Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Recent Reading Adventures -- the Public Library and Beyond. . .

After years of not using the public library, relying instead on the academic libraries of my grad schools and then of the university I taught at, I finally renewed my membership at the library in Nanaimo just a few months before we moved. Packing my copious collection of books into boxes for storage, rather despairing of finding enough shelf space when we unpack in September, I could see the library might be a better option than buying more books. Or, at least, a check-and-balance that means I might not buy quite so many, that I might restrict the buying to those I'm quite sure I'll want to return to more than once.

A couple of weeks ago, then, I decided to pick up a membership at the Vancouver Public Library, and I came home from that visit with three books: two mystery novels -- a favourite genre, but one I tend not to reread -- and an early novel by Elena Ferrante, one that reader Georgia had recommended to me. The latter, though, is the original Italian novel, La Figlia Oscura, and I'm unlikely to finish it in Italian in the time allotted by the library. What a wonderful resource, though, to find it on the shelf there. So far, I'm just trying to work my way through a few paragraphs a day, no expectation that my rudimentary Italian will get me through an entire novel, but absolutely tickled that I can understand what I'm reading as long as I continually consult my online dictionary. Particularly tickled that I didn't have to pay a penny for the experience. . . .

Of the mystery novels, I gave myself an escape-the-world day last week to gobble up the first of a series I spotted in a bookstore in Ottawa a few weeks ago, featuring a female prosecutor, Belfa Elkins, working in West Virginia. Although I'm glad I saved the $12 I would had to pay for a paperback copy of Julia Keller's A Killing in the Hills,  I enjoyed it enough that I'll check the library shelves for more in the series. Bell (Belfa's nickname) is bright, feisty, and fairly recently a single parent of a teen-aged daughter, having been divorced just a few years. There's a hint that she may embark on some romance, but she has a dark past that she's also dealing with.  There's also more than a hint that the series may get even better now that the groundwork's been laid -- I found myself caring much more about characters at about the halfway point. I'm further intrigued by the setting, which I don't know much of. Keller goes well beyond a physical sense of the geography, the flora and fauna, the architecture, and the weather. She also describes the socio-economic impact on this region of the downturn in coal mining, and she paints a compelling picture of the effects on a previously rural, even hermetic social structure of an all-too-connected and globalised world in which young people are very vulnerable and their elders despair of knowing how to help them.

Next up? The other mystery novel I picked up at the library is the second in Steve Burrows' Birder Murder mysteries, A Pitying of Doves. But before I begin it, I have to finish Teju Cole's Open City, a novel which is demanding a very different kind of attention and pacing.  This was a novel I bought, knowing it will be one I return to (prompted to buy it, in fact, by a blogging friend's Instagram post in which she mentioned rereading it).  A meditative and erudite consideration of the post-911 world, the Open City seeming to be New York, based on what I've read so far, but also referring perhaps to Lagos, to Brussels, to international cities that feature in our grand, collective imaginaries. The narrator is a psychiatrist, Nigerian-born and raised, but with roots also in Europe -- and in Europe's trauma -- now walking the streets of his adopted home, the city whose streets he walks, pondering the state of the world, of humanity.

 I kept trying to remember, as I read through the first hundred pages or so, whose voice, whose tone, whose rhythm I was hearing. What was it that felt familiar? What did it feel familiar to? And I'd have to go back and read the two side by side, but what I think I'm feeling echoes of is W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz.  Admittedly, Cole's style and structure don't challenge the reader with density and duration/length the way Sebald's do in Austerlitz. But both novels share gravitas, both span decades and countries insisting on connections across pathways we often try to ignore, both have a gentle urgency about the state of humanity and the world, both employ erudite pauses on what can appear to be arcana (more details than you ever wanted to know about bedbugs, in the case of Open City, for example).  A stretch, perhaps, to link these two writers, but if you've read both, please weigh in. And if you've only read one, might I suggest/request you try the other, and then report back?

Oh dear, I've just Googled Open City, thinking I'd tell you which book prizes it was shortlisted for -- National Book Critics Circle Award and The Royal Society of Literature's Ondaatje prize --  and which it's won -- the PEN/Hemingway award -- and I see that the publisher's description of the book includes the phrase "The bestselling debut novel from a writer heralded as the twenty-first-century W. G. Sebald." I'm too chastened to go find out who heralded Coles as such, but I suppose I should also feel vindicated that others made the connection as well. So now, I'll just click on "Publish," and then wait for any comments you might care to share. . . read any good books lately?
And I'm curious to know what proportion of your reading involves books borrowed from the library. Also, tell me whether your library habits are regular or whether their erratic and involve shameful fines (my current fear. . . ). 


