December 7, 2011

Some thoughts about fiddle music and swimming

Very infrequently I try to write a poem about something and even though I know it is so blindingly romantic (my default style) and has so far to go, it often stirs me because it makes me think and feel more deeply about a certain thing. So it was with this poem below, which needs a title...

And why does the fiddle music strike
At the very heart and soul of me?
How can the small band by the fire
Send my spirit leaping to the raftered roof?
A cool evening with the four strings dancing
Transports me over the lake, over the snow-clad mountain.
A viola and a player with a new song
Plants me with such deep contentment in my chair
That I think I will stay there forever.

If I feel all is not lost, it is because of this family music,
An absolute affirmation, a blood memory coursing far back
To the poor days when so much was desirable
And so little was possible, possibly
As far back as a Russian village in the evening
When the fiddles came out.

This music is mine. There is no note too humble
That it does not please me
Beyond reason.
Beyond the moment, beyond all cultural memory,
That it does not catapult me, in fact, into deep delight.

I called this one "King of the World" just because in spite of James Cameron's famous faux pas when he won for Titanic, there is some chutzpah in it that I like and it's kind of the way I feel when I'm swimming at Sarson's all alone on a summer evening. But I guess it needs a better title, seeing as how I'm female and all.

I swam as the sun set
And the moon rose over the smoky hills
I rested my cheek on the smooth skin of the lake
As I stroked –
Pick an apple, put it in the basket –
Until only a rosy glow was left of the sun
Then gold, then apricot in the darkening sky
I lay arms outstretched on the liquid gold, glossy with sunset
Its palette of blues washed onto the evening hills.
Things happened:
Boats roared back to the launch for the night
A family posed for photos on the beach
A dragonfly bisected the sky briefly, then a gull
But they were for context only, stage business,
As the world revolved
Slowly around the water and me.

November 23, 2011

A Thousand Days in Tuscany by Marlena de Blasi

This is a lovely book, and I do believe it's the first time in my life I have ever come to the end of a book and flipped right back to page 1 and started over. I rarely read a book twice, never mind twice in a row. There is some beautiful writing here, lots of talk of food and countryside, and some really insightful stuff about love and friendship and personality.

The American author and her Italian husband take up residence in a tiny Tuscan village after having lived for three years in Venice. One of the locals they meet is an older man they call the Duke, who "adopts" them and they quickly become good friends. The Duke compares Marlena to his mother, saying "Life was hard for her too." Marlena responds, "But I don't think life is hard." His answer is so piercing that I'm going to record it here so I don't forget it. I can completely relate to this. He says:

"Of course not. Not now, anyway. Not with all the 'adjustments' you've made over time. My mother made similar adjustments. For her, life was too garishly lit, too big and too distant, and so she srewed up her eyelids and shortened the foreground. Like an impressionist painter, she rubbed the juts smooth, created her own diffusion, her own translucence. She saw life as if by the light of a candle. Nearly always she seemed to be wandering about in an elegant sort of defiance. Holding tight to her secrets. Like you do. And she thought everything could be solved with a loaf of bread. Like you do."

A description of two women who did successfully what I've tried so hard to do lately, whether that's a good thing or not. I guess we all put our spin on things - create our own diffusion to make things viable for ourselves. I can especially relate to shortening the foreground - the opposite of being far-seeing I suppose, but then who's necessarily to say that one is always better than the other. Having waited all my life for the grand, important and impressive things to happen, I've become more attached to the small and everyday in this last year.

November 2, 2011

True North Brass

We greatly enjoyed our first community concert of the season. True North Brass of Toronto is a brass quintet with lots of talent, experience and personality. They played everything from classical to Duke Ellington and had arranged many of the pieces themselves. The most beautiful piece was one arranged by tubist Scott Irvine called Meditations on a Huron Carol. It was a haunting work with sounds produced from all the brass instruments as well as eerie sounds from a loon whistle, bells, wine glasses, and a strange Tibetan string and can kind of thing that sounded like a wolf howling. What a great evening. We came out of the theatre feeling refreshed and happy.

October 31, 2011

Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik

The title of this book is from this very cool old drawing called "A Railroad: From Paris to the Moon."

I'm having a lot of luck with my books this year. Paris to the Moon is a beautiful memoir of five years during which the author, his wife and his son live in Paris. Gopnik is a journalist for The New Yorker who developed a great love for Paris as a child, when his family lived there for a time, and this is something he wants his own child, who was just a baby when they moved, to experience.

The book meanders between deep reflections about French culture to intimate descriptions of the author's family life in Paris. Both Gopnik and his wife are devoted to their child's experiences. Early on he says "The romance of your child's childhood may be the last romance you can give up."

