Category Archives: A Writer’s Life

Waterscapes

“Fiction depends for its life on place…” Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story

Two new novels  arrived in the mail yesterday, Rook, by Jane Rusbridge, published by Bloomsbury, UK, and The Apple House,  by Gillian Campbell, published by a small but wonderful BC publisher, Brindle & Glass.  Both books are fresh from the press, yet also familiar since I read them in early draft form, and edited The Apple House last year. So I have a sense, to varying degrees, what each book contains, yet at the same time, I know that they have changed – a great deal, in the case of Rook –  since I last saw them.  Wanting to read the real books, as opposed to the work in progress or the MS, to see how it finally turned out, is a very powerful hook, and even though I’m half way through reading Hilary Mantel’s  Bring Up the Bodies (At last! It’s wonderful!),  I was unable to resist a brief exploratory  diversion,  and equally unable to  limit myself to dipping into just one of these new novels.

I might not have noticed it had the books not arrived together and forced me to read them in concert, but what hits me right away is that both writers  have  set their stories in watery places which are evoked with exquisite, sensuous detail. Continue reading Waterscapes

How it Grows (memoir)

This article about emigration, gardening and family, was first published in Aqua Magazine, p28 on.   Click to  read it in the turning pages magazine format  with original illustrations. The text is below.

What I am planting, how it grows

In one of those windy, sunny days when  the light and sound levels are in constant flux, as if an exuberant  toddler  were  in charge of the effects, I crouch over my rows of carrot seedlings, thinning them to  a centimetre apart and knowing full well that I will have to do the job twice more before things are right. Every year I try and fail to sow them thinly enough. The seedlings are tiny, the first ferny carrot-leaves just appearing, their white stems fragile as hairs. I keep the plucked ones in my free hand to dispose of safely, since crushed foliage of any kind can attract the carrot fly.  It’s tedious, finicky work.  And at this time of day I should actually be working on my new novel, and I want to, I really,  really do – yet here I am squatting in the vegetable patch, an inane smile  spreading across my face.

In the bed behind me are rows of  huge lettuces with crinkled deep red and green leaves protecting tender green hearts.  To my right, onions, to the left, two kinds of potatoes and three kinds of beans,  rhubarb, beets, peas; over by the house, flowerbeds: all of them thriving under current wet then sunny conditions.   There’s a greenhouse  full of tomato plants over by the rocky knoll, and of course,  in between all these areas of cultivation lie vast  tracts of weed and wildflower, and round about it, the encircling trees.  The whole place hums with growth. What is it with gardening? Why do I love my lettuces so much?   Because I do: I love the crinkled gleaming look of them when they are thriving (this variety, Yugoslav Butterhead is as gorgeous as any flower), and I love the almost–sweet, wild taste and the soft yet very definite texture  of a just-picked leaf. Naturally, it delights me to be able to  avoid the pesticides and the supermarket, to feed my family and friends with what I have grown.  And gardening is certainly easier, mentally speaking,  than writing books… There’s all that,  of course, and yet there is more, too.

To use a gardening metaphor, my family and I transplanted ourselves here from England about ten years ago. Language, climate,  and values were in may ways similar,  so we didn’t  go into transplant shock on arrival, but I have come to realise that while there may be romance and excitement  to a voluntary move such as ours, it is also a brutal thing. Even though emigration  is  softer, less absolute than it used to be before there were planes, phones, the internet and so on, leaving one’s country to make a home in another is  a rupture – one that deepens, rather than lessens over time. I miss not only my family –  especially, now, my father –  and not just certain loved or archetypical land and city-scapes,  but  also unexpected things such as newspapers and  radio programmes, accents, trains and train journeys, certain bushes and shrubs,  clothes that don’t shrink, and the relatively high quality of  supermarket-baked bread…  Emigration disconnects you from the physical  locations of your past, and also from the future that would have flowed from that past, had you not left, and so even though Canada, and in particular this convoluted, rocky island,  has been kind to me,  I  sometimes  yearn (impossibly) to return.

