Book Review: Fictional Fact – Imagining Klimt (The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey)

In this imagined look at the life of the Gustav Klimt, we glimpse Vienna and the bohemian lives of artists in the city during the turn of the 20th century. In The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey, we meet Klimt through the eyes of Emilie Flöge, a young, upper class bourgeois girl attending a parade with her father and sisters:

 “…our father was talking to a man we didn’t know. The man was wearing a threadbare sack suit and a pink daisy in his buttonhole. We had never seen a man wearing anything like that. He was not tall, but broad-shouldered and strong-looking. He was tan like the woman selling ices. He was carrying a leather case in one hand and what looked like a toolbox in the other.”

Emilie sneaks away to watch Klimt paint. Later he comes to the house to paint the daughters and Emilie convinces her father to allow her to take painting classes. Emilie grows into a young woman. One thing – as you can imagine – leads to another, and eventually to “The Kiss.” Emilie is believed to be the woman in the painting. The man is purported to be the artist Klimt himself. But Hickey’s story ventures past Klimt’s death, taking Emilie as far as the Russian invasion of Vienna near the end of the Second World War. Emilie and her niece have taken refuge at an old summer home that abounds with memories of Klimt’s visits. Emilie toys with the idea of travelling back to Vienna to see her city house, but resists:

“I am not ready for the accounting, not yet, the tally of buildings lost and buildings saved, paintings burned and paintings not. In my mind Vienna is still whole, I can see it. When I am stronger I can go back and face the losses. When the war ends I will go back.”

Hickey feeds the images we have in our minds about Vienna, about the sub-culture of artists, about the war and how it changed the lives of countless people. Despite the obvious research required to write creatively about such a well-known figure and period, Hickey keeps the story lively, not letting it droop into art-history mode for which I give her kudos. However, the book in many ways is a light romance, an easy read, which may be the perfect book for a lazy holiday weekend for those of us who like to snoop into artists’ (imagined) lives.

Notes about Klimt:

Most readers will recognize the art of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), since images from his “gold period” pop up everywhere on greeting cards and posters. One of these, the “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” was confiscated by the Nazis during WWII. In 2006, a movie called “The Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren, takes the point-of-view of Maria Altmann who reclaims the painting from the contemporary Austrian establishment.

While talking with an artist friend about Klimt’s style, she asked if I’m familiar with the work of Margaret Macdonald Macintosh. Macintosh’s work was shown in Vienna in 1900 at the “Vienna Secession.” Klimt was also one of the exhibitors. Some believe that her influence created the famous shift in Klimt’s style that occurred after the show. Others suggest Klimt “stole” the style. Don’t you love when serendipity and a bit of artsy gossip slip into your life?

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The novel is available through your local bookstore or online: The Painted Kiss

Review: In a Landscape of Sand & Stone (The Painter of Birds by Lídia Jorge)

“I dread to think what they’ve told you about me!” He laughed, he was always laughing. “I bet they told you I was a wastrel, a soldier, and about a blanket I used to lie down on when I went off drawing birds. I dread to think what they told you about that blanket and those birds… They probably described me as a con man, a globe-trotter and an adventurer. I bet they poisoned your mind against me.”

In provincial Portugal not far from the Atlantic a family lives together in a dilapidated rambling house under the thumb of a tyrant father, Francisco Dias. Sons, daughters, in-laws, and grandchildren call the house home. The men provide the back-breaking labour on the farm. All, that is, except for the youngest son, Walter, who is The Painter of Birds. Walter is as free and migratory as the birds he paints. As you can imagine, this creates some trouble for his father and brothers. But this isn’t the only cause for distress in the house. The house and its inhabitants are all rife with the collusion of secrets.

Without giving too much away, in his youth Walter was a charmer of young women. When the parents of one of the girls discovers the rounding of their daughter’s belly, they take her to the doorstep of Francisco Dias. Walter’s brother Custódio marries Maria Ema and in due course gives birth to a daughter. It is through Walter’s daughter that the story unfolds.

This may sound like a hokey soap opera or melodrama, but it is not. The Painter of Birds is literary and lyrical. Lídia Jorge subtly reveals psychological and emotional insights into a time and place when families were held together by custom, poverty, and relative isolation from the larger world. It is a story of pent-up jealousies and resentments. And it is the story of a daughter’s quest for love and understanding. At the same time, Jorge’s story is metaphor.

