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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Soul Weather

In my book on Virginia Woolf, I'm going to do an entire chapter on readers.  Woolf wrote many essays on readers, two volumes of literary essays for "the common reader," and had a well-developed theory about how readers and writers work together.  She thought that though they might never speak to the writer, a reader and her or his opinions aided the development of art in some ineffable way.  Through studying these essays, I've come to one of my own most important conclusions about a work of art--that vexed object. Analytic philosophers have tried and tried--at least since the time of Aristotle--to define the work of art but have failed.  Yet interestingly, there's a fair amount of agreement, though it's by no means complete.  For me, that's the beauty of it.  When we disasgree we have to talk.  And when we talk about these things, something important happens.

Blogging has meant many things to me, but perhaps the most important is the conversation it sometimes establishes between readers and writers.  I was more or less told by Brindle & Glass that to market a novel in the 21st century one needed to have an online presence, so at their instructions, I've been blogging.  Because I try to write a post a week, I look at my world and think a bit more carefully.  But now I have a chance to really get the conversation going.  B&G has given me permission to post fragments from the novel I'm working on, Soul Weather.

It's difficult to describe the impetus for a novel--perhaps particularly for a book like Blue Duets that simply grew--and needed quite a lot of deliberate shaping as a result.  When the wonderful creative writing teacher and author Keith Maillard (you seriously want to read his Difficulty in the Beginning novels) came to visit my gender studies class he told one of my students, who had herded him from our classroom to the lounge across the hall, that you don't write a novel by simply beginning to write.  You need to begin shaping and questioning and thinking even before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.   He explained all the difficulties I'd had with  Blue Duets.  So I'd resolved never to do that again.

Soul Weather  was born, so to speak, when two events collided in my imagination.  I use the verb "collided" purposefully; something out of physics, not biology, happened.  First, my wonderful colleague Michael Trussler once told me that Heidegger says that mood is our primary interface with the world; and indeed, when I read Being and Time last winter there it was.

But what influences our moods more than the weather?  And what happens to our relationship with the world when the weather has changed enough, as it has in Regina over the last three or four cold rainy springs and early summers and this last cloudy winter, that we no longer feel at home?

Here's what Heidegger collided with:  one beautiful summer night when Bill and I were out walking, we noticed a group of young people out on the porch roof of a house in our neighbourhood.  I think we suspected this was being used by students, but their cheery waves to us (cheered by what, exactly?  There are rumours....) confirmed it.  I thought a novel about a group of twenty-somethings, some in university, some beginning new jobs, would be interesting. I have this sense that we're not inviting this generation into their adult lives very well; unemployment and underemployment among them remain high.

So this collision produced a question:  what does it mean to be at home?  What does it mean to be at home on the planet, in your skin, in your future, in your culture's ideas and technology?

This novel will not be a peroration, a rant, a sermon.  But it remains connected nevertheless with my own concern about climate change and the way it's going to change everyone's daily lives.  I don't think we pay enough attention to this relationship to nature as we go through our days wired for sound or for connectivity, attached to our iPods and cell phones rather than to the world around us.  Yet weather gets under our skin, even if we're not particularly paying attention.

So I wanted one of my main characters to represent this connection in some profound and interesting way.  Lee has just finished her MFA in ceramics--which explains my frustrated attempts to work on a potter's wheel.  Artists, like English majors, don't find their ways naturally into day jobs, so she can stand in for this generation's struggle to be at home in their adult lives.  Lee's mother died when she was twelve, and on the night her MFA exhibition opens, her dad announces he's moving to Swift Current to become an organic gardener with his new girlfriend.  Would Lee please sell the house?  How could she be less "at home"?

I'm not sure where Dirk came from.  But here's his backstory:  he works for a cbo in Regina, but in his spare time he buys up small houses and renovates them as rental properties.  He knows the facts about homelessness, about how reassuring it is to have a stable place to live, and he's doing something in his small way to address that problem in Regina.  One evening when he comes back from fixing the plumbing at one of his houses, his wife tells him he always smells different when he comes home from other people's houses--like someone else's cooking or soap.  A couple of weeks later, she packs up the kids for an Easter visit to her sister in B.C., and doesn't come home again.

So Dirk wants to turn his family home into another kind of home, and wants Lee to help him do this.  He thinks Lee's dad is being a kind of shit for leaving her with so much responsibility and uncertainty, so he offers Lee this arrangement.  She can help him paint the house and collect some students to live in it in exchange for free rent.  That means she won't have to work quite so hard to support herself and can find her way as an artist.

