Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Few Good Mysteries, Belatedly. . .

Ay-yi-yi! I've just found this unfinished draft sitting in my files, waiting patiently for completion. I started it weeks ago. . . .Let me add a few titles to it and press "publish."

I seem to be averaging once a month with these posts, not often enough to get caught up with what I've been reading, so I'm going to ramble off a long list of titles here and offer just the briefest commentary on each. Better than nothing, I hope. . .

Before our trip, I mentioned that I'd just got Patrick Modiano's Les Boulevards de Ceinture (I think the English translation is titled Ring Roads) from the library, and I enjoyed that, found its dreamy, strange tone very similar -- as was the subject matter, a son searching for a father, various shady characters, an elusive, glamorous woman, the Paris streets, social history (racism, xenophobia) -- to that of Nocturne, which I'd read earlier, in English.

Since we've been back, over the summer months, I've read a slew of mystery novels:
Donna Leon's Blood from a Stone, even more interesting to read now that I've walked the streets of Venice. This volume in her Commissario Brunetti series focusses on the plight of African immigrants trying to make a living as unlicensed, but generally tolerated, vendors. It reflects and illuminates some of what we've seen in Italy and France, immigrants, refugees, displaced and disenfranchised persons trying to survive on the bottom rungs of capitalism. As always, Brunetti and his wife, the professor, provide a thoughtful perspective, and despite Leon's clear indictment of Italian bureaucracy, corruption, xenophobia, and environmental shame, there is also aesthetic pleasure to savour in her descriptions of place, of culture, and perhaps especially of food.

More of those mysteries I read over the summer:
Val McDermid's Out of Bounds (a Karen Pirie mystery) -- No point pretending that my favourite McDermid books aren't the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, but Karen Pirie is an engaging, credible woman, strong and smart and very human, exposed in her grief here. This volume is well-plotted with twists enough to keep you turning the pages, although I'll admit that three months after reading it, I'm only retaining the rough outlines.

John Farrow, Perish the Day, If you don't know Farrow's Emile Cinq-Mars mysteries, I'm envious that you still have them to discover. Farrow is a nom-de-plume of Trevor Ferguson, a Canadian novelist whose reputation was built on supposedly more literary writing. Honestly, I hope he never turns back to that from his mystery-writing. The genre, so far, has demosnstrated his ability to sketch compelling settings -- in this book, rural, small-town, and academic New England; to develop characters and explore the challenges of ageing (retired detective Cinq-Mars is 66) and of maintaining a relationship across a significant age difference; and to explore questions of good and evil, epistemology, hermeneutics, in a provocative, never pedantic, literarily stylish prose. I'm already impatient for the next one. . .

Sara Blaedel, The Forgotten Girls (a Louise Rick mystery). Paul picked this one up at an airport and passed it along. Another Scandinavian writer worth following, with a strong, but vulnerable, female detective (and a backstory that will be unfolding with each volume, I suspect). Character development, plot, setting, all strong -- the hermetic sense of a tightknit small rural community is convincing. . . 

Julia Keller, Last Ragged Breath (a Bell Elkins mystery) -- my favourite, so far, of this series, as Keller seems less prone here to the extended (and often folksy) metaphors that tended to irritate as much as entertain, in the earlier books. The series reads well with/against J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, which I hope to get 'round to here, eventually. 

I do have several more mysteries to recommend, but if I don't click "Publish" today, this post may well languish for another month. So . . . .

Comments always welcome: your feedback if you've read any of these as well, or recommendations from your recent reading. Or whatever. . . .

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

More of my Travel Reading

Back in June (I know!) I shared some of the titles I'd read during my three weeks' travel, and I promised to share the rest later. Well, this is definitely later. . . .

And here are the other titles,
One, Ann Patchett's Commonwealth, which I've heard that various readers found disappointing, but which completely engaged me. The long line of the narrative, which begins at the first hint of an affair, when both married partners have young children, and which follows the fallout from that affair, particularly as it concerns the children, who grow up as step-siblings separated by a significant geographical distance, thrown together during vacations and left far too often to their own devices. There's a central trauma which is only gradually revealed, the mystery of its causation and of the guilt around that, the consequences spun out across so many lives, demand our attention until the end. Meanwhile, we watch the parents, mainly in the background, move into new marriages which do, or do not, dissolve, and we see them age, need care. . . .

I'm always intrigued by descriptions of childhood, and Patchett's are observant and convincing, not at all sentimental. The humanity of the writing also pleased me, the way all the characters are exposed for their flaws but are also shown as worthy in other ways. And there's some thought-provoking commentary about writing itself, or story-telling, at least, about where inspiration comes from and the ethics of appropriating stories. . . And above all, what is family? what is a commonwealth? community? What are we, each to our other, our connected others? I'd read this book again and be well repaid, I suspect, and I recommend it to you. If you'd like to be convinced by a much more comprehensive review, here's one.

