So many books to talk about! Including what’s currently in my stacks and what I’m reading with this year’s International Festival of Authors in mind.
‘Tis the season of literary prizelists, and I’m enjoying the Toronto Book Award nominees and the Giller Prize longlisters.
There’s talk of new fiction, including Jon Chan Simpson’s Chinkstar and Jonathan Franzen’s Purity and aguest post, in which ReaderWoman discusses Blanche Howard’s last novel, The Ice Maiden.
Discussion of Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness has concluded my Alice Munro Reading Project, and I am currently reading Alistair MacLeod and considering another short story project.
How about you: what are you reading these days, and what are you looking forward to reading soon?
(First time here? Please don’t be shy: there’s no such thing as too much bookchat! Please leave a comment, say hello, talk books!)
What are you carting to-and-fro these days? Are you slipping something skinny into your bag?
Or has something big and bulky so claimed your reader’s affections that you are content to lug it around?
I tell myself that I would have a yoga practice already, if only I lived next to the ocean
I’ve been leaving the big books at home and trying to follow my new year’s readolution to read more magazines, compact and light-weight.
This was designed to encourage me to read magazines as soon as they arrive, when they are fresh and new.
Rather than allow them to collect on the shelf of a bookcase, one interesting issue atop the next, until they are a blur of might-have-been-interesting-ness.
And, yet, a bound volume holds infinite and immediate appeal (see some previous months’ skinny beauts, here and here).
Whereas a magazine must vie for my reader’s attentions (with some exceptions, like Brick, which actually is book-like, just as Tin House and Paris Review are).
So I have to re-learn this. And again. Which should be redundant, except that, apparently, I do have to re-learn and re-learn and again and again AND again.
So this month I have been carrying back-issues of “Maisonneuve” and “The Walrus” with me, freshly inspried by the avant-garde and overtly feminist thinking in “Maisonneuve” and the engaging and diverse topics covered in “The Walrus”.
But in the mix are a few books about yoga, which are also skinny (although sometimes surprisingly weighty).
Lately, I’ve been re-reading a volume by Margaret Pierce, which isolates movement and breath in a way which I find helpful.
It makes me smile to think of this being regular reading for me on, say, the TTC. It’s not like I roll out a mat and get down on the floor of the subway car. (Although some days I do think about the appeal of corpse pose, even there.)
But it helps to see the different elements of single poses, teased apart and precisely placed on the page, with arrows for inhaling and exhaling, and text boxes with warnings for tender spots and risky bits.
And I think it also helps to look at these things when I am not on a mat, not anywhere near a mat.
I’m good at reading about meditation. Less talented at actually meditating.
(It’s like when you buy the next book in a series you are really enjoying, even though you are not even close to reading it, but it’s still satisfying to see future pleasure there on your bookshelf, even when you’re not reading.)
Earlier this year, I read Anne Cushman’s Moving into Meditation, which is a twelve-week program for yoga practitioners. Do you know it?
That was rather cart-before-horse-ish of me. It’s been several years since I’ve done yoga regularly. And, even then, I did not have anything like a practice.
Back then, it was more like exercise which happened to be kind of yoga-y. On the days when something more cardio-y was not an option.
And it was nothing like meditation. Nothing like what Anne Cushman describes, although I am warming to the idea, thinking it would be a good thing.
But I’d actually forgotten about this yoga book on my shelves. At the time, there were others which I found more useful.
Lately I have been rearranging and tidying the bookshelves, looking for spots in which new books might nestle in, make a home here, where quarters are tight.
The last time that I was browsing the yoga books at the library, it occurred to me that I should check my own shelves.
(This largely because I was picking up a large stack of new fiction, and I was scolding myself, because I had intended to concentrate exclusively on the books on my own shelves this year. So I left the single yoga book at the library and brought home a dozen lovely novels. This is mindful, right?)
And then it occurred to me that I could take a book about yoga with me to read, that I can slip anything I like into my bookbag really.
It doesn’t have to be the same old thing in my bookbag. How about you: do you think outside your bookbag?