Early in the book, Francisco Dias is called to the school where the teacher tells him:

…what extraordinary hands Walter had, hands that drew as if the memory of nature were concealed beneath their fingertips. A truly remarkable talent. …Walter used to lie down on the ground and wait for the birds to land, sometimes he would catch them in baskets and cages from which he would subsequently release them, but first, he would reproduce them on paper, copying their feathers and their shapes, giving their eyes in particular a special life. It was as if the wretched sparrows could speak, as it the thrushes were laughing, all because of those lines he added to their eyes or because of the way he drew their raised tails and their spread wings.

Much later, birds adorn the letters that arrive at the house. Birds. Well-travelled birds. But it is not only birds and Walter that will travel during the changing world of mid-twentieth-century-rural Portugal. This complex story explores timeless themes of family, dependence, and independence wrapped in a daughter’s yearning for truth. I particularly enjoyed the metaphors of travel and birds and would love to hear from other readers of The Painter of Birds.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Painter of Birds

Review: Lighten Up…& Not Just Your Suitcase (Here & There by A. A. Gill)

Many travel writing collections are “precious,” but not Here & There by A. A. Gill.  He writes with acerbic wit and irreverence. At the same time, he manages to share his fascination with people and places.

Gill, writing in “Spice of life” for example, acknowledges the poverty of Calcutta (he doesn’t use the city’s newer name, Mumbai) but raves about India’s post-Mogul culture and “an embarrassment of world-class universities.” Then, he goes on to note that “Calcutta was invented by the English on the banks of the Hooghly, the last stretch of the Ganges. It was a stupid place to build a city, but that never stopped the English.” After a number of suggestions to experience during your visit, he turns the tables: “I loved Calcutta because it’s a city on the way down…Cities that have been something and seen stuff have stories to tell. Places can be trippers or tourists or, like Calcutta, they can be travellers.” What a recommendation!

In an article called “Dawn of a new era,” Gill twigged memories from my Kenya-Tanzania trip, and he made me want to visit South Africa. He puzzles out how and why South Africa managed truth and reconciliation and elections, while avoiding civil war. Quirky, as always, Gill begins with a tokoloshe, which is a “Zulu demon, a nightstalker, a sprite goblin…a real five-star terror. He describes Jo’burg before and after apartheid. Gill also highlights a few things not to be missed: “Not just the apartheid museum,” (which he claims to be “the most thoughtful and emotional couple of hours I’ve spent in a museum for years”) but “the townships and the markets and cafés, the music and jacarandas, and the high, dry veldt, but you should go because this is the luckiest place in the unluckiest continent.” After musing about the cause of such luck, Gill concludes:

Personally, I think it was the tokoloshe that made South Africa hold back, divert the consequences of the past. South Africans lay awake in the hot night and heard the panting and the muffled sharpening of little goblin pangas and knew what the fears made flesh would bring. The tokoloshe still lurks under the bed, but the longer this normalcy goes on, the smaller the fears that feed him.

From Iceland to Vietnam, from the U.S. to Europe (East and West), Gill covers the map offering surprise discoveries and often wonky bits of information gleaned from the streets.

Here & There is a collection of 58 brief articles from all over the map, plus two introductory pieces. Without exception, the travel writing is sharp and insightful, written with empathy and humour, and it is thought-provoking. Gill also raises questions about traveling and travellers, and about travel writing. He also affirms something I believe (don’t we love when that happens?):

One of the things that fascinates me about travelling is how places make people. The received travel writing wisdom is always the other way round: it’s people who make places….But over and over I’m aware that the characteristics and beliefs of nations seem to flow from the land, seep up from the earth.

 Gill explains a bit about the norms of the travel industry, suggesting how and why the PR people are able to pique our interest and loosen the savings nested away during our work-a-day lives. About “Why go?” he shares a few ideas while debunking the notion that travels “broadens the mind” and emphatically that “the dumbest reasons for travel, the most thoughtless expectation of a holiday is to relax.”  He claims, “Travelling to do nothing is the great holiday oxymoron….” He’s less clear about the positive outcome, except it isn’t to know thyself (to borrow the cliché). It is about the people you meet and experiencing the places out of which they’ve grown. I think he’s urging us to travel curiously. About travel writing, Gill says, “The pleasure of the craft of journalism is that you start to work for money, but end up working with friends, and collaborating….” It is about the people and about experience (again).