So, I  dispose of my carrot thinnings and  then return to the garden to  tug out the chickweed and dandelions that have started to grow  between the garlic plants. This forest soil, sandy and acidic is not what garlic wants.  It takes at least five years of adding compost and manure to  darken and develop real fertility. But the summer light and warmth are wonderful,  and if, as we do, you collect and store the winter’s abundant  rainwater,  it will take you right  through the dry  summer months.   The garlic is already tall and as  I reach between the stems, the sun warms my back and somewhere out of sight an eagle sings – a   strange fluting noise quite incongruous with the bird.

The eagle and its call are emblematic of   the West Coast, and I think one of the things I am doing here in the garden is joining myself, literally and symbolically, to a new  land. The hours I spend  out here working are also hours spent listening to the birds, the rustle of the deer  and the wind in the trees. I  observe the sky and the way the light shifts and changes, the weather, the quality of the air: I experience the same patch of land, many different ways.  I’m learning it and at the same time becoming part of it.

Yet the thing about gardening is that I have done it all my life, and so, despite this garden being so very definitely on the Pacific Rim, a new place for me, five thousand miles away from where I was born, tending  it reconnects me to my past.  When I am in the garden I am me, now,  working with raised beds and fish compost, dealing with tent caterpillars in my fruit trees,  sowing  peas called Cascadia and  beans called Gold Rush;  I am also a young woman with an allotment patch in London, the owner of a window box and then of a thin, shade-free  hundred foot slice in Norwich,  of a shady square, of a rubble-ridden rectangle in Tooting Bec  –  I’m all of those, but most  of all, but I’m  a child,  being shown by my father how to weed properly and how far apart to plant  the  peas.

There was a magnolia tree in the front of the house I grew up in, and Dahlias, plagued by earwigs,   grew to one side of the path that led to the front door.  Most of the garden was at the back, and it included both a  tree-house built  in a pussy-willow tree, and a swing  set close by a laburnum, the flowers and pods of which I was frequently reminded not to eat.   There was a peach tree on the south facing wall of the house, a  hazelnut, and several apple varieties.   A bed of azaleas and rhododendrons (which grow wild here) was treated annually to maintain the correct PH. Behind that  was a mysterious, key-shaped area surrounded in an ancient yew hedge that  had been  part of the grounds of the manor house on which the subdivision was built.

The vegetable garden ran down the  left side, from the kitchen to the  swing, and was my father’s domain:  the plants in  workmanlike rows, the soil  turned each spring. Before meals, my sisters and I would be sent out to pick. We were taught how to do that properly: how to  find the runner beans amongst the foliage, and take them before they got tough;  how to feel the pea pods and judge what was inside,  to turn potatoes without spoiling too many with the fork,  to rub the soil away from the tops of the carrots so as to make sure they were worth pulling,  and judge the ripeness of fruit. One of the best things was picking a  peach,  cupping it in your hand and  turning gently until it  came free.

My mother was in charge of storage: we wrapped lettuce or chard (which had to be picked or it would bolt) in damp newspaper  before we put it in the  salad drawer, and kept roots cool  in a  mini-cellar by the back door.  Apples and pears were wrapped in newspaper and stored in boxes in the garage. Convenience food was  increasingly available, but we had none of it.

My father commuted daily to his office job. My parents came from the inner city and grew up with untended, postage-stamp sized gardens, and none of our neighbours grew food. But it was what we did, and it’s what I do now. There’s no peach tree here, but I’ve shown my children (and my husband) many of the things I was taught.

The  wind  picks up. The  broad beans, which here we call fava, need staking – that’s what I’ll do next, and before I go in  I’ll pick rhubarb and some salad greens: lettuce, spinach, rocket – which here is called arugula.

My parents tended that first garden for over fifty years, their second, for less than ten. My  mother’s gone, my father no longer digs and hoes. But I call and  tell him week by week, what I am planting, how it grows.

It’s because of you, I tell him, that I’m on my knees in the dirt.

I think that’s as it should be, he says.

 

Lost & Found

It’s with some trepidation that I stuff my suitcase with copies of my latest novel  and set out for Lost and Found: In Search of Extinct Species, an Explora International Conference at the Toulouse Natural History Museum.

