Monday, February 19, 2018

Spoiled for Choice, An Embarrassment of Riches, Too Many Books? -- Never!

First of all, let me say what a difference my membership at the Vancouver Public Library has made to my reading patterns this past year. The ability to download e-books, even from different countries while travelling, and to read them through an app on my iPad Mini is such a boon. I've also been taking advantage of the For Later virtual shelf the VPL website offers online, in my account -- When I hear of a book that sounds worth tracking down, my first step these days is generally to go to the library catalogue, and if they have a copy of the title, I pop it on my For Later shelf so that I don't forget about it. As well, if I'm really keen on the book, I'll generally place a Hold Request on it, especially if there's already a queue forming.

Currently, I have nine books on hold, which might sound like too many except that for some of the more popular titles I'm 55th in line -- even 98th, albeit that's on 20 copies.  Still, there is a danger that too many will come available at once or that the book might become available just as I suddenly find myself too busy to read (you're right; that almost never happens -- not that I'm never too busy, just never too busy for reading, which is virtually indispensable to my well-being).  And for precisely that reason, the VPL's software has a nifty little feature that allows the borrower to Pause a Hold request, so that you maintain priority in line, but allow others to go ahead until you're ready to take advantage.

However, if you've got a few too many books on Hold, and you get a bit too distracted with travel and broken teeth and other sundries, well. . . .

Let's just say that at the moment I have two e-books downloaded, their 21-day expiry period shrinking as I type, I'm currently racing my way through a paperback that holds four novels in one book, and the library emailed that a print copy of a mystery novel recommended by my sister is waiting for me now, and just as I was groaning over that, I checked my account and saw that the latest Val McDermid mystery has just been added to the Holds shelf, in my name.

Embarrassment of riches, definitely.

So at the moment, I'm a reading fool, and I'm really not complaining as the weather is chilly enough to make curling up with a book very pleasant. . .

But the reading doesn't leave much time for writing about reading, I must say. Still, I'll try to catch you up quickly.

When it seemed everyone and her dog had a copy of Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins tucked in her beach bag a few summers ago,  I held the book's popularity against it. Silly snob, right? With a few flights scheduled recently, though, I clicked Hold when it was featured again on the library website, and the e-copy was ready for me to download in time for the flight to Palm Springs.

Enough has already been written about this novel to convince you to read it now if, like me, you foolishly held yourself above the crowd first time 'round (please take my self-scourging with a big grain of salt -- you'll see from my past reading lists that I am happy to be quite promiscuous in my reading patterns and that I am regularly content to lose myself in popular fiction, as long as it's well-written). This NY Times review by Helen Schulman, for example, lauds Walter's engaging storytelling but also his clever skewering of Hollywood, the way he can move us and amuse us both.

But I do want to show you the passage that moved me most. It takes place in the one chapter an American veteran of WWII manages to write in the book he claims to be writing for years and years of post-war disillusion and dissolution. In the book, a character like himself recounts an incident in which, near the end of the war, walking in ragged, stretched-out formation with fellow soldiers, he sees a beautiful young Italian woman, is smitten, and insists on walking her home to her village. She turns out to speak English very well, having learned it at school and obviously having a facility for language.

They're speaking, as they walk, of where the soldier/writer/protagonist is from, and he's impressed by how much she knows of the state. It's a beautiful and devastating tale told in two deft pages. Read it, and see what I mean? Although I warn you, it's difficult, and even more pertinent these #MeToo days, perhaps, than when it was written a few years ago.



Have you read this book already? Did you enjoy it? Do you ever hesitate to read a book because you're suspicious of the buzz surrounding it?

Next up: I'll tell you which two fat new hardcovers I found in the Fast Reads section of the library, just before our long weekend in Palm Springs. The latest mysteries in two separate detective series I'm always keen to keep up with, but whoa! Each one weighed in at over 400 pages. . . Perfect for poolside but good thing no one weighed my carry-on! 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Books to Get the Year Launched

With January already over, time to record a few titles.

