Just Breathe Normally, by Peggy Shumaker

A few years ago, I read a lot of memoirs in preparation for writing my own, and was surprised by the variety of approaches. One might be a linear narrative about a particular event or period of time, such as Jill Kerr Conway's The Road to Coorain while another might play with time and perception, such as Nabokov's Speak, Memory. One might set a personal story against world events, such as Penelope Lively's Oleander, Jacaranda while another focuses on the author's experience, such as Marguerite Duras's The Lover.

In this memoir of healing and survival, Shumaker has provided a linear narrative describing a serious biking accident she suffered and her slow recovery. However, that narrative makes up only a small fraction of the book's pages. Thus, it is not so much a central road from which the author makes occasional excursions as it is a rare blaze on a tree to indicate that you haven't wandered off the path.

Instead, the book is primarily a collection of vignettes capturing some fragment of memory or family legend. These pieces are beautifully written, in lyrical prose that had me reading and rereading simply to savor the language and the swift twist of meaning, as surprising and satisfying as the last line of a haiku. No matter how short—most are only a few sentences or a paragraph in length—each piece captures emotion with an immediacy rare in recounted memories.

In these vignettes, Shumaker describes moments from her parents', grandparents', and great-grandparents' lives, imagined from family stories and photos. She describes memories from her childhood: joy when a pinata bursts showering her with candy, fear when an arroyo floods carrying off a reckless child. A later set of vignettes concerns scuba diving with her husband. But mostly she uses these tesserae to build a picture of life with her parents, two deeply flawed people, who had too many children too soon and struggled with alcohol and illness, abuse and early death.

The variety and scope of the vignettes may provide a clue for my lingering very slight sense of dissatisfaction with the book as a whole. I loved the prose and enjoyed every minute of reading this book. Intellectually, I recognise how well the form—these tesserae arranged in seemingly random order—reflect the fragmentary nature of memory itself, especially after a traumatic brain injury.

However, I was surprised to reach the last page because I felt that the mosaic of pieces had not yet cohered into a picture. As one person in my book club asked, intending to prompt discussion, what was the story? Sure, okay, survival. And the scars, physical and psychological, that we carry. But there seems to be so much more here, a potential story that I cannot quite see, probably due to my own dim-wittedness. Of course, that is the way life is, and perhaps the very open-endedness is the point: to carry all that complexity into the future.

The narrative of the accident seemed designed to tie the shorter pieces together, although it didn’t fulfill that function, for me at least. Rather, it seemed to distract from the accumulating picture built up by the beautiful fragments. At the same time, the shorter pieces did not seem to me to enhance the accident narrative. I would have been tempted to separate this book into two books, but certainly found it interesting to see how this unusual structure played out.

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

My book club decided to read this classic which most of us hadn't read since our schooldays. I was curious to see how it would hold up. What I remembered most about it was the sense of sin, the guilt around having sinned, the secrecy. Since I don't think much about sin these days, I wasn't sure the story would still be relevant.

I do think a lot about good and evil. There is much good done in this world, and much evil. Perhaps I missed too many Sunday School classes or heard too many harmless activities classified as sins, but it always seemed to me that when you talk about sin, you're talking about a basically decent person who does some wrong thing, carried away perhaps in the heat of the moment or even misled by others. Evil, on the other hand, is when someone who knows full well what he is doing and how many people will be hurt by his action and still selfishly, greedily, goes ahead and does it.

Hester's sin, having sex outside of marriage, having a child out of wedlock, does not seem so terrible to me. Apparently Hawthorne agreed, since the way he describes the people who condemn her, their hypocrisy and self-righteousness, makes her a far better person than any of them. Even the villagers come to respect her for her good works and almost forget what the letter stands for.

Guilt is something else again, though. Guilt is always with us. And secrecy that eats away at you.

The part I hadn't remembered in the story was the ending. After everything falls apart, Hester sets aside the letter that marks her and leaves with her daughter. The daughter grows up and marries a rich man, but Hester returns to the community that branded her. She puts the letter back on and lives out the rest of her life in the same cottage where she'd lived before.

Why, having once escaped, would she voluntarily take up the symbol of her shame among those who knew how she'd earned it? Perhaps it was the only place she felt like herself, the self she had become through the terrible ordeal of prison, ostracism, and isolation. Surely sharing the untainted, privileged life her daughter was starting with her new husband was impossible for Hester. She could not return to the normal social life she had enjoyed before her sin.

I think a lot about coming back. In fairy tales and legends, the hero sets out on some great adventure, and then you come home, profoundly changed. Whatever the trials you've been through, you return changed, maybe harder, maybe kinder. Perhaps, as with Frodo and Sam in the Lord of the Rings, your home too has changed while you were away. There's a profound sadness in this return, a lost and lonely nostalgia that can never be assuaged.

And you can't tell anyone where you've been or what you've been through. Who would understand? They look at you and talk to you as though you were the same person you were before you left. But you're not. You're like the soldiers of the Great War whom Wilfred Owen described, those grey ghosts, “too few for drums and yells,” who “creep back, silent, to village wells,/Up half-known roads.”

