Saturday, December 31, 2005

Year End Tally

This is the first year that I have consistently kept a book journal. I did so simply so that I would remember which books I’d read and thus be in a position to recommend the best of them. The exercise has yielded much more than that. Like Sandra at Book World, I find in mulling over my record that it challenges some of my preconceptions about myself as a reader. Of course, there is always the possibility that the very act of keeping a record exerted an influence over what I chose to read.

I read 109 books this year. Of these, 70 were fiction and 39 were non-fiction. The fiction was pretty evenly divided between literary fiction, mysteries and YA/children’s novels. One-quarter of the literary fiction titles were short story collections; the rest were novels. The non-fiction spanned a range of topics: biography, memoir, literary criticism, writing and publishing, essays, history, and sociology.

Looking at the dates on which I finished each book, I note that I read nearly half of these books in the first three months of the year. This is not altogether surprising. I was on sabbatical for the first half of the year, and the deadline for submission of my own book manuscript didn’t yet loom large. But I think that the major force that slowed my reading was beginning this blog back in June. I said in my first post that this is precisely the effect I was after. I hoped that writing about what I was reading would compel me to linger a bit over each book and take the time to appreciate the author’s craft. The experiment has worked.

But there were surprises. The first thing that struck me is how many of the books on my list are recent ones. One-third of them were published in 2005. Half of them were published in either 2004 or 2005. I’ve always read more contemporary fiction than classic stuff, but I’ve never been one to race out to the bookstore to line up for new releases. I think that I can link this development to blogging as well. Since I became a regular reader of various litblogs, I hear about and seek out new books much sooner. A positive review by a blogger whose opinions I respect will pique my interest. Or a debate about the merits of a new book will prompt me to read it so that I can join in the conversation.

The second surprise is related to the first. I think of myself as an avid re-reader, someone who frequently revisits old favourites. Yet only six of my 109 books were re-reads. And only three of these were re-reads of old favourites. The others were second reads of new books which I was sufficiently taken with to go back through them immediately in order to figure out exactly how the authors achieved what they achieved.

The most important fact to emerge from my book journal is that I read a lot of good books over the course of the year. Most months I read at least one book that I felt wildly enthusiastic about, and several others which I found very thought-provoking in spite of (or in some instances because of) their flaws. I’ll roll out my ten favourites from 2005 in my next post.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Genre Confusion Redux

In "The Best of 2005 Books" twelve of Newsday’s regular reviewers offer up their personal favourites from the past year.

In her segment, Claire Dederer singles out Melissa Bank’s The Wonder Spot for praise, describing it as “an adept follow-up to The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing.” A few sentences later she prefaces another of her fiction recommendations thus: “And despite the fact that I generally detest linked story collections, I was charmed by Elizabeth McKenzie's Stop That Girl.”

Did Dederer not notice that both The Wonder Spot and The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing are linked story collections? It would appear that half of her top fiction picks for 2005 as well as at least one favourite from a previous year are linked short story collections. How does that square with a general detestation of the form? It’s no wonder that short stories are such a tough sell when even people who like them think that they don’t like them.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Banville's Sea of Words

John Banville, The Sea (Knopf, 2005).

After the stark, minimalist fictions I’ve been reading of late, Banville was a shock to my system. To begin with, the lushness and density of the language was overwhelming. But then I gave myself up to it. I stopped trying to note down particularly beautiful sentences and arresting images -- there were too many -- and just luxuriated in the sea of words.

I recall that in the post-Booker backlash more than one critic poked fun at Banville for his “love affair with the thesaurus.” Certainly I came across quite a few words that I didn’t know before. To which I say: so what? I’m quite happy to have my vocabulary expanded through reading a novel. Is the language pretentious? Sometimes, but so sometimes is the narrator. That’s part of the point. The voice -- both the attention to detail and the choice of words -- is exactly right for this narrator, an aging art historian who has spent much of his life trying to transcend his class origins.

In the first half of the novel it seemed as if detail was accumulating almost haphazardly. I was swept along by the words, enjoying the ride, but with no sense of where it was leading. In the second half, a complex structure began to reveal itself. The narrative steadily layered and looped back on itself. There were shifts in the narrator’s tone marking the progression of his grief and an increase in his drinking. His eye for detail began to seem more fallible and the bit of suspense emanating from the story beneath the story was heightened thereby propelling the novel to its conclusion.