For train and plane travel at the beginning of the year, I downloaded Sara Blaedel's Only One Life from the Vancouver Public Library. It's the second in the Danish author's Louise Rick series, which I began, out of sequence, with the copy of The Forgotten Girls my husband had grabbed at an airport bookstore last year. Rick makes a good protagonist, especially with her journalist friend Camille Lund to amplify and broaden the female perspective. The two I've read in the series are solid police procedurals with interesting Scandinavian settings (landscape and social/cultural climate), and both treated "social justice" issues (care and institutionalization of special-needs children and adults in The Forgotten Girls and immigration/anti-Muslim sentiment in Only One Life) thoughtfully, educating while entertaining rather than preaching.

Also downloaded from the VPL was Jacqueline Park's The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi. I'd read about this historical fiction a year or so ago when a sequel was released.  Park was 72 when she finished The Secret Book, an international success when published by Simon and Schuster fifteen years ago (although it had to be edited substantially to bring it down to a readable/commercial length).  Then in 2014, when Park was 89 years old, Anansi published the sequel, The Legacy of Grazia dei Rossi.  (More about Jacqueline Park's interesting life and how she came to writing a best-seller so late in life here.)

I don't often read historical fiction, but I enjoyed the character Park has drawn in Grazia dei Rossi, a spirited, educated (despite the regular objections from her community to women's education), Jewish woman living in Renaissance Italy -- as well as the characters surrounding and supporting and acting as foils to Rossi. Her powerful sometime-employer, the historical, real-life Isabelle d'Este, for example, not always a likeable woman but admirable in her own way. And interesting; challenging assumptions. . .





The book is obviously very well researched, so that what a reader absorbs about Renaissance Italy feels credible, convincing: its culture, its knowledge, its aesthetic preferences, its social problems, its problematic politics and vying for power through military might or religious influence, and particularly its treatment of the Jews, the way that community adapted and suffered. . . . Only one quibble I have with credibility of research. At one point, Grazia is talking to her lover and they use hummingbirds as a reference point in making an analogy. They speak of hummingbirds as if they existed in Italy, as if they had seen them in a garden. Given that hummingbirds only exist in "the New World, I wish Park's editor had done some fact-checking. But it's a relatively minor quibble, and if you enjoy historical fiction with strong female characters -- and strong, likeable male ones as well -- with lashings of danger and intrigue and romance and passion, I think you'd enjoy reading The Secret Book that Grazia is purportedly writing to/for her son.

The page-turning "airport" books continued to be my preference even after I got back home, especially since I took so long recovering from a hard-hitting cold. I'd begun Madeleine l'Engle's A Circle of Quiet, and enjoyed the more thoughtful pace, the many observations and musings that invited contemplative pauses -- but I own the e-copy of that book so I can take my time finishing it.
Not so with two books that I'd had on Hold at the library, which had to be picked up, read, and returned (for the hard copy; the e-copy simply expires) within a set time period.

Donato Carrisi's The Whisperer I read in a hard copy borrowed from the library after I heard about it from another blogger. I'll admit that it kept me turning pages, and that it's well written, but I'll also admit I'd partly chosen it because the author is an Italian and I'd been hoping to travel back to Italy in its pages. Instead, the book's setting is -- probably intentionally, for the purpose of drawing a broad readership -- blandly international or non-committal. And while there are two characters who intrigued me -- a female detective and a male psychologist -- the serial-killer plot had one too many twists to be satisfying, never mind convincing. Plus because it involved child victims, it was disturbingly gruesome, even for this reader who can read, say, any of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta mysteries and not have nightmares.  Still, I did read to the end and was entertained by some of the subplots and, as I say, by some of the characters and by some of the puzzle-solving and guessing.

Elly Griffiths' The House at Sea's End  was the e-book with the expiry period that hurried me along. I'm so glad that Sue pointed me in the direction of this great series featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway. I love the landscape Griffiths draws for us here, and I also enjoy watching the developing relationships from novel to novel between characters we've come to know. The academic atmosphere is another setting Griffiths sketches convincingly, and now that Galloway has embarked on single motherhood, I'm also engaged by her sometimes anguished division, recognizable to many of us, between the calls of maternity and those of career.  The complicated (potential?) romance between Galloway and a certain Detective Inspector also intrigues. Highly recommend this series.

