What I've Been Reading Lately

Hello there! Hope you are all enjoying a warm and wonderful holiday time, sharing good food and good stories with dear ones, baiting Santa Claus with sugar cookies, and maybe cracking the spine of that novel that’s been sitting on your shelf for the last six months…

As for my household, we are delightfully non-mobile this year, and looking forward to a quiet Christmas with no work, lots of time with the kids (our favourite holiday tradition is to remove all limits on sweets and screen time and let everyone pile into blanket-covered mush heaps on the couch for days on end, it is AMAZING), and hopefully some sledding. If we play our cards right, there may even be some time for reading books that don’t have pictures!

If you’re looking for some recommendations, for now or for the new year, here is a little glimpse onto my bookshelf.

I was very excited to receive this review copy from Netgalley, and it was a lovely read from start to finish.

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, Michael Zapata;
Hanover Square Press, February 2020

In a sweeping story that spans time and space, Zapata tells the tale of a lost work of science fiction that was handed down through multiple generations of two different families. Dealing with time travel, parallel universes and various historical and natural disasters, it is a touching book about the power of imagination (and while that description makes it sound cheesier than it is, it is certainly accurate). One of my favourite parts of this book was how well the author captured the special resonances that exist between certain people, and how those resonances form into relationships that change the course of events. More strange fiction than science fiction, it will remind you immediately of Italo Calvino, particularly in its structure as a series of tales that branch off from one another. There is definitely a If on a winter’s night a traveller . . . vibe.

I liked the mysterious set-up, the quest format, and the flashing back and forth in time. I loved the characters, and the grounding in significant real world events.
However, I was slightly less taken with the lack of fully formed women characters. Come on, guys, can we stop writing the narrative of the mother who performs one amazing feat and then dies so that she can pass the legacy on to her son? At the centre of this book is a woman, but she is conveniently backed away into a corner of the narrative and she is barely even named within the text itself, called merely “the Dominicana” for most of the book.

One of the more interesting stories was the tale of how this illiterate woman was taught to read BY ANOTHER WOMAN, and then proceeded to write an influential work of science fiction that was deemed EVEN BY MEN to be an instant classic. And her story is such a small part of the novel, which is mostly dedicated to her son Maxwell and the two dudes (hello bromance!) who are seeking him out. And yes, all those stories are interesting, but this was a really stark omission.
To be clear, I have nothing against bro books. If that’s your project, that is fine! But when you name your book after a woman, then proceed to give her a fascinating role in the story, and then give her an important intellectual friendship with another woman, you sort of have a responsibility to make her more than a supporting character.

Any other women characters in the book? Well, yes, but I certainly didn’t get to know them, because they were mere topics of conversation for the dude.

So this is a good segue for a great book I read that was written by women, for women in the way that les québécoises are really best at.

Les tranchées, Fanny Britt; Atelier 10, 2013

Fanny Britt’s “Les tranchées” (The Trenches) was an excellent little collection of thoughts, interviews, observations, stories, casual conversations and memories, from one of Quebec’s great young playwrights.

One of the joys of reading this book was in encountering a take on mothering that came from an entirely different cultural perspective that was also so similarly battling through the questions of identity that arise with parenthood.

One of the things I’ve noticed here is that, because Quebec has been strongly feminist for decades, with feminism holding a place at the forefront of culture, rather than being relegated to a “women’s issue” the way it has in the rest of North America, women seem to deal with motherhood in very different ways. If I had to sum it up really shortly, I would say that the culture of motherhood here is less geared toward removing subjectivity from mothers. Women seem more likely here to make choices for themselves, rather than basing each choice on what they should be doing.

Look, no matter the language or background, we all seem to be struggling with the same relationship to ambiguity and ambivalence, and trying to come to terms with the perils and pitfalls of mothering in a way that does not denigrate it as a practice, and that leaves room in the conversation for all different kinds of parents.

