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. Continue reading

What I’m reading this month: July 2019

It’s been a tight couple of months on the reading front or, more precisely, the writing about reading front. Some urgent work tasks interposed, and the last thing I wanted to do was write recreationally after a fair bit of the professional kind. Some of it has turned out good – article has been accepted (hooray!) – and some of it may yet turn out good. Some of it was comments on other people’s writing: yes, it has been marking season, followed closely and urgently by the season of Exam Boards. But we’re through all that, and the only really big duty in front of me is the small matter of a conference I’ve organised that comes to town this week.

Cover of Annie Proulx’s Accordian CrimesReading becomes a bit of a luxury amidst that, but I did find time to make it through The Shipping News over the last little while. It’s one that had passed me by when it first came out, nor did I catch the film. Not Canadian literary fiction exactly, but in the ballpark – certainly in the right setting – so we feel a bit closer to that one. And after a recent tear on fiction in translation, it was time to return to something intended for my mother tongue.

Clearly, the right place to go afterwards was Accordion Crimes. I actually asked my wife which I should read (the “first” was implied), and she steered me to the Newfie tale. This one, she said, was bigger and sprawlier, harder to capture. Knowing my tastes, she suspected it might not be so much to my liking as a dedicated narrative to a contained story. Nonetheless, I am a musical guy, and it’s about accordions. I’d heard reviews of this one from when it came out that compelled me. So I picked it up, and now I’m nearly through it. Continue reading

Assemble, you bastards!

All weekend, my Twitter feed has been flush with people so excited about this new Avengers movie. The hashtag trends; it even has its own little icon. People seem gripped by the storyline, as they were tantalised when the trailer came out. People have been dressing up and going to see it late at night.

If you knew me at age 13, you’d think I’d be one of those people. I read comics – loads of them. I remember appropriating the habit age 10 with an issue of Avengers West Coast, thinking how cool it was that there was a guy dressed in purple who used a bow and arrow. My personal discovery, starting with Issue #1 and carrying on… well, I can’t tell you how long I carried on, but the answer is in a cardboard box in the closet of the spare room in my parents’ house – I digress: my personal discovery was The New Warriors, which had delightful invented circumstances bringing new superheroes and spare casts from other titles together as some teenage world-saving enterprise. (It’s coolness was all but certified when writer Fabian Nicieza quoted lines from the urgent coda of Pearl Jam’s “Rearviewmirror” in a kind of dream sequence about teen physical romance and fear/alienation regarding the parents in the house.)

Cosplay dressed as characters from Marvel's The New Warriors

“Dragon Con 2013 – New Warriors” by PatLoika, CC BY 2.0

Yes, if you knew me then, you’d say to yourself, “If the big studios ever get behind this thing – I mean really behind it, not like those Batman films – and they start filming X-Men and the Avengers, it’s gonna make this kid so happy.” Continue reading

What I’m reading this month- April 2019

This has been a big month for us.

It used to be that I always remembered 4 April as the birthday of my best friend’s younger brother. Why? Can’t really say. Before we all got into guitars and other stringed instruments, Ira and I were into comic books, and there was a comic book fair one Saturday in Nanaimo that we got a lift to from Ira’s mom. His brother came, too, and it was his birthday, and I think that, as a younger brother myself, I was sensitive to the mild injustice of him going along to something his older brother was interested in on his birthday.

Two copies of Katie Munnik’s The Heart Beats in Secret on a tableclothThis year, 4 April has a much closer resonance. It’s the day my wife’s novel was officially published. Like, you-can-walk-into-a-bookstore-and-buy-it published. This is a massive achievement, and one I’m incredibly proud of.

I might say “envious”, too, but that’s not really a dynamic. There was a time that I fancied myself becoming a novelist. I think pretty much all kids who like reading think they could do it. And those artistic pursuits, alongside “actor” and “rock star”, are just so easy for kids to spit out when asked what they want to be when they grow up. “Accountant” and “burger joint manager” don’t roll off the tongue so easily. Though it must be said, at the same time that I was saying “novelist”, I was also saying “journalist” (Hemingway having paved the way for me and so many others), and I was able to maintain that one. Along the way, I kept writing poetry, sometimes stories. I kept the candle burning.

