So many books to talk about!
Soon, more stories in the Alice Munro reading project with The View from Castle Rock. (Schedule here.)
In recent Canlit bookchat:
Tasmeen Jamal’s Where the Air is Sweet (2014)
Katja Rudolph’s Little Bastards in Springtime (2014)
Heather O’Neill’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (2014)
Janine Alyson Young’s Hideout Hotel (2014)
Nadia Bozak’s Border Stories (2007, 2014)
Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings (2014)
This autumn, reading projects continue, including the Toronto Book Awards nominees, the year’s Giller longlist, the International Festival of Authors, and the Governor General’s Award shortlists. And reading along with the RIPIX group and Diversiverse.
Amd I am reading Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers from the latest list CBC has compiled of good Canlit reading with Angela, finally squeezing in some backlisted fiction. (I’ve read 74/100 on the list so far.)
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!)
As readers will guess from the title, Diane Cook’s collection of stories has an archetypal reach.
These are stories that one can imagine discussing at length in creative writing classes, stories that could nestle into the curricula of English courses which study contemporary American fiction.
But there is no nestling in these stories; these tales are simmered in dramatic tension. They are characterized by a tangible physicality, the author as equally skilled in depicting visceral sexuality as acts of brutality.
These are difficult stories to read, but the same elements which make them challenging also make them compelling. Particularly when it comes to unravelling motivation, the narratives pose a variety of questions, and readers who enjoy psychological drama will find these tales irresistible.
“Each game has rules, and we make them complicated.”
The stories’ complications provoke a variety of responses, and readers are more likely to be repelled and saddened than reassured or satisfied. But if the primary purpose of art is to upset the balance, to inspire debate and discussion, to create a space for new possibilities? Then Diane Cook’s stories are essential reading.
Even when it comes to archetypal images, however, these stories are not straightforward. They pose questions. They do not offer resolution.
In one story, the forest represents the unknown, but later in that story the question is raised as to whether the unknown is something towards which the main character should run or whether she should run away.
Perhaps it’s not even about the forest. Setting aside tales of breadcrumbs and wolves dressed in granny’s nightgown, perhaps there are deeper concerns.
“The woods aren’t dangerous.”
“The woods are what’s in them….”
Even without the context of the story to complicate these statements, which are drawn from a different story than that quoted above, these sentences are fascinating. Readers who have to grapple with the questions of sanctuary and exile, restoration and devastation, mortality and morality which haunt this particular story have much more to consider.
Consider these lines from yet another story:
“Everything is man versus this and man versus that…man versus everything. It’s me. It’s you. It’s us. It’s in us. It’s in….”
What’s in them. What’s in us.
Sometimes the layering between stories is subtle like this; readers partaking in the stories over the course of several weeks might miss the details which knit the collection together.
But the general preoccupations of the stories and the characters who inhabit them appear as echoes throughout the pages.
In one story, an older woman muses: “As the manual often states, this is my future. And it’s the only one I get.” And, in another tale, a young woman observes: “Freshman year starts, and somehow everyone is someone else, someone older, someone interested in the faraway future life.”
These broad-reaching themes, like identity and the human preoccupation with meaning, underscore the collection as a whole.
“Is there any difference between us beyond a few letters in our names?” Perhaps we are not all that different. “We were becoming like other kids. And it was so easy. Just a series of steps.”
But the steps that Diane Cook’s characters take are often unpalatable, distasteful, disturbing. What saves readers from being overwhelmed by the content is the author’s precise and spare language. Despite the stories’ physicality, there is remarkably little sensory detail.The prose style is clean and stark, with only a smattering of dialogue and a few choice images to colour the texts.
Illness sweeps a man into bed, solitary people are like floats in a parade, a man tastes like a warm olive, and a sound settles like leaves in a lap. But overall, these stories are preoccupied with grand events presented in the simplest terms.
Man V. Nature: it’s me, it’s you, it’s us, it’s in us.
And, yes, that’s disturbing. As it should be.
Click for details
Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to participate in this event. For other readers’ opinions, check out these sites:
October 15th: Book Hooked Blog
October 16th: The Book Binder’s Daughter
October 20th: The Well-Read Redhead
October 21st: BoundbyWords
October 22nd: A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall
October 23rd: Svetlana’s Reads and Views
October 28th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
October 29th: Shelf Notes
October 30th: Luxury Reading
November 3rd: Patricia’s Wisdom
November 4th: Bibliosue
November 6th: Inner Workings of the Female Mind
November 7th: guiltless reading
Have you been reading short stories lately? Was this collection on your TBR list, or, have you scribbled it down now?
The second volume in Kelley Armstrong’s Cainsville series is an enticing follow-up to Omens.
Random House Canada, 2014
Those who have read the Otherworld series will recall that the earliest novels concentrated on Elena’s character and here, too, in her return to Cainsville, the main character remains consistent.
Olivia Taylor-Jones is now seeing both omens and visions. You might think it’s “…wonderful to see warnings and signs. But it’s not. For every ounce it makes your life easier, it makes it a pound harder.”
Like Omens, the series’ second installment begins with a vivid and dramatic scene, which not only engages readers’ attentions immediately but also displays Olivia’s character.
She, like many of Kelley Armstrong’s heroines, is ntelligent and responsive, curious and dynamic. When faced with something horrifying, she is suitably horrified, but she does not simply observe, she takes action (or, at least, acknowledges when she wishes that she had not been too overwhelmed to do so).
Another character recognizes and remarks that Olivia is “a smart girl”, so smart that “you’ll figure it out as soon as you admit there’s something to be figured out. About me. About Cainsville.”
Because there is something to figure out about Cainsville. It is only hinted at in Omens, which takes its time (nearly five-hundred pages) introducing the settting and characters, and Visions does not offer full explanations either.
What is explored more fully here, however, is Olivia’s character, as well the dynamics between her and other characters (some of whom are present in Omens and one new individual who plays a substantial role in this second volume).
Olivia’s strength and determination are consistent with other Armstrong heroines, like Elena (whom readers met in Bitten and Broken), but Olivia is a more polished and privileged woman, the sort who is as likely to attend high-class evening events with the who’s-who crowd as she is likely to break into a seemingly-abandoned rural home to rescue a cat.
What these characters share, however, is a sense of rootlessness and a desire to belong; they resemble the young heroines in so many children’s stories, actual-orphans or near-orphans, but girls-all-grown-up, explorers and dragon-slayers who yearn for connection and a true “home”. In the meantime, they satisfy their needs in other ways.
