Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Fresh bookishness!

So many books to talk about! Including what’s currently in my stacks and what I’m reading with this year’s reading about writing.

Spring is in the air: there’s talk of romance and new practices (and old ones too).

There’s talk of backlisted fiction, like Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe and Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl.

And new books, like Anjali Pathak’s The Indian Family Kitchen and Michelle Butler Hallett’s This Marlowe (coming soon).

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!)


Where the Girls Went: Three Novels

Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train and, most recently, The Widow: girls make for good pageturners.

Fiona Barton WidowBut Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins and Fiona Barton are looking to tell different kinds of stories about girls.

In a BookPage interview, Gillian Flynn tries to explain why Gone Girl captured “the popular imagination so thoroughly”.

“It’s perhaps in part because America is still a place where we are most comfortable with women fitting the very specific role of selfless caretaker.”

But as Amy Scribner says: “Flynn doesn’t write about that kind of woman.”

This was in December 2012 and Gone Girl has continued to capture readers who were apparently bored with stories about selfless, caretaking girls.

“I write for people who are readers the way I’m a reader. I don’t care if I dislike a character; I care if I find them interesting or they make me laugh, or if I’m trying to figure them out. I am always more interested in that.” (The Guardian, interview with Emma Brockes October 2, 2014)

And readers do want to figure out this novel, but even more to the point, publishers want to figure out where its appeal lies.

Its author is more circumspect: “You’re never, ever going to repeat that thing – it was its own weird lightning in a bottle kind of thing. My job is to never, ever try to replicate that, because that’s how you write a really bad novel.” (Kate Tuttle Salon, November 3, 2015)

What is the Gone Girl formula?

At the heart of the story is trust — and distrust.

In the context of intimacy — and alienation.

Against a backdrop of desire — and despondence.

And these elements are present in all three of these novels: Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train and The Widow.

Just as the blurbs and teasers for the later novels refer back to the dramatic success of Gone Girl, the themes of the novels intersect and reverberate.

To illustrate the point, here are some quotes. (Note: each of the novels contains multiple POVs, so you will have hard time deducing the source from details about the narrators, and I won’t name the sources so we can avoid spoilers.)

“Can you imagine, finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you? So that’s how the hating first began. I’ve thought about this a lot, and that’s where it started, I think.”

“It’s going to be hard. It might be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but I’m going to tell the truth. No more lies, no more hiding, no more running, no more bullshit. I’m going to put everything out in the open, and then we’ll see.”

Flynn Gone Girl“I wonder whether they are there, whether he knows, whether he’s left, or whether he’s still living a life he’s yet to discover is a lie.”

True selves and open declarations, pretensions and deceits: these are the stuff of girls who are not made out of sugar and spice and everything nice.

And the wife? She is the primary person-of-interest. As Fiona Barton explains, regarding the spark for The Widow, which dated to her years working as a journalist:

“When I was sitting in court, often I’d find myself looking at the family, not the victim’s [family], but the accused’s…. Often that was the wife. What does it feel like to be hearing this, to find out stuff about someone you thought you knew? Are you standing by him? What do you know or don’t know?”
(Bookseller, interview with Sarah Shaffi, November 13, 2015)

But the wife? It’s not a static role, remember? This is not The Tale of June Cleaver or The Adventures of Betty Draper. These stories are aiming elsewhere.

“My wife was no longer my wife but a razor-wire knot daring me to unloop her, and I was not up to the job with my thick, numb, nervous fingers.”

“But I can’t believe … She wasn’t unhappy with me. She wasn’t. She wasn’t.’ When he says it the third time, I wonder whether he’s trying to convince himself. ‘But if she was having an affair, she must have been unhappy, mustn’t she?’”

“I can’t do this, I can’t just be a wife. I don’t understand how anyone does it – there is literally nothing to do but wait. Wait for a man to come home and love you. Either that, or look around for something to distract you.”

