Two book recommends, and comments about my own

Facebook friend Richard, whose reading taste I trust, said he loved This is Happiness by Irish writer Niall Williams, and then local friend Elsie said the same thing, and now I’ve read it and completely agree with them. It’s funny and sad and contains wonderful language and metaphors that aren’t just illuminating in a descriptive way but often carry wisdom too.

51DyA72JX3L._SY264_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_ML2_This is Happiness tells the story of a man looking back on a time when he was young, having left the priesthood after a year of study and gone to stay with his grandparents in Faha, which is about as far away and obscure in Ireland as it’s possible to be. And, it’s stopped raining. “It had stopped raining” is the entire Chapter One! During the unusual sunshine, electricity is being installed in Faha, and Christy comes to work on the installation and boards at the old people’s house. He’s also come to make things right with someone. Williams treats his characters and this small out-of-the-way community with such generous insight, it’s inspiring.

It was my brother Al, I believe, who recommended The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid some years ago. On that account, and also because of Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with him at Writers and Company. I was drawn to Hamid’s new book, The Last White Man. It’s a short book that felt like a parable.

4E0C9C92-37DD-48CF-A6F3-C6B3B9409F3FThe first sentence: “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” Ah, shades of Kafka’s opening to Metamorphosis then. The shock of this to Anders’ sense of identity is huge: is he the same person, or how is he changed? Or is he changed by how others see him? If the story feels ominous at first, there’s comfort and tenderness too, as others begin to change. The prose style has a rhythmic repetitiveness within the sentences that serves to take the reader deeper into the under-the-skin psychology of the story. As suggested by the word parable above, it has one thinking afterwards about what it all means. 

I’m not implying a triad with these two authors, but since my theme today is books, please allow a few comments about my own. It’s some five months now since Return Stroke: essays & memoir launched, and I still find myself in the surprise this particular coming-together was, and deeply grateful to CMU Press, headed by Sue Sorensen, for doing the book. And I’m grateful for readers, as always, and for some lovely reviews so far (please see the Return Stroke page on the weblog).

I was especially touched by Kerry Clare saying: “What I love so much about Dueck’s writing and her thinking is that nothing is fixed, and she is eternally curious, taking notes and learning, about the past and the present, much of her work concerned with memory and history, but in such a vital, living way, not as an affirmation but a process of discovery.” What touched me here was not the compliment as much as her articulating exactly what I’ve felt my personal writing is, or, I should say, what I’ve wanted it to be — a process of discovery. Without that as aim, there would be no point, for my history doesn’t lend itself to the autobiographical endeavour of some great achievement. So, thanks be for such encouragement!

For those who may be interested to buy this book or any of my other titles (pictured on the right on the weblog page; a click on the title will take you there), for yourself or a gift, the two Turnstone titles are available through Amazon. CMU Press is so far resisting the use of that mega-corporation, and I respect that decision. Their two, though, indeed all, are in the distribution system and can be ordered from your local bookstore, or directly from the publisher. I also realize that buying books isn’t an option for everyone, so may I suggest asking your library to purchase the one you might want to read? — Okay, enough of this. I don’t do this often, but I did want to remind about it, and now I’ve done so! Thanks for your interest and support!

A small astonishment

“Hello house!” I said, stepping into the apartment after two weeks away. (It’s an apartment, not a house, but I pretend.) “Hello Helmut!” I continued. (An old habit.) No answer from either, except the answer that is the quiet familiarity and Geborgenheit (security/shelter/comfort) I feel in my home. The place was warm, but all seemed well. I opened some windows and stepped on to the balcony.

I’d not asked anyone to water, in my absence, the two plants I have out there — some kind of vining plant with bell shaped flowers whose name I’ve forgotten and a pot of geraniums — for I considered them both summer specific and summer would soon be over anyway. Before I left I had tucked the geraniums out of sight of my L-shaped balcony so their demise would not be witnessed by anyone who might happen to look up.