Do you bring home too many library books? If one is consciously mindless, is that any different from being oblivious to mindfulness?
Is there such a thing as a library practice?
What series are you serious about these days? There are five volumes from five different series in my current stack:
Angela Thirkell’s The Demon in the House,
Kelley Armstrong’s Personal Demon,
Sue Grafton’s B is for Burglar,
L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz and
Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters.
I’ve been gathering Angela Thirkell’s novels for so many years without reading them, that I began to eye their shelf resentfully last year. (Once before, I tried to make a start on them, but managed to select one of her not-in-Barsetshire books. There aren’t that many of those. Go figure.)
The Barsetshire series begins with Wild Strawberries, which features Laura Morland, who has picked up her pen to write novels and support her family, after the death of her husband. She has a young son, Tony, who is off at boarding school, and although he appears in this opening novel, the story is preoccupied with various pairings and area gossip. The second volume introduces a new set of characters in the community, but this third volume features Tony, a few years older but just as mischievous.
Tony is actually rather annoying – for most people, not just the reader – but his mother is excessively fond of him (although not entirely oblivous to his being tiresome), and it is perhaps because of an attachment to her character, more than one to Tony directly, that I find The Demon in the House entertaining. (Even so, I haven’t decided whether I will keep all these volumes: shelf space is precious!)
I should find Personal Demon, the eighth in Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld series, entertaining. But I am always frustrated when a volume in this series steers away from my favouite character in the ensemble, Elena (introduced in the series’ first volume, Bitten).
By now I realize that this is a temporary state; even when I have found one of the other characters lacklustre, I grow to like her as I read on. And, yet, I drag through the opening Elena-free pages until finally I accept my new heroine (this time, Hope, a half-demon), whereupon I expect I will finish the book in short order.
As a girl, I was just as stubborn about new characters. When Dorothy faded into the background of the Oz stories, with the second volume in the series, I was suspicous. And even with the introduction of Ozma, for whom the third book in the series is named, my loyalty remained fierce. As an adult reader, however, I find my attachment to Dorothy has faded. (Just as I preferred other characters to Buffy and Sookie.)
Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz is the fourth volume in the series and the introduction addresses the fact that Baum’s readers wanted more of Dorothy. Just a couple of chapters in, I wonder whether I will find this volume more of a disappointment. And, yet, there is a horse with a sense of humour. And I am interested to see how Dorothy’s pet cat compares to the infamous Toto.
I’m not sure I ever finished reading this volume as a girl, as it’s one of the more pristine volumes in my set of Del Rey paperbacks (it is peeking into the bottom of the photograph, with a yarn-tasselled bookmark, dating from the same era). I’m keen to read on (some later volumes were obviously well loved, especially The Emerald City of Oz) and see whether there are new favourites to discover here.
Like the Oz books, I’ve previously read some of the books in Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. In fact, about half of them. They were amongst the first mysteries I read upon discovering the genre (with P.D. James and Diane Mott Davidson, Ellis Peters and Patricia Cornwell). Rereading ‘A’ last month, I was surprised to find the style so bare-bones, because I remembered Kinsey being fiery and gutsy, not cool and orderly.
The novels present information as an extension of her typed reports regarding her method of solving cases, however, which explains the distanced and evaluative tone. And, yet, the narrative also includes some scenes which clearly would not be included in these notes, so the reader can observe more intimate and personal dynamics of her character.
When I first met Kinsey Millhone, libraries were not computerized to allow patrons to request specific titles, and I had searched the books-returned carts unsuccessfully for ‘A’ and ‘B’ for weeks and stumbled into ‘C’ ahead of time, so this will be the first time that I meet Kinsey in order.
Even though I now prefer mysteries with a little more substance and complexity (not necessarily in terms of plot, but character and theme), it’s a pleasure to rediscover some of the elements so fondly remembered, like her emergency little-black-dress and her charming landlord, Henry, still baking bread all these years later.
