Recent Reading: Hession, Enright, Steiner, McTiernan

leonardI’m doing pretty well working my way through my Christmas book stack. Girl was a holiday acquisition, and so too are Ronan Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul and Anne Enright’s The Gathering, both of which I have now read.

I actually read Leonard and Hungry Paul before Girl, but because I liked it so very much, I perhaps paradoxically wasn’t sure what to say about it. I do often blog about books I like a lot, so what made the difference–or makes the difference, since I still feel somewhat at a loss for words? One factor I’m aware of is that Dorian wrote such a good post about it. Go read it! Or go read Leonard and Hungry Paul. Read both! The novel is quirky, comforting, and hopeful without being twee, facile, or saccharine. Underneath its lightness there is what I would describe as gravitas, but it is understated, unpretentious. It’s maybe not a perfect novel (unlike Dorian, for example, I wasn’t convinced about the role of speeches in it, though he makes a thoughtful case for them), but like Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise (which is more ha-ha funny but also pulls off a special combination of eccentric and moving), it’s a novel I know I will both carry with me in spirit and reread when I want a reminder that books don’t have to be dense and ponderous to be profound.

gatheringThe Gathering is also a very good novel–probably an excellent one. I feel much less inclined to urge you to read it if you haven’t already, though, because it is also a fairly lugubrious one. It is a family story of a particular kind: I want to say, of a particularly Irish kind, which may or may not be fair. Insofar as it has a plot, it is organized around the gathering (of course) of the remaining members of a large family (and assorted spouses and children) after the suicide of their brother Liam. It is narrated by his sister Veronica, and around this present gathering she weaves together a sad tapestry of memories and questions, at first mostly about her grandmother Ada and about Liam–who has never really been ‘right’ since they were first sent as children to stay with Ada-and eventually about what might be painful secrets in Veronica’s own past. If you suspect that the story’s original sin is sexual abuse, you are right, and how awful is it that this revelation not only does not come as a surprise in the novel but felt like a cliché?  Enright’s treatment of it is not clichéd, or prurient, or sensational: it is sad and angry, and short on redemptive promises. She writes beautifully, and says a lot of things that will linger with me, like this bit, from early on before we know for sure why Veronica’s outlook is so shadowed:melrose

And what amazes me as I hit the motorway is not the fact that everyone loses someone, but that everyone loves someone. It seems like such a massive waste of energy–and we all do it, all the people beetling along between the white lines, merging, converging, overtaking. We each love someone, even though they will die. And we keep loving them, even when they are not there to love any more. And there is no logic or use to this, that I can see.

By the novel’s conclusion, love doesn’t seem quite so illogical or useless (“for every time he wanted to undo me,” Veronica finally says about her husband, Tom, towards whom she feels an unpleasant blend of affection, loyalty, and antagonism, “there was love that put me back together again–put us both back together”). Still, the novel felt really unhappy to me throughout, and while that obviously fits its subject, Enright’s artistry wasn’t compensation enough for the time spent in its world. (A more extreme version of this conflicted response for me would be Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose books: they are also beautifully written but horrible.) I’m not sorry I read it, though: I’ve been curious about Enright for a while and might still follow up with Actress, which I see will be out in paperback soon.

steinerMy other recent reading (besides reading for my classes, of course) has been two pretty good mysteries. One was the first in Susie Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw series, Missing, Presumed, which I read out of order because when I first looked, only her most recent was locally available. The one I read then was good enough that I put this on my wish list, and I actually thought it was better in some ways–though that might because I already knew a bit about Manon. It was especially interesting to see how the family situation she’s in, in the later book, comes into being in this one. The other is the second of Dervla McTiernan’s series about Cormac Reilly (Ireland again!), The Scholar. This was very well done but–and this is very rare for me, suggesting I’m either a lazy or an inept reader of detective stories!–I more or less figured out the crime pretty early on. It didn’t matter that much to my enjoyment of the book, as I read crime fiction more for character and atmosphere than for the mystery itself.

I’ve had a pretty good run of reading in 2021 so far, I’d say. Next up is probably Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, also from my holiday stash, and then Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island for my book club’s next virtual meeting.

Recent Reading: Two Hits and a Miss

monkshoodI don’t usually look back on my year in reading until I’m pretty sure the reading year is actually over: traditionally, I get some good books as gifts, for instance, and sometimes the last week of December is my best chance for happy, uninterrupted reading. So I won’t plunge into retrospection just yet! Instead, I’ll just briefly note three more books that could be in the running for best or worse of the year.

Actually (spoiler alert!) none of these three is at either of those extremes for me. The first, Monk’s Hood, was fine: exactly what I expected after my happy experience reading the first Brother Cadfael mysteries. In this turbulent year, Brother Cadfael’s quiet but firm moral rectitude felt particularly soothing. It calmed and satisfied me, but it didn’t inspire me to binge-read the rest of the series immediately. I remain very pleased that I inherited it from a colleague who was “downsizing” her library, though: it is nice to know they are all there, neatly lined up and ready for me the next time I want just that kind of an interlude.

fatherElizabeth von Armin’s Father was better than fine: it was funny, touching, and somewhat acerbic, never tipping over into sentimental but also without quite the edge of cruelty that turned me off Mapp and Lucia. As Simon Thomas notes in his Afterword to the nice new British Library edition, it is one of a number of novels from around the same period treating the place or plight of single women – he notes Lolly Willowes as another along with a few I’d never heard of such as May Sinclair’s The Life and Death of Harriet FreanFather tells a superficially simple story about a daughter finally freed from her care-taking duties to her austere and imperious widowed father (a highbrow if somewhat scandalous novelist) by his impulsive second marriage. “Papa is wed, and I am free,” Jen thinks joyfully, as she sets off, during what is supposed to be Father’s honeymoon in Norway, to find herself a home of her own. She does, and it is everything she ever wanted. The initial period of her setting up housekeeping is just so happy – but between her clergyman landlord and his possessive and interfering sister and her father and stepmother (who, it turns out, never made it further than Brighton) things do not go quite as Jen had planned–with what specific results, I will leave it to you to find out when you read Father for yourself!

