Reading Snapshot: November 2nd
After all of that talk about how much I love rereading, I ended up being disappointed by two books in a row: The Little Stranger, which I finished but oddly failed to engage or even move me terribly much, unlike my first experience, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, which I had planned to read on Halloween but gave up on after page 154, because I was just tired of all of the talk of boys and men vs women (who are apparently not disturbed by time because our wombs make us immortal?), and I didn’t see the point in continuing it when I was in a cranky mood. Look at that sentence: it rivals Henry James! So yesterday I decided that clearly I needed something completely different, and curled up with Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account, a fictional memoir by a Moroccan slave who accompanied the Narvaez expedition, during in which 16th century conquistadors failed abysmally to conquer North America. It’s written in an interesting amalgamation of historic style and modern one that is quite addictive. The storytelling certainly moves at a brisker pace and includes more psychological insight than genuine Renaissance works I’ve read, but the decorative aspects of prose, and frequent references to God, give it a bit of extra flavour. I’m trying to resist the urge to compare it to Ye Olde Shoppe that you might find at a historical reenactment, as I genuinely think Lalami has created an intriguing reimagining with a focus on cultural exchange, rather than engaging in a fun exercise of creative anachronism (which also has its place!), but clearly I couldn’t quite squash the urge. I think that’s because of my inherent skepticism with turning real people into historical fiction characters. I know it’s quite trendy at the moment, and I don’t mind a cameo here and there, but up until now I’ve avoided novels which star real people. It just seems to me such an impertinent liberty, to attribute not just words but thoughts and motivations to other human beings, that I’m not quite comfortable with it. I’d prefer even a thinly fictionalised veneer.
Despite that large hesitation, and wishing it thus featured a fictional Moor on a fictional expedition, I’m very pleased with The Moor’s Account so far. I’m 240 pages into the 320 page ebook edition, so I’m sure I’ll finish it soon. It was just the ticket to snap me out of this fiction reading funk!
I’m also, as always, engaged with some nonfiction as well (in between fiction reads, I read about 240 pages of nonfiction, in chunks of about 60 pages, alternated between two books). I finally finished up Summer World just in time for winter to arrive (and I have Winter World waiting for me), but it left me in the mood for some other types of nonfiction. I’m satisfying the international relations nerd in me with The Bright Continent by Dayo Olopade, which has proved right up my alley (thanks Jenny!). Written by a young Nigerian-American journalist, its upbeat, at times trendy, language could have felt jarring, but instead seems to match the tone of the stories she tells. If I could, I’d make it required reading for all Westerners who regularly follow the conventional media, and thus absorb a steady diet of ‘Woe is Africa’ news. It’s a journalist account, not an academic one, but that is at least part of the point, and as long as you take it for what it is, I think it’s terribly valuable. And fun! Let’s be honest, not too many of these types of books are fun reads, are they? This is a lovely exception, and I can’t wait to get back into it. I especially love the organising conceit of the book: at the beginning, Olopade discusses how Europeans through the ages have tried to map the ‘dark continent’ and ‘discovered’ the source of the Nile, apparently oblivious to the of people already living there, who knew their landscapes quite well. She arranges the book thematically, presenting different maps, or I suppose paradigms, with which to view Africa. I do love a good nerdy, thought-provoking structure in a book!
I was also in the mood for some essays, and I came across some Ursula LeGuin quotes hours before going to the library, so I ended up picking up The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. What kind of book blogger could resist that subtitle? I certainly couldn’t and dove into it after giving up on the Bradbury. I’ve just gotten a bit of the way in, and read the section with more personal essays than lit themed ones, but it’s already been full of reflections on gender and cultures and aging and libraries. In other words, lots of delicious treats, but the kind of healthy, satisfying treats instead of overly sugary ones. Reading this is like eating a bowl of oatmeal with all of your favourite additions thrown in (hazelnuts and blackberries for me, please).
As I began this post with a rereading complaint, I suppose I should end it by mentioning that I’m in love with Anne’s House of Dreams, my current bedtime audiobook, which I’ve read frequently before. Anne hasn’t let me down since I first met her, when I was perhaps 8 or 9 (I remember Anne seemed terribly old to me at 11 in the first book). My other audiobook (that I listen to while walking or doing chores or perhaps while knitting) is a nonfiction history book about the 14th century: A Distant Mirror by Barbara W. Tuchman. After I finished the Lahiri novel, I was really in the mood for a good work of history (Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII was one of my favourite audiobooks this summer), and I’ve been in a medieval mood, so after randomly browsing my library’s online options I chose it. I didn’t bother to check its length, and it wasn’t until I saw 24 parts downloading (representing almost 29 hours of narration) that I realised this would be an epic undertaking! I’m on part 17 now and still going strong; it’s not as engaging as the Weir but engaging enough. My favourite moments are when she gets into details of everyday life, but she manages to bring even the fairly obscure political and military maneuvering to life, and the narrator has a perfectly appropriate academic sounding voice, complete with excellent pronunciation of the various names. ;) My only hesitation is that Tuchman doesn’t seem particularly fond of her subject; indeed, I’m surprised she spent so much time and energy researching people that she often writes about with, at best, a patronising tone, and, at worst, true contempt. Granted, contempt is the best response to some of the atrocities the century saw, but it’s a bit disorienting. I’m not sure I’ll read more by her, although I’ll finish this one up.
And that sums up my current literary doings! I’m off to make some chai (it turned cold this weekend, in the thirties, and I’m loving it) and likely do some knitting while watching an episode from the second season of Miss Phryne Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (newly available on Netflix & full of feminist, Australian flapper fun), before diving back into The Moor’s Account. What are your thoughts on fictionalising real historical figures? Am I being overly fussy?