March 22, 2011

Bird Cloud

Annie Proulx won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Shipping News, a book I didn't like that much but which nevertheless kept me somehow mesmerized. Her latest book, Bird Cloud, has many more of the elements I love in a good read.

It's the true story of a house she built in the high country of Wyoming - a finely crafted house incorporating everything she's learned about what she'd like in a house. Like W.B. Yeats, Proulx has a wonderful sense of place. She surrounds the story of the building of her house with stories of the houses she's lived in before, of what's happening in the natural landscape around the construction site, and especially what has happened there over the past millennia.

The book might drag for some near the end where she devotes a long chapter to the ornithology around her new home, but the writing is so gorgeous ("The extra pair of ravens came from nowhere, like black origami conjured from expert fingers")that it may keep you going even if you don't like birds that much.

I loved the architectural details of the house but kept feeling as though I was falling into a pit when feature after expensive feature of her meticulously planned house didn't work out as planned. For example, a beautiful tall window in her writing room that framed a huge old tree where eagles sat was suddenly framing nothing the year she moved in because the tree blew over in a windstorm.

It's a good read - Proulx is a master writer with wide-ranging interests. Her curiosity and unrelenting (I say unrelenting because there is something of the "bulldozer" in her) intelligence shine through every page. The great underlying question in the book is whether the house is actually going to work out and be the final home of which she had dreamed. I'm not telling - you'll have to read it if you'd like to know!

March 17, 2011


This book by Gregory Berns is subtitled "a neuroscientist reveals how to think differently." Berns defines an iconoclast as a person who does something that others say can't be done. He illustrates his points with stories of iconoclasts ((95% of them men) like Ray Kroc, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Picasso, Bill Gates, Florence Nighingale and Richard Branson. Do women just tend not to be iconoclasts? He never addresses the question.

His basic thesis is that what prevents people from thinking like iconoclasts is threefold: 1) perception - the brain is economical and so most likes to see and intepret things in their usual categories 2) fear - of failure, of mockery, most of all (according to one analyst) of not having enough money, and 3) lack of social intelligence. So a true iconoclast is willing/able to look at things differently, is not afraid to fail (or has more risk-taking genes) and has the social intelligence to convince others of his or her ideas. Berns points out that someone like Van Gogh was definitely an iconoclast, but a failed one because he lacked the social intelligence to spread his ideas. He died penniless and alone, in spite of the amazing body of original work that has gained him untold posthumous fame.

The book is a slog - it reads in places like a post-post doctoral neuroscientist's thesis (which it probably is) and at other times it just rambles. It reminded me of the Jane Jacobs book I reviewed a while back - two enormously intelligent, passionate and knowledgeable people that don't always "land the plane" - they go sailing off in this direction and that but don't always prove their points very satisfactorily. Probably both iconoclasts.

Berns doesn't really teach much about how to make your brain think differently. His key piece of advice for perception is to get yourself into new situations and see new things to jog your brain out of its accustomed patterns. The parts on how the brain processes fear fit in with a whole bunch of other things I'm looking at in my life right now, so in the end it was a worthwhile read.

Spirit '20

Our community concert last night was one of the best ever and there have been so many good ones. Spirit '20 is a six-piece Canadian classical jazz ensemble that formed only last year and is in the midst of what sounded like a modest tour. The group includes James Campbell, maybe the best clarinetist in the country, as well prodigious talent in the rest of the group - an incredible pianist, bassoonist, cellist, violinist, and trumpeter. There was no grandstanding - the group shared the stage equally and unobtrusively, obviously having a great time.

They play 1920s music, which I love, including in their program some lesser known composers but also plenty of favourites like Duke Ellington and George Gerschwin. The highlight of the program for me once again was Gerschwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," which had enchanted us at our October concert by pianist Sara Davis Buechner. Music is so good for the soul. I feel all buoyed up today by the joy of last night.

March 12, 2011

W.B. Yeats: Images of Ireland

I savoured every page of this beautiful book. It's a book of photographs of places in Ireland that were important to Yeats, with excerpts from his poems and writings to illustrate each photo. In an introductory essay about Yeats's life, the author says:

Ireland's mountains and lakes, its hills and valleys, its small towns and smaller villages are everywhere in Yeats's poetry. Places had an almost sacramental importance to him...he was always a great chanter of name upon name...

It's this chanting of places and names that, as I read, came back to me so forcefully from 40 years ago when I first studied Yeats in university: "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone/It's with O'Leary in the grave" and "I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree" and The Wild Swans at Coole, which "...scatter wheeling in great broken rings/ Upon their clamorous wings," and so many more. I dare not begin to quote.

The power and beauty of Yeats - his passion for life, for where he lives, who he knows, and the richness of the culture he embraces - grabbed me all over again. I cherish the idea of being so steeped in your own culture and geography. I regret that my own elders could never say for sure where they came from and were so reluctant to talk about the past.

The photos by Alain Le Garsmeur, according to the book jacket "one of Britain's leading photographers," are simply luminous. I got lost in them, wanted to walk the hills, explore the castles and the great old houses and cottages, stand by the lakes and murmur the poems as I stood there.

This book transported me, and also made me believe in fairies again. How could you not?

The wind blows out of the gates of the day,
The wind blows over the loney of heart,
And the lonely of heart is withered away.
While the faeries dance in a place apart,
Shaking their milk-white feet in a ring,
Tossing their milk-white arms in the air;
For they hear the wind laugh and murmur and sing
Of a land where even the old are fair.
And even the wise and merry of tongue;
But I heard a reed of Coolaney say,
'When the wind has laughed and murmured and sung
The lonely of heart is withered away!'

