Book Review: Childhood by André Alexis

Childhood is one of the best stories written with the theme of time/memory and relationships. It is an intimate story of a man’s search for insight, if not understanding and meaning. This is a story that haunts on my levels.

Published twenty years ago (1998), Childhood by André Alexis, continues to loom large in my imagination. Childhood is told through the eyes of Thomas MacMillan. When the story begins, Thomas is a middle-aged man contemplating loss. He notes that it has been “six months since my mother died; a shade less since Henry passed.” Thomas, the narrator, has been brooding and decides:

Perhaps writing is the discipline I need.

So I will write, precisely, about my mother and Henry, about Love, with you in mind, from the beginning.

The “you” in the story is Marya, the woman he loves, a woman we never meet. He writes about memories as mysterious as childhood itself, their clarity elusive.

We meet the child Thomas in Pretoria living with his grandmother, and we come to understand a bit about his loneliness and the cerebral world in which he lives, notwithstanding his deliciously whimsical interpretations of the external world.

After his “cantankerous” grandmother, Mrs. Edna MacMillan—retired school teacher and leader of the ill-fated “The Dickens Society of Lambton County”—dies, Thomas meets his mother for the first time. He’s been living with a neighbour for two weeks. He’s ten years old.

She knocked at the door. I answered.
– Yes?

In a soft voice, the first word I heard her speak, she said
– Thomas?
and leaned forward to hold me. Though it was unpleasant, I allowed myself to be enveloped.

–We have to go, she said.

Pretoria is left behind and a car trip to Montreal begins. This is when he tells us that his “small world splintered.” It is an unusual and disorienting journey that ends, not in Montreal, but Ottawa, at 77 Cooper, a rambling three-story house that includes a library, a laboratory, and Henry Wing. On this convergence of mother, Henry, and love, Thomas strives to understand life and himself. About understanding his mother, Katarina (Kata) MacMillan, he concludes:

So, of the woman who whelped me, I now a name, a date of birth, something of her parentage, and handful of incidents from her life. Essentially, I don’t know her that much more than I know my father, and the things I do know are almost useless where knowing is concerned.…

Mind you, I can barely scratch the surface of “Who am I?” either.

The structure of Childhood is circular. At the conclusion, the adult narrator Thomas writes from a desk at 77 Cooper:

…I’ve come full circle, or full spiral, or perhaps only up through the ground. (I mean, Time is the ground, but my analogy is weak.)

Soon, there’s a contradiction, as happens in life:

Time, which isn’t like ground at all, washes things up without regard for order or sense. My life comes back to me in various pieces, from Pablum to tombstones, each piece changing the contour of the life I’ve led.

I will have thousands of childhoods before time is done.

He says that he will “begin another retrospective when I must.”

Childhood takes us on a poignant journey through memory, yielding shifts, distortions, and truths. A thesis could be written about what is largely unsaid—the impact of the immigrant experience, the mystery of loss, the lack of physical affection, abandonment and reclamation—the things written between the lines.

For the writers among us, Childhood, is the best example I can think of for a circular story structure. This book is not memoir, although André Alexis grew up on Pretoria and lives in Ottawa, which gives depth to the specific, nuanced details in the fictional novel. The third thing to look for as you read is how the author moves expertly between adult and child so that in the end we see the child still residing in the man.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Childhood

Book review: Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (by Jane Hirshfield)

Jane Hirshfield’s words perceptively reveal the seduction of poetry, of art. They open windows of clarity while simultaneously celebrating ambivalence and paradox. Ten Windows provides both a brilliant journey and practical guidance through the world of poetry for both readers and writers.

Poetry’s addition to our lives takes place in the border realm where inner and outer actual and possible, experienced and imaginable, heard and silent, meet…In a poem, everything travels inward and outward.

The essays in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World lead us from what is inherent in poetry (and the other arts) through metaphorical windows of language, image, sound/music, hidden/unsaid, ambiguity, surprise, transformation, and more. Throughout, Jane Hirshfield reminds us of the importance of poetry in our lives, how it reflects culture, and how it can even change cultural borders.

