Bookish Notes: Feast and Famine
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.