Nocturne by Helen Humphreys

nocturneA “nocturne” is a musical composition inspired by or evocative of the night.

In her memoir of the same name, Helen Humphreys grieves her brother Martin James Humphreys by writing directly to him over 45 chapters — one for every year of his short life.

In July of 2009, after complaining of a backache and some acid reflux, accomplished pianist and composer Martin is diagnosed with stage 4B pancreatic cancer. (There is no 4C.) He dies on December 3rd of the same year.

Pancreatic cancer is an especially aggressive beast. My mother-in-law died of the same disease almost as quickly as Martin (diagnosed in April, 1997, after being unable to beat a persistent cold, she passed in October of the same year). You are well and then you are terminal. She died only four years into our marriage. One of my biggest regrets is the time I didn’t get to spend with her — she was a beautiful human being.

This book is close to home in more ways than one. Martin dies at age 45 — the very age I am now. Helen Humphreys grieves her one and only younger brother intensely. The existence of  such a profound and loving brother / sister relationship, at this point in my life, is completely foreign to me. My younger brother (born the very same day a decade after Martin James Humphreys) has been estranged from my parents for almost a decade. Either one of us could die of pancreatic cancer in between the superficial birthday and Christmas greetings we exchange and the other would never even know, much less grieve. Their friendship and intimacy is like a foreign language being spoken before my eyes: it’s baffling and incomprehensible to me.

Helen Humphreys sees the absence of her brother everywhere she looks. She quotes American composer John Cage, whose words ring true to me as my thoughts return to my own brother, who’s alive, but essentially gone:

“What we hear is determined by our own emptiness, our own receptivity; we receive to the extent that we are empty to do so.”

— John Cage

Nocturne took me on a voyage to a foreign land I didn’t expect to enter; I read it in 24 hours — perhaps my version of language immersion.

Visit Helen Humphreys’ site to learn more about the book and listen to Martin playing Chopin’s Prelude 20 from Opus 28. (.mp3)

— February, 2016

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

thefarawaynearbyIn his poem, “Digging,” Seamus Heaney writes of the work of a writer:

Between my finger and my thumb 
The squat pen rests. 
I’ll dig with it.

Joan Didion famously said, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

This is precisely what Rebecca Solnit does in The Faraway Nearby. From spoiling apricots and symbiotic relationships to fairytales, myths, and stories of  survival, Solnit digs into her relationship with a distant and jealous mother battling the slow mental decay of Alzheimer’s disease.

This book has more layers of resonance than an Icelandic vínarterta. With Solnit as cartographer, no two things are so far removed from one another that she can’t uncover a resonant connection as she charts the emotional territory of our shifting identities and how these shifting selves influence our relationships. Solnit makes for an erudite yet unpretentious traveling companion on this journey of the self — a trip you don’t want to miss.

We feed on sorrows, on stories, on the spaciousness they open up when they let us travel in our imagination beyond our own limits, when they dissolve the boundaries that confine us and urge us to extend the potentialities of our imperfect, broken, incomplete selves.

— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

— February, 2016

Favorite passages from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

Strap yourself in — I don’t think anyone has done a better, more complete or beautiful job describing apricots: “upholstered in a fine velvet.” Yes.

They were an impressive sight, a mountain of apricots in every stage from hard and green to soft and browning, though most of them were that range of shades we call apricot: pale orange with blushes of rose and yellow-gold zones, upholstered in a fine velvet, not as fuzzy as peaches, not as smooth as plums.

Strikingly familiar:

For a long time, when I mentioned something eventful in my own life, she would change the subject in the very opening words of her reply.

On travel:

And distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren’t as deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite.

Beautiful, symbiotic relationship:

Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds.

On parents:

When you say “mother” or “father” you describe three different phenomena. There is the giant who made you and loomed over your early years; there is whatever more human-scale version might have been possible to perceive later and maybe even befriend; and there is the internalized version of the parent with whom you struggle — to appease, to escape, to be yourself, to understand and be understood by — and they make up a chaotic and contradictory trinity.

On books:

Books are solitudes in which we meet.

A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.

On decay and rebirth:

Even decay is a form of transformation into other living things, part of the great rampage of becoming that is also unbecoming.