I've also just finished Aurélie Valognes' delightful Mémé dans les Orties (pictured above, with the popcorn which sent me to the dentist!) which I picked up in the train station at Chambéry last month. If you can read French, you might enjoy this story about a grumpy old fellow who reluctantly makes friends in his apartment building, mainly out of stubborn resistance to end up in the maison de retraite (old age home) to which he fears his daughter plans to send him. Some charming characters, some not so charming, but entertaining -- several might have stepped across a few streets from Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog (although the concierge in the latter book only pretended to be unfriendly, unlike the grumpy old fellow's nemesis).
This book was fun for teaching me some French idioms -- each chapter was titled for a different idiom, most of which were new to me. The book's title, for example, Mémé dans les orties (roughly, Granny in the nettles) comes from an expression that means "Don't (go so far as to) push Granny in the nettles" -- i.e. That's going too far!
If you can't read French, you can find this translated into English (and available for you as e-book or paperback) as Out of Sorts.

Now I've got to go sort out my airplane reading and poolside books for a long weekend in the sunshine. Of course I'll be checking in here from my chaise longue, so feel free to share any reading you've been enjoying (or not!) in these first weeks of the year. . .  Or ask any questions about the books I mention here or add your impressions of any I've mentioned that you've also read.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

2017 Reading List

Three weeks into 2018, it's past time to publish my 2017 Reading List, incomplete and unsatisfactory as it may be. As you've surely noticed, I grumble regularly about my poor performance in these posts, frustrated that I don't manage to write enough here, that I'm always trying to catch up with my reading. But I'm patting myself on the back as I post this Annual Reading List, incomplete as it is, because it marks a full ten years that I've kept track of my reading publicly, online.  And scanty though my responses may be, at the very least I have a record of what I've read (and these days, as memory weakens, it's good to be able to check whether I've read a title already or not).

The other benefit of this blog, of course, is the small but treasured readership of readers that have coalesced around my posts. I thank you again for stopping by from time to time, joining in the conversation, making recommendations. I offer up this list of books I read last year with a deep hope that the conversation may continue. I've linked titles to the posts where I discussed (or even just mentioned) them earlier, and of the rest, I've tried to add a brief comment here and there or at least a link to an Instagram post that showed a worthy quotation from the book.

Ask me questions about any of the books I've only listed, and I'll try to fill you in a bit more, depending what I can remember these months later. . .

1. Michael Connelly, The Wrong Side of Goodbye
2. Dionne Brand, Love Enough
3. Hape Kerkelling, I'm Off then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago.  Trans. Shelley Frisch
4. Ben Abramovich, Rivers of London
5. André Alexis, The Hidden Keys
5. Elaine Sciolino,  The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs
6. Patricia Cornwell, Chaos
7. Ian Rankin, Rather Be the Devil
8. Lawrence Hill, The Illegal
9. Karl Ove Knausgaard, Some Rain Must Fall
10. Jean-Christophe Rufin, L'Immortelle Randonnée: Compostelle Malgré Moi
11. Peter May, The Blackhouse
12. Ulrikka S. Gernes, Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments, trans. Patrick Fresen and Per Brask
13. Donna Leon, Willful Behavior
14. Peter May, The Lewis Man
15. Donna Leon, My Venice and Other Essays.
16. Patrick Modiano, Paris Nocturne
17. Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir
18. Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
19. Ann Granger, Mud, Muck, and Dead Things
20. Donna Leon, Uniform Justice
21. Donna Leon, Doctored Evidence
22. Kyo Maclear, Birds Art Life
23. Michael Christie, If I Fall, If I Die
24. Peter May, The Chess Men
25. Roberta Rich, A Trial in Venice
26. Emma Donoghue, The Wonder
27. Lee Child, Night School
28. Tessa Hadley, The Past
29. Lauren Collins, When in French: Love in a Second Language **** Really liked this!
30. Ann Patchett, Commonwealth
31. Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata  *** Highly recommend!
32. Robert Moor, On Trails
33. Patrick Modiano, Les Boulevards de Ceinture 
34. J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy
Honestly, while I thought that Vance's memoir was enlightening about the geography and demography he came out of, I found his analysis of the current political climate and his recommendations for socio-economic policy to be facile and tendentious (the latter is fair enough, I guess, considering it's his book, but the former just gets boring).
35. Diana Athill, A Florence Diary
36. Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London (IG post)
37. Fred Vargas, Quand Sort La Recluse (IG post)
38. Eden Robinson, Son of a Trickster 
If you've already read and love Monkey Beach as much as I do, you need to get your hands on a copy of this coming-of-age novel that mixes up First Nations indigenous beliefs and story-telling with the challenging and often hilarious realities of contemporary teen life. Robinson is such a powerful storyteller rooted in her Haisla/Heitsulk heritage and influenced by Stephen King. Really.
39. Tracy K. Smith, Ordinary Light: A Memoir
40. Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (link is to IG post; here's another
41. Donna Leon, Blood from a Stone
42. Val McDermid, Out of Bounds (A Karen Pirie mystery)
43. John Farrow, Perish the Day
44. Tracy K. Smith, Duende: Poems
45. Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
 I left this comment, late in 2017, on a post at Mardel's Resting Motion:

