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Bookish Notes: Feast and Famine

March 12, 2014

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Ordinarily, I have endless hours to devote to reading, which is of deep consolation in a life circumscribed by illness. But this past week was different: since Saturday, I’ve had my niece to stay with me. She turned eight last month, and it turns out that eight is a delicious age: we spent several happy days together, getting up to mischief, having silly and not-so-silly talks, and making things all the while. Every day, I felt so lucky to be able to spend so much time with her, even though I was exhausted by seven in the evening. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything, but it did make those endless hours of potential reading shrink to almost a vanishing point. I woke up before her each morning, so I was able to sneak in a couple of reading sessions then, and progressed a bit further in both of the nonfiction books I mentioned last week. But it wasn’t until yesterday, when her grandmother picked her up and took her to the zoo that I had vistas of reading time stretched out before me. I almost didn’t know what to do with myself!

Eventually, I decided to pick up a novel. I considered checking to see which library books were due soon and reading one of those, but I was unwilling to give arbitrary dates such tyrannical power. After all, I can always check the book out again, which is one of the wonders of the library. Instead, I chose to reacquaint myself with two of my favourite high school companions: Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. I realised it would be a treat to reread their books in order this year, so rather than go straight to Gaudy Night, I pulled Strong Poison off the shelf. On page forty-one, when they have their first conversation, I was once again in love: their banter is simply irresistable. I’ve always been a banterer myself, although I’m not nearly as capable of literary illusions as those two. As the story progressed, I remembered why Sayers is one of my favourite authors: she’s so damn smart. Not only in her plotting and deft ability to convey emotions, but her observations of society are quite clear eyed as well. For instance, as Wimsey attempts to discover the murderer, he relies on the ability of women to unobtrusively squirm their way into places he’d never go. In an era of ‘surplus’ women, Sayers shows their usefulness and latent abilities to good effect. There are a lot of fun scenes too, from Wimsey’s tour of London Bohemia to a pseudo-seance. Ultimately, I was enchanted, and as I finished it this morning I thought with a thrill that now I can reread the next one.

As today I didn’t have any niece-related responsibilities, I indulged myself with several hours of reading which let me finish both of my nonfiction books, as well as a slim third one. My reading seems to go like that: some days I have a positive avalance of completed reads, while for days before I begin to worry I’ll never finish a book again. Word on the Street kept up its interest to the end, though I must admit that half of a book devoted to whether we should teach Black English in schools or not felt a trifle unbalanced, as the first half had a more general range. I’m sure it was more topical at the time, but perhaps I just live in the wrong part of the country, I’ve never heard of such a debate. Regardless, I enjoyed his linguistic analysis, as he compares it to Caribbean creoles and other, white English dialects (it turns out Black English was influenced most by Scots-Irish dialects as well as other English ones like Cornwall, from regions where lower class immigrants hailed, as these were who the slaves had contact with), and I found his later take on the reasons for lower performance by black students touching and thought-provoking, but it almost felt like I was reading two books squished into one, and he occasionally sounded a bit strident in his arguments. I believe I’ve now read all of his books (this was his debut), but some of them were so long ago that a reread might be in order. If you enjoy the English language (and if you didn’t, you probably wouldn’t be reading my blog), do treat yourself to some John McWhorter!

As I was going to the library later, I had just enough time to finish a short book that was due today: The Place of Tolerance in Islam. It had an intriguing format: Khaled Abou El Fadl, a Muslim scholar wrote the titular essay, the several scholars replied to that essay in their own short pieces, and then Abou El Fadl wrote a response to these essays. As a former debater, I of course loved this (and his casual reference to ad hominem attacks), and I wish I saw it more frequently in nonfiction. Usually, I end up having to do this on my own, reading several books on a topic from different points of view, so it was nice to have it all in one place. This was published by Beacon Press too, one of my favourites. I’m glad I read it, but I do wish it was meatier. Luckily, Abou El Fadl has written a book expanding on his views, that I read last year and found simply fascinating. I plan to look up several of the writers to see if they’ve written their own books too.

