Top ten reads of 2018

Here’s my list of top reads this year to add to all the other lists that make December merry and bright.

I should explain my criteria. I didn’t pick just for writing excellence and style, though if I’d done so the list would be much longer and include the following: recent titles The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (women in prison, brisk and sympathetic); Giller winner Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (the meaning of freedom from a slaveboy’s perspective, amazing descriptions); The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (events of the Iliad from a female perspective, timely); and reaching way back to 2000, (finally) True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (the voice and images! — “When our brave parents was ripped from Ireland like teeth from the mouth of their own history…” for e.g.); and (also finally) back to 2009 and February by Lisa Moore (grief set in the wake of the Ocean Ranger disaster, powerful writing).

Rather, I’ve selected 10 books that resonated in a more personal way, that left as it were some significant residue inside. Some showed up in earlier posts; I’ve linked to these for more. In no particular order, then:

All Things Consoled (2018) by Elizabeth Hay. Because I too was bound into the decline of my elderly parents.

download (7)Becoming (2018) by Michelle Obama. I don’t know if it’s the trajectory of her life from Chicago’s South Side to the White House or her honest and passionate way of speaking or the brave self-awareness that opens towards growth – to “becoming” – or the current political situation which feels so different, or all of the above, but I was deeply moved by this book. To the point of tears at times. Moved and inspired to keep on becoming myself and making the world better where I can.

411agi+lAEL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Motherhood (2018) by Sheila Heti. Like some reviewers, I found this Giller-shortlisted “autofiction” odd and self-indulgent at first. It doesn’t have much of a plot; the narrator records, from this angle and that, her struggle whether to have a child. But, like the even more obsessive Karl Ove Knausgaard’s work, it was strangely compelling (though I refuse to give Knausgaard more than one book’s worth of space in my head) so I persevered and was rewarded in the end with intense probing of an important question, regardless of what decision is made, and then both movement and readerly satisfaction as the theme faces the narrator’s own mother. Perhaps this read also lingers with me because Heti uses the Genesis story of Jacob wrestling with the angel and I happened to be reading, at the same time, The Angel of the Left Bank by Jean-Paul Kauffman about the Delacroix painting “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” in Paris. Both books reminded me that what we wrestle with changes us, humbles us like a limp.

download (6)The Redemption of Galen Pike (2014) by Carys Davies. These are wonderful stories, quite short, and successful at a quality Susan Sontag described this way: “Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape. Alternatives to the plot ought to be felt up to the last moment.” Suspense, in other words, of the very best kind. And though the point of stories is not the extraction of moralisms such as “appearances are deceiving”, I think that we do in fact read to remember that there’s often more at play than we suppose or see. Davies’ recent novel West is also good, also short (on some reading days that’s a huge virtue), but if you want to sample Davies I suggest beginning with the stories.

Ordinary Light (2015) by Tracy K. Smith. Because she expresses mother-daughter matters with such insight, and because the environment of her growing up felt so familiar.

Women Talking (2018) by Miriam Toews. Because I was disappointed at first but then pulled in, and because the women talk their way to a simple but profound manifesto to which I’m still saying “I agree!”

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane. Because, surprisingly, this novel made me less afraid of dementia.

A Boy in Winter (2017) by Rachel Seiffert. Because, as Seiffert told Eleanor Wachtel in an interview, bravery often looks like fear. And because novels can get at the complications of living in difficult historical times better than historians do.

517yb-QXVZL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Blindness. This 1995 novel by Portuguese novelist and Nobel winner Jose Saramago grips as narrative, and also by its various possibilities as parable, including these lines about a blind writer’s words in ballpoint,“inscribed on the whiteness of the page, recorded in blindness, I am only passing through, the writer had said, and these were the signs he had left in passing.” Then, since I was immersed in this during our spring visit to family in Paraguay (I never travel without a book), an awful juxtaposition of text and life: our niece, a young grandmother, was led to us at a gathering, recently and mysteriously become blind. (Last we’ve heard, surgery didn’t work and she hasn’t yet recovered her sight).

download (8)I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death (2018) by Maggie O’Farrell. That’s a lot of close calls. One of them made my skin crawl. But in their sum this memoir provokes gratitude for the mystery of life – hers, and mine – and compassion. Plus she’s a very good writer.

 

 

Re-reading “Black Like Me”

I read John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, published in 1961, as a teenager. It affected me deeply. The details have disappeared, but the memory of its impact remains. We lived in a homogeneously white and rural community in Canada, but Griffin’s experience, albeit brief, as a white man who changed his colour via medicine and stain and thus discovered what it was like to be black in the segregated American South worked to inform and strengthen what I believed about equality and justice. In those years, as the Civil Rights movement took hold, it all seemed closer than it was geographically.

download (2)I recently re-read the book, in a 50th anniversary edition that includes additional material about Griffin’s life and work. Once more, I found it a powerful story. Over 50 years some language around racism has changed, and I suppose today he would probably be roundly criticized for “appropriation.” Certainly it’s a question to me how much it would be possible to “incarnate” another’s experience, but I have no doubt that the switch of pigment alone occasioned profound and authentic observations, and in this way, Griffin became an important in-between figure at the time. In fact, the message of the book could be summed as: I’m the same person except for the colour of my skin, yet everything about me now has become of lesser worth.

The book sold widely and Griffin had many opportunities to speak and work for better relations and understanding. Eventually he recognized that it was time for his voice to make way for Blacks, they needed to be heard speaking for themselves.

