this is not a review: ‘a tale for the time being’, by ruth ozeki

Tra la, tra la, you go, thinking you’re reading a book about a journal that gets washed up on the BC coast (possibly after the 2011 tsunami but we’re not sure), written by a teenage girl in Japan who is telling the story of her grandmother Jiko’s life before she (the girl) kills herself. In the process the girl of course tells the story of her own life in a voice reminiscent (though also entirely different) of Baby in Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals. That voice is how Ozeki captures the specific brand of un-selfconsciousness unique to someone (especially young) who is both dramatic and casual (in the same moment) about most events in their life whether they be major… such as trauma, or minor… say drumming, or lunch.

So there you are, tra la, reading this tale…. A Tale for the Time Being, told in alternating voices and perspectives — one being the above-mentioned young girl and the other, a woman in BC, a writer named Ruth, who finds the journal and becomes drawn into the girl’s words and life and of course the possibility of her death, either by suicide or tsunami, and not only that but you are getting the added loveliness of bits of Japanese culture such as the custom of saying tadaima when you enter your house… which means ‘just now’, as in ‘just now, here I am’.

This is what you THINK you’re reading.

Then as you near the end it occurs to you that what you are actually reading is about quantum physics.

That, essentially, in a nutshell, is it.

Head-spinning, but in the best way.

And I will not spoil it by saying more.

“While I’m [drumming], I am aware of the sixty-five moments that Jiko says are in the snap of a finger. I’m serious. When you’re beating a drum, you can hear when the BOOM comes the teeniest bit too late or the teeniest bit too early, because your whole attention is focused on the razor edge between silence and noise. Finally I achieved my goal and resolved my childhood obsession with now because that’s what a drum does. When you beat a drum, you create NOW, when silence becomes a sound so enormous and alive it feels like you’re breathing in the clouds and the sky, and your heart is the rain and the thunder. Jiko says that this is an example of the time being. Sound and no-sound. Thunder and silence.”

The person who recommended this book said: I read this six years ago and I’m still not over it.

I get that.

Much to think about, much to like.

Also, a beautifully told tale. For any time at all.

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: ‘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: reading my shelves


My reading usually goes something like this:

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

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

Except during a pandemic when the library is closed.

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

A sampling mixture follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The next batch stacked and ready:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






this is not a review: ‘to speak for the trees’, by diana beresford-kroeger


Second time I’ve read this. Probably won’t be the last. So much earth info tucked into the story of how a Canadian orphan became an internationally reknown conservationist. And a few other ‘ists’.

Sent to live with family in Lisheens, Ireland, (Lisheens is the anglicized version of an Irish word for ‘stone circle’), Beresford-Kroeger had the luck of growing up in a world of ancient Celtic knowledge and Brehon Laws (which were ahead of their time insofar as considering equality of people and respect for nature). Living through the depression and the years of WWII in relative poverty, she remembers her childhood as a world rich with appreciation, wisdom, and lessons in how to quietly contribute in ways that were/are of benefit to all life forms. That was the Brehon way.

“From my childhood… I’d been taught to… always look for ways to improve the world around me. I’d never had any money… instead I gave back via other means.”

It was also the beginning of her lifelong interest in healing the earth, understanding at an early age that trees are more than places to picnic under but function as the lungs of the planet. Eventually it began to occur to her that people didn’t need to travel so much, shop so much, drive so much, have so much, and destroy so much.. She became an advocate of simple living, but it was trees, especially, that remained her passion and to speak for them in a variety of quietly powerful ways has been her mission ever since.

Divided into two sections, the book initially follows the author’s life from that childhood deep in Druid lore to her eventual contributions as not only a conservationist, but a biologist, botanist, research scientist (during which time she discovered cathodoluminescence), scientific advisor on genetic modification, writer of bioplans, international speaker, environmental activist (saving, among other slices of the planet, a section of boreal forest the size of Denmark, now a UNESCO site).

In the early ‘90’s she propagated hellebores from Bosnia to raise money for women affected by the war in the former Yugoslavia, which paid for 15,000 surgeries and electrocardiogram machines for Doctors Without Borders and a safe house in the city of Tuzla. Later, she launched The Millenium Project, sending out 750,000 seeds and saplings to 4,500 recipients over a period of years, all native species, all propagated on her farm. She is also a fierce advocate for pollinators, sitting on boards and fighting to legislate chemical-free areas around farmers’ fields.