As a girl, I never read beyond the second volume of Madeleine L’Engle’s Time series. And even after finishing and enjoying the third as an adult, I have struggled with Many Waters. Once again, this might come down to stubbornness. I know that the twins, Sandy and Denys, should be as interesting as Meg (and eventually I made room in my reader’s heart for Charles Wallace). Should be. But then they appear in some unrecognizable time and place and I feel even further away from my love of A Wrinkle in Time.
Just last year I abandoned this volume once again, about 80 pages in. Now, I’m not entirely sure why. After all, beyond Sandy and Denys, the concept of home and belonging is clearly at the heart of this story: that certainly appeals. And there are unicorns here, in this hot and dusty place, unicorns whose appearance is suspiciously oasis-y but are recognized as real by the inhabitants of these strange time and place. What more should I require.
Does talk of your series reading require a separate page in your notebook? Do you get overly attached to characters?
Are there chunks of books on your shelves that you have collected and neglected?
Have you been rereading old favourites (or un-favourites) this year?
Much of my reading this year has been preoccupied with writing. I’ve been reading about how Laura Ingalls Wilder’s notebooks and autobiographical writing worked their way into fiction for young readers (Pioneer Girl). Robin Robertson edited Mortification, in which writers discuss work-related embarrassments, often unfolding as they were travelling for readings and public events. Even Angela Thirkell’s novel High Rising considers the life of a young mother who has taken up her pen to support her family after her husband’s death.
Some out-and-out lit crit has also snuck into my stack. Inspired by my reading of Howard’s End and On Beauty, I dipped into Adam Kirsch’s Rocket and Lightship: Ideas on Literature and Ideas for its pieces on E. M. Forster and Zadie Smith.
Penguin Random House, 2016
As a retelling, Zadie Smith’s novel was fascinating reading, although I’m not sure that I would have enjoyed the story on its own terms quite as much.
Does that even matter? The story wouldn’t exist with Forster’s novel and she states that openly.
And does that matter? Couldn’t one say that every story exists on the shoulders of other stories?
This is the kind of circular – but strangely satisfying – idea that spirals when I read literary essays, and even though I don’t think Adam Kirsch’s reading preferences often intersect with my own, these essays got me thinking.
Meredith Maran’s Why We Write about Ourselves is a new collection of essays on the subject of writing memoir. Most of the contributors are well known and the pieces are engaging and varied in tone and style.
This A.M. Homes quote struck me: “Even when you’re thirty-something years old, and you’ve written a bunch of books, and you think you know who you are, the reveal of a piece of information an addition or subtraction to your known narrative, can yank it all out from under you.”
And I always enjoy Edwidge Danticat’s musings on creativity. Here, she writes: “I write memoir to feel less alone.”
Earlier this year I read the first volume in the Paris Review Interview collections, some of which were heavily flagged and unexpectedly too. I mean, I thought I’d enjoy Rebecca West’s interview, but I didn’t have a lot of notes in the end.
Meanwhile, I marked something on almost every page of Richard Price’s interview. He explains how, “in the beginning”, he “had to learn enough about the texture of truth out there in order to have the confidence to make up lies, responsible lies”.
He goes on to say: “We all grow up with ten great stories about our families, our childhoods…they probably have nothing to do with the truth of things, but they’re yours. You know them. And you love them. So use them.”
However, there is no question that Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words was my most-flagged writing-read of the year. Rather than key in the memorable quotes, I was seriously considering scanning series of pages!
Immediately In Other Words strikes the reader as being different, because it has been written and published in two languages – English and Italian – and the text is presented in a parallel format, which allows the reader to follow along methodically in either or both.
My first thought was a practical one, all about the individual words on the pages in front of me, that I would love this book if I was learning Italian.
As I read on, however, I recognized that it was less about the words and more about the story (even though it is non-fiction), that there were two languages on display here but also two selves, two versions or aspects of Jhumpa Lahiri.
I’ve “met” her before on the page, her short stories and The Namesake and The Lowland. But it seems that she feels separated from these earlier works.
