Here are a few of the best books that I read in September, starting with four that are longlisted for the 2021 Giller prize.
Fight Night by Miriam Toews
“What makes a tragedy bearable and unbearable is the same thing—which is that life goes on.” Grandma‘s wisdom and zest for life, together with 9-year-old narrator Swiv‘s voice, make this a perfect novel. It's written in the form of a letter to Swiv's absent father. The fight of the title is both internal and external: against sadness, self-doubt, lack of courage, the patriarchy and religious dogma. The kid is a master of hyperbole and the book is hilarious—sometimes to the point of slapstick—and it‘s heartbreakingly real.
We all have fires inside us, even you. Grandma says you pour so much alcohol on the fire inside you that it‘s guaranteed to never go out.
When she swallows her pills she pretends they‘re tiny soldiers sent off to fight the pain and sometimes holds them up and says to them, thank you for your service, lest we forget, and then she swallows them and says “play ball!”
"Do you know Shakespeare‘s tragedies? People like to separate his plays into tragedies and comedies. Well, jeepers creepers! Aren‘t they one and the same? So, King Lear fails to connect with what‘s important in life and loses his mind… who hasn‘t? There is comedy in that, don‘t kid yourself. That‘s life! And life doesn‘t necessarily make sense. We‘re human!"
Grandma sang let it be, let it be, let it be, lord let it be. I told her lord wasn‘t the right word. The right word was yeah, let it be, not lord, let it be. She‘s right, said Ken. It‘s yeah, not lord. Okaaaaaaay! said Grandma. From the top. She sang it again but used the wrong lyric. She did it on purpose. She just likes opportunities to say lord because it makes her feel like she‘s praying.
I took the magazine out of the pocket on the seat in front of me and opened it to an ad that said ‘Literally in Love with Jumpsuits.‘ I put it back into the pocket.
Then I woke up and it was still the same day which was the longest day ever because of the time change and almost dying 400 times in water, air and on land. We‘d probably almost die in a fire before bedtime.
Lou poured everyone a glass of white wine to toast family. He looked sad and happy at the same time. That‘s a popular adult look because adults are busy and have to do everything at once, even feel things.
Astra by Cedar Bowers
A bisexual woman‘s life from birth into her senior years, as seen through the eyes of others. Each chapter jumps ahead in time and is told from the perspective of a different person. I love kaleidoscopic character-based stories like this. An added hook is that it‘s about an intentional community. To top it off, the writing is top notch.
I‘ve found it much, much harder to lose the people who never gave you enough, than it is to lose the ones who gave you everything.
Men sit around discussing liberation and free love and what a glorious new world they are creating, because now everyone can truly be “free” if they have the balls for it. And it‘s such bullshit. Clodagh has met hundreds of free men over the years, but she can‘t say she‘s ever met a free woman.
There was another question that troubled him now. How could he be sure that when he went home, he wouldn‘t revert to the boy he used to be? How could he stay the person he‘d worked so hard to become?
We Jane by Aimee Wall
“The thing to remember was that they were out in the middle of the Atlantic on an island on an earth simmering with heat and rage and people would have to see that they were eventually, once again, going to have to fend for themselves.” Women taking control of reproduction is one aspect of this brilliant novel, written with convincing dialogue peppered with Newfoundland expressions. Above all else, it's about queer women‘s relationships with each other.
You look back on where you came from and think why live like that. The slush, the snow in May, the forever blanket of fog. There are people who eat dinner in their backyards all year long and there you are, barely able to go out in your shirtsleeves except for a few days a year.
Don‘t get all sepia-toned on me. She would say things like that but then tell a story about some show at the LSPU Hall that had devolved into a fistfight, a full-on racket, and how that was the summer they put the clocks ahead two hours so it was light light light till late every night and everyone went a bit squirrelly, all this in a voice dripping with that sepia honey and Marthe would thrill to it quietly, getting to go to that place.
But it can be another way, Jane would say. It‘s already been another way, Jane would say. And Marthe would agree.
And just as Marthe was settling into the conversation, just as she was about to ask for actual details—what other way, exactly, did Jane mean—Jane would change the subject, or end the conversation. It was dizzying, but effective. Marthe was consumed.
Jenny had arrived in New York just in time to watch all the radical feminist groups disintegrate into power struggles and infighting but, she shrugged, all that‘s kind of inevitable. People are loath to talk about it because they don‘t want to make us all sound like petty bitches and, like, hurt the cause, but some of them were petty bitches! But just because it came apart eventually doesn't mean it failed. None of these things were ever meant to stay on in the same form forever.
