time for elves and fairies

 
 

Closing up shop for a wee while…

to enjoy the last of these beautiful dark nights

to welcome back the light

to sing and dance with some of my favourite people

to walk in the company of sunset over lake

to send gifts of donkey love to loved ones

(or cat and dog love, horse love, monkey love, wild animal finding safety and rehabilitation love, not to mention people love — oh my lord, there is so much love to send)

to read and read and read

to wrap a few small gifts

to cook a few meals (including that no-bake caramel cheesecake for the visiting boy because cheesecake is a meal)

to work on a blanket for a soon-to-be-born soul

to find the first star and give thanks for the above and so much more

 

The very best of the season to all…. this includes magic of course, and chocolate for breakfast (no food rules in December) and if you’re lucky, signs of elves, fairies and maybe even angels nibbling what’s left of your greens.

 

 

 

menstrual memories anyone?

 
A new anthology, called GUSH: Menstrual Manifestos For Our Times, is making some people uncomfortable… why must these things be spoken of??

And making others relieved… thank god we can finally speak.

Because I have a short piece in the book (about the perils of attending a pool party in the 1970’s), and because I believe in saying the word menstruation out loud,
I recently sat outside Blue Heron Books with a little sign that said Menstrual Memories?  —  And waited to see what would happen.

Young children were rushed past.

Men looked uncomfortable. Women too. One woman actually sneered.

But after a while, I noticed people coming back, and some of them stopped. Then many more stopped. It was as if they’d been initially blindsided by the question… but… now that you mention it, yeah, I do have some memories I’d like to share.

And so they shared.

Menstrual memories.

And why not?

A man asked if he could take a picture of the table. I asked if he had any menstrual memories. He said no. We laughed and I liked that the word was spoken between genders. It’s hard enough sometimes just between women.

And that of course IS the whole point of the book, i.e.Why are women made to feel awkward and embarrassed about a basic function of biology?

The first to stop was an 83 year old woman from Cape Breton who whispered about shame and flannel cloths worn like diapers, about the horror of washing them and hanging them to dry. After a few minutes she stopped whispering as one memory twigged another and her friends got into it, all of them swapping stories, and I could tell they’d never had this conversation or anything like it before. As she began to leave, she stopped, smiled and said thank you, this has been fun. She seemed slightly surprised that it turned out that way. And I have no doubt that part of the fun was the relief of speaking the words… at last.

Following are memories so many women shared with me… on a sidewalk, outside a bookstore, on a beautiful summer night… in their own words:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My aunt was on holiday in Austria and her ankles got so swollen she went to see a doctor and discovered she was eight months pregnant. She’d gained some weight but still had her period and so it was a complete shock. My cousin was born the next month and my aunt and uncle quickly got married and moved in together.

When I got my cycle at age thirteen my mum told me I had to carry a purse for “my stuff”. The way she said it was like it was the worst thing on earth.

My dad worked in a factory that made menstrual products and got an employee discount but was too embarrassed to bring them home in the company box, which ‘advertised’ what was inside and so made a whole production out of wrapping the box in brown paper so that neighbours wouldn’t be any the wiser as he brought it into the house from the car. It was treated like contraband.

I was an immigrant and there was a questionnaire at school. One of the questions had the word “menstrual” in it and I didn’t understand, exactly. But I didn’t ask what it meant. It was like I had an idea it shouldn’t be said out loud.

My mom left a booklet about “being a woman” on my dresser one day. In my closet, that same day, on the top shelf, was a box that had a lovely picture on it of a lovely woman in a long white gown. I was very excited about my new dress (which I assumed was inside!!).

My period started on the way home from school on the #28 Davisville bus. Me in my school uniform: white blouse, kilt, knee socks, blazer. I felt the ‘gush’ and when I stood up I was mortified. I tied the blazer around myself as I exited the bus.

I can’t remember what I said, nothing big, I’d simply mentioned my period in conversation to my boyfriend, who became (immediately) enraged. The details are a blur. All I remember is how angry he was that I said whatever I said out loud, like blasphemy or something. I have never, not once, spoken a word about my period to any guy since. Including my husband.

Boys made jokes about girls who were on their periods. (On the rag & worse.)

Try using an outhouse when you have your period.

When I got my period my mother took me aside and said I was to avoid boys now. She didn’t clarify why or which boys so I avoided them all, including my brothers, to the point that I was afraid if our elbows touched as we passed on the stairs. It completely changed our relationship.

