Reading list

My father used to say, “Don’t raise your voice. Improve your argument.” – Desmond Tutu

If you’re a writer, you must be willing to ask yourself the questions that your readers might ask. How you answer may or may not be an explanation but it must be satisfying to you.

Currently reading: or tbr

The Gap of Time  by Jeanette Winterson

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015)

To be reviewed

The Occupation Trilogy by Patrick Modiano

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Stanley Park by Timothy Taylor

The Spanish Boy by C. S. Reardon

Rereading Jean Rhys, of course. All of the novels together seem to become one fragmented narrative reflecting the confused experiences of her lost characters, who seek in ever more hopeless dreams for home and identity.Rereading Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry. The minutiae of everyday life as experienced by a genteelly poor family in Mumbai (or Bombay, if you don’t like change). Mistry is a magical storyteller who makes you care about each character as if you lived among them, caught up in the travails and small triumphs of their narrow lives. I love his books.

Recently read

The Cave by José Saramago

This is a novel that seems to be intended as a kind of shopping mall dystopia and defense of the individual craftsperson, labouring in almost medieval conditions. Unfortunately, it never gathers enough power to make a clear statement on one side or the other. An intriguing idea of leaving the craftsman’s unsold pottery in a cave, to be found after the hoped for collapse of the evil mall, isn’t carried through.  The Cave is a small disappointment among the great writer’s mighty novels.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

I have twice before read as far as the “windmill” incident and given up. I got a lot farther this time, about halfway through, until I realised this should be read like the romance novels that inspired Quixote to set out on his chivalrous quest. Not all at once, but one near death experience at a time, when one is in the mood. I’ll look into the second half from time to time.

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

Not a bad novel concerning sexual abuse of a student by her highly respectable teacher. I expected something more original from the author of Holding Still for as Long as Possible (2009), which surprised me with its picture of urban lives of young people struggling for jobs and self-identity; it is, however,  a realistic study of high school kids and parents with high expectations, as well as of a family facing the accusation of the father’s guilt in the abuse case.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

As a memoir, it is a well written account of grief, breakdown and finding self-knowledge through the challenge of training a hawk for hunting. There is certainly something to be learned here about psychological healing through a relationship with the natural world but I felt her personal story alone would not have been so remarkable without Macdonald’s use of T. H. White’s book Goshawk as a comparative text. The author of The Sword in the Stone also attempted to train a hawk, but without the  skill to do it properly, resulting in an abused bird and less than happy White.

How to Be Both by Ali Smith

Recent winner of the Costa Book Award for best novel 2014 Did I mention Smith is my favourite writer? A bit of a disappointment. A brilliant idea for time-and gender-shifting (akin to Woolf’s Orlando) seems to me to lose itself at times in the ecstasy of details. Still, well worth the read, as Smith always is.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

Won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in 2013 and the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. I like the title, but looks like tough reading. I’m back! Not tough at all, stylistically, but a tough story to hear and be moved by. Excellent and worthy of the prizes.

Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

Recent winner of the Giller Prize for best novel 2014 Sounds weird and wonderful. Neither really weird nor exactly wonderful but sweet, moving, and compelling, with a first-person narrative that seems to capture the true voice of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, inventor of the theremin. A story of love unreturned, a creative scientific mind hindered and almost destroyed by the small minds of Stalinism and American capitalism, and survival of a romantic, imaginative spirit. I felt it was too short, too tightly edited; I wanted more.

Werner Herzog, A Guide For the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin

The amazing and sometimes dangerous film director discusses his life and work with typical frankness, moral integrity, and with a philosophical depth not often found among the usual Hollywood suspects.

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

A rich and fascinatingly detailed study of George Eliot’s great novel and how Mead, scholar, writer, mother, wife finds echoes of her own life in it since first reading it as a teenager. I like it a lot.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

If I had been warned beforehand that this was a “young adult” novel, I might have had more respect for it, since it is, after all, remarkably well written for that popular type of literature. As an old adult, I felt extremely offended by its disingenuous attempt at trying to appeal to all readers, even those who haven’t read J. K. Rowling or J. R. R. Tolkien. Much is made of Tartt’s claim that she spent eleven years writing The Goldfinch. My guess is that she worked on it so long to perfect its lovability and to make her lovable, too. Well, some love her novel but some hate it. Tartt is a very talented writer, but she should make up her mind to write for herself alone, in whatever style she chooses, and not for the adoration of her fans; if she doesn’t, she’ll lose the respect of the critics whose praise she seems to crave.

Older reads

Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

(McClelland & Stewart, 2008 / available on Amazon)

Very good, well-told tale of personalities clashing and joining ranks in a far north radio station and on a fascinating wilderness adventure.

Life Knocks by Craig Stone

Self-published. Kindle eBook available on Amazon.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Very moving, thoughtful novel and one I thought would not appeal to me. It appealed mightily.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Brilliant, harsh, eloquent, unsparing, compassionate. Took me to a world I did not know and forced me to look at every strange thing and to listen to every strange word close up. It’s painful, but full of life. A challenge to the mind and senses.

Excellent interview with A.M. Homes, novelist, on how she works and also how she thinks about the characters, places, and situations in her fictions.

  • The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton, Emblem/McClelland and Stewart, 2011 Excellent, timely. An engrossing novel of the struggles of talented but troubled high school students. Soon to be a major motion picture, as they say.
  • Holding Still For as Long as Possible by Zoe Whittall, House of Anansi Press, 2009 A new voice talking about her generation very effectively. A paramedic, an ex-punk star and others are members of a seemingly lost generation–but, are they?

More books

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton

An absorbing (sorry for the pun, but that’s the word) account of a life dominated by two very separate talents–swimming and visual art. I liked it a lot.

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

The intellectual life studied under a novelist’s magnifying glass. How poetry sometimes comes about, wins through, after debilitating anxiety, embarrassments, terror, reading, falling in love, and self reflection. Really good.

There But For The by Ali Smith

A very favourite writer of mine. Smith writes so well of children and adults who have trouble leaving childhood behind. This, too, is a look at intellectuals and artists. The life of the mind in several very different forms, each presenting a different gripping dilemma around a central, silent one. I recommend all her books.

The Blue Light Project by Timothy Taylor

Very, very, good novel of recent times. I believe it will be read a long time from now as an important picture of the early years of the 21st century.

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