Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What I Read While Travelling. . .

Thinking back to the years when the biggest challenge to carry-on-only travel was how to fit enough books into our cases, I am ever so appreciative of e-books, especially since I now borrow them so easily from the library -- and can add new ones as I travel, checking into my home library even when I'm thousands of kilometres away.
Train-window views to read by, taken between Paris and Venice last month
On the flight from Vancouver to Paris, for example, as tempted as I was by a great roster of movies (and I did watch a few), I read Lee Child's latest Jack Reacher novel, Night School. I know that some of this series' readers, particularly the female ones, have tired of the books by now, but I still enjoy them as a diversion, and the premise of Night School is an intriguing if troubling one -- the continued existence of nuclear weapons from the earliest days of testing their potential over 60 years ago. . . until when? Where are they all now? And how securely are they sequestered and accounted for?

Next, I read Tessa Hadley's novel, The Past, a study of one extended family's gathering for perhaps the last summer vacation together in the large rambling, semi-rural English home they'd inherited from their grandparents. The "past" of the title is outlined in a separate section of the novel, at its core, and is spectrally, uneasily present throughout. The children's characters and actions throughout -- in both present and past -- are compelling, mostly credible, playing on those edges of perceived innocence and dangerous experience that adults too often easily consign kids to, forgetting or denying the darker corners of childhood.


By the time I'd finished this, on the long train ride from Paris to Venice, the ebooks I'd put on hold before our trip began coming in at a fast and furious pace. Luckily, we still had a few train journeys ahead -- from Venice to Ljubljana, for example, which is when I began reading Lauren Collins' When in French: Love in a Second Language. Within the first two chapters of reading this memoir, I had resolved to get my own print copy once I got back home.  Collins is a regular contributor to the New Yorker, and she writes beautifully -- her metaphors so often flirt with over-the-top-ness, yet manage somehow to work, to be perfectly apt, to illustrate freshly enough to make me laugh. And I laughed so often while reading this, and so often I had to make Paul stop what he was doing to listen to me read a passage out loud. The New Yorker has a large excerpt online, so that you can see what I mean .

What that excerpt doesn't illustrate is the fascinating research Collins weaves into her memoir, so that as much as a personal narrative about falling in love, becoming an ex-pat, learning and loving and living in a second language, it is also a narrative about the United States' changing attitudes about and toward multilingualism, about the growing mistrust of "foreign" languages, about what the ramifications of those attitudinal changes might be in a globalised universe. So interesting. Highly recommended, and do let me know if you read it.

I have three more titles to tell you about, but why not save those for another post. . . . For now, why don't you tell me what you've been reading? I love our conversations about books here, and I've missed you!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Still Reading. . . Memoirs and Mysteries and a Historical Novel and . . .

Not ready to give up on this blog completely, yet, but for the time being keeping up two blogs is unrealistic if I'm to honour my commitment to my personal writing project.  I hope I'll be able to add something more substantive from time to time because I do so enjoy the conversation that extended posts tend to stimulate. But for now, I'm going to accept my limitations and simply keep the space open by listing current or recent reading whenever I think of it and/or find a moment or two.

I don't think I've yet mentioned reading three mysteries by Peter May, all set on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. One of you spurred my memory about them in a fairly recent comment I can't seem to track down, and before that, back in 2015, Sue wrote one of her informative and engaging book posts about them.  I enjoyed The Black House very much, The Lewis Man almost as much, and although I felt the series was running out of steam by The Chess Men, there was much to keep me turning pages in that title as well.

I've also read a few more Donna Leon mysteries, partly justifying them by my upcoming trip to Venice: Willful Behaviour, Uniform Justice, and Doctored Evidence. All good, although I do sometimes wonder how ex-pat Leon's opinions about her adopted country are taken by its natives. . . She clearly loves Venice and the Venetians, but she is scathing about corruption, environmental irresponsibility, and bureaucratic inefficiencies, just for a start. . . Her My Venice and Other Essays is especially fun for spotting some of the inspirations, in her personal, everyday life, for some characters or settings or premises of her mystery novels.

