January 28, 2009

Missing John Updike

I was sad to hear John Updike died. At seventy-seven. Somehow I thought he would live forever, be invulnerable to the human frailties he wrote so beautifully about. He will live forever of course in my mind and in his writings. Although his last novels were not my favorites, I love his style, his thoughts, his expressions of everyday life. How he can take four pages to cross the street. The flood of memories, details, associations, how a leaf on the road can turn the mind around and around.

I think my favorite book of his is Rabbit at Rest. I reread the Rabbit series a few years ago and still love them. Even as a man facing poor health and possible death, Harry Angstrom, like all of Updike’s characters, is obsessed with sex right to the end.

As a friend once said to me (of herself), I was single in the seventies. Both of us immediately understood the implications. That was a time of easy sexuality. And Updike wrote about this without shame or hesitation. I’ve had several friends say they didn’t like his writing because of his dark, brooding (and naughty) relationship with sex. It’s not "nice". But it’s life, friends, life at its core. And very beautiful.

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January 18, 2009


Here’s my New Year’s List of Books I Read Last Year. Actually I probably left out a few, but here are the memorable ones, more or less, and some thoughts about them.

Two by Samual Beckett: The Lost Ones and The Unnamable. I’ve always loved Beckett’s writing, love how they transport me to another level of experience beyond words yet through the use of words.

Short Stories by Nadine Gordimer, Something Out There. I really enjoyed these stories and would like to read more by her.

John Banville Eclipse. An aging actor’s search for himself. I was glad when I finished this one. It was okay but dragged on.

Dan Chaon: Among the Missing has one of the best stories I have read in a long time. I enjoyed the entire book.

On the other hand, his novel You Remind Me of Me really went on too long, needed cutting. Although a good story, too much of a good thing is not good. The book would have benefited by a good editor.

Joan Brady: Prologue. This was a wonderful memoir of her youth, her ambitions to be a professional ballet dancer and the tensions between her and her mother. I’ve been planning to read more of her writing, and soon.

J.M. Coetzee: Waiting for the Barbarians. Another wonderful novel. Beautifully written story of a man who faces an extreme moral dilemma involving power and colonial unrest and violence.

William Trevor: Felicia’s Journey (made into a motion picture by Atom Egoyan) A primer on how to become a derelict. A well-written story but without any possibilities of hope or transcendence of despair. Another book I didn’t mind finishing.

The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukayama. Most of this novel was perfect, the part told by the young Chinese man recuperating from tuberculosis in a small resort town in Japan. But then, when the story changed point of view, it failed for me. The main theme is about outcasts: tensions between nationalities and also between the healthy and the ill. The underlying theme is the beauty of life as symbolized by the Garden.

The Master by Colm Toibin, about Henry James, a beautiful, intense, quietly profound book about creativity and loneliness.

News from Paraguay by Lilly Tuck. Perfectly crafted short episodes (a whole chapter in each paragraph) that give a full story of a major part of Paraguay’s history.

The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt. Searching for clues to the fire at the Venice Opera House, the entire history of Venice and its social life is laid out in a fascinating travelogue.

Everyman by Philip Roth. An interesting probe into the feelings of an aging retired successful advertising executive.

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. A fascinating look at isolation and what it can do to the mind and what kind of person chooses it.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Still one of the best books ever. To write a book from the point of view of a six year old and have it seem believable is, well, unbelievable for how successful it is.

Yesterday by Agota Kristof. A very sad and beautiful book.

Pig Earth by the art critic and writer John Berger. A fascinating story of life in rural France.

Louise Bourgeois’ Destruction of the Father; Reconstruction of the Father. Her writings and interviews from 1923 to 1997. Fascinating!

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May 06, 2008

No fear

Last Sunday on The Sunday Edition (CBC radio) hosted a conversation with British writer Julian Barnes about his new book, Nothing to Be Frightened Of. He expressed unsentimental thoughts about death and dying. It was interesting but the most memorable part was when he said “memory is who you are.” If you don’t remember your life, you don’t exist. He ended by saying “memory is identity.”

Julian Barnes website begins with a quote from the book: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him” and goes on to say

Julian Barnes’ new book is, among many things, a family memoir, an exchange with his brother (a philosopher), a meditation on mortality and the fear of death, a celebration of art, an argument with and about God, and a homage to the French writer Jules Renard. Though he warns us that ‘this is not my autobiography’, the result is like a tour of the mind of one of our most brilliant writers.

I haven’t read the book but I would like to after hearing him talk. It did make me think about how often our memory is tilted towards our emotions of the moment. My sister remembers events about my life differently than I do and the same with me towards her. Memory can be an entanglement with the past. The mind, and its memories, is not a stable thing. It is not solid. I think I prefer to live today and not dwell in memory. If I can.

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March 16, 2008

Colm Toibin

Friday evening I went to a talk at St. Mary’s University by the Irish writer, Colm Toibin. It was titled The Reverse Side of the Picture: How to Make Fiction from Truth and below that title it said: An evening with Colm Toibin. He is, without a doubt, a most interesting person. An amazing face that looks to me like it is molded out of soft clay, very malleable. He talked a little about his reasons for the title, about looking behind the picture, how this makes fiction as it is not the picture we see/experience. He read from his new novel, still in process, and also a story he wrote about a priest’s indiscretions with young boys and it’s effect on the priest’s mother. A strong story.

Yet I walked away wanting more. I would have liked to hear more about Toibin’s life, how he feels about it, who he hangs out with, what he reads, even what he has for breakfast, if anything. But apparently that was left for a few select people. One of them being my Irish friend Sean (who will be staying here with Lila next week when I go to visit Tamar and family) who teaches Irish Studies at St. Mary’s. Sean told me he stayed up until the wee hours talking and drinking with Toibin. Irish conversation that he, Sean, misses here in Canada. I’m not sure what he means, not having been in Ireland, but Irish humor and view of life must definitely be unique. I am looking forward to asking Sean more about this.

I suppose it is similar to the New York flavor that I don’t find here often; it’s only in people who have lived a long time in New York. Something Tamar missed so much in Los Angeles. I don’t miss it myself, partly because I do get injections often enough for me when I visit, but also my life here is what I need right now. And I do travel a fair bit. It’s something to think about, for sure.

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December 21, 2007

Literarily speaking

Speaking of books, I neglected to post a list of books I read last year. Probably because I was so hung up on Ulysses. I had taken up the Ulysses Challenge put forward by Jian Ghomeshi (on Sounds Like Canada in the Summer), loved the writing, loved the beautiful use of language, loved reading it, but probably only understood about 1% of it so stopped around page 300. It has the distinction of being the first book I hadn’t finished in manymanymany years. But the challenge still lingers and perhaps (perhaps) I will take it up again.

Meanwhile, what I did read over the past two years:

Yo! By Julia Alvarez: I enjoyed reading this adventuresome story.

How to Speak Dog by Stanley Coren: I’m still learning. I do (obviously) love his books on dogs. The first one I read, How Dogs Think, is probably what pushed me over the edge to get another dog after being dogless for five years.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson: A little too melodramatic for me although not a bad story. I read this while my house was under unexpected renovations in the spring of 2006. So it was a good distraction.

Short Stories by O’Henry: I know he’s supposed to be a great short story writer, but I just couldn’t get into these stories. The characters didn’t interest me very much. Their lives never touched mine. I am proud to say I didn’t finish the book.

Bacombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut: These short stories seemed formulaic. People were good and bad, very predictable. And I found the satire and sarcasm unappealing.

A Ulysses Primer. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember the author and can’t find the book right now. I didn’t have the patience when reading UlyssesUlysses again.

Sympathy by Dede Crane: It’s always difficult to write about what goes on in a psychotherapeutic situation. Most of this novel takes place in a mental hospital. Sometimes the insights were interesting, but overall, I might have liked it better in another setting.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi: This was fascinating reading, interesting peek into a difficult time in the history of Iran. But the writing became labored, as if she, as a teacher of literature, was trying too hard to be literary.

Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac: Actually this was a rather enjoyable read, a good relief from Ullysses. A glimpse into an important period in the evolution of personal growth, so to speak.

A Good Dog by Jon Katz: I talked about this in my blog so I won’t say more than it is a very very beautiful story of a man and a dog. If you like dogs, Jon Katz’ writing is the best, very sincere.

The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald: I actually put this book down a third of the way through. It just didn’t interest me.

The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag, the sad story of a young boy’s life in a Mongolian nomadic tribe.

The Bookseller of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad. Interesting reading, for sure. A fascinating, detailed portrait of a family and a country.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. As has been said many times, who would have thought a book on punctuation could be so much fun to read! I’ve always loved punctuation. For me it’s a literary form of mathematics.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth: Never thought I would enjoy a book based on a political situation so much. I do love his writing. It is so thorough. I was fascinated by the way he slips around in time and still keeps the storyline moving.

House of Sand and Fog Andre Dubois III: The book went from okay to not so great. In fact, I was left feeling like it was a waste of time. Too dark without any feeling of growth or resolution.

Three by Margaret Lawrence: Stone Angel, House of Fire, The Fire-Dwellers. I enjoyed them. Except for House of Fire, where I would have loved to be her editor. I’d never read Margaret Lawrence before going to see Stone Angel at the Halifax Film Festival in September. I enjoyed the novel so much more than the movie. But then there is only one movie I enjoyed more than the book and that was The Hour.

Short Stories by Willa Cather and Still Life by A.S. Byatt. Ann lent me these books as I was leaving Rome. She promised to come get them next summer. The Willa Cather stories were perfect, especially her later ones. Still Life, I would have enjoyed editing a bit. The story was interesting, about a family in England, especially the two sisters, struggling with their intelligence and women’s issues. There was a lot of philosophizing about life and literature and also quotes from Van Gogh’s letters that were helpful to understanding his process.

And of course, Miles Davis’ Autobiography which I am currently enjoying so very much. I’m sure I left out a few but this will do for now.

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December 20, 2007

Miles of smiles

I’ve been reading Miles by Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe. It’s one of those books I could stay up all night reading. Written as he told it to Quincy Troupe, the language is quite colorful, that jive language where “bad” is “good” and a “sh*t m*therf*cker” is the best. (The ***’s are here to avoid the G**gle tentacles!) He is very direct, honest, and more or less open about his life, his loves, and especially his music.

I love jazz and Miles Davis is one of my very favorites. When I was in art school, a friend introduced me to his music. Over the years I’ve listened to him more than anyone else. Once, in New York, a friend (who also played jazz at the time) took me to the luncheonette on Broadway In the 70’s where Miles often ate. Unfortunately he didn’t come in that day.

I’m only up to 1952, about a third of the way through the book. So far I’ve learned more about him than I expected. He lived for his music. In his early years, music was almost all he thought about. By age fifteen he was playing with other great musicians. His father was a dentist and very supportive of Miles. When Miles decided to quit Juilliard, he didn’t just call his father; he went home to East St. Louis to tell him in person. His father understood and continued to send him money so he could pursue his dream.

