Buried In Print

I read. A lot. When I'm not reading, I'm often thinking about what I could be reading. When I am reading, I'm often thinking about what I'll be reading next. Sometimes the idea of reading is almost as good as reading and then I'm making booklists about what I will read someday. But later I'll be reading. I'm Buried In Print.

What's in my bookbag this week. 

Susanna Kearsley's A Desperate Fortune (2015)

A Desperate Fortune - Susanna Kearsley

Although highly-entertaining and a satisfying page-turner, there is more substance to this novel than the cover might suggest.

 

Not only is the duality of a shadow-court inherently intriguing ("a castle with its king and all his courtiers who were real, yet without substance, moving always as a mirror to their counterparts across the sea"), but the mirror imagery operates at a variety of levels.

Reflections abound.

 

 

One woman is in the present, who has learned to mimic others around her in order to camouflage her Aspergers, is near Paris (at La maison de chatou).

 

And she is decoding the experiences of a Jacobite exile, written 300 years ago in the past, who learned to mask her true feelings and transform like a fairy in an old-fashioned tale.

 

The diary presents itself with two faces as well. Readers see it in the present-day with "worn cloth-covered boards and pages turned a golden beige by time and ...[ink once] black, but time had faced it to brown".  

 

And, through the original writer's eyes: "with all its pages blank, exactly like the one in which her uncle kept household accounts, with cloth boards and a leather spine, and with it had been a cylindrical travelling pen set, the inkwell and talc in small sections that screwed one on top of the other beneath the only section ta held three plain quill pens with neatly carved nibs."

 

Even the fairy tales have more than one layer of meaning reflected within.

 

"‘Well, these are not the fairy tales that we grew up with. These were written for adults, and they belonged to a distinct period of time, and a distinct group of women, nearly all of them women of the novel class. It was a clever and subversive thing they did, to tell these fairy tales. Sometimes they would take well-known tales from folklore and adapt them, but as often they created them from their imaginations, and you see how they are commenting on how life is around them, on the world and how it limits them."

 

And this is precisely what it seems that Susanna Kearsley aims to do: comment on how life is around these women, on history and how it has limited them, but also comment on how these women's cleverness and revolutionary thoughts and actions allowed them to adapt and endure.

These thoughts originally appeared on BuriedInPrint.

First Two volumes of Crazy Rich Asians trilogy

China Rich Girlfriend: A Novel - Kevin Kwan

These volumes are highly entertaining. Like an “issue of Vanity Fair magazine come to life”.

 

And the satire is even sharper when one considers that the author was counselled to editr some of the extravagent elements he had included, which were based on his own personal observations of this world.

 

There is a lengthy NPR interview with the author here. And I have more to say about my reading of them here, on BuriedInPrint.

Reading Notes: Skinny

Skinny - Ibi Kaslik

The alternating perspectives between the two sisters present two clearly distinct voices, although what is shared is a sense of something lurking beneath.

 

Each is struggling, in her own way, to find a sense of security, and following the death of their father this process becomes even more complicated. 

 

It is a painful and memorable story and the author realistically depicts the fragmented and lingering effects (for instance on other relationships each sister has later in life and on their abilities to focus on long-term goals in terms of studies/career) of unresolved breakdowns. This does not make for comfortable reading, and nor should it. 

Sarah Hall's The Wolf Border (2015)

The Wolf Border - Sarah Hall

Having worked in Idaho for many years, Rachel is invited to return to England, where the Earl of Annerdale seeks to reintroduce wolves to the countryside. It is an offer she plans to refuse, but one which is too tempting to ignore outright.

 

"The moors were endless, haunting; they had everything and gave upsecrets only intermittently – an orchid fluting in a bog, a flash of blue wing, some phantom, long-boned  creature, caught for a moment against the horizon before disappearing. Only the ubiquitous sheep tamed the countryside."

 

The concept of re-wilding is fascinating on its own. (The author acknowledges the value of specific works on the subject in her notes at the back of the novel, if readers would like to explore independently.)