But the book isn’t actually ABOUT any of this.

It’s about her life as it relates to the natural world, her path to knowledge and discovery… with chapters such as ‘Comfort in a Stone’, ‘The Yellow Box of Paints’, ‘No Burden for a Woman to be Educated’, ‘The Science of Ancient Knowledge’, ‘The Sumac Flower’, etc. It’s mostly about paying attention.

The second half contains ‘The Celtic Alphabet of Trees’ in which are listed 26 trees and shrubs, each with their own short chapter of fascinating tidbits such as medicinal properties and information on weather watching… (a halo around the moon means a change in weather and if there are one to three stars within the halo, they represent the number of days until that change).

Aspens, for instance, are harbingers of weather patterns if you know how to read them. And who knew there are 25 species of wild apple trees, all of which now rare or endangered and that it’s these wild trees not the cultivars that are most important to pollinators and that bees were once revered, and protected by Brehon Laws.

“[The Druids]… honoured the tapestry of life around the honeybee. These workers were considered to be an extended part of the family. Births, marriages, deaths and anniversaries were announced to the bees. Grief was always shared with the bees in a form of non-verbal communication.”

She says things like this:

“We are all woodland people. Like trees, we hold a genetic memory of the past because trees are parents to the child deep within us. We feel that shared history come alive every time we step into the forest, where the majesty of nature calls to us in a voice beyond our imaginations. But even in those of us who haven’t encountered trees in months or even years, the connection to the natural world is there, waiting to be remembered.”

And reminds us that the fight for climate change is a long game and that it CAN be fixed with faith, determination and buy in. The DOING of something positvie, even something small, by millions of people would have an effect. Which is different than shouting the odds and blaming The Other and grandstanding. She’s talking about quietly doing something together.

She has an idea: that if every person on the planet planted just one tree per year for the next six years, we’d stop climate change in its tracks.

“Three hundred million years ago, trees took an environment with a toxic load of carbon and turned it into something that could sustain human life. They can do it again.”

Of course she recognizes that not every person is able to plant even one tree but says even a simple pot on a balcony is helpful… keeping in mind there are those who can plant more than one tree per year. Her point is that however small we feel, we have the power to be part of a huge collective if only we stop waiting for a BIG CHANGE,  or a big opportunity or a BIG player to make the first move… all of which would be splendid, but while rattling cages might vent some frustration, it’s the power of ONE small action,  times millions of people, that could actually effect real change.

An example of this is evidenced by what’s happening as a result of the current shutting down of so many polluters. Smog has lifted, water is cleaner. That’s how quickly it happens. So she’s right, it CAN be done by many people doing small things. The key is to understand there will be no social media ‘likes’,  no recognition, no applause, awards, or even signs of change for a very long time… The key is to do the right thing anyway. With conviction.

“… we can fight climate change… we can band together to take on government and industry; we can keep informed of plans to destroy forests and fight them at every turn”

And to keep on doing it long after the media no longer pays attention to you.

On a smaller scale, she says, “we can take on the role of guardian and steward within our own neighbourhoods and towns, as has been done to great effect in Winnipeg… The people of that city have come together to protect their elm tree… These efforts have inspired others to do even more… If you have a large tree on your street, make sure your local council knows that you value it. Every opportunity to vote is an opportunity to put someone who cares about forests in a position of greater power and authority.”

She talks science in easily understood ways. 

“There is a deity in nature that we all understand. When you walk into a forest—great or small—you enter it in one state and emerge from it calmer. You have that cathedral feeling and you’re never the same again. You come out of there and you know something big has happened to you… We now know that the alpha- and beta-pinenes produced by the forest actually do uplift your mood and affect your brain through your immune system…. The beneficial effects of a twenty minute pine forest walk will remain in the immune system’s memory for about thirty days.”

And admits how much we don’t know.

“We still can’t explain how water gets to the top of a tree—how the plant defies physics and causes water to run uphill. With such fundamentals still eluding our understanding, how can we cut down a forest? Just imagine the arrogance and greed of that—and the short-sightedness.”

Because, yes, we have SO MUCH TO LEARN from nature. Cutting down trees without considering the effects is madness. Polluting for the sake of making and buying things we don’t need and getting to places we don’t need to get to is a habit not a necessity.

The reason I re-read this book, is the same reason I re-read a lot of books on trees and nature generally… because of learning how to be on this planet.

