State of the Reading 2011

I used to do reading roundups every year on my Livejournal on January 1st of the new year, like clockwork. I did the first at the dawn of 2004, reporting that I had read in 2003 46 books (“not counting plays, graphic novels, magazines or school books”). In 2004 I read 39 books and described the total as “disappointing”. 2005 got worse with a total of 38 books, with the caveat that “in my defense I am in school and had to read an awful lot of journals, textbooks and notes which don’t appear on this list.” 2006 was a strong 46 again, but in 2007 I only eked out 19, a flop I attributed to learning to knit instead. 2008 I read 22 (“The excuse: Was knitting a blanket 4-8h a day solidly between March and June. Also, had a baby.”)

In 2009 I started blogging and read only 18 books officially because I didn’t want to own up in public that I read Twilight that year. I didn’t even bother to make an excuse then, because I suspect by this point I’d come to realize that I am actually a very slow reader who needs a dedicated 8h a day of uninterrupted reading time if I’m to even manage a book a week.  In 2010 I moved my round-up to the blog rather than my LJ and added fancy graphics (because I am fancy). Surprisingly I managed to read 40 books and 32 graphic novels that year because, I think, I was back at work while strangers looked after my child – not sure how that works out in karma.

And all of that is a prelude to this year’s excuse. The Excuse has become as much of a yearly tradition, I now see, as the list itself. By the raw numbers 2011 looks okay:

Books read: 31

Books read before the baby was born: 23

Books read after the baby: 8

Not bad, right? We’re back to my pre-children numbers! But I have an excuse for excellence this time: I cheated. At least, what I did counts as cheating to me. I’m a bit of a subscriber to the Georgian philosophy of reading. It should hurt a little. It should be edifying. Reading “just novels” is fun, but perhaps not the very best use of one’s time. This is my way of avoiding hypocrisy.  I like video games, but I wouldn’t advocate playing them all the time. I like television, but I don’t think you should watch it all the time. I like to read, but I don’t think you should just read novels all the time. It’s fun. It’s leisure. But leisure is what you get up to when your day of hard work is over, when you have a bit of time to yourself.

I like to challenge myself when I read, and this year I most assuredly did not. I re-read all of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. I re-read the entire Game of Thrones series. I read Patrick Rothfuss and Connie Willis. I indulged because, dammit, I spent half the year pregnant while caring for a toddler, gave birth in my basement without any kind of pain killers, then parented two pre-schoolers almost entirely by myself. That was my work this year. I was full up on work, thank you very much.

So maybe my numbers should look like this:

Challenging books read: 14

Indulgent books read: 17

Lives created: 1

Lives sustained: 4

As 2012 runs me down like a herd of panicked wildebeests I can only hope I am able to keep up a pace like the latter minus, knock on wood, the life created. A handful of books to make me a better reader, and a pile to keep me jolly while I continue with my new, harder job: sustaining lives!

Review: River of Smoke Is Why The Year Wasn’t As Bad As It Looks

You would think in a year that the Giller short list was described as “unusually strong” the Globe and Mail could have sounded less apologetic about the books which made their Globe 100 (The Very Best Books of 2011).  1Q84: “This colossus is expansive, enthralling, but also an over-long and occasionally exasperating foray into the lure of fanatical beliefs.” A Dance With Dragons:  “The story has expanded far beyond the original characters to become a labyrinthine edifice”. Blue Nights: “This book … is somewhat jumbled.” By Love Possessed: “As a rule, this, broadly deployed, amusingly distances us.”  The word “but” appears 24 times. The book suffers from these faults BUT in the end it was okay.  I guess.  If you really must read something.

