September 14, 2014
On Saturday morning, I read the newspaper and cried, so overwhelmed was I by despair, three articles in a row—David Gilmour teaching classes again this year at my alma mater; a certain male sportsperson not convicted of violence upon the girlfriend he shot to death; 10 people charged in the attack of Malala Yousafzai, a child shot for the crime of going to school. Not to mention the sad circus of municipal politics in my city, a state of affairs that has led me to abandon Twitter for awhile because I just cannot stand the onslaught of awful, this horrible misogynist idiot whose supposed tumour will never alter my conviction that he’s a dangerous shitty human being who says horrible things about women and whose wife has had to call the cops on him more than once. This man has forever viewed himself as beyond reproach, and now that he’s ill, we’re all meant to finally agree with him? I cannot.
It is also relevant that my baby keeps terrible hours and I’m very tired. But it’s relevant too that I spent last week reading A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, yet another piece of evidence that affirms that we live in a world that treats girls and women like garbage. And maybe it was just a coincidence that I was reading this book as I was sent into despair, a testament to its power perhaps. But I don’t know, because whenever I was asked about, I’d respond with, “The book is…well. It won the Bailey’s Fiction Prize.” Otherwise, I probably never would have read it. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s interesting, yes, but underwhelmingly so. The prose is as half-formed as its girl is, deliberately. Sentences stumped off, broken, truncated. There is no evolution, no progress. Even McBride’s girl’s life, in all its sordid detail, is not abject in anyway—there is cruelty, abuse, the usual litany of terrible things. But I’ve read worse, rendered in prose that stunned me, rather than this prose, which numbed me. Or I thought it had at least, until I found myself crying over the newspaper.
I don’t think I could properly write a review of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. For a good example of one, however, read Anne Enright’s, in which she so perfectly articulates what I can only throw my hands up and gesture about in regards to this book. What I am reviewing here is more my own reaction to this book, which confuses me. I recoil from it, not because its so difficult. Yes, the prose is difficult to find one’s way into, but once you’re in, you’re in, and there is a peculiar rhythm and rhyme to it that make the pieces fit. Perhaps it was the unrelentingness of it all, that there was progress after all, but it was always going toward the same place and I was longing for any moments of light. What a courageous author who dares to give her readers none of that, to hold back on everything we’re hoping for to save us. To tell the story she wants to tell, and it’s true that I never wanted to put the book down. I don’t want to open it again, yes, but that’s a different thing.
I didn’t like this book. I didn’t like it at all. But I read it and I’m glad I did, because it’s like nothing else that’s going these days, and because there was nothing half-formed about the book itself. (Read McBride’s profile in The Guardian: “I think the publishing industry is perpetuating this myth that readers like a very passive experience, that all they want is a beach novel. I don’t think that’s true, and I think this book doing as well as it has is absolute proof of that. There are serious readers who want to be challenged, who want to be offered something else, who don’t mind being asked to work a little bit to get there.”) I’m glad I read this book because the fact of whether or not I liked it doesn’t really matter at all, and I like any book that shifts the conversation away from that point, such a sad and tired place from which to embark upon a literary discussion.
September 11, 2014
I don’t know if there is a better exhibit than Alex Colville (now on at the Art Gallery of Ontario) to take your five year old and one year old to, because the latter will be gripped by all the images of dogs, while the former sees her own world reflected in the paintings, but rendered just unfamiliarly enough to warrant another look. We note people and animals suspending in space, captured in motion—horses, dogs, a little girl with her skipping rope. “What do you think’s going to happen next?” Which is the very point. Plus the defiance of gravity. And the strange ugly beauty, hydro corridors, overpasses and smokestacks. The sky’s enormity. We found it fascinating to learn that Colville’s art was so informed by his commute to work, that same stretch of road, a seemingly dull track. And also the sea pictures, all that blue.
Andrew Hunter’s new book, Colville, designed to accompany the exhibit, gives a marvellous sense of the artist and his power, and just as the exhibit does, of his context as well. In his essay in the book, Hunter posits Colville as a place, and finds connections to that place not just in geography, but also in literature, music, film and popular culture. As befitting a man whose own life was so often his subject, the book embraces Colville’s biography as well, and more than 100 reproductions of his work. It’s a really wonderful complement to an extraordinary show.
