In 2013, I began keeping track of the books I read. I liked keeping track so much that I did it again last year, and plan to continue the tradition this year. As before, I will arrange the list in blog fashion, from end to beginning, with the current month and most recently read book appearing first.
November & December
〉 My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, by Elena Ferrante
* bought en masse at Words Worth, along with the fourth and final book, which, as of the end of this year, I hadn’t yet finished
These are among the best books I can ever remember reading. I can’t recommend them highly enough, and don’t need to, because you’ve probably already heard about them from all of your friends. Set in Italy in the 1950s – present, the premise of the series is the enduring friendship between two remarkable women, and it is about that, but it’s also about so many other subjects, and so compellingly written, that it can’t be summed up in a blurb, here. What I like best about it is how it illuminates the implacable injustice of political systems: culturally, economically, and personally. I don’t want to get the end of the story, in all honesty. I want it to go on and on and on, in perpetuity. I find myself paused throughout the day, thinking about the lives of Lila and Lenu. The books are consuming. I’ve read virtually nothing else, except for my students’ writing (which took up a lot of my reading time in late November/early December).
〉 Willem de Koonig’s Paintbrush, by Kerry-Lee Powell
* sent to me for review by the publisher, read in manuscript form; will be published in 2016
Dark, powerful, relentless stories about losers and liars, frauds and impostors written with the voice of a prophet crying in the wilderness. I absolutely love Kerry-Lee’s poetry. This is her first collection of stories.
〉 Boyhood Island: My Struggle, book 3, by Karl Ove Knausgaard
* bought at Words Worth
I liked this one, but it didn’t make me feel like diving into the next book immediately. I will stick with Knausgaard, and work my way through his struggles slowly but surely, as perhaps one is meant to do with any struggle. This is the story of his childhood, and at times he seems almost alarmingly obtuse and unaware of the effects of his own behaviour and impulses.
〉 Hold Still, by Sally Mann
* borrowed from the library after reading a recommendation on Brainpickings
A memoir and family history by the American photographer, who is perhaps best-known for photographing her children in a way that the morality police deemed unseemly in the early 1990s. I admired her disciplined approach to her art, her seriousness, her all-in lifestyle. I also admired her facility with pairing the visual with text. Illustrating her thoughts and stories with photographs or artifacts seemed to come naturally to her. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it gave me some insights into the ruthlessness of the creative mind (or reinforced some of what I recognize in my own approaches to my own work). It also gave me insight into how brief the parenting years are–she has three children, and they are all now gone from home, and I felt their absence, perhaps predicting my own fate in a decade or so. I wish she would have written more about her later-in-life return to riding horses; I loved horses as a child and young teen, and sometimes I wonder whether I might ever live near them again. One final note related to this book and its author: In 2009, I happened to see a documentary on Sally Mann that was heartbreaking and revealing and powerfully affected me. I wrote it about then: here is the blog post, which I titled “On endings.”
〉 Yes, Please, by Amy Poehler
* bought on my Kobo for my trip to Spain
Excellent, and good fun besides. The chapter on sex is a must-read. I also enjoyed her creative strategy for coping with being nominated for prizes and not winning. It was interesting to learn about the crazy, brave, intense world of improv theatre/comedy: she walked the walk to get to where she is. And she’s only a few years older than me! I will try not to feel like an underachiever… but I do. I tried improv in university. I got spat on by a fellow improv-er (because he was projecting, not because he was trying to spit on me), and that kind of turned me off. I love reading about how worlds come together, how connections get made, how little pools of talent form and combine to create cultural moments. Creativity can be a collective venture; I don’t get to experience this very often as a fiction writer, to be honest.
〉 They Left Us Everything, by Plum Johnson
* borrowed from my stepmother, read at the cottage
Enjoyed this memoir about a woman sifting through the contents of her parents’ grand home. It started slow, but became more moving as it went on. I found the present tense a bit jarring.
〉 A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver
* bought somewhere …
Re-reading in preparation for teaching the material. What a brilliant voice this poet has, and what strikes me most profoundly is her lifelong dedication to craft. Inspiring.