But is the un-wife really such a remarkable character? Are the trajectories of these plots so integrally different from stories of years past?

Consider Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Jane Smiley’s The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. These female characters offer complexity and contradictions, challenge expectations and norms, and embody the un-wife.

Hawkins Girl on TrainSo perhaps the appeal of these novels in the Gone Girl vein isn’t so much the narrators after all. I think their appeal is connected to a more fundamental element, the questions that niggle in the backs of our minds about trust.

As Fiona Barton writes: “The imagination is such as powerful tool, suggestion is all you need,” she says. “People fill in gaps. It is much more chilling if you’re doing it yourself, if you don’t have it laid out.”

What do we readers make of the gaps in our lives? They’re everywhere in these novels. Some characters identify them others create them.

“I sometimes leave out details like that. It’s more convenient for me. In truth, I wanted her to read my mind so I didn’t have to stoop to the womanly art of articulation. I was sometimes as guilty of playing the figure-me-out game as [she] was. I’ve left that bit of information out too.”

Beneath all of it?

“There’s nothing so painful, so corrosive, as suspicion.”

“They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be.”

And, perhaps most niggly of all: “People want to believe they know other people. Parents want to believe they know their kids. Wives want to believe they know their husbands.”

These stories aren’t simply about (or for) girls. Or boys. (But would anybody try to market The Boy on the Train?)

These are human stories, dressed in wisps of hair and tendrils of mist. And the archetypal theme of trust/betrayal is not new.

It’s difficult to see how these “girls” really are all that different. Perhaps they are not as selfless, not as consumed by caregiving.  And, yet, they are wholly absorbed by their relationship with a man.

Is it really such a new idea to suggest that allowing one relationship to obliterate all other aspects of one’s life (particularly when it is a troubled relationship) isn’t smart?

Blurred and amorphous, the girls leap from novel to novel, one readily muddled with the next, in a series of entertaining and profitable novels that are as much about following the rules as breaking them.

Have you read any of these? Or, do you plan to read one/some?

Anjali Pathak’s The Indian Family Kitchen (2016)

Beyond its traditional and tasteful cover, Anjali Pathak’s cookbook is a bit of a mess…in a good way.

Appetite - Penguin Random House

Appetite – Penguin Random House

True: I love the stylish photographs that often appear in cookbooks, with the serving ware colourful and bold and the table linens complementary and coordinated.

But, also true: this kind of food photography make my own efforts to reproduce the recipes captured therein seem faded and unremarkable in my kitchen, on my table.

The photographs in The Indian Family Kitchen capture the process of creating the meal, culminating in service on plain porcelain, with the emphasis on food that is meant to be devoured and enjoyed.

It is accessible and inviting, and still delectible and inspiring.

On a spread featuring spices commonly used in the recipes, some of the spices are outside the containers (just as they are in my spice drawer, despite regular efforts to restore order).

On a plain baking sheet, the ingredients are scattered between the items almost as often as not (the art of sprinkling is imperfection incarnate). Seeds, chili bits, slivers of onion: everywhere!

Sometimes the food is even shown with servings missing from it (as though the photographer really did intend to snap the shot with the dish complete, but couldn’t resist eating some first).

This doesn’t seem to be as much of a marketing decision as a decision made to suit the author’s philosophy about food and cookbooks. (Or, perhaps a bit of both, as the family has been very successful in business in recent decades.)

“I have always believed that good cookbooks should be covered in splashes from the prepartion of meals gone by, and full of hte cook’s own scribbled substitutions and suggestions. They should look dog-eared and crinkled from being well read and frequently cooked from. That’s what I hope for my cookbook…a book that is loved and used for many years to come.”

The pages in The Indian Family Kitchen are thicker than some, so it would take some hefty splashes to soak through them, but I could see it getting good and marred over time. Especially if one made use of the recipes which call for pan-frying or deep-frying!

