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)
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!
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.