One suggestion the author makes along those lines… she suggests we take a moment to become a tree…

“…palms up, arms outstretched… tilt your head up, too, and let the sunshine land on your face, your hands, the rest of you. Feel the sun on the surface of your skin. With this act, you are becoming like a tree… The feeling you have on your skin is a dance with the short-wavelength energy of the sun. This dance has a name in the ancient world of the Celts…. song of the universe.”

The purpose of which is connection… which applies to everything. To us and trees, us and each other, everything and everything. Because the more we understand The Other, whatever and whoever that is, the better off we all become as a result.

So go on, don’t be shy… palms up, arms outstretched…

We have so much to learn.

Prevent the next pandemic; protect nature.



this is not a review: ‘the little book of hygge’, by meik wiking


Lovely read, a couple of hours tops is all that’s needed. Pretty pics, very lifestyle magazine in vibe, but don’t discount it because of that. The hygge principle is worth inhaling even if, like me, you’re already pretty hygge’d up, that is, you’ve got a life where simplicity, joy, chocolate and tea play a big role.

The Little Book of Hygge is still a sweet thing to thumb through on a grey afternoon.

— My favourite part is ‘Ten Unique Words and Phrases from Around the World’, which includes…

Iktsuarpok (Inuit) The feeling of anticipating that leads you to look outside to see if anyone is coming.

Friolero (Spanish) A person who is very sensitive to cold weather.

Hanyauku (Rukwangali; Nambia) Walking on your toes on warm sand.

Tsundoko (Japanese) The constant act of buying books but never reading them.

Schilderwald (German) A street with so man road signs that you become lost.


Hygge itself, a kind of deep comfort, is described by the author Meik Wiking (is that not the best name?) as “…humble and slow. It is choosing rustic over new, simple over posh and ambience over excitement. In many ways, hygge might be the Danish cousin to slow and simple living.”

There’s a lot about soft, comfy blankets and fires. Much chocolate. Doing simple things (simplicity is key). Much about friends, food, games, music. Much of hygge takes place indoors, the Danish weather, apparently being what it is, especially in winter. Many candles, much coffee, socks.

There are actual Hyggesocken.

In one of the wee sections (all sections are wee) the author tells of their own hygge TV viewing preference which is to watch only one or two episodes at a time of a favourite series, then wait a week or more to watch another one. The opposite of binging. Made me think of The World Before Taping Things Much Less Netflix and how restaurants would empty at 8:30 because the next episode of Shogun was on that night. I’m referring of course to the eighties.

Hygge also suggests that we allow ourselves to play.

“One of our issues as adults is that we become too focused on the results of an activity. We work to earn money. We go to the gym to lose weight. We spend time with people to network and further our careers. What happened to doing something just because it’s fun?”

Like I said, I think I’m already doing hygge.

Including leaving restos by 8:30.

Seems I like reading about hygge every few years.

Also worth reading is this on Denmark’s social framework and its role in creating a deep-breathing, hyggesocken-filled society.



this is not a review: ‘braiding sweetgrass’, by robin wall kimmerer

Oh nuts. Time has whipped by and my inter-library (thank you, *Trent Hills!) copy of Braiding Sweetgrass  is due back before I’ve had the chance to read more than a few of its essays.

This is down to a couple of things. The stacks of books and papers in my house being the only one worth mentioning. (Tho’ if you must know, the other is an obsession with watching taped episodes of Escape to the Country, which occasionally cuts into my extracurricular reading time.)

In any case.

I did read enough to know that I’m not troubled by having to give it back because I’ve decided I need my own copy of the book. In the same way and for many of the same but also different reasons that I needed my own copy of Theresa Kishkan’s beautiful Mnemonic…  a memoir through the memory of trees and, often, the houses and lives surrounded by them, not all of them her own — “All my life, I have wondered at the feeling I have in particular houses, usually ones in which no one lives any longer.”

And Peter Wohlleben’s The  Hidden Life of Trees , which I read in a Kawartha forest cabin and then wandered among the birch and spruce in a whole new way, alert and hopeful for a sense of the conversations I now realized were going on all around me.

And The Sweetness of a Simple Life, by Diana Beresford-Kroeger, one of those tiny eye/mind openers that change your world in the very best way. Every bit of clover in my yard is because of her.

