New Places to Read

My favourite parts about vacations and stays away from home are the new places I find to read. This summer has already blessed me with a hammock that seemed to have been forgotten about over the past few years, and in which I’ve read for many an hour (half-hour mostly).

Now I am somewhere new for a month – a beautiful, cozy but spacious home with wide open doors and wood-paneled walls. It and I sit at the top of a hill of arbutus trees and gardens with a view through the branches of the ocean and Vancouver and the islands off in the distance. I’m so happy here.

I’m so happy that I’m unable to stay in one spot for long, moving instead to discover new spaces – new reading spaces. via G on Pinterest

I love that sunlight comes into different places in the room at different parts of the day.

I love that couches are good to sit up and lie down on.

I love that some chairs spin and some chairs rock.

I love that outside is sometimes good and sometimes bad; that inside is sometimes boring, sometimes cozy.

I love that reading can be done anywhere but is especially great some places.

I love that reading implies staying in one place for a long period of time.

I love that reading can be done while walking, but barely ever is.

Today I put on Jazz music for the first time.


Badly Written Book Reviews

I have a Moleskine book journal in which I write terribly-written book reviews.

(By the way, on the cover of this journal is a confusing set of titles (look closer), some of which I know are books, some of which I think, okay, this must be a book, but it’s written in Chinese characters, thanks. I’ve tried to find a forum where someone has asked what this list is all about and someone else answered it but of course I’m not going to start a forum discussion about this (I will instead write a blog post with this as my hidden intention). I think I want to know really badly because I secretly want Moleskine to dictate my reading curriculum. I miss English class!)

Parentheses aside, I keep a book journal mainly because Moleskine made this available for me. Also because it helps me to recall what I thought of books and it feels good to flip through and be proud of how many books I’ve read. What makes me less proud is the level of my book reviews.

Here are some of these convoluted reviews. If you would like my opinion on a book, you can post a comment, and if I’ve read it I will give you something similar to what you find below. If I haven’t read it yet, maybe I will read it now! Thanks for your interest.

(Disclaimer: I got this book journal for Christmas 2010 so this is sadly not me writing as a child.)

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery:

“So wonderful … This book and its movie (of which I’ve only seen bits) breathe romance. The book, and Anne herself, are a dream, but touch my emotions like they must be real.”

Bossypants by Tina Fey:

“This book is inspirational, and so exciting. I loved the description of her father, and of her job at the YMCA.”

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville:

“I love the form of the book, and how the book always comments on the form of the book, which is: how can I best tell you about the whalebut the person telling it is very, very tangential.”

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy:

“I like Cormac McCarthy’s writing and though I don’t feel like I relate to it, I’d read more, at least to feel like I do for a moment.”

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin:

“I loved this book for its use of language, its ability to take me in and display to me with everything it has another world I knew nothing about: art possession in New York City.”

On the Road by Jack Kerouac:

On the Road runs along like I’m dreaming, but then I reread a sentence and realize that no, someone else wrote this down. Someone wrote, “and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?” on the last page of his novel.”

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce:

“I am happy I have read this book, but I’m not sure I was happy all the while that I was reading this book … I wish I could be more thorough when reading, but alas, I’m not always or ever that way.”

Reading to Write

It makes sense that to write well you have to read well. I read often; I don’t know that I read well. I read to get to the end of books, I read to flag good lines, I read to feel something, so I read fast and I read all-consumingly.

It has come to my attention that I am doing it wrong. I should read to understand my own writing.

As I write, the words and the sentences come to me quickly. The shape of the story doesn’t come as easily. I’ve spent over a year now with my story, but jaw-dropping things will happen frequently throughout my day; my book will call out for enormous, ground-breaking changes to which I will acquiesce with a simple, enlightened, “Oh.”

My book speaks to me in its voice, but not its plot structure. I’m not a chemist. I’m not a calculus major. I am a wordsmith; I smith words. I pile them and rearrange them like this will make a story. Then I try to vocalize the story’s main problem in words (and not written words), and all is lost.

Where is my plot? Can I find it in the books I am currently reading? Can Home by Toni Morrison, and The Outcast by Sadie Jones and Charming Billy by Alice McDermott tell me something about Jillian’s story? Or should I go back to Hemingway. Should I dissect books that have moved me?

I hate it, I hate the structure. But I know it makes the book. I know I read quickly, unstoppably, because I want to get to the end of the story, not the melody of the last line. But how do people do it, the story thing?

read this read this read this!

Jennifer Egan’s short story in The New Yorker, Black Box.” Do you ever get so excited you rip pages out of magazines? And a link to the Twitter feed on which it was serialized (though I do recommend not reading it upside down).

