2019 in memorable books

The everywhere-lists of December send me to my book journal, to review my reading experiences of the year and distill them into a favourites list of my own.

It’s impossible, though. Favourites isn’t the best word in any case; memorable–for a variety of reasons–might be better. So let me list a few, or maybe more than a few, of my memorable books of 2019. (If discussed in earlier posts I’ve linked rather than repeat myself.)

Because of the child

One of the granddaughters, 9, came down the stairs to greet me with her hands behind her back. She was hiding Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, which she wanted to give me, she said, because she’d enjoyed it and “because you love books.” Because of her, I read it immediately. It was a quick, touching read. Please don’t tell her, but she’s getting another Kate DiCamillo book for Christmas — The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, about a vain, disinterested rabbit who learns to love. The writing and illustrations are exquisite. (The best children’s books delight adults too.)

The Margaret Laurence project

This year I embarked on a project to re-read — or read, in the case of her early Africa work — Margaret Laurence, reflecting as I went. (A kind of devotional exercise, I suppose.) I’m not finished — other books keep getting in the way — but I got through This Side Jordan, The Tomorrow Tamer, The Prophet’s Camel Bell, and The Stone Angel, as well as Laurence’s letter exchanges with friend Adele Wiseman and publisher Jack McClelland. I realized again why she was such a force at a certain time in Canadian Literature, why she was formative for me as well. I hope to continue this project in 2020, and may say more about it then, but for now a bit of trivia: I discovered that Laurence wrote much of The Stone Angel in a small cottage at Point Roberts, which is just across the border from us, several kilometres away, where we sometimes walk by the water or fly kites with the grands. I don’t know why I like knowing that she worked near by, but I do.

Insights and Images

Mary Pipher’s Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age is a gentle, wise book about resilience in my current stage. Diana Butler Bass’s Grateful serves up insights on gratitude that go beyond personal practice (though that’s important) to public and communal gratitude — life not as quid pro quo but pro bono. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson is short and humorous and also appropriate for my current stage (and better than Marie Kondo’s philosophy, especially now that she’s gone rogue with online products to further clutter one’s life.) And I loved Robert Caro’s Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, with its stories and advice.

Giller shortlisted Lampedusa by Steven Price doesn’t have much of a plot (it’s about a man trying to finish the book that will be his legacy) but the writing is immersive. Price is a poet and it shows. For one example: “Far below the sea was a watery eggshell blue, the white sun millionfold and turning on the surface like blades.”

I read The White Bone (1998) by Barbara Gowdy this year, which I hadn’t read before, because it was chosen — by Margaret Atwood no less — as a Globe and Mail’s bookclub selection. Although I’m fond of elephants, I merely persevered with the novel. By now I shouldn’t doubt my own tastes when I don’t care for a book “everyone else” seems to adore, I wonder what’s wrong with me. But all this to say that in the midst of, and after, The White Bone, I fell into Penelope Lively’s Passing On (1989) with a kind of ardent relief. It’s about a brother sister finding their way post the death of their powerful, bossy mother. Lively is one of my favourite writers. I saw myself in: “Helen read a great deal… She read anything; she read in all directions. She read to learn and she read to experience… She became book dependent, for better or for worse.” And here too, a gorgeous image about light: “…the river gleaming below and the city reaching away in an infinite complex parade of shining white and pearly grey with light snapping from windows and cars.” Light snapping. Exactly.

People and Places I Know

Reading books by people I know, or about places I know, is doubly pleasurable, for the experience of the book itself and for the extra resonance the familiar voice or terrain provides. And, for what one learns about that known place or person. Into this category fell the fifteen 2018 books about Winnipeg I read as a juror for the Carol Shields Award early in the year and then later, Ariel Gordon’s Treed and Sally Ito’s memoir The Emperor’s Orphans. Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Daughters was memorable for this reason too.

Intensity

Booker winner Milkman by Anna Burns is densely written, almost stream-of-consciousness, both psychologically penetrating and ominous throughout. Set during the Irish Conflict, a nameless young woman is being stalked. We feel the helplessness of that, as well as the paralysis of rumour and pressure in the community. She wants nothing more than to be left to herself, reading-while-walking, and not current books either! But, “The truth was dawning on me of how terrifying it was not to be numb, but to be aware, to have facts, retain facts, be present, be adult.”

