Friday, June 12, 2020

May Reading

I began this post a week ago Monday, but then found myself unable to complete it. I've spent the ten or twelve days since debating whether I'll continue blogging at all, wondering about the value of my words but also about the responsibilities or obligations that this space might carry at a time when anti-racist work is more important than ever. . . but also when the expectations for that work can seem to demand forms of activism that are not mine. . . As you'll see immediately below, this is what I was already mulling Monday before last; it's just taken me this long to emerge again.

A Monday morning that makes any effort at continuity nonsensical. And yet . . . To sort my way toward seeing what this hummingbird might do to put out the raging forest fires of racism (never mind the already overwhelming context of a frightening pandemic burning its way across the world). . . To do that, I seem to need that continuity, to work within its possibilities until I can see where to break away, where to stretch, where to pause. . . .

So I'm going to go ahead with a post I've planned, sharing my reading journal pages for May.  But I'd like to begin by reminding you about a book I referred to in my last post, Ibram X. Kendi's How To Be an Anti-Racist.  This morning, I posted a page from that book on Instagram, the page in which Kendi explains why we need to move from "not being racist" to "being anti-racist." I would also recommend, again, another book I wrote about in my last post, Jesmyn Ward's memoir, Men We Reaped. Ward's novels Salvage the Bones and her Sing, Unburied, Sing, both of which I wrote about here, testify powerfully and movingly to the ongoing and systemic racism that continues, somehow, to be ignored. Inconvenient truths indeed.

That's all I will say about that for now. I know we're all mulling, in our own way, what we can do to effect the necessary change.  I'm going to hold space here, for now, to do that. And meanwhile, provide some continuity as well, so as to try to hold onto this little community of thoughtful readers, that means so much to me.

My reading this past month skewed a bit lighter, beginning with
Donna Leon's The Waters of Eternal Youth (borrowed from Vancouver Public Library as an e-book, via my OverDrive app)



I posted a couple of favourite pages on Instagram.  The passage in which Paula tells Brunetti what she does when she's stuck talking to one of the "men who know everything" exemplifies so much of what I love about this series. . . .

And that's as far as I got. . .
I'll continue now by moving to my 31st title for 2020's reading, Kyung-Sook Shin's beautifully moving novel (translated by Chi-Yong Kim) Please Look After Mom.  Thanks so much for recommending this, Dottoressa!
 The novel's structure allows us to construct a holographic view of the mother:  narration moves from one adult sibling to another, as they look for Mom. She's lost herself in the busy city of Seoul after being separated from her husband (always impatient with her, always walking too quickly ahead) at the train station where the elderly couple had arrived from their country village home to visit their children (all of whom were too busy to pick them up). There are also sections told by the husband and by the mother. , ,

While the novel draws illuminating, detail-rich sketches of life in Korea -- scenery, culture, domestic life, food, differences between urban and rural living, changes over seventy years -- the problems of the mother-child relationship, of the ageing mother, were powerfully resonant, so many poignant moments translated above and beyond cultural differences.

I posted an example on Instagram, photos of two pages that tell of a candid and revealing conversation between mother and adult daughter
Book 32 of the year was Shari Lapena's The Couple Next Door.  I must have seen this recommended somewhere online and coincidentally found the e-book available at the library.  Apparently I wasn't impressed. . . .

In retrospect, especially in this historical time when racialized writers deserve our attention more than ever, I'm a bit uncomfortable with my lukewarm journal response to Cherie Dimaline's The Marrow Thieves. I would temper that response now by telling you that many readers (far beyond a YA readership) have lauded the book (as evidenced by the awards it's garnered). Certainly, I found it exponentially more interesting than Book 32, above, and it's fairer to judge it that way, against other genre novels. I think I was just hoping for a novel that better filled the promise I saw in her collection of linked short stories, Red Room (mentioned in this post).  But if you're looking to broaden your reading and expose yourself to exciting First Nations (Native American, indigenous, depending on your country's terminology) writing, this book entertains, moves, disturbs, and provokes thought. . .