So, yes, I’m looking forward to adding Braiding Sweetgrass  to that particular shelf and to continue reading Kimmerer’s gorgeous essays on nature. Here’s just a wee slice from ‘Asters and Goldenrod’ where she writes about the reason she chose to study botany in the first place… a moment from her intake interview at college:

“How could I answer, how could I tell him that I was a born botanist, that I had shoe boxes of seeds and piles of pressed leaves under my  bed, that I’d stop my bike along the road to identify a new species, that plants colored  my dreams, that the plants had chosen me? So I told him the truth. I was proud of my well-planned answer, its freshman sophistication apparent to anyone, the way it showed that I already knew some plants and their habitats, that I had thought deeply about their nature and was clearly well prepared for college work. I told him that I chose botany because I wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together.”

Kimmerer is my kind of guide through the natural world because she doesn’t see a difference between it and us. (Spoiler alert: she gets into botany school and learns the science, but never, thankfully, unlearns her innate connection and unique eye/heart/spirit for what is real.)


* That Trent Hills Library happens to be in Campbellford, a place I only discovered and fell into great affection with last year (they have a Stedmans!), is the kind of scrumptious serendipity that makes my heart sing. Also, I love the inter-library system.


(at) eleven with christy ann conlin: the memento

I dreamed of ghosts while reading this book.

But not in a bad way.

There are, after all, different kinds of ghosts out there and in The Memento   Christy Ann Conlin  introduces us to at least a few possibilities. Those that follow you home from a funeral, for example. Which is why you have mirrors placed beside your front door. On the outside. An old Maritime tradition.

The book has plenty of Maritime vibe, and tradition too. It takes place on the Fundy shore, in a house—correction—a grand old estate, called Petal’s End, one of those places you dreamed of being able to explore as a child… with a garden named ‘Evermore’ (a nod to the macabre?), several outbuildings, a 9780385662413carriage house,  even a room for nothing but arranging flowers. That kind of place.

It’s the summer Fancy Mosher turns twelve (a not insignificant number) and is given a letter from her beloved and deceased grandfather in which he explains that a family ‘gift’ has been passed along to her:  the ability to see the dead.

The story that unfolds is one of small town written even smaller. A place with very little privacy yet chock full of secrets because gossip isn’t the same as truth. And memories, well, they can be adjusted to suit any purpose.

Fancy lives from age three to nine with her grandfather, a gardener at Petal’s End. It’s a good life if you don’t mind that your mother’s  bit of a case and rarely around. And anyway, there’s Loretta, the housekeeper, practically a surrogate mother, the kind of woman who “…didn’t get annoyed—she got concerned.”

The family who own the estate, the Parkers, for whom Fancy and her grandfather and Loretta and others work… are rarely home anymore. (There’s a reason for that.) The staff are kept on regardless. The staff know things. The Parkers and the house and teacups know things. Especially the teacups. (In Maritime lore it’s said old teacups carry spirits within them, and I don’t mean gin.)

Everybody, it seems, knows ‘something’. But no one’s talking.

Or at least they haven’t been. Until now.

It was my pleasure to chat with Christy Ann Conlin about this genre-bending mystery cum ghostly folk tale cum literary work.

So without further ado, may I welcome the sparkling Christy Ann Conlin:


1.  What literary character did you identify with as a child?

CAC–Harriet, from Harriet the Spy, and Charlotte, from Charlotte Sometimes. As a teenager, with David, from The Mountain and The Valley, and Anne of Green Gables. All of these characters are outsiders, who either create fantasy worlds to retreat into, or as in Charlotte Sometimes, get lost in an alternate world. These are books which deal with identity and belonging and finding a sense of place. The characters are all outsiders and have to find a deep internal strength to navigate the world and community they are in, some successfully, and some not so successfully. I think these early identifications have really shaped my own fiction writing, my understanding of how we negotiate and map out our journey in life guiding and forming the journey of characters in my stories.


2.  Can you recall your first piece of writing? A poem, short story, essay in finger paints?? What was it about?

CAC–I wrote a story in grade six and the teacher told me it was terrible. I was devastated as it was my first attempt. I have learning disabilities and writing was so hard for me. I failed printing in grade four and it is one of my most humiliating memories. The messiness seemed to be a part of my hand, the death clutch on the pencil, and grinding it into the paper. So my effort in grade 7 felt heroic to me. Then I gave up but the next year had a grade eight poetry assignment I had to do. I didn’t understand what was being asked and I didn’t like the poems we were supposed to dissect.  My mother had always read poetry to me, as well as my grandmother, so I got out the poetry books and I copied these poems into what we could now call a scrap book. I did a drawing inspired by each poem, and decorated each page to reflect the mood, voice and imagistic world of the poems. And I also wrote a poetic response to each poem, and did a word list for each one. By word list I mean I extracted words which I felt were significant.  My teacher gave me 100 %. It was the first time I had ever done well in school and now looking back, I see it was the first time I not only found my writing voice, but found the creative confidence which is mandatory for a writer.  

