Posts Tagged ‘Books’

To the dictionary, and beyond

Saturday, August 15th, 2015

word bookI began using an online dictionary a few years ago—not because I found it more convenient than a paper dictionary, but because my old Webster’s is just too distracting. I would open it up, intending to look up “phaeton,” and right next to it I’d see “phage,” which has nothing to do with “phaeton” but is an interesting word in itself, as is “phatic” on the opposite page. Having also glanced at “phalanstery,” “petrous,” and “petroleum jelly,” I would end up acquiring some interesting bits of assorted information but forgetting which word I’d meant to look up in the first place.

So, yes, I’m easily amused as well as easily distracted. But modern dictionaries are really just the beginning. Besides the words currently in use—400 thousand or so—there are many that have fallen by the wayside. In Forgotten English, Jeffrey Kacirk collects archaic words that are odd, fascinating, and sometimes hilarious. If you’ve read any literature from before the 20th century you may have encountered words like “ferule” or “press-gang.” But others are intriguingly obscure: “galligaskin,” “sockdolager,” “fulluht.”

The thing about Forgotten English is that it’s both a collection of words and a rambling, whimsical history book. In many cases it’s not just the words that have been forgotten, but the things they refer to: occupations, practices or beliefs that no longer exist. “Purl-men,” for instance, were itinerant beer-sellers “who plied their trade on the Thames and other navigable waterways of southern England,”  and a “bee-master” was one who “tended hives and performed the essential task of informing an estate’s bees of important household events.” So each entry is at least a paragraph, up to a page and a half long, often incorporating literary excerpts that enlarge on the definitions.  It’s fascinating, and it also makes me wonder which of our current practices and their corresponding words will go extinct over the next century or so.


Publication is just the beginning

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

So now I have a book! A real, official, book, my first full-length book of poetry, Eigenheim (pictured in the right sidebar), published this spring by Turnstone Press. It was launched at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg, who do a fine job with these things, and although seeing my face on a poster was mildly unnerving, the event itself was quite enjoyable.

Someone asked me recently if anything had surprised me about having this book published. I had to think about that for a moment, but yes, there were some surprises. One of them came before publication, when I first saw the proofs. I expected that my poems would look more impressive laid out in book format, but was surprised at how much more impressive they looked. Hard to say why that is—maybe the fact that the poems look longer when they’re laid out on the smaller book-size pages.

Then there was the day, about a week after the book was launched, when a neighbour came to the door asking if I would sign his copy. I’d hoped and expected, of course, that people would buy and read the book, but it was the fact of someone actually coming to the door that tickled me. (more…)

Literature and place

Monday, November 17th, 2014

A book that I’ve recently added to my must-read list is Joan Thomas’ new novel, The Opening Sky. Lately several people have told me I should read it, because it’s a well-written story but also because parts of it take place in the neighborhood where I live.

There’s a particular pleasure in reading a book that’s set in a place you know. I thought about this recently after re-reading Barbara Nickel’s poetry collection, Domain, in which several poems talk about the Saskatchewan town where she grew up and about her family’s house. I happen to be from the same town, and reading these poems brought me back there, to the way the place looked and felt in the ’70s when I was in elementary and junior high school.

That sense of familiarity is what first attracted me to the urban fantasy novels of Charles de Lint. Several of his novels from the ’80s and early ’90s are set in Ottawa, where I lived for a time. I also lived in Regina briefly, and that contributes to the pleasure I get from Gail Bowen’s mystery novels. I have grown to like both these writers for other reasons, too, but there’s still something about being able to instantly know the landscape, what the streets look like, what the weather’s like.

But there’s a bit of strangeness in the familiarity. Reading another writer’s take on a familiar place is different from simply remembering it. The experience is a bit like meeting someone for the first time and finding out they used to live five blocks from where you grew up. Someone else’s portrayal of a city or landscape can show you things you didn’t know; you get to see the place in a different light. You see possibilities for what could happen in that place.


One book leads to another

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

How do you decide what to read? This question came up at a lunch with friends recently, and once the subject started rolling around in my head I began finding other writers who had things to say about it. One friend sent me a link to this article from Brainpickings with excerpts from an essay by Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, and at a book sale I found Robertson Davies’ The Merry Heart, a collection of pieces on reading and writing. Brodsky’s essay talks about developing an educated taste as a means to help choose what to read. On the other hand, Davies, while certainly well-educated, acknowledges in his that he read “wanderingly, capriciously, following [his] own nose.”

