rhi reads

Wind on your face

Cherry blossoms like so many things in this world are fleeting. You can try and chase them, to time the day right. You can also just enjoy them while you have them.

I've had Hitching Rides With Buddha by Will Ferguson for a while. The pages, when I actually sat down to read them, were fleeting. They passed quickly. Now it's over. I've finished this book and since I rarely re-read books I doubt I'll be back round this way.

I did very much enjoy this book. It was as easy to read as it was to misplace. It did not sit safely on a shelf. It is much underlined.

It's the type of book that reminds me of why I wanted to be a writer in the first place and why I am working on a travel book of my own. I've always loved travel writing — basically since I first encountered it in junior high or high school. It was what I wanted to do when I grew up.

I've been making progress on things. Feeling a bit better while also trying to make peace with the fact that I might feel kind of crappy from now on. I have three big goals for the end of August and I am on my way to achieving each of them.

This book is another lesson on getting stuff done. I spend a lot more time thinking about the thing and not doing it than actually doing it.

Sure actually dealing with my poor file choices made over a decade is a lot of work. Sure editing a book is a lot of work. Mostly I just feel overwhelmed or tired and make excuses not to deal with it.

Yesterday I went to a cute cafe, now with easel because of back pain, and edited my book. It could be good. I come off as being really anxious. Really anxious. I guess I am a lot of the time. It also has some of my Rhi humour at moments.

I'm glad I'm doing it. In high school a book, like the one I just read, was to me the greatest thing a human could achieve. You get there by doing it. Bit by bit. By actually doing it. Making the time, instead of the excuses.

It's nice to have these crisp and fantastic sentences to remind me of why I'm doing this in the first place.

I've been reading this book for years

I've been reading this book for years. Literally years.

Not that it's a bad book. It just keeps getting left behind or misplaced.

I leave it behind in a pile when I move to another country. It gets kicked deep underneath the bed and I don't retrieve it for six months.

It's taken a long time. I lack focus. i am easily distracted. I am reading too many books at once and not finishing any of them.

I am here, then there. Stuff gets lost and left behind.

Now it's almost over.

It feels wrong in a way for it to end like this. Me reading, easily coasting through the pages. Because he's good. So damn good. And it's the type of book I love.

It's a good book and I probably should've treated it better.

I'm tempted to read something else and save the last ten pages for tomorrow.

Tonight, lying in bed, unable to sleep as I have been so much lately doesn't seem right. It's not what I want to be doing and the book competes with all these other thoughts. Why can't I sleep? How can I function and be happy if I can't sleep? I'll be tired tomorrow, the kind of tiredness that permeates your soul. The kind of tiredness that I'd hoped to shed by now but that I am still carrying around saying it gets better, it'll go away. But when?

Maybe I should just finish the book. Do something useful with this extra time that I have.

You can get a lot done when you can't sleep.

It's satisfying to finish tasks, to check things off lists, to feel like you've accomplished something. These to-dos and things you've started but never finished hang over you like piles of books you started and really do intend to one day finish.

Hill walking

After various trials and tribulations — the book disappeared under my bed for a while and is suitably water damaged — I have finally finished Beyond Belfast by Will Ferguson. I read it because he's good at travel writing, which is something I'd like to be good at and enjoy reading, and because he's from Calgary and we all need some yyccon in our lives.

He's great at descriptions and does lots of things I need to work on. His adventures never feel like a laundry list. They just move. My manuscript doesn't always do that very well.

The last bit of the book brought me back to Scotland and why I'd been drawn there. It made me want to wander over hills and get lost in the rain. It reminded me of the endless draw of long-distance hiking, something I'd like to do but am not sure I am well-suited to — something something bad knees, ankles and back. I now feel like hoping on a plane and going to explore for a while, something that feels more natural to me than slogging through trying to find work even though I'm both underqualified or overqualified for basically every job I could do.

It ties into that what am I doing here? How am I going to pay rent? Where do I belong? Nowhere and everywhere voice.

I want to find my place. I thought it was here but it doesn't feel like it is. So then where? The hills, the trees, somewhere else.

