Review: Magic is Everlasting (Kingfisher Days by Susan Coyne)

Recently, I was at the Friends of the Library bookstore a few blocks from my home where Kingfisher Days jumped off the shelf into my hands. I carried it home in my bicycle’s basket and read it (again) the same night. (The first time was in 2001 when one of my precocious granddaughters was beginning her teens and, as usual, I read the memoir before gifting it to her.)

Kingfisher Days is a small book, similar to Evenings at Five (reviewed a few posts ago) but the storyline is completely different, although equally intense in its own way. The actress (and author) Susan Coyne is five years old when the memoir begins in cottage country in the summer.

Between our two cottages, running down to the little bay, was a thick hedge. Soon after I arrived that summer I was five, I discovered a strange relic there: an old stone fireplace, half-hidden beneath the leaves. Moss and lichen clung to the rough-hewn stones in patches of black velvet and scaly grey, and brilliant dots of mustard-yellow.

I asked my father about it…. He looked up. “Well, that’s Uncle Joe Spondoolak’s house,” he said, and went back to the crossword. “Who’s that?” I asked. My father put down his pencil. “Well…he was an elf, or so they say.

So I started leaving little gifts there for the elves: handfuls of wild strawberries, a daisy chain. And, overnight, the gifts would disappear. I found a little whisk broom and swept the hearth, and I filled some hazelnut shells with water for the elves to drink. And I drew a picture of myself and left it under a rock. These things, too, disappeared.

One morning Susan found “a neatly folded piece of pink paper….Its edges were turned down with a round seal of wax, stamped with an ‘N.’ And on the outside were some words, written in ink in a spidery hand, a little blurred by the dew.” And a summer of gifts and letters begin. I cannot tell you more; that would spoil your reading. But in the fall when Susan and her family returned to Toronto, Susan wrote to Mr. Moir, the retired school principal and cottage-neighbour in whose garden she spend many summer hours, to tell him about her new life. In December she received a reply – by letter, of course.

I wonder if you have time to help me find out something more about Nootsie Tah: Where was she from the time she was hurried away from Sacsahuaman and her mother until she came out of nowhere last summer to teach you about fairies?

Mr. Moir suggests that Susan visit the library; he gives her clues, including John Keats’ poem “The Fairies Triumph.” Mr. Moir’s letters are as charming as those of the fairy Nootsie Tah. There are no sketches, as there are in Evenings at Five, but sprinkled throughout are images of pressed leaves – most appropriate for a northern, cottage-summer story. Later, a young mother takes her son to the magical place of her childhood. “At the bottom of a long hedgerow, we got down on our hands and knees to peer beneath the leaves.…And then we saw it – the old stone fireplace. It was smaller than I remembered it,…almost like an altar.”

We don’t know what will influence us (or the children in our sphere), but this book attests to the inspiration of a little magic and imagination. I am so happy it jumped off bookshelves – not once but twice.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Kingfisher Days

Curious about the author, see Susan Coyne

Review (Poetry): Lines…and what’s between them (What the Soul Doesn’t Want by Lorna Crozier)

What the Soul Doesn’t Want is a new collection, the most recent of 17 books by Lorna Crozier. Five of her poetry collections live on my bookshelf and are frequently pulled off and carried to the oversize, plaid wingchair in my library/office to be read again. However, the poems in What the Soul Doesn’t Want are new to me; I haven’t had the time to ponder them, to return on a different day in a different mood to discover what they might offer. But it’s easy to see they are pure Lorna Crozier.

She writes with quirky wit and sensitive awareness. For readers, the poems provide pleasure and insight and the simple joy of the words she chooses. Her themes in What the Soul Doesn’t Want haven’t veered from past work, but the tautness and edginess are sharper here.

She draws from nature and not always what you might expect. In “Cockroach,” we get the sublime: “they creep from the baseboards, / climb the couch and burrow in her hair” which makes me involuntarily shudder. But I also learn that “In Japanese it’s gokiburi,” a word I expect my grandson teaching in Japan will be interested in adding to the personal dictionary he’s creating. Reading Crozier, one finds clear images and science next to odd bits of trivia and a telling that will cause you to smile and to think (even as you might shudder).