The last time I  attended an academic conference was during my research for The Find. The 2005 Symposium on Dinosaur Park at the Royal Tyrell Museum turned out to be both useful fascinating, but since I was the only non-palaeontologist there (and almost the only person not wearing dusty boots and brown, technical clothes), the  initial experience was disorientating. It was as if I had been dropped into another culture – or even onto another planet – an impression  compounded by the arid, fantastically eroded landscape surrounding the museum, so very different to the lush temperate rainforest I  inhabit. Until I made a friend who could  help me translate the dense, polysyllabic language spoken, I understood only about one word in five, and  my  brain wound itself into knots as a result of the sheer effort expended in connecting those one-in-five words with assorted guesses at other words  and with the often baffling visual imagery presented,  in order to form some semblance of coherent thought. I was asleep by 8:30pm, utterly exhausted, and fully aware that I could blame no-one but myself. Now, that same self has gone and signed me up for Lost and Found…

Continue reading Lost & Found

Tallisomania

It’s a kind of love affair. I found him in a footnote in Donna Dickenson’s Body Shopping, scoured  the province’s libraries and drew a blank, then ordered The Kingdom of Infinite Space and The Hand: A Philosophical Enquiry into Human Being, both by Raymond Tallis, from a well-known online bookstore. They did say they had the books, but it was silly of me to believe them: weeks passed.  One, then another email arrived announcing that there would be a delay in the fulfilment of my order, and then finally, came an admission of failure: both books were unobtainable.  Meantime, I’d almost completed the project for which I wanted to read them, but still, I don’t like unobtainable so  I asked our local librarian to put in an Out of Province Request, for which, she warned me, I might be charged an unspecified amount. Four days later, the books arrived courtesy of the University of Regina. And then it began.

There’s no point, my husband knows, in asking what I’m reading. The answer at the moment is always the same: Tallis. And no, he can’t have it afterwards, because it has to go back to Regina.

For some time I have been working with my friend Lynne on a book of literary essays about the human body — an anthology in which twenty writers each take on a part of the body about which they  have strong feelings of some kind. In the Flesh will be published in 2012 by Brindle & Glass.

Raymond Tallis, who until he retired, was a physician specializing in geriatric medicine, and a clinical scientist – as well as a novelist, poet, and a writer-philosopher – considered a similar idea some years back,  though he was not limited to twenty parts and would have written  all the essays himself  from a very definite philosophical perspective.

However, he decided  that it was impossible to cram so much into one volume, and went on instead  to write a volume about the human head, which, since it seems to present particularly acutely the “am I my body/where am I in my body/ how do I relate to my body” question, he uses as a portal into a detailed exploration of what he calls our “muddled, even tortured”  mind-body relationship.  Tallis is also the author of Handkind, a trilogy of books about a single body part – the human hand – which, he argues, is the origin of our sense of self, our feeling of agency, even of human consciousness.

These are huge topics, and vital ones too. Tallis approaches them with a blend of meticulousness and gusto that’s entirely appropriate to a subject in which he, just like the rest of us, has an intense personal interest.

Continue reading Tallisomania

Coming Undone

It’s unsettling when life imitates art,  and a story you have written starts to happen around you.   For example, shortly after I finished the Story of My Face, I met the teenage version of my character, Natalie, in a motel swimming pool near Vancouver airport.   She was called something else and she was in the wrong part of the world, but she was the right age looked exactly as I had imagined her:  wild auburn hair, a milky, freckled complexion. It was baking hot afternoon. She was on her own in the pool, trying to learn to swim. She waded over and started asking the kind of questions Natalie would ask –  about our family and what we were doing  there, and what it was like where we came from.   Her father was busy, she told us, waving at one of the poolside rooms, its door closed, its curtains closed against the sun… We went for dinner and came back, and Natalie was still there in the pool, in the dark,  half an hour before it closed.

Planes roared through the  indigo sky above our heads as my character’s doppelganger and I sank up to our necks in the water so to avoid the mosquitoes that had gathered above the pool.  How old was my daughter?  Natalie wanted to know. Where did she go to school? It was as if I’d stepped into my own book.  Just as the other (I nearly typed real) Natalie does in The Story of My Face, the pool Natalie seemed to desperately want to become part of someone else’s family, and I felt terrible, leaving her.