In “Seeing Through Words: An Introduction to Bashō, Haiku, and the Suppleness of Image” (Chapter Three), Hirshfield writes, “…if you see for yourself, hear for yourself, and enter deeply enough this seeing and hearing, all things will speak with and through you.” Haiku was not new when Bashō came around in the 17th century, but he changed it and influenced writing since. Bashō sought more from the form than did his predecessors. He sought

…to make of this brief, buoyant verse form a tool for emotional, psychological and spiritual discovery, for crafting new experience as moving, expansive, and complex ground as he felt existed in the work of earlier poets. He wanted to renovate human vision by putting what he saw into a bare handful of mostly ordinary words, and he wanted to renovate language by what he asked it to see.

Even for poets who veer from the Haiku form, this goal is an ambitious one. In this small poem of image and sound, Bashō excels in meeting the challenge:

seas darkening

the wild duck’s calls

grow faintly white

In Ten Windows, Hirshfield reminds writers and readers to see what isn’t said, to read between the lines. To me, this poem speaks volumes beyond what Bashō saw; it stirs emotions of darkness, of the fleetingness of experience, and of things disappearing/lost. Hirshfield notes:

“The reader who enters Bashō’s perceptions fully can’t help but find in them a kind of liberation. They unfasten the mind from any single or absolute story, unshackle us from the clumsy dividing of world into subjective and objective, self and other…. 

In a chapter about uncertainty, Hirshfield reminds us:

Poetry often enacts the recovering of emotional and metaphysical balance, whether in an individual (primarily the lyric poem’s task) or in a culture (the task of the epic). Yet to do that work, a poem needs to retain within its words some of the disequilibrium that called it forth, and to include when it is finished some sense also of uncomfortable remainder, the undissolvable residue carried over—disorder and brokenness are necessarily part of human wholeness.

A couple of paragraphs on, she continues developing her idea: “The most serene works on the bookshelf are…in the lineage of Scheherazade’s stories—art holding incoherence and death at bay by invention of beauty, detour, and suspense.” In the colloquial, we say show, don’t tell; leave something to the reader’s imagination; tie up loose ends, but leave the door open.

A work of art is not color knifed or brushed onto a canvas, not shaped rock or fired clay, a vibrating cello string, black ink on a page—it is our participatory, agile, and responsive collaboration with those forms, colors, symbols, and sounds.

Later, in the transformation chapter, Hirshfield writes:

The experience of art takes place within and under the skin. When we read the word “orange,” neuroscientists have found, our taste buds grow larger, more so if we are hungry. A mountain in a poem is known by what has been motionless and stony in us, and by what we have internalized of rock and steepness through legs and eyes. The characters of a story or play are lent our lives’ accumulated comprehensions and history, in order to make theirs our own.

Writing and reading is collaborative. “Poems are made of words that act beyond words’ own perimeter because what is infinite in them is not in the poem, but in what it unlocks in us.” This can be said of all art forms. Jane Hirshfield’s words perceptively reveal the seduction of poetry, of art. They open windows of clarity while simultaneously celebrating ambivalence and paradox. Ten Windows provides both a brilliant journey and practical guidance through the world of poetry for both readers and writers.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Ten Windows

Book Review: The Island of Lost Maps: a true story of cartographic Crime (by Miles Harvey)

Miles Harvey takes us on a journey where maps and travel, character and obsession, and crime come together and where the “strange borderland between inner life and outer experience, dreams and memory, body and soul” is explored. Map aficionados are bound to love The Island of Maps. Readers who are also writers will want to explore how Harvey reveals the shadowy Gilbert Bland and how it leads Harvey to character insights of himself.

Miles Harvey—who tired of reading other people’s escapades in his role as book-reviewer and columnist for Outside magazine—began to crave an adventure of his own:

Or maybe adventure isn’t quite the word. It was not that I had any particular desire to do something death-defying; what I wanted was a quest, a goal, a riddle to solve, a destination.

Harvey found his quest in crime, in his search to understand Gilbert Bland’s map thefts and, as it turns out, obsession. Along the way, we discover the fascinating world of old maps and cartographic traders. And we discover something of the character of both Bland and Harvey. We also discover the magic that is old maps.

