Saturday, November 7, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See, a book club review

Even book club reviews have fallen by the wayside of late, but there is so much food for thought in Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See that I wanted to try to get a few of those thoughts sorted out (full disclosure - I have 20 pages left to read, though really the story is over and the rest seems kind of ... pointless). 

All the Light We Cannot See is rich and poetic and annoying and stilted and incomplete and brimming with the horror of war and the wonder of life. As I said at book club tonight, I don't think I've ever had such a complicated relationship to a book before. It is compelling, but is is not a page turner. I fall asleep every time I try to read it in bed (though that may be due to some other things going on right now), but it holds me rapt when I'm able to focus on it. 

The story takes place, mainly, in the Breton town of Saint Malo during WW2. The young protagonists are a blind French girl - Marie-Laure - and Werner, a German orphan who sees his invitation to the army training school as a way to avoid the otherwise inevitable life and death in the coal mines of his German home town. Both are inquisitive, intelligent adolescents with a curiosity that has questionable benefits. It doesn't pay, in war, to be overly clever; far safer to be unquestioning and placid. Through twists that only the surreal worlds of war and novels can support, Marie-Laure's and Werner's paths inevitably cross, though to say more would be unfair. 

As I said, there's a lot to unpack in Doerr's 500+ densely-written pages. A running reference to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, repeated playing of Claire du Lune on a phonograph. The interplay of French civilians - collaborators or resistance or neither, German soldiers, and nominally but irritatingly "movie-star handsome" American soldiers to the rescue. Electronic engineering. The unleashing of man's inhumanity to man. The annoying and expected over-statement of America 'rescuing' Europe. Truly magical explorations of sea life and birds.

Reading this book was like having a rough tag in the back of a cashmere sweater. The chapters are annoyingly short and choppy - generally 2 pages, often shorter. The result is a limping story that jerks back and forth between characters, countries and time periods. It lacks flow. There is a surfeit of characters; I can't say who I would edit out as they are all interesting enough on their own, but they drop away and we lose their stories in a way that is unsatisfactory and incomplete. 

One thing I loved about this story was a thread throughout it that valued a desire for and appreciation of both art and science. Much is made of the Natural History Museum in Paris; Audubon's book of American birds is mentioned repeatedly, and the gathering of knowledge for its own sake is celebrated by the characters. It is not pedantic in the least - it simply and genuinely displays a love of knowledge. And that makes me smile.

I have at least two more blog posts I could write about this book. It seems unlikely that I will. In case I don't, remember this,
“When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don't you do the same?”

“To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.”

A book club review isn't a book club review without a discussion of book club, and - generally more to the point - a discussion of book club dinner. A book set mainly in Brittany is always going to inspire a fabulous meal, and Mrs. S. did not disappoint. In the story itself both fish stew and bread are mentioned. In fact, bread has an important role in carrying messages for collaborators.

Mrs. S asked the local gluten-free bakery if they'd bake a message into a loaf to recreate that, but they were unobliging. It was still delicious bread though, especially paired with a rich, tomatoey, sumptuous halibut stew. Halibut may not be an Atlantic fish (nobody seemed to know), but when your hostess is from the north tip of Vancouver Island and she has access to fresh halibut, you better believe we were too busy chowing down to dock her points on authenticity. 

And the coup de grace ... the piece de resistance ... chocolate eclairs. I kid you not. Oh they were creamy and the pastry was light and the chocolate was so rich. I could live on those chocolate eclairs - not for very long as that shit will kill you, but ... oh they were perfection. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

autumn ramble

Yesterday was a perfect afternoon for an amble. At the end of a pretty steady week at work and multiple evenings of meetings, a stretch of the legs seemed like the perfect transition back to life. And it was. 

Autumn on the west coast doesn’t have the same vibrant intensity of the Eastern maples, elms, and … whatever other deciduous trees they have that we don’t. It has it’s own beauty though. A softer beauty, perhaps, but one alive with texture, soft colours. In my twenty-minute meander I saw more life than I’ve seen in a long while. 