Recently, I contacted a local palaeontologist in the hopes of borrowing a photograph for a presentation about The Find that I’m giving later this year.  Did I realise, he asked, that here had been a recent discovery on Hornby Island, very like the one in the novel?  I did not,  so I looked it up. It was clear that although the news about the pterosaur discovered, Gwawinapterus beardi, had come out in January 2011, following the publication of the official description,  the discovery itself had taken place back in 2004, while I was writing  my book. Ironically, I was at the time trying very hard to avoid imitating life , and so not writing about the local discoveries, or the real palaeontologists,  about which I knew.  Despite these valiant efforts to keep fiction and fact apart, ‘my’ find had been taking place for real only  two hours drive from where I sat, typing away,  and  just few miles from the novel’s (fictional) setting. Naturally enough, both discoveries were made in the same geological formation.  As in The Find, the story of the real discovery involved a female palaeontologist and, I realised as I read further, there was controversy as to exactly who had found the specimen.

There (I hope) the similarities end, but even so, for an hour or two, the  world about me felt subtly different, somehow less certain.

It’s probably as simple as this: life is so prolific, that anything you can invent will happen, somewhere and probably more than once.  Another interpretation might be that all the stories ever written do exist, in a  multitude of almost parallel  but sometimes touching universes. In every story there are seams between  it the real  world. As I writer I work very hard on my seams,  but somehow they are  fraying, and coming undone…

Hornby Island’s Pterosaur

The Story of My Face McArthur & Co are re-issuing The Story of My Face in  April 2011


Lifestory

Thinking ahead to an illustrated talk I’ll give in March, I was leafing through a box of research materials for The Find, and came across this image, a detail From The Story of Life by Lorraine Malach. The post card was pinned to my office wall  for at least two years while I wrote the book; the original work is an enormous relief that runs along the entrance  wall in the Royal Tyrell Museum: ten adjacent clay panels, each one four feet wide by eight feet high.  Using human-like figures as actors/storytellers, it  tells the story of life from the Precambrian to the Cretaceous era.

I fell in love with The Story of Life at first sight. I was overwhelmed by sheer ambition of the idea, and the beauty of its execution: this is a sculpture that you walk alongside and take in  slowly, as a sequence, then step back from and try to  absorb as a whole. It’s impossible for an image of the entire work to do justice to its scale,  to the tenderness of the details, or to the tactile qualities of the clay, but it can  give you  a sense of the flow from one panel to the next: Story-of-life_mural.jpg.  You’ll see that it’s a pattern, but also a narrative. Certain shapes – arms, hands, heads – are repeated throughout, but in each panel they arrange themselves in different configurations  and become – or are in the process of becoming – something else. In this way the various body parts/visual elements seems to be working just as genetic materials do, combining and recombining,  repeating and varying. These panels ressemble fossils, and also something you might see under a microscope: cells  growing and dividing, specialising, massing together.  And at the same time, they look like a flattened-out cathedral,  and they look like  snapshots of a dance, like movement frozen in time. The Story of Life is modern and simple. The repeated figures are abstracted, but when you look closely, you see that they are also  subtly individualized. A hand touches a face or a head, one face tilts  towards another:  they’re part of a long, very slow process, but they also have an existence in the moment. Something is writing itself through them, and it also connects them, each to the other. You can see a mother and child in the third panel from the left, and you can call it a Madonna and  Child, if you so wish.

There’s little information readily available about the artist, who died shortly before the work was complete, but one thing that’s  clear is that Lorraine Malach was a deeply spiritual woman.  The Story of Life has a kinship with other great works of public art that are both secular and spiritual  –  Diego Riviera’s murals,  some Hindu temple sculptures,  some First Nations art.

When I saw Lorraine Malach’s mural for the first time, I was, to use that 70’s phrase, blown away.  I stood there,  my eyes moving from one part to another just as they do when I’m out  on the beach or in the woods –  noticing both similarities, and variation in the forms around me.I’d felt for years that art and science need to merge, rather than polarize, so it was thrilling to find a huge and brilliant work of art with  spiritual undertones  given pride of place in the entrance way of  a scientific institution – and it was  doubly thrilling  because  I  knew already that one the main characters in my as- yet-untitled novel would be a palaeontologist, that her mother was an artist,  and that the scientific discovery that began the story would soon broaden out into a far larger one…  For years, this picture reminded me of  something I was interested to explore in my writing. It kept me company, served as both inspiration and  talisman.