Got my period at eleven. I was on a toboggan with two boys.

My favourite menstrual thought:  I look forward to menopause!

A menstrual memory for me is when I was in my twenties and playing softball. I was either pitching or shortstop, and I felt something. Uh oh…

My periods were heavy and I didn’t carry a purse. I worked as an auctioneer.
I used to keep extra pads down the sides of my cowboy boots.

I remember watching TV with my dad and my brothers and running from the room in embarrassment when Kotex ads came on.

My periods stopped the day my mother died. I could feel it starting as I sat with her in the hospital. She died that night, and my period proceeded normally for the rest of week. And that was it. I never had another. I was only in my forties.

We didn’t have products. We used flannel cloths, like diapers, and they had to be washed and dried and re-used. It was an embarrassment when it was your time because people would see the bulge of the pin through your skirt.

My periods were so bad I had to take three days off school most months.

I lived near the ocean and it was a real concern, people would tell you not to swim, to be careful of sharks, and they weren’t kidding.

 

GUSH: Menstrual Manifestos For Our Times available from Blue Heron Books

Support indies!

 

 

this is not a review — ‘our souls at night’, by kent haruf

 

I’ve said this before… my favourite books are those where nothing much happens other than whole worlds change.

Oh my lord did I love this book of nothing and everything.

In a nutshell:

Louis Waters and Addie Moore are widowed, long time neighbours, who really only have a passing knowledge of each other’s lives, in the way of neighbours who have shared a street for decades. Aware but not involved.

They’re both good people. And, now, perhaps, also lonely.

The book opens with Addie knocking on Louis’ door and asking if he would be at all interested in sleeping with her. She means it literally. No funny business, just pj’s and slumber. Oh, and talking. That’s really what she’s looking for, that special kind of conversation that only happens when you’re lying in bed next to someone.

He accepts.

He continues to live in his own house in the same way he’s been doing for years, but at night he goes over to Addie’s for a single beer while she has a glass of wine and then they brush their teeth and hit the hay.

(The tooth-brushing is not incidental. Remember this is a story where nothing and everything happens. The details of life are beautifully wrought.)

Once in bed they talk.

At first, of course, it’s all awkwardness, but it evolves into something so essential to their well-being that neither of them can imagine living any other way. They’re not a couple but they’re more than friends. They come to reveal everything to each other in ways they never did in their marriages.

But people being people soon begin to pass judgments, especially those people unhappy in their own lives. Louis and Addie don’t give a fig. If anything the judgements only cause them to judge themselves (which is such a healthy reaction) and when they don’t find anything sinister about themselves they take it up a notch and begin hanging out together in public. Not necessarily an easy decision given how the elderly are made to feel they don’t count, that they hardly have a thought in their heads worth hearing.

Addie and Louis know this is the way old people are seen but they don’t see themselves or others this way. They have such wonderful, admirable balls.

A really charming part of the book is when Addie’s six year old grandson Jamie comes to live with her while Addie’s son Gene and his wife try to fix their marriage. Louis and Addie and the boy become a kind of family unit (along with Ruth, a friend of Addie’s) and Jamie is nourished in a way he’s never experienced. He stops crying, he’s able to sleep at night. Life is good.

“They ate a supper of macaroni and cheese casserole and iceberg lettuce with Thousand Island dressing and canned green beans and bread and butter and iced tea poured from an old heavy glass pitcher and there was Neapolitan ice cream for dessert. The dog lay at Jamie’s feet.” 

All of which royally pisses off Addie’s son when he hears about all that happiness. He decides to pay a visit, assumes (the truly wonderful) Louis has nefarious intentions, chastises his mother for her lifestyle and takes Jamie back home well before his marriage is anywhere near fixed. Then he forces Addie to choose between her relationship with Louis and her relationship with her grandson.

This is one of those deliciously slender books, easily read in a day, spare writing yet saying all that needs to be said, in the way of the best conversations. Satisfying to the core. I would read this one again and again for the layers it reveals and the questions it asks us to consider about family, friendship, intimacy, community, loyalty and aging. For starters.

Haruf is new to me but I’m already looking for more of his earlier work.

