While I put the finishing touches on the pie-charts and calculations from 2020’s reading log, there are just a couple other books to talk about that I read (mostly) over the holiday break.

Ruth Gilligan’s The Butchers’ Blessing (2020) is praised by two writers who snag my attention: Colum McCann and Evie Wyld. He says it’s a “seamless literary thriller. Absolutely riveting.” She says: “Excellent…completely gripping.” It’s also gorgeously packaged, with the title embossed in red in a large, bold font on the cloth cover too.

There are discomforts and complaints: tomato and mustard sandwiches that are “so spicy it hurt” and “sometimes that was good”, ink stains and mold bloom in unexpected places, a “freezer fuse had blown itself to bits”, the undersides of nails that aren’t easily scrubbed clean, and a “sweetener sachet burst at the seams”. A character who rewatches “Some Like It Hot” isn’t marvelling at Marilyn Munroe’s beauty but itemizing her suicide attempts and contemplating her miscarriage.

The pacing through the story is dramatic and deliberate: “His boots went savage with the stairs, a shudder down to the foundations, a skip over the fourth step from the top, which always made the noisiest creak.” Gilligan plots her movement with care: readers have only the amount of knowledge required to sustain discomfort and uncertainty. If you want an answer, an explanation for the “jagged borderline drawn between ‘before’ and ‘after’” as the story unfolds between 1996 and 2018, you must hang onto right ‘til the end.

The 21st-century line is brief and crafted to raise and resolve specific concerns, so be prepared to travel back. For some characters, “most of the past was out of bounds”. One studies mythology and specifically “The Cattle Raid of Cooley”, part of the Irish Ulster Cycle, which fits with this story of eight men who travel the country to butcher according to prescribed rituals. And, for others, the relationship between past and present is vital and transformative: “thanks to the Brexit talks and the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, the Irish border is suddenly back ‘in vogue’”.

In one sense, this is a distinctly Irish tale: “But the way Ùna thought about it, without folklore and traditions, surely Ireland didn’t really exist? Surely it might as well just be England or France or anywhere else (give or take an endless soak of rain)?”

In another, there are universal truths and challenges: “Because she knew women sometimes used men too; knew, in the end, that was all bodies were really for.”

This story about home and mortality, belonging and belief raises just enough questions to keep readers turning the pages and resolves them in such a way that you can simply close the book and move on, or you can mull over the unanswerable bits, like this: “But how could she tell him that what we believe and what we assume and what we know are never really the same?”

When I requested Anne Carson’s translation of Sophokles’ Antigonick (2012), I recalled that Carson’s poems often left me feeling an inept reader, understanding beyond my outstretched fingertips. As a translator rather than a poet, I trusted in accessibility. It turns out this is a retelling as much as it is a translation. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the vellum interlaid artworks, with Carson’s handwritten narrative/translation behind. They felt dramatic and contemporary, even if they didn’t prepare me for Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. And maybe the timing wasn’t right for Shamsie’s novel anyhow; I returned it unread, having stalled after the first break. Cartography (2001) was the first imported paperback I purchased; it felt so strange to pay the cost of a hardcover for a book that I could slip in a coat pocket. She’s a writer I admire: perhaps this year I’ll explore her work more deliberately. (Carson’s in that category too, but this will hold me for awhile.)

It’s appropriate to have an Ibram X. Kendi blurb on the front cover of An African American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz (2018). (Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning takes on a similarly daunting task.) How can anyone tell the story of a couple hundred years in as many pages? And tell it in such a way that readers with different experience levels can access the information? (The narrative is about 200 pages; the endnotes and index tacking on another 75.) Nonetheless, this book consistently pulled me back. It’s addressing curious (not necessarily studious) readers; nearly every paragraph has its own endnote but there are also anecdotes and unexpected details along the way to maintain interest.

There are extensive quotations from primary sources, dating back to “founding fathers’” days (most by speakers/writers unrecognizable to me), and I regularly had the feeling that I had when I discovered that the American Civil War was not fought in order to end slavery: it turns out that’s a fairy tale, like the one about how enslaved people in America had to run to Canada for their freedom (except people were enslaved in Canada too). One element that I wasn’t expecting to unearth, was the sense of an extended battleground between Mexico and the U.S., which offers context for the border and immigration issues that preoccupied #45’s administration. As a representative of the Revisioning American History series, this volume is a fine ambassador.

