I picked up Book Riot’s “Start Here: Read Your Way Into 25 Amazing Authors” as a free Kobo download a while back, and gave it a skim: each entry offers a short introduction to an author, and a suggested reading list to ease your way into their work. I thought this would be light and entertaining, but I found it all a bit depressing. Much like my experience with The Novel Cure, what’s meant to be a bit of fun comes across as too preachy and prescriptive for my liking. As I keep impressing on my kids: once you know how to read on your own, you can read anything you want and no one can stop you.
(Plus, how badly do you think Book Riot wishes it could take back the very first entry in Start Here volume one, on Sherman Alexie? These things don’t always age well.)
Anyway, I was reminded of this particular brand of reading guidance while reading the Man Booker International Prize shortlist. In particular, The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai and Flights by Olga Tokarczuk are spoken of a bit dismissively – not their best work, not the best place to start.
I already gave a rebuttal to the Krasznahorkai thing on YouTube. Briefly: yes, these stories are very weird. But the collection works because someone (who picks the order in short story collections? The author? The publisher? One of those questions where Google is not helpful) placed them in an order that knocks the reader off balance, then gradually reintroduces the usual trappings of plot, character, and setting, not to mention punctuation. The effect is comforting, in a weird way.
The World Goes On was a perfect place for me to start with Krasznahorkai , because I was travelling for work and had irregular blocks of completely uninterrupted time in which to not just read but process all the weirdness, and because Krasznahorkai’s walls of text really benefit from being read aloud, which, being alone in a hotel room, I could do. This is not the type of “start here” scenario that Book Riot, or anyone, could predict.
Quiet hotel rooms aside, the ability to jump in anywhere, to start where you are, without a reading guide or safety net, might actually be a hallmark of a “good” reader or a “well read” person. If you’ve read, say, just enough about Hungary (hardly anything) and just enough literature in translation (quite a bit, this year) and just enough “autofiction” (also quite a bit, seems to be a thing these days) to not get freaked out by the Hungarian-ness, the weirdness, the lack of normal plot in The World Goes On – then you’ll be just fine.
The situation with Flights was a bit different. One of my favourite Booktubers, WhatKamilReads, said Flights was not Tokarczuk’s best work. He’s followed this prize for years, and he’s read Flights in its original language, so this gave me pause. Unfortunately for us Anglophones, we don’t have much choice in where to start with Tokarczuk. Only a handful for her twelve novels are translated into English. Flights isn’t even technically available in North American yet (order directly from the publisher!) She has a couple more translations coming out in the UK in 2018 and 2019, but for now, Flights is what we’ve got to work with.
And, I think most of us will be just fine starting here, best work or not. Like The World Goes On, it’s an hard-to-classify collection of essays, stories, and travelogue., but it reads like a dream. Not nearly as discombobulating as The World Goes On, I eventually just sort of forgot that there’s no consistent timeline or perspective, and I didn’t question (till now) whether I was reading an essay or a memoir or short story collection. In a shortlist that was full of autofiction, or at least very autobiographical novels, Flights was the most audacious of them, and the least self conscious about what is was trying to be.
I tried to make a go of it with Flights, despite my trepidation, by reading it while flying to Toronto. Where better to read about airport psychology and the strangeness of flying backwards through time zones, than a rare no-kids-no-husband trip? Instead, I got sucked into Krazsnahorkai, for reasons mentioned above, and on the flight back, I inhaled The Perfect Nanny (meh). I didn’t even get a decent Instagram shot of the iconic blue cover on an airplane tray or anything.
Turns out, I didn’t need to be travelling . Flights was the perfect place for me to start with Tokarczuk because Tokarczuk is the perfect antidote to a bunch of hyped, unconventional memoirs I’d read recently and found wanting:
- The relentless navel gazing and self involvement of Bluets by Maggie Nelson (don’t @ me)
- The intellectual posturing and lack of self-awareness of The Dead Ladies Project by Jessica Crispin
- The ethereal nature and ultimate emptiness of The White Book by Han Kang (also shortlisted for the Man Booker International)
In addition to avoiding those pitfalls, reading Flights satisfied a desire I only sort of knew I had: to find a female writer and thinker I can look up to, who’s solidly Gen X (instead of borderline, like me), who’s a bit out there, but who isn’t too precious about writing, or if they are, backs it up by publishing something brilliant. Someone who writes something like Flights, in other words.
I mean, she says in one line what I think Crispin was trying to say in a whole book:
Each of my pilgrimages aims at some other pilgrim.
And she says more about relationships in an odd, three-part short story of a woman who wanders away from her husband while on vacation, vanishing on an island where people simply do not vanish, than I found in all of Nelson’s breakup musings.
Flights was the right place for me to start because of who I am – my age, what I’ve read, what I’ve rejected, and what I’m seeking. No prepackaged guide would lead me here.