One of you, commenting as "Unknown," recommended Patrick Modiano to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed his Paris Nocturne, so thank you! I would have loved to write more about the book's tone, almost oneiric, its weaving through memory (interestingly, the same mix of focus on a difficult father and on a past or present female love as we see in Knausgaard, but on an entirely different scale, weight, so much slighter, and yet. . . .).
I've just got a copy of his Les Boulevards de Ceinture from the library, as a good way to ramp up my French before we land in Paris in two weeks. (toward the same goal, I've just finished Jean-Christophe Rufin's L'Immortelle Randonée: Compostelle Malgré Moi, the most thoughtful and perhaps realistic book I've so far read about the pilgrimage route to Santiago).

Ta-Nahesi Coates' memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, is an important book about growing up African-American with a father determined to impart what that meant in terms of intellectual and political heritage. That heritage pitted against the drives of adolescence, the pull of the popular and of peers, what that meant in neighbourhoods constructed -- both in reality and in the cultural imagination -- as Black. So much I didn't know that I found so illuminating. Also fascinating for me was, once again, the way the particular and the general or universal meet in challenging commonalities. I recommend this one.

Also read Ann Granger's Mud, Muck, and Dead Things, passed on from my daughter who'd picked it up at her neighbourhood Little Library. If you fancy a vicarious hike through the Cotswolds, like a good mystery novel, and particularly enjoy a female detective as protagonist, this will please you.

Michael Christie's If I Fall, If I Die was one I'd read reviews of a year or two ago, and then happened across on the library shelf -- Not sure that it should have pushed its way to the top of my list by biblio-impulse, but it was well-written and entertaining and the premise was intriguing.  Adolescent boy who's been raised inside by an agoraphobic mother decides to push aside her fear of risk and leaves his homeschooled universe for the dangers of school and gangs and skateboarding and, inadvertently, a serious drug-dealing syndicate connected to a Missing Persons mystery.  #readswellwith Emma Donoghue's Room.

Roberta Rich's A Trial in Venice was another example of the dangers of visiting a library. I'll never get through my always-evolving list if I keep letting impulse check-outs jump the queue. This historical novel is apparently a sequel to The Midwife of Venice which I haven't read.  Again, well-written, apparently well-researched, chosen to give me a sense of the historical background of the city whose streets we'll be walking in a few weeks.  Enjoyable if not particularly important. Recommended as a rainy-day read or for the beach.

And there we go. Lurching from one belated lick-and-a-promise post to the next. Those of you who are still checking in, thank you for your patience. Comments always welcome, especially feedback on books we've both read or recommendations on ones you have and I shouldd....


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Flitting with the Finches -- Back to My Reading Blog with a Book About Birds

Yes, I have trouble keeping this blog going -- I'd say that it's an example of a lifelong trend to,  as I've often been warned from adolescence onward, "spread myself too thin."

But I'm going to be stubborn on this one, and while I may post with such paucity and infrequency as to be embarrassing, I will continue to post, inadequately, whenever I coax a minute or two this way.

I've got a list of books read since last post, and some of them I think you'd enjoy so I'll get them up before too long.

For today, though, I just wanted to share this quotation from Kyo Maclear's gentle, observant, philosophically rich book about her year of urban bird-watching, finding solace and guidance in that pursuit, finding respite from the needs of her ailing father, her own children's care, her work. . . The book is titled Birds Art Life, and although I'm not quite halfway through, I'm confident in telling you to find a copy. You'll thank me, truly.

The passage I'll transcribe for you here coincided with our recent excitement at having a single house finch land on our terrace, perhaps scouting for the appropriate food in the appropriate feeder -- neither of which we had. We've since read that there are reasons to guard against attracting a "development of finches" (isn't that a splendid collective noun?!) -- they can be bullies, and they're apparently messy as well, but for now we've embraced risk and added a tube feeder to our dinner bell feeder and hanging suet feeder. Now we live in hope of seeing that charming flash of red and perhaps being treated to some finch song.