My bookshelf should be drooping, given the weight of the travel books stacked on it. Here & There differs from all of them.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Here & There

 

Review (Poetry): With the Keenness of Time (Bicycle Thieves by Mary di Michele)

…Maybe time is not / an arrow after all but a whirling / storm about to touch down (“The Possibility of Time Travel”)

Mary di Michele’s consistent search through place and time continues in her latest collection, Bicycle Thieves, as do particular images.

Thirty-seven years ago, di Michele’s Bread and Chocolate (1980) was published, and in it a poem called “1952.” The poem lyrically describes the photograph we see on the cover of Bicycle Thieves. The poem and her current book’s cover attest to the desire to know what shaped her parents, her self. “1952” tracks a migration and in it we glimpse a man and a woman and hints of a puzzle. This puzzle is further explored in her latest collection.

In “The Bicycle Thief,” di Michele shares birth-place images and vivid sketches of her father – in youth and old age. She captures a return visit to Lanciano and regrets that she cannot go back in time as well as place, to a time “before / the World War, seen the boy my father was / before his father betrayed / a barefoot son / and sold his bicycle.” A patina of love and loss and change loosely covers section one – The Montreal Book of the Dead – like a sheer veil lifted in a breeze.

The middle section – Life Sentences (An Autobiography in Verse) – is comprised of 100 three-line stanzas. In them, a life passes by, nuanced with detail, yet like an illusion. Whereas in section one, the emigration is physical – place to place – in section two it is the lived past:

The past is that far
country you emigrated from
as a child.

It is the past of the poet under a sharply focused magnifying glass where she peers intently at that small enlarged circle, moving the magnifier across memories and through time. The cautionary voice warns: “Mary, you can’t go / back to yesterday, you were / a different person then” (#90). But Socrates suggests that an unexamined life is not worth living.

Di Michele, like Lorna Crozier (What the Soul Doesn’t Want, reviewed July 21 2017), poignantly holds a lens to the past, focusing it on both joys and sorrows in a search for its essence, for meaning. Di Michele’s poems explore the particulars of her life (of an immigrant child, of the mystery of parents, of the curious mind). They create a portal, a bridge that gives voice to universal experiences recognized by her readers.

In the final section – After – we find influences of di Michele’s reading, but even here, she takes us to a specific place and time that is hers. My favourite poem in Bicycle Thieves is “Evening Light” (After Umberto Saba); she tells us:

Moon rise.

                             In the street it’s still
day though dusk’s rapidly descending.
The young don’t notice, they’re busy
texting, faces lit up
by the screens. They have no idea
about death, how in the end, it’s

what helps you live.

And here we have it all: the observation and insight, the sense of time’s movement, the lyrically perfect words and flow.

Since Mary di Michele’s first book (Tree of Life, 1978), she has been honing her poetic skills, the writing becoming sharper, the insights keener. It’s hard to imagine what will come next – after Bicycle Thieves – but already I want it.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Bicycle Thieves

Review (& Controversy): Into Northern Lake Country (The Last Woman by John Bemrose)

“I’ve come to think of her as a sort of Mother Earth figure. You know, Lilith, Eve, the first woman –.”
“I don’t know,” Richard says….”Looks more to me like the last woman.”

The Last Woman by John Bemrose is an elegy for the ending of love; for a forest, clear-cut landscape; for simple equity for the lives of people – in this case Ojibway – who are caught in the ugly transition from “what was” to “what is.” On one level, The Last Woman is the story of a love triangle, simple and straightforward. On another, it is the story of a clash of cultures, each trying to do things for the right reasons and each totally misinterpreting motives. It is about politics where truth and justice don’t matter. It is about a land claim, secrets, ambitions and dreams, art and logic, and the totally different way that indigenous people think about and live on the land. In short, Bemrose has written a complex story, weaving the personal angst of his characters into a web that includes greed along with cultural and environmental destruction. Bemrose’s writing is measured; he doesn’t rant, although readers will see where his sympathies lie.

Over the years, I’ve bought books by the few Indians (First Nations in Canada) who managed to get published. I think that Halfbreed by Maria Campbell was among the first, along with books by N. Scott Momaday. Later, books by Louise Erdrich made their way to my shelf and some by Thomas King, plus harder to read books like for Joshua by Richard Wagamese, poets like Lee Maracle and gritty Métis poet Katherena Vermette. I own Anne Cameron’s Daughters of Copperfield, a book that generated controversy in the early 1980s (that continues to rage) about who has the right to the traditional stories, to their telling. Of course, I have the well-packaged and easy-to-embrace collections of quotes from the speeches of elders, such as Touch the Earth. And yes, academic and anthropological work sits there too.