A tree at the edge of a school yard is bright with green leaves and red apples. This neighbourhood was once farmland, and the reminder of those days makes me smile and wonder what life was like then. Across the highway the hillside is singing with frogs. I can’t see them, but their voices transport me back to the soggy rainforests of Jamaica when rain has eased the heat of the day and the treefrogs are rejoicing in the wetness. 

I enter the trails of Cuthbert Holmes Park and am struck by the wide variety of berries in white and multiple reds on high trees and low shrubs, not to mention the late purple black stragglers on the blackberry brambles. I imagine the Thanksgiving centrepiece the red and white would make. I am not the only one captured by the berry bounty - a fat grey squirrel is munching down on a bush of crimson globes that look to be bursting with juice and flavour - when I stop to photograph him he pauses in his meal, but quickly decides that the reward of the pincherries(?) is worth the risk of my presence. 

Cuthbert Holmes Park is popular with dog walkers so there are always people and pets to greet on their way. One gentlemen had two of my dream dog - the most perfect golden retrievers. Well behaved, beautifully groomed, friendly, but not overly so. 

From the bridge crossing Colquitz Creek I’m surprised to see a male mallard duck, though he’s far enough away I don’t stop to watch for long. Around the corner and through another abandoned orchard I startle a feral bunny. This part of the city is full of them, though oddly you are more likely to see them on from the highway than in the park. I suppose the park is their territory where they usually move before I get near enough to see them. This was a small one. And fast. The poodle approaching from the other direction missed out on a good chase. 

With that kind of life to observe, the walk passes quickly. I run my errands, head back to the mall entrance, and see the day has turned from bright sunshine to steady rain. That is another feature of the westcoast autumn - as a trade off for the duller foliage we avoid the flooding, freezing downpours of the east coast, though our weather changes in a moment. I could wait it out, but - as my dad? mom? grandpa? - used to say, I'm not made of sugar - the rain won't melt me. Other walkers, mostly still with their dogs and much better prepared for the weather than I am, continue to greet me on the paths. 

I get back to the bridge, and Mr. Drake has been joined by a small group of friends who look happy with the rain. Personally, I don't have the same ability to let water roll of my cotton-clad back and by the time I near home I’m looking forward to flannel pjs, a hot tea, and a quiet evening in. And I can't stop smiling. Even here on the edge of the city the healing powers of nature are able to weave their magic.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

the good news is, there is no muse

I’ve begun reading Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and it, more than any other writing or creativity book I’ve read - and there have been many - has me at my computer at 6:30 in the morning committed to “developing the craft so I can master the art” (yes, that’s a rough quote from Patchett). 

This is the first morning of what I intend to have become a habit*, and already I can see it will take some forethought. It will take getting to bed earlier and not reading late into the night. And it will take remembering that in this game, writing every day is more important than a few extra minutes in my warm soft bed. My warm soft robe, on the other hand, is just one more reward for getting up. 

I never think of Ann Patchett when people ask me about my favourite writers, and yet when I look at the list of her novels that I’ve read, I’m struck by how much I enjoyed those stories. Enjoyed is the wrong word. I savoured them. I re-read passages not because I’d missed something but because I wanted to spend more time in that scene; more time with those characters and in that setting. It shines through that she started out to be a poet, learned the skill and craft of story in short stories, and grew into being a novelist. Her skill with language and plot marry beautifully - perhaps even happily. 

While This is the Story of a Happy Marriage might be the worst title ever for a writing book (from a marketing stand-point), it’s still a great book. And I’ve only read the introduction and the first few chapters. Oh, and the version I am reading happens to be large print. That’s the version that was in the bag of books my parents lent me last spring, so that’s the version I have. It turns out a large print book is about what I need right now. Ha. At least early in the morning on the bus in a day that has not quite burst into full bloom the large print makes a difference. Of course, I’d sort of rather that no one on the bus notice that I’m reading a large print book, but … what does that really matter? 