Oh, and once upon a time, I resolved to include in these posts a brief mention of the format in which I read each book. I read Commonwealth and the two other books in this post as e-books borrowed from the Vancouver Public Library. What a wonderful gift that service is!

So onto Book Two, Rose Tremain's The Gustav Sonata . This novel is beautiful and painful and, ultimately, redemptive (i.e. don't be deterred by that "painful" because. . . well, no spoilers, but....). I read it shortly after reading Lauren Collins' When in French, and I immediately recognised the constraining rectitude she described experiencing in Switzerland where The Gustav Sonata is set, although Tremain's novel begins decades earlier. The protagonist is born into a poverty resented bitterly by his mother, who blames "the Jews" for his father's death during World War II and her descent from the bliss she had briefly experienced as a young bride (although, in fact, the marriage was doomed long before husband's death).

Gustav learns very early to marshal his emotions, to expect little, to adjust quickly to disappointment, but he can't help but revel in the friendship he develops with a classmate, the son of wealthy Jewish parents who place high hopes in Anton's musical precocity, grooming him for a career as a concert pianist. Gustav becomes both the parents' confidant and Anton's admiring audience, but he also registers Anton's growing discomfort with the pressures of performance, which leads eventually to Anton rejecting performance in favour of composition. Meanwhile, Gustav realises a dream of his own, is careful to cultivate a separate life, but it's increasingly obvious that he's in love with Anton, and that he is going to be hurt. To tell you much more than that would be to spoil your own discovery, but I will say that much more important than the plot is the description of the social environment that governs the two children, then teens, then men's choices, such that their lives, while in many ways ripe with possibilities, feel startlingly claustrophobic.

Until. . . . but I'll leave that for you to discover. There are some beautiful character sketches in the novel, Gustav's father, for example, in his moral confusion. The grieving widower who visits Gustav's hotel in part because he can assuage his loneliness by playing cards with Gustav at bedtime.  The woman who was Gustav's father's mistress. . . Another novel I could enjoy re-reading. And again, if you'd like a more comprehensive review, here's one

And finally, book Three, which is not a novel but a Cultural History of Trails. A cultural history, that is, if we assign "culture" to very simple, odd, and early life-forms whose fossils point to the trails they traced. I'd say that Robert Moor's On Trails: An Exploration makes such an assignment, and he also argues for the culture of ants and of elephants, among other creatures, made manifest through the trails they make and the trails they follow. I suppose I could more carefully say of that part of the book that it's a Natural History, and then I could tell you that Moor combines a natural history with a cultural history. But what fascinates me about the work he does is that he holds up trails -- the Appalachian Trail as the main path leading us through the chapters, offering a cohesive structure -- as an example of both Nature and Culture. Instinct (or simple random trial) leads an individual to an action, to placing feet in a direction, but it's the repetition that makes a trail, and that repetition has to do with community and culture. Moor explains it all much better than I'm suggesting in this brief summary, and he also provides an engaging account of the (fairly recent, relatively) history of hiking, of developing trails and paths throughout what was once considered "wilderness" by settlers in the United States (Moor's primary concern, although he wends his way to Canada's East Coast). Sierra magazine called this "the best outdoors book of [2016]," but I'd say it transcends that genre, in an intriguingly different way than did, say, Cheryl Strayed's Wild. . . .Let me know if you read it, will you? (As with the two novels, please...)

Oh, and by the way,  On Trails reads well with: Robert MacFarlane's The Old Ways.

Over to you. Comments welcome, either on the books I've written about here or about any that you're reading and would like to recommend. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What I Read While Travelling. . .

Thinking back to the years when the biggest challenge to carry-on-only travel was how to fit enough books into our cases, I am ever so appreciative of e-books, especially since I now borrow them so easily from the library -- and can add new ones as I travel, checking into my home library even when I'm thousands of kilometres away.
Train-window views to read by, taken between Paris and Venice last month
On the flight from Vancouver to Paris, for example, as tempted as I was by a great roster of movies (and I did watch a few), I read Lee Child's latest Jack Reacher novel, Night School. I know that some of this series' readers, particularly the female ones, have tired of the books by now, but I still enjoy them as a diversion, and the premise of Night School is an intriguing if troubling one -- the continued existence of nuclear weapons from the earliest days of testing their potential over 60 years ago. . . until when? Where are they all now? And how securely are they sequestered and accounted for?

