Tuesday, August 8, 2017

More of my Travel Reading

Back in June (I know!) I shared some of the titles I'd read during my three weeks' travel, and I promised to share the rest later. Well, this is definitely later. . . .

And here are the other titles,
One, Ann Patchett's Commonwealth, which I've heard that various readers found disappointing, but which completely engaged me. The long line of the narrative, which begins at the first hint of an affair, when both married partners have young children, and which follows the fallout from that affair, particularly as it concerns the children, who grow up as step-siblings separated by a significant geographical distance, thrown together during vacations and left far too often to their own devices. There's a central trauma which is only gradually revealed, the mystery of its causation and of the guilt around that, the consequences spun out across so many lives, demand our attention until the end. Meanwhile, we watch the parents, mainly in the background, move into new marriages which do, or do not, dissolve, and we see them age, need care. . . .

I'm always intrigued by descriptions of childhood, and Patchett's are observant and convincing, not at all sentimental. The humanity of the writing also pleased me, the way all the characters are exposed for their flaws but are also shown as worthy in other ways. And there's some thought-provoking commentary about writing itself, or story-telling, at least, about where inspiration comes from and the ethics of appropriating stories. . . And above all, what is family? what is a commonwealth? community? What are we, each to our other, our connected others? I'd read this book again and be well repaid, I suspect, and I recommend it to you. If you'd like to be convinced by a much more comprehensive review, here's one.

Oh, and once upon a time, I resolved to include in these posts a brief mention of the format in which I read each book. I read Commonwealth and the two other books in this post as e-books borrowed from the Vancouver Public Library. What a wonderful gift that service is!

So onto Book Two, Rose Tremain's The Gustav Sonata . This novel is beautiful and painful and, ultimately, redemptive (i.e. don't be deterred by that "painful" because. . . well, no spoilers, but....). I read it shortly after reading Lauren Collins' When in French, and I immediately recognised the constraining rectitude she described experiencing in Switzerland where The Gustav Sonata is set, although Tremain's novel begins decades earlier. The protagonist is born into a poverty resented bitterly by his mother, who blames "the Jews" for his father's death during World War II and her descent from the bliss she had briefly experienced as a young bride (although, in fact, the marriage was doomed long before husband's death).

Gustav learns very early to marshal his emotions, to expect little, to adjust quickly to disappointment, but he can't help but revel in the friendship he develops with a classmate, the son of wealthy Jewish parents who place high hopes in Anton's musical precocity, grooming him for a career as a concert pianist. Gustav becomes both the parents' confidant and Anton's admiring audience, but he also registers Anton's growing discomfort with the pressures of performance, which leads eventually to Anton rejecting performance in favour of composition. Meanwhile, Gustav realises a dream of his own, is careful to cultivate a separate life, but it's increasingly obvious that he's in love with Anton, and that he is going to be hurt. To tell you much more than that would be to spoil your own discovery, but I will say that much more important than the plot is the description of the social environment that governs the two children, then teens, then men's choices, such that their lives, while in many ways ripe with possibilities, feel startlingly claustrophobic.

Until. . . . but I'll leave that for you to discover. There are some beautiful character sketches in the novel, Gustav's father, for example, in his moral confusion. The grieving widower who visits Gustav's hotel in part because he can assuage his loneliness by playing cards with Gustav at bedtime.  The woman who was Gustav's father's mistress. . . Another novel I could enjoy re-reading. And again, if you'd like a more comprehensive review, here's one

And finally, book Three, which is not a novel but a Cultural History of Trails. A cultural history, that is, if we assign "culture" to very simple, odd, and early life-forms whose fossils point to the trails they traced. I'd say that Robert Moor's On Trails: An Exploration makes such an assignment, and he also argues for the culture of ants and of elephants, among other creatures, made manifest through the trails they make and the trails they follow. I suppose I could more carefully say of that part of the book that it's a Natural History, and then I could tell you that Moor combines a natural history with a cultural history. But what fascinates me about the work he does is that he holds up trails -- the Appalachian Trail as the main path leading us through the chapters, offering a cohesive structure -- as an example of both Nature and Culture. Instinct (or simple random trial) leads an individual to an action, to placing feet in a direction, but it's the repetition that makes a trail, and that repetition has to do with community and culture. Moor explains it all much better than I'm suggesting in this brief summary, and he also provides an engaging account of the (fairly recent, relatively) history of hiking, of developing trails and paths throughout what was once considered "wilderness" by settlers in the United States (Moor's primary concern, although he wends his way to Canada's East Coast). Sierra magazine called this "the best outdoors book of [2016]," but I'd say it transcends that genre, in an intriguingly different way than did, say, Cheryl Strayed's Wild. . . .Let me know if you read it, will you? (As with the two novels, please...)

Oh, and by the way,  On Trails reads well with: Robert MacFarlane's The Old Ways.

Over to you. Comments welcome, either on the books I've written about here or about any that you're reading and would like to recommend. 

18 comments:

  1. I have put a library request in for Commonwealth based on your recommendation. I'm interested in descriptions of childhood too, and your comments made me think of two books I read and reread in the late 80s/early 90s: Monkeys (Susan Minot) and Family Pictures (Sue Miller). I don't know what I would think of them now. I did laugh when I saw the names of the two authors together as I was clearly hanging out in the 'Mi' section of the public library in those days. I don't really do that anymore as I usually request on line but it was a great way to make discoveries.