spoonstealerThe recent book that did not go over so well with me was Lesley Crewe’s The Spoon Stealer. I decided to buy it after enjoying an online event put on by the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia about historical fiction. All of the authors on the panel read excerpts from their work, and The Spoon Stealer sounded charming–and it is, in many ways, but it fell flat when I read it for myself. I’ve been wondering if the problem might lie somewhere in the difference between how books sound read aloud and how they sound in my head, or with something about what I read novels for and prefer to get from them: perhaps Crewe’s style tilts towards oral storytelling, for instance, while my taste tends in another direction. When I paused over an incident or paragraph or sentence in the novel that seemed especially stilted or unconvincing, I could almost never point to anything specifically wrong with it, and I like the novel’s premise and (in theory at least) its protagonist. But I became increasingly impatient with it, though just to be sure I gave it a fair chance, I did read all the way to the end. I am always aware that not all books are for all readers and this one turned not to be for me–it’s not always good enough (depending on the circumstances) to shrug a book off this way, but in this case, I am OK with just moving on.

Recent Reading: Five Fine Finds!

I can’t seem to muster the mental or physical energy to keep up with regular blogging right now (blame an excess of computer time for other purposes plus a spell of back pain – happily now subsided – making it particularly unappealing to spend yet more time at my desk!). But I also can’t stand to watch the pile of read books growing without saying something about them, and I don’t feel like waiting to do a monthly survey, which seems to be a bit of a trend. So let’s see what I can manage to say about these five rather miscellaneous but all, in their own ways, very good books. They all deserve more than passing attention, but it’s 2020 and that means sometimes less has to be enough!

Steven Price, Lampedusa. This was my local book club’s most recent choice, and it proved an excellent one. Everybody loved it, which is actually pretty rare for us. I think the last book we were all this excited about was Drive Your Plow Over the Remains of the Dead. One thing we wondered about going into this was whether it would be important to have read The Leopard beforehand–some of us had, some of us hadn’t. I read it, but years ago (with the Slaves of Golconda group, which sadly faded away) so my recollection was pretty vague. Some who hadn’t read it before opted to read it in preparation for Lampedusa, and some watched the Visconti adaptation. But some just went ahead with Price’s novel, on the theory that he can’t have expected readers to ‘prep’ for it. And we were all fine! Those who knew The Leopard were able to make or appreciate some connections, but Lampedusa is plenty good enough to stand alone as a beautifully written (it genuinely deserves that over-used word ‘lyrical’), evocative (another over-used but well-earned word) and very moving account of creativity, memory, middle age, loss, and death. Oh, and Sicily too: it is very much about a particular place at a particular time.

Lampedusa joins Colm Toibin’s The Master on my very short list of books about other authors that really succeed in conveying what it might have been like to be that other consciousness, to write that other novel. Here’s a sample:

After that first night, Mirella did not again react to the story. She responded neither with surprise nor disapproval nor delight. Rather she was quiet and precise and wholly present, like a shadow on a wall. He was grateful for this. Some part of him understood that these were the cleanest and purest working hours he would ever know; hearing the language aloud, steady, slow, permitted him to edit as he went; and later, after Mirella had left, he would lift the new typed papers to a random page and begin making alterations almost at once, unable to help himself. There were truths inside the story that surprised him, that he had not intended. It felt at times as if he were overhearing the novel speaking to itself. HIs prince, he saw, whom he had always thought of as hollowed out by an absent faith, in fact was the last of the devout. But his prince’s faith was a faith in tradition, in the fate of a bloodline, and at such moments Giuseppe saw that he had written his way through his own bitterness, towards the man he might have wished to be. His prince stood alone, impassive, needing no one; and because of this, and because there is no true survival in isolation, it would be his prince’s very strength that destroyed him.

There is more to the novel than writing and contemplation–there’s family drama, and war, and myth, and also failure, as he dies before knowing “his prince” and his novel would be published, acclaimed, and lasting, the masterpiece he felt but could not be certain it was.

I loved the idea of Lampedusa when I first heard about it but I admit I was prepared for disappointment. The genre is a risky one (I have yet to read a George Eliot novel that hasn’t bored, annoyed, or outraged me), and the only other novel by Price I’ve read is By Gaslight, which I liked just fine but which is a very different kind of thing altogether. I’m so glad I didn’t let those hesitations deter me: it’s one of the best novels I’ve read all year, and this is a year that included Hamnet and The Mirror and the Light.

Up next for the book club: We usually follow a theme of some kind from one book to the next, so this time we chose Italy and Elsa Morante’s Artur’s Island.

Margaret Drabble, The Pattern in the Carpet. The subtitle of this book is ‘A Personal History with Jigsaws’ and I plucked it off the shelf (where it had malingered for a few years mostly unread) because I have been doing jigsaw puzzles as a form of meditative distraction since early in the lockdown. I thought–rightly–that this might mean Drabble’s book, which hadn’t interested me much when I began it before, might have found its moment, and it had. It is a wonderfully digressive book that manages, by the end, to say some profound things about how we pass our time. It began, she explains, as what she intended as a gift book about jigsaws, the kind of thing you’d buy in a museum gift shop. In the end it is part memoir; part history of a wide range of puzzles and games and arts and crafts; part  reflection on (and this will sound pompous, but in the book it really isn’t) the human condition, including especially aging and death. There are many parts I would love to quote but in the interests of actually finishing a blog post before age too much more, here’s just one:

One of the reasons why the jigsaw appeals to me … is that it is pre-made, its limits finite, its frame fixed. No ordinary degree of manual clumsiness (and mine is advanced, and inevitably advancing) can yet prevent me from finishing a jigsaw. It can’t be done badly. Slowly, but not badly. All one needs is patience … In this aspect, the jigsaw is the very opposite of the novel. The novel is formless and frameless. It has no blueprint, no pattern, no edges. At the end of a day’s work on a novel, you may feel that you have achieved something worse than a lack of progress. You may have ruined what went before. You may have sunk badly into banality or incoherence. You may have betrayed or maligned others. You may have to scrap not only the day’s work, but the work of the preceding week, month, year, lifetime. You may have lost ground, and for ever. You may have lost your nerve, and indicted all that you have achieved. Writing fiction is frightening.