Five Wives by Joan Thomas also felt intense, because, as it was for Thomas, the story of Operation Auca (and the death of five missionary men in 1956) was a well-known and powerful one in my childhood and youth. Although the narrative had shifted and enlarged over the years –become less mythic — I wondered whether another narrative (this one fictionalizing the five missionary women involved, which struck me as both risky and brave) would free those women or trap them again. I’m still thinking about that question. Thomas compells us with great skill into all the various places and people of the Ecuador events, creating suspense even in a story whose outcome is known from the beginning. We enter the story from various positions and from within various characters; I think her use of LIFE photographer Cornell Capa as one point of view is brilliant.

And more

The daily goings-on in a used bookstore shouldn’t be interesting, should it? In the hands of Shaun Bythell and The Diary of a Bookseller it was. The villain, of course, is Amazon, which has definitely complicated the world of bookselling.

But this post is getting much much too long! So I’ll simply close by mentioning other memorable reads of 2019. Each mention may be considered a recommendation. Dear Evelyn by Kathy Page. The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es. Immigrant City by David Bezmozgis. Normal People by Sally Rooney. Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home by Nora Krug. Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep. Another World by Pat Barker. Sweetland by Michael Crummey. River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey by Helen Prejean.

Were any of these memorable for you? What are your recommendations for me?

 

 

 

 

 

Seven

If seven is a perfect number, it’s been accomplished this fall: seven reading/launch events for All That Belongs and in its wake, a grateful and satisfied weariness. It’s been quite a year.

It was just ahead of my January birthday that I got the call from Turnstone Press saying they wanted to publish the book, and since there was an opening in their fall list, we could — if I chose — aim for a fall release. That sounded overwhelming; usually there’s more lead time for the processes post-acceptance, even when the book is already written, but why not? I would make it a priority. So we did it, the entire team (editor, copy editor, designer, proofreader) and me bending into the required tasks.

Writing and publishing are no stroll between the roses. My first instinct when people tell me they want to write — whatever it may be — is to persuade them otherwise, which of course I don’t actually do because maybe they just have to, maybe it’s their vocation too, what do I know about their necessities? Or the story maybe only they can tell.  I’m not quite done with writing myself. But what I’m trying to say is that while there’s a great deal of joy in it — for me writing itself is mostly a pleasure — there are other parts that are more fraught.

unnamedThere’s the very competitive quest for readers, which begins with somebody saying Yes, we want to publish this. A quest that can never — statistically speaking — be assumed, unless one is famous. Another scary spot, at least for me and probably many writers, is that space just after the book appears and there’s nothing more to be done and it is what it is and then one wonders if it will live on for a while or languish in warehouse boxes? And then putting oneself out there in public events and on social media, inviting and announcing and hoping not to annoy by overdoing it and hoping people will come and hoping people will buy and hoping people will read. Hoping the first, perhaps only major review, will be okay. (It was.) It’s a vulnerable time. (And if I/we sound insecure, yes, that too.)

But. done for now. (Until spring, maybe in Ontario). And so I want to round off this year that I still can’t quite believe actually happened with saying Thank you to Turnstone for producing the book, then setting up the joyous Winnipeg launch, and subsequent readings in Saskatoon, Calgary, and Vancouver, and to friends in my childhood hometown of Linden for a truly delightful time together, and to the folks at the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Abbotsford and friends and family here in Tsawwassen and Ladner, and to the writers I was paired with at several of the events. Some were small gatherings, some large, and each had a story. (Including finding myself wandering around downtown Vancouver looking for the bookstore whose address I had typed wrong into my computer and thus thoroughly lost!) I’m grateful Agatha Fast let us use her art for the cover, which people are loving. I’m also grateful to Kerry Clare at Briny Books for the honour of being one of her fall picks. (Here a short interview she did with me.)

And grateful to you — you who attended or bought or suggested All That Belongs to your library or book club (including an invitation to meet you by Skype) or put under the Christmas tree for someone else or read. Or just generally shared my happiness about this year.