"I see you read Arundhati Roy's latest novel but didn't mention it in your post. I get that. I read it, soldiered through to the end, and yes, found interesting characters but all in such devastating and difficult circumstances and such a disheartening image of geographies ruined by politics and greed, environmental horrors. All undoubtedly needs to be witnessed, and Roy surely writes brilliantly about it, but I couldn't easily recommend it to anyone that I didn't wish hours and hours and hours of trouble upon. And troubled as I've been by it, it's hard to see what positive action might come from my new knowledge and limited understanding. There are good reasons we turn to the lighter books from time to time..."

46. Hélène Gestern, Eux, Sur la Photo
A very sweet romance develops in this epistolary novel in which a woman tries to solve a mystery about her parents, about her mother's disappearance. I read it in French, but it's also available in English as The People in the Photo. I'd be curious to peek at the English translation just to see how the translator managed the subtle oddity of the continued use of the polite, respectful, but undeniably distancing "vous" even as the two correspondents become closer and closer and. . . well, no spoilers here. . .
47. Deirdre Kelly, Paris Times Eight: Finding Myself in the City of Dreams.
Francophiles and fans of the city of light will enjoy this book, but also those fascinated by the world of dance, of theatre, of journalism. Kelly was a journalist who covered dance, style, theatre, celebrities, etc., for a Canadian newspaper, travelling often to Paris, seeing it through different lenses as she built her career, developed romances and dalliances and grand passions, and especially as she worked through a relationship with her mother.
48. Sara Blaedel, The Forgotten Girls (a Louise Rick mystery)
49. Sara Baume, Spill Simmer Falter Wither
50. Michael Finkel, The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit
51. Julia Keller, Last Ragged Breath (a Bell Elkins mystery)
52. Steve Burrows, A Cast of Falcons (a Birder Murder mystery)
53. Steve Burrows, A Shimmer of Hummingbirds.
54. Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being. (link is to IG post, not blog post)
55. Christopher Brookmyre, When the Devil Drives
56. Elly Griffiths, The Crossing Places (A Ruth Galloway mystery)
57. Georges Simenon, Le Chien Jaune (a Commissaire Maigret mystery)
58. Tracy K. Smith. Life on Mars: Poems
59. Ann Mah, Mastering the Art of French Eating
Haven't quite finished reading this to Paul as he cooks dinner for me, but we're both enjoying it very much. An American ex-pat living in Paris, cooking and eating. . .
60. Chris Bookmyre, Flesh Wounds.
61. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, The Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter
62. Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
63. Victor LaValle, The Changeling
an odd, but very readable fantasy, a sort-of Fairy Tale for/of the Modern Day -- set in contemporary New York. . .
64. Nicci French, Saturday Requiem
64. Georges Simenon, Maigret à New York
Loved this especially for the imagery of 50s New York, of the arrival by ship, the mid-century communication technology, the way hotels used to operate. . . and of course M. Maigret....
65. Sherman Alexie, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, 
I admire this work so much, and wish I'd found time to write about it -- a memoir of loss and love and alienation and troubled cultural connections that structure a writer's life. Alexie writes in beautiful and playful and moving prose, often rhythmic, almost singable, about his relationship with his difficult mother. He acknowledges her strength, mourns his loss of her, as mother, to death, as well as earlier, in life, because of their alienation -- but also mourns her loss as speaker of a dying language, a language that linked human to salmon to water to word . . .
66. Chris Brookmyre, Where the Bodies Are Buried
67. Elly Griffiths, The Janus Stone
68. Alison Watt. Dazzle Patterns
69. Cynthea Masson, The Flaw in the Stone
70. Christopher Brookmyre, Country of the Blind
71. Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies
I haven't seen the TV show, nor have I read any of Moriarty's other books, but I will now. Thoroughly enjoyed this for airplane reading!
72. Sara Nović, Girl at War
A fictional account of effects of the civil war in Yugoslavia on a young girl living with her family in Zagreb. The story is told by the woman the girl becomes, moved to the U.S. after trauma ended her childhood. I found the novel engaging and moving and credible enough for someone who doesn't know much about Zagreb or that particular war, but would like to be better informed. Anthony Marra agrees with me, but Ooooh, this reviewer in the Irish Times cuts no slack at all. Just nasty.
73. Christopher Brookmyre, Quite Ugly One Morning
74. Donna Leon, Through a Glass Darkly
75. Gillian Flynn, Dark Places
76. Lisa Ko, The Leavers
A Reader recommended this, and I'm grateful -- a sad and gentle and loving look at immigration and adoption and cultural integration. A young Chinese-American boy whose mother seems to have abandoned him in New York City adjusts to a supposedly life in a small college town with his adoptive parents but . . .
77. Ali Smith, Autumn **** 
A friend recommended this, and what a book to end the year on. Set in a just-post-Brexit Britain, a clever and engaging tale about the relationship between a young girl (and the woman she becomes) and a much older neighbour. Stellar -- do read this one! Here's a link to my Instagram post of a quotation from the book.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Reading while Flying. . .

