Dear readers and friends, if there’s one quotation that ran through my mind this annus horribilis, it’s Fitzgerald’s, “It occurred to me that there was no difference between men, in intelligence, or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well” (The Great Gatsby). And we have lived it every single day since March, when the subtle rumbling of the covid avalanche came to our attention. Then, lockdown … and a strange, united elation of singing from balconies and applauding health care workers and a kind of strange peace for those of us staying home that took the form of bread-baking and staring out windows. And, what I thought would be “reading time”, despite WFH. It wasn’t. Not the reading time part: instead a length of days, lost, in dream and lethargy. Of the books I did read, few stood out. Here they are. Continue reading
My sole response to reaching the end of Samantha Harvey’s The Shapeless Unease was gratitude, not to Harvey, but to reaching the end and not giving up. It was a long, difficult slog, but I made it, sheer stubbornness propelling me forward to its vague conclusion. It’s not a terrible book, not by litfic, and not memfic, standards: it has the requisite lyrical prose, occasional, brilliant insight, only to lapse into lyrical existential-babble that hopes to dissolve the self, or digressive, tangential passages, never coming together with what came before, or what comes after.
Initially, I was drawn to the topic, but driven away by the style. As someone who has experienced bouts of insomnia, one in particular, I’d say, debilitating, and is an obsessive lover of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the greatest account of insomnias ever written, I wanted to read Harvey’s memoir. It started out great: Harvey, a regular sleeper pre-year-of-not-sleeping, recounts the incident at the heart of her not-sleeping: her cousin’s death. My understanding, and who knows, given the impenetrable style, I may be wrong, is that Harvey’s insomnia is linked to an existential dread of death, triggered by her cousin’s loss: “my cousin’s death has invited all deaths”. Continue reading
Despite a week of family and work obligations, I spent most of it rushing back from an errand, or logging off a Zoom meeting eager to return to Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. (If you read one nonfiction text this year, make it this one.) It’s remarkable and, rare in nonfiction, written with spare, clear, elegant prose. It is, as the subtitle makes obvious, an account of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, from the 1970s conflagrations to present-day; vague images of fires and bombs on the television news as I was growing up. Radden Keefe brought things home: I grew up in a society divided along fraught, linguistic lines; one who, like Northern Ireland, stood on the brink of chronic sectarian violence. (In 1970, as I walked to school, Canadian soldiers manned every street corner: the FLQ kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner, James Cross, ironically Irish-born, and deputy premier Pierre Laporte. Unlike Northern Ireland, though Laporte was killed and Westmount mailboxes bombed, Quebec slid into sullen stability: the English fled; the French stayed; allophones endured; language laws passed; separatist referenda, defeated. Quebec continues playing chicken with Canada and Canadians, for the most part, politely tolerate it.) I compare apples with oranges and ignore the matter at hand, Radden Keefe’s amazing book, my digression a testament to how thought-provoking it is. Continue reading
In the summer of 1986, I landed at Athens airport. When I glanced at my wrist watch to make sure I caught my connecting flight, it had stopped. That watch never worked again. A few years later, over lunch with a colleague, reminiscing about spending summers in Europe, we got to chatting about the summer of the Chernobyl disaster. Miles away that very summer of 1986, this woman I wasn’t to meet until years later, landed at Zagreb airport where she noticed, rushing to catch a connecting flight, her watch had stopped, never to tell time again. A peculiar coincidence. To this day, I still think Chernobyl had something to do with it. At the time, in my early twenties, looking forward to a summer of beach-reading and flirtation, had Chernobyl registered? Yes, yes, it had: it was a seminal moment, like reading the first article about AIDS in the Common Room of my liberal arts college (in the NYT Magazine), a moment, like today’s pandemic that will mark and define every young person’s life. Of the two, AIDS changed us, as the pandemic will do. Did Chernobyl? I can’t really say it did. It loomed; a frightening spectre, but it didn’t change me, the way that AIDS article did (what sad losses it brought). Chernobyl and the fear and threat of radiation, so insidious, so invisible, like the fog, coming on “little cat’s feet,” I noted my strange watch-loss and forgot about it in the Aegean’s sparkling surface. Reading Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight In Chernobyl brought it back, not only reminding me of that stopped-wrist-watch, but informing me about a disaster that loitered, continued to wreak death and destruction years after it was out of sight, out of mind for many of us who followed the event in the news at the time. Continue reading
Yes, you’re still with Miss Bates, romance-reader … but the first 2020 book I read was one that come-hithered me for weeks and it certainly wasn’t romance. Coupled with a new year’s resolution to broaden my reading horizons, given the coming election year for my southern neighbours and that Kakutani’s analysis clocks at 173 pages, I thought, this I can do. And I did, reading it with enough attention for it to resonate, in a few hours. In retrospect, I appreciated Kakutani’s connections to post-modernism and deconstructionist theory with the Trump phenomenon and our inability to navigate what is good, what is right, and what is true. I don’t think I learned anything new about Trump’s methods, or appeal that able political analysts haven’t already stated, but Kakutani’s positioning the former and latter within an interpretive model that elicits my unease made this a compelling read. Continue reading
