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Bookish Notes: Feast and Famine

March 12, 2014

reading notes 2

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.

34 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2014 6:46 pm

    Oh Dorothy Sayers. Those books draw me in every time. Absolute props to Dorothy Sayers for writing a character like Harriet who’s so prickly and complicated, and also that you are immediately in love with her and see why Peter would be. (At least, I did. Dorothy Sayers’s letters give me to understand that not everybody had the same reaction as me when the books were originally written.)

    • March 12, 2014 6:52 pm

      Yes! I feel like I’m a bit prickly & complicated but hopefully loveable too, to be honest. How interesting that not everyone immediately loves her! Although I suppose the 1930s were a very different time. Would you recommend Sayers’ letters?

  2. March 12, 2014 7:27 pm

    I read McWhorter’s Tower of Babel some years ago. It was published in 2001, so three years after Word on the Street. I think that book also had a section near the end that focused on the legitimacy of Black English (though I can’t recall if he specifically discussed teaching it in schools or not). Unlike what you describe with Word on the Street, I don’t recall that the discussion of Black English derailed from the book’s general purposes which was the natural history of language.

    As far as why Black English would be such a dominant topic in Word on the Street, I think it did have to do with the time it was written. I was in high school in the late ’90s and lived in an area that was predominantly Caucasian, but I do vaguely remember that discussions of Ebonics were around at the time. Out of curiosity I just did a search on Ebonics and the 1990’s and found that in 1996, there was some controversy when an Oakland school board passed a resolution recognizing the legitimacy of Ebonics, and it became a hot topic among linguists the following year.

    • March 15, 2014 12:49 pm

      Oh good to know Christy! McWhorter definitely mentioned the Oakland thing. Tower of Babel was my first read of his, although it was so long ago I barely remember it!

  3. March 12, 2014 9:59 pm

    I enjoyed reading “An Unsuitable Woman” a couple of years back so much so that I bought a copy for my Kindle app. I haven’t yet given Dorothy Sayers’ books a try but hopefully should get my copy of her book from the library soon :)

    • March 15, 2014 12:50 pm

      Sayers is lovely! Just make sure you read the Harriet/Peter books in order instead of jumping straight to Gaudy Night. :) I just realised I meant An Unnecessary Woman (the new Alameddine book): whoops!

  4. March 13, 2014 2:05 am

    Your niece will remember the times with you all her life. I agree, eight is a nice age!

    • March 15, 2014 12:51 pm

      I hope so Bybee! I’m going to miss her tremendously when I move.

  5. March 13, 2014 6:32 am

    I’ve been saving Gaudy Night for RIP this year, but you’ve really got me wanting to just go dive in. I so know what you mean about feeling like you’ll never finish another book again. The perils of being a polygamous reader, huh? And even worse for someone like me who reads sooooo slowly. But those times when I finish up a few books in the span of a couple of days make me really happy.
    Btw, I kept thinking of you all day yesterday, wishing you were here, while it was busy blizzard-ing outside. :)

    • March 15, 2014 12:51 pm

      You’ve read the other Harriet/Peter books right? Don’t start with Gaudy Night!

      I read slowly too, I just don’t have all those life responsibilities you do. hehe And that blizzard sounds fabulous. I can’t wait to enjoy next winter!!!

  6. March 13, 2014 9:08 am

    Dancing Goddesses sounds like something I’d be very interested to read. I’m glad you had such a fun time with your niece, though kids are completely exhausting. But definitely fun.

    • March 15, 2014 12:53 pm

      They are, aren’t they? I suspect they’re too exhausting for me to have any of my own, sadly. But hopefully I’ll always get to be involved with them in some way.

      Dancing Goddesses was very enjoyable, so I think you’d like it. It’s written more for a general audience than scholarly one, but it does have lots of endnotes & bibliography bits at the end.

  7. March 13, 2014 2:16 pm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed Dancing Goddesses. I hope you’ll love Women’s Work too, though it may take a lot of love for textiles. I do love textiles so it’s one of my favorite books!

    • March 15, 2014 12:54 pm

      I love textiles too Jean so I suspect it will become one of my favourites too! Have you read The Age of Homespun? And Waste Not, Want Not by Susan Strasser includes a lot of textile focus.

      • March 17, 2014 1:04 pm

        I have read Age of Homespun–gotta love L. T. Ulrich–but I don’t know the Strasser book. I’ll look it up!

  8. March 13, 2014 5:29 pm

    those days with your niece will linger longer in the memory than the books will I’m sure

    • March 15, 2014 12:55 pm

      I’m sure too, which is why I’m always willing to drop books for family. :)

  9. Amy C permalink
    March 13, 2014 7:20 pm

    Glad to see you blogging again! I’ve read your blog for a long time though I don’t comment very often. It’s funny to hear you talk about your time with your niece – because that’s what my days are like all the time now. With two young children and a full time job, the days of time for reading hours at a time are LONG gone for me. I’m lucky to get in a few minutes of reading here and there. But there’s always blessings about each stage of life, aren’t there? Maybe when I’m old and gray I’ll have more time to read again! That’s why I’m glad to have great bloggers who can read so many books and make great recommendations for me!