Visions, ed. by Bradley R. Strahan

I first encountered this periodical at the Baltimore Book Festival. Visions used to be based in Maryland but has since moved to Texas. What drew me to the little booth under Baltimore’s Washington Monument was a wire rack of 5.5 × 8.5 inch stapled chapbooks in many colors with cover illustrations of scenes from around the world. One concentrated on Scandinavian poetry; another on Croatian poetry; another on Macedonian poetry. Glancing through the tables of contents, I found each issue included poetry from the U.S., yes, but also from many other countries and cultures.

We in the U.S. are rarely exposed to literature from other countries, except perhaps from England. Until someone wins the Nobel or other prize, his or her work is generally not available here. Although this situation has changed somewhat with the advent of online bookstores, how do you know what authors to look for? How do you know what literary masterpieces are being produced in Denmark or Uzbekistan?

When my son first moved to Canada, one of his first communications home informed me that there was a whole world of Can Lit that I had never suspected was there. Sure, I’d read Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje. But you cannot imagine the delight with which I threw myself into books by Timothy Findley, Jane Urquhart, Rohinton Mistry, David Adams Richards, Paul Quarrington. Some of these authors are now distributed in the States, but at that time, one could not purchase their books here.

Since then, I have tried to attend Toronto’s International Festival of Authors as often as I can. Held at the end of October, this festival brings famous and not-so-famous authors from all over the world to Harbourfront for readings, interviews, and panel discussions. I particularly like the interviews, where one author asks questions of another, eliciting the kind of insights that you won’t hear on a talk show. I was thrilled to hear Timothy Findley interviewed by Jane Urquhart and later read from his books. I loved listening to an author from Finland read the beginning of his novel in English and then in Finnish, enabling me to hear the rhythms he himself heard when composing.

So I was delighted to stumble upon this small periodical that publishes poetry from all over. Now in its 30th year, Visions comes out four times a year. The most recent issue, #79, has two feature sections: one on Argentinean poet Roberto Juarroz and one of Armenian poetry translated by Diana Der Hovanessian.

The particular value for me is not just exposure to otherwise unknown voices, but the insight into their particular experience, such as in this poem “After the War” by Armenian poet Ghurgas Sirounan:

“After a truce war is not over
although roses reappear
although brooks thaw,

. . .

“Ask those who will not return. Ask
the grief that covers the earth.
Ask the soil, now precious as heavy lead . . .”

I also value the common themes, such as here from the poem “He & She” by Pakistani poet Adrian Hussain, translated from the Urdu by David Kamal:

“Her beauty has burnt his eyes
but he imagines
he sees her still
as a silver ship
in the folds of an impossible sea.”

Visions is available from Black Buzzard Press, 3503 Ferguson Lane, Austen, TX 78754.

Maps and Legends, by Michael Chabon

Justin recommended this book, a marvelously inventive collection of essays. The cover alone is spectacular: a black hardback with three staggered layers of paper slipcover. The largest, in tones of gold shows earth and stone and figures of cowboys and giants, dueling soldiers and ragged refugees. The next is a jungle in shades of green with, among others, Tarzan and an aviator climbing out of a crashed plane. The smallest shows frothy ocean waves with a giant squid and broken-masted ship. Similarly, each essay peels away layers of stories and references to lay bare what's at the heart of things.

Readers of Chabon will be familiar with some of these subjects, such as his passionate defense of genre literature and comics/graphic novels, his appreciation of Sherlock Holmes, the metaphor of the Golem of Prague. Where he takes these subjects may astonish you.

I particularly liked the title essay, which starts as a meditation on Chabon's childhood in Columbia, Maryland. Being a native, I watched this planned city grow from its first idealistic foundations to the city it is today. James Rouse, famous for developing festival marketplaces such as Faneuil Hall in Boston, Pioneer Place in Portland, and Harborplace in Baltimore, had experimented as well with building a small community—not just houses, but a real community—in Baltimore called the Village of Cross Keys. Taking his cue from the influential urban planner Jane Jacobs, Rouse believed that we need cities, not suburbs, and that our urban life is best served by a mixture of public and private spaces, by small clusters of homes, and a heterogeneous population.

The core of Cross Keys is a group of shops surrounding an open plaza, with office space on the second floor. Originally, the shops aimed to include everything you would need: a grocery store, cafe, hotel, clothing stores, a bookstore, and so on. Clusters of homes—some apartments, some rowhomes—are all within easy walking distance. Nowadays, the hotel is still there, but the shops are mostly upscale clothing stores. The grocery couldn't compete with the large chains nearby and the neighborhood grocery store that we had all been going to forever. Talk about everybody knowing your name. My sisters and I had to bus to another neighborhood to buy our feminine hygiene products.

Columbia started out as a large-scale version of Cross Keys. A central mall and office buildings were located by the man-made lake. The town was divided into villages, groups of homes for ten to fifteen thousand people, with a central gathering place and schools. Rouse insisted that a certain percentage of the homes in each village were to be priced for low-income families. He also insisted that Columbia would be racially integrated—no small thing for a town situated between the race-riot hotbeds of Baltimore and Washington in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Chabon's essay is about the map, Rouse's Plan for Columbia and the other maps that inspired his childhood imaginings. What he found especially seductive were the unfinished parts, the empty spaces, the unexplored territory. It's fascinating to follow Chabon through permutations of this idea.

Columbia hasn't completely fulfilled Rouse's vision, its villages looking more like upscale suburbs, its mall grown to monstrous proportions. But there's time yet. This month, when we have seen dreams start to come true, it's good to remember Rouse and others who have dreamed big dreams.