She goes on to note that when she was working on The Oxford Companion to English Literature, it had more of the character of a puzzle: 

The pieces fitted together, they interlocked … Assembling and fitting the pieces together was a form of carpentry.

Writing novels is not like that.

Actually, here’s one more passage. Perhaps because I am currently working on a puzzle that is one of Monet’s paintings of his gardens at Giverny, I appreciated her discussion of the way jigsaw puzzles help us understand and appreciate works of fine art by forcing us to pay meticulously close attention:

From jigsaws, you learn about the brush strokes of Van Gogh, the clouds of Constable, the reflections and shadows of Manet, the stripes of Tissot and Rousseau, the brickwork and tiles of the Dutch masters, the flesh tones of Titian, the undulating fabrics and limbs of Botticelli, the business of Bosch and Brueghel. While struggling to recreate Titian’s Venus of Urbino, you discover that the little dog at her feet is painted in almost exactly the same shades of russet and apricot as the naked Venus herself. According to Julian Mitchell, himself a master puzzle solver, the dog represents her politely concealed public hair …

I learned more about the appreciation of clouds and of Constable from doing jigsaws of The Hay Wain and Salisbury Cathedral than I learned from my first encounters with the original paintings. Now, when I see clouds, I see clouds and Constable, not clouds and the shapes of a jigsaw puzzle, but the puzzle was the medium that introduced me, that fixed my attention, that made me pause. This may sound ridiculous, but it is true. I could have learned about clouds at the Courtauld, but I didn’t have the opportunity. I learned through Clementoni.

One thing the book made me realize is that my local jigsaw options are sadly limited! Her book inspired me to go looking for a Brueghel puzzle and I found this line of what look like beautiful art puzzles—how I would love to work on Landscape with the Fall of Icarus!-but they are not to be had in Canada, as far as I can tell.

OK, just one more bit, to give you a sense of how much more this book is about than idle pastimes–or, more accurately, of how it makes you think differently about your pastimes, which may not be as idle as they seem:

The concept of life as a journey, a pilgrimage, a quest, a ladder, or a spiral track may be attractive to some, but to me the notion of a goal is not. The very word ‘goal’ has unpleasing associations. Board games, unlike jigsaw puzzles, necessarily admit elements of competition and victory … Whereas the Greek telos can mean an end, an aim, an ultimate purpose, a final cause, and need not embrace the concept of competition. In the larger pattern, all the solitary journeys combine, and we arrive together.

The jigsaw, with its frame, is a simulacrum of meaning, order and design … if you try hard enough, you can complete it. That galactic scatter of inert and inept fragments of wood or cardboard will come together and make a picture.

Lennie Goodings, A Bite of the Apple. I enjoyed this thoroughly. It combines a brisk personal history of Goodings’ years with Virago Press with comments on the books and writers the Press published–some of whom I knew of but without having connected them explicitly to Virago, like Sarah Waters or Sarah Dunant. Goodings is clear that in its origins Virago was a product of second-wave feminism and so had some of the shortcomings you’d expect; she’s also explicit and occasionally defensive about Virago’s determination to be a feminist press that reached mainstream audiences. The tension between ideology and marketing was real sometimes but she makes a good case for the value of having a range of approaches to feminist publishing, including theirs. It was slightly disorienting reading enthusiastic sections about Virago’s close relationship with Margaret Atwood, who of course has long been an ‘iconic’ feminist writer but who has become a controversial figure, in her home country anyway, because of her entanglement in the Steven Galloway case. I suppose this particular mess is not really relevant to Goodings’s story, but it’s a long time since I read anything admiring about Atwood that didn’t have at least an implicit asterisk by her name–a sign, as I expect Goodings herself would readily acknowledge, that feminist critique is always evolving.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot. This is another book that has been sitting on my shelves for a while (one thing lockdown has done is encourage me to look more closely at the books I already have, since things like leisurely trips to the library or bookstore are not currently options). I loved Lolly Willowes and liked Summer Will Show, so I’m not sure why I hadn’t read this one yet! Maybe it too was waiting for its moment, and like The Pattern in the Carpet, it found it, since I read it in one delicious sitting and absolutely loved it. It is sad and strange and funny and touching; it is about faith, and the loss of faith, and about love and the loss of love, or sacrifice in the name of love. It is wryly satirical about missionary zeal and imperialism and cultural arrogance; it takes a small man and uses him to tell a much larger story about freeing ourselves from the things we believe in and the harm they can do. Mr. Fortune is kind of a stupid man in many ways, but he finds a lot of wisdom by the end. A snippet:

‘Because I loved him so for what he was I could not spend a day without trying to alter him. How dreadful it is that because of our wills we can never love anything without messing it about! We couldn’t even love a tree, not a stone even; for sooner or later we should be pruning the tree or chipping off a bit of the stone. Yet if it were not for a will I suppose we should cease to exist. Anyhow it is in us, and while we live we cannot escape from it, so however we love and whatever we love, it can only be for a few minutes, and to buy off our will for those few minutes we have to relinquish to it for the rest of our lives whatever it is we love.’

My nice NYRB Classics edition comes packaged with the short sequel Townsend Warner wrote for it, The Salutation. I didn’t read it (yet): I was so satisfied by Mr. Fortune’s Maggot that I didn’t want anything to distract or detract from it! I won’t forget that it’s still there, though, waiting for me. Perhaps it perfectly completes or complements the original: some day I’ll find out.

