Friday, January 11, 2019

Winter Reading

Dear Readers, 

This blog is going on temporary haitus. Instead of blogging here about books and reading, I am going on a five month 'Shabbatical' with my family to travel in Asia and the Middle East. If you'd like to follow me on that blog, send me an email. In the mean time, I'll leave you with some of favourite book recommendations from my 2018/2019 winter break. We moved out of our house over the break, which was a tremendous amount of work, but once we were established in our temporary home, I read some amazing books. 

I adored Women Talking by Miriam Toews. It's what I feel fiction should be right now, a book that reflects on the lives of women and their experiences with rape culture. (I don't really think all books should be about this, but you know when a book speaks to what you're thinking about at a particular moment? That was this book.) Women Talking is based on a real and terrible occurrence at a Mennonite colony in Bolivia where women and young girls were drugged and raped during the night by men from their own community. In Toews' fictional version, a group of women come together over two days to decide to stay and fight, or to leave the community. Their conversation is fraught, but also sometimes funny, and ranges from the practical to the deeply philosophical. Toews isn't afraid to write what women really want - to experience God without male interpretation, to be educated, nor does she shy away from fascinating discussions of God, faith and the soul.

I stayed up way too late, completely engrossed in Women Talking, and I was happy for a lighter read next, French Exit by Patrick deWitt. In this story a dysfunctional mother and son move from New York to Paris to burn through the last  of their dwindling fortune. The novel, billed as a tragic-comedy of manners, is full of delightfully odd characters: psychics and talking reincarnated cats. Moreover, I appreciated the witty dialogue. 

Next I read Machine Without Horses by Helen Humphries. I love all of her books, almost unconditionally, and Humphries' The Lost Garden, is one of my favourite reads of all time. I come back to this book because the idea of a lost or secret garden is my idea of the greatest romance. I love the idea of finding a space that someone else planned and needs to be brought back to life. I also love the way Humphries writes about tragedies such as the bombing of Coventry in World World Two, in such quiet, but emotional prose. 

In Machine Without Horses, Humphries writes a fictional story of the real-life salmon fly-dresser Megan Boyd. Boyd, who was famously private and lived a quiet life in Scotland in a bare-bones cottage, was renowned for her beautiful salmon flies. While Humphries writes a compelling version of the imagined life of Boyd, it is the first part of the novel where a novelist, perhaps Humphries herself, plans out the novel that I found especially interesting. The novelist takes salmon fly-dressing lessons, walks along a river with her dog, mourns the loss of five of her family and close friends to cancer and thinks about how to write a novel about a quiet person. 

Figuring out how to tell a story is something I do a lot, and Humphries addresses all the issues I've been thinking about in the last few years as I've worked on both my memoir, Searching for Buddha, Finding Bob, and a historical novel about a governess in India who doesn't want to live a conventional Victorian life, The Bird Girls. Who is telling the story? Will the narrative unfold in the past or the present? What is the emotional underpinning that drives the book?  I was fascinated to read about Humphries (or a fictional author's) thinking about those choices and then read how she chose to execute them. With very few known details about Boyd's life Humphries manages to write a full and moving account of a woman's life. 

While I was reading downstairs, my son was quietly devouring his own book upstairs. I gave him a copy of Rainbow Rowell's Carry On over the winter break, but wasn't sure he would read it. "It's like Harry Potter, but not like Harry Potter," I said, "and there's gay kissing." He nodded, okay, and was immediatly drawn into the story the way I had been. I had picked up the book a  little reluctantly a few months ago. I wanted to read more Rainbow Rowell, but was a little Harry Potter'ed out. I read most of the series out loud to my younger son a few years ago, which is a A LOT of reading aloud. My son was so engaged in the book he would press everyone into reading- his dad, babysitters, cousins, and so I was frequently confused, having missing key chapters. My sons were always yelling at me about how could I not know x or y. Also, the violence at the end was off-putting to me. 

I knew about Carry On through my favourite-so-far Rowell novel, Fangirl. The main character in this story writes Harry Potter-like fan fiction about a character named Simon Snow. I loved Fangirl so much, that I decided to give Carry On a try. I wasn't disappointed, and neither was my son. Simon Snow
has many of the same problems as Harry Potter. He's poor and has always lived with Muggles before coming to school. Unlike Potter, he's forced to live with his arch-enemy as a roommate, a Malfoy-like character named Baz. Rowell has multiple characters narrate the story, including the compelling Baz who has as many problems as Snow. He's a vampire, and he's in love with Simon Snow. Carry On manages to stay true to a Harry Potter-like feeling, but with much more complexity of character. Both my son and I also loved how Rowell describes what if feels like to use magic, or have magic use you.  I won't tell you anymore, but if you're a Harry Potter fan, I highly recommend Carry On

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