Oh dear. I can feel myself switching from a reading journal, informal essay-like approach to miniature reviews, which is not what I wanted to do at all. It’s such a challenge to capture a snapshot in time, isn’t it? I just finished Dancing Goddesses before writing this post, and it left me in a bit of a pastoral daydream. Not because Barber romanticises farming in the various periods, quite the opposite (she doesn’t shy away from pointing out how traditions oppress women) but simply because her descriptions are so evocative. She has an incredible ability to take the folklore and superstitutions and rituals seriously, and to present them in a way that makes the reader take them seriously too. In her conclusion she writes that by looking at the big picture of the lives of these farmers, things that seem odd on their own suddenly work together to make a narrative structure out of the agricultural year. Barber managed to bring that narrative to life for me, and as she looks at a way of life that’s commonly presented in fantasy novels, I have a new viewpoint to explore that genre from too. The book was such a gift, and I’ve already put another of her titles, Women’s Work: the first 20,000 Years on hold.

Now it’s time for me to begin another novel, and I’m not sure which one to pick up. I have so many tempting books on my shelves! All of McWhorter’s discussions of Caribbean creoles and dialects though has me leaning towards The True History of Paradise by Margaret Cezair-Thompson. I do adore Caribbean lit, and I also adore when my books bleed into each other.

P.S.: An Unnecessary Woman was as good at the end as it was at the beginning; I believe it’s now on my list of favourite books of all time.

Bookish Notes: A Surfeit of Pleasures (including An Unnecessary Woman, The Dancing Goddesses, The Word on the Street, Anne of Green Gables, & The Queen of America)

March 6, 2014

Oh guys. It’s clear to me by how sporadic my blogging has been over the past year and a half that my old approach is no longer working. I find myself missing blogging but also feeling overwhelmed by it: I don’t even like to read the blogs I subscribe to unless I have the time, energy, lack of pain to comment on them. This is silly. Writing that down made it clear just how silly it is, and I shall return to reading your blogs, even if I can’t comment, forthwith.

As for my own blog, my beloved, if slightly shabby striped armchair, I envision this space as a kind of reading journal. I have in mind things like Nick Hornby’s lovely columns, but I don’t know how to bridge the gap from where I am now to where I want to be. This is especially challenging as I am not, in fact, Nick Hornby. There will likely be bumbling involved, as I sort things out, but at least it will be better than nothing. Books are so much more fun when they’re talked about!
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This morning, I began An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. Despite reading and adoring both The Hakawati and I, the Divine, and despite one of the most enticing covers I’ve seen in quite awhile, I was unprepared to fall instantly in love. But that is exactly what happened. I love reading essays by older, reflective, bookish women, and this novel is narrated by just such a woman. I’m fussy about male authors writing female characters, so you can believe me when I say that Aaliya Saleh is utterly convincing. I find myself wishing she’d written more books, her style is so perfect, before remembering that this is in fact a novel. I love the kind of novelists that allow me to suspend my disbelief without the slightest effort on my part. I’m thrilled he set this in Beirut too: it feels like a love song to the city, and I do love a book with a strong sense of place. I’ve now used love four times in one paragraph, which is probably excessive, but that’s what certain books do to readers, isn’t it? I’m one hundred pages in and will pick it back up as soon as I’ve published this post, although a quote on the cover about heartbreak as me a bit nervous. He did break my heart in both of the other novels I suppose, but in the best sense. When an author is as talented as Alameddine is, I can forgive him for a streak of tragedy.

As always, I am a polygamous reader. I’m in the middle of two completely satisfying nonfiction books too: the first is The Dancing Goddesses by E. J. W. Barber, all about folklore and language and women and Central/Eastern Europe, so is clearly my type of history. In December, I became mildly addicted to British historical farm series, available on youtube, in which historians spend a year living and working on a farm following the methods of whatever period they’re looking at. My favourites are the medieval ones (Tales from the Green Valley and The Tudor Monastery Farm), and this book reminds me a bit of them, especially a terribly enthusiastic folklore professor who seems to visit at least once in each series to lead everyone in reenactments of old traditions and customs. The midsummer bonfire of the Tudor series was particularly notable, if only for watching them try to get a burning cartwheel to roll down a hill!

