this is not a review: ‘the book of eels’, by patrik svensson

 

I’m committed (for the next wee while anyway) to re-posting older posts with fresh introductions, usually as one thing relates to the other or which sparks some memory. In this case The Book of Eels is the latest among books recently read about peculiar critters and it comes to me as a recommendation by friends who said if I like books on peculiar critters I would like this one.

They weren’t entirely wrong. I did like it. Though until the very end I couldn’t understand the reason for the book’s structure (alternating chapters of eel history, facts, and lore, and memoir of the author’s relationship with his eel fishing dad). It’s the ending that pulls it all together quite sweetly.

In a nutshell, Svensson writes 235 pages about what we don’t know about eels. And it’s honestly never dull because you are gobsmacked with HOW MUCH NO ONE KNOWS about eels. (And not for a lack of trying as many bright lights from Aristotle to Rachel Carson and beyond have been trying to figure them out forever.)

Here’s what we do know, sort of. There’s a pretty strong idea they’re born in the Sargasso Sea and then, while still tiny glassy things, no bigger than a willow leaf, they make their way to various parts of the planet’s rivers, oceans, lakes, to hang out for a life time, twenty, twenty-five years if they fancy it, before heading back to the Sargasso to breed, immediately after which they die. Conjecture points to them staying alive only as long as they don’t propagate. And aren’t caught by eel fishers.

That’s almost all anyone knows and they’re not even sure that much is right. This critter is FULL of mystery that goes back millions of years. How and where, exactly, they live (deep deep water) and how they propagate (there’s some thinking they may be hermaphrodites because an eel coupling has never — in millions of years — been witnessed and there’s no proof it even happens. No one can find their reproductive organs).

“When dad talked about the Sargasso Sea, it sounded like a magical fairy-tale world… Every time we caught an eel, I looked into its eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of what it had seen. None of them ever met my gaze.”

They have the ability to resurrect after being killed (and other extraordinary feats that defy explanation).

Also, the eels are in decline in a way that may represent the most recent universal mass extinction, of which there have been only five others where huge percentages of life forms disappeared (the last one being eons ago). Some reckon we are now in the sixth mass extinction, and at the rate we’re going we stand to lose 50% of current life forms within the next 100 years, a ridiculously high rate and entirely attributed to man-made causes (past mass extinctions were due to natural causes and spanned millions of years).

There is a short section on sea cows that I loved and how and why they went extinct and the dodo as well and how the eel may be next replacing the vernacular of dead as a dodo with dead as an eel.

Apparently eels were the reason Freud turned to psychoanalysis… before that he’d been into biology and got hooked on eels until the mystery of them drove him bonkers.

My computer will not currently let me upload any new photos, which is a shame as the cover is worth a look.

I’ll leave you also with the two other peculiar critter-book Not a Reviews on the off chance your critter whistle has been whetted.

How to Catch a Mole

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

If you like the sound of eels, you will love moles and snails. Honest.

I’ll also leave you also with the final paragraphs of The Book of Eels, which is not a spoiler in any way but merely a satisfying point in the overall journey.

“I know it was an eel because I saw it. It slowly slithered up out of the shadows and came toward me. It was large and a pale shade of grey, with black button eyes, and it looked at me as if to make sure I could see it. I let go of the line and saw the hook come out just as the eel reached the surface, then it turned and slid back into the hidden depths.

“For a while, I just sat there by the water’s edge. Everything was quiet and the lake completely still; the sun sent a white sheen spreading across the water and everything beneath the surface was hidden, as though behind a mirror. What lay hidden underneath was a secret, but now it was my secret.”

this is not a review: ‘mitzi bytes’, by kerry clare

 
Whether reading her blog Pickle Me This, her essays or short fiction, The M Word  or trash writing... I’m never disappointed with Kerry Clare’s style… that kind of literary voice that feels conversational, as if what you’re reading is something you could also be hearing over lunch with a friend.

Mitzi Bytes  is no exception. You lean forward into the pages, waiting for the next thing, the next laugh (Oh my god, the No Angle tatoo!), the yes yes, I get that!,  or the next bit of outrage and when it comes you lean back, take a breath and wonder how you’ll figure it out, this problem, this mess of a situation, whatever it happens to be, because by this point you are totally signed on.