I’m not being entirely fair, of course. I’m probably projecting my own feelings about much of what I read of 2011. By some miracle I have actually read two of the books which made the list – The Sisters Brothers and A Dance With Dragons – and my reaction to both titles was pretty similar given how completely different they are. That was fun, I guess. So that happened. The much-lauded Sisters Brothers was definitely the better of the two, being more stylistically adventurous and, you know, succinct.  Unlike Dance it had an idea of where it was going and went there. Along the way I laughed. I appreciated deWitt’s human characters in circumstances which might have more easily fallen into melodrama. But (but) ultimately I found The Sisters Brothers too simple and too shallow. A clever edifice and some elegant language doesn’t make a great book for me. I might never have mentioned anything but for the bewildering heap of awards which continue to rain down on it. If anything I feel the need to mention that I find this bewildering. The book was good. It was not great.

I wonder if the Globe’s many reviewers felt similarly. A year of good books – maybe not great ones, but good. Of course, in a year, how many new releases do we actually manage to read? I’m a slow reader – I only managed 32-ish books this year. Of those a tiny fraction were newly published this year, a nice round five. I’ll name them for you: Pigeon English by Steven KelmanWise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin and River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh. But even in so small a sampling I think I can do the Globe’s reviewers one better, because I thought River of Smoke was absolutely fabulous.

For those of you just tuning in, River of Smoke is Amitav Ghosh’s “sequel” to his 2008 Booker-nominated Sea of Poppies. Calcutta-born Ghosh has said that these books (which Wikipedia describes as “the Ibis trilogy”, though I have heard Ghosh say there may well be more than three of them by the time he’s done with these characters) represent his attempt to show that there existed – and exists – a globalized world exclusive of Western influence. The theme of both books thus far can probably be broadly described as being “trade”, though for Ghosh no ology or ism is outside his purview. We have Free Trade and slavery, colonialism and multiculturalism, racism and camaraderie, modernism and magical realism. Ghosh’s project is to show that we have always been modern, been globalized, and furthermore “we” needn’t necessarily include a single European.

Half way through Sea of Poppies I was skeptical. I felt Ghosh’s politics were simply too heavy-handed. Characters were having the most appallingly contemporary conversations about neo-liberal political ideologies thickened by the worst kind of in-your-face racism. It wasn’t even satire, it was just a blunt stick. An example, from a British trader’s casual conversation in Sea:

‘The war, when it comes, will not be for opium. It will be for a principal: for freedom – for the freedom of trade and for the freedom of the Chinese people. Free Trade is a right conferred on Man by God, and its principals apply as much to opium as to any other article of trade. More so, perhaps, since in its absence many millions of natives would be denied the lasting advantages of British influence.’

So I thought, until I heard Ghosh interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel during the 2008 International Festival of Authors. Then I learned that Ghosh wasn’t just piping his politics through villainous caricatures, but was actually using conversations cribbed entirely from historical archives. This spun my understanding of the novel entirely on its head: this was real. We really were modern. Nothing has changed. This isn’t a new fight. There are valuable lessons to be learned and Ghosh was serving up history in the best possible way.

River of Smoke does not pick up where Sea of Poppies left off. Ghosh smartly avoids the “and then…” soap opera styling that genre fiction almost always falls into (*ahem* A Dance With Dragons) by literally scattering his characters all over the colonized world with one Deus ex hurricane. River follows the storylines of two of Sea‘s main characters, Paulette, the French-Indian botanist and Neel, the Bengali rajah-cum-escaped convict. Both characters find themselves in early 19th century Canton amid the politics and events that lead up to the First Opium War. The effect of the “scattering” is to arrive at an entirely new novel which does not in any way require the reader to have read Sea of Poppies, but continues exploring the events, politics, and connections which informed the far East.

Ghosh can do it all, as far as I’m concerned. His writing is stylish, poetic and beautiful. His story is exciting, funny, and human. The history is layered with human stories on top of quirky facts (like the incidental history of chai and samosas) couched in the big geopolitical picture.  He uses a variety of pidgin dialects without providing (as he did in Sea) a glossary, but it takes no time at all for the reader to become fluent. Even at 500+ pages, the read never feels overwhelming or over-long. Every word has its place.

