Tuesday, December 31, 2013

And a Last Few Titles of the Year . . .

I'm unhappy with how few of the books I read this year made it into a post, even in the briefest review. But I'm busy, and I'm human, and I suppose I always try to do a bit too much. And maybe that's not a bad thing . . . .

In the interest of a quick catch-up, though, a few words about a few more titles:
David Essig's novel, Dancing Hand. An island neighbour of mine, this well-known Canadian musician proves his astonishing versatility, extending lyric-writing skills to an entire novel. Set in the small BC town of Nelson, this cross-generational tale pulls together music, Venice, Auschwitz, Canadian prairies, mountain hippie culture, and wonderful descriptions of food, bread-baking in particular -- I know, that's a lot to integrate in a relatively slim novel (under 200 pages), but it's done convincingly and with a deft hand, so that the weight of the history it encompasses doesn't bog down the tale or its characters.

Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries. Nothing slim about this Man Booker-winning novel which weighs in at 832 pages. Indeed, its heft is part of my reservations about the novel, not in terms of its value, but of how well it fits contemporary reading culture. Or rather, how might we make room, in that culture, for a book of the novel's demands. . . How many of the readers who acquire a copy over the Christmas season (and I note that my son currently has a copy on his nightstand) will finish it? I'm encouraged and hopeful that the strength of its narrative, imagery, setting -- the intricacy of its plotting, of the way that plot is advanced from different overlapping and intersecting points of view -- will indeed carry many readers right to the final pages. But when they get there, whom will those readers find to discuss the ending which is . . . .okay, no spoilers here, but I might just say that it concludes rather ephemerally. And I'm not sure what I think of that, given my investment in putting the story together. I'd love to be able to talk about this with other readers but I wonder where I will find them. I know that I could never put a book like this on any course reading list. And yet I know that readers will be well repaid for hanging in through the first 100 pages until the story begins to make the reading less of an effort. I think of the discussions I've had with my 1st-year students as we've read and researched and written around Nicholas Carr's The Shallows and Alan Jacobs' The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and I wonder about the Man Booker itself and "the reading class." . . . .Maunderings and witterings, I know . . . . have you read this one? What say you?

Interesting perhaps, though, given that I'm thinking about reading as phenomenon, to note that while I had Elizabeth George's latest big fat mystery lined up for me to read at the end of term, I felt that I had to earn that pleasure by first reading The Luminaries and then Joseph Boyden's The Orenda. Like Catton's novel, Boyden's repays its challenges to the reader with many rewards, but its challenges are of a very different nature. Unlike The Luminaries, The Orenda has the reader in its grip from the first page; I was compelled to keep reading and only put the book down reluctantly, in deference to errands or sleep. And while both novels revise or expand our view of a particular history (New Zealand's gold rush days, Catton; Canada/New France's contact-conquest-settlement period for Boyden), the politics of the second, while not at all overbearing or pedantic or proselytizing, are much clearer. But the biggest difference in terms of the challenges to this reader, at least, would have to be the graphic descriptions of torture in Boyden's novel.  Boyden does a magnificent job of contextualizing this torture within the spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices of the First Nations peoples; as well, he reminds readers that, against the relatively recent practices of the Inquisition, such corporal punishment does not serve to distinguish the supposedly sauvage from the more "civilized" Jesuits and the European regimes they represent. But it's still difficult to stomach, or at least I found it so, and as compelling as the interwoven narratives of the three main characters were, I occasionally had to put the book down for a period. Nonetheless, I would recommend the novel highly as a necessary foundation for understanding Canadian history, for counteracting some of the prevailing mythologies. I particularly appreciate it as someone whose French forebears arrived in New France not much later than the time the novel is set, and whose French forebears married First Nations people from tribes within the same geographical area, although those lines have been somewhat obscured through the ensuing centuries.


  1. Interesting, because I have a French-Canadian great-grandmother who may have had some First-Nations
    ancestors as well. We may be more Métis than we think.

  2. In fact, a number of my cousins have pursued and obtained Metis status, although I knew nothing of this background (it was just not talked about) until perhaps 15 years ago).

  3. I promise to read The Luminaries so we can discuss :)