So you can see why the serendipity of finding this passage thrilled me:

While I went on my reading binge, while the musician recovered [the musician is an eccentric who has turned to birding to manage stress, maintain mental health -- he's a central figure in the memoir, having agreed to guide Maclear on urban birding hikes, teach her how to observe] the air outside filled with migrant birdsong. I sat in my garden every day with my Peterson's Field Guide and a pair of binoculars trying to compare the living birds around me with the book birds on my lap. One day I emailed the musician and told him what I saw.
     I wrote: "Based on its stocky red and grey body, I think it's a crossbill."
     And he wrote back: "It's definitely not a crossbill. Wrong time of year. Probably a house finch (lots of them around right now) and remotely possibly a purple finch (though I doubt this)."
     It was a house finch. Any momentary feelings of stupidity and shame on my part were dispelled by the bird's charm. I watched for a long time, fell in love with its rosy-red crown and breast and its gregarious twittering. I felt the lift of bird in me, which felt like the lift of wine, or the lift of an ascending elevator, or the lift of discovering that I did not prefer the book to the reality. I wondered if this would be my spark bird. [She has just finished explaining that spark birds are the birds that initiate people into birding, that inspire them to learn more and spend more time observing the avian world, and she's offered numerous passages from a variety of renowned birders.]

Besides relating to this passage because we're just entering a relationship, we hope, with a house finch (which we used to see frequently enough at our old house, but hadn't known we would here in our urban condo), I also related to her tentative attempt at identification being quickly squashed by an experienced birder. I wondered aloud, a few months ago, to a birder friend whether the sparrow scratching in the corners of our terrace, hopping surreptitiously between and behind the plant pots, might actually be a Fox Sparrow. Her "No" was as emphatic as the musician's "It's definitely not a crossbill." So I recognised those "momentary feelings of stupidity and shame," and was inspired by her willingness to let those go immediately in favour of attending to the charm of the bird actually in front of her. Of "discovering that [she] did not prefer the book to the reality."

And now I've used up all the minutes I found in that drawer. All the others I see in the day seem to be earmarked for other activities. But perhaps you'll find a minute or two to read what I've shared here, and if you do, I promise to respond to whatever comments you choose to leave. . .




Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Getting (Productively) Messy with Maggie Nelson. . .

Despite all the other tasks calling to me from/for this blog, most of them pleasurably if time-consuming, I'm going to take a few minutes to transcribe a paragraph from Maggie Nelson's memoir The Argonauts. Nelson's rigorous thoughtfulness about her relationship with her "fluidly gendered" partner is so inspiring, so productive. She blends a deeply committed attention to theory (in which she has a solid reputation as a scholar in Critical Studies) with her own lived experience as lover, wife, mother, among other roles. Her generous willingness to think on the page, to meditate through the complications, and beyond the binaries, is especially welcome to me right now as I watch a beloved young relative painfully struggling against the thises OR thats, the Yesses or Nos,  the girls OR the boys. . . Why must they choose a bathroom door to enter?

But there will be no more of my clumsy proselytising when Nelson has done such elegant writing.  Here's the paragraph I wanted to record today:

How to explain -- "trans" may work well enough as shorthand, but the quickly developing mainstream narrative it evokes ("born in the wrong body," necessitating an orthopedic pilgrimage between two fixed destinations) is useless for some -- but partially, or even profoundly, useful for others? That for some, "transitioning" may mean leaving one gender entirely behind, while for others -- like Harry [Nelson's partner], who is happy to identify as a butch on T [testosterone therapy] -- it doesn't? I'm not on my way anywhere,  Harry sometimes tells inquirers. How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy? I do not want the female gender that has been assigned to me at birth. Neither do I want the male gender that transsexual medicine can furnish and that the state will award me if I behave in the right way. I don't want any of it. How to explain that for some, or for some, at some times, this irresolution is OK -- desirable, even (e.g., "gender hackers") -- whereas for others, or for others at some times, it stays a source of conflict or grief? How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality -- or anything else, really -- is to listen to what they tell you, and to try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours? 