On the interconnectedness of things:

You can speak as though your life is a thread, a narrative unspooling in time, and a story is a thread, but each of us is an island from which countless threads extend out into the world.

Imaginal cells:

A mature insect, including a moth or butterfly, is called an “imago”; the plural is “imagines,” and the cells that bring about that maturity in moths and butterflies and other flyers are called “imaginal cells.”

Strangers to our own existence:

The contemporary poet Robert Hass once wrote of this most solitary of poets (Rilke), this man who was always putting distance between himself and intimacy, “There are pleasures, forms of nourishment perhaps that most people know and he did not. What he knew about was the place that the need for that nourishment came from. And he knew how immensely difficult it was for us to inhabit that place, to be anything other than strangers to our own existence.”

How stories sustain and expand us:

We feed on sorrows, on stories, on the spaciousness they open up when they let us travel in our imagination beyond our own limits, when they dissolve the boundaries that confine us and urge us to extend the potentialities of our imperfect, broken, incomplete selves.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

houseofthespirits The full force of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits didn’t hit me until the Epilogue, when Alba, the youngest member of the Trueba family, realizes that to go forward, she must reject the generational cycle of violence and revenge and choose love.

The prose is vivid and evocative. The narrative rolls out like kite string in a windstorm. The characters are deep, quirky, and endearingly flawed. Some, like the ethereal and otherworldly Clara, have only a tentative foothold in this world. How cool is that?

Formerly powerful Esteban Trueba, human hurricane, longtime congressman of the deposed establishment right, serial rapist, oppressor general of basically anyone who comes into contact with him, is unable to save the only thing left in the world that he loves — his granddaughter Alba  — after she is disappeared post-coup by the military regime. It’s not until he entreats Tránsito Soto, a whore-turned madam, that Alba is returned. Raped and broken in body but healing, she vows to “break that terrible chain” of violence, oppression, and vengeance.

It would be very difficult for me to avenge all those who should be avenged, because my revenge would be just another part of the same inexorable rite. I have to break that terrible chain.

Pride, vengeance, family, loyalty, and survival all figure heavily in this amazing novel that I’ll probably be unpacking for as long as I live. I want to thank Lori McLeese for putting her beloved Isabel Allende on my radar.

January, 2016

 

M Train by Patti Smith

mtrainpattismithPart memoir, part elegy, part reverie. M Train, by Patti Smith, is a captivating look at a working artist’s inspiration, fodder, obsessions, and processes.

I’d known of Patti Smith for a long time (if only mostly because she wrote Because the Night, a staple song I’ve seen Springsteen perform often over the years).  A seed of interest bloomed in my brain after listening to her fascinating interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

What struck me was the way Smith spoke: she’s an original thinker, unburdened by clichés, erudite without pretension, and wholly generous in spirit. This too, encapsulates M Train.

Cafés are Patti’s “portal” to writing — a place where she communes with her art, her obsessions, and those she’s lost over brown toast, olive oil, and copious cups of coffee. Patti almost opened her own café once: she went so far as to put down a security deposit and renovate only to abandon her dream to follow a boy (Fred “Sonic” Smith) to Michigan.

Given to quests and ritual, Patti plucks stones from a notorious penal colony in northwest French Guiana to present to poet Jean Genet who “aspired” to be incarcerated there only to “fail” when the prison closed. She visits the graves of Japanese authors; she photographs Sylvia Plath’s grave several times. She buys a dilapidated bungalow sight unseen in Rockaway Beach months before Hurricane Sandy annihilated the coast. (Her tiny bungalow survives, requiring major repairs.)

This book is fascinating and layered. It’s more melancholy stream-of-consciousness than memoir, a fever dream chronicling an artistic funk at age 66.

Some passages are dense with oblique references to writers I’ve never heard of, much less read. Almost ethereally ruminative,  I found some of the imagery difficult to penetrate, but with Patti, I sense that doesn’t matter: you absorb what you can, obsess on it for a bit, and move on to a new fascination. After all, as she says, “All doors are open to the believer.”

December, 2015

Favorite passages from M Train by Patti Smith

Love the turn of of phrase here:

Without noticing, I slip into a light yet lingering malaise. Not a depression, more like a fascination for melancholia, which I turn in my hand as if it were a small planet, streaked in shadow, impossibly blue.