Pass the bread.

Order some wine.

Keep talking.

Clare excels at writing about the ordinary, which happens to be one of my favourite subjects. She draws the reader in with wide open, honest emotions and isn’t afraid to say this is the truth as I see it  in exactly the way you hope the best of your friends will always say things.

In Mitzi Bytes  she writes about blogging, which is really about noticing.

Sarah Lundy is someone who notices. She’s the person behind a popular blog called Mitzi Bytes. She’s also the author of some very successful books, compilations of her “domestic tales”. But it’s the blog where her notoriety lives, along with her candid, often bitchy posts, which she writes anonymously and which mostly centre around the people in her life, none of whom, including her husband, have any idea that Sarah and Mitzi are one and the same.

Until a comment comes through the site saying she’s been found out.

This is where we meet Sarah, on the verge of her world imploding. She has no idea who would want to do such a vile thing… no idea mainly because the options are many. After all, she’s made a career, literally, of mocking and judging others. (But to be fair, she has also mocked and judged herself in the process.) The *who* of this threat is only one part of the mystery the book sets out to solve. The other is how Sarah’s world became this vulnerable to attack in the first place… not to mention what, exactly, she’s hiding, protecting, and afraid of losing.

But, really, it’s about so much more. It’s about living online, the need to share every thought through a keyboard, the way of virtual friendship and the reality of remaining angry, afraid and alone IRL.

It’s about children and marriage and the effort of not losing oneself (or one’s melon baller). It’s about the history of blogging and the way history is recorded.

“She was thinking of the mother of the baby in the bathtub… Of all the men in towers supposing they were conducting the business of the world, imagining themselves to be the foundation civilization was resting upon–financial markets, circuit boards, and machine guns. Systems to which libraries of multi-volume encyclopedias had been devoted…. while women’s real lives, the stuff of life itself–blood, milk, sweat, tears, and the burn of fevered foreheads–was deemed inconsequential, or even worse, these stories weren’t acknowledged, weren’t even written down, let alone read, reviewed, history continuing on as it had ever been, delivered by the pens of men.”

And it’s about the kind of insecurity society breeds and the way the internet is a place to pretend we’re someone other than we are. Sarah Lundy represents all of us in a way, the part of us that’s just trying to clunk its way through life. What Clare does so well is show us this process in a way that we see Sarah and also see ourselves in  Sarah. We recognize the insecurity in her railing, know that it’s the frustration of powerlessness. The question then becomes: why do we give our power away?

A lovely read. And so discussable. Book club or lunch, you choose.

Mitzi Bytes is available online

at Blue Heron Books and at Hunter Street Books.

Two of my favourites. (Support indies!)

 

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘this is not my life’, by diane schoemperlen

 
I confess I pretty much enjoy everything Diane Schoemperlen writes. I’m fond of structure and she plays with it like nobody’s business but never in a way that sacrifices story. I can’t figure out if her approach is egg or chicken first but, either way, she manages to create the perfect stage for each book, each story, each telling, so that you cannot imagine each book or story being told another way. (Is she post modern in a way that isn’t post modern at all?
I haven’t a clue what post modern is so I wouldn’t know… but possibly.)

This is Not My Life,  is told more or less chronologically about the years between 2006 and 2012 when she met and fell in love with a man serving a life sentence for second degree murder. So deeply personal is this story that very often I’d stop reading and actually think: good lord, how is she able to share this and this and this??

“How long did it take me to understand that he thought it was perfectly okay to come into my formerly peaceful home and turn it into a battleground? How much longer did it take me to understand that he was proud of himself for having won the contest, torn away my dignity and self-respect, reduced me to the lowest common denominator, and driven me into a violent rage?”

It’s a wild ride and the honesty of her self-analysis touches a lot of nerves.

The extraordinary thing is that all that sharing, that exposing of private ‘self’ isn’t in the least gratuitous. She tells us what we need to know in order to understand how and why she fell for a murderer. This is, after all, a big question, one she is asked repeatedly by friends, and continues to ask herself. I’m guessing the need to find an answer was a strong motivation in writing the book.