Aging and time are Crozier themes. My favourite poem in What the Soul Doesn’t Want is “When the Bones Get Cold.”

My husband sends me hummingbirds
from his eyes. Only he and I know
he’s going blind….
I am made beautiful by loss. The moon, too,

There’s a sweetness
that comes from accepting what I am,
not a mountain, not a river, not a tree.

Grief also ripples through her poems. In “Algorithm: The Way Out,” Crozier writes: “…Grief’s / a snowdrift that thickens / as you walk.” How simple. How brilliant. How true for all of us who have known sorrow and deep snow. It is this universality and, perhaps, the lightness (and the light) that gets the writer and the reader through the tough stuff she doesn’t shy from.

Crozier is an Officer of the Order of Canada, the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and a three-time recipient of the Pat Lowther Award. After a long teaching career, she is now Professor Emerita at the University of Victoria (British Columbia). She must be the envy of poets everywhere.

 

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Lorna Crozier’s books are all available through your local bookstore or online: What the Soul Doesn’t Want

Review: Between Men (What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt)

I admit it. I bought this book because I loved the painting on cover.

What I Loved tells a story of friendship between two men, a friendship that expands to include their wives, and then their sons. A painting by New York artist William Wechsler (not the one on the cover) is bought by Leo Hertzberg, an English professor at Columbia. It is Leo who narrates the story, part saga and part thriller as it turns out.

When the story opens, the men are young and married: William/Bill to Lucille, a poet, and Leo to Erica who teaches English at Rutgers. The model in the purchased painting (and others) is Violet Blom who flies off to Paris in a veil of intrigue. The two couples become neighbours and friends, and later each have son during one summer: Mark to Bill and Lucille, and Matthew to Leo and Erica. As happens in stories—and life—trouble develops in paradise: Lucille moves out and Violet moves in. Of course, it is all more complicated and Siri Hustvedt weaves a much better tale. But this is merely to sketch the backdrop for the drama that unfolds. The painting, however, is central to understanding the story; first impressions can be superficial.

Leo describes the painting as it hung in the gallery:

Bill’s painting hung alone on a wall. If was a large picture, about six feet high and eight feet long, that showed a young woman lying on the floor in an empty room. She was propped up on one elbow, and she seemed to be looking at something beyond the edge of the painting. Brilliant light streamed into the room from that side of the canvas and illuminated her face and chest. Her right hand was resting on her pubic bone, and when I moved closer, I saw that she was holding a little taxi in that hand—a miniature version of the ubiquitous yellow cab that moves up and down the streets of New York.

It took me about a minute to understand that there were actually three people in the painting.

We’ll see other paintings, each obscuring details so that it takes time and careful looking to actually see what they include. Things are not as simple and direct as first imagined. Over time, Bill’s creativity shifts to include sculptural forms, boxes that tell stories almost like visual folk or fairy tales. His vision suggests trouble and, for Leo, reminders of grief. There is tragedy and heartache, desperation and loneliness beyond the art.

Hustvedt writes with precision and psychological insight, with clarity and care for her characters. What I Loved’s ambiguities subtly reflect life—its joy and darkness. The writing is ambitious, compassionate, intelligent and will leave you thinking long after you’ve read the novel’s final word.

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Available through your neighbourhood bookstore or online: What I Loved

Review: Lost in the Southern Atlantic (Hippolyte’s Island by Barbara Hodgson)

…owners of small sailboats…advised him to think big and those with big boats…urged him to think small. They showed him where their hulls were rotting and where their masts had cracked. They talked of the endless work, the alarming drain of money and the worry of storms, vandalism, and amateurs. And they told him, as they looked away from the land and out to the water, that they loved their boats and wouldn’t dream of giving them up.

To suggest that Hippolyte Webb is an eccentric character would be an understatement. He chases a dream, which could prove to be folly. In preparation for his travels, he takes a sailing class and conducts (some) research before adventuring in search of islands (the Auroras in the South Atlantic) that were recorded during the early 19th century but have since fallen off maps.

