Sunday, January 18, 2015

Recent Reads

The books I've been reading lately seem to hold recollections of childhood, coming of age, and the quest for meaning and happiness.  I wonder if all books have these elements to some degree?

If there was another thread in these recent reads, it was family.

Three of the six titles were book club selections, and it just happened that they featured  dysfunctional family situations. But then, what's 'normal' these days, anyway? Besides, dysfunctional families make far more interesting reading.

Son of a Certain Woman, Wayne Johnston: The author opened his lecture at the Heliconian by saying his book was about a typical Newfoundland family in St. John's. A lesbian single mom with a disfigured son, who lives with a man called 'Pops' she sleeps with once a month, but whose lover is the sister of the man who is the biological father, who left town before the son was born. Oh yes, and the son lusts after his mother while simultaneously having a call to the priesthood. This is a very funny and irreverent tale. The Globe and Mail called it "expertly discomfiting".

All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews: Light reading for the Christmas holidays, this was not. One sister is asking the other to help her end her life. The one seeking relief doesn't have a terminal illness but chronic depression, despite an amazing career as a concert pianist and other life blessings. There are frequent flashbacks to their childhood, growing up as Mennonites in a small, tightly knit rural community, and their fight to invent lives of their own. NYT book review points out the dialogue is realistic and funny, and somehow, almost magically, Toews gets away with having her characters discuss things like books and art and the meaning of life without seeming pretentious or precious; they’re simply smart, decent and confused.

Big Brother, Lionel Shriver:  The story revolves around Pandora, the little sister, and her attempt to save her big brother Edison. She sets aside a year to help him lose almost 200 pounds, and in the process puts her marriage on the line. I'm sorry to have missed the book club discussion on this one! The novel does such a great job questioning the social, personal and interpersonal issues around obesity. Such as: Why is the dieting industry the only profitable business in the world with a 98 percent failure rate?; Why do more than 80% of people who lose weight gain it back?; and the crux of the story, How far would you go to save the life of one of your siblings? The author wrote this book after the death of her morbidly obese brother.  She makes a point of saying the 'Big Brother' featured isn't her own, but a composite character. The characters may be fictional but the story certainly rings true, especially as I was reading this while on a diet. NYT Book review here.

Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury: Not just the families are dysfunctional in this book. The society is a dystopia where books are burned, television plays non-stop, drugs are on-demand, war is imminent, and everyone is happy, so happy. The hero in the story, a fireman who earns his living burning books, begins to question the meaning of his life. He lives with a wife whose ambition is to complete the 4th wall in her parlour to improve the time she spends with "the family" -  not her husband, but the characters on the television screen. The book should make for an interesting discussion at the January BPYC Book Club meeting.

London, Edward Rutherford: Many dysfunctional families through 2,000 years of history comprise the historic coming-of-Ages story Rutherford tells in London. The author makes history entertaining. Just like his other novels, this one is a nice thick read. I preferred Paris more - the book I mean - it was told in a less linear fashion and the characters invited a deeper relationship with me as a reader.  I wonder if any of his novels will become TV episodic dramas? Rutherford certainly has fans and historic dramas seem to be doing well these days...

Knee Deep in Claret, Billy Kay: This is the history of wine in Scotland. The  non-fiction book tells the story of wine through the centuries. At first I thought the book wouldn't fit with the underlying thread of dysfunctional family, but, if you cast countries as siblings and start to ponder how all the wars between England and France impacted Scotland, it tells the story of a dysfunctional family. Man through the ages. No wonder we invented wine!

Boat Show

For a couple of years now we've been stalled on whether to get a new boat or fix up the one we have. We need: to be able to raise the sails from the cockpit without going on deck; clutch that operates a bit more smoothly.

Hopped on and off a few new yachts. There is no shortage to choose from if money were no object. But the Tes 28 from Poland was a beautiful sailboat. Lots of light, great use of space, wood interior, value-priced.

We are more likely to get a "new to us boat" than a brand new one, but it is always nice to dream. If we do buy new, I'd like less of a draft, to increase the number of places we could visit on the lake.