Throughout the centuries people have viewed maps not just as useful navigational tools but as enchanted objects…. Columbus, himself, for instance, seemed to think maps were endowed with a force that transcended mere matters of geography. They stoked his imagination, inspired the flights of fancy that made his great discovery possible. The sixteenth-century chronicler Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote that when Columbus gained access to a map the Florentine scientist Paolo del Pozzo Toscanelli it “set [his] mind ablaze.”

And who among us hasn’t dreamed of maps: maps where dragons hover beyond the known edge of land; treasure maps promising trunks brimming with pearls and gold; maps to hidden, idyllic places (think about Lost Horizon’s Shangri La)? Harvey notes that maps can cast powerful spells on our imagination:

Throughout the centuries people have viewed maps not just as useful navigational tools but as enchanted objects—what [Joseph] Campbell called ‘amulets’ and [Werner]Muensterberger described as ‘power-imbued fetish[es].”

Harvey seeks Bland, the shadowy man of maps, hoping to penetrate his character—to understand why and how he became the most famous of map thieves. He concurs with Campbell, who he quotes:

As Freud has shown, blunders are not the merest chance. They are the result of suppressed desires and conflicts. They are ripples n the surface of life, produced by unsuspected springs. And these may be very deep—as deep as the soul itself. The blunder may amount to the opening of a destiny.

You can see how circuitous Harvey’s journey has become.

Along with Bland, Harvey explores the worlds of mythology and literature. Among the authors in his voluminous research is Aldous Huxley who wrote about what lurks in “‘the antipodes of the mind.’” With this, Harvey

…sensed that I was on a collision course with one of those ‘strange psychological creatures leading an autonomous existence according to the law of their own being.’ It was one discovery, I feared, that would bring no joy at all.

During his search he enters a world he didn’t know existed, a world of persons obsessed. His pursuit of a story about a series of rare-map thefts, and for insight into the character of the thief, eventually twists inward. He comes to the realization that…

We rarely reach our destinations, at least not the ones we set out to find. More often, we arrive one day at a place unfamiliar and unexpected, where all roads suddenly seem to converge and something—the ineffable smell of fate or the stench of defeat or (likeliest of all) sheer exhaustion—tells us the journey is over. In my case it was the knowledge that I had wandered too far. We do not take trips so much as they take us….

Harvey was four years researching and writing The Island of Lost Maps. Along the way, he discovered some truisms about the “strange borderland between inner life and outer experience, dreams and memory, body and soul.” For these, you will want to read the epilogue.

For reading as writers, pay particular attention as to how Miles Harvey’s search to understand Gilbert Bland’s character leads to insight about the author’s own. Besides character, if you are writing about obsession, there’s much to learn by being attentive as to how Harvey layers his story to reveal many facets of this kind of passion.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime

Book Review: The Story of a New Name (by Elena Ferrante, tr. by Ann Goldstein)

The Story of a New Name is a great summer read. It will take you into Italy, a specific Neapolitan neighbourhood and holiday beaches. For those reading as writers, read to see how Elena Ferrante creates place and how she develops character. The Story of a New Name may be a great summer read, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a story worth reflecting on “how” the magic happens.

Elena Ferrante creates a time and place that is drenched in tradition: a neighbourhood in 1960s Naples, and two women’s struggles to break the chains of their roles and male machismo.

The Story of a New Name is narrated by Elena Greco who unravels her complicated friendship with Lina/Lila Cerullo throughout the 471 pages of the book (the second in a series). The close bonds the girls shared through childhood are broken when Lina/Lila marries Stefano Carracci. With that ceremony, Lina becomes a wife and all that implies in the traditional 1960s Neapolitan neighbourhood. Lina/Lila, however, doesn’t embrace expectations. Elena remains in school struggling for books and space to study, and to experiment in her own way with blossoming sexuality and unrequited love.

I understood suddenly why I hadn’t had Nino, why Lila had had him. I wasn’t capable of entrusting myself to true feelings. I didn’t know how to be drawn beyond the limits.

