Thursday, April 28, 2011

Common Reading

Virginia Woolf believed in readers.  Her two books of essays, The Common Reader I and II,  are invitations to read widely and idiosyncratically; implicitly her own responses to books suggest how many ways there are to engage with what you read and make it part of the furniture of your own mind.  When she learned that her local library's copy of The Common Reader had its pages splattered with food, she was delighted:  it meant the book was being used as it should be, consulted as people prepared or ate their meals. It meant reading was part of their daily lives.  In her various essays on reading, she created the portrait of the young reader with his or her list of classics; she thought readers were important forces in the creation of the new forms of fiction appearing in Britain in the twenties and thirties: theirs was the important task of helping writers understand what worked and what didn't.  Reading for oneself stood for intellectual liberty.  In "How Should One Read a Book" she wrote "To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries.  Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions--there we have none."

She was, of course, known for her miraculous and luminous novels, yet the sixth thick volume of her essays has just been published.  My (used) hardcover copy is apparently in the mail, but  I'm still working away at volume 5 and have just finished reading her essay "Phases of Fiction," an essay written between Orlando and The Waves, in which she provides a complex and intriguing classification system for novels.  Yet what is inspiring about this essay is her wide and suggestive reading,   She makes me, at the beginning of a sabbatical, want to create one of those lists of systematic reading she believed was the provenance of the young.  But being in one's sixties, particularly on a sabbatical, is to return in some way to one's youth.

So here are my sabbatical goals.  I realize that, the spring publishing cycle not completely under way, it's dominated by historical examples.  So please, please make your own suggestions.

Proust's In Search of Lost Time--yes, all six volumes.
War and Peace.  I haven't read it since the early 70s.
Doctor Zhivago
Carol Shields, particularly Larry's Party and The Stone Diaries.   
Aphra Behn's Orinoko.  Woolf says Behn did something quite important when, as a middle-class woman, she began to write to provide for her family.  She made the woman writer into a professional.
Rilke's Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus
Joan Thomas's Reading by Lightning
Kathleen Winter's Annabelle
Something by Geraldine Jewsbury, a friend of Jane Carlyle and apparently a novelist, Woolf says, who understood her time.  Sometimes I think it's the B-list authors that tell us the most about an historical moment.
Jan Zwicky and Tim Lilburn.  Any suggestions?
Lorna Crozier's selected poems, The Blue Hour of the Day
Quite a spate of books on climate change (research for the next novel), including Tim Flannery's latest, Here on Earth:  A Natural History of the Planet.
Mark Abley's The Prodigal Tongue
Anne Simpson's Is.  I loved the title poem, published in Prairie Fire along with a beautiful essay on poetry and community.
Jorie Graham.  I'll start with Sea Change.

If every one who visits leaves one suggestion, I'll have a remarkable year of "common reading."  Thanks in advance.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Spring Smoke

Snow under the tunnel of elms.  Froth on water tumbling down Wascana Creek.  Fuzz on tree branches sleep-singing of spring.  Air feathered with birdsong:  the sharp clear call of red-wing blackbirds, their throaty trills; the sonata of robins; the time-keeping dee dee dee of chickadees; the chittering of bohemian waxwings.  Conversations with strangers about the weather.  Frost on windshields.  Rants with friends about the weather.  Clusters of cat noseprints on glass; a winter of watching birds at the feeder.   Flutter of  shucked millet.  Early morning fog on the birder's binoculars.  Foggy breath of dogs chasing frisbees.  Cat pawprints on tree bark; the upward flurry of birds.  Beads of stars and ice strung on time.  The air under a bicycle's tire as it launches off the curb.  Snow mould like mohair.  Silent thunderheads at four, as the winter's snow flies into cloud.  Birdseed turning to translucent eggshells. The sluice and rustle of rising water.

This is a photograph I took last night during my first spring-time walk along the banks of Wascana Creek.  You can see the normal shore in the rushes at the bottom of the picture.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Looking for a Voice

Last Sunday at our house was full of minor disasters.  We woke up to find the basement full of water (again).  Bill decided he'd move the huge pile of snow at the back that had built up around the walkway and that appeared to be melting straight into the house.  Trying to be helpful, I suggested a wheelbarrow might be more effective than carrying every shovel-ful to the back of the garden.  Since ours died last autumn after twenty years of faithful service, I began my day heading out to Canadian Tire, which promised me on the phone they had wheelbarrows.  My driving was complicated by the fact that on Saturday night bored teenagers (one makes assumptions) walked down College Avenue knocking driver's side view mirrors off vehicles. [Cost:  $500.  The little buggers probably did around $3,000 damage that night.]  But on to Canadian Tire where they couldn't find the wheelbarrows because the store is being renovated and much of the gardening equipment is still in the basement.  Half an hour later I had a wheelbarrow that would have to be put together.  Home to find that Bill had moved most of the snow.  I got out my snow shovel and dug in.  Elated at our morning's work, we went out for brunch and a quick stop to Home Depot.  Back home, we found the basement inundated, in spite of our morning's work.  Back out to Peavey Mart, who has useful things like submersible pumps and the young men who can teach you how to use them.  Home again: the pump didn't seem to work until I experimented with it in the kitchen sink, remembered the physics of liquids, and coaxed a column of water up the hose and then down again.  You know how to syphon gas:  you need to get the bloody liquid running, and then it just follows itself.