Then there's the end. A bittersweet end as he searches for his origins, how his Irish grandfather came to Canada and he ended up here. The same sentiment led me to Scotland where I lived a couple of blocks from a street that bears the name of one of my family lines, a place where I felt very much at home, a place that I felt so very connected to. A story so many Canadians have.

Zeitoun: What I learned from my religious studies minor

I have been reading Zeitoun by Dave Eggers and part of the book is about what it is like for an American woman to convert to Islam—I imagine that converting would be confusing and require a lot of bravery, especially given a lot of people’s conceptions. There is a section that discusses her first impression after converting:

There were so many basic things that defied her presumptions. She’d assumed that Muslims were a monolithic group, and that all Muslims were made of the same devout and unbending stock. Bust she learned that there were Shiite and Sunni interpretations of the Qur’an, and within any mosque there were the same variations in faith and commitment as there were in any church. There were Muslims who treated their faith lightly, and those who knew every word of the Qur’an and its companion guide to behavior, the Hadith. There were Muslims who knew almost nothing about their religion, who worshiped a few times a year, and those who obeyed the strictest interpretation of their faith. There were Muslim women who wore T-shirts and jeans and Muslim women who covered themselves head to toe. There were Muslim men who modeled their lives on the life of the Prophet, and those who strayed and fell short. There were passive Muslims, uncertain Muslims, borderline agnostic Muslims, devout Muslims, and Muslims who twisted the words of the Qur’an to suit their temporary desires and agendas. It was all very familiar, intrinsic to any faith.

I learned many things in my religious studies classes. I learned that there are two accounts of creation in The Bible, that reading Buddhist scripture is usually extremely dull, the Japanese word for no, about theodicy. The most important lesson was that religions are diverse. That they are rich and dynamic. That if someone was to ask me what do Buddhists believe I would ask them, which Buddhists? Eggers points out the important fact that Islam and Muslims are diverse. If you lump them all together then you run the risk of judging something people and a religious community for things that they don’t actually do or believe. I took my first religious studies class in large part because I knew nothing about religion. The more classes I took the more I learned about what Muslims and other religious groups actually believe, and the more I learned that the word Muslim casts a wide net over people who believe a diverse number of things, the more I learned that everything I thought I knew was wrong, the more I came to be open minded about religion and to respect the diversity of what faith can mean.

Small Japanese objects

Over the winter holidays my mother bought a book called The Hare with the Amber Eyes. The cover didn’t look particularly striking — it is good but not buy me good — so I didn’t really take note of it until she insisted that I read it, and after her good recommendation/pushiness on reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night I thought why not. Why not indeed.

At first the book appears to be about some small Japanese objects that de Waal inherits from his uncle. Then it becomes about so much more. The inheritance is traced back to the roots of de Waal’s family, a group of wealthy Russian Jewish bankers that spread throughout Europe. They enjoy their hay day, then they decline a little, then they are caught in the tragedy of Nazism.

de Waal is a potter by training and clearly has a high appreciation for objects. This is not just about the objects, otherwise it would be about art history, but about his family, and why these particular objects are so important. It is about his ancestors and why people cherish objects.

Reading it reminds me of the feeling I had while in the Scottish highlands, and learning about the clearings and conditions of every day people. Many of them left for the new world because of that and that is my inheritance. I live where I do because events long (or not so long) ago took place. de Waal is keenly aware of how his ancestors have shaped his family history and how different events led them to where they are today.

More so than that the book is a fascinating story, first of nineteenth century Paris, then the first world war and the great depression, then the overwhelming sadness of lives ripped apart by the Nazi genocide and the family members who didn’t manage to make it out, the ones who just barely did, then a move to Japan and a beloved ancestor and his collection of objects, which are really a collection of memories and the heritage of a once great Jewish banking family.

de Waal is gifted with words, and could easily give up pottery if he wanted to. This is the best non-fiction I’ve read since Maya Angelou. de Waal makes things simple but yet so meaningful. He carefully chooses words and adjectives. It is objective, but also personal. How could it be any other way?

