What I’ve been reading lately…

Let me tell you something. Between 9-5 in an office, chasing a toddler, producing literary events, and coordinating volunteers at the Blue Met festival this year, I have barely had enough time to breathe lately, let alone read. Let alone write any words about books that I’m reading.

Yet. Somehow (probably in the time I was supposed to be breathing) I managed to actually finish a few books in May. Let me tell you about them.

chang

Harper Collins, 2017

First, Janie Chang’s Dragon Springs Road. I read most of this book on the train from Montreal to Toronto and back. And it was a PERFECT train book. The story of a young girl–abandoned by her mother, raised as a sort of servant in her adoptive home, the choices that she has, the choices that she doesn’t–was told in a tone that is both tender and matter-of-fact. Not indulging in sentiment, but not brutally realist either.

 

Of particular interest is the character of  Fox, an animal spirit (mostly hanging out in different human woman forms) who lives on Dragon Springs Road and takes care of her various female companions. This supernatural element, rather than being relegated to the realm of a fictional flourish, is actually a major driving force in the novel’s plot.

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Notes on Helen Phillips’s Some Possible Solutions

phillips-some-possibleThere is a strange quiet to the stories in this collection. They wade through an environmentally devastated dystopian future and give off whispered warnings rather than roaring doom. They are uncomfortable, uneasy, but in a way that emulates the fairy tale, chock full of timeless mythic secrets, shrouded in mystery.

This collection of stories follows a fantastic (in all senses of the word) novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat and it feels very thematically and stylistically linked.

The genius of Phillips is the way she constructs a premise and sees it through. You never really seize the meaning until the end of the piece and even then you will doubt whatever it is you think you have understood. We never really distinguish what is metaphor and what is plot. (All are both, but let’s leave it at that…) To each strange circumstance there is in the background a kind of hanging “It’s as if…” that we hope we will see realized when we reach the end of the story. No, it’s not a story about bearing and raising extraterrestrial children, the story is about a woman who feels “as if” she has born alien children. It is not a story about young girls disappearing into thin air but only about a world that feels “as if” young girls are disappearing into thin air. The whole collection is haunted by this ghost simile, moaning like or as…

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Review: Life in the Court of Matane by Éric Dupont (translated by Peter McCambridge)

brunet-mataneAny book prefacing itself with the claim that “to understand this novel, readers must listen to ‘Little Earthquakes’ [by Tori Amos] and ‘Pointant le nord’ [by Pierre LaPointe]” is a book that already has the deck stacked significantly in its favour for me. There is probably a lot to love about a book for whom “Both songs might just be the ideal preface.”

That said, knowing the oeuvre of Tori Amos and Pierre LaPointe is not absolutely necessary to enjoying the book, although the continual refrain of “Little Earthquakes” is certainly illuminating, for it is a book about the ways in which the little and large tragedies of childhood–most of which are not even visible to the surrounding adults–create a lifelong trembling in the soul. It is not a novel of childhood trauma per se, and because most of its sadnesses are of a relatively familiar nature, the reader is brought wholeheartedly into this world of coldness and cod, separation and separatism, firsts and forests. There is nothing so common in childhood as the feeling of loneliness, and it is because of this that even the reader boasting one of those so-called happy childhoods can so deeply identify with the young narrator’s deep hunger for affection.

I am not entirely sure of the truth claims here. Are we in the realm of autofiction? If a memoir, then the book certainly stretches the genre beyond its usual parameters. At times very reminiscent of the long tradition of stories about childhood in rural Quebec, and at other times verging on a comic, post-modern-ish, semi-magical realist tale of leave-taking, it’s a book that is irrevocably rooted in its surroundings and yet constantly reaching toward the outside world, with Romanian Olympic stars and Belgian songwriters taking up prime real estate in the cultural atmosphere.

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Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent

BigGreenTent_F15.inddUsually, I cannot abide the claim that a book is “like a love letter to” another book. The expression rarely makes any real sense. And it strikes me as an unnecessarily flowery way to say that one book is like another, or influenced by another, or otherwise responding to another book in some way.

But in this case, there is absolutely no other way to describe The Big Green Tent, the latest novel of contemporary Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya, than as a love letter to Russian literature. It is exactly that. It is wonderfully, whimsically, beautifully that.

To read this book is to be stricken around every turn by the ghosts of great writers haunting the pages. It’s as if, in every punctuated pause in the prose, you can hear the whispers of an entire tradition. It is Tolstoy. It is Pasternak. It is Brodsky. If that sounds very masculine, that’s because part of what Ulitskaya is dealing with here is the overall maleness of Russia’s literary history. But there is quite a bit of Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva here as well. And her female characters are, in part, a response to the lack of convincing women in the pages of classic Russian literature. (Not only in this book but particularly in previous works like 2002’s Medea and Her Children, one of my absolute favorite books.)

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Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau

Random House 2015

Random House 2015

I was not expecting to love this novel.

I’m not totally sure why I picked it up in the first place, except that someone from my Book Riot crew had mentioned it was pretty good and that the main character is unlikeable.

