Monday, March 7, 2011

Sheila Watson's The Double Hook

In retrospect, the contrast between Keith Richards' Life and the book I chose to read after it couldn't be more amusing. I'd say it confirms my eclectic range! From Richards' fat juicy romp of an ode to pop culture, I turned to a re-read (probably my sixth or seventh time) of Sheila Watson's The Double Hook. This beautifully spare -- austere, I'd say, except for the extravagant drama at its heart, and its marvellously contained narrative arc -- is a Canadian modernist classic. Perhaps make that the Canadian modernist classic. Bane of so many undergraduate students of Canlit, some students, myself included, come to admire the book's poetic and dramatic economy, while many more continue to shudder at its mention in any future discussions.

Once I'd had help discerning its structure and teasing out the richness hiding in its ellipses, I've been seduced back to the book many times, partly as a requirement in the field (part of comprehensive exams), partly in preparation for teaching, but this last time, strictly in response to a drive through the novel's landscape last summer. I came home itching to read it again with that beautifully bare, dry, elusive terrain still in my mind's eye, its dry heat in my skin, but then got distracted by the end of summer flurry and the preparation for new classes. Then several weeks ago, my friend Tanis Macdonald updated her FB status to note that she was reading The Double Hook again  -- Tanis has been using FB to track her own reading at least partially, I think, in an effort to keep reading in the public eye, to remind the world that books matter!  Her FB status reminded me of my earlier ambitions, and finally, last month, I appreciated this small wonder of a novel yet again.

I'd be very curious to hear of any of you who have struggled with the book. Although I can vaguely remember finding it opaque, challenging, elusive, it's hard to retrieve those difficulties with any precision now. Instead, knowing the plot, the characters, so well now, I delight in the language, and, especially in the structure of "figures cut in sacred ground" (to use Angela Bowering's characterization).

Also curious about what books you turn back to regularly. One of my daughters declares herself incapable of rereading a book, and I agree with her that she has too little time and too many still-to-read books. But I tell her that one day I hope she'll discover the wonders of what a second (and third, and fourth) reading can reveal. It's the best way to understand that a text -- a reading of a particular book by a particular person at a particular time under particular circumstances -- is unique, and that each book represents innumerable texts.

I'm also curious to know what books have resisted you (or vice versa) and how you've managed that resistance (turning away, or soldiering through, or putting off 'til you're more ready). And whether some books have surprised you by becoming much more accessible with time's passing -- I think, for example, of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children which seemed so difficult the first time I read it, but which subsequent readings (I've read it three times) showed to be a much more easily engaging novel.

Speak up -- I love hearing your thoughts about reading. It matters, you know?!


  1. I'm intrigued by your reading blog, because I know you care about literature, like Mardel, and I love the way you write about your life.

    At the same time, I worry about people suggesting what I ought to read.

    It's the rebel in me.

    I was a literature major but now read very little contemporary literature.

    Martin and I read a lot of classic literature and non-fiction -- mostly history. At the moment we are nearly through the two-part tome, The Last Lion, by William Manchester, of the biography of Churchill.

    It is beautifully written and raises so many difficult, interesting questions.

  2. I confess to re-reading Pride and Prejudice regularly, generally if I'm in bed with the flu ...

    I'm fascinated by the book you describe - must get my hands on it.

    Usually I persist with books I don't understand (Darkmans by Nicola Barker was the most recent in that category) or don't like, but I'm more often taking the view that life is too short (and my reading time especially)!

  3. I respect what you're saying, Susan, as reading is so very personal, and we have such limited time for it that we want to make the choices count. That said, I very much appreciate reading suggestions, and I'll follow up on them depending how much I respect the reader making them. I started this blog to keep track of my own reading and possibly get to discuss it with a few interested readers rather than from any desire to tell others what books to pick up. I have to do enough of that prompting (nagging, often!) for work (I'm a Lit. prof).

    I can imagine that Churchill bio would be fascinating -- and I love the idea of reading such a work with my husband and being able to chat about it together.

    Tiffany: Sounds like P&P works for you as my Buffy DVDs do for me -- a clue that I'm not very highbrow!! ;-)
    As for the persistence -- it depends whether the difficulty is one that intrigues or not, doesn't it? Like you (and like Susan, above), I'm very jealous of my reading time and use it judiciously.