September 9, 2014
I spent the weekend reading Carrie Snyder’s new book, Girl Runner, a novel about Aganetha Smart, a 104 year old Olympic medallist who was briefly the nation’s sweetheart during the 1920s. It’s a book that has a map inside (!), which shows a lighthouse in the middle of a farmer’s field, so clearly this is a book that is constructed of mysteries and wonder. It begins with Aganetha being taken from her nursing home by two young people who are strangers, but she doesn’t have the wherewithal nor stamina to protest in any way, and besides, she is intrigued by being taken anywhere. From the book’s beginning: “All my life I’ve been going somewhere, aimed toward a fixed point on the horizon that seems never to draw nearer.”
The narrative shifts between Aganetha in the present day, being taken on her strange journey, and her memories of the past, growing up on her family’s farm and in Toronto, where she moved during the 1920s. Notably, the flashbacks occurs outside of chronological order, which isn’t the way this thing is usually done, and makes much more sense as being a story as constructed by a somewhat patchy 104-year-old mind. Plus it’s just pretty interesting to have all the pieces come together in a (seemingly) random order until we realize that Snyder has been placing these pieces like a puzzle, and just how they all fit together proves most surprising, and plotted by a decidedly deft hand.
The novel spans more than a century, and there’s a swiftness to it that befits a story about a girl whose feet made her fly, though I wanted more depth at times, more meat and grit. Because there is so much to delve into—Snyder weaves fascinating stories into Aganetha’s timeline, including her mother, a midwife, who performed abortions for local girls in trouble; the story of a doomed stepmother and her parade of dead babies; the reality of life working at a factory in Toronto in the early 20th century; what it was to be a female athlete at that time; complicated dynamics between Aganetha and her siblings; her dreamy father and his crazy inventions (and just why he built a lighthouse in their field); and also a glimpse into the poverty and desperation of the urban poor. All this and more, and this isn’t even a long book. The pages fly on by.
I first encountered Carrie’s work with Hair Hat back in 2010 when we did the Canada Reads Indies, when the title of her blog was even a little bit true. Since then, she found great success with her second collection, The Juliet Stories, and it’s also a sign of her kindness and generosity that she contributed her wonderful essay, “How to Fall”, to The M Word. And I’m particularly excited about Girl Runner, whose rights have been sold in countries are over the world, that it’s everybody’s chance to encounter Carrie Snyder now. Because the hallmark of all of her books has been their prose, vivid imagery, and characters’ strange tendencies to fly off the ground… and off the page.
So readers, get ready to be dazzled.
September 7, 2014
I was so pleased to review Joan Thomas’s new novel, The Opening Sky, in this weekend’s Globe and Mail.
““Never explain, never apologize,” is part of a quotation attributed to Nellie McClung, the title of a chapter in Joan Thomas’s novel The Opening Sky, and an admirable motto, unless one happens to be parent to a young person whose behaviour embodies it. Which is the predicament in which Aiden and Liz find themselves.”
September 3, 2014
Edgewood Drive is a leafy street, the kind of place where one could rake all day, and there’d still be leaves all around. Which is where Michelle Berry begins her novel, Interference, in the fall, neighbours with reason to be out of doors, waving to one another across driveways, while the faces of their houses—all windows and doors—reveal nothing at all. The scrape of their metal rakes on sidewalks just the one thing about the scene that is a little bit “off”, until a strange man appears, a scar right down the middle of his face revealing everything, or at least some kind of brutal tragedy in his past. He’s looking for work, and there’s more than enough leaves to go around. The man helps out, bagging leaves, though there is something particular about the way he looks at the children, and then he disappears without waiting to be paid. And this is only the first of a series of disquieting events that occur to the residents of Edgewood Drive, imbruing everything that follows with a slightly sinister edge.