More recently, publishing has opened to First Nations people in a way that seemed previously closed, and there’s new controversy on the topic of who speaks for whom. The editor of Write: The Magazine of the Writers’ Union of Canada resigned over his editorial in the Spring 2017 issue. He writes: “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.” I suspect that farther down in the editorial his admonition to “Set your sights on the big goal: Win the Appropriation Prize” is what skewered him. I read it as inappropriate, as did many others – not political correctness, but a “middle-finger salute.”  Indigenous people in Canada (likely everywhere) are capable of speaking for themselves. They don’t need interpreters. But there is a blurry line, although both history and today’s reality badly need the First Nations’ perspective. So, back to The First Woman….

Bemrose walks a fine and informed line as he writes about the land claim and as he develops the character of Billy, of Billy’s loss over his cultural heritage, his land, and the trees gone to clear-cutting. He writes with sensitivity about the childhood attraction and, later, physical love that Billy and Anne shared, as he does with the friendship that once existed between Billy and Anne’s husband Richard.

I wonder what critics today would think about Martin, my character in Calla & Édourd. Martin is a fiction, who grew out of my experience living in Winnipeg. My empathy grew out of my grandmother’s reluctance to talk and her mother’s stories. Yet, now I wonder if readers would feel a line has been crossed. But, once more, back to the novel….

The excerpt that leads into this review fixes our thoughts on a painting and on environmental destruction and provides the title for Bemrose’s novel. But the story is about more than that, it digs and niggles down into a core fault-line. I would love to learn what readers – who have read the novel (and maybe mine) – think.

09 The Last Woman

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Last Woman

Review: Into the Wilds of Papua New Guinea (The White Mary by Kira Salak)

The black waters of Elobi Creek show no sign of a current. It is another dead waterway, Marika tells herself, one that will breed only mosquitoes and crocodiles. Another waterway that somehow reflects – in the darkness of the water, in its stillness – all of her failings. These waters, this breathless heat, seem to be waiting for a response from her, a call to action.

The White Mary takes us deep into the breath-taking jungles and over the mountains of Papua New Guinea. It is a geography Kira Salak – who has won a PEN award for journalism – knows well and one that she’s written about as a journalist. Four Corners is a nonfiction account of a trip she made to PNG. The White Mary, however, is a fiction that draws on Salak’s adventures and demonstrates her writing skills.

On the surface, Marika – who is The White Mary – sets out to discover whether her hero, award-winning journalist Robert Lewis, is actually dead. On another level, she quests for herself.

Traumatized by on-the-job “risk-taking and near-death escapes” as a war-reporter, Marika’s personal life crumbles. During her freefall she becomes obsessed with Lewis and begins writing his biography. The idea that Lewis could have committed suicide repels her, and she begins tracing his steps. The journey she undertakes is harrowing and utterly believable.

We see the pictures in National Geographic of lost tribes and read about rumours that cannibalistic others exist deeper in insect-infested swampland not yet explored by adventurers and anthropologists. Salak takes us on one of these “interior” forays. She sketches scenes and evokes wonder and despair. Her characters exhibit empathy, repulsion, fear, kindness, and desperation – the whole range of humanness, including greed and destruction.

Years ago, I worked with a woman who taught English as a second language in Papua New Guinea. This was during the time after the eastern half of island became independent (of Australia), although remained part of the British Commonwealth. (The western half is controlled by Indonesia and known as Papua and West Papua.) My colleague was there prior to the 1988 uprising that killed 20,000 people. The island has a history of being a complex and troubled part of the world. So, I was primed to discover more about this island in Melanesia; I wasn’t disappointed.

Written in the tradition of jungle-adventure stories, The White Mary gives us a convincing human drama that unfolds in the harshest of environments – in canoes that leak, on foot across swamps where leeches and snakes are not the only dangers, where witchcraft abounds, and where supplies are few: “some fire-making implements, water-filled gourds, and walnut-sized betel nuts to chew.” In this place (within and without), Marika feels “…there’s too much pain. The pit is bottomless, vast. There’s just too much….[H]er screams won’t stop. Her cries clog her throat, and she chokes and wails.” Her tough exterior breaks. But this is not the end of the story. For that, you will need to visit your library or bookstore.

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Available from your local bookstore and online: The White Mary

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