this is not a review: ‘the moon watched it all’, by shelley a. leedahl

 
 

Shelley Leedahl writes “for all ages” although until now I was familiar only with her non-fiction for adults through which I’ve long admired her appreciation of nature. But because I’m also a grown-up fan of picture books (and the moon) I was drawn to read her most recent book for kids.

Beautifully illustrated by Aino Anto (on over-sized smooth-as-glass pages), The Moon Watched it All  is the story of an orphaned boy, shoo’d away and unwanted by everyone he knows… a gentle soul who finds shelter in a chicken coop and who is eventually befriended by an elderly woman who lives alone and talks regularly to the moon.

My kind of people.

It’s also about loneliness. And how loneliness has no age, and family-like bonds can form in surprising ways and circumstances.

Leedahl is so good at not only writing FOR all ages, but about all ages.

The elderly woman in the story (“in a time before this time”) has been abandoned (it seems) by her children and her husband is ‘gone’. She takes comfort in nature, especially the moon, which is her ‘elder’, her counsel, the thing she clings to. The boy stays hidden for some time, fending for himself, and I like that Leedahl chose this path for him, showing the parallel between the two, that both are alone and abandoned but both are also capable on their own, that their coming together isn’t out of cloying necessity. Because the woman does eventually discover the boy and gives him a home and he’s helpful around the place and the reader can finally exhale with the rightness of it all but Leedahl doesn’t treat this with the expected sentimentality of ‘happy endings’. These are very much two different people building a life together… quietly, simply, respectfully, and with a silent gratitude the reader can hear loud and clear.

What a happy trip it would be to chat with a child as the book is read aloud, to ask questions, like why did no one want the boy and how must he have felt not only losing his mother, but then being abandoned and when he was living by his wits in the woods, what did he eat? (answer: “what the birds left after their fill of crusts and corn and seeds” ) and how did he feel in that chicken coop — and how did the chickens feel??? — and why was the woman so connected to the moon and what would have been the hardest part for the boy and the woman as they formed this new life as a family…

Because what Leedahl does best is tell a story that makes you actually sit up and take notice, to think about people… of all ages, and circumstances.

Which is so much more than telling a story.

 

 

this is not a review: ‘deep water passage’, by ann linnea

 

The first time I read Ann Linnea’s Deep Water Passage, I had never kayaked and was more interested in the idea of solitude and running away into the woods. Boats were incidental.

Since then I’ve become the owner of a boat named Lulabelle and spend summer mornings on a pond communing with swans and so have gained some enormous respect for the physical aspects of what Linnea must have experienced as she circumnavigated the entire coastline of Lake Superior… she was the first woman to do so. It took her 65 days.

A really lovely aspect of the book is that it was written before social media and cell phones and pictures of EVERYTHING and people setting out on adventures for the sole purpose of writing books about their adventures. Although that may well have been Linnea’s intention… it doesn’t come across that way.

There are NO pictures. Not one.

Often, people who undertake this kind of extraordinary challenge, do so because of something they need to work out in their personal life and Linnea is no exception. The inner journey becomes a subtle undercurrent to the stroke stroke stroke rhythm of the story, the thing that moves it forward.

The tension isn’t found simply in how she fights ten foot waves, wind, rain and cold, we know she survives it all, it’s more this other, inner quest, that begins to overshadow the physical hurdles, coming to her as an almost surprise, presenting her with questions and decisions she knows she needs to make about what she wants to return to and who she’ll be returning as. The questions come in forms she didn’t expect and one of her greatest worries is about her kids, that they won’t welcome a mother who is more herself.

“For six weeks the importance of truth-telling
had been hammered into me by the lake…
The message I [had for] my children was correct,
there was more I was supposed to learn.”

That said, and despite the feat of paddling a notoriously tough and unpredictable lake, it remains the kind of book where not much happens.

You really have to like inner reflection and weather.

Two of my favourite things.

There is also dampness, and aching wrists, sore bodies, the immense peace of cooking a simple meal over a fire, breathing deeply and sleeping under a sky chock full of stars.

By the end of the book it occurs to me that the real story is the one I read the first time. The one that doesn’t require understanding of how a paddle feels in your hands. The real story is the old story, the every-story, the timeless one we’re all writing our own version of… a personal story of the what’s it all about, alfie nature that anyone can relate to and a story that can be revealed and realized via any journey for the price of wanting it enough.

Lake Superior just happens to be Linnea’s blank page.

“There comes a time in our lives when we are
called to believe the unbelievable. If we allow ourselves
to believe, we open the door to the infinite possibility
of who we might become.”

 

 

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’