Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A New (To Me) Book Meme

Seachanges has tagged me for a book meme and of course I can't resist...

Books I possess:

Or is it books that possess me? I've never done an official count. Some day I'll upgrade my LibraryThing account and catalogue them all properly. But it's safe to say, scanning my bookshelves at home, my bookshelves at work, the errant stacks of books tucked away underneath chairs or in the corners of rooms, and dimly remembered boxes of books secreted in the backs of closets, that my personal collection currently exceeds 4000 books.

Last book(s) read:

I'm always reading several books at once but the last one that I finished reading I read in one evening cover to cover. Dora Bruder is a slim, non-fiction book by French novelist Patrick Modiano and it’s extraordinary. It is, as described on the back cover, "part memoir, part memorial." It's also part quest narrative, part detective story, and part a lot of other things. I will write a proper post about it soon. It's the first bit of Patrick Modiano’s writing that I've read but it most certainly won’t be the last.

Last book(s) bought:

Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano (see above). It's a rare thing for me to buy a book and read it immediately like that, but this one hooked me from the minute I flipped it open on the subway on my way home from the bookstore. I bought it on a whim after I came across it on the remainder table at my university bookstore and it proved a great discovery.

Just to mix things up a little, though, let me also share with you the last books that I checked out of the library. Yesterday I stopped in at the library on my way home from work and picked up Honeymoon and Night Rounds, both novels by Patrick Modiano (see, I told you that Dora Bruder wouldn't be my last encounter with his work!), and Devastating Boys and Other Stories by Elizabeth Taylor (this will be my first exposure to her work and I'm looking forward to it after hearing her praised on various blogs, and how could I resist a collection of short stories titled Devastating Boys?).

Five meaningful books:

I could list a lot more than five, of course, and in singling out these particular titles I'm repeating some things that I've said in previous blog posts. But I'll give myself marks for consistency on that score, instead of deducting them for lack of originality!

1. Betsy and the Great World by Maud Hart Lovelace:
Regular readers of this blog know that I mention Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy books at every opportunity. There are several books from the series that I could single out as particularly meaningful to me. There's Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown in which 12-year-old Betsy makes her first visit to her town's brand new Carnegie library and learns that she has to read good books if she wants to write them. There's Heaven to Betsy at the end of which 14-year-old Betsy concludes that if she abandons her writing altogether for the social whirl of her new high school friends, her talent might wither. And there’s Betsy in Spite of Herself in which the recurring theme is "to thine own self be true." But ultimately my favourite in the series is Betsy and the Great World in which 21-year-old Betsy leaves behind her Minnesota home to spend a year alone in Europe. By this stage in the series, she's sold a few stories and she's beginning to find her voice as a writer. She sets off from Boston harbour in January of 1914 in search of adventure and story material. Betsy's journey in this book, both literal and emotional, was a great source of inspiration to me in childhood and adolescence. As a world traveller, an independent woman, and a writer increasingly dedicated to her craft, Betsy was a heroine to emulate.

2. Man Descending by Guy Vanderhaeghe:
Man Descending was the first book of short stories I ever read. It was my final year of high school, and in the years leading up to it I'd read the odd short story from the literary anthologies that served as texts for English class. But Man Descending was my first sustained exposure and what a great place it was to begin. Vanderhaeghe is a brilliant writer and reading his stories sparked in me an enduring love of the short story form. The fact that Vanderhaeghe is from my home province of Saskatchewan and set many of his stories there gave his work added impact for me. It was a clear demonstration that world-class writing could and did happen right there at home. So, as well as being a wonderful reading experience, Man Descending also served as an inspiration to me in my early attempts to write fiction.

3. The Comforters by Muriel Spark:
I was sufficiently intrigued by the back cover description of this book that I stole it from my older brother. It was required reading for a class he was taking on "The Modern British Novel." I don't think I made off with it until after he'd written the final exam; I hope not. I was immediately drawn into The Comforters by Spark's wit and the sharpness of her use of language. But it was the meta-fictional aspect of the book that really dazzled me. The protagonist, Caroline Rose, suspects that she is a character in a novel. She hears voices narrating her experience accompanied by the clacking of a typewriter. She begins to copy it all down in a notebook. Is she the author of a novel or a character in one? The Comforters provoked me to think more deeply than I ever had before about how a novel is constructed.

4. Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco:
In my youth, I was obsessed with literary life in Paris between the wars, in particular, with the work of expatriate writers from the U.S. and Canada. I immersed myself in memoirs, biographies, literary histories and criticism, novels, stories, and poems. I read Kay Boyle & Robert McAlmon's Being Geniuses Together, Morley Callaghan's That Summer in Paris, Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, Shari Benstock's Women of the Left Bank, Noel Riley Fitch's Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, Janet Flanner's Paris Was Yesterday, Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, and Jean Rhys's Good Morning, Midnight. But of all of these marvellous books, I think that Glassco's memoirs had the strongest impact on me. I fancied myself a poet then and I fear I was overly earnest about it. Glassco's irreverent memoir of the two years that he spent on the fringes of that celebrated expatriate community cut through a lot of literary pretensions including my own. I realized that I had rather more in common with the eighteen-year-old John Glassco who drank more than he wrote in Paris than I did with the more famous literary luminaries with whom he hung about. At the same time, it was reassuring to know that Glassco had eventually buckled down and made a name for himself as a poet, as well as transforming the experiences of his dissolute youth in Paris into a very entertaining book.

5. Ali Smith's The Whole Story and Other Stories:
This is a book of stories about stories which nonetheless succeed as, you guessed it, stories. It's a difficult balance to strike and Smith achieves it brilliantly. These stories cracked wide open my perception of what a short story could be. I read the book three times in a row, then immediately went off and transformed a poem that I'd been trying to write for years into a very odd little story. Although my writing is nothing like Smith's, I can point to her as my most direct literary influence in recent memory.

I think that this meme has been making the rounds for a while, and I'm not sure who is left to tag. If you haven't done it yet, and you'd like to, I would be most interested to read your responses to these questions!


Litlove said...

Loved your answers, Kate! I am a big fan of Patrick Modiano (Rue des boutiques obscures being my favourite) but I have never come across anyone else who's ever heard of him! So that was rather lovely. And I must get hold of that Glassco book (and some of the others you usefully mention too) as I'm a fan of Parisian literary history as well.

Kate S. said...

I suspected that you would be able to offer me some guidance on the work of Patrick Modiano! Unfortunately neither my public nor my university library carries many English translations of his work and I haven't noted "Rue des boutiques obscures" among them. But I'm going to work my way through the ones that they do have and perhaps when I run out I can begin ordering from elsewhere. My "Reading Across Borders" reading has taken a distinctly French turn of late, and the more contemporary French literature I read, the more I understand why Paul Auster felt so comfortable living and writing in France. Funny how a new reading enthusiasm circles back round to an old one!

Seachanges said...

Wonderful list Kate, quite different from the ones I've come across so far and I love the inclusion of books on short stories. Must read patrick Modiano - I have not read any of his but you've convinced me!

daphne sayed said...

++kate, so glad I'm not the only one who buys books and then also goes to the library.It's why my to be read pile is so huge.I really enjoy your blog. Is writing your hobby or aalso how you live?Daphne+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++k++++++++++++++++++++++++++

LK said...

I loved your answers, too. I like your picks -- many I haven't read so now I have some good ones to try to find.

Vive la Betsy-Tacy!

PS I preordered your book -- I'm going to Amazon today and shake the tree!

Dorothy W. said...

I like your list of books; except for the first one, I haven't read them, and two of them I've never heard of. I haven't heard of Modiano either -- I do appreciate how your blog frequently gives me new names to explore!

John Mutford said...

I'm not a big book buyer at all, nor do I keep many, but even so that first question would be a doozy to answer. I live hearing about all these authors who are unfamiliar to me (with the exception of Vanderhaeghe and Spark).

Jack said...

I really must get a Library Thing account too, and I love the thought "books that posses you"