None of this is major, of course.  My house has been taking in water over the spring for the last twenty years, though never quite so enthusiastically.  Yes, I've had work done on the foundation, but it only improved the spring run-off for about four years.  This is not the tsunami that hit Japan; there's no nuclear energy plant breathing radiation into the atmosphere.  It's spring after heavy snow.

All the same, it's wearing.  So last night, tired down to the toes of my hand-knit socks, the waters having given up for the day, I stood at my bookshelf looking for the right voice.

It wouldn't be the voice of Ian McEwan, whose Solar I can barely continue reading.  I have never understood cynicism as a way of being in the world, nor do I quite understand the appeal of satire.  So the world's well and truly   ****ed and people can be monstrously self-centred.  Tell me something I don't know.  This is background, merely, to much more interesting observations about life, the universe, and everything.  McEwan clearly hates his character, the bald, fat, Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard, who has no control over his appetites for food or sex.  Why else would McEwan spend nine pages in detail when said physicist needs to pee in the middle of a snowmobile trek toward the arctic circle, after which he believes that his frozen penis has fallen off and is rattling around coldly in the legs of his snowmobile suit.  (It's his chapstick.)

Nor would it be the voice of Laura Wilson whose excellent mystery, An Empty Death was to be my end-of-term treat to spell me off when Schiller and Francis Hutchison (an eighteenth-century British philosopher who did aesthetics before we called it aesthetics) are threatening to put me to sleep.  Wilson would have provided a reality check:  I'm not living through London during the Blitz.  At the same time, every other chapter is told from the point of view of the killer, and his was not quite the voice I was looking for either.

What do we mean when we stand at our bookshelves mumbling under our breaths that we're looking for the right book, the right voice?  We know there are many fine books there:  after all, we've bought them. They attracted our attention at one point or another, though any avid reader is probably embarrassed at the number of books she or he has bought that have moved from bag to not quite the right spot on the shelves where they languished, since they have never been quite the right book.  The review (or the cover or title) attracted our attention, but the book has never found quite the right way of entering our lives.

"A voice" means so many things.  I can tell you how to create a voice by attending to word choice and sentence structure, but that's not what exactly I'm talking about.  A voice, in part, is a world view:  a way of seeing the world, and the diction and syntax simply serve that view.  This is why, though Solar has been well-reviewed, I can't go back to reading it.  McEwan's "I'm better than my character, and I know it" voice grates.  That's what we all say about our friends and family in our worst, least sympathetic and humane moments, and it's of no use to me right now.  I'm looking for a modicum of good humour, something that might be encapsulated in William James's notion that "a sense of humour is common sense, dancing."  Because unless I see some everyday good humour in the hours I've spent sucking water up in my wet basement, I'm going to do something you don't want to know about.

And because this weekend has been so full of seemingly futile work when I'd much rather have been thinking about life, the universe, and everything, I wanted a reflective voice, a voice that, at its very core, would tell me that reflection is one of the good, human things about the world.  The ability to reflect is part of what makes us human.  I also wanted a voice that reminded me of the wonder that went along with throwing very heavy wet snow:  the sound of a flock of  Bohemian Waxwings chittering nearby, the song of a robin.  How is it that I forget, every year, that spring means a different kind of music,  a music of water and song.  (Actually I didn't completely forget.  When Bill and I went to see the excellent production of Shakespeare's Will, which begins with a thunderstorm, I leaned over toward Bill and said "That's what I want:  weather that makes sounds rather than muffling them.)  A voice is also music:  we feel that the writer's craft shapes the sentences, chooses words as much for their sound as for their rich particularity, so that the rhythm and camber of the sentences echo and reinforce their sense. 

Turning to that shelf where I keep the orphaned books that haven't yet found their homes in my imagination, I found Patrick Friesen's Interim:  Essays & Meditations.  Because the later essays were written more recently, I began at the end and found this:

"For me, language was a way of finding out about myself as a human spirit and body in a material world.  It was a way of finding out about that physical world, about the possibility of spirit within the physical.  Somewhere Joseph Brodsky said something about poetry being revelatory, not mimetic.  Poetry does not imitate, it reveals.  It opens up, lifts the leaf.  It doesn't pronounce.  It moves always, occasionally pausing on an image or a sound, an almost frozen moment, then moves on.  As the world does, as thinking does" (134).