Vanished: a thousand words for my mum (memoir)

In the “bio” section of this site,  written way-back-when, I begin by suggesting that  that my desire to write springs from “my father’s love of books and my mother’s habit of exaggeration.”  It’s true that these were both huge influences.  I remember Dad, on his birthday, giving me Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and how my desperation to unlock the words it contained (combined with my big sister’s patience) drove me to learn how to read, well before school even began. Later on, I  used to go and meet my father when he reutrned  from work at the end of the day.  Looking downhill towards the railway station, I could see the other men, smartly buttoned up,  stride homewards, their briefcases clutched rigidly in one hand, their eyes looking forward to their destinations. Dad, his coat or jacket open, was always right at the back of the group, increasingly left behind as the main group surged up the hill.  He did not stride, but ambled towards me, the book he had been reading on the train still open in his right hand, still reading as he walked. It was almost a shame to greet him. On holidays, the pari of us haunted second hand bookstands, and shared the same books: thrillers, sea stories, classics. I remember sitting up way past my bedtime while Dad wrote out the titles of books he thought I’d enjoy.

I could say much more about my father here, but my mother died recently, and,  as is the way when someone is lost, I have been thinking  a great deal about her and how she shaped my life, and especially my writing life. What I described as her habit of exaggeration was a wonderful thing.  She never wrote (other than letters) but she had a writer’s instincts. She knew how to make a story better by knocking out the distractions and upping the ante, and she knew how to make you notice her words, which were rarely bland, but often suggested a story, a drama of some kind. If one of us was late for a meal, we had vanished, or absconded.  It never merely rained – there would be a tempest or a deluge.  These words came aloud in your mouth and in your mind.

As well as modeling this vital skill, my mother continually encouraged us (and in turn, our children) to imagine and pretend. Looking at the family photographs  and slides my mother kept is a powerful reminder of this apprenticeship in the extended kind of pretending that I undertake as a novelist.  I was encouraged to talk to statues, animals and imaginary beings of many kinds, and sometimes she would join in this too.  My friends and I dressed up, made houses in trees, on the coal bunker  and under the table, and for the duration of the story we took our meals in role. We were allowed to play out our fantasies until they finally bored us or turned into something new. I think Mum encouraged imagination because she enjoyed it herself. What would it be like to have musical genius in the family? To fly first class?  To live in a mansion?

Occasionally, her generosity backfired on her, for all this exercise to my imagination made me quite a good liar, too. I convinced her of the existence of a school play, for which she duly made my costume and  in which she believed until the day of the performance was upon us, and later,  as a teenager, I set off with a backpack saying  I was going to volunteer on an archaeological dig (and did, briefly, appear at the site), but spent the rest of the week in a tent with my boyfriend.

My mother  was my first reader, and always appreciative; her suggestions for improvements were often excellent. She was a good typist and keen to add a professional touch, and also prepared to push me into action when she saw the need.

When school sent around a flyer encouraging all pupils  to enter a national children’s writing competition sponsored by Barclay’s Bank, she was determined that I should try. The brief for the contest was to write a short story set in a bank.

“You should do this,” she told me. “Nothing to lose. Look at the money you could win!”  In principle, I was willing. The year before, there had been a story contest sponsored by  The Royal Missions to Seamen, for a science fiction story. I had enjoyed  writing  my brooding piece about Cody, an astronaut who  slipped out of the spacecraft and launched  himself into outer space (and certain death) in order to experience something I called  Freedom. J.G. Ballard had picked my story, and signed his book Vermillion Sands for me… Yet  science fiction was one thing and banks were quite another: set in a bank?

Had I been more politically aware, I might have come up with something to do with Apartheid, given that Barclays was, at the time, heavily criticised for trading in South Africa. As it was, the only potential I could see was in bank–robbery, which everyone would do.

“Have you started it yet?’” Mum asked a few days later; she had a fair bit of time on her hands with just the one rather self-sufficient child to look after.

“Banks are so boring,”  I told her – and  as the words slipped out,  a  story came to me: two  male bank employees,  one in London, one in a place I rather vaguely called Africa,  both bored,  bored, bored.  A memo comes around, offering the opportunity to exchange posts.  Both bored employees jump at the chance, only to discover, once they have made the break and taken over each other’s lives that they are bored, bored, bored, the food is dreadful and they miss their friends!  I got it down as quickly as I could, and handed the scrawled sheets to Mum.

