Wednesday, October 31, 2018

October Reading Round-Up


Out of the 34 books that I read this month, here are some highlights:

Machine Without Horses by Helen Humphreys

The title comes from the name of a Scottish dance that replicates the movements of a steam train. This book is also a dance, a duet of nonfiction and fiction. Behind-the-scenes writing concerns of a novelist are followed by the results: the fictionalization of the life of a real person. Megan Boyd was an eccentric Scottish woman, one of the best salmon-fly dressers in the world, and she was probably a lesbian. This book rolls along - warm, wise and beautiful - and I hardly put it down from start to finish.

Feeling that we belong to humanity and behaving with compassion towards our fellows is perhaps the most important responsibility of being human today. So, it matters to be able to relate to anyone whom we consider to be "other."

You cannot just kill [your characters] off with no real warning. It will feel unbelievable to readers and they will stop trusting your story. Fiction is measured and reassuring in a way that life isn't, and perhaps that's why we read it, and also why I write it.

Once, the great bustard was considered for the national bird of India but was decided against because of possible misspellings of its name.

Maggie Terry by Sarah Schulman

Like Humphreys, Schulman is an author who makes me happy whenever she has a new book out. She's in tiptop form here, dark and witty, with deeply flawed characters and a gritty portrait of New York City. I immediately cared about Maggie, ex-cop, post-addiction rehab, desperate just to get through each day and determined to convince her ex-wife that she can be trusted to see their young daughter again. Over a period of five days, a murder is solved and there's hope in the world.

That afternoon was Maggie's first staff meeting. She had been warned by a gentle, whispery Sandy that there was a signal, a series of buzzes, that meant right now! Toilet paper in hand, needle in arm, cock in mouth, or one foot out the window, when summoned, everything had to stop for the gathering of the team.

"One mint tea, one apple, one tabloid please."
He held up the Daily News. The headline held a jarring photo of Orange yelling "I'M PRESIDENT AND YOU'RE NOT." 
"Uhm." Maggie felt anxious. "Do I have to?"
"Good call, I'll give you the Post. They like to pretend it's not happening."

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley 
Audiobook, 9 hrs, performed by Susan Bennett

"The flip side of hero is monster." 

Dualisms abound in this imaginative retelling of Beowulf with contemporary mothers as the focus of the tale. One is a returned soldier with PTSD, and another is a trophy wife in a gated community that displaced the original inhabitants. What makes someone "other"? Told partly in first-person plural, which I love, and the collective points of view include steely society matrons, a pack of dogs, and the elemental spirits of the mountain setting. It's been a Beowulf year for me: I read a couple of graphic novel adaptations earlier, and also listened to Seamus Heaney read his own translation.

Did you know you can kill someone with a stiletto heel? Our daggers travel with us, underfoot.

I call death onto those who don't know a child when they see a child. Men who think they made the world out of clay and turned it into their safe place. Men who think a woman wouldn't flip the universe over and flatten them all beneath it.

The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms by Amy Stewart 
Audiobook, 6 hrs, performed by Heather Henderson

"I've come to understand, like Darwin had, that earthworms are not destroyers, but redeemers. They move through waste and decay in their contemplative way, sifting, turning it into something else, something that is better." 

Fascinating science about a keystone species, told in a charming way. This audiobook would be great for family listening on a car trip. New vocabulary: oligochaetologist, someone who studies earthworms.

Any environment, any single life, is in a continuous state of change. This is just more obvious when you pay attention to earthworms. Their work may seem unspectacular at first. They don't chirp or sing, they don't gallop or soar, they don't hunt or make tools or write books. But they do something just as powerful: they consume, they transform, they change the earth.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson 
Audiobook, 11 hrs, performed by Fenella Woolgar

Nuanced MI5 espionage with a female central character, set mostly in two alternating times: 1940s and 1950s London. Civilians in wartime, making choices and then facing consequences. Witty and tragic, with an interesting cast of characters and a gradual unveiling of events. Reminds me of Ondaatje's Warlight and McEwan's Sweet Tooth, but even better than either of those.

She couldn't shoot every drab housewife. She'd be here all day.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Audiobook, 27.5 hrs, performed by Patience Tomlinson

I was surprised by how much I loved this Victorian novel! 1830s England, with all its intricacies of class and etiquette, is made real. Brothers, stepsisters, widows, wives and spinsters - they're all characters that will live long in my imagination, thanks almost as much to the audiobook narrator's skill as to that of Gaskell. And I doubt I'll ever find a chapter title that will delight me as much as "Secret Thoughts Ooze Out." 

I didn't know, until I reached the abrupt ending, that this novel wasn't finished when Gaskell died; it's completed in the form of an afterword written by someone who knew her intentions. I've heard that a similar thing was done with Richard Wagamese's final novel, Starlight. I'm more open to reading Starlight now that I've read another book that was published unfinished posthumously.  

I won't say she was silly, but I think one of us was silly, and it was not me.

The new Mrs. Gibson: "But, really! I cannot allow cheese to come beyond the kitchen."
Dr. Gibson: "Then I'll eat it there."

Next up, three books that I picked up especially because I was going to see the authors at the Vancouver Writers Fest earlier this month:

The Cost of Living: A Living Autobiography by Deborah Levy

Levy documents her passage into a new phase of life at 50, post-marriage, finding space and time to write while caring for her teenaged daughters and rising the plumbing. Vibrant, clear and inventive - her prose is a delight.