That's the opening scenario of Soul Weather.  Why am I telling you this?  I'm on sabbatical, as I think I've told you many, many times, and while I work on my book on Virginia Woolf's aesthetics, I'm also going to work on my novel.  In fact, Friday I'm leaving for two weeks at St. Peter's Abbey.  In September, I'm going to the Banff Centre for the Arts for a couple of weeks.

So I'd like to start a conversation with you about this novel by putting up sections of it now and then.  I'd like your reactions, positive and negative.  I'd also like to share the creative process.  So here's the deal.  I'll give you teasers and you tell me what you think.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Robert Kroetsch

I made many mistakes in Blue Duets, but the one I rue most is not mentioning Robert Kroetsch  in my acknowledgements.  (I forgot to include Lisa Moore too--another regret.)  In my defense, I should say that the final draft of Blue Duets came years after I attended Robert's novel colloquium at Sage Hill.  Maybe it's always this way, but the last draft of the novel felt like a long uphill push made entirely alone.  So I seemed to forget the people who weren't right in front of me at the time.

Robert allowed me into the colloquium in spite of the fact that I had only half a dozen chapters written.  Perhaps he cut me a little slack because I'd written about What the Crow Said (on a dare), and the essay--which he said was like having his mind read--was published in Canadian Literature.  Or perhaps he let me in because the two of us danced the twist on one of the Winnipeg River boats at a graduate student party.  Really, each of these snippets of memory comes to the same central fact about Bob:  his generosity.  (I mean, really, the twist, in 1976?) 

We all know about the creative writing teachers who want you to write like them--to become little clones that are one more sign of their success.  I suppose in some ways, no one but Bob could have been Bob, so there wasn't much chance that anyone could successfully imitate his unique vision or his ability to play with language and ideas.  But it seemed to me more than this:  Bob had the gift for getting inside a manuscript and inside the author's vision, and helping the author to suss that out.  It was Bob who realized that Rob, my miscreant professor, deserved to have his say in Blue Duets; giving Rob voice allowed me to create the novel I wanted, one without a privileged perspective.  It was also a bloody good writing exercise.  Try it:  give your story to an unsympathetic character and see what you learn about language, rhythm, perspective.

We also know about creative writing teachers who say "no."  No, don't do it that way.  No, I'd never do that.  No it's not going to work.  Robert said "yes."  Yes to the universe and yes to the word used with creativity, care, and compassion.  I'll admit that, because I have to give my creative students grades, I think those grades should mean something, and that sometimes I have to say "no, that's really, seriously not working."  But Bob believed in larger forces of language and literature, forces that didn't need him to say no.  Forces that said "celebrate with a yes."

The world is smaller; it's contracted in a very Kroetsch-like way that hurts somewhere beneath your ribs, where you breathe.  But I'm sure that those of us who have been touched by his generosity will continue to respond to the work of others in that open and eager way Robert had.  Probably the best way for us to recognize him as a community is to be less worried about boundaries, less inclined to say no, more generous and open about the wonderful and various ways literature and creativity are practiced.

See also Gerry Hill's moving tribute at
http://poetshoes.blogspot.com/2011/06/robert-kroetsch.html

Monday, June 20, 2011

Creativity on the street


Spring in Regina is a time for thinking about creativity, about art and craft.  In spite of unfriendly, wet, changeable and challenging weather, Thirteenth Avenue filled up in May with curious, cheerful, friendly people who promenaded and bought everything from dog biscuits to handmade soap, from remarkable inventive jewelery to ceramics that asked questions about what pots are really for.  What are we looking at?  And what are we looking for?  (These are two different things.)  In part, we're looking at a community, at a particular kind of community, one that works very hard all year to mount the Festival, and we're implicitly sharing and applauding those values.  And as we troll the streets, nodding to one another and petting one another's dogs or admiring children's painted faces, we're creating community; we're coming out of those claustrophobic houses that kept us warm but gave us cabin fever to celebrate and admire what other people made during our brutal, cloudy winter.