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage makes me want to call in sick, brew a big pot of tea, and curl up on my couch all day. I guess I can do that Saturday. It’s also clearly the kind of book that makes me want to get up and write, which is not something that has seemed like a good idea for the last several months. Patchett makes really clear in her first couple essays that she practised her craft. She actively learned it. She sought teachers she admired and trusted and respected, read from them, and worked with them. She doesn’t espouse getting an MFA or doing a summer writing workshop (although she’s done both and then some) so much as getting down to it. Being disciplined. Doing the work.

Patchett’s entree into writing was freelancing for magazines. Some pretty big magazines. She got to be a go-to writer for GQ and the New York Times Magazine and others. Eventually she traveled on their dime. She conducted research for her novels on their dime (during her research Bel Canto, which is about opera singers, except it isn't, she was sent by Gourmet magazine to tour the great opera houses of Italy - they got a great travel series out of it, and she got familiar with the life of modern opera). 

Patchett undeniably has talent. Perhaps she had a little luck. But more than anything what she had was productivity and willingness. She was no ‘artiste.’ She took what assignments she was given and made them into something. She did not protect her darlings but willingly cut words and sentences and paragraphs to make the article work for the editors. Yes, eventually she was able to stop that life. 

She has long since become a prolific and respected enough author to focus full time on writing novels, and she still approaches it, according to her essays, as a job. As something you get up and do every day because that’s the career you choose, not because the whimsical whispers of the muse are stirring. She has never had writer’s block, mostly because she doesn’t believe in it. She believes in procrastination, and that writer’s block is mostly just a form of mental procrastination. To anyone who has suffered greatly from the ‘affliction’ I imagine that could be an affront, but maybe she’s on to something. Maybe the solution to writer’s block is simply to write. 

That’s what has inspired me from Patchett’s story of her writing career. Nobody can predict when a muse will strike, but everyone who wants to call themselves a writer can get up a half-hour early, sit at the computer, and plunk out words from whatever is around them. This morning I happen to have a subject on my mind, and when I don’t, I’ll look at a photo on the wall and describe what’s outside the frame. Or I’ll see a colouring sheet (we’re into ‘adult colouring’ at my house right now) and share the story it is telling. Or I’ll look at one of the antiques in the room and tell a story from when it was new. Inspiration, it seems, is not in the wind. It is everywhere around us if we’re willing to see it. 

As I sit in the living room nearing the end of my first 30 minute session, I’m thinking ‘30 minutes - that wasn’t very long.’ No, not the first morning it wasn’t. Not while my sails are full with Patchett’s admonitions. But what about in two weeks. What about when I’m tired, or ill, and it’s cold in here, and I DON’T WANT TO. 

Well, I hope that in those morning when the alarm goes I’ll give myself a talking too, shrug into my soft warm robe, and get myself back in front of the glow of the computer screen with its blinking cursor. Because I am a writer, dammit, and writers write. And now I’m just stalling because if there’s one writing habit I’ve trained myself in, it’s writing things in blog-post length and I write that in under 30 minutes. But there is still one minute on the clock and I am not going to cheat myself of 60 seconds of writing time this first morning out. 

*No, I don't intend to post every morning's ramblings - I just thought that posting this one would add another layer of accountability. :) 

Monday, September 14, 2015

unqualified love

"In sickness and in health" doesn't cover the reality of that vow. It doesn't speak to catheters and enemas and cleaning your loved one and advocating with health professionals for appropriate care and comfort and an endless stream of appointments and tests and reports. 

"For better or for worse" doesn't mention sleeping for a week in a reclining chair in the living room beside your husband's hospice-at-home hospital bed so you can hold his hand, listen for his breathing, and ease his passage from your life. 

They promised and they danced and they laughed and they loved.

Diva Moe has lost her husband after seven years of living with cancer, and in the journey to this new reality she has demonstrated what it means to love. To love as a choice and an action, not just in flowering script and happy moments. Technically he was her husband (for the second time) of 15 months, but in reality he was her husband for 28 years. 

