Saturday, April 23, 2011

Book #45: Solitude and Self-Invention

"I heard for the first time his voice, reciting his poems into a lacquered tin funnel as if into the ear of a stranger....  I felt there was something in the articulated voice that suggested a wound, the way one can sometimes recognize a concealed ailment in the slow movement of a king in newsreels."
                                                                                                    -Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero

A few days ago, I finished the final revisions to my memoir and handed the manuscript over to my publisher with a rush of excitement and something else... strangely akin to sadness.  When I ran into a friend of mine at a book launch the following evening, he assured me that this is quite normal - many writers experience "postpartum blues" after finishing a book.  The only cure, he said with an ironic smile, is to throw yourself into another book.

In a little while, I'd like to go back to working on the historical novel I started thinking and dreaming about and writing (in a very preliminary way) last summer.  But I don't feel ready to throw myself into that book just yet.  My mind needs time to recalibrate.  So over the past couple days, I've found myself just reading and reading, immersing myself in my favourite novels with a concentration I haven't had for simply reading in quite a while.  While in the final stages of revising my manuscript, I'd made the mistake of picking up Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero.  This is not the novel to read if you're looking for light diversion, I soon realized.  Ondaatje's experiments with style and genre and the sheer number of unique characters he introduces are too intricate to follow for the distracted mind.  So I'd put the book aside, intent on coming back to it as soon as I'd finished my own writing.

What is it about these characters that I find so alluring?  Children of the California landscape, they come from mysterious backgrounds and their relationships to each other are ambiguous, shifting with the winds.  Coop, Anna and Claire form a peculiar, improvised sibline: orphaned as a young kid after his parents were bludgeoned by the hired man, Coop was adopted by Anna's father, who also adopted Claire after her mother died in childbirth.  But since brother and sister are not truly brother and sister, an illicit desire takes root between Coop and Anna - leading to his violent expulsion from the family in a gruesome scene involving a fragment of glass. 

Without recognizable origins or family pasts, these characters are cut adrift and forced to invent themselves from moment to moment through acts of artistry and deception that yield a deeper truth.  When Anna claims at one point that she comes from Divisadero Street - a street in San Francisco named after the Spanish word for "division" - we know that on a literal level she is lying.  Yet her words do have significance.  For her identity has been severed from her past so violently that she is left in a state of free fall....  Literature becomes her only refuge, like a surrogate family, and what reader can't relate to that?  After becoming a scholar of French literature, Anna devotes her life to studying the enigmatic writer, Lucien Segura, whose voice reminded her of a wound, when she first stumbled across an old recording of him.  His life overtakes her imagination in the sprawling second half of the novel, where the parallels in his own ruptured love life come to light, creating the sense of a strange connection between scholar/reader and writer - both are caught up in some archetypal dance. 

Having just finished exploring and writing about my own relationship to the novelists who have long haunted my imagination, I found this section of Ondaatje's novel particularly intriguing.  I feel as though I could reread it many times and always take away a new insight about how literature shapes life and vice versa.

Photo from: here

Friday, April 15, 2011

Book #44: Looking Back on Thoreau, One Year Later

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life….”
                                                                                          -Henry David Thoreau, Walden

It’s amazing how much my outlook on life has changed since I started this blog almost a year ago. My aim was simple: I wanted to blog about the books that have uplifted and inspired and occasionally infuriated me – particularly at crisis points in my life. I wanted to explore how reading has pulled me through some really difficult times – my career change, my search for love, my grandmother’s death, which unearthed some dark family secrets – and most importantly, I wanted to share my experiences with a community of avid readers, rather than erudite scholars.

When I moved back to Toronto a few years ago, I was walking away from the only world I’d known for the past twelve years – the Ivory Tower. After two years as an English prof in small town Nova Scotia, I’d had a breakdown and burnt out for a variety of reasons, including a couple of bad love affairs, academic politics, and the humiliation of having some students name me “The Worst Professor Ever” on the worldwide web, to name just a few of my troubles. And worst of all, after my three degrees, I’d somehow lost along the way my love of literature. That was what I wanted back most badly. My childhood love of reading and writing.