“My first taste of a drug I’d never forget. No merry-go-rounds for me. I wanted roller coasters. I wanted go-carts and snow sleds. Faster. Higher.”
But these characters are multi-dimensional, and although they are often depicted as courageous fighters, presented in contrast to more traditionally feminine heroines, they are equally capable of turning sexist expectations against those who prefer their heroines weak and mild. (“Basically, I did a dead-on impersonation of a helpless blond kitten.”)
Given that the novel is rooted in Olivia’s experiences, it’s unsurprising to find that other characters do possess the kind of information that Olivia seeks: at least, more information, if not complete information.
“That’s what she [not Olivia] felt most of all. That it didn’t belong in Cainsville. This was no ordinary town. She’d always known that. As for exactly what its peculiarities hid, she’d been raised not to question, and she didn’t. Her soul rested quietest that way.”
This kind of subtle layering to the idea of there being more to unearth adds to the novel’s tension, so that even while substantial time is spent developing character, readers are pulled into the broader sense of mystery in the story too.
But Kelley Armstrong readers will find the same dedication to carefully structured action scenes, short and long, which characterize her other fiction.
Sometimes these are quietly unsettling. (“I could see him outside, but the reflection of the lights against the glass made him seem to disappear as he walked. Not vanish or fade, but blend into his surroundings.”)
Other times, they are boldly adrenaline-soaked. (“Our earlier chase had been a playful game of hide-and-seek. This was a hunt.”)
As prominent as characterization is in these novels, Kelley Armstrong’s stories are true page-turners. For those readers looking for more detail about these stories, the publisher’s summary is here, along with links to earlier works, but the spoiler-phobic reader should steer away, for the blurb for Visions describes situations which reveal the outcome of Omens and some key developments in the second volume.
As such, it would be possible to read Visions as a standalone novel, because the events in the series’ first volume are skillfully summarized in a seemingly-casual way and offered on an as-needed basis, but given the attention to characterization, the story will not resonate as strongly with readers who are unfamiliar with the deeper issues which preoccupy Olivia’s character.
But dedicated Kelley Armstrong readers wouldn’t think of missing Omens anyway; they would be more likely to reread a copy of it than to skip past it.
If you would like to be entered in a draw for a copy of Visions, please read on for the relevant details.
Giveaway Details: Kelley Armstrong’s novel Visions is published in hardcover by Random House Canada and this opportunity to win a copy requires that you reside in Canada; if you win the copy, you will need to share your mailing address with me.
Please leave a comment as an entry which includes some bookchat, about Visions or another of her works, or elaborate on your interest in this particular book/author. (If you wish to comment but not be entered for the giveaway, simply say so, and I will withhold your name from the draw.)
Entries will be received until midnight (EST) Friday October 31, 2014 and I will email the winner.
Once a week when he was in Montreal, Conor walked along St. Catherine Street to dine at the St. Lawrence Hotel. In a freshly pressed suit, starched shirt and perfectly tied cravat, he was the picture of sophistication. He even sported a new walking stick. He would often bring a newspaper to give himself cover while he watched others. He studied the placement of the cutlery and when and how it should be used.
Gordon Henderson, Man in the Shadows (2014)
Once a week, preferably on Saturday, he would walk up St. Catherine Street, go to the Palace or the Princess theatre, then have a classy meal in a west-end restaurant. Afterwards he would go back to the obscurity of his suburb, light-footed, whistling, happy, as if he had received confirmation of his secret ambitions. […] Just as he needed to wear soft, expensive materials, he also needed to mingle with the crowd to taste to the full his self-confidence, his refusal to sacrifice what he felt to be rare in himself, setting him off from others.
1945; McClelland & Stewart, 1989
Gabrielle Roy, The Tin Flute (1945)
Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (2014)
Simon & Schuster, 2014
Unkindnesses bearing down.
Book, set aside.
And here is where the experience of reading A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing may end for many readers.
Some, however, will lick their wounds and pick up the book again, return to Eimear McBride’s unconventional novel.
Like W.G. Sebald, the line between fact and fiction is blurred.
Like Anakana Schofield’s Malarky, the narrative is saturated with voice.
The other novels shortlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Fiction Prize are traditional novels: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Audrey Magee’s The Undertaking and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is not what readers expect to find on a literary fiction prizelist. It is the sort of novel one expects to find in a catalogue for an indie press which dabbles in translations.
In many ways Eimear McBride’s novel almost needs a translator. At least, if one rarely ventures from the styles of works which more commonly appear on longlists and shortlists.
A lot of readers will undoubtedly be shocked by the painful story, which is almost tangibly painful for readers because the form so perfectly mirrors the narrator’s struggle.
Sometimes the pain is described overtly:
“And the blender go off inside me such my heart lungs my brains in. Rip my stomach out. They mean it and this time It’s true. I looked at you. And you seem to me your eyes are glitching off and on. Are absent.”
Sometimes the numbness is just as difficult to bear:
“Twist to look like I’m in here not just sitting by myself. Lay in the grass. Foots trodding dance around. See up skirts. In trousers. Music pumping ground under my head. I think some poems I’ll write. Bout. Sights. Remember. This wood smell of. Damp and. Dandelions stain on my bare leg. Sip up my. Sip and slurp it drink. Think of being by myself. Here. In this stranger’s downstairs flat. That. Whirl. Some fella coming up. Do you mind if I sit here and who are you then? Who are you? Do I know you no I do not. I turn my head is very slow and.”
The structure is amorphouse, readers suspended in the narrator’s consciousness.
“And we do get our flat and we live just the same. Some days weeks time go by.”
And, yet, some moments are stretched out, linger for readers to inhabit more fully. Though not in a welcoming way.
“Wander about the months sucking my teeth that you hurt. Touch and touching-up my eye. Packed in and up that life between my thighs. Keep it now for alone at night, for my thoughts to blister on. Can I meet you round the back at lunch? Just fuck off. You all can.”
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is a novel whose style is remarkable and yet the fact that it is so remarkable is perhaps even more remarkable; Eimear McBride’s novel stands out starkly against the comfortable same-ness of style on literary prizelists. Not that it is her debut. Not that she worked on the book for so many years before securing a pubisher. Not that she is a young woman. Eimear McBride has published a novel which is different. And how strange that this is remarkable for a creative endeavour.
Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute (1945)
In the New Canadian Library edition, in Philip Stratford’s afterword, an excerpt from Gabrielle Roy’s autobiography is quoted to explain her connection to St. Henri.
“I returned deliberately to this district listening, observing, sensing that it would be the setting and to a degree perhaps the substance of a novel. Already it gripped me in some curious way that I still don’t understand. Its cries, smells, and reminders of travel weren’t its only fascination. Its poverty moved me. Its poetry touched my heart, strains of guitars and other wistful scraps of music escaping beneath closed doors, the sound of the wind straying through warehouse passageways. I felt less alone here than in the crowds and bright lights of the city.”
Her relationship with this neighbourhood is openly expressed in the novel as well: “For no part of Montreal has kept its well-defined limits or its special, narrow characteristic village life as St. Henri has done.” It has charmed the author in a significant way.
But the neighbourhood is not equally appealing to all residents. Jean’s ambition leads him down another path, literally and metaphorically.
“Once a week, preferably on Saturday, he would walk up St. Catherine Street, go to the Palace or the Princess theatre, then have a classy meal in a west-end restaurant. Afterwards he would go back to the obscurity of his suburb, light-footed, whistling, happy, as if he had received confirmation of his secret ambitions. . […] Just as he needed to wear soft, expensive materials, he also needed to mingle with the crowd to taste to the full his self-confidence, his refusal to sacrifice what he felt to be rare in himself, setting him off from others.”
And Florentine, who is at the heart of the novel, keenly feels the desire for something “more” as well.
“But it was as if she had denied Rose-Anna’s work of all those evenings. This was an end to her belief that she had a pretty dress. Now she knew it was a poor girl’s dress. She would never ear it again without hearing the crisp sound of the scisors in the expensive cloth or seeing it, half sewn, with white basting thread, a dress of sacrifice, of work done by poor lamplight.”
Florentine’s relationship with her mother, Rose-Anna is vitally important to the novel. There is something of a love story, and this appears, at times to be the core of the novel, but that’s misleading.
“That was when she recognized love: this torture on seeing someone, the greater torture when he was out of sight, in short, a torture without end. Breathing harder, she murmured to herself, with the secret desire of inflicting on Jean this arid thirst rather than curing herself of it. I could make him love me too if I had half a chance. By that she clearly meant: I’d make him suffer as he’s making me suffer now.”
The romantic plot elements twist and turn, but beneath it all, like the hum of a sewing machine, is the relationship between mother and daughter, complex and ultimately dissatisfying, but enduring nonetheless.
Eimear McBride will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authorson October 29, 2014.
This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.
Beginning Friday, daily thoughts on other IFOA2014 authors.
Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans (2014)
Bond Street Books – Random House, 2014
It’s risky, fragmenting narration into a large number of voices, but it’s the perfect format for a novel about the experiences of newcomers to the United States, who can have an astonishing variety of experiences.
Readers might expect to face a disadvantage, being unable to attach to a particular character, but Cristina Henriquez balances the introduction of an expanse of characters, some of whom only present a single segment in the novel, with a core set which makes regular reappearances. The connection is slow to build, but particular narrative threads take root in readers and engage them more determinedly.
With a myriad of voices, the emphasis is on the specific experiences each person has. And, yet, there are moments in which broader statements are made as particular voices step out from the crowd.
“Sr. Rivera said, ‘But here? It’s safe, no?’
‘It’s not as safe as it used to be,’ my dad said.
‘But it’s safe,’ Sr. Rivera pressed, like he wanted to be reassured.
‘Yes,’ my dad said. ‘Compared to where any of us are from, it’s safe.’”
The belief that something else will be better has played a role in every character’s experience. This is particularly prominent in the scenes in this novel which focus on family life, fathers and mothers negotiating the stuff of everyday, from school registration to procuring and preparing food in a foreign culture. But even amidst such a variety of voices, from landlords to mushroom farmers, there are some similarities.
“Maybe it’s the instinct of every immigrant, born of necessity or of longing: Someplace else will be better than here. And the condition: if only I can get to that place.”
The core group of characters seems to focus on the experience of two teenagers, whose parents have come to the United States believing that it will provide greater safety for their families than their homelands offered.
Partly because the families are at different stages in the process of acclimatization and partly because the author strives to make characters’ voices distinct, the members of these two families have different perspectives on their lives, not only in terms of current living conditions but also regarding the possibility of a romantic relationship between the young people.
Beyond the everyday tensions surrounding their adjustment to new surroundings, these tensions are at the heart of the novel. The Book of Everyday Americans appears somewhat distanced, almost journalistic in its style initially, but as the colours in the kaleidoscopic view intensify, the events in the novel will carry a greater heft than readers will expect.
Second Story Press, 2014
Beth Goobie’s The First Principles of Dreaming (2014)
Beth Goobie has written novels for teens before and now turns her hand to a coming-of-age novel which exposes the complexity of a young woman’s shifting identity.
Mary-Eve Hamilton has already experienced some radical alterations in her understanding of her place in the world before readers meet her on the page.
“From that moment on, I knew my mother could not see me. The landscapes we inhabited were too different – what she saw was not what I saw; what surrounded her disdained and shut me out. By haunting her footsteps, I was able to catch occasional glimpses into her realm, but she wandered a part of the mind I could not enter; I stood on the edge of a world she had passed through to, a world I had been refused.”
Had Mary-Eve’s mother simply withdrawn, that would have been difficult enough, but her main source of communion is a religious fervour which distances her even further from her family and the wider community. The effect on Mary-Eve is dramatic and lasting.
Naming in this novel is crucial and Mary-Eve’s transformation into Jez (Jezebel) presents a swatch of conflict for readers, who understand her inner struggle to test and pass the limits she has felt upon her identity. Readers’ understanding grows as more information about the family’s experiences is revealed and challenges force Jez to grapple with questions about friendship, sexuality and faith, while testing the boundaries of her own self.
The style is intense and highly emotive, which reflects the heightened drama of Jez’s age and stage in life. This is emphasized by a series of dream-like passages which are almost overwhelming and work to depict the intensity of the transformation that she is experiencing.
The novel moves at a steady pace and culminates in a fervour of activity which is unexpected but, in hindsight, seems inevitable. Much of The First Principles of Dreaming is like a bad dream readers might want to shake, but it is a testament to the author’s skill that scenes perhaps-better-forgotten persist and linger in readers’ minds.