〉 The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill
* borrowed from shelf of the house we stayed at out west, then bought on Kobo so I could finish it on the plane ride home; plus we already own a copy
I was late to this book, and it is a wonderful book. I figured I’d better read it before writing my review of Hill’s most recent book, since this is one is a juggernaut. It’s amazing. If you haven’t read it, you must. My 12-year-old read it after me, and said she’d almost forgotten what it’s like to read and be swept away. Yes!
〉 The Illegal, by Lawrence Hill
* read from advance proofs, sent by Globe and Mail, for review
Loved the book. My review was a shameless rave.
I swear I read more books in July, but became negligent in recording over the summer, and can no longer recall … anything. This is sad. And proves that one must write things down immediately, or they have a tendency to vanish.
〉 They Do It With Mirrors, by Agatha Christie
* borrowed from the library
Holiday reading. No apologies.
〉 A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents, edited by Pamela Kruger and Jill Smolowe
* borrowed from the library
Research for a project. I wrote a much more in-depth review of the book, but the internet ate it. That goes for all of my June reads, sadly. I don’t have the patience to rewrite them, but will list all of them here.
〉 The Light of the World: a memoir, Elizabeth Alexander
* borrowed from the library
Disappointing. Read it after reading a glowing review on Brainpickings, but it didn’t hold up to the glowingness of the review. Sheryl Sandburg’s post on the aftermath of her husband’s death (the same subject) was by comparison far more moving and useful. Interesting, because Alexander is an award-winning poet; my expectations were perhaps too high.
〉 Cat Among the Pigeons, by Agatha Christie
* borrowed from my brother’s shelves, at the farm
〉 Inheritance, by Kerry-Lee Powell
* bought at a festival
A fleshed-out version of her earlier chapbook. Powell is the real deal: raw, truthful, meticulous about her craft.
〉 Indelible Acts: stories, by A.L. Kennedy
* borrowed from the library
Interesting sex in these stories. But I struggled. I wanted to hear Kennedy’s non-fiction voice, perhaps, as in her very funny, sardonic, wry essays I’ve read in newspapers. I wasn’t moved. Will try her again, however.
〉 For Better or For Worse, various collections, Lynn Johnston
* borrowed from the library
This is what we’ve all been reading for over a month now. And I include myself among the readers. We’ve been getting them out from the library, and I wish we could find some way to buy them, new or used, because the kids pore over them and read them over and over. Lynn Johnston didn’t develop her characters within a typical cartoon style using a static time frame; instead, her characters grow and age, and they feel really whole and interesting and the effect is novel-like, if the novel were written over years and years, and in small panels with punchlines. I love that her punchlines are often poignant. I’ve sat there crying over a storyline, and I’ve laughed out loud, but most often I just read with the same enjoyment I would find from a novel. I find it hard to pick up one of her collections and not devour it from beginning to end.
〉 My Struggle: A Man in Love, by Karl Ove Knausgaard
* bought at Words Worth
I have managed to read a few other books, recently. I worked my way slowly, steadily, sleepily through My Struggle, book two (A Man in Love, I believe it’s called). At certain points I found myself wondering if this would be my quest, whether I would slowly, steadily, sleepily work my way through the entire seven books, as a kind of bizarre long-term project of being inside someone else’s mind. I might. I’ve already bought book three. But meanwhile, I’m going to cleanse my palate.
〉 Landing Gear, by Kate Pullinger
* bought at Words Worth Books
Over the long weekend, I read, with enormous pleasure, Landing Gear, by Kate Pullinger, who I met on tour last fall. Kevin read it first, and was laughing out loud, and told me I had to read it right away, as soon as he was done. So I did. I also found it very very funny, and I admired its structure and shape. I loved the portrayal of the 14-year-old boy … as I now have one of my own.