Kerry Clare, Waiting for a Star to FallI was so looking forward to Kerry’s new novel: I really enjoyed and admired Mitzi Bytes and of course I know Kerry well from her wonderful blog and from Twitter (though sadly for me, she is rarely there now!) and for all her work reading, writing, talking about, and cheering on Canadian literature. Waiting for a Star to Fall did not disappoint, though it is a different kind of novel than Mitzi Bytes–at its heart is a painful personal struggle that is really well summed up in Stacey May Fowles’s review in Quill & Quire:

In sketching the nuance and power imbalances of Brooke and Derek’s romance, Clare has successfully rendered a spectrum of abusive behaviour and articulated a vital cultural tension between two seemingly opposed concepts: being 23 and being taken advantage of, and being 23 and having agency. In doing so, she asserts that both can exist simultaneously and that those who mistreat young women are not relieved of responsibility because their victims “should have known better.” 

Waiting for a Star to Fall is a highly topical novel, what I suppose we will come to call (maybe we already do?) a #MeToo novel. It doesn’t feel forced or formulaic, though, mostly because it walks us through the problem of recognizing the harm, rather than insisting on it or hectoring us about it from the very beginning. Brooke’s struggle to make the right kind of sense of her own experience is hard to watch and harder to participate in vicariously, which the close third-person narration requires of us. I appreciated that while by the end it is clear even to Brooke that she needs to understand the story differently, even it it means letting go of ideas about herself that she wants and needs to hold on to, the pieces do not fall so neatly into place that labels like ‘victim’ really fit. Real life is full of ambiguity, after all, and she did make choices; her relationship with Derek is not something that just happened to her, without her participation. At the same time, there’s some wishful thinking in Brooke’s own insistence that right and wrong are not so easy to determine:

‘But it’s not nothing,’ said Brooke, trying to explain. ‘It can’t just be either/or–there is something in the middle.’

‘There are many degrees, aren’t there,’ Derek’s mother eventually says to Brooke, ‘between perfection and being a sinner And who among us hasn’t sinned? … It’s not all or nothing.’ This is true, but it’s also not really good enough, especially for Derek as Brooke finally comes to see him.

So there we have it: five good books I’ve read recently!

Falling Down, Catching Up

Bluhm PergolaI have fallen out of the habit of regular blogging in the last little while. One of the odder features (to me) of my blog archive is that early on, I actually posted much more frequently, even though my life back then was much more hectic. I think in those days writing blog posts felt intellectually liberating–which it still does, but less urgently so, given the ways in which my life has changed. Time to myself is a less precious commodity now, too, so blogging feels less like an escape and more like another task (which is silly, of course, as it remains entirely voluntary). Then when I find myself in the doldrums, as I have recently, it is hard to muster up both the energy to post and enough faith in myself to believe I have something to say.

Still! Though I posted only four times in July, two of those posts were about really excellent books (Love and Summer and Hamnet), so that’s good, and another, about binge-reading P. D. James, pointed at one of the chores that was keeping me from reading or writing much else. My TLS feature on James was due in to my editor by August 6, so I was quite preoccupied and stressed out over the last couple of weeks as I wrestled all the notes and rough material I had generated into tight enough shape to send it off. 1400 words doesn’t seem like much when you’ve read thousands of pages! But I got it in on time–and though I have some revising to do based on my editor’s feedback, it’s not a lot, which is a big relief.

steinerThings were a bit hectic and stressful around here for some family reasons too, so I have been struggling to concentrate on the more demanding books in my reading pile. I read Amy Jones’s Every Little Piece of Me but didn’t like it nearly as much as We’re All In This Together — its protagonists just didn’t appeal. (I think I was the wrong demographic for their stories.) Then I ordered a couple of recent crime novels I’d seen recommended (thanks, Dorian and Kay!) and happily they hit the spot. One was Ann Cleeve’s The Long Call. which was good–better than solid, though not gripping in the way the other, Susie Steiner’s Remain Silent, was. Steiner’s is the third in a series and usually I wouldn’t start at the end like that, but it was the only one available locally. It convinced me I should read the other two when the opportunity comes. Steiner’s was an especially interesting contrast to all the P. D. James I’ve been through lately: she writes briskly and colloquially, and her story was both timely and explicitly political. (The absence of timeliness in James is something my essay touches on.)

conciseBILThe other reading I’ve been doing is in the Broadview anthology I ordered for my first-year class, as it contains a lot of stories and poems I don’t know at all. I’m impressed at the range of styles and voices in the reader–and mine is the concise edition, too! I haven’t quite pinned down the specific readings for the course yet, but in this, as in my other fall class prep, I do feel I am making progress. I have spent such a lot of time thinking about online teaching this summer that I was starting to panic about not actually having built my course sites or created content for them. I hope that theoretical time will pay off, but in any case it is definitely time to stop thinking and start doing–and since the TLS piece went in, that’s what I’ve been focused on. It is daunting to feel September is so close, but at the same time I am looking forward to it for the same reasons I usually welcome the return to classes: activity, conversation, intellectual exercise, the stimulation of being busy in more concrete ways. Sure, it won’t be the same kind of activity or conversation, but I’ll take it.

rooneyAnyway, the main point of this post is to break the silence–here and in my head! I have another writing deadline coming up but it’s not as onerous (a shorter review, of Sarah Moss’s Summerwater, which I’ve read twice already). I’ve got My Antonia and Kathleen Rooney’s Cher Amie and Major Whittlesey at the top of my TBR, both of which look very tempting, and at the moment things are quiet on the home front, so I hope to be in a better space for reading and blogging.

Three Weeks In

Lady (Waterhouse)I’m not sure whether I’m surprised that it has already been three weeks since we began extreme social distancing here or surprised that it hasn’t been even longer — normalcy itself seems so distant now! It seems remote in both directions, too: hard as it is to think back on the relative simplicity of ordinary life before, it is even harder to look ahead because there is so much uncertainty about when and how those conditions will return. That’s as good an argument as any for trying to take this massive disruption one day at a time, which is certainly what I have been trying to do. My success varies, as does my ability to get through each day with anything like the (again, relative) equanimity and focus I used to have.