“In a certain sense writing is an extended homage to imperfection. A book, like a person, remains imperfect, incomplete, during its entire creation. At the end of the gestation the person is born, then grows, but I consider a book alive only during the writing. Afterward, at least for me, it dies.”
And she seems to feel separated from the English language as well. “A few years later, however, Bengali took a step backward, when I began to read. I was six or seven. From then on my mother tongue was no longer capable, by itself, of rearing me. In a certain sesnse it died. English arrived, a stepmother.”
Nonetheless, her relationship with earlier languages remains significant. “Although I’m fleeing, I realize that both English and Bengali are beside me. Just as in a triangle, one point leads inevitably to another.” She writes: “Writing in another language represents an act of demolition, a new beginning.”
And, so, In Other Words, is a new beginning. One by its very nature attached to other endings and evolutions.
This is the aspect of the work which I most enjoyed, the sheer bookishness of it, reaching beyond any single language and one’s relationship to it.
Here are some of my favourite quotes in that regard:
“Books are the best means – private, discreet, reliable – of overcoming reality.” (“I libri sono I mezzi migliori – private, discreti, affidabili – per scavalcare la realtà.”)
“Every new construction seems a marvel. Every unknown word a jewel.” (“Ogni nuova costruzione sembra una meraviglia. Ogni parola sconosciuta, un gioiello.”)
“I write to feel alone. Ever since I was a child it has been a way of withdrawing, of finding myself. I need silence and solitude.” (“Scrivo per sentirmi sole. Fin da ragazzina è stato un modo di ritirarmi, di ritrovarmi. Mi servono il silenzio e la solitudine.”)
And, perhaps my favourite of all – and it is exceptional in Italian too:
“I think that the power of art is the power to wake us up, strike us to our depths, change us.” (“Credo che il potere dell’arte sia il potere di svegliarci, di colpirci fino in fondo, di cambiarci.”)
What has stood our in your reading year so far?
Are you reading any books about writing?
Is Jhumpa Lahiri on your TBR?
Back in the days when you taped movies onto video cassettes, I was recording “Anna Karenina” to watch another time, when I turned on the television — thinking the film was over and the credits would be running past — and I could not unsee the last few seconds of the story on the screen.
I hadn’t finished reading the book yet, but suddenly I knew the story. My relationship with films and TV originally rooted on the page has been tricky ever since.
Generally, I try to read the book first. But this results in quite a backlog of viewing, because I have 7,267 books on my TBR list. (Oops, that’s 7,268: I’ve added one while I was drafting this post.)
And, now, so many years later, it’s hard to make time for Notes on a Scandal or Felicia’s Journey, when Brooklyn and The Ninth Life of Lewis Drax are wriggling more insistently upon the shelf.
So, I’m pleased when my reading and my viewing effortlessly collide. At least, when it seems effortless.
Reading Kyo Maclear’s Julia, Child (pictures by Julie Mostad) was as sweet as The Good Little Book and Virginia Wolf.
The opening image of a young Julia Child from behind, a girl in jeans and roller skates, stirring something in a bowl (it might be eggs, because there are two whole ones on the table next to her and another one on the floor and cracked) is playful and pleasing.
But it was the words on the page which pulled me in: “You are cordially invited to this tale for all ages about a child named Julia. While the story contains no true knowledge of (the real) Julia Child and should be taken with a grain of salt and perhaps even a generous pat of butter, we hope that you will find something here to savor. It you discover, as we have, that some stories taste best when shared with others, then all the better. Bon appétit.”
It reminded me that I had a copy of “Julie and Julia” to watch (written and directed by Nora Ephron), which was based on two books: Julia Child’s autobiography about her years living in France and Julie Powell’s chronicle of cooking the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which began as a blog project.
Wasn’t it interesting to find that so many people, who enjoyed putting a pencil to paper as much as they enjoyed putting fork to mouth, were inspired by this woman; even when they clearly state that they didn’t know much about her, they have been inspired by the mere idea of her.
