This morning on CBC, Jian Ghomeshi interviewed a documentary filmmaker working on a project about highrises. I have to admit, from where I sat (smack in the middle of a very large cluster of tall towers) the idea seemed a little underwhelming. But as filmmaker Katerina Cizek talked, I came to see why she would be so interested in what seems at first to be a mundane topic. These places are part of the landscape of the city, yes, but they are also, quite literally, stacked with people that have stories to tell. After the interview, I took a look at the Highrise project website. It is fabulous: a testament to what a creative mind, a little funding, and a whole lot of public interaction can do with one fairly simple idea.
A couple of years ago, I culled my books--a collection of over 500 wiped out to almost nothing. At first, I found it horrible to pick off the books one by one, and pack them off to the charity book sale. I loved my books and what I thought they said about me, this collection of mainly 20th century novels, with a handful of travel, historiography, philosophy and wine books evening it out. But it had to be done--it took up a lot of real estate in a very small living space--and once I started sorting through, I realized most of the books I owned didn't say that much about me. (Also, who were my bookshelves talking to, anyway? Ninety-five percent of the people that come over know me pretty well already, and it's not like I want or expect the guy who tests the fire alarm twice a year to be looking through the bookshelf for insight about me.) So, after the first twenty tough decisions were made, the process got easier, fun actually, when I imagined people reading these books again. Solomon Gursky Was Here... You might not think so, but you will suspend all disbelief. Fall on Your Knees... I hope you've got nothing to do for the next 8 hours. Ulysses? Ahahaha. Pity the fool.
Anyway, all of this long-winded ramble is meant to illustrate a point. Now, I own less than 30 books. Mostly, the books I kept say something to me, instead of about me. But this book does both.
You Might Have Missed ... Being Still with Pablo Neruda
Author: Pablo Neruda, Translated by Alastair Reid
Pub. Details: FSG Adult; Bilingual Edition ed., Jan 2001
note: because I am not a Spanish speaker, I will be quoting the poems as translated by Alastair Reid, but if you prefer the original, the Spanish is printed opposite in this text.
So, in terms of introducing some unknown talent to you today, this is a gigantic fail. I realize that Pablo Neruda is one of the very few recognize-by-name poets in the vast canon of literature. Still, I would venture that most people who have read Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, or The Captain's Verses have not read what I think is his most reflective collection of poems, Extravagaria.
The original Spanish publication, Estravagario, appeared in 1958, after Neruda had travelled the world as a diplomat (later an exile), and returned to his native Chile. There is an obvious theme to these poems, one of stillness and being at peace, one of having silence enough to think about the big questions of life. For once on the face of the earth, / let's not speak in any language; / let's stop for one second, / and not move our arms so much.
There are also the mundane things that we see anew because he shows us their simple beauty--describing fog as "...waves [that] roll on in the air, / like invisible horses" or things washed up on shore "...violet claws of crabs, / little skulls of dead fish, / smooth syllables of wood, / small countries of mother-of-pearl..." For a writer, his poems are little injections of inspiration.
Of course, there is love--it's Neruda, after all--but this love is deeper and more mature, a testament to the sacred act of building life together rather than making love. "Now we need each other, / not only for the carnations' sake, / not only to look for honey-- / we need our hands to wash with, to make fire."
And don't worry--most of the poetry is tremendously accessible. You don't need to 'get' poetry to enjoy this book. You need no qualifications save for that you are alive and know how to read. No matter who you are, there is at least one thing in this book that will make you think about the life that you have lived so far, or about the life you want to live.
Extravagaria survived my book cull, and would survive again if some crazy anti-book person told me I could only keep one book for the rest of my life. The pages of my ten-year old copy are dog-eared, the spine is beginning to split. It is a book I turn to all the time, like my own personal bible, when I need to remember what I'm supposed to be doing with life, when I need to be reminded of a bigger picture. Reading this book is as close as I will ever get to prayer.
I knew that I'd be posting book and author reviews here, but I've been hesitant because I didn't know what I could bring to the discussion that was new or interesting. There are so many fabulous professional and hobby book critics; what I have to say about a new book will not add much. But I read a lot, and my tastes are eclectic, and I have no reason to be current. So, if you want to read the newest, greatest book, visit The New York Review of Books or BookPage. But if you want to hear about an outstanding book or author you might have missed, then read on.
You Might Have Missed ... an incredible journey through Siberia.
Book: Silverland: A Winter Journey Beyond the Urals
Author: Dervla Murphy
Pub. Details: John Murray, 2007.
I discovered Dervla Murphy by accident. Ten years ago, I was browsing, with no intention of buying, in the travel lit. section at my local bookstore. And there was Dervla. I knew I couldn't leave the store without her. (If it sounds like I'm talking about meeting my soulmate, trust me, that's not far off the mark. That book, South from the Limpopo, began a great book love affair.)
If you have the good sense to read Murphy's book, you will find yourself asking, "Why have I never heard of her before?" I know, because that is exactly what I said. Silverland is her twenty-first of what is currently a twenty-three book tally. And she didn't start travelling or writing professionally until she turned thirty-two.
Murphy is not a typical travel writer. Her first journey, in 1963, took her from Ireland to India --- by bicycle. Later, she treks through the Andes with a mule --- and her nine year old daughter in tow. South from the Limpopo is a journey by bike more than 9,000 kilometres and through all nine provinces of South Africa --- during the tumult of post-apartheid democratic general elections. Silverland finds her travelling from Moscow to Siberia by slow train in the winter --- at age seventy-four.
Dervla boards this slow train in Moscow. Instead of the posher, faster Trans-Siberian, she chooses the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM). She likes it "...partly because these trains' favourite speed is 20 m.p.h." For three months, she enjoys the company of her varied Russian co-riders and during stop-overs, she finds hospitality, as she always does, with generous and curious people that she has met along the way, or with hosts that have been recommended by friends. This way of staying lends all of Murphy's work an intimate look at local people and beliefs, but especially does in this area of the world where centralization has made independent voices rare.
A nature-lover and solitude-seeker, Murphy revels in the beauty of the taiga. "To the north, beyond gleaming white flatness, miles of coniferous forest stood out blackly against a curtain of molten gold ... while the slim clouds turned rosy, a weirdly static crimson orb remained poised above the trees, not sinking perceptibly. Then very, very, slowly it disappeared -- and a wondrously lingering red-gold suffusion tinged the whole landscape."
On a solo morning hike along a logging track near Lake Baikal, near the northern border of Mongolia, she meets a large brown bear. "Siberian bears like their meat and are six to seven feet tall when upright, a posture occasionally adopted to kill reindeer or people." Later, nearly back to Moscow again, she encounters a duo of human predators. "The driver leant out, still in his seat, and silently pointed a revolver at me -- the long sort, carried by Russian policemen." Her reactions to both, are classic Dervla moments, something you will come to love and appreciate as you read more of her wonderful books.
Erin Bedford, writer.