer, the idea of retreat and solitude, what it means, the various forms it takes, so if you have something to share on the subject, a quote, a photograph, a personal experience, a book, please do. I will be all ears and eyes and gratitude.

this is not a review: ‘brighten the corner where you are’, by carol bruneau

 

Based on loving my (limited) experiences of limited spaces, I have this idea that I would love a tiny house. Also I’m drawn to stories about living in small spaces or trailers so it was wonderful, a few years ago, to visit the site of the one room house Maud Lewis shared with her husband Everett in rural Nova Scotia (as well as seeing the actual house which is now permanently installed at the Art Gallery of Halifax after a citizen’s group fought to save it). To imagine her painting by the window, arthritic fingers, little money, a miserly and odd/rather cold husband… going nowhere, speaking to few people, zero luxuries or conveniences, and yet… all those happy cows and cats and sleds and flowers, not to mention the house itself, the stairs, the walls, door, stove, everything in sight essentially, painted… brightly.

I’m only sorry that at the time I visited the house I hadn’t yet read Carol Bruneau’s Brighten the Corner Where You Are.

A novel narrated by Maud herself, dead and in heaven and from which vantage point, in case you’re interested, one can still covet Salsibury steak and where one is no wiser as to understanding humans. “You can’t know the heart or mind of someone else, not even from here.”

In a voice that so drew me in I had to keep reminding myself it was fiction, Bruneau spins an utterly charming (and eye-opening) imagination of what Lewis’s life might have been like in that tiny space with that crotchety, mean, and downright weird husband, and what she herself might have been like, what she thought of her strangely isolated life.

It’s also based on a sizeable amount of research judging by the bibliography.

In Bruneau’s version, Maud doesn’t complain much, she accepts the choices she’s made, the safety of marriage being something she’s grateful for after being spurned by a man with whom she had a child (a child she never knew). There is a beautiful through line involving a ring that Everett gives her, which she sees as a symbol of belonging and legitimacy. Somehow, as a couple, they work. She can’t cook but she ends up being the one to bring home the bacon, $5 at a time through her paintings, which are sold at the side of the road or by word of mouth.

Paintings now worth tens of thousands.

But it was never money that inspired her.

“When the wind blowing in through the cracks finally lulled me to sleep, I dreamt of an orange. It was fresh from the hold of a sailing ship from the south seas, round and bright as the sun. As I sucked its juice its seeds stuck in my teeth. And in the dream Ev yelled at me for not saving him some. For he expected me to share it: what’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine. That orange was the colour I would’ve painted the entire house if I could have.”

Lewis is nobody’s ninny, nor is she a Polyanna. The fact that, despite her circumstances, she chooses to paint only joy, is what makes her so interesting and becomes the angle at which Bruneau excavates: what kind of a person can live like this and still see the world as she does?

“It’s colours that keep the world turning, that keep a person going.”

It would have been easy to sentimentalize the story or play on the reader’s empathy for Lewis but Bruneau does neither. There are scenes where I wanted to scream get out, or they’re only trying to help you, or you don’t need him. But I’m glad no one was listening. Bruneau finds a beautiful balance in Maud, showing us one possibility of Why She Stays, an account that could be entirely true for all we know, certainly an example of the times when women like Maud, especially, rural and poor, physically disabled, with ‘a child out of wedlock’, were happy to have any kind of place in society. A husband and a shack by the road would do nicely.

Even so, you can’t help believe Maud Lewis had something special, a quality that helped her almost thrive.

“What these folks don’t see is that these cages made me the bird I was and the bird I am, made me sing in the way I did, the way that brought me happiness and joy and a starry life I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”

What surprises me most is how joyful the story feels, despite the not so joyful reality. In whatever way Maud managed to turn difficulty into a tolerable happiness, so has Bruneau turned a difficult story into one of ultimate brightness, capturing the essence of Maud’s pragmatic outlook. Whenever I put the book down I could hardly wait to get back to it in that way where you hope the characters haven’t got up to anything while you’ve been having your lunch. The reading felt like hanging out with Maud, hearing a sometimes painful story told with heart and sprinkled throughout with laughter, wry observation, and Maud’s maybe unintentional sense of humour.