Tokyo can be very quiet. I once sat waiting for them to come home, sitting on the low green railing opposite, and in an hour only two old ladies came past and a hopeful yellow taxi.

It works because the taxi is hopeful. What a perfectly chosen word. He leaves you with a feeling of the simplicity of everyday life, of details, of objects but also with a greater thread of how complex the world can be. There is more than meets the eye. There are broader questions at hand.

This book is sheer magic. I read it in about two days. I was left with no choice but to keep reading.

All the books

I love those lists in the backs of books, you know the ones that list other books from the publisher. There is something so magical about them. They are all the books you could or should or would read, the same way Lonely Planet travel books list all the places you should go before you die. It is easy for your mind to wander off and create a future you reading or doing these things, You could read the Unberable Lightness of Being or the Bell Jar. You can picture it. On a beach or in the time you might spend studying. They are always classic, and they always inevitably make you wish you had read the, or fell like you should read them. You could be that person who has read all the classics. It is easy to create this magical, perfect, smarter, more cultured you.

Then there is the wall. There is the moment when you realize that you have enough trouble finishing the book you are already on, or that you found Sylvia Plath whiny. You are you. You are reading this book. You are not at the beach. Back to your book. Although, perhaps afterwards there will be time for some self-improvement.

Crossing over: Eat Pray Love review

A friend made fun of me for reading Eat Pray Love. Apparently it was made into a movie a few years back and no one takes it seriously. Or maybe it is the title. Regardless, the book is right up my alley. I found it resting on the shelf above the fireplace that makes up the book exchange at my local coffee shop and decided to take it home because I had watched a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert and found it interesting. This was the extent of my decision-making. I also enjoyed the first ten pages.

In many ways this is the type of book I love. It is a travelogue and a memoir, two words that sum up ninety per cent of the books I’ve read and liked in the past two years. It is exactly the type of book that I imagine one day wanting to write. Gilbert is the type of person that I can imagine myself wanting to be.

The first and last section of the book are excellent. They are tales of an expat in a new culture, settling down, making friends and having adventures. Gilbert is also stingingly honest about topics that usually go untouched like depression, divorce, love, and masturbation. She talks about the easy things like pasta and attractive boys but also the parts that usually make us uncomfortable. Honesty is essential to good memoir. This is a year of her life, on a platter. Learn what you will.

The only part I don’t like is the pray part. I don’t identify with her devotion. I am not a spiritual person and admire her journey and want to move to an ashram in India for parts but don’t dig it. I could go to Borobudur and admire the beauty of the architecture but I will never be moved to believe. As a result the middle section drags. I keep reading knowing that if I stick it out Indonesia will be more like Italy. I guess I am more of an eat and love type.

I am rewarded with tales of a complicated Island and the friends she makes. I can identify with the calmness and balance she is seeking. I can see the value of meditation, although I will only ever do yoga because it is a great workout not because I find anything in the theology behind it.

So it goes

I have been told for several years by several friends that I must read Kurt Vonnegut so last summer while wandering through a bookstore killing time before meeting someone — I had forgotten to bring a book, an unenviable situation to be in — I decided to pick up a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five, a logical place to start.

The first chapter, which is really more of an introduction did not live up to the hype so I left it sitting on the shelf for nearly a year. Once I got past the first chapter, which is only like the last chapter — introductions and conclusions that bookendSlaughterhouse-Five— I began to see what they were talking about. From the second chapter onwards Vonnegut carries you away in his third person narrative. The writing is vivid and well tied together with certain themes coming up again and again, and often where you least expect them.

I was not expecting a book about the firebombing of Dresden to also contain time travel and alien planets but Vonnegut pulls it off nicely. The time travel pulls the narrative together. The events are not random, instead they tie into one another as you slowly learn more and more details. Non-linear narratives can often leave you confused or irritated but this does not happen with Vonnegut.