Also took in a few presentations and really enjoyed Distant Shores look at sailing into Paris and then on through the canals in the French countryside.  What a trip that would be! Paul and Sheryl Shard sail the world and produce a television series of their adventures. Among their journeys: North America, Bahamas, Carribean, Northern Europe, Mediterranean, Africa and Atlantic. Very inspiring.

The other presentation we took in was on our own Trent Severn canal system, more suited to power boaters. Although sail boats with shallow draft can make the trip, they need to de-mast for many of the bridges.  Founded in 1833, the waterway now extends to 44 locks and 39 bridges over 386 kilometers. The Big Chute Marine Railway actually carries boats across land in a cradle, and apparently some canoes and kayaks have gone along for the ride.

This year I came home with some Bees Wax Wood Preserver and Touch of Oranges wood cleaner. They both smell amazing and have already done a great job on the wood in my house - the pair should buff up Yondering very nicely!

Looking forward to getting Yondering back in the water and ship-shape. 104 'sleeps' before she is floating in her slip.

Saturday, January 17, 2015


It has been a long time since we took a winter vacation. I was looking at Aruba or Costa Rica for places to rent and came across one I really liked. It looked different from the others, with a view that overlooked sailboats in a harbour. I sent it off to Rob, saying this is the place I want to stay! Good thing he realized it was in another country altogether before we got the plane tickets!

Still not sure if it is properly pronounced  An-tee-ga or An-tee-gwa. Googling shows both pronunciations, but also reveals the Ant-tee-gwa in Guatamala Mexico. Guess we should double-check those plane tickets after all. Natives call it something entirely different: Waladli or Wadadli.

Temperatures should be high 70s for our visit. Warm but not sweltering. 365 different beaches to explore. We are thinking of renting a car to visit as many as we can, even though driving happens on the opposite side we're used to. Who knows, we may even make it out on a sailboat.


I love Ian Brown's columns in the Globe, they resonate so perfectly. So many wonderful insights in such a brief sampling of text. Thoughts distilled:

Ian Brown: A new year. A new notebook

From fragments I have written, I gather a sense of the time that poured by. It's never what I remembered or planned

I once knew a wealthy Toronto socialite who liked to fly the Concorde from New York to Paris between Christmas and the new year. "Just under four hours is the perfect length of time to copy out a new address book," she said one afternoon at the hairdresser's. She had her hair done by the same stylist in the same way at the same time on the same day every week.

I know this because I wrote it down. She was a well-organized woman, tightly wound.
I thought of her the other day, as I do every January, when I buy a new notebook for the new, outstretched year. I've used the same notebooks for decades: 9 cm by 14 cm, small enough to fit in my inside breast pocket, stiff cover, narrow lined, elastic loop closure, anchored ribbon bookmark.
It's a neurotic habit, a personal notebook. It can work as a diary, but it's not intended for publication. Anaïs Nin, who kept a diary from the age of 11 to the day she died at 73 (it started as a letter to her absent father), always planned to publish hers. So did Charles Ritchie, the Canadian diplomat who gave us The Siren Years. Virginia Woolf, on the other hand, never intended anyone to see her notebooks, hence their wandering and thoroughly private tone. She wrote them quickly, after tea, with a dip nib pen.

A diary is an accounting. A notebook, by contrast, is to record details that reach out as you pass, for reasons not immediately apparent. A notebook is full of moments from days that have yet to become something. "Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether," Joan Didion wrote in a famous essay about notebooks, "lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss."

A notebook doesn't have to be a daily or lifelong habit. Woolf started one before she turned 15, but didn't stick to the practice until she was in her 30s. One of my favourite note-makers, critic Kenneth Tynan (he wrote Oh! Calcutta!), began in 1971, and kept it up for the last nine years of his life. He used his notebooks to plan his summer holidays, but also to detail how he was once robbed of $14,000 in traveller's cheques from his wallet, whereupon he replaced them and was robbed again. He copied down his best lines – "Lazy is the passive form of selfish" – and his best theories (he was convinced P.G. Wodehouse's novels were a success because Jeeves was a Freudian father figure, but restricted to the job of a servant). There's a lot of gossip and even more sex. In the summer of 1978, during an act of coitus, Tynan manages to break his penis. He never really recovers.