‘They won’t like this,” she said, “I mean, suppose you were them!” All the same, she typed it out at 70 wpm and, to give the bank credit where it is due, some months later a congratulatory letter and a cheque arrived. Really, my career has never been so simple or so successful since…

Mum’s own work life as a secretary at the BBC had ended when she fell pregnant for the first time and was therefore automatically dismissed, as per normal in the 1940s.  She enjoyed all her girls’ careers, and took great pleasure in my book reviews, appearances at literary festivals and so on, especially if international travel and decent hotels were involved. Until the last decade of her life she was too busy to be a great reader of books, but she read each of mine, and congratulated me on it in detail, often surprising me by what she saw in it. My most recent book  came out only a few months before her death and after it, when I let myself into the suddenly empty house, the book was still on display on her hall table.

We tend to simplify and idealize the dead, and perhaps in doing so we do both them and ourselves a disservice. So I will say here that it was not all dressing up in a sunlit garden. My mother was a powerful woman, a vivid, magnetic personality, and also a fighter, not at all inclined to doubt. There were periods of difficulty and conflict in our relationship, though fortunately we eventually got to the point where we could joke about them. As a writer, I thank Mum for the difficult times, too.  An unintended gift, they taught me  some of the most important things I know: how complex and contradictory we all are,  how anger can be a kind of caring. How hard we cling to each other. How vital struggle is to any story, and how deeply we yearn for its resolution.

Now, she has vanished.

Becoming Animal by David Abram

I saw this book in the window of one of our four independent bookstores. I’d not heard of  David Abram, much less read his previous book, The Spell of the Sensuous; it was the dark beauty of the jacket, combined with the blend of militancy and intrigue in the title, that made me want to open the book and look inside. I was running late, but even so, I entered the store, and asked to see it.

The quotation at the beginning was from one of my favourite contemporary poets, Robert Bringhurst:

Voice: the breath’s tooth.

Thought: the brain’s bone.

Birdsong: an extension

of the beak. Speech:

the antler of the mind.


On the other hand, the first sentence of the introduction did not attract me,  largely because, horror of horrors,  it lacked a verb: “Owning up to being ananimal, a creature of earth.”    Reading on, I realised that the paragraph was more about rhythm than it was about grammar:  “Becoming earth. Becoming  animal. Becoming, in this manner, fully human.”  It was a kind of incantation.  By the second page,  things were getting  very interesting: “What if thought is not born within the human skull, but  is a creativity proper to the body as a whole, arising, spontaneously from the slippage between an organism and the folding terrain that it wanders?”  What if is, so far as I am concerned, one of the most lovely phrases we have. I flicked through the Table of Contents, and turned to page 57, Reciprocity, which invited me to “Consider one of your hands for a moment…” Since the human body and our relationship with/in it is a long-term interest of mine, and I am currently co-editing  a book on that topic, as well as drafting an essay about the human hand, the deal was done. I gladly paid the full hardback price and carried the Becoming Animal home with me.

What’s that?  My husband said when he saw it on my desk:  as an object, this book has a super-real, almost magical quality, which turns out to be completely appropriate. It insists on its own physicality, and even manages to suggest that it might, if it chose to, either vanish or change shape.

Becoming Animal is a book of philosophy, but unlike any I’ve read before (my experience is not vast) in that it is also a passionate, often poetic manifesto, written in  language that’s a fusion of  the immediate and visceral and the academic.

Abram’s thinking arises from a way of looking at the world called phenomenology, first articulated a century ago by Edmund Husserl,  then further developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology  seeks “not to explain the world, but to describe as closely as possible the way the world makes itself evident to awareness , the way things  first arise in our direct, sensorial experience.”  Abram takes us back to the basics of how we perceive (and therefore conceive of and relate to) the natural world, and he looks in detail, always using his own personal experience, at how living in a largely man-made world  is altering  that experience.  It’s a book full of startling and revolutionary ideas. He reminds us, for example, that language  may seem like a representation of experience, but is,  first and foremost a thing of the body, a way of “singing ourselves into contact with others and with the cosmos, a way of  bridging the silence.”