The voice I needed.  The reflection, the magic, the music, the sense of life's full wonder.

The photographs above are by Veronica Geminder.  The first is of remnants of posters on a telephone pole in the Cathedral area.  The second is titled "NO Graffiti".  Her work can be found here.

Friday, April 8, 2011


Yesterday was my last day of teaching until September of 2012.  My feelings about that are complex enough to rattle me; I feel as if I should be simply and straightforwardly delighted, but that's not what I'm experiencing.  

On the one hand, I will miss my students terribly, particularly the crew in my English 251:  Expository and Persuasive Writing.  They were a thoughtful, hard-working bunch, and reading their penultimate essays was thrilling because most of the time there were none of those pesky little mechanical and grammatical errors that stood between me and the worlds, experiences, and ideas on the page.  In our conversations in the hallways, my colleagues and I can bemoan the reading and writing skills of the current generation of students, but this group showed me that this is only half the story.  I found that by keeping my focus on their development of credible, powerful voices--which meant getting their commas in the right place as well as articulating fresh ideas in the most concrete language that belonged to them--that I could get them to work very hard on their writing.  Class discussions, which I admit sometimes ranged too widely, were very much an exploration of the ideas and experiences that saturate the early twenty-first century.  I loved spending time with them.

My students do me a wonderful service by keeping me from becoming an old fart--something I dread.  They talk freely and critically about their own age and time:  how they often feel more disconnected than ever despite the "social media"; what the next Canadian government would look like if their age group voted en masse, but how apathetic their generation is, in spite of sites like Vote Compass Canada which asks you questions about your beliefs and then tells you which party to vote for; how their age group is more interested in knowing than in learning, and how that "knowledge" is often seedy and vulgar.  They want to know all the gory, trite, and salacious details around the latest shocking You Tube video, but they don't think about the consequences for the individual of being represented that way (and probably for a digital eternity) online.  One student spoke of his pride at setting his mother straight about some little online factoid she didn't know, only to be embarrassed  a moment later when he realized how rude he was and acknowledged that his mother at least knew how to learn.  I will miss my students and the window they give me on the present historical moment, a window I'd never have otherwise.

On the other hand, I'm delighted to be able to follow Thoreau's advice and "simplify! simplify!"  My daily lists only contain four or five things, and I feel a sense of focus that I don't have when I'm involved in teaching and administration.  No meetings.  No late essays to remember not to lose and to mark.  No dashing off to the library to put material on hold because of a change in copyright laws.  Last weekend, when the demands of teaching were winding down, I found myself delighted to begin reading Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man in preparation for my book on Virginia Woolf's Aesthetic of Engagement.  I do so want to write about the way philosophers have shifted the aesthetic question away from an attempt to define art to a consideration of beauty and of the role is plays in our everyday lives.  Beauty is undefinable, they have concluded, and because of that we need to talk about it, thus bringing to our lives conversations about some of the things that matter most.  Each person's sense of beauty is completely individual, and may even provide some insight into who we are.  Thus, Woolf's use of beautiful forms for her novels urges us to explore and talk about their meaning,  a meaning that is never fixed and absolute. After quite a number of years, this project is coming into focus, and I'm excited about being able to finish it.

I'm also excited about my next novel, Soul Weather, which explores how we make ourselves at home in the world.  More, it begins with Heidegger's observation that our moods radically colour our views of the world.  For a prairie person (which I now am), what influences mood more than weather?  How we all kvetched this winter, not over the cold so much as over the lack of sunlight!  So what's going to happen to our experience of the world once we've screwed up the weather so thoroughly that it's entirely unfamiliar, unhomelike?  This will not, of course, be a rant about global warning as much as it is an exploration of the various ways we wrap home around us like a cape or huddle in it like a cave that protects us from the world.  

But all this freedom to play with words and ideas is also frightening.  What if I can't make the best use of it?  What if the book on Woolf doesn't hold together or doesn't give us a new view of her work?  What if my characters are boring, unbelievable, or predictable; what if I can't fashion an original, surprising plot that is both gripping and a metaphor for my ideas?  Ideas are delightful when they're broad, abstract strokes.  The devil is always in the details.  So I'm also experiencing some transition anxiety.  In April, I'm going to try to ease myself into these projects while I also hang on to the do-able, everyday tasks of being an academic.  I'll finish my marking.  I'll get a new issue of Wascana Review online.  But I'll also be reading madly.

Sheba's made the transition beautifully.  My wild little girl settles down right next to my netbook and rests her chin on the back of my left hand.  Admittedly it's a little hard to type, but slows me down and gives me a moment to think about my words before my fingers spew them onto the screen.  An animal's affection is just exactly one of those daily beauties one wants to spend a moment thinking about.

The photograph of the railway/walking bridge in Saskatoon was taken by Veronica Geminder.  You can find more of her work at