Ater a year of new-new-new, January has been filled with the familiar, the known. It’s not been about making new-shiny-library-residing friends, but about becoming better acquainted with long-time residents of my own bookshelves, remembering what drew particular authors onto my MRE (MustReadEverything) list and particular books onto my shelves. Have you made any read-o-lutions this year?
M.G. Vassanji’s No New Land (1991)
“‘When does a man begin to rot?’ Gazing at the distant CN Tower blinking its signals into the hazy darkness, Nurdin asked himself the question. He sat in his armchair, turned around to look out into the night. Through the open balcony the zoom of the traffic down below in the valley was faintly audible, as was the rustle of trees. Pleased with the sound of his silent question, he repeated it in his mind again, this time addressing the tower. The lofty structure he had grown familiar with over the months, from this vantage point, and he had taken to addressing it. ‘When does a man begin to rot?’ he asked. Faithful always, it blinked its answer, a coded message he could not understand.”
Nurdin might as well talk to the tower, for all that he feels a sense of connection with those near and far. Since they came to Canada from Dar es Salaam, the distance between him and his wife has increased, and although he is surrounded by others from his homeland who are trying to make a home in Toronto at 69 Rosecliffe Drive, he feels distanced in every way. Although he believes he was nearly hired to work in the shoe department at Eaton’s Department Store, he did not likely make the shortlist, more likely mistook a friendly interviewer’s small talk as an indication of understanding and acceptance. When a friend introduces him to Dar es Salaam in Toronto, it’s as far from his memories as can be imagined. And, yet, it is connections with friends from his homeland which ultimately allow Nurdin to begin to carve out something-like-home for himself, though it has little to do with buildings or employment or the core releationships he had expected would further his adjustment to this new land. The novel is written in matter-of-fact prose and depicts a newcomer’s experience in unsentimental tones, nonetheless managing to convey the author’s tenderness for his characters. The experience of violence and crime, from within and without the community, is handled deftly, with complexity and sensitivity.
This is the third of the author’s works which I have read (beginning with his short story collection, When She Was Queen); every time I read one, I think that now I must read all of them. Fortunately, I have gathered quite a number of them on my shelves.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)
“How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
Okonkwo is an accomplished and powerful man. He has worked very hard for every yam and wife in his possession, and that is doubly impressive because the example of his own father better prepared him to be hungry and indebted. His status and sense of personal and tribal honour keep readers at a distance because he is required to perform some unsavoury duties/tasks to maintain his position and protect tradition and custom. But the scene in which he follows his third wife (Ekwefi) to the shrine, where the priestess has taken their daughter (Ezinma), and the efforts he makes which are unobserved by anybody (although Ekwefi eventually becomes aware of his presence there and the couple wait together throughout the remainder of the night) reveals another aspect of his character. It’s what happens behind the scenes with Okwonko which sustains my interest in his character. There is a lot of heartbreak in the story,but that which occurs after the missionaries arrive is paticularly keen, signalling that many, many deaths and injustices are yet to come.
This book is one of those which moved onto the shelves of my first apartment, but although I have begun to read it many times, I have never felt pulled into the story by the rhythm of the language as I did on this reading. I have always stalled and set it aside for another time; this year, I find myself eyeing the next two books in the trilogy.
Carol Shields’ Swann (1987)
“How we love to systemize and classify what is rich and random in life. How our fingers itch to separate the tangled threads of theme and anti-theme, moral vision and moral blindness, God and godlessness, joy and despair, as though all creativity sat like a head of cabbage on a wooden chopping block, ready to be hacked apart, first the leaves, then the hot, white heart.”
Divided into five parts, Swann offers readers a chorus of voices. Each of four characters has an opportunity to take centre stage (Sarah Maloney, Morton Jimroy, Rose Hindmarch and Federic Cruzzi), followed by a segment titled “The Swann Symposium” which is written as a play, complete with dramatic instructions, stage directions and director’s notes. Despite a variety of ages and life experiences, working lives and professional ambitions, each of these characters is fully drawn. Readers know them intimately in only a few pages, develop attachments and suspicions, and inhabit a peculiar position of engagement twined with observation as the final segment unfolds. Although the first three-quarters of the novel are preoccupied with character development, the latter presents a mystery, which has been at a slow-boil throughout, although this only becomes clear as the narratives unite. Carol Shields is master of hooking readers from one direction while they are attending elsewhere, so that simple observations about a librarian’s quiet life translate into readers’ unexpected emotional investment as her small world swells uncomfortably large and change abounds. Throughout, musings on creativity and work, relationships and scholarship ensure the work will appeal particularly to those who have a large private collection of notebooks and a favourite pen.
Every year I say that I am going to reread more of my favourite novels, but this year began with that resolution in action. Currently in the stack is a work by another MRE author, Toni Morrison, but I hope to reread something else by Carol Shields before long.
Have you read any of these, or are they on your TBR? How was your reading January? Is there something in particular you are looking forward to reading next?