Unanticipated Borders (Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings by Jonathan Raban)

Readers don’t have to be sailors to enjoy this travelogue through the Inside Passage where we sail and cross unanticipated borders. For those “reading as writers” I make two suggestions: First, consider how Raban weaves two distinctly different themes in one story; second: those who are writing historical stories can learn much by noting how Raban draws upon others’ experiences and interpretations and how he weaves these with his own to create a nuanced narrative.

Ostensibly, Passage to Juneau is a sailing memoir that Jonathan Raban makes from Seattle, through Canadian waters, to Juneau Alaska. Readers are taken along on a journey that follows the route of George Vancouver who captained the surveying expedition of 1791-95 for Britain and for whom Vancouver Island and the city on the mainland are named. The Passage challenges. Raban notes that “The Inside Passage to Alaska, with its outer fringes and entailments, is an extraordinarily complicated sea-route, in more ways than one.” It’s a passage he makes alone, leaving his wife and young daughter alone in Seattle. For company, he fills bookshelves on his 35-foot sailboat with history, lore and myth written by anthropologists and sailor-writers. As he prepares to leave land, he candidly writes:

I am afraid of the sea.…I’m not a natural sailor, but a timid, weedy, cerebral type, never more out of my element than when I’m at sea.

Yet for the last fifteen years, every spare day that I could tease from the calendar has been spent afloat, in a state of undiminished fascination with the sea, its movements and meanings. When other people count sheep, or reach for the Halcion bottle, I make imaginary voyages—where the sea is always lightly brushed by a wind of no more than fifteen knots, the visibility always good, and the boat never more than an hour from the nearest safe anchorage.

He sets off, hugging the coast.

This is my second Jonathan Raban travel story. A few years ago I read Arabia Through the Looking Glass and looked forward to Passage to Juneau, anticipating more of the same. Rabin takes a novelists’ approach, creating skilfully drawn characters and keen insight into people and places. He merges historical interpretations and impressions with his own insights and style, but here he’s a little more acerbic than curmudgeon.

Opening this book, I expected a sailing story, and sailing is the focus of the first half of the story, but with “The Rite of Passage” chapter, the story shifts. The mood swings to a far more personal and emotionally intense one, no longer an intellectual or an observer stance. It’s true, we set out with a plan and life intervenes. The story began as one thing and ended as another. It’s also true that in the first chapter, Raban provides a hint about the change to come:

 I had a boat, most of a spring and summer, a cargo of books, and the kind of dream of self-enrichment that spurs everyone who sails north from Seattle. Forget the herring and the salmon: I meant to go fishing for reflections, and come back with a glittering haul. Other people’s reflections, as I thought then. I wasn’t prepared for the catch I eventually made.

Despite this, I wasn’t prepared for what are essentially two distinct stories.

Jonathan Raban’s travel writing is insightful and his use of language a pleasure to read earning him many plaudits. But in someone with lesser skills, I doubt the starkness of the contrast between the themes would have worked.

For those who are “reading as writers,” Raban’s story provides a cautionary tale. Although both halves are memoir, and the story begins and ends with sailing, the two themes differ in mood, tone, and focus. The sailing memoir loses coherence; the meaning Rabin finds does not derive from the sea as suggested in the memoir’s subtitle. At times, I felt as if Raban had a contract to write about following Vancouver’s log through the Inside Passage, but then life intervened and gave him passion as opposed to an intellectual pursuit to focus upon.

There is also a lesson from what Raban does very well. Those who are writing historical stories can learn much by noting how Raban draws upon others’ experiences and interpretations and how he weaves these with his own to create a nuanced narrative.

42 Passage to Juneau

Available through your local bookstore or online: Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings

Mabel Means Loveable (H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald)

If you read for pleasure, enjoy H is for Hawk, a fascinating, award-winning memoir about a falconer who trains a goshawk. If you “Read as a Writer,” keep four questions in mind: 1) how the first paragraph works to set the stage for what follows; 2) how Macdonald enlarges and layers the memoir from a narrow “I” focus, and 3) how she tackles challenging issues, and 4) how she uses hawks and falconry as metaphor.