I have done a decent job (I think and hope) at sorting out my classes, at least. Over time it has gotten easier to let go of the plans and expectations that originally shaped them, which in itself is a necessary kind of progress, I guess! I chose the simplest way possible to deliver additional material: rather than recording lectures or trying to wrangle synchronous or interactive components at such a chaotic time, I’ve been making up PowerPoint slide sets in which I have tried to balance information and explanations of my own with questions, pointers, and suggestions for how to keep thinking about the class material. This has been primarily a finishing-up exercise, focused on texts we had already begun work on in class, which helps: the overall direction of our inquiries had been set. It has taken a lot of work, though, partly because I ordinarily use PowerPoint (when I use it at all) to supplement or illustrate or outline our classroom conversation, not as a stand-alone component: I’ve had to think very hard about how to use each slide, how to shape the overall presentation, and of course how exactly to say everything, as I’m not there to clarify, correct, or elaborate. Now I’m moving on to review materials for the students who have opted to write the take-home final exam, and of course I also have to make up the exams themselves — and I have papers to mark, too, an activity that seems a lot more attractive right now than it sometimes does because, unlike almost everything else, it is exactly the same process as ever.

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One of the many ways I feel very fortunate right now is that neither of my classes this term is very large. If my teaching load were heavier (as was the case last term, and as is the case for some of my colleagues now), this would all be much harder. Although I am trying not to look too far ahead right now, it is impossible not to be conscious that there are no guarantees that our fall term, including my large first-year writing class, won’t be at least partly online as well. I would not want to teach any class, never mind a writing class, entirely through slide sets, of course! What we have been doing this term is handling an emergency situation as best we can, which (as many people have reiterated in online discussions) is not the same as a purposeful transition to online teaching with due diligence around best practices for learning, engagement, assessment, and accessibility. Everything I have read about online teaching tells me that it takes more time and more planning (and more resources) to do effectively than face to face teaching. Much as I hate the thought of it, because I love being in the classroom so much, it seems foolish to put off learning more about those best practices in the hope that I won’t need to, so I’ve signed up for a course we’ve just been offered through the university (itself asynchronous and online) on ‘online design and delivery.’ Part of the appeal (besides the professional obligation to keep doing my job as well as I can) is taking at least a bit of control over the situation: maybe I can approach the possibility of taking my classes online as a creative opportunity, albeit an unwelcome and unsought one!

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I haven’t been able to do much really attentive reading since I finished Threads of Life last week. There’s not really any good reason for this: it’s mostly lack of willpower as much as nervous distraction! But my sister thoughtfully sent me a selection of tempting lighter reads for my birthday (along with a lovely assortment of other treats!) so I’ve been making my way through these, including Grace Burrowes’ The Captive (she’s a new-to-me historical romance novelist, and I enjoyed this one enough to put some others in the series on hold at the library – ebooks, of course, since the physical library is closed!) and Abbi Waxman’s The Bookish Life of Nina Hill (which is charming, if almost too much so – its premise and plot are cute enough that I think the book would actually be better if Waxman didn’t try so hard to be funny–or ‘bookish,’ which inevitably means,  among other things, lots of handwaving to obvious fan favorites like Pride and Prejudice  – see also You’ve Got Mail, for example). I also read a short book I’ll be reviewing – Seishi Yokomizo’s The Honjin Murders – so that was not just distracting but also productive!

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Like most avid readers, I always have a good selection of unread books on my shelves, but like Colleen I’ve been finding them somehow not quite what I want. In some ways this is a familiar problem for readers: sometimes you just have to wait for the right moment to read a particular book! I’ve had books on the shelf for literally decades that one day just suddenly leapt into my hand, or at least into my awareness, as if at last they were perfectly ripe for reading. But right now it may also represent the difference between choosing books just because they look interesting and choosing books to read when the world is in crisis. Thanks to the King’s Coop Bookstore, whose lovely manager is doing home deliveries by bicycle, I now have Miriam Toews’ Women Talking and Emily St. John Mandel’s Glass Hotel to hand, and I’ve also just sorted out my copy of The Mirror and the Light, which had been stranded in a closed Coles but is now en route to me by mail. I feel that familiar readerly tickle of excitement just naming them here, so hopefully I’ll be deep into one of them soon and that will help my one-day-at-a-time coping strategy feel less grim and more grounded. After all, reading has been the one constant through all the changes in my life, good and bad. It’s not going to let me down now.

So, that’s where I am: trying to keep my head in the moment and not let myself spiral into frantic ‘what if’ or ‘what next’ scenarios, and trying to appreciate the good fortune that means I still have my job, even if for now I can’t do it on the terms I’d like, and to focus on all that we have, rather than what we can’t do. I continue to be grateful for the community of readers I belong to through blogs and Twitter: as so many of our relationships have always been at a distance, in this at least I feel the comfort of continuity.

Romance and Re-Reading

love-letteringIt hasn’t been a good stretch for me in my romance reading. I haven’t read anything since Love Lettering that I expect to re-read, which for me is the real sign of success: since I found my groove as a romance reader (nearly a decade ago, now!), romance has filled a nice niche for me as my go-to genre for incidental reading, books that divert, distract, and cheer me when I don’t have the time or am not in the mood for heavier options. I don’t mean to belittle the genre at all with this characterization. I have always read and reread books in that spirit, but they used to be mostly ‘light’ mysteries (Dick Francis, for instance) or relatively undemanding but satisfying general fiction (Anne Tyler, Joanna Trollope). I still reread old favorites in those genres too, but now my interstitial reading (as I have come to call it) also includes Georgette Heyer and Loretta Chase, Courtney Milan and Kate Clayborn.

tyler-ladderWhat is it that makes rereading–sometimes frequent rereading–pleasurable? Why do some books invite and reward it and others not? I reread for a living, of course, and for the books I teach the answer usually has to do with complexity: with layers of meaning and intricacies of language or form. Books teach well that don’t reveal themselves completely on a first try–otherwise what is there to talk about, after all? The better you know a book like that, the more you appreciate on each reading: the pleasure itself gets more complicated and multidimensional. That’s not (or not quite, or not usually) the same with the mysteries or romances I reread, though–or with writers like Anne Tyler, whose novels are many good things, including smart, touching, and subtle, but not particularly layered or complicated. You might notice more details on rereading, or see some connections or patterns that you missed the first time through, but for me anyway, rereading these books is about familiarity, not novelty, about confirmation rather than revelation. The pleasure comes from watching things unfold again as you already know they will, and enjoying again what you enjoyed before, whether it’s witty banter, angst-ridden suspense, sparky sexual tension, or whatever genre tropes the novel is built around.

