The Margaret Laurence project

In blog-as-confessional mode today: it’s always gratifying to signal what’s been accomplished, but less gratifying to consider what was begun in high spirits and never completed.

In terms of the done, I refer to items along the right aisle of this site, where I’ve just updated “Recent essays and stories.” I was pleased that “Burial Grounds” found a home in the latest Prairie Fire. This piece grew out of concerns, when we first moved from Manitoba to British Columbia, about where I would be buried someday. All those years in Winnipeg, I’d had my eye on the beautiful Elmwood Cemetery and now we’d left it behind. (I know, I know, I worry about odd things.) I was delighted that The New Quarterly took “On the Memory Set,” a reflection launched by once trying to write a play. And, most recently, a review of Cameron Dueck’s fine book, Menno Moto, at Mennonite Historian (pg.11.)

Margaret Laurence

But the unfinished, the abandoned! Some time ago I made a list of these and it wasn’t short. This morning, needing a binder, I emptied accumulated notes for my Year of Reading Margaret Laurence project (2019), which I referenced back in December. Of four formidable women writers who shaped my sense of Canadian writing — Margaret Laurence, Mavis Gallant, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields — it’s Margaret Laurence to whom I’m most drawn. I suppose I dreamed of one of those “annualist” manuscripts, even though I find them somewhat pretentious.

I glanced through the notes, remembered how much I enjoyed reading Laurence’s African stories for the first time and two collections of her correspondence (with publisher Jack McClelland, with friend Adele Wiseman), as well as re-reading some of her novels. I also read James King’s slightly irritating biography of Laurence. I noticed in the notes that I wondered whether she would have liked me. (Another odd worry, I know.) She didn’t suffer fools gladly, as her letters attest. It was the question of my own identity as writer, I think; a hope for resonance. But it’s the stories, not the personality, that remains. Their passion, their language. (Just one image from a story in The Tomorrow Tamer, by way of illustration: “the children darted, velvety with dust.” Which makes me ache with pleasure.)

While my admiration for Margaret Laurence’s work was affirmed, I lost interest in continuing the project. But if there’s not enough wool for a blanket, I offer a narrow scarf, namely encouragement to read, or re-read, Margaret Laurence. She’s worth it. Still, and again.

 

Listening to a book

This week, beguiled by the offer of 10 Giller-winner titles FREE from Audible.ca and feeling the need to try something new during Covid-19 isolation, I downloaded Sean Michael’s Us Conductors and proceeded to listen to the book, all 11 hours 21 minutes of it.

I know I’m coming to audio books late; all of you have probably listened to dozens of them while running, walking, knitting, driving, whatever it is you do while listening to books. But indulge me please, because the experience was new and I’m still thinking about it, both the novel and the fact of listening to instead of reading it.

152EACD2-CE40-49EF-B04C-21149F599CDD_4_5005_cThe book is based on the life of Russian scientist Lev Termen, who invented the theremin, a musical instrument played without physical contact by the performer, except for contact with the invisible electric waves or whatever. (Watch the inventor play it here.) That might sound boring, but it’s a love story too, and a spy story, and a story of being in New York in the jazz age and in the Soviet Gulag. The fictional Termen, who narrates, speaks crisply like a scientist but observes and describes like a psychologist and poet. It’s quite wonderful.

At first I didn’t like listening. I was afraid I was missing something by not seeing the words. I actually own the print version, just hadn’t gotten to it yet, so for a while I followed along in the book. But that seemed silly. One or the other, I told myself. Listening, I could follow easily enough but when I stopped I didn’t feel as if I knew where I was, as if I’d been looking down at the path through a forest instead of around me the way I do when tracking text with my eyes.

Then I decided to work on a jigsaw puzzle at the same time, which ironically focussed my listening concentration and then I listened and listened and the hours advanced, and I was there, in Termen’s America and ship cabin and Kolyma and Moscow. I was there the whole time and I heard Termen telling his story and I still feel affected by where I’ve been and what I’ve heard.

Some time ago a friend who listened to a book club’s selection asked me if I thought that “counted.” I said Yes. I would still say Yes. As far as retention goes, I feel I know the book as well as if I’d read it. The content is the same. Nevertheless, I’m puzzling over Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” and wondering how to articulate the difference. Because it is different. Hearing the book felt intimate, unsteady in some way. It seemed to add a layer of vulnerability, as if another’s voice into my ear, instead of my eyes and personal voice of my mind, both skewed and strengthened perception.

Oddly, I now feel like reading Us Conductors. But why would I? Don’t I know it already? Am I simply looking for familiar ground? At the same time, I feel like listening to another book, to test the book-listening experience again.

Do you listen to rather than read books? What is it like for you?

2019 in memorable books

The everywhere-lists of December send me to my book journal, to review my reading experiences of the year and distill them into a favourites list of my own.

It’s impossible, though. Favourites isn’t the best word in any case; memorable–for a variety of reasons–might be better. So let me list a few, or maybe more than a few, of my memorable books of 2019. (If discussed in earlier posts I’ve linked rather than repeat myself.)