House of Anansi, 2014
Lynn Thomson’s Birding with Yeats (2014)
You can mark the places you have been birding on a map, but it is not only about the outer geography but the inner journey as well. Lynn Thomson describes this very well:
“For birdwatching is a place, not just an activity. It’s a place I knew I could go to in my mind when day-to-day life seemed overwhelming. I could remember seeing ducks bobbing on the frozen waters of the outer harbor, for example, and feeling my blood pressure drop. I saw that place in my boy as I watched him go out to heal his spirit.”
Her memoir wanders from talk of doing, to talk of being, and back and forth repeatedly. The passages about working in Ben McNally Books (a family business) nestle up against talk of parenting her son, Yeats, and musings upon bird sightings: it is all-of-a-piece.
The occasion for a memoir presents itself and Lynn Thomson is attentive.
“It felt like I was under notice from the universe to slow right down. It was time to stop doing all the most important things I’d taken for granted – work, writing, exercise, sleep – and figure out who I was once these aspects of my life were taken away. It was time to reconsider everything.”
Among other activities, birding takes on a new significance.
“I imagined that I felt the birds fly past us, felt the small rush of air and the pulse of their wings, but I know I didn’t. It had happened too quickly to feel such sensation. What I felt was this tremendous sense of belonging; that I belonged with these people and on this earth.”
Readers who are not birders will recognize this sense of communion and even if they locate it for themselves elsewhere, Lynn Thomson’s descriptions invite readers with varying degrees of interest in the avian kingdom to participate in her reconsideration of her middle years in Birding with Yeats.
Have you read any of these? Or, are they on your TBR list/stack?
It’s here. It’s here. It’s finally here! And we’ll be updating this post throughout the day (for the three of us). Thanks so much for stopping by.
Hour Nineteen: Update, BIP
Snack: There might be something sweet. Mixed with whiskey. This might mean things are winding up. More of a tendency towards napping as the sipping continues.
Mr. BIP looks like he’s thinking about video games, as he flips through the ebooks, looking for the perfect fit for a read at the end of a long reading day (translation: he won’t be reading anything else tonight).
Ella has finished Naomi Novik’s Will Supervillains Be on the Final? (192 pages). This is definitely her most productive read-a-thon yet (and her second time participating).
I’ve finished a novella by Veronia Roth called The Transfer, which explains the origins of Four and his choosing ceremony and initiation, coming before Divergent in the series (38 pages). It was a quick read and not on my list, which felt quite decadent. And I’ve read Locomotion, which Ella read earlier today (100 pages). I’m halfway through the Anne Frank book, but I’m not sure how realistic it is to think that I’ll finish it tonight, even if it’s mostly images. Still, trying!
This will be the last update until the wrap-up post. Thanks to all those who have come by to cheer and have created an air of community-feeling.
Soup brewed by Ella!
Hour Seventeen: Update, BIP (Why am I bothering to say this? Nobody else is volunteering to make updates at this point in the evening!)
Snack: We are just picking from various bits and pieces from the earlier snacks now, mainly looking for just enough sugar to get through the next few chapters!
Around 10 o’clock showers were had, to wash the work of reading (and cosplay: see below) off of us. And then we settled into true snacks, rather than the steady mini-grazes we’ve indulged in all day.
It’s a tricky time of night to read in comfortable places. We are tending towards the harder reading locations in the home to avoid the tendency to yawn.
Mr. BIP is finished a book begun before the read-a-thon, Kelley Armstrong’s Spellbound (92 pages count towards today’s totals); he’s going to choose a short story to read next.
Ella finished A Ribbon of Shining Steel by Julie Lawson, one of the Dear Canada series (104 pages count toward’s today’s totals). She’s reading Naomi Novik’s manga now.
I’ve finished Joel Thomas Hynes’ Say Nothing Saw Wood (63 pages), illustrated by Gerald L. Squires, an impressive gothic novella, which perhaps wasn’t the best late-night reading choice, but is certainly a memorable story (and beautifully packaged by Running the Goat). That’s the second of the two literary skinnies I’d hoped to read today. I think I”ll finish one more book, but I’m not sure whether it will be from the poetry stack, the YA books, or the art/photography choices.
Pages Read since last update, 259
(Including Fresh reads 63; Books already begun 92; Kidlit/YA 104; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 0.)
Pages Read, TOTAL: 1447 (remember, this is for three of us!)
(Including Fresh reads xxx; Books already begun xxx; Kidlit/YA xxx; Re-reads xxx; Graphic novels xxx.)
Books Read since last update: 3
(Fresh reads 1; Books already begun 1; Kidlit/YA 1; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 0.)
Books Read, TOTAL: 12
(Fresh reads 4; Books already begun 3; Kidlit/YA 4; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 2.)
Participation Activities/Challenges, TOTAL: 4
Blogs visited: We’ve lost count now!
Ella channels Yotsuba for a mini-challenge.
Hour Thirteen: Update, BIP
Snack: Autumn vegetable soup with garden herbs (the ones which haven’t been nipped yet), made from scratch by Ella last night to maximize today’s reading time.
Mr. BIP has finished Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse (224 pages), which was a real treat apparently, and he is ready to choose another book, post-soup.
Ella finished volume 6 of Chew (156 pages), which was so good she had to read parts of it aloud, and she finished another book she had been reading before hand, Where Should I Sit at Lunch: The Ultimate Guide to Surviving the High School Years (by Harriet S. Mosatche and Karen Unger) in which she read 167 pages; she’s working on finishing another book in the Dear Canada series now.
I’ve finished Fred D’Aguiar’s novel, which was elegant and powerful, like Toni Morrison and Rashomon in a slow dance (138 pages). I also finished Martha Solomon’s (Ed.) One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories (84 pages), which is beautifully presented with honest and forthright commentary from a remarkably diverse set of contributors.
Pages Read since last update, 769
(Including Fresh reads 222; Books already begun 167; Kidlit/YA 224; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 156.)
Pages Read, TOTAL: 1188 (remember, this is for three of us!)
(Including Fresh reads 330; Books already begun 167; Kidlit/YA ; Re-reads 408; Graphic novels 283.)
Books Read since last update: 5
(Fresh reads 2; Books already begun 1; Kidlit/YA 1; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 1.)
