Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Mind's Eye by Oliver Sacks

The amazing Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote much of this book in 2005, when he was seventy-three and had just been treated for a melanoma at the back of his retina. This delicate procedure threatened the sight in his dominant eye, and he ably describes some moments of terror the cancer evoked.

Though Dr. Sacks eventually lost sight in the affected eye, he lived for ten years and published four more books, including the astonishing Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. This book came out in 2010, another in 2017, after his death.

Like his others, this book is full of patient stories, but this time, the storyteller -- both as a neurologist and as a man -- is more visible in the narrative.

He shares his passion for swimming and stereoscopy, and reveals his own neurological oddities: "I have had difficulty recognizing faces for as long as I can remember." Place recognition can also pose problems, making it necessary to avoid deviating from a particular route unless he is with a friend. "At the age of seventy-six, despite a lifetime of trying to compensate, I have no less trouble with faces and places. I am thrown particularly when I see people out of context, even if I have been with them five minutes before."

As always, the patients he describes suffer from odd brain-related symptoms, and he explains with affection and sympathy how different individuals cope with their losses. Jane Goodall, like Sacks himself, suffers from prosopagnosia, or face blindness, but as this is moderate, both "can, after repeated exposure, learn to identify those we love best."

Following a stroke, detective novelist Howard Engel found that he could still write, but was no longer able to read. It happened that his publisher, Scribner, also suffered from alexia. Both men not only found new ways of coping with their disabilities, they used "a handicap to hone a skill."

Capgras syndrome is a problem that causes patients to lose their sense of emotional connection to the faces of people they know and love. Lacking that "special warm feeling of familiarity, the Capgras patient will argue" that their loved ones "must be clever impostors, counterfeits."

In prelingually deaf people, the auditory parts of the brain remain active and functional, but they are reallocated to other functions. In a similar way, "the visual cortex, deprived of visual input, is still good neural real estate, available and clamouring for a new function."

Blindness can cause "a heightening of other senses," including "the ability to use sound or tactile clues to sense the size or shape of a space and the people and objects within it." The blind physician Dennis Shulman feels that he is "far more sensitive to others' emotional states since losing his sight." Indeed, he can recognize many patients by smell, and "pick up states of tension or anxiety they might not even be aware of."

The reader also learns interesting things about animals. Siamese cats are often born cross-eyed, and the ability to see in stereo is biologically crucial to many creatures. "Predators, in general, have forward-facing eyes, with much overlap of the two visual fields; prey animals, by contrast, tend to have eyes at the sides of their heads, which gives them panoramic vision, helping them spot danger even if it comes from behind."

Once again, a truly fascinating work by the great neurologist who wrote Hallucinations and The Man that Mistook his Wife for a Hat. The closing passage of the book refers to a "delicious" paradox, and reveals this remarkable doctor's zest for knowledge and for life.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley


"Most people, when you get to know them, are not what you're afraid they'll be." M. de Sabran, a French soldier held on parole, his word of honour, New York, 1762.

I love the work of Susanna Kearsley, and found this novel exceptional. Portraying universal dilemmas, it affords glimpses into the social history of a decisive period in North America: the Seven Years War, the fall of Quebec, and the taxation policies that eventually led to the American Revolution. When two French officers are billeted at Lydia's home, she is forced into the company of "enemies." Yet by observing the different characters and outlooks if the Quebecker and the Frenchman, and their contrast from her Acadian neighbour, she comes to realize that snap judgments and simple characterizations are unrealistic and unfair.

In this part of the novel, the reader also meet Loyalists, traders, farmers, Spanish sailors, slaves and slave-owners. Language and cultural barriers are rife in this novel -- even the battle site Fort Oswego is known in French by the quite different name of Fort Chouaguen. Fortunately, when Lydia is nearly caught up in a New York riot over illegal trading practices, the Canadian-born French marine does not need English to shield her from physical harm.

The modern characters reveal more recent north-south history with interesting parallels. Charley, the protagonist, is the daughter of an American whose family disowned him when he crossed into Canada to avoid being drafted to fight in Vietnam. When her brother dies in a small New York town, she leaves her Ontario home to take a job and spend time with her bereaved young cousin there. Charley's work establishing a historic house museum eventually forces her to confront her estranged grandmother, a wealthy widow who chairs the local branch of the Daughters of Liberty. The old woman she finally meets is certainly not the monster Charley feared she would be.