Gopnik considers Paris to be the most beautiful place in the world, and although it's a place that's never been high on my travel list, he is convincing and of course now I'd like to go. "We love Paris," he says, "not out of nostalgia, but because we love the look of light on things, as opposed to the look of light from things, the world reduced to images radiating from screens."

This latter really struck me recently while having a conversation with a friend. Quite often when I related an experience, she responded by comparing this to something in a TV show or a movie. This irritated me partly because I haven't seen any of these shows and so don't understand the allusion, but partly because I too prefer the look of light on things as opposed to the look of light from things.

Gopnik's depictions of French culture are extremely detailed - so nuanced that you'd have to have been there and know it at least to some extent for it to make sense. And he uses quite a few French words which I should have immediately looked up but didn't so lost some meaning because of that. The book was written as journals or articles while they lived in Paris between 1995 and 2000, so it reads a little bit historically by now. At times I found myself wishing I'd read it 10 years ago. But it is a lovely, rich book which will stand the test of time. The author is unashamedly in love with Paris, a true romantic, and I recommend Paris to the Moon to anyone who has ever been intrigued by the romance and fame of the City of Light.

October 18, 2011

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

Truman Capote is what I would call a masterful writer, and one I have never read before. Breakfast at Tiffany's is a short novel and then the book also contains three stories. The best of these is "A Christmas Memory," a sad but beautiful story of an intergenerational friendship. It inspired me to get out my fruitcake recipes:

The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whisky, bask on window sills and shelves.

This is one of the few Christmas stories I would dare to compare with Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales.

A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff

Another highly readable romance with the addition of vintage clothing on nearly every page - descriptions of gorgeous fabrics and colours that are almost as good as reading about food. I love the setting - London, and the story-line keeps you reading happily along. A few romantic interests are incorporated with a mystery dating back to World War II. The Daily Mail(UK) calls this a "lovely book" and I agree.

October 4, 2011

A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

This is a great read by an author I am just learning to appreciate. The book is set in a London boarding house, with all the boarders interacting, similar to Alexander McCall Smith's Corduroy Mansions. Spark's boarding house, like Smith's, makes me a little claustrophic at times - narrow stairways, attic rooms, hotplates (maybe not, but that's how it feels). But Spark is a master of character development, and she does a great job here with her main character, a 28-year-old widow called only Mrs Hawkins for most of the book until near the end. Her nemesis is also an incredibly well-drawn character - an oily type who floats in and out of the story and sometimes just hovers unseen in the background like a malevolent mole. The ending is very satisfactory.

October 1, 2011

Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster

I did something with this most excellent book that I think I have not done before. I read its 13 chapters out on the deck over 26 days, reading a chapter one day, and making notes on it the next. It was a lovely and peaceful highlight of my summer. The book outlines 12 disciplines for spiritual living, the purpose of which is to bring us closer to God.

The book was originally written in the late 70s and revised twice over the next two decades. Foster is a Quaker and you might think this means super-Conservative, but it is a very freeing book, not contradicting in any significant ways my reading of Rob Bell over the summer. Foster emphasizes over and over that there is no use in practising the disciplines for their own sake, and that doing so will lead to bondage and religiosity. You practise them because they are the way to understand and know God and that's what you want to do. They are all biblical and historic ways in which people have learned to experience God. Foster says you keep doing them because they work.

This was the most unique aspect of the book. Discipline sounds rigid, but the book is all about freedom. So for instance, yes, you can make a list of people to pray for, but ideally a person is on that list to begin with because you feel compassion for them (or love, as in a family member) and that's your indicator that you want to pray for them. In all the disciplines, Foster emphasizes that they are not about adding work to your life, but about doing things differently. So for instance in the discipline of Submission, you practise simply not always charging through a door first but often holding the door for somebody else. It's not a lot more trouble, just a different way of approaching things.

One of the disciplines that I really liked was Simplicity. He has nine beautiful practical ways for how to live simply(resist gadgets, learn to enjoy things without having to own them), and also offers three inner attitudes: Receive what I have as a gift from God, know that it is God's business to take care of what I have, and consider what I have as available to others.

I picked this book up from a pile of used books being sold for charity at an insurance office where I was buying my ICBC sticker. What a lucky find.

September 9, 2011

Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell

I can still clearly remember the moment in high school when one of my classmates confided that she thought heaven and hell were probably just on earth. I was shocked at the heresy. But this is one of the themes of Velvet Elvis that has really caught my imagination. Bell uses a lot of scripture to show that our purpose on earth is to foster goodness (love, peace - all the things that God is) and that these efforts, supported by God, will expand the "kingdom of God" (or the kingdom of good) until eventually the earth is restored to its original state of goodness. I'm saying this awkwardly (you have to read the book!), but that's the rough idea. Bell emphasizes that this "new earth" will still not be perfect or static - it will continue to grow and change but goodness will prevail.

