Field Notes, vol 17
We’re nine days into March, and spring has suddenly arrived. The songbirds know it; despite a snowfall on Saturday, they spend their time chittering in bushes and trees, especially the evergreens. The icicles know it, dripping in the brighter sun and temperatures above freezing for the first time in ages. Even the clocks know it. I seem to be the only one who cares about the vernal equinox, which gives us another eleven days of winter. Let’s not rush things.
This outer shift is mirrored by an inward shift; it began in the latter part of February and has now begun to unfurl. After a couple weeks spent dreaming and scheming about a grand European adventure, I did some soul searching, and realised that I was falling back into old habits. One of my coping mechanisms when I was younger, and my illnesses took away most of my choices about life, was to plan epic trips I’d go on one day. A fairly innocuous coping mechanism to be sure, and as a result I can chat with you about the best games parks in Zambia or the night markets of Bangkok, but I don’t need it anymore. I am living just where I want to be, for the first time since I was twenty-two. I don’t know how long this good fortune will last, and it seems a shame to miss out on a month of my first Northeast spring, especially May, when presumably we’ve gotten over the slush and to the good bits. The world will always be there, changed, but still. Such romantic adventures can wait a bit; for now, I’d like to go adventuring closer to home. After all, I moved to upstate New York because I love its natural world and sense of history (both bigger and personal; my mother’s family is descended from immigrants who came to farm in this region). I also love being within a train ride of big cities, big enough to be known worldwide, that I’ve yet to explore. And of course, I love my new, smaller city, and have just begun to scratch the surface of what it has to offer.
It took several days of wrestling with myself, but once I’d made the decision to spend my spring here, I felt at peace. I began to turn my attention to the here and now; instead of future adventures, I spent time and energy sorting out the apartment. I’ve put hung decoar and pictures and art on the walls (including a quotation by one of my favourite authors; any guesses who?), rearranged the cupboards and closets, and in the process begun to put down those first delicate roots. A lifetime of moving has made me hesitant to put nails in walls, but I pulled out a hammer and got to work. I’m amazed at how much my mood is lifted by decorated walls, and how much easier the reorganising has made my daily life, with what I need most frequently is just within reach. I did some early deep spring cleaning, and the sparkling result makes to easy to keep up with weekly cleaning maintenance. I’ve loved my apartment since I saw it, but now it feels like an organic part of me, and I feel deeply happy and content every time I walk through the door. Every aspect of daily life is just a bit sweeter, and I’m so glad I put forth the effort and energy. Of course, it’s still a work in progress, but isn’t everything? The trick is to enjoy the process, I suppose. And yes, I’ll be inviting you on a photographic tour soon!
I am still going on a spring adventure, in case you’re curious. It will just be to Baltimore, D.C., and New York City, and done via train instead of plane. I’m still terribly excited and will still be putting my backpack to good use. Feel free to share any suggestions, bookish or otherwise, for any of those cities! Or e-mail me if you’d like to meet up.
March has so far turned out to be a more organic reading month too; being bookish feels effortless again. First I read The Seeker by R.B. Chesterton as an audiobook, finishing it over the course of two days (apartment sorting lends itself well to audiobooks). It’s a suspense novel that pays a bit of homage to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw: told entirely from one point of view, it’s never quite clear to the reader whether the ghosts are real or in the narrator’s head. Did I mention the narrator is a literature grad student who took a cabin for the winter to work on her dissertation? Who can resist a bookish heroine? If you’re looking for a solid evil ghost tale (that includes creepy dolls! I love creepy dolls!), with a wonderfully wintry New England setting, souther Gothic undertones, and a smattering of Thoreau and the Transcendentalists for fun, you should definitely try this out. There are a few uneven bits, the ending felt a touch too abrupt, and there were several instances of hugely problematic depictions of mental illness (minor to the overall story but no less icky for that), but in my opinion it lives up to the promise of its cover! I enjoyed the audioversion too; I came across it while randomly browsing Hoopla. I decided to try it out, but wasn’t expecting too much, so I was pleasantly surprised. I’ll definitely be reading more of R.B. Chesterton’s books (a pseudonym for the author’s creepier novels) when I’m in the mood for a good, old-fashioned scare. And she’ll definitely be on my R.I.P. list this year.