Sinister coupled with comedy though—not everything in the book is dark. Interference is a novel comprising short stories, and in between them appears correspondence from the school principal, the ladies’ hockey league coordinator, email exchanges. The everyday absurdity of these messages gives the novel an additional layer of ambiguity: is modern life, with its stranger-danger warnings, just one giant farce? Are we to laugh at the residents of Edgewood Drive, with their silly preoccupations and neuroses, for playing into it all? Or are we to actually feel for them?
Claire. who’s countering cancer with a ferocious anger; Dayton, who has fled her cheating husband but not before stealing his money, is aware the past is going to catch up with her soon; Trish, who’s on the verge of a breakdown, her custom-teddy-bear company being services from a big-bear-conglomerate; their husbands, and their children; all of these lives weaving together and apart over the course of a fall, and winter, and into spring. The usual domestic upsets countered with darker things, reverberations from the appearance of the man with the scar—men lurking about school yards, news of a local child porn/pedophile ring; a strange little man who speaks with a peculiar tic who keeps turning up in odd places and upsetting people with lurid images in the pamphlets he displays.
As a native of Peterborough, I enjoyed Michelle Berry’s thinly veiled portrayal of my hometown, with its hockey culture, small town principles, and strange characters. The connections between her character are surprising and illuminating, rounding out the book into a convincing whole. Berry shows that the domestic setting is one worth examining, that home is not always a safe place, that the tangles of family and neighbourly relationships are unfailingly interesting, particularly in a plot so charged with suspense. Though there were times when the drama verged on melodrama, and each chapter seemed to end with a revelation, which felt a little pat. The characters were all so passive too, necessitating the addition of the underlying plot, which seemed manufactured. They were all such great characters—I kept waiting for them to do something.
But the passiveness was deliberate to the construction of the novel, that these are characters for whom life comes along to do some interfering with, best laid plans interrupted. And still the seasons go on changing, as though none of it matters at all. The one thing anyone can count on: that the world will go on; there will be leaves to rake again.
August 25, 2014
It was almost exactly a year ago that Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In came out, a book I was so excited about that I purchased it the day of its release. And I loved it—it was one of my favourite books of the year. All the usual suspense and emotion and I’ve learned to expect from a Louise Penny novel, and then she goes and pulls this literary sleight of hand that was so exciting and perfect. The novel concluded the plot of police corruption that had been building since Penny’s Inspector Gamache series began, and it was with some sadness that I concluded that the series was probably finished, retired along with the Chief Inspector. What a way to go though–it was an absolutely terrific novel.
So I was surprised and pleased to discover earlier this year that there was more Gamache on the horizon. The Long Way Home finds Gamache retired to Three Pines, looking for a break from homicide (though Three Pines really is the last place I’d ever go to find such a thing). He’s uneasy, a bit restless, watchful of his protege (who is also now his son-in-law), concerned that Jean-Guy might slip back into addiction. Concerned for his own mental health too, as is his loving wife, Reine-Marie, who knows that Armand has not yet found the peace he so desperately requires. So she’s unsurprised but also worried when their neighbour and friend, Clara Morrows, comes to him with yet another mystery to solve.
Clara’s husband Peter is missing. They’d agreed upon a year’s separation, after her surprise success in the art world caused friction in the dynamic of their marriage, and on the set date, he didn’t materialize. She hasn’t heard from him at all, which wasn’t like him, and she is fearing for his safety. Having lived in Three Pines long enough, Clara is well aware that no mystery brings with it a simple solution, and that murder lies at the heart of most things, so she’s concerned. As is Armand, and Reine-Marie, and all their other friends, who band together to find Peter. They trace his travels across Europe, to a strange place in Scotland called the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, to Toronto, Quebec City, and then into the wilds of the province. Going on instinct, vague clues, discerning locations from Peter’s paintings, and interviews with people who’d seen him during the past year, they’re able to piece together Peter’s own story, which seems more and more suspicious the closer they get to finding him. Their sense that Peter is in danger turns out to be well-based, and it becomes clear that time is of the essence.