Next, I read Tessa Hadley's novel, The Past, a study of one extended family's gathering for perhaps the last summer vacation together in the large rambling, semi-rural English home they'd inherited from their grandparents. The "past" of the title is outlined in a separate section of the novel, at its core, and is spectrally, uneasily present throughout. The children's characters and actions throughout -- in both present and past -- are compelling, mostly credible, playing on those edges of perceived innocence and dangerous experience that adults too often easily consign kids to, forgetting or denying the darker corners of childhood.

By the time I'd finished this, on the long train ride from Paris to Venice, the ebooks I'd put on hold before our trip began coming in at a fast and furious pace. Luckily, we still had a few train journeys ahead -- from Venice to Ljubljana, for example, which is when I began reading Lauren Collins' When in French: Love in a Second Language. Within the first two chapters of reading this memoir, I had resolved to get my own print copy once I got back home.  Collins is a regular contributor to the New Yorker, and she writes beautifully -- her metaphors so often flirt with over-the-top-ness, yet manage somehow to work, to be perfectly apt, to illustrate freshly enough to make me laugh. And I laughed so often while reading this, and so often I had to make Paul stop what he was doing to listen to me read a passage out loud. The New Yorker has a large excerpt online, so that you can see what I mean .

What that excerpt doesn't illustrate is the fascinating research Collins weaves into her memoir, so that as much as a personal narrative about falling in love, becoming an ex-pat, learning and loving and living in a second language, it is also a narrative about the United States' changing attitudes about and toward multilingualism, about the growing mistrust of "foreign" languages, about what the ramifications of those attitudinal changes might be in a globalised universe. So interesting. Highly recommended, and do let me know if you read it.

I have three more titles to tell you about, but why not save those for another post. . . . For now, why don't you tell me what you've been reading? I love our conversations about books here, and I've missed you!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Still Reading. . . Memoirs and Mysteries and a Historical Novel and . . .

Not ready to give up on this blog completely, yet, but for the time being keeping up two blogs is unrealistic if I'm to honour my commitment to my personal writing project.  I hope I'll be able to add something more substantive from time to time because I do so enjoy the conversation that extended posts tend to stimulate. But for now, I'm going to accept my limitations and simply keep the space open by listing current or recent reading whenever I think of it and/or find a moment or two.

I don't think I've yet mentioned reading three mysteries by Peter May, all set on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. One of you spurred my memory about them in a fairly recent comment I can't seem to track down, and before that, back in 2015, Sue wrote one of her informative and engaging book posts about them.  I enjoyed The Black House very much, The Lewis Man almost as much, and although I felt the series was running out of steam by The Chess Men, there was much to keep me turning pages in that title as well.

I've also read a few more Donna Leon mysteries, partly justifying them by my upcoming trip to Venice: Willful Behaviour, Uniform Justice, and Doctored Evidence. All good, although I do sometimes wonder how ex-pat Leon's opinions about her adopted country are taken by its natives. . . She clearly loves Venice and the Venetians, but she is scathing about corruption, environmental irresponsibility, and bureaucratic inefficiencies, just for a start. . . Her My Venice and Other Essays is especially fun for spotting some of the inspirations, in her personal, everyday life, for some characters or settings or premises of her mystery novels.

One of you, commenting as "Unknown," recommended Patrick Modiano to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed his Paris Nocturne, so thank you! I would have loved to write more about the book's tone, almost oneiric, its weaving through memory (interestingly, the same mix of focus on a difficult father and on a past or present female love as we see in Knausgaard, but on an entirely different scale, weight, so much slighter, and yet. . . .).
I've just got a copy of his Les Boulevards de Ceinture from the library, as a good way to ramp up my French before we land in Paris in two weeks. (toward the same goal, I've just finished Jean-Christophe Rufin's L'Immortelle Randonée: Compostelle Malgré Moi, the most thoughtful and perhaps realistic book I've so far read about the pilgrimage route to Santiago).

Ta-Nahesi Coates' memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, is an important book about growing up African-American with a father determined to impart what that meant in terms of intellectual and political heritage. That heritage pitted against the drives of adolescence, the pull of the popular and of peers, what that meant in neighbourhoods constructed -- both in reality and in the cultural imagination -- as Black. So much I didn't know that I found so illuminating. Also fascinating for me was, once again, the way the particular and the general or universal meet in challenging commonalities. I recommend this one.

Also read Ann Granger's Mud, Muck, and Dead Things, passed on from my daughter who'd picked it up at her neighbourhood Little Library. If you fancy a vicarious hike through the Cotswolds, like a good mystery novel, and particularly enjoy a female detective as protagonist, this will please you.

