Catching Up: Recent Reading and Rectify

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) The Reader 1877 Oil on canvasIt certainly is easy to fall out of the habit of blogging–and this in spite of the fact that the most fun I’ve had in the last little while was writing my two previous posts. I enjoyed doing them so much! I felt more engaged and productive than I had in a long time, not because I was fulfilling any external obligation but because I was sorting out my ideas and putting them into words. To be honest, though, in both cases I was also a bit disappointed that the posts didn’t spark more discussion in the comments, and that set me back a bit, as it made me wonder what exactly I thought I was doing here–not a new question, and one every blogger comes back to at intervals, I’m sure. I appreciate the comments I did get, of course, and there was some Twitter discussion around the Odyssey post, which as I know has been remarked before is a common pattern now–though I can’t help but notice that there are other blogs that routinely do still get a steady flow of comments. Anyway, for a while I felt somewhat deflated about blogging and that sapped my motivation for posting. I know, I know: it’s about the intrinsic value of the writing itself, which my experience of actually writing the Woolf and Homer posts more than proved–except it isn’t quite, because if that was all, we’d write offline, right?

hunting meet cuteIt hasn’t helped my blogging motivation that not much has been going on that seems very interesting. I certainly haven’t read anything since the Odyssey that was particularly memorable. I’ve puttered through some romance novels that proved entertaining enough but aren’t likely candidates for my “Frequent Rereads” club. Two were by Helena Hunting, a new-to-me author–Meet Cute and Lucky Charm, both of which were pretty good; one was Olivia Dade’s Teach Me, which had good ingredients but seemed just too careful to me, too self-consciously aware of hitting all the ‘right’ notes; and finally Christina Lauren’s Roomies, which was diverting enough until the heroine breaks out of her career funk by writing her first (ever!) feature essay, submitting it (not pitching it, submitting it) to the New Yorker, and learning in THREE WEEKS that it has been accepted. I’m not sure which struck me as more clearly a fantasy: the acceptance itself or the timeline.

peonyThe other book I finished recently is Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony, for my book club. I wanted to like this one more than I did. It certainly illuminates a lot about the Chinese community in Vancouver in the time it is set (the 1930s and 1940s): one thing our discussion made me appreciate more than I did at first is how deftly telling the story from the children’s perspectives lets Choy handle the historical and political contexts, as they often don’t quite understand what is happening and so our main focus is on the young characters’ emotional experiences in the midst of them. The book reads more like linked short stories than a novel, and for me it lacked both momentum and continuity as a result (that’s not my favorite genre), but many of the specific scenes have a lot of intensity and I think they will linger with me more than I initially thought.

obasanWe chose Joy Kogawa’s Obasan for our next read. I’ve been trying to sort out why I’m not entirely happy about this. It makes perfect sense given our policy of following threads from one book to the next, and also Obasan is widely considered a CanLit classic, so it’s not that I don’t expect it to be a good book. I was mildly frustrated, though, that one of the arguments made in its favor was that The Jade Peony was very educational (about a time and place and culture not well-known to the group members) and Obasan would be more of the same. It will be, I’m sure, and in some ways this is an excellent reason for us to read and discuss it. But at the same time this “literature as beneficent medicine for well-intentioned consumers” approach is what turns me off Canada Reads, and I’m not sure it’s the way I want my book club to play out.

I’m torn about this, though! It is undoubtedly good for us (all white middle-aged middle-class Canadian women) to unlearn some of the complacency of our upbringing. I mentioned at our meeting that when I visited Vancouver’s Chinatown as a child I thought about it wholly in terms of feel-good multiculturalism–it never occurred to me in those days that it housed a community that had experienced many hardships including persistent and ongoing racism. Reading Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers similarly made me reconsider my childhood trips to the Museum of Anthropology and what I once thought they meant. We chose The Jade Peony because our discussion of Katherena Vermette’s The Break contributed, as it should have, to a collective sense that we should be trying as hard as we can to understand experiences of Canada that aren’t our own. But at the same time I want us to choose and discuss our books for lots of different reasons–and also not to fall into approaching books as if they are valuable only for their representative and/or didactic potential, using them to check off boxes rather than giving them room to be idiosyncratic works of art, if that makes sense. I think, too, that if you go looking for a book whose lessons suit the demands of your conscience, you may not end up with a book that really surprises or challenges you. I’m not sure if these concerns are reasonable ones or if I’ve articulated them properly. I’d love to hear from other people who puzzle over things like this when choosing what to read next, whether for themselves or for a book group or for some other purpose.

rectifyMy recent viewing has actually been more engrossing than my recent reading: we just finished watching Rectify, which I thought was superb–it is intense, thoughtful, and full of turns that surprise without seeming like cheap twists. It is very much character- rather than plot-driven, and it works because every performance is entirely believable. I hadn’t even heard of Rectify before I noticed it on a list of ‘best TV dramas’ and decided we should give it a try. It is not at all what I expected from the premise (a man is released after 19 years on death row): it is much more about how he and his family and community deal with this unthinkable change in circumstances then about the case and his guilt or innocence–though what they do with that question is also very interesting. If you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend it; if you have, I’d be interested to know what you thought of it.

