borrowing bones

The occasional weblog of writer Dora Dueck

Besides grape jelly

IMG_5272While the grape jelly lids pop and seal in the kitchen, a quick note from my desk to say what I’m up to on the writing front, as promised in the previous post. I’ve got that novel that I seem to have been working on forever more or less done (again) and cooling in a corner, but in the meanwhile have been venturing into some creative non-fiction. I’m pleased that one essay-length foray into CNF has landed on the shortlist of The Quarterly Review‘s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest, and will be published in that most excellent journal some time next year. It’s called “Return Stroke” and weaves together the father-in-law I never knew, lightning (he was struck by it and his mother killed), and the making of biography.

But the project I’m busy with at the moment (the grape jelly a minor and necessary distraction, me being constitutionally unable to let that many grapes from our own vines go to waste) is a memoir. I described it this way to the Manitoba Arts Council: “A memoir about two years in the Paraguayan Chaco–on the themes of belonging and identity as immigrant, mother, writer.” I’m very grateful that the MAC subsequently awarded me a grant; the plan is to work at this until the end of the year. I had drafted the narrative last winter after re-reading my letters to my parents (which they had kept) and my sporadic journal from those years, 1982-4. Now the work of improving–by adding and cutting, finding the right voice and structure, and fun things like that. Unlike fiction, I can’t make anything up, so my only option is to make what happened interesting. And yes, when it isn’t hard, it’s fun.colour (2)

Last notes: my review of Rob Zacharias’ book Rewriting the Break Event: Mennonites & Migration in Canadian Literature is online here; my review of Rudy Wiebe’s Come Back appears in the current issue of Rhubarb magazine.



Tidying Up

Recently, and almost back-to-back, I read two non-fiction books that are quite different, yet about the same thing: tidying up.

51GcOr7cfuL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Plum Johnson’s They Left us Everything: a memoir, which won the RBC Taylor Prize for non-fiction earlier this year, is a compelling account of Johnson’s attempt to clean up the large family home, which was crammed to the rafters, after the death of her mother. What she expects will be a task of weeks stretches into years; there is so much to sort through and get evaluated and dispose of or divide among the siblings. A book about stuff may sound boring, but it’s not, because in handling the possessions of her parents, who seemed unable to dispose of anything themselves, this eldest daughter also remembers and confronts their past, and hers. Most of all, she attempts to sort through her fraught relationship with her mother. If ambivalence about that relationship remains at book’s end, the journey proves necessary and beneficial for the daughter and is a pleasure to share as a reader.

51Kz4zmXqbL._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_Processing the past is exactly what handling possessions is all about, states Marie Kondo, author of The life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing. Hers is an easy-to-read self-help type book. It seems to have taken our possession-heavy North American culture by storm, at least if its “millions sold” is any indication. I found it chock-full of insights, some that I argued with and will probably not implement, others that resonated immediately, but all of which, if not changing my life, have at least partially changed my surroundings. (For someone who by personality needs to be in tune with her environment, that may amount to the same thing.) Read the rest of this entry »

R is for Recommend

I had read several ecstatic reviews of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, a memoir of grief via the taming of a goshawk named Mabel, so eagerly reserved the book at the library. It arrived for me then, some months later, at an inconvenient time. We were going away, plus there was a pile of other books I’d committed to already.

Fortunately, I thought, as I retrieved the book from the Reserve Shelf and signed it out, I had in the meanwhile read a dissenting opinion by a blogger whose views I appreciate. I too sometimes find myself disappointed with the latest hot thing to read. Relieved at the possibility of this being the case again, I decided I might just take a quick peek for peeking’s sake and return the book to the library unread.
H is for HawkNo such luck. I was immediately hooked. Not by the theme, for though interesting and important, grief is ubiquitous in memoir, and not by its topics of falconry or hawks or the life of T.H. White, author of Arthurian books, The Once and Future King, which winds through Macdonald’s narrative. It was the writing. Her descriptions are remarkable — “a brumous, pewter light outside, as if someone had stuck tracing paper against the glass”– and the language rushes along with both suspense and insight — “my heart is salt”– even though there is much that remains unrevealed and most everything concerns not human encounters but fear and wildness in nature and the psyche. And just when I was beginning to wonder if she would ever address the killing business, which is what hawks do–“Kill things. Make death.”–she does. I watched Macdonald train her Mabel and tramp about the fields with her like one watches something repellent yet impossibly compelling. Like one stares at an accident. It’s the kind of book that makes one ache to write like that. Read the rest of this entry »


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