    Last time we got together here I told you about the books I found in our rental apartment...I felt I was missing something though. When I gave you my little list I couldn't understand why I felt so pleased with my reading. Then I remembered the most important book that I read in every spare moment for days...it was Mavis Gallant 'Paris Stories' (selected by Michael Ondaatje). Perfect, just perfect to read them there!

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    1. I read Family Pictures at that time as well (my doctoral dissertation had to do with the way prose descriptions of (fictional) family photos work in (Canadian) novels of parental loss, so there was considerable overlap. . .
      Completely agree with your appreciation of discovering books by serendipitous browsing of library or bookstore shelves. Miss that in this new world and I do try to incorporate the accidental when and where I can.
      So glad you came back to tell me about the Paris books -- Perfection, to read Gallant's Paris Stories there. Have you seen that great documentary from the CBC archives, dating about '65, with her talking about her relation to the city. The camera follows her down the street, into the butcher, etc. Just wonderful...

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    2. Family photos...Morag? Daisy? I will have to go to the bookshelves. (much nicer than going to the mattresses.)

      I had not seen that documentary but I watched it last night. She was lovely. And Paris, especially Place des Vosges, close to our little temporary home.

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    3. Ignatieff's Scar Tissue, Kogawa's Obasan, Thomas King's Medicine River, Daphne Marlatt's Taken,Timothy Findley's The Piano Man's Daughter.... It's been a while, though.
      Isn't that a wonderful documentary (and the 60s announcer is so funny to watch now, a CBC I can almost remember)

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  2. Have been meaning to read The Gustav Sonato for a while. Love all Rose Tremain's novel. From a historical perspective her books are always so meaty. Read Music and Silence by her recently. Set in Denmark it makes a wonderfully evocative read. B x

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    1. I think I've only read her The Way I found Her (and loved it. Paris, and a child's perspective, and an exploration of a translator's work -- all the right elements!). I've always meant to read more of her work, and The Gustav Sonata was a very good move in that direction. Reaffirms my commitment to get to more, so I'll remember your recommendation for Music and Silence, thank you.

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  3. So of my reads:I loved The Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, The Separation by Katie Katamura- interesting read about a woman who has to go search for her husband in Greece, but no one knows they have separated. Golden Hill by Francis Spufford, fun read, very different style of writing, so I could not scan, had to slow down and enjoy the dialog. I have a question, on a previous post, you mentioned a mystery series that took place on the coast of England, with a detective who was a bird watcher..does that sound familiar. I have read thru old posts and can't find it..Asking for a friend (lol) Thanks. Love reading everyone reading list. Is anyone on Goodreads?

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    1. Hello Unknown, I think the author of the birder mysteries is Steve Burrows...I made a note but haven't gotten to them yet...

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    2. Exactly right, Georgia. Unknown, let me know if you find and read any of these, and what you think.
      I've heard that Golden Hill is very good (I think a commenter on an earlier post spoke of it as a book that, once finished, one wanted to begin again). And I've seen a number of recommendations of the Amor Towles, but never heard of The Separation before. Making notes, although the list is ridiculously long!

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    3. Oops, It is A Separation by Katie Kitamura, I should at least spell the title and authors name correctly ! It is a short book. Thanks for help with finding Steve Burrows birder series, got it on my list.

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    4. Thanks, Uk, noting the different spelling. . .

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  4. I loved Commonwealth and recall that I thought it one of Patchett's best. I would certainly read it again.

    I've never read anything by Tremain, but it sounds like something I would enjoy. As usual, more books to add to my list

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    1. Glad to find you agree on Commonwealth -- I'm surprised so many found it Meh. . .
      You will love Tremain, I'm quite sure...

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  5. I'm a little late to the party, but I just read Beryl Markham's remarkable memoir "West With the Night" and highly recommend it.

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  6. If BuffaloGal is a little late :-),"I'm very late,very late for an important date" (although I,unlike White Rabitt,have an excuse-vacays with internet only on my phone)!
    Believe it or not,there was a book,iconic american children book I haven't read and liked to read very much- Anne of Green Gables! It was not translated when I was a child and than,it was translated too late for my son. So,this is one of the books I am reading now (in original)
    Commonwealth seems very interesting, it is on my radar for some time,I'll read it absolutely
    I've finished my Shetland mysteries binge reading and miss them already (but I have Vera waiting!) and Into the Water as well and actually liked it (on the beach)
    Started with Annie's favourite Dorothy L. Sayers : Documents in the Case. What a plethora of suggestions here!
    Dottoressa

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    1. Anne of Green Gables is an iconic Canadian book -- the Americans can't claim it ;-) I read all the Anne books when I was growing up -- I suppose before too long, I can try them out on Nola!
      I haven't read sayers for ages. Let me know what you think about Commonwealth when you get to it. And yes, between us we come up with so many good books here -- of course, the trouble is I can't keep up!

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    2. Oh,I'm so sorry! Please ,all of you, forgive me,I'm so embarrassed of myself!
      Yes,I was exactly thinking of Nola (and all Erich Kästner's-Eleonore would know,I'm sure-Gianni Rodari's,William Saroyan's books,Felix Salten's Bambi,Johanna's Spiry's Heidi........)
      D.

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