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Unique memoir showcases originality

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IN this quirky, artsy, wistful pseudo-memoir, a former swimmer turned graphic artist examines her life through the multi-tinted lenses of her swimming goggles and reflects on the undercurrents that have shaped her work ethic and her sense of self.

As a girl, Toronto-born Leanne Shapton immersed herself in the all-consuming world of competitive swimming.

She muses that attempting to be special requires "doing a series of very unspecial things, very well, over and over, a million times over, so that one special thing might happen, maybe, much later."

Her determination and dedication earned her a spot in the Olympic Team trials. Twice, in 1988 and '92. She has applied those same skills to her post-swimming career in New York, which explains why she has such an impressive resumé: internship with her illustrator idol; newspaper editor and designer; magazine art director; and author of four distinctly original books (one of which has been optioned for a movie screenplay and currently lists Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman as potential leads).

For a woman whose life has had multiple trajectories, it is fitting that her memoir is presented in a diverse and atypical style. At times Swimming Studies reads like a travelogue with a detailed study of some of the world's most intriguing hotel swimming pools and exotic public pools.

Occasionally it feels like you're reading a young teen's mind. Some sections appear to be closer to an art installation of the author/artist's works. (One whimsical chapter contains a virtual scratch and sniff selection of watercolour ovals representing smells from her swimming days. "Sit-ups partner: Tide, milk, terrier, and grape Hubba Bubba."

Offbeat twist

In another offbeat twist, instead of the typical central pages containing photos reflecting various ages and stages of the author, there are photos of Shapton's swimsuits along with dates and such details as where they were purchased and where they were used.)

Surprisingly, one needn't have been a swimmer to enjoy this book. Shapton's detailed descriptions of what a swimmer hears, sees and thinks during a race are so well-crafted that the sense-memories of a being a competitor feel like one's own.

Her recollections of life as a competitive swimmer -- the adrenaline, tedium, exclusivity, challenges, camaraderie, exhaustion, alienation, and smells of that world -- transport one into the determined yet fragile mind of a competitive athlete.

In any given competitive sport or other similarly excellence-driven pursuit, there is a special bond forged with one's peers. The shared sport-specific experiences, knowledge and language provide a comforting sense of inclusion, kinship and identity.

Though this world can reassuring and self-affirming while engrossed in it, when one exits that realm, there is often an incredible sense of loss -- loss of direction, loss of a passion, loss of identity.

Swimming Studies feels like Shapton's attempt to analyze and define the loss she is left with decades after leaving the sport.

In her brief first chapter, Shapton poetically explains how attempts to define what swimming means to her ultimately fail.

There is a touch of melancholic nostalgia when such wistful thoughts are shared. (When contemplating swimming-slogan T-shirts, she determines that today her shirt would read "I Put the Longing in Belonging.")

Swimming Studies is quirky, multi-faceted. Shapton's writing is thoughtful yet conversational and wonderfully descriptive. While she may long to belong, her unique memoir showcases her individuality and originality.

 

CindyMarie Small is a former dancer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and can relate to Leanne Shapton's loss.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 4, 2012 J9

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