By the end I was in awe of Banville’s capacity to exert such complete yet subtle control over this riot of words. I borrowed this novel from the library but I feel that I must go out and buy a copy for myself immediately. It's a book that demands re-reading.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


Here's another passage from Ted Bishop's Riding with Rilke to which I can relate all too well:

The real problem though is that I can't write unless I'm playing hooky. I never skipped school, was a dutiful student, yet when it comes to writing if you give me a studio, unlimited time, and one thing to work on, I'll dither. But if I have something else to do, I'll work like mad on the forbidden one, the adulterous project.

When I began my book blog, I thought that one of the benefits would be the injection of a bit of discipline into my writing life. In fact, I think the blog has often served as the forbidden project. I can't help but note that over the holidays when I felt less pressure to write other things I didn't blog either.

Of course I don't just blog to procrastinate. And it seems that I also procrastinate about blogging. I've now missed the agreed upon date to post my thoughts on Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold by more than a week. I had read the book and thought about the book before December 18th, but somehow didn't manage to collect my thoughts into a blog post on the appointed day. I will chime in on that discussion soon, I promise.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Reading, Writing and the Road

Today this passage from Ted Bishop’s Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books jumped out at me:

Different modes of travel demand different books. On an airplane I seem to need more action, something like a Martin Cruz Smith thriller. On a motorcycle, at the end of the day I want something with the quiet, intense focus of Carol Shields. […] One summer in Europe I carted around Don Quixote, bored and suspecting that the famous windmill scene gets all the attention because it is only thirty pages in and everyone gives up after that. But I became enchanted with Cervantes and his writing of the book more than with the Don and his adventures, or rather they merged, and the novel’s leisurely journey calmed my own. Sometimes when I’m travelling I begin to feel like a gigantic open nerve on the verge of overload, and that if I see/smell/touch/taste/hear one more thing I’ll explode and all my sensory impressions will be splattered across the landscape. It helps to write (which is why you always see travellers hunched in a scribbling frenzy over their journals or blazing away at the keyboards in internet cafés), but the right book creates a space, orders the cosmos for you, and you look up from it ready again to take in more.

It struck me that my recent spate of slim, intense volumes has something to do with the amount of reading I’ve been doing on the subway. They’re the right size and weight for carrying about but they’re dense enough for me to get a lot out of them even if I can only manage a few pages between transfer points.

When I go away on a real trip, I spend considerably more time agonizing over what books to pack than I do over which clothes and other sundries to bring. It’s a tricky business, making sure that I have enough reading material to carry me through without completely overloading my suitcase. I choose a range of books and make sure to include a few that will bear re-reading. Of course when I arrive at my destination I stock up on a few more as soon as I find a bookstore, thereby rendering all the aforementioned agonizing unnecessary and completely overloading my suitcase for the trip home.

I can very much relate to Bishop’s point about the right book somehow providing order and clarity in the chaos of travel. I don’t write much while travelling though which is a bit odd given that I’m always scribbling away at home. My tendency is to wait until I’ve processed the experience sufficiently to commit it to paper, by which time I may be on to the next place, or already back home. I've had to discipline myself to write while on the road to properly preserve the details.

How do you choose which books to travel with? Do you write while on the road?

Thursday, December 15, 2005

An Inside View of a Life Unravelling

Before now, I’d never given David Gilmour’s fiction a chance. For many years, Gilmour was a fixture on CBC television’s arts beat and I found his media persona -- a species of hard-living ladies’ man -- rather off-putting. His early fiction appeared to be very much in sync with that media persona and so didn’t capture my interest. I flipped through his books in the bookstore or in the library, but never took one home. I realize that the media persona may not be an accurate reflection of the man himself and, even if it is, that I don’t have to like a person to like the fiction that they create. Still, there are a lot of books in the world, and sometimes the flimsiest of reasons is enough to make me choose one book over another.