Maybe Ghosh doesn’t need my little recommendation, being as he already has had about every possible positive endorsement a writer can hope for in his career.  But I loved this book so much and it pains me to see it passed over on this year’s Best Of lists (so far) in favour of other books which don’t even seem to come 100% recommended by their recommenders.  I won’t qualify my praise at all: this book is excellent. Read it. And read Sea of Poppies while you’re at it. You are missing a real feast!

Genre Snobbery

“As merely one example, the National Book Foundation, which administers the National Book Awards, states that “retellings of folk-tales, myths, and fairy-tales are not eligible” for their awards. Imagine guidelines that state, “Retellings of slavery, incest, and genocide are not eligible.” Fairy tales contain all those themes, and yet the implication is that something about fairy tales is simply… not literary. Perhaps the snobbery has something to do with their association with children and women. Or it could be that, lacking any single author, they discomfit a culture enchanted with the myth of the heroic artist. Or perhaps their tropes are so familiar that they are easily misunderstood as cliché. Possibly their collapsed world of real and unreal unsettles those who rely on that binary to give life some semblance of order.”

– Kate Bernheimer, in her introduction to My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

Style vs Narrative (tangential to Whale Music)

I have long considered myself a Paul Quarrington fan. I started with Home Game, a fish-out-of-water tale featuring an ex-pro baseball player and a band of circus freaks.  Shortly after reading that, I met my now-husband who was also, as it turns out, a fan of Quarrington and who lent me Civilization, a fish-out-of-water tale featuring a movie stunt man and a band of early cinema freaks.  Then King Leary won Canada Reads 2008 (a fish-out-of-water tale featuring an ex-hockey player and his team of hockey freaks) and I read it too.  In the meantime, I bought Spirit Cabinet, Galveston and Whale Music, all for future reading.

Whale Music is considered, I think, to be Quarrington’s best. It won the Governor General’s Award in 1989 and was made into a film a little while later. My husband has long teased me for not having read it so this month I finally did. I was unsurprised to find it a fish-out-of-water tale featuring an addled rock star and a wealth of music-industry freaks.   Whale Music was a great book, but I fear I took too long getting to it.  I had, basically, read it already.

Quarrington’s books share much, maybe too much.  The main character is addled – often by addition (booze, drugs).  He’s haunted by a trauma in his past, and much of the novel is told in flashbacks. The hero’s memory of the trauma is obscured and avoided, eventually to be revealed after a culmination of smaller, present-day stresses.  A motley and colourful cast of weirdos and freaks bring humour and life to the hero’s past and present.  Ultimately, all four Quarrington novels I have read have been the same story: redemption and reconciliation with the past.  The setting changes, the characters get new names, but the rest stays the same.

The thing is, I like Quarrington’s style.  I don’t begrudge him his voice, and I don’t expect him to re-invent himself with each subsequent novel.  My favourite authors are typically people with very strong authorial voices and styles, distinguishable from a paragraph.  I prefer an authorial voice separate from his story, like Robertson Davies or T.H. White – “Let me tell you a tale…”  It works well when the author is a masterful storyteller.  There’s something comforting about hearing a new story in the trusted voice of a favourite.

The trouble comes when the author has a strong voice and a distinct style but doesn’t have a new story or, worse, doesn’t tend to write “narrative” novels in the first place.  Then we get a real feeling of repetition.  This is perhaps why I shy away from non-narrative writers in general.  They can be master stylists until the words run dry, but unless they find a way to re-invent their style and voice in every subsequent novel, another 300 pages of the same flowing verse every three years isn’t an attractive read.  Certainly they could just keep reinventing their voice.  But then, what’s the attraction of “a new novel by…” if it bears no similarity to the previous novel?

I’ve the same reaction to musicians or bands who feel the need to reinvent themselves, by the way – unless the new direction is a genuine organic growth into a new style (like Robert Page’s fantastic newer work with Alison Krauss), the “new” version of an old band often just feels forced and devoid of whatever made them good in the first place.  A rare artist is really musically mobile: most of them should stick to what they know.