And that burning candle, which was also burning in Katie, was not a small bit of what attracted us to each other. We shared poetry by e-mail before we’d officially declared our interest in each other. And we were well up on discussing writing and literature – it rather nerdily characterised much of our dating life. After we’d married, we had a brief venture in a writers’ group with some neighbours and friends, and at the time both of us were working on a novel. I really liked mine, but I didn’t get deeper than the second exercise book in longhand. She finished hers. Kept it in the drawer. I recall reading a good chunk of the first draft: there was a beaver, and someone’s house burned down. That’s kind of what happens in your twenties. Continue reading

What I’m reading this month – March 19

We’re halfway into the month already, and the book I’m reading right now is the same book I was reading this time last month, only it’s a different book.

That’s not just me being cute.

Last month, I had a conference in Vienna. And, as I’ve been getting into the habit of doing, I wanted to read some fiction from or set in the place I was going. Worked swell with The Master and Margarita and Love in the Time of Cholera in a possibly uncappable 2017. With Vienna on the table, I did some research on good Austrian fiction (or, failing that, something new and decent set in Vienna. And I don’t consider The Third Man new, as I’ve seen the film.)

After nosing about, I had a shortlist together and headed to the local bookstores to see what they could supply. No luck at the quality second-handers, but Waterstones came through with, in fact, four choices. Or maybe three. I had found Joseph Roth, who writes more from the hinterland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; I had sort of decided that was good enough, especially as Jeremy Paxman had written the very enthusiastic foreword. Yes, he can be a bit of a blowhard, but I still think his fiction recommendations would be worth exploring. But then I found, at the bottom of the alphabet, three, or possibly two books by Stefan Zweig. Continue reading

What I’m reading this month – Feb 19

Cover of Penguin Modern Classic version of Lucky Jim by Kingsley AmisI used to think it funny, all the novels written about novelists. Life must be pretty fascinating, hey? But I believe it’s an admixture of the impulse to write what you know and the desire to have a character capable of making the observations and feeling the feelings you want and articulating them in ways you appreciate. At any rate, when I was younger and certain that I would myself be a novelist, these books were great. A double articulation, as the sociologists might say, representing a way of living that I recognised and also educating me and shaping me to cultivate that very way of living. Deep calls unto deep et cetera.

I’m in a different line of work, now, with a different set of aspirations. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn now – often by accident – to books about university lecturers. It’s a set of micro-politics I recognise, and it illustrates the inner reflections and motivations of people I might become or people I might have to work with to continue becoming what I want to become.

I caught a bit of his before Christmas with Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, which was definitely about a set I knew, though it was also redolent of its time. I didn’t enjoy it much, mostly because I thought Wilson was so satirical as to remove any scrap of pity or interest we might have in literally any of the characters. In Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis writes about a similar world in a more or less similar time, and he is similarly detached and ironic about his own creations. But not to the same degree, and there are a few characters that he is clearly siding with. Even the protagonist – the eponymous Jim who, we are told, is lucky, though we see little evidence of it – is coming across as heroic. We meet him as a reprobate, something of a waster, but Amis suggests enough puzzles and deeper currents to draw us closer to him. As a result, he gains our sympathy in a way no one in Wilson’s world ever does. Continue reading

What I’m reading this month – Jan 19

Christmas holidays are indeed a good time for reading. Not simply because, as I intimated in my previous post, we tend to give and receive books at Christmas (and I mean “we” both in the general, possibly optimistic sense about people and in the very specific what-our-family-does sense) but also because we have time to read. I am a university lecturer, and reading is really part of my job, yet I know I don’t do enough of it professionally. Colleagues who drop by my office when I’m sitting in my corner chair, reading, have an indulgent grin on their faces, like they’ve caught me dreaming out the window or playing solitaire on the computer. At any rate, that’s not the kind of reading I’ve been packing on this last week nor this week we’re currently in. It’s a special, protected space to read eclectically and unapologetically.

Something of His Art by Horatio Clare (a very lovely cover)My wife read my suggestion of new books at Christmas as an instruction. This is not how it was intended, but it gave her a good opportunity to tease. I do expect she had this plotted already anyway, given how hard it seemed to be to track it down in time for Christmas. The book she’d picked for me is Something of His Art by Horatio Clare. He’s not someone I knew hitherto, though he seems to occupy a Robert Macfarlanesque space in the British popular imagination. The conceit is simple: he walks the supposed route J. S. Bach walked when he left Arnstadt to listen to and learn from the organist Dieterich Buxtehude, 250 miles away. He is accompanied by a radio producer and sound recordist, and he muses about art and artist along the journey.

