Such good reading this summer, so far. In other respects, perhaps mine has not been the most productive summer. But it all depends what one puts on a to-do list, doesn’t it! What if your to-do list was all about the books in your stacks?
For satire junkies:
- Wallow in the privilege in the first two volumes of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians trilogy
The first volume, Crazy Rich Asians, offers readers a surprisingly detailed and complex family tree.
Don’t sweat over it. It’s complicated. Most of the characters probably couldn’t clearly articulate the connections either.
The characters inherently embody the cultural opinions about old and new money, about mainland and overseas identity, about traditional and modern values.
Readers will marvel at the “whoest-who of Singapore society”, a plane that makes Air Force One look like a sardine tin, and a closet with a built-in system to ensure no outfit is worn more than once.
It’s entirely possible to allow the characters speak for themselves and follow along with the terms helpfully defined (briefly and often humourously) in an occasional footnote. For instance, gow tzay, a “charming Hokkien term”, which describes people who are equal parts bitchy, unreasonable, stuck up, and impossible to deal with.
“Do they still have those lines at Louis Vuitton that they make all the Asian customers wait in?”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t been inside a Louis Vuitton in decades, Auntie Elle.”
“Good for you. Those lines are terrible, and then they only allow Asians to buy one item. Reminds me of the Japanese occupation, when they forced all the Chinese to wait in line for scraps of rotten food.”
See? It’s impossible to misunderstand Auntie Elle’s position. Kevin Kwan’s characterization is detailed and textured. With or without charts or footnotes.
And the overarching themes are universal, even if readers are more accustomed to novels set against a background of American or European, rather than Asian, wealth. Nonetheless, men with fortunes still seek wives (and, yes, it’s obvious that Kevin Kwan has studied his Austen too).
These volumes are highly entertaining. Like an “issue of Vanity Fair magazine come to life”.
And the satire is even sharper when one considers that the author was counselled to editr some of the extravagent elements he had included, which were based on his own personal observations of this world. (There is a lengthy NPR interview with the author here.)
For historical-fiction enthusiasts:
- Find a mystery in the mirror: Susanna Kearsley’s A Desperate Fortune
Although highly-entertaining and a satisfying page-turner, there is more substance to this novel than the cover might suggest.
Not only is the duality of a shadow-court inherently intriguing (“a castle with its king and all his courtiers who were real, yet without substance, moving always as a mirror to their counterparts across the sea”), but the mirror imagery operates at a variety of levels.
Reflections abound. One woman is in the present, who has learned to mimic others around her in order to camouflage her Aspergers, is near Paris (at La maison de chatou). And she is decoding the experiences of a Jacobite exile, written 300 years ago in the past, who learned to mask her true feelings and transform like a fairy in an old-fashioned tale.
The diary presents itself with two faces as well. Readers see it in the present-day with “worn cloth-covered boards and pages turned a golden beige by time and …[ink once] black, but time had faced it to brown”. And, through the original writer’s eyes: “with all its pages blank, exactly like the one in which her uncle kept household accounts, with cloth boards and a leather spine, and with it had been a cylindrical travelling pen set, the inkwell and talc in small sections that screwed one on top of the other beneath the only section ta held three plain quill pens with neatly carved nibs.”
Even the fairy tales have more than one layer of meaning reflected within.
“‘Well, these are not the fairy tales that we grew up with. These were written for adults, and they belonged to a distinct period of time, and a distinct group of women, nearly all of them women of the novel class. It was a clever and subversive thing they did, to tell these fairy tales. Sometimes they would take well-known tales from folklore and adapt them, but as often they created them from their imaginations, and you see how they are commenting on how life is around them, on the world and how it limits them.”
And this is precisely what it seems that Susanna Kearsley aims to do: comment on how life is around these women, on history and how it has limited them, but also comment on how these women’s cleverness and revolutionary thoughts and actions allowed them to adapt and endure.
For poetry readers:
- Get in touch with your inner-feline: Lorna Crozier’s The Wrong Cat
As an added bonus, you can also cool off with a poem like “January”:
“As she grows thin,
she likes the winter aspens more, not less, stands
among them in the cold, absorbs the dwindling gloom.”
If you are a confirmed poetry-reader, this volume is probably already in your stack.
But, if you are not, and you keep meaning to make time for verses, this collection is both welcoming and accessible.
The cat-inspired epigraphs which appear between the sections are simply beautiful.
But you’ll meet many other critters (two-legged, four-legged, many-legged, winged, finned) on the pages there as well.
“It can strip flesh off a saint
or a bull elk or a whale, take out a whole
cotton crop and forest or, more modestly,
ruin a bag of flour.”
This is from “An Extraordinary Fondness for Beetles”, one of my favourites in the collection (but I would choose a different one on any given day, because that is a hard decision indeed).
For short-story addicts:
- Take in the three-ring action in Rhonda Douglas’ Welcome to the Circus
This passage, from the author’s collection of poetry, Some Days I Think I Know Things, offers a key to readers:
“A small knowing, an itch, sense of what is buried beneath. Truth gives itself away, wants to be found, shows itself in an eyelash flutter, a short intake of breath: come and get me.”