The years I am reading about now, 1950, 51, 52 were hard years for Miles. He was into drugs and finding it hard to stop. I know he did stop (only did it for four years) and am waiting to see how. Basically he was a very good person, helping other musicians whenever he could, no matter what color skin, caring only about their music. In the years I’ve been reading about, he is looking for his own voice. He knows it won’t be fast like Charlie Bird Parker or Dizzy Gillespie. His own slow, languid pace is what made his music unique.

Reading about his one-pointed passion for his music is inspiring. Jazz is a collaborative art form. So much of Mile’s story involves who he plays with, learns from, talks to. When he wasn't playing music, he would go from club to club to hear music and then talk all night to friends about the music. I couldn’t help comparing it to painting, a very solitary art form. But it too needs that kind of obsessive energy to find the right voice, the expression of a personal vision.

I’ve been trying to learn how to play jazz piano, taking lessons recently with Skip Beckwith now and again. It’s hard. After so many years of playing classical music, just reading the music and playing, this is so different. It’s a different way of thinking about music. I know I’ll never be a great jazz musician. But I do love jazz and am determined to learn how to play some, in my own way. It helps to read about Miles Davis and his thorough immersion in a life of music. If even a tiny bit rubs off on me, I’d be happy.

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December 13, 2007

Reading and watching and more

I went to a play Saturday night. (I won’t mention the name because I found it didn’t satisfy. No point.) It was neither here nor there, neither comedy nor serious. The one-person skit started out with energetic farcical energy, very funny. It went on too long in that vein but wasn’t funny any more. Then it became heavy, ponderous and ended flat. The friend I went with said afterwards she can suspend belief in the theatre but not in the movies. She was willing to give it more respect than I did. I almost fell asleep in the middle.

So what does it take to make you suspend belief? I can get totally involved in movies, books, TV shows, plays. Often when I am with someone watching TV and am getting visibly upset by a story, by the way people are acting or things that are happening to them, the person with me will say: Leya, it is only TV! Sometimes I don’t answer the phone when I am involved in a show. At least in a movie it’s dark and my reactions are more my secret.

Books are another story. Sometimes I get so involved in what is happening, I must read it, even if it keeps me up most of the night. Other times I find I have to put it down before I get to that point just because it is so overwhelming. Then, sometimes, I just can’t relate to the story or the characters; it puts me to sleep. With a book, at least, there’s the option of putting it down. Walking out of a theatre is more dramatic.

Last year was the first time I can remember when I actually didn’t finish reading a novel once I had started it. It was liberating. To admit a book just wasn’t for me. So maybe I will walk out of a theatre production—someday, maybe.

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September 05, 2006

The Ulysses challange

One of my dinner guests on Sunday is an Irish Studies scholar. So of course I asked him about Ulysses. I told him Jian’s advice (on CBC radio) to skim the parts you don’t understand and keep going. He thought that was a good idea. He also explained a bit about the structure of the novel and suggested I could drop it at times, read something else, and go back to it. But I think I’m hooked right now.

I’m on page 155 and want to continue (so far). I rarely don't finish a book I've started. It's not out of guilt or feeling I "should" finish it. It's more curiousity, to see what the writer is doing, how it could be better, might get better. I probably would have made a good editor (but would have hated it as a job!). I did put a couple of books down unfinished recently, so I can do it.

My friend is also teaching a couple of classes on Ulysses and said I could sit in on them. I’m looking forward to that.

Posted by leya at 08:33 AM

June 09, 2006

The Teacher Man for real

Wednesday night I went to see Frank McCourt read from his latest book, Teacher Man. He definitely has the entertainment factor down. For over an hour he had the audience mesmerized with his non-stop ideas and stories about teaching. My favorite was when, during about the third day of his first teaching assignment (at a vocational school in New York City), a student threw another student’s sandwich. The point was to irritate the teacher, of course. But Mr. McCourt smelled the savory sandwich now on the floor before him, the morsel obviously lovingly made by the student’s mother, picked it up and ate it. A turning point in his relationship with teaching. He was saying it is important to reach a student, first where the student’s mind is, in a language the student can connect to, then build from there. Teaching is about connection. He said wherever he goes he meets previous students of his. There was even a student of his years from Styvesant High in the seventies in the audience. Most of them thank him, tell him how much they appreciated his teaching.

I’ve read McCourt’s two other books: Angela’s Ashes and ’Tis. I enjoyed them both, each for different reasons. The first, Angela’s Ashes told of his growing up poor in Ireland. What made it so unique was how he related his story without any self-pity. ’Tis on the other hand, begins with his arrival in New York, feeling lost and lonely and—feeling very sorry for himself. At first, for that reason, I didn’t think I would enjoy reading ’Tis. But McCourt’s honesty and desire to learn was very impressive. And it gave the book an overall richness.

And one thing at his talk: he kept saying how his wife, Ellen, would like to move to Nova Scotia. I’m all for that! (But alas, he’s very rooted in NYC.)

Posted by leya at 06:38 PM

December 31, 2005

The New Work of Dogs

Damian put up three signs above the cat’s feeding station. They read, from left to right: “No breakfast,” “No lunch,” and “Dinner okay.” So now the cats won’t ask for food unless they are on our schedule. The only problem for the rest of us is that they are written in cat language. The cats (and Damian) can read them.

Jon Katz, in his book The New Work of Dogs, talks about how we anthropomorphize animals, particularly dogs, and the consequences of this. After reading the book, I think (hope) I have a better understanding of what it means to relate to animals. Katz’s book is one of the best—well written, seamless, interesting, perceptive, engrossing and instructive. Dogs, who once were mainly work animals—herding, hunting, protecting—are now bred to be companions. And not just dog companions, but pals, friends, best friends, compassionate and understanding. In the many examples he gives in the book, dogs become surrogate people. As he says:

The range of dogs’ work these days is breathtaking: they join search-and-rescue missions, help the blind, guard property, sniff for bombs and illegal drugs, and comfort the elderly, the traumatized, the bereaved, and the lonely. Therapists enthusiastically enlist dogs in treating drug and alcohol addiction and in a broad range of rehabilitation work. They increasingly use dogs to help emotionally disturbed children.

If there is a cloud hanging over this work, it’s that the fate of these animals is so varied, the results so difficult to measure , their work so often unrewarded.

Many dog owners today live in much closer emotional proximity to their pets than in previous generations. Dogs are often used to fill emotional needs, to help their lonely, needy, discontented and disconnected owners. Katz tells the stories of people he spent time with to observe their relationships with their dogs—from single woman looking for companionship; divorced women gathering (with their dogs) to support each other; men walking their dogs together at 5 am, before going into the city for work; children given a dog they didn’t want as a present, then later abandoning the dog; a boy who used his dog to intimidate his peers, give him status in a rough neighborhood; a woman who has dedicated her life to rescuing dogs from shelters, finding homes for them, while ignoring her own (grown) children; another woman dying of cancer; a man alone in his old age. In all these situations, the dogs were used by their owners and the dogs responded. They sensed what was expected of them and they worked for their owners.

Yet Katz feels that we often know little about dogs and want to learn less.

If we really knew dogs, would we be attributing to them the vast, complex panoply of emotions that are unique to humans? See them as people when they are not? Would we overfeed and underwork them? Would we acquire large, active working dogs for small apartments or town houses in congested tracts? Would we refuse to train them? Beat and abandon them by the millions? Would we bar them from doing almost everything they naturally want and need to do, from roaming and sniffing to settling dog scores and chasing squirrels?

The book is mainly the fascinating stories he tells about the people he came to know and their relationships to their dogs. What becomes clear is the need for appropriate training of the dog. Your (and my) dog may be brilliant and talented, but she is not human. Dog’s are animals and need to be treated accordingly. Katz also says

Shouldn’t there be groups obsessed with helping abandoned people, helping to replace their mobile children or deceased spouses, repairing the damage left by their unhappy childhoods, making them whole and happy? Rescuers could screen their new lovers and partners, check on friends to ensure that they were loyal and wise, visit their charges’ new homes to be sure they were properly cared for.

Give dogs their bittersweet due: they’re doing hard and sometimes thankless work. But that says something about us, something that doesn’t often show up in media stories, glossy pet magazines, or picturesque slow-motion dog-food ads. . . . Often, if you scratched a dog lover, you found some underlying pain, something that opens a vein of empathy, nurturing, and affection. It’s the part of the human-dog experience that draws me most as a writer.

And I am now deeply immersed in another of his books: Katz on Dogs, more of a training manual but including as well many of his helpful and beautifully told tales of dogs and their owners.

Posted by leya at 02:42 PM | Comments (3)

December 25, 2005

On books

Following Tiny Coconut’s lead, I am posting a list of (most of the) books I have read this year. I’ve tried to list them in descending order of enjoyment, but that is impossible without also describing why I like (or dislike) a book. I don’t think it’s exactly justified to say that some of these books are better than others. Some are just different. And some are really not good. (Most of them I have written about in other parts of my blog, so I will just say a few words.) . . . . . . .

Lost in the Forest by Sue Miller. A perfect book.

Light on Snow by Anita Shreve. A winner. Her best.

An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender. A very beautiful, sensitive book.

All That Matters by Wayson Choy. Another wonderful story by Choy. About Chinese immigrants in Vancouver during The War. His other book I had read previously, The Jade Peony, is also a great book, the same story told from the sister’s viewpoint.

How Dogs Think by Stanley Coren. Well, need I say more! A great book! Probably what started me on the puppy path.

To the Wedding by John Berger. A poetic, tender, moist story of transcendent love and loss.

While I Was Gone by Sue Miller. A disappointment to me but a favorite of many of my friends.

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier. Interesting; a sketchy romance woven around medieval tapestry making. I read it on the plane going to Europe, which made it more intriguing.

Tales of Protection by Erik Fosnes Hansen�s. Four interesting stories with a complex link.

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth�. Slow to start (for me, who is not usually able to read political stories) but increasingly fascinating, about obsession in love and politics.

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. I kept referring to this one in conversations and while teaching. It’s a good one.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris. A very good, humorous memoir. About his dysfunctional family. He leaves no one out of his witty assessments of behavior, including himself and his partner.

Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I really enjoyed this tale of baseball mania. It felt like a journey back to my childhood, when the World Series pre-empted classroom studies and we listened to baseball games in school.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer�. Another very interesting book, much better than I would have expected from the “idea” the book was formed around, a man living his life (physically but not emotionally) backwards, from an old man at birth to a baby at death.

Cause Celeb by Helen Fielding. A more serious book than I expected. The humor was weak but the content, message of the book was excellent. It’s a story about a woman whose dysfunctional relationships leads her to relate to human suffering in the refugee camps in Africa.

Richard Wright’s novel Adultery. Not very good. I was glad to finish it, although the story had great potential.

All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve�. Not a favorite book. I love most of Anita Shreve’s writing, but not this one.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. A dense gothic mystery novel, an intriguing story but either poorly written or poorly translated. It did improve as it moved along its intricate storyline but I am not sure I came out of it any wiser.

Never Let You Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. This was one book I actually put down. Even though recommended by two favorite reader friends, it didn’t catch my interest at all.

And believe it or not, I read The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. A very poorly written book. Not one surprise in it. Trite dialogue. But because of all the hype, and because I do know people who feel there is some accuracy in the storyline, I’m glad I read it. So I now know what people are talking about. But no more than that.