Books Read, TOTAL: 9
(Fresh reads 3; Books already begun 1; Kidlit/YA 3; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 2.)
Participation Activities/Challenges, TOTAL: 4
Blogs visited: 39
Foccaccia for RATing!
Hour Nine: Update, BIP
Snack: Herb foccaccia with spiced, sauteed mushrooms.
Mr. BIP is still reading Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse (not counting pages until finished); it’s possible that there was a nap involved.
Ella finished Jacqueline Woodson’s Locomotion (100 pages), which Vasilly recommended; she’s reading John Layman’s Chew volume #6 (Illustrated by Rob Guillory): Space Cakes now.
I’m reading Fred D’Aguiar’s The Longest Memory (not counting pages until finished). It’s beautiful and painful; I will finish it before I choose something else, because the swaps in perspective make it a book-best-read-in-a-burst.
Pages Read since last update, 100
(Including Fresh reads 0; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 100; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 0.)
Pages Read, TOTAL: 419
(Including Fresh reads 108; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 184; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 127.)
Books Read since last update: 1
(Fresh reads 0; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 1; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 0.)
Books Read, TOTAL: 4
(Fresh reads 1; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 2; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 1.)
Participation Activities/Challenges, TOTAL: 3
Blogs visited: 32
Fuelling up for more reading and cheering!
Hour Six: Update, BIP
Snack: Veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, cabbage, onions), two variations on hummus, with Ying Ying’s smokey deli slices (a family fave).
Mr. BIP is reading Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse (not counting pages until finished).
Ella is reading Jacqueline Woodson’s Locomotion (not counting pages until finished).
I’m not sure what I’m going to read next from the stack (love the inbetween bit). Here’s a glimpse at the two books I finished since the last update:
Soraya Peerbaye’s Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names (108 pages) is reflective and evocative. Comparisons are sensorily rich, sometimes to tamarind and cardamon pods (an armonica, whales) and other times to penguins from the sea and veins (watermelon seeds spat, filigree). Scenes are as diverse as Mauritius and Antartica, with many interior landscapes of memory too. My favourite is the final long poem “Reading the Yamana-English Dictionary”, but it is hard to choose: this is a beautiful volume, which is likely to make my list of favourite reads for this year.
Mordecai Richler’s Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang (84 pages) puts this patriarch of Canlit’s family on the page and affords things-that-go-bump-in-the-night a gale of laughter as accompaniment; he was doing the Lemony Snickett thing years and years before. Although I did read this as a girl, I think I enjoyed it even more as an adult (“big person” who has lost her “child power”). We are passing this book around the family this read-a-thon, as we did last year with Mélanie Watt’s Scaredy Squirrel books for Dewey’s Autumn 2013. It’s hard to quell the giggles, and I’m looking forward to at least one more volume in the series today.
Pages Read since last update, 192
(Including Fresh reads 108; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 84; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 0.)
Pages Read, TOTAL: 319
(Including Fresh reads 108; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 84; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 127.)
Books Read since last update: 2
(Fresh reads 1; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 1; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 0.)
Books Read, TOTAL: 3
(Fresh reads 1; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 1; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 1.)
Participation Activities/Challenges, TOTAL: 3
Blogs visited: 19
#TeamCSLewis for drinking tea, although the day started with being #TeamTrollope
Hours One-Four: Update, BIP
Snack: Earl Grey tea with lemon loaf (from the Moosewood Dessert cookbook) baked into cupcakes
Mr. BIP has finished David Alexander Robertson 7 Generations (Illus. by Scott B. Henderson).
Ella hasn’t started to read yet, but at least she’s awake now. Soon she will be pulling from the stacks (more competition for choice volumes!).
I’ve read half of Soraya Peerbaye’s poetry collection (but I’m not counting the pages until I’ve finished).
Pages Read since last update, 127
(Including Fresh reads 0; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 0; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 127.)
Pages Read, TOTAL: 127
(Including Fresh reads 0; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 0; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 127.)
Books Read since last update: 1
(Fresh reads 0; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 0; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 1.)
Books Read, TOTAL: 1
(Fresh reads 0; Books already begun 0; Kidlit/YA 0; Re-reads 0; Graphic novels 1.)
Participation Activities/Challenges, TOTAL: 2
Blogs visited: 7
Hour One: Update, BIP
Beginning at 8am, there were three contented readers, with stacks of books.
Snack: Crumpets, with black currant jam from the farmers’ market, cups of Wychwood Barns’ Coffee.
You can click for details about the stack!
1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?
We are reading from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It’s a dull, damp autumn morning. The birds have been fed, our tame squirrel has her nuts, the leaves are still more than half-on the trees, and the books are stacked high.
2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?
Mr. BIP’s – David Alexander Robertson 7 Generations (Illus. by Scott B. Henderson)
Ella’s – She’s still sleeping.
Mine – Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse (Purple, shiny, scary, fun: what more could I want?!)
3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?
Mr. BIP’s – Crumpets (Because theyre dripping with pockety-goodnesses of jam: why not?)
Ella’s – *snores*
Mine – Crumpets (Rare treat that makes me think of childhood Enid Blyton stories about secret islands and adventures)
4) Tell us a little something about yourself!
We all love cooking (and eating!) as much as we love reading. Ella has been in the kitchen from the days when her sole skill was mixing, and she recently got her first kitchen knife. Mr BIP got his chef’s papers in another lifetime but now spends his days at a desk not a stove, though he still enjoys the creative side of the kitchen. I love reading recipe books and trying new dishes, though I’m a cook-who-measures rather than a cook-who-experiments.
5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?
We have all participated before, and we’re all trying something different today.
Mr. BIP – Often more about cheerleading than reading, he’s planning to turn the pages today, with a combination of graphic novels and novels, with an emphasis on powerful storytelling.
Ella – Often more about reading from the library, she’s concentrating more on books on the shelves at home and following up on some books friends and family have recommended.
Me – I’m focussing more on books that might be good read-a-thon-ing material, not necessarily what’s near the top of the TBR or what fits with reading challenges or other bookish plans.
Happy Reading to Everyone!
It’s possible that my favourite part of read-a-thon-ing lies in assembling the stacks. Perhaps not only possible. Perhaps probable.
It’s certain that my favourite part of assembling a stack of books lies in the dreaming. Last year I successfully completed a record amount of NOT reading on Dewey’s autumn weekend.
