Are you still there? If so, many thanks.

It’s been quiet around here; I realized that my database had tripled its allotted storage and was refusing to hold even one more byte sometime in March, and the oh-so-smart-coder-types have only recently gotten things back in working order. Many thanks to these tech-minded folks. The up-side is that they are going to make some cosmetic changes too, and won’t that be fun?

Peepal Tree Press Ltd, 2013

Peepal Tree Press Ltd, 2013

Didn’t I say that I meant to keep up with my reading projects this year though? Surely with less writing, there was more reading time?

And, yet, I am merely dabbling in the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize titles (stubbornly referred to as the Orange Prize here), having read only seven of the books.

I’m lurching through Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (which has been shortlisted) but I’ve just pulled Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing from the bag.

The former will likely recapture my interest now that I’ve finished Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, which considers complicated relationships, familial and otherwise, of love and loss in the wake of the Air India disaster. I’ve enjoyed Lahiri’s stories and I liked The Namesake, so I think I’ll stop staring out the window and start reading this again.

McBride’s novel will be enjoyed more in another reading mood, for as evocative and powerful as the voice is, my current reading mood is leaning towards more conventional structure. The last shortlisted title I’ve yet to attempt is Audrey Magee’s The Undertaking, so perhaps it will take McBride’s place. Are you reading through the list or cherry picking, or happily watching others do either?

I’m just as meandery about the shortlist for the Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, although I really admired Malika Booker’s Pepper Seed, and have enjoyed what I’ve read of Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman.

The former is painful but accessible; I especially appreciated the poems about the relationships between women. The back cover explains that she finds home in Brooklyn, Brixton, Victoria (Grenada), Trinidad and Guyana. So, in this collection, readers can be “in Grenada one minute and at the immigration desk in Heathrow airport the next, and all these scenes are interconnected in a larger diasporic story”.

Bahadur’s work has a strangely colloquial tone twinned with a good bit of documentation, and the stories are fascinating, so although it’s a slim volume each page seems to hold more words than it should. I tend to read it on longer commutes, and I borrowed this copy, but I think it’s a keeper; I will enjoy it even more without a duedate.

As for long-neglected reading projects, I am trying once more to catch up with the fiction in “The New Yorker”.  It’s perfect for a commute, but the trick is to establish the habit of slipping the magazine in my bookbag. (You know how hard it can be to subtly shift reading habits?)

But take Antonya Nelson’s “First Husband” in the January 6, 2014 issue. This is an uncomfortable story about uncomfortable choices, and don’t we all make our share of them.

In it, Lovey adopts the name in place of her own (Evelyn), via her grandson, Caleb; he is her favourite, and the moniker embodies their attachment and is only one instance of the way in which she caters to his whims. “But that was the challenge in raising children, wasn’t it? Insuring that your ability to deceive kept pace with their ability to see through you.”

Lovey misjudges on this score, however; she believes she is deceiving Caleb in allowing him to win in their game of Monotony (Monopoly – isn’t that great?), but he sees through her. Readers are left to wonder if he will see through her complicated attachment to him (and her relative disinterest in his sisters), via her relationship to her first husband, more quickly and astutely than she anticipates, as he grows beyond the confines of this story.

But, in the meantime, the boy enjoys taking the liberty of playing games in the wee hours, boundaries being stretched as they are, too, by Caleb’s mother, busy acting out her own deceptions. “If you paid attention to the lessons of others, you might never do anything,” observes Lovey. And she sends a text to the absent mother suggesting that all is well, just as willing to deceive as to be deceived.

It is Lovey’s contradictory self-awareness and willful oblivion that makes her such a curious character; it is Nelson’s astute dialogue and scenic detail which pulls readers into the mess of expectations and disappointments. Have you read this story too, either online or on the page?

In other short story reading, I’ve got Alice Munro in my bag. But I seem to need more focus for her writing than public transit allows. Or, else, I need to take longer, surface routes to extend my travel time.

And I’ve just peeked inside Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. It seems to have a Bird by Bird kind of tone, so I’m intrigued. (I’ve never connected with Anne Lamott’s other writing, but I keep eyeing her other books. Do you have favourites?)

How about you? What’s in your bookbag?