A couple of weeks ago, then, I decided to pick up a membership at the Vancouver Public Library, and I came home from that visit with three books: two mystery novels -- a favourite genre, but one I tend not to reread -- and an early novel by Elena Ferrante, one that reader Georgia had recommended to me. The latter, though, is the original Italian novel, La Figlia Oscura, and I'm unlikely to finish it in Italian in the time allotted by the library. What a wonderful resource, though, to find it on the shelf there. So far, I'm just trying to work my way through a few paragraphs a day, no expectation that my rudimentary Italian will get me through an entire novel, but absolutely tickled that I can understand what I'm reading as long as I continually consult my online dictionary. Particularly tickled that I didn't have to pay a penny for the experience. . . .
Of the mystery novels, I gave myself an escape-the-world day last week to gobble up the first of a series I spotted in a bookstore in Ottawa a few weeks ago, featuring a female prosecutor, Belfa Elkins, working in West Virginia. Although I'm glad I saved the $12 I would had to pay for a paperback copy of Julia Keller's A Killing in the Hills, I enjoyed it enough that I'll check the library shelves for more in the series. Bell (Belfa's nickname) is bright, feisty, and fairly recently a single parent of a teen-aged daughter, having been divorced just a few years. There's a hint that she may embark on some romance, but she has a dark past that she's also dealing with. There's also more than a hint that the series may get even better now that the groundwork's been laid -- I found myself caring much more about characters at about the halfway point. I'm further intrigued by the setting, which I don't know much of. Keller goes well beyond a physical sense of the geography, the flora and fauna, the architecture, and the weather. She also describes the socio-economic impact on this region of the downturn in coal mining, and she paints a compelling picture of the effects on a previously rural, even hermetic social structure of an all-too-connected and globalised world in which young people are very vulnerable and their elders despair of knowing how to help them.
Next up? The other mystery novel I picked up at the library is the second in Steve Burrows' Birder Murder mysteries, A Pitying of Doves. But before I begin it, I have to finish Teju Cole's Open City, a novel which is demanding a very different kind of attention and pacing. This was a novel I bought, knowing it will be one I return to (prompted to buy it, in fact, by a blogging friend's Instagram post in which she mentioned rereading it). A meditative and erudite consideration of the post-911 world, the Open City seeming to be New York, based on what I've read so far, but also referring perhaps to Lagos, to Brussels, to international cities that feature in our grand, collective imaginaries. The narrator is a psychiatrist, Nigerian-born and raised, but with roots also in Europe -- and in Europe's trauma -- now walking the streets of his adopted home, the city whose streets he walks, pondering the state of the world, of humanity.
I kept trying to remember, as I read through the first hundred pages or so, whose voice, whose tone, whose rhythm I was hearing. What was it that felt familiar? What did it feel familiar to? And I'd have to go back and read the two side by side, but what I think I'm feeling echoes of is W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz. Admittedly, Cole's style and structure don't challenge the reader with density and duration/length the way Sebald's do in Austerlitz. But both novels share gravitas, both span decades and countries insisting on connections across pathways we often try to ignore, both have a gentle urgency about the state of humanity and the world, both employ erudite pauses on what can appear to be arcana (more details than you ever wanted to know about bedbugs, in the case of Open City, for example). A stretch, perhaps, to link these two writers, but if you've read both, please weigh in. And if you've only read one, might I suggest/request you try the other, and then report back?
Oh dear, I've just Googled Open City, thinking I'd tell you which book prizes it was shortlisted for -- National Book Critics Circle Award and The Royal Society of Literature's Ondaatje prize -- and which it's won -- the PEN/Hemingway award -- and I see that the publisher's description of the book includes the phrase "The bestselling debut novel from a writer heralded as the twenty-first-century W. G. Sebald." I'm too chastened to go find out who heralded Coles as such, but I suppose I should also feel vindicated that others made the connection as well. So now, I'll just click on "Publish," and then wait for any comments you might care to share. . . read any good books lately?
And I'm curious to know what proportion of your reading involves books borrowed from the library. Also, tell me whether your library habits are regular or whether their erratic and involve shameful fines (my current fear. . . ).