Available online at two of my favourite indies — Hunter Street Books and Blue Heron Books.

this is not a review — ‘boundless’, by kathleen winter

 

I have a thing for North. I suppose this is very Canadian. Or maybe it’s just me and Glenn Gould. We who have this tendency of leaning northward are secret admirers of storms and falling temperatures; we wear a certain pride in the misery of it all and envy provinces whose kitchens smell of snow cakes on days when they’re unable to open their back doors. Mine is not a land of nail-biting where cold weather is concerned, but rather, the idea of North beckons with a kind of curious wonder at just how Canadian are we… How much North have we seen? How much can we take?

And so it was with great anticipation that I opened Boundless, Kathleen 9781770893993_1024x1024Winter’s account of finding herself in the North. (Double entendre intended.) Not only does she find herself there when, on something close to a whim, she accepts an invitation to participate in a voyage through the Northwest Passage but, in the course of things, she finds bits of herself in the landscape of icebergs and tundra as well as in memories of an English childhood, travels through Europe, arrival in Canada via Newfoundland where she lived for many years, and then to Montreal, the city she now calls home.

While home feels like something of a theme, Winter confides that a sense of belonging to this place or that, has always eluded her. Maybe this is why she’s so good at noticing the details that make a life.

Part of the book’s magic is how she weaves recollections of fresh English cream with food banks and cockroach ‘vendettas’, third floor flats and hundred year old lilacs grazing windows; with British rain vs Newfoundland rain, Vita Sackville West’s white garden, Mexican itinerants and whistling boys in Corner Brook; with ‘marmalados’ and fig trees in Montreal, fish markets in Greenland, junk food and wild food in Pond Inlet; with the purchase of a handmade doll… and the sight of a polar bear that changes everything.

Among the passengers on this voyage is Nathan Rogers, son of Stan Rogers. His father’s song, and the phrase, ‘tracing one warm line’, is a powerful soundtrack that fades in and out of the reading. In fact, sound may be another theme. The absence of it as Winter explores the land—“I’d been given the key to enter, to lie down and listen, to breathe its exhalations and hear it speak…” —and then the shock of its re-appearance when the PA system announces a tour to see a rock formation or go in search of whales or birds. Winter ignores each call, prefers to let the land show her what’s hers to see. “… if a narwhal or other astonishing creature wanted to reveal something to me, it would do so when we were both ready.”

It occurs to her there is a need to “understand…mind and body in a new way.” And how to receive, to become more tree-like.

“Somehow everything I’d learned about life pointed to an idea that to receive something you had to earn it. I’d never thought of myself as a tree, a graceful being visited by songbird, starlight, and rain, and which people love for itself, not for what it does or how smart it is, or how indispensable. I was used to making myself indispensable in one arena or another…”

The narrative moves forward, backward and sideways through time, like shifting ice, memory bumping up against the present and creating yet another dimension (in one instance, as the ship is forced to take an alternate route, Winter first considers Wynken, Blynken and Nod sailing off in their wooden shoe, then ties this in with past explorers who “might have spied a whole gleaming mountain range that didn’t exist…”).

Some of my favourite passages reflect on the happy discovery of muskox fur caught among the vegetation, which she gathers with reverence for weaving into various projects. This parallel of wool and weaving feels like a turning point as she tells us she comes “…from a long line of sheep stealers,” and we sense her pride, this instinct she has inherited to collect, connect, create.
A sense of belonging emerges…

“I wove another muskox tuft into my work and felt excited that tomorrow, when we landed at Paisley Bay, I could search the terrain for more fragments of that one warm line.”

It’s a strangely wild yet contemplative ride she takes us on as the landscape and the people slowly work themselves into her psyche. She tells us that, initially, she couldn’t find the words to describe the experience, and that only two years later, after looking at her own sketches, was she able to begin writing the book.

“I was finding, in the North, that words are secondary language: first we see images, then we feel heat, cold rock, flesh. We taste air before words.”

In some ways it feels a very private account, musings and observations as if written for self, as if the author might lift her head at any moment and be surprised to see us there reading.

Ultimately though, Boundless is about discovery. Of history, land, self, of connection to others, of hearing and seeing in new ways, and of questioning what actually matters. It’s about the power and beauty of North. Not exactly a book about  the North… but more because of it.

Boundless   is available on-line at Blue Heron Books. Support indies!

 

this is not a review: ‘what we see when we read’, by peter mendelsund

That I can’t decide if I like this book best for its visuals or its text is, I think, a big part of the point. After all, the author is associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf, whose designs (according to his bio) have been described… “as being the most instantly recognizable and iconic book covers in contemporary fiction.”