I can see why she picked this book for me: it ticks all the boxes. It’s about long-distance walking, central-eastern Germany, music, and radio. It also has a gorgeous cover – the publishers were most certainly thinking of Christmas. Who knows how these timings go? We have pretty good imaginations anyway, but with my wife’s increasing insights into the publishing world, she can imagine the marketing machinery pretty well. Clare’s other book from this year is a diary account of his diagnosis with seasonal depression. It’s been getting very good reviews, but it might not be the cheeriest gift to offer someone under the tree at Christmas. Oh, but look – he did a series for Radio Three! And he ends up in Lübeck, which is where they make that nice marzipan. Okay, give it a pretty cover and we’re set. Continue reading

What I’m reading this month – Dec 18

Perhaps it’s the increased use of lamps in the evening, or the anticipation of Christmas with the prospect of new books to give and receive, but December seems a time for reading. It was late December last year that I wrote about what I’d been reading – significant books with insights into a particularly unsettled time for me. Things look different for me this year, and yet I still have the impulse to share. Textual analysts will note that, by sticking “this month” up top and adding an actual date, there may be the promise of another such post next month and the month after that. We live in hope.

Since this is a determinedly non-ac blog, I won’t make note here of the various books and articles I’m reading for work. The titles are too long, and they’re not often something that gets a wide readership excited. If I come across a corker, I promise to let you know. Instead, a children’s book, a novel, and a memoir. Continue reading

On the change we are becoming: New Year’s Eve 2017

Quotation from Malouf's An Imaginary Life It’s been a struggle of a year – personally as well as corporately. And now, at the bitter end of 2017, I am where I desperately hoped I would not be: approaching the end of my contract (NB: I’m okay til the end of August. Don’t panic. It’s just that, in higher ed, the hiring cycles churn well before the actual transition happens. Planning ahead is essential.)

So, instead of relaxing over the holidays, I’ve been spending the time between Christmas and New Year’s tailoring applications. And worrying. And telling myself not to worry.

We turn to old friends when we’re in need of ballast, and I’ve returned to three novels for the month of December that please me perhaps more than any other writing I’ve ever read.

First was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead – a profound, honest, and utterly real narrative of a life by one man living at the end of it in the place he is rooted: Gilead, Iowa.

Then was Last Orders by Graham Swift – a profound, honest, and utterly real narrative of a life by a close group of people at the end of one man’s life in the place they all are rooted: Bermondsey, South London.

The last I just finished before turning out the light last night. It is an absolute gift and the best thing I read during my undergraduate degree. It is David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life – a profound, honest, and utterly imagined narrative of a life by one man living at the end of it in the place to which he has been uprooted: Tomis, on the shores of the Black Sea in what is now Constanta, Romania, south of the mouth of the Danube and the furthest limits of the Roman Empire.

It is the imagined metamorphosis of the poet Ovid in exile, from the slick cosmopolitan poet to one awake, aware, and untethered from his life and his world. If you need a book recommendation for 2018, all of these are good, but this is perhaps the best of all.

I read the sentence scrawled out in the photo above and felt it encaptured the sensation of precarity and openness I somewhat have and very much need right now. Here it is, more legibly.

What else should our lives be but a continual series of beginnings, of painful settings out into the mystery of what we have not yet become, except in dreams that blow in from out there bearing the fragrance of islands we have not yet sighted in our waking hours, as in voyaging sometimes the first blossoming branches of our next landfall come bumping against the keel, even in the dark, whole days before the real land rises to meet us.

-David Malouf
An Imaginary Life

Hey, that’s some way to say goodbye

Leonard Cohen live in Nîmes

Leonard Cohen in Nîmes, 2009. Photo by gaët, found on flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0

Well.

By mid-November, no one needs to be told that 2016 has not been a very good year. Taking my cue from the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who posited the idea of the short twentieth century (starting 1914 with WWI and ending in 1991 with the fall of Communism in Russia), I hoped desperately and publicly for a short 2016. It would start on 10 January, when we learned about the death of David Bowie, and end on 9 November when Hillary Clinton was elected president of the United States. We know how that prediction worked out.

In the midst of our (okay, my) rage and incomprehension, word of the death of Leonard Cohen hit – not like a bomb, but like a cone of silence that allowed me to leave aside internal wranglings about politics over which I had no control. It forced a kind of stillness and attentiveness on me, and I was the better for it. Many sobbed and sighed and thought, “Why are we losing Leonard Cohen precisely when we need him?”

I had a different reaction. Grimly, cynically, I felt he got out in time. But more reflectively, I think he has given us everything we need already. He has so adequately prepared us for our own mortality by musing on and confronting his own. He’s left us a body of  literature and song that deal so squarely with death and grief, with life and beauty. He has told us what we need to know. Continue reading