Another idea of Bell's that makes huge sense to me is that Jesus/God is everywhere on earth where good is. He says God would never be so petty as to just appear in one Palestinian place and then depend on that specific event getting out over thousands of years. He says if you are going to be a missionary, don't go to "bring Jesus." He's already there. If anything, go to affirm the good that is God's presence, and give people a name for that, if they need it, and encourage them to do good and resist evil.

One of the insights I enjoyed most was Bell's contention that the Garden of Eden (the earth as it was originally before sin) wasn't perfect either. He points out that God saw it and said that it was "good." Not perfect. Just good. This made me giggle. Along with lots of other things in Velvet Elvis.

The word "eagerly" is old-fashioned, I guess, but it's a great word to describe how I read this book. Usually I read books on spiritual matters somewhat ploddingly, with a sense of duty that this is an important part of life. This book I tore through, enjoying every word, in much the same way as I'd read Bell's more recent book, Love Wins, which I reviewed earlier.

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta

This is an amazing book which I couldn't bear to read in its entirety. The author was born in Bombay, then moved to the U.S. as a young man, and makes his career as a journalist mostly writing about India. The book is a portrait of his hometown, Bombay, or Mumbai, as it's now called, although Mehta says there's no reason the name should ever have been changed, as the city was founded by the Portuguese and the name they gave it relates every bit as well to the language as does Mumbai.

Mehta moved his young family to Mumbai for two years while he wrote this book. The city he describes is (to me as a Canadian) unspeakable in its crowdedness, corruption, horror, unviability, poverty and filth. Greater Bombay has a population of 19 million, more than the population of 173 countries in the world. For the millions of these who live in slums and the millions more on the street, sanitation facilities are pretty well non-existent. To say that the city's infrastructure hasn't kept up with the population is the most facile understatement - in fact, keeping up would imply that there ever had been an infrastructure and the evidence for that is slight. The government appears mostly to be ineffective to nonexistent for the day-to-day needs of its citizens; people turn to mobsters for many of their basic needs such as housing, security, and justice, simply because there's no other way to get these things.

What made it impossible for me to read all of this book is the history. I am aware that human beings do unspeakable things to each other in the name of religion and other causes, but Mehta doesn't shrink from describing these things, and it was the recent horrors that shook me the most. One likes to think of such barbarities as belonging to the barbaric past.

Having said all this, I suppose it is a brilliant book. Mehta tells the story firsthand through getting to know residents of Mumbai - a policeman, a mobster, a nightclub cross-dresser, an average family who has moved like millions of others from a rather peaceful rural existence to the chaos of Bombay for economic opportunity and the chance to someday move far enough up the ladder that they can afford to move to the U.S.

Mehta tries to present a balanced picture, but the way it comes out, it doesn't seem as though the positive has much of a leg to stand on in Bombay. Near the end he relates how he asked someone why they stayed in Bombay, and the person said, "Look at the hands." In a train meant to hold a few hundred people, a thousand people were packed so tight most couldn't raise their arms, yet scores of hands reached out of the windows and doors as the train started to move to help a latecomer get on. That wouldn't happen here.

I'm going to be interested to discuss this book with my cousin Marv some day. He's in his final year of a three-year term as Consul-General for Canada to Mumbai. Maybe he'll have a completely different take on it. We had talked to Marv and Shelby about a visit, but now I know I can't - that I simply don't have the nerve to be in a place where so much evil has occurred and where things work so badly. Should have gone when I was younger.

August 25, 2011

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs

This is a highly entertaining book by the author of The Know-It-All, a hilarious account of the author reading through the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica in one year. The Year of Living Biblically is subtitled: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Jacobs has a Jewish background but his parents were non-observant and going into this project, he identified himself as an agnostic. He devoted about two-thirds of his year to following the Old Testament laws and about one-third to the New Testament.

To start, he read through the entire Bible and listed every instruction he could find. He came up with over 700. He couldn't obey them all on Day 1, but he checked them off as he had obeyed them - for example if the instruction was to play a 10-string harp, when he got to that rule, he researched 10-string harps, bought one, and played it as part of his daily meditation time. In places where he found the rules contradictory, he struck a compromise - e.g. with praying, he decided to pray three times a day. His first prayers were awkward but he figured out how to use Bible verses as prayers and eventually came to look forward to praying. Other things like not wearing mixed fibres and not lying he incorporated into the entire year. He met with lots of different religious groups, from fundamentalists to Catholics, and developed a group of mentors that he could call on to ask questions.

