Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Books I read in March

Builders of the Pacific Coast - Lloyd Kahn
A beautiful book full of fabulous pictures. There is some writing but it's the pictures that really make this book! The many photos showcase some of the incredible organic buildings that you find along the North American west coast. Many of the homes are on the tiny islands just off the coast of Canada. Built from driftwood, cedar, recycled materials and imagination these are homes to dream about. The neat thing is these dwellings are mostly not the huge fancy houses (though a few are featured) but small homes built by people who love to build and who are not interested in raking in big bucks. And for many of these builders their chief love in life is actually...surfing! Kahn writes in an intimate chatty style that makes you feel you might have met the builders whose work he showcases - probably on a beach somewhere. And his interest in all things quirky and unusual mean that this reads like a book written by a favourite eccentic uncle... one who takes stunning photos. This is a book to dip into and then lie on a beach in the sun and daydream about.
I Heard the Owl Call My Name - Margaret Craven
I read this in an original beautiful 1967 paperback original version. The cover features iconic artwork in gold and black that reminded me of 1960's Hornsea pottery in the clean simplicity of it's lines.
I picked the book up for free in a community recycling store on the West Coast but would have paid money just for the artwork. It is very much a book of it's time (1967) but surprisingly perceptive about the negative effects of the white man's incursions on First Nations traditions and culture.
A young priest , terminally ill (though he doesn't know it), is assigned to a remote First Nation's village on the NW coast of Canada. Unlike the school teacher he finds there, Mark Brian makes few judgements or assumptions about the people of the village but tries to be open to their customs and way of life. He discovers that the ancient myths and traditions usually passed from generation to generation are being forgotten because the youth of the village are being lured away by the false glamour of life of the big cities - though what they often find there is only trouble and despair.
The writing is sparse and beautiful transmitting a real flavour of the West Coast. The descriptions of the landscape are haunting and the whole book is infused with a deep sense of melancholy, not only because of it's plot but also because it reads like a lament for something already vanishing forty years ago when the book was written and which is now irretrievable.
As L.P. Hartly said, "the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there".
The Life of The Skies : Birding at the End of Nature - Jonathan Rosen
I started this one and got about a third of the way through and stalled. I'm going to see if it grabs me again in April and if I finish it I'll review it then.
I'm not a birder (despite the number of birding books in my April reading so far) but my dad I'm reading these books to see if I think he might like them! This way I can get a head start on my Christmas shopping!
Ja No Man - Richard Poplak
I really liked this book which is an account of a middle-class white boy's childhood and adolescence in 1970's/80's South Africa. Poplak brilliantly steers a line between hilarity and poignancy and recreates just how unlikely and surreal everyday life there could be. He highlights the absurdities of the aparthaid sytem and the politicians who created and perpetuated it, shedding light on the political realities of a brutal regime through his often ridiculous stories of the events of his boyhood. So much of his experience is familiar to anyone who grew up in Western Society in the 1980's (the music, the clothing, the TV shows) and yet the undercurrents of a repressive and psychotic government make his experience oddly alien. This was a fascinating book.
If you like Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexander Fuller or Disgrace by JM Coetze ...then try this.
A Raw Mix of Carelessness and Longing - Cecelia Frey
I love road trips. The pavement unwinding beneath the car wheels, unknown towns scrolling past the windows, great music on the radio and someone interesting in the passenger seat to talk to. A Raw Mix of Carelessness and Longing was a road trip of a read - like taking a long journey with an new acquaintance, one you don't know well but are predisposed to like. It is a very Canadian book with its sparse understated writing, subtle but incredibly well observed humour, and fascinating characters that stay with you long after you've slammed the car door, hustled your backpack onto your shoulders and waved goodbye to your travelling companions.
Cecelia Frey tells the story of Lilah Cellini and Jamey Popolowski, the free-spirited musician she has been in love with all her life. Frey has a keen sense of story and a wonderful ear for dialogue (I could listen to Lilah for thousand's of kilometres.) Frey deftly weaves the events of Lilah's unpredictable life with those of the folk she leaves behind in her hometown and the people she meets on the road when she follows Jamey as he chases his dream of making it big in music. As the two young people cross Canada with Jamey's band, Lilah discovers that the choices which must be made in life are never easy. She find's that following someone else's dream can come at significant cost to oneself. As Lilah struggles with the alternatives presented to her she finds an unexpected ally in the enigmatic Zeke (the band's manager) who ultimately helps her find her own voice (both literally and figuratively).
This is a spellbinding tale. It seems so simply conceived when you first turn the key in the ignition but, as with all long road trips, there are unexpected twist and turns on the journey that make it an absorbing read.
Strange Son - Portia Iverson