 (on page 53 of The Argonauts, Minneapolis: Grey Wolf P, 2015 . . .  and note that she cites Beatriz Preciado)

Back, soon, to chat more about our experiment with some poetry and to offer a short list of recent reading. But if you've been thinking about gender, sexuality, binaries, and beyond, lately, and especially if you want to recommend pertinent reading on the topic, do leave a comment. And even if you haven't, I'm always pleased to hear from you.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Poetry Experiment Continued -- With Apologies for Lab Failure by Management,

Just a quick NewsFlash! to say I'm still here, and now, so are your comments (back on this post) to which I hope to respond very soon.

A bit of technical background first. I have the commenting feature on my blogs set so that besides being posted here, all comments come to my email box. Yes, it can get cluttered, but I like to feel the rhythm of the comments arriving and I tend to keep them in my emailbox until I've answered them, as a reminder that you're waiting for my reply. So I'd anticipated being able to follow the conversation about the poetry, saving up your thoughtful comments, thinking of my own response to those, and, finally, letting them go "live" and "public" on the blog.

But, it turns out, when I chose to set the Comments feature for Moderation, those comments didn't get emailed to me, but stayed "behind the dashboard," so to speak, on Blogger.  Because, as I've just this morning realised, I didn't have my email address entered on the requisite line in the Settings page.

I had been quite disappointed that no one accepted my challenge to comment on the Gernes poem I posted, but I told myself that didn't necessarily mean the experiment was a failure. Perhaps some of you had read it, even if you weren't inclined to comment. And I resolved to try again with another poem later, but perhaps attempt a different approach to conversation. At the very least, I told myself, I had put a poem out there, spread poetry's visibility in a contemporary world that doesn't make much room for it. Not a failure completely, I reassured myself.

And then this morning, Georgia asked ever-so-politely, in a comment on my other blog, if I was thinking of turning the comments back on over here.  I knew she was hoping to read what others had said about the poem, and I thought, wryly, that she might share my disappointment in finding that no one had said anything.

Luckily, when Georgia asked when I was planning to make the Comments public, I figured it was time to turn off the Comments Moderation feature and went for a peek at that dashboard. I'm not sure you can imagine my delight and surprise to find a wealth of thoughtful comments that had been waiting patiently for me to find them. Chagrin as well, in spades. . . .

But I'm wiping the egg off my face, and gleefully posting all your lovely comments. And I'm turning Comments Moderation off, and sorting out some time for responding to your thoughts about the poem as soon as I can. Might not happen today as we're hosting a family dinner here today to celebrate a Second Birthday. But as soon as I can.

Meanwhile, thank you so much. I should have known you'd never disappoint me.  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Another Big Autobiographical Novel Series

I'm a bit disheartened at the moment because I cannot, despite having unpacked all the boxes of books (unless he still has some I don't know about stashed in our storage locker), despite having checked the shelves several times, I cannot put my hands on the copy of Karl Ove Knausgaard's Dancing in the Dark (the fourth volume in his series, My Struggle), the book I finished around the time of our first of two moves last year.  Disheartened because my memory is not as effective as I wish, and I tend to supplement it, in my reading, by pencilled notations in the margins and page numbers in the blank pages at the front.

I suppose I'd continued to hope I might find time to say a bit more about Volume 4 (and Volume 3, Boyhood Island, before it). In fact, I trawled through my earlier posts mentioning Knausgaard and really, none of them do much more than defer, always hoping I might eventually wax slightly more comprehensive. Having just last night turned the last page of Book 5, Some Rain Must Fall, with Book 6 due to be released in its English translation in Fall 2018, I can only sigh in relief at the reprieve, because, of course, now I can suggest that I'll write more fully about My Struggle when I've finished the whole kit and caboodle.