But when Gilmour’s latest novel, A Perfect Night to Go to China, won the 2005 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, friends whose opinions I respect, who often like the same books I do, who rarely get excited about what writer wins what prestigious literary award, got very excited. They pronounced it a brave and brilliant choice. I went out and got myself a copy of the book.

At the beginning of the novel, Roman is at home with his six-year old son Simon. His wife M. is out of the country on a business trip. After he’s put Simon to bed for the night, Roman hears strains of music coming from the bar on the corner of his street. It’s only a block away, within sight of his house. Roman steps out. Fifteen minutes and two quick beers later, he returns home to find the front door of his house open and his son gone.

Throughout the rest of the novel, Roman grapples with the loss of his son and with his guilt for letting it happen. I’m not sure how anyone musters the resources to cope with this kind of tragedy. Roman, an utterly self-absorbed character, is perhaps even less equipped for it than most. The story is told in the first person in spare, clean, evocative prose. The reader gets an inside view of a life, and a mind, unraveling without any histrionics. The effect is fascinating, chilling, and heart-breaking.

A Perfect Night to Go to China is an astonishing, powerful book. I highly, highly recommend it.

Monday, December 12, 2005

One Hundredth Book

I’ve been keeping a book journal this year for the first time ever. Last night, I logged the title of my 99th book read so far this year. Suddenly, the choice of what to read next took on undue significance. Surely my 100th book of the year should be something special? This is silly for a number of reasons, not least of which the fact that I’ve got four or five half-read books lying around and chances are that one of those will end up being the 100th book finished rather than something new that I start today.

Still, despite being a generally logical person, I’m a bit superstitious about numbers. For example, when I draw up a grocery list, if it has thirteen items on it, I’ll take one off or add another one. I can’t help but feel that my 100th read of the year should be a worthy book. The trick is being able to gauge in advance whether a book will be a worthy one.

What should I opt for? John Banville’s The Sea which I have been so eagerly anticipating? Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad or Jeanette Winterson’s The Weight both of which I’m even keener to check out after reading Caroline Alexander’s assessment of them in the NYTBR this weekend? Gutted, a first book of poems by Evie Christie whose reading at her launch last week blew me away? Ted Bishop’s Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcyles and Books the description of which is sufficiently intriguing that I suspect it will be one of my best non-fiction reads this year, if I manage to read it this year?

In the end, I think it will be Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This is the selection for a virtual book club proposed by Quillhill and joined by Ella, Stefanie, Susan, Sylvia, and Maryann, and no doubt others like me who have been slow to announce their participation. The date to post about the book is fast approaching (December 18th) so I'd better get started. And I suspect that I can’t go wrong with this one as my 100th book. Though if I really want the numbers to align, perhaps it ought to have been One Hundred Years of Solitude

Saturday, December 10, 2005

New Colour Scheme

I've been experimenting with the colour scheme of my blog in an attempt to make the text easier to read. Let me know what you think.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Light Relief

I’ve read some weighty books of late. Not literally weighty -- rather, spare works which proved powerful, intense, sometimes devastating. I will post on them once I’ve had a proper chance to mull each one over, but in the meantime I’ve been feeling the need for a little light relief. Thus yesterday was the perfect moment to find Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels awaiting me on the library hold shelf.

Christopher Morley (1890-1957) had more than 50 books published and played all manner of important roles in American literary life throughout his lifetime. Yet somehow I’d never heard of him until first Quillhill and then Ella waxed eloquent about him on their blogs (Necessary Acts of Devotion and Box of Books respectively). I’m very glad to have finally made his acquaintance. Parnassus on Wheels is a thoroughly delightful book.

The year is 1915. Our heroine is Helen McGill, a thirty-nine year old spinster who assists her brother Andrew in the running of his New England farm. Andrew is a literary man, however, and since his books have become successful, his attention to the farm and his appreciation of the work that Helen does have diminished considerably. Helen takes pride in her domestic accomplishments but she doesn’t like being saddled with all the work and she doesn’t like being taken for granted. Enter our unlikely hero. Roger Mifflin rolls into the farmyard in the “Parnassus on Wheels” of the title: a travelling bookshop. He’s been travelling around the countryside evangelizing about literature but he’s ready to pack it in to write a book of his own. He’s seeking a buyer for the Parnassus and he thought that Andrew would be a likely candidate. In an uncharacteristically impulsive moment, Helen makes the purchase herself. She rationalizes that she’s simply trying to prevent Andrew from doing the same and disappearing from the farm once and for all. But it soon becomes apparent that the seemingly settled Helen is out for a bit of adventure. In the travelling book trade, she finds it.

