Monday, November 17, 2008

Reading, by Chance . . . Arriving at Edeet Ravel's Look for Me

I was very lucky, growing up. I lived in New Westminster, a small city just outside Vancouver, BC, and although the population then was just 40,000, our library had an impressive retinue of professional librarians including, by the time I was six if not before, two children's librarians. There were Saturday morning story hours for which we lined up when Miss Ellison played her music box and then followed her quietly through the Adult Department (whisper its name, reverently) and past the glass-walled Reference Department (equally reverential whispers, please) to the Auditorium upstairs. That was the same Auditorium in which those of us lucky enough to be members of Children's Own Theatre would meet certain Fridays to view wonderful, gentle, moving films from around the world.

And, of course, there were the books. I was the oldest of twelve, and entertainment funds were necessarily strained in our family, but library borrowing was free and we took advantage of it. Swimming in the Kiwanis Pool on our family pass in the summer, skating at the Community Arena in the winter, joining in the parks program through the summer, playing scrub baseball in the back lane for all the months that provided after-dinner daylight. And the library. I wasn't the only family member who would visit more than once a week, always hauling home a stack of five books, sometimes finishing one while walking home. At home, I'd sometimes hide on the floor between the beds, reading, while my mom called for someone to set the table or fold the laundry or feed the baby. Shy, and the youngest in my class at school, at home as the eldest I often felt burdened with responsibility -- from either environment books offered an instant and complete escape.

Each visit, the children's room, with its particular geography of easy and difficult, picture book and chapter book, fiction and non-fiction, offered a wealth of possibilities and I mined them all. Although I'd generally begin by checking for yet unread books by favourite authors, I more often allowed serendipity to guide me, browsing spines for titles that intrigued me, then pulling the book out to scan the cover and then opening it to skim the fly-leaf. Surprisingly, my system rarely disappointed -- I don't recall ever hauling books back unread. Mind you, I was a voracious and perhaps relatively indiscriminate reader, but when I consider the success of my fairly random method, I wonder at having abandoned it so completely.

Now, instead of perusing a bookstore for happy finds, I'm much more likely to have a list, gleaned from recent reviews or, occasionally, friends' recommendations. I'm generally trying to catch up with that list and to work my way through one of the bedside or coffee table or desktop piles of should-reads. In many way, of course, this is simply a sensible response to the reality of work in a field that requires me to keep up with a body of reading and the accompanying reality of too little time. But what a sad motto to live by: There's no time for Serendipity! That's not a bumper sticker I want to display.

I'm not sure I'll be in a position to abandon efficiency any time soon, but earlier this year, I did browse a table of remaindered hard-cover books and at less than the price of a paperback, I picked up a few. One was Edeet Ravel's Look for Me, a book that apparently followed the success of her Ten Thousand Lovers. The latter was on my list; the former wasn't, but I picked it up anyway. I've just finished it, and I'm moving Lovers up to the top of my list and adding Your Sad Eyes and Unforgettable Mouth as well. Apparently, Ravel was born in a kibbutz near the Lebanese border, then lived in Montreal (where her parents were originally from), returned to Jerusalem to earn two degrees in English literature and then back to Canada where she earned her MA and PhD (in Jewish Studies) at McGill. Oh, AND she earned an MA in Creative Writing at Concordia. Impressed yet?

But what about the book itself, you want to know? It's gently confessional with a very likeable, principled, rather quixotic narrator who has been trying for many years to track down her husband, who disappeared after being burned and disfigured in a military incident. I found the book's structure as quixotic, in some way, as the narrator, with its daily articulation of a single week, each day encompassing a mixture of near-heroic and quotidien tasks, the narrator confronting military checkpoints to deliver much-needed blankets across the border and then returning home to deal with politics in her apartment. She makes demands of herself that seem unreasonable (she continues, for example, to chastise herself for the one time, in the many years of her husband's absence, she brought a man home), yet accepts uncomplainingly the very trying behaviour from the disabled neighbour she cares for. A somewhat implausible coincidence of events in this single week leads to difficult choices and potentially painful repercussions. Yet without spoiling the novel for you, I will say that the novel has a redemptive ending, but not in the way you might imagine -- the ending is congruent with the modified expectations the narrator has learned to live with. A happy ending in such a setting would have been grotesque; a bleak one would have denied the narrator's (and, one senses, the activist author's) determination to find and make good in a world that tends to obscure it with war, territorialism, and hatred.