I'm waiting until I'm home from my trip to post my 2017 Reading List, but given that I wrote a few words about reading over on my main blog, I thought I'd copy them here, since it's been so long since I've even waved this way. . . . And I do like to keep the record of my reading in one place.

So here's what I wrote over there:

In her comment on my last post, Susan asked what I was reading on the flight home.  Well, I like to have choices. . . On my train trip, I began reading Madeleine L'Engle's A Circle of Quiet a lovely philosophical memoir about writing and rural life and marriage and family.  But it's to savour, not to rush through, so I'll balance it with  Jacqueline Park's The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi, which I downloaded onto my iPadMini from the Vancouver Public Library, such a boon. Check out the page count on this one (bottom left ) -- although keep in mind that the number of pages will change depending on the size the font's adjusted to. Still, it's a big book!

And while those two should definitely last me through the flight, especially if I get distracted by a movie or two, I've also got a paper book, just in case something goes wrong with the electronics. . . I bought the paperback at the train station in Chambéry; it's by Aurélie Valognes, Mémé dans les Orties. The title apparently refers to the French expression that says you shouldn't push granny (mémé) into the (stinging) nettles (les orties), shouldn't go too far, in other words. I'm only a couple of chapters in, but I'm already amused by the grumpy old fellow, 83, who doesn't get along with the similarly elderly residents in his building, mostly women.

So, no worries, this reader is well supplied for a ten-hour flight. But now she has to pack. . . Chat soon, okay? And you know I welcome your comments, always.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Alchemists and Rebels and Bees, Oh-My! Cynthea Masson's The Flaw in the Stone

I'm running behind, obviously, on posting about books read this year, and now I'm running for the airport. But I have been so fortunate in reading books written by friends lately (read this post to see another example) -- and even more fortunate in once again getting a peek at a book via an Advance Reading Copy. As my little friend, above, appreciates, I've had a sneak preview of the second book in my friend and former colleague Cynthea Masson's fantasy trilogy. . . . and I'd like to repay the favour by letting you to know to watch for this one to hit the bookstore shelves.

I reviewed an Advance Reading Copy of the first book in Cynthea's trilogy, The Alchemists' Council,  last year, thought of the novel again a few months ago, standing in front of a window in Paris, a window featuring bees and their hives. Bees are a central element in The Alchemists' Council, and now I know that they feature significantly again as an important indicator of the links between "our world" and the parallel worlds -- dimensions -- of this fantasy trilogy. This second volume continues to make arguments about the environment, about the linkages between phenomena, about the consequences of human actions on "nature," and, especially, to explore the importance (and even the possibility) of free will. Above all, this novel considers the value of what is considered Flaw.