Making things:  jewellery and dog biscuits, baked goods and the pots to we serve them on, knitted sweaters and ironmongery for gardens.  There have been times in my life when making things got me through.  Deeply depressed, I could nevertheless promise myself to knit five rows in a simple sweater, to end up knitting ten and feeling that I was quite a bit more competent and in this world than I had thought I was.  What is it about making that disciplines us all winter and brings us out on a rainy street in the spring?  In part, it's the self-respect that comes with craftsmanship, that hunger to do something well--no matter how simple--that I spoke of in my post on Craftsmanship (December 5, 2010).  Let me quote Bill Reid again, because his words are so central to this idea:  "One basic quality unites all the works of mankind that speak to us in human, recognizable voices across the barriers of time, culture, and space:  the simple quality of being well-made."  There's an implicit self-respect and self-reliance in making something and feeling that you've made it as well as you can, given where you are in the journey toward becoming a craftsman.

We think about creativity again in later June at Bazaart, but here the dynamic is a bit different because this is a juried event.  No dog biscuits.  Some of the artisans query that fine permeable line between art and craft.  And as I people-watched for a while, I noticed that there's a curiosity here that is different from that you see on Thirteenth Avenue, where people seem to be wandering in a colourful, playful market.  At Bazaart, people can't quite decide whether they've walked into a gallery or a shop.  I think it's an ambiguity that's quite good for us, that challenges our preconceptions.  It must be hard for the artisans, though, to be told their work is wonderful, only to have a sympathetic and potential buyer simply drift away.  For many of them--certainly for the young ceramicists in the MFA program here--Bazaart is their bread and butter.


Because one of the main characters in the novel I'm working on, Soul Weather, is a potter who's just graduated from U of R with an MFA, I've been talking to ceramicists and even taking classes.  I'm hopeless at a pottery wheel, but at least it gives me a sense of how challenging throwing something as simple as a mug (never mind a teapot) can be.  As a result, I found myself this fall on Jenn Mapplebeck's thesis committee, which taught me a great deal about the creative process.  In my earlier blog on Craftsmanship, I suggested that one of the tidy but problematic distinctions between art and craft was that we use craft in our daily lives, but that art seems to stand apart.  Another distinction I could make is that craft emphasizes the making and the tradition of craftsmanship behind each work.  Art, while it still needs to be well crafted (an assertion some curators would find problematic and only reflects my own taste) also needs to have a new idea.  In the language that is often used now, particularly about traditional crafts like ceramics, a piece needs to "interrogate" the very foundations it's predicated on.  Thus Jenn's teapot at the top of my blog is long past pouring tea; rather, it gestures towards the still life paintings and the compositions in those paintings called vanitas, and reminds us that even things have lives and that these lives take surprising turns.  Other works, like the teapot and stand on the left, teem with life.
You can see one of Jenn's interesting "interrogations" in the work above.  On the bottom shelf, you see an example of traditional lattice-work as it finds its way into ceramics.  The planter and lattice on the right bottom shelf looks perfectly conventional.  You put a plant in the cup beneath and it twines up the lattice.  On the left of the top shelf, you see a latticed box:  though it might not hold small things, it doesn't surprise.  Yet look at the vases and teapots behind.  While we recognize their forms, their use has been challenged.  Apparently the question Jenn most frequently gets asked is "What is it for?"  Because of course, craft has to be useful.  They're satisfied, though, if she simply says "For looking at." 

And here we come to one of the most important qualities I think a work of art should have--as well as an answer to why we put up with crazy wind out on the front lawn of the MacKenzie Art Gallery or dodge the rain at the Cathedral Village Arts Festival.  I think art asks questions and forces us to engage in a conversation--even in the minimal conversation about what Jenn's lattice teapot is for.  And the moment we start asking questions and having conversations, we've created the community we need at the end of a long, isolating winter.

If you want to contact Jenn about her work, you can reach her at Jenn.Mapplebeck@hotmail.com

In the meantime, you might want to read this interesting article in Britain's Daily Mail on how good quilting is for us.  It exercises everything from our visual aesthetic sense to our math and problem-solving skills. 
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2002862/Why-quilting-uniquely-good-us.html


I'm planning another post soon on "Creativity on the Street," but then I want to talk about gardeners and the outside-the-box creative things being done at Regina's Food Bank.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Literature and the Environment 2: Writing about animals


I grew up with dogs.  (That's a whole other story.)  But when my first husband and I were living in married housing at Boston University in the early seventies and I needed companionship badly, we thought a cat would be safer than a dog who would bark and give itself away.  The cat gave herself away too, by scurrying down the old hallway painted landlord green with her short tail aloft; the super, charmed, didn't care.  But now we had a small black cat that we'd rescued from a cat shelter in Brookline; Bugs, as we came to call her, had come in a box of kittens left that very morning on the shelter's doorstep.