I know there were times Moe felt unqualified for the tasks before her. She had no health care training. She had her own grief and guilt and joy and fear to navigate and the journeys of their five children and son-in-law to travel alongside. 

But unqualified has that other meaning, in this case the more appropriate meaning. Moe has loved without ceasing. She has loved without reservation or condition. She has loved through terror and exhaustion and beyond herself. Moe has modelled unqualified love to her children and her friends. She has honoured her vows in ways she couldn't have imagined even on their second wedding day when her husband was already ill and 'in sickness and in health until death parts us' was in the clouds that rained on their joy. 

I am amazed by her, and by this steadfastness of her love. I am blessed to have borne witness to it, and I am blessed to have received it myself. May we all be so unqualified in our loving. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Orphan Train: a book club review

Orphan Train, by Chrstina Baker Kline is a book I approached with a certain excited trepidation. Having written my masters thesis on Victorian orphans, I knew the despicable pedant in me would be on the look out for historical inaccuracies, but it's also a topic I find fascinating and the blurbs sounded good. Of course, there is a world of difference between Dickens' "lone, lorn, creatures" and American children sent from East Coast cities to lives of servitude in the Midwest (the plot is slightly more Anne of Green Gables than Oliver Twist).

Orphan Train uses the classic (a.k.a. cliché) story-within-a-story structure. The framing story has troubled Goth teenager Molly meeting aged rich lady Vivian to do some community service. There are no surprises in Orphan Train - I can hardly even clarify for myself what might constitute a spoiler in this review since not a single element of the plot was a twist. Their friendship builds as Vivian tells Molly the story of her childhood as an 'Orphan Train rider' and ... the rest is glossed-over history. 

Kline's story-telling is pleasant. Her writing style is both poetic and fluid, and her characters, in general, are well-developed. I devoured the book like one does a meringue - in the moment it's great, but you aren't left with much at the end.

In fact, as I was preparing to go to book club, I had to check my book shelf to remember what book we'd read. What was missing was any sort of sensory input. Not just skirting the issue of 'bad things happening,' but the stench of a family of 6 living in a New York City tenement, the cold of an unheated Minnesota sewing room, the pain of soul-crushing loss, the ache of horny teenagers, the promise of spring. Given the time period of the inside story, Kline left a lot on the table.

It's a good book. On the 'liked/didn't like, recommend/don't recommend, three-word review' test for book club I'd say
  • liked
  • recommend
  • predictable, enjoyable, fails to impress

Dear sweet funny bad-ass Little E hosted a luscious summer patio dinner, and faced the challenge of hosting for this book head on. We have a tradition in the club of, when possible, tying the theme of the dinner to the theme of the book. For a book like The Great Gatsby or The Secret Life of Bees the theme can be both obvious and inspiring to work with. For a book about orphans sent to work on farms and in other forms of indentured servitude for people little capable of or willing to care for them, during the Great Depression, with references only to squirrel stew or weak potato soup well, the cooking becomes a little more challenging.

And so, in true Little E style, we started with vodka spiked rosemary lemonade. I don't know that there's a connection to the book, and I don't care. She should bottle that stuff! From there, the framing story of the book is set on the coast of Maine, and Little E wisely took her inspiration from there.

Clam chowder thick enough to stand a spoon in, with an extra bowl of crumbled bacon on the side if we wanted more (it's bacon - WE WANTED MORE!). Seafood tacos with sass and verve and succulence. Lobster salad. There was more. Much more. And sorbet in orange peel bowls for dessert were the perfect palette cleansing touch of sweetness.

As always, the conversation was rich and far-ranging and sometimes off topic and insightful. On a sunny July deck in a gorgeous thriving back garden, with bees (okay, wasps, but they're less poetic) buzzing and a sweet baby girl stopping by to say "goodnight Mama" to our hostess, there was plenty of proof once again why book club is my favourite night of the month.
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