evvie-drakeBut not every romance novel inspires rereading for me, even if I enjoyed it just fine the first time. Sometimes there’s an obvious problem–stilted prose, unconvincing characters, a plot that feels too utterly contrived, leaden dialogue–but others fall flat for no reason I can really put my finger on. The recent string of books that prompts this post included just one of the first kind (Tessa Dare’s The Wallflower Wager, which felt creaky from the get-go and then lumbered predictably along while trying to be spritely and witty, which is the worst effect for me) but mostly books of the second sort, where nothing was overtly wrong but they still didn’t do much for me. Get A Life, Chloe Brown was like that–it was perfectly fine, sometimes even charming, but when I was done, it went straight into the ‘donate’ pile. Ditto Mhairi McFarlane’s Don’t You Forget About Me, and Lucy Parker’s Headliners, and Alyssa Cole’s A Duke by Default. This morning I finished Linda Holmes’s Evvie Blake Starts Over and overall I enjoyed it the most of this recent batch–though I’m not 100% sure it qualifies as romance. (It sits on the fuzzy line between contemporary romance and “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” especially as it doesn’t quite serve up the requisite HEA–its ending is a very nice happy-for-now one.) If I went back a couple of months, I could give a much longer list of titles–very few of them actually bad but also few of them particularly good. (In romance as in all reading, of course, YMMV, and these are all books others have enjoyed a lot. Love works in mysterious ways, I guess! As we say on Twitter, “don’t @ me.” 😉 )

crusieWhen I mentioned my discouraging string of “meh” romance reads on Twitter, Liz (who, more than perhaps anyone else, got me into reading romance in the first place!) commented that she “might be off romance for good.” It’s not (I am sure she meant) that she has lost respect for or interest in the genre overall, but that it gets tiring (and boring) having to read through so many to find the ones you like. This is certainly true of my own experience of romance, at any rate. There are lots of contributing factors to the skewed hit-to-miss ratio: the sheer quantity of books, for one thing, and the equally wide-ranging variety of readers and tastes they serve. Marketing–covers, blurbs, hype–makes useful discernment a challenge (this is true of all the genres I read, but the problem feels more pronounced with romance), as does the (perfectly understandable) desire of romance readers and writers to support each other and the genre they love, which is so frequently reviled and misrepresented.

lady-225Although my relationship with romance has come a long way since my first skeptical and ill-informed attempts at reading in the genre, I do sometimes get fed up. As I mentioned in that Twitter conversation, I “DNF” romance novels far more often than books of any other kind, and while it’s possible that this result is mostly about me (as a reader or a person, who knows) it’s hard not to think it also says something about the genre, though what exactly that is, I’m not sure. But it’s also true that most romance novels are relatively fast reads, which is why I can get through so many of them in such a short time. Perhaps, proportionally, the hits and misses are not really that out of line with the rest of my reading–they just stack up more quickly! That also means that each romance novel on its own is a fairly low risk endeavor (certainly compared to, say, Ducks, Newburyport, which so far I dislike much more intensely than any of the romances I have picked up and put down without finishing, and which will require a vastly greater investment of time and effort to get the rest of the way through). Moreover, when I do find a romance novel I really like, the pay-off is disproportionately large because of how often I am likely to end up rereading it. I have now read all three of Kate Clayborn’s ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ trilogy three or four times each, for example, and will no doubt reread them again before too long; the same is true of Cecilia Grant’s ‘Blackshear Family’ series, the first one of which, A Lady Awakened, I recently reread with great pleasure. There are even some individual scenes that make the whole exercise worthwhile! Sometimes I pick up Heyer’s Devil’s Cub just to reread the chapter in which Mary, all unwitting, tells the Duke of Avon about her misadventures with his wayward son Vidal: it’s the perfect antidote for a fit of gloom, a reliable dose of “restorative pork jelly” (an allusion other Heyer readers will appreciate!).

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Discovering that, if it’s the right one, a romance novel is the best bookish friend imaginable–always there when you need it and sure to cheer you up–is the happiest result of my now decade-long romance reading adventure. In the end, that’s what keeps me trying again and again even when it starts to seem that the ones I really like are few and far between: when I do find them, the rewards outweigh the accumulated tedium of the many others that weren’t for me. If that balance ever tips too far the other way, I too might go off the genre, though I can’t imagine clearing out my collection of favorites, which is a sign of much I have come to value romance as part of my reading life. It feels apt (if a bit trite!) to point out that my optimistic pursuit of just the right book for me is a bit like the stories romance novels themselves tell–which I guess means it’s rereading that turns out to be the real HEA!

Recent Reading Round-Up

legacyI have read a handful of books recently that I haven’t written up properly here; I thought I would say at least a little bit about them before my impressions fade away.

I chose John Le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies for airplane reading on my trip to London. This was a good choice even though (or possibly because) it is the least good Le Carré novel I have read so far. By this I mean I basically enjoyed it, but it was less intense and intricate than the others and so it didn’t matter that much that I read most of it during a dreary 7-hour layover in Montreal under less than optimum conditions. Alternatively, it is a much better novel than I realized because I read most of it during a dreary 7-hour layover in Montreal under less than optimum conditions! In either case, I felt indifferent enough to it by the time I finished it that I left in my hotel room when I headed up to Leicester. (I hope it ended up with another reader and not in a recycling bin!)