〉 Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby
* borrowed from the library, because I thought my eldest son would enjoy it, but after reading it myself, I think not
I persevered and finished this memoir on being an obsessive football fan (Arsenal) because I wanted insight into the man’s mind. Or, more precisely, into the mind of a man who would be obsessed by a team in this way–why? And Hornby explores the question quite thoughtfully. But the book is weighed down by lists of long-gone footballers, clubs, scores at matches that never mattered in the first place, too many championships to name, etc., and I tuned out quite a lot. The details about the stadiums, about the fans themselves, the horrifying current of racism, misogyny, tribalism, and violence were fascinating, probably worth the read. But the over-the-top praise on the back of the book made me shake my head. It wasn’t a brilliant book. It was a moderately insightful book by a writer who was learning his craft. (Note: MORE NON-FICTION! What is wrong with me????)
〉 What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami
* bought at WordsWorth, on recommendation from an editor and my agent, among others
When I finished this book, which I read while I was sick, I wanted to remember two things. Then I promptly forget them. About a week later, feeling better, I tried to access those two things and write them down. Here are my belated thoughts on the book, which I really enjoyed, while wondering why the heck I couldn’t write a book like this.
Murakami on his routine: he described changing his lifestyle drastically when he decided to become a writer full-time. He had been the owner of a jazz-club before that, a late-night, heavy-smoking lifestyle that he realized would not mesh with his desire to devote himself heavily to writing fiction. So he sold the bar, quit smoking, started running, and he and his wife changed their daily routine: they woke before 5AM and went to bed before 10PM. (He is also a devotee of naps.) He said he lost some friends to his new rigid routine but it was the only way he could work productively. He became a marathoner in the process, and a very productive writer. All of this he did privately and quietly. By contrast, I write about the changes I test out publicly, on my blog, which perhaps changes the nature of what I’m doing. Does it? To be publicly reflective rather than privately going about one’s business? Does it change the act of what one’s doing? In a way it does, because it opens one up for scrutiny, but it also suggests a kind of moralizing or evangelizing trait in the doer, who can’t simply make changes, but wants everyone else to know how wonderful her changes are—perhaps you’d like to make these changes too!
In any case, Murakami couldn’t have blogged about his lifestyle changes when he made them, because they predated the internet. And he eventually did write about them, retrospectively, when he wrote his memoir. Maybe this is the wiser of the two routes, frankly.
The other thing I wanted to remember from Murakami’s book is that he seemed to enter with ease and certainty into a career as a writer, including taking on whatever freelance work came his way, or speaking gigs, or writer-in-residence offers. These were not offers he seemed to agonize over accepting, nor did he question his own worthiness for the task, nor did he seem to doubt himself. He accepted the work, prepared for it just as hard as he would prepare for his writing work, and showed up and did his job. No agony. No doubt. This struck me because I do not operate that way—or at least, not instinctively. I agonize. I doubt myself. Why?
As I read, I began to wonder whether somehow I’d been socialized not to think of myself as worthy or as an expert—was it the decade of being a stay-at-home mom that changed how I thought of myself in the public, money-earning realm? I recall being reasonably resolute and determined at the job I had before becoming a stay-at-home mom. Or perhaps it’s just innate to my personality and character. Would I want to change, if I could? (Also, note, Murakami writes about his wife but does not mention whether or not they have children, and if they do, how much childcare he undertook personally; I definitely spend a lot of time weighing how much more distraction and interruption my work as a fiction writer can bear, given my responsibilities to my kids.)
〉 A Brief History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
* bought at WordsWorth (gave away a previously owned copy, so this is the second time I’ve purchased this book from WordsWorth!)
So I finally finished reading A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, which is a book about scientific discoveries (and the scientists who laboured, sometimes futilely, to discover verifiable facts about our planet, our environment, the origins of life on Earth, the chemical makeup of the universe, etc.). Excellent book, easy to read, lots of great stories, plus I felt like I was getting reacquainted with the teenaged self who really wanted to study biology and chemistry in university, if only those subjects could have been coordinated with an arts degree. (I couldn’t figure out how to do it.)