(The two messiest cookbooks on our shelves? John Robbins’ May All Be Fed and an old PETA cookbook – which were not even slightly pretty when new, not even one colour photograph and now yellowed and worn, stained and scribbled and sticky-noted to excess.)

There is a surprising amount of personality which comes through this cookbook’s pages too. Not only are there family photographs interspersed (fun, for sure), but there are page-spreads titled “Secret Essentials” which offer basic and straightforward advice and information, but calling them ‘secrets’ suggests one cook whispering into the ear of another. (These include: Everyday spice bx, Pantry must-haves, Magical chile, Kitchen gadgets, Fridge favorites, Kitchen shortcuts, and Wine & spice.)

And as if that wasn’t enough secrecy, there are little tips and suggestions offered alongside some of the recipes, “My Secret”, inside a medallion. (For instance, alongside the “Spicy Smoked Potatoes” recipe, “My Secret” states: “Fenugreek seeds, also known as methi seeds, are usually bitter and incredibly hard, but once cooked they soften and add a nutty flavor to dishes.Sprouted methi leaves are milderand are a great substitute for spinach.” The potatoes, BTW, are likely to become a staple dish on our family’s plain porcelain plates – a big hit!)

Though only one chapter appears to cater to vegetarian families (“Veggies Galore”), five chapters of the remaining seven are veggie-stuffed too. Only “Big Bites” and “BBQ Indian Summer” are meat-soaked.

Even these two chapters contain some vegetarian and vegan options, but the others (“Light Bites”, “Feel-Good Factor”, “Those Little Extras”, “Sugar & Spice” and “Cocktail Time”) contain a multitude, and for those accustomed to cooking with tofu, the marinades in the meat recipes can be readily adapted too.

The author relies heavily on Greek-style yogourt, but a favourite vegan substitute would work just fine (say, “Mayo from the Heavens” in Miriam Sorrell’s Mouthwatering Vegan).

Although the author does not offer these suggestions (fair enough: it is her cookbook!), she is careful to differentiate where some substitutions are welcomed (e.g. suggesting dried fruit and lime juice to replace some tamarind in the Roast Eggplant Salad with Chickpeas and Tamarind) and where they are not (e.g. one cannot use European Bay Leaves in place of Indian Bay Leaves).

She also indicates when there is even more room to play, for instance in the Crunchy Cauliflower and Broccoli recipe, which she says is just as good with Brussels sprouts or another robust green rather than the broccoli).

The ingredients are, in fact, not at the heart of a page in this cookbook; rather, the instructions take centre-stage. This might make you squint a little making your shopping list (well, that’s just me: I read too much, right?) but it’s ideal for the actual cooking.

Some cooks might prefer that the instructions be numbered, but a narrative approach seems to make sense for this cookbook.

The binding seems solid and inviting; it was possible to lay the book flat on the counter for its first use (Cumin Roast Potatoes, for this family: yes, we love potatoes).

In short, Anjali Pathak’s The Indian Family Kitchen is a welcome addition to our kitchen: a much-used and much-loved room that is often in rather a mess.

Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl (2005)

Jessamy is eight years old. When readers meet her, she is in a closet.

She doesn’t mind readers knowing, but she is hesitant to admit it to her mother, who has believed her to be outside.

Oyeyemi Icarus GirlThis is but the tip of the iceberg which comprises Jessamy’s interior truth, and The Icarus Girl is preoccupied with exposing the bulk of it.

A complicating factor is the Emily Dickinson epigraph: “Alone I cannot be — / For hosts — do visit me  — / Recordless company.”

A girl in a closet and companions whose presence is not recorded: this could be a short story indeed.

But Helen Oyeyemi’s debut novel pulls readers into the closet and into the fragmented but expansive world of a visited eight year old.

The Icarus Girl begins with Jessamy’s recollections of a trip to “Nye. Jeer. Reeee. Ah.” That was the turning point.

For a young girl with an English father and a Nigerian mother, who has lived her entire life in England, travelling for the first time to her mother’s would certainly be a significant event.