The other is The Word on the Street by John McWhorter, a fun and thoughtful linguistics essay collection that just convinced me it’s time to start performing Shakespeare in modern English translations. I’m one of those who believe a translation should sound close to the author’s original intention anyway, so even if it’s a translation of a classic, it should only read as stilted or archaic if that’s how it would have sounded to the author’s contemporaries. So in a certain sense McWhorter was already preaching to the choir, although I thought he overly exaggerated a bit to get his point across. The other essays, in which he explains why constructions such as “You and me should go to the bookstore” are actually rooted in English structure (while the rules against them come from an 18th century academic intent on making English more like Latin), and in defense of non-standard dialects as legitimate in their own right, have been equally fascinating.

And then there are the audiobooks. This year, I began listening to two audiobooks at once: a children’s book for bedtime and whatever caught my fancy for the rest of the time (chores, knitting, cooking, walking, etc.). This new policy has resulted in far fewer terrible dreams, which is quite a relief, and I’d be thrilled to hear any audiobook suggestions you’d consider sage for a nightmare-prone seven-year-old (yes, that’s how cautious I need to be). I’ve become particularly drawn to modern authors inspired by classic children’s lit, both parodies like The Willoughbies and The Mysterious Howling and more straightforward books like The Penderwicks (whose sequel I just picked up on CD from my library this week). Right now I’m listening to Anne of Green Gables, and rereading it (again) as made me realise just how much Anne influenced my worldview. I believe I finally have any answer to that tricky question: what book has changed your life? I must admit I don’t care hugely for the narrator, who pronounces certain words in an oddly Southern tone of voice for a Canadian novel, but I love Anne so much I can overlook that. My other audiobook is The Queen of America: it was slow going for the first couple of hours, but I’ve loved all of Luis Alberto Urrea’s novels, and it’s almost eighteen hours long, so I stuck with it and now it’s amply rewarding me. The narrator is fabulous too!

In other words, I’m in reader bliss at the moment. There’s not a bad one in the bunch: just a lot of soul satisfying, intellectually stimulating, endlessly comforting and entertaining books, the kind that make me so grateful I’m a bookworm.

I’m hoping to do a post like this twice a week but no promises yet. I’m not sure if the format (which desperately needs a more elegant title solution: any ideas?) will be as helpful to readers as my more straightforward book review style posts, and I might alternate between the two, depending on my mood, however I hope this new approach will get me back in the blogging habit and avoid the dreaded paralysis induced by an every growing review backlog. Time will tell, I suppose.

Literature as a Whole

February 15, 2014

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Literature as a whole is not an aggregate of exhibits with red and blue ribbons attached to them, like a cat-show, but the range of articulate human imagination as it extends from the height of imaginative heaven to the depth of imaginative hell.

-Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination

Love in a Headscarf by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed (thoughts)

January 15, 2014

Love in a Headscarf
Love in a Headscarf by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed came up in my search for ‘Beacon Press’ in the library’s catalogue. As it was an ebook, I could check it out right away, but I wasn’t sure. The cover and title didn’t make it seem like a me book. However, my interest in reading more diverse nonfiction, my enjoyment of the movie Arranged, and my trust in Beacon Press made me decide to give it a go. And I’m so glad I did!

Janmohamed is a British South Asian Muslim (how’s that for a mouthful?): she’s a professional, feminist, independent woman with deep affection for her culture and family, and a religion that’s woven into her everyday life. As the rest of her life slotted into place, though, her search for a husband wasn’t quite so easy: despite using the traditional matchmaking process of her community, it took her a decade to find the right one. This is a memoir of her experience on that search, but as it spans her from age 19 to 29, it’s also a middle class coming of age story as Janmohamed searches for her true identity amongst competing philosophies and traditions.

I love the common sense tone of the book, with a lot of wry humour, but most of all I loved how Janmohamed talks about Islam. She references the Q’aran frequently, and explains how important her beliefs are to her, and how her relationship with God grows during these years, without ever sounding preachy. Her feminism leads to her frank acknowledgement of the sexism she encounters, but she also consistently looks at how Q’aranic ideals of equality have been twisted by different cultures. As someone interested in progressive Christianity, but who shies away from a lot of what Christianity has stood for, I found a marvelous example in Janmohamed.