Quarrington falls somewhere in between.  He isn’t a strictly stylistic writer, but his style extends into his plots – he writes the same style of narrative, in the same style of voice.  Plot differences keep my attention just enough to give up his books as truly redundant.  But I’m becoming disheartened. He had a wonderful voice and was a great writer of funny stories – why couldn’t he pick up a new story somewhere along the way?

But then, where are any of the great storytellers these days? Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon and I (don’t I keep great company?) have recently written treatise on the same thing: contemporary fiction is losing the art of great storytelling.  Style just isn’t enough.  Look at Canadian literature’s recent prize-winning offerings.  Young first-novelists with a great handle on style and language burst out the gate and wow us all with their debut novel, short on plot, perhaps, but beautifully written!   Then they disappear into obscurity as subsequent novels are vaguely praised as promising.  Because we’ve already read their story, you see.  Now what remains is a stylishness – but what shall it be applied to?  If these writers have it in them to be great storytellers, that is an element of their writing which isn’t being encouraged. “Narrative” styles don’t have a great literary reputation.  God help you if write a historical novel. A science fiction novel. A mystery, a Western, or something nautical.

I was a little heartened to hear this morning that I am not alone in feeling some great writers are really repetitive.  Of course Roth is a brilliant writer – but so what? Why read a new, same-old book when I could read the best of his older books again?

Pigeon English & Voice

After a hiccup earlier this month, I finally went back and plowed through the last fifty pages of Steven Kelman’s promising debut novel, Pigeon English. It was difficult, but not because of the quality of the book – this will not be, per se, a review proper, but let me just assure you right off the bat that this is a good book, whatever else I will say about it below.  No, it was difficult because it is a tragic book, and at the moment I am feeling particularly unable to deal with stories in which horrible things happen to children. This isn’t much of a spoiler, by the way. The first page opens with one child’s ruminations on the blood leaking out of another, dead, child.

Kelman’s novel is set in a ghetto where 11-year-old Harrison Opoku has settled after immigrating to England from Ghana with his mother and older sister. Unlike in so many other books about poverty and social decline depicted in terms of the unreadably tragic horrors they wreak on children – Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals comes immediately to mind – Opoku’s personal history isn’t terribly dark at all.  He has a father, baby sister and grandmother back in Ghana who are just waiting for their turn to join the rest of the family in the UK.  Kelman hasn’t burdened Harri with abusive caregivers, any history of sexual abuse, drug addiction, child labour, early loss – none of that. He’s just an observant and adventurous kid taking in his new society as it comes to him.  He seems like he might come through whatever trials this impoverished English neighbourhood might offer him in good shape.

The story is told in the first person by Harri with only occasional (and ill-advised) digressions into the head of a pigeon.  I found this choice of voice – Harri, not the pigeon – problematic. I don’t take issue in general with authors who choose to tell a story in a voice completely unlike their own.  Authors who choose to give a voice to minorities, the mentally ill, murderers, animals, or cans o’ beans are welcome to do so regardless of their own age, colouring or species.  In doing so they often give voices to segments of the population utterly under-represented in fiction. Kelman’s background growing up in an estate similar to Harri’s even gives him some insider credibility – he knows what it is to be a kid in a housing project. Very well.

Regardless, I found myself skeptical of the direction Harri’s story took, a doubt that would have been dispelled if I’d felt the author was a little more representative of the character he was giving voice to. I felt there was a disconnection between Harri’s relatively stable situation and innocent voice, and the fate that eventually befalls him.  Why Harri, who has friends, family and a strong sense of self, should have become embroiled with the Dell Farm Crew isn’t entirely clear to me, unless we assume powerful gangs offer equal temptation to all young boys. Though doesn’t that to some extent dull the argument sometimes made that the young men in violent gangs are “troubled”; that gangs are the last refuge for a culture of poor, powerless boys without strong paternal guidance? Certainly the implication offered by HBO’s stunning (and utterly believable) series The Wire is that young people are sucked into the violence of the “corners” are forced there by deteriorating social conditions and horrifying personal circumstances.  Harri, coming from a place of relative strength, doesn’t seem to belong there.