The vine whose name I’ve forgotten now looked pale and rather worse for the drought I’d imposed on it but was still alive. Then I rounded the corner and was greeted — to my great surprise — by a display of red such as I’ve not seen all season. And this in spite of two weeks of no water.

It seems a human tendency — at least it is for me — to attempt to enlarge such surprises or sightings into bigger truths, lessons as it were, like persistence in this case or blooming in spite of etc. etc., but this time I checked these thoughts. I realized this could be simply itself, could be what it was: a delight of red geraniums, a small astonishment, an unexpected welcome back.  77B212A3-8B36-49B4-809D-A6AD605A2FCD

Stories monuments tell

I’m home again after a two-week “highlights” tour of Britain with friend Eunice Sloan, and reflecting now on personal highlights – Evensong at Westminster Abbey, for one, Stonehenge, for two, and so on and on. I won’t bore you with a list but want to share a few thoughts instead about public monuments, erected for commemoration, which become for tourists a kind of stand-in for whole swaths of history and meaning.

Ever since taking a course about memory and commemoration for my history degree, I’ve been intrigued by the art of monuments. They both reflect and shape public memory; they’re never entirely neutral. (Think, for example, of the religious imagery wrapped into many memorials of the First World War.)

Some statues of persons we saw on the trip did the work of reminder, of a “big” person but also everything associated with that life, as with the figure of Churchill across from the Parliament, which was being polished and waxed the day we viewed him, or a possible likeness of William Shakespeare in Stratford on Avon, where I just barely managed to squeeze in a photo before yet another tourist rushed forward to pose beside him as if to imbibe his genius or signal they’d had to study one of his plays in high school.

In the case of the Beatles, I couldn’t resist rushing in either, to claim a connection I suppose, however tenuous. The monument to Prince Albert in Kensington Gardens seemed complicated, inaccessible, layered – to my mind – with the sentimentality and obsessive ornamentation we associate with Victorian attitudes to grief.

Two monuments, each involving two men, told me stories that have been playing in my mind, as stories do.

One was at Trafalgar Square in London, where the fourth plinth brings contemporary art to the public square. A new piece called “Antelope” had been unveiled just days earlier. It shows two men, backs to one another, one considerably larger than the other.

Here’s the description from a London press release:

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Samson Kambalu’s bronze resin sculpture restages a photograph of Baptist preacher and pan-Africanist John Chilembwe and European missionary John Chorley, taken in 1914 in Nyasayland (now Malawi) at the opening of Chilembwe’s new Baptist church.

Chilembwe is wearing a hat, defying the colonial rule that forbade Africans from wearing hats in front of white people, and is almost twice the size of Chorley. By increasing his scale, the artist is elevating Chilembwe and his story, revealing the hidden narratives of underrepresented peoples in the history of the British Empire in Africa, and beyond.

John Chilembwe was a Baptist pastor and educator who led an uprising in 1915 against British colonial rule in Nyasaland triggered by the mistreatment of refugees from Mozambique and the conscription to fight German troops during WWI. He was killed and his church destroyed by the colonial police. 

It’s a powerful piece, not particularly subtle about its anti-colonialist message, but inspiring and necessary in our time. I’m glad I got to see it.

I’m also glad I got to see a relatively recent sculpture on the Isle of Man which celebrates the achievements of two British mountaineering “legends,” John Mackenzie and Norman Collie, who climbed together in the Cuillin mountains of Scotland for many years, making various discoveries in the terrain and developing climbing techniques. Their story as told us on the tour related the large difference in class between scientist/professor Mackenzie and crofter/guide Collie, and perhaps it could be said that the way the men are posed (Mackenzie standing) pronounces on that, but we were also told about a friendship so deep they were buried beside each other. What speaks to me here is not their relative positions as much as the way each gazes upward in the same direction, to the mountains, as if to say it was the intensity of that shared love that united them.

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photo: Eunice Sloan