It was always going to be difficult to follow up Where the Light Gets In, which tied up so many loose ends and came together so majestically. The Long Way Home seems to be much less organic in its construction, requiring suspension of disbelief from the reader for the plot to make sense, and the plot itself cobbled together of pieces rather than woven into a whole. Part of the problem is that for much of the book, the mystery that needs solving is less than pressing—the whodunnit is more like, “Who done what?” There’s not even a murder until quite late in the book, which for Three Pines is all-time record, and quite unfathomable. And that the residents of Three Pines would have the resources (time and money) to devote to finding their friend, whose imperilled state is not really apparent, seems unlikely. It’s the kind of book that when you start to read to closely all sort of falls apart.
But. If you’re a fan of the Gamache novels, there’s no way you’re going to miss this one. The place seems so realized, and it’s people familiar—how could you not want to know what happens next? And while the pieces don’t come together terribly well, the pieces themselves are fascinating, revealing remarkable corners of its author’s mind, her preoccupations. If you’re new to the series, then definitely go back to the beginning, and don’t read this one before How the Light Gets In. Which was always going to be a book so hard to follow up.
August 18, 2014
Caroline Adderson’s Ellen in Pieces is the novel we’ve all been waiting for. Me, because I’ve been reading pieces of Ellen in Pieces in journals and magazines for the last few years, and hearing rumours they’d culminate in an actual book, and how often are one’s longings so perfectly satisfied? And you’ve been waiting for this book, because I promise that it’s one of the best you’ll read this year. Devastating, wonderful and brilliant. Because aren’t you always looking for a book to apply such adjectives to? Because I’ve been longing to read this book for years, and when I did, it was even better than I’d hoped.
It’s a novel in stories, or a collection of linked stories, or maybe a novel comprised of fragments, which is more like a life is than most novels I’ve ever read. The first three “chapters,” I’d read previously, and through which I’d become entranced with Adderson’s character, Ellen McGinty, divorced, determined, blundering, flawed, impulsive, hated, and loved. Because it’s rare to encounter such a character in fiction, a woman in the middle years of her life, a woman who is not a type, who has history, is unsure of what to do with her present, who has a body, experiences lust, gets tired, loves her children, cannot stand her children, has friends, fights with her friends, who is herself with such remarkable specificity—”Ellenish” is a term applied at one point in the book, and I knew exactly what they meant. It is rare that a character is so vividly realized—so familiar and yet utterly original at once.
Caroline Adderson pays attention to words, which are as specific as her characters. No one else would write a sentence like, “A melting weakness overtook her and she remembered all those years ago, not here but in Ellen’s North Vancouver kitchen, how he glissaded out of the way so Georgia could set down her platter of blintzes.” A platter of blintzes—has there ever been such a thing? The world reinvented through Adderson’s extraordinary, euphonic vocabulary.
In the first chapter, “I Feel Lousy”, Ellen discover that her younger daughter, not even the disappointing one, is pregnant, which evokes memories of her own troubled past, an accidental pregnancy with her ex-husband, the terrible, awful burden of motherhood, single motherhood in particular, and the lengths that a mother will go to—this mother in particular—for her daughter’s sake. “Poppycock” finds us a few years into the future, Ellen’s estranged father on her doorstep, obviously suffering from some kind of malady and she’s horrified to find him but also bowled over because he wants her, he needs her. She’d assumed her family had written her off altogether since she’d tried to sleep with her brother-in-law at her father’s 50th birthday years before. But the past, just like the present, turns out to be more complicated than that, and the reappearance of her father is a gift that comes with a shadow, a particularly long one.
And if you think that ending is devastating, read “Ellen-Celine, Celine-Ellen” next, about Ellen and her two friends whose relationship was forged at pre-natal class years ago, Ellen all alone because her asshole husband Larry had just abandoned her (the first time). The three stay close in the decades to follow, Ellen and Celine taking a trip to Europe together, which is ill-advised, so say their other friend, Georgia, and also Ellen’s hairdresser, Tony, because Ellen and Celine spend much of their friendship not being able to stand each other, a situated not mitigated by their strong personalities, and also that of the three friends who’d met in pre-natal class, it had been Celine’s baby that died.