Another reading year gone and it was a strange one: an intense reading summer, testament to the plethora of reviews I managed to write, and a dry autumn with barely any reading done. Nevertheless, I read some good romance among others genres and I’m going to herein name the ones I think might withstand the test of time and taste. With this first post of 2020, I wish you all the health, happiness, prosperity, and love the world can bring. Without further ado, here are the titles that resonate with me still. I’ve written about all of them, so you’re welcome to check out my reviews to see why I liked them. With apologies that I can’t manage more commentary than that, but 2019 was the year I was tired. I’m hoping to have more blogging energy for 2020! Continue reading
Though it’s been a slow-reading year since the fall (thanks, all-consuming day-job), the Christmas holidays offered an opportunity to polish off two books I’ve been making my way through: Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal and Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway murder mysteries #7, The Ghost Fields. I enjoyed both in that distracted, desultory way one does when other obligations and responsibilities get in an uber-reader’s way. Of the two, Macintyre’s book proved the more compelling. An account of the activities of one high-profile Soviet spy in the UK’s MI-6, Macintyre, rightly so, is more interested in telling the story of how the old boys club that was Britain’s spy agency bolstered, supported, and lauded a traitor, a snake in their arrogant, smug grass. Griffiths’s volume, on the other hand, contained a lacklustre mystery, but my love for Ruth, her five-year-old daughter, Kate, friend Cathbad, DCI Nelson and his team, and Nelson’s wife, Michelle, proved to be strong enough, and their continued relationship complications interesting enough, to keep me reading past the ho-hum mystery plot.
Blessed with several weeks of summer holiday, a spinster’s solo, quiet apartment, and stacks of great books in the TBR, this week’s reading was inhaled pretty much nonstop for the past few days. I read David Sedaris’s Calypso and Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network, utterly unlikely companions, but enjoyable and compelling in their unique ways.
I’ve been a Sedaris fan ever since I read one of his accounts in The New Yorker, oh, eons ago. It was a hilarious story about one of his first flights in first class. He was excited about the ice cream they would serve and the roomy seat from which he’d watch a selection of movies. His delight in these indulgences is foiled by his sobbing seatmate. This poor guy, it turns out, was on his way to Poland for his mother’s funeral. I totally understood Sedaris’s childish pleasure in small luxuries, the guilt that took over when he realized his seatmate’s situation, and the resentment at his fun’s ruination. I loved him on first reading. Sedaris is unfraid to expose his pettinesses, our pettinesses, certainly my pettinesses. Most of us like to imagine ourselves replete with magnanimity, smiling beatifically, eyes swimming in sympathetic tears … but, truth be told, impatient, time’s wingèd chariot ruining our fun, how long do we have to be sympathetic before we can eat our ice cream and watch our film in peace, sympathetic murmurs and “there, there”‘s done with? I love Sedaris because he’s not just off the empathy train, he was never on it to begin with. Continue reading
I’ve never read a writing style guide in my life. I once tried to read Strunk and White: ho-hum. ‘Sides, I thought S&T advocated a spare style and I happen to think that, except for tires in real life and heirs in romance, spares should be avoided at all costs. Instead, what I found in Dreyer’s was a fount of delight and—pah to erudition—pragmatic advice. His lessons stick: before writing this, I made sure I knew the difference between “font” and “fount”; between “practical” and “pragmatic” (not much), and how to type an em dash on Mac. I’d never done any of this before. Dreyer’s approach is quintessentially American: he doesn’t hold to rules, but he likes to be correct in a practical, educated way. If there’s a “rule,” and there aren’t many, know it, follow, or better yet, because English doesn’t go by hard and fast (that would be what happens in a romance novel), look it up:
“I have nothing against rules. They’re indispensable when playing Monopoly or gin rummy, and their observance can go a long way toward improving a ride on the subway. The rule of law? Big fan. The English language, though, is not so easily ruled and regulated.”
What I got from Dreyer? Educate yourself and don’t be redundant. His copyediting mantra is “Convention. Consensus. Clarity. Comprehension.” Reading him, I was chuffed: I laughed, I nodded in schoolmarmish agreement, snickered, and rolled my eyes at Dreyer’s sly contempt for the stuffily Puritanical “grammar police,” yes, but equally for the neologistically idiotic.
It has been a long while since I’ve written about my reading. “The world is too much with us,” us poor working folks, or as Harari says in his latest, everyone is too busy to look around and analyze how our world is shifting, changing, transforming, and dangerously so. Hence, why Harari sees his role, the historian’s role, as one providing clarity. Reading 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, certainly “clarifies” what ills beset our world. Moreover, his book is fearless, brilliant, and terrifying.
“All is vanity, saith the preacher” … Harari takes our Western “vanities”, our most closely-held ideals, as illusions, as the fictions of childish adults, and bashes our shibboleths to smithereens. It is a powerful, relentless argument that strips away at every illusion of Western cultural, political, religious, and economic bulwarks. Not that the East escapes: he has less to say about it, but what he does say, stays pretty much in the same vein. No one is exempt and no one escapes from Harari’s frightening intellect. In the end, not even Harari himself. Continue reading