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The other book I packed in my travel bag was Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place, because I am teaching it for the first time in the fall and wanted to reread it before I reread it yet again specifically for class preparation. I wouldn’t necessarily warn you against reading this novel while alone in hotel rooms with creaky floors, but I will say that there are down sides to doing that! When I read this novel for the first time, I struggled with whether the novel was, as some critics claim, a feminist novel that critiques the misogynistic violence it depicts:

In A Lonely Place seemed like a book we could interpret in that way, but also as one that could reasonably be experienced very differently–not as a celebration of violent misogyny (because it doesn’t take long for us to be perfectly clear that Dix is a dreadful, terrifying specimen), but as entertainment based (in a fairly familiar way) on violent misogyny.

This time, primed by Megan Abbott’s introduction and also because I now know the basic elements of the story and so I could pay less attention to the crimes and more to their presentation, I felt more confident that we are positioned critically in relation to Dix from early on, that we are not just not voyeuristic if horrified spectators to his crimes (and in fact, one subtle and clever feature of the novel is precisely that we don’t witness his crimes, thus limiting the kind of prurience other crime novels and especially TV shows often show towards dead and violated women). The women’s roles too, this time, seemed artfully subversive rather than simply clever plot twists. Still, I think there’s a debate to be had about what exactly Hughes does with her noir elements, and I look forward to having that discussion with my class.

barley

One of the books I bought in London was Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley. I follow Harrison on Twitter and typically find her observations interesting, so I paid attention when the book came out and thought it sounded interesting, plus it got rave reviews–a phenomenon I should surely be immune to by now but am not. And so when I spotted it in the London Review Book Shop, I decided to get it. I’m not sorry: I actually thought it was quite good–gripping, very atmospheric, and beautifully written. But I didn’t think it was “a masterpiece,” “astonishing,” or “startling” (as per the front cover). In fact, when I got to the end I felt uncertain what all the parts, individually successful as they were, added up to, which made me think I had missed or lost an important unifying idea along the way–maybe my fault, maybe the novel’s fault, or some of both perhaps. Here’s a sample of the scene setting that for me was the novel’s strongest aspect:

On a cornland farm, such as ours, the pause between haysel and harvest is like a held breath. The summer lanes are edged with dog-roses and wild clematis, the hedges thronged with young birds. At last the cuckoos leave, and you are glad of it, having heard their note for weeks; but the landrails creak on interminably, invisible among the corn. The nights are brief and warm, the Dog Star dazzles overhead; the moon draws a shadow from every blade of wheat. All day, dust rises from unmade roads and hangs in the air long after a cart or a motor-car passes. Everything waits.

Like Miss Boston and Miss HargreavesAll Among the Barley is a novel full of rich details of country life and especially of farming at a highly particularized moment in English history. While Malik’s characters work hard, their landscape is ultimately, and quite literally, a supportive one. Harrison’s characters, in contrast, though they too make their living from the land, seem menaced by it or in tension with it–the whole atmosphere of her book is of implicit threat, as both social and political changes make the certain routines of crops and harvests seem fraught and precarious.

warlightAt a block party recently I mentioned to a neighbor that I was curious about Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, so she kindly lent me her copy. I read it with interest at first but found my attention flagging. It too, in its own way, is a very atmospheric novel, but there didn’t seem to be much more to the novel than atmosphere: not much happens, even in the retrospective spy story that sounds as if it should be suspenseful and, if not action packed, at least eventful. There are events, but they always seemed strangely at a distance; I found Ondaatje’s style portentous, always promising but deferring some deeper meaning that I didn’t think was ever actually delivered. I read The English Patient years ago and I remember liking it, but that was in the dark days Before Blogging, so I can’t go back to an old post to see what I liked about it. A bit of Twitter discussion suggests Ondaatje is a divisive writer. I can see why, given how self-conscious his style is. I liked a lot of moments. One near the end suggested to me the principle the novel itself may be built on:

We order our lives with barely held stories. As if we have been lost in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken–Rachel, the Wren, and I, a Stitch–sewing it all together in order to survive, incomplete, ignored like the sea pea on those mined beaches during the war.

I guess I wanted a story held more firmly together, with more visible shape and purpose.

obasanFinally, I just finished reading Joy Kogawa’s Obasan for my book club. This novel is, of course, a Canadian classic, and I think I must have read it before, though I did not have any specific memory of it. It is a very powerful novel, and a very artful one as well. It is also a depressingly timely one: so much of the racism and anger directed at Japanese Canadians, vilified and scapegoated in the 1940s, is echoed in current anti-immigrant rhetoric, especially but certainly not exclusively in the United States right now. “Which year should we choose for our healing?” Naomi asks, reading through her aunt’s archive of documents about “Canadians of Japanese origin who were expelled from British Columbia in 1941 and are still debarred from returning to their homes.” “Restrictions against us are removed on April Fool’s Day, 1949,” she notes,

But the “old sores” remain. In time the wounds will close and the scabs drop off the healing skin. Till then, I can read these newspaper clippings, I can tell myself the facts. I can remember since Aunt Emily insists that I must and release the flood gates one by one. I can cry for the flutes that have cracked in the dryness and cry for the people who no longer sing. I can cry for Obasan who has turned to stone. But what then? . . .

What’s is done, Aunt Emily, is done, is it not? And no doubt it will all happen again, over and over with different faces and names, variations on the same theme.

“Nothing but the lowest motives of greed, selfishness and hatred have been brought forward to defend these disgraceful Orders,” the Globe and Mail noted. Greed, selfishness, and hatred remain as constant as the human condition, do they not? Or are you thinking that through lobbying and legislation, speech-making and story-telling, we can extricate ourselves from our foolish ways? Is there evidence for optimism?

Reading this novel immediately after the terrible shooting in El Paso, which was motivated by racism, xenophobia, and hatred, it was hard to summon up much optimism, but Obasan itself surely stands as a testament to the power of story-telling: Kerri Sakamoto’s introduction notes that it “touched a nation’s conscience and gave a voice to a movement to redress the injustices perpetrated against Japanese Canadians during World War II.” There is at least some room for hope, Naomi concludes: “This body of grief is not fit for human habitation … the song of mourning is not a lifelong song.” Obasan provokes sorrow and anger and shame, but at least it closes with tenderness: “How gentle the colours of rain.”