Sam, a contractor who is doing the restoration work on the museum, is wise, calm and easygoing. The son of a Mohawk ironworker, a connector (interesting double entendre), Sam comments in an offhand way about the human tendency to classify others into overly simple categories. His own history and ethnicity defy all attempts to pigeonhole him. With roots on both sides of the 49th parallel, he is the grandson of two residential school survivors. "'I got a bit of everything,'" he tells Charley, "'Mohawk, English, French, Oneida, Scottish, Catholic, Protestant -- you name it.'"

With roots as mixed as those of part-indigenous novelist Joseph Boyden, Sam has learned to remain unfazed by what people say to and about him, and he has also learned when to keep his mouth shut -- an admirable trait we'd be wise to emulate. He's a positive role model who expresses the multiplicity of our human roots and origins. Through Sam's calm and non-judgmental comments, Kearsley handily exposes a bane of our era: constant efforts by ignorant people and politicians to pigeonhole individuals for their own ends.

Some of the novel's big themes are also expressed through the displaced Acadian farmer Pierre Boudreau. Though many of his English-speaking neighbours do not trouble learn his surname, they know they can rely on the translations of "French Peter." A survivor of many hard blows, Pierre is observant, philosophical and kind. His advice to M. de Sabran, not to look back but to "grow roots where you are standing" is astonishingly similar to similar advice given by his abbott to the American monk Thomas Merton: "Bloom where you are planted."

Of course the book contains a ghost, but this the supernatural aspect of the tale plays a smaller role here than in earlier works. Indeed, one could almost interpret the ghost as the part of Charley that has the ability to go quiet and intuit the presence of the past.

The fact that this volume contains material extraneous to the story reveals the tale's closeness to the writer's heart. Descended from Loyalists, the author learned that her ancestors owned slaves, and she devotes the book to them in apology and to honour their memory.

In an extra section, About the Characters, Kearsley reveals her hope and optimism by citing the "highly respected and influential philosopher" the Earl of Shaftesbury, who believed in the innate human moral sense, the ability to know right from wrong. She also quotes his comments to the effect that the love of doing good is reason enough to do it, and that prejudice is a "mist" that sadly dims our vision.

In this passage, and also in the novel itself, she refers to the Truth and Reconciliation process, and quotes the final report of the Commission, which says that "The Arts help to restore human dignity and identity in the face of injustice."

History casts long shadows. Thank you, Susanna Kearsley, for casting your light on some of them.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Canadian Authors Metro Vancouver hosts June Open Mic

Twenty Readers, five minutes each. The eternal refugee spoke these poignant words by poet Lozan YamolkyYou won't find me among those little girls who have been bought and sold and traded -- spoils of war -- I am here. Help raise me...I am the child, and this is our village.

New work from Jay Bates (below) included this line: A lifetime of hurts fitted into a tiny suitcase. 

Among the other words heard: 

Briana Garelli: At Sunday mass, her mother prayed for Blanca's return. 

Susila Bryant: Tales told, lives led, pleadings pled, songs sung. 

Jay Storey: The doors were still operational, but wouldn't be for long. 

Andrew Littler: Those that knew how much they should be drinking, and those that did not. 

Karen LeeThe one thing I remember from Sunday school is that God takes a dim view of self-interest. 

Malcolm van DelstI'm not gonna lie any more, even though I'm exceptionally good at it...If you lose track of the story, you lose track of yourself. 

Tikiri Herath: His ears billowed like the sails of a pirate ship. 

Karen Schauber: He is managing quite well for a purebred...He's a quick study. 

Tara K Torme: You are an unopened Pandora's box. 

Lilija Valis: I'm taking another look at No. Yes takes all the credit...In some cultures, no is not allowed in public. Yes and No need each other, but they quarrel all the time.

Marion Lovelace: I will require a formal pose. Perhaps it will please you to come to the embassy? 

Renee Saklikar: The dance, most of all. 

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Sofie and Cecilia by Katherine Ashenburg

To write this book, Katherine Ashenburg did a great deal of research and travelled to Sweden to seek out settings and talk to locals. The novel portrays two couples: all four are artists, but in the early 20th century, both women give up painting once they marry. According to society, the real (male) artists are owed this by their wives.