I’ve been using the word “anyway” a lot these past few days, as a handy segue. I think it indicates how little energy I have to spare. My throat is so sore, people!
Bill Bryson’s book ends with a devastatingly sad chapter, titled “Goodbye,” detailing the efficiently destructive ruin that homo sapiens have inflicted on other species who come into contact with us. We seem to be unique in our ruthlessness, and pointless destruction. When we show up, species vanish. So much of what makes us different from all of the other species of life on Earth — our consciousness that allows us to plan and remember and create communities and construct stories and share information and move easily across vast distances — is also what makes us a force deadlier than any other species that has ever existed. It’s like we were made to destroy. Looking at humans from this perspective is deeply sad. To counter my sadness, I think of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche communities, on the the front page of Wednesday’s Globe and Mail, saying, “We are in a world that is rather terrifying. People close ranks and hide behind their factions. There is great insecurity. … [And yet] it is possible for humans to live together as long as you let down the walls that separate you.”
Yes. I’m part of this species, of course. We all are. We’ve got this little window of time here on Earth to share with those around us. How to be more open, more vulnerable? How to do no harm?
〉 A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry, by Mary Oliver
bought on impulse from Amazon when shopping for photo albums for Christmas gifts
* Mostly, I just want to give you quotes from this book, which is wonderful. It’s slim, precise, measured, and deeply practical: a book about the poetic craft, with useful examples to illustrate the vocabulary necessary to discuss a poem. If I teach again, I will have my students buy and read this book. I am only sorry I’m so late in finding it. Here is a taste.
I was drawn to this section because she speaks of meditation. It is a different way of looking at the practice:
“We experience the physical world around us through our five senses. Through our imagination and our intelligence, we recall, organize, conceptualize, and meditate. What we meditate upon is never shapeless or filled with alien emotion—it is filled with all the precise earthly things we have ever encountered and all of our responses to them. The task of meditation is to put disorder into order.”
Oliver is a believer in patience and will, time spent in honest labour. She quotes Flaubert: “Talent is a long patience, and originality an effort of will and of intense observation.” She says:
“What a hopeful statement! For who needs to be shy of any of these? No one! How patient are you, and what is the steel of your will, and how well do you look and see the things of this world? If your honest answers are shabby, you can change them. … You can attend to them, you can do better … When people ask me if I do not take pleasure in the poems I have written, I am astonished. What I think of all the time is how to have more patience, and a wilder will—how to see better, and write better.”
How to have more patience, and a wilder will….
〉 Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters
* Christmas gift from Kevin to me
I’ve become a Sarah Waters fan. This book seriously creeped me out, but I could not stop reading it. It’s set in Victorian England and it’s gritty and dirty and full of evil plots and human foulness, and lots of things I’m actually quite squeamish about, but I was completely taken in. Plot twists? By the dozen. Never saw ’em coming. Waters is phenomenally good at storytelling, and at capturing the intimate details of an historical time period. I’m taking mental notes as I read her. I wasn’t sure what the message at the core of the book was, exactly — it seemed emptier at its core than The Little Stranger — but I didn’t really care either. I just wanted to devour the book and piece everything together. When I have time, I will definitely be reading more of Sarah Waters. (Problem is, I couldn’t put the book down, and was up late on a few nights, turning pages….)