Another kind of inspiration can be found in dogged survival tales, whether set on tropical islands or faraway planets. Andy Weir’s The Martian is nothing like Daniel Defoe stylistically speaking, but I found the same fundamental appeal in the methodical recounting of one person’s efforts to endure in unfamiliar territory.
Weir’s style is perhaps necessarily cool. Mark Watney is a scientist, and he is not accustomed to keeping a Julia-Cameron-style journal but a logbook. And because he is not using sea shells to gather morning dew, but using high-tech equipment to manage an atmosphere which does not support human life, there are a lot of calculations.
His decisions are made based on chemical and botanical statistics, not on having observed a set of tracks left in sand on a beach. Readers who don’t share his expertise might well find their eyes sliding across the pages of explanations and explorations.
Not having read Andy Weir previously, I don’t know whether the prose in The Martian is unrefined because it suits his narrator or because it comes naturally to the author. (Either way, there is a parallel story introduced to add another dimension for those readers not entirely enamoured with the Watney-verse, although its tone is similar.)
Regardless, the appeal lies in the overarching story, not in the language or structure. Like Hugh Howey and G.R.R. Martin, Andy Weir spins a web which invites readers to cozy in for a tale by the fire, one which offers a dramatic plot fuelled by a devotion to character.
““I’m not talking about faith in God, I’m talking about faith in Mark Watney. Look at all the shit Mars has thrown at him, and he’s still alive. He’ll survive this. I don’t know how, but he will. He’s a clever son of a bitch.””
Mark Watney is irrefutably the core of both book and film, but the cinematography adds another layer to the story. There are extensive cinematic representations of scenes which are non-existant in the book (in which the event or its aftermath is described in a few, cold summary-style sentences in his log).
There is also something mesmerizing about the visualization of some of the extremes inherent in the story; it’s one thing to imagine Mark Watney reducing his daily calorie count severely, another thing to watch Matt Damon’s frame visibly shrinking.
The film offers additional potential in terms of fleshing out subplots, too; even a single scene about a secondary character adds many dimensions to the complex of relationships orbiting the story (but it really is all about Mark Watney, even so).
For non-science-y folks, the imagery of the equipment/shelters discussed in Weir’s novel is very helpful, and the planet’s landscape and expanse are clearly articulated in the narrative but the prose style is heavy with details and tech-speak, so Mark Watney’s existence feels thick and heavy on Mars on the page, tiny and insignificant on the screen.
There were many instances in which I preferred the film version from a storytelling perspective, but ultimately I think the two works complement each other well. The novel is solid with pacing and main narrator, while the film secures those elements but also offers new perspectives on setting and more fully realizes minor characters.
Although seemingly separated by a substantial swath of time and space, Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy (1996) is a frontier tale too.
It is, in fact, the third novel in Vanderhaeghe’s Western trilogy, followed by The Last Crossing (2002) and A Good Man (2011).
Both were acclaimed widely, but The Englishman’s Boy was nominated for both The Giller Prize and the IMPAC Award, and it was made into a film starring Nicholas Campbell and Katharine Isabelle.
That’s the next film in my finally-done-reading-ready-to-watch project.
Are the stories on your pages and screens crossing paths these days?
“Do you remember, Big Sister, all those good times? In Cousin Chan’s abandoned house right in the middle of our neighbourhood, a dozen or so girls lying together, cooking together, working the fields, laughing and gissipping the entire day.”
The excerpt from this letter, from Fong Mei in March 1919, in her report about her new life in Gold Mountain, captures something of the flavour of Sky Lee’s classic novel. However, it depicts a scene which exists only in that character’s memory. The act of sharing it and the fuel for its recollection are more important than the details therein.
Readers looking for a linear and orderly narrative will not want to seat themselves at this café table.
Sky Lee begins Disappearing Moon Café with a voice even further in the past, from 1892, but the chorus of voices makes the novel buzz as loudly as one imagines that house of girls in the letter. Some characters repeat more frequently, so the reader is not chronically dizzy, only occasionally disoriented.
