Spring 2018, In My Bookbag

In which there is talk of the slim stories which have travelled with me within the city, while bulkier volumes stayed home.

Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire and Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1are awkward travelling companions.

As are some of the skinnies in my current stack, like Iris Murdoch’s The Unicorn, which seems designed to be read somewhere other-than-here, but its fine print requires a particular kind of attention.

Travelling with books: a delicate business.

It’s the kind of April morning that would be more comfortably spent indoors but the ice-storm is still fresh in my mind and I am overly eager to be outdoors; I am sitting on a bench overlooking Lake Ontario, with my back to the dog-walkers and senior-citizens who regularly travel this route in the mornings, one hand pressed around a thermos filled with tea, out of habit only, as the outside of the canister is cool, the other pressing the spine of my book downwards in the occasional breeze.

The Finest Supermarket in Kabul presents three narratives, each of which connects with the bombing of a grocery store which caters to shoppers with a taste for Western brands. Who knew that you could buy Nutella in Afghanistan? Ele Pawelski knows and she could give you directions; the human rights projects she’s managed in danger-pay locales have provided a wealth of experiences which she now explores in fiction.

Here, readers meet Merza (who has receiving death threats since he began working in politics, a decision as unpopular with his parents as it is with his political opponents), Alec (a western journalist who has come to Kabul against his editor’s wishes, fatigued by his assignment with an American platoon and in search of a different kind of story) and Elyssa (who has toted her guitar through Kenya and South Sudan before we meet her in Kabul, where she, too, is working and buying toothpaste).

Entering the daily routines of this trio brings readers into everyday life in 2011 Kabul, which includes ever-present tension and conflict but also a single incident of violence which impacts all three characters and other community members in some expected, some unexpected and some unresolved ways which add to the story’s believability (the back cover explains it was inspired by real events). The story is quickly immersive and each character’s experiences are distinct and credible; the narrative style is orderly and deliberate, which might be felt as either a source of stability in its contrast to the chaos in the story or a distancing effect.

In early May, the weather daily varies so that I am either over-dressed or under-dressed, based on my attempt to correct an error made in judgment on the previous outing, so today I am chilly and without a jacket, but warmed by making the acquaintance of Morayo da Silva in Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016).

Born in Nigeria and now living in San Francisco, Morayo travels around the city with curiosity and determination. Readers meet her and inhabit her perspective alone, at first, so enjoy her perspective on neighbourhood shops and farmers’ markets (favourite blooms and foods considered in some detail). In time, however, the narrative expands to include a variety of voices, which affords readers the opportunity to contrast their impressions of Morayo with others’ observations.

We first, for instance, receive her philosophy about her home library, which seems marvellous and considered.

“As you will see, I no longer organize my books alphabetically, or arrange them by colour of spine, which was what I used to do. Now the books are arranged according to which characters I believe ought to be talking to each other. That’s why Heart of Darkness is next to Le Regard du Roi, and Wide Sargasso Sea sits directly above Jane Eyre. The latter used to sit next to each other but then I thought it best to redress the old colonial imbalance and give Rhys the upper hand – upper shelf.”

But when a younger friend visits Moraya’s apartment in her absence, she views the place as being in disarray and comments on the fact that the two women had spent time not long ago to painstakingly alphabetize her entire collection and now books are scattered everywhere and shelved erratically, some with their spines facing the back of the shelf and others damaged and the collection in turmoil.

Being both within and without Moraya’s perspective offers readers her company and a view on her friends’ and acquaintances’ relationships with her which, in a very slim volume, leaves us both feeling included and feeling as though we’d like to know her better.

And, in your bookbag?

2018-05-31T13:06:45+00:00

14 Comments

  1. Naomi June 5, 2018 at 11:29 am - Reply

    These are both on my list, but frustratingly not at my library (or the whole library system… or even the Halifax library system). Sigh. The Finest Supermarket sounds especially good. I do like multiple narratives!