Davies’ approach is pretty much how I read, much of the time. I’ll follow an interesting lead, and then one book leads to another. Last November, American poet, fiction writer and essayist Thomas Lynch gave a lecture in Winnipeg, and recommended reading Seamus Heaney. I began with Human Chain, Heaney’s last book, and ended up reading certain poems over and over. I also found Lazy Bastardism, a collection of essays by Carmine Starnino, which a friend had recently read. Both books happened to mention the name of Helen Vendler, the American critic, whom I knew almost nothing about. So I found one of her books, and through it have been introduced to poems I’d never read before by Plath, Keats, and others. And after reading Starnino’s essay on Robyn Sarah, I began reading her poetry and essays, too.

In following these associative trails, I find myself agreeing with both approaches to reading. Brodsky does make an important point in saying that unless readers find a way to educate their literary tastes, choosing what to read is simply too overwhelming. This is especially true if you want to move out of your habitual reading paths, which is where other people’s recommendations are helpful. On the other hand, Davies’ point is also true: it’s often the case that you don’t find books so much as they find you.


Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Normally I read for the sake of the overall narrative or argument, but now and then I have to stop to enjoy and admire a particular passage. Certain sentences are so evocative they’ve stayed in my head for years.

A friend recently sent me an essay called “The Problem of Reading” by photographer and writer Moyra Davey. Among others, she quotes Virginia Woolf on how to read. Davey says:

[Woolf] claims the best way to understand what a novelist is doing is not to read but to write: recall a scene from your life that has struck you in some way, she suggests, and put it to paper. See how easily the feelings you meant to transmit evade you. Now turn from your muddle … and read the opening pages of Austen, Defoe, or Hardy, and you will be in no doubt as to their mastery, each conjuring up a world uncommonly vivid and unique.


The practice of writing

Friday, October 5th, 2012

“I think I’ll have to buy this,” I said to my son, holding out The Complete Journals of L.M. Montgomery. “Of course you will,” he said, knowing how many books by and about Montgomery line the bookshelves at home. I had already read all five volumes of her Selected Journals, compiled by the same editors, Mary Henley Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston. The entries in those earlier volumes were selected to emphasize Montgomery’s life as a writer, omitting many entries describing her moods, her everyday activities, and her favorite landscapes.

Yet, even though many journal entries don’t relate directly to the development of her writing career, they often feel as if she is practicing. She may have simply been trying to express her enchantment with a beautiful scene, but she does it in what seems like a consciously literary way, in sentences like these: “The sea was an expanse of silvery gray. Afar I saw the purple slopes of New London scarfed in silvery hazes” (p. 24, entry for Thursday, April 10, 1890).

As vivid as these passages are, I prefer the accounts of everyday events: visits with friends, conflicts at school, outings to the seashore, etc. They’re written in a lively style, with a great deal of wit— sometimes lightly mocking, sometimes tart and sarcastic. (There are many gloomy passages, too, detailing Montgomery’s loneliness and depression, but I haven’t gotten to those yet.)

Montgomery started a journal to record what she thought worth recording. It became a place where she could vent her feelings and say things she couldn’t say anywhere else. But the practice of writing a journal was, for her, also an important part of the discipline of writing.

A literature of our own

Friday, June 8th, 2012

At the Symposium on Manitoba Writing last month I was reminded of how, for a certain generation of writers, prairie literature was something they had to invent for themselves.

That got me thinking about books I’d read growing up. I don’t think I ever felt the same absence of literature that spoke my language. This is partly because of my age: by the time I began reading and writing poetry seriously, there was lots out there by prairie writers, probably much more than I realized at the time.

It was in the fiction I read in elementary school that I noticed differences between my world and the world of books. I read a lot of British books about girls in boarding schools, where they wore uniforms and only saw their parents during holidays, and a lot of books set in the eastern U.S., where schools had cafeterias and leaves turned red in the fall.

But then there was a series of books by Margaret Epp that I read and re-read: Prairie Princess, The Princess and the Pelican, and The Princess Rides a Panther. They are out of print now; written in the ’60s and ’70s, they were later reissued under different titles (Sarah and the Magic Twenty-Fifth, Sarah and the Pelican, Sarah and the Lost Friendship). The main character, ten-year-old Sarah Naomi Scott, lives on a Saskatchewan farm in the 1920s and attends a one-room school. Maybe it was the setting that made such a strong connection, and the fact that I, too, was about ten when I first read the books. I grew up in town, not on the farm, and my school had at least two classes for each grade. But those one-room schools still operated through the ’50s when my mother was a girl, and on my grandparents’ farm were relics of the horse-drawn wagon and the “bunk,” an enclosed vehicle on sleigh runners, in which she and her siblings travelled to school.