We're fortunate enough to have not one, but two, indigenous-owned bookstores within walking distance. I got my copy of The Marrow Thieves from Massy Books and hope to visit Iron Dog Books soon.  Bookstores here are gradually re-opening, and I'm still thinking about how comfortable I'll be browsing in my face mask, but I do need a copy of Dimaline's latest book, Empire of Wild. Eden Robinson and Tommy Orange have both recommended it. Who am I to argue?!
Last book in today's post is Taffy Brodesser-Akner's Fleishman Is in Troublei
lent to me by my daughter -- an astute and prolific reader whose recommendations I always trust. As you'll see if you can read my scrawl in the photo below, I might not have kept reading beyond the first couple of chapters if she hadn't given it to me.
I'm glad I trusted her. . . .
And that's it! I'm still reading Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light (so many parallels with our current situation -- commentary about rulers (I won't write "leaders" when the term doesn't apply) and their advisors. Henry VIII, in all his kingly arrogance, deferred to Cromwell's experience and pragmatic, if often ruthless, wisdom. . . . Clear parallels in the rumblings of potential civil war. . . .
You can see, perhaps, why I needed to take a quick detour to Venice with Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti . . . . but that's for next post.

Meanwhile, I'm curious about what you're reading -- and perhaps, also, about how your reading has shifted, or is shifting, in response to this powerful movement of solidarity against racism and against state/police brutality. All taking place, of course, within the context of a pandemic that continues to unsettle us in so many ways.  . .  I know that affects our reading as well. How to balance? Reading for comfort, for entertainment, for diversion, but also reading to learn, to develop empathy, to broaden our perspective, to find hope.  Small questions for you today ;-)
xo,
f





Thursday, May 7, 2020

Spring Reading. . . .Mystery to Memoir to Anti-Racism, Istanbul to New York City. . .

After reading Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones and Ali Smith's Spring last month, both wonderful, even important, books. . . but emotionally and mentally demanding. . . I enjoyed the palate-cleansers noted in the photo above: Mick Herron's London Rules and Cara Hunter's Close to Home.  I can't explain why mysteries (and sometimes thrillers -- Herron's "Slough House" series is more thriller, than mystery, and I've loved every one!) are my escape genre of choice. . . .

But palate cleansed, I was ready for something a bit more complex in taste and texture, and Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved was on top of the To Be Read pile, waiting patiently since I'd picked it up at Powell's Books in Portland back in January. . .


So, so much I loved about this book, and I could reread it tomorrow happily. I posted on Instagram that I was reading it and got several comments from other readers who had read it, loved it, and remembered it well long after.

Highly recommended. . . . Also recommended, for very different reasons, is Ibram X Kendi's How To Be An Anti-Racist.  The title might suggest a polemic; to me it signals instead the book's directness and practicality -- and the "how-to" book reference also suggests an engaging self-reflexivity and humour and humanity, and even a sense of "hope against hope" combined with a "we're all in this together; can we roll up our sleeves and get to it." I've been reading this out loud to my husband as he cooks dinner over the last few weeks and I'm surprised how galvanizing it's been for him. As an academic working in the humanities, much of what Kendi says is familiar to me, although he's opened my eyes and offered new lenses to me as well. For Paul, I'd say some of the way Kendi frames the distinction between racism and anti-racism is close to transformational.



And then Jesmyn Ward's Men We Reaped.  She was another writer we were to have heard her speak at University of British Columbia's Chan Centre in early March. . . and then Covid-19. . . .Since then, I've read two of her novels and this honest, painful, determined memoir. . . .such an important voice.  She tells tough truths about our world, about racism and its effects in America, but she will also reward the reader's willingness to witness truth by offering complex, fully human characters and engaging narratives and well-observed settings, the ugliness of poverty peeled back to reveal beauties in landscapes we tend not to see.
So yes, Also recommended.

And Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul (which I photographed for Instagram against the background of a sweater I'm knitting -- because Look at those coordinated colours!
I discovered Elif Shafak through someone in this circle who was reading Ten Minutes and Thirty-Eight Seconds in This Strange World , I think -- Dottoressa, was it you? Or Mardel? Both of you?
I knew so little about Turkey/Istanbul before that novel, although I knew that its politics have become increasingly intolerable and that Shafak has been very brave in writing as she does. Despite its tragic premise (a prostitute has been beaten and left to die, but remembers her life in the 10 minutes, 38 seconds that her brain functions after her heart stops beating) hat novel introduced me to a lively city and culture, to wonderfully entertaining and likeable characters, and to a range of humour and of sadness and horror and despair and joy. . . . all wrapped in vivid, energetic prose. I wanted more. . . .

So picked up a couple of novels back in January, that same visit to Powell's Books. The Bastard of Istanbul was written about fifteen years ago in a different political landscape than now, but still restrictive enough that Shafak was charged with "denigrating Turkishness."


You could read for yourself to see if you think she does that. In fact, I'd say she celebrates Turkishness (depending how you might define that word/concept) by questioning it. And the writing! Some reviewers complain about the contrivances of the plot here, about the phantasmagorical playing a role . . . issues of credibility. I don't think the novel is as tightly or neatly structured as 10 Minutes. . .  but for me it seems to tap into a tradition that I know little of -- the Turkish (and/or Armenian) tradition of folk tales, of story-telling. . . .
So I would recommend this rollicking big story, but with the proviso that it isn't for everyone.  (although it's so much Fun!! Go for it ;-)

That's my last few weeks' reading. Now I'd love to hear what you've been reading, and also happy to read anything you have to say about what I've written in this post. . .








Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Covid-19 Reading. . . Seven Titles To Distract, if not Comfort you. . . .



Most of us are finding more time to read these days, although I'm hearing from many who find it tough to concentrate on their books, from others who only want to read "gentle" stories.  I, too, can find it difficult to concentrate and I'll admit to spending more time with a screen than usual (what did we do before Netflix? And I just subscribed to MHz so that we could finish watching Un Village Français of which we'd only managed 5 seasons, a few years ago in France, and had been searching for here ever since). . . .

For me, comfort from reading doesn't necessarily come from gentle narratives, although I'm not averse to those, if they're well written. But I seem to like a mix of subject material and genre and writing style, and that's what you'll see in this post. Again, I'll remind you that last year I made the decision to write my response to my reading by hand in a small journal. Rather than aim for more comprehensive (and more cohesive!) posts -- which, in the past has meant posting that falls far behind my reading -- I post photographs of those pages here semi-regularly, and I try to post what I'm currently reading on my Instagram reading account. . . . In case you're new here and wondering what kind of an excuse for a Reading Blog this is . . .

Without further ado. . . .

1. Top of this page,  photo of the bottom of a page from my Reading Journal, very brief note about Mick Herron's Spook Street (note continues on the next RJ page, seen in photo below.  If you like very well-written topical thrillers -- and if a London setting is a bonus -- you really should look for this Slough House series. Begin with his Slow Horses.

 2. I posted this photo on Instagram-- Ann Patchett's blurb on the back cover of Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing -- having just read a book by Patchett. Synchronicity. . .  No one would call this a gentle book, and perhaps few would call it comforting. But I do take comfort that brilliant, talented, skilful, observant, and thoughtful writers work to record difficult truths about our world. And somehow make surprising beauty as they testify. Redemption seems possible through the telling and the hearing, the writing and the reading.



3. I'm not sure I would have made room in my far-too-long To Be Read list for Ann Patchett's debut novel if my Book Club of Two friend hadn't suggested it, but I'm glad I did. That reading time seems so distant now, though, and yet marks such an abrupt and drastic change. Borrowed from the library just before the shut-down, and still sitting on my hallway shelf waiting to be returned weeks later, due date extended. . . . (IG post here)
4.  I've written before about books by Jean-Christophe Rufin -- back in May 2017 I referred ever so glancingly to his L'Immortelle Randonnée: Compostelle Malgré Moi, my favourite of several Camino pilgrimage memoirs I've read. Last summer I read Rufin's most recent novel Les Sept Mariages d'Edgar et Ludmila and liked it very much. So last month, I finally got around to reading a novel that a friend in Bayonne recommended to me last spring, a novel that has been made into a film which I hope to see some day. Le Collier Rouge.  If you read French, I recommend this . . .