But I have allowed myself the pleasure of assembling not just one but several stacks of lovelies all the same.
Nonetheless, the rational part of me (and all parts of me present for read-a-thons heretofore) realizes that nearly twenty books is a completely unreasonable goal for a single day’s reading.
No matter how much food was prepared in advance or loads of laundry done on Friday instead.
So my goal is: 2 poetry books (not 6), 2 art books (not 5), 2 kids/YA books (not 4), and 2 skinny literary novels (not 3).
Sheree Fitch’s In This House Are Many Women
“Sheree Fitch’s refreshingly direct lyrics explore the harsh realities of women’s lives and the many kinds of shelter they create for themselves and give to each other. The title suite is peopled by battered wives, single mothers, women who are poor and perhaps homeless, and exhausted caregivers, with each woman speaking in her own voice.” (From the publisher’s page)
Brent MacLaine’s Athena Becomes a Swallow and Other Voices from the Odyssey
“Brent MacLaine’s elegant, capacious, and finely crafted collection, Athena Becomes a Swallow
, contains twenty-seven monologues spoken by characters who appear in Homer’s The Odyssey
. Adopting the voices of the minor characters, MacLaine offers a novel perspective on the epic events, demonstrating how the shine of the gods falls on the common folk as well.” (From the publisher’s page
Soraya Peerbaye’s Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names
“In this first collection, Soraya Peerbaye explores in exquisite detail the material and the ephemeral, from the intricacies of objects owned by her father, and the habits that animate them, to the landscape and residents of the Antarctic Peninsula.” (From the publisher’s page)
Tammy Armstrong’s The Scare in the Crow
“As Tammy Armstrong rode horseback on a one-month sojourn in Iceland, up rose the ley lines that crosshatched the landscape — ancient tracks rife with saga, myth, and human history. In this collection, her poems both respond to W.H. Auden’s poetic travelogue, Letters from Iceland, and evoke her raw relationship to the native natural world of North America.” (From the publisher’s page)
Claire Harris’ She
“She is a complex novel in poetry and prose poetry, crafted with visual form and eloquent language. Penelope-Marie Lancet, an immigrant from Trinidad who lives in Calgary, yearns for a child to the point of obsession.” (From the publisher’s page)
Pamela Mordecai’s Certifiable
“The rhythms and rhymes of the creole soundscape crackle through Certifiable. Mordecai’s deft hand wordplay flows through and beyond standard English and the creole continuum to reveal the characters in Certifiable and record their experiences.” (From the publisher’s page)
Menno Metselaar and Ruud van der Rol’s Anne Frank: Her Life in Words and Pictures (Trans. Arnold J. Pomerans)
“Produced in association with The Anne Frank House and filled with never-before-published snapshots, school pictures, and photos of the diary and the Secret Annex, this elegantly designed album is both a stand-alone introduction to Anne’s life and a photographic companion to a classic of Holocaust literature.” (From the publisher’s page)
Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral’s Chopsticks: A Novel
“Brilliant and lonely, Glory is drawn to an artistic new boy, Frank, who moves in next door. The farther she falls, the deeper she spirals into madness. Before long, Glory is unable to play anything but the song ‘Chopsticks.'” (From the publisher’s page)
Isabel Greenberg’s The Encyclopedia of Early Earth
“As intricate and richly imagined as the work of Chris Ware, and leavened with a dry wit that rivals Kate Beaton’s in Hark! A Vagrant, Isabel Greenberg’s debut will be a welcome addition to the thriving graphic novel genre.” (From the publisher’s page)
Chester Brown’s Paying for It: A Comic-strip Memoir about Being a John
“Paying for It was easily the most talked-about and controversial graphic novel of 2011, a critical success so innovative and complex that it received two rave reviews in the New York Times, and sold out of its first print run in just six months. Chester Brown’s eloquent, spare artwork stands out in this paperback edition.” (From the publisher’s page)
Martha Solomon’s (Ed.) One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories
“One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories is a groundbreaking collection that helps to end the silence surrounding abortion experiences and to combat the feelings of fear, shame, stigma, and isolation that many women face. By featuring over thirty women’s personal experiences and portraits, One Kind Word shifts the focus of the abortion debate towards creating a more open, honest, and compassionate dialogue about reproductive freedom in Canada.” (From the publisher’s page)
Mordecai Richler’s Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang
“Mordecai Richler is a funny man, a good writer, and everyone should go out tomorrow morning and beat his local bookseller into submission if he hasn’t got a nice plump display of books titled Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang…. It is ghastly and funny…an unbelievably believable unbelievable place with no artificial sweeteners or preservatives.”
–The New York Times Book Review (Quoted on the publisher’s page)
Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse
“A deliciously dark new offering from the award-winning author-illustrator of the OTTOLINE books.” (From the publisher’s page)
Jaqueline Woodson’s Locomotion
“Told entirely through Lonnie’s poetry, we see his heartbreak over his lost family, his thoughtful perspective on the world around him, and most of all his love for Lili and his determination to one day put at least half of their family back together. Jacqueline Woodson’s poignant story of love, loss, and hope is lyrically written and enormously accessible.” (From the publisher’s page)
Ivan E. Coyote’s One in Every Crowd
“Ivan E. Coyote is one of Canada’s best-loved storytellers; her honest, wry, plain-spoken tales of growing up in the Yukon and living out loud on the west coast have attracted readers and live audiences around the world. For many years, Ivan has performed in high schools, where her talks have inspired and galvanized many young people to embrace their own sense of self and to be proud of who they are. One in Every Crowd, Ivan’s eighth book with Arsenal Pulp Press, is her first specifically for queer youth.” (From the publisher’s page)
Really Skinny Literary Works
Fred D’Aguiar’s The Longest Memory
“Written in taut, poetic language, THE LONGEST MEMORY is set on a Virginian plantation in the 19th century, and tells the tragic story of a rebellious, fiercely intelligent young slave who breaks all the rules: in learning to read and write, in falling in love with a white girl, the daughter of his owner, and, finally, in trying to escape and join her in the free North. For his attempt to flee, he is whipped to death in front of his family, and this brutal event is the pivot around which the story evolves.” (From the publisher’s page)
Kim Thúy’s Man
“Following on the Giller Prize-nominated and Governor General’s Literary Award-winning success of Ru, Kim Thúy’s latest novel is a triumph of poetic beauty and a moving meditation on how love and food are inextricably entwined. ” (From the publisher’s page)
Joel Thomas Hynes’ Say Nothing Saw Wood
“Joel Thomas Hynes’s stunning exploration of guilt and remorse, of love and regret, received raves as an award-winning stage play; this is the novella that inspired the play, available in print at last. Hynes’s pitch-perfect ear for voice and his remarkable sense of dramatic cadence combine to form a story of great power and ultimately great humanity. This is Newfoundland gothic at its best.” (From the publisher’s page)
So, you can see how this went from a completely unreasonable list to a nearly completely unreasonable list.