For that combination of reasons, I think, I loved those books and identified with Sarah Scott. It also helped that Margaret Epp, although not a relative as far as I know, actually lived in a nearby town. It was exciting to know that Real Writers came from small-town Saskatchewan, too.

Naming flowers

Friday, July 15th, 2011

I’ve just returned from a week of vacation in a nearby provincial park where, among other things, I discovered many wildflowers I’d never seen before. After my initial delight and surprise I realized this was because, in other years, we’d always gone there in August, when many of these flowers were no longer in bloom, and I hadn’t even known they were there. The biggest thrill, probably, was finding wild columbine and blue flag. But there were many more, and I spent a lot of time searching through my copy of Wildflowers Across the Prairies. (An excellent reference book. Even reading the flower names is fun: lilac-flowered beardtongue, hoary puccoon, nodding onion…) In fact, I’d say flowers turned into a minor obsession on this trip.

What’s with this passion for naming and categorizing things? It’s useful to identify plants like wild raspberry, hazelnut, or Labrador tea. A person should be able to recognize poison ivy and stinging nettle, just for the sake of self-protection. But why should it matter that this yellow flower is a form of groundsel, and those other ones are yellow avens? Why would you want to distinguish among the many types of vetch?

Yet naming and classifying is important to us, whether it’s grouping plants into families, sorting minerals, or dividing history into periods according to one scheme or another. I suppose it’s a way of looking for order in the world.

Much of the pleasure of wildflowers (or birds, or rocks, or mushrooms) is in the discovery, that involuntary “oh!” at seeing something exquisite for the first time. Still, there’s also something satisfying in being able to not only describe a plant but also name it. Columbine. One more little check mark in the book.

Odd notions

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

It’s been a long time since I read Ray Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine, but one short episode sticks in my mind. An old woman, Mrs. Bentley, begins chatting with three children who pause by her yard on a summer afternoon. One is Tom Spaulding, one of the main characters of the novel; the others are two girls, Jane and Alice. Mrs. Bentley mentions having been their age once, and the girls’ reaction is startling.

‘My mother says it isn’t nice to fib,’ said Jane.
‘Of course it isn’t. It’s very bad,’ agreed Mrs. Bentley.
‘And not to listen to fibs.’
‘Who was fibbing to you, Jane?’
Jane looked at her and then glanced nervously away.
‘You were.’

The fib, it turns out, was in claiming that she was once a girl like Jane and Alice. Mrs Bentley then tries to convince the girls by showing them some of the things she’s saved: a hair comb and ring she once wore, a set of jacks, a photo of herself at age seven. They simply don’t believe her. They laugh and run away with her things.

The idea that old people were once young is an odd notion for a child, one that takes an imaginative leap to comprehend. Bradbury’s treatment of the incident makes it quite striking: the children’s sure and stubborn disbelief in the very possibility that old people could have been young, their open mockery of Mrs. Bentley.

The story turns into a sort of fable about the folly of clinging to the past. But it’s also a fine example of an author getting inside a child’s head, bringing into sharp relief the brightness and strangeness of the world as seen through a child’s eyes.

Lame literature

Monday, September 13th, 2010

I was prompted to get back to this too-long-neglected blog by a friend’s posting on Facebook, a link to a site called Awful Library Books. It has an amusing selection of truly odd titles that were actually found in real libraries.

Good books tend to survive, one way or another, but unfortunately bad ones do too. Often they’re just forgotten, but they do reappear at yard sales, in thrift stores, in used bookstores, and in dusty corners of people’s houses. And, judging by Awful Library Books, some linger on library shelves despite being outdated or just plain silly.

Some bad books are so bad they’re funny. Some are loathsome. Others, especially books you enjoyed uncritically as a child, seem clumsily written and just plain uninteresting when you come back to them as an adult (apologies to anyone who still likes reading the old Nancy Drew books).

I’ve got a few Awful Examples on my  own shelves. The thing is, once they’re on the bookshelf they tend to stay there. Where else would they go? Who’d want them? Besides, I maintain a certain affection for some of these books.

There’s one called Freddy the Fox, which has been around since I was five. It survived several years in my parents’ garage, the pages are stained and it still smells a bit. The story is not particularly interesting; it has neither the whimsy of Winnie the Pooh nor the musical language of Margaret Wise Brown’s books, but I keep it because it was with this book that I learned to read. So, although some books have come and gone, this one’s going to stay for now.