(Though I will suggest that, even if the stars don’t align so well for you, try to stick around for the short story Kairos, the “old man marries younger woman” cliche brought to its inevitable conclusion. It’s also the inevitable conclusion of Flights, bringing together as it does science, marriage, and travel, the threads flowing through this book.)
So, start where you are. Read a book because it’s on an awards shortlist, whether or not it’s the author’s best work. Or because you found it for a buck at a garage sale. Or whatever. It doesn’t matter if you’re an expert on the author or the genre. Keep reading, and the more you read, the more you’ll be able to make something of any book, anytime – or know when to put it down and try again later. Book Riot’s guides and books like The Novel Cure should be viewed as entertainment, not as instruction.
And yes, I’m aware of the deep irony of this post, given that I started this blog reading exclusively from the 1,001 Book You Must Read Before You Die…
If you have pivoted to video, check out my rambling on this book here.
Those who have followed me for a long time know that I’m an ebook (and audio book) advocate. While I acknowledge that the brain processes words differently depending on the source, I maintain that it’s the words, not the format, that matter most when it comes to reading. (And yes, I’m familiar with “the medium is the message”.)
Arguments against reading on screens, and hand-wringing about whether ebooks or audio books “count” as reading, tend to come from a fairly out-of-touch, even ableist place. Also, I don’t like the smell of old books. There, I said it.
HOWEVER. Once in a while there comes a book that’s so attractive in print, that even I question my choices. I bought the ebook edition of The Stolen Bicycle because the print isn’t out in Canada till April 20 (see my previous post for more #MBI2018 options in Canada). Then, I saw what the print edition looks like: Continue reading
The Seventh Function of Language is often described as “The Da Vinci Code Meets _________” (fill in the blank with something higher brow than The Da Vinci Code). I have one too: The Seventh Function of Language is what would happen if David Foster Wallace wrote The Da Vinci Code. Google tells me that David Foster Wallace and Dan Brown attended the same creative writing class at Amherst college, so this collaboration isn’t even as far fetched as it sounds!
The Seventh Function of Language is a buddy cop-murder mystery-political thriller, but it’s also a satirical-but-loving look at French critical theory and post-structuralism in the 1980s. If put on the spot, I would not be able to give a satisfactory definition of either of those things, but one concept that’s relatively easy to grasp is Roland Barthes’ “death of the author”, introduced in his 1967 essay of the same name, that argues that the author’s intentions don’t matter as much as the reader’s. The book opens with the literal death of Barthes – he was run over by a laundry truck in 1980, just after he met with François Mitterrand, who went on to be President of France. In the real world, Barthes’ death was ruled an accident, but Binet asks us to imagine that it wasn’t, that instead it was an assassination, and that every prominent thinker, linguist, writer, and political figure of the time might be involved in a race to learn the secret “seventh function of language”, which would allow the practitioner to persuade anyone to do anything.
Car chases, bombings, poison umbrella stabbings, orgies, and dismemberment ensue. Continue reading
Much as I relish a negative book review, negative reviews of memoirs can be cringe-inducing. What should be a critique of a book too often becomes a critique of a life, of choices made or flaws revealed. This kind of criticism confuses me. Should the writer lie about their own lives (more than they, presumably, already do)? Or should only people with spotless records write memoirs?
And why do we read memoirs in the first place? Must there be a life lesson to impart, or a record to set straight, two very common themes in this genre? I recently read The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, and at first glance, his story would seem to fall in the latter theme. He has several records, criminal and otherwise, to clear up. But the book became more than that for me, and made me understand what can make a celebrity memoir more than a PR puff piece.
I had no idea who or what a “Gucci Mane” was before picking up this memoir. If you are also old/uncool: He’s an Atlanta rapper known for facial tattoos, erratic behaviour, stints in jail, and inspiring the “Bitch I might be” meme a few years back (see below for a book blogger friendly version). He had a couple mainstream hits in 2009, but somehow I missed them. He’s also credited with creating (or at least popularizing) “trap music”, a phrase I’d vaguely heard of and associated with stuff like Biggie’s Ten Crack Commandments (nope, way too upbeat.) I had so much to learn.
I’m a fairly well read person. No, this post isn’t about what it means to be well read. Just take my word for it. I’ve read across many formats and genres, and many traditions and eras. I do have a weak spot though: poetry.
I remember learning exactly two poems in school. One was A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning by John Donne and the other was To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell, and both are about dead white dudes who were feeling horny. Jeez, is it any wonder I wasn’t taken with it?
I’ve read three poetry collections so far this year, and I loved each of them. I’m not good at saying why, exactly, but I can tell you how I found my way in. Continue reading
Many Canadians are disappointed in our slow progress towards the 94 calls to action set out in the Truth and Reconciliation Report. See Ian Mosby’s Twitter feed for updates (and a nonsensical reply from Joseph Boyden, if you dig for it):
However, I am pleased to find that my kids, in grades one and two, are learning about residential schools. Most of the learning happened on Orange Shirt Day, but hopefully this will become a regular part of the curriculum.