John Cheever recorded not only his heterosexual affairs but his homosexual ones, as well as vigorous romps with his wife. "Vodka for breakfast. Mary mentions her mother for the third time in 35 years." That's Cheever, defined in a single note.

You don't need to be a writer to keep a notebook. Director Steven Soderbergh releases an annual list of everything he has watched, read or listened to in the previous year. 2014's includes three viewings of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

My new notebook is fresh, and empty, and waiting; the old one is fat and filled, handled and spent. The new book is hope, the old one unavoidable. This morning I made a note in the newbie of the way the sun rising from the southeast hits the pear tree outside my kitchen window: The branches were both silhouetted and highlighted along their upper edges, and I realized for the first time that this is how early morning sunlight works. I do not expect this to be a useful piece of information. I wrote it down anyway, just in case. Just in case is the motto of the notebooker.

I like to read my previous year's notebooks over the winter holidays, and from those fragments I gather a sense of the time that poured by. It's never what I remembered or planned.

The year 2014 was full of conversations, often overheard. "Everyone grows up in the same way, more or less. But no one's old age is the same." (A woman in upstate New York.) "On prednisone, I'd be standing in line at a deli, and see the salami and burst out crying. It was the emotional Alps." (Overheard in a Manhattan deli. I spent a lot of time on the road last year.) Evidence of procrastination (books recommended and unread) alternates with pages of ephemera. One compares trifocal prices. Others list words and definitions (pilgarlic, a man looked upon with humorous contempt or mock pity; apparently I imagined that would come in handy). Dreams: trying to leave a hotel, caught in an avalanche, losing the dog. (Nothing goes as well as it should.) A recipe for lobster Florentine, with crispy leeks, from an excellent and somewhat too attractive bartender at Edna, a restaurant in north Halifax. I'd been alone for a couple of weeks by then and was afraid to look directly at her.

Lists – glasses, watch, phone, pen, notebook, hearing aids, wallet – compete with lists of nothing but questions: What did you feel at dinner with N? Happiness, boredom, jealousy? What did it feel like to see the boats on the ocean, on the far horizon? On the 9th of August I swim in the Atlantic Ocean for the first of 20 days in a row, off a tricky, rocky shore with my brother. "Another blast of life," my notes say. For me it's a high point of the year. As opposed to In the elevator: sports jacket, gray flannels. sturdy shoes, checked shirt, out for dinner alone. Like being a statue. Oprah and Seinfeld turn 60. A single notation, 24/25, is a friend's father's score on a test for Alzheimer's, followed by his score a year later: 5.

In May, I note a "Japanese guy, doing math equations in Russell Square." We're on holiday in London by then, on the way to picking up our daughter in Edinburgh. Eventually we find our way to the North Sea on the coast of Suffolk, to scatter my father's ashes. The ceremony is light but respectful, and we make an afternoon of it. But two mornings later I can't leave the beach, staring stupidly at whitecaps, thinking: Is that him? That patch of sea was my last glimpse of my father in physical form, the way he mattered most to me. All of this, rendered in a single entry: May 26/14 Thorpeness, GB.

By December, I was reading the collected poems of Philip Larkin (which my notebook says I bought in in Cambridge). One poem, The Old Fools – Larkin's dead-eyed take on old age – is copied out over four pages. I see that I read it to my wife one night after Christmas as she fell asleep, and that all she could say was: "Oh, oh, oh." This is how it starts, and finishes:

What do they think has happened, the old fools,/ To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose/ It's more grown up when your mouth hangs open and drools,/ And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember/ Who called this morning?... Can they never tell/ What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?/ Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout/ The whole hideous, inverted childhood? Well,/ We shall find out.

We shall indeed. We spend most of our lives pointed forward, peering into the future to see what's coming, planning how we'll respond. A notebook looks the other way, and knows how all that ended.