Oh, the places I’ve gone…

At the Shell station cafe where H. and I stopped for an ice cream after a walk on the Point Roberts beach, I spotted a “take one, leave one” shelf of books. Although I had nothing to leave, I scanned the titles. Turn Right at Machu Picchu caught my attention, so I took it. I would bring it back or leave another — next time.

By this small chance, this small curiosity, I was off to Peru, following author Mark Adams as he followed in the paths of Hiram Bingham III who was credited, though not entirely accurately, with “discovering” that Inca site visited by thousands of tourists today. I have never forgotten reading for some literature course — it must have been in university — Peter Shaffer’s play The Royal Hunt of the Sun, the magnificent Atahuallpa Inca betrayed by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro. I’ve taken the slender book with its blue cover along to every place we’ve lived since, on account of its first impact on me, and now I opened it again, saw my markings, my underlinings, and re-read the play, travelling not only to a place but to the past — a time of confrontation between two civilizations but my own past as well, and my encounter with a powerful and unsettling text.

“I like to read in a literary stream of consciousness, unplanned, meandering, one book leading to another in an organic fashion that I need not think about too deeply,” blogger and reader extraordinaire Kerry Clare wrote some time ago. “[F]or the most part, I let the books decide.” And so it is for me. I do plan, but books assert themselves into these plans, and I’ve noticed the meandering lately, and the places I’ve gone — a stationary version of Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go! Reading is an experience of time and place, just as physical travel is. If I had a so-called bucket list, Machu Picchu would not be on it, for I feel satisfied with having been there via these books and, while reading, looking up internet photos of the details. (Much as I’ve walked the Camino several times from my chair and feel it will have to be, at my age, enough.)

After Peru I went to northern England in an enactment of Old Briton in Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, drawn there by hearing Moss speak with Eleanor Wachtel, and similarly, per a Writers and Company (CBC) conversation, to Germany during the Second World War and beyond (into the complicated coming to terms with it) with Nora Klug. Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home was a journey of text and graphics that made me unable to read anything else for several days after. Some books are like that: they fasten me into themselves so thoroughly in a kind of awe or vast sorrow or mystery that by the last page all I hear are its echoes and I just have to stay in that space for a while, listening still.

In a thrift store I found a pristine hardcover copy of Helen Humphrey’s first novel, Leaving Earth, and for a time I circled Toronto with two daring women aviators, back in the 1930s when such feats of daring and panache were all the rage. I was astonished at the poetry of Humphrey’s narrative of this long, long circling. I also found the autobiography of Madeleine Albright, U.S. Secretary of State during Bill Clinton’s second term, and I read Madame Secretary, unsure why, for I hadn’t intended on such a book. But the book decided. It informed me and gave me context for what’s happening in American politics now, and because bile sits in my throat on account of the current scene, perhaps I needed an intelligent knowing voice, like draughts of cool spring water, to ease the discomfort.

I began Pulitzer winner The Overstory by Richard Powers and loved it — it gobsmacked me, as they say — until page 260 of 500 pages and then I felt I’d been immersed in trees and the story enough to know it and simply paged through to the end. But I did read — entirely — Ariel Gordon’s book of essays Treed, because I love the cover and because I know Ariel and because the book took me back to Winnipeg, where we lived for nearly four decades, and its marvellous canopy of trees. And not just to the trees of Winnipeg, but to mushrooms and Banff and rural Manitoba. I’m fond of trees, though I don’t know their names half the time; I like to touch their bark and even mutter to them if no one is around to see or hear, so the tour with Ariel, who is even fonder of trees and much more knowledgeable, was a fine education and pleasure.

These are some of my recent armchair adventures. And you? Where have books taken you this summer?

Top ten reads of 2018

Here’s my list of top reads this year to add to all the other lists that make December merry and bright.

I should explain my criteria. I didn’t pick just for writing excellence and style, though if I’d done so the list would be much longer and include the following: recent titles The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (women in prison, brisk and sympathetic); Giller winner Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (the meaning of freedom from a slaveboy’s perspective, amazing descriptions); The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (events of the Iliad from a female perspective, timely); and reaching way back to 2000, (finally) True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (the voice and images! — “When our brave parents was ripped from Ireland like teeth from the mouth of their own history…” for e.g.); and (also finally) back to 2009 and February by Lisa Moore (grief set in the wake of the Ocean Ranger disaster, powerful writing).

Rather, I’ve selected 10 books that resonated in a more personal way, that left as it were some significant residue inside. Some showed up in earlier posts; I’ve linked to these for more. In no particular order, then:

All Things Consoled (2018) by Elizabeth Hay. Because I too was bound into the decline of my elderly parents.

download (7)Becoming (2018) by Michelle Obama. I don’t know if it’s the trajectory of her life from Chicago’s South Side to the White House or her honest and passionate way of speaking or the brave self-awareness that opens towards growth – to “becoming” – or the current political situation which feels so different, or all of the above, but I was deeply moved by this book. To the point of tears at times. Moved and inspired to keep on becoming myself and making the world better where I can.