March 10, 2011

Mennonites Don't Dance

Mennonites Don't Dance is a book of short stories by Kelowna author Darcie Friesen Hossack. I struggled mightily with this book when I first started to read it, but Jeremy had given it to me so I didn't want to put it down. As most of my friends and family know, I've avoided all kinds of dark literature and art for many years, thinking that cheerier fare would keep me in a more positive frame of mind. This is one of the darkest books I've read in a long time, with everything from a murder to dead kittens, drought, boredom, anger, torn wallpaper, dolls stuffed into the garbage and outright evil lurking in its pages.

I felt increasingly bewildered as I read as to where all this horror came from - the references to the Mennonite culture seemed so bitter to me and somehow retro. Two things helped me understand the book a little better. One was talking to Jeremy about it. He could deeply relate to the young father in "Luna" and recognized many other characters from his own childhood growing up in a Mennonite family and community. This got me thinking about some of the bitter events and some of the characters, some of them still in my life, that coloured my growing up years as well.
The other piece of the puzzle for me was reading the book The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain alongside Mennonites Don't Dance and realizing how far afield into the "rose-coloured glasses" syndrome I may be wandering as I get older. Protecting yourself from all stresses and stressful thoughts might feel comfortable but it's not doing your brain (or likely your character) much good in the long run to be wrapped in fuzzy cotton.

So, interestingly, Mennonites Don't Dance feels as though it could be a challenge for me to approach life with more gumption (now there's a retro word!). And I'd be most interested in meeting this courageous local author sometime.

The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain

The other day while contributing to a lively dinner conversation, I stopped cold in the middle of a word that began with "con..." Ryan kindly supplied me with two suitable endings, one of which was "conflict" and the other of which I have forgotten, but in any case, I was able to finish my thought. True, I had a cold and was not at my sharpest, but this kind of lapse is pretty common for me these days. So I've been hugely comforted in reading this book by Barbara Strauch subtitled "The Suprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind." She shows that this type of memory lapse is also typical for neurophysicists, Nobel Laureates and almost every ordinary person in their fifties and beyond. Our brains do slow down as we age and we do have memory lapses. But the really encouraging thing is that, at the same time it is slowing down, the middle-aged brain has some very good competencies that enable us to do extremely well at some things - in some cases better than we did when we were younger.

Strauch says the middle-aged brain retains connections between a great range of ideas and from its vast experience can make excellent judgments about complicated matters. People she interviewed tended to be down on themselves for forgetting stuff, but if she pressed them, many would eventually admit that they actually felt they were doing better than they ever had at their jobs and were making really good decisions. Strauch shows that this is measurable and is being proven to be true in many studies.

One really interesting thing she describes is that middle-aged and older people tend to look on the positive side of things. Studies show that this is a choice the aging brain makes, perhaps to protect itself from further harm that can be caused by stress. I guess I'm the extreme example of this in that the older I get the less tolerant I seem to be of gratuitous negativity. Strauch says these people are not unrealistic: they look at the negative as well as the positive - look at it as long as younger people do - and then choose a positive approach. This seems like wisdom to me.

Strauch also discusses the current idea of brain reserve - that you can build up your brain to be stronger so that you're less likely to get dementia. This book documents what I have also read before - that occasionally someone will die with their minds fully intact and sharp, and when their brains are examined, they are found to be full of the plaques and tangles typical of severe Alzheimer's. These people, scientists think, have developed brain reserves to enable them to function extremely well in spite of having severely compromised brain structures.

There are numerous theories about how reserves might be built: doing lots of crossword puzzles, eating well, antioxidants, sociability etc. and there are indications that all of them could be helpful, but little solid research to prove it. The two factors the research does back up as protective are education and exercise. Better-educated people are less at risk for dementia, and people who do regular aerobic exercise have better memories and a better chance of avoiding Alzheimer's. Some of the results on exercise were so conclusive that Strauch says they had the researchers reaching for their running shoes.

Half of all people over 85 will eventually get some kind of dementia. But if dementia can be delayed even by 5 years, there's a great chance that you will die of something else and never have to suffer the indignities of Alzheimer's.

There are lots of books about the brain out there these days; it's a topic forgetful baby boomers are pretty interested in right now. Strauch is a science journalist rather than a scientist, but she's done her homework and produced a highly readable and encouraging book.

March 2, 2011

Pilgrims: A Lake Wobegon Romance

I've read a lot of books this month which I haven't thought are worth reviewing, so why review this one, which is the worst of the lot in many ways? Because it's written by Garrison Keillor and I have such a soft spot in my heart for him since reading Lake Wobegon Days many years ago. I've read a few more things by him too and enjoyed his movie "A Prairie Home Companion" although it was at least as off the wall as this book. For those who have never dipped into the waters of Lake Wobegon, it's a fictional Minnesota town that Keillor writes about in wryly humorous terms, not unlike Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.

Never much restricted by factuality or realism, in this book Keillor lapses even farther afield into the ridiculous, but with a such deft touch that you still buy in pretty willingly, especially if you yourself came from a small town not far from Minnesota, in which case you'll recognize the characters immediately. This book has a lot more sex in it than any of his others, but an equal amount of chaos and silliness and homespun wisdom about the foibles of living in a small town.

Keillor tells the story in the third person, but has himself in it as himself, a famous radio personality and author who goes along with a dozen or so of his townsfolk on a trip to Italy to honour a war hero from Lake Wobegon who is buried in Rome. His fellow travellers are less than impressed with his fame, even despite the fact that he has inadvertently offered to pay for the whole trip, thinking that he might be able to write a book about it. It's a neat subplot among many others and so, even though I started this post by saying it's not much of a book, it still made me giggle and in a few places I laughed out loud, so if you have any fondness for Keillor, I'll happily lend Pilgrims to you.