For Jess, however, the event is compounded by her introduction to a young girl whose presence reveals a vitally important piece of information to her.

Perhaps it was not intended to be a secret, but until Jess was encouraged by TillyTilly to address the subject, Jess had never mentioned knowing that she was a twin, had never mentioned knowing that her sister had died.

The circumstances under which Jess receives that information are difficult to decipher, but whether intuition or witchcraft, whether conversation or eavesdropping, it becomes a central tenet in her identity.

Simultaneously there is a sense of slippage and swelling, an impression of blurring in the presence of pairs.

“On the telephone to Nigeria, Jess was seized by the fear that it wasn’t Aunty Funke she was talking to, but some thing, winding spirit that had intercepted the call, taking on her auty’s accent and tone of voice, turning every sentence into a shrill cleaving of the nerves.”

There are some delightful sentences in this debut, some shining phrases, like this “shrill cleaving of the nerves”, which also draws the reader’s attention to the schismatic reality of Jessamy’s life.

But, then, reality is a tricky word. It, too, is more fluid and unpredictable here than in many other coming-of-age stories.

“‘Wuraola.’ Her grandfather’s voice was serious now.
‘Two hungry people should never make friends. If they do, they eat each other up. It is the same with one person who is hungry and another who is full: they cannot be real, real friends because the hungry one will eat the full one. You understand?’
‘Yes, grandfather.’ She was scared now, because she knew he wasn’t talking about food-hungry. She almost understood what he was saying: she was sure of it.
‘Only two people who are full up can be friends. They don’t want anything from each other except friendship.’”

It could be that Jess is simply an anxious child, uncomfortable with her Nigerian grandfather who speaks of different kinds of hunger.

But there is an overarching sense of something menacing, of a relentless movement towards something unhappy, twinned with the reader’s desire to understand more about Jess’ situation.

Jess herself is a keen proponent of happy endings. Or, at least, happier endings.

“It was darker here, but she could see her own copy of the book, which was hardback and in pristine condition – the way she kept all her books, except for the parts of the text that had been lightly scribbled and replaced with pencilled additions, some one-sentence long, some as long as a paragraph. Jess made a habit of amending books that hurt her in some way – some books had bad things happening to characters in what she felt was a completely unnecessary and extremely painful way, especially considering that the situations weren’t even in real life, so she had taken to scratching some of the printed text out and adding happier things. So far, Little Women and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess were her most heavily annotated books.”

Her bookishness could explain some of the distance the reader feels between her and a more complete understanding. It could also explain a consistent impression that Jess has the vocabulary and patterns of expression more commonly exhibited by a child five to eight years older than she is when the story begins.

The lengthy passage above reveals some peculiar word choices for an eight-year-old girl — pristine, amending, annotated — and yet it is loosely constructed — with some repetition and a couple of extra adjectives. One could argue for either quality if it was consistent, but the reader also receives some strangely knowing and distanced perspectives which seem far beyond Jess’ experience.

“It was too, too miserable being a child and not being able to know these things or believe in a future change. So strange, being powerless to do anything for her own happiness.”

While this observation certainly makes sense, it is difficult to believe that an eight-year-old, particularly one preoccupied with the sense that the ground beneath her feet is shifting, would have the clarity required to describe her situation in this way.

More credible is the type of scenic exchange with her grandfather, and, to some extent, this kind of declaration: “There is no homeland — there is nowhere where they are people who will not get you.”

(I’m not sure whether the word ‘homeland’ suits this young girl’s experience, perhaps it, too, is better suited to an older child’s or adult’s understanding. But being ‘gotten’? Almost all ages can relate to that sensation.)

If The Icarus Girl had been my first of Helen Oyeyemi’s books, I’m not sure whether I would have picked up another, despite the dynamic energy inthe storytelling. However, in a broader context, it is interesting to compare the author’s vision in her debut with the complexity of later works, like Boy, Snow, Bird.