411agi+lAEL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Motherhood (2018) by Sheila Heti. Like some reviewers, I found this Giller-shortlisted “autofiction” odd and self-indulgent at first. It doesn’t have much of a plot; the narrator records, from this angle and that, her struggle whether to have a child. But, like the even more obsessive Karl Ove Knausgaard’s work, it was strangely compelling (though I refuse to give Knausgaard more than one book’s worth of space in my head) so I persevered and was rewarded in the end with intense probing of an important question, regardless of what decision is made, and then both movement and readerly satisfaction as the theme faces the narrator’s own mother. Perhaps this read also lingers with me because Heti uses the Genesis story of Jacob wrestling with the angel and I happened to be reading, at the same time, The Angel of the Left Bank by Jean-Paul Kauffman about the Delacroix painting “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” in Paris. Both books reminded me that what we wrestle with changes us, humbles us like a limp.

download (6)The Redemption of Galen Pike (2014) by Carys Davies. These are wonderful stories, quite short, and successful at a quality Susan Sontag described this way: “Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape. Alternatives to the plot ought to be felt up to the last moment.” Suspense, in other words, of the very best kind. And though the point of stories is not the extraction of moralisms such as “appearances are deceiving”, I think that we do in fact read to remember that there’s often more at play than we suppose or see. Davies’ recent novel West is also good, also short (on some reading days that’s a huge virtue), but if you want to sample Davies I suggest beginning with the stories.

Ordinary Light (2015) by Tracy K. Smith. Because she expresses mother-daughter matters with such insight, and because the environment of her growing up felt so familiar.

Women Talking (2018) by Miriam Toews. Because I was disappointed at first but then pulled in, and because the women talk their way to a simple but profound manifesto to which I’m still saying “I agree!”

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane. Because, surprisingly, this novel made me less afraid of dementia.

A Boy in Winter (2017) by Rachel Seiffert. Because, as Seiffert told Eleanor Wachtel in an interview, bravery often looks like fear. And because novels can get at the complications of living in difficult historical times better than historians do.

517yb-QXVZL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Blindness. This 1995 novel by Portuguese novelist and Nobel winner Jose Saramago grips as narrative, and also by its various possibilities as parable, including these lines about a blind writer’s words in ballpoint,“inscribed on the whiteness of the page, recorded in blindness, I am only passing through, the writer had said, and these were the signs he had left in passing.” Then, since I was immersed in this during our spring visit to family in Paraguay (I never travel without a book), an awful juxtaposition of text and life: our niece, a young grandmother, was led to us at a gathering, recently and mysteriously become blind. (Last we’ve heard, surgery didn’t work and she hasn’t yet recovered her sight).

download (8)I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death (2018) by Maggie O’Farrell. That’s a lot of close calls. One of them made my skin crawl. But in their sum this memoir provokes gratitude for the mystery of life – hers, and mine – and compassion. Plus she’s a very good writer.

 

 

Re-reading “Black Like Me”

I read John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, published in 1961, as a teenager. It affected me deeply. The details have disappeared, but the memory of its impact remains. We lived in a homogeneously white and rural community in Canada, but Griffin’s experience, albeit brief, as a white man who changed his colour via medicine and stain and thus discovered what it was like to be black in the segregated American South worked to inform and strengthen what I believed about equality and justice. In those years, as the Civil Rights movement took hold, it all seemed closer than it was geographically.

download (2)I recently re-read the book, in a 50th anniversary edition that includes additional material about Griffin’s life and work. Once more, I found it a powerful story. Over 50 years some language around racism has changed, and I suppose today he would probably be roundly criticized for “appropriation.” Certainly it’s a question to me how much it would be possible to “incarnate” another’s experience, but I have no doubt that the switch of pigment alone occasioned profound and authentic observations, and in this way, Griffin became an important in-between figure at the time. In fact, the message of the book could be summed as: I’m the same person except for the colour of my skin, yet everything about me now has become of lesser worth.

The book sold widely and Griffin had many opportunities to speak and work for better relations and understanding. Eventually he recognized that it was time for his voice to make way for Blacks, they needed to be heard speaking for themselves.

I had not remembered, if I ever knew, that Griffin was blind for a decade, only to have his sight return almost miraculously, or that he was connected with Thomas Merton and also wrote on spirituality, or that he served in the French Resistance. He mentions the latter somewhat in passing, comparing the fear he felt while black and interacting with whites, like “the nagging, focusless terror we felt in Europe when Hitler began his marches, the terror of talking with Jews (and our deep shame of it.)” It is this deep shame, expressed so honestly while experiencing “Black” as a white man, that struck me in the re-reading. When Griffin first looked at his transformed self after his regimen of medication, shaving, and stain, he was appalled. “I could feel no companionship with this new person. I did not like the way he looked.” This book is much more than a report; it’s a melancholic and disturbing and personal witness.

That my first reading noticed the plight of the Negro, as s/he was then called, and my re-reading the inner shaking and shame of the author, reminds me not only of the insidiousness of racism but how much growth is required within me, and how slowly awareness happens. Not so many years after reading Black Like Me for the first time, I was teaching Sunday School in a Mennonite church. I think it was a kindergarten age class. I showed a picture supplied by the curriculum of Jesus with children of different races. One boy said, “I don’t like the black boy. My dad says if you touch a black person you turn black.” I can’t recall how I responded but I was horrified at what the boy was being taught. Now it occurs to me that I paid no attention to the fact that the Jesus of those pictures was light-haired and blue-eyed, his skin white, instead of the brown-skinned and black-haired Mediterranean Jew he would have been.