Nonetheless, while each chapter skips across time, the novel is unified by a focus on theme and experience, rather than chronological recountings.
Troubles of young brides or mothers-in-law, the odd vulgar bachelor thrown in for good measure: family connections (and broken ties, unrealized links) are at the heart of this novel. And, as in Dennis Bock’s Olympia, Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy and Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony, there are questions about identity and its relationship to storytelling.
“Maybe this is a chinese-in-Canada trait, a part of the great wall of silence and invisibility we have built around us. I have a misgiving that the telling of our history is forbidden. I have violated a secret code. There is power in silence, as this is the way we have always maintained strict control against the more disturbing aspects in our human nature. But what about speaking out for a change, despite its unpredictable impact!”
This question of violating a secret code could be more literally interpreted here. As in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees and Wayne Grady’s Emancipation Day, there are family secrets lurking.
“Oh Mother, Mother, tell me the truth! What did you feel when you brought your own mother to her knees? If you had to do it over again, would you? Could you have saved your sister from your mother? Or your mother from your sister?”
In another novel, such a quote would be a spoiler for sure, but in Sky Lee’s novel, there are so many voices (and so many more women are afforded voices in this story than male, although there are key male voices to0) that readers can’t suss out who was on their knees and who could have been saved.
Ultimately, however, the story is not only about a specific family, but about a broader sense of familiar connection.
“Do you mean that individuals must gather their identity from all the generations that touch them – past and future, no matter how slightly? Do you mean that an individual is not an individual at all, but a series of individuals – some of whom come before her, some after her? Do you mean that their story isn’t a story of several generations, but of one individual thinking collectively?”
And, as such, this story is about all readers, for who better to appreciate the sense of stories upon stories, stories within stories, and stories about stories.
In the ninth grade we read Winston Rawlings’ Where the Red Fern Grows.
It didn’t seem strange to read an animal story in school; I’d read the Thornton Burgess books and Allison Uttley tales growing up and this was just a longer version of Robert Lawson’s stories.
Some kids are still reading animal stories. The BIP girls have both read and collected the Warrior Cats books, with the fervour I remember having for new copies of the Anne and Emily stories and the Oz books.
But I don’t know any adults who are reading them regularly now, not the way that my parents’ generation was reading Richard Adams and William Horwood when I was a girl and a teen, as serious literature which happened to be about animals.
Mostly, I avoid them myself. Still buy them sometimes (especially when the cover art is exceptionally striking), but I don’t want to weep, and often animals stories are sad stories.
And because, when I was a girl, I chose Enid Blyton over Jack London, and Judy Blume over Marguerite Henry, I now find myself with a long list of animals stories on my TBR list.
Despite having read probably a dozen abridged versions, sumptuously illustrated, of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, I’ve yet to read the “real deal”.
And although I read a few of the Rudyard Kipling stories when they had pretty pictures, my proper editions still sport pristine spines.
On my shelves, Lad: A Dog and Bob, Son of Battle are barking. Thomasina and Carbonel are meowing. Man o’War and Misty of Chincoteague are nickering. Gentle Ben is roaring. And Paddy, well, what sound do beavers make? If I read more of these books, I’d know.
Last summer, I made a gesture in this direction, pulling Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey and Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka off the shelf.
Burnford’s classic is one of the oldest books on my shelves; it was bought for me when I was four years old. My Friend Flicka had been sitting, unread, since I was twelve. You can see how the list of animal stories has gotten unreasonably long while I have been reading in other directions. I need to mend decade-wide gaps.
The Incredible Journey is not the overwhelmingly sad story I was expecting. It ends a little abruptly but with a heartwarming scene. And My Friend Flicka runs the gamut, but there are many triumphs as well.
Mary O’Hara includes a lot of information which one might not expect to find in a book commonly read by children. I wasn’t expecting to find so much about the demands of married life on the Goose Bar ranch in a story about horses. But Nell McLaughlin is a hard-working and tenacious woman, who crosses all sorts of lines and redraws some as well, when faced with restrictions and frustrations in a landscape stuffed full of men.