My notes about it are scribbled here. . .
5. And for a change of pace, this whimsical novel set in Rome is fun -- if I were willing to spend less time reading and more time writing, it probably deserves more than the few scrawled lines you see above (#21 in the year's entries). . . . I did say a few more words about it on IG. If you're looking for something light, charming, that will transport you to a Rome in a happier state that it is now, this might be for you. I enjoyed it.

6. Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones is another book I borrowed from the library before it closed; I'd reserved it, along with her Sing, Unburied, Sing in early March, when we were looking forward to seeing the author speak at a UBC series on Thinking While Black. Sadly, her talk and another we had tickets to were cancelled because of Covid-19. I hope both events might someday be re-scheduled. . . .

This novel is set in the days before and after Hurricane Katrina, and in the current context of Covid-19 might prompt a reader to think about the kinds of crises we respond to and the kind of chronic and ongoing poverty and inequity we can ignore or accept as unchangeable.
7.  I'll close with another novel that won't provide readers with any conventional comfort or escape they might be seeking during these strange times.  But I seem to take comfort from writers who tell us important truths . . . and while doing so, and without compromise, without coddling, without couching dark realities, can nonetheless engage us aesthetically.
I find hope and even redemption in writing like this. The third novel in Smith's tetralogy/quartet of seasons (I wrote about Winter in this post: a sentence or two about Autumn at the very bottom of this one) is the most directly political, but it's also wonderfully multi-vocal, so many points of entry and exit, so many stories overlapping, so many "levels of discourse," neatly integrated. In contrast to my inadequate Reading Journal scribbles, here's a decent review from The Guardian. I did say a wee bit more on Instagram here and here and here
Now perhaps you'll tell me if you've read any of these and let me know if you agree with my response to them. And perhaps we could talk about whether you turn to books for comfort in difficult times, and if so, what provides that comfort. (Perhaps instead you'd prefer trenchant analysis of the difficulties or books with substantive, distracting content -- not necessarily cosy or gentle. Perhaps you find comfort in graphic murder mysteries, perhaps you indulge in genres you barely tolerate in normal times. No judging here, just curiosity and solidarity between readers.)

But mostly, we could just talk about what books you've been reading and enjoying since most of us entered this time of Staying Home. . . . any recommendations? The mic's all yours. . .

Friday, March 20, 2020

Catching up. . . with Six Titles for the Price of One Post . . .

Wow! Not sure how those five weeks got away from me, but I'm back, with a sextet of titles to share.
1. Lee Child's Blue Moon, the latest Jack Reacher. Not sure why I enjoy this series when it's so much more action-packed than usually interests me, but I posted a page on my Instagram reading account that exemplifies what Child can do with a sentence--his prose style matches any gunslinger's virtuosity, seriously. It either works for you or it doesn't, I guess, and Reacher and I go way back. . . .plus he's getting on (although a youngster, mid 40's), and that intrigues me enough that I'll keep reading future volumes. . .

2. Kathleen Jamie is a Scottish poet and essayist I've only just learned of, and Surfacing convinced me that I must read more from her.  Besides what I scribbled in my Reading Journal (above), I also said a few words in my IG post.

3. Ann Patchett, The Dutch House I loved this! The story itself, several of the characters in particular, the setting (different views of New York through different periods), the basic conceit or engine which drives the story (a brother and sister are treated horribly by their stepmother after their father dies unexpectedly, and the brother's life is shaped by his sister's need to. . . well, I'd better not say more). . . but I also so admired Patchett's structuring technique, the way she grabs fabric from past and future onto her needle in the teeniest stitches -- sometimes just an adverbial phrase, a parenthetical clause -- to pleat a wonderfully intricate garment or quilt or tapestry. Yes, the analogy falls apart here, but if you read this, perhaps you'll see what I mean. It's quite mesmerising. . . IG post here -- and I wrote a bit about her earlier novel Commonwealth a few years ago

