I usually have several books on the go at once, reading them at different times for different purposes. Usually, I finish them, but sometimes…. I rarely actually give up on a book — I just never seem to get back to it!
Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows is one of my all-time favourite novels, but I wasn’t as easily captured by her latest, Women Talking, which I just finished. The theme of Women Talking is women’s empowerment, as a group of Mennonite women, faced with an epidemic of sexual assault by the men of the colony, decide to leave the only home they’ve known and venture into the what is literally and completely an uncharted external world. The novel is meant to be a record of their conversations as they decide how to respond to the sexual assaults and eventually to leave, but it is also the inner thoughts of the formerly “outcast” man who is transcribing their words, since they can neither read nor write. In a sense, then, this man is the central figure, he narrates in the first person and it is only through him that we learn about the women. This does not detract from how the women emerge as individuals or from the courage they display in making their final decision. Toews weaves throughout the hopes and fears of these very different women whose ultimate solidarity nevertheless allows them to leave the colony and begin a journey that will inevitably be a series of unknowns.
The other novel on my “short & sweet” list — novels I expect to finish quickly — is The Only Story by Julian Barnes, which I also just completed. Generally, I’m a Barnes fan, but Only Story struck me as fairly superficial, despite all the efforts at inward contemplation by the protagonist, a 19 year old man who falls in love with an older woman. Perhaps I was impatient with the narcissism underlying the story, but I found I had little interest in the characters.
Four very different books on my coffee table are ready to be picked up at any time. As winter approaches, I envisage sitting by the fire absorbing them. My only consolation now I have completed (today) Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s rich and deep Man Booker Prize-winning novel (in 2009) about Thomas Cromwell, is that I already have ready her sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, winner of the Booker Prize in 2012, replacing it in the pile. I found Wolf Hall enthralling, phrases and sentences lying like jewels within the narrative. Mantel’s focus on Cromwell means that Sir Thomas More becomes a secondary character, and despite More’s own status in England and abroad, in some ways, he becomes a foil for Cromwell. Their debates illuminate the difference between principle and pragmatism, yet both men emerge as complex and with deep-seated flaws.
I’m about a quarter of the way through Haruki Murakami’s IQ84, best described as “An immersive experience, one that will leave readers wondering what is real and what is imagined”, as a blurb from the Pittburgh Tribune-Review has it, Indeed, it is not only the reader but the main characters Aomame and Tengo who find themselves split between two dimensions. While I’m not rushing to finish this, I know that it won’t be one I leave behind.
It’s hard for me to avoid something that appears to deal with the developments in Trumpian America, Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America is a collection of essays primarily addressing the likelihood — or not — that the changes that have occurred in the United States since January 2017 will eventually lead to authoritarianism, although the editor, Cass Sunstein states, “This is not a book about Donald Trump, not by any means”, but one that goes beyond to deal with “big and enduring questions”. I’ve read only a few essays so far and find them uneven in how deeply they engage with the topic. Worse, the collection was published earlier this year, yet already it seems that those who are optimistic about the safeguards might have been surpassed by subsequent events.
Finally, among my four ready-to-hand coffee table books is The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000BCE-1492CE, the first in Simon Schama’s trilogy. My Twitter feed often includes the highly complimentary tweets of readers and viewers of Schama’s books and television programs on art and history and it was a tweet that brought The Story of the Jews to my attention. Rich in detail, the book can be difficult going for someone (or for me, at least) unfamiliar with this very early Jewish history, or indeed, only slightly familiar with the context generally, but once started, it is compelling. I already have the second volume, Belonging: The Story of the Jews: 1492-1900, a period I expect to recognize more easily.
I always have a mystery or detective story on the go. Currently, it’s one of the 75 (eventually) Penguin reprints of the Inspector Maigret stories by Georges Simeon. Relatively brief, these books rely on Maigret’s powers of observation — of people, events and what he sees around him. Small cues, such as a comment by a secondary character, can begin a train of thought that takes him to the solution. While he will order subordinates, such as Janvier and Lucas, to keep watch on suspects in different locations, he tends to work alone, and sometimes unofficially. He has his own sense of what is “just”, sometimes letting those who have committed murder go, as long as they abide by conditions he suggests or implies (such as moving away from the village where they have lived their lives, as in Inspector Cadaver, the latest for me).
When I go into town (less frequently now I don’t have meetings), I take the Go train. I feel like a tourist as we travel past Lake Ontario and the Palais Royale. And I’m reminded of the trips my family took to what was then Sunnyside Park on the streetcar, when we lived in Toronto. My “Go train” books need to be easy to slip into a purse, or sometimes a larger bag, but still not take up too much room or be too heavy. These vary, fiction and non-fiction. Right now, I’m reminding myself of how recently women authors were portrayed in biographies by reading Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s Writing a Woman’s Life. Heilbrun has popped up in my life intermittently, as the author, using the pseudonym Amanda Cross, of the Kate Fansler mystery series (Fansler, like Heilbrun, was an academic at a highly regarded New York university) and as I grew older, as someone attracted to her life after 60 in The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty.
Finally, two books on my bedside table have remained closed for some time. Since I began reading Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda, his very bright star has dimmed with allegations that he misrepresented his Indigenous heritage. However, I was already finding The Orenda hard going partly because it is, in my view, structurally stilted, although the alternating of perspectives was one of the reasons critics praised the book, and partly because of the primarily one-dimensional way characters are portrayed. The second book is A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (awarded the Man Book Prize in 2015). I’m not far into this book and have made the mistake (I think) of trying to read it before I go to sleep: it demands more effort than that and I probably need to move it from the bedside table to the pile requiring more consideration.
My current home is the first time I’ve been able to put all my books on shelves, in different rooms. Previously, I kept scholarly books in my office, but these, too, needed a new home when I left academic life. As I mull over the prospect of moving to a smaller place, I’m conscious of the difficulties of treating my book collection with the respect it deserves. It’s no longer possible to assume that second-hand bookstores or other destinations will welcome them. Yet I’ve bought all of the above books — and others — over the past year. For some of us, book buying is an addiction!