October 9, 2013

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

This novel is written in an autobiographical style in the first person but is entirely fiction. That isn't unique but Ondaatje takes it to a level I haven't encountered before, with subtleties so clever that I was sure it was biographical until I read the Author's Note at the end. I could have checked online at any time but resisted, wanting to keep puzzling out the strong autobiographical clues with the increasingly surreal storyline.

It's an amazing, complex book about three 12-year-old boys who travel more or less on their own on a ship from India to England. Ondaatje's inventiveness almost defies the imagination; fiction is definitely stranger than life in this instance but yet so lifelike that my mind was messed around quite a bit. The Alice-in-Wonderland strangeness of the characters and the constant loose ends of the plot (as in life) reminded me somewhat of Life of Pi, but this book is much richer in human interest, character development and relationships. In the last third of the book Ondaatje switches back and forth between present, past and future, but very well, so you always understand where you are and how many years ago something happened.

It's a unique read. I loved the last two lines of the book, which he writes as a dedication to two of the characters, one of them a dog:

The boat came breasting out of the mist and in they stepped.
All new things in life were meant to come like that...

This is a beautiful description of some of the new things that have happened in my life this past year. Although I feel a healthy sense of agency and know I shaped events, in the end they emerged naturally out of the mist, and I stepped in with no extended agonies of decision. All new things in life were meant to come like that. 

September 23, 2013

Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie

The title of this biography of Marie Curie rang true for me in only one of its words. The author fully convinced me that Curie was an obsessive scientist. Although I believe she was also a genius, I didn't see a good case made for that in this book. She seemed more like a slogger to me, working night and day and never, ever quitting. That single-mindedness can be a characteristic of genius, but in Curie's case, it resulted in a life I would call meagre. If that word can be applied to someone who won two Nobel Prizes.

The subtitle doesn't reflect the book at all. The author doesn't manage to get into the Inner World of Marie Curie, unless by that she just means Curie's milieu. I was looking for what made her tick, how she thought, and I couldn't figure it out, except that she thought about science, and in particular radioactivity.

The biography does show how Curie was worthy of the two Nobel Prizes she won (Physics in 1903, with her husband Pierre, and Chemistry in 1911) and how her work was a springboard for other scientific discoveries.

Curie was born and raised in Poland, but worked most of her life in Paris. She was one of only 23 women among 2000 students at the School of Science, Sorbonne, and she lived in dire poverty in unheated rooms. The fascinating aspect of the book is the description of her lab work - the radioactive substances she isolates are the elephant in the closet. We know it's there and we know it's killing her, but she and her partner apparently don't. They'd done the tests on lab rats and knew that they died from radioactivity, yet the Curies so loved their work and were so intrigued with radioactivity that they couldn't imagine it harming them. They kept a glowing vial by their bedside because they liked the look of it. They both died too young and in terrible pain.

I wish I could say the story was inspiring but I didn't find it so. Either the author didn't show Marie Curie's human, womanly side, or she just didn't have one. The latter seems possible, from what is revealed of this serious, driven woman who cared not at all about clothes, friends, or the comforts of life, and who left her two children in the care of servants, friends and relatives for most of their lives. Curie was not a generous scientist - she guarded her work and didn't care to share ideas, and this in the end was how the story of Curie's life affected me. It felt like an ungenerous life, a claustrophobic existence with astounding results for science but with little joy.

July 2, 2013

The Perfection of the Morning by Sharon Butala

Around the age of 40, Sharon Butala made a big life change, from being an upwardly mobile hard-striving urban academic in Saskatoon to rural life in southwestern Saskatchewan with her new husband, a lifelong rancher. The culture shock, isolation and the difficulty of finding common ground with the local women drove her to much contemplation. She began to spend hours every day outside, in the fields and hills surrounding their ranch near Eastend, SK in the Cypress Hills, and eventually she did a lot of reading about people and their relationship to the natural world.

This book is subtitled "An Apprenticeship in Nature." Butala gradually discovered the validity of nature as a part of her life. She writes strongly about the potential for being one with all that surrounds us, and about the possibility for taking seriously the signs that nature gives us. When I first read this book years ago, I thought she was kind of flaky. Now I don't. While driving to Northern Ontario years ago, we had some amazing encounters with wildlife, especially a fox who looked at us long and hard. When we told about this at an Ojibway council meeting, one councillor said simply, "he was showing himself to you." Butala believes in this kind of event as well. It has nothing to do with anthropomorphizing animals or animating flora or any other part of nature. Rather, she shows that this kind of awareness comes out of a vast humility and understanding of our place in nature.

