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?

 

 

 

 

 

Road trip diary (# 5)

Tuesday, October 8, Hague, Saskatchewan

In B.C., I defend Winnipeg weather, which tends to be misunderstood, and usually I do so in terms of its sunshine. According to this comparison of Canadian cities, Winnipeg tops the chart in annual sunshine. The four days we just spent there, however, failed to reward my fond defence. It was grey and moist throughout. But Sunday evening, the sky cleared somewhat, and yesterday (Monday) we were on the road again under bright sun and summery warmth. All day we enjoyed that light and the beauty of the prairies, a modest beauty, but beauty for sure, mostly flat but valleys and waves of land here and there, stands of trees turning yellow (with occasional hints of red), grazing cattle, geese in long lines overhead, stubble in rows and dotted with bales.

We took the Yellowhead highway to Saskatoon, which took us through Neepawa, which I don’t drive through without thinking of Margaret Laurence. I’ve been re-reading her work this year, as well as reading the Africa books, which I hadn’t read before. She was an enormous inspiration and influence in my reading/writing coming of age. (About an earlier visit to Neepawa here.) We passed through numerous other towns, some large, some small, many with truck and implement dealerships, gleaming vehicles and machines on display. And always the vast sky, set back and cloudless, insisting that we focus on the landscape.

We arrived in Hague, where my sister Linda lives, in time for supper, and spent the evening visiting with her. A bit of panic ensued when I saw my MacBook was almost out of power but I couldn’t find my charger. I figured I must have forgotten it in the last bedroom we occupied. How dependent we get on these instruments of information and communication! This morning I found it, packed in the place it wasn’t supposed to be packed, and all is well, it’s juicing up while I write this and H. and I are drinking our daily morning yerba mate.

We’ll spend this day with my elderly mother (97) at the Mennonite Nursing Home in Rosthern, and the evening at a reading event in Saskatoon. More on that after it happens!

Dear Evelyn by Kathy Page

41nBAtsStsL._SX315_BO1,204,203,200_Dear Evelyn opens with a birth — of Harry Miles, who is half the couple featured in the book. I’d just read some wonderfully feisty comments by the late Margaret Laurence about birth scenes in novels, so was immediately positively predisposed to this novel by Kathy Page, which dared such a scene right out of the gate. (A male reviewer of Laurence’s first novel, This Side Jordan, had wondered about “the obligatory birth scene in novels written by women,” which infuriated Laurence, though the good thing was, “that dolt” launched “a kind of self-liberation” for her in writing. Fine for men to write endlessly of violence or masturbation or sexual conquest, she said, but “not at all right, apparently, for a women to speak of the miraculous beginnings of human life.” After that, she never hesitated to write about birth, “from the viewpoint of the mother.”*)

And then, I happened to read Tess Hadley in a Guardian interview saying she wanted to write about long marriages (as apparently she does in her latest book, Late in the Day), because “they seem immensely interesting and they are kind of new in a way … people just live so much longer,” and I thought, well I certainly like to read about long marriages, being — at 44 years and counting — well on the way into a long marriage myself, and there I was, happily into Dear Evelyn too, which is exactly on the topic.

It’s not that Page’s novel needs these asides from Laurence or Hadley to bulk its worth, but I mention them by way of noting how often it’s the entire atmosphere of reading — current circumstances, personal life stage, other voices bumping alongside — that makes a particular book memorable. At any rate, with or without all that, Dear Evelyn is a fine and memorable book. Page skilfully unfolds the characters and experiences of Harry Miles and Evelyn Hill — from his birth to her death — in linked short stories. Each chapter/story treats of a specific episode or slice of their separate or joint lives, but the sum of them feels seamless, as if everything in between has been revealed to us as well.

Harry and Evelyn meet outside a library, and he is taken not only with her beauty but her strong sense of striving. “A girl like her would need him to be ambitious, more so than he had been so far. Even as he realized this, he committed to it.” We already know that poetry grabbed hold of Harry’s head and heart under the tutelage of his teacher Mr. Whitehorse, and at this early point it’s easy enough to assume that his “ear for verse” and nascent interest will grow and be fulfilled. But that’s the thing about life and marriage — they limit, even thwart. Which is why Harry and Evelyn as couple is a story of love but far from a happily-ever-after one. Their ambitions, so compatible at one level, compete drastically at another, not to mention the changing and powerful shaping circumstances of war (and the separation and temptations it imposed), children, and old age.

A week after finishing the book I’m still thinking about this fictional relationship. Does one admire, or pity? Can fault, realistically speaking, be laid? The 2018 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize jury, which awarded Dear Evelyn the win, called the novel “tender and unsettling.” Yes. Both those words.

 

*Margaret Laurence, Dance on the Earth