 

But Sarah Hall lays parallels for the reader, so that the layered themes -- ideas of stewardship and dependence, taming and observing, protection and isolation -- are particularly striking.

 

This novel is not titled for the content about wolves, but for the border between one state identified as civilized and another state identified as wild.

 

Both definitions are conceived of by humans.  There is some observation of the wolves, of course, but always through the lens of the human gaze, of a world dominated by humans as the ultimate predator.

 

Rachel's borders are shifting, expanding. And that makes for a solid character-driven tale. (Readers are completely immersed in her perspective; even the dialogue is presented all-of-a-piece with the story. There are no borders here either: a thought in the mind may or may not be spoken, but exists in Rachel's consciousness whether or not it is shared.)

 

"For the first time in her life, work is not the primary concern: work is not in full possession of her soul.... She cannot hide in it. All those years in which she was safe and exempt, focused on the management of another species. Now, a different sphere has ascended. The qualities of human reward and failure rest with her. It is terrifying."

 

As complicated as it was to erect a barrier to protect the rewilded wolves in England, constructed barriers are not necessarily effective. Barriers break down when not all inhabitants of the world agree that their construction is a priority.

 

This is the kind of dilemma with which Rachel grapples in The Wolf Border: the ascendance of a different sphere.

 

A sophisticated and engaging novel: Sarah Hall's The Wolf Border. (I have more to say about it, here on BuriedInPrint.)

Sally Mann's Hold Still (2015)

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs - Sally Mann

Sally Mann poses the kind of questions which haunt many poets and philosophers, embracing the land as witness, including Canadian writers Candace Savage and Sharon Butala, who have written powerfully about the landscape of memory. (I am reminded, too, of the haunting but beautiful image on the cover of M.G. Vassanji's recent memoir, And Home Was Kariakoo.)

 

"And the story depicted in the irregular weave is of a place extravagant in its beauty, reckless in its fecundity, terrible in its indifference, and dark with memories."

 

Now in her sixties, she has had many opportunities to reflect on the role and power and limitations of photography. Those who appreciate, let alone practice, the art form, will find her ideas of interest.

 

Perhaps "photographs actually rob all of us of our memory". Or, maybe: "Photographs economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time."

 

It's possible that discussing the meaning of photography is less effective than simply allowing it to speak for itself. Readers of Hold Still have plenty of opportunities to explore this possibility, whether by observing casual family photographs or carefully constructed artworks (this volume presents an abundance of both). At this point in her career, she is poised to compare and contrast different aspects of her life as an artist.

 

"In general, I am past taking pictures for the sake of seeing how things look in a photograph, although sometimes, for fun, I still do that. But these days I am more interested in photographing things either to understand what they mean in my life or to illustrate a concept. This work with black men, though inchoate and not yet even printed, seems to be a little of both."

 

And although she is at the stage where she understands herself to be a photographer first and a writer second, she does place an importance upon words. She also identifies specific words and concepts from other languages which have profoundly impacted her work and her life.

 

Take, for example, the Welsh word hiraeth, meaning ‘distance pain’, which is a “yearning for the lost places of our past” and “not just free-floating nostalgia or a droopy houndlike wistfulness or the longing we associate with romantic love” but, instead, a “word about the pain of loving a place”.

 

Or, consider, the Japanese phrase mono no aware, translated as “beauty tinged with sadness”. Mann writes: "For me, living is the same thing as dying, and loving is the same thing as losing, and this does not make me  madwoman; I believe it can make me better at living, and better at loving, and, just possibly, better at seeing."

 

In most cases, it seems as though she has come across the word after she had experienced the desire to express the concept. Her life's work embodies those ideas, so it's clearly something which existed within even before she discovered the language which adequately represents it.

 

That spark of recognition is likely to await many of Hold Still's readers. The book sprawls across a wide variety of subjects  and it's unlikely that readers will be able to predict the intersection of fascination with content, for the memoir has an unconventional structure.