Cats were a mystery to me, though of course I bought books before I undertook adoption.  Seven cats later, I think of myself as "cat mother," and am frequently consulted about all things feline.  But cats remain a mystery to me; indeed, my definition of "cat" is "that cozy creature who curls up next to your left hip every night purring loudly and whose every sound and gesture you understand, but who remains a mystery."

I have of course written about cats.  I suspect that most writers with pets come to write about them at some point; they're so good at conveying the human and the limits of the human.  The title of my first book of poetry, Without Benefit of Words came from a poem ironically entitled "Dumb Animals."  The speaker of the poem, one who has read far too much Lacan, watches the gestures of two cats who are cuddling her down to sleep:

As they settle me down for sleep
I wonder how much discourse goes on in my house
without benefit of words.

.  .  .  .

Without words you nearly outwit Lacan
who stills reality with his claim to language.
My cats unfreeze joy's indeterminacy
with wordless purr of pleased longing
qualified by infinite inflections of tail.

We let Bugs have kittens and kept two of the three.  Her daughter, Niagara, is one of my most mysterious cats.  One day I came home with a long heavy box filled with a bookshelf I needed to put together.  The door caught the end of the box, which came down suddenly--on Niagara's head as it turned out.  I had dislocated her jaw and broken her mandible cleanly in two. You'll be relieved to know that I discovered this quite quickly because she always greeted me at the door.  Seeing no sign of her, I went looking and found her under the bed.   Yet two days later she laid, curled up in my lap, purring.  The purr is both the simplest and the most complicated of the mysteries.  She may have been purring to heal or comfort herself, or because my lap was the right place to be.  Why she forgave me is a bigger mystery.  How she seemed so calm in the face of her injury and the surgery that followed is the biggest mystery yet.

I have a theory, though.  Or you could say that Niagara taught me something. Or you could say that I'm trying to salvage something philosophical from the experience of injuring a creature who purred me to sleep every night of her life.  Take your pick.

I'm not sure many animals think about the future.  I think the instincts of wild animals tell them to eat as much as they can, when they can, because they don't know when they'll find their next meal, but I'm not sure this is thought.  Unlike the human relationship with pain which asks "How long am I going to have to bear this?" Niagara thought about whether it was bearable now.  Even while I know that this conclusion is probably my invention, there have been many times in my life--like when I broke my own leg--that this feline wisdom helped me.

Animals grieve.  Barbara Gowdy wrote about this brilliantly in The White Bone; I have seen it in cats who lose a sibling.  Research also indicates that animals frequently express empathy.  When Niagara, at the age of twenty, was slowly dying of kidney failure, Ariel and Nutmeg, two young males I'd rescued, would know when she didn't feel well, would follow her around the house and curl up with her when she settled down.  Ariel often curled up behind her and put his front "arm" around her.  Moreover, they teach us to be empathetic because we are forced to carefully observe and interpret their gestures and vocalizations.  As I learned when I suspected Nutmeg was not well (though two different vets could find nothing wrong) they can't tell us what hurts, what is in this case killing them.  Thus they take us out of ourselves, force us to occupy another mindset altogether. 

Sheba shouldn't be a mystery.  If she wants me to play with her, she'll drop a toy on my book or at my feet.  If she's going to do something she shouldn't, like jump up on the kitchen counter to grab a blueberry from the colander or a string bean from the cutting board (two of her favourite foods), she will meow in a particular way that I recognize and swish her tail wildly back and forth.  Yet if I'm having a sleepless night, what prompts her to get out of bed with me and follow me wherever I go?  A sense of duty?  Empathy?  Human warmth?


Twig is a mystery.  He was enthusiastically "adopted" by Nutmeg and Ariel, both of whom died too soon, Ariel of cancer and Nutmeg of congestive heart failure.  Twig grieved and then quite easily accepted Sheba, in spite of the fact that she's clearly the alpha cat around here.  Why does he bathe her with such care, often snipping off her white eyebrows?  (In the photograph above he's got his paw on the top of her head while he gives her a bath).  Why does she put up with these baths?  Why does she so often curl up with him?  In the wintertime, her big dilemma is deciding whether she'll sleep with Twig, who is behind Bill's knees, or at my hip, her usual spot.  She'll stand on the bed in indecision:  you can almost hear her thinking about it.