“…Mama had a strict arrangement with Mae, who did my hair in exchange for cards. Dis-for-dat: the barber system, Mae called it.”

All that and…. it has one of the most beautiful endings I’ve read in a long time.

1200px-Maud_Lewis

Image courtesy WikiCommons.

this is not a review: ‘field notes from an unintentional birder’, by julia zarankin

 

In a nutshell: personal essays, each focusing on one bird or aspect of birding, as well as a gentle inter-weaving of childhood memories that embrace the disciplines of piano, Russian literature, ballet, which in alternating ways both parallel and contradict the author’s approach to a growing fascination/obsession with birds.

Also in a nutshell: an entirely lovely read.

So lovely in fact that I found myself looking forward to settling down with a chapter or two in the way you might call a friend and say, so what have you learned today about your beloved birds and KNOW you will be getting a fabulous story if only, and maybe especially, about the most ordinary of moments, about how these moments reflect so much more than the moment and how there is always some very great thing learned, about birds, yes, but about self at the same time, in a completely NOT self-focused way.

There is no navel gazing here. Observations, both avian, and self-reflection, come as happy surprises.

Zarankin writes (along with so much else) about getting up in the wee hours, in all weather, driving to meet birding groups in parking lots and from there heading to wherever sightings of note have occurred. She writes about how she can hardly believe she’s doing this, how she notices her house filling up with birding books and décor, her conversation laced with avian facts; she is considering the purchase of a multi-pocketed vest, the likes of which once made her cringe. Having reached her thirties without noticing much more than a robin she is stunned to realize the variety of birds that exist in the city of Toronto and, to be honest, I’m stunned right along with her. How is it I don’t know a nuthatch… have I ever even seen one? Apparently they identify themselves by walking headfirst down tree trunks. And warblers, well, they’re everywhere it turns out, and, get this: there is something called a veery. Also a phalarope, a towhee. These are birds that live… right here.

My mind is blown by how much we don’t know.

This is a book about discovery. Birds, yes. But passion mostly. It’s uplifting in a down to earth way; there are no promises that following your passion will lead you to what you expect, in yourself or otherwise, but, as Zarankin shows by her own example, there’s a very good chance it will lead you to the surprise of your own heart.

Also birds.

“It’s hard to measure my birding progress. Ten years later, I am no longer a neophyte… But I know I’m still far from being a skilled birder.

“…. Maybe the point isn’t about measuring at all; it’s about seeing.”

this is not a review: the fiction of politics

I didn’t intend to read two books back to back where women, politics, and arrogant men figure prominently but then I think if you have the first two ingredients, the last one is often a given.

Interestingly, both books take their stories from real events.

Kerry Clare’s Waiting for a Star to Fall, was the first of the two.

The overall premise having been inspired by Toronto politician Patrick Brown’s undoing. Forgive the pun. Told from the perspective of Brooke, a twenty-three year old political assistant who is smitten with the glossy veneer of politics and the (older) man behind the curtain in a way that may resonate one way with anyone who has long since been twenty-three (i.e. as cringing reminder of youth and the easy influence of someone ‘important’; gratitude for crumbs of attention; status by association; the way innocence walks into moments that experience would recognize for what they are and head for the hills) and resonate another way entirely with anyone who IS currently twenty-three (i.e. as fair warning). At its heart, a story about the abuse of power, both heartbreaking for what we recognize in Brooke’s naivete, and inspiring for the realization that this is how we learn. Sometimes it hurts.