Have you read one of Helen Oyeyemi’s books, or all of them? Has nyone been hiding in a closet in your reading lately?

Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance (2015)

A romance can pull me through even a long classic which isn’t holding my attention otherwise. This is what got me through Vanity Fair.

And of all the chunksters on my shelves, I might stall in some, but I sailed through Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale (even though the romance is largely confined to the first quarter of the novel).

Penguin Books, 2015

Penguin Books, 2015

So Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance immediately appealed. It wasn’t so much the cover, although it’s striking, isn’t it? Simply the idea of the book. (And, okay, I liked Tom on “Parks&Rec” and a peek at “Master of None” didn’t hurt either.)

And because I don’t read very many funny books, I have made the mistake of binge-reading a few, so I planned from the start to make this one last. Otherwise all-the-funny can blur.

Because even if you think Aziz Ansari is a funny guy, you need to take breaks from laughing. (Jonathan Saffron Foer actually complains in a blurb on the back that this volume provokes laughter too often.)

However, Modern Romance is a joint effort, and sociologist Eric Klinenberg contributes substantially. If you are only into Aziz Ansari, this book might disappoint you; a lot of research went into the work, so unless you’re drawn to the content itself, the statistics and reporting might overwhelm the humour.

At times, I felt like I had slipped back in time, to my last year in high school, with my FamilyStudies teacher lecturing on proquinity and mate selection. I don’t think the word ‘propinquity’ even washed across my mind between then and my reading of Modern Romance. But there it was.)

But it’s interesting, comparing how couples met 20 years ago and 50 years ago (earlier statistics are excluded, as this isn’t an academic study but a book designed to appeal to readers who still remember meeting their partners) and how and where couples meet today.

And of course it’s not just about romance, but modern romance, which means digital romance.

“Twenty years ago, if you met a guy who said he’d met seventy women who’d expressed interest in him in the past month, you’d assume he was quite a stud. Today he can be any guy with a smartphone and a thumb to swipe right.”

My FamilyStudies teacher probably couldn’t have conceived of sexting, but it comprises a significant part of this volume.

Nonetheless, there is a certain timelessness to some aspects of the work. As Helen Fisher remarks (she’s the biological anthropologist who advises “The brain is the best algorithm…. There’s not a dating service on this planet that can do what the human brain can do in terms of finding the right person.”

There are large swaths of the narrative which are presented in a more neutral tone, but Aziz Ansari’s cleverness peppers Modern Romance. There are some substantial anecdotes, and two of these frame the narrative.

Inspired by “a lot of burning questions about modern romance”, he begins by describing a series of texts, he exchanged with a woman, in an attempt to connect – a largely unsuccessful attempt. (The first episode of “Master of None”, which he wrote and directed and starred in, covers some of the same material.)

The volume rounds out with his attendance at a wedding. “The vows in this wedding were powerful. They were saying the most remarkable, loving things about each other. Things like ‘You are a prism that takes the light of life and turns it into a rainbow’ or ‘You are a lotion that moisturizes my heart. Without you, my soul has eczema.’ It was the noncheesy, heartfelt version of stuff like that.”

In between, there are plenty of moments which showcase his sharp and incisive wit. I especially like the parenthetical remarks and the footnotes.

At one point, a stock photo of a happy couple appears. Beneath is this caption: “Open relationships? Is that where you f*ck other people? Yeah, we do that sometimes.” A footnote explains that this is actually a stock photo image, so this couple might not actually respond this way. But, “For real, though: they’re cyborgs.” This is immediatley followed by another footnote, which explains that the legal department has further advised that they cannot be identified as cyborgs either. (It’s funnier when he does it. But also longer. Too long to quote. And, yes, the language is as modern as the technology.)

