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.
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.
Next, while browsing the shelves at the library, looking for something fun, absorbing, not too brain taxing, and really massive, so as to keep my spare reading moments occupied (for this combination of factors, I usually turn to the sci-fi/fantasy section) I found a trilogy that I had never heard of, but that is apparently wildly popular. And it is Deborah Harkness’s All Souls trilogy. And it is so great. The part of me who is a stuffy literary academic and who would obviously never (ever ever) read a book purely for fun is set somewhat at ease by the fact that Deborah Harkness is history professor of some reputation, at one of the not-too-shabby California schools. For the record, I don’t think there’s anything qualitatively different about sexy vampire books written by people with PhDs from good universities, as opposed to those written by mere mortals. Really, the only difference is perhaps in the number of historical figure namechecks. But it makes me feel better.
These books would be particularly fun for anyone who is into the development of the occult in England and who knows about the late 16th century. Because you’ll get the jokes. But even sans getting the references about Elizabethan drama and witch hunts and alchemy and Ancient Greece, they’re pretty sweet. I finished A Discovery of Witches as quickly as I could and I’m about a third of the way through The Shadow of Night. And it’s just so much fun, while also exploring some pretty timeless themes.
In the audiobook realm, I listened to Eowyn Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World, over many commutes to and from work. This is an account of Alaskan exploration, with a three-person team of U.S Army officers exploring the Wolverine River Valley in the late 1800’s, mainly told through the diaries of Col. Allen Forrester and his wife Sophie. While Sophie remains at the Vancouver barracks, awaiting her husband’s return and fighting her own domestic and personal battles, her husband goes deeper and deeper into a kind of forbidden land, where he meets the sparse indigenous populations and experiences a breakdown in the boundary between the natural and supernatural world.
It’s beautifully told, though I did not very much enjoy the audiobook versions of Allen and Sophie, who I found rather…mmm…dramatic. I much preferred the third voice, who stands in for a wide range of characters / bits and pieces, including governmental figures, text from historical archives, and, most enjoyably, the epistolary exchange between a museum curator Josh and a gruff older gentlemen who inherited the Colonel’s possessions and sent them to a museum in Alaska. They exchange a lively and touching conversation through letters.
I also started listening to the audiobook version of Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. I had tried to read the novel when it came out and just…could…not… I don’t know why. It was one of those guilty books that I knew should have both read and loved. (And not just because of that whole Booker Prize thing but, hello, I’m technically a scholar of Caribbean literature.) But dang. It’s violent. It’s all up in your stuff. And it’s written largely in dialect. Which, I get it, is important. But it’s hard to get into. It’s a book that is almost entirely driven by its characters. There are several…what to call them…I don’t even know if they’re plot lines, they’re more like tensions, running through the book. With personal stories syncing up with more overarching narratives of the country. But mostly, it’s people talking about what has happened and is happening to Jamaica in the 1960s and 70s. It’s a lot of storytelling. So, listening to human voices is a huge plus, particularly as this text is really well performed by several different actors.
That’s it for now! But I’m taking suggestions.