The story is strengthened by the fact that both Lars and Nils, the husbands of protagonists Cecilia and Sofie, are loosely based on real Swedish artists.

In an incidental way, this story of a friendship is also a lesson in 20th century European history and society. The main tale, though, is an intimate portrait of two artist's wives, who meet through their husbands and slowly develop their friendship.

As an old woman, Sofie looks back on her marriage to Nils, thinking "Love, the bodily love...had convinced her to accept him. That kind of love had an element of destiny. The love of friendship, on the other hand, felt more like a choice."

In her old age, Cecilia, who is of Jewish ancestry, must watch the rise of Nazism in Germany, where she first studied painting. A rising wave of national fervour in Sweden leaves her feeling somewhat isolated, as her liberal artist friends ignore the impending threat. It is a bitter pill indeed that Cecilia's homeland of Sweden, where she and Lars have spent years of effort and huge sums of money to create a museum to preserve Swedish arts and crafts, is not immune from the demented ideal of national "purity." 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Wildwood by Elinor Florence

As Canadians flocks to cities, memories of our agrarian and rural roots are fading. Elinor Florence's novel reminds us of the magic and also the hardship of being tied to the land.

Lured by the expectation of money she hopes to earn by selling the land, a penniless Molly leaves Phoenix with her ailing daughter Bridget to claim the remote Peace River home she's inherited from a distant relation. There's a caveat: to get clear title, she must occupy the farm for a full year. Unexpectedly, her new life draws Molly in, helps heal the pains of her past, and improves her daughter's health.

Having spent my early life on an Alberta farm, I loved the rich linguistic memories this book evoked. From then: washboards, liquid bluing, sad irons, livery stables, stooks, grub for threshing crews, the moccasin telegraph, using a broom straw to test a cake for doneness, and batching.

From there: Hudson's Bay blankets, the Western Producer and the Family Herald (now a collector's item.) Saskatoon berries and chokecherries were powerfully evocative of place, and the farmer's familiar and laconic comment about the weather, "It's a scorcher," made me smile.

But the book also connects us to Here and now. In the small Peace River town of Juniper, the farmers are divided over fracking, the oilmen are routinely called rig pigs, and some local businesses are "in bed with the oil."

The eternal topics of cooking and home remedies made delightful reading. I also learned the correct Cree way to pick sweetgrass, and how smudge with it. It surprised me to learn that this plant, valued for Indigenous ceremonies and rituals, can also be used for basket weaving.

This absorbing story develops in multiple timelines. Molly's past traumas are slowly revealed through her reactions to present challenges and her bursts of strong emotion as repressed memories rise to the surface. After reading her great aunt's old journals, and learning about the physical and emotional challenges she overcame, the young woman finds courage to make an important decision at the end of her trial year of living on the remote farm without plumbing or electricity.

One of Molly's memorable lines describes a past love affair in a nutshell: "His office was filled with trophies, and soon I became one of them." Another line expresses the importance of learning to let go, forgive, grow up and move on. I enjoyed this satisfying moment of the protagonist's growing self-awareness, "Once again, I had allowed my past to poison my present."

Plot wise, I found this layered and suspenseful story hard to put down. I finished it in two days.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

In Their Father's Country, by Anne-Marie Drosso

This family saga affords readers intimate glimpses of a cosmopolitan and multicultural Cairo, as seen through the eyes of the Sahli sisters, Claire and Gabrielle. Though their father is Syrian-born, and their mother Italian, the girls attend a convent school, speak French to their parents, and receive no formal education in Arabic. Raised in privilege, the sisters must deal with the changes the century brings.

The opening scene of the "bourgeois" bedroom where their lawyer father lies ill includes Venetian lamps, Persian rugs, and alabaster bookends. However, this family eschews gilt trim and "the usual profusion of ornamental objects." The neighbourhood is also revealing. The apartment is "within walking distance of Groppi's, Lemonia's, the Cafe Riche, the Mohammed Ali Club, and Au Bouquiniste Orientale." The girls' father, Selim Sahli, frequents all these places.

The novel opens in 1924. While the the British hope to maintain their "special relationship" with Egypt, nationalists want full independence. Shot by assassins, Sir Lee Stack is rushed to the Anglo-American hospital, and Selim explains to his teenage daughters that Syrians, Greeks, Lebanese and Armenians are in an awkward position. He blames not only "'the nationalists who blow our distinctness out of proportion,'" but the insularity of his own community as well.