 

It would seem as though the manuscript of Hold Still is a written response to an imagined gallery showing of Sally Mann's works of a lifetime. Time slips and slides in Hold Still. Whereas a photo can arrest an image, the memories which accompany such an image are multi-faceted and, often, messy.

Even so, by the time readers turn the final pages, one has a clear sense of Sally Mann's work and way of being with the world.

If you're keen, I have more to say about this volume, here on BuriedInPrint.

Hollie Adams' Things You've Inherited from Your Mother (2015)

Things You've Inherited From Your Mother - Hollie Adams

Things You've Inherited From Your Mother focusses on Carrie, but the broader use of characterization does as much to build readers' understanding of Carrie as Carrie's own narrative. Ultimately, however, it is Carrie's voice which will linger for readers, as much as for the cringes and winces as for the giggles and snorts.

 

The prose remains buoyant even when the narrator is sinking. And the novel's structure is tightly knit, so that the final words leave readers with an understanding that the simple fact that readers are holding this story in their hands demonstrates that Carrie's means of coping with her grief were effective after all.

 

(This is a spoiler-free space, but I would love to tell you exactly why the ending was so fitting. I do have much more to say, here on BuriedInPrint.)

Suzette Mayr's Moon Honey (1995)

Moon Honey - Aritha Van Herk, Suzette Mayr, Rudy Wiebe

Carmen was a young white girl before she was a young black girl. She was having (lots of) sex with her boyfriend Griffin in both states.

 

She likes that he knew her when she was white, because as she moves out of school and into the working world, as she collects new experiences like trading cards, the people who know her have always known her to be black.

 

And of course that comes with many suppositions and prejudices, which Carmen can cite rigorously because she used to possess and promote many of them as a privileged white girl with perfect blonde hair and all the best shades of lipstick.

 

So those who meet Carmen later in her life only see one side of her.

 

And sometimes all they see is the colour of her skin.

 

Moon Honey is an ideal vehicle to explore the sticky and convoluted territory of racism, and Suzette Mayr’s penchant for transformative tales was solidly afoot even in this first novel.

 

Carmen’s transformation unfolds in standard text, but the novel is punctuated with italicized passages detailing other dramatic changes which characters experience.

 

But just as remarkable are the glimpses into characters’ pasts, so that even the seemingly unsympathetic characters are shown a degree of understanding that readers might not have afforded them based on first impressions. S

 

o that readers, too, can allow their ideas about the story to transform.

Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family (1982)

Running In The Family - Michael Ondaatje

When the author returns to Sri Lanka, to all that was there before he dreamed of marrying, having children and writing (paraphrasing), readers are tugged along in a personal exploration and journey.

 

There is no formal itinerary and the description of a single room might require pages while the formal names for some places might reside only on the map at the beginning of the volume.

 

Those readers seeking either a traditional travelogue or memoir will not be satisfied. And yet the sensory detail can immediately bring the experience of the landscape off the page for readers (I, for one, was completely smitten by the idea of polecats, who make an inconsequential appearance in the narrative but encouraged an online search) for this is not only a writer’s journey but a poet’s journey.

 

In some ways, the volume reads in a fragmentary way, emphasized by the inclusion of several actual poems, but there is a broader reaching narrative arc -- of return and departure and some early allusions (for instance, to his grandmother’s death by natural causes – flooding) -- which makes for a more encompassing reading experience.

 

Although an earlier work, and a work of non-fiction, readers who have enjoyed Michael Ondaatje’s later novels will recognize his delicate practice of darting towards and retreating from story, the circuitous knitting of characterization and setting alongside.

Ian Williams' Not Anyone's Anything (2011)

Not Anyone's Anything - Ian Williams

If the idea of experimental or innovative short stories makes you squirm even though you are simultaneously bored with more traditional structure, Not Anyone’s Anything belongs on your bookshelf.