I next picked up a hardcover version of Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint, part of his Newford series. I discovered de Lint in 2007, when I first began book blogging and joined the Once Upon a Time Challenge. I loved him, and the way he creates distinctly North American urban folk/fairy tales and began working my way through the Newford series (not a traditional fantasy series, but all books set in the same fictional city inhabited by the same characters, who might be major characters in one and minor in another, sort of like Trollope’s Barsetshire & Palliser books) in published order, but somehow I fell out of that habit. I think what happened is I read the two books he published under a pseudonym, which were both much darker, and they left me with so disturbed I ended up with a bit of an aversion to him. Luckily, last year I read his Jack, the Giant Killer retelling, as I’m treating myself to all of the Fairy Tale Series, edited by Terri Windling (I have yet to read a bad book from that series, all written by different authors, so if you’re a fantasy lover as well, you ought to look it up), and it reminded me of how much I love his regular books. So I popped over to his section on one of my library visits, and chose this one based mainly on the title. My heart has a forest too. It turned out to be a real treat, combining First People/northern Native American folklore with that from the Southwest’s traditions (both pre- and post-Spaniards) and Irish legends; in other words, a cultural mixing similar to the immigration that’s shaped my country and de Lint’s Canada. It felt wonderful to see that diversity valued and respected, and nothing in his various depictions set off any racist/stereotyping alarm bells for me (granted, I’m a white woman, so that’s the judgement of an outsider, albeit who has read a smattering of Native American and Latin@ authors, including nonfiction about cultural appropriation/privilege issues), and I was certainly concerned about such possibilities when I began it. Of course, any fantasy book is going to invoke certain mythic or folklore figures, and play up cultural differences for the sake of the story, but all of the characters are individuals, and all of the belief systems felt equally valid, if that makes sense.
It’s tricky to talk about such issues without a hundred disclaimers, isn’t it?But I think it’s important to try to do so, however clumsily. The novel itself is what I think of as classic de Lint: most of the characters are outside of mainstream North American society (musicians, artists, etc.) and poverty of various kinds is depicted. I really love that, to be honest; it’s nice to break out of the middle class mode. There are lots of strong women, several of whom have curly hair and big eyes and tiny bodies that they are prone to dressing in oversized men’s clothes (lol; if authors have a type, that’s de Lint’s). People make mistakes, which they can sometimes fix, and sometimes they can’t. Love and respect are powerful forces, although the darker sides of human nature are powerful as well. There are wonderful descriptions of folk music. And the intersection between the magical world and the real one is just around every bend. Oh, and there are trees. I do love trees.
If any of that appeals to you, and you’ve yet to discover de Lint, definitely give him a try. If the sheer amount of options in the Newford books overwhelms you, you can always start with a standalone. Both Jack, the Giant Killer and The Little Country are my favourites that I’ve read so far, but I haven’t read them all yet. ;) If you’re already a de Lint fan, rest assured that Forests of the Heart is very satisfying. I’ll be picking up more of his books, and sooner rather than later. Especially since the OUaT challenge is just around the corner!
Oh dear. I’m at 1600 words already; I’ve been working on this off and on between running down to switch out laundry loads. I’ll talk about just one more book tonight then; tomorrow I’m off to stay with my grandmother, who has no internet, and I’m not sure how long I’m staying. So this is likely my only chance to blog this week, unless I get better at blogging from my phone. So feel free to read this post in chunks if it’s too long for one session. ;)
4If my first two reads fell into fairly obvious genre categories, my third, The Night Counter by Alia Yunis, falls squarely into the ‘magical realist, immigrant epic family saga’ one (I also read it as an ebook, so it provided yet a third format for reading to my month). I say that with affection, as I find that genre irresistable. ;) Yunis, like most of her characters, is Lebanese American. I believe The Night Counter is her debut, and I really loved it; I know that sometimes, like any genre, these books can feel stale or too stereotypical, but this one manages to have all of the expected tropes but still be engaging and touching. I had a great time getting to know Fatimah Abdullah, an octongenarian who immigrated from Lebanon to the US upon her marriage at eighteen, and went on to have ten children. 992 days ago, Scheherazade appeared to her, and Fatimah knew she had 1,001 days to tell stories of her life, and then she would die. The book follows the last few days, and in between Fatimah’s stories, Scheherazade peeks into the lives of the children and grandchildren and occasionally great grandchildren Fatimah mentions. The reason this works is that Yunis is fabulous at making each character’s narrative voice distinct; a pet peeve of mine is when a novel has multiple narrators who all sound the same, even if their thoughts are different. I want each narrator to have their own rhythm and style of speaking; Yunis delivers an impressive range! And while they certainly span a spectrum of US destinies, they all feel real, instead of like the products of a writing workshop (you know what I mean if you’ve read much contemporary ‘literary’ work). There’s a lot of humour in the book, including bits that had me laughing out loud, although there’s pathos as well.
Ultimately, it’s the kind of book that uses its wide range of characters to delve into how we create our lives, and the stories we craft out of whatever raw material we’re given, although it does so in a lighthearted way. All of the characters felt terribly real to me, and they made the book a real joy to read. I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but I definitely want to pick up more of Yunis’ work and would recommend The Night Counter to any story lover. This is her only novel so far, but she’s making a documentary about olive oil and Middle Eastern women that I hope I’ll be able to watch.
As you can tell, I’ve had a really wonderful reading time so far this month. Circumstances have currently slowed down my reading, and made me more likely to reach for a novel than nonfiction, but when I am able to pick up a book, I’ve had nothing but good experiences so far.
What about you? Has March been full of favourites? Anything you’d especially recommend?