And make no mistake, it really is a kit and a caboodle! Boyhood Island, the "slimmest" at "only" 490 pages is also, in many ways, the easiest to read, coming as something of a relief after the weightier first two volumes. By now, I've read some 3000 pages of My Struggle -- no wonder I both wish to write a few words of my own about it, but also no wonder that I'm daunted by the task.

As well, given how time-consuming the project of writing more completely about just one volume of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series became. . . . it might be better simply to accept defeat at the outset.

Just very briefly, though:
--Fascinated by the overall structure as it appears so far: the narrative structure, that is, the chronology, the choice to begin, Proustian-like with a moment from which the entire first novel spirals outward and then back in again.
--The intricate and dynamic connections between the relationships of the author/narrator/protagonist (and these three are perhaps even more closely entangled than in Elena Ferrante's four-volume Neapolitan series) with his father, with his brother, with the women (generally, but not always, sequentially) he's romantically or sexually involved with, and with his mother. Tempting -- or just obvious --  to say the most important relationship is with his father, long after his father's death, but it might not be quite that simple.
-- Loved the respite of Boyhood Island after the first two novels (the first, particularly, was so much more philosophical, essayistic even), although this one also has its dark moments. I was especially fascinated by how many similarities there were between his boyhood awareness of changing landscapes and what was happening all over North America, the clearing of forests for planned subdivisions, an earlier levelling effect of globalisation than I'd really appreciated before.
--like Ferrante's series, again, in being not only a Bildungsroman, but also a kunstlerroman (roughly, "growth of an artist") -- both writers emphasise their early conviction that they were merely derivative in their voices, their doubt that they could be anything special joining fiercely to their determination to be just that. Hugely complicated in the Knausgaard books by Alcohol! There's definitely a level on which someone with an interest in Substance Abuse Literature/Fiction/Memoir would find copious material to rifle through here.

Since I began writing this post almost two weeks ago, we've spent a week in Victoria baby-sitting, and I've managed to buy a remaindered copy of Volume 4, Dancing in the Dark. Still, I'm not motivated to begin searching out passages that impressed me and will defer a rereading (of the whole series, perhaps) until some faroff date when I've finished the threatening-to-topple pile of books hidden between couch and wall. . .

I do have a few passages I snapped photos of of, way back last May. I'll copy those out here to give you a sense of the books and allow me to clear away some of the clutter in my iCloud. . .

Oh, this is the song about the young man who loves a young woman. Has he the right to use such a word as 'love'? He knows nothing about life, he knows nothing about her, he knows nothing about himself. All he knows is that he has never felt anything with such force and clarity before. Everything hurts, but nothing is as good. Oh, this is the song about being sixteen years old and sitting on a bus and thinking about her, the one, not knowing that feelings will slowly, slowly weaken and fade, that life, that which is now so vast and so all-embracing, will inexorably dwindle and shrink until it is a manageable entity which doesn't hurt so much, but nor is it as good.

Only a forty-year-old man could have written that. I am forty now, as old as my father was then, I'm sitting in our flat in Malmö, my family is asleep in the rooms around me. Linda and Vanja in our bedroom, Heidi and John in the children's room, Ingrid, the children's grandmother, on a bed in the living room. It is 25 November 2009. The mid-1908s are as far away as the 1950s were then. But most of the people in this story are still out there.

and this, from Boyhood Island:

Dad knew what the situation was. Lack of self-knowledge was not one of his failings. One evening at the beginning of the 1980s he said to Prestbakmo that it was mum who had saved his children. The question is whether it was enough. The question is whether she was not responsible for exposing us to him for so many years, a man we were afraid of, always, at all times. The question is whether it is enough to be a counterbalance to the darkness.
She made a decision: she stayed with him, she must have had her reasons.