It was also simply fascinating to see how the search for a spouse changes when you know from the very first meeting that the man is interested in marriage and has the approval of your family and community. In some ways, that made things different, as there’s not as much need to play coy, and people can talk about a possible future right away. And yet, in Janmohamed’s frustration at how various men behaved, in her community’s urging of her to ‘not be too picky,’ and in her and friends’ increasing dismay as the years go on and the pool of available men inexplicably shrinks, I found more similarities than differences. As an aspiring spinster, none of this affects me personally, but that just made following along that much more fun!

I really loved reading this, in case you can’t tell: it was on the lighter side but still intelligent and intriguing. Don’t judge it on the cover and title! So often it’s easy to read scholarly books about religion, but to see it lived seems less frequent. Especially by a woman! Even those who aren’t religious themselves will likely enjoy this peek into another culture, and of course readers who love memoirs should definitely get to this.

My only real quibble is that for all of her feminism, and a few brief discussions of racism, Janmohamed seems curiously oblivious to homosexuality. Especially as one of her reasons to get married is her religious belief that men and women were made for each other, I would have liked to see her at least touch on love outside the hetero-normative range. I’m also curious about what liberal Muslims have to say on the topic.

That aside, Love in a Headscarf is a smart, moving, funny work that makes culture blending look joyful (and deserves a better cover and title!): in her reconciliation of her progressive, liberal views with the best aspects of her traditions and culture, Janmohamed sets an example for us all. I only wish she’d written more books, and I definitely see myself returning to this one in the future!

Suggested Companion Reads

  • Data: a Love Story by Amy Webb : another memoir about the search for a husband by a 21st century feminist, although where Janmohamed is driven by Islam, Webb is driven by math and algorithms. I found parts of this eyebrow-raising and cringe-inducing, but I also found it a funny, enjoyable read.
  • The Great Theft by Khaled Abou El Fadl : if you’re interested in what the Q’aran teaches vs what some extremists preach, Fadl lays it out beautifully in this book (which could also benefit from a better title). Readable, fascinating, and one of my favourite books from last year (so of course I didn’t blog about it. sigh).
  • The Translator by Leila Aboulela : I love the way Aboulela writes beautiful novels about love and Muslim women in the West. I think this would make a fabulous duet for those who enjoy matching fiction and nonfiction reads.

Water Like a Stone by Deborah Crombie (thoughts)

January 13, 2014

 

Water Like a Stone by Deborah Crombie
I spent most of today socialising with my mother, which was wonderful, but means I’m a bit exhausted. So I made it easy on myself and chose to write about Water Like a Stone by Deborah Crombie. As I said yesterday, Crombie and her mystery series were one of my very favourite discoveries of last year. If you haven’t tried her yet, you have no idea what you’re missing!

Crombie is American, Texan actually, but she’s also lived in the UK and her mystery series is set there: Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James are both detectives working in London. According to her biography, she travels there several times a year, and the sense of place is one of my favourite aspects of her writing. Each novel is steeped in its own particular locale: be it a London neighbourhood or a different English city, Crombie brings them all to life with exquisite, loving detail. I expect I could draw maps based on her novels and go on walking tours without getting lost: she’s that precise. She also weaves in the history of the area, and without ever becoming pedantic, she makes the locations another character. I love it.

Of course, I wouldn’t have read ten books in six months without also being in love with the characters. We get to spend time in the heads of both Gemma and Duncan, and they’re both just so damn loveable. Not to say they’re perfect: they each struggle with their own issues and occasionally make mistakes. But I’m always rooting for them, and thrilled when they manage, with honesty and goodwill, to sort out their troubles yet again. I will say I think it’s fairly important to read the books in order, as Crombie develops their characters in response to various events, and it’s nice to have that background knowledge.

And the detectives aren’t the only well-developed characters: these are psychological mysteries, with a deep component of developing the lives of each suspect, as P.D. James does. Sometimes we get to spend more time with a certain player, but even the minor characters are deeply memorable. Often, Crombie weaves past events in with the present, showing how powerful history can be. And while her plotting style varies from book to book, there’s always a thread of the traditional puzzle mystery, in that the reader knows all of the suspects, has all of the clues, and can figure out the killer if she picks up on them.

