Sunday Salon: the Relieved Post
I read a lot this week y’all! I think I’m finally back to my usual reading self. :) For months now, I’ve been dealing with periodic reading droughts, which is incredibly confusing and frustrating. I’ve read far fewer books than last year, which is fine: I’m not overly concerned with numbers. But I can think of multiple periods since, say, May, in which I was reading less involuntarily; this is not fine. I have no idea what caused this, but I’m glad it’s finally banished!
I’m going to talk about as many books as I can in this post, despite knowing I could easily write full posts on many of them. Sometimes, I loved a book so much that I really want to devote an entire post to it, but then since there are limited days in the week I end up never talking about it at all, which is a bit silly. Also, it’s getting to the ‘crunch time’ point in the year, and I noticed a few days ago that I didn’t talk about half of my August reads on the blog. I understand that lots of people don’t try to talk about every book they read, but for me on a personal level, I enjoy getting to as many of them as possible. So look for some themed posts soon! ;)
So: here’s a whirlwind tour of what I’ve been reading in November. :)
I picked up Fall on Your Knees by Ann Marie Macdonald hoping for a rich, gothic family tragedy, and she delivered. Her writing style is so lush and gorgeous: at times, it got a little bit overblown, but this was her debut novel, and I still enjoyed it. I’m a prosey type of girl at heart: give me writers who revel in their language, and I’ll always be happy. I was a bit skeptical of mixing normal narrative with journal excerpts at first, but Macdonald pulled it off magnificently: even her switches in narrative point of view, since the characters each had their own voices. And oh those characters! It’s a book filled with girls and women, but the one man at the center has the kind of omnipotent force that husbands and fathers did have in those days. The strengths the women find all fit in with the historical context of their lives; Macdonald never slips in modern beliefs or attitudes. So while the book is teeming with issues of sexuality, sexism, religion, racism, and more, it still works as the best kind of historical fiction. I love that! Also, at its heart the novel is character-driven, which is why I devoured it: I had to know what would happen to this family. I could go on for ages about everything I found in this book: the way Macdonald uses classic tragedy tropes, her stunning ability at writing about incest without feeling lurid (and why we should not automatically dismiss books containing incest), the way place informs every page (and the odd similarity between Cape Breton and the Brontes’ moors), and more. But I think I’ll let you discover all of that for yourselves! I’ll be honest: before I started, I was nervous that this book wouldn’t be for me at all (and the Wuthering Heights epigram did nothing to allay my nerves). I gave it a chance, though, and I’m so glad that I did: this is definitely a book to savour and reread! So even if you’re not positive you’ll like it, this is me telling you to try it anyway. ;)
When I posted Anna Katherine Green’s The Leavenworth Case in my weekend plans, several of you expressed curiousity about it! I picked it up by chance off of my library’s new release shelves; I was looking for a mystery, but I really wanted a classic too, so it felt like the universe popped it in there just for me. Green was an American author in the late 19th/early 20th century, and she published this detective novel a decade before Sherlock Holmes arrived on the scene. This book is a classic kind of manor mystery, although it’s technically set in the richest neighbourhood of New York City. ;) A wealthy middle-aged man is found murdered in his library, with all of the doors and windows still locked, making it clear that one of the household committed the deed. He is a widower, but has two nieces living with him, both in their early 20s, both stunningly beautiful. We see the story unfold through the eyes of a young gentleman lawyer, Everett Raymond, whose attitude towards beautiful women is about what one would expect. Drawn into the case by a coincidence, he remains there with a determination to clear the women’s names. Fortunately for him, the clever, laconic, older detective working the case, Ebenezer Gryce, finds Raymond’s standing as a gentleman useful and allows him to help with the investigation. I won’t describe all of the twists and turns, but Green is a clever plotter and left me not quite sure of who was the murderer until the very end. Raymond’s voice is consistent throughout, and will draw the inevitable Watson comparison. However, Watson always annoys me a bit with his obtuseness, while Raymond’s vision is hopelessly obscured by his determined mental image of women, rather than a general lack of intelligence. Green is definitely a mystery author of the classic/Golden variety, which is a style I love. Fortunately for me, she went on to a long writing career. Unfortunately for me, most of her works are out of print. They’re all available at Project Gutenberg however, and have sparked a sudden unexpected interest in ereaders. But more on that another time! ;)
I’ve been working my way through the books of Marcus Borg, because I find his vision of progressive Christianity so inspiring. As I expected, I greatly enjoyed The God We Never Knew, although I did find the Jesus chapter redundant (having read his Jesus book previously). Borg distinguishes between two ways of conceiving God: the more authoritarian construct Borg grew up with and the more spiritual one that has just as deep roots in Christianity. Borg is a scholar, and I was impressed with his case that the latter is just as Biblically valid as the former. He then goes on to look at how conceiving God in this way makes all of the problems/concerns people express about an authoritarian God go away. Since I only have a small space to devote to it, I’m not going to outline his argument (so please don’t assume my very brief summary is what he’s actually writing and attack that: read the book first!), but it resonated deeply with me. I love Borg, and I only wish he had a church where I’m living: I would become a member asap!
