Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Happy Birthday, EB!

"When I am reading a book, whether wise or silly, it seems to be alive and talking to me."
- Anton Chekhov

Follow-up to last week's library treasures. Rather than burble on about what a great haul it was, I'll get straight to the point:

1. The Frozen Thames, by Helen Humphreys, is an enchanting collection of forty vignettes, one written for each time the River Thames has frozen since 1142. I'm a big fan of the vignette, and quite enjoy writing really short fiction. Just because it's small, doesn't mean it's easy; in fact, the reverse is true. It's a terrific challenge, conveying a lot of meaning in few words, and Helen Humphreys' virtuosity lies in not only her doing so, but in painting vivid characters and scenes with a poet's touch. It's a great book, and beautifully illustrated. A cautionary tale about the importance of ice in the world.

2. Elizabeth Zimmermann is my new best friend. Her Knitting Without Tears is at once pithy, wise, and informative; in fact, it's downright inspiring. Her premise that human beings are built to accommodate a series of tubes, therefore eliminating the need for purl stitch and sewing seams (to do with knitting on circular needles, hooray!), has stolen my heart. EZ has me convinced that, not only can I knit a sweater that will actually fit the person it's intended for, but that I can also knit a pair of socks. And believe me, that takes some doing! Too often I have gazed longingly at a pattern and, long before the halfway mark, been utterly defeated by it. Thanks to my new best friend, there's hope for the chilly feet around here.

3. I am in awe of Elizabeth Bishop's writing, since reading her Collected Prose. Her short story, In the Village, is as moving and perfect a work as any I have ever read, played, listened to, or looked at, and it had the same effect as any masterpiece of any genre. There are images and emotions that simply will not leave me, nor do I particularly want them to.

At the Elizabeth Bishop Birthday Bash on Sunday I closed my eyes and listened, enraptured, as people took turns reading her poetry. I shall certainly seek it out, especially her poem, Sandpiper. If the Elizabeth Bishop Society newsletter is anything to go by (and it is), the publication of EB's 2008 Library of America volume Poems, Prose, and Letters (2008) is something for readers to celebrate. In addition to being a first-rate poet and prose writer, EB is touted as one of the greatest letter-writers of the twentieth century. This alone makes me put the new volume at the top of my birthday wish list. The wait-time on the library reserve list is far too long for my impatient heart.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Library Treasures

All my life I have lived and behaved very much like the sandpiper - just running down the edges of different countries and continents, 'looking for something'."
- Elizabeth Bishop

Today's trip to the library turned up three lovely books:

1. The Frozen Thames, by Helen Humphreys: follow-up to three novels of hers* I devoured last month in quick succession. This is a small book, a hardcover chopped in half, which is kind of enticing. Even more enticing is the jacket blurb:

"...forty vignettes based on events that actually took place each time the river froze between 1142 and 1895. Humphrey's achingly beautiful prose acts like a photograph, capturing a moment and etching it forever on our imaginations."

It's true of Humphreys' prose. She has the poet's way with words, an ability to combine them in such a way that will rip your heart out or feed an image you never thought could be adequately described. Can't wait to get started.

2. Knitting Without Tears, by Elizabeth Zimmerman. How appealing a title is that? I've been hearing about EZ for years, and have only recently taken it in that her approach to knitting is rather organic; in other words, her patterns are more like recipes that require you to use your wits and trust your own good sense as you go - kind of like writing fiction.

The jacket blurb refers to EZ's wit and good humour, which is abundant in her introduction, The Opinionated Knitter:

"Really, all you need to become a good knitter are wool, needles, hands, and slightly below-average intelligence. Of course superior intelligence, such as yours and mine, is an advantage." Have already started reading and chuckling.

3. Elizabeth Bishop: The Collected Prose. A poet friend, who is a leading Bishop scholar, has recently infected me with her enthusiasm for EB. She has recited for me a few lines of EB's poetry, which caught my ear and my imagination. My friend has invited me to this weekend's Elizabeth Bishop Birthday Bash at our local Writers' Federation office. There will be readings, cake, and prizes for best costumes based on EB's writings. Last year's winner was costumed as a thunder and lightning storm, which I think is just great.

Where I've never read any of Bishop's work, I figure I ought to do a little homework. The book was on reserve for a few weeks, so it comes in the nick of time. I'm especially looking forward to reading her short story, "In the Village," which the jacket blurb tells me is "...an extraordinary account of a Nova Scotia childhood." It appeared in the New Yorker, as did three of her eight published stories. I can't wait to get started.

A Helen and two Elizabeths, all of them fascinating and fine writers.

Did I mention... I can't wait to get started.

*Coventry, Afterimage, and Leaving Earth