In short, this is a dream series for me. I usually begin the next one as soon as I get it from the library, and it takes considerable self-control to only request one at a time. Obviously, I can’t recommend it highly enough to mystery lovers and suggest they begin with A Share in Death and read them in sequence from then (Wikipedia has a helpful list of the titles in published order). But even those who don’t usually care for mysteries will find a lot to enjoy if they’re fans of contemporary literature. The writing, characters, and plotting are all top-notch: what more do you need to enjoy a book? If you’re not a mystery person and don’t care about reading the series in order, but want to give her a try, I’d suggest Dreaming of the Bones, which includes literary pastiche and a double mystery set amongst Cambridge dons. A bookworm’s dream!

Edited to add: I just realised I didn’t talk about the specific book at all. Whoops! There’s not a lot I can say without giving away series developments, but this one involved canals and the people who live on narrow boats and travel about them, and I loved that. It’s funny reviewing series, especially when you’re as spoiler-phobic as I am. But there you go. ;)

Field Notes, vol 12

January 12, 2014

field notes

I write this looking at the early morning sun, at least what has filtered through the clouds, and it is magnificent. The morning holds such a strange combination of calm and hope for me: the day stretches out, full of hours not yet spent. The blueish light makes everything feel not quite real, a bit bewitched. Anything can happen.

My illnesses are easing back towards their everyday existence, leaving behind the heightened drama of a flare up, and I will celebrate with my delayed new year cleaning. This involves not only tidying, but also sorting and rearranging and clearing out my various possessions. They somehow multiply, no matter how close an eye I think I’ve kept on them, and systems that a year ago made tidying easy now need rethinking. I love it because it combines physical work with philosophical reflections, aesthetic decisions, and logical solutions. My entire being is engaged, and at the end I will once again have a cosy, working little place.

This week, spent mostly with various heating pads on various pieces of furniture, allowed seemingly endless time for reading. Lots of reading. Last Sunday, I’d completed three books in the year. This Sunday, I’ve completed thirteen. In fact, midweek I started deliberately spending time on other things, because I was afraid of my back list piling up at even more rapid pace. Which is something I’ll return to later.

Meanwhile, I found several nonfiction treasures amongst my reading. Naming Nature by Mary Blocksma (already posted about) was everything I could ask for in a natural history book. I found myself moved to tears and laughter and much inward reflection by Still Life with Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty: the ideas in this book are far heavier than its seventy page slimness would suggest. If you have any interest in the intersection between life and art and physical objects, do look for a copy. Of course, The Inconvenient Indian, the latest book by Thomas King, one of my favourite authors, was incredible: a mix of history and storytelling that takes no prisoners in its account of how both the US and Canada have treated native populations, particularly in the more recent decades. That he managed to do all this without leaving me depressed or guilty or hopeless is a testament to his power as a storyteller. I’m now craving more books by Native American authors; luckily I have Crow Lake out from the library right now and Marilyn just listed several intriguing sounding ones.

I also read two books by authors with very different viewpoints than my own; while I can’t say I wholeheartedly loved either, I did encounter interesting or valuable ideas in both Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez and The Plain Reader ed. by Scott Savage. Reading books by authors who hold very different philosophies of my own sometimes feels like berry picking: lots of thorny branches to be cautious of, but if I can make it past them, there’s a reward waiting.
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In contrast, my fiction reading was less than stellar. I only loved one without reservation: Water Like a Stone by Deborah Crombie. Crombie, and her Duncan/Kincaid mystery series, is one of my favourite discoveries of 2013, which should be obvious when I tell you this was the eleventh in the series! That means I read ten of her books last year, and I didn’t discover her until July. Three of the other novels I read were by authors I already like, and while they were all page turning, ultimately I ended up feeling a bit dissatisfied upon completing each of them, although for different reasons. A Spider on the Stairs by Cassandra Chan is the latest in her mystery series, and while the others have been very traditional and puzzle-like, thus qualifying as comfort reads, this one included a serial killer subplot that I found unnecessary and disturbing. Bellman & Black, Diana Setterfield’s latest, started out strong, but couldn’t sustain its magic and rather than following through on the promise in the beginning seemed instead to weaken. Not a terrible book by any means, but not a fabulous one either (of course, I was never quite as in love with The Thirteenth Tale as many others).