Michael Christie's If I Fall, If I Die was one I'd read reviews of a year or two ago, and then happened across on the library shelf -- Not sure that it should have pushed its way to the top of my list by biblio-impulse, but it was well-written and entertaining and the premise was intriguing.  Adolescent boy who's been raised inside by an agoraphobic mother decides to push aside her fear of risk and leaves his homeschooled universe for the dangers of school and gangs and skateboarding and, inadvertently, a serious drug-dealing syndicate connected to a Missing Persons mystery.  #readswellwith Emma Donoghue's Room.

Roberta Rich's A Trial in Venice was another example of the dangers of visiting a library. I'll never get through my always-evolving list if I keep letting impulse check-outs jump the queue. This historical novel is apparently a sequel to The Midwife of Venice which I haven't read.  Again, well-written, apparently well-researched, chosen to give me a sense of the historical background of the city whose streets we'll be walking in a few weeks.  Enjoyable if not particularly important. Recommended as a rainy-day read or for the beach.

And there we go. Lurching from one belated lick-and-a-promise post to the next. Those of you who are still checking in, thank you for your patience. Comments always welcome, especially feedback on books we've both read or recommendations on ones you have and I shouldd....

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Flitting with the Finches -- Back to My Reading Blog with a Book About Birds

Yes, I have trouble keeping this blog going -- I'd say that it's an example of a lifelong trend to,  as I've often been warned from adolescence onward, "spread myself too thin."

But I'm going to be stubborn on this one, and while I may post with such paucity and infrequency as to be embarrassing, I will continue to post, inadequately, whenever I coax a minute or two this way.

I've got a list of books read since last post, and some of them I think you'd enjoy so I'll get them up before too long.

For today, though, I just wanted to share this quotation from Kyo Maclear's gentle, observant, philosophically rich book about her year of urban bird-watching, finding solace and guidance in that pursuit, finding respite from the needs of her ailing father, her own children's care, her work. . . The book is titled Birds Art Life, and although I'm not quite halfway through, I'm confident in telling you to find a copy. You'll thank me, truly.

The passage I'll transcribe for you here coincided with our recent excitement at having a single house finch land on our terrace, perhaps scouting for the appropriate food in the appropriate feeder -- neither of which we had. We've since read that there are reasons to guard against attracting a "development of finches" (isn't that a splendid collective noun?!) -- they can be bullies, and they're apparently messy as well, but for now we've embraced risk and added a tube feeder to our dinner bell feeder and hanging suet feeder. Now we live in hope of seeing that charming flash of red and perhaps being treated to some finch song.

So you can see why the serendipity of finding this passage thrilled me:

While I went on my reading binge, while the musician recovered [the musician is an eccentric who has turned to birding to manage stress, maintain mental health -- he's a central figure in the memoir, having agreed to guide Maclear on urban birding hikes, teach her how to observe] the air outside filled with migrant birdsong. I sat in my garden every day with my Peterson's Field Guide and a pair of binoculars trying to compare the living birds around me with the book birds on my lap. One day I emailed the musician and told him what I saw.
     I wrote: "Based on its stocky red and grey body, I think it's a crossbill."
     And he wrote back: "It's definitely not a crossbill. Wrong time of year. Probably a house finch (lots of them around right now) and remotely possibly a purple finch (though I doubt this)."
     It was a house finch. Any momentary feelings of stupidity and shame on my part were dispelled by the bird's charm. I watched for a long time, fell in love with its rosy-red crown and breast and its gregarious twittering. I felt the lift of bird in me, which felt like the lift of wine, or the lift of an ascending elevator, or the lift of discovering that I did not prefer the book to the reality. I wondered if this would be my spark bird. [She has just finished explaining that spark birds are the birds that initiate people into birding, that inspire them to learn more and spend more time observing the avian world, and she's offered numerous passages from a variety of renowned birders.]

Besides relating to this passage because we're just entering a relationship, we hope, with a house finch (which we used to see frequently enough at our old house, but hadn't known we would here in our urban condo), I also related to her tentative attempt at identification being quickly squashed by an experienced birder. I wondered aloud, a few months ago, to a birder friend whether the sparrow scratching in the corners of our terrace, hopping surreptitiously between and behind the plant pots, might actually be a Fox Sparrow. Her "No" was as emphatic as the musician's "It's definitely not a crossbill." So I recognised those "momentary feelings of stupidity and shame," and was inspired by her willingness to let those go immediately in favour of attending to the charm of the bird actually in front of her. Of "discovering that [she] did not prefer the book to the reality."

