The brotherhood of the sisterless

Cover of HousekeepingI don’t have a sister. Instead I am the grown-up equivalent of all those children who create imaginary friends – I have an imaginary sister. Talented in ways I can only dream of, she is, however, as bewildered by bridge as I am and amazingly, she’s much worse at ball sports. She lives on a rambling estate with a retreat that offers exotic beauty treatments and delicious food. As you can see I have given this a fair bit of thought.

Normally my sisterless state doesn’t bug me at all, but when I read good books where sisters feature, I feel a little pool of loss.  Pulitzer prizewinning author Marilynne Robinson’s book Housekeeping (a book with a terribly misleading title and cover – way to go Mr Publisher) is one such book. Listed by The Observer as one of the 100 greatest novels of all time, this little book is that rare thing: totally readable literature.

In the spirit of sisterhood, I asked those friends of mine who have female siblings to tell me of any novels that they felt really got to the heart of this sister thing. Here are some of their choices:

But the Big Question for me remains: What’s the difference between a really good friend and a sister?  And where is the book that has this as a theme?

I bet my imaginary sister would know.

Lloyd Jones catches up to history

Cover of A history of silenceWhat is the best result for a writer when they talk?
That everyone wants to read your book, if they haven’t already. By that count, Lloyd Jones’ talk last night was a big winner.  Everyone who went to The Press Christchurch Writers Festival event at the Christchurch Arts Festival will be gagging to get a copy.

“I’m not fresh from the premiere of Mister Pip – I’m exhausted” said Lloyd as Morrin Rout introduced him and the crowd applauded.  But he wasn’t talking about that popular book, he was speaking about “a book I never anticipated ever writing” – his memoir A history of silence. I liked his definition of a memoir as “reoccupying the lived life”.

His first reading was about his early struggles with speech, and a time he saw artist Martin Creed struggle to deliver a speech. He discovered that “the presentation of self was a performance”.

Lloyd admitted the Christchurch earthquakes were the trigger for writing this book. The “wilful forgetting” and “misunderstood foundations” of our city were echoed in his family. The earthquake gave him a language. The dismantling and reassembling of the city’s heritage became a useful metaphor for dismantling (and reassembling) himself.

What happens if one is deconstructed?

When he visited Christchurch after the quakes, Lloyd was wearing his “novelist hat”:

Writers, seagulls, and hawks come from the same predatory tribe.

He visited the Basilica and the Bridge of Remembrance:

I discovered the beauty of the city through its destruction.

Lloyd confessed that he used to find Christchurch annoying. Its sense of history didn’t fit with him – part of his heritage was to be disdainful of heritage. He came from a family and a place where history had no visibility.

He explained a lot about the complicated and emotionally-charged heritage so integral to his tale.  His mother had been shaped by rejection and adoption.  She had a  “strange purpose” and would drive into Wellington from the Hutt – with him in the car – so they could sit and observe her estranged mother.
Lloyd Jones

Lloyd discovered more about his elusive grandmother in a court transcript from a divorce trial. He established contact with the family of his grandfather, visited the farmhouse where his mother was probably conceived. It was, he said, like “catching up to history”. He sat in his grandfather’s chair, and watched a home movie. It was an “act of magic” to see his grandfather on screen, a ghost getting out of a Buick. In an emotional coda Lloyd revealed members of that other family were in the audience.

How did he write this jigsaw of a book? He said the key to writing any book is finding the voice and the language – and in this memoir it required a very interior language. “Faults may appear haphazard but they are never random'” – the words of a geologist applied also to the mysterious behaviour of his mother.

Of all the interesting, emotional, and thoughtful stuff Lloyd said, the thing that resonated with me most was the most simple:

Nothing is lost.

Lloyd Jones

Musical growth

Cover of Should I play guitar?Music is good for you.

You knew that of course, because its fun, but there are now also provable links between learning a musical instrument and comprehension of science and maths, as well as spatial intelligence. According to the Journal of  Neuroscience, being trained in music before the age of 7 actually increases mass in the matter that links the motor and sensory regions of the brain. In fact it is good for children all round.

Music can be of benefit at the other end of life too. The Alzheimers Foundation of America  suggest that listening to it can calm or stimulate patients even after verbal communication has become difficult.

A person’s ability to engage in music, particularly rhythm playing and singing, remains intact late into the disease process because, again, these activities do not mandate cognitive functioning for success.

I’m pretty sure its not a bad thing the rest of your life either.

If you want to give learning an instrument a whirl, make your own music or just listen to it, the library can give you lots of opportunities.