The really funny part of the book is the reaction of his wife to the project. When he told her what he was planning, she "just emitted a little sigh," having hoped his next book would be "a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt or something." Her support wears thin on such laws as building a hut for a Jewish holiday - he lives in a high-rise in New York, so he builds one in the middle of his apartment's living room. She also hates such New Testament adventures as snake-handling and his increasingly long and scratchy beard.

I have this book and am happy to lend it. One of Jacobs's main purposes is to prove his idea that even the most literal of Bible literalists are picking and choosing. The front cover flap says the journey Jacobs takes is both universal and personal and will make you see history's most influential book with new eyes. The Year of Living Biblically is a very funny book, but even better for me was that it fit into the new philosophy of the Bible I've been thinking about. Jacobs's conclusions about what the Bible's all about match closely with the ideas Rob Bell talks about in Love Wins.

August 16, 2011

Morgan’s Passing by Anne Tyler

I used to read everything I could get my hands on by Anne Tyler, but then started to find that I couldn’t relate to her characters very well any more and Morgan’s Passing is no exception. The protagonist is an odd-looking, bearded 45 – 57 year-old man (the book takes place over 12 years). This guy runs a hardware store and fixes stuff, wears an endless variety of costumes and amuses and annoys his wife and mostly grown children. He is a little bit endearing sometimes but mostly so eccentric and so absolutely unable to connect to most people that it’s hard to figure out why he’s worthy of his role as the central figure of a book. The big surprise of the novel occurs about 3 or 4 chapters from the end and the rest is a strange anti-climax in which not much new happens.

The Lost Art of Gratitude by Alexander McCall Smith

I feel as though I have found another reading treasure in Alexander McCall Smith. He wrote the famous #1 Ladies Detective Agency series, which I haven’t read, but he also has several other series, including Corduroy Mansions, of which I recently read the first book. The Lost Art of Gratitude is one of the Isabel Dalhousie series. Just great light summer reading with some gentle insights into human nature. I like the setting, too – it’s the author’s hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland. His love for it shines through in the lovely descriptions of the city and surrounding countryside.

Monday Morning Choices: 12 Powerful Ways to go from Everyday to Extraordinary by David Cottrell

This is a pretty disturbing book in a lot of ways. The author is one of those motivational speakers that corporations hire to get their sales people revved up. I was amazed to find hardly a single example in the whole book of how a woman might apply these principles or of any woman succeeding. All but one or two of the illustrations are about men. Not sure why I kept reading, but it was an easy read and there was some challenge in it.

The premise is that you should study one of the 12 principles with a group of like-minded people for about an hour for 12 Monday mornings in a row to get yourself motivated and change your life. The principles are very good, e.g. “the no victim choice – don’t let your past eat your future” and “the do-something choice – don’t vacation on ‘Someday Isle.’” As you can tell from just those two examples, the book is filled with clich├ęs and we know most of the principles quite well. And although almost all the application is to financial success, which interests me only slightly, the principles do apply to any area of life.

The best thing I got out of the book is a saying that sounds negative, but at least attempts to nail down something about (self) discipline that I’ve been kicking around for some time. It is this: “We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is that discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.” I take this as a challenge for some of the things about which I would say “I always wanted to do that.” As I found out with my cartooning this past year and a half, applying discipline to even a (for me) far-out goal of drawing cartoons does yield results. Had I compromised and done something a lot easier for Ezra, I think I would have been sorry. The same principle applies to things in my life, like prayer and meditation, to which I haven’t applied discipline and I feel the regret of it every day, although not like a weight of tons but just as a vague sense of failure and of missing out on something that could make a significant and positive difference.

AApprentice to the Flower Poet Z. by Debra Weinstein

The author of this first novel about the crossroads of the worlds of academia and poetry is herself an aspiring poet. It’s a pretty funny book, although at times frustrating because the very smart protagonist doesn’t realize how she’s being used by Z., the eminent poet to whom she’s apprenticed. She does all Z.’s work for her, including picking up her dry-cleaning and supplying her with metaphors, and meanwhile her own creativity and in fact her whole life, are on hold. She also has a penchant for unsuitable partners. A smart and entertaining summer read, maybe with a few somewhat r-rated parts.

The Finishing School by Muriel Spark

I noticed that Muriel Spark was in the Literature section at the used book store (as opposed to Popular or Chick Lit, where I usually shop for fiction). There are probably some prizes involved. Spark is a good writer. This book is a little dark but with some great characterization, a bit of a plot, and some wry humour. It’s short and it kept me reading.