And that’s what I’ve been up to since I last posted! Well, that and reading Téa Obreht’s forthcoming novel Inland, which I am reviewing, so I won’t steal my own thunder by laying out what I think about it here. (I’m writing the review ‘on spec’ so if the magazine doesn’t want it, then I’ll come back and thunder away about it!)

 

6 thoughts on “Catching Up: Recent Reading and Rectify

  1. Miss Bates June 22, 2019 / 2:12 pm

    I hear you re: blogging. I think what I’ve noticed and “accepted,” is that blogs are read sporadically, except for a few dedicated bloggers. And the time and energy to comment just isn’t “there” anymore. Or, there’s the that’s interesting, I’ll comment later and the shiny of whatever you’re looking at next takes over. I think blogging, “these days”, sounding like an old fogey over here, is long-form and that reading commitment isn’t there.

    Doom and gloom aside, I love reading your blog. For example, I really enjoyed The Odyssey. I read it as a lib arts students and teach a kiddie version every year. I appreciated what you had to say about it, but I have to admit I’m not keen on that translation.

    Ah, CanLit: so earnest, so trying so hard not to be white bread. I admire you for sticking with your book club, they’re doggest picks would’ve sent me a long time ago. Even though those are both books I’ve read, that is, The Jade Peony, and I used to teach Obasan. Of the two, I think Obasan the more interesting, I think the writing and form are finer. But for high school students, it proved too dense lyrical prose-y.

    Please keep blogging: you have dedicated readers, if not always commentators.

    • Rohan Maitzen June 22, 2019 / 6:55 pm

      Thanks for the encouragement, Kay. It isn’t as if I manage to comment on every blog post I read, so really I have nothing to be petulant about–but I think we all to some extend feed off the energy of the conversations we have or want or imagine.

      I think I actually read Obasan once in my youth, but I have no lasting recollection of it. My book has until now tended to be very eclectic in our choices. I guess overall I’m relieved my suggestion of Mo Yan as a follow up did not catch on, but I liked the idea that we might read something in translation, so maybe I’ll keep pitching that approach to diversifying our choices until I find one that people are interested in.

  2. Theresa June 22, 2019 / 2:35 pm

    I always recommend Rectify to anyone looking for a good series. It’s beyond good. It’s unbelievably good, one of my all-time favorites.

    My blog languishes from time to time, too. I enjoy writing the posts, but lots of times I really don’t have anything to say. I like reading about your reading experiences.

    • Rohan Maitzen June 22, 2019 / 6:52 pm

      Aden Young’s performance is just astonishing, start to finish, but the whole concept and delivery of the show is something special. I don’t understand why I hadn’t heard buzz about it before.

  3. Christopher Lord (@dickensjunction) June 23, 2019 / 2:32 am

    I echo Miss Bates: yours is one of the most sophisticated book blogs around. I don’t often comment on contemporary novels, because I am primarily a Dead White Guys devotee (plus Ms. Eliot, of course). In spite of that claim, I read more contemporary fiction than many because I read more books than most. My favorite blog entries of yours involve the agonies of choosing a syllabus—what will your theme be, which books fit that theme and the time pressures of the term/semester, not to mention the ready availability of affordable hard copy texts. Please keep doing what you’re doing. But for a cruel twist of fate and lack of funds I would have been teaching Dickens to graduate students today; a side trip to the world of insurance led to a lucrative, if occasional soul-sucking career that resulted in early retirement. Now I lead adult reading seminars on Dead White Guys, and I couldn’t be happier. Your next blog could be my inspiration to choose a text for those seminars, so please, please keep writing!

    • Rohan Maitzen June 25, 2019 / 2:39 pm

      Thank you for the encouragement, truly. And you’ll be glad to know, then, that when the new teaching term starts again you can expect more of those posts about teaching and planning and so forth!

Leave a Reply to Miss Bates Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.