Have I conveyed that these stories of death and crisis, all the drama of a life, are also funny? Adderson portrays human behaviour at the intersection of heroism and buffoonery, or else just irritability, to much effect. There’s a subtlety at work here. There are lines that are going to come along and break your heart.
The next few stories are more concerned with the present, pieces fitting more closely together. Ellen begins to find herself—her daughters are settling down, or else calming down; she sells her house; she takes up pottery again; after years of searching, she is learning to be present. She also starts sleeping with a young man who is her daughters’ age, which doesn’t hurt. She thinks she’s beginning to get over her ex-husband, Larry, whose desertion has wrung her heart for years and years.
One chapter is from the point of view of Matt, Ellen’s young lover, who is using Ellen to escape from his own troubled domestic situation. Another by Ellen’s older daughter, Mimi, who has overcome her problems with addiction but is still searching for something to hold onto, and still running from her mother too, whose presence is still vividly felt even from halfway across the country in Toronto, currently in the midst of a garbage strike. (Mimi traces back most of her problems to having once discovered her mother in bed with her grade-five teacher, whom she’d been in love with. Until that point.) Another word in this chapter, “orrery”, which recurs at the end of the story as Mimi rolls down a car window using a similar device. “She saw the moon, the faint stars vying for attention against the glare of human habitation. Pluto was up there somewhere, that small cold outcast planet far away. But there were people who still believed in it, people who wished it well.”
If the story doesn’t devastate you, I promise that the prose will.
At the end of this chapter, Mimi finally gets an inkling of why her mother is who she is, with the aid of a handy Bryan Adams lyric. Maternal ambivalence is a two-way street, and Adderson’s is a gut-wrenching depiction of its flip side. And then in the next chapter, “Mother-eye—the curse cast on every birthing woman, the hex of self-sacrificing empathy. I will see your pain, but you will never see mine.”
It’s at the end of this chapter when Ellen is diagnosed with breast cancer, and I’m going to tell you this, tell you this straight: Ellen dies.
I am telling you this because it’s revealed anyway in a tiny sentence on the back of the book (“…we watch Ellen negotiate the last year of her tumultuous life as the pieces of who she is finally come together.”), and in the epigraph as well, and I am telling you this because if you aren’t prepared, it might just be too terrible to take. When was the last time an author dared to kill off the central character in her novel and not even at the end of her novel…
…and of course, Virginia Woolf did, in To the Lighthouse, which I read last month, and which I see as having all kinds of parallels with Adderson’s book, although the two vary greatly in style (and Adderson’s prose is devourable, while Woolf’s must be savoured in measured portions). The notion of “time passes” and that we see a character through the eyes of those around her, the mixture of love and dislike and what lies between which makes up most relationships, and she isn’t even knowable to herself, because who has ever been so pinned down? That she a person whom people assemble around, in all her flaws and fallibility. If she is a solar system, here is the sun, and what happens after the light goes out?
The death scene is sublime, written from the perspective of Ellen’s young grandson, who has his own problems, and when I came to the paragraph break, I put down the book and sobbed and sobbed, and had to go find someone to comfort me—it’s rare that text on a page is ever this affecting. I was devastated, but also amazed at the beauty of the scene, of Adderson’s writing—it was perfect. Masterful.
In the final stories of the book, Ellen’s friends and family gather around her, offering richer perspectives on the scenes we’ve already read. I was especially besotted with “The Something Amendment,” from the perspective of Georgia, who is the third in Ellen’s friendship with Celine. We’ve previously known Georgia through her telephone conversations with Ellen, her jolly husband Gary chiming in from the background. As ever, however, the reality of life is more complicated than can be discerned from down a telephone wire, and Georgia’s own relationship with Ellen is different from even what Ellen suspects, and one of the great achievements of Adderson’s book, I think, is her rich portrayal of decades-long female friendships, the betrayals and compromises that are implicit in such relationships.
If I have to go out of my way to find a criticism of the book, it would be that the Ellen herself is so compelling that the chapters in which she’s at a distance are not as much—the half-grownness of Ellen’s lover is so bland compared to the presence of Ellen in her prime, although the characterization of him at home with his family is vivid, rich and surprising. Or maybe it’s just that I think that Ellen could have done better?