And then there are the dog training books I am currently enjoying, ones I need to read and reread:

The Art of Raising Your Puppy by The Monks of New Skete

How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend by The Monks of New Skete

Dog Training for Dummies by Jack Volhard and Wendy Volhard

Puppies for Dummies by Sarah Hodgson. (I read this one in the bookstore so then) Tamar gave me the following three books:

Puppy Perfect by Sarah Hodgson

Katz on Dogs by Jon Katz (who lives in Montclair, New Jersey)

The New Work of Dogs by Jon Katz. Much more on this fascinating book later.

So that’s it for 2005. I don’t for a minute think reading has been injured by the technology revolution. Most of my friends are intensive readers; the library is full every time I go there; lots of my students read serious literature during breaks at school and there are a lot more good books out there waiting to be read. Just as gyms (exercise for the body) are sprouting up everywhere, people need to read: exercise for the mind.

Posted by leya at 09:29 AM | Comments (3)

December 15, 2005

How to bake an apple pie

I’m still fascinated by passages I read in Stanley Coren’s, How Dogs Think. I finished the book, finally, after having interspersed about a half dozen other books during the process. (This one being so dense and interesting, I’ve savored it slowly). He has a section in the book titled “The Social Brain.” Dogs are pack animals, and so it seems, are humans. He describes the “Social Brain Hypothesis” which says that “one of the major reasons intelligence evolved and became more complex in the first place was that it was designed to solve social problems. The more complex the social organization in which an animal lives, the more intelligence he needs and the more his brain is oriented toward social issues. Humans, of course, are social animals and spend most of their time exchanging personal and social information.”

Coren goes on to say two British psychologists sampled conversations and found that “more than two-thirds of our conversations are taken up with social and emotional matters. Typical topics dealt with who is doing what and with whom, and perhaps commentaries on whether that is a good or bad thing. Other topics include who is a moving up in the world and who is moving down and why.”

In a study that Coren conducted, monitoring over a hundred discussions between his colleagues at the university where he teaches he “never found a technical discussion that went on for more than seven minutes without lapsing, at least for a while, back into social conversation. In fact, only about one-quarter of the time was spent on technical matters overall.”

Leaves one pondering. As my mother used to say: apple pie without the cheese is like a kiss without the squeeze.

Posted by leya at 04:45 PM

December 07, 2005

Fifteen things about books

Tamar tagged me for this meme. Couldn’t resist. So here goes:

1.) I love books. Everything about them—the smell, the look, the feel, how they line up on the shelves, how they remind me of various times and events in my life (how this or that book reminds me of that juicy time!). It’s hard for me to let go of a book that means a lot to me, one I enjoyed, that brought me that certain kind of pleasure, one that is indescribable. My favorite time to read now is lying in bed at night and read, often for hours if it is a good book. It feels so luxurious.

2.)The fondest memories of summer in my teen years are lying in a canvas hammock in the back yard under big maple trees drinking lemonade and eating saltines all day and reading reading reading. The books I read then were the Romantic novels by the Bronte sisters, Thackery, Charles Dickens. I remember my sister laughing in the next room when she heard me crying at the end of Jane Eyre. She said she had done the same. Still.

3.)I read Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek while nursing Tamar in the middle of the night and started calling her Bubalina. Nobody but me seemed to know why. And maybe the love of reading seeped into the milk.

4.)I very rarely do not finish a book I’ve started. It has to be pretty bad for me to put it down! Often when I’m reading a book that doesn’t measure up (for me), I edit the writing in my mind. Rewrite a sentence, change a word, a structure. But I never tell the author.

5.)I used to flip to the end and also read passages before the end before reading the full book but I have tried to train myself out of that. It isn’t fair to the writer. Now I only do it occasionally, when either the book is too upsetting and I feel I can calm down reading it if I know the ending (hoping that it has a “good” ending) or it is so bad that I wouldn’t finish it unless I knew the ending.

6.)Libraries have been a refuge some of my life (especially during school years), a place or terror at others. Too many choices, too little time to read everything. I’ve just begun to make friends again with libraries. In fact, I look forward to going there just before my dance class (it’s right across the street) every Wednesday evening.

7.)My parents had beautiful leather bound books for the living room shelves. Dickens, Thackery, Homer, Aristotle. I loved to pick them up, smell them, and read them. They made our living room special. I’ve always arranged my books on the shelves by authors (not size or date), grouping authors who write a certain type of book together, keeping a modicum of order on my shelves.

8.)I’ve always thought of myself as a slow reader. Probably because I savor every word. The few times that I have skipped a word, I find I need to go back and get it right. (It’s only respectful, after all!)

9.)I feel naked without a book to read. It’s almost a feeling of panic if there is not a book lined up to be read. I have some good reader friends and we pass books back and forth. Three of us have set up a library in Inge’s house. We have all contributed books, but I must admit, I keep my favorites home, just in case I NEED them (and sometimes I really do!).

10.)I used to read all of one author, not move on until I had exhausted their writings. But now it feels like there is so much to read, I am more extravagant, taste a smorgasbord of books.

11.)I love a good short story collection. I love a good, long, intense involved novel. I’ve never been good with mysteries or science fiction, yet I have read some (mysteries maybe) by better writers and not thought about them as a type. They were just good. When a book doesn’t come across as a particular genre, but has merit for the writing and ideas, then it doesn’t matter to me where it fits, what type it is. I guess I’m not much for light reading, though. When I feel that need, short stories do the job very well.

12.)My taste runs mostly to novels that portray some kind of understanding that enriches my life in some way. Recently, I really was enchanted by The Dive from Clausen’s Pier (which I lent to a friend and she said it renewed her faith in contemporary literature). I also loved The Kite Runner and Light on Snow. I wouldn’t change a word in any of those books.

13.)I read novels easily, and magazines sometimes, but a newspaper is beyond my grasp. Maybe it is the print being so small, but more likely it is the news itself. Having grown up during World War II (and just being who I am), newspapers are difficult for me. Maybe too it is the feeling of holding a book. It just feels so good.

14.)My parents had a great respect for reading. My mother loved the New Yorker, read it cover to cover as soon as it arrived. But I don’t remember her reading books other than cookbooks. My dad read lots of novels, often historical novels, right up until he died at 90. I can picture him at any age sitting in a comfortable chair with a book on his lap.

15.)My mother taught me to read before I learned at school. She didn’t try. It just happened. I was standing in the back of our 1937 black Plymouth sedan, in the early 1940’s, while my mother helped me figure out the words phonetically on the way home from buying the reader, a Dick and Jane book. The teacher then called my mother in and scolded her in front of me. It probably left some scars but I am not sure where they are. I know I stopped caring for that teacher, was glad when I went into the next grade.

This was great! I could keep going but now I will tag Elin, Rachel, and Jessica. Have fun kids!

Posted by leya at 09:21 PM | Comments (1)

November 19, 2005

Something besides my puppy

I just finished Richard Wright’s novel Adultery. It’s a fascinating plot-line (a married man in his mid-fifties has his first casual affair and the much younger lady is murdered, necessitating his having to face his indiscretion publicly as well as privately), begins well, but lost my enthusiasm soon into the book. I loved his earlier book, Clara Callan, cried through the whole book, even while sitting in the Motor Vehicle registration office. Expecting to feel the same way, in this one I just didn’t care so much about the characters.

Thinking about Sue Miller’s books and how I preferred her most recent novel, making it difficult to read an earlier book, I started thinking about my own work. Early vs. later. Is one better because it is more mature. Etc. When I am giving a slide presentation of my work, I can see the connections from the beginning to now, see how my ideas have come full circle. Some of my early work is very good. A lot was not (but I don’t have photos of those!). I went through many stages, many different ways of working, to come to what I am doing now. And it too is evolving, changing. I used to find myself changing approaches every three or four years. Now it is a more smooth evolution. The biggest change is that, even though some of my very early work is (in my opinion) as good as what I am doing now, there was not much of it; it didn’t happen often. Maybe two or three good pieces a year. Maybe. Now I have much more skill, control, and let’s face it, maturity. Maybe similar to the editing skill that is required of a more mature writer. And now I’m willing to spend more time on a piece, not letting it go until it feels just right.

Posted by leya at 01:47 PM

October 23, 2005

The good, the bad, and the indifferent

As much as I was exceedingly surprised and enchanted with Sue Miller’s Lost in the Forest, her earlier novel, While I Was Gone, was actually a disappointment. It is a very good story, just overwritten. Where her latest novel is spare and direct, poetic and immediate, the earlier one rambles. I used to have a habit of reading ahead most of the time, spoiling any surprise that might have been written into the story, and I haven’t done that in a long time. But I was restless reading this book, and as I have a habit of finishing almost every book I start, I found myself giving in to my old restlessness and reading ahead, thinking maybe that would help.

While I Was Gone explores what behavior is allowable, what “bad” is “good" or "okay,” what is forgivable. If someone does a horrendous act, can he make amends by then “being good, creating good for others” and, on the other hand, if someone has an intention of indiscretion, dishonesty, is that enough to destroy faith in that person? Interesting questions, well developed; just not as well written as I would have liked.

Even so, I am planning to read another of her books that has been recommended to me, The Good Mother. Her stories are interesting, the people real, the situations worthwhile understanding. I probably would have liked this book better if I had read it before Lost in the Forest.

(I had, in fact, given Lost in the Forest to my friend Robin as she was about to go to the library and, before returning it, she read the first few pages, was captivated, renewed it and is now deeply absorbed and enjoying it.)

In the meantime, in my last venture into the library before Tango class, I took out To the Wedding by John Berger, recommended by a friend, a university literature professor. It was a good choice. A very poetic novel, one that speaks alternately through many voices, of a young girl, Ninon, and her travels through love and death. One of the surprises of reading this book, besides the beautiful telling of the story, was a couple of yellow stickie-notes I found throughout the book. The first one read “birds are symbolic of human souls” and then refers to p. 148 “sense of hope from taxi-driver” with whom Ninon’s mother, Zdena, has some warm, brief moments.

The second yellow stickie-note read “the novel’s lost & searching souls, Ninon’s grieving father Jean & her mother, Zdena. Jean & Zdena are regenerated by the power of Gino & Ninon’s timeless love” which allows them to marry and rejoice beyond the knowledge of Ninon’s encroaching illness.

The power of the novel is in its lyrical telling of tragic events that are transformed into a joyous, tender and triumphant wedding of family and community. I’ve known several friends who have died in their thirties and forties, way too early. In each case the relationship to death was different. It is always hard, especially on friends and family left behind, but the main quality that makes it less painful is the attitude of acceptance. And here that quality is magical.

Posted by leya at 12:28 PM

October 10, 2005

Protecting connections

I went out to dinner a few Friday�s ago, to celebrate Sean�s father�s (who was visiting from England) birthday. There were four of us, and we began to talk about William�s ten days here in Nova Scotia. How exciting it has been for him, the interesting people he has met, the unusual things he has done and seen. How it comes full circle, the circle of events. Underlining the coincidence of meeting: having dinner together with people he hadn�t known two weeks before, celebrating his birthday in a city he had never been in previously, knowing that the circles will expand. Like throwing a pebble into a pond.

