What I’m reading this month – August 2019

I was rather shown up at the library a week or so ago. Went in with the kids to update them on their summer reading challenge (six books in six weeks) – get their stickers and wee prizes and whatnot. When signing them up, the librarian on duty invited me to sign up to. Yes, for adults as well: they don’t discriminate. There is no good reason not to sign up to read six books in six weeks, especially when you’re standing next to your six year old child, encouraging him to do the same thing. So I did it.

But when we were updating him (three books, at the time), I was only able to report that I’d finished one: Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The librarian chided me and urged me to get on with it, or no prizes for me. Well, that’s me telt. If I get more grief, I’ll just show them this blog.

Cover of Miriam Toews’s Women TalkingPratchett and Gaiman had muscled their way in on my plans to read this book – a new novel by one of Canada’s favourite flowers at the moment. Miriam Toews has been winning awards and CBC speaking spots since A Complicated Kindness – at least, that’s when she appeared on my radar. I know a certain set of CanLit book readers (likely a small slice of the audience for this particular blog, which doesn’t get much in the way of numbers) is waiting to ding a bell or have a drink when the word “Mennonite” first comes up in association with Toews (or maybe punch a journalist in the face… or maybe just a novelist), but it’s a hard association to avoid. She roots her fiction in the place from whence she springs, and her familiarity, her intense feelings for the tradition and community, and her complicated passion is I think no small part of what makes her fiction so good.

This one is no less rooted in the global Mennonite story, though it has plenty to say to a broader set of ears at the moment. It is a fictional rendering of a community dealing with events that really happened in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. The details are ghastly – fictional and real – and the easy themes to tag it with are violence, male domination, and female agency. Less sexily, it’s about family, loyalty, and fidelity to religiously founded ways of living. This is the kind of subject matter I have a lot of time for, and Toews includes it all fairly and well. Where Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (ding! or, drink! punch!) takes a pretty blunt portrayal of religion, Toews doesn’t think her women are stupid or misguided in giving space for scripture and theology in determining their actions, though the brutal conditions they live in are pretty much on a par with Atwood’s newly refreshed dystopia.

It’s a talky book. (The hint’s in the title, I suppose.) Again, this doesn’t fluster me, though it’s not the sort of book that will fly off the shelves as people head to beaches in the summer. There’s an artifice to the book’s frame that is occasionally difficult for the author to manage, but I’m happy to suspend criticism of this because the material it brings forward is so good and so important. My wife, who was handed the book unsolicited (and autographed) at a suddenly important moment in her life last autumn, asked me if I was enjoying it. I said I didn’t think “enjoy” was the right kind of verb for this book, but it was done very well.

Cover image of Cynan Jones’s CoveIn the interests of full disclosure (and we are now ten days deep into August as I write this), I’m already done Toews and on to something different. No less urgent, but a very different voice and a very different set of circumstances. Cove is a poetic novella by Welsh writer Cynan Jones. It is brilliant and sparse. A man kayaks out to sea alone and gets out a bit too far, distracted perhaps by the intensity of his purpose, when he is struck by lightning. When he recovers, his paddle and much of his memory are gone (one of his arms is of not much use, though at least he can see that it’s there), and so what next? The narrative voice doesn’t overdo the emotions or the actions at all – neither the panic nor the longing – and we’re given enough sly ordering of detail at the beginning to complicate with interest what could be a too straightforward tale.

The man at sea alone is the theme of one of my favourite books, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (I don’t know if Jones has a similar ringing/drinking/punching game). Jones uses this motif in very different ways, and there is a tension with the land that isn’t present for Santiago, who in Hemingway’s tale is so alone as to essentially not exist for the rest of humanity. This tension drives Cove well. I’m really enjoying it, and because it’s so brief, I’m taking it slow. The writing style rewards this.

Jones has written one of the ten new renderings of the Mabinogion, published by Seren Books. We took advantage of an online sale from the publisher to bring all of them into the house earlier this month, so I’ll have more of Jones to read, and I’m looking forward to that.

Cover image of My Brilliant Friend by Elena FerranteBut not yet. It is summer, and when I’m through with Confirmation and Clearing (I’m Admissions Tutor this year for my department, and so am on deck to welcome in all the little buttons that will populate our first-year classes this autumn), I will be on proper holiday for at least a little while with my family. As an act of mercy to our friends, we’re off to Italy. Former neighbours are leaving windy Scotland for the Dalmatian Coast, and though they will use their right-driving family vehicle to get them there, it is then rendered rather useless in a land full of left-driving vehicles with roads to match.

Well, heavens, the only sensible thing to do is for us to visit them, buy their car, and drive it back.

This calls for something Italian. I know that Naples is not Trieste. But Elena Ferrante’s quartet have been waiting demurely on our shelves for some time. I bought them for my wife when they were still just a trio, at least in English, and felt very prescient indeed when they took off shortly after – like I was on top of a trend! She enjoyed them thoroughly, and I knew some time would be my turn, but at the time I was still staring down my PhD, and then there was the job hunt, and then there was getting into the job itself… Well, you know how it is. And four novels, none of them slender like Cove, make a daunting thing. Even now, I feel like it’s late in the summer to embark on this. So it’s quite possible that What I’m reading this month – September, October, and November will all be very boring blogs indeed. But by then it will be gearing up for Christmas, and maybe someone will buy me a book.

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