    What a nice post. It’s nice to be able to picture you sitting out reading your books with your tote and your tea. I don’t do a lot of outdoor reading, unless I’m camping. I think mainly because most of my reading happens at night. (Unless I’m camping!) 🙂

    • Buried In Print June 7, 2018 at 4:41 pm - Reply

      Maybe I should write about that more often, maybe even snap some pictures. Sometimes I feel like I read more “on the move” than I do at home, which isn’t how I thought things would be as a young reader.

      So, of course you have asked for them both to be added to the collection. fist pump I’m not surprised, entirely, that the Cassava Republic books aren’t readily available for you, but I am surprised that Quattro books isn’t on their radar, but, then, I always forget that librarians have to satisfy a lot of readers and not everyone reads Canadian.

      And, yes, I did specifically think of you with Supermarket; I think you would enjoy the connections between the narrative threads.

      • Naomi June 8, 2018 at 12:51 pm - Reply

        The only Quattro I have found at the library so far is Harbour View by Binnie Brennan. So at least they’re recognizing the local writers.

        • Buried In Print June 12, 2018 at 11:25 am - Reply

          There are, apparently 166 of their books in the Toronto Public Library catalogue, but 83 of those are read-in-the-Reference-Library only copies. However, I wouldn’t be justified in complaining until I’d read those 83 I suppose!

  2. annelogan17 June 3, 2018 at 5:56 pm - Reply

    The book about the grocery store sounds really interesting, and sort of reminds me of the book I read a few months ago by Deni Bechard-Into the Sun it’s called, and it follows the life of one local and a bunch of ex-pats in Kabul.

    • Buried In Print June 4, 2018 at 11:00 am - Reply

      It would be a fine match with Into the Sun, a book which I remember very well, because it made me completely miss my bus stop and, then, I was so shocked that I had travelled so far past my stop (on a route that I didn’t take often) that I missed the next one too, so completely absorbed was I in the beginning of the story! Did you post about the Bechard?

  3. iliana June 3, 2018 at 4:31 pm - Reply

    Where do you find these books?! It’s so refreshing to see reviews on books that aren’t all the rage. I mean, I love thrillers and popular fiction but it’s important to read from the indie presses too! Unfortunately, this time of the year, I do tend to go for beach reads but you never know what I’ll add next.

  4. Liz Dexter June 2, 2018 at 10:18 am - Reply

    What a lovely evocative post! I read outside in my garden more than anywhere else, apart from when we’re on holiday. I’ve had Paul Theroux out there recently, but I’m just about to embark upon the wartime feeding of Britain and that seems to need me to sit at my 1930s dining table (or even in the bathroom with my Utility tallboy!).

    • Buried In Print June 4, 2018 at 10:48 am - Reply

      Reading outside is one of my favourite things to do. When I’m sitting outside (or very near), I’m much more likely to look away from my book and think about what I’m reading and I feel like I absorb the story differently. And I completely agree that some books do insist upon being read at a table or a sense of schoolgirl-at-desk in a particular location. Now, if I were to imagine the perfect place to read Murdoch’s The Unicorn

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings May 31, 2018 at 5:11 am - Reply

    I know what you mean about the big books – I seem to gravitate towards shorter works lately and I had an attempt at starting Dostoevsky’s The Devils last night (500 odd pages) but faltered. Instead, I think I may try Bergeners by Tomas Espedal which looks much more manageable.

    • Buried In Print May 31, 2018 at 1:14 pm - Reply

      The Paul Auster book is tricksy too; it has far more words per page than the average 866-page-long book. Surely another time will suit you better for the Dostoevsky; you’re such a fan that the timing must be off. The Bergeners looks delightful, BTW; I’ve added it to my TBR (but it’s reference only in our library system, so that will require a certain mood – the mood in which one is willing to sit and read an entire book in the library – that mood).

  6. A Life in Books May 31, 2018 at 3:41 am - Reply

    I like your weather reports – lovely description of an April morning. I’m sure spring is even more welcome for you than it is for us in UK. I like the sound of The Finest Supermarket in Kabul which seems to humanise a place most of us only hear about in the headlines when another round of violence breaks out.

    • Buried In Print May 31, 2018 at 1:05 pm - Reply

      Yes, definitely: the three narratives do situate us – however briefly – in ordinary life in Kabul, bringing it into reality and out of the headlines for sure.

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