There is, of course, an ecocritical discourse around writing about animals.  It involves the ethics of acknowledging that some of us use them for food, that they often live (if you can call it that) in appalling conditions and die in even worse ones.  You might like to know that if you want to reduce your carbon footprint you can eat less meat:  meat production not only inefficiently uses a lot of the grain that could be used to feed people, but it produces about a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases.  Ecocriticism also takes up the issue of hunting, as Trevor Herriot did in Grass, Sky, Song.  It asks why a culture of hunting is such an important part of the representation of masculinity. 

But ecocriticism also takes up the question I've been circling around here.  I had come to feel that I had appropriated my cats' voices in the four poems I wrote about them in Without Benefit of Words.  But apparently this feeling is both exactly right and quite ethical.  The animals on our planet remain an "other" that we will never thoroughly understand.  It's useful, for all kinds of ethical reasons, to experience and acknowledge that fact.  Among other things, it takes the human and human knowledge out of the centre of the universe for a few minutes.  Also, if we use our imaginations to understand the dog or cat who lives with us, that imagination might, because it's getting some exercise, grow stronger.  You know that person who makes you crazy--bordering on intolerant--because he/she does things you don't understand?  As your cat will tell you, there's always another story and another way to understand it.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Reading like a writer 2: The Winter Vault


Sunday afternoon, after I'd accrued enough cheer from piecing three quite different blocks from Barbara Brackman's Civil War quilt  as an antidote to yet another cloudy day,  I sat down to finish Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault.  But not before wondering whether it's an oxymoron to find cheer in making quilt blocks commemorating a horrific and unending war--because in the deep South, racism and bigotry and anti-intellectualism are alive and well.  Perhaps that last word in the list seems out of place, but that strain in the Southern worldview says "For goodness' sake, don't think about your attitudes, where they come from, what they do to others, who the others might be in their daily lives."  Perhaps all this is the point of the exercise Brackman has set us:  commemorating a war, but doing it creatively, doing it with an obsession with colour.  Because if you don't get colour right, no matter how good your craftsmanship is, a quilt won't work.  And while we are concentrating on matching up all the points of the triangles, errant thoughts are likely to visit us.

I had said in my post on "Literature and the Environment" that the jury was still out with respect to the structure of this novel.  Yet something compelled me to re-read it.  I was certainly drawn to Michaels' prose, which is very much the prose of a poet:  dense, subtle, inflected, infused with thought and observation which capture the complexity of being human.  We cannot quibble with her when she ascribes this observation to Jean:  "The villages along the St. Lawrence were enlivened by both the railway and the river.  This created a vigour that Jean could not quite explain, though she recognized it somehow; two stories meeting in the middle" (42).  Passages like this abound.  I flip through my copy to look for underlining and find this passage that foreshadows the novel's conclusion:

"In every childhood there is a door that closes, Marina [Avery's mother, the Polish/Canadian artist] had said.  And:  only real love waits while we journey through our grief.  That is the real trustworthiness between people.  In all the epics, in all the stories that have lasted through many life-times, it is always the same truth:  love must wait for wounds to heal.  It is this waiting we must do for each other, not with a sense of mercy, or in judgment, but as if forgiveness were a rendezvous" (93-4).

Michaels' thematic structure is no less impressive.  Through the lives of three major characters, the novel considers moments of destruction with very different textures and significance.  Avery and Jean meet while the landscape is being flooded to create the St. Lawrence Seaway.  This is perhaps the most benign instance of destruction, yet Michaels includes that moving description of an old woman's loss of her husband's grave I mentioned in my previous blog post.  After Jean and Avery marry, Avery undertakes to move the temple Abu Simbel out of the way of the Nile's flooding.  In the voices of a peripheral character, we are given intimate views of the Nubian communities who are losing a world that has been part of their art and their world view and their cultural and individual identity for centuries.  Here, the sacred in history and landscape is inundated, though Jean later tells Avery that moving the temple wasn't the desecration; flooding the Nile was. 

Lucjan, a Polish Jew living in Toronto who becomes Jean's lover while she heals after a stillbirth, tells us about the spiritual, physical, and historical destruction of Warsaw during the Second World War and about its surreal reconstruction.  Lucjan's story is perhaps the most complex and horrific, insofar as it involves the destruction of a people, particularly insofar as his mother "disappears" when he's looking away from her for a minute, and his stepfather abandons him.  At the same time, this is the point where we begin cross-referencing, in an interrogatory way, these three narratives.  What is to distinguish between the genocide of the Jews and the Egyptians' movement of an entire people off the land they had occupied since time out of mind?  And how does that differ from moving people from places where their loved ones are buried so that they can never revisit them again?  The distinctions seem both massive and miniscule at the same time, a matter of degree only.  These examples are on a kind of continuum of destruction and dispossession.