And this is precisely what the best kind of memoir does: it excavates rather than simply reveals.This-is-Not-My-Life-low-res

Schoemperlen avoids the icky places so many memoirists go when they talk too much about themselves (I was born on a dark and stormy night…) which usually amounts to a lot of nothing, more interesting to the author than the reader. Who cares if you were born in the crawl space at the Taj Mahal and your mother was a unicorn if it has zip to do with the story you’re telling? For the record, Schoemperlen was born in Thunder Bay. She tells us this because it’s important we know the vulnerability she felt coming from a small town and a family where thinking too highly of yourself was not encouraged.

Remember: she’s trying to work out why she’s dating a murderer.

And so are we, the readers. We’re trying to understand it too; we’re working it out together because, really, the book speaks to anyone who has ever fallen for the ‘wrong person’. (So, yes, her guy was in for murder. A questionable choice of beau perhaps. But only one version of questionable.)

“Who would we be without the pain we so desperately cling to?”

In every scene, Schoemperlen shares the process of walking the road of this ‘choice’ while teasing out the why  of it. Why has she chosen to spend ‘dates’ in penitentiary visiting rooms and conjugal visits in locked-from-the-outside trailers? (The insider’s view of how prisons work is, by the way, a whole other brilliant element of the book. Short story: it’s insane. For instance, she had to wash her drivers license every time she went because it was scanned and might set off the drug detector if she’d touched it after touching an Aspirin, or something. However, those conjugal visit trailers? They were equipped with kitchens and carving knives.)  An irony to the whole thing is that these ‘prison days’ were the best days of their relationship. Once her chap is released on day passes, then weekends, then moves into her house, things become progressively unmanageable. This is, after all, a guy who’s been inside since he was twenty-something, and prisons aren’t big on teaching you how to function on the outside. The insight she shares in these chapters is heartbreaking.

“This was when I had to go into the bathroom several times a day and look at myself in the mirror, checking to see if I was still me, if the extent to which I felt diminished and demoralized showed in my face. It did.”

Though we know from the beginning the relationship ends, it’s still an edge of your seat ride trying to work out the how and the when, and what will be damaged in the process.

“He’d said often enough in the early days that we would fall in love and become one. By ‘one’, I knew now, he meant him.”

I kept expecting the mushy middle of the story to present itself but there isn’t one. It’s a solid read from start to finish. (I read it over a weekend, taking it everywhere, sometimes reading as I walked from one room to another.)

In a nutshell: This is Not My Life  is Schoemperlen looking back, finally out of the forest, and seeing the madness in a way that was impossible at the time.

“That night I understood that for all those years, I’d been in love with the story—0not the reality—of my life joined to Shane’s. The story of myself as the one who could lead him out of the darkness, the one who could make him whole, healthy, happy. The story of myself as the one who could save him.”

The best memoirs are not a list of who, what, when and where, but are, instead, a study of human nature from the inside out. They tell us about the author while making us think about ourselves as we ask what would we  do in this or that situation…

This is one of the best.

spells, spelled with words…

“I wished I could visit a Museum of Unnatural History, but, even so, I was glad there wasn’t one. Werewolves were wonderful because they could be anything, I knew. If someone actually caught a werewolf, or a dragon, if they tamed a manticore or stabled a unicorn, put them in bottles, dissected them, then they could only be one thing, and they would no longer live in the shadowy places between the things I knew and the world of the impossible, which was, I was certain, the only place that mattered.
          “There was no such museum, not then. But I knew how to visit the creatures who would never be sighted in the zoos or the museum or the woods. They were waiting for me in books and in stories, after all, hiding inside the twenty-six characters and a handful of punctuation marks. These letters and words, when placed in the right order, would conjure all manner of exotic beasts and people from the shadows, would reveal the motives and minds of insects and of cats. They were spells, spelled with words to make worlds, waiting for me, in the pages of books.”  

—Neil Gaiman, from the Introduction to Unnatural Creatures (Harper Collins, 2013)
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