At dinner I was telling my friends about reading Erik Fosnes Hansen�s Tales of Protection, a novel that seems to be about connections, about the threads that lead one to do one thing over another. If you didn�t take one path, you would obviously be on another, have met different people, done different things.

It reminds me of the people I have heard about who overslept their alarms or were stuck on a stalled subway and thereby missed being in the towers that fell in NYC on September 11. Or the story a friend told me of a friend of hers who was standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, backed up, bumped into someone, apologized, they started talking and then . . . now they are happily married. Really. And I heard another very funny story about the power of coincidence this morning. My friend had a flat tire. She called CAA. They sent someone out to fix it. He was very kind and had beautiful bedroom eyes. So she prayed (and prayed and prayed) that her car would break down again, and soon. And it did. And now they are living together and deeply connected, more than just his eyes and her tires. So there ya go!

Hansen�s book is in the form of four tales that seem to be separate stories. In the end, it is not quite clear how they merged into one book. Except that the main character is present in the first and last stories. Just like you don�t really know what makes us do or be where we are when it happens. Those coincidences that are auspicious in our lives.

Posted by leya at 05:47 PM

October 06, 2005

About dogs

In between a few novels, I�ve been reading How Dog�s Think by Stanley Coren. As an inveterate dog-lover, it�s been very enlightening to me. It�s an intense little book, full of information that pertains not only to dogs but, in my mind, to people as well. About proper socialization, learning and training. If a dog is not properly exposed to socialzing at a particular stage of its development, somewhere between three and twelve weeks, then they never learn these skills. It does make me wonder about people as well.

One thing that impressed me was when he commented that prenatal influences on dog personalities: if a male dog is in a litter of mostly females, he has more female traits and vice versa. That was true of two of my dogs, Katie and Sebastian. I had them both at the same time, for three years (before Sebastian died prematurely). From a litter of mostly males, Katie was the dominant dog. She could (and did) win any dog fight. In the neighborhood of Duncan�s Cove, where we lived at the time and where there was a large, congenial dog community, she was always the top dog. Sebastian, from a litter of mostly females (and twice her size), was gentler, more docile. He would happily go along with any mischief she devised. And there was plenty.

Next time I get a dog, I�ll have more to think about beforehand.

Posted by leya at 08:32 PM

September 27, 2005

About books

I found myself in the Public Library one day last week. It is across the street from my Tango class and I had (�time to kill�? what a strange expression; why would I want to kill time. I want time on my side of the fence; or was it �time on my hands�? Would it weigh a lot, would I still be able to paint and play the piano with the weight of time on my hands? So, I had) enough time before dance started to check it out. I don't think I have ever taken a book out here in Halifax. Rarely (if ever) went to the library in New York. I did get a card a year ago when the branch opened near here. It was always so overwhelming to me, the idea that I would have to get a book back at a certain date�and so much to choose from. But I have been reading constantly lately, so I was brave this time. The book I signed out was by Sue Miller, Lost in the Forest. It is an extraordinary, intensely felt, intimate, exquisitely written domestic drama about loss, love and transformation; I finished it in two days. Next time I go into the library I will bring the list given to me by some literature professor friends.

I often have felt just as overwhelmed in bookstores. Sometimes even a major panic attack, rarely calm enough to buy a book. One of the best parts of my marriage was that he would read the reviews, buy the books, and I would read them. It saved me having to spend time in the stores, from the panic I usually felt there.

Lately though I�ve spent some pleasant hours in bookstores with Aaron and Jessica and also with Tamar, Dan and Damian. They�ve helped reduce my fears. We mill around, browse, and talk about various books, what we have read, want to read. Mostly, when I want a book, I browse the second hand bookstores. I like the feel of books that have been read before. And my friend in Rhode Island sends me a large box of books he�s read a couple of times a year. A real treat. I also have friends closer to home, here in Halifax, who pass books around. Right now I have placed a large number of books on my friend Inge�s shelves. There are several of us doing this, poking around in each other�s literary lives. Our own private library. But I keep my long-time favorites, my close friends, at home on my own shelves so that I can lend them out and know where they went.

Posted by leya at 07:36 AM

July 01, 2005


Aligned with the coincidence of meeting Elin through our deer connection, I find I am in the middle of reading a novel (Tales of Protection by the Norwegian author, Erik Fosnes Hansen) that focuses directly on coincidences, auspicious coincidences, the ones that effect your life, turn it in a new direction. The story talks about the power of human connections, about luck, chance and why.

Hansen tells us, in the voice of the old man Bolt: Coincidences and destiny..both are, in fact, simply words for something we dont understand. Whether one calls it coincidence or fate is completely irrelevant, because the strange thing is that anything even occurs.That anything (is or) happens when it could just as well not happen.

But just dont ask why. We might be able to understand how and what if we look hard enough. But the big question, Why, is ever elusive. So it is a strange coincidence that you are reading this now. That you might or might not find me on the winding road I have set up as a path to my existence.

It is interesting to me how we make choices that are aligned with who we are even if we think we are doing something, and even, possibly, something differently. Choices that sometimes underline things that we want to change. Choices that make these things harder to change.

I am not a hermit. I need time alone to work, but I enjoy the company of people when I am not working. Yet I have chosen to live in a secluded place, hidden in the woods, found only after traveling on winding roads through rural landscape. True, it is not far from Halifax, but still, it is hard to find. Without written directions, it would be impossible to know I was here. With all my desire to engage with the world, with my art, with my friends, have my artwork move into a bigger world, I still have chosen to live here. And believe me, I love it here. But again, I am not a hermit. The best answer to this dilemma is to have a small, environmentally friendly vehicle and travel outside my immediate home. Yet I need the cargo space for hauling paintings and supplies and the four-wheel- drive for safety on these (often) icy roads.

SoI am thankful for the modern conveniences that we take for grantedthe phone and the internet that brings you into my quiet world. And I am going to put a sign with my name on the road so if, by chance, you are driving by, you know it is me tucked away here in the woods.

Posted by leya at 02:26 PM

June 13, 2005

Why marry a Communist when you can have a computer?

Now about Philip Roths I Married a Communist. I bought the book in a large, four storey bookstore in Bern that had a full floor of books in English. I had prematurely finished the book I brought with me, Tracey Chevaliers The Lady and the Unicorn, which had seemed like the appropriate book to read on a trip through Europe (about a family of tapestry makers in Belgium). But it was so good that I finished it on the plane trip to Zurich and, feeling naked without a book to read, was happy to find such a large selection in Bern.

The Roth book was different than I expected. I had read Portnoys Complaint many years ago and still remember its biting wit and view of Jewish/Goy relationships. (Especially the part where, when the proper young gentile girlfriend of the sexually obsessed Portnoy of proper Jewish upbringing, is asked at a cocktail party by a friend of her parents, what she had been doing all summer, she replied: Growing a penis.) So I expected more of the same. But this book, being based on actual events during the Communist scare in the late 40s, early 50s, the McCarthy era, was slow to get into (pun not intended!). Im not great on political history and it was written as a retelling of events, rather than through immediate action, so it took a lot of attention to stay with it.

I was reading this book on the plane from Amsterdam to Newark. Sitting next to me was a grey haired man with a ponytail. He slept for a while and, at some point, woke and mentioned to me that he couldnt help noticing the title of the book. He told me he was from the Soviet Union, had left in the late 80s. Because he was Jewish, he and his family were allowed to leave. He and his wife came to New York City and later to upstate New York. We were talking for a short while when he mentioned, in the course of a conversation about people not reading as much as they used to, that his son is addicted to computer games. He said that is all the child wants to do. He comes home from school and goes right to the computer and stays on it until bedtime, isnt interested in anything else, doesnt pay attention in school, doesnt play with other children much. So I told him it might be a good idea to limit how long he is on the computer. I did it with my children with TV: they were allowed so much time per day (I think it was an hour) and if they wanted to watch a longer show, they had to take it from another day, like rationing it out. His reply was: Oh, no. Its too late now. Hes already seven years old.

At which point, I excused myself and became seriously absorbed in my book. And actually really began to enjoy it. It is a good book, looking at relationships from many points of view: love, anger, obsession or perhaps more the politics of obsession viewed from many angles. Looking at what motivates a person to pursue their beliefs, whether it is in a relationship with a person or an idea. And this done through the looking back on and piecing together, reminiscing on the experiences of a fanatic. So, in the case of Ira Ringold, the sad, obsesssed hero of this novel, if it hadnt been Communism, what else might have driven his life to the inevitable self-destruction that he courted? Computer games?

Posted by leya at 05:48 PM | Comments (2)

May 31, 2005


I just finished reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. It's about how we make decisions. Actually it's about how we know the whole story in the first few seconds of seeing something or someone. We might �know� but he as points out, with lots of interesting examples, that knowing can be flawed unless we have done the proper education (which also includes de-stereotyping) beforehand. That�s just what I feel about painting: it is important to learn the disciplines and skills and craft of the art form and then just let it happen.

This book reads like a novel; it is so fascinating, with many stories to exemplify his ideas. I am eager to read his first book, The Tipping Point.

Posted by leya at 06:18 AM

March 26, 2005

Getting it all together

Andrew Sean Greers novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli was another one of those books that, when I started reading, I didnt expect to enjoy as much as I did. It has a very unusual premise: a man, victim of a rare disease, is born old and grows young, now in his late fifties, tells the story of his life, including all the intimate feelings that come with loving and being always out of sync in time and place and most important, body. At any point in his life, his actual chronological age and his apparent age always add up to seventy so that in his mid thirties, he is what he seems to be. And it is at that point that he is able to marry the same girl whom falls in love with in his teens when he appears to be an old man, and for a brief time, imagine himself to be "normal."

It is a heartbreaking love story, one in which love is always elusive. Greer begins the book with a quote: Everyone is always the love of someones life. And here the unrequited love is inspected, turned inside out, examined and washed clean with confession.

The book is also a painful examination of growing old, of learning too late. An exaggeration of the familiar phrase youth is wasted on the young. The book is a beautiful, meloncholy play with time and the ever present yearning for love.

Posted by leya at 02:14 PM

February 16, 2005

All He Ever Wanted

I was happy to finish Anita Shreves All He Ever Wanted. It was a difficult book to read, different from her other novels. Difficult to develop any compassion for the narrator. He was so despicable that I just wanted to slug him, really.

The story takes place around the turn of the 20th century. Nicholas Van Tassal is a teacher of literature and rhetoric at a small New England college. And he uses language (the story is told in the first person singular) that is very stilted and controlled, just as he describes himself to be in the narrative. Very proper and controlling.

It is a painful, sad story that he tells, of his unrequited and undying love for his wife. His actions are so unpleasant that it is hard to read. The pace is slow, the details of the period and the story precise. Obviously the writing is intense and believable. Shreve plumbs the depth of desire, love and jealousy in intimate and immediate detail, proving amazing writing skills. Yet I dont know if I would recommend it. Overall, it is very good writing, a fascinating, complex story but not a story I enjoyed (in the conventional sense) reading. But then, life is like thatnot always easy to take.