Raj by Gita Mehta also began strong, only to lose itself towards the end, although its cultural richness, sociopolitical commentary, and cleverness made me forgive it. It was published in 1989, which makes me think about how few books I read that were written from, say, the 50s to the 80s. They seem in a kind of in-between land: too young to be classics but too old to receive much attention. Unless I’m reading a favourite author’s back list, I tend not to come across them. I’d like to seek more out! And then of course there was Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker, which I expected to love like all of the other bloggers I’ve seen talk about it. That didn’t happen, to put it mildly, as I detailed on Thursday. Oh and I began a new audiobook, Ayana Mathis’ The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, but I’m not far enough in yet to guess how I’m going to feel about it.

I’m currently in the middle of Love in a Headscarf, a fabulous memoir that includes a lot of religious and cultural musings on love, marriage, and a woman’s place. This is personal feminist writing at its best, despite the impression the title and cover might give you. And once I finished this post, I plan to begin Pathologies, an essay collection by Canadian Susan Olding. I have had very good luck with essay collections by women older than me, so I’m looking forward to it.

I accomplished a lot in blogging this week too: I posted almost every day, which considering my 2013 track record is almost a miracle in and of itself. I also did lists for four reading challenges (and added a few more besides) if you’re curious. And yet, having read ten books in one week, I’m now faced with an unavoidable fact: I read books more quickly than I post about them. Even if I did write a post as soon as I finished every book, when would I publish it? In general, I only post ‘reviews’ three times a week, as I like to discuss other bookish things as well. If I adhere faithfully to that schedule, I could write about at most 156 books in a year. I tend to read twice that amount. What should I do? Publish more than once a day? Accept that not all books will get their own individual attention and go back to group posts so at least I talk about it a little bit? Ration my reading (just kidding)? I don’t know yet. I do know that it’s easy to feel crushed by a review backlog and end up not blogging at all; I don’t want that to happen this year.

Of course, I don’t always read this much: during a flare up, it becomes almost impossible to pursue my other interests, so reading and perhaps a bit of knitting are all that happen. As much as I love reading, when my health permits I want to expand the time I devote to making this year, so perhaps this will end up being less of an issue. I’m not sure.

I’m off to do a bit of reading and knitting, the latter of which will provide plenty of space to contemplate possible blogging approaches. Do share your own approaches or any solutions that come to you for my dilemma.
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Story Can

January 11, 2014

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Story can be the clothing that makes the mystery visible. Story kept us alive when food failed, when water dried up, when the body itself began to fail.

-Pat Schneider, How the Light Gets In

Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker (thoughts)

January 9, 2014

Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker
I’ve been meaning to read Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker for ages due to Simon’s blog, he of so many fabulous 20th century English middlebrow novels recommendations. When I was casting about, wanting to read a slightly older book, my eyes lit on the beautiful blue of the spine and that was that.

I loved the musical aspects of the novel: Baker was a musician himself and it shows in the magical organ and violin and piano passages. I’m so glad I’m about to begin violin lessons already, because otherwise this book would have made me long to do so! The premise of the book immediately captured me as well: Norman, the narrator, creates an imaginary woman only to find her come to life and arriving for a visit. And of course Miss Hargreaves, with her refusal to bow to societal norms, or fade into respectable old lady invisibility, was darling. Simon, avert your eyes for the rest of this post.

Despite these aspects, though, ultimately I found Miss Hargreaves deeply disturbing, an example of patriarchy and male privilege run amok. There’s Norman’s father, who at first seems endearingly quirky in his bookish abstraction, inability to truly respond to anyone in a conversation (he just keeps voicing his own thoughts instead) and love for music. And yet…as his actions continued, they became more and more selfish, in the sense that he is literally so self-involved no one else even exists for him. He has some moments of emerging from the cloud to advice his son, but all of his other actions and interactions show privilege at its most extreme: he can literally choose not to acknowledge others’ existence or wishes. I cannot imagine this character as a woman, say as Norman’s mother instead of father.

Towards the end of the book, there’s a scene in which he’s been asked to perform a Miss Hargreave’s musical composition and instead performs his own work. Putting a brave face on it, she then announces to the audience that he will now play his own work, and instructs him in a whisper to play hers instead. And yet, hearing the title of his own work, he merely plays the same thing again. This scene is written primarily for laughs, looking at how the social-climbing audience responds differently to the exact same piece depending on who they think composed it, but I found this silencing and, indeed, crushing of Miss Hargreave’s own creative endeavour, portrayed so lightly, terrible.

