What I’m reading this month – Oct 2019

I’m starting this blog with what I will be reading rather than what I’m currently reading, really  just for the visual imprint of the book cover. I am still working my way through the final of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, about which more in a moment, but the first picture I attach to the post is, typically, the one that gets to show itself on the social media previews. (I suppose I could learn how to control that element better, but I am not that motivated to learn how. I could do many things to amplify the visibility of this blog, like writing about Pizza Express on the day it’s trending on Twitter. But generally, I’m happier letting it find its own audience and then bitterly cursing the medium and the general public when it doesn’t.)

I digress.

My mother in law is visiting, and we took a drive up to the very just-so town of Hay-on-Wye last weekend.  Yes, there were pleasant coffee shops and charity shops and antique shops, but the real reason anyone goes there is the bookshops. We made our pilgrimage, and everybody got something interesting. It was really hard for the elder two children to choose, because of course saying yes to something means saying no to (many) other things. My choice was a bit easier: a very attractively covered copy of On Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin was on the newly arrived shelf, and that seemed the right sort of purchase. I even took its picture to get ready for writing this blog.

Cover of Olga Tokarczuk’s FlightsBut then the Nobel Prize for Literature happened. My wife and I had wondered a little bit ago whether this would be Margaret Atwood’s year. She’s been tipped before – around the time of the publication of The Blind Assassin, I believe – and now there’s all this renewed buzz. I also thought, though, that she shares some features with Kazuo Ishiguro and Alice Munro – not their love-child or anything, but exhibiting qualities from both camps in a way that might make a panel of jurists think “we’ve had that recently”. Continue reading

What I’m reading this month – Sept 2019

Last month, I predicted a very limited set of book review blogs this autumn, as I had chosen to embark on Elena Ferrante’s ambitious and ballyhooed series of novels about friends Lenù and Lila. Given the sheer amount of words, combined with the number of duties I also have to attend to in life – work, parenthood, marriage, sleeping, playing the odd open mic – I expected it would take me a while to get through.

The author on the train through France, reading Elena Ferrante’s novelNot so, dear reader. Her writing is vibrant and exciting, and My Brilliant Friend really pulled me along. I had, with a little neglect of other things, reached its end just before we embarked on our cross-continental holiday plans, so I was able to get started on the second novel as my vacation book. Long train journeys (made longer by my good friends at TGV, but that’s a story for another time) are a bit of artificial time; it’s not like real life at all, and it provided sufficient conditions that I’m now launched on Number Three, the appealingly titled Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Continue reading

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