Kelman’s thesis can be said to be, then, that this can happen even to smart, resourceful young men who just happen to live in the wrong place and who turn up at the wrong time.  The real tragedy of Harri’s story is that he’s fundamentally a good kid, and still gets eaten by the estate. I’m skeptical. Many people, every day, survive the ghettos, projects and housing estates of deteriorating Western cities.  Why not Harri? Is this just a story of bad luck? I’d feel reassured if I knew the author really had been there. Given a claim that seems dubious to me, I’d appreciate a claimant with more authority. It would leave me with a better sense that Pigeon English is a book about the rot of Western society, rather than it’s being another addition to the growing ranks of tragedy-porn.

But enough of that. I maintain the book is basically good. It has other virtues, and I encourage you to read the review offered by Kerry Clare at Pickle Me This.  Kelman has a clear talent for evoking and provoking, and I’d eagerly check out whatever he has to offer next.

I can YOSS too!

A bunch of smart and dedicated persons (I hesitate to say “ladies”, but I think they might all be ladies) have declared 2011 to be the Year of the Short Story.  Now while I don’t think I am very likely to want to spend a year reading nothing but short stories (which is not, by the way, what they are suggesting), I can’t argue with their aim:  to bring short fiction to a larger audience.

Once upon a time I was a heavy short story reader. I am now a light short story reader. The last anthology I read was I read was Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio’s Stories, which I’d say was a mixed success.  It certainly contained a couple stories I just loved (notably Neil Gaiman’s The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains and Michael Moorcock’s Stories), and at least one I want to go back to (Jeffrey Ford’s Polka Dots and Moonbeams). But it also had it’s share of silly, hackneyed stories featuring overdone themes – like Walter Mosley’s Juvenal Nyx (oh good, another angsty, vampire-with-a-soul story) and Joanne Harris’s Wildfire in Manhattan (gods of old WALK AMONG US).

But this is the nice thing about short stories. Even within one collection, you can taste such a variety of persons, places and ideas. They’re easy to dip into and out of, and to go back to. Any collection is bound to have at least one story you’d recommend to a friend, whereas I’m not sure I’d ever recommend a chapter of a book to anyone. They offer a level of accessibility without triviality.

I’ll put my money where my mouth is – per YOSS suggestion #1, I am buying more short stories. And last night, this came in the mail!

Check it out – my Limited Edition (59/300) copy of Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die ed. Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo & David Malki ! I’ll be honest, I don’t know any of the authors, but each story is illustrated by a cartoonist, many of whom I am a big fan of.  But no, I didn’t buy it for the pictures. That might have been an excuse (that and the Certificate of Predicted Death), but it’s also a chance for me to sample stories by a variety of writers who I might otherwise never encounter, as recommended to me by cartoonists I trust. And, you know, then there’s the pictures. And the chance to have them all signed next month at TCAF.

The short story world is full of fun gems like this! I hope you’ll seek one or two out this year too. Sometimes the most interesting reads are off the beaten track [of novels]!

The Lazy Reader

I’m not going to lie to you – I’ve been reading a lot of junk lately. Call it comfort reading.  I am engaged in re-reading the entire Dune Chronicles by Frank Herbert for, probably, the tenth time in my life (but the first time as an adult). In between escapes to Arrakis I’ve visited one young adult novel (Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie) and one romantic melodrama (The Two Dianas, credited to Alexandre Dumas but, upon reading, more likely written by a collaborator) – nothing heavy or challenging. And, truthfully, I will probably start reading Patrick Rothfuss’s “Kingkiller Chronicle” next, because it’s been a long time since I’ve read any serious fantasy and I’m kind of pining for it. That’s just how I roll.