So, as much as I wanted Ken to get his horse, his beloved Flicka (the cover illustration and the title give that away), the story of the grown-up McLaughlins, keeping on keeping on, is now more of a draw, as I move on to Thunderhead (followed by Green Grass of Wyoming).
Sometime after the ninth grade, I forgot that these stories have a whole lot to them. There are over 300 of them on my TBR now, including both picture books and adult novels, but I’m starting small, with a short list in my notebook.
Have you read any of those I’ve mentioned? Are you aiming for any?
Three of these books were inspired by the conjunction between my own shelves and this year’s Random House Bingo, which has a CanLit theme.
The Tiger Claw filled my Nominated-for-the-Giller square, Evan Munday’s second October Schwartz for the Mystery-or-Thriller square, and Elaine Lui’s book about her relationship with her mother perfectly suits the celebrity-memoir square.
Have you been wrapping up reading challenges or games or projects too?
Shauna Singh Baldwin’s The Tiger Claw (2004)
After the Nazis invaded France in WWII, “Madeleine” went to work with the resistance, against the Occupation. You can read about Noor Inayat Khan’s life in the herstory books, but Shauna Singh Baldwin’s novel brings another layer of her experience forward.
This is not a novel about espionage in the vein of Frederick Forsyth or Len Deighton; it is not a page turner, but a lush and expansive novel which considers the life of a resistance worker. In such a position, a woman might have a series of long conversations with a mechanic, in hopes of learning one piece of information in the future: it takes time. Similarly, most of the pages in this novel are devoted to recreating the broader reality of this woman’s life, so that the scenes directly related to her espionage activities will be credible in that context.
Particularly striking is the backstory of Noor’s love for Armand (who had been declared an inappropriate match for Noor by her father) and the sense of place (especially in Paris, France but also in Pforzheim, Germany). Ultimately, the novel is about identity and courage, at the individual and national level. “She could lie to herself as well as anyone else; had she not hidden herself from herself these many years?”
Noor’s Indian heritage affords her a chameleon-like complexion, suitable for representing a variety of ethnicities, but this fluidity causes complications at the personal level. Questions of independence and occupation loom large, not only in wartime politics and colonialization, but also in private declarations of faith. “Nothing in my circumstances has altered since the Allies landed but my capacity for acceptance, my perception of my own adaptability. I am a Sleeping Beauty waiting for her prince; all of us are waiting.”
Noor, in The Tiger Claw, has many secrets; she is engaged not only in Resistance fighting, but in a personal struggle too, so betrayals cut across not only national boundaries but intimate relationships. “For both belonging and non-belonging, there’s no place like a war.”
Evan Munday’s M is for Morna (2013)
“So, welcome, dear readers, to the second adventure of the Dead Kid Detective Agency. Ta-da! You can expect the same kind of madcap exploits featured in book one — our plucky heroine with a penchant for black eyeliner and her five most deadest BFFs uncovering dark secrets that will rock the quiet town of Sticksville to its secretly rotten core and doing so in the zaniest possible manner. There may even be a few flashbacks in which we will peep in on Sticksville a hundred years in the past. Won’t that be thrilling?”
The adventures of October Schwartz continue, as do the pop culture references (skies as dark as a Marilyn Manson single, snow as fierce as Tyra Banks’ stare, etc.) and the sequential acts of loyalty and determination of our young crime solvers.
There are glimpses of serious issues lurking beneath the adventures (e.g. social injustice, bullying and mental illness), but the balance more often sways to entertainment, complete with some slapstick-y scenes, which will likely gain readers’ affections in its target audience (whereas the smartassedness of the narrative voice will have an even broader appeal).
Dear Writer: I will gladly read the third installment.
Elaine Lui’s Listen to the Squawking Chicken (2014)
It was an episode of “The Next Chapter” which convinced me to add this memoir to my bookshelves. (See this recent post for more chatter about my TNC addiction!)