This isn't an easy read. It's organized roughly in a thematic way - e.g. First Nations, animals, community - and how all these things fit together isn't clear throughout, but comes together at the end. She's a brave woman, sharing her initial arrogance, self-centredness, confusions and joys. Her depiction of her husband and his family is fascinating in its carefulness and spareness. I found myself re-reading all the parts about him, trying to glean clues about their relationship, but in this she mostly draws a respectful line.

Thanks to my cousin Joyce for recommending that I re-read this book. I had planned to stop at the Cypress Hills on my way to Manitoba, but I flew instead, so it is a trip for another time.

February 16, 2013

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Much has been written about this famous book, which I'd heard about all my life but never read. Lucille recommended it, and I thought it was amazing, most particularly for its style, and also for its illumination of the beatnik subculture of the late 40s that I had never understood.

On the Road is autobiographical, describing Kerouac and his buddies (who include Alan Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs) on their travels across the U.S. as part of the Beat Generation (a term Kerouac coined). Kerouac changes the names; he himself as the narrator is Sal Paradise and the other main character is Dean Moriarty, based on the real-life Neal Cassady.

To illustrate Kerouac's style, I'll quote from a wild scene at a jazz club in San Francisco:

The behatted tenorman was blowing at the peak of a wonderfully satisfactory free idea, a rising and falling riff that went from "EE-yah!" to a crazier "EE-de-lee-yah!" and blasted along to the rolling crash of butt-scarred drums hammered by a big brutal Negro with a bullneck who didn't give a damn about anything but punishing his busted tubs, crash, rattle-ti-boom, crash. Uproars of music and tenorman had it and everybody knew he had it. Dean was clutching his head in the crowd, and it was a mad crowd. They were all urging the tenorman to hold it and keep it with cries and wild eyes, and he was raising himself from a crouch and going down again with his horn, looping it up in a clear cry above the furor. A six-foor skinny Negro woman was rolling her bones at the man's hornbell and he just jabbed it at her, "Ee! ee! ee!"

Kerouac himself made a comparison between his writing style and the style of Impressionist painters who tried to create art through direct observation. In1950 he wrote in the "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose" about the form he was developing that reflected the improvisational fluidity of jazz.

The book is about jazz, enjoying everything, sex, drugs, and finding meaning in life. Kerouac once said "It was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him."

I had to read this book fast as it couldn't be renewed, but my thought is I will buy it so I can re-read the best parts whenever I want to. And there's a 2012 Francis Ford Coppola movie that I can't wait to see.

February 4, 2013

The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock

This wonderful book is subtitled Mrs. Delany [begins her life's work] at 72. It's the true story of an upper-class woman of the 1700s who at age 72 invented an art form that we now know as collage or mixed-media art.

One day Mary Delany watched as a geranium petal fell beside her onto a table, near a piece of paper of the exact same colour. She picked up her scissors, began to snip petals out of the paper, pasted them down with flour and water glue, and so began a project that absorbed her for the next 10 years until her eyesight failed. In all she made 985 exquisite collages of hundreds of different flowers, all from real life, and grew quite famous with them. The whole collection is at the National Gallery in London.

This is a beautifully, densely written story which kept me completely absorbed. Peacock, who is a poet, writes the book in prose but with many poetic turns of phrase and surprises. She weaves her own story throughout with the story of Mrs. Delany and also the stories of some of the ancestors who preserved Mrs. Delany's work. She deftly shapes the chapters around 14 of the collages from which she gleans life themes and stitches in historical details.

The book is beautiful to hold - a thick, compact 5"x8" volume with graphics from three of the collages on black on the cover. All the pages are smooth and glossy, and the book contains 14 colour collage pages along with a detail picture for each one later in the chapter, and several portraits of the key characters. The pages are gorgeously laid out with lots of space between the lines, wide margins, and pretty details like page numbers in the lower outside margins and funky subtitles in parentheses.