and before that, same book:
Mum was wearing beige trousers and a rust-red sweater with the sleeves turned up over her forearms. Her hair hung a long way down her back. On her feet she wore a pair of light brown sandals. She had just turned thirty-two, while Martha, who was wearing a brown dress, was two years older.
They were young women, but we didn't know that.

and before that, thinking about his mother as foundational in his life and yet so obscured in his memory, he wonders who tied a blue bow tie around the neck of his kitten and answers himself that
It must have been mum. That was the sort of thing she would do, I know that, but during the months I have been writing this, in the spate of memories about events and people who have been roused to life, she is almost completely absent, it is as if she hadn't been there, indeed as if she were one of the false memories you have, one you have been told, not one you have experienced.
How can that be?
For if there was someone there, at the bottom of the well that is my childhood, it was her, my mother, mum. She was the one who [here follows a litany of all the things he knows his mother did for him]
She was always there, I know she was, but I just can't remember it.
I have no memories of her reading to me and I can't remember her putting a single plaster on my knees or being present at a single end-of-term event.
How can that be?





Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Little Experiment in Reading Poetry. . . .

Do any of you read poetry? Why, or why not? Would you like to read more?

I'm asking because I think I'm going to try a little experiment here, if you don't mind. A much more manageable experiment than last year's Ferrante ReadAlong, but one that will depend just as much on your participation (even if that participation is simply a quiet reading in the background, no comments required).

Recently, on Instagram, I was inspired to join a  #handlettering Daily Challenge. When I began, I had visions of developing beautiful hand-written alphabets, not calligraphy, no, but something that would make my words on a page bloom with colour and depth and aesthetic appeal beyond their content. I borrowed books from the library, practised with different writing instruments, and quite quickly discovered that the hand-lettering I had in mind demanded far more discipline than I am ready to give.

However, in the course of experimenting, I tried loosening up a bit by copying out a few poems -- I used ruler and pencil to trace straight lines across blank pages, and I used my good pen to write as I spoke the words of each poem aloud. What a satisfying practice this turned out to be, a very meditative way to experience a poem from the inside out.  Also gratifying was that a few of my "poetry in social media" friends also picked up the practice, and we've been enjoying reading each other's choices in their own handwriting.

Given how long it takes to copy out a poem by hand, and how connected I become with each poem through that act -- and also given that I seem to have trouble posting regularly here on my Reading Blog, where there's a wonderful community I love interacting with -- I thought perhaps I could build even more on this engagement with a poem. And that's where my next experiment comes in.

What I thought I'd try is posting a photograph of My Handwritten Copy of a Poem -- and ask you to read it and to leave a comment about something you observe in the poem -- a detail you like, a puzzle you can't solve on your own, an image that sticks, a word you love as the poet has used it -- anything.  I don't think we need to jump to "interpreting" the poem at the moment -- when I've taught poetry in the past (in countless university English classes), I generally try to delay the push for meaning until we've worked out what the poem denotes at its most obvious surface: Here, for example, that might just be trying to sort out who the speaker is, and who is being addressed, and in what form, why, as well as clarifying or determining some of the references (geographical and historical -- the proper nouns, for example). Then we'd usually spend some time enjoying, playing with, the sensory immediate - the sound and rhythm of the words, the patterns that begin to emerge in imagery or in structure.

But I'm happy with any comment you'd care to leave, taking our collective enjoyment and understanding of the poem in whichever direction you choose.  I'm going to change the commenting set-up so that your comments will not appear immediately -- My experiment involves allowing you to develop your own response to the poem without being unduly influenced by what others say about it, at least not for this first round. We'll see if that works, or not. . .

So I'm waiting. . . at the very least, I'd love to know if you read the poem. I'll share any comments in a few days and perhaps say a bit about the poet and about why I chose this poem and how I read it....

*by the way, given that the speaker in the poem refers to "the poem on page 24," you might like to know that the poem does appear on page 24 of the collection.