Margaret Atwood’s Dearly (2020) displays a painting by John Gerrard Keulemans (1842-1912), Saddle-Back, on the cover of its McClelland & Stewart (no longer an independent as it was when it first published Margaret Atwood, one of the many absorbed by Random House) edition. Readers will not be surprised to find the winged, furred and exoskeletoned considered in its pages as well.

The volume’s dedication reads “For Graeme, in absentia” and grief is a theme throughout, not only personal grief but a broader contemplation of loss, and devastation wrecked on the planet and all its inhabitants, fuelled by greed. Some poems were previously published in volumes drawing attention to climate crisis, including John Freeman’s anthology Tales of Two Planets: Stories of Climate Change and Inequality in a Divided World (“Tracking the Rain”); “Aflame” and “Oh Children” stood out for me on this theme.

Memory loss is singled out in more than one poem, including a story of a man who “loved this wildland once, before his brain turned lacework”. A woman getting a massage is “[o]n the flannel sheet in the pose of a deadman’s float”, when hands descend to “twang the catgut strings of the tight bruised tendons”. This poem has one of my favourite titles “The Tin Woodwoman Gets a Massage”. Another is “Cassandra Considers Declining the Gift”.

But even though there are a lot of serious themes in this collection, Margaret Atwood’s quintessential wit comes through. This bit from “Princess Clothing” made me smile:

“As for feet, they were always a problem.
Toes, heels, and ankles
take turns being obscene.
Little glass slippers, the better to totter.”

And, cue talk of foot binding rituals. For those who think her poetry is going to be too esoteric and inaccessible, Dearly would be a fine introduction.

Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind (1941), her first book, is less well-known but was her favourite. It grew out of an article originally published in The Atlantic, which grew out of an assignment for work, that her supervisor encouraged her to place elsewhere because it was so accomplished. The line drawings by Bob Hines are beautiful, exact and not only embellish but enrich the text. Carson’s writing, though, is also precise and clear, and still engaging. “Now there came days when the sky was as gray as a mullet’s back, with clouds like the flung spray of waves.” Her narrative illustrates her view of flora and fauna’s interconnected existences by singling out a creature and following it for a chapter or two, as it interacts with other creatures and its environment. Without using the word ‘ecology’, it serves to represent the concept.

In grade school, our school libraries were small and resources were limited; perhaps that’s why I enjoy perusing new children’s books on subjects that I’m researching as an adult. I would have loved the comic-book style of Anne Rooney’s Women in Science: Rachel Carson (Illus. Isobel Lundie, 2020). Now, I also love the strange disparity of seeing a photograph interspersed with the artwork (like one of J. F. Kennedy, who called the inquiry which ultimately supported Carson’s findings). Back then, I probably would have giggled at the occasional bubble of dialogue too, like the man in a hospital bed and the doctor at his side saying “He says it’s from DDT” and at Rachel’s mother’s comically protruding ears. (She might not have thought that funny.)

Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory (2013; Trans. David Boyd, 2019) focuses on three employees in an establishment so “enormous, [it’s] maybe as big as Disneyland”. One proofreads documents, one shreds them, and one is an expert in moss, who’s been hired with the idea of developing a green roof. (For real-life moss reading, Robin Wall Kimmerer is amazing.)

One of these characters recalls having toured the factory as a child:

“On the walk from the parking lot to the factory, we saw adults dressed in all kinds of clothes: suits, coveralls, lab coats. Walking among them, I caught glimpses of the factory buildings, but couldn’t see anything beyond that. No matter where you are in this city—the school, the department store, anywhere—you’re always walled in by mountains. But the factory had nothing around it. Or rather, it was as if it were surrounded by something other than the mountains. Something larger, something more distant.”

On one hand, the book is fascinating from the perspective of detail: how each of these characters gets their job and how they move through their days, even how much they earn and the contents of, for instance, specific documents.

On the other hand, there’s this question of expanse, of the relationship between self and surroundings. We know early on, via the first character’s memories, that the factory is large, but we learn that it’s even larger than that, with “mountains and forests, a giant river and the ocean…our own shrine, with a priest and everything. All we’re missing now is a graveyard.”

How do we spend our days, how do they spiral outwards and fill up our lives, what do we accumulate while we are at work, what matters and what holds meaning: so many key questions in barely one hundred pages. (Did you read this book? I’ve forgotten who inspired me to borrow this from the library.)

Are any of these books/authors familiar to you? If you could reach through the screen right this minute, and pluck one of them from the ether, which would suit your fancy?