It makes sense then that What We See When We Read  comes across as a crafted, multi-sensory experience.What+We+See+When+We+Read

The subject matter is ‘narrative’… both from a reading and a having-been-written perspective—how narrative is displayed, how it enters our eyes and our minds, what stays with us and why; what we look for, what we find, what we can expect from the writer, and what’s down to the reader.

The paragraphs are bite-sized and pages often contain acres of white space (or, alternatively, are almost entirely black), with only a few bullet points or a single word.

The style is ‘essay-in-fragments mixed with graphics mixed with illustrations mixed with photos, mixed with something like the memoir of a passionate reader’. (May I add that pages have a wonderful satiny feel, serving as a reminder that the physical experience is part of reading.)

In about the middle of the book (pp. 152/53) all is black, and in tiny white print, in an arch from bottom left to bottom right, this quote from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cites:

“Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone. ‘But which is the stone that supports the bridge?’ Kublai Kahn asks. ‘The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,’ Marco Polo answers, ‘but by the line of the arch that they form.’”

Mendelsund’s use of a visual arch, with reference to an actual arch, to show the theory of narrative arc… is typical of how this book is constructed: he not only explains how we read and what we see while we do it, but he has us walking through the experience at the same time. An obvious move of course, but it takes a minute to realize exactly how it all works and to just relax with it.

In places the book feels almost chatty, as when the author shares his distaste for elaborate descriptions, which he sees as nothing more than ‘misdirection’… “They seem to tell us something specific and meaningful (about a character, a setting, the world itself), but perhaps such description delights in inverse proportion to what it reveals.”

While both aspects of What We See When We Read are equal and both can be seen as simplistic or as layered as you like, I found myself becoming frustrated with the choice, as if I was being asked to read/experience two different books. This may be part of the overall plan to illustrate the reading/visual experience but I find it a tad too much of a muchness, a few too many graphics and ‘design’ elements that begin to have the opposite effect of what they’re intended for—they become less illustrative and more overload of the same multi-senses (which then begin to tune out simultaneously). For that reason best consumed, perhaps, by dipping into now and again, enjoying bits at a time instead of reading straight through.

Bottom line: despite its pleasures, at 417 pages, it feels a little over-done.

That aside, I can see this as a good book club choice. In which case, some knowledge of Anna Karenina and a few other classics would be helpful (various narrative devices are highlighted with examples from a number of books you thought you’d read but actually never have). Helpful but not necessary.

In fact, a book club might be the ideal way to savour it. Whereas the pleasure of some books is not enhanced through sharing, especially with people who see it very differently (read: one person’s exhileration is another person’s sleeping pill), What We See When We Read purports to be neither; it simply wants to be seen and discussed by as many and varying perspectives as possible. And if not everyone reads the whole thing, it matters not one whit. The whole thing can still be discussed, and enjoyment multiplied.

Because, you see, it’s not exactly a book, it’s merely about them. And therefore about us too.

Purchase What We See When We Read, online, from Blue Heron Books.

(at) eleven with barbara lambert: the whirling girl

 

I have a thing for Italy. For its food and the sound of its language, for its chianti and soave wines, for the way people yell at you to eat more (I adore people who yell at me to eat more); for what I imagine is the quality of the setting sun in the countryside and the voices from piazzas in the city as heard from a balcony.

I was in Venice once. I was ten. It’s not a romantic story, although I did paddle a gondola. I need to go back. In the meantime, the next best thing is reading and vicarious travel and Barbara Lambert’s The Whirling Girl  is one ticket to that chianti’d world.

In a nutshell: Clare Livingston, a botanical artist, has inherited a house and property in Tuscany from an uncle who leaves a cryptic message in his will.
A message that niggles and eventually works its way into the deeper spaces of her memory, to a place that touches on the painful, and seems so very incongruous with the quality of that setting sun…

She arrives in Tuscany, to claim her house, to wonder about the why of this gift, and with the idea of researching material for a book of flora (the descriptions of the images can be quite steamy) “Those stamens with their delicate stems… striations on the ovary at the centre of this cluster, and the almost-invisible hairs on the closed bud and on the poppy. But a distraction presents itself in the form of an ongoing Etruscan archeological dig and the people involved with it, which, ultimately, changes her life.