Western culture, he argues, is “a civilization that has long since fallen under the spell of its own signs,” and, with terrible consequences, disconnected itself from awareness of and an interactive, reciprocal relationship with the  rest of the planet: animals, plants, rocks, water and so on.  Abram wants us to live a more aware life; he wants us to pull ourselves away from our screens and our texts, our abstractions and calculations,  and return to our senses: “to  the felt intelligence of our muscled flesh and its manifold solidarities.”  By this, I think he might mean: follow that excitement you feel in the city when there is a storm, and you are no longer just living in the man-made world, but part of the larger one, too.

If you pause for a moment and consider for a moment the (market) forces ranked against this return to our senses occurring on a large scale,  then Becoming Animal might  seem to be a very depressing book, a kind of elegy. But Abram is both  a visionary and an optimist and leaves no space for that kind of response. “The things of the world,” he writes “continue to beckon us from behind the cloud of words, speaking instead with gestures and subtle rhythms, calling out to our animal bodies, tempting our skin with  their varied textures and coaxing our muscles with their grace, inviting our thoughts to remember and rejoin the wider community of intelligence.”

Will we respond?

The book itself is a demonstration of just such a  rejoining/return.  Abram blends lyrical descriptions of experiences  ranging from the mundane (listening to the soundscape of his house),  to the spectacular and supernatural  (being apprenticed to a shaman in Nepal), with  careful explorations of  some of the basics of our society, such as writing. Writing down oral traditions, even to ‘save’ them,  he argues, we  have “divested the ground of its voice.”  Writing makes the story portable, but it also renders both the story-teller and the locale that gave birth to the story superfluous. Literacy, he says, is cosmopolitan, the internet is globalizing, both of the them ultimately depend for any true vitality on the local and oral.

In the end, Abram’s recipe is a simple  and practical; he turns out to be a realist, as well as a visionary and an optimist. He suggests that we “leave abundant space in our days for an interchange with one another and with our surroundings that is not mediated by technology: neither by computer not by television nor by cell phone, neither by the handheld computer nor by the GPS satellite (nor any of the newer digital allurements that promise to arrive in the coming years). Nor even the printed page.”

He is a voice singing in (and from, and for) the wilderness, and he is saying: use  these tools  wisely, and remember who/what you are and where you live.

I highly recommend Becoming Animal – there are a couple of slow passages but overall it is an exciting and inspiring read, one which could change the way you see the world, and even the way you live. It is a book to own and to read more than once. I’m already half-way through Abram’s previous  book, The Spell of the Sensuous, which lays the foundations for much of what is offered in Becoming Animal, and explores in detail how we came to – as he puts it – close ourselves within an entirely human filed of meanings.  It, too, is an astounding read, though sadly, I could only find it in a rather ordinary-looking paperback.


Carare Barer's book art

Fate of the Book: Fear Not, Beware, Some Great Art & One Happy Man

 

Is the (paper) book dead?  What is its fate?  Will writers survive?   Will the next generation read?

And if so, which platform/reader will they use? These questions, along with related topics (blogging, how to promote your book using social media etc.) were hot  panel topics at the book festivals I recently attended, rivalling the staples such  as the fiction non/fiction divide and how to turn your  own experiences into  a story.   Writers and other professionals dissected trends, ranted, doubted, pronounced, prevaricated,  eulogised. Some said, Fear not: surf the digital tsunami, open yourself to the opportunities and creative potential of the medium – one way or another, stories are our lifeblood and they will evolve and survive. Others said, Beware: writers and readers are being being dumbed-down and forced into a model of production and consumption which suits manufacturers and distributors,  rather than bodies and minds… Perhaps, some suggested, the way out of this techno-tangle is to regenerate our oral traditions – perhaps the internet  will even help us do so? Actually, others insisted, it’s both: Fear not and Beware, simultaneously.

After a few days of this, my feeling  (and yes, my newer titles will soon be  e-books, but no, I don’t yet have a reader: ipad, too heavy;  Kobo, too tacky; Kindle, better – but still, like all of them,  too stiff, and too expensive)…   My feeling is that this dizzying blend of excitement and anxiety,  this concern with the mechanics  and balance sheet of the book, not the book itself,  not what is inside it, is   Continue reading Fate of the Book: Fear Not, Beware, Some Great Art & One Happy Man