4. Katherine Gilbert Murdock's The Book of Boy, which I read aloud to my granddaughter. If you're looking for a good novel for an Eleven, this could be it. . . (this review captures something important about the book:  Somehow Murdock has managed to write something simultaneously archaic in form and incredibly enticing to the modern eye.  And the reviewer, Elizabeth Bird goes on to say, Boy is the kind of character you can’t help but love. You want to go with him on this journey and, more to the point, you want him to see it to its end. If Boy is the living embodiment of kindness and joy, I can think of no better guide for young readers to encounter. We have a lot of dark, depressing, necessary books out there. Once, just once, let’s enjoy the one unafraid to let a little light and laughter in. So very apropos of our current situation, no?


4. In case you've been wondering, while we still have a faint hope for our family gathering in Sicily this June, that possibility grows weaker each day. My preparatory reading for an eventual visit to Sicily, however, continues, and allows me to travel while restricted to home for the duration. . . . I can even travel that way with my husband -- I read Marlena de Blasi's That Summer in Sicily to him over several weeks of his delicious dinners. My impressions below -- recommended!

And one last title, another for armchair travel. . . although perhaps better to read on your stationery bicycle with Felicity Cloake providing the scenery to distract you from your tiring legs. . . and building your appetite further through her mouth-watering descriptions of eating her way through France.

That's it for now. I do have a few more books to tell you about, and now that we're confined to home, perhaps it won't take me another month to do that.

Now tell me, what are you reading? any connections with what I've been reading? any recommendations? I'm also curious about whether you're using this period to finally hunker down with whatever big tome you've been meaning to get to for ages or are you finding you need lighter fare right now. Best distractions you've found this week?  Go!

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Two Memoirs and a Thriller . . .

I know, two travel memoirs and a thriller might not seem to fit together sensibly in one post, but truly, it's often the way I read. I regularly throw a mystery or thriller into my reading roster to create a kind of thinking space, to leave more room for the books that want more contemplation or that demand a slower pace for a weightier theme. Funny that it should be murder and mayhem that provides relief, but there you have it!
So Flynn Berry's A Double Life was read at various points when I'd tucked a bookmark somewhere in the pages of Pico Iyer's 1992 The Lady and the Monk, and finished in one last gulp before I turned to Iyer's more recent memoir of his life in Japan, August Light.
As you'll learn if you can be patient and discern my handwritten journal entries, I had some considerable impatience reading Iyer's '92 account of the year he spent in Kyoto. . . . his view of it seemed so influenced by the trope he was determined to impose, one which seemed tediously masculinist to me. He seemed too often to be speaking for the woman who served as his muse and entry-point to the culture.

I was reading that memoir as preparation to read Autumn Light, as recommended to me in some review, somewhere. . . . An elegiac memoir of Iyer's life in Japan since that last book was written, and with that Muse his wife of nearly 25 years. . . Gentle, wry, observant, thoughtful. . . .



This one I'd recommend without reservation. And despite my impatience with it, I would probably suggest that you at least browse through The Lady and the Monk first, just to capture the difference of flavour between the two, between the younger man and the older, and to be able to recognize some recurrent figures. . . To be fair, there are also evocative descriptions of Kyoto and the surrounding landscapes, of festivals and rituals and etiquette and streetlife. . . . as well as a thoughtful introduction, reading over the young Iyer's shoulder, to Zen philosophy and to Japanese writing.

As usual, I'd love to hear your thoughts if you've read any of these.  Feel free to ask if you need me to decipher words or sentences for you in my chickenscratch. . . And otherwise, I'm always keen to know what you're reading these days.



Thursday, February 6, 2020

Bourgeois Marriage to Serial Murder -- My Reading Has Range!