But the years that followed were all about formal essay writing and I really struggled and finally gave up on writing. I fell into it by accident, when a friend suggested I write the story of my life because I liked writing letters so much. My own story was a cure for insomnia and I was soon drooling at the keyboard. Fictionalizing elements of my life, and then sheer abandonment of reality and entry into the realm of the imagination was what brought me to writing.

My school years were very difficult ones, and I found the public school system, certainly in a very rural area, marginalized those who were a bit different, creative or unusual. There was not much respect for eccentricity in the school halls and playgrounds. Imagination and fantasy can be lifeboats for those of us who are outside the mainstream.


3.  What were you reading at age fifteen?

CAC–Surfacing by Margaret Atwood. Flowers for Algernon. To the Lighthouse by Virgina Woolf. Doonesbury. Jane Austen. The Brontes. H.P. Lovecraft. Poe. Emily Dickinson. Charlie Brown. Ray Bradbury. Stephen King. Wordsworth. T.S. Eliot. S.E. Hinton and many, many more.


4.  Do you have a favourite passage (from any book)?

CAC–Many, but one that I’ve loved since high school is the final paragraph of Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe.

“Yet, as he stood for the last time by the angels of his father’s
porch, it seemed as if the Square already were far and lost; or, I
should say, he was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town
he has left, yet does not say “The town is near,” but turns his
eyes upon the distant soaring ranges.”

I find this so heartbreaking, that we really can never come home again, even though we can see it, but there is also that sense of yearning for something bigger than what we have come from.


5.  Are there recurring themes in your work that surprise you?

CAC–No, not really. I am a bit surprised by what is now my life long rumination on our relationship with memory and the idea of sensory detail as portals into the past. I love that scent and sound, for example, can carry us through time. What does surprise me about my work is the ever present thread of humour, sometimes dark and sometimes whimsical and often pure hilarity. I think tragedy and comedy are twins.


6.  We think of a memento as being an object, usually received as a gift to remind us of someone, some experience, some thing, time or place. We assume it’s connected to a good memory—but it needn’t be. In the book, the gift is the ability to see the dead, passed down from a grandfather to his twelfth grandchild, Fancy Mosher, on her twelfth birthday… and much of the story’s tension comes from how this will manifest in Fancy and whether or not it’s an especially welcomed ‘memento’. Two questions: how did the title come to you? And, what is the significance of twelves?

CAC–The title seemed obvious as the book revolves around this inheritance of a gift the Moshers call the “family memento”, a euphemism for a dark ability.  Also, the book really is a memento mori, a piece of art which explores the concept of mortality, and our obsession with immortality. My novel is an exploration of memory and loss, of both embracing and letting go, but always a reminder that life and time pass with every breath.

The twelves come from a few things. Fancy’s mother says that twelve is a special number because Jesus has twelve disciples. This plays into the strange mountain religion mentioned in the book, the Holy Mother Mercy sect which is hinted at.

Also, The superstitions surrounding the red cardinal. The bird trills at dawn and dusk, twelve hours apart, a herald of day and night. Cardinal eggs have a twelve day incubation period. Cardinals don’t migrate, present for twelve months of the year, representing the cycle of seasons. There is a folk belief that if you see or hear a cardinal it carries a message for  you. It was irresistible symbolism for a writer, creating a mythology around this. I love the day being broken into two twelve hour pieces, the time of light arriving and fading, and the time of darkness arriving and fading.


7.  The play of children is cleverly mirrored in the way adults and families ‘play normal’ (and it’s the kids who are dealing with reality so much better, or at least trying to). Also, Fancy knows and senses so much more than she gives herself credit for but she has yet to develop the confidence to believe her own instincts. Is this something you were exploring… i.e. how much of Fancy’s ‘insecurity’ is a normal part of growing up and how much is imposed by family shame (her mother, especially), mythology and (other) dysfunctions?

CAC–I think most of the insecurity is imposed by her mother, her family, society, the Parkers. She inherits her family memento, secrets, and the legacy of shame and fear which accompanies it. I think these forces are what make her so close to the edge, to the mystery, to use a Flannery O’Connor term.