From a presentation perspective, the volume contains some engaging images. The chapter headings are in bold type and a contrasting colour and the pie charts and grids, the reproductions of texts and the screenshots and photographs, do suit the ‘modern’ aspect of the work. (And, yet, paradoxically will also make the book less appealing in another decade’s time.) These boost the playful note, contrasting with the eight pages of endnotes and two pages of resources.

Readers sitting with all their weight on either end of the teeter-totter risk disppointment: the fun-loving, casual types might be bored with the stats and the scholarly investigative pen-protector types might find the interpretation of the data to be superficial. But the bulk of the readers are likely sitting somewhere between, content with – if not passionate about – their relationship with Modern Romance.

Is it on your TBR? Are you a fan of Aziz Ansari?

April 2016, In My Bookbag (Yoga)

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?

Pierce Yoga for your life

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.

Cushman Moving Meditation

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?

April 2016, In My Notebook

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.

Notebook March 2016 SeriesI’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.

Grafton B BurglarI’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?

April 2016, In My Reading Log (Books on writing and Jhumpa Lahiri)

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.

Lahiri In Other Words

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.”

Lowland Lahiri

Knopf, 2013

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?

April 2016, In My Stacks

Having read through the first quarter of the reading year, how are your stacks?

March 2016 Stack

Reading projects

Is the bedside stack turning over regularly? Are you struggling to stick with projects that you were sure would fit perfectly into 2016?

Four books in this stack are from various TBR lists, some because they are older works by favourite authors (like Toni Morrison) and others because a bookfriend sang their praises loudly (like Leslie Marmon Silko).

Both authors are challenging for me. The prose is beautiful – sometimes so beautiful that I have to read it aloud to catch the beauty, otherwise it swells and whirls and overwhelms and I get stuck.

That happened to me with my last reading of Toni Morrison, The Song of Solomon. I began it three times, read large sections of it aloud, and took months to complete.

None of which even begins to touch my experience of reading Beloved. I began reading it 16 years ago and I haven’t finished yet.

Normally I wouldn’t consider that a read in-progress, but I am still haunted by the half of the book which I did read. This unfinished story is one which I recall more vividly than many books I have begun and finished long since.

My bookmark remains in it, still, and enough time has passed to make me all-the-more anxious about completing, because obviously some of the most troubling parts of the story remain in my reader’s memory. Tar Baby stands between Beloved and me now. I wonder how many years I could spend with Tar Baby in my stack.

Nella Larsen’s volume of collected works, An Intimation of Things Past, with an introduction by Marita Golden, is challenging in a different way.

In some ways, t is a terrific companion to Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, which I read recently. And it also fits with some of the stories in Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks. Her shorter stories are often striking (sometimes startlingly sad), and I am torn between wanting to finish and wanting to spin them out.

Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers took a long time to settle into my stack. The large cast of characters was difficult to hold in my mind (with so many other books in my stack especially) and it took awhile to understand that sometimes it is more about capturing a mood and a trend than about specific details and individual experiences.

Most of the characters are depicted on the home front during WWII, but eventually some characters participate in military conflict, which rounds out the historical picture (from a North American and European perspective).

I knew the time and geographic locations provided connections between chapters (I’ve tried to read this one before – this is my year for completing previously abandoned projects!) but now that I’m a couple hundred pages into the story, I recognize there are more deliberate connections between characters as well (siblings, neighbours, etc.). It is interesting, but the tiny type means it spends more time in the stack than it spends in my grip.

There are five volumes from five different series in my current stack, but I’ll chat about those another time.

Are there elements of your reading stack which seem to demand their own conversation?

Is there something in your stack which you are simultaneously drawn to and yet are reluctant to read?

Are there other bookish contradictions preoccupying your reading mind these days?

Do tell: what’s new and not-so-new in your stack…

On the page, on the screen

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.

Julia Child Maclear MorstadI 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.

Weir MartianAnother 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).

Vanderhaeghe Englishmans BoyFor 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?


Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Café (1990)

Lee Diappearing Moon Cafe“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.