While none of the books individually are especially shameful, taken as the sum total of what I’ve read this year (beyond Canada Reads), it’s a bit of a disgrace.  I’ve said as much to my friends and co-workers, and a fair percentage of them have responded with some version of “So what? Read what you want to read! There’s no shame in that!” I selfishly appreciate that sentiment, but it’s hard for me to agree with it. Is that all that reading is to me – just a leisure activity?  A quiet, dignified form of watching television?  It isn’t as if my literacy is in question. Looking at words on a page a certain number of hours per day isn’t doing me any inherent good – in fact it’s ruining my eyesight quite steadily.  I’m beyond needing the “practice” of any old words.

Leisure itself is an indulgence. Of course it’s lovely and we should all have some, but a life of pure leisure is decadence and there’s some Victorian part of me which feels honour-bound to strive for a little more out of my life. I’m not a doctor or a politician or a social worker. I don’t spend my many hours giving to my community and helping my fellow persons – I sell books and I spend 8 hours a day reading, or reading about reading.  If all my reading is pure self-indulgence, I might as well say my entire life is spent goofing off. I need to dedicate my reading to something bigger or better than pure enjoyment.

Throughout history the value of different kinds of reading has been questioned. Until a hundred years ago, the reading of novels of any kind was considered an indulgence – today we read nothing but novels. The feeling that novel reading is frivolous certainly persists, however.  The Guardian recently reported that male writers and reviewers dominate the big literary papers and in their defense, the TLS was quoted as saying “And while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS.”  Horrible as that sounds, my experience as a bookseller has been that he’s more or less right.  The TLS reviews, primarily, non-fiction. They usually have one big fiction review and a page of little mini-reviews, but the bulk of the supplement is dedicated to forms other than the novel.  In my experience, the primary readers of non-fiction are men.  There’s an odd split here – the students we see at the store coming in to buy English course books are overwhelmingly female, but our “regular” customers who buy the rest of the store’s stock (primarily philosophy, cultural theory and politics) are overwhelmingly male.

This reflects a feeling that the serious intellectual spends his or her time reading non-fiction.  It’s reflected in the pages of the TLS and the New York Review of Books. It’s reflected in the offerings from University Presses. And I am not going to mount a defense of novel-reading here.  There’s no question that some novels have the power to expand the reader’s mind and bring important dialogues into the public sphere, and I don’t think anyone would argue otherwise.  But much novel-reading is entertainment, even when at its most beautiful.  Like other forms of art, the very best can change the world, but the bulk of it, while pretty, is mostly decoration.  The overall themes, trends, and qualities of a literary culture reflect and inform society as a whole, but taken one book at a time, these are “just’ moments of indulgence.

I’ve always felt a book should be undertaken for a reason.  To inform or to answer questions.  To instruct.  To introduce new cultures and stories. To sample the thinking of a different place and time.  To challenge your intellect.  Most books can fill a use, but to remain engaged by what you read, the reader has to take some responsibility for choosing books which continue to challenge and open new doors.  Too much comfort reading and you’re accomplishing nothing with each new book – just spending time, albeit enjoyably.

I think of myself as being on a reader’s vacation.  The kind where you visit some Westernized resort and do absolutely nothing of value until you run out of money and have to fly home.  I’m lying on an metaphorical beach, unwinding and letting myself be pampered.  It’s nice, but I wouldn’t want to make a habit of it.  Eventually I have to come back to my real life and re-engage.  If this blog has seemed slow, this is why: lazy reading only produces shallow thinking, and there’s little to report to an audience.

Dune and Rothfuss aside, I think my vacation is coming to an end soon.  I’m starting to feel guilty.  I’ve picked up J. G. Farrell’s Siege of Krishnapur in a lovely NYRB edition for my next read – yes, still a novel, but hopefully one with more horizon-expanding capability. Time to get back to work!  What the overall project is in my case I’m still not sure but my hope is eventually my brain will be filled with enough ideas that some kind of fully-formed result will just pop out of it.  Hope you’re all reading well too!