Hippolyte possesses a falling-over-the-edge creativity, as he dreams, prepares, and eventually sails away from the Falklands to his mysterious destination. He’s wrangled a book deal, which motivates note-making, photographing (he runs out of film), and sketching. Oh, yes, and he keeps a rather unique sailor’s log. He also muses,

“It’s a strange sensation to be slicing through the water in the dark with no idea what’s ahead or what’s been left behind.”

This reminds me of my first overnight sail between the Dutch Antilles and the British Virgin Islands. Other passages remind me of sudden storms, the terrifying racket of sails, and the tossing of the boat, bow-to-stern, and port-to-starboard. At one point, Hippolyte notes,

“If I had known the things I know now about being at sea, I never would have done this. I take so much for granted on land; taking anything for granted at sea is certain doom.”

As you have likely guessed – I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say – Hippolyte finds the Auroras and makes a few discoveries of his own before returning to the Falklands and on to New York for the editing of his book. This is when we meet his editor Marie, who is not impressed with Hippolyte’s manuscript. She informs him:

“We simply need to address tense, grammar, pacing, chronology, style, and balance. It’s a normal part of the process….”

Editors and writers who have been through the process of a book’s manufacture will giggle and shudder at the machinations both Marie and Hippolyte must endure. Toward the end of the story (apropos to nothing really, but beautiful), when Marie is doing some extraordinary fact-checking, there is a passage that establishes time, place, and mood (maybe apropos to something). So, for the writers among readers:

“They headed off past the tree, which was heavy with already fermenting, wizened little apples and swarming with early wasps. The tops of long weeds brushed Marie’s hands, burrs attached themselves to her clothing, flies and wasps flew into her face. And it was hot. After fifteen minutes they arrived at the perimeter of a scraggly yard, fenced in with barbed wire.”

The islands metamorphose out of fog and invisibility. Marie metamorphoses too. Hippolyte remains quirky, enthusiastic, and full of surprises.

As you can tell, I sailed along with Hippolyte and relived some of my editing experiences. I enjoyed the book immensely, not least because of the illustrations – the sketches that appear amidst the type and the inserted pages from Hippolyte’s notes that include diagrams, maps, watercolours, sketches and photographs. Barbara Hodgson takes us on a magical journey in the discovery of the islands and Hippolyte’s writing of the tale.

 

Hippolyte’s Island won first prize for Prose Fiction, Alcuin Society Book Design Awards, and the Best Complete Book Design, Applied Arts Design and Advertising Annual.

Available from your local bookstore, or in paperback edition online: Hippolyte’s Island

Travel & Other Passions: A Room & A Reading Chair

Lucky me! I have a studio room, an atelier, a room of my own. It sits in the front of the house with tall north-facing windows and good light. Once it was the dining room, but rarely used. Now the dining table sits at the rear overlooking the small city backyard. It’s closer to the kitchen with an even better view. Why not?

With the dining table gone – replaced by a smaller more practical one in a place more convenient – the empty space quickly filled with a row of bookcases, a small collection of indigenous baskets, red-tailed hawk feathers (and others) from the fields, favourite photographs and paintings, a drop-leaf worktable, an old secretary topped with a computer (and more bookshelves), and a claw-footed piano stool for the desk. All this came together quite readily as I scrounged through the house and visited Funk & Gruven – all except for an oversize, elusive wing-back chair.

After weeks of peeking into antique and used-furniture stores, I was returning home from a workshop with a fellow writer in a neighbouring town. There, in an old church-cum-shop, stood my chair. It is big; I can curl up in it and be hidden by its high back and broad wings. It is plaid and in my favourite colours – rosy and green hues. It is the perfect chair. In it, I’ve been rereading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, again. Much has changed since c.1928, but travel, life experiences beyond the immediate family and social circle, and a room of one’s own – Woolf’s prerequisites for a literary life – remain paramount. They are more accessible, c.2017, than in Woolf’s day, but still….

I have now spent hours in the chair, lost in virtual travels through distant places and inside others’ lives (hence the book reviews), and I have sketched the chair (but that’s another passion for another day).

