I mistakenly noted that I received this book “from the publisher” in my 20 Books of Summer list. Actually, I received it as part of a promotional push for Douglas Gibson’s 2011 memoir, Stories About Storytellers. The memoir is centered on his lengthy career in publishing, during which he oversaw and edited CanLit classics from luminaries like MacLennan, as well as Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Robertson Davies, and Alastair MacLeod.
In 2013, Gibson set up “The Storytellers Book Club“, with lengthy discussion questions for a selection of books covered in Storytellers. Bloggers were invited to review those books for chance to win the whole selection. I submitted this review of Alice Munro’s The Progress of Love and won, then proceeded to neither read nor review the rest of the books, because I suck. I also just realized, nearly six years later, that Gibson responded to my blog post about the contest (see his comment here), and I never responded. Now I feel really bad!
So in the style of that Munro review, I’ll give you a few quick impressions, then attempt one or two of Gibson’s discussion questions. As I noted back in 2013, Gibson’s questions are a bit biased, but I’ll work with them.Continue reading
Before starting Winter Journal, the first of my 20 Books of Summer, I tried really hard to clear the decks and finish off all the physical and ebooks I was reading prior to June 3. But books are meant to be in e with each other, as the saying goes, and so I found myself in the middle of listening to How to be Alone by Jonathan Franzen when it was time to start Winter Journal, and did they ever have a conversation.
I vaguely knew that Paul Auster and Jonathan Frazen had a few things in common. They both live in New York (at least part time), they are both married to writers, they are both Baby Boomers. They’re both critically acclaimed, commercially successful novelists, though they are on rather different ends of the spectrum when it comes to being controversial (“name” + “controversy” brings up no relevant results for Mr. Auster, Mr. Frazen’s results reference at least five separate incidents on the first page.)
Portraits of the artists as young men
Even so, I didn’t expect these books to be drawing from such similar circumstances and emotions. Both books are driven by grief, specifically, the loss of parents. In Auster’s case, death is quick and unexpected, while Franzen’s parents get sick and linger, but I was struck but how both men end up suffering extreme physical reactions – hives, panic attacks – when they can’t or won’t express their grief any other way. And how vulnerable they get in these books, challenging the traditional masculine response to grief.Continue reading
I’ve read some weird stuff since getting into literature in translation last year. That’s part of the appeal, right? Translated lit is an easy way to find something different, something experimental, maybe something surreal and dreamlike. Last year, I discovered László Krasznahorkai and his intensely weird story collection The World Goes On. I didn’t really “get it,” but I liked it. I also discovered Olga Tokarczuk, who won the Man Booker International Prize with a novel that defies genre. She calls her writing style a “constellation” and I don’t know if we really have that in English. I just finished an odd little book called The Order of the Day, also a prize winner, that is classified as a récit or an “account” rather than straight up non-fiction.
I could go on: a novel told in Facebook-status-like headlines, a speculative fiction about a world where only the elderly are healthy, whatever the heck Comemadre is about.
But now, I think I’ve hit my limit. I’ve found a translated novel that is too difficult to classify, too unmoored, too opaque, just too weird: Love in the New Millennium.Continue reading
During my hiatus, I wrote a “recommend” for Canadian literary website 49th Shelf. Songs for the Cold of Heart has been on my mind lately, as various translated book award long and short lists are being announced. I was hoping to see it crop up – but alas, no Canadians at all are in the running for either the Man Booker International Prize or the Best Translated Book Award. Let’s take a moment and appreciate the book and the blurb, in both official languages.
I am a blurb skeptic. Blurbs are, at best, the most biased form of literary criticism. Just check how often a blurber’s name appears on the acknowledgements page. At worst, blurbs are clichéd, or taken out of out of context, or of dubious veracity (did Gary Shteyngart really read all those books?).
The blurb on Songs for the Cold of Heart got all my skeptic senses tingling:
“If the Americans have John Irving and the Colombians Gabriel García Márquez, we have Eric Dupont. And he’s every bit as good as them.”—Voir
Like most Canadiens anglais, I didn’t hear of Éric Dupont until this English translation hit the Giller Prize longlist in 2018. I wondered if he was really as good as Irving and Márquez, two luminaries of world literature (and longtime personal favourites of mine). Or was this blurb just another bloated piece of hype?
Read the rest of my recommendation on 49th Shelf, as well as those of other luminaries, including Karen Hofmann, whose debut I reviewed five years ago and who since wrote another great novel with a very meta title: What is Going to Happen Next.
Thanks for indulging me with this mini-post while I try to get back in the swing of things! Let me know if you generally believe the blurb, or if you side-eye them as much as I do. Sadly, Shteyngart Blurbs is no longer updating, but I maintain that he must have been bullshitting at least some of the time.
As I prepare to go dark at the end of this week, here’s how the year stacked up. I’m taking some liberties with a few books that I’m not quite finished, but certainly will be before Dec. 31, including the Short Story Advent Calendar.
- Books read in 2018: 90, down from 97 in 2017. Ow, my Goodreads Challenge!
- Shortest book: The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith (69 pages)
- Longest book: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, père (1,276 pages)
About the Author
- 56% female, trans, or non-binary
- 64% person of colour
- 24% Canadian, 31% American, 29% European, 5% Asian, 4% South American, and a couple from the Middle East, Caribbean, and Africa
- 54% originally written in English, 14% in French, 8% in Spanish, and a few each in the following: Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Danish, Italian, Latvian, Greek, Korean, Norwegian, Iraqi, Hungarian, Polish, and German.
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. Continue reading
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