These small knowings are also at the heart of the stories in Rhonda Douglas’ debut fiction collection.
Contained herein: Nous and René Lévesque; Humanitarian Relief; Love Notes for Eighth Grade, La République de France v. ‘Mata Hari’; Still Life with Book; Sounds of Our Paleolithic Past; Monday Night at the Porn Emporium; Welcome to the Circus, Sooky Baby; God Explains the Collapse of the Cod Fishery; Cancer Oratorio.
Just scanning the titles might also give you clues as to the tone and style.
An eighth-grade girl is as worthy of consideration as ‘Mata Hari’.
A natural history museum butts up against a porn emporium.
God explains the fishery collapse but is not the one singing about cancer.
You might even catch a peek of “what is buried beneath” and guess that the author is preoccupied with fragility.
“In the end what knits them together is that they are all falling apart, all looking for someone to fall into, someone who could fix them, help them hold it all together.”
(From “Humanitarian Relief”)
This sense of vulnerability infuses the collection, subtly but determinedly.
“She threw both boots in the corner beside her makeup chair; where they looked like small animals curled up asleep. She collapsed in her chair.”
(From “Monday Night at the Porn Emporium”)
But simulaneously, there are other moments which twin with these. It’s not all bad. In fact, it’s definitely not all bad.
“Even through the cellophane, the candy apples release their scent into the room. They smell like love.”
(From “Welcome to the Circus, Sooky”)
Characters find comfort and strength, often in unexpected places.
“(Are these bee-sting lips fair? Should she have those and the swingy blonde hair? Let’s say at twenty-four she gets chlamydia, just because we can.)”
(From “Love Notes for Eighth Grade”)
Playful and oh-so-savvy: Rhonda Douglas’ stories landed hard on my list of favourites after the first story. With every story, I was afraid that I had fallen too fast. But each one secured my heart.
“But today she craves this old story the way she needs the patchwork quilt.”
(From “Cancer Oratorio”)
I already crave a reread of this collection; I need it like I need a patchwork quilt and candy apples.
For letter writers:
- Write a love letter inspired by Where the Nights are Twice as Long and put an Alice Munro stamp on it
This volume covers more than a century of romantic correspondence, from 1883 to 2014.
If that simple idea alone doesn’t appeal, perhaps David Eso’s romantic story, of a man waiting out a rainstorm in a library and thinking of a lost love, will draw you in.
Or maybe Jeanette Lynes’ skillful summary of the breadth of content.
There are also 3o pages of contributors’ notes and credits as well as an index, so the volume works as a superb introduction to a variety of Canadian writers’ and poets’ works, as well as being a rewarding anthology in its own right.
The poems are arranged not chronologically, but by the age of the letter writers: isn’t that a fantastic idea?
The sections are named: No Road Back to the Old Life (by teen-lovers and 20-somethings), A Minute is Too Long (by 30-something lovers), From the Bottom of My Spongiform Heart (by 40-something lovers), Hiring Omniscient Narrators (by 50-something lovers) and I Promise Not to Philosophize (by lovers 60-something and beyond).
It should not have surprised me that there is a lot of heart-break in the volume. “I begin to think love is a bad thing,” P.K. Page wrote in 1944: “It doesn’t make you strong.” And “Oh my darling, tell me, what can love mean in such a world, and what can we or any lovers hold in this immensity of hate and broken things?” asked Phyllis Webb in 1954.
And, oh, plenty of loneliness and unwanted separations. “I miss having you to talk to. And to touch,” wrote Susan Musgrave to Stephen Reid in October 2011.
“I would rather have you to warm me
than either a blanket or a poem,
but what can I do?”
(That’s from Elizabeth Brewster’s “Chill”, from 1974).
And there are unexpected casualities along the way as well. “I burnt my toast thinking of you today,” wrote Priscilla Uppal in 1997.
Some of the letters I expected to enjoy, like those between Milton Acorn and Gwen MacEwen (I’ve been fascinated by her since I read Rosemary Sullivan’s Shadowmaker).
But some letter-writers were unexpected favourites, like Robert Service, who wrote so passionately to Constance MacLean. “I’m different from most men you see. Love is all in all to me,” he wrote around 1903. And in 1905, he wrote: “I call your name a hundred times a day.” And I found Louis Riel’s letters to Marguerite Riel (particularly his letter of November 16, 1885 suprisingly touching, although he writes very formally.
It is the diversity of this volume which is so striking, across decades and lifetimes, from writers with starkly diverse backgrounds and experiences. Where the Nights are Twice as Long is a tremendously satisfying work: willing readers will find a long-term and rewarding relationship with it.
Are any of these already on your stacks (whether or not it’s summer, where you are reading)? Or, are you adding them to your TBR now?
Every day this week, more items on the Summer Reading To-Do List. More for sunny days tomorrow!