There is love. There is magic. There is history and mystery. There is food.whirling_girl_large

“…tagliatelle  with seafood bathed in saffron, and a noble white wine from Montepulciano… a sorbetto  of passion fruit.”

There is a most wonderful character in the form of Marta, a housekeeper, who is every matriarch that ever lived in any society. A woman who understands life, who has a whole lot to teach anyone who cares to learn.

There are unicorns. As metaphor anyway, insofar as representing that you either believe in something or you don’t; that not everything is provable. This is no small philosophy as Clare tries to unearth her uncomfortable past and to weigh the realities of the present.

Have I mentioned the humour? Lambert writes with a dry wit: “A word of warning, though. Never try to carry a fountain pen through airport security in Brazil. They’re terrified you’ll barge up into the cockpit and try to write a sonnet.”

Annabel Lyon calls this a fairytale for grownups  and I agree. It has just that quality. It’s a book of revealing history, in relationships and in society, the things we search for, what’s left behind, and why. It’s also about a small slice of Italy, a place its author clearly adores. At its essence though, it’s a book about the importance of finding something to believe in—starting with yourself.

But enough from me… I’m thrilled to present, by way of Eleven Questions, Ms. Lambert herself… to whom I’m so very grateful for taking this time.

So, without further ado, the extremely bellissimo  Barbara Lambert…

1.   What literary character did you want to be as a child?

BL— Bagheera, from The Jungle Book — the first story I recall my mother reading to me (the Rudyard Kipling original version). And now, reminded what a thrilling character Bagheera is, I can’t resist quoting two passages. (Substitute “she” for “he”, and imagine a tiny girl becoming that glorious powerful creature):

“A black shadow dropped down into the circle … inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk. Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody cared to cross his path, for he was as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant. But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree, and a skin softer than down.”

And here, “she” speaks for herself:

“I had never seen the jungle, they fed me behind bars from an iron pan till one night I felt I was Bagheera – the panther – and no man’s plaything, and I broke the silly lock with one blow of my paw and came away; and because I had learned the ways of men, I became more terrible in the jungle than Shere Khan.”

2.   What’s a favourite passage from any book, and why?

BL— I am currently reading the collected stories of Anton Chekhov, in 13 volumes, some already familiar to me (or so I’d thought), and many more that I’d never come upon. I remembered The Kiss as a brilliant “Chekhovian” example of a story in which nothing – and at the same time everything – happens. But I had forgotten the searing poignancy of the final sentence, summing up as it does the entire future of a young soldier, in one lethal blow.

“For an instant there was a flash of joy in Ryabovitch’s heart, but he quenched it at once, got into bed, and in his wrath with his fate, as though to spite it, did not go to the General’s.”

3.   Do you sometimes find themes in your work that you weren’t aware of?

BL— What an interesting thought. And looking over my answer to your first question, I’m wondering if those passages appeal to me particularly because in my own work I do seem to keep dealing with people who secretly picture themselves as capable of dropping down like black shadows, but who may never break the locks imposed by their need for safety, self defeat. Is this what The Whirling Girl is really all about? Art and archaeology, yes, and love and lies, as the jacket suggests: but at heart, the exploration of a character so imprisoned by secrets in her past, that in truth even I kept wondering, as her “Tuscan adventure” progressed, whether she’d ever be able to break free?

4.   My theory is that we write what we need to learn. Not directly, of course, but on some, perhaps, subconscious level. So, if that’s true, what do you think you were “exploring” in writing The Whirling Girl? (Of course you may well debunk this theory.)

BL— It’s hard for me to separate out what I needed to learn as a person from what I needed (and need!) to learn as a writer. At first I was going to talk about archaeology, here, as I certainly did need to learn a lot about that fascinating discipline. But on reflection, what I most needed to learn was to trust my characters, trust their true natures I mean: not merely to allow those characters go the way they needed to go in the story, but to look really closely at what their story was: and also, not let them bamboozle me into looking away from some things they wanted to hide.

There is one particular episode in my central character’s background that she really didn’t want to look at; and for a long time I didn’t look squarely at it, either. I changed it, made it less creepy. I suspect that, subconsciously, I feared that readers would also find this episode a place they did not want to go. I have to thank my brilliant editor, Marc Coté, for catching me out on that, giving me the courage to write my complex character Clare as she truly was. What did I learn? Well, aside from what a huge mistake it is to try to appease readers, I hope I have learned to trust the true needs of my characters – and to develop the kind of ruthless bullshit detector that a fiction writer needs, to tell the truth.