〉 Fair Play, by Tove Jansson, translated from the Finnish, with a foreword by Ali Smith
* bought on my Kobo
This book challenged me. I really wanted to love it, and found that I could only like it. It is a series of small stories about two characters, loosely (or perhaps not so loosely) based on Jansson and her partner, a woman was an artist. I kept mixing up the main characters’ names; they didn’t seem that different from each other, and that was one of the problems I had with the book. The other problem was the structure of the stories, which at times seemed overly and overtly plotted, even while most ended with a severe abruptness that seemed indicative of an undeveloped thought. Yet, even while my writer brain critiqued the stories’ structure, I was nevertheless drawn into this slightly odd world being portrayed, of two artists and friends (the specifics of their relationship are never explained, but they do live together at times and often share a bed), who share their lives and their work with each other. I can’t imagine having such a close friendship with another artist, one who would criticize my work even while I’m making it; that’s a level of collaboration that I really can’t fathom. I can’t fathom knowing another woman quite this well, I suppose. It’s a bit strange, as I’m thinking about this now, that we totally normalize pairing up and sharing our lives and space with a sexual partner, but a platonic friendship with the same depth of understanding and time spent together seems strange (or it seems strange to me, anyway). The exception to the strangeness was that brief period in my life when I had roommates, and it seems connected specifically to youth, pre-marriage. There were so many things I liked about being that close to my friends — sharing food, social lives, plans, down-time, the daily small miseries and joys. I know there were downsides too, and irritations; Jansson depicts these well. This book made me long for closer friendships–closer than is possible in my current life, which revolves around raising kids.
〉 A Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker
* ordered on Amazon.ca as an impulse buy when purchasing photo albums for Christmas gifts
The opening chapters of the book are well-written and fascinating, and support my own style of writing, which he calls “classic prose.” I really loved seeing Pinker diagram and break down sentences to show why they work (or don’t), in terms of the basic structure. We can only hold a very limited amount of information in our short-term memories, so the order in which our brain receives new information matters in terms of the ease of making connections between parts. That’s why a poorly written sentence stops us up, makes us puzzle over the parts as we try to connect them in the sense the author has intended. And a well-written sentence simply skims by, clear and well-lit. In a sense, it explains to me why it’s easy to overlook excellent writing: because it’s easy to understand, a reader assumes it’s a) easy to write and/or b) simplistic. But in fact clear writing, or classic prose, a) takes great skill to write and can be used to b) effectively communicate complex ideas. Pinker gets bogged down in his final chapter, which put me to sleep night after night, in which he logically and rationally argues over points of grammar and usage. I found his arguments sensible, on the whole, until he started arguing for rather than against particular grammatical sticking points–then he sounded just like the grammar police he was railing against. Point being: grammar is not a science. Grammar is an agreed-upon set of rules that aid clear communication, and when not-agreed-upon, well, that’s where history and tradition butt up against popular usage. Unfortunately, I come away from the book without a clearer idea of how to teach students to punctuate their sentences “properly.” But the book definitely gave me a lot to chew on. Actually, one final observation: I could not wrap my head around Pinker’s “grammar trees,” in which he diagrammed sentences, using different names to categorize the parts of the sentence than the names I grew up with. I don’t know if this is because I’m stupid about theory (which I am, in some ways), or whether grammar is just too complicated no matter how clear you try to make your explanation, especially when you’re getting down to the nitty-gritty bits. I couldn’t imagine trying to take Pinker’s trees to my students in an attempt to make common grammatical errors clearer to them.
〉 Meet the Austins, by Madeleine L’Engle
* from our shelves
The perfect book for a wintry afternoon in a quiet house on the first day of a brand-new year. Spiritual food, excellent writing, emotional depth, and loads of grace. Sure it’s for children and young adults, but you can and should read it too.
Totally unscientific stats from What I Read, 2014:
Total books read (not including magazines, stories for jury work, or teaching, or books I started but did not finish): 58
Of these 58 books, 26 were fiction; 22 were non-fiction; 1 was poetry; 9 were kids books.
Of these 58 books, 19 were written or edited by men, and 39 were written or edited by women.
Of these 58 books, I bought 17 at Words Worth or another indie bookstore; borrowed 14 from the library (many of these were research-related); found 7 on our own shelves; bought 6 for my Kobo; was sent 4 ARCs by publishers; borrowed 4 from friends; bought 2 at Chapters; 2 were given to me as gifts; and 2 were written by me, and therefore fit into none of the above categories.
I would like to read more poetry this coming year. Maybe I’m missing poetry book club, and the excuse that gave me to dig in to poetry collections. Otherwise, I’m pretty happy with the balance, and happy with the variety and number, even though the bulk of my reading time is limited to the bedtime hour.