Posted by leya at 05:55 PM

February 08, 2005

Catch the Light on Snow

It seems there are so many good books these days, so much good writing, so much to read. I�ve been very fortunate to have friends who read similar types of books so we pass them back and forth. I just received a shipment from a friend who keeps me supplied periodically with a great selection. This time I finished the first book almost before the box was open.

Light on Snow by Anita Shreve is without doubt on my one of the best books list. With direct, spare prose she tells the story of a father and daughter who, living isolated in the woods of New Hampshire, find, in the middle of winter, a newborn baby when taking a walk in those woods. The story that follows is like watching a precious flower opening up, difficult, delicate, sensitive, magical.

The story is told in the voice of the twelve year old daughter in first person present (even though she states that she is now thirty, at the time of writing her story). The immediacy of the telling (in first person present) gives it great power as she relates how her father took her away from what had been a happy childhood in Connecticut after the death (in a car accident) of her mother and young sister. Even with its dark story-line, the writing is so perfect, the emotions so honest, that it doesn�t feel bleak. Her anger and his grief are beautifully portrayed. As is the resolution and personal growth experienced through the discovery of the baby.

This was the third book I have read by Anita Shreve, and by far, the best. Both The Pilot�s Wife and Sea Glass were beautifully crafted, intensely felt, interesting stories, yet lacked the depth I felt in Light on Snow. So, as there was another novel by Shreve in this current box, I began it (All He Ever Wanted) with enthusiastic expectation. Only to find it so very different in tone and style that I was, at first, put off and not sure I wanted to continue. But, as it is hard for me not to finish a book, I am nearing the middle of the novel and finding it beginning to catch my attention, albeit in an entirely different way than the other three of hers. But more about that later.

Posted by leya at 06:46 AM | Comments (1)

February 06, 2005

Cause Celeb

Cause Celeb surprised me in the depth of its message. I thought it was going to be a light piece of fluff, something to amuse me, send me off into sleep with nothing too stressful to ponder. And indeed, its humorous passages often left me a bit cold. Otherwise, the description and portrayal of dysfunctional relationships, as one couple and also in society in general, was very vivid and moving.

The novel, written by Helen Fielding (author of Bridget Jones' Diary), is about Rosie Richardsons crusade to save the swelling population at a refugee camp in the African desert from starvation. Rosie left London after the dissolution of a bad relationship. Faced with a famine caused by locusts, she approaches the problem with missionary zeal. Using her connections in the London celebrity world, she plans a fund-raiser. The unexpected and expected twists of the plot line as character development unfolded were more interesting to me than the attempts at humor. But altogether it was a worthwhile read, in its revelations and insights on the subjects of fame and altruism, and especially its portrayal of a (needy) girl becoming a (strong) woman.

Posted by leya at 07:33 PM

January 05, 2005

An Invisible Sign of My Own

Just before leaving LA, Tamar gave me one of her favorite books to read, An Invisible Sign of My Own. Now it is one of my favorites. The author, Aimee Bender, mixes metaphor and action, fantasy and activity in a poetic and immediate manner. I felt right away I could slip into the mind of Mona Gray as she slipped in and out of her experiences, as her imagination blossomed and constructed events before they happened.

The story begins with Mona telling how her mother kicked her out of the house when she was nineteen. Not from lack of love but because it was time. Time to find your own place, time to get a job and make your way. A startling juxtaposition of truth and shock. And although certainly not a straight line from here to there, it worked for Mona, leading me through an amazingly well crafted story with sensitive pacing and memorable, rich characters.

The painful transformation of Mona, with her love of mathematics and numbers, with quirks and obsessive behaviors, of her fears and desires is an enchanting, eloquent, often amusing story. an enriching experience to read. And I loved the ending. Perfect.

Posted by leya at 05:49 PM

December 24, 2004

A Complicated Kindness

Another page-turner, A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews is a story about a Mennonite family in southern Manitoba. Jessica lent it to me on the voyage here and I swallowed it whole, in just a couple of days of reading. A very interesting study of teenage angst in a complicated religious setting. Told from the point of view of sixteen year old Nomi who has little more to look forward to than killing chickens in the local factory, her pithy understanding of her life is both amusing and painful.

She describes her culture as one that doesnt separate church and state but does separate feeling and reason. Where people are excommunicated for disobeying religious codes, separated from their families, friends; shunned. Where people are forced to chose between love and church. The book evolves around discovering why both her mother and sister were forced to leave the community. In a town where Main Street leads nowhere, just ends in dust, and there is no train, no easy exit, the story unfolds to an astonishing, sad, pointed ending.

A short book; a good read. But now, after three books in two weeks, Im having a hard time settling into another one. Ive picked up and discarded two already. I feel naked without a book to read. At least the climate is warm here.

Posted by leya at 12:36 PM

December 22, 2004

Into the Frey

I finished reading James Freys memoir A Million Little Pieces yesterday. Another memoir of a multiple drug abuser in a rehabilitation center. (The other one I read, and enjoyed, recently was Augustin Burroughs Dry.) I dont know why I have such a fascination for drug addicts and alcoholics, but there have been many in my life, more than I would like to recall. My Big X was an amphetamine addict for at least half of the thirteen years I was with him. Then came some part- and full-time alcoholics. One of the worst abuser was a heroin/cocaine/etc. user/dealer. And I always lied to myself about the reality of it all.

I have never been very good with the stuff myself. Was too close to the edge already. Not very interested in trying much, never tried cigarettes, didnt even like coffee without lots of milk, didnt enjoy the aftereffects of most substances. A little is nice occasionally. (But I have had a checkered history with prescription drugs, during my marriage, a story for another time, was once hooked on sleeping pills, when I didnt want to be there, with him. I stopped cold turkey one day, didnt sleep for a week and soon my marriage was over. And now I am big on vitamins and herbal remedies, something of a mental addiction, you could say, but I dont ever want to get into any emotional dependency relationships with pills of any kind.)

Ive found other ways to avoid facing problems. Denial, spacing out, wishful thinking. But if I were to go into the psychology of my attraction, I would label it a combination of poor self-esteem and misplaced compassion. Life is difficult. No doubt there. The First Noble Truth is The Truth of Suffering. It moved me into (Buddhist) meditation. Its been a hard lesson: suffering does not disappear, just how you work with it, how you relate to it. Moving into oblivion through chemicals is understandable even if it doesnt really work to end suffering, only causes more.

The style of Freys writing is intriguing: run-on sentences with little if any punctuation, repetition of phrases, on and on and on, capitalizing words mid-sentence to emphasize their importance. At the beginning it was very effective, enticing, verbally portraying the allure of drugs and the state of mind of an addict. There were times though when I would have loved to be the editor, cutting out so much repetition and clarifying some of his sentences, taking out a few words that didnt seem to help. I often wondered why, when he did use commas, how he decided to use them. Were they used when his brain was functioning better (in his rehab experience), more grounded or was it an editorial oversight? And as usual in books like this, I found the dialogue during the therapy sections of the book a bit stilted and didactic.

But the story of his experience in the rehab center was another one of those fascinating (to me) books, the ones that keep me reading long into the night, preferring reading to sleeping. Different from Burroughs story in Dry, Frey did not accept The Program. He faced his situation without the assistance of the Twelve Steps, didnt believe in God or any other kind of higher power. He came to understand, through the help of his parents revelations about his very early childhood, probably the source of his rage that led him to addictions. That and a small book of Taoist sayings his brother gave him were the major events of his reconstruction as a workable human being. (Taoist sayings such as If you understand that all things change, constantly change, there is nothing you will hold on to, all things change. If you arent afraid of dying, there is nothing you cant do. Trying to control the future is like trying to take the place of the Master Carpenter. When you handle the Master Carpenters tools, chances are that youll cut your hand.)

A serious alcoholic from the age of ten (to the point of passing out almost daily), at twenty-three he knew that if he drank again it would be immediate suicide. He came to the understanding that everything is a decision. Events do not make a person do things, behave as they do.

James: Every time I want to drink or do drugs, Im going to make the decision not to do them. Ill keep making that decision until its no longer a decision, but a way of life.Im going to live my life. I am going to take things as they come and I will deal with what is in front of me when it is in front of me. When alcohol or drugs or both are in front of me, I will make a decision not to use them. Im not going to live in fear of alcohol or drugs, and Im not going to spend my time sitting and talking with people who live in fear of them. I am not going to be dependent on anything but myself.

It takes an enormous will to live this way. Very few people have that kind of inner discipline. It would be a very different world if they did, for sure.

Posted by leya at 01:23 PM

December 06, 2004

Another great book

Crow Lake (by Mary Lawson) really took me by surprise. The story takes place mainly in the heart of the Canadian Shield, in farm country, where the houses are few, the land rough and isolating. I started it because, after the convoluted events in The Theory of Relativity, I thought it would be good to read some lighter fare. At first Crow Lake reads simple, in a straightforward manner, direct, to the point, almost child-like from a childs point of view. But in the end, the accumulated insights and self-discoveries are very profound and magical.

The landscape of the Morrison familytwo parents and four children between the ages of two and seventeenis dramatically changed after a devastating automobile accident, killing the parents and leaving the children orphaned. The story is told in first person, from the point of view of the third child, a girl, Kate, who is very close to her second oldest brother. Yet as they grow older, her expectations for him color her ability to see him as he is and causes stress in all her relationships.

In her family the Eleventh Commandment was: Thou Shalt Not Emote. Realizing the necessity to accept, embrace, express her emotions becomes Kates story. The prose is spare and direct and totally engaging. This is definitely one of those books that I am glad to have known.

Posted by leya at 07:47 PM

November 22, 2004

It's all oh so relative

After looking in several bookstores in California, I finally found here (and read) a copy of Jacquelyn Mitchards A Theory of Relativity that Rachel recommended a while back. Its a story with so many changes resulting and continuing on from one catastrophic event, the accidental death of his sister Georgia and her husband Ray, that the title becomes evident, especially in the words of the main character, Gordon.

A high school science teacher, he tells his students:

The science of genetics is like the theory of relativity in that there are so many detours and apparent contradictions that its difficult even for biologists..to get their minds around it. .Even George Mendel, who was the father of what remains the basis of all genetics, .gave up in despair when what worked with yellow peas didnt work with other plants which he tried the same method of hybridizing. He quit and became an administrator.

In a previous conversation Gordon had with his now deceased brother-in-law Ray, the theory of relativity is further elaborated:

Nothing, Ray told Gordon, was truly objectively measurable, because all things were made of particles and all particles were in a constant state of change..Even this conversation is only real while were having it, and youre having a different conversation from the one Im having because youre confused about relativity and Im not; but you will remember it more clearly because youre sober and Im shitfaced..And if you wrote it down it would be a third conversation, and if somebody read it, it would be a fourth conversation.

Even if I understand the words youre saying, I dont understand what they mean, Gordon said. And so this is a fifth conversation, a conversation that isnt really a conversation because only one of us is having it.

The body of the story centers around the body of the child, eighteen month old Keefer. At times it seems almost like the custody battle has nothing to do with the child until someone can quit talking and begin to understand the importance of the conversation that is labeled the child. Its a good, thoughtful book.