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Review: When does one belong? (Birds of Passage by Robert Solé)

Sitting on a sailboat tied to a dock while day-after-day rain pours and wind gusts wildly might be the best place and time to pick up a nice thick novel. I’m new to Robert Solé’s writing and new to the Syrian migration to Egypt. The novel was published in French in 1992 as Le Tarbouche, it won the 1992 Pix Méditerranée. It was translated into English in 2000 under the title Birds of Passage, which shifts the focus from the business of the family to four decades of exile (1916-1958) in Egypt. What better way to be distracted: a new author, a new context, and a gossipy multi-generational family saga?

The old patriarch is proud of his tarbouche– or fez-making factory and the wealth it accrues for his family. The Barrakani are a big, loving family who gather daily around the dining table to eat, of course, but also to share stories. These scenes are some of my favourite. However, Birds of Passage is a saga, a tapestry woven with many threads.

One of these threads involves religious tension in the Greek Catholic family. Education is valued and the best education is by the Jesuits; so the children are enrolled in the Roman school. You can imagine what happens when the eldest son, destined to take over the family business, announces that he will become a Jesuit priest. This thread plays itself out against a back-drop of the dominant Muslim faith of the country (at this point, not an issue, but later, after the revolution, religion does have an impact).

Like all family sagas, there is intrigue and mystery, love affairs and devotion, dreams fulfilled and dreams shattered. Solé writes with insight into the day-to-day struggles and joys of his characters and with knowledge about Syrians in Egypt during the early-to-mid twentieth century. At times the story moves along in raucous fun; at others, dramatically. But there’s another reality beyond family crisis and celebrations.

Egyptians, under British occupation, resent the Syrian enclave with its financial and political influence. The British merely condone the merchant class of Syrian migrants, the relationship with the Sultan, complex. The Barrakanis successfully maneuver through this minefield, but they are never accepted as Egyptians. Although they survive both World Wars, their business acumen and isolation from the mainstream cannot protect them from the outcome of the revolution that began in 1952. They’ve remained Syrians in their hearts and attitudes. Never having fully integrated into Egyptian life, they find in the end that they are “birds of passage” and must move on to exile elsewhere.

The novel moved with me from the airy cockpit of the sailboat to the cabin in the bow and the next day repeated the journey until I’d read all 375 big pages. Given the situation in Syria today, Birds of Passage has provided a little insight into the psyche and culture of its people, historic migrations, and determination to be Syrian wherever they might live. Birds of Passage is a good read.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Birds of Passage

Workshop: Writing Your Passion

 

A workshop in two parts

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Part One: Writing Place

Part Two: Writing Character

 

In this workshop, facilitated by author Kathryn MacDonald, you will discover your place – the one outside that stirs the one inside – the place to set your story.

  • Explore ways of bringing readers inside your cityscape-landscape-seascape so they enter it;
  • Explore strategies that reveal the interconnectedness of people and place, creating “fit.”

Writing Place provides more than simple context for our stories. It provides an entry or portal for readers to engage in the world of each story’s action. Far more than adding simple colour, place adds depth to characters. Open the writers’ toolbox with Kathryn and discover strategies that will boost your skills – from literary techniques to structuring stories to learning to read as a writer in order to enhance self-editing. Gain the benefits of a fully-participatory workshop with individual feedback.

When: September 11, 18, 25, and October 2 (5-8 p.m.)

Where: Belleville Public Library (Ontario) Register by calling 613-968-6731 x2240

Writing Character opens the door to creating characters that come to life on the page. Participants will hone techniques and talents in specific areas in the development of their stories, including voice, tone, and mood, along with the creation of movement, structure, and tension. Modeled as Writing Place, these four weeks offer a fully participatory experience with individual feedback.

When: October 16, 23, 30, November 6 (5-8 p.m.)

Where: Belleville Public Library (Ontario) Register by calling 613-968-6731 x2240

Price: $140 per workshop or $250 for both

 

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Need inspiration? Join Kathryn MacDonald for eight evenings this fall (2017) for a hands-on writing experience that will get you over the blank-page hurdle. (Participants are invited to bring a photo or painting of a place and/or character – along with imagination – as a jumping-off-into-words strategy.)

