Loves, it’s the end of 2017. That’s right. We did it! We walked through this year and we came out
unscathed. But we’re still here, we’re still fighting the power, and if you (like me) are someone who has dedicated yourself to words and reading them, and sometimes even stringing them together, you (like me) think that reading and writing (ENGAGING WITH THOUGHTS) are the most important activities, probably now a bit more so than usual. So let’s keep doing it. And by it I mean this. And by this I mean THINKING. A thing that is done primarily through words.
And with that, my reading life…
I’ll be honest, my reading life had nearly disappeared (because of the whole having-a-baby thing, which happened at the very end of October) and then I discovered this little trick called READING ON MY PHONE. A thing that I thought I hated. Until I found myself rocking a newborn for hours upon hours and suddenly the small, nearly weightless box in my hand (which I generally try to keep out of sight as much as possible) became my own personal wardrobe into a Narnia’s worth of library books. I can’t read everything on my phone, and have found that anything too complicated, or with too many characters, is impossible (remind me to write a thing on the weird physicality of memory and paper books). But a straightforward, beginning-middle-end, main-character-with-a-couple-of-sides, two-major-storylines-at-most book is absolutely possible in small screen format. So, for example, I had to ditch The Ministry of Utmost Happiness about a third of the way through, once the whole Tilo-Naga-Musa-narrator love quadrangle was introduced. (To be fair, everyone’s main criticism of this book seems to be the sprawling narrative — which is dumb because, hello, hi there, have you ever read a work of magical realism? They sprawl.) But I had no problem getting through a few of Paula Brackston’s witchy books, even flipping back and forth between audio and text formats.
So the list below is of some books I’ve managed to tackle since October. Not all of them were on the phone, and this represents a fairly random sampling, but I’m thrilled to have any time at all for leisure reading at all right now.
The Break by Katherina Vermette was amazing, an absolutely stunning first novel. Told through many different perspectives, the focal point is an attack on a young Métis woman. While violence against women, and especially violence against women in indigenous communities, is a hugely important topic in itself, what this novel does so effectively is to show the myriad ways that microaggressions transform the daily lives of women in marginalized communities. The tragedy that this kind of violence brings about is never downplayed, but is definitely offset a bit by the warmth shared between the characters. Which is my way of saying, the subject matter is an absolute bummer but the novel is not.
Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill I read because, as a Montrealer, apparently I am contractually obligated to read everything this lady of letters has ever written. It’s a charming book, in a heartbreaking kind of way. Tone-wise, it’s something like L’Argent de poche in its innocent whimsy and portrayal of children in streets, combined with the deep, romantic sadness of La Strada, but set in 90’s Montreal with a lot of drugs and a bit of sex. It’s a coming-of-age story set in a perpetual childhood where no one actually ever grows up. Quick take: I loved the writing. I liked the characters. I slightly disliked the romanticizing of poverty. (Which, actually, for the record, O’Neill addresses a little bit in the P.S. section and it’s worth reading her take on the book.)
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout was a great follow-up to My Name is Lucy Barton. The latter is a novel that takes place almost entirely within the confines of a hospital room in NYC, a dialogue between mother and daughter, interspersed with their memories that largely unfold in the town of Amgash, IL. Strout’s latest collection of intertwined short stories returns to the town and features characters who are all vaguely connected to Lucy Barton, though she herself features very little in the story. While the novel focuses on her escape from both the small town itself and the emotionally abusive, poverty stricken childhood that she lived through, this collection of stories is about escapes that happen on a smaller scale, those that involve a private individual path branching away from shared spaces of family and community.
The Witch’s Daughter, The Winter Witch and The Midnight Witch by Paula Brackston were okay. Look, I love me some books about witches, but I like them to actually be about magic. I find it irritating when a book purportedly about magic features no explanation of what it is, how it came to be, what kind of training it required. Because there are so many different kinds! There’s the Pratchett-y version of common-sense-with-a-bit-of-midwifery magic; there’s the Hogwarts kind you have to go to school for; the LeGuinian, linguistically-charged, knowledge-focused variety; and of course there’s Deborah Harkenss’s superbly researched smattering of a lot of practices. The main point is, just because it’s a fictional universe, (and, you know, magic isn’t “real” or whatever…) doesn’t mean that anything goes. You still have to have a structure, in which there are things that witches can do and things they can’t. Brackston sort of throws in a spell or a bit of magic whenever it’s convenient, to advance the plot. Which honestly makes all these female characters, who are supposed to be “strong women” archetypes with all this powerful, untold wisdom and skill, seem kind of shallow. Like, okay, you’re a necromancer, you talk to the dead, then why is it that you can suddenly stop a vase from falling off a table? There’s no precedent for that. We don’t even know what you’re sporting on your magical tool belt. But otherwise, how would the handsome man accidentally find out that you’re a witch. That’s why you can suddenly levitate objects. These books aren’t bad. I found The Winter Witch particularly charming, and the device of having a mute main character presents some really interesting challenges that made the narration unfold in unexpected ways. But I’d say they read a lot like romance novels, except that instead of sex scenes, there are magic scenes. There’s something not-quite-integrated about them.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert was fantastic and you can take your eye-rolling somewhere else because it isn’t welcome here. This book was great. As a book about creativity, it is a little corny and a little new-age-y and a bit cliché-ridden to boot. I think if someone actually described it to me and noted that the phrase “big magic” is a frequent descriptor of creative living, I wouldn’t have picked it up. (If you even used the phrase “creative living” within a five-foot radius of me, I would probably walk away.) But dammit, this lady charmed me. I admit it. Reading this book was like having a cool older woman, someone with her shit basically together, sitting beside me at my desk, saying “Stop being a scared, lazy, procrastinating dummy and write something! Also, I love you.” This book simultaneously holds your hand and kicks your ass. It’s the sappy greeting card that tells you to follow your heart because you are worthy of your dreams, while also pointing out that if you aren’t following your heart already, it’s probably your fault, so you’d better figure out whatever worthless damage you’re carrying around and let it go. If you’re a writer and you’re looking for a boost in the new year, I’d pair this with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which is my other favorite hand-holding, ass-kicking book about creative practice.
Behind the Eyes We Meet by Mélissa Verrault, I reviewed for Necessary Fiction. The translation is solid and it’s a lovely, whimsical tale of Montreal that turns into a story of the Russian labour camps during the Second World War. Read more about it by clicking the link above.
And, moving forward, I’m in the middle of a few things, including Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, as mentioned above, and also a couple more Montreal titles from recent years. (I don’t know why, maybe because I work(-ish) in literature, but I feel this dogged insistence, coming from I-don’t-know-where, to read whatever this city has produced in the last decade or so. Which is basically an annex to the
mileskilometres-long Canadian reading list I have developed so that I can even vaguely understand the conversation surrounding”the state of CanLit” right now.) The first is Saleema Nawaz’s Bread and Bone, which I was really into until the library took it back, and let me just say that it is, so far, such a good novel that I’m back on the waitlist for it and will probably go ahead and reread the first few chapters again. Also about halfway through Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall, translated from the French (Le mur mitoyen) by Lazer Lederhendler. Let me just say this translation is everything translation can be on a very good day. More to say on the novel later…
Signing off for now! Welcome to 2018 and happy reading to you!!!