Ferrante is a master storyteller. Quickly we’re engrossed in the lives of the neighbourhood, the interpersonal entanglements, local politics, and money. But at its heart, this story is a story of friendship overcoming obstacles—many created by the girls themselves.The girl-women are opposites in many ways: Lina/Lila marries into relative wealth; Elena struggles for schoolbooks and space to study. Their temperaments and morals are also polar opposites. Lina/Lila goes after what she wants, recreates herself; Elena holds back and her transformation comes slowly. But like the yin and yang of self, they are bonded.

…Lila knew how to draw me in. And I was unable to resist: on the one hand I said that’s enough, on the other I was depressed at the idea of not being part of her life, of the means by which she invented it for herself. What was that deception but another of her fantastic moves, which were always full of risks? The two of us together, allied with each other, in the struggle against all.

The Story of a New Name took me in deep into a time and place unknown to me, but one clearly lived by the author who shares her name with the fictional narrator of this story. (For a story of friendship between men, check out What I Loved.

For those reading as writers, think about how Ferrante creates place and character, and how she builds the tension that keeps us turning pages.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Story of a New Name

Review: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang

In this saga, Jung Chang opens the door into the intimate lives of four generations of women. In Wild Swans, she covers the era of warlords and concubines (1920s) through the ideals of communism and life under Mao, to the break-up of the “Gang of Four” (1970s).

How easy it is to fall under the spell of a tyrant. How hard it is to reverse the course of history. For equality between the sexes and classes, the Chinese embraced communism under Mao, but classes of another kind emerged and gains on all early fronts lost. Yet, Wild Swans is story of survival of a family with the resilience to endure history.

“At the age of fifteen my grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general…” so the story begins. The girl had no say in the arrangements made in order for her father to advance his own career. We don’t learn her name; she’s always referred to as “my great-grandmother.” And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. She is the first of a quartet of strong women, resilient and independent within the cultural constraints of the various “times.”

Under Mao, China was closed; the Great Wall might just as well have ringed the entire country. Citizens’ travel was forbidden and foreign travellers barred. The brainwashed people closed their minds to everything but Mao’s initial promises, and slowly the terror rained down upon them. Through Chang’s evocative details and harrowing family experiences, we slip into her time and place.

Wild Swans is really two stories: one personal; the other political. In one of the early personal descriptions, Chang writes:

My grandmother was a beauty. She had an oval face, with rosy cheeks and lustrous skin. Her long, shiny black hair was woven into a thick plait reaching down to her waist. She could be demure when the occasion demanded…but underneath her composed exterior she was bursting with suppressed energy.

These women are actors as much as they are acted upon—despite the stifling times in which they lived.

About the political, Chang tells us:

In reality, Mao turned China back to the days of the Middle Kingdom and, with the help of the United States, to isolation from the world. He enabled the Chinese to feel great and superior again, by blinding them to the world outside.…The near total lack of access to information and the systemic feeding of disinformation meant that most Chinese had no way to discriminate between Mao’s successes and his failures, or to identify the relative role of Mao….

The U.S. reference is with respect to its support of the Kuomintang, Mao and communism’s first enemy. Chang’s family embraced communism and the equality it promised, both across class and for women. But they became disillusioned. At the end of Mao’s reign, Chang sums up his impact on China: “…Mao destroyed much of the country’s cultural heritage. He left behind not only a brutalized nation, but also an ugly land with little of its past glory remaining or appreciated.” Wild Swans is a story of survival through desperate struggles, including starvation and unimaginable cruelty. It is also a cautionary tale about the slippery slope leading to loss of morality and the horrendous impact on individual lives.

Readers might also want to look at two other reviews for more about China. In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan readers are taken into a woman’s 19th century world. The Headmaster’s Wager takes us into the expat experience of Chinese in Vietnam during the Vietnam War and glimpses into the life of a son who is sent back to the homeland during Mao’s rule.

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I have the Anchor edition (1993). More recent editions are available. Find Wild Swans at your local bookstore or online: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

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.

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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.

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