5.   We have to talk about the cover, from a Charles Pachter painting. How did it become “yours” … because it’s perfect.

BL— I’m so glad you think so. Choosing a cover (or just “okaying” one) is a crucial and hair-raising business. But I was lucky. Angel Guerra, of Archetype Design, has done many brilliant covers for Cormorant Books, and when my editor sent me a selection of Angel’s ideas I immediately fell for the detail he’d zeroed in on from Charles Pachter’s painting, “The Party”. There’s a theory that a book cover should not show images of people “full face” for fear or supplanting the reader’s own idea of what the character or characters might look like. (That’s why you see so many showing the back of someone’s head against an evocative scene of some sort.) But the secretive and dreamy and perhaps guileful expression on the face of the woman in the painting struck me as so revealing of Clare’s inner nature…. Plus the whole scene is so rich and compelling. I wanted to be at that party. I hoped that anyone who saw the book would want to be there too. So when I learned that Charles Pachter had given his permission for Cormorant to use the image, I felt very lucky indeed to have work by such an iconic Canadian artist grace my novel.

6.   I’m interested in how characters develop. How do you get to know yours? Do you outline, assign qualities and give them strict orders, or do you allow them to surprise you en route? If the latter, can you share one of those surprises?

BL— I suspect that the process, if I can call it that, goes back to before I was school age, an only child on an Okanagan orchard, where I spent most of my time wandering around under the trees “imagining”. I didn’t realize I was making up stories – or that later in life the imagining process might lead to writing. The people in the adventures I made up were not pretend friends though. I never imagined myself as part of that gang of bold girls who swung through the jungle on vines to rescue captured princesses in Indian temples, or out-rode and out-shot bad guys in the wild west, or captivated the hearts of desert sheiks, generally by astounding skill with very sharp scimitars – leaving the whole veiled dancing thing to shadowy others. Though now I do recall that those adventures would often involve a delicious moment when — veiled, or crinolined, or meekly aproned — one of those girls would throw off the socially demanded bonds, and flash a hidden six-gun or scale a mountain peak to rescue the handsome man who’d somehow foolishly come a cropper, thereby winning his stunned admiration and love.

So now your question has made me wonder if what most interests me about the men and women who inhabit my adult imagination is whether they are also packing hidden six-guns so to speak, in the form of suppressed emotions, histories, desires: and whether they are going to turn those powerful forces on themselves, to subvert their own desires, or if they will manage to call on them, at last, to free themselves?

Certainly, as a writer, the moments when a character does burst the bonds of what I’d scripted are the most exciting moments. One example in The Whirling Girl involves the young Italian, Gianni, whose imagination frequently leaps beyond the practical. He runs a sanctuary for endangered species. Clare – who is trying to resist falling disastrously in love with him — has not allowed herself to take his elaborate and fanciful plans too seriously, till, unexpectedly, he makes up a poem for her — of the names of all the butterflies in Europe that have gone extinct. And she is sunk. So was I.

7.   “Tonight a man who believed in unicorns would take Clare Livingston to a wedding that had happened seven hundred years before.”The Whirling Girl has a distinctly ethereal feel at times, the beauty of the Tuscan landscape, the heat, mysterious doings, the unicorns! Okay, the last is merely an in-joke between characters, but so appropriate in this enchanted tale. In the acknowledgements, you refer [tongue in cheek?] to long hours in a hammock… My question is this: how much effect did place have on the style and tone of the novel? [In other words, what would have been different were it not for that hammock…? Be it real or metaphoric.]

BL— I think place had everything to do with the style and tone of the novel. But there’s nothing metaphoric about that hammock. On my initial trip to Tuscany, day-long explorations of the countryside almost always ended with me settling into the gently gently-swaying netting outside the 500-year-old mill house where we stayed, in the valley below the ancient hill town of Cortona. Journal in hand, I’d begin to record the day’s adventures; and even then — well before I began conjuring up a novel set in that countryside — as I drifted off into a sweet rocking snooze, “she” began creeping into my thoughts – someone who (unlike me) might never have to leave this enchanting setting, Now who would she be…? Many pages of my Tuscan journals are tinted grassy-green where the book slipped from the writer’s hands and the scent of flowering lime trees drifted in, spinning magic in my dreams.