    • March 15, 2014 12:55 pm

      Thank you Amy! Wow: a full time job & 2 little ones must be exhausting! Perhaps some audiobooks can entertain you on your commute? And yes, there are blessings for each life stage.

  10. March 14, 2014 6:38 am

    I’ve never heard of Dancing Goddesses before, but it sounds like exactly the sort of thing I’ve been wanting to read, lately! Thanks for putting it on my radar.

  11. March 15, 2014 9:53 am

    You description of The Place of Tolerance in Islam sounds like just the sort of thing I’m always looking for, a debate format discussion of issues. I’ve requested it from the library.

  12. March 15, 2014 12:24 pm

    I don’t have comments on any of these books, but I just wanted to tell you that this format is absolutely delightful.

  13. March 15, 2014 9:24 pm

    Oh, I so agree with you about Peter & Harriet. I’d love to reread their books…maybe will make some time this summer. Definitely best to read them all in order ;)

    Dancing Goddesses sounds really interesting, too. Think I’ll have to look it up. The mentions of textiles in her other book makes we want to read that one first, though — I love textiles, so will be putting all these on my list.

    Also, you have convinced me to get Alameddine’s book sooner rather than later. I’ve so enjoyed his previous ones too!

  14. March 17, 2014 4:01 am

    Loved your post, Eva! I am tempted to read some Dorothy L. Sayers myself now :) The format of ‘The Place of Tolerance in Islam’ looks quite awesome! It is wonderful to read a book which is structured like a debate. I have read newspaper / magazine articles like that when I used to explore topical issues. (I remember reading one about the merits of the Pevear / Volokhonsky translation of ‘War and Peace’ – so fascinating. Have you read that?) ‘Women’s Work: the first 20,000 Years’ – I want to read that book! Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it. Happy reading! (On a related topic, have you read Joanna Russ’ ‘How to Suppress Women’s Writing’?) So wonderful to know that you loved ‘An Unnecessary Woman’! How is it when compared to ‘The Hakawati’? Is it better? I know that is a hard question to answer, but I thought I will ask you :)

  15. March 21, 2014 10:15 pm

    It’s hard to believe I have never read Dorothy Sayers! One day… (As an aside, when you are feeling up to it drop me a line or tweet me. We haven’t talked in ages!!)

  16. March 23, 2014 10:10 am

    I was going to mention the Oakland/Ebonics controversy but Christy has beat me to it. I was teaching in San Lorenzo, a small suburb just south of Oakland, at the time so we were all well award of the controversy. It was a big national story for about a month then seemed to basically go away.

    At my school we were of the opinion that whether or not Ebonics was a legitimate language, Standard English was what we all would teach. It’s what’s spoken in the workplace in in the university, so there was really never any debate about it as far as we were concerned.

    The book on Tolerance in Islam sounds very interesting. That’s my problem with your blog you know, I always find something that puts another book in my TBR pile.

  17. March 23, 2014 2:19 pm

    I have several Dorothy Sayers books to read but haven’t tried her yet. It sounds like you had such a great time with your niece

  18. March 29, 2014 2:09 pm

    Spending so much time with your niece sounds just lovely. I haven’t read Dorothy Sayers yet, but this post has just reminded me that I need to start and soon. I am excited to hear about The True History of Paradise.

  19. April 1, 2014 11:09 pm

    Lovely reviews, Eva, as ever! Between you and Cath at REad-Warbler and some other bloggers reading Dorothy Sayers, I am beginning to feel a pull to picking one up – I read them when I was a teenager, so many years ago. I am so delighted you are enjoying them so much.

    I on the other hand am adding Dancing Goddesses to my list asap! That book sounds like it is one I need to read soon.

    I’m glad you enjoyed having your niece come visit. Children are fun, even as they do take up reading time! lol I’m having fun getting my daughter interested in some older children’s books I take out from the library for me to read (Charles de Lint, Holly Black), and she sees the covers and wants to read them too. :-)

  20. April 8, 2014 7:11 am

    I’m ashamed to say I’ve yet to read anything of Sayers, though she has been on my TBR list for quite some time. The more I read about her, the more I am tempted by her work, so one of these days…

  21. April 15, 2014 6:24 am

    I love Dorothy Sayers so much. And you’re right, her brilliance translates into very good mystery stories. I recently learned something new about Dorothy Sayers- she was a huge advocate for classical education and wrote many books and papers on the topic. I’m tempted to pick one up, just because I loved her mysteries so much.

  22. angela permalink
    May 15, 2014 6:34 pm

    Missing you! Hope you come back soon!

  23. everydayhas permalink
    May 21, 2014 8:22 pm

    Oh my gosh, love this: “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. ” :)

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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