After Helen Macdonald’s father dies suddenly, she begins a downward spiral. The death of a loved one is something we all face and, although there are recognized stages to the experience, we each find our own way through the labyrinth of loss. Of grief and madness, she writes, “I knew I wasn’t mad mad…[but then] I started dreaming of hawks all the time…raptor, meaning ‘bird of prey.’ From the Latin raptor, meaning ‘robber,’ from rapere, meaning ‘seize.’” The dreams led to an obsession: “I dreamed of the hawk slipping through wet air to somewhere else. I wanted to follow it.” Macdonald turns to a goshawk, a raptor with a reputation for being the most challenging to train—even for the experienced falconer she is.

Macdonald names her hawk Mabel. “Mabel. From amabilis, meaning loveable, or dear. An old, slightly silly name, an unfashionable name.… There’s a superstition among falconers that a hawk’s ability is inversely proportional to the ferocity of its name.” She wants Mabel to be ferocious. Through Mabel, Macdonald becomes goshawk, becomes wild. The goshawk becomes a metaphor, a spiritual guide.

During the training, she turns to all she’s learned from childhood stories, to her experience as a falconer and to falconer friends, as well as to T.H. White’s The Goshawk and The Sword in the Stone.  Of The Goshawk, she says that “White made falconry a metaphysical battle [like] Moby-Dick or The Old Man and the Sea….” Macdonald says of herself and White’s The Sword in the Stone:

“I was turning into a hawk.

I didn’t shrink and grow plumes like the Wart in The Sword in the Stone, who was transformed by Merlyn into a merlin as part of his magical education. I had loved the scene as a child. I had read it over and over again, thrilling at the Wart’s toes turning to talons and scratching on the floor, his primary feathers bursting in soft blue quills from the tips of his fingers. But I was turning into a hawk all the same.

Macdonald weaves White’s biography into her memoir. For more than a few pages, H is for Hawk, seems more White than Macdonald, but always relevant to her state of mind and passage through bereavement.

She also reflects on a 13th century poem called Sir Orfeo, “a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and the underworld by way of traditional Celtic songs about the otherworld, the Land of Faery. In Celtic myth that otherworld is not deep underground; it is just one step aside from our own.” She links this with the…

Ability of hawks to cross borders that humans cannot is a thing far older than Celtic myth, older than Orpheus—for in ancient shamanic traditions right across Eurasia, hawks and falcons were seen as messengers between this world and the next.

Macdonald constantly probes literature and raptor lore, seeking understanding while revealing truths she only half realizes at the time of her “not mad mad” period. For nature lovers, she takes us into fields near the edge of woods in weather that only a diehard falconer would venture. She also debates the moral issue of keeping a hawk whose purpose is death.

We witness the deterioration of her physical and mental life after her father’s death and her escape into wildness. Through memories and Macdonald’s reflections on falconry literature and practice, we come to see how she copes with loss and also how she grows and changes.

If you are a writer, important lessons can be gleaned by reading H is for Hawk. In addition to enjoying a fascinating story…

  1. Look closely at the all-important first paragraph, noticing how Macdonald provides a setting, the first-person narrative, the idea of a journey, and her purpose which is to see goshawks. See how relevant this is to what follows.
  2. Think about how she weaves her story into T.H. White’s biography, and more generally, how she uses literature and lore to enlarge the narrative, lifting it above a potentially maudlin or nostalgic ramble.
  3. Nature writers might want to think about how she handles issues of wild and morality, and
  4. Think about the role metaphor plays throughout the story.

H is for Hawk is a winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize, and it was the COSTA Book of the Year 2014. It’s a good read. Enjoy.