After finishing Fall on Your Knees, I realised I wanted more epic family stuff, so I turned to one of my favourite authors: Salman Rushdie. I’ve had The Moor’s Last Sigh on my shelf for at least a couple years, so I brought it along with me as an option for my library-free period. I’m so glad I did, since it was exactly what I’ve come to expect from Rushdie! It actually reminded me quite strongly of Midnight’s Children, although it was perhaps a bit ‘lighter.’ From the title, I expected it to be set in Spain, but the vast majority of the story occurs in India, primarily Kochi and Bombay. Like Midnight’s Children, the novel is narrated by a man looking back in his life; in this case, he’s telling his family history, although for most of the book his intended audience is invisible. Incorporating stories of the Portugese and Jewish communities in India, jumping between the most privileged and least privileged worlds of Bombay, spanning most of India’s twentieth-century history, The Moor’s Last Sigh made Rushdie’s vision of his homeland come alive. There are strong women and strong men, evil women and evil men, with lots of missed opportunities, miscommunication, and misunderstandings (in fact, one of the characters plays with mis- words, in a typical moment of linguistic humour). And while the story itself is more tragic than not, the writing is so playful it’s still a joy to read. If you’ve read Rushdie before, The Moor’s Last Sigh is exactly what you’re expecting. If you haven’t, this would be as fun a place to begin as any. :)
I won a copy of Flow by Elissa Stein and Susan King for my post about vaginas back in March. It’s a US-focused cultural history of periods, and I love the design of the book. It’s almost a coffee-table style one, with lots of pictures of advertisements, thick, glossy pages, and fun layouts throughout. When I live on my own, I probably will keep it on my coffee table! It’s also a light-hearted look at how women have historically been told that periods are creepy/dirty/etc. and how the ‘femcare industry’ (pads, tampons, douches, hormonal drugs, etc.) has capitalised on that in the twentieth century to the tune of billions of dollars. Stein and King are really funny, and I often found myself giggling while flipping through the pages. I was also fascinated by all of the old advertisements they included; in my opinion, the strongest part of the book was their analysis of US pop culture period stuff. The weakest part was the historical background bits. I completely understand why they needed to generalise and move quickly over large swathes of history, but I must admit the nerd in me got a bit twitchy. Fortunately, these bits are just a small part of the book, so as a whole I still loved it! I loved its positive celebration of women (although, Stein and King don’t have universal praise for periods: they completely acknowledge that for some women, periods are horrible things that wreak havoc on their health) and its non-judgemental attitude (for example, when discussing oral contraceptives I never got the sense that Stein and King think all women should reject them). It really feels as if Stein and King just want women to think about periods, be aware of the cultural messages they’re receiving, and make an informed choice about everything from what to use for the blood flow (I did think my beloved cup got a bit short shrifted, but I’m biased!) to deciding on doctor-prescribed medicine to diagnosing oneself with PMS. And I learned so much interesting information, even though I’ve been reading women’s studies books for awhile now! For example, did you know that the ‘water cures’ included aiming powerful streams of water at a patient’s clitoris to bring her to orgasm? I did not. Or that a study was conducted in which, after renaming PMS with a gender neutral title, researchers found that equal amounts of men and women believed they suffered from it? This makes perfect sense to me, but the next time I’m lecturing one of the guys in my life about PMS, I’m glad I’ll have a study to back me up. ;) All in all, a really fun book that I highly recommend! Stein is currently working on a cultural history of ageing, which I can’t wait to read.