Oh Trish, she‘s a bit different, you know, but she‘s best kind really, and my cousin thinks the sun shines out of her ass ever since she had the baby at home. Yeah. In the living room. She‘s a bit different, but you know. It was one of Marthe‘s least favourite expressions, the way people said it here. Oh, I see, well that‘s a bit different. As in, I find that outrageous, or weird, or incomprehensible, but I'm making a show of reserving judgement while actually judging because, you know, it takes all kinds.
Jane liked big novels, Great Works. Mann and Stendhal and the Russians and Henry James. She liked novels of ideas with the ideas woven into the world of the book, novels where vaguely weak sick people sit around the sanatorium talking about time and philosophy and art. Jane wanted, always, the transcendent. The almost over the top. She liked opera. Most anything played by Glenn Gould. She was impatient with anything less.
Back in the car, on the highway, Jane settled another paper cup of coffee into the cup holder, pulled a rumpled copy of Buddenbrooks, fat with damp, from between the seats: Read to me?
Marthe took the book from Jane‘s hand and started reading. She loved reading aloud, it was so rare that anyone wanted it.
The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia
Nigerian Canadian lawyer and academic Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia has already garnered awards for this, her debut novel, which was first published in 2019 in South Africa. It‘s a moving family saga told from the viewpoints of two women who, in the opening chapter, have been kidnapped in Enugu. While waiting for their loved ones to raise ransom money, they tell each other their life stories. Feminist, heartfelt and dramatic.
Putting one‘s hands in various businesses would tell poverty that we were really serious about not making friends.
“Julie, I wish I had died in battle like Chima,” Afam had once confided in me.
“No, don‘t say that,” I had protested immediately. Because that was what was required: when people wished for suicide, you told them no. When they had nightmares like he did every night, you waved their fears away and told them that all was well. I should have let Afam speak.
When I stepped out, the sun was still trying to make up its mind whether it had to work yet another day. The car sputtered a little, also trying to decide whether its ten years on earth—that is, if you believed Innocent, the mechanic who sold it to me—did not yet qualify it for retirement.
Life was hard, but if you took it in little chunks, you could find some chunks that were good.
We Want What We Want by Alix Ohlin
“Child. We are done for in the most remarkable ways.” —Brigit Pegeen Kelly, from the epigraph.
In this remarkable collection of short stories, one of the best that I‘ve read so far this year, people‘s desires are the source of difficulty and pain… but can be done about that? We want what we want. I want more by Alix Ohlin.
“I think I‘m burning out,” she said to Sam, and he thought she meant on work, but she meant on everything. Sam was stable and good for her, absorbing whatever she threw at him, the tofu of husbands, but it didn‘t help. She considered an affair, but it seemed like too much work. Anyway, her days were full of meetings and carpools; there was no time for malfeasance.
I first read Mulvaney‘s book, The Woman I Knew, when I was thirteen years old, an impressionable age. Although I should say that I was impressionable at all ages, especially where books were concerned. I wanted books to press themselves upon my body and mind, to change me in every way a person could be changed.
Oszkar is disgusting, potbellied and scruffy bearded. To this party he has worn shorts that fall below his knees and a yellow t-shirt that reads Silence is golden. Duct tape is silver. Looking at him, she thinks about people interviewed on the news after their neighbour commits some terrible crime, saying, “He seemed like such a nice guy. You would never suspect.” Oszkar is not such a person. You would suspect him of anything.
They break for soda and chips, which his mother brings downstairs on a tray. The look she gives Aziza broadcasts sharp betrayal; she wanted Aziza to lure Tim outside, instead of joining him here in artificial reality. But Aziza can imagine nothing more artificial than the reality outside, the hum of vehicles disappearing into garages, the angry wheeze of leaf blowers operated by men in masks, like a gardening militia.
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
Audiobook read by Aoife McMahon
I adored everything about this novel, including the way we get to know the four characters only through what they say and do, plus through their email correspondence and texts. It‘s written in third person with a point of view so limited that nothing is revealed beyond what can be observed from the outside. And yet I truly cared about these not-especially-likeable Irish thirty-somethings who manage to divulge so much to each other about their feelings.
For my part, the difference between lockdown and normal life is, depressingly, minimal. 80 to 90 percent of my days are the same as they would be anyway: working from home, reading, avoiding social gatherings. But then it turns out that even a tiny amount of socializing is different from none.