Peacock illustrates so skilfully from start to finish how all the things Mrs. Delany experienced in life, including a strict upbringing, posture boards, insistence on perfection in school, a terrible marriage, wealth, relative poverty at times, free time, a love for flowers, the endless stitchery that was part of 18th century life for women, added up quite unexpectedly to a whole new art form. Another theme she stresses at the end is that Mrs. Delany had two supporters - her husband and her best friend - without whose encouragement she likely could never have done the extraordinary art that she did.

It makes me think about how we encourage each other to create, and how we receive that encouragement. Also of course the book reminded me that you're not necessarily on a big downhill slide just because you've turned 60. Altogether a marvelous and inspiring book.

January 13, 2013

Elsewhere by Richard Russo

It must have taken a lot of courage for Pulitzer-prizewinning author Richard Russo to write this searing memoir. It even takes some courage to read it. It is more the story of his mother's life than his own, although the level to which the two were intertwined is the disturbing element of the book. Russo realized only after his mother's death that she had been mentally ill all her life with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and that rather than helping her, he may often instead have been enabling.

His father (separated from his mother since Richard was a young boy) and other relatives had tried to tell him in various ways over the years that his mother was "nuts," and "crazy," - the lingo for mental illness in the mid-20th century. But Richard loved his mother who had convinced him that he was her rock and that her happiness depended on him. He writes wrenchingly of the cost (both horrendous financial as well as emotional costs)of this dysfunctional relationship to his marriage and family and most of all to himself.

Other themes that wend themselves through the book are the death of the industrial towns of the northeastern US, the terrible toll manufacturing took on workers in the early part of the last century, and of the conflicted relationships we have with our hometown.

A highly worthwhile read.

Upcoast Summers

I can't highly recommend this funny little book but will write some thoughts just to remember it. Upcoast Summers is a combination of journals, commentary, pictures, maps and diagrams about the boating adventures of a couple named Francis and Amy Barrow in the 1930s along the Sunshine Coast.

A common category of newcomer to Canada in its early history was the "remittance man." These were usually the sons of wealthy English gentry who'd been sent to Canada to seek their fortunes, and who got regular remittances from home. In this case, Amy Barrow was a remittance woman, leaving the couple free to have a hobby farm in Saanich, try various ventures and generally lead a life of leisure. In the summers they took their "little ship" Toketie (a 35-foot cabin cruiser/fishing boat) up and down the the endless channels, islands and waterways between Vancouver Island and mainland BC.

Francis and Amy had a great interest in aboriginal history. Francis had a camera with "plates" so had to be fussy how often he snapped, but he took hundreds of pictures of native pictographs and artifacts. By the 1930s most of the beautiful totem poles had already been carted away by museums and tourists, but the Barrows visited old village sites that still had the odd decaying totem or fallen-down structure with carved beams. The sites also invariably included clamshell middens, some 15 feet high. Besides being a rich source of artifacts, this clamshell detritus apparently also made fantastic garden soil and the journals contain many descriptions of the wonderful fresh vegetables people gave them when they visited.

Of the original coastal dwellers Francis says almost nothing. The book justaposes the Barrows'  apparent keen interest in "Indian" artifacts with an almost complete lack of interaction with Indians themselves. Francis mentions them only in passing, spending many more pages describing his two dogs, all the white people they meet, and the workings and re-workings of the two ancient motors that powered his boats. It's an eerie omission and as I read I saw the aboriginals like a ghostly presence hovering somewhere up the beach, watching this elderly couple poking through their middens and peering up into the remnants of their coffin platforms in the trees.

The truly fascinating thing for me once again is the arc of a life, a theme that's become significant to me over these last years as I get older and especially as I've written various life stories and edited the journals of Susanna Reimer and others. It's this theme that kept me reading through this leisurely account of what seemed like two rather self-absorbed and unremarkable folk. It strikes me over and over that most lives just begin, proceed along pretty quietly, and then end. My own life seems long and important to me, as no doubt it should, but in fact greatness eludes most people. Francis Barrow was touchingly proud, shortly before he died, of an award he got from a local Elks' club acknowledging his community work and also a letter from an anthropologist thanking him for his artifact contributions. The humble arc of his life helps me to appreciate the beauty and joys that are granted to me each day and be satisfied with what is, rather than thinking everlastingly about what could or should be.