Have I been gushing enough in this post? Because be prepared for even more of it: it’s time to talk about Thomas King’s Medicine River. Last year, I read his later novel Green Grass, Running Water which reduced me to a shameless fangirl state. So what was my reaction to this, his first published book? The same shameless fangirl state! This has a much more straightforward novel structure, so if slightly experimental stuff makes you nervous, then grab this one first instead. Because King is such a reading treat, you owe it to yourself to not miss out. Medicine River is a small town near a reservation in Western Canada. We see this town and its residents, primarily Native Americans, through the eyes of Will Sampson, who runs a photography studio. The novel intersperses contemporary events in Will’s life with memories he has of childhood, and King has this understated emotionally powerful thing that going on that literally took my breath away. He writes just enough into the book, and trusts the reader to make of it what they will, and it results in a perfect story. It also has one of the loveliest friendships I’ve come across in fiction: Harlen Bigbear has, much to Will’s bemusement, become a best friend. I don’t want to tell you any more, because I went into the book not knowing anything about it (other than that Thomas King wrote it), and I think that made it even more magical. Just go get your hands on a copy!
A couple of months ago, Jo Tatchell e-mailed me asking if I’d be interested in reading her new nonfiction book about Abu Dhabi, A Diamond in the Desert. Although I rarely accept review copies, I’m an international relations nerd, so after reading a few pages online to make sure the writing wouldn’t drive me insane, I happily accepted. I think Tatchell has a great writing style: she made Abu Dhabi come to life, and her power of description extends to people as well, so reading the book felt like I was tagging along after her as she wandered through Abu Dhabi. She’s British, but her father worked in Abu Dhabi when she was a child, so she’s lived there off and on since the 70s. In order to write this book, she went back and interviewed various people, both expat and native, in the city; she also undertook a hunt to find the newspaper archives to learn more about its recent past. That being said, I think the book lacks a strong structure: parts of it read like a travelogue, parts like a history, parts like a childhood memoir, and parts like a novel (I was particularly disconcerted to see a conversation she had with a Texan in a bar rendered in dialect). This made me feel a bit unsure as to how much of the book I should trust as hard nonfiction, as opposed to what stemmed from a softer, memoir-type approach. The lack of cohesion also led to me wondering why some of the stories were in the book in the first place. At the end of the day, Tatchell definitely writes about Abu Dhabi as a British expat: of course, that’s who she is, but the way she writes about Arab culture, particularly the tribal past of the UAE, her glossing over of British colonial exploitation, and her portrayal of non-British white expats (i.e.: Americans and Australians) left me with an eyebrow raised on several occasions. I think if you picked up this book expecting a subjective, travelogue-inspired, nostalgic meditation by a Brit on Abu Dhabi, you’d be delighted with it (especially if you’re a British reader, lol). Unfortunately, I was expecting something more academic/journalistic (in her e-mail to me, Tatchell mentioned her friendship with Emma Larkin, so I assumed it’d be like one of her Burma books), and by the time I realised my mistake, it was difficult to change gears. With the caveat just mentioned, I would recommend this, and I’m definitely interested in reading Tatchell’s novel (entitled Nabeel’s Song or The Poet of Baghdad depending on where you live) since her writing was so wonderfully descriptive.
I think that’s probably enough for one day. :) As always, do let me know if you’ve read any of these books and agree/disagree with me! Or if I’ve inspired you to give any of them a go.