H is for Hawk.jpg

Available through your local bookstore or online: H is for Hawk

Of men and ships (The Way of a Ship by Derek Lundy)

For writers, Derek Lundy’s The Way of a Ship offers insight into developing 3 skills: how to develop character, how to write an active narrator in your stories, and how to weave research into your narrative.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Benjamin Lundy, a young adventurer, signed aboard the four-mast merchant ship Beara Head. It is his first crossing of the Atlantic, of rounding South America’s Cape Horn, and of treacherous ventures into the Southern Ocean. Derek Lundy transports us into a world of men, of wind and storms, of waves and ice, of the workings of a square-rigger ship, and more.

Of the men, Lundy says that Benjamin “never admired anyone more than these ragged, tattooed, wild-looking men; he hungered to be like them, and to be accepted by them.” Of wind Lundy writes that in the Southern Ocean there are storms like no other: “Getting a ship round Cape Horn could be the most difficult job a captain would ever do at sea.” For Benjamin,

“He had never seen a seascape like it and could not have imagined it. Benjamin wedged himself into the railings of the windward poop steps and looked out over a sea that writhed and heaved with such monstrous, uncontrollable energy that he was amazed that the barque continued to lie within it. He looked up at wave crests like waterfalls toppling down eighty-foot-high hills, then down into troughs that seemed bottomless, the sea there merely a darker part of the deep hole he teetered above.”

This book could only have been written by a sailor who loves ships and the sea. Derek Lundy’s passion comes through the weaving of words by Melville and Conrad, their insight (and his own) into the meaning the sea holds for us all. His research doesn’t end with reading other authors, or ships’ logs and old accounts of voyages by captains and mates. During its writing, Derek Lundy signed onto a sailing ship and rounded the Horn to gain first-hand experience (although he admits that with today’s technology, his voyage is never ever close to as dangerous as that of his great-great uncle.)

The third narrative woven tightly into The Way of a Ship is the story of ships and shipping during the 18th and 19th centuries. We learn the cargo and parts of merchant sailing ships, the rough men who loaded and redistributed cargo (in this case hot coal) and raised and lowered sails, who cared for every bit of rigging and for the ship itself. We learn about the officer class who commanded (often cruelly) the men, and on this ship, the “hen,” the captain’s wife who sailed with them. We glimpse the era’s industrial, political, and social history, and of barques themselves. We experience love and terror of the sea, and we gain respect for the men who rode upon it during the age of four-mast-barques.

For the writers among us, Lundy provides lessons:

  1. First, we can learn a lot by reading closely to see how he builds characters, Benjamin’s first among them. He is not a two dimensional photograph in a family album; he is a vital youth who becomes a man who knows himself. As you read, think about the development of others (the shanty singer, the mates, the fearsome and the friends, and don’t forget the captain’s wife).
  2. Like The Cave by José Saramago (book review of The Cave), Lundy gives us a narrator who claims a voice in the story (in Lundy’s case, himself). If you’ve tried this, you know how tricky the balancing act can be. Writers who read conscientiously will see how Lundy balances the voice of his great-great-uncle Benjamin with his own contemporary insights and knowledge. And you’ll see how he builds a context of sharing a love for sailing and the sea.
  3. Finally, I’ve never read a better example of an author weaving research—both secondary and primary—into his story. He has made me want to reread Melville and Conrad as well as creating in me respect for other like Captains Cook and Vancouver whose logs he references.

The Way of the Sea: a square-rigger voyage in the last days of sail by Derek Lundy reflects on an era that has passed, but the romance of the sea is alive and well (witness the number of sail-and/or-work-aboard opportunities that exist today on “tall” and other “model” ships). Perhaps because I sailed the Caribbean Sea over four seasons (some foolishly during hurricane months) I fell right into Lundy’s story and experienced the frightening and frustrating doldrums along with squalls far beyond those that riled the water around my sailing sloop and tore its squawking sails. But even if you’re not a sailor, you’ll be drawn into this adventure.