The appeal of writing, as I understood it, was an invitation to climb in-between the apparent reality of things, to see not only the tree but the insects that live in its infrastructure, to discover that everything is connected in the ecology of language and living.

Writing a novel requires many hours of sitting still, as if on a long-haul flight, final destination unknown, but a route of sorts mapped out.

I've Been Meaning to Tell You: a Letter to My Daughter by David Chariandy

Inspired by James Baldwin's letter to his nephew about racial politics (the same essay that inspired Ta-Nehisi Coates to write to his son, and also, coincidentally, one that Deborah Levy mentioned in The Cost of Living), Chariandy addresses this thoughtful essay to his 13-year-old daughter. She is of mixed ethnic heritage - Black, South Asian and white - born in Canada (as was her father) and where she must sometimes contend with the question, "Where are you REALLY from?" He talks about their family's past and uses it to illuminate a way forward.

A further impediment to working together was the enormous prejudice, throughout the Caribbean, based not only upon one's race but also upon the shade of one's skin. My mother tells stories about places where a brown paper bag was hung outside the door, and people were allowed entry only if their skin was judged lighter than the bag.

Happiness by Aminatta Forna

A complex life-affirming novel that stitches slender threads into a mighty tapestry: a 19th century wolf hunt; 21st century coyote and fox hunts; war in Bosnia and Sierra Leone; a wildlife biologist; a Ghanaian psychiatrist specializing in PTSD; plus many other characters who've come to England from elsewhere. Set in present-day London, looping backwards in time to America, Africa and Europe. My takeaway: trauma = suffering, but trauma doesn't necessarily = damage.

Homesickness was an adjustment disorder, that was the long and short of it.

When the structures of Waterloo Bridge began to fail, London City Council had it demolished and replaced with a new bridge built by a task force of 25,000 women who were paid less than their male counterparts and written out of the opening ceremony of 1945.

Attila leaned back in his chair. Neither man spoke until the Kenyan said: "You see how the people here [in Bosnia] do not look at us, they will not meet your eye." He leaned forward and looked directly at Attila. "But it is not because we are black. No. It is because they are ashamed that now we have seen what they are."

How do we become human except in the face of adversity?

Ocean Meets Sky by Eric Fan and Terry Fan

A wondrous dreamland journey through sea and sky, taken by a small Asian boy in remembrance of his grandfather. Grandfather's wispy moustache on one page is echoed on another in the whiskers of the giant carp, then both faces merge as the man in the moon. Magical and nostalgic overall, with a comforting ending. The illustrations can be examined endlessly. Below, amid submarines, sampans, pirate ships, zeppelins and whales, the boy's tiny vessel is hard to find against the giant whale (see arrow). 
detail pages from Ocean Meets Sky by the Fan brothers.
Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

Gentle, yet penetrating, because of the nuanced layers touching on timely social and political issues. I was made aware of a Portland, Oregon that I hadn't known before, seen through the eyes of 16-year-old Jade. She is a collage artist with "coal skin and hula-hoop hips." Refreshingly, her size is never an issue in the YA "problem novel" sense, and also there's no romance to clutter the story. Also admirable is that two of the adults in her life are three-dimensional, authentic women. Winner of the Coretta Scott King award and the Newbery Honor.

Things That Are Black and Beautiful:

A Starless Night Sky
Storm Clouds
Onyx
Clarinets
Ink
Panthers
Black Swans
Afro Puffs
Michelle Obama

Me

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

Subdued colours in this graphic novel match the bleak tone of a story about how we process trauma in the aftermath of tragedy. Two of the main characters are inarticulate men, detached from their emotions, yet the author allows room for empathy. Online conspiracy theorists and paranoid radio talk show hosts contribute to the climate of uncertainty and fear. Unsentimental psychological realism that kept me engrossed; it's understandable why it's the first graphic novel to ever make the Man Booker Prize longlist. 
detail from Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

Animals of a Bygone Era by Maja Safstrom

Another in comics format: a compendium of extinct animals, rendered in sweet line drawings, with very brief information and funny comments. Swedish illustrator/author writes: "I hope that you learn something new and are reminded of the beautiful, complex and delicate history of this world." The humour starts right on the table of contents page, where a dinosaur reacts "Wait, what?!" to the news that her kind will not be included in the book, in order "to give some attention to other fascinating - but less famous - creatures." It will appeal to all ages and would make a great gift for a family.
"Terror birds (Phorusrhacos) were once the largest predators in South America. (They were taller than a person!)"
detail from Animals of a Bygone Era by Maja Safstrom.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

"Writers have to bear witness, it's their vocation."

I love this trenchant and bittersweet novel which deals with a subject I'm very sensitive about: suicide. It's also about:
Grief.
How what we love and mourn says much about our truest selves.
The way artistic expression is viewed in contemporary society.
The special bond between humans and dogs.

Your whole house smells of dog, says someone who comes to visit. I say I'll take care of it. Which I do by never inviting that person to visit again.

Later thinkers have suggested that, despite Christianity's absolute prohibition against committing suicide (though nowhere in the entire Bible is there any explicit condemnation of it), Christ himself could be said to have done just that.

Consider rereading, how risky it is, especially when the book is one that you loved. Always the chance that it won't hold up, that you might, for whatever reason, not love it as much. When this happens, and to me it happens all the time (and more and more as I get older), the effect is so disheartening that I now open old favourites warily.

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All of these are books that I can see myself rereading in the future. It's going to be really tough to come up with my favourite books of the year when that time rolls around.


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