I've been doing very well with Holds I've placed on books from the Vancouver Public Library. A bit too well, really, and I'm currently reading madly through a Pico Iyer travel memoir (five reading days left on this before the due date), a book of essays (ditto), and a second Pico Iyer memoir of life in Japan. . . .
Something in this passage from Tessa Hadley's Late in the Day resonates with me, captures something of the evolving gender dynamics of my own long marriage, however different that is from the fictional couple's being described.

And the library has just emailed to let me know that my time on the e-copy of Lee Child's latest Jack Reacher thriller is in, and I see they've posted on my account the little Truck icon that means another Hold book is on its way. Yikes! Never rains, but it pours (which it has also been doing here in Vancouver but that's another embarrassment of riches. . .
I had to share this page for the droll humour of that last line. Grace is the daughter of the man whose death initiates the novel's action, and she's long had a crush on her good friend's older half-brother -- who likes her very much  and admires her undeniable beauty but isn't attracted to her physically. Grace, in this passage, is far too drunk for anyone's good.

Before I go back to turn the last 75 pages of The Lady and the Monk, here are my Reading Journal pages from library Holds that arrived in January: Tessa Hadley's Late in the Day (above, and first paragraph below) and Val McDermid's How the Dead Speak, below (I posted a few words and photo of this one here.  Remember, I'm not trying to write a review here, but rather to make enough notes that I can recall something of the book later.


So I know these aren't comprehensive nor even satisfying reports (never mind the frustrating scrawl), but ask me questions or share your own responses if you've read either book.

I will say that I heartily recommend Hadley's complex, subtle, novel of manners, of friendship, of bereavement, of marriage, the sustaining power of art -- as I would her earlier novel The Past which I wrote a bit about here. A good article about the writer and Late in the Day here.

And I recommend the McDermid mystery as well, although if you haven't read the rest of the series, go start at the beginning with The Mermaids Singing. And if you don't like graphic and gruesome in the mix, skip the series entirely. These are not your British "cosies.". . .

Now, over to you. . . .

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

A January Trio -- Mystery and Literary Fiction Mixing It Up .. .

The third book I read this year was Oyinkan Braithwaite's My Sister the Serial Killer. Braithwaite is a Nigerian writer who has spent considerable time in England (primary school, boarding school, and then her degrees in Law and Creative Writing), so I'm three for three on reading books by women writing in English but from mixed cultural heritage.  Each of them excellent!

Here's what I wrote in my Reading Journal about this "serial killer thriller". . . .
If you'd like to know more about Braithwaite and her debut novel, here's the link to an interview Richard Lea conducted with her for The Guardian last year.
I bought My Sister the Serial Killer new at Powell's Books in Portland earlier this month. My Powell's bag also brought home this copy (used -- I love that Powell's mixes used and new books together) of Melissa Harrison's Clay. I added it to my purchases because I so enjoyed Harrison's All Among the Barley, #72 on last year's List of Books Read.

Besides writing a few thoughts about this deceptively slight novel in my Reading Journal (the entry is continued below), I sketched the bookcover in my watercolour journal and added some quotations that incorporated words I hadn't known, at least not as used here. Words whose provenance testifies to a closer relationship with Nature than we currently have -- words that made me think of that gorgeous book The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, which I've posted about on IG, but not here yet. . .

"bletted," "ammil," and "lagged" -- as the latter is used here, in the sense of wrapping or enveloping. Were you already familiar with these words? I'm guessing the Brits among my readers are more likely to have used or read or heard these. . . .

The last book in this trio -- Kate Hamer's The Doll Funeral also came home with me from Powell's and was also bought used. I found it good enough as a quick read, not as much what I like to read as I'd thought, but with some effective nature writing. If you like your mysteries with a touch of the supernatural, this will keep you turning pages and it's neatly resolved with interesting twists along the way.

Time to stop writing now and to get back to my reading. I do still need to tell you about Tessa Hadley's Late in the Day, but I'm down to the last 75 pages of Val McDermid's ever-so-satisfying latest novel in her Carol Jordan/Tony Hill series, so that will have to wait.

Until then, Happy Reading, and if you have a minute, leave me a comment about what book's pages you're currently turning . . . and/or share your thoughts on any of these titles you've read.