As I go back and reread my first post on Thoreau from a year ago (you can read it here), I’m struck by how much happier I am now. That post was based on musings in a notebook I’d kept while at the depths of my misery as a professor, so my amazement in looking back is doubly refracted through my remembrance of the “me” I was a year ago and the “me” I was three years ago, as I stared out my university office window at a beautiful, bucolic landscape and could see nothing but my own entrapment in the wilds of nowhere…. At the time, I’d been reading and teaching a lot of Thoreau, and it incensed me that his grand vision of Nature did not, through my depressed eyes, live up to expectation. And his snobbish view that the “works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them” rankled me – it was precisely this view of reading-as-the-art-form-of-the-elite-few that I so desperately wanted to get away from.

Funny how my impression of a text always has so much to do with my mood.

Over the past week, I’ve been rereading Walden, as I put the finishing touches on my own memoir, The Reading List: Literature, Love and Back Again, being published this fall (something else that's making me happy these days....  Not that I'm not still prone to bouts of bluesiness and depression). This time around, I met a different Thoreau, one whose bedraggled beard and constant, poignant searching for some deeper meaning to life filled me with sympathy. What reader isn’t hoping to find some marvelous, inspiring insight springing from the world of literature, lifting her above the drudgery of everyday life? This way of reading isn’t only for the elite few, I see now – it’s for readers as diverse as me and Thoreau.

Photo from: here

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Book #43: Reading Yourself Into a New Life

"She knew she was going to have trouble believing in herself, in the room of her house, and when she glanced over at this new book on her nightstand, stacked atop the one she finished last night, she reached for it automatically, as if reading were the singular and obvious first task of the day, the only viable way to negotiate the transit from sleep to obligation."
                                                                                -Michael Cunningham, The Hours
What a week.  I have been run off my feet at my day job.  And at night, I have been stressed - exhilaratingly stressed - finishing off the edits to my book in time for my agent to take it to the London Book Fair.  Now that my book is finished (or finished at least until my friend, Diane, another writer, finishes giving it her final read through, for tweaking), I don't know what to do with myself.  Last night, I indulged in my first cigarette in months and also began reading The Hourswhich I've been meaning to read ever since I saw the movie years ago. 

While watching the film, I recall identifying most closely with Clarissa (Meryl Streep), but upon reading the novel, it's a different character, Laura Brown, who pulls at my sympathies most urgently.  The avid reader, the repressed housewife.  She's the one whose story beckons to my imagination and lets me see shades of my own former miserable self and uplifts me in surprising ways.  Laura Brown literally reads her way into another life - gradually, at first, as the simple tasks of caring for her son and baking a cake for her husband's birthday compete with the illicit pleasure of reading Mrs. Dalloway, a novel that she strangely, exquisitely, identifies with, even as it illuminates her own stifled condition.  Although it first seems she's simply reading for escape, just the opposite ends up being true.  Reading Mrs. Dalloway pushes Laura to change her life in frightening, unthinkable ways.  And as I'm reading, I find myself remembering the moment in my own life when reading so transformed me.

It was six years ago, the year I'd moved to Berlin.  I was in the second to last year of my Ph.D., and I was supposed to be immersed in my dissertation, writing five to ten pages at Staatsbibliothek every day.  But the temptation of being a flaneuse in Berlin's graffiti-filled streets - touring the makeshift galleries and experimental music venues and clandestine bookstores - was simply too great.  The grand theoretical intervention that my dissertation was supposed to be making melted away, and I remember the illicit rush of thinking, Screw it, I'm just reading for fun today.  The first book I picked up was Accidents in the House by Tessa Hadley.  I remember its black cover very clearly.  It's a collection of linked short stories about a group of people, primarily women, and by the end of the book their fates have reversed in ironic, inspiring ways.  The story stayed with me and my desire to read for pure pleasure, too.  A dangerous drug.

Although I did eventually plough through my dissertation, I could never truly envision myself as a professor after I'd read that book, after I'd allowed myself that momentary freedom.  And a few years later, I walked away from my life in a small university town, heading for some unforeseeable future. 

Photo from: here


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.