Petra, by Shaena Lambert, is the little (to me) known story of Petra Kelly, founder and champion of the Green Party. Narrated partly in the voice of a former lover, the book is eye-opening in its account of the party’s origins, initial efforts against nuclear weapons and various other causes being championed such as climate change, feminism, humane treatment of all living things. The book opens in the farmhouse that serves as party headquarters and which beautifully sets the tone for what the party stood for, i.e. no fancy office building necessary. This is grassroots politics at its finest and well portrays the era of the 1980’s, the important work being done, the challenges Kelly, especially, faced, as well as the commitment of those doing the work, all the while revealing relationships and personalities, the struggles, the egos and ultimately, the betrayals.

I won’t spoil the pleasure but I will say that it has one of the best closing scenes I’ve read in a very long time

this is not a review: ‘sixpence house: lost in a town of books’, by paul collins

Paul Collins is an American who claims some connection to the UK via parents who are British (but have lived in the States a long time; he doesn’t say how long). In any case he and his wife leave San Francisco with their young child and move to Hay on Wye in Wales, the ‘town of books’ and home to the Hay Festival.

We are not entirely sure why.

There he, Collins, meets a number of local village folk including Richard Booth, the chap who started the whole bookstore thing (at one point there were something like 70+ book shops in this wee town) and is madly eccentric, a terrible businessman but brilliant book lover. Collins magically gets a job working for him for (I’m not sure how long… he’s vague on dates) and (surprise!) eventually leaves Wales to return to the States.

In there somewhere is a flimsy attempt to buy a house [in Wales]. Which never happens for one reason or another and mostly, I would assume, because Collins and his family have no desire to stay. This is never stated outright but by virtue of how things transpire, or don’t, how the whole adventure that was supposed to last forever is suddenly over and he’s just glossing over the fact that they’re dashing back to the States, well, it smacks a bit of a) a realization that they aren’t cut out for Welsh village life, or b) that this was all a half-hearted effort at best, a sort of stab at ‘A Year in Provence’, something to write a book about if all else fails. I lean toward option (b) because it really doesn’t feel like he ever gives the place a chance.

Worth reading?

Not a complete waste of time. He writes with some humour and until the part where they up and leave (a schmaltzy return to America by the way, on a British passport for some reason and the U.S. immigration officer giving him a seriously hard time and TELLING him that he is an American and that he should be travelling on a U.S. passport… all a little over the top)… but until this daft and sudden ending, in the interval when you are still being lulled into thinking they might be sincere about making a go of it, it’s not the worst read.

While he notes many comparisons between life in the States and life in this tiny Welsh town, much of this is presented as isn’t it all so quaint and quirky, in a way that caters to mostly to an audience who rarely if ever travel far from their homes or are even aware, via books or other means, that life outside their universe (i.e. in other countries) is indeed different. And pleasantly so.

That said, there a few lovely bits throughout.

On remembering: “It is hard to know just how many times we have been exposed to a word, a face, an idea, before we have it.”

Litter in Literature: “The only civilian is a single forlorn custodian, who stands with his rubbish stick at the ready. He is waiting to spear the first crumpled crisps packet that flutters out of some pensioner’s string bag.”

Fun Fact: Phyllis Pearsall is the creator of the London A to Z map. She moved to London in 1935 after a divorce, thinking to become a portrait painter. “And so she did; but of a place, rather than a person.”

Wisdom: “No situation is so dire that it cannot be interrupted for tea.”

Trivia: The English tit bird “discovered that if they pecked through the foil cap on milk bottles, they could suck down a cream feast so sumptuous that they could barely stagger away afterward…” (bottlecaps were duly redesigned)

Warning: “To look for a specific book in Hay is a hopeless task; you can only find the books that are looking for you, the ones you didn’t even know to ask for in the first place.” [There is only one new-books bookshop in the town of Hay.]

Reading recs: Mercy Philbrick’s Choice, written by Helen Hunt Jackson, who was friends with Emily Dickinson. Published while Dickinson was still alive and unknown… “an extraordinary fictional portrayal of artistic isolation…”

On a VERY interesting moment in publishing history: Collins talks about a No Names Series put out by Thomas Niles (Publisher), “which published new works by writers like Jackson, Louisa May Alcott, and Christina Rossetti anonymously, allowing the works to stand or fall in review columns on their own merits. It is hard to imagine hype-hungry publishers undertaking such a  project today.”

