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 week in Winnipeg

I spent a week in Winnipeg this June, for two main reasons. One was the burial of my mother’s ashes, in the plot next to my father’s in Glen Eden Cemetery. All but one of my seven siblings attended, from the various provinces where we live, as well as a sister-in-law, niece, nephew, and several cousins. Standing in a circle, we had a short service of remembrance with a tribute prepared by sister Viola, spontaneously added remarks by the rest of us, and songs. After the burial we went to Kildonan Park for picnic snacks prepared by our cousins. That was a good day.

My three sisters and I spent four nights in an AirBnB — a whole house for ourselves. We walked the area, also drove to various spots to re-visit memories. For example, as in the photo above, my sisters having mini-donuts at The Forks. In the photo of three brothers, you may notice they are holding their knees, and it may be because two are having knee surgery soon; knee problems seem to run in our family. What I also notice is that somewhere along the way we all got a lot older.

A second reason for being in Winnipeg was the launch of Return Stroke: Essays & Memoir. I was nervous the day of, mainly wondering if I would have an audience. I did and it went well and I’m grateful. As a writer, I treasure people’s interest and support and do not take it for granted.. Besides reading, I was privileged to engage in conversation with Mary Ann Loewen, editor of two anthologies with U of Regina Press

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Photo capture by Al Doerksen during my reading.

3551E22F-0ADB-4CDE-8B53-75AB5A6A64FCI took advantage of being in Manitoba for a private ceremony as well. I dug a small portion of Helmut’s ashes into the earth between a clump of trees in  Birds Hill Park, a favourite place for both of us over the decades we lived there. Simply a gesture, a tiny remnant, I know, but it gives me great happiness to know that “he” is also there, in that beautiful park.

I was tired after those days, those significant events, and when my siblings left for home, I wondered why I had decided to stay an additional four days and fill my schedule with visits with friends. Every one of those visits turned out to be refreshing and rich in connection, however, even surprising, in that introverts aren’t usually invigorated by a lot of “peopling.” But I was. And the sun shone brilliantly, the trees wore new green, lilacs bloomed abundantly, and there was rhubarb dessert at nearly every meal (and not a single time too many)!

“Are you writing?”

I am frequently asked, “Are you writing?” or a variation of, “What are you writing these days?” The answer is that I haven’t been doing much new writing the past year, except for one essay about Helmut’s death. I have had, however, two projects to focus on, which have given me a sense of schedule and purpose throughout the year, in the gathering, editing, and proofreading functions of writing.

One of these is Return Stroke: essays & memoir, to be published by CMU Press and released in early June. I’m still shaking my head at the surprise of this all. Sue Sorensen, my CMU Press editor for This Hidden Thing (2010), had returned as head of the Press and since we’ve kept in touch, I tossed her an inquiry about a book of nonfiction. Back in 2015 I got a Manitoba Arts Council grant to draft a memoir about our two-and-half years in Paraguay, the most interesting place I’ve lived. I did it, as proposed and promised, but nothing further happened with it. Now I wondered about revising and reducing it, then combining it with some previously published essays as well as other pieces in my files, including the new one on Helmut’s death. Before I quite grasped what was happening, I had a manuscript to her and it was accepted! I’m rather glad, actually, that it unfolded somewhat impulsively, because a book centred in my life feels decidedly more vulnerable than fiction.

I’ll let the Press talk about the book, below. Pre-order information is here. It will also be available through McNally Robinson Booksellers, where I’ll do a Winnipeg launch June 2. I have a local (Delta) event planned for June 9, and one in Abbotsford, date TBA. Thank you for sharing my gratitude–and wee bit of nervousness–about this new book.968A4166-49E0-4164-8018-07571BB46EAD_1_201_a

This is the CMU Press description of the book:

These graceful, probing personal essays by award-winning fiction writer Dora Dueck engage with a diverse range of ideas (becoming a writer, motherhood, mortality, the ethics of biography, a child’s coming-out) because in non-fiction, she writes, “the quest for meaning bows to the experience as it was.” Yet within Return Stroke, one theme in particular does resonate—change. “How wonderful,” the author writes, that our “bits of existence, no matter how ordinary, are available for further consideration—seeing patterns, facing into inevitable death, enjoying the playful circularity of then and now.”

The book’s title, Return Strokethe title of one essay, where it literally refers to lightning—suggests such a dynamic: “When I send inquiry into my past, it sends something back to me.” The topic of memory, in all its malleability, impermanence, and surprising power, is especially central to the collection’s concluding piece, an absorbing memoir of the author’s 1980s life in the Paraguayan Chaco. Whether she is discovering the more meaningful part that imagination holds within her religious faith or relating with astonishing clarity and honesty the experience of giving birth away from her home country, Dora Dueck’s beautifully written essays and memoir make her an insightful and generous companion.