Listening to Elaine Lui talk about her relationship with her mom was funny and heart-gripping too. The narrative is much the same.
This is not like Isabel Allende’s beautifully crafted Paula or Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles. Elaine Lui’s prose is unpolished and sometimes deliberately provocative. Well, she is a gossip queen, right? (Check out www.LaineyGossip.com or her TedTalk, “The Sociology of Gossip”)
Before you go dismissing her as an author, however, consider that gossip is story. And her appearance on 2015’s CBC Canada Reads (where she defended Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels like the Movies) underscores her belief in the power of stories to not only reflect but to transform our lives.
So Elaine Lui’s way of telling a story grabs hold and pulls you close, with intensity (not with finely crafted sentences). Sometimes it’s more about what she does not say: “!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (Actually, this concluded the story she was telling perfectly, but you’ll have to read the book to see if you agree.)
Everything I know about Chinese Mothers, I learned from Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, but now I have a two-book understanding. Because — wow: I feel like I really do know the Elaine Lui’s mother, the Squawking Chicken. “To me, she’s always been the main event, dominating the spotlight no matter the setting, the ultimate scene-stealer.”
Not only because her daughter did a brief impersonation of her mother’s manner of speaking during the interview with Shelagh Rogers, but because every single chapter in this memoir brings this woman off the page, vibrantly and lovingly. “I want her to be able to picture me. The world feels whole when we know where the other is.”
But because the Squawking Chicken is also the kind of person whose actions result in a passage filled entirely with exclamation marks, much of this book is not only interesting but gripping; at times one simply can’t believe that she will behave in a particular manner, and it’s mesmerizing to watch. “Everything the Squawking Chicken taught me—values, morality, discipline—was a result of her own personal brand of feng shui combined with Chinese astrology and fortune-telling.”
Nonetheless, even though the bulk of her opinions and mine might be filed in the dictionary under ‘o’ for ‘opposing’, I now find myself using some of her terms and ideas when moving through my own daily life after finishing reading this memoir. For instance, ‘low-classy': “Low Classy is the term the Squawking Chicken uses to describe coarse behaviour. Leg jiggling is a coarse motion. There is no elegance in leg jiggling.” Whether or not I am in agreement, now whenever I see someone jiggling their leg, I think of the Squawking Chicken.
David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (1999)
Even though I have long considered him one of my favourite writers, I’d never read a David Mitchell novel, until I sat down with Ghostwritten (1999) and devoured it in a couple of days.
My attachment developed based on assorted interviews which I’ve read and heard, and I was so convinced that I would enjoy his book that, as time passed, I began to worry that perhaps I would be disappointed after all — especially after hearing all the gripes about one particular chapter in The Bone Clocks. But, then again, I listened to several interviews with him about this novel and I could not resist.
So, finally, Ghostwritten. And it was everything that I was hoping for.
If you prefer a simple and uncomplicated linear plot, this is not the novel for you. In fact, it is not a conventional novel, but reads like a series of novellas, with different settings and styles and characters. (Not only is there a wide variety of settings in the novel, but they are complex too: “There are so many cities in every single city.”)
Nonetheless, the narratives are linked, and this is obvious within the first few sections, though only solidly so in the novel’s final sections (the second-last section is key – so you can see that patience is required).
It’s like that Muriel Rukeyser quote about the world being composed of stories, not atoms; that’s what makes up David Mitchell’s world for sure. “For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing, but soon that sensation too was being swallowed up.”
And the lives of the characters in Ghostwritten too. “The human world is made of stories, not people. The people the stories use to tell themselves are not to be blamed. You are holding one of the pages where these stories tell themselves, Bat.”
The gradual intertwining of characters and narrative is incredibly satisfying if one views the world through connections to begin with (think E.M. Foster’s “Only connect.”).
But if one is not inclined in this direction, it might be less enjoyable; however, the author acknowledges this directly. “Anonymity doesn’t muffle coincidence: it makes the coincidences more outlandish.”
Were you reading anything outlandish in December?