It is also in Michaels' description of Warsaw that we get the beginning of a thread that twines around the influence of the built environment--practical and psychological--on city dwellers.  Lucjan will always wonder whether the papier-mache figures he poised at the edges of building rooftops inspired a suicide; similarly he never quite knows the impact his graffiti has on those criss-crossing Toronto's streets and neighbourhoods.  Jean engages in guerilla planting, hoping to spark a memory, a treasured moment.  Here is another ecocritical moment:  Michaels' clearly imagines that plants, their colour, their fragrance, even the shapes of their leaves, might hold memories, might be nodes in a narrative we are constructing for ourselves.  If the plants aren't there, our memories are impoverished.  Upon his return from Egypt, Avery studies architecture, hoping to create spaces that allow us to live fully realized lives.  But perhaps most poignantly, Lucjan talks of the hopeful and uncanny reconstruction of the centre of Warsaw, much of it made out of architectural details saved by young people like himself during the bombing and the Soviet occupation.  The newly-created Warsaw both is and is not the place it replaces.

But if I have to answer the question, "Is it a novel?" I must hedge.  Either the novel as a genre has become very, very capacious, or Michaels has written something else.  I'm inclined to say both these hypotheses are right.  I find my dis-ease about the novel's structure has nothing to do with the interrogatory play of themes and motifs, all of which are handled deftly and very intelligently.  My difficulties come at the level of the scene.  The Winter Vault seems best described as a meditation or even a series of meditations on these thematic strands.  Conversations are rare:  rather, we overhear articulate monologues about engineering, plants, Nubian culture, surviving in the Warsaw ghetto.

Perhaps this observation is tied somewhat to the fact that I include The Winter Vault among what I call "unsmiling novels."  So far this category includes The Winter Vault, Catherine Bush's Rules of Engagement and to some degree The Sentimentalists.  In these books, all of them about war, there are no moments that prompt us to pause and smile.  Each is brilliantly crafted, but each lives within a world where there is little joy.  The world-view of Michaels' novel is built around loss:  parents die too soon, babies are stillborn, mothers disappear in bombing raids, fathers lose custody of their children, whole landscapes are flooded or destroyed.  This is the world where Marina, another Jew who survived the Holocaust, can say "For better or for worse...love is a catastrophe" (98), or where Lucjan can tell Jean, who has lost her own child in a still birth--carrying it long after it has died--that she doesn't understand anything about his loss of his daughter (310).  Standing in London, Jean and Avery survey places "drenched with sorrow" (107), suddenly aware of the violence of war, the violence of domestic life and of accidents.  While there is no joy, there is consolation.  Avery's father says nothing proves the future like a question (122), while Jean suggests that grafting one plant to another might be a metaphor for healing:  "For five thousand years, humans have been grafting one variety of plant to another--the division, the pressing together, the conductive cells that seal the wound" (313).

If form and content are to be tightly wed--Denis Donoghue calls form "achieved content," then in a violent, transient world where love is a catastrophe and no one can understand your particular loss, perhaps all that can happen is that we tell our stories, perform our monologues.  If that were the case, I could simply be comfortable calling this a novel shaped more by its aesthetics than its plot or its world.  But the narrator doesn't quite believe this.  In one of the few moments where we cannot attribute a floating paragraph to a character (hence I assume these are the narrator's words), Michaels writes "Everything we are can be contained in a voice, passing forever into silence.  And if there is no one to listen, the parts of us that are only born of such listening never enter this world, not even in a dream.  moonlight cast its white breath on the Nile.  Outside the snow continued to fall" (318).  Characters talk at length while around them other characters maintain respectful silence and attempt to reach out.  Whether that reach is successful depends less on the generosity of the reacher and more on the self-imposed isolation of the teller.  Each of us has the chance, if only we take it, to open the door of the winter vault.

Yet cutting all these tiny triangles and thinking about those Civil War quilts made by women out of the scraps of their lives in patterns that commemorated the war or showed escaped slaves the route of the Underground Railroad, I cannot help questioning Michaels' somber view of humanity.  What does it mean to hang colourful quilts on your clothes line as a way of helping people to freedom?  It means that not even strangers are alone and that something as pedestrian as a quilt can be beautifully, meaningfully joyful.