That is merely a subplot, though, and not the reason this book made my skin crawl. No, that would be Norman’s own actions, which require me to provide a summary of the entire plot (including the ending; be warned if you don’t want to know it, skip the following two paragraphs, although it’s essentially told in the prologue of the novel). Having created Miss Hargreaves, he is first furious with her for wanting to be his friend, as her unconventionality embarrasses him in the little village. All he wishes is that she would leave him alone. Finally she does leave, and when she comes back she has reinvented herself as a fine lady. She proceeds to create a life for herself in the village, one without Norman. She doesn’t attack Norman in any way, simply ignores him. One might think he would be relieved. One would be wrong.

He becomes obsessed with making her acknowledge, really befriend, him again: when his semi-stalking behavior gets him nowhere, he then attempts to destroy her life via an anonymous poison pen letter. While he does regret this, it seems he regrets it most for the harm he does to himself (first his self-image and, when he’s revealed as the author, his moral standing) rather than truly seeing how despicable his actions are. After this, Miss Hargreaves is quite sensibly furious with Norman and warns him off. He cannot stand this independent thought from a woman he originally only imagined and decides that she must die. In the end, after a creepy reunion scene in which Miss Hargreaves suddenly dismisses-not forgives-all of Norman’s actions as if they weren’t immoral and awful and describes him as her “truest friend,” Norman does kill her. Since she was imaginary to begin with, this is not a physical killing, but it has the same effect: she ceases to exist for not pleasing Norman.

Let me reiterate: Miss Hargreaves is not doing anything wrong or destructive in society at large, such that Norman might have a moral obligation for stopping her behaviour (a la Victor Frankenstein). The only problem is her independence, first in caring too much for Norman and later in ignoring him. Ugh. This is essentially a novel of an abusive relationship, without any seeming awareness on the part of the author, much less Norman, of its problems. In the second part, Norman’s thoughts read like those creepy stalker/serial killer internal monologues found in some mystery novel, but with a comedy of manners patina. This isn’t an instance when I would have enjoyed the book except for some intellectual problems: I was honestly, truly upset and unnerved on a gut level. It made me afraid. When I finished I had to quickly put the book in the library bag so I wouldn’t see it. A quick trip through the blogosphere reveals I’m the only one who felt this way, so you might not. As I mentioned early in the post, there were some charming bits in the book. But ultimately, they were drowned by my uneasiness due to the plot.

Suggested Companion Alternative Reads

  • The Love Child by Edith Olivier : this is my favourite Simon recommendation! It’s another novel about a person accidentally conjuring up another person out of their imagination. In this case, though, it’s beautifully done.
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson : this will make your flesh creep, as Jackson intended, and it revolves around how people can be trapped by love and obligation.
  • Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi : another book that revolves around whether imaginary characters come to life deserve their independence, and it explicitly takes on patriarchy and male privilege with a male author and his female character, whom he keeps killing off in various ways.

Naming Nature by Mary Blocksma (thoughts)

January 8, 2014

Naming Nature by Mary Blocksma
At its heart, amateur naturalism is about love. The kind of love that inspires quiet observation and close attention, the kind that notes tiny changes as well as large ones, the kind that is patient and humble and hopeful. It draws me out of myself, into a world in which I am only one tiny link in a terribly complex and wide-ranging chain. Yet it also anchors me in the here and now: the physical reality of the weather, the geographic idiosyncrasies of my local neighbourhood. It’s a way of affirming life, really. And of course, it’s also about curiosity: endless curiosity that collects tiny facts and delights in oddities and adds new depth to wonder.

Naming Nature by Mary Blocksma captures all of that, and as such was an utter treat for this aspiring naturalist. Following a divorce, Blocksma moves to a cabin along Lake Michigan, fulfilling a long-held dream and allowing herself to begin to reinvent her life at the same time. She’s surprised and slightly horrified to realise she can’t name any of the trees she sees from her window, a sign of the ‘nature illiteracy’ our society generally encourages, so she sets out to learn one new species a day for a year.