What if it‘s not only a small number of evil people who are out there, waiting for their bad deeds to be exposed, what if it‘s all of us?
Personally, I have to exercise a lot of agency when I read, and understanding what I read, and bearing it all in mind long enough to make sense of the book as I go along. In no sense does it feel like a passive process in which beauty is transmitted to me without my involvement. It feels like an active effort, of which an experience of beauty is the constructed result.
Great novels engage my sympathies and make me desire things. When I look at the Desmoiselles d‘Avignon I don‘t want anything from it; the pleasure is in seeing it as it is. But when I read books, I do experience desire. I want Isabel Archer to be happy. I want things to work out for Anna and Vronsky.
Maybe we‘re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying, even when there are more important things we should be doing. And if that means the human species is going to die out, isn‘t it in a way a nice reason to die out?
Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir by Rebecca Solnit
Audiobook read by the author
I highly recommend this brilliant, clear-eyed and compassionate look back at the author as a young woman becoming herself and a writer within the ever-present and harmful context of patriarchy.
I came to understand visual art as a kind of philosophical inquiry by other means.
I am fond of sentences less like superhighways and more like winding paths, with occasional scenic detours, or pause to take in the view, since a footpath can traverse steep & twisting terrain that a paved road cannot. I know that sometimes what gets called digression is pulling in a passenger who fell off the boat.
It is the reader who brings a book to life. I lived inside books and though it‘s often assumed that we choose books to travel through them to get to the end, there were books I took up residence in.
I was told to move someplace more affluent, although some of my most malevolent harassment occurred in such places. To get a car. To spend money I didn‘t have on taxis. To cut my hair, dress as a man, or attach myself to a man. To never go anywhere alone, get a gun, learn martial arts. To adapt to this reality, which was treated as natural or as inevitable as the weather. But it wasn‘t weather and it wasn‘t nature and it wasn‘t inevitable and immutable. It was culture. Changing that culture and those conditions seemed to be the only adequate response. It still does.
It could have been me who found myself in a moment in which my fate was not my own, my body was not my own, my life was not my own. And I hovered on that brink and was haunted by it for a few years that reshaped my psyche in ways that will never be over, which was perhaps the point: to remind me that I would never be entirely free. This violence mostly targets girls and young women, as an initiation rite, a reminder that even after you cease to be a frequent target, you are vulnerable.
All our struggles can be imagined as turf battles, to defend or annex territory, and we can understand the differences between us as being, among other things, about how much space we are allowed or denied.
I think that a lot of girls and young women have this yearning, that is part desire to have a man and part desire to be him, to merge with this force, to be where power is, to be powerful.
In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova
Translated by Sasha Dugdale
Maria Stepanova set out to record her Jewish family‘s history in Russia, but the more she uncovered, the more she doubted what she thought she knew. This remarkable work of literature is hard to classify: it‘s a blend of memoir, fiction, 20th century history, archival documents, and essays about art. These all come together gracefully in what turns out to be a rumination on memory and mortality. The translation by Sasha Dugdale is lively and poetic.
I always knew I would write a book about my family […] because it was simply the case that I was the first and only person in the family who had a reason to speak facing outward, peering out from intimate family conversations as if from under a fur cap, addressing the railway station concourse of collective experience.
This white-hot near-religious belief in higher education was handed down through the generations and I remember it in my own childhood. “We are Jews,” I heard this at the age of seven. You cannot allow yourself the luxury of not having an education.
My china boy seemed to embody the way no story reaches us without having its heels chipped off or its face scratched away.
The whole country was at war with “cosmopolitanism,” a code word for Jewishness.
[The poet Valentin Stenich, the first Russian translator of Ulysses] was executed in 1938. It‘s said he did not conduct himself with honour at his interrogations. God forbid anyone should find out how we conduct ourselves at ours.
In December 1936 in a New York gallery, Joseph Cornell showed his first film to a small audience. It was called Rose Hobart […]
The 32-year-old Salvador Dalí was in the audience. In the middle of the screening he jumped to his feet and shouted that Cornell had robbed him. He insisted that this idea had been in his subconscious, these had been his, Dalí‘s, dreams, and Cornell had no right to use them as he wished.
In place of a memory I did not have, an event I did not witness, my memory worked over someone else‘s story; it rehydrated the driest little note and made of it a pop-up cherry orchard.
|I bailed on four Canadian novels this month, all of them Giller possibles.|
If I hadn't felt such pressure to read as many eligible titles as time allowed,
I might have had more patience. I may return to them at some point.