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!)

 

Recent Reading: Novels In Pieces

whistle-darkOnce again the two novels I’ve read most recently have, quite coincidentally, something in common, but this time it’s a matter of form rather than content. Both Emma Healey’s Whistle in the Dark and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer are composed of assembled pieces — too long to be fragments, too short (mostly) to be chapters, always with a suggestive or quirky ‘headline.’ This structure made me slightly irritable in both cases. Why is this a thing to do? What’s the point–aesthetic or thematic? It seems to me the novelist equivalent of those long essays (we’ve all read them) that have little rows of asterisks instead of actual transitions between their parts. It looks unfinished to me. Go on, write the whole novel! We can wait to read it until then. 🙂

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serial-killer

I find I don’t have a great deal else to say about the novels themselves. I read them both fairly fast and with fairly rapt attention, which is something of an endorsement, though to some extent I think it’s also an acknowledgment that small brisk pieces are easier to consume than dense sustained narratives. (Could that be why … ?) Of the two of them, my strong favorite is Healey’s, which is a searching (literally and figuratively) story about a mother and her difficult teenage daughter, who goes missing for four days and then refuses to say where she was or what happened. Like Elizabeth Is MissingWhistle in the Dark effectively captures the stress of disorientation, of not knowing, of grasping at an elusive and also frightening truth. It also seems to me a very realistic portrayal of a mother’s frustration with being shut out and criticized precisely because she wants more than anything else in the world to help someone she loves. Even in situations less dire than that in the novel, that kind of emotional push and pull can be exhausting. Whistle in the Dark is grimmer than Elizabeth Is Missing: it has none of the whimsy and poignancy of Healey’s first novel and it takes us (again, both literally and figuratively) to darker places–even though in the end I suppose it tends in a happier direction, as there’s no escape, no epiphany, that can bring Maud back from her lost state, whereas we are left feeling hopeful about Jen and Lana.

My Sister, the Serial Killer seemed to me a deft piece of rather morbid and mordant entertainment: fast-paced, funny–in that “I can’t believe this is happening” way that isn’t really (IMHO) a particularly valuable form of wit, because it relies so much on shock–and superficially provocative. I think I would have liked and admired a novel that really grappled with the kind of conflict Braithwaite toys with: how far do you stand by someone committing unpardonable acts? What context, what background, what loyalty, what principle is worth more to you than holding someone accountable for murder? (This is a standard tool in the crime fiction kit, of course.) To me, however, Braithwaite’s treatment seemed glib and shallow and her protagonist’s choice morally indefensible without being interesting in any other way. Meh. YMMV.

Recent Reading: War Stories

Over the past week I read two books about World War II, but that’s as much as they have in common. In fact, they are about such different parts of the war, and they treat their subject so differently, that it makes almost no sense to consider them together, except that I read them one after the other!

The first was Lissa Evans’s Their Finest (which I learned from Dorian’s post was originally called Their Finest Hour and a Half, which makes much more sense!). I liked this novel a lot: it is brisk, wry, witty, and self-aware, especially about the will to create a heroic myth out of circumstances that in reality are an uneven mixture of banality, accident, and tragedy. The Blitz is pretty familiar fictional (and historical) territory–I think the best fictional treatment of it I’ve read is in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which is so good in those parts that I wished she had given up on the novel’s big gimmick and just written the convincing and heartrending book about the Blitz that she is clearly capable of. On the other hand, a convincing and straightforward story (you know, the kind that gets called “old-fashioned”) is harder to pull off than it sounds, and one thing Life After Life and Their Finest have in common is breaking up that potential narrative into parts that diffuse the risk. If the ingenuity comes at a cost, it’s one that Evans at least is clearly paying deliberately as she resists the pull of the romanticizing and potentially dangerous nostalgia with which the Blitz is now so often treated.

Dorian describes Their Finest as “perfect light reading” and then goes on to explain with his usual astute clarity how it is also about the way “hard work underlies effortlessness.” His post is really good and thorough, so if you want more detail about Evans’s novel I recommend you pop over and read it. I think in the end he admires Their Finest more than I did, but I certainly enjoyed it a lot, and I appreciate that Dorian passed his copy on to me when we had the pleasure of meeting in person in Halifax last week! I will definitely look for Evans’s other books.

I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed Michael Kaan’s The Water Beetles, which follows a young Chinese boy’s experiences after the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941. Much of the novel is dedicated to literal and often harrowing details of the dirt and pain and suffering and inhumanity Chung-Man endures, first as a refugee from and then as a prisoner of the Japanese forces. The worst of many horrors is the forced “evacuation” of a hospital to make way for Japanese soldiers who have been wounded:

They began shooting the patients. Despite all the gunfire we’d heard over the past several months, Leuk and I started at the first shot. On the top floor a window opened, and the shouting became much clearer as all the windows banged violently open. It was like the rising of a curtain at the theatre.

An old man with a bandaged head appeared suddenly in a window in a tall-backed wheelchair. One of his hands was raised and waving strangely. He lunged forward as the soldier behind him tipped his chair. The old man plummeted to the gravel below. . . . The soldiers disgorged the sick and mutilated into the air, as though unloading bags off a truck.

Kaan’s flat but relentless prose effectively matches the grim endurance necessary to persist and survive in the face of so much brutality.

The war story in The Water Beetles is interspersed with details about Chung-Man’s more recent life: the novel is as much about the lingering effects of his childhood trauma as it is about the war itself. Identity and continuity are recurrent themes: how is it possible to be the same person we once were when so much separates now and then, and what connects us to that former self? For Chung-Man, it’s memories, and family, and also relics such as the tarnished gold belt buckle that during the war is both a secret resource to be hoarded and a fraught link between his past and the future he hardly dares imagine. After the war, the buckle becomes symbolically suggestive: beneath its blackened surface the gold has endured, just as Chung-Man has survived and made something new of his life. Though the old pain and loss remain a part of him, they have not defined him, and this allows a note of hope to soften the novel’s impact.