 

 

Your facilitator has published three books and has a fourth manuscript seeking a publisher. She taught writing through Loyalist College (16 years) and has been on the editorial staff of Harrowsmith, Equinox, and Key to Kingston magazines. Check out her WUC and QAC profiles (for links, please click on the “Welcome” page).

For more details, please complete and submit the comment form with your questions and/or request for a workshop outline.

 

 

Review: Sine qua non cocktails (Evenings at Five by Gail Godwin, illustrations by Frances Halsband)

Evenings at Five is a tiny book, about the size of a diary, and scattered with sketches that lend a feeling of intimacy to a story that feels so real I wanted to classify it as autobiography and not fiction when I first read the book. I’ve read it many times since. It has not ceased feeling real and true; it’s the best kind of story – one that catches your breath and snags your heart. But don’t be mistaken, Evenings at Five is not even remotely sentimental. Gail Godwin is a master story-weaver.

Godwin begins, without preamble, with the five-o’clock cocktail ritual. Through actions like Rudy’s “cavalier slosh of the Bombay Sapphire” we meet the man and soon sense his wit and glimpse his moods and passions. We also meet Christina who “would cross her ankles on the Turkish cushions on top of the burled-wood coffee table and train her myopic gaze on Rudy’s long craggy face and familiar form reassuringly present in his Stickley armchair….” Here they connect, nip their tall gin and tonics (on a bad workday or a celebratory one Rudy might sip a scotch) and talk in the intimate way of intimate couples. This is the context in which most of the story unfolds.

The initial sketch shows Rudy’s empty Stickley chair. In fact, all of the sketches illustrate the home and personal things of Rudy and Christina, sans people. We see the “View of below from Christina’s study”; we see many bottles on Rudy’s medicine shelf; we see his downstairs study with the Yamaha grand. (“[H]e bought it the day after he watched Laurence Olivier’s deathbed scene in Brideshead Revisited: ‘What am I waiting for? If not now, when?’”) The home: a companionable room and two studies for a composer and a writer, everything pared down to essentials.

Evenings at Five is about a marriage between two artists (“’ah-tists,’ as the real estate lady who sold us our first house pronounced it”), about loss and grief, loneliness and reflection, and a story of longing for what was. But death is not the end of love; Christina continues the sine qua non cocktails, struggles to cope without Rudy, and reflects:

On some level of consciousness, Christina thought, I must have heard all those years of Rudy’s compositions forming themselves phrase by phrase, probably even note by note, but I told him the truth when I said I didn’t hear, that I was scrunched into some dark soundproof chamber behind my eyeballs, straining for flashes of images that then had to have words matched to them.

And, so, also regret for not being more present and guilt for leaving the hospital.

Perhaps, in the hands of a lesser-skilled writer, Evenings at Five would have become maudlin, given the themes and intense intimacy of the story. In Godwin’s hands, the story sings and evokes authenticity (sorry for this over-used word). As the cover copy states, the novel is “A fierce evocation of what – at some time or another – everyone is bound to endure…An amazing little volume that contains an explosive emotional wallop.”

 

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Evenings at Five

 

Review: Where family stories might lead (Palm Trees in the Snow by Luz Gabás; The Bolter by Frances Osborne)

 

Secrets are revealed through old letters and a personal search in Palm Trees in the Snow, as they are in Possession: A Romance (the previous book reviewed). But that is where the similarity of the two stories ends.

Palm Trees is purported to be fiction, but in the Author’s Note readers learn that the novel was “inspired by real events” and informed by Luz Gabás’ father and grandfather’s stories. She writes, “Thanks to their memories, both spoken and written, I knew from a very early age of the existence of the island of Fernando Po and so many other things….” Yet, while the research about place and circumstances feels authentic – Spain’s Rabaltué and the African island – Gabás has difficulty lifting characters and their experiences off the page.