Whether you’re a writer, an armchair reader or an adventure traveller, I’d love to hear what you think of Derek Lundy’s The Way of a Ship.

40 The Way of a Ship
Cover image: Alfred A. Knopf 2002 edition

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Way of a Ship

Reading as a Writer: 6 Tips for reading The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam

“Are you still oblivious to everything that happens around you, just like in the old days?”

 

We first meet Percival as a boy called Chen Pie Sou in Shantou, China. He’s a flawed—and interesting—character who never seems to quite know himself. “Are you still oblivious to everything that happens around you, just like in the old days?” asks Mrs. Ling. Oblivious he might be, but in his own way, he tries to do the right thing. Percival’s good intentions and obsessions lead to intrigue and drama, as well as becoming integral to the tapestry of love Vincent Lam weaves.

Writers of fictional memoir might want to read this book with an eye as to how Vincent Lam weaves facts, second-hand memory, and fiction together. He acknowledges,

“My parents helped me with generous recollections of their childhoods in Vietnam. The specific details and anecdotes that they shared with me were invaluable in my understanding of life’s rhythms in that era. My late grandfather, William Lin, inspired the fictional protagonist of this novel.”

Reading as a writer, is one of the best ways to develop your skills. As you read “The Headmaster’s Wager ask yourself how he:

  1. Accomplishes the hook;
  2. Maintains interest;
  3. Threads a story through inter-connected problems and their solutions;
  4. Brings scenes, situations, and place alive;
  5. Develops character (not only that of the protagonist, but also others); and
  6. After the twists and turns, rewards with a satisfying conclusion (whether it’s a happy one or not).

Lam provides us with a story that not simply allows us into the world of the expat Chinese community in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, but he creates a fictional memoir that reads with a truth that is often absent from more factual or completely fictional works.

I remember Vietnam War journalism as it splashed across the pages of newspapers, as well as sit-ins and other anti-war protests of the era. Vincent Lam’s The Headmaster’s Wager takes us through a doorway into the lives of people living through the pain, upheaval and turmoil in the county. Enjoy this complex book that stirs emotions of longing, joy, and unmeasurable sadness.

 

39 The Headmaster's Wager

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Headmaster’s Wager

Old Havana’s (Flawed) Maestro (A Simple Habana Melody by Oscar Hijuelos)

“I’m feeling inspired—quick, I need a drink.”

“In the spring of 1947, when Israel Levis, composer of that most famous of rumbas ‘Rosas Puras,’ returned to Habana, Cuba, from Europe… his old friends…were startled by his appearance.” So, Oscar Hijuelos’ novel A Simple Habana Melody begins: a time, a maestro-protagonist, a place, and a change.

We learn that Levis, a child protégé, grew up in a doting family with one living brother (three other childhood deaths, which explains the “doting” mother). Doña Concepción, urges her son to “pray and pray to God that He protect him. She rewards his obedience with a great abundance of food. From a chubby child, Israel grows into a big man with big appetites. Virile, Levis frequently visits Habana’s prostitutes (and later those of Paris); still, he’s attracted to “handsome young men”. He’s a man in love with Rita Valadares, but unable to declare his love for her (although he writes the famous “Rosas Puras” for the sensuous singer).

Hijuelos also describes how “The early 1930s were an especially brutal time for the arts in Cuba….” This is the time after the island gained independence from Spain, and the former general, now dictator, Machado was running Cuba, a time when Levis’ friends “vanished without a trace or had been sent to prison.” Yet Levis “lived with the illusion that the ever-growing list of crimes committed by the dictator and the intensifying oppression and mockery of the arts would pass, in time.” Somehow, Levis sees himself apart from the politics of the era, assured that God would protect him. But raids by the secret police, “porra,” intensify.

On an April evening, 1932, Levis and his friend and collaborator, Manny Cortez meet at the Campana Bar.

“Later, Levis slept restlessly, and had a disquieting dream about a raven crouching on a skull, its flapping wings and cries of caw, caw so loud and mocking that he abruptly awoke at three in the morning….”