The book is set up as a journal, with a short new entry for each day (rather blog-like, now that I think of it). It’s a mix of Blocksma’s observations, facts about whatever plant or animal or other natural phenomena she’s writing about, tips on how to identify species (obviously most useful to residents in a somewhat similar habitat, but she does include information for all regions of the US, which was nice and refreshingly inclusive), and peeks at her daily life. Her tone is infectious, and I defy any reader not to become as interested in the little curiousities of nature as she is! Early in the book, she mentions attempting to sketch some of what she sees; as the year progressed, her efforts must have improved, because the book also includes little sketches done by the author herself, so that until I got to that entry I assumed Blocksma was a professional illustrator.

It’s fascinating to watch her knowledge and confidence grow, and it’s truly inspirational for someone like me who’s pretty much starting at ground zero as far as specific natural knowledge goes. Written in 1992, pre-internet, it includes a handy guide to guidebooks (which as a newbie I’ve found terribly overwhelming), and it so accessible I finished it thinking I could become like Blocksma too, even if I don’t have the rich environment she does. In fact, I’ve begun my own little daily learning project.

Sadly, Naming Nature is out of print (not to be confused with another book by the same title written by Carol Yoon, which has now been added to my wish list); with any luck your library still has it. I got my copy from Better World Books, and I’m glad I did: I love knowing I can dip in and out of this as it suits me. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it: in fact, if you’d like to read more nonfiction but feel a bit intimidated, this would be a wonderful choice. Of course, if you have any interest in knowing more about the world we live in, you owe it to yourself to pick this up! As Blocksma herself puts it:

I am convinced that even rank amateurs like me will be rewarded with a glimpse of something rare and wonderful if we poke around nature in a regular sort of way.

Suggested Companion Reads

  • Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt : an interesting look at blending learning more about nature with urban living.
  • American Primitive by Mary Oliver : this happens to be the book of hers on my nightstand, but any of her poetry collections are full of a careful attention to and love for the natural world.
  • A Field Guide to the Familiar by Gale Lawrence : a wonderful collection of similarly themed short essays (originally newspaper columns).

The Joy of List-Making

January 7, 2014

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photo credit

It’s difficult to find a bookworm who doesn’t love lists. There’s something so beautiful and orderly about them, each item receiving its own line and perhaps a bullet point or annotation. Lining up the world, as it were, creating categories and finding connections. And yet, lists are not always about boxing life in: they can also be a way of expanding possibilities. Creating a list can lead to new discoveries or the reinvention of olds ones. They can be a kind of magic.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying, I have decided to join in reading challenges again this year. I miss book lists, and despite my intentions to simply make my own lists without external prompting, I make far fewer of them when I’m not involved in challenges (my bookish lists category reveals three from 2012 and one from 2013). I don’t know why. Lu wrote a lovely, reflective post recently about how she reads that reminded me of how much I enjoy themed reading as well. So in addition to joining a few challenges, I’m currently brainstorming some themes to explore this year, which will also require lists to be made.

Once when I was at the library with my niece last year, doing catalogue searches on cheetahs and fish, a lady passing by asked me if I homeschooled. I smiled and said no, but since then I’ve realised that in a way I do homeschool. It’s just, I’m homeschooling myself. If higher learning were free, I would be a perpetual student, moving from one speciality to another. Luckily for me, I live in a country with free, extensive libraries, and I have plenty of time and opportunity for reading. Themes will be a way for me to push deeper into my interests, and making a tentative list of possibilities has been great fun these past few days.

I’m sure I’ll share results with you soon. For today, I wanted to list some of the challenges that caught my eye, and to ask for your suggestions for other challenges I might have missed, as I’ve been a bit out of touch. I have compiled them all into a challenge page, and as I finish my list for each one, it will appear there. I plan to include books I’ve already read and would suggest to other participants, to make it a better resource, but all of that researching and formatting will take a bit of time.

In no particular order, here are the challenges:
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Arthurian Literature
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POC Speculative
ERC 2014
European Reading
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Harlem Renaissance
russian literature 2014
Russian Lit
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Read Scotland
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Pre-Printing Press
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Back to Classics

This list is pretty tilted towards Europe, which is far more a reflection of what challenges I came across than my geographical preferences. If I can’t find challenges relevant to the rest of the world, I’ll simply incorporate them as themes. I can’t wait to get started creating some book lists!

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