Ian Williams puts relationships at the core of his work and this collection exhibits this tendency as well. I wholly enjoyed his poetry collection You Know Who You Are, which opens, you might have guessed, with an epigraph from Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? and behaves, in some ways, more like a conversation than a collection of poems.

Similarly, the stories in this collection reverberate within and throughout, seem to call-and-answer in an unusual and compelling manner.

Stylistically this is an exciting project as the author’s playfulness extends not only to trios of trios of stories, which reflect and refract, but to forms which shift and expand as the reader turns the pages.

Lines are drawn, for instance to afford the possibility of simul-reading two characters’ experiences on the same page (i.e. one person’s perspective on the left-hand side and the other’s on the right-hand side) or to align two experiences of the same narrative space (i.e. a horizontal line separating the characters’ experiences until they inhabit a shared space).

But these lines are inclusionary and engaging, rather than isolating and pretentious.

Musical staves or Korean language study-cards: you might not be able to predict the contents of an Ian Williams’ story, but loyal readers will know you can predict the degree of satisfaction which settles upon reading.

Susan Juby's Republic of Dirt (2015)

The Republic Of Dirt - Susan Juby

Prudence Burns isn't having an easy time on Woefield Farm.

 

"I am beginning to think the word farm actually means ‘land upon which things go wrong in surprising and unexpected ways’ or perhaps ‘place where it’s impossible to get good help’."

 

But readers will appreciate her conundrum. Though perhaps take issue with the lament over finding good help, for Seth and Earl and Sara are very helpful in their own way.

 

Sure, Seth has only recently moved out of his mother's house (though not exactly willingly) and has a lot to learn, from AA meetings and just generally (that's Seth speaking, above).

 

Earl is getting older, and admittedly "keeping [his] drawers hitched up these days is challenge enough".

 

And Sara is only eleven years old but such a fanatic about fowl that she is grateful to be cast as livestock in the school play. "Mrs Singer was the one who gave me the role of the partridge in the Christmas play because she’s very fond of me."

 

But loyal and determined? You bet.

 

Each is so emotionally invested in Woefield Farm that readers can sense the dirt under their finger nails.

 

Readers who prefer humour with an edge will find fiction like Sheri LaPeña's Happiness Economics (2011) or Edward Riche's Easy to Like (2011) more satisfying.

 

But those who prefer gentle chuckles over raucous cackles,will find much to enjoy in Susan Juby's fiction for adults.

 

(Best to begin, however, with Home to Woefield (2011).)

These thoughts first appeared on BuriedInPrint.

Joseph Luzzi's In a Dark Wood (2015)

What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love In a Dark Wood (Hardback) - Common - Joseph Luzzi

Phyllis Rose took a year to read Proust and wrote her "memoir in real time". More recently, Rebecca Mead revisited Middlemarch and she, too, wrote a memoir which examined her own life in that context. In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, Nina Sankovitch plunged into the classic Russian's work as part of coping with her sister's death.

 

We readers turn to books in many moods but perhaps most significantly in times of struggle. Our reading can offer joy and entertainment, but it can also offer a way out of the darkness.
 

There is no question that Joseph Luzzi is a bookish sort. His car idles in a bookstore parking lot; he listens to an audiobook which features Ian McKellen as Odysseus; he compares an April day to a day in Wuthering Heights.

 

But his relationship with Dante's work, and his reliance upon it while grieving, is remarkable: "For the first time in my life, I was inhabiting a book."

 

Following his wife's death in an accident, which precipitated the birth of their daughter, the author is forced to inhabit an intense intimacy and, simultaneously, an overwhelming sense of distance.

 

"I felt a rational love for the [infant] hand I held and stroked it, but nothing instinctual and visceral. I was a ghost haunting what had been my own life."

In this state, he turns to literature.

 

"Long study and great love – the same words that would bring Dante to Virgil in the dark wood, and what would bring me to Dante in my time of greatest woe."

 

There, on the page, Joseph Luzzi begins to reflect upon his loss, to reassemble his life and begin the long process of building a relationship with his new daughter.

