Apr 25, 2007

I Discover Bill Holm, and an Important Date is Born

Coming Home Crazy: An Alphabet of China Essays, by Bill Holm. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1990. 251 pgs.

~Bill Holm: Minnesotan of Icelandic heritage, poet, essayist,
teacher, writer-in-summer-residence of Hofsós.~

My first introduction to Bill Holm was a paperback that I happened upon at 17.5 Cafe, which had a small used bookstore in addition to good coffee. Seldom has $6.50 led to so much enjoyment. This book was the beginning of Iceland on the Brain for me, which I can date to early 2002, when Jonathan was working at 17.5. Unfortunately I can't provide the day and time.

Holm taught English and literature to Chinese teachers at a polytechnical college in Xi'an. Holm observed, laughed, cried, made friends, suffered, got sick, and got an education at the same time that he was educating others. Isn't that the way it is?

His book is structured alphabetically--which is crazy, because there is no alphabetizing the Chinese language! But Holm's way of thinking, looking at things, and expressing himself, while idiosyncratic, is certainly not crazy. His alphabet chapters are a way of structuring some of what he learned and observed while living in China...they tell of his abhorrence for the politicians and the bureaucracy, and of his admiration and affection for the people he met. Each chapter is a microcosm of Chinese society, an anecdote of his life there, or both.

I'll leave you to discover the joys of E for erhu (which I had never heard of but came to love), U for underwear, and B for book smuggling.

When I read this book for the first time, I was intrigued by "I for Iceland". Holm uses the visit of his Icelandic friend Wincie to introduce Iceland, and to discuss differences and commonalities in China and Iceland. He is particularly eloquent in describing language and books:
...Chinese and Icelanders share an archaic impractical language, and an old literature. They are tribes of poets...That poetry gets them through the poverty with at least part of a soul intact and gives them insufferable pride, self-centeredness, even arrogance, that they also share.
After reading this chapter I wondered: what kind of books do Icelanders write? And that was the beginning.

Thank you, 17.5 Cafe. Thank you, Bill Holm.


Professor Batty said...

... Bill is an inspiration, I didn't go to Iceland the first time (2000)solely because of him, but he really expanded my appreciation of it. I think it might be a blast to go to his writing workshop, but, alas, there is so much else I'd like to do in Iceland as well...

lab munkay said...

I can't read in book stores or coffee shops or libaries. But I did read in Iceland. Ok- I was only there a couple of hours but it was 3am and not much to do in the airport.

Karen said...

I just finished reading "Coming Home Crazy" (very useful during meetings) and I would like a sampler made of Holm's quote "God save us from a regular Christmas and deliver us to strange places." Amen.

Rose said...

What did you think of it, Karen? If you enjoyed it, you might also like: Iron and Silk, by Mark Salzman (1986). Maybe you should write an A-Z essays of Scotland? (While you're in meetings, of course...) And, sorry I don't do cross-stitch. It would make a great return present.

Karen said...

I liked it very much and was glad I took his suggestions about the order in which to read his Alphabet. I thought he kept a fine balance between the horrors of the "cultural revolution" and the stories about the people he met.

My Scottish book would have to be "From A to Zed." And I Went There Crazy.

You don't have to make the sampler! I was just yearning for one.