Very different in personality, the sisters continue to love each other, even as they wrangle over a changing array of problems involving men, children and servants. Young and middle-aged, they tend to argue over romantic and social matters. As they age, they openly disagree over politics.

The sisters' lives move forward against the backdrop of a rapidly changing society. Both marry within their own sheltered milieu, then bear and raise children who leave the country. As she ages, Claire becomes more frustrated by her poor Arabic. ''How," she asks her sister, "can we pretend we're informed when we don't read the Arabic papers and only read the pathetic French dailies intended for people like us?" In contrast, Gabrielle has very little interest in this problem.

Eventually, the very personal issue arises of whether Claire should accept her niece's invitation to live with her in Paris. What would be the emotional effects on her own children if she moved in with Gabrielle's daughter in old age? Can she really risk making her children feel guilty and angering her sister?

The decision of whether to leave Cairo also entails facing the question of whether to try to give up her apartment. Keeping it would require a certain amount of subterfuge, since owning an apartment in Cairo is illegal for people living abroad. This question may well resonate for contemporary Canadians. As city real estate prices skyrocket, some laws have been passed to discourage foreigners from buying Canadian homes and leaving them empty.

Yet new taxes intended to protect local homeowners against foreign investors have drawn the ire of native-born Canadians with summer homes in other towns or cities. Owning a summer place is part of a long tradition that goes back to a time when families who could afford it spent long holidays at a rural lake cottage. Kelowna was once home to such rustic cabins. There, as elsewhere, former cabins have been subsumed by the growing city. Like Claire, these people do not want to completely sever ties to old homes.

Drosso's novel evokes other contemporary dilemmas. We live in times when it's no longer a given to have a stable family home with relatives living nearby. On the contrary, it is increasingly common to have relatives living in multiple countries. This gives a special poignancy to Claire's dilemma about leaving Cairo in old age.

Another theme that echoes strongly concerns the isolation that results when people in multicultural cities maintain close ties with their own ethno-cultural communities and remain unaware of what goes on in among adjacent groups. The choice of burial vaults is telling. Claire and Gabrielle's "emotional separateness in life" is dramatized by the fact that one sister wants to be buried with her husband's people, while the other prefers to be interred beside her parents. But obviously, vault burials are not universal in Cairo. Muslims adhere to very different funerary customs. Perhaps the separateness between the sisters hints at the distance between ethnic communities in the city.

Above all, this is a story of family, the mother-daughter bond in particular. Having grown up with a rather cold mother who kept important secrets from her children, Claire decides that her daughters matter "more to her than the relationship" they have with her. She even tells her sister she can understand a mother "cutting off all ties with her child, if that were necessary for the child's happiness." Claire's thoughts on the mother-daughter bond also suggests how secrets kept by one generation can colour the lives of those who follow.

From the perspective of her very different character, Gabrielle pooh-poohs Claire's ideas about the depth of mother love, saying she doesn't believe a word of it. However, perhaps this is her way of avoiding the emotions that threaten to overwhelm those who take time for introspection. Possibly her quick dismissal is an inverted recognition of how avoidance of certain emotionally difficult challenges has been a pattern in her life.

For me, this work of family drama against a historic background I knew little about was an informative and absorbing read.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Overheard at the hairdresser

Info is a hairdresser's stock in trade, and Sue is no exception. I've long relied on her, for lore both mundane and arcane. What to do if the dishwasher soap pills don't melt? Which farm has the best raspberries and has the season closed yet? When are Prince Harry and Meghan getting married? Sue knows all.

She also knows people. While I waited for my perm to set, she chatted with another client whose hair she was trimming.

"Going to pick blueberries again this year, Alice?"

"Sure. This will be my fifth year."

As one does, they included me in the conversation. "Tell her how old you are," suggested Sue, "and how you got the job."

"I'll be ninety-five in August." I goggled as Alice continued. "I went there for U-pick berries. When I got to the cashier, she was impressed by how much I'd picked in half an hour. She asked me if I wanted a job." She smiled. "First, I thought she was kidding. But she wasn't. I thought it over and told her I'd give it a try. That was five years ago."

She was ninety at the time. Three years older than Queen Elizabeth.