Because however skinny, someone who read less than 100 pages in the last read-a-thon shouldn’t be eyeing 8 books for the day, no matter how skinny.
But then again, enjoying a day of read-a-thon-ing isn’t about the “shoulds”, is it.
Are you read-a-thon-ing this weekend? Have you made a reasonable list?
In 1992, Jevrem lived through the siege of Sarajevo and Katja Rudolph’s novel considers the impact of such trauma, which extends far beyond national borders. He develops fervent opinions and beliefs based on his early experiences and the events witnessed in his family, ensuing losses and severences.
“What was wrong with all the fucking stupid, sobbing, bullshitting adults? Making wars, then wailing about the dead children. They were ridiculous, absurd. They made me sick.”
Jevrem is at the heart of this debut novel, but the character who truly leaps off the page is his grandmother. Perhaps that is partly because readers view her through Jevrem’s perspective: a heroine across the ages, wholly admired although her history seems to taunt Jevrem in his teen years, when the lines between resistance and revolution, genocide and war become blurred.
“You see, if you were a partisan in World War Two, lived in the forest for years, kicked the shit out of the Nazi and Italian invaders, you’d be the definition of good too, it doesn’t matter what you did with the rest of your life. How can anyone compete with that shit? Our war was just a bunch of maniacs killing each other, and people in faraway places watching and making the decisions.”
What does it mean when a child “has” a war to call his own? What develops alongside the realization that one has no control over such dramatic events? When one realizes that families have not only experienced great losses but have perpetrated actions against other family members on opposing sides of a conflict? What becomes of those “sides” when the residents inhabit other territories? Do divisions cross into other borders, or do new conflicts emerge which require that battlelines be redrawn?
In 1997, the action shifts to Toronto, where Jevrem struggles with questions of identity like any other teenager, but without a convenient national affiliation. He draws his own borders.
“We call ourselves The Bastards of Yugoslavia, as a joke. We like the word bastard. It’s got a ring to it, and has a lot of different meanings. It’s what the nationalists who took over our country called us, the offspring of women in mixed marriages. They meant it as an insult, but we feel proud. It’s why we’re here, together, in this flat, endless city next to an abnormally large lake. They didn’t want us back home, not really, in all their new separate little cleaned-up countries, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia. And Bosnia, split completely in half, Croats and Muslims on one side, Serbs on the other. Where were we beautiful mongrels meant to fit?”
One striking element of Little Bastards in Springtime is the use of parallel settings, the detailed descriptions of Toronto (with specific roadways and corners named, so that one can imagine riding in the car and walking the streets with Jevrem) and Sarajevo.
“At night, a wash of lights like jewels filled the valley, and the river reflected moonlight when it was in the mood. Even the crappy parts were beautiful, because of the grandeur of our geography, Papa said, with hills and mountains on three sides, always visible no matter where you look, the frame to the picture. When I was little, delicious smells pulled you into bakeries and fishmongers and restaurants and the kitchens of friends’ mothers. Hookah, ćevapćići, pizza, burek. The bazaars, markets, souks had everything in them from all the countries of the world.”
What sets Katja Rudolph’s debut novel apart, however, is the commitment to complexity. Jevrem’s rage flourishes on the page, unchecked, and because the novel is rooted in his perspective, the only glimpse readers have of another perspective is via his interactions with secondary characters, often those who inhabit positions of judgement.
“‘Rebels and delinquents and even nihilists,’ she continues, ‘are fierce moralists, contrary to popular understanding. They see what’s wrong with the world and react with their own forms of outrage.’”
Readers understand through Jevrem’s eyes that Little Bastards in Springtime is an expression of outrage.
And, as Molly Ivins says, “What you need is sustained outrage…there’s far too much unthinking respect given to authority.”
Books like Katja Rudolph’s Little Bastards in Springtime challenge unthinking.
Gordon Henderson’s Man in the Shadows (2014)
“As he helped her into the carriage, Agnes Macdonald whispered demurely, “I can lean on no other arm like yours.” Macdonald sat back contentedly and called out to the driver, “Buckley, take us to the office.”
It would have been simple, the man across the street thought, lifting the collar of his old grey coat. A flick of the blade and a slit throat. So easy. But the time wasn’t right. Not yet.”
A fictionalized account of the early years of Canadian history, opening on the day of Confederation, July 1, 1867, has the makings of a thriller. Not only are citizens divided on the matter of whether unity is the best option, but the threat of American incursions is still real and pressing. Then, add an assassination into the mix, and the stakes are raised.
At the end of the novel, Gordon Henderson discusses “What’s True and What’s Not” but many readers will already be familiar with the assassination of D’Arcy McGee, a murder which remains unsolved. So a scene that like quoted above is credible during this time, given that John A. MacDonald is emerging as a national leader and warring interests abound.
The novel revolves around a figure on the margins of these events, however, which is most entertaining for the reader, who longs for a variety of tableaux. Thomas O’Dea is an Irish-Catholic immigrant, a “very promising young man pulling himself up from the dirty streets”, who brushes elbows with the prime minister through his work as an assistant and his employer’s patronage of the various drinking establishments which John A. also frequents.
The O’Dea family, from the other side of the river, offers readers a satisfying contrast in a tale chiefly preoccupied with the doings of lawmakers and moneyed lawbreakers who are seeking shifts in power to increase their own wealth and influence. Nonetheless this is a plotty novel, and one preoccupied with the targets of the man in the shadows, so the surrounding characters needn’t extend beyond the page.
The most intriguing element of Gordon Henderson’s novel is the dance between history and fiction. Readers who enjoy that kind of interplay will appreciate the fact that the author’s notes appear at the end of Man in the Shadows, so that they can imagine which of the characters have been invented and which have been borrowed and tease out the possibilities related to their roles in the assassination plots which dissenters have hatched.