Posted by leya at 06:09 PM | Comments (1)

October 27, 2004

In the dark

As for the upcoming elections in the U.S. (and governmental greed everywhere), archy, of archy and mehitabel (by don marquis) hit it right on:

the bees got their
governmental system settled
millions of years ago
but the human race is still

I don't think he is suggesting human beings should live in a beehive, but what a sticky mess we make. And I don't see much honey.

archy is a cockroach of great wisdom who types his memoirs (i.e., jumps around the keys; therefore the lack of capital letters in his book), relates his discussions with the lady cat mehitabel and generally tells it like it is. Leaving jewels on the keyboard.

Posted by leya at 02:55 PM | Comments (2)

October 23, 2004

Running away and coming back with a kite in hand

The first thing we did, after having brunch in a lovely Pasadena restaurant, when Tamar, Dan & Damian picked me up at the airport on that warm September Saturday (just a month ago), was to go to a (very big) bookstore. As I was standing there suggesting titles to Dan, telling him which books I had found such good reading, a woman, overhearing and connecting to what I like in books, suggested a book for me: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I bought it, read it, and think it was a very appropriate recommendation. Except that it was painful to read the first part of the novel. Painful enough that I had to skim through to get the flavor of the resolution so that I would be able to continue reading.

In the voice of the narrator Amir, the novel, written with spare and honest prose, explores a young mans yearning for love/respect from his father and the jealousy he feels at the attention given to another child. Jealousy that leads to vindictive acts with enduring consequences. I know a lot about jealousy. As a child also yearning for familial acceptance and love, I felt intense jealousy of every other child who seemed to have something I didnt have, to know happiness. And I was not nice about it. Sometimes quite petty and mean. This novel takes the personal struggle of Amir into a broad arena, from the peaceful setting of Afghanistan before the Russian invasion in the 1970s to the Bay Area of San Francisco and back again in the 21st century to view the devastation brought on by political struggles, greed and intolerance. The story stays always within the view of Amir, giving it vivid, haunting power.

Amirs friend from childhood, a friend of his fathers who was always supportive and kind to him, tells Amir that he has a second chance to be good, to make peace within his own personal world. There is a way to be good again, he tells Amir. Rahim, the friend, feels all the good deeds the father did, which were many and made him a very well loved man in his community, were a way of redeeming himself for the guilt he felt about his own behavior, his own secrets and shames. And that, I believe is what true redemption is, Amir jan, when guilt leads to good..but most important, forgive yourself.

Not an easy (but oh so important) thing to do.

Posted by leya at 12:46 PM | Comments (2)

October 10, 2004

Reservation Blues

On my travels recently I picked up a copy of Sherman Alexies Reservation Blues, his first novel, about an all-Indian Catholic rock band called Coyote Springs. Having been enchanted by his book of short stories, Ten Little Indians, I expected more of the same. But this is a very different book. A novel. A very young novel, reminding me of Saul Bellows The Adventures of Augie March, which in its youthful enthusiasms and rebellious restlessness almost led to the demise of my marriage (which lasted only a few years more and, like Augie, I did make the Mexico trek later). Both these books are sometimes highly comic attempts to make sense of the complex world we live in.

At the beginning I didnt think I was going to like Reservation Blues. It seemed at first inconsistent, drifting into reverie, dreams, narrative, newspaper clips, poems, songs. But after a couple of chapters I was able to get into the rhythm and style of the storytelling and really appreciated the view of Indian reservation life from the inside, something I could never have known about with this intensity without hearing it from someone who had been there.

There are some probing sections about God and indifference. As one of the female singers in the band ponders:

Can God be broken into pieces like a jigsaw puzzle? What if its like one of those puzzles that Indian kids buy at secondhandstores? You put it together and find out one or two pieces are missing.

I looked at Big Mom and thought that God must be made up mostly of Indian and woman pieces. Then I looked at Father Arnold and thought that God must be made up of white and man pieces. I dont know whats true.

This intimate view of reservation life , where alcoholism, hunger, and the intense impact of Christianity and the white mans culture is painfully expressed in these words: The old Indian women dipped wooden spoons into stews and stirred and stirred. The stews made of random vegetables and commodity food, of failed dreams and predictable tears.

Yet the main characters are searching for reality and fulfilment and move on and into the world in a humorous and affirmative way, making the book a positive experience, well worth the read.

Posted by leya at 07:33 PM

September 20, 2004

Dance, baby, dance!

When I started reading John Irvings A Widow for One Year I wasnt sure I would continue to the end. But it was overall an interesting story with offbeat characters. A long book that could have been edited down, about a young man (Eddie) who falls in love with a (much) older woman whose two sons have been killed in a car accident (when they were around his age, sixteen). And also about that womans daughter (Ruth) and her journeys after her mother abandons her to her father when she is four years old. It is a story about loss and love and loss and love. The heart of human life.

I enjoyed the conceit of foretelling the events of the storyline long before they happen chronologically. But the level of slapstick humor at the beginning of the novel did not work at all for me. I rarely relate easily to that kind of humor but in writing, at least here, it became more ridiculous than funny.

But I enjoyed the book, not only because the story was intriguing, the people quirky, but also because it didnt keep my attention long enough to interfere with my sleep (as did Blessings, The Dive from Clausens Pier and Dry). So I suppose that is a good enough reason for me to like it.!

Until near the end. Then I found the novel absorbing and worth waiting for the final one hundred pages. There were two passages that warrant quoting:

Hannah (Ruth's friend) asks Eddie (now in his 50s but still courting much older women) what he is thinking when he is with his older women, is he attracted to her as she is or is he really thinking of someone else when he is with her. His reply: I try to see the whole woman. ..A whole life, I mean. I can picture her when she was much younger than I amageless. An old woman doesnt always see herself as an old woman, and neither do I. I try to see her whole life in her. Theres something so moving about someones whole life.


Harry (Ruths second husband) had always been attracted to people who contained a lot of anger. As a police officer, hed found that uncontained anger was nothing but a menace to him. Whereas contained anger greatly appealed to him, and he believed that people who werent angry at all were basically unobservant.

So we (older women) are not trying to make up for lost time; we just don't know that we are older and want to open the valve after having observed so much!

Posted by leya at 05:49 PM

August 26, 2004

High on Dry

I just finished ready Dry by Augusten Burroughs, his memoir of the time when he was trying to stop drinking. To my surprise, from the very first page, I was totally absorbed. His language, how he expresses himself, his metaphors are so beautiful, so expressive, that I felt I was exploring the treasure chest of his mind, always looking forward to the next item to be brought out. His piercingly dry wit, his quirky, rebellious attitude and perceptiveness make this story transcend the potential devastation of his life. We are winners as he writes about his, at times, losing path with drinking. A really good read.

Posted by leya at 10:25 AM

August 19, 2004

Another good book

After finishing Ann Packers The Dive From Clausens Pier, I thought I would have a hard time getting into another book. But I was wrong. I picked up Blessings by Anna Quindlen and, after a couple of pages, was equally absorbed. Where Packers book is told from a very intimate first person point of view, exploring, probing, analyzing feelings and events, looking in detail at the details of everyday movements, internal and external, Blessings is a third-person narrative, the focus shifting amongst the situations so that a more panoramic view of an intimate situation is explored. It is a beautiful book about the uniqueness of human resources, how personal change comes in so many ways. The story-line is about a young man, the caretaker for the estate of an austere, rigid older woman. He finds a newborn baby on his doorstep and decides to care for the baby, treat her as his own. He learns, grows, loves, matures, through this process, and in a strange, unexpected way, so does the woman. I didnt feel as close to the people in this novel as I did in Ann Packers, but I was definitely absorbed by their story. Both books are on my best books list.

Of course it has been hard to find another book to match these two. Still working on it!

Posted by leya at 09:13 AM | Comments (2)

July 27, 2004

Taking the leap........

I had an interesting conversation with a friend recently about regrets. Do you/I have any regrets about your/my life? Yes and no. When I said I regret buying my first house here in Nova Scotia she said that was just material things. Perhaps what I really regret is the state of mind that led me to make that kind of choice. (It was definitely the wrong place for me to be living and I put too much money into trying to make it workable and it did have serious ramifications until recently because it came from a deep misunderstanding about myself and how to conduct my life in the adult world.) But, I suppose, I do not regret what I have learned from the experience (and I hope, will try, never to do something like that again).

I recently read Ann Packers The Dive From Clausens Pier, an exquisitely crafted, beautifully written, thoughtful story, told in the first person, by Carrie, a twenty-three year woman who, engaged to marry her high school sweetheart, is suddenly (when he takes a dive into shallow waters, hits his head on rocks, and becomes a quadriplegic) faced with a struggle (even though the relationship was faltering anyway) between her loyalty to him and the need to follow her inner passions.

Guilty, I said. I feel guilty. What does it say about me that Id leave? What kind of person does it make me?.. ..The kind of person you are, (her mother said)You do what you do. Not without consequence for other people, of course, sometimes very grave ones. But its not very helpful to regard your choices as a series of right or wrong moves. They dont define you as much as you define them.You could just as easily have stayed. But that wouldnt make you a good person any more than leaving makes you a bad one. Youre already made, honey. Thats what I mean. And whose fault is that I joked, surprisingly comforted. I take credit for everything except your big feet.

Carrie needs to learn the difference between walking away and moving forward. That she is not just the accumulation of the past but can be made anew over and over. Carrie wanted always to feel that there was something new up ahead. Her travels, inner and external, are intricately delineated through the details of her daily life and thoughtsfrom the details of sewing techniques to the observations of herself and people around her.

Carries friend Lane asked her Do you every wonder what your life would be like if your father had stayed around? If youd even recognize it (your life)?which left Carrie thinking something along the lines of how events are so powerfulhow they determine so much.

On the deeper level of experiences, I agree it is not possible to state simply that something is good or bad, it all can be looked at from so many points of view. Yes, my life has been good when you/I add it up, the different parts. Yet so many of the parts have been so painful--created pain for me and for those close to me. So if I were to say I regretted anything, it would be the pain I have caused to those people. But since I cannot change that (and hoping not to sound like Pollyanna), all I can do is try to learn from those experiences. Because I cannot undo events, emotional or material.

Posted by leya at 06:13 PM

July 16, 2004

Enemy Women

I just finished reading Enemy Women by Paulette Stiles. Although the writing is not as high quality as the story (just needs better editing), it is an interesting book historically and an interesting tale. About the Southern women during the Civil War in the States, their strengths, their struggles, how they were persecuted and abused.

The story is related through the experiences of Adair, an eighteen year old girl who becomes a strong forceful woman through her travels, incarceration and escape from the Union army (the story takes place in 1864). In the course of the story, she is forced, with her younger sisters, to leave her home, is captured and, having to leave her sisters, jailed, and befriended by the major in charge of the jail who then wants her to write a confession that would help her to be released. A task she ultimately did with great wit and intelligence, revealing her strong character and developing a bond with the major who did help her to escape.

Adair hated needlework and she could not imagine sitting and stitching the fine crows-foot seams.Writing was the same, the pinching of thoughts into marks on paper and trying to keep your cursive legible, trying to think of the next thing to say and then behind you on several sheets of paper you find you have left permanent tracks, a trail, upon which anybody could follow you. Stalking you through your deep woods of private thought.