8.  The Moshers have been employed for many years at Petal’s End, a large estate owned by a family rarely in residence. The estate serves as an idyllic backdrop to the carefree aspects of Fancy’s childhood. It’s also the site of much weirdness. This juxtaposition of horror and normal runs through the book in different ways. (I’m thinking of the scene where they’re discussing ‘the Annex’ on the day of Fancy’s birthday, the tacit horror of it… then the scene shifts to Loretta bringing out the cake, singing Happy Birthday.) I can’t imagine the same story unfolding in a ‘normal’ house. Something about the space people need to hide from each other… I’m curious of course: what inspired the setting? (I’m in love with the flower arranging room, btw.)

CAC–Yes, juxtaposing beauty and horror, innocence and wisdom, trust and betrayal, youth and old age, life and death, love and hate…and on and on, these contrasts define this book. We cannot have one without the other.

I also love the idea of something simple, like fragrant air full of the smell of flowers, being more than that, the air being literally embodied by flowers which are alive. We have a saying where I am from, that hot humid summer air is “close”. I love that, how the air is alive, so intimate and engaging with our very being, in our personal space. The book is full of these sorts of normal and yet fantastical elements.

The estate and seaside, the setting of The Memento is a classic gothic element — a grand sweeping home of beauty and decay, from the outside almost a castle, and inside, a labyrinth of stairs and hallways, rooms and chambers, secret passageways, a mansion set in a parkland, with forest, gardens and statues and flowers. It’s a fairytale setting and we all know how the magical world of fairytales holds such an uncanny blend of innocence, beauty, horror and intrigue.

The actual manor home in the book was inspired by several grand estates, here and abroad. I had a remarkable experience in Ireland, in Drogheda, where I was with some friends and we found an abandoned mansion on a river, and behind the mansion, a sprawling parkland with a massive walled garden. There was a hole in the high stone wall and I climbed through and found a sprawling and intricate garden which brought to my mind The Secret Garden, except creepier in how long it had been let go. That moment stayed with me and was the genesis of Petals’ End, the haunted garden in The Memento.

I was also inspired closer to home by Prescott House, a Georgian Manor home at Starr’s Point, Nova Scotia, very close to where I live. I have taught creative writing workshops there in the sunroom, and have had students who remember when the elderly Prescott descendants would serve tea in one of the formal rooms. It feels inhabited by a living history. It’s now a provincial museum, close to the water and complete with restored gardens. There is another grand home, The Queen Anne Inn in Annapolis Royal. It is a house which calls to you from the roadside, which implores you to enter and discover her secrets. Fortunately, it’s an inn, so you can come in and be enveloped by the stories and history of the mansion!


9.  While paranormal events figure into the story, there is another kind of creepiness in all the secrets, especially those children are asked/expected/forced or threatened in some way to keep. You play off this alternate ‘fear’ nicely with the mystery and secrets of ‘the dead’. I’m wondering at what point they conflate in the minds of families over generations…  Is it possible that people tend to hide family truths behind family legends? And might that be one reason for those legends?

CAC–Sure, I think reality, when recounted inevitably takes on a life of its own, and becomes a story merely for the act of telling. And then when it’s passed along again, it takes on more shape and form. Each teller imbues the story with a sense of voice and detail. It’s an organic process and one which keeps evolving, based on the personality and time of the teller. I love this about the oral tradition.

And sure, family stories become a way of entombing the past, with clues and hints and maps that lead back to the past, if a bit of care and attention is paid. I think it’s part a hiding of a truth in a family legend, a part of a family truth which gets lost in the story.  We can search for what is hidden, and we can stumble upon that which was lost. And often, what we lose or secret away, is really hiding in plain sight – it is but for us to put the story in the right order, the words in the right tone, and the truth tumbles out.


10.  What is the one thing you’d like to be asked about the book?

CAC–That’s a great question, ha ha!  This is what I have been hoping someone would ask and no one has yet:  “Why did you take risks with narrative traditions and bypassed trendy and write a book that defies description—a genre-bending literary ghost story for adults for solitary silent read or by contrast, a story for reading aloud by fireside?