Manny had been killed, “Traces of the lyricist’s bloodstains were to be found on the paving for weeks.” Frightened, Levis leaves Cuba to go on tour. We jump ahead to Paris. A love story is dropped into the novel and, because of his Jewish-sounding name—although a devout Roman Catholic—Levis is detained and sent to Buchenwald. ”For the next 14 months, the maestro did not believe the things he saw, nor the sounds he heard.” Levis avoids the fate of others by playing his music for German brass, but we glimpse little of that experience or his reaction, except afterward, back on the streets of Habana,  he was pained whenever he heard his music.

The trajectory of Levis’ life is fraught with his blindness, which I accepted until he reaches Paris and then Buchenwald during WWII. The Paris relationship felt out of character and the Buchenwald experience shallow. Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (a Pulitzer Prize winner) fails in A Simple Habana Melody to fully engage and sustain belief to the end. If  Hijuelos intended a somewhat degenerate maestro and his fall as metaphor for Cuba, he fails.

What drew me to A Simple Habana Melody—and what kept me reading—were Hijuelos’ descriptions of Habana before the malecón had been built, a time when “the sea crashed freely against the rocky shore.” He writes of the city’s history, how Habana derives its name from “an Indian chieftain, Habaquanex,” and of how the city of old “bustled with the energy of an old European capital.” In a later period, with Levis, we wander the streets of the city and we see the majestic buildings that graced the neighbourhoods and glimpse the very different life of Habana after independence from Spain and dictatorship of Machado.

Oscar Hijuelos gives readers a complex, conflicted and flawed character during a political era and context that should make for page-turning-late-into-the-night reading. But the story often falls flat. Nevertheless, if you are curious about Cuba’s marred history and want to glimpse Habana during an exciting artistic period, A Simple Habana Melody provides a portal into those times and place.

38 A Simple Habana Melody

Available through your local bookstore or online: A Simple Habana Melody

Journey through love (The Whetting Stone by Taylor Mali)

…all the ways that love can come undone

The Whetting Stone by Taylor Mali is as piercing as the knives whetstones sharpen. The poems in his collection  – each in its own way – are stunning and not in the least sentimental. Together, they take readers on a breath-taking journey through love, grief, suicide, loss, and finally back to love.

“Grief Moves,” the first poem introduces a sensuousness and intimacy that leads readers through the eighteen poems that follow.

…before falling into sleep,
how we came together, loss now
a moving thing between us.

It also introduces the “other” of the collection whose “grief…become a kind of need.”

Perhaps the most powerful poem is “Six Stories.” The first stanza reveals the suicide, followed by six short verses, each enlightening the backstory lurking behind the act. Like others in the collection, this poem has been honed to the fine precision of a chef’s knife. There’s not a word out of place; all excess has been cut. The language is precise and concise.

We travel inward with Mali, glimpsing 10 years of marriage, but the focus of The Whetting Stone delves into those that come after. In “Twelfth Anniversary,” Mali shares a light, almost humorous – but extraordinarily insightful – moment that marks (perhaps) the beginning of forgiveness: “And what is more, that I loved you as best I could while you were alive.”

Mali’s skill is as sharp as the knife that surfaces in many poems. One poem I found particularly moving has the longest title: “Things We Both Know / That I Still Have to Tell You.” It ends with a two-line stanza:

You are none of the things
you think you are. Or even alive.

Pain and healing are equally present in the words and what is written between the lines.

The Whetting Stone offers readers an insightful, honest journey through trauma until Mali has a crucial awareness and a shift occurs. He’s ready to let go and writes:

Lover, at last, please leave me, after all these years.
You have cried enough. Leave me to these tears.

Eventually, he recognizes:

She was
not mine
to save.

Taylor Mali’s The Whetting Stone won the 2017 Rattle Chapbook Prize. I highly recommend this thin, extraordinary chapbook.