  1. I recently started to use the public library more. My book clubs use the book club sets so I am visiting the library at least once a month. Our personal loan period has been shortened from 4 weeks to 3 and online renewals are possible if the book is not in demand. My boxes of books are still unsorted after 5 years of retirement so it is rather irresponsible of me to acquire more. If I read 5-10 books a month, the cost is also a factor even on Kobo. I started out as a Library Assistant at the old VPL on Robson, met Monsieur when we both worked in Port Moody Library and ended up as a teacher-librarian so libraries have played an important part in my life. Right now, I'm reading Ann Enright's Gathering as part of my Ireland preparation. I've got a book by Anita Shreve to read for the Seniors' Group that I am leading. Do you have fond memories of your childhood libraries? Ours was a small outpost of the Fraser Valley Regional system. My mum had younger children so I went alone but the library ladies were always so nice and supportive. I have met so many adults (formerly bookish children) who found their happy place in public libraries.

  2. I think I have had library books on the go pretty much constantly since I was about 5 (Madame, it was my happy place too). I visited the library before my trip to the folk festival and as a result I finished The Judgement of Paris, read The Casual Vacancy (Rowling), a Margaret Drabble novel and her short story collection, and after returning home tackled The Goldfinch (am about half done and am reserving judgement...but so far think 'Frazen-esque'). Aside from M Drabble I wouldn't likely have bought any of these. And you can see how much lying around reading we did over those 5 days.

    Now! Ferrante in Italian! And my favourite, too. I am very interested to see what you think of it all at the end. Will you then read in English? I can't wait to hear what you think...about the book and the difference between 'oscura' and 'perduta'...

  3. Franzen-esque! My typing has gone downhill.

  4. Someone just mentioned The Goldfinch and I had to add that I love everything that Donna Tartt has written, although it does take her ten years or more to write each novel! Her other books that I have enjoyed include The Little Friend and The Secret History.

    I don't know if you are familiar with her but Judy Fong Bates is a Canadian author that I somehow learned about through a book review in the Washington Post (I live in northern Virginia). I loved Midnight at the Dragon Cafe. a novel that I chose for my book club and that everyone seemed to really appreciate. I also loved her autobiographical book The Year of Finding Memory and her short story collection China Dog. I hope you will give her a try.

  5. Mme.: Did you really work in the old VPL on Robson? We lived in New West, but still, I've borrowed from that library when working downtown -- and you were just down the street from the wonderful Duthie's Books. Ah, those were the days! Have you borrowed ebooks from the library yet? I've just been notified that one I put on hold is available -- so I'll have to figure that out this morning. I wrote about Enright's The Gathering way, way back here, if you're interested: http://materfamiliasreads.blogspot.ca/2008/10/anne-enrights-gathering.html
    Georgia: I've also been a library-goer since very young--my mother would herd us all there as a favourite outing, at least once a week, and I worked as a Page during high-school. Your list of recent and current reading exemplifies the possibilities library reading offer, what I would call the Joys of the Backlist. (never mind the joys of the budgeting. . . altho' I do own Judgement of Paris and have thumbed through it numerous times since the initial reading). The Ferrante is a silly experiment for me, and very slow going, but still rather exhilarating to have this entrée to a whole other literature. I'll be surprised if I manage more than 25 pages, and I'll have to end up getting an English copy. Already, though, it's almost startlingly apparent how similar the narrator is to that of the Napoli series...
    SLF: I'm with you on The Goldfinch -- although Georgia, I must say, I've only read one Franzen (The Corrections), wouldn't rush to read another, find Tartt much more, hmmmmm, sympathetic? to her characters. That's very off-the-cuff, wouldn't want to be held to it, but I'd read anything else she writes and can't say same for JF. I know OF Bates, but I haven't read her novels. I'll make a note. You might also like Skye Lee's Disappearing Moon Cafe and Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony. . .

  6. I agree that I wouldn't rush to read another Franzen. Although I thought it was well written, The Corrections left me feeling depressed - not something I care to repeat. Thank you for bringing Skye Lee to my atention. I'll check into that book. I have read Wayson Choy's Paper Shadows but didn't know about his other book. Thank you for these recommendations.