I had not remembered, if I ever knew, that Griffin was blind for a decade, only to have his sight return almost miraculously, or that he was connected with Thomas Merton and also wrote on spirituality, or that he served in the French Resistance. He mentions the latter somewhat in passing, comparing the fear he felt while black and interacting with whites, like “the nagging, focusless terror we felt in Europe when Hitler began his marches, the terror of talking with Jews (and our deep shame of it.)” It is this deep shame, expressed so honestly while experiencing “Black” as a white man, that struck me in the re-reading. When Griffin first looked at his transformed self after his regimen of medication, shaving, and stain, he was appalled. “I could feel no companionship with this new person. I did not like the way he looked.” This book is much more than a report; it’s a melancholic and disturbing and personal witness.

That my first reading noticed the plight of the Negro, as s/he was then called, and my re-reading the inner shaking and shame of the author, reminds me not only of the insidiousness of racism but how much growth is required within me, and how slowly awareness happens. Not so many years after reading Black Like Me for the first time, I was teaching Sunday School in a Mennonite church. I think it was a kindergarten age class. I showed a picture supplied by the curriculum of Jesus with children of different races. One boy said, “I don’t like the black boy. My dad says if you touch a black person you turn black.” I can’t recall how I responded but I was horrified at what the boy was being taught. Now it occurs to me that I paid no attention to the fact that the Jesus of those pictures was light-haired and blue-eyed, his skin white, instead of the brown-skinned and black-haired Mediterranean Jew he would have been.

 

 

 

‘Mennofasto’ for a new era: Miriam Toews’ Women Talking

Back in 2009, a man whose name I won’t reveal, because he wouldn’t want me to, persuaded me and several other Winnipeg women to respond to what was then coming out in the news, the so-called “ghost rapes” of Mennonite women in a colony in Bolivia. Turns out the rapes were dreadfully real, not ghostly at all; rendered unconscious by anesthetic spray, the women had been raped by men within their own community. The police were eventually called in, and eight men were arrested. I confess that I was reluctant to get involved; in spite of a growing amount of credible reportage, I felt on distant and shaky ground with the context and facts. Nevertheless, my braver friends and I planned and led an evening of prayer and lament for the women, with monies raised going to a women’s shelter in their vicinity. It was our best way of drawing attention, of demonstrating solidarity, even if the victims might never hear of it.

downloadBut I don’t think any of us ever thought it was enough. When I heard, last spring, that Miriam Toews had written a book reacting to these events, I was excited — excited to read her “take” on it since I greatly admire her writing, and excited that her status as an internationally recognized author might bring wider attention — dare I say further prayer, lament, perhaps even solace? — to the women.

Well, the book is out and I’ve read it, and it’s solace alright, but far more than that, it’s a manifesto, born out of vulnerability, complication, and strength, and wonderfully distilled to the essence of what the novel’s women want. A manifesto not only for them, in my opinion, but for women period. In other words, it carries universal heft, even if pointedly specific.

For an example of the specific, and perhaps my favourite laugh of the novel (in spite of pain and anger, there’s a lot of laughter here): after the eight women, who’ve assembled in a hayloft while the colony men are away to the city to post bail for the accused, have rehearsed at some length their options about what to do next, they agree on three things they want. (This happens too far into the book not to be a spoiler, so I’ll be mum on what they are.) One of the women, Ona, seems in reverie about the consensus they’ve reached.

“This is the beginning of a new era, she says. This is our manifesto. (She says “manifesto” in English but with her Mennonite inflection it sounds like “mennofasto.”)

Back-tracking: as far as what the book’s about, it’s what the title implies, mainly women talking. Post the rapes. Since the women are illiterate, teacher August Epp, who’s also in love with Ona, is asked to keep “minutes” of the meetings. The talk is what extended talk can be, revealing of personality, digressive, argumentative, supportive, but there’s urgency here, for the men will soon come back and the women must decide what to do. Theological urgency too, about whether they’re animals (they’ve been treated as such; the spray is an animal anesthetic), about forgiveness, and much more. The novel is mostly talk, yes, but there are turns and surprises, and talk coalesces into action that feels, for the reader, exactly right.

Let me back up some more, to another confession. I found the novel/narrator wooden at first and experienced some of the frustration I’ve felt occasionally with Toews’ Mennonite stories, where bits seem drawn from anywhere in Mennonitentum, a borrowing that makes the group represented seem not entirely consistent to itself. (I remember this same frustration with Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress). It’s a problem of me also being Mennonite, I suppose, too aware of subgroups and nuances and how we imagine the “others.”) So I closed the book some ways in, took a week’s break, lectured myself about this being a novel and not journalism, and began again, suspending disbelief into the fiction of the story — and therefore into the truth of it — and sure enough, it was quite as remarkable as I’d wished it to be. It’s full of layers, teases for a reader’s own digressions within the conversation. Narrator August, for example, whose mother’s name is Monica, who once stole pears, a kind of Saint Augustine? His paean to Ona, “the soul of Molotschna,” her name a version of Anna perhaps, or meaning “graceful” in Hebrew, or are we to think of Blake, or all of the above?

It’s a big story, this narrative towards manifesto, but crazily and specifically Mennonite too — big and unsplintered. As August notes in the discussion of the mennofasto:

“Well, it’s not quite precisely put, Salome says. But it sounds perfect to me.”