Me, I don’t mind unlikeable women characters. Usually the reason that women characters are unlikeable is that a) they are not what we think they should be, or b) they are not what men think they should be. I always give myself permission to drop a book that has a truly unlikeable character at its center (spending too much time with someone you don’t like is a sure way to incur psychological damage) but I will usually pick them up because, often enough, an unlikeable woman is a very interesting woman. In fiction. As in life.

In some reviews, this debut novel by poet Jill Alexander Essbaum is cited as part of the new breed of housewife/mommy books, including recent works like After Birth, Eleven Hours, American Housewife, and Little Labors. But, of course, while there seems to be a surge of women writing about what it’s like to have too many brains and too little time to use them (spoiler alert: it’s like a bottomless jello cup of melancholia), this theme has a long and very rich history.

Boredom is not an invention of the 21st century middle class. Like one of those viruses that have existed since the days of rats hopping hopeful ships to the New World, we seem to immunize it into submission until one day it rears up again. Probably the boredom most famous to our generation is 19th century ennui, that abiding existential syndrome of being a European male. But the boredom of women in the home is something different. Dark and passionate.

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The Magic of “The Library at Night”

Simply walking into the Grande Bibliothèque in Montreal is a terrifically inspiring experience. The combination of soaring windows, reading nooks, and six floors to browse through is enough to get anyone excited about literature.

But one of the library’s greatest features is the basement exhibition space that has housed some truly terrific works in recent years.

BAnQ BLN (V) cr Stephane Bourgeois PS

Photo by Stéphane Bourgeois

Their latest undertaking, in celebration of the Grande Bibliothèque’s 10th anniversary, is called “La Bibliothèque, La Nuit” or, “The Library at Night,” and it is sheer magic from beginning to end.

Based on an essay of the same title by Argentinian-Canadian Alberto Manguel, the exhibit is brought to life by Robert LePage’s brilliant production company Ex Machina. You can get a glimpse of their beautiful work in the trailer (which is absolutely worth a watch, even if you can’t make it to the exhibit itself).

Beginning in a room modeled on the writer’s own library, you are treated to excerpts from Manguel’s lively text, animated by lighting and other effects. Simultaneously spooky and cozy, making you feel like an interloper and an invited guest, this recreated room perfectly conveys what Manguel’s essay is all about: that a library is both the deeply personal story of your life, as well as a window onto the story of the world.

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Helen Phillips’ The Beautiful Bureaucrat

Lately I’ve been making a point of randomly scanning library shelves. Not because I don’t have a long enough list of books to read (this is, in fact, all the more reason for me to never set foot in a library ever) but because I so deeply miss the experience of randomly scanning library shelves. Do you remember those days? Days when your mom would drop you off in the children’s/YA section of the library (for us it was a whole floor) and you could run about the aisles pensively and carefully move from shelf to shelf, waiting for an appealing binding to jump out and seize your imagination? I think the library was my first experience of freedom, which probably explains more than it should.

It’s just as pleasurable an experience as an adult, particularly because there is none of this accompanying mental calculation that one has to go through in a bookstore. My mental calculation looks like this:

Hmm, how much is this book? Yowza! Is this really what books cost nowadays??? Oh wait, I’m in Canada now so considering the exchange that’s…hmm…no that’s still way too expensive. Should I wait for the paperback? Maybe it makes sense to buy it electronically. Does the library have it? *Thumbs phone distractedly.* 5th in line on the reservation list. That’s way too long to wait. But is this something I really need to own? How could I possibly squeeze it into our shelves? Oh look! Something shiny! *Puts book down, walks away, forgets title until eight months later, hearing an interview with the author on Fresh Air.*

The library is an absolutely zero risk environment. It’s a safe space for people with a book addiction. And so lately I’ve been trying to forget my TBR list completely and simply wander through the shelves, looking at bindings, remembering that first taste of freedom that (unlike adult freedom) comes with zero accompanying responsibility.

And, lo and behold, I find awesome things…

Henry Holt, 2015

Henry Holt, 2015

Helen Phillip’s The Beautiful Bureaucrat is so astoundingly smooth. There’s no other word for it. The prose has not a single jagged edge. It has that mark of a perfectly manicured editing job and I know that sounds like a sort of boring endorsement for a book but here, it’s really everything. Because. Being so smooth is how Phillips manages to pull off this feat of landing the reader right into a semi-dystopian-yet-all-too-familiar place.

The novel comes after a book of vignettes and a book for children and precedes her recent collection of stories Some Possible Solutions (Henry Holt, 2016). It tells the story of Joseph and Josephine, newly arrived in the city from what they semi-affectionately, semi-disparagingly call “the hinterland,” which is a combination of suburban landscape and natural scenery. Though they move to the city due to the difficulty securing jobs, Josephine continues to suffer the pangs of soul-wrenching unemployment even in the concrete jungle. That is, until she finds a job entering data from the confines of a depressing, grey, entirely secluded office.

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