Palm Trees in the Snow is a big ambitious book that was recommended by friends. It attempts to describe Spain’s colonial period on Fernando Po, an island off the coast of Africa, first from a Spanish point-of-view and later the indigenous perspective. The story revolves around two very different brothers, their loves and their children, which makes it a bit of a complicated family saga seen through the eyes of one of the daughters. Unfortunately, Gabás’ characters seldom seem real, the storyline often feels flat, and her sex scenes read like Harlequin Romance. While Gabás has potential for a really good story, she could have used the help of an editor or maybe a reading of Frances Osborne’s The Bolter.

Osborne also sets out to discover family secrets. She succeeds in telling an insightful, page-turning tale. The biography unfolds during a similar African colonial period to that of Gabás’ story, although in this instance England and Kenya.

Like Gabás, Osborne is a granddaughter who discovers her link to a mysterious heritage when she was little more than a child. Idina Sackville was a contemporary of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham (Out of Africa and West with the Night, respectively) but this reference is for context and those book reviews can come another time. Idina Sackville was daring, “her scandals were manifold.” Idira’s behaviour so extravagant, shall we say, she was fictionalized into a Nancy Mitford character; she became Michael Arlen’s Iris Storm, and this year (2017), she appeared as Lady Idina Hay in Wilbur Smith’s War Cry, an adventure story set in post WWI Kenya. Osborne’s challenge was to dig beneath the colourful legend in search of the “whole” woman who was her great grandmother – the black sheep of the family, the woman behind the legend.

Gabás’ ambitious attempt to explore the colonial experience on both colonizers and colonized kept me turning pages despite its frequent textbooklike tone and shallowly-drawn characters; Palm Trees in the Snow is recommended with qualifications. Osborne, on the other hand, creates emotional involvement while her context of the social and cultural values of the time (in both England and Kenya) keeps her storyline focused on character and the pages almost turn themselves; I highly recommend The Bolter.

Books available at your local bookstore or online:

Palm Trees in the Snow

The Bolter

 

Review: “All obsessions are dangerous” (Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt)

“The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time…The book sprang apart, like a box, disgorging leaf after leaf of faded paper….Under page 300 lay two folded complete sheets….They were both letters in Ash’s flowing hand….

I bought Possession: A Romance, by A. S. Byatt (previously read) from the Friends of the Library. It sat on the bedside table, unopened, for a very long time, passed over by others somehow less intimidating. The sepia-tone cover suggests historical romantic – a time-mottled face and dried flowers with just hints of colour – a moody Victorian or Rossetti feel to it. The book is thick, the type small, and the paper thin. It won the 1990 Booker Prize.

The first few pages reflect the denseness I anticipated and I wonder why I continue to read. Then I become curious about draft letters researcher Roland Michell finds in the Reading Room of the London Library and about the man who “borrows” them, not to mention curiosity about their Victorian author and mysterious recipient. I recall my decade working in an English Department, the petty politics, the egos, and the ambitions. I keep reading enjoying the satirical insights, the analysis of Victorian poetry, and the sense of so much hidden in time and shadows, obscured beneath the surface of things.

Two stories weave together: a Victorian-era story of two (fictitious) poets and an illicit love, along with a contemporary pair of academic researchers thrown together by their interests and passions. In both stories, place shifts from London to Lincoln, to northern moors and to Brittany – all atmospheric. Contemporary characters inhabit the lives of the poets that possess them, like alter-egos:  “…it is the constant shape-shifting life of things long-dead but not vanished.” The past is very much alive, the boundary of time blurred. We experience Victorian angst and mores, classics and myths, legends and fairy tales against a backdrop of contemporary intrigue and suppressed desire.

The sleuths move through time and place, crossing a variety of thresholds and being restrained or repressed within others. Byatt writes, “We are defined by the lines we choose to cross or to be confined by” (431). This, perhaps, expresses the overriding theme of the novel.

Overall, Byatt has a bit of fun with stories, poems, and literary criticism and the push to publish, not to mention letters (from intellectual-to-frenzied) in which she wraps Possession. Is this a detective story wrapped in literature, or a literary story wrapped in mystery?

Possession is not a book for everyone, but for those who like period novels and sleuthing, it is a very satisfying read. Its brilliance requires thoughtful patience and a couple of summer days sitting, perhaps, on shady Victorian verandah.

 

Possession-A Romance

Available through your local bookstore, or in a different edition online: Possession