Thursday, 4 December 2008

The literary leanings of Omi

I want to write. I sit here and wait for something to happen, for my mind to release an image or even a word like a tiny fish through a hole in net. But there is nothing tonight.

Omi called last night to report she enjoyed the latest book I read for her on tape. For anyone who is not familiar with my glorious grandmother, she is a small German woman with a deep love of stories but almost no eyesight. Over the past several years I have managed to be organized enough to read three books onto tape for her. The first was Cougar Annie’s Garden, a beautiful non-fiction account of a diminutive, tough-as-nails pioneer woman on Vancouver Island’s West Coast (Hesquiaht Harbour). Rumoured to have murdered at least one of her four husbands, Cougar Annie was known for her ability, despite encroaching old age and failing eyesight, to aim her rifle by the light of a oil lamp. I wouldn’t have liked to do business with her (she often knowingly sold rotten eggs) or to have her as my mother (I’m going out to the garden; I’ll just tie you to this chair for the next three hours…) but overall she is my kind of woman. Cougar Annie died in 1985 but her garden is kept beautifully and the public is welcome. It is one of those mysterious places I regret not visiting while I lived in Tofino.

The next book was Finding Home: A war-child’s journey to Peace by Frank Oberle, who was the Member of Parliament for the Peace River area of B.C. for many years. Born in Germany, Frank is close in age to Omi and his book remains one of her favourites. The way he describes his childhood experiences during the war, from bouts of terrible hunger to unexpected friendships or scenes of terrible sadness (I remember one scene when he is a boy on a train, and a woman on the train is holding her dead baby. No one can console her, ease her pain, and finally when the train slows she runs off into the winter wasteland. Everyone knows she will likely die out there but no one tries to stop her). I think Omi loved this because so much of it was familiar to her, including Frank’s experience as a young immigrant to Canada who worked at everything from mining to remote bush logging to provide for his family. Omi likes stories about people who carve a new life out of the tatters of an old one.

The latest one was by a Scottish author: Findings by Kathleen Jamie, a nature writer living in Orkney. I had bought it for Craig a while ago but never read it through before I bought it again and started to read it for Omi. I have a terrible habit of not reading the books before I hit record. Part of me is too lazy and the other part likes that we can both be surprised. However there were a few bits (in what I thought was going to be a quaint nature journey), that made me think, “she is going to hate this.” One chapter focused entirely on Jamie’s trip to the Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh. Now I loved it but I feared that detailed descriptions of limbs and foetuses in jars may not be to my grandmother’s taste. But as it turns out she gave the book the thumbs up. She did not however care for the bits by J.A. Baker (author of the best nature writing I have ever read), which I added at the end to fill up the tape. This is because Baker is all about description and provides very little in the way of plot. It is night…he describes the world. The sun rises…he describes the world. The day passes…he describes the world. Sometimes he hides in the thicket so he doesn't have to talk to people. And so on.

Omi gets heaps of books from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind but they don’t always have the kinds of books she is after. She doesn’t like books with “so much violence and dirty sex.” Also, if the reader has an English or another, non-North American accent, she finds it hard to understand and it ruins the pleasure of the story. During her call yesterday she graciously complimented me on how much I have improved as a reader. I'm starting to sound "professional" she said. Woo-hoo!

This time I’ve done something new and read to her a list of possible books for the next project. They are:
The Visitor by Maeve Brennan
St Agnes’ Stand by Thomas Edison
A Recipe for Bees by Gail Anderson-Dargatz (I don’t know about this one. The very first line is “Have I told you the drone’s penis snaps off during intercourse with the queen bee?”)
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kid
Nights in Rodanthe by Nicholas Sparks (not my kind of thing but it seemed like a nice romance - something Omi would enjoy)
And finally….the one I have a feeling she will choose:

A Map of Glass by Jane Urquart. I think she will pick this one because it is set in the Canadian wilderness.

Opa will phone in the next couple of days with Omi’s choice. And then I shall begin again, although it is getting hard to track down tapes (Omi and I are 5,000 miles apart but we have matching black tape decks.

In the meantime, a call for help from my creative wee clan of blog readers. Omi has a story idea that has been niggling her for years. She knows the outline of the plot but would like me to help her fill in the blubber of the thing. I say blubber because it is about a fisherman and three whales. A retired fisherman goes out each day on the ocean to putter and catch some fish. Three whales start following him and he develops a feeling of closeness with them. However the villagers where he lives hunt and kill one of the whales, after which, in his fury and grief, he puts a curse on the village and terrible things start to happen.

To me this sounds like it should be written as a fairy tale. But I am stuck when it comes to really shaping it. I don’t know if my “style” would benefit this story. I also feel unsure of myself with regard to knowledge of the ocean. Or perhaps I just don’t have the confidence in myself to think I could do her idea justice.

Any thoughts or feedback would be helpful. A suggested first line would be even better…

Before I go, I am happy to announce that lovely Lucy, the incredible woman I met in Stratford, has been made famous on Advanced Style, post from 3 December. I wish I had gotten her address; she would have been so chuffed.

AND… the lovely manboy is back in Scotland and freezing. Only four more sleeps before I can warm him up.


Jacqui said...

I'm going to give this the time it deserves and read it tomorrow night as I need to log off now - looking forward to it!

Greg B said...

I just went to the Vancouver launch of Margaret Horsfield's new book, Voices from the Sound--chronicles of Clayoquot Sound 1899-1929. (She's the dame who wrote Cougar Annie's Garden.)
Good on you for reading to your gram.

Jacqui said...

Anne Cougar obviously left a lot to be desired as a mother but from the things you've mentioned on your post she intrigues me and I too would like to know more. Not sure about the bee book for your Omi if she's not keen on sex stuff, on the other hand, she surprised you with the Surgeons Hall one so who knows.

Did you ever join a group who make recordinds of books and newspapers for the elderly who are blind or have poor eye sight? I ask because if not, a friend from work does voluntary work with such a group in Edinburgh, do you want me to find out more information?

I'll have a think re: the Whale story (it sounds great by the way) and I'll try and get back to you later on tonight or tomorrow evening (out most of tomorrow Christmas shopping / panicking!) with some thoughts.

I'm pleased that your Manboy is back to keep you company.

Have a great weekend.
Lots of love

Jacqui said...

Hello again. The writing below is the best that I can offer this evening, hopefully it will set off a train of thought or at least be instrumental in showing you how you don't want to approach this piece! :-)

"The day of my awakening was October 30th 1968. I will never forget it for it was the day that I came to realise the full and dreadful consequences of my actions. Prior to that day I never regretted the curse. Foolishly I had cast myself in the light of some kind of Messiah, the chosen one who had a responsibility to punish those who abused their position on Earth. In my role of Supreme Being I felt protected and empowered but when Elspeths baby…"

Purest Green said...

Lovely J -

Thanks for this. I do like the name Elspeth, and it has given me the idea of a Something Wicked this Way Comes edge to things. But not too dark because she wouldn't like that.
Oh, and I would love the name of the organization where your friend volunteered.

Jacqui said...

Fabulous! I'll speak with Cat on Monday and get more information for you re: the organization.