Because of the child

One of the granddaughters, 9, came down the stairs to greet me with her hands behind her back. She was hiding Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, which she wanted to give me, she said, because she’d enjoyed it and “because you love books.” Because of her, I read it immediately. It was a quick, touching read. Please don’t tell her, but she’s getting another Kate DiCamillo book for Christmas — The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, about a vain, disinterested rabbit who learns to love. The writing and illustrations are exquisite. (The best children’s books delight adults too.)

The Margaret Laurence project

This year I embarked on a project to re-read — or read, in the case of her early Africa work — Margaret Laurence, reflecting as I went. (A kind of devotional exercise, I suppose.) I’m not finished — other books keep getting in the way — but I got through This Side Jordan, The Tomorrow Tamer, The Prophet’s Camel Bell, and The Stone Angel, as well as Laurence’s letter exchanges with friend Adele Wiseman and publisher Jack McClelland. I realized again why she was such a force at a certain time in Canadian Literature, why she was formative for me as well. I hope to continue this project in 2020, and may say more about it then, but for now a bit of trivia: I discovered that Laurence wrote much of The Stone Angel in a small cottage at Point Roberts, which is just across the border from us, several kilometres away, where we sometimes walk by the water or fly kites with the grands. I don’t know why I like knowing that she worked near by, but I do.

Insights and Images

Mary Pipher’s Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age is a gentle, wise book about resilience in my current stage. Diana Butler Bass’s Grateful serves up insights on gratitude that go beyond personal practice (though that’s important) to public and communal gratitude — life not as quid pro quo but pro bono. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson is short and humorous and also appropriate for my current stage (and better than Marie Kondo’s philosophy, especially now that she’s gone rogue with online products to further clutter one’s life.) And I loved Robert Caro’s Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, with its stories and advice.

Giller shortlisted Lampedusa by Steven Price doesn’t have much of a plot (it’s about a man trying to finish the book that will be his legacy) but the writing is immersive. Price is a poet and it shows. For one example: “Far below the sea was a watery eggshell blue, the white sun millionfold and turning on the surface like blades.”

I read The White Bone (1998) by Barbara Gowdy this year, which I hadn’t read before, because it was chosen — by Margaret Atwood no less — as a Globe and Mail’s bookclub selection. Although I’m fond of elephants, I merely persevered with the novel. By now I shouldn’t doubt my own tastes when I don’t care for a book “everyone else” seems to adore, I wonder what’s wrong with me. But all this to say that in the midst of, and after, The White Bone, I fell into Penelope Lively’s Passing On (1989) with a kind of ardent relief. It’s about a brother sister finding their way post the death of their powerful, bossy mother. Lively is one of my favourite writers. I saw myself in: “Helen read a great deal… She read anything; she read in all directions. She read to learn and she read to experience… She became book dependent, for better or for worse.” And here too, a gorgeous image about light: “…the river gleaming below and the city reaching away in an infinite complex parade of shining white and pearly grey with light snapping from windows and cars.” Light snapping. Exactly.

People and Places I Know

Reading books by people I know, or about places I know, is doubly pleasurable, for the experience of the book itself and for the extra resonance the familiar voice or terrain provides. And, for what one learns about that known place or person. Into this category fell the fifteen 2018 books about Winnipeg I read as a juror for the Carol Shields Award early in the year and then later, Ariel Gordon’s Treed and Sally Ito’s memoir The Emperor’s Orphans. Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Daughters was memorable for this reason too.

Intensity

Booker winner Milkman by Anna Burns is densely written, almost stream-of-consciousness, both psychologically penetrating and ominous throughout. Set during the Irish Conflict, a nameless young woman is being stalked. We feel the helplessness of that, as well as the paralysis of rumour and pressure in the community. She wants nothing more than to be left to herself, reading-while-walking, and not current books either! But, “The truth was dawning on me of how terrifying it was not to be numb, but to be aware, to have facts, retain facts, be present, be adult.”

Five Wives by Joan Thomas also felt intense, because, as it was for Thomas, the story of Operation Auca (and the death of five missionary men in 1956) was a well-known and powerful one in my childhood and youth. Although the narrative had shifted and enlarged over the years –become less mythic — I wondered whether another narrative (this one fictionalizing the five missionary women involved, which struck me as both risky and brave) would free those women or trap them again. I’m still thinking about that question. Thomas compells us with great skill into all the various places and people of the Ecuador events, creating suspense even in a story whose outcome is known from the beginning. We enter the story from various positions and from within various characters; I think her use of LIFE photographer Cornell Capa as one point of view is brilliant.

And more

The daily goings-on in a used bookstore shouldn’t be interesting, should it? In the hands of Shaun Bythell and The Diary of a Bookseller it was. The villain, of course, is Amazon, which has definitely complicated the world of bookselling.

But this post is getting much much too long! So I’ll simply close by mentioning other memorable reads of 2019. Each mention may be considered a recommendation. Dear Evelyn by Kathy Page. The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es. Immigrant City by David Bezmozgis. Normal People by Sally Rooney. Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home by Nora Krug. Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep. Another World by Pat Barker. Sweetland by Michael Crummey. River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey by Helen Prejean.

Were any of these memorable for you? What are your recommendations for me?