Doubleday – Random House of Canada, 2014
Tom Rachman’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (2014)
Tooly Zylberberg has a bookstore that will make bookish folk twitch with envy. Located strategically nearby Hay-on-Wye (but not strategically enough to ensure profitability beyond the literary festival dates), readers meet her in a comfortable bookish scene, contemporary but feeling out-of-time because of the mass of old books.
And Tooly is not the only bookish character; just as readers would expect from the striking cover image, books proliferate in Tom Rachman’s novel.
‘Books,’ he said, ‘are like mushrooms. They grow when you are not looking. Books increase by rule of compound interest: one interest leads to another interest, and this compounds into third. Next, you have so much interest there is no space in closet.'”
The bookstore setting, however, operates as more of a bookend. In the following segments, the action shifts more often to the past, and readers get acquainted with a younger Tooly, who has varying degrees of understanding about the great powers which rise and fall in her young life.
The exact nature of her relationships with an eclectic group of characters is unclear for much of the novel, but what is clear are the personalities, vividly drawn and dynamic. In the novel as a whole, Tooly is clearly the main character, but within each segment, certain characters step forward to meet the reader, just as Humphrey describes, blurring the line between hero and extra.
“Only one form of book did Humphrey disdain: made-up stories. The world was far more fascinating than anyone could imagine. In made-up stories, he contended, life narrowed into a single tale with a single protagonist, which only encouraged self-regard. In real life, there was no protagonist. ‘Whose story? Is this my story, with my start and finish, and you are supporting character? Or this is your story, Tooly, and I am extra? Or does story belong to your grandmother? Or your great-grandson, maybe? And this is all just preface?’”
In some ways, Tooly’s bookstore story is just preface. But it also sets the tone for the novel. Settings and times shift, but the real drama in the novel is rooted with the idea of home and how one leaves, returns, and stays in one. For much of the story, Tooly is too young to affect her own arrivals and departures, which adds to the novel’s sense of mystery.
“Being young was so unfair, and you couldn’t leave. That was the difference between childhood and adulthood: children couldn’t go; grown-ups could.”
But readers expecting a dramatic reveal as the timelines begin to connect will be disappointed; as is so often the case, what is truly surprising is not necessarily the reality of a situation but how long it can take one to recognize that reality.
Before Tooly (and readers) can return to the idyllic bookstore, she must catch up with her past before it slips out of her reach. And a journey, however long, can’t help but be satisfying when it begins and ends in a bookstore.
Scribner – Simon & Schuster, 2014
Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (2014)
All the Light We Can See is paradoxically soaked with darkness. Partly this is simply a question of timing.
“It was hard to live through the early 1940s in France and not have the war be the center from which the rest of your life spiraled.”
But even beyond the war, there is a looming threat on the horizon. As young Werner comes of age, for instance, possibilities become increasingly eclipsed.
“Even now Werner can hear a mechanical drumbeat thudding in the distance, first shift going down in the elevators as the owl shift comes up – all those boys with tired eyes and soot-stained faces rising in the elevators to meet the sun – and for a moment he apprehends a huge and terrible presence looming just beyond the morning.”
And for Marie-Laure, blinded as a girl, darkness is a backdrop of her life, but Anthony Doerr’s writing capitalizes on the sensory details available to young Marie-Laure and her presence is the novel’s most consistently bright element.
“The miniature intersection of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge, for example, just a block from their apartment, is nothing like the real intersection. The real one presents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance: in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.”
Anthony Doerr’s setting is inherently rich, geographically and politically. In combination, his prose style, phrases upon phrases and generous descriptive detail, could strike some readers as overwriting. But the characters are created with an equal abundance of detail, and readers who connect with them will recognize a synergy between these aspects of the novel and find it hard to imagine it having been written in any other way.
Have you read any of these? Or, are they on your TBR list/stack?
Like Sharon Butala in Perfection of the Morning (1994) and Candace Savage in The Geography of Blood (2012), Theresa Kishkan explores the relationship between landscape and memory.
Goose Lane Editions, 2011
The essays in Mnemonic are titled in two ways, first with the Latin name for a tree and, second, with a reference to an element of her personal experience, as though these are vitally intertwined.
In Quercus garryana Fire, she describes a scene which recreates for readers the ways in which she has, since girlhood, absorbed the natural world around her, a scene which will resonate even for mostly-indoor readers:
“…I’d recline in the grass, ants tickling my bare legs, and read Nancy Drew adventures. I longed for a life so exciting – where treasure might turn up in a hollow tree or under a bridge; where villains might be thwarted by polite requests; where a girl would rise from a shaking up by an escaped convict, straighten her stocking seams, and drive away in her roadster for the next case. I was absorbing the dry heat, pollens, and odours as I read, my body resting on golden grass that flattened beneath my weight, satin to the touch.”
The author adeptly recreates scenes which invite readers to remember experiences from their own childhoods, immersing reader and writer alike in a time which came before, which is both distant and ever-present.
“Growing up, I remember the elderly couples at work in their gardens, tending neat English borders of perennials, trees pruned within an inch of their lives, watched by a cocker spaniel or Jack Russell. These couples were kind to children whose baseballs landed in their backyards. And there were also the widows. Invited into their houses, I was filled with the sense that time had stopped.”
Musing upon the passage of time in Mnemonic, a work unabashedly preoccupied with the mysteries of memory is to be expected. But the inclusionary tone and the author’s willingness to share elements of her process of rediscovery build emotional resonance throughout the work.
“I would think, Entire lives have been lived in these houses, and would be filled with something like sadness, but not quite. Later the word nostalgia settled into my lexicon with such ease that I knew I had been waiting all my life for it.”
As the author reflects upon more recent years, the preoccupations shift slightly, but the focus remains the same: “How much am I remembering, how much is dreaming?”
Similarly, there is room amongst the trees for consideration of other elements of the natural world, but the plants remain at centre stage.
“Predators, tricksters, comics, monogamists, careful parents, scavengers, demiurges, shape-shifters, opportunists, acrobats on the high currents of air, practitioners of song. If I am honest, I must confess that ravens are almost as influential to my sense of music as the other singers I have learned to love.”
Its meditative style is almost tangible, perhaps even contagious, so that readers who have settled into Mnemonic may find themselves turning pages ever-more slowly, taking time to look around and reach back, imagining what could serve as a mnemonic for other lives filled with other memories.