Comparisons: Lots of comparisons with American and UK life, media, TV, radio, literature, values, ways of conducting oneself (shouting ‘Hi’ in the street isn’t done, for instance). Of a British TV game show he writes about prizes like egg timers and frosted drinking glasses. [Oh I would love such a frosted glass!]

On magazines: the difference being that U.S. home décor mags look like no house that exists, all lighting and staging, while British décor mags have actual lived in rooms, comfortable untidiness included.

Very funny riff on showers. Collins remembers showers as a child in the U.S. where he’d pretend he was flying a single jet plane, rain whipping into the cockpit, being pounded by enemy water canons or riot police, etc. and wonders what children in the UK imagine… “Perhaps they pretend that they are standing under a rusted and leaking pipe in an unlit boiler room. Or that someone is weeing on them from a great height.”

Having living in the UK for several years, I read such pithy comments on the doings with affection, being reminded of both the charm and the charming eccentricities of British village life. 

That said, the ending was ridiculous and left me feeling like the Emperor was buck naked. Like the whole thing was a planned exercise, a process he went through simply in order to get the material to write a book. Which of course people do all the time. But the best of those books reveal something important or surprising gleaned in the process, something that changes or enhances their lives or world view. The problem with this book is that the author seemed to take next to nothing from the experience.

Except a book. (Of pithy observations that really have nothing to do with ‘getting’ a place.)

What really boggles my mind is how, as a writer, you derive so little from the experience of living in a town of bookshops, a town that is wholly dedicated to books and readers and writers, and has a few other notable qualities as well...

Overall, feels like a bit of a missed opportunity for the author. As well as his family. As well as the reader.

this is not a review: ‘a walk in the night’, by Alex la Guma

I read a review about this book, a slim collection of short stories, ordered it from my bookseller then let it sit on my shelves for a couple years. Coming across it the other day I’d forgotten whatever the review said that originally invited me to buy it and because So Many Books To Read, I thought I’d give it purpose by sending to a friend who collects African literature.

I had a little note all written and ready to tuck inside, the brown paper ready to wrap it with and then… well, maybe I’ll just have a quick flip through first.

And just like that, in the blink of an eye, or after the first story, I loved it.

Why?

Because it’s not what I expected.

I expected stories of apartheid and while, yes, these are stories of apartheid; how could they not be? Not the least because Alex la Guma was a freedom fighter against apartheid to the point he had to flee his own country in 1966. He went to the UK where this book was published two years later. So, yes, there are stories of oppression but what surprised me in the most eye-opening and beautiful way are the stories of what it is to be non-White in South Africa. Which of course includes apartheid but is so much bigger than anything, no matter how horrendous, that can be imposed upon a population. It means the resilience of people and the attitude of care and compassion toward each other; it means love and families made of blood and of choice. And it shows that apartheid was not only race based, but class based.

‘The Lemon Orchard’, tells of a Black man who is led by a group of White racists through an orchard (the details of which are exquisite; you are there in the orchard as they walk, aware of the fragrance, the fruit… the juxta-positioning of this with the action and the dialogue is powerful)… walking to the outer reaches of an orchard, where they intend to punish (kill?) the Black man for being ‘cheeky’ in his response to a White man. The ending isn’t what you might expect but it’s exactly this element of ‘the unexpected’ that keeps me reading.

Another story, ‘A Matter of Taste’, finds a Chinese man and a Black man, both hobos, sharing a cup of coffee from a precious few grounds they scavenged. They’ve made a fire next to a railway line when a White man appears from the woods looking thin, hungry, and bedraggled, much like themselves. The coffee is stretched to three as they make up stories about the best meals they can imagine eating and then they imagine eating them.