It can’t just end at school, though. I could tell from the questions they asked me that they didn’t quite understand what happened, and why. So I got them some books. I also happened to read a short story collection touching on residential schools at the same time. Here are three ways to learn more about residential schools in Canada, for whatever level you are at.
Ah, vacation reading. So many decisions.
- Light reads or heavy reads?
- Which physical books to pack?
- Which to download on your ereader?
- Which books can you stand to read to your children a million times over the next week?
- What book will soothe your frazzled nerves when Air Canada announces that your connecting flight to Saint John, New Brunswick has been cancelled and you are stuck in Toronto for two and a half days, and PS, so are thousands of other people from dozens of other flights, so good luck getting a hotel and PPS, despite widespread reports of labour shortages at Pearson airport, the cancellations are due to “weather” so they’re not even compensating you?
Here’s what I’ve read over the past two weeks, in Toronto, Moncton, Saint John, and Edmonton. Continue reading
My latest review for Vue Weekly is up, and I need to write a different kind of disclaimer:
This review is not sponsored and I paid full retail for the book. The author did, however, make me sourdough waffles with homemade preserves. I swear it didn’t affect this review, even though they were the best damn waffles I’ve ever had.
With that in mind, here follows my director’s cut review. Or, click here for the shorter version that appears in Vue.
It’s worth noting the unintentionally hilarious typo in the print headline. Not sure whose fans are rejoicing; Stone Cold Steve Austin’s?
Despite restricting myself to only 35 new-to-me books in 2016, I had trouble narrowing down a top and bottom five. I also set out to document my 35 books on Instagram but kind of failed… I managed to get a few decent pictures though!
Best books of 2016, in order of when they were read:
- Birdie by Tracey Lindberg: Like nothing I’ve read before. A travesty that it didn’t win Canada Reads, Alberta Reader’s Choice Awards, and wasn’t nominated for many others. If there ever was a book that Canadians need now, and that has literary merit and does something new with the novel. this is it!
- Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood: Yes, we’re all mad at her right now. And this book, about how horrible women and girls are to each other, is perhaps fitting. I went through the strangest emotions while reading this: a mixture of sadness and relief that I’ll never have a daughter.
- After Claude by Iris Owens: So good I read it twice this year. So funny for the first two thirds that I forgot how devastating the last third is.
- The Diviners by Margaret Laurence: There are a lot of reasons to love this book. I’ll choose the fact that we witness the heroine lose her virginity in a scene where she is in total control, and she doesn’t 1) instantly orgasm 2) marry the guy 3) pay for it for the rest of the book. Sex positive CanLit circa 1973.
- Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys: Speaking of books that are ahead of their time! All these books are about strong women (but not “strong women”) and Sasha is the strongest and brittlest of them all.
Disappointing books of 2016, in order of when they were read. I don’t have pictures of all these, because, ugh.
- The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson: Read more like an educational pamphlet than a graphic novel.
- The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls: I love an unreliable narrator. In fiction. In memoir, not so much…
- Bluets by Maggie Nelson: I just didn’t get it. Nelson is a writer I think I *should* like but just… don’t. And the fawning over her is just too much. I listened to her on a few podcasts this year and the hosts just grovel, Wayne’s World “we’re not worthy” style.
- In-Between Days by Teva Harrison: I didn’t connect with the drawing style. When you look forward to the text-only pages in a graphic novel, that’s not good.
- The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin: If Eat Pray Love was re-imagined as Eat Read Fuck. Which is funny since Crispin wrote a takedown of EPL (and even stranger, a defense of it six years ago.) This was my biggest disappointment. Crispin is an OG book blogger who’s gone on to be a respected literary critic. She is contrarian and sarcastic and smart. But this book swung between too show-offy and obscure and too juvenile (pretending not to know what the solution is to an affair with a married man that won’t leave his wife…) Won’t stop me from pre-ordering Why I Am Not A Feminist, though!
And now, the 2016 Reading in Bed Book of the Year:
I guest hosted on CanLit podcast Write Reads earlier this month and we talked about Zoe Whittall’s Giller shortlisted The Best Kind Of People. We recorded on Giller Prize eve, and I said I didn’t think it should win, but I did think it would be a contender on Canada Reads.
I’ve felt bad about the podcast since, hence I haven’t shared it till now. I felt bad because it was a little snobby of me to say this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, doesn’t deserve a prize. I was a bit condescending. But I also felt bad for holding back on the discussion about rape culture. I walked into the recording thinking about Stephen Galloway, and brought him up as soon as we stopped recording. Now everyone’s talking about him and I have to wonder why I didn’t say something sooner. Continue reading