This struck home with me, the deep woods of private thought. It describes so well the creative process. Those private recesses of the jungle of the mind from which comes a reality that transcends, climbs to the highest tree and transcends even that in order to fly.

When I first started painting I was convinced that every piece of art I produced had to be completely spontaneous. An exhausting process coming from a dense jungle. At times I found various methods to organize this spontaneity. But when the method became a ritual stronger than the product, it had to be abandoned. Over the past ten years or so I have used literal visual cues as starting point, silk-screened photos of people important in my life, people to give me a charge, excite (for pleasure and pain). But these permanent tracks are deeply buried in the work. They are not there to be followed but to inspire, to jar, to open up, clear the jungle. To me all great art transcends your deep woods of private thought to reach a deeper private area, publicly.

Posted by leya at 08:17 AM

July 15, 2004

More about chess........

Of course, Cesar went on, talent isnt enough in itself to make ones way in the world. You do understand that, dont you, young man? (Sergio) All the great art forms require a certain knowledge of the world, a deep experience of human relations. Its quite another matter with abstract activities, in which talent is of the essence and experience merely a complement. By that I mean music, mathematics . . . chess.

Being an abstract artist, Im not sure exactly what he means. Maybe painting is not an abstract activity because it involves materialspaint, canvasbut the real activity of painting is time, space, not thought, but most probably, yes, the experience the artists life brings to that time and spaceto make it a profound revelation over time and into space.

When I was in art school, there was a constant emphasis on not exhibiting too young, on garnering experience, learning, studying, maturing. That art is process not product. Things have changed. Youth is revered, blessed. And I often wonder what would have happened if I had not been so shy, not had so much fear on the personality level and been able to exhibit my work at a much younger stage. Ill never know.

Posted by leya at 08:18 AM

July 14, 2004

Life as a chess game

I finished The Flanders Panel, Arturo Perez-Revertes first best-selling novel, on the plane to Montreal (I had to return the book to its rightful owner, Jessica). It is advertised as an intriguing multilayered thriller. With its convoluted plot, played out from the chess board of a painting to the chess board of the players in their lives, Perez-Reverte moves deeply into the personalities of the pieces of the story.

Was she really afraid? In other circumstances, the question would have been a good topic for academic discussion, in the pleasant company of friends, in a warm, comfortable room, in front of a fire, with a bottle of wine. Fear as the unexpected factor, fear as the sudden, shattering discovery of a reality which, though only revealed at that precise moment, has always been there. Fear as the crushing end to ignorance or as the disruption of a state of grace. Fear as sin..But this new fear, which Julia had only just discovered, was different. New, unfamiliar, unknown until now, touched by the shadow of Evil with a capital E, the initial letter of everything that lies at the root of suffering and painThe Evil that can only be painted in the dark colours of black night, black shadows and black solitude. Evil with a capital E, Fear with a capital F.

Ive never been attracted to mystery as a genre, but I do enjoy Perez-Revertes writing enough to have read three of his novels, all three centering on mystery. His stories are intriguing, enlightening, his people complex, interesting. In The Nautical Compass he drew the most beautiful portrait of male sexuality/lust I have ever read. There is an elegance to his writing that makes me hunger for more.

Without a doubt fear is a crippling emotion, as is hope. Here Julia is feeling fear from Murder with a capital M. My friend John in Montreal asked me about loneliness, what it means to me. I told him it is hope that makes it a problem, Hope with a capital H. Hoping that things will be different, hoping that I wont be lonely, hoping that something is just around the corner (which corner?). Its that simple? he said, and smiled.

One of the slogans of Atisha is Give up all possibilities of fruition. Thats a tough one. The paralysis of fear is more commonly recognized. The paralysis of hope can be just as crippling. I remember a time when I started almost every sentence with I wish.. Or, if only. So, coming home to a quiet house, I hope I continue to be here, really be here, Be here with a capital B (until I go away again!).

Posted by leya at 06:53 AM

June 04, 2004

Blue Shoe

Some friends were over for dinner a few nights ago and we started talking books. I was just finishing reading Anne Lamotts Blue Shoe and described the story line to them (a womans journey post-divorce). The man friend (it was a couple) said that he would never read it, its "chick lit." Men dont want to hear about emotions, he said. Its offensive. They just want to move things. Act. Rarely talk to another man about feelings. According to him, all men are naturally competitive and want to read about events, history, things, not emotions. (But telling me this, he was, after all, talking about his emotions even though he will definitely not read this book. That's decided!)

Nevertheless, it is the protagonists problems with men (discovering what her relationship to these men means, her role in what happens) that is intriguing to me (but told definitely from a feminine perspective, that is, from the emotional aspects of the relationships with men): Mattie is having a hard time letting go of her husband (not him as a person but as a lover, a comfort), is discovering who her father really was (far different than the man she knew), developing friendships with a man, a lover, her brother (all separate people, by the way). She is also examining motherhood, her mother as she was, as she is, how her own life might have been different if her mother had been more like she is with her grandchildren, and wondering how she, Mattie, effects her daughter.

Lamotts writing is very easy to read, straightforward, direct, deceptively simple. As the novel progressed, the underlying tensions surface and a depth that was not apparent through the first half of the book reveals itself. At times the ease with which the story flows feels like it is overlooking too much, that time moves too quickly, too much is left out. At the end I did not quite understand what Mattie really felt about the man she was in love with, how much she had really come to terms with all the men in her life and her relationships. But I did enjoy reading the book and was fascinated by the style of writing. Its a good book.

Posted by leya at 04:19 PM

May 24, 2004


Usually I dont skim a book when I am reading it. Usually I read every word, savor every phrase and twist of thought. Finish most books I start. Yet when I was reading Ian McEwans Atonement I decided I would skim the book and put it aside. The first part of the story had been so tedious to read I almost didnt want to finish it at all. The people he was writing about seemed so pampered and artificial, I just couldnt get excited about their problems. (Especially after reading Jhumpa Lahiris The Namesake which moved me very deeply by her compassionate writing and also, even with its different cultural references, felt like the story of my life.)

So I found myself skimming the book (it really was fun to do!) and when I got to the very end, decided that I really wanted to read it. And I am glad I did. The best part of the novel, for me, was his description of World War II in France and England in 1940. Even though I have a horror of war and war stories, I was fascinated by the details and the view from colonal Robbies eyes. Growing up with the body counts of deaths during The War seeming to be the only news on the radio, Ive avoided newspapers and only recently been able to listen to talk shows. Yet there was something personal in the telling of this part of the novel. I think it might be the guy thing, where action speaks better than feelings (as told by this male author).

The story is one of a pubescent sisters actions towards her older sister and its consequences. It took her a long time to understand how much pain she caused. As a nurse in training during The War she learned.

From this new and intimate perspective, she learned a simple, obvious thing she had always known, and everyone knew: that a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended.

In the end, although I wouldnt rush out to find another of Ian McEwans novels, I am glad I did read the book carefully.

Posted by leya at 06:01 PM

April 30, 2004

After words

After finishing The Namesake a few days ago, Ive had a hard time getting into another book. At lunch yesterday with Aaron and Jessica, we were talking books and they asked what I was reading. I couldnt remember the title, the author or what the book was about that I had just started. I am still so immersed in my mind in Gogul Gangulis story.

But I feel naked without a book to read, so I picked up don marquis archy and mehitabel, one of Aarons favorite books for a long time and one that I can enjoy in little snippets. (I will tell you more about it later. Suffice it to say, its really good reading and perfect for an after a deeply moving book experience.)

Posted by leya at 08:56 AM

April 29, 2004

The Namesake

I just finished reading a very beautiful book, The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri. Shes a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for a collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. It was not a good book for bedtime reading: I was often reading far into the night. Her writing is poetic, personal and touches the heart. The storyline is very similar to my own life: a person rejecting his cultural heritage and thereby always feeling uncomfortable with himself. He rejects not only the Bengali culture that his parents have very carefully transported to their new life in the United States, but also his name, the name that meant so much to his father.

Lahiri chronicles Gogul Gangulis life from before his birth, with the arranged marriage of his parents in Calcutta, through his childhood, his conflicts with his parents, his education and various relationships, until his mid thirties. After his father dies, he begins to appreciate his family, his culture, himself, his name, through difficult lessons. His mother introduces him to a daughter of a friend of the family, a Bengali woman whose marriage (to an American) was cancelled shortly before the event. They reach out to each other for comfort, appreciate the familiarity of their backgrounds, that they had been at the same community events in their childhood, that they both rebelled against their heritage. But that is not enough.

In the end, his mother comments that, although she did learn to love her husband very deeply, it is American common sense to look for happiness in love rather than settle for something less than a persons ideal.

Posted by leya at 07:30 AM

April 22, 2004

Ten Little Indians

I love reading short stories, find them a good meal. Sherman Alexies Ten Little Indians, a book of very big short stories, is at the top of my list. Alexie is a potent writer, irreverent, bold and witty. In each story it seems the direction shifts quickly, without warning (keeping the bedtime reader awake), creating real people. Each story is about a different Spokane Indian off the reservation living in Seattle. Alexie draws very different pictures for each story.

One of my favorite lines comes in a story about a woman who is hurt when a bomb goes off in a restaurant in which she is having lunch. She wondered if her brain had been more seriously damaged by the blast than shed thought. Maybe her skull had been ripped open and her brain was exposed for all to see. Wouldnt that be the most extreme form of public nudity? The stories do expose the depths and heights of human emotions, pointedly, unpredictably, eloquently.

Posted by leya at 07:52 AM

April 17, 2004

Don't smile......

Barbara Held was interviewed yesterday on The Current (CBC, of course) talking about her book Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching. How to be negative in a positive (constructive) way. Creative complaining. To be liberated from the tyranny of the positive attitude. No need to have a nice day when it isnt. Not healthy to put on that big smile when life is not good/happy.

On the other hand, when someone asks me/you how are you? do they really want to know or is it a rhetorical question, a way of starting a pleasant conversation? And if I really tell you that my this and my that are out of whack and I cant imagine how to do this and such or why that "X" thing happened, wouldnt that change the way I feel that day? Not just your response to what I say. What I say affects the way I feel. I am not solid nor are my feelings or words.

Ms. Held was saying that by complaining properly you can attract people to you who will help. I would be curious to learn what she means by complaining properly.

Posted by leya at 04:13 PM

April 02, 2004

The Pickup

I just finished reading what for most of the book seemed like the worst possible story I could be reading right now and yet I have to say it is a really good book. The culprit (if I may be so bold as to title it) is The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer. The emotions of the characters in the book feel very real, are understandable, well drawn. At times the style was overly poetic, hard to follow, but that is common in contemporary writing. (Is poetry supposed to be obscure?) The bad part for me is that it is about a young woman who is alienated from her family, who finds new connections by leaving home, finding a new home far from home, finding a new family. And this is bad for me because I live so far from my daughter and my son is about to leave Halifax for Montreal and I will have no family here and I dont like this, any of it. Yesterday as I was walking towards my car I could imagine myself picking up dog poop again. It has been three years since Katie died. At this time of year. And it took several months to pick up all the poop that was under the snow from the winter. So maybe it is (almost) time for another dog. A dog can be family but a dog is not a person.