 

"In writing so movingly about Beatrice’s death in the Vita Nuova, Dante used poetry to reflect on all-too-common experience. He was filling the exquisite eliteness of Guido’s poetry with pressing human needs. That was Dante’s gift – to merge the beauty of poetry with the visceral experiences of life, love, and death."
 

Readers need not have the same intense relationship with Dante's work to appreciate the healing which is an integral part of Joseph Luzzi's reading and writing. These are universal themes, immediately accessible to readers.

 

There is more discussion of this work on BuriedInPrint.

Blanche Howard's Dreaming in a Digital World (2010)

Dreaming in a Digital World - Blanche Howard

It’s the 1980’s and Genevieve Varley is a computer scientist looking back on a critical period in her life.

 

Having found herself out of work, she listed the following as essential technological elements for her success: “a cacheable 32MB main memory and a 256KB cache memory, (that was a lot, back then) as well as a few MBs of expanded memory, pentium chip preferably, but at least the Intel 80486”.

 

But what she needed just as much was the support of another working woman, who recognized that women belonged in the digital age as much as men.

 

Much like the list of hardware, the novel feels one step removed and while the story takes a fable-like turn (which I liked), it might have found a wider readership if it had drawn parallels with the digital world today (which hasn’t changed as much as Genevieve would have hoped).

 

Nonetheless, those who first “met” the author via her writing with Carol Shields (their novel and letters), will be pleased to learn that she was still publishing in her 80s.

 

This review first appeared on BuriedInPrint.

Sam Maggs' The Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy (2015)

The Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy: A Handbook for Girl Geeks - Sam Maggs

Whether your inner fangirl wants to brush up on her acronyms or whether you want to gift a beloved fangirl with a nod of recognition that you understand her kind, Sam Maggs' book is fun and informative.

More about The Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy: A Handbook for Girl Geeks here, on BuriedInPrint.

Susin Nielsen's We Are All Made of Molecules (2015)

We Are All Made of Molecules - Susin Nielsen

Stewart and Ashley have some sharp edges when We Are All Made of Molecules begins.

 

This is fitting for the straight-lines and squares and rectangles (or, should that be hexagons and octagons? no spoilers here!) they inhabit when readers meet them.

 

But the contents swell and those edges are smoothed until they settle into a suitably Susin-Nielsen-esque ending: satisfying but not saccharine.

 

Susin Nielsen designs a freak flag like nobody else: bold and proud. Nuthin' half-mast about it.

 

[But because her works intersect, they are best enjoyed in the order in which they were published, beginning with Word Nerd, which might be my favourite, but I really can't choose one.]

 

I go on and on and on about how much I enjoy her writing here, on BuriedInPrint.

Tessa McWatt's Higher Ed (2015)

Higher Ed: A Novel - Tessa McWatt

The story of how the cover for Higher Ed evolved provides readers with clues as to the novel's preoccupation with perspective; from a close-up of a clown fish to a human hand, Tessa McWatt's story covers the gamut.

 

It begins with a cast of characters, five primary (the administrator, the film professor, the law student, the civil servant, and the waitress) and a couple dozen supporting characters.

 

"This way of seeing things is like being the projector itself, like life has a movie and she’s showing it." This is Francine's observation (the administrator).

 

But Robin (the film professor) reminds readers that any given scene contains more detail than a casual passer-by might recognize:

 

"Kurosawa would use the noise and the pending rain. He would begin this scene with a long, wide-angled exposition—water, concrete, a lid of clouds—and then move to the contracted theatrical space to focus on the unknown woman. Robin looks around him, and, of course, there she is."

 

As much as the five primary voices are central to the novel, the list includes several supporting characters who are deceased.

 

The unknown: what is lost is as much of a focus for Tessa McWatt as is the process of discovery and exploration.

 

Tessa McWatt's Higher Ed might be preoccupied with farewells, but it's the perfect 'hello' for readers who have not yet discovered this writer's work.

 

This book is discussed in more detail here, on BuriedInPrint.