But not pedantically, lest I've given the mistaken impression the novels constitute merely a philosophical exploration. No, there are characters and settings to hold your attention, although you'll enjoy this book most if you begin with The Alchemists' Council.  Much of The Flaw in the Stone is concerned with the backstory to the first novel, unspooling the reel backwards through Council Dimension and Rebel Dimension histories to show us how characters and their relationships developed. At the same time, the politics of the opposing dimensions become clearer to us and we have some intriguing glimpses into the alchemical foundations -- rituals, materials, governing hierarchies -- of this parallel world (And it's worth keeping in mind that these alchemical foundations, while part of a fantasy novel, have at base writer Masson's scholarship in medieval literature).

Particularly interesting is the link made with "real-world" events, such that efforts to contend with The Stone's flaw have drastic repercussions such as, for example, World Wars. . .

Were I not having to leave for the airport in an hour, I'd tell you more about the novel: the lovely passages exploring challenges to gender binaries, to the way that minds sit in bodies and move (in) them, the way love and sexuality and gender can mix it up. I know, when I say "exploring challenges to gender binaries," I sound as if I'm reading from the preface to a critical theory text, which is not at all fair to Cynthea's writing. It's a playful, lyrical exploration, often sensuous.

But it's true that the novel, as its predecessor, demands. It rewards, yes, but it requires a patient and committed reader, willing to keep track of events, to understand the dates rolling forward with each chapter, their relationship with other dates. A reader who enjoys puzzling possibilities of time and place and ideas.  That reader might just be you, particularly if you enjoy the Fantasy genre (not my normal fare, to be honest), but you'll have to wait just a bit.  The publisher, ECW Press, is accepting pre-orders now, but the book is scheduled for a March release. (and to be very clear,  no remuneration was received for this post, neither from my friend Cynthea, nor from ECW Press -- oh, that such writing and publishing were lucrative enough for such possibilities! ;-)

Meanwhile, you might check out Volume One, The Alchemists' Council. As for me, I'll be on a plane very soon. Ta-ta. . . .

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Halifax Explosion -- Alison Watt's fictional rendering, 100 years later

Currently pretty distracted with trying to get ready for Friday's flight, but today is the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion, and I can't bear to let the day go by without telling you about my good friend Alison Watt's debut novel, Dazzle Patterns, centred around that devastating event. (While this is Alison's debut novel, she's had several books of her poetry published and an earlier memoir of hers won the Edna Staebler award for creative non-fiction.)

I wish I had time to give this engaging work the review it deserves, but instead, I've cut-and-pasted what I said about it on Facebook a few weeks ago:

"I downloaded a copy of my friend Alison Watt's new novel, Dazzle Patterns, from Kobo on the weekend and finished it last night. I'm going to buy a hard copy, and she'll sign it for me later, but I was too impatient to wait to find it in the stores. And my impatience was justified. This is a beautiful, thoughtful, and very well-researched novel set in Halifax during World War I, just after the devastating explosion. Characters you will love move through challenging circumstances, explore possibilities for pursuing passions -- romantic, sure, but also for art, craft, geology -- and for balancing autonomy, individual choices within various communities. The settings delight as well, and of course Alison's gorgeous prose -- you can see her poet working here, but deftly, always surrendering to narrative demands. You will see Alison the painter as well in the novel's visuality. Okay, yeah, I liked the book, and not just because she's popped my name in the Acknowledgements. . . "
Around the same time, I left this comment on Sue (High Heels in the Wilderness)'s post on poetry and fiction from/set in World War I: 
"Currently reading my good friend Alison Watt's book Dazzle Patterns -- set in World War I, in Halifax, the period just after the explosion. The protagonist is a young woman who's working as a flaw checker in the glass works when the explosion happens -- her fiancé is in the trenches at Passchendale, Arthur Lismer appears in the page (do you know his paintings of ship's [sic!!] camouflaged by dazzle patterns?) teaching at the School of Art, and there's a young man--a glassblower-- who's grown up in Canada but whose parents emigrated with him from Germany, so those complications you might imagine during wartime. . . . I think you'd like it."

