Tag Archives: literature

Do you not know me?

sticky-quotes_080912_what-you-do-for-a-living-does-not-interest-me-i-want-to-know-what-you-ache-for-and-if-you-date-to-dream-of-meeting-your-hearts-longingwtmkIt’s a line from Moll Flanders, by Defoe. A book from 1722, yet the question is still valid.

Do you not know me?

Who does know another person? Sometimes I wonder if we all wander about, selves packaged in different boxes, pulling each section out depending own we are with. It’s not that we are dishonest, exactly, more that different parts of us fit better with different people. So who can really know us?

I’m taking an excellent Teaching Company course with the brilliant professor Arnold Weinstein. I’ve taken other courses with him, through Coursera, and he is such an impressive speaker and he understands and interprets literature so well I had to purchase this version from the TC (thanks Marie-Danielle for telling me about these people!) Weinstein dissects treasures of literature: Moll Flanders, Bleak House, To The Lighthouse, Proust, to name a few. He brings in humanity, the what if of the characters and the writers, not in the “analyze the green light at the end of the pier” way of high school, but wrapped in his knowledge of the times. He has a few gaps. He assigns to Moll an avarice, without saying anything about the grim status of women at that time if they did not have money. And of course, he relies rather heavily on male writers, but that is the way of things.

The best thing is that he brings universal themes into the discussion of the books, and makes me think about them. Thus the wondering about being known.

Coincidentally, I’m also reading a graphic novel, “Are You My Mother?” by Alison Bechdel.(The brilliant founder of the Bechdel test!) It, too is all about being known. About how it is only in writing that we end up actually defining ourselves, or others. Whether we write in journals (note to children: should I die, burn before reading), or stories, or lists (as in the very creepy Walt, by Russell Wangersky), we reveal ourselves best, I think, through the written word.

Alas for relationships, we rarely share those words, instead relying on speech and actions, those malleable things, to let others know who we are. True, we are what we do, but our motivations – ahhh, those are a different kettle of fish, often known only to us. And perhaps that’s a good thing.

We can figure them out, but it requires acute attention, a rare thing. I once knew someone who studied me, got to know me so very well, read my mind almost. It was unsettling, though I was grateful someone had finally seen behind my screen.

But I am comfortable, partially shielded, and knowing that is part of knowing me, too.

Do you not know me?

Reading “Why I read”, by Wendy Lesser

9780374289201Don’t you just love it when you open a fresh new book and, especially if you are the very first one to get it from the library and it has that scent of new adventure all over it, and you turn to the first page and realize the author is a friend you just haven’t met yet?

I’m on page EIGHT, for heaven’s sake and already I see the rest of the day before me, curled up with Ms. Lesser and a cup of tea and wallowing in her excellent writing and wisdom.

She starts off addressing the readers of her book, something she says she’s not done before, as usually she writes what she writes and hopes people like it at the end (apparently they do, judging from her publication list). This time is different, she says:

But with this book – perhaps because it so often contemplates the very relationship between writer and reader, speaker and spoken to in the works of literature I have loved – I find myself wondering about who you are? Are you a young person…, or are you an older person…? Do you come from a background similar to mine, or are we completely unlike in all sorts of ways? I would hope that the answer might be “all of the above”, and perhaps it can be, for the written word, at least as embodied in the English language, allows “you” to be both singular and plural. It’s not only the writer who can say, with Walt Whitman, “I am large, I contain multitudes”. That truth applies to readers as well. (p.8)

I think I may just take my multitudes for a gentle stroll through this book for an hour or two before I start my writing day. I can already see tea with Ms. Lesser is going to be interesting, comfortable, and stimulating. How I love meeting a new literary friend!

In love with Lucy Maud

Maybe I’m going through a PEI wallowing or something, but I just finished the excellent Revenge of the Lobster Lover, by Hilary MacLeod, a reread of Anne of Green Gables by LMM, and a surfing through the music of Gordon Belsher and Richard Wood. I blame the excellent Atlantic Literature course I’m taking through St. Mary’s University and for FREE through the library. It’s taught by Alexander MacLeod, son of Alistair, both of them atlantic literary lions. I feel awash in Atlantic literature, and I like it, I like it!

We’re starting on the journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery and I can hardly wait. I’ve had a glimpse of the woman through Anne and Emily, but I want to know more. I want to hear her history, understand how she was able to write, survive and thrive in the time she lived in PEI, an unusual woman as she was.

It’s funny wanting to know authors. In a way, they don’t really exist for the reader – it is what they put on paper that matters. They can be horrible nasty people and still write words of gold. They can be horrible drunks and write soberly of the challenges of life. They can be calm and sweet as milquetoasts and write gruesome murders. Does it matter? Hard to say.

But there’s something about Lucy. Perhaps it was her enduring characters, perhaps it is the rumours of her sadness and battling with depression, of her sad marriage, of her purported suicide. Her life, spent telling stories of success against adversity, was pretty full of adversity on its own. I feel for her, and through her stories, especially as I reread them now, as a cynical, somewhat saddened adult.

Having moved to the shore and as I gradually absorb it into myself, the salt, the culture, the music, I want to know more about the people who live and  lived here. Lucy is one I’ve always wanted to know. So I’m diving into her journals to try.

