August 5, 2014
6 Books in 7 Days
I wondered if my stack of vacation books might be a bit too ambitious, a tower too high for one week of reading. After all, I wasn’t going away for a week alone, and family togetherness was sort of the point of the endeavour. But the family was obliging with plenty of time to read. There was Iris’s two hour nap each afternoon after all, during which Harriet could watch a movie, which sort of violates cottage rules, but leads to parents’ leisure, which is Cottage Rule Number One. So everybody was happy, and I stayed in bed reading with cups of tea in the mornings (with sugar, of course), and then in the evenings once the children were in bed, Stuart also reading Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy, and therefore as avid a reader as I was (and one of the best parts of marriage, I think, is enjoying books together. Such a pleasure). Of course, our summer getaway wasn’t all about reading, as we were also busy going out for lunch, eating ice cream, lounging in our new hammock, playing in the sand, eating corn on the cob, getting slightly sunburned, having lots of fun, and buying books—we had another wonderful visit to Bob Burns’ Books in Fenelon Falls, and also perused the used book sale at the Bobcaygeon Library. After a slightly disappointing trip last summer (when our baby was new, the weather was bad, and Harriet was kind of crazy), we were pleased to find we had our vacation mojo back. The week was terrific, relaxing, so rich with hours for spending, plus we got to swim on lakes and walk barefoot on grass soaked with dew.
But the reading. Oh, the reading. Every book was just so thoroughly good.
I started reading To the Lighthouse a couple of days before we left, so this is me cheating slightly with my plan for a book a day. And I was needing a vacation so so badly, with so much going on the weeks before, my churning brain, and I was having this frustrating internal argument about “women’s fiction”, which I think is definitely a thing, a genre onto itself, wholly worthy of celebration, but is forever being used as synonym for “formulaic”, which drives me nuts, and then authors of formulaic books go around whinging because their books are being marketed as “chick lit” and complaining that all books about women and relationships are so assigned, which isn’t true anyway, and I don’t know why I care so much, but rereading To the Lighthouse is always the solution. Perhaps to everything. Nobody has called this book chick-lit ever, and perhaps we should all aspire to stretch the limits of the novel, as Woolf does in this book, which I’ve read so many times, this time reading a fresh new copy, the old one with my inane marginalia gone for good. It’s a beach read, really, because there’s even a beach on the cover, sand underfoot. A perfect holiday book. Thinking about the book in terms of arguments about characters’ likability: “How did it all work out then, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that, and conclude that it was liking one felt, or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached after all?” And Mrs. Ramsay having eight children, irreconcilable with her innate sense of dread about…everything. The multitudinousness of all Woolf’s characters, each one a kaleidoscope, also each moment in time, which never stands still, not even for a moment.
And then I really was down to a book a day, though I made a terrible mistake with this one. I started reading Halfpenny by Jo Walton, whose latest novel, My Real Children, is one of my favourite books of the year so far. Halfpenny is part of her Small Change Trilogy, a series of crime novels set in an alternate history after Britain makes a peace with Germany in 1941. I started reading, immediately gripped by her fictional version of The Mitford sisters, who are very different but just as compelling as the real deal, and this plot to overthrow Britain’s government, which seems be living in Hitler’s pocket. And then I realized that there was a bit too much backstory here, and that I was reading the trilogy out of order! Halfpenny was actually the second book, after Farthing. Luckily, we’d brought Farthing along too, and the spoilers didn’t ruin the reading experience. The whole series is excellent, Walton’s Inspector Carmichael is fantastic, and her woman characters are wonderful. I’d like to foist them books onto everybody…
Next was The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam, the second in her trilogy that began with Old Filth, and ended last year with Last Friends. Old Filth was the first of her books I read, three years ago, and it wasn’t what I’d expected. Gardam has a unique style, one that’s not immediately accessible, and I’ve made a thoroughly enjoyable project of learning to appreciate her ever since. And when I read Last Friends a few months ago, I thought I’d finally had her licked. The Man in the Wooden Hat confirms this, and while this is another trilogy I’ve read out of order, it matters less here, as the whole series is anti-chronology, and I think that The Man in the Wooden Hat is the penultimate volume anyway, and now I want to read all the other books again because they’ll be so much clearer now. Gardam’s tale of Betty Flowers is heartbreaking, understated, and quite Woolfian in its grasp of the multitudinousness of things, of love. I am quite proud that I’ve finally figured out this writer (or begun to—who’d ever want to be done with such a thing?) who is revered by so many readers I admire.
Then I read Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, whom I’d never read before, and while it took me a little while to find my literary footing, once I did, I was entranced. A fairy tale ensconced in realism, subtle allusions, and a piece that becomes about itself rather than its source. As with all the books I was reading this week, nothing was ever one thing. The book was beautiful, sad, generous, and surprising. The British-born Oyeyemi a kind of literary ventriloquist, but that’s not the right term because it suggests puppets, and her people were so solidly real. Their voices too, which is my point, and also how Oyeyemi, British born, channels the American novel, its tropes and tones and New England atmosphere. I loved this book, and now I have to read her previous novel, Mr. Fox.
I read Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny after that, because I’ve become quite adamant about my connection between Louise Penny books and the cottage. To me, she’s the definition of vacation reads. I only started reading Penny with A Trick of the Light, a few books ago, so I have many unread Inspector Gamache novels before me, not even counting her latest, The Long Way Home, which is out this month. So this was a catch-up read, and I really liked it. (Stuart read an ARC of The Long Way Home this week, and predicts that I will enjoy it.)
And finally, I read Farthing. Where I probably should have started, but alas. It was so so good. Jo Walton is a tremendous writer who really deserves to be better known. A series written in the tradition of Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers, Walton explains that her historical writing is strongly linked to the present day: “Nothing is written in a vaccuum. I wrote these books during a dark time politically, when the US and the UK were invading Iraq without a Security Council resolution on a trumped up casus belli. I was brought up by my grandparents, and the defining event of their lives was WWII, it cut across them like a knife. To find a government I had voted for waging a war of aggression really rocked my expectations. If I’d been in Britain I’d have marched and protested, but I was in Canada, which kept out of that unjust war. My husband is Irish, and Ireland wasn’t doing it either. I think it was my isolation on this that went into writing these books.” The result is extraordinary. I’m reading the final book now. Will be sorry when it’s done.