Just to give you a bit of the flavour of the book, here’s Roger Mifflin on the power of books:

“Lord!” he said, “when you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue -- you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night -- there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean."

And Helen on the sudden change in her life:

Since the morning of the day before my whole life had twisted out of its accustomed orbit. I had spent four hundred dollars of my savings; I had sold about thirteen dollars’ worth of books; I had precipitated a fight and met a philosopher. Not only that, I was dimly beginning to evolve a new philosophy of my own.

Parnassus on Wheels serves up adventure and romance in witty fashion with a heartening message about the power of good books underlying it all. Based on this book, I’d judge Christopher Morley a master of lively diversion. I mean this as sincere praise. While books deemed “light reading” may be easy on the reader, there’s no reason to presume that they’re easy on the author. It’s hard work to produce an effective bit of light reading and it’s a real injustice that the skill of writers of comedic work is so often underestimated.

I’ve got the sequel, The Haunted Bookshop, lined up ready to go.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Another Banner Haul

Another banner haul from the hold shelf at the library:

Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad;
John Banville, The Sea;
John Berger, This is Where We Meet;
Christopher Morley, Parnassus on Wheels;
Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop;
Annie Proulx, Close Range: Wyoming Stories; and,
Ricardo Sternberg, The Invention of Honey.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Showing by Telling

James Salter, Last Night: Stories (Knopf, 2005).

“Show, don’t tell,” is a cardinal rule of fiction writing. If you enrol in a creative writing class, this is likely the first bit of advice with which your instructor will pummel you. It’s a good rule, particularly for beginning writers. But I’ve found that many of the best writers are brilliant tellers. James Salter is a brilliant teller.

In most of the stories in Salter’s latest collection, Last Night, very little happens. They are comprised of brief sketches of scenes and snatches of dialogue. The entire story may unfold within the confines of a single dinner party, or a few hours of after-dinner drinks on a girls’ night out. To begin with, it seems like it’s just surface detail. But the details are so carefully chosen, so sharply delineated, that they serve to excavate all that lies beneath. The inner workings of characters, of relationships, of a whole complex world, are thereby revealed.

Much of what Salter does here exemplifies the phrase “telling detail.” For example, he sets the scene in the first story, “Comet,” with these lines: “Philip married Adele on a day in June. It was cloudy and the wind was blowing. Later the sun came out. It had been a while since Adele had married and she wore white…” In “My Lord You,” we see the host of a dinner party “mutter[ing] in profile” and are told: “He seldom looked at anyone.” A drunken guest who’s just arrived late to that party is described thus: “The irrational flickered from him.”

Two particular strengths of these stories are the dialogue and the endings. The dialogue is short and sharp and revealing. Again and again, a few lines of missed-communication dialogue lay bare whole relationships between characters. More than once, the ending of a story surprised me, yet at the same time I felt that the story couldn’t have ended any other way. Salter’s last lines are frequently devastating and perfect, echoing and amplifying everything that has gone before.

I had a few quibbles with Last Night. Salter eschews quotation marks, opting to use dashes instead to indicate dialogue. I found this practice distracting and sometimes confusing. A few repetitions from story to story also distracted me momentarily:

1. Women’s long legs and beautiful backs: Surely other features could have been used to denote female beauty on occasion?

2. Characters whom “everybody liked:” This worked for me as a shorthand descriptor for a certain type of man once, but not twice or a third time.

3. Caviar: Caviar was only on the menu in two stories, but it was two of the first three stories which led me to wonder into what alien world I'd stumbled. That said, it was quickly apparent that the truths that lie beneath this glittering facade resonate far beyond the rarefied existence of Salter's wealthy and sophisticated characters.

As soon as I finished reading Last Night, I flipped back to the start and began again. These are very short short stories but there’s so much roiling beneath the surface that, satisfying though the book is the first time through, it demands re-reading. Last Night is a brilliant book.