Look for Me is apparently the second novel in the trilogy which began with Ten Thousand Lovers so I'm going back to my list next after a serendipitous detour. I'm curious to know how you choose your reading. And has serendipity brought Ravel's novels to your bookshelf yet?


  1. I grew up in a family of four girls, and parents who read to us every night. As we were too poor to buy books, our library was a source of serious Saturday morning expeditions. My eldest sister, often bored by being asked to read to the "babies" -- my younger sister and me -- taught us to read at quite a young age. One of my younger sister's triumphs was getting her OWN library card before age 3, which allowed her to take out 2 whole books by herself, instead of having to pick only one book to go on my card. (I am a year older).

    Today, I pick my reading material often from what my sisters read. The eldest two are very into mysteries, though my oldest sister reads voraciously across all subjects. I am also drawn to finding books in the bookstore or library by wandering and picking them up. Often, if my fil is visiting he will pick up one of my quirky books and it will become a family read.

    Now that my son is in high school, I read all the books he is required to...quite a different list than I had in Canada as a teenager.

    Book lists from my favourite clerk in the local bookstore also help, and I do read the NYT book review.

    That said, I often pick up books from guests of The Jon Stewart Show, and The Colbert Report. There have been some very interesting finds.

    And now I will add Edeet Ravel to my list.

    The redheaded Canadian expat...

  2. No time for serendipity would indeed be a sad bumper sticker.

    I like to read the first sentence, a habit I picked up when an author said he did the same.

  3. Christine: Thanks for sharing these lovely memories as well as your family's approach to choosing books. Your parents were wise, weren't they -- the reading patterns they set in your youth seem still to be binding you together. If you do get a chance to read Ravel, let me know what you think.
    Thomas:There are some great first sentences out there, aren't there! And some absolute duds -- in both cases, a good way to judge a book by just lifting the cover. . .

  4. Mater,
    What a lovely post. That is exactly how I used to choose books. I always thought to myself, " I always hear you can't judge a book by it's cover, but it sure seems that way to me." I hadn't thought of missing browsing through the books and randomly pulling one off the shelf. It was like finding a treasure when I found one that piqued my interest. Nowadays I am likely to browse

  5. Julianne: sounds as if we're on the same wavelength. It did feel something like treasure hunting -- and finding!

  6. Oh how evocative a post! I was the eldest of only three, tho' my father gave up reading to us by the time my youngest brother was ready for stories and that duty to fell to me. I loved reading to him, and to myself and from about the time I was 8 I was allowed to walk to the library by myself or with my brothers in tow. I always came home with at least 5 books and was often back at the library well before the week was out. I was also allowed to order as many books as I wanted from those those paperback book order pamphlets they sold through the school -- the one thing my parents indulged us in.

    How I loved perusing the isles of the library, including the adult section after I had read all the books in the children's library. There were books the librarian was not sure she should let me take home so there were often calls to my parents.

    Now I have lists culled from other readers, articles and reviews, as well as amazon, and the occasional browsing expedition. I think those random finds are sometimes the nicest thrills.

  7. Mardel: Like you, I would read to my younger siblings, and I loved it. They still remember and give me lots of credit for "doing all the different voices." My youngest sister is 15 years younger than I am, so I had an excuse to extend my stay in the children's department. I actually even read all the way through Tolkien to them. And then I read aloud to my own four, but except for reading to Pater while he cooks or on road trips, I haven't the audience anymore. But my new grandchild will be deluged with books from day one!