On Smith’s father’s “mathematical curiosity” — his own system for handicapping race horses. It’s the image of the book that I love. (His personal obsession and treasure wrapped in jeweller’s cloth.)

A journal wrapped in jeweller’s cloth, noting wins and losses from imaginary bets, kept in the left-hand drawer. He never spoke about his system but he laboured over it religiously. He was neither a betting manor had the resources to bet. He was a factory man with a mathematical curiosity, handicapping heaven, searching for patterns, and a portal of probability opening up onto the meaning of life.

The found compass:

If I got lost along the way I had a compass that I had found embedded in a pile of wet leaves I was kicking my way through. The compass was old and rusted but it still worked, connecting the earth and stars. It told me where I was standing and which way was west but not where I was going and nothing of my worth.

Leaves are vowels:

A sudden gust of wind shakes the branches of trees scattering a swirl of leaves that shimmer eerily in the bright filtered light. Leaves as vowels, whispers of words like a breath of net. Leaves are vowels. I sweep them up trying to find the combinations I am looking for.

A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence

ajestofgodRachel Cameron is a spinster. She’s only 34-years old, but the school teacher from the fictional town of Manawaka, Manitoba, is almost as childlike as her grade twos.

She’s virginal and anxiety-laden. Her inner monologue is a cacophony of second guesses.  She agonizes over what others might think of her; she analyzes exchanges with her overbearing, manipulative mother. Her first instinct is to apologize to anyone for anything — to her mother, school principal Siddley, her friend Calla, and summer fling Nick — but she’s not without some self-awareness:

Something must be the matter with my way of viewing things. I have no middle view. Either I fix on a detail and see it as though it were magnified — a leaf with all its veins perceived, the fine hairs on the back of a man’s hands — or else the world recedes and becomes blurred, artificial, indefinite, an abstract painting of a word.

Along comes Nick Kazlik, a grade 11 teacher home for the summer holidays to spend time with his aging parents on their dairy farm. Nick is Rachel’s key to a delayed, condensed, and frenzied adolescence on her way to adulthood.

A slang-slinging smooth talker, Nick’s only interested in one thing. Rachel — despite the potential for a pregnancy that would induce apoplectic levels of shame for her and her mother in their backward little prairie town — can’t resist his Slavic charms.

Laurence does a great job depicting sexual politics in early 1960s rural Canada, a place where women were in charge of acquiring birth control because (according to men) “it’s better like that” and “fixing themselves” after sex despite zero access to contraceptives.

Rachel can’t win. Everyone in town knows she’s unmarried. Asking her long-time family doctor for birth control would annihilate her reputation; it’s out of the question. Having the baby would induce immutable shame for Rachel, her mother, and especially the child, who as a bastard would be marked in Manawaka, doomed by whispered innuendo its entire life.

Manawaka is a place where an unwanted pregnancy means considering ways to flee the problem (leaving town, abortion, suicide).  It’s a place where men say things like:

Sh, sh, darling. It’s all right. I won’t go off in you.

Only to be quickly followed by:

“Oh hell, darling,” he says, “I meant to get out before that happened, but I –“

You can’t help but root for Rachel who finally  wrests control of her life from her mother — a cloying, pill-dependent, weak-hearted guilt machine — by leaving Manawaka behind for an adult life on the coast infused with possibility, a place where:

Anything may happen, where I’m going.

Such a beautiful and stark novel, much like the prairie on which it’s set.

— December, 2015

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

thestoneangelA fitting alternate title for The Stone Angel might have been Pride and Prejudice, but of course, by the time Margaret Laurence’s magnificent novel came out in 1964, that title was already long taken.

I’d read and loved this book as required reading in high school. Over two decades later, I’d long forgotten the beautiful prose and central plot. With several (excellent) fantasy novels in my recent reading, I longed for something closer to home. The Stone Angel, grounded in simple dirt and sweat, heavy with imagery and metaphors only a harsh prairie climate can offer, delivers — over 50 years post-publication.

The stone angel — the massive, expensive, sightless marble statue in the Manawaka cemetery — is monument to “her who relinquished her feeble ghost as I gained my stubborn one,” says Hagar Shipley, reflecting on her life at age 90, referencing her mother in the opening lines of the book.