Wishing and dreading and hoping…

I have just read a novel of such unspeakable beauty that I am overwhelmed. Donna Morrissey’s Sylvanus Now is breathtaking, right from the first vision of Sylvanus jigging fish: right forearm up, left forearm down, left forearm up, right forearm down; to the vision of Adelaide’s eye, sparkling blue. It’s a novel about the changing of the fishery in Newfoundland, when large trawlers came in to rape the seas and the governments abandoned both the sea and the careful tenders of her in favour of cheap fish and way too much of it. It’s a story of a people forced to change their ways of life, and it seems as fresh now as when it was written, as we all cope with a changing economy and hang on the American election with bated breath, wondering what our future in Canada holds, tied as we are to the tails of the American Bald Eagle (a carrion-eater) and the Chinese Tiger (endangered by environmental change).

Donna Morrissey has won many awards for her writing, and they are well-deserved. Her power in a sentence is vast. Her ability to evoke the feelings of the people she describes, complicated and earthy and thoughtful and hidden as they are is astonishing.

I can’t believe I hadn’t read her before.

I feel small, I do, as I struggle to bring my words to life in even a tenth of the way Morrissey does. I know there are many authors who don’t write this way and are still successful, and who write perfectly acceptable stories and thrillers that make you want to stay up all night or love stories that make you yearn for the glory of new love (well, except for we cynics). But all of my life, despite my stated fondness for the “good enough” story, I’ve yearned to write like Morrissey, like Helen Humphreys, Frances Itani, Bronwyn Wallace. I want to wrestle feelings from readers, transport them, make them feel the sea spray or the bombs thundering or the mud or the fear.

It’s funny the reaction I have when reading such writing. I relax into the book, knowing I am in the hands of a master, knowing the book will take me on a ride and enclose me in its world. I stay awake, eyelids flipping up and down like a blind in the hands of a misbehaving preschooler, unwilling to let the world go, reading just that one more page. With lesser books, I stay alert, less involved, easier to distract, more likely to put it down, even if it is a good book. The great books show me their hearts. I can’t help but respond.

And the feeling lingers. After Sylvanus Now, I want to go out and see the sea, inhale it, feel its call, see the salt-bleached houses, run the wind through my hair.

Fortunately, I live in Nova Scotia. The sea is fifteen minutes away. “Go on, you foolish thing,” I can hear Florry say.

Scapegoating and Catcher in the Rye

I recently had the opportunity to visit my stellar niece, Stephanie, and caught her in the middle of Catcher in the Rye, the classic high-schooler-getting-filled-with-angst-coming-of-life story. I remember reading that waaay back before the dawn of time, when dinosaurs ruled the earth, and I was in grade 10. I couldn’t get it at the time – the profanity, unusual in that ancient world, blocked me effectively from reading and understanding.  So I picked it up recently, figuring that now that I had aged and become all too used to profanity, I’d be able to understand the story, identify with the anti-hero.

My niece is much wiser.  She reached the same conclusions I did, at a much younger age. “In the beginning,” she said, “It was interesting and I could understand what he was thinking.  Now though,” as she disparagingly flipped through the pages, “it just seems like he’s ranting…” Amen, Steph. The story is one of ultimate self-obsession, and, like The Great Gatsby, I still wonder why these are on the reading list for every student, American or Canadian.  Surely there have been a few adequate authors since then?

And the self-obsession, so totally already there in the life of the average person, let alone teenager (who always get blamed for the equal sins of their parents) – why reinforce that with visions of thousands of silken shirts, anger at anything that doesn’t go your way, sulkiness, gaiety, song and dance?

When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to play a child in the excellent play from the better short story, The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson. I read Miller’s The Crucible, and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.  I won’t pretend I understood any of those better than Catcher in the Rye – I was an innocent, thoughtless gal, with the depth and weediness of a duck pond.   I was much more interested in Robert Redford and the concept of his affluent life in Gatsby.  I had my first boyfriend during my time in the Lottery, so I barely listened to the play. Too busy dealing with the shame of not knowing how to French Kiss. (Thank you, Dan J. for being my instructor – such a useful skill!)

But those stories, all of them about scapegoating and what we do to each other when we find “different” amongst us, they sunk into my psyche. I can’t help but feel these readings, along with the horrific Lord of the Flies, are more pertinent for growing youth, and maybe for we “grownups”.  It’s so easy for them, and us, to categorize people into innies and outies, people we want to take the time to get to know, people not worth our effort. And then to target those outties with venom and hatred. We pounce. We stone. We kill. We yell at them when they don’t get our multi-layered Starbucks coffee order quite right. We send amusing photos of “Walmartians” to our work colleagues and make fun of the poor. We blame people for their life circumstances or punish them for their bad choices, as if these weren’t punishment enough. We make them carry identification cards, take away their land, deny them rights.

Isn’t it more important for us to understand our need to scapegoat than our essential angst?  Isn’t gazing outward more important than chewing the inside of our lip and fretting about why we are unhappy and what we can buy to make it all better?

All right, perhaps the economy would crash if we weren’t all on a continual wander through shopping therapy, but perhaps that wouldn’t necessarily happen – if we could only turn outward and see where our spending could help.

I know my niece is already there, gazing outwards, taking steps toward making this a better world. Maybe she’ll be the one that writes the book to replace Catcher in the Rye with another book more geared to a feminine perspective, to a generative perspective, male or female, that leads to encompassing, compassionate thinking towards the rest of the world.

As for me, I’m off to reread The Lottery and The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter. I need to remind myself of how I, too, slip into scapegoating and prejudice. And then I am going to pick up my pen.