I didn't actually read this book...I listened to it on CD whilst driving to and from work each day. It was a fascinating narrative, detailing the life of a 14-year-old autist, Tito, and his mother. Tito was born in India and is severly autistic - as is Iverson's son. Whilst desperatly researching 'cures' for her son, Iverson stumbled across Tito's story and was astounded. Despite limited speech and all the symtoms of severe classic autism Tito's could communicate. His mother, Soma, had somehow been able to teach Tito to read and write, then bombarded him with knowledge from books, broken through his 'aloneness' and encouraged him to communicate. Iverson was stunned, when she bought Tito and his mother to the US, to discover Tito had written poetry and was able to answer questions and provide insights into the inner workings of his mind. The CD was easy to listen to although I am not sure I would have persevered with the book. Reading between the lines, I came to the opinion that Iverson had convinced herself that here was a cure for autism and when this proved not to be the case (because how exactly Soma had achieved her miracle was neither repeatable nor testable) she lost some of her faith in his remarkable story and her own narrative wandered and faltered and lost it's initial drive.
If you are interested there is a good article and some of Tito's poems here:
The Wolves in the Walls - Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman writes wonderful books for children with very sophisticated illustrations that I love! He uses many different art techniques, photo montages, collages, pen-and-ink drawings and painting to render the unsettling and often bizarre world of a child’s imagination. In this book I particularly like the hidden faces of the wolves in the clouds.
The story features Lucy and her cuddly pig who can hear wolves living in the walls of the house. Lucy tries to warn her family, but no one believes her. Her tuba-playing father thinks she has an overactive imagination, her jam-making mother says it’s rats, her brother knows it’s bats but they all tell her that “when the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over.”
Well the wolves do come out of the walls and they are freaky and scary and funny and portrayed with a keen sense of the fantastic. And it is all over - until Lucy comes up with a solution.
This is sold as a children’s book but, as with all Gaiman’s books, the artwork makes it much, much more. It’s scary and quirky and funky and witty. And...a huge visual feast.
The Only Boy in the World - Michael Blastland
This is a book that examines the life of a very singular individual and in so doing explores major philosophical ideas about what exactly defines humanity - what is it that makes us human.
Blastland writes about his 10-year-old son Joe, who has severe, classic autism. He gives a very clear and moving picture of what daily life is like for someone caring for such an individual. Blastland’ gives us evidence in detailed anecdotes (sometimes moving, sometimes amusing yet heart-wrenching) to support his thesis that to all intents and purposes, Joe is “the only boy in the world” because he is ‘mind-blind’…that is he cannot conceive of other people as having a mind. For Joe, people are no different to other animate and even inanimate objects in his world. Joe’s own mind is the only mind he has ever met. Joe is alone in a very deep sense of the word.
Having tried to understand the terrible isolation Joe lives in, Blastland then asks the following question. If understanding another’s point-of-view, being able to empathise, understand, relate to other individuals makes us human, does this mean Joe is in some sense not human? Blastland explores this painful question whilst painting a moving and always loving portrait of his son.
This is a book rooted in a harsh reality but it asks some deeply spiritual questions and offers alternate viewpoints. It is though-provoking and one of the best books I have read on this subject. It is the book that came closest to helping me understand what life might be like for an autist. Highly recommended.
The Magic Toyshop - Angela Carter
Angela Carter wrote seriously weird yet truly captivating and intelligent magical realism. This was her second book. It is the heroine Melanie's coming of age story packaged in a fairytale-like sense of unreality.
Melanie and her two siblings are suddenly orphaned at the very beginning of the novel and ripped from their genteel upper-class way of life to live in the slums of a large city with their brutal Uncle Philip (a toymaker) and their silent Aunt Margaret. Melanie finds herself increasingly drawn to the young man Finn who has the bedroom next to hers. He is a quietly subversive, freakish character who sides with Melanie in her growing dislike of Uncle Phillip. The household is full of submerged tension that centres around Aunt Margaret and which comes to a head when Melanie is forced to play the part of Leida in Uncle Phillips dark puppet version of Leida and the Swan. Melanie is metaphorially raped, Finn defies his uncle to come to her rescue and the repressed members of Uncle Phillips swiftly family spiral into chaos.
The ending is a little unexpected (like a train wreck when the rails run out!)and not as well controlled as the rest of the novel but this is a book you read for images, ideas and spectacular use of language as much as for the plot. Carter excelled at writing bizzare details that fascinate at the same time as they repell...and this makes for a compelling read. This is a book I first read in my early twenties and one I re-read every couple of years or so and always find something new.
Icefields - Thomas Wharton
This is a book I have read more than once. It's not a book you read for the plot (although it does have one) but for the way Wharton uses language and for the images he creates with his words.
This is a book that is more dream than novel. It tells the story of a young man who tumbles into a crevasse in a glacier in the Rocky Mountains. Dangling upside down in an icy bluness waiting to be rescued by his climbing companions he sees an angel (identifiable by the wings) frozen into the ice beside him. He is mesmerized, and after his rescue becomes obsessed with the glacier, spending his life climbing it, waiting for it to move down the valley, to disgorge the angel so he can study it.
The story spans many years and follows (loosely) the Victorian exploration and opening up of the Canadian Rockies with a tough-minded lady moutaineer, a doctor, moutain guides, hotel managers etc. impinging in a variety of ways on the young mans life as he waits and grows older. There is a love story embedded in the novel but this is really a tale of obsession. The story floats, dreamlike - mirroring the way the angel 'floats' eternally in the ice. It is not a linear read.
I like it but I don't think it's for everyone.

No comments:

Post a Comment