But as to unicorns, I must protest. The young man (Gianni) really did believe in them: as a symbol, at the very least, of the possibility — if we humans put all our energy and belief into imagining the seemingly impossible – that we can, by practical effort, save our expiring world.

8.   What was it about Etruscan history that compelled you to write this book?

BL— The Etruscans played no part in my original concept for the novel. But the longer I spent in Tuscany, on succeeding trips, the more fascinated I became by this puzzling race that once ruled almost the whole of Italy, and who — after their conquest by the Romans — disappeared almost completely from the historical record. When their culture did come to light again, little by little, it was mainly through the contents of their underground tombs. But what a culture! The twelve hilltop cities of the Etruscan League were architectural dazzlers looming over countryside made fertile by brilliantly engineered irrigation schemes. At the society’s peak, Etruscan merchant ships dominated the surrounding seas, bringing back riches to their avidly-collecting families. Indeed, it’s thanks to their love of finely-crafted objects that we know so much about Greek society of the same period; for the majority of the famous Attic pottery in museums around the world, with those finely-painted and detailed scenes, were discovered in Etruscan tombs, part of the furnishings the wealthy intended to take along to the “after world”. Those same tombs give us proof that Etruscan women were powerful and literate (a unique combo in ancient times) and stunningly dressed and be-jewelled (we are talking about the “elites” of course; though tomb frescoes do portray the clothing and accouterments of many levels of society in fascinating detail). The Etruscans were avid lovers of food and wine and dance, too, as so many frescoes reveal.

Yet here is a conundrum. This was a culture deeply steeped in religion and a sense of fate.

It was this split mind-set that particularly intrigued me, in relation to my novel. The Etruscans believed that their civilization would last just ten generations. And indeed that was almost exactly its span before it was swallowed by the Romans. How did one thing work upon the other? Did a priestly assurance that it would all end (and when) spur on the vibrant and uncannily beautiful art objects of every sort that they created: even the most every-day utensils packing a wallop of intriguing design? Did this ominous foreknowledge set them free to live with an artistic intensity not seen again until the Renaissance? Or is this theory “a load of codswollop!” (as one of the characters in the novel kept declaring, though in the end he got edited out)? In any case, an aspect of comparable tension between two very different cultural traits seemed to seep in and enrich what I came to know about my central character, Clare: an artist, and idealist — living an undermining life of secrets and lies.

9.   Marta is a favourite character, a sort of inherited housekeeper. She doesn’t have a lot of ‘stage time’ but, in her own way, is essential to the quality of life on the Tuscan property. This is true of so many matriarchs, especially those in patriarchal societies. What drew you to this quality? How is she different from Clare? And… how did she come to have her own blog on your website where she so passionately discusses tradition and food?

BL— Marta has always felt to me to be a downright gift. I don’t know where she came from. She just plonked herself down in the novel and everything she said or did felt right, what a gift indeed. So really, all I can say is that this is what drew me to her, and that through her I felt the novel was able to connect with some essential qualities of Tuscan country life. Also, thinking it over now, I liked that she was so much the opposite of the members of the quasi-aristocracy whom Clare, for better or worse, shortly becomes involved with. But how is Marta different from Clare? Perhaps, not very. They both have their shifty aspects, don’t they: and Marta’s canniness is certainly match for Clare’s secretive nature.

As to Marta’s blogging career: Not long after the novel was published, I was out walking – feeling a little blue, because I’d spent so long on the novel, and I just plain missed being in Tuscany. For that matter I missed the whole process of being immersed in the writing. I started thinking of an early scene, the one where Marta Dottorelli first appears, with a bag of nettles that she’s gathered by the roadside on her way. Marta starts making a pot of nettle soup. She insists that Clare sit down and eat it, which Clare is dubious about…. And as I walked, suddenly a voice popped into my head. “Don’t make me have to tell you how you got that wrong!” Marta’s voice. Complaining that not only did I, the author, know nothing about making nettle soup, but that I knew nothing nothing nothing about her life, and had absolutely no business trying to trap her inside a novel, and that she had not the least intention of staying there. Well. I rushed home and channeled that voice, setting up a blog (starting with her recipe for Nettle Soup) where right off the bat she sets things right about what life on a Tuscan farm is like, and how I have got everything wrong not just with her life but with Clare’s life. And since then, every now and then, a new recipe of hers appears, often with seasonal descriptions of her life, and always with something snarky to say about “that writer”. There are a number of her recipes up there now, at: http://www.barbaralambert.com/writer/author/books/161-Tuscan%2BRecipes/subject/11

10.  Which do you find harder to write… the first sentence or the last? What was the first scene [you wrote] of The Whirling Girl? And did you always know how it would end?

