Why is book shopping part of any vacation I take? It’s not as if we don’t have bookstores in Halifax. I think it’s something to do with the feeling of freedom from constraints that holidays bring. If I’m not responsible for work, regular meals, or housecleaning, surely I can be irresponsible in other ways too! Not that buying books is necessarily irresponsible. As my wise sister once pointed out to me (and she’s a person who has bought a book or two in her day…) a new book costs about the same as a decent (not even a really good) bottle of wine — and it lasts a lot longer and can be shared more widely! Besides, I’m an English professor, a critic, and a book blogger: books are necessities, not luxuries, right? (I feel pretty safe asking this rhetorical question here, since people who disagree are unlikely to be reading.)
My book haul this time is actually quite modest, especially considering some were gifts and one is a loan from my mother. I could actually go “book shopping” just on her shelves and make out better than in most bookstores, as there is a lot of overlap between our interests and tastes. Her Bloomsbury section alone is a treasure trove! And if you want to read about the history of the Balkans, she’s there for you. But I restrained myself and took only Carol Shields’s Small Ceremonies. I’m teaching Unless again this fall and this is one of Shields’s that I have never read. It has a great opening line — understated but immediately engaging in a way that reminds me of Anne Tyler: “Sunday night. And the thought strikes me that I ought to be happier than I am.”
My mother and I made our traditional trip to Hager Books in Kerrisdale, which has a relatively small but carefully curated selection that always provides many tempting options. Here too I was restrained, though! I chose Penelope Lively’s Dancing Fish and Ammonites, which I had eyed there last year in hardcover but which is now available in a neat paperback. I liked Oleander, Jacaranda a lot; this later memoir looks as if it will focus more on Lively’s writing life. My other choice was more impulsive. In general my book browsing this trip was influenced by my frustration with the highly-touted The Goldfinch, and as a result I was drawn to books I had heard little or nothing about — which has its own risks, of course! (Serendipity isn’t always the worst guide, though, as I found when against all precedent I chose Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden a few years back.) I don’t know exactly what made me pluck Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s Butterflies in November off the shelf, but once I had, everything about it appealed to me, from the cover design to the description of it as “a charming story of a free-spirited woman who reaches a life-changing juncture and embarks on a whimsical Icelandic road trip that sets her on a new course.” Who could resist? (I’m not sure if I mean the book or “a whimsical Icelandic road trip,” which actually sounds pretty inviting to me. If you come calling in a month or two and I’m nowhere to be found, I may be in Reykjavik.)
Words like “charming” can be warning signs for me, and yet I was also drawn to Martha Woodroof’s Small Blessings, which has a blurb from Oprah.com calling it “a charmer.” Oh dear, right? But it’s about a college professor and a book store manager, and (like Small Ceremonies) it looked like it would have an Anne-Tyleresque vibe. I looked at it in Hager Books but decided against it. When I stopped in at Indigo a couple of days later, though, there it was again, and this time I bought it. I read most of it during my long travel day home and finished it up this morning. It is charming. It’s not as good as the best of Anne Tyler, but it has the same interest in fairly ordinary people figuring out how to be happy, which is nowhere near as small a topic as it sounds. I appreciated how unpretentious the novel was: it never seemed to be straining after something the novelist couldn’t do. Usually I admire ambition: once again, I blame The Goldfinch — which, while not exactly a failure, seemed arrogantly inflated — for my seeking modesty for a while. Small Blessings does a lot less than The Goldfinch, and it doesn’t even aspire to be a novel of ideas (as far as I could tell). But what it does, it does nicely, with (yes) charm.
My other Indigo purchase is similarly small-scale, though not necessarily unambitious: I chose a volume of Alice Munro stories to add to the too-few I already have. I’m always vowing to read more short fiction in general and more Munro in particular. I chose Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage because it includes “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which I have read and found thrilling and deeply moving. (It’s the basis for the film Away from Her, which I thought was very good.)
The only other book I bought on the trip was a slim book about Emily Carr, from the Vancouver Art Gallery. I have always loved Carr’s paintings, particularly the ones that are almost entirely trees: they so wonderfully capture the mystery and majesty of the coastal forests I grew up beside. Perhaps because her work was so casually familiar to me, I have never tried to actually learn about Carr as an artist, though I have owned her autobiography Klee Wyck since I was a child. There’s something poignant about looking at Carr’s rich, dark woods now, when fires are burning along the coast and this kind of dire forecasting is in the news:
Over the next century, climate scientists predict that Vancouver Island’s iconic trees—such as the cedar redwoods, western hemlocks and Douglas Firs—could die off in large numbers, completely transforming the island from a rainforest ecosystem to something else entirely.
The other books in my photo are also artsy. One is a collection of Arts & Crafts postcards, a souvenir from my parents’ recent trip to England. (My problem with this sort of thing is that the cards are always so lovely that I hesitate to use them as they are intended! Maybe I should buy one of those photo frames with a whole bunch of spaces and create something decorative out of them.) And finally, we visited a wonderful woman who is a dear friend of my parents and who recently celebrated her 100th birthday. Knowing my love of 19th-century literature, she very kindly gave me a beautiful Jane Austen “daybook” from the British Library. It is full of elegant illustrations and choice quotations from Austen’s novels. I hate to sully it with my not-so-elegant handwriting, but it would be very useful for me to enter the birthdays of everyone in my family: maybe if I did that I wouldn’t be late with gifts for anyone again!
My trip was about a lot more than books, of course: that’s just the part it seems appropriate to write much about here. Most important was the chance to spend time with my parents, and with my brother and sister and their families, and to catch up with some of my cherished friends. I was very happy to be able to do all that, even in the middle of a heat wave (and even when the city was blanketed in smoke from the fires). It’s good for my soul to reconnect with them all, and it’s also always restorative to soak in the beauty of the mountains and the sea.
Thanks, Rohan, for the full report. I’m glad to hear that you had such a satisfying vacation. That Munro collection is my favorite of the several of hers I’ve read. I’ll look forward to seeing your response to it.