(photo credit “Black Box” in The New Yorker)

I once stole a New Yorker from the gym because of Jack Handey’s “Ideas for Paintings

I read this poem by Etheridge Knight out of an SAT Literature Subject Test:

And I and your eyes
Draw round about a ring of gold
And sing their circle of sparks
And I and your eyes
Hold untold tales and conspire
With moon and sun to shake my soul.
And I and your eyes
If I could hold your hillside smile
Your seashore laughter your lips

Then I
Could stand alone the pain
Of flesh alone the time and space
And steel alone but I am shaken
It has taken your eyes
To move this stone.

Lauren Elkin is writing this: “a book about women and cities called Flâneuse, which challenges the widely-held idea that the flâneuse has never existed because women have not had the same access to the city as men. Part critical meander, part memoir, Flâneuse charts a path through literature and art revealing women’s sometimes liberating, sometimes fraught relationship to the metropolis.”

These pictures:

(photo credit adsoftheworld)

Love to Hemingway Style

I just read (the foreword of) Carlos Baker’s biography of Hemingway (Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story). I was afraid a biography of Hemingway might dry up the mysterious longing I have for him, the kind that makes me want to keep returning to his standoffish narrators to find out more about him, knowing I never will.

(photo credit The Toronto Star)

Instead, I found this: “The small boy who shouted “Fraid o’nothing” became the man who discovered that there was plenty to fear, including that vast cosmic nothingness which Goya named Nada -Baker

Hemingway in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Placewrites: “What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada.”

I quickly realized something in the foreword to Baker’s Hemingway biography: Baker writes like Hemingway! Or at least he channels the same emotion Hemingway did in his writing. Paula McLain also managed to do this in The Paris Wife, through the character of Hadley. I don’t feel any distaste for these emulations; in fact, I can’t get enough of them. I am obsessed with Hemingway-style writing. Did you hear Corey Stoll inMidnight in Paris? I can’t get enough of the beat.

“The romantic activist, the center and in many ways the originator of his own universe, became the pragmatic moralist whose leading aim was to find out how to live in life, how to last and (having lasted) how to convert a carefully cultivated stoical fortitude into the stuff of which his fictional heroes were made.” –Baker

The Hemingway-like sentence construction “the stuff of,” the “having lasted” in brackets, it all makes me tingle. Did I connect with Hemingway’s writing for the same reasons that everyone else did? Of course. Did I take it and make it my own and try to pretend no one but me had ever read this? Of course I did. That’s what all great art does. I love John Mayer. John Mayer loves me.

“He admired courage and stoical endurance in women as in men, disliked hard backtalk, fishwifely screaming, false accusations, true accusations.”

“He divided all the world into good guys and jerks. With some notable exceptions, he preferred the lower and middle to the upper classes, although his taste in people (again with exceptions) was usually excellent.”

There was the fierce individualist who resisted fad and fashion like the plague, who held that a writer must be an “outlyer” like a gypsy”

Don’t we all wish we could resist the fad and fashion? Why is it so hard to do? Instead we emulate Hemingway. Hemingway is so stylish right now because we want to be stylish too. We want to be the person who started things, who made things simple again, who lived all over the world and did what he pleased and was a jerk but drank it away. We want to be tragic, we want to be the stuff of.

I don’t believe Carlos Baker is one of us, moving to Paris and wearing Hemingway moustaches (I wish I could). He was a contemporary trying his best to channel Hemingway the man. He succeeded at channeling what I know of the man – his writing – or so far his Foreword did, and through him and his prose we get to live a little longer through the words and the life of the man.

(photo from Wikipedia)

Swedish Translation

“Du Fick Aldrig Veta” by Bruno K. Öijer

you may have never known

that when you left I sat still

by the print in the grass where you lay

I dragged my hand

over that pressed down grass and it was

as if I needed and took care of your absence more

than I needed and took care of you

it was as if nothing might have come back

if you returned

had you trespassed

you would have interrupted grief’s advance

and you may have never known how tender and strong I

spoke to your shadow in the grass

it was as if I already mourned you

as if I tried to accustom myself to

what awaits us all

and the price for a person’s insight

is a feeling of abandonment

which already from the start eliminated and destroyed the belief

of a lasting love

3 Things I am Reading

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway

“He used to take his wife and son to Vraca for picnics in the summer. From there you could see most of the city, a fact that had taken on a whole new significance in recent months.”