Please excuse the cobbled-together nature of today's post, and I hope it might intrigue you just enough to check out the novel for yourself. It's quite wonderfully rich, truly. Should you need more convincing, here's a CBC Books article in which Alison talks a bit about her motivation for embarking on this work of historical fiction and of what she gleaned in the research and writing of it. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

Tracy K. Smith's Ordinary Light, Extra-ordinary Poems

Regularly these days, if I'm reading while I'm out somewhere, no post-it notes or notebook handy when I come across a passage that I want to come back to later, I'll snap a photo of it.  Just as regularly, once I've snapped the photo, I will forget the passage until much, much later when I'm finally sorting out the overflowing virtual album.

What a delight then, to come across these passages in the middle of that task (and I'll confess to having been waylaid often, to having taken long detours thanks to a second encounter with a thought-provoking or resonant or moving passage). Such was the case earlier this week when I found, for the second time, these words from Tracy K. Smith's memoir, Ordinary Light, written about her first encounter with Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man: "Reading the novel, I'd understood something I hadn't ever considered: listening to a protagonist is easier than listening to a person speaking in the flesh, even if the two might be saying the exact same thing. The protagonist invites you into such an intimate proximity, asking only to be heard, and then proceeds to say a thing like, 'I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility.' If someone said that to my face, my esophagus would tighten, my temples would flush, and my heartbeat would thump louder in my ears. I'd retreat, too ashamed and too guilty to stand there listening to what the world had insisted, again and again, upon doing to a person with skin hued like my own. And yet the voice on the page, saying these very things, entered me differently. My eyes raced across the lines, chasing down every sentence. It was more than simply loving to read, more than simply loving a good story. It was about realizing I was capable of opening my eyes and ears in such a way as to accept the truth of what I was reading and admit the pain."

Smith's memoir overall is wonderful and allowed me to hear some uncomfortable truths about racism from a perspective that it's hard to imagine gaining outside the covers of a book. But it also offers many aperçus that I could relate to, directly, from my own experience.  When she speaks of her older brother, of the "updated version of the self he had become immediately upon his arrival to campus," she questions whether becoming this new self "had required [him] to let go of a big part of the person he'd always been." She goes on to speculate, though, that "perhaps it was simply a matter of having encountered bits and pieces of himself he'd never before taken stock of and deciding to give them a little extra space." I'm not sure why this resonated so distinctly with me, but it's not only because of coming-of-age memories. Most of my "bit and pieces" I've "taken stock of," by now, over my 64 years, but I think there's still room "to give them a little extra space," and I found her phrasing a felicitous validation of that impulse. . .

Before I read Smith's memoir -- which I must suggest makes an excellent contrapuntal and complementary companion to Ta-Nehisi Coates The Beautiful Struggle -- I'd read Duende, her second collection of poems, the first I could find available at the library after I read of her appointment as the U.S. poet laureate. (This announcement, I must tell you, buoyed my spirits, went some way to reminding me that there's still much good south of the border, despite the current political situation, and, quirky as this may sound, reconciled me to travelling to Portland with my husband in September.) Unfortunately, the book was in high demand at the time, and I couldn't extend my time with it, so that although I was able to read my way through it, to glean impressions, I didn't manage to take any notes nor copy out any poems.

I did copy a few lines from the Pulitzer-winning Life on Mars:

These ones, for example, from "The Weather in Space":

"Is God being or pure force? The wind
Or what commands it? When our lives slow
And we can hold all that we love, it sprawls
In our laps like a gangly doll. When the storm
Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing
After all we're certain to lose, so alive --
Faces radiant with panic."

And these, from "The Largeness We Can't See":

"And all we live blind to

Leans its deathless heft to our ears
                                       and sings."

Later, in that same poem:

"We hurry from door to door in a downpour
Of days."

That last, the prosody is brilliant, imho, and she does that kind of thing so often (although not distractingly so) -- the alliteration and rhythm and rhyme. She works wonders with sound and image, so that the (considerable) intellectual and often political challenge her writing poses is eased and rewarded by/with aesthetic delights.

See for yourself at the Tracy K. Smith page on the Poetry Foundation website.

Some of you will already have known of Smith's work, will have read it and can perhaps recommend favourites; some of you, I know, don't read poetry at all; some might be very interested in her memoir as a piece of late-20th/early 21st-century cultural history. And whether you know or have read Smith's work or read poetry at all, I wonder what you think of the notion of a Poet Laureate, of how that poet represents a nation, whether that's a realistic notion in these times. Does your country have such a poet, and do you know who that is? Have you read any of their work? Time to chat. . .