And now I've used up all the minutes I found in that drawer. All the others I see in the day seem to be earmarked for other activities. But perhaps you'll find a minute or two to read what I've shared here, and if you do, I promise to respond to whatever comments you choose to leave. . .

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Getting (Productively) Messy with Maggie Nelson. . .

Despite all the other tasks calling to me from/for this blog, most of them pleasurably if time-consuming, I'm going to take a few minutes to transcribe a paragraph from Maggie Nelson's memoir The Argonauts. Nelson's rigorous thoughtfulness about her relationship with her "fluidly gendered" partner is so inspiring, so productive. She blends a deeply committed attention to theory (in which she has a solid reputation as a scholar in Critical Studies) with her own lived experience as lover, wife, mother, among other roles. Her generous willingness to think on the page, to meditate through the complications, and beyond the binaries, is especially welcome to me right now as I watch a beloved young relative painfully struggling against the thises OR thats, the Yesses or Nos,  the girls OR the boys. . . Why must they choose a bathroom door to enter?

But there will be no more of my clumsy proselytising when Nelson has done such elegant writing.  Here's the paragraph I wanted to record today:

How to explain -- "trans" may work well enough as shorthand, but the quickly developing mainstream narrative it evokes ("born in the wrong body," necessitating an orthopedic pilgrimage between two fixed destinations) is useless for some -- but partially, or even profoundly, useful for others? That for some, "transitioning" may mean leaving one gender entirely behind, while for others -- like Harry [Nelson's partner], who is happy to identify as a butch on T [testosterone therapy] -- it doesn't? I'm not on my way anywhere,  Harry sometimes tells inquirers. How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy? I do not want the female gender that has been assigned to me at birth. Neither do I want the male gender that transsexual medicine can furnish and that the state will award me if I behave in the right way. I don't want any of it. How to explain that for some, or for some, at some times, this irresolution is OK -- desirable, even (e.g., "gender hackers") -- whereas for others, or for others at some times, it stays a source of conflict or grief? How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality -- or anything else, really -- is to listen to what they tell you, and to try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours? 

 (on page 53 of The Argonauts, Minneapolis: Grey Wolf P, 2015 . . .  and note that she cites Beatriz Preciado)

Back, soon, to chat more about our experiment with some poetry and to offer a short list of recent reading. But if you've been thinking about gender, sexuality, binaries, and beyond, lately, and especially if you want to recommend pertinent reading on the topic, do leave a comment. And even if you haven't, I'm always pleased to hear from you.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Poetry Experiment Continued -- With Apologies for Lab Failure by Management,

Just a quick NewsFlash! to say I'm still here, and now, so are your comments (back on this post) to which I hope to respond very soon.

A bit of technical background first. I have the commenting feature on my blogs set so that besides being posted here, all comments come to my email box. Yes, it can get cluttered, but I like to feel the rhythm of the comments arriving and I tend to keep them in my emailbox until I've answered them, as a reminder that you're waiting for my reply. So I'd anticipated being able to follow the conversation about the poetry, saving up your thoughtful comments, thinking of my own response to those, and, finally, letting them go "live" and "public" on the blog.

But, it turns out, when I chose to set the Comments feature for Moderation, those comments didn't get emailed to me, but stayed "behind the dashboard," so to speak, on Blogger.  Because, as I've just this morning realised, I didn't have my email address entered on the requisite line in the Settings page.

I had been quite disappointed that no one accepted my challenge to comment on the Gernes poem I posted, but I told myself that didn't necessarily mean the experiment was a failure. Perhaps some of you had read it, even if you weren't inclined to comment. And I resolved to try again with another poem later, but perhaps attempt a different approach to conversation. At the very least, I told myself, I had put a poem out there, spread poetry's visibility in a contemporary world that doesn't make much room for it. Not a failure completely, I reassured myself.

And then this morning, Georgia asked ever-so-politely, in a comment on my other blog, if I was thinking of turning the comments back on over here.  I knew she was hoping to read what others had said about the poem, and I thought, wryly, that she might share my disappointment in finding that no one had said anything.

Luckily, when Georgia asked when I was planning to make the Comments public, I figured it was time to turn off the Comments Moderation feature and went for a peek at that dashboard. I'm not sure you can imagine my delight and surprise to find a wealth of thoughtful comments that had been waiting patiently for me to find them. Chagrin as well, in spades. . . .

But I'm wiping the egg off my face, and gleefully posting all your lovely comments. And I'm turning Comments Moderation off, and sorting out some time for responding to your thoughts about the poem as soon as I can. Might not happen today as we're hosting a family dinner here today to celebrate a Second Birthday. But as soon as I can.

Meanwhile, thank you so much. I should have known you'd never disappoint me.