One of the things that has always puzzled me about the book buying public is its tendency to squawk about the price of a book. This has bothered me since I first started buying my own books. Of all the things I have ever spent money on, books seem to me to be a bargain, a steal. I would willingly pay much more than I've paid for any of the books I've bought. I'm one of those people who immediately plops down full price for a book by a favourite author as soon as the book is available. I have a possibly misplaced belief that I am supporting the author, the publisher, the bricks and mortar book seller and that I am investing in this industry so that I will always be able to walk into a bookstore and buy a book of MY choosing. This is even though I know the book I just bought will be 40% off at Chapter's before I even get to reading it. Even though I know I could get it from Amazon for much cheaper (I have never bought a book from Amazon and I never intend to.) Even though I already own more books than I will ever read in my lifetime (although I fully intend to read every book I buy.) As far as I am concerned, every book I've bought has been a precious work of art. The author, for sure, and, I hope, every other person responsible for bringing the book into being has sweated and bled and lovingly, painstakingly created this new thing. And we get it for, what? Twenty or thirty dollars!
I like all of my books, read and unread, but every once in a rare while a book comes into my hands that is perfect in every way and provides me with the most exquisite of experiences from the time I first see it to forever really. When I touch it, hold it, read it, re-read it, remember it, think about it. Sometimes I really do think I've stolen it for a mere twenty or thirty dollars.
I can't even adequately explain what gives such a book that perfect experience for me. I remember now a dozen or so years later my experience with Mother of Sorrows by Richard McCann. Despite not knowing this author at all, despite his being American (when I spend money on a book I prefer it to be Canadian), despite not being overly enamored by the cover art and not being much interested in so-called "gay and lesbian" literature, I knew as soon as I held this book in my hands that it was going to be a perfect book. And it was.
Just as I knew from the moment I saw Winter Wren, on-line no less, not even in my hands,that it too would bring me an exquisite reading experience. And it did.
You can have this book for $18.00! As I am writing this review I have a package of cigarettes beside me that cost almost as much. I am smoking them. They'll be gone in a day or two having wrecked havoc on my body and health, but Winter Wren has nourished my mind and soul and it will continue to do so every time I look at it, remember it, think about it.
---to be continued ---
August 21, 2016
Okay, I wrote those previous paragraphs immediately after reading Winter Wren. I stopped writing when I realized I was gushing like a love-struck teenager and likely nobody would take this review seriously. I'm not a teenager. I'm over 60 years old. I've read more than a few books and I wanted this review of Winter Wren to be taken seriously. I wanted to take it seriously. So I let things sit for a bit and I read the book again after four or five others. So now what do I think?
Just picking up the book again made me smile. The cover art is beautiful to look at. I'd frame that cover and hang it on my wall but it's smooth and sensuous to the touch. So I won't put it behind glass. The book is smallish and fits perfectly in your hand. As an object it is lovely.
The sketch of the wren on the cover immediately reminded me of a word I'd had to look up when i was reading. A word I thought i knew the meaning of but hadn't. Troglodytes. And I am immediately back in the story.
My second reading of the book was much faster than the first. This is because the author made me work a bit the first time. That was surprising to me. I had previously read Kishkan's novel, Sisters of Grass, and had breezed through it like wind through a prairie wheat field. Although the setting of that novel, the Nicola Valley in B.C., was unknown to me, the author's description of it brought me to that place, made it as real to me as if I had lived there all my life. I could see, hear, smell, taste and feel her Nicola Valley.
Frankly, I was expecting and wanting the same from Winter Wren. I wanted to experience the new-to-me settings (France and the B.C west coast) as fully as I had Nicola Valley. In fact, I was determined to. Trouble was, I've never been to France and only briefly to the west coast. I don't know their vocabulary. Worse, I don't know wine. I'm a fish out of water when it comes to art and classical music. I don't know pottery or painting. And so it was that from the very first sentence, when I had no idea what salal was, I was Googling, not only words (salal, mas, and troglodytes) but Melchior Lorck's tortoise, Bach's Partita in A Minor, and Joan Baez's cover of Bob Dylan's Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands; west coast villages of Klukwan and Tanu; and niches in mortuary poles. A more worldly reader than I might know all about these things, and not have to research. To that person I'd say do it anyway. Play the Bourree Anglaise when you get to it.
All of that "work", my investment in Kishkan's story, added so much to my enjoyment of it. It made me appreciate her talent for creating whole, fully-lived, experiences in just a few words or sentences. And, truth be told, most I did not have to work for. I knew that beach with its shorebirds "pick[ing] their way among the deritrus at the high tide line, that long black scribble punctuated by white shells and orange crab claws." I've been to that pub with its fried onions and burnt coffee where a lone 59 year-old woman is invisible to the local burly men joking about tits and pussy; been on that bush road with its muttering ravens, lumbering bear and its scat, the smell of which "[hangs] in the air like rancid oil." And I'll admit it, I know lime jello with grated carrot, hash brownies, and sex in a pan. Nope, not in Paris anymore.
What is a novella anyway? Is it just a short novel? This book is a mere 138 pages (more like 130 really; it starts on page 9.) And, the story is simple. A Canadian born artist living in France breaks up with her longtime but married lover. She returns to Canada to bury her mother and decides to stay. She buys a cabin on the west coast of Canada, befriends its previous elderly owner and forms a relationship with a local potter. Pretty straightforward really. You could tell such a story in 130 pages. But for me this novella was huge.
Because, not only did I find all that I had been hoping for, those wonderful sensory experiences of place characteristic of Sisters of Grass, I also found those weightier things that make a book truly memorable, those big questions that make us ponder and think long after we're done reading. Questions without, perhaps, universally correct answers. The propriety of taking and preserving others' sacred objects for historical/educational purposes; the inevitability of death and what we do with our life in the meantime; and that alien-to-me thing called art. I know diddly about oil or charcoal or watercolour or colours or wash. I know less about clay and silica and ash. But this book made them fascinating. My favourite sentiment is expressed by Grace about Andy's pots: "in her worst moments, she didn't believe that humans deserved the planet. But it was reassuring to know that someone, somewhere was making things, with care and intelligence, which he hoped would survive."
My sentiments exactly about Theresa Kishkan and Anik See's new press, Fish Gotta Swim Editions. I am so happy to have it's very first offering.