37 The Whetting Stone

Available through the publisher: The Whetting Stone

or from the author: The Whetting Stone (where you can learn more about him and his writing).

Two Landscapes (The Cave by José Saramago)

Cipriano Algor is “A lover of proverbs, adages, maxims, and other popular sayings, one of those rare eccentrics who imagines he knows more than he was taught, would say that there’s something so fishy going on here, you can even see the fish’s tail.”

To say The Cave by José Saramago is brilliant would be mimicking others, as would saying it is a magical allegory, a unique story by a master storyteller (Nobel Prize for Literature winner), an insightful commentary on society’s shifts and the changing values placed on creators and those of commerce. It’s also an intimate story of one man’s life and dreams and the things he loves: his pottery; his daughter; his son-in-law; and a run-away dog called “Found;” his late wife; and (he has trouble admitting it) a widow he meets in the cemetery. The novel is witty and wise, brimming with aphorisms and wisdom; it made me smile and feel deeply for Saramago’s characters and the situation of their lives.

On the surface, we have a simple story about a generational pottery where utilitarian tableware is made using traditional techniques, where a drying rack and stone meditation bench stand in the shade of a mulberry tree on the outskirts of a rural village. The pots that Cipriano Algor creates are transported in an aged van to “The Center,” a walled full-service complex (residents never have to leave) beyond the rural village and a no-man’s-land of crime-riddled shanties, an industrial belt, and a so-called “green belt, which is not green but a wasteland of greenhouses. An artificial place cut off from nature. Saramago presents readers with two opposing landscapes.

Cipriano Algor does not want to move to The Centre, although circumstances weigh against him. But there are people who want to live in the spreading and towering complex where Cipriano Algor’s son-in-law, Marçal Gaucho, works as a security guard. Marçal’s parents are among those scheming to live in The Center. Tension develops as his promotion as a resident guard looms and the family’s move to the shopping-apartment complex becomes imminent. But other themes beyond the family’s dilemma—a socio-political-philosophical vein—runs through the story.

In The Cave, José Saramago explores—through the lives of this small group—what it means to create in a world that prefers plastic over pottery, a world where appearance is accepted as reality. It is a story of beliefs and humanity, of knowledge and feelings and how village values and life differ vastly from the narrow rigidity, the blindness of those we meet in The Centre and the impact of advertising and commercialism. Inside, reality is simulated. Residents find the artificial landscapes and “experiences” better than reality. As in Plato’s story of the same name, shadows are what people see and accept. Our protagonist, Cipriano Algor, ponders this blindness:

They say that landscape is a state of mind, that we see the outer landscape with our inner eye, but is that because those [citizens of The Centre] are unable to see these factories and these hangars, this smoke devouring the sky, this toxic dust, this never-ending mud, these layers of soot, yesterday’s rubbish… .

What we see (or don’t see), where and how we live, influence values and actions.

Saramago shares clues as to how complex and totally believable characters are created. He gives us a narrator to love and characters that experience contradictions, especially those contradictions between feelings, thoughts, and actions. This becomes clear when Cipriano Algor faces the widow Isaura Madruga, a distressing situation for both where time stands still and neither character speaks. Here, the narrator enters:

Something must be done. Yes, something, but not just anything. We could and should violate the orderly logic and discipline of the story, but we must never ever violate what constitutes the exclusive and essential character of a person, that is, his personality, his way of being, his own, unmistakable nature. A character can be full of contradictions, but never incoherent, and if we insist on this point it is because, contrary to what dictionaries may say, incoherence and contradiction are not synonymous. A person or character contradicts himself within the bounds of his own coherence, whereas incoherence, which, far more than contradiction, is a constant behavioural characteristic, resists contradiction, eliminates it, cannot stand to live with it.

The silence between the couple is broken and we are left with an enigma. For those “reading as writers,” we can enjoy a few clues to apply to our own thinking and stories from a master storyteller.

36 The Cave

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Cave