‘Blankets’ is about a Black man who’s been shot and takes refuge in a lean-to that smells of urine and rot, where he’s covered in blankets that are no more than rags and smell just as bad. Then a paramedic comes, a White face looks down at him and they get him into an ambulance where he’s covered in clean blankets, real blankets, and it’s at this moment he realizes the difference between one social class and another.

Little gems, every one.

All of which to say… I’ll have to buy another copy of the book to send my friend. I’m keeping this one.

this is not a review: ‘if sylvie had nine lives’, by leona theis

As soon as I finished reading this I thought: I want to read it again. Not an altogether unusual thing for me to come to the end of a book then immediately re-read the first chapter to enter it slightly differently, with slightly more knowing so that I can experience deeper layers. Of course there are MANY occasions when that thought doesn’t come up, books I simply close and say, okay, that was that, and move on to the next. But good literature should never be read just once.

Although I would love to move on to the next book… I have a stack tottering in more than one room… but Sylvie is one of those that niggles, come back, she/it says, there’s another layer, and another.

And so I do.

Because, a) getting to know Sylvie is quite good fun and, b) because If Sylvie had Nine Lives is written in a way that makes it impossible to not want to hold up at various angles and see how things fit, what’s the same, what’s different. There is such pleasure in this literary puzzle and the writing is a joy. Here’s a sample. It comes from the chapter/story called ‘How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person Through Yoga” and rather beautifully punctuates an uncomfortable moment that has just passed:

“Sylvie came out of her bedroom and tinkled Cheerios into a bowl, a sound to rinse the air.”

See what I mean?

In a nutshell, the book is the stories of Sylvie, a woman we meet at 19 and then see different possibilities of every five years until age 49. The same person but from nine different life choices. The ultimate unreliable narrator except that every story actually happened, or it would have if she’d chosen an alternate route in the story before.

It opens with Sylvie about to be married to Jack. It’s 1974 when bridal cars are decorated with homemade plastic flowers in the colour of bridesmaids dresses and bridal showers include pie plate hats for the bride-to-be while grooms-to-be get wasted at bars and have to be carried home. Which (in my opinion) works out dandily for Sylvie. I’ll say no more.

The next story/chapter, she’s five years older having made entirely different choices five years earlier that lead to a different present life… and so on as we move through the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s to 2014. The attention to details in each decade so beautifully done, “… the unfurnished living room, evening sunlight filtering through the philodendrons and spider plants on the widow sill.” (do people even still have philodendrons?)… all of it tightly woven through the story, not an ounce of what feels forced; everything ‘belongs’. Each new story is another version of “let’s pretend”… let’s pretend there was no Jack or they didn’t get married or they did but he died or he didn’t (and she has guilt about that or doesn’t) or there’s a different cast of characters entirely or different jobs and maybe there were children or how about there are no children, all of it, whole futures, her futures and others, turning on a moment’s decision. Because that’s exactly how life works, turning and changing based on this choice and the next. We are where we are not necessarily because of what happened but because of what we chose to do about what happened.

So yes. I am re-reading this novel-in-stories with immense pleasure; I’ll begin at the beginning but then read out of order. I love that there is no wrong way to do this (in life and in the book), so many ways to imagine the future, so many fabulous ways to get there.

In the case of Sylvie’s lives, all of them a trip worth taking. Twice.

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.

this is not a review: ‘the sound of a wild snail eating’, by elisabeth tova bailey

 

In her thirties, Elisabeth Tova Bailey suddenly finds herself bedridden for a year as she recovers from a neurological disorder. Early in her convalescence, a friend brings her a potted violet dug up from a nearby forest. Under one of the leaves the author notices a snail. She watches it, expecting not much. What she discovers becomes not only an appreciation of this tiny creature but a kind of epiphany about her own slow process toward healing. All of which becomes the delightful memoir: The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating.