Posted by leya at 12:47 PM

March 21, 2004

Playing It Right

Theres that mystical/magical place called The Zone. Im not sure what it looks like, being someone who slips in and out of staying in the present, having often lived in a very real fantasy zone. I dont think that is what they are talking about. This magical zone is said to be where things work, where work is not effort but smooth, the silk fabric of the mind and body coordinating. I know that feeling often when I am painting. I expect it, I nourish it, I enjoy it. When playing the piano it is more difficult to maintain. Probably because of childhood associations. When the music flows, that is where I usually then freeze, stumble.

This afternoon Yoko came over with her husband Hiro. My son Aaron was visiting. He had been here last summer when Yoko and I had first started playing duets together and she wanted him to hear how we had improved. So the two men sat on the couch while we entertained them. The first piece, a Dvorak, flowed perfectly. No mistakes. Very expressive. A real duet. At the end we spontaneously raised our thumbs to each other.

The two other pieces, by Grieg, were not so perfect. On the last piece I made a mistake on the second page and started laughing so much we had to start again. Once when I was young, my parents had ridiculed me in front of company when I made a mistake. I didnt laugh then. I cried and left the house, thinking I would never return. I often now have a hard time playing for people even though I want to. Yoko is more of a performer but I intend to learn.

A few years ago I read a wonderful book by Noah Adams, Piano Lesson. He had decided, at age 51, to learn to play the piano. He chronicles his various attempts over a year to teach himself, ultimately realizing that he needed a teacher and also, ultimately, learning to play. During that time he wanted to learn Traumerei by Robert Shumann and play the piece for his wife as a Christmas present. When he had hesitated playing for people in the course of his studies, one of his teachers had said, in a very memorable and tender passage, that playing for someone is a rare and special gift. This book is a true love story. His story often sits down with me when I play for someone. Its not just about playing it right. And that makes it right.

Posted by leya at 08:34 PM

March 15, 2004

Love & Consequences

My trip to Montreal last week was colored by the fact that I was reading Doris Lessings Love, Again. I hadnt read anything of her writing for at least twenty years. It was both refreshing and frustrating reading. Her style is often very straight forward: he said, she said. Yet within that, she examines love from just about every angle as seen by a woman in her mid-sixties, from every view, that is, except that of sexual consummation. Hence, frustration. All the frustrations of being in love (in contrast to being in love), being in lust, differentiating the many facets of friendship, infatuation and love without the satisfaction of enduring love, holding someone close in your heart and body.

Intensely involved in a small theatre company, the woman, Sarah Durham, had put that aspect of her life away, feeling love was not part of her story any more. Coincidentally all the young men involved in the current production (which is about a woman all men love but cannot completely have) pursue her affections, stir the pot of love. It is an interesting stew, fascinating ingredients but not as enriching as I would have liked. Im not sure I learned anything new about love (something I do think about and think I have experienced in many ways) but I did enjoy the ride on Sarahs emotions. Perhaps Sarah was a richer person for having all the feelings (again) of love, but being alone (again) at the end of the book feels too much like real life. And probably that is what makes reading this book such an absorbing experience.

Posted by leya at 09:18 AM

February 08, 2004

The Secret of Secrets

I frequently think about the question of how much to talk about, how much to tell other people, in conversation, in writing. The importance of secrets, secretiveness. Privacy. When I was a child, I used to wet the toothbrush so my mother wouldnt know I didnt brush my teeth that day. (Ive paid for that one!) Sometimes it is an act of kindness not to tell. Sometimes not talking is from fear, sometimes protective of the other person. I have a friend who is very open about his feelings, his reactions, relationships. I find it refreshing to hear about how he relates to people.

Secrets are important in Happenstance, Carol Shields 1980 novel about, as the cover blurb describes it, a marriage in transition. It is intended to be two novels, one from HIS point of view and one from HERS. Although interesting reading, Carol Shields writing is always somewhat removed from the emotions she writes about, and here it works somewhat to her disadvantage. Sometimes it feels like a writing exercise. A little more contemplation, less chatter, would have added some depth.

Always curious about the male point of view, I started with the husband. He was rather dull, stuck--in his work, in his friendships--but coming to a point of consciousness about it. She, on the other hand, was moving forward, moving out of familiarity. In the course of a few days away from each other, she thinks about and experiences situations and feelings about which she has not and probably will not talk to her husband.

Yet they are one of the lucky couples. Where little doubt has crept into their relationship, where, despite, or maybe because of, differences, there is still passion. There is still innocence. Relationship seems to be about respect. Good secrets also are about respect.

Posted by leya at 02:40 PM

January 21, 2004

Elizabeth Costello In Custody

After reading so many domestic stories lately (Lovely Bones, Unless, The Hidden Life of Bees, Three Junes), I picked up a couple of more heady books: Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee and In Custody by Anita Desai, in the Los Angeles airport, to read on the long journey home after Christmas. Elizabeth Costello is about a successful writer in her later years, how she felt her mind was disintegrating, how she doubts her own beliefs. Most of the book consists of lectures that she gives, mainly in various university settings, once on a cruise ship. And how the audience challenges her hyper-intellectualizations. It would take sitting with a library of reference material for me to follow all that she puts into her lectures. It is difficult reading, but reading that is rewarded in the end by the last chapter which so perfectly plays with her questioning mind in a setting appropriate to the journey of the entire novel.

The other novel, In Custody was also about a person doubting himself. This man is a university instructor in a small town in India, a weak man, overwhelmed by the circumstances of his life. The novel was difficult to enjoy mainly because it felt like all the characters were playing one note continuously. No one was appealing. I look for some insight, some growth or change, but it was hard to get to the last page and still feel nothing but distaste for the characters, all of them. I have heard Anita Desai is a good writer, and I do usually enjoy reading about other cultures, but this book left me unsatisfied. At the advice of a good friend who does enjoy Desais writing, I will try another one.

Posted by leya at 01:02 PM

January 08, 2004

The importance of things

I love my toys, my powerbook, digital camera, cell phone, radio, stereo system, my boats for summer fun, a nice house, beautiful things. I could go on and make a very long list of things I would prefer not to do without. Things that are newly acquired and newly invented. Old things that have been inherited and treasured. Things.

I just finished reading Ten Lost Years by Barry Broadfoot. It is not as depressing a book as one might expect, given that it is about The Depression of the 30s, a time when many people did without many things. It is about survival. This is a book that should be required reading for all high school students. I wish I had read it when I was young. It would have given me a better understanding and appreciation of my parents. Which I really needed. We were fortunate. During The Depression, my father had a steady job with the government. A good job that let my parents build a house in what later became a prosperous neighborhood. Yet the insecurity lasted long after The Depression was over. My mother would travel far to find a bargain. We didnt go out to dinner or movies as a family. Growing up during The War to End All Wars, abundance was something that was not familiar. We were careful. We had ration stamps, were very self-reliant, making our own root beer, putting up produce from the garden, playing games with few toys. The radio was a hub for friends and family.

Barry Broadfoot put together an intense, in depth oral history of The Depression in Canada. The people tell their stories with wit and outrage. Most of the people talking in his book begin by saying Why would you want to know about that? Who would want to hear about The Depression? People then did not call it The Depression, they just knew things were bad. And those that did not die of starvation or were wealthy, managed. And often with humor, generosity and a sense of community. The usual income was often $20 a month. For a family. Not enough to live on, but they did. They ate from the earth, bartered, helped each other, bought little, managed.

I think one reason people dont want to talk about The Depression is that it makes it too real, too close, too possible that it might happen again. It is very frightening to think that with all of our material needs, the latest in technical communications, new clothes, homes, that this, all our comfort, could disappear as easily as it did in the thirties. Perhaps if we are more aware of our spending habits (and debt loads) we will not have another time like that. I do hope it doesnt happen again

Posted by leya at 09:01 AM

January 03, 2004

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

Z.Z. Parkers book of short stories is very black. Strong stories written by a young black woman, about black people, mostly in black communities, with very black humor. It is not a cheerful, light book, but very strong and insightful. How people wish they were doing something other than what is happening, that they were living their life elsewhere, how they do something different than they thought they would do. Unfortunately I had to leave Los Angeles, and the book, before I had read the last story, but the ones I did read had a definite point where the life story, goals, behavior of the protagonist shifted, became the opposite of what had been, often in a startling, unexpected way.

Other than that I am not black and have no idea what it must feel like to be a black person, the people, the communities, the landscapes Parker writes about are very real, palpable, familiar to me. This twist in the road is very believable to me. My own life took such a dramatic turn, with no warning, when one day I suddenly realized I could no longer be in that marriage. The seeds for such major decisions, events may have been planted when we were unaware. And there is no going back.

These stories still haunt me. I want to read them more carefully, see if I can feel when, how the decisions happen. These stories raise the perennial question of will: do the events change us or do we change the events. How important is circumstance, when were the seeds planted, how long did they take to root, to sprout. I long to read the last story, to read Parkers next story.

Posted by leya at 11:14 AM

December 22, 2003

The Secret Life of Bees

Set in South Carolina in 1964 just as President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act allowing black people to vote, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is a novel about a fourteen year old caucasian girl's search for her mother. Her travels, with her black nanny, lead her to live with a trio of bee-keeping black women. Prejudice is a major character in the book. And a strong one.

The young girls voice is authentic and consistent throughout. The author clearly and intriguingly portrays the feelings and impressions that come with adolescent yearnings and frustrations. Although the book was an absorbing and enriching experience, there were times when I had a hard time suspending disbelief that this could really happen, that the story I was reading about was genuine.

The main problem for me was the overall quality of teaching lessons at the ending, where one of the women preaches to Lily about what a mother is, where to find her. As Tamar has said in her December 19 entry, See It, Don't Say It, I personally, do not want to be told in a novel how to feel, but want to experience the awakening knowledge that unfolds. I had a mother. She was not me. I have had years of learning that lesson. By myself. Although I know it has been a helpful tool for many people, I have never been a fan of inner child and inner adult concepts. I dont like to be divided into pieces. I want to be whole. Obviously, I am simplifying. And the book is worth reading.

Posted by leya at 08:01 PM | Comments (2)

December 20, 2003

Three Junes

I just finished reading Three Junes by Julia Glass. A compelling novel, provocative, thoughtful, absorbing.

The men were the most interesting characters in the book, one in particular, Fenno. (His father as well, although he had a shorter history in the book.) Quiet, introspective men whose feelings of pain and joy are deeply settled within them, looking for change, change that will bring them love.

That the story is told mainly through the thoughts and travels, internal and external, of a homosexual male, unravels any possibilities of differences in the sexual preferences of feelings. But it also deepens the similarities of yearnings of men and woman, for either sex, for or without sex, for connection.

My curiosity about the differences between the sexes often makes me feel like a student of male energy. Here is a female author who portrays the sensitivity of male yearnings with clarity and precision so that in the last chapters, as Fenno talks intimately to a female of wandering emotions, his wisdom penetrates and instructs like that of an old crone.

The novel itself is strongest in the middle section. The final third is weaker until Fenno appears again. His quiet thoughtfulness brings together the threads of the book, weaving a testament to living and honoring feelings.

Posted by leya at 02:44 AM