book reviews


A flocking good book

Birding with Yeats

A Memoir by Lynn Thomson


Reviewed by Sarah Thomson

I sit still in the boathouse with all the windows open and listen. A huge storm hit the island this morning, the rain left large puddles on the deck, the leaves rustle as the sun pushes out, and the odd drop still falls on the roof. A man and a boy row past in a canoe. They are both shouting “row, row, row” in unison — too busy to notice the calm that has settled over the lake. A kayak rounds the corner of the island across from us. The rower dips his paddle in slowly, evenly, his motion in harmony with the calm around him – he has grace.

The book I am reading has me thinking about the way people choose to live – in harmony with the natural world, or in discord, blind to its rhythm and beauty. It is a memoir titled Birding with Yeats, written by my sister-in-law Lynn Thomson. While the title suggests that it is about birding, the book is about so much more. It encompasses her desire to shed convention and live in harmony with the natural world, and touches on the strong relationship she has built with her son, Yeats. Her book is shortlisted for the Edna Staebler Award for non-fiction (https://legacy.wlu.ca/homepage.php?grp_id=2529&pv=1.

Birding with Yeats weaves Lynn’s journey through life, her challenges and successes, together with her determination to raise her son differently and break free from convention. The book includes vivid descriptions of the places they visited to bird watch, and the beauty they found along the way. To use her words, it is about “hearing the stillness and feeling the light.”

The memoir will challenge the reader to think about the way they have chosen to live. It captures Lynn’s desire to be true to her inner nature and to live by her own set of values. Her reverence for the natural world gleams through the narrative, allowing the reader to feel the same sense of awe and wonder that she discovered.

Birding with Yeats describes the strong relationship that develops between a mother and son. It tells of how Lynn and Yeats grow and learn and share in the beauty around them. She writes about how Yeats pulled her into birding. The special relationship they have is strengthened by their shared love for nature, and their desire to live their lives with grace. She describes his unique way of looking at the world and writes, “he is grounded, like his grandfather, and connected to the rhythms of the natural world.”

But the memoir also wrestles with the issue of conforming to societal standards. Lynn explains her struggle to break free from an upbringing that pushed her to be competitive, to conform and have a career. Instead of struggling to carve out and shape her future, she chose to allow life to happen — to be true to the grace inside her. Without the expectations created by social conformity, she experienced the world at her own pace, and grew to understand the value and impact that the natural world has on her.

Historians believe that people formed structured communities, towns and social conventions to protect and shelter us from the harsh realities of the natural world. Birding with Yeats will cause you to question the value of our current social structure. From tribalism, to religion, to “Kardashianism,” social structures often blind us from an intrinsic understanding of our relationship with nature. Birding with Yeats is a reminder that while society may seem to offer protection, it also numbs us to the beauty and wonder that is just beyond our next career choice.


The vivid description in Birding with Yeats takes the reader into the moments, allowing you to feel the wind blow the “scent of saltwater to the shore.” The narrative leads the reader along beside Lynn and her son on their journey out to the marsh at Point Pelee, the pebble shores of Vancouver Island, and the forests and lakes of Muskoka. But it also touches on the calm and light they are able to find in the heart of downtownToronto. Despite the traffic and noise of the city, they venture out to natural spaces where birds and beauty survive. From Ashbridges Bay, to Toronto Island, Riverdale Farm and the Brickworks, there are places they find solace and comfort away from the concrete and steel that dominates downtown Toronto. The memoir explains how Lynn is able to balance her life as a bookseller living in the heart of the city, with her desire and need to be constantly connected to the natural world.

Lynn has shared a beautiful and unique way for a city dweller to live life in harmony with the natural world. After reading it you may find yourself looking for the stillness and light that she has beautifully captured in her memoir. Without realizing it, Lynn has shared the beauty and grace that is deep within her. I sit on this island we share and her book reminds me to be still and listen.

Thank you Lynn.

***** For a signed copy of Birding with Yeats visit/call Ben McNally Books, 366 Bay Street, Toronto,ON. 416.361.0032

Putting a crack in the mould

From Nov 2005 Women's Post archives

He Drown She in the Sea

Shani Mootoo

McClelland & Stewart

360 pages, $29.99


Reviewed by Desi Di Nardo


It is no wonder Alice Munro calls Shani Mootoo’s most recent book, He Drown She in the Sea, “a story of magical power.” As in her previous success, Cereus Blooms at Night, you find yourself immersed in and stimulated by arresting scenery, redolent of guava mangroves, squawking green parrots, verdant bamboo forests – and all things tropical and lush. Such a colourful palette resonates with fluid, figurative language, while vivid descriptions explode before the eye and tempt the sensory. We quickly acquire a taste for Mootoo’s fictional town of Guanagaspar – a wondrous, numinous land infused with fertile scents of marigolds, coconuts and exotic blossoms.

The reader gains panoramic access into Harry St. George’s life, first in British Columbia’s bristly, towering milieu, where “range beyond range of ice-capped mountains…bursts of lavender, clumps of mustard golden rod.”

The “Canada of postcards” is contrasted to his impoverished existence in Trinidad. Once a servant’s son, Harry recalls his love for Rose, the daughter of an affluent family for whom his mother worked as a laundress. The tale unfolds years later, with Madam Rose recounting her secret visit abroad to unite with Harry.

Their story is a hopeful, evocative one woven from two fine silk threads of past and present. Set during World War 2’s political unrest, Mootoo brings to light the war’s impact not only on blacks but also on Indians of varying skin tones.

The book reminds of the film Sideways, in which the subject of wine becomes an underlying metaphor for personal awakening. In He Drown She in the Sea, wine is what is used to distinguish caste, along with the “Munrovian” mention of linoleum three separate times to further stress class distinction as the narrator later points out Harry’s new terrazzo floor.

Mootoo also tackles the issue of gender inequality through the interactions between Harry and the women he encounters. When a spirited female teaches Harry to canoe, he questions whether his wine-tasting club has ever met a woman – or even a man – as adventurous. “She wasn’t in this moment physically appealing to him, yet such independence fascinated him.”

Afterwards, when Harry’s circumstances improve, his mother asserts their new status: “We living in town now, and I don’t work for nobody no more. I, Dolly Persad, have servant – manservant, to boot – now.” The writer tactically deploys characters to overstate gender inadequacies and illustrate potentially powerful woman, the sort men from Guanagaspar desire yet reverently fear.

Interestingly, by the end, it is Rose who takes the reader on a suspenseful ride. Readers nearing the conclusion must accept that they might be left dangling by a string, suspended in mid-air uncertainty. Actually, they should expect it. But wait: as Mootoo’s last chapter looms, readers can’t help but feel they are heading towards a languorous, wistful dream, and are wary more now than ever for Rose’s and Harry’s outcomes. And this, much like the ocean that begins to swell and rise above them in that very poignant moment, also reaffirms.

Desi Di Nardo is a writer in Toronto