A word on the title, which I love. “Les tranchées” means “the trenches” and this of course refers to the trenches of the so-caled mommy wars. But there are many resonances in this word. “Trancher” means “to slice” or “to cut” but it also means “to judge” as in a legal sentence, or to make a decision, generally of the strong and immovable kid. Which means that “tranché,” the adjectival form seen in the title would generally mean “decided” implying a kind of strong stance or just a general strong personality. Elle est tranchée. She’s bold. But there’s still that whispered nuance of division (sliced, cut, divided from the whole).

One of my favourite books about motherhood is Roszika Parker’s Torn in Two, which is a study of maternal ambivalence from a psychoanalytic perspective. And so far, this the only adequate descriptor of the experience I have really understood to be true. Always divided (sliced in half, between the past and future, the woman and the mother, the self and the family unit) while also, at the same time, absolutely entrenched (tranchée) in certain ways of being and in unshakeable love and commitment to other people.

There is no translation of this book as of yet, but I’m looking into it 🙂

I’ve also been making my way through a couple of other review books, including Afia Atakora’s Conjure Women and Megan Gidding’s Lakewood, both debut novels about African American women, though that is where their similarities end. Stay tuned for full reviews, closer to their pub dates. And then, of course, I finished Eva Illouz’s Why Love Hurts, and you can enjoy my reading notes here.

The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern; Penguin RandomHouse Canada, 2019

And finally, I came across The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern’s second novel, while I was down in Georgia with my folks, and after the first page was completely hooked.

It was one of my mom’s library picks, which are generally impeccable. And I loved it. Magically, though I was not able to finish it while at their house, I found a scuffed up copy for 50% off at an airport bookstore in Atlanta on my way home. Then, I volunteered to give up my seat for a later flight, just so that I could keep reading (well, plus the gift certificate, thanks Delta!), and I finished the last sentence as my plane touched down in Montreal around midnight. Which actually fit with the novel itself, a story of finding books that open a portal into a strange world of wonder.

I need to pause here for a quick anecdote about my parents, because it is adorable. So, about a year and a half ago, they got fed up with the suburbs of Atlanta and packed everything up and moved to a cute little house out in the country, in a TEENY TINY WEE LITTLE VERYSMALL town near Chattanooga, Tennessee. My dad took a little retirement gig as the guy who drives the books from library to library when they’ve been requested or returned to another location. So, first of all, this makes him a bonafide mythological figure. Second of all, it means that he, for the first time in their marriage, goes to the library more often than my mom, who is the avidest reader you could ever hope to meet. Cuter still (and seriously you guys, it’s practically Hallmark) my mom is, of course, a big requester of books. So as my dad goes from library to library every Tuesday and Thursday, he grabs the books for my mom and sets them aside. Every time he leaves work, he carries with him a selection of literature that he takes home to my mom, like some kind of enchanted literary bouquet.

I’m getting a bit poetic about it because they just celebrated their 39th anniversary. There are quiet ways to live happily ever after.

So, back to the book, in a tale full of mystery, Zachary Ezra Rawlins discovers an underground enchanted realm of stories written in unlikely and alchemical ways. Stories are painted, sculpted, sung, stitched into cloth, inked onto teacups, woven into butterfly wings. Within this world–the shores of the Starless Sea–there are two conflicting tendencies seen in those who haunt its harbours, the first being to close off the world so that the stories will remain safe, and the second, to create as many entrances as possible into the world so that people can continue to discover it and leave their own imprints.

The plot itself is dreamy and somewhat hard to follow. Many of the figures and actions are mostly metaphor (a cabin in the woods, for example, has an actual geography, but is also perhaps only a shifting space of meaning-making) and the characters seem to slip in and out of identities, defined more by their role in the story than by their particular selves.

There are so many references and resonances to favourite childhood books that intertextuality is one of the novel’s greatest delights. Alice in Wonderland, the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Ursula K. Leguin’s Earthsea Novels, the Neverending Story…the list goes on. Which is not to say that it is a children’s book. But it is a book that will delight anyone who still reads as a child does–with an open heart and a sense of adventure.

So that’s it for me, for the moment. Happy reading everyone!

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