(spoiler alert: you can actually HEAR a snail eating)

Easy as it would have been, Bailey does not clutter the book with slow healing/snail metaphors, doesn’t even really mention her condition except to set it up at the beginning and how she notices the discomfort of those who visit, how her stillness makes them uncomfortable, how their own natural state is one of constant movement, agitation almost. At the end of the book she revisits her condition and takes what feels like a deep breath as she realizes what she’s been through and how impossible the year would have been without the snail.

Because the book is mostly about the snail…. as seen through the lens of someone who has few choices of focus and has chosen… the snail.

And so with her we learn with her, that snails do not, for instance, sit in their shells attached to leaves all day. They wander. They find places to drink (Bailey’s snail made its way regularly to the little tray under the pot where it searched out tiny drops of water) and they have preferences in food. Initially taking what it could find (bits of paper on the bedside table where the pot stood) Bailey’s snail (she never named it) much preferred the wilted blooms the author set down for it once she realized that fresh blooms were not its cup of tea. And remember, she’s bedridden. So she has nothing but time to study this tiny creature, the way it waves its antennae, and under what conditions. The snail becomes almost her entire focus and she searches out info online as well as through reading material she has brought in to her (a long list of ‘Selected Sources’ is included at the back of the book).

Each chapter opens with a short excerpt or quote from a piece of text or a poem and it’s a little mind-blowing as you realize how MUCH has been written about snails, how they’ve influenced art and literature, even architecture (at one point Bailey considers the design of spiral staircases and how it would feel to have one’s head at the top while our feet were at the bottom, our bodies twisted in the middle).

She learns about the gastropod’s history on earth, having existed for a half billion years and appearing on almost every part of the planet and how they move from one geographic area to another. The book weirdly charming in the best way, compelling with so much of interest in the way of snail trivia that it’s nearly impossible to imagine seeing them in the same way again, or ever taking them for granted.

Because (we discover) snails, like anything you focus on, are interesting.

It should be noted that none of this gastropod info is heavy going and all of it, fascinating. At only 175 or so pages, the book reads like a journal of notes and details the author found personally interesting, added her own moments of mulling and wonder, then arranged it into text.

“The mountain of things I felt I needed to do reached the moon, yet there was little I could do about anything, and time continued to drag me along its path. We are all hostages of time. We each have the same number of minutes and hours to live within a day, yet to me it didn’t feel equally doled out. My illness brought me such an abundance of time that time was nearly all I had. My friends had so little time that I often wished I could give them what time I could not use. It was perplexing how in losing health I had gained something so coveted but to so little purpose.”

This appears early in the book. By the end she has come to realize that the very act of being forced to slow down, of living with an abundance of time, and a snail, has allowed for much and continual forward movement.

 

Many thanks to Theresa Kishkan, who suspected I’d like this
given how much I enjoyed ‘the mole book’.

this is not a review: ‘to measure the world’, by karen shenfeld

 

Karen Shenfeld’s newest collection of poems, To Measure the World, feels like a love letter to life and its inevitable yin and yang, some of which comes with shock,

such as the end of a marriage,

“Be aware of those days when you might neglect the signs – / the gasp of plants, the lake’s too brilliant colour”

which, only on a backward glance reveals the signs of its unravelling.

In ‘Milestones’, a paean to the author’s mother, she compares moments from both their lives,

“This is not a mirage. In time-lapsed frames , / your lines crease my face.
I lean on your cane.”
 

I love the use of the word ‘lines’ in this line and how ‘cane’ is not a negative but part of the song.

‘Beach Poem’ is a powerful illustration of subtle differences between siblings that maybe only siblings know.

“I’ll leave for you the fine / white sand maternal as talcum / that dusts your bared soles, / eludes your tightfisted grasp.”

And what a joy to see ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’, which first appeared online at The Litter I See Project. In the context of this collection it takes on a deeper meaning, juxtaposed among the debris of so many and various relationships. The final lines, a gorgeous image:

“Tomorrow, I’ll wrap a potato in / a rocket’s fallen scraps.”

The book reads like an homage to both the welcome and the difficult in life’s journey, a reminder that both are necessary and neither are to be feared,

or taken for granted.