No amount of fear

Back from our road trip, I realized, retrospectively, that in nearly every visit with friends and family during those weeks, I talked about Lynch syndrome. No one had heard of it, so understandably the responses to my talk of it were muted, seemingly uncomprehending of my worries and thus not wholly satisfactory on an emotional level. But, like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, I kept at it, speaking of it again at the next stop on our itinerary.

Reflecting on this compulsive sharing, I have to conclude that this Lynch syndrome business has affected me more than I thought. Lynch syndrome is an inherited genetic predisposition to certain kinds of cancer, often manifesting relatively early in life, and no, I don’t have it. But my husband does.

The confirmation that he does was not a huge surprise, in light of his history of four kinds of cancer so far, though we’d never heard the name either until a cousin of his phoned to say their entire family had been tested and there it was, in nearly half their siblings and in those siblings’ families. Suddenly we saw H’s  family tree, beginning with his grandmother and then his mother’s line as well as one of her sister’s and one of her brother’s and their children and the high predominance of cancers, in a new way. What we’d occasionally remarked on anecdotally was a family tree with blinking lights all over it, the latest our 56-year-old niece who died this year of a brain tumour, she the daughter of H’s sister who passed away of cancer some years ago. We took what we knew of the family tree to his oncologist and a test was readily arranged, and then we had the results, the marker. Which means that if they wish, our three children can be tested as well. (It doesn’t skip a generation, but children of a carrier have a 50-50 chance of being carriers as well.)

But all this is a long introduction to a book I wish to recommend. I heard about it “by chance” when I turned on the car radio while doing errands. Ami McKay, well-known author of The Birth House and The Virgin Cure, has a new book out: Daughter of Family G: A memoir of cancer genes, love and fate. As soon as I got home  I placed a hold on it at the library, and it was waiting there for me during our road trip, so perhaps that too is why I was bringing it up at every stop.

I’ve read the book now and it’s interesting and well written. McKay is part of the original family that a pathology professor, Dr. Warthin, tracked when her great-great aunt, Pauline Gross, a seamstress, confided that she expected to die young, like many others in her family. Dubbed Family G, this became the longest and most detailed cancer genealogy studied in the world. Dr. Warthin posited that there was a familial connection, though not all his colleagues were convinced; they felt the causes of cancer were external. Unfortunately the study was used in service of a toxic eugenics environment in the 1930s that proposed such “lesser” folk shouldn’t have children. Eventually a Dr. Lynch and others discovered the genetic particularities that make it a syndrome. And fortunately, alongside, early detection and treatments for cancer have also advanced.

Ami McKay juxtaposes the historical narrative of the syndrome with the stories of various family members as well as her own story. She tells us early on that she tested positive as a carrier, though at the time of writing she’s still cancer free. There’s a thread of suspense as well, as we don’t know until late in the book whether her eldest son, now old enough to be tested, is positive or negative.

The book was interesting, yes, but tough to read as well. But satisfying too, in the resonance I felt with both McKay’s fears and her approach to life in spite of. Sentence by sentence she plucked at what I was feeling as a mother, or perhaps anticipating. “Even though I’d told myself a hundred times over it would probably turn out this way, I’m completely devastated….” she writes about hearing the results of her test. “I now live in an unsettling state between wellness and cancer.”

She decided to take science’s offer to “glimpse” her future, she says. But science didn’t show her “how to live with” what she saw. For that she drew on the inspiration of various similarly affected people in her family line.

Information is power, science says. It saves lives.

Yes, absolutely it does.

And our stories keep us whole.

She remembers her grandmother Tillie’s favourite saying: “all the flowers of all our tomorrows are in the seeds we plant today.” “If you can believe that one seed you’ve sown, one deed you’ve done will flourish after you’ve gone, then you’ve beaten the curse.”

I didn’t choose to be born with a genetic mutation any more than I chose to have curly hair or hazel eyes, or the likelihood of having lots of freckles, or the predilection for salty over sweet. But I sure as hell can decide which character traits from my ancestors I wish to embrace. Courage, fearlessness, persistence, kindness, a dedication to telling the truth–these are the things I choose.

But my very favourite line is this one:

No amount of fear can ever make us safe.