I saw Steven Galloway speak at an SFU World Literature event a couple years ago and was struck by how funny he is. This book, despite its title and cover page, isnot funny. I just read through a joke and even that wasn’t funny ha-ha:

“A woman has a friend come to visit … The friend comes in, and the woman asks if she would like a coffee. ‘No,’ the friend says, ‘thanks, I’m fine.’ The woman says ‘Great, now I can take a shower.’ “

The joke (if you didn’t get it) is about the lack of water during the siege of Sarajevo. The book provides an intense immersion into the streets of the city during the war, but doesn’t provide much of the context surrounding it. I like when novels stay novels: I’m reading this to learn about what characters might do in this type of situation. I’m not reading to learn about this type of situation.

I have so far been exposed to four characters’ points of view. No one is happy. Some are dealing better than others, but all are dealing so well. This is another thing novels can do: use stronger than life characters. There is a cellist who brings his cello out into the street, where he will most likely get killed by a sniper, in order to play the same adaggio every day. There’s a reason we root for the musicians in Titanic: beauty in the depths of horror is almost more beautiful than beauty alone.

On Writing, by Stephen King

“My mother said it was good enough to be a book. Nothing anyone has said to me since has made me feel any happier.”

Having never read a Stephen King novel, I asked myself, what does he have to tell me about writing? He claims in his three forewords that he doesn’t want to tell me anything about writing but instead about himself, and how he came to writing. Good, because I don’t know anything about Stephen King.

King is a household name in my mind’s household because I see a new book of his on the shelves every month. I couldn’t possibly read Stephen King as fast as he writes Stephen King, so I haven’t started. I imagined King to be a mix of Goosebumps* and John Grisham, though I’m not sure why.

I can tell you Stephen King is chatty. He is a wonderful storyteller. I am reading through his childhood anecdotes eagerly waiting for the punchline, the climax, knowing I am in the hands of someone who has done this before.

My favourite part of the book so far is the page before the title page. It is an excerpt of a story written by King as a child. It was printed on a typewriter so there are letters missing every once in a while. The prodigious parts that stick out to me are the way King is able to break paragraphs at the right spot, and make short, perfect sentences like “Robert Steppes was a compulsive jumper.” Perhaps this says something about my current insecurities, that I feel I don’t break paragraphs up as well as King did in primary school.

La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh, by Philippe Claudel

“‘Tao-lai,’ dit Monsieur Linh, selon la formule de politesse qu’on utilise dans la langue du pays natal pour dire bonjour à quelqu’un. ‘Eh bien, bonjour Monsieur Tao-lai,’ dit l’homme en lui souriant.”

I think it’s embarrassing that I often can’t follow stories in French, for I should be (and am) able to speak and read French fluently. It’s something about the story shape that gets lost to me when reading words that aren’t English. I understand most words, and most sentences, and most pages, but the story itself feels like parts have been taken out, like characters have merged. Maybe I fall asleep when I’m reading in French.

Philippe Claudel does a fine job of telling a story – this confusion is my fault entirely. The book reads like a parable, like an everyman story, perhaps because of its size, or  because of the distance between the reader and Monsieur Linh. We know who he is and what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, but he feels a bit like a foreigner in the book, just like he is in the new country to which he is emigrating: he doesn’t communicate with the reader directly; we don’t know his first name.

Sometimes short books seem bigger than themselves, whereas big books bring in so much that they can’t help but be confined to their size. I love little stories, because I can read them so quickly and I can also read them so slowly. As you can see by my frequency of “3 Things I am Reading” posts, I only read them quickly!

Again, I will read the first book someone suggests for me in the Comments section below, and will write about it soon in a “3 Things I am Reading.”

*Don’t click on the Goosebumps link: it’s terrifying!

Irma Voth

In Miriam Toews‘ latest book, Irma Votha film director tells Irma (Toews’ quintessential sarcastic girl trying to escape her Mennonite heritage) that he wants his film’s main star to be “too big for her body, a living secret, squeezed out through here, here, and especially here.” He points at his chest, his eyes. Irma thinks he’s nuts. It’s not until later on we realise he’s a renowned Mexican film director, not just a crazy guy, and he has just made an influential film about Irma’s Mennonite town of Chihuahua, Mexico, about a group of people who have never seen a movie.

But that, believe it or not, is not the main story. The main story, like Toews’ The Flying Troutmans, and A Complicated Kindness, involves escape, relationships with sisters, and high-paced, quotationless dialogue scenes with scores of hilarious characters.

One of these is a baby sister Irma and her sister Aggie are entrusted to take care of. We get reminded of her often: “Ximena (the baby) was still very much alive.” Ximena is always doing things within scenes: “Aggie and I badly danced the tango in the dying light while Ximena punched away the ghosts,” and “she could go for ages without blinking like she was challenging you to fill the empty whites of her eyes up with something better than what she was seeing right then. She could wait forever.” Ximena is, like Irma says, “very much alive,” and that’s what I love about Miriam Toews. Every single character is so cool.