The simple answer is I’ve always loved books that read as a page turner and have a complex web of a plot which unfolds seamlessly, and transport the reader right into the story. I really wanted to do this in The Memento.  As I wrote, elements from different traditions came together, and rather than picking one and dropping another, they began to merge. This was the only way to capture the bridge and the co-existance of the past and the present and the future. This idea fascinates me and I wanted a story which embodied this in the actual narrative so the reader would experience this.

Have you ever walked into an old house and then walked out and thought, wow, that was like being back in the 1940s or the 1970s, or even earlier? And yet as you get in the car and Tweet a photo, you are back in your time. This captivates me. The same way that we travel in time with a scent or a sensory trigger.

I love Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, Edith Wharton’s ghost stories, James’s Turn of the Screw, those old world books. Kazuo Ishiguro captures that world in Remains of the Day, the old and a newer world, and their collision.  In Jane Austen novels are very much concerned with finding a place in the word, and navigating rigid social parameters, especially for women. I find it interesting how this still continues in society, and wanted to create a thread from the old days to the new, the continuity and persistence of class and gender restrictions. In The Memento, the Parkers are aristocrats with the power of their upper class and the Moshers are in the serving class, and limited in that way. But both have freedoms which also come with their class.

I wanted that old style novel with exquisite language and setting and sense of place, where the world of the book is like a character itself, and yet a contemporary element, which threads through to reflect how old ideas persist and permeate reality.

There is a lot of play with sense of time, and timelessness, in The Memento, how the old world exists within modern society, and you can step in and out of it.

So, this is why some readers and critics have said The Memento reads like Jane Austen or Edith Wharton but as though David Lynch had a hand in the story!


11.  Choices:

Canoe or bike? These days, canoe, because of the contrast of silence and sound, movement and stillness. The thrill of the glide and being on water. There is a sleek elegance in canoeing. And on a lake or a pond there is only bird song, the splash of water, rustle of wind, and the sound of your own breathing if you are paddling hard. And you can stop and sit there in the canoe and feel the rhythm of the body of water as it moves whether on a pond or a river or a lake. We have a small canoe for our pond and paddling in the waterlilies is extraordinary.  In The Memento Fancy recalls being in a canoe on a lake with her mother, collecting waterlilies. This was drawn from my own experience of sunrise canoes.

Song or poetry?  They are one and the same to me right now, as I’ve been working with lyrics in The Memento, the fragments and lines of from ballads and lullabies uses as text in the novel. They become wisps of poetry in her mind.

A ballad used in The Memento which is poetry-to-song: Down By the Salley Gardens – a poem by William Butler Yeats published in The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems in 1889. The poem is really a reconstruction and restoration of an old song Yeats had heard. It was which was later put to the traditional music of The Moorlough.  I love the blending of song and poetry as they are one in the same in many ways…poetry is not always words or just words…

Afloat or ashore? At the edge of the shore looking out over the water, watching the reflection of the sky in the water, the sun and the moon, watching the wind ripple through the lily pads and wondering then about the forest behind me as I sit at the water’s edge.

Picnic or fine dining? The antique picnic wicker basket with linens and table cloth and carefully packed lunch carried to a special secret spot in a meadow or on a beach.

Fat book or skinny? A book size which suits the nature of the story.

Ice cream or cheese? Neither.  Lime or cherry sorbet served in an antique depression glass bowl.

andre-kertesz_the_fork_1928_500pxFood and books. Is there anything better?

For that reason I like to offer my version of the menu inspired by the book.

Matilda’s Menu for The Memento:

baked ham

strawberry shortcake

freshly baked rolls

sassy lemonade

(no tea, thankyouverymuch)


Christy Ann Conlin. Photo Credit Bruce DienesCHRISTY ANN CONLIN’s acclaimed first novel, Heave (2002), was a Globe and Mail  “Top 100” book, a finalist for the First Novel Award in 2003 and was shortlisted for the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and the Dartmouth Book Award. Heave was also longlisted for the 2011 CBC Canada Reads Novels of the Decade. Her novella, Dead Time, was published by Annick Press 2011 and received a starred review in Quill & Quire. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals including Best Canadian Stories, Room Magazine, Blood + Aphorisms, and Numéro Cinq. Conlin also hosted the popular 2012 CBC summer radio series Fear Itself. The Memento  is her first novel in fourteen years. Conlin teaches at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies online Creative Writing program. She lives in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, in a big yellow century house at the edge of a lily pond with three little boys named Winken, Blinken and Nod, and her loving husband, Andy Brown, publisher at Conundrum Press.

She can be found at


*Author photo: Bruce Dienes