Pitted from snow and wind and eventually toppled by random vandals — the stone angel symbolizes Hagar: her inability to love, and her tenuous grip on a civilized and respectable life.

Satin and silver and true, everlasting happiness are forever out of Hagar’s grasp — not derailed by coarse, underachieving men — but by Hagar herself. A woman who realizes all too late in life — at the very last second in fact — that she is incapable of humility, she’s forever finding fault, hung up on superficial flaws of character,  behaviour, and appearance.

Hagar is blind to that which should bring her happiness — her children, her husband Bram Shipley — the handsome man who blows his nose with his fingers, his massive winter coat pockets bursting with “scraps of frayed binder twine, a bag of sticky peppermints bearded with bits of fluff. Never of course, a handkerchief.”

Always worried about appearances, Hagar cannot relax enough to love her husband, her children, or herself. There is always the fear that others may observe and find her wanting:

I would have wished it. This knowing comes upon me so forcefully, so shatteringly, and with such a bitterness as I have never felt before. I must have always have wanted that — simply to rejoice. How is it I never could? I know. I know. Or have I always known, in some far crevice of my heart, some care too deeply buried, too concealed? Every good joy I might have held, in my man or any child of mine or even the plain light of morning, of walking the earth, all were forced to a standstill by brake of proper appearances — oh proper to whom? When did I ever speak the heart’s truth?

Hagar, (Hebrew for “flight” or “stranger”) is drought in human form. Devoid of love, warmth, acceptance, humility, and forgiveness, those around her wither and die like tall grass under a relentless prairie sun:

Pride was my wilderness and the demon that led me there was fear. I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains with me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched.

This book is about expectations dashed, about self-imposed shame, and the realization that you can’t take it all back. When it comes to human feelings, there is no do-over.  “Nothing can take away those years” and the damage they’ve wrought.

The prose is exceptionally beautiful. Despite the heavy themes, this book holds hope as heady as the smell of fresh cut grass and blooming lilac bushes in a Manitoba June. The Stone Angel is worth your time.

December, 2015

Favorite passages from The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

On Regina Weese:

…for she was a flimsy, gutless creature, bland as egg custard, caring with martyred devotion for an ungrateful fox-voiced mother year in and year out.

On peonies:

In summer the cemetery was rich and thick as syrup with the funeral-parlour perfume of the planted peonies, dark crimson and wallpaper pink, the pompous blossoms hanging leadenly, too heavy for their light stems, bowed down with the weight of themselves and the weight of the rain, infested with upstart ants that sauntered through the plush petals as though to the manner born.

On lilacs:

The lilacs grew with no care given them, and in the early summer they hung like bunches of mild mauve grapes from branches with leaves like dark green hearts, and the scent of them was so bold and sweet you could smell nothing else, a seasonal mercy.

I read The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence over the holidays. Over 50 years post-publication, it’s still a fantastic read.

The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin

kingdomofgodscover.jpg Can a brutal, elitist, entrenched ruling race change for the good? Read The Kingdom of Gods — the third instalment in N.K. Jemisin’s excellent Inheritance Trilogy and find out.

Book three follows Sieh, eldest godling of Nahadoth, Itempas, and Enefa. Sieh, the god of childhood — mischief-making eternal boy extraordinaire — is aging, and no one knows why. Does his shocking transformation signal the end, or a new beginning?

The Kingdom of Gods explores antithetical pairs: love and loneliness, loyalty and betrayal,  vengeance and mercy, and honesty and corruption. What I loved about this book is that it shows us that we don’t have to repeat the negative patterns and cycles entrenched in our so-called natures. Once you comprehend your true nature you can use that strength to evolve, to create a new, positive cycle. Yes, sometimes it takes surrender, self-sacrifice, and relinquishing control, but nothing worth having is ever easy.

The Kingdom of Gods shows us we can embrace differences like race and gender provided you transcend mere tolerance and acceptance to get to mutual respect.  After all, as Sieh says, “Life is never only one thing.”

All these weighty themes and a magical realm not unlike our own? Fascinating, complex, wonderfully flawed characters? A delightful, loyal sun-pet given to endearing tantrums worn about the neck of a godling?  Yes, please. This is a meaty and satisfying read that deserves your time.

I read this book back to back, twice.

— November and December, 2015