Toews’ setting descriptions should make every writer who is afraid of writing setting think oh, you can do this?:

I didn’t know what to compare the Zocale to. Maybe a very large field of corn, every stalk a human being, on a desert night sky packed with stars, or a page in a notebook where every available space is filled with ink, words, letters and parts of letters.

Toews’ subject matter is tragic and her tone is wistful but the combination is so funny. So funny.

A description of her most villainous character reads: “My father looked so tired. Daughters, I imagined him saying to himself. Who are these people?”

Miriam Toews is, I think, my favourite.

Who is your favourite?

3 Things I am Reading

I like to read books in threes. This allows me the chance to avoid one while not making another feel bad. It also makes for piles.

Jonathan Safran Foer has a short story I love called “Here We Aren’t So Quickly” composed entirely of sentences of the style: “I was not…,” “You were…,” “I always…,” “You never…,” “We went…”. One sentence reads “You were not able to cope with a stack of more than three books on my bedside table.”

The three are usually of different categories: in this case, modern literature, memoir, and a German translation. Normal.

All have sticky notes on sentences I like, and all have post-it notes on the back flap with words I don’t know. Current words: syncopation,puerile, proselytizing. Please help me, because if you don’t I will never look them up.

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs

“When will it sink into my skull that there is no such thing as an obscure Bible verse?”

This book follows A.J. Jacobs as he decides to follow the Bible literally for a year. He doesn’t just try to stone adulterers with pebbles as he passes them on the street, he tries his best to devote himself to God. Though he confesses he started the year as an agnostic, one of my favourite things about this book is that it proves that changing behaviour changes the way you think.

I find Jacobs’ books so exciting (The Know-It-All follows him as he reads the Encylopedia Britannica from A-Z) because they follow absurd creative processes. As readers, we get a lot of the benefit of what Jacobs has done: we learn the Bible, and the Encyclopedia, and we see how they relate to modern life. We laugh, too because Jacobs is a truly funny person.

Listen to this TED talk by A.J. Jacobs about The Year of Living Biblically. Hearing AJ’s voice made me go, “Oh. I get it now.”

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

“There is one line of thought according to which all you can truly say of any historical event … is that ‘something happened’.”

I just started this book, so don’t really ask me about it. I found out about Julian Barnes, a very well-respected contemporary British writer, in an excellent interview with CBC Radio’s Writers and Company. I bought Flaubert’s Parrot at Companion Books on Hastings St. in Burnaby because Eleanor Wachtel read out the opening sentence to what I thought was Flaubert’s Parrot but isn’t, because I opened it and that isn’t the opening sentence.

This book reminds me of what I like about Ian McEwan and John Updike: wistful detail, and a strong, scared man’s point of view. Things I like so far include that the main character’s girlfriend’s name is Veronica and is nicknamed ‘Vron,’ something I’ve never considered, and also that he is friends with two other boys and this really cool one named Adrian. Nobody really likes each other but all are obsessed with Adrian.

Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann

Anything written about Today should be destroyed immediately, just like all real letters are crumpled or torn up, unfinished and unmailed, all because they were written, but cannot arrive, Today.

I am reading Malina because of a blog post by Bookslut. I get convinced, whenever anyone talks passionately about a book, that there’s something worth feeling from reading that book, so I do.

from Bookslut: “I can’t leave this Ingeborg Bachmann novel alone, this Malina. I keep picking at it, like you pick at a skin problem. It might be the reason that someday I learn German. All I can think about this novel is, She nailed it. She nailed it, I wonder how you say that in German, it was like there was a thing, a problem, a creature flopping around in the middle of the room and it had to be killed and she just stabbed a fork into it and it stopped moving…”

I don’t know and don’t care what Malina is about. It is covered in sticky notes for good sentences. I think the character Malina might be a product of the imagination of the main character, a woman named Ich (‘I’ in German), or she a product of his. So far she’s in a horrible relationship with this bossy man named Ivan. She is more desperate than any of us would care to admit we have been. She sits by the phone and cuts off her sentences and bows down to him, but somehow it’s cute, lovable. Now that I write it, I realize that I probably shouldn’t be feeling this way. Maybe I’ll become a bit more feminist by the end of the book. I did just finish Part 1, “Happy with Ivan.”

Now to you. What is the book you feel most passionately about?

I promise to read the first book suggested to me in the Comments section below, and to post about it in my next “3 Things I Am Reading.”