  7. It is almost exclusively during my holidays that I have time to read entire books. So this summer I read (apart from two novels and three collections of essays in German) "The Cold Cold Ground" by Adrian McKinty, a mystery set in Northern Ireland in the times of the "Troubles". And - best of all - "The Uncommon Reader" by Alan Bennett which sent me straigt to my second-hand-website to get some more AB. Very amusing.

  8. I just read your 2008 review. There is so much anger in The Gathering but I find as our family gets older, things surface. My mum asks, "Why did these issues not arise when Dad alive?" Families are full of "issues", grudges and different points of view.
    I loved Duthie's and European News. Do you remember Le Bouquineur on Davie? Working downtown was so much fun!

    I think that my next book to read might be The Cold Cold Ground as I've not read a novel set in Northern Ireland.

  9. Brava,Frances! I think that this is the best way. Keep going/reading-I'm so proud of you
    I just decided to read english long ago, and little by little(and some thirty years later :-)) here we are. If I waited till perfection,I would still be...well,waiting! My first book in english was Oscar Wilde's Happy Prince and Other Tales
    I am late for the party here,but I'm home again,happy and proud!
    For my trip read I have chosen The Swans of the Fifth Avenue (Hostess recommendation,thanks)- I found it very educational-human relations,motifs and psyche are always interesting to me (and I didn't know that he was Harper Lee's childhood friend). It would be worth to re read In Cold Blood next. The second book was DV-memoirs,funny,light and entertaining
    I have read Corrections and felt depressed too,slf- and btw,description of deep,deep grief in Goldfinch was so overwhelming, Georgia....
    Visiting Childrens library was one of my favourite childhood memories,too-working there would be my dream come true :-)

  10. Hmmm. I've been a library user since I was very young, although for a long period I had access to a good university library which I used far more often than my public library. Upon moving to Knoxville, I use the public library more, but have not been consistent. I am also going to look into getting a resident's card at the university library, but don't yet know what limitations on what I can or cannot check out will be involved. Mostly I admittedly want to be able to read scholarly journals, especially biochem and medical ones, and I don't yet know if that access is open to the public. Otherwise I tend to shuffle between library books, books on my kindle, and I do search the free options and the sales, and buying books. We have a good second hand bookstore here also.

    As to reading, Open City is on my desk waiting to be read (I bought that), along with a huge pile of other books. Also in that pile is Elena Ferrante's "The Days of Abandonment" which I will probably start soon. I impulsively decided to read it before reading "My Brilliant Friend" after a discussion with a young visiting violinist who gave an impassioned argument for how deeply the book had affected her.

  11. Eleonore -- very timely for Mme that you shared the title of a good Irish mystery! I do understand what you mean about finding time for your "own choice" reading given all you have to do professionally. You'll love that about retirement. . . Soon. . . (and Alan Bennet, yes, I've been noticing titles I want to read, The Uncommon Reader one of them -- my impression from reviews is of light-enough reading that yet lingers, that makes a gentle point, that is sensitively observed -- and whimsy. All stuff that appeals).
    Mme, have you read Tana French's mystery novels -- set in Ireland as well . . .
    Dottoressa, thanks! I'll keep your perseverance and success in mind. I do read well enough in French and try to keep that up with three or four novels a year, but the Italian really is a stretch. I find it interesting to compare the way grammar and vocabulary structure themselves in my brain through reading as opposed to the way they do through aural/oral practice. . . . As for Capote, I don't know that I could bear reading In Cold Blood again, so disturbing the coldness, the banality. . . Interesting to know that so many of us, even in such different countries, were linked through our love of libraries from childhood on.
    Mardel, you're making me regret letting my uni online connection lapse (I could still recover it, but with the move this summer I wasn't paying attention and I know I can always do research onsite if I lose all my ex-faculty borrowing privileges). Still, there always seems to be more than enough for us to read, doesn't there. You're lucky to have a good bookstore and second-hand bookstore there. We've lost so many of those, haven't we. (and Mme. I only vaguely recall Le Bouquineur -- Davie wasn't really on any of my routes back in those days.You were much more sophisticated than I!
    Mardel, you will surely savour and be troubled by Open City. I think Georgia might agree with you that The Days of Abandonment -- or the other novella, The Lost Daughter -- are better starting points to Ferrante than My Brilliant Friend. Did you ever read Georgia's guest post about F's back list? I'm going to have to read TDoA soon as well. . .