I don’t hate that she died. I wish she hadn’t, but I also didn’t feel like Adderson was using cancer or death as a plot device, to manipulate her characters or (worse!) to manipulate her reader. If its confrontation with cancer and mortality, Ellen in Pieces is a companion to Oh, My Darling by Shaena Lambert, which I read last year (and Lambert is thanked in Adderson’s acknowledgements; they share a publisher). It’s a brave take on things, really, but typical, because the exquisite nature of the entire book comes from Adderson defying her readers’ expectations, surprising you with every line, with every turn of the page.
August 7, 2014
If not for the internet, I never would have heard of Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken. But the wonderful Sara O’Leary had wonderful things to say about it on Twitter, and then it was this post from the Parnassus Books blog that clinched it, the line, “I would rather be funny than just about anything.” So I ordered a copy, and was disappointed to have to put it aside before we departed on vacation last week, because its first line was, “Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Goodby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees.”
Not that the book is funny, exactly, or that McCracken isn’t funny, because she is, but the book is more heartbreaking than anything, or maybe I mean heartwringing—it’s amazing and magnificent. Passages like, “The dead live on in the homeliest of ways. They’re listed in the phone book, They get mail. Their wigs rest of styrofoam heads at the back of closets. Their beds are made. Their shoes are everywhere.” Passages you want to underline, and annotate with, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” The most remarkable combination of specific details and universality. The whole book is like this. I loved it. (It also reminded me of the best parts of Lee Kvern’s remarkable collection, which I enjoyed earlier this year.)
The stories are unfathomable, approached from the oddest angles, but their pieces fall together in a perfect kind of sense. In “Something Amazing”, two troubled families come together in a remarkable collision that changes both of them forever. In “Property”, a widower moves into a rental house and is overwhelmed by the detritus of the house’s owner; in “Juliet”, a murder sends shock waves across a small town, in particular amongst the staff at the public library; in “The House of the Three Legged Dogs”, a British ex-pat hits rock-bottom, his house sold out from under him by his alcoholic son; in “Hungry”, a young girl stays with her grandmother while her father is critically ill in the hospital, and the grandmother must protect the girl and process her own complicated grief.
In “The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston”, the discovery of a young boy shoplifting in a discount supermarket is interpreted differently by the boy himself and the supermarket manager who imagines himself the boy’s saviour. In the title story, a family tries to get away from their teenager daughter’s problems by relocating to Paris for a summer, only to discover that her problems travel with them, to devastating effect. And the last lines of the book? The man who “…felt as though he were diving headfirst into happiness. It was a circus act, a perilous one. Happiness was a narrow tank. You had to make sure you cleared the lip.” And I’ve read those lines over and over, marvelling at their imagery, pondering their puzzle, their resonance, in particular in light of incidents within the story itself. Throughout the collection, these passages that strike you, suggesting deeper rumblings—the book’s title is so perfect.
Of course, I’ve outlined the plots of the collection’s various stories, but they aren’t really what the stories are about. Many of them are about grief, about the peculiarity of details during the times in life in which we’re grief-struck, or stricken at all. They’re about human connection in surprising places, about misunderstandings in which the connection is missed. Their about the things that get lost and what we choose to preserve. They’re funny even with the sadness, a many sided shape. And they’re absolutely extraordinary.
August 5, 2014
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.
August 3, 2014
My review of K.D. Miller’s wonderful story collection, All Saints, was in the Globe and Mail yesterday. I enjoyed the book so much when I read it in July, and appreciated its vital links to Lynn Coady’s Giller-winning collection, Hellgoing, as well as its Barbara Pymmishness, and the ways in which outright Pymmishness is subverted.
“…All Saints reads like a collision between Pym and Lynn Coady’s recent Hellgoing, whose epigraph is from Larkin’s “Church Going,” a poem which asks the question, “When churches will fall completely out of use/What we shall turn them into.”
The easy answer is condos – their developers are the only ones still banging on All Saints’s door. As with those in Coady’s collection, Miller’s characters are negotiating existence in a world in which the old rules and morality Pym satirized no longer apply.”