BL —Often a story starts for me with the final sentence popping into my head. And the question: Okay, so who is this about, what’s been going on? But with everything I’ve ever written, by the time I get to the end, that sentence has to go. The first scene I wrote of The Whirling Girl involved Clare driving up the Italian autostrada to Cortona to the property she’d inherited from her uncle. It gave me a huge amount of trouble, draft after draft. There seemed to be so much information I had to get in, right at the start. Eventually I somewhat resolved this by starting with her uncle’s obituary instead. But (a confession) when I do readings, now, from the start of the novel, there are still a few bits that seem superfluous, which I chop. As to whether I always knew how the novel would end — yes. But, in this case, not just the final sentence got cut, but – in a very last-minute edit — the final several paragraphs. A Wow moment.

11.  Choices:

Pasta or Pizza? Pasta

Chianti or Coffee? I refuse to choose.

Ocean or Lake? Lake (if it can be either Trasimeno or the Okanagan)

Thesaurus or Dictionary? Can’t live without either but the Thesaurus comes more frequently into play.

Primary or Pastel? Can I go with some rich in-between shades, like for example (quoting from the novel) terra rosa, ultramarine, moonglow, raw umber…?

Salmon or Steak? Salmon.

Poetry or Song? That’s tough. But I’ll have to say “song”.

Theatre or Film? Theatre.

Canoe or Bike? Canoe.

Cherry or Eggplant? Well I live on a cherry orchard, so…! On the other hand, I hear Marta’s got a bumper crop of eggplant this summer. I wonder…!

Florence or Rome? Florence.

andre-kertesz_the_fork_1928_500px

 Matilda’s Menu for The Whirling Girl

 Antipasti

Zuppa di Ortiche (Nettle Soup)

Pasta Puttanesca

Spiedini al Limone (Skewered Meat in Lemon Juice)

Insalata Verde

Melone di Vino Dolce (Melon with Sweet Wine)

Pan Forte

(But I’m a mere amateur. For the REAL meal to eat with this book,
talk to Marta…)

lambert571 highresBarbara Lambert’s novel The Whirling Girl was published in the fall of 2012. Her previous work includes A Message for Mr. Lazarus (2000) and The Allegra Series (1999). She has won the Danuta Gleed Award for Best First Collection of Short Fiction and The Malahat Review Novella Prize, and been a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Prize and the Journey Prize. Lambert is currently editor of Dr. Johnson’s Corner, an online gathering place for writers too in love with their own words. Further information about The Whirling Girl and Lambert’s previous work is available at: www.barbaralambert.com .

The Whirling Girl is available online at Blue Heron Books. Support indies!

 

 

 

 

 

this is not a review — back alleys and urban landscapes, by michael cho

I don’t remember how I first heard about Michael Cho’s beautiful book: back alleys and urban landscapes but the title made it a sure-fire gifty pick for an alley loving friend. The book is more collection of drawings than text—in fact there’s almost no text, which makes the experience of wandering through its pages not unlike ‘wandering’, generally. Flipping through—being careful not to leave jammy fingerprints [is it wrong to test run a gift book?]—I was reminded of my own favourite alleyway behind a Toronto duplex where I carved out a garden in the gravel between dilapidated wooden garages. With the addition of a wonky table and a barely working 61WPGikTBtL__SL500_AA300_BBQ, it became a hub for summer games, watermelon seed spitting contests and the first of many ‘ant hotels’ [ant hills that are left to prosper and grow] complete with No Vacancy sign.

When seen in a certain light, past the grit and the scruff, alleys are more inviting than intimidating… connections not barriers.

Micheal Cho knows this and his drawings beautifully reflect one of the very best aspects of city life.

“They’re family places, quiet and often hidden in plain sight… when you know a city, you know its back alleys. It’s like a house: the dining room is in the front to show guests, while the real living goes on in the kitchen…”  ~back alleys and urban landscapes, by Michael Cho (Drawn & Quarterly, 2012)

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—Purchase back alleys and urban landscapes online at Blue Heron Books.