This book was about Vonnegut’s experiences in WWII and was a means of coming to terms with those. You get a feel for his attitudes towards the destruction and how numb war can make people. The main character Billy Pilgrim becomes progressively more detached from the world and the death in the war. This is also the account of Pilgrim’s life including events from when he was quite young, as a student, as a soldier and later on in life. Piece by piece, time travel by time travel you get a thorough picture of Billy Pilgrim’s life. So it goes.

What’s the deal with that place, anyway: How to understand Israel in 206 pages or less

The Israeli-Palestinian situation is confusing from the outside and it seems just as complicated from the inside. How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden is about her Birthright Isreal trip — I am a little jealous that only Jews get free trips to Israel. For Glidden the situation is complex and emotional. She feels ties to it as a result of her religious background and family members who live there, but also has strong pro-Palestinian feelings. How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less follows her emotions as she goes through the country and tries to decide how she feels.

Glidden’s narrative is compelling and entertaining. This has all the elements of a good travelogue. It has ups and down, sites seen, and with the added bonus of a uncertain personal relationship to the place being visited.

“Well I didn’t get ‘flagged’ but he did make me think about junior high school. I think that may be worse.”

You get a feel for her personality and the emotional roller coaster of the trip. She wants so badly to understand the situation and did thorough research before the trip — if you are looking for a good background read Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert is excellent and at nearly a thousand pages it gives you lots of information. However, the actual experience of Israel and the Birthright tour, which she is highly suspicious of, is another side to it.

“Much of Israel is disappointed in us for following in the footsteps of other kibbutzim that have given up the old way of life, but they are just nostalgic for another Israel that exists in the past and which they were never a part of. For us, this is real life.”

Glidden is a talented illustrator and her drawings/watercolours are beautiful. The book is worth reading for these alone. Her illustrations are like those of A Year in Japan by Kate Williamson. Like any good graphic novel the images are a part of the story and not only that they make it better. The words and images combine to tell a story that Will Eisner would be proud of.

In the end the conclusion is she doesn’t know exactly how to feel, or in other words it’s complicated. Often times the more you learn about a subject the less straightforward it is. How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less is a good first step for those wishing to see the complexity of the situation, have a more informed opinion, or just read a good graphic novel.

On the Beauty of John Steinbeck

I am often given a hard time for my taste in fiction. When you tell people that you are a fan of Hemingway or Steinbeck they usually brush your taste off in one word: Depressing. There is some truth to this claim. For example while defending my choice of Cannery Row for some fun light reading it occurred to me that two people commit suicide in the first sixteen pages. And yes, many Hemingway novels end with one character dying and the rest being miserable. However, I do not read these books for their endings — especially notThe Grapes of Wrath.

It is everything leading up to that. It is character, narrative and world class story telling that makes these writers great. Steinbeck was at his best in Tortilla Flatwhere he transports you into a new world and makes you feel very much a part of it. In Cannery Row you are whisked away into the wonderful world of a small town in California. You are introduced to different characters and social groups. If anything this is a portrait of a way of life. Much like Will Eisener’s writing on being Jewish and living in New York City tenements were about people, neighbourhoods and what it was like in a certain time at a certain place. These are stories at their best. They briefly take you away to another world.

This can be seen in the so-called in-between chapters in The Grapes of Wrathwhich detail the landscape and times, and not the main characters. They provide context and they give the impression of a living, breathing, vibrant way of life. In Cannery Row Steinbeck writes, “Early morning is a time of magic in Cannery Row. In the gray time after the light has come and before the sun has risen, the Row seems to hang suspended out of time in a silvery light. The street lights go out, and the weeds are a brilliant green.” Much like for Eisner the city itself is a character worthy of development and attention. Our cities, our neighbourhoods and the buildings we live and work in shape us. Few authors understand this as well as Steinbeck does.

Cannery Row is one of Steinbeck’s more lighthearted novels (unlike Of Mice and Men or The Winter of Our Discontent). Similar to Tortilla Flats it includes a group of guys who are generally unemployed but always up for a good time. He writes, “Two hours later they recalled what they had come for.” Steinbeck uses wit and laid back characters that through the third-person narrator seem to accept whatever fate comes their way.