Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Days gone by

Le grand spectacle
Somehow, my weekend was perfect. (I even had time to read!)

I'd been dreading it actually, knowing that J-F was to work on Saturday and I'd have to wrangle the child on my own. But it was lovely. We had a picnic in her bedroom. We dressed all her dolls. We did puzzles and had adventures.

Helena asked me to read the Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary to her, which I'd left lying on the floor. I complied, skipping over the boring bits. Her favourite entries are "Norwegian elkhound" and "lute," which inspired a song, "La guitare, ma guitare...," in the flamenco style.

Sunday evening Helena made preparations for a "pestacle," converting our second bathroom into a performance theatre space. The crowd was assembled. We parents were also invited — standing room only. Much to my surprise, I was called on to open the show. Though unprepared, I performed an abridged version of Don Quixote, throwing in a chorus of "The Impossible Dream," which was well-received. J-F used the chalkboard to illustrate an alternate battle plan from the Lord of the Rings, or some such, involving helicopters. Helena herself finally took the podium to read a Caillou story. She then attempted to lure one of her babies on stage, but baby kept dropping her chalk, so we adjourned for supper.

It's days like these that dissolve all our petty growing pains. Of course, the weekend's joy was balanced by the migraine that developed Monday morning, the one that made me want to die, and Helena's pesky new habit of trying on all her underwear after every trip to the bathroom to find a pair sufficiently comfortable.

Some kind of burgeoning
I couldn't put down Ami McKay's The Birth House. Honestly, I wasn't expecting to like it so much. Based on my very limited experience with "Canadian" fiction, I didn't expect early 20th-century Nova Scotia — an isolated village — to hold more than over-the-top melodrama, the hardships of small lives peppered with sugar. I was very wrong. The Birth House is lovely (and a joyful complement to my other recent maternal readings).

The Birth House website.
Ami McKay's blog.
CBC profile.

It's the story of a midwife's apprentice. Yes, there are hardships, and it is emotional, but it never induces eye-rolling. The writing is clear and honest, the heroine very likeable.

One blurb notes that this is "a world where tradition collides with science." I say it's where tradition and progress (scientific and other) both collide with common sense.

One of my favourite, and subtle, aspects of the novels is that our heroine Dora Rare is a reader behind her father's disapproving back, "borrowing" books — Dickens, Austen, et al — from forgotten cupboards. "Every woman needs a sanctuary." (For some of us, it is found in books.)

(It's clear, too, that the author loves books. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I find myself discouraged by all the wannabe writers with a blog presence who wouldn't know a classic if it bit them on the ass, who have no reverence for the tradition that's gone before them. McKay's sincerity when she notes "You gotta read to write," is hard to resist.)

(Thank you, Patricia! (who met The Birth House's author) for helping me get my reading groove back.)

My sense of Smilla
Not very good.

Last week I finished up Smilla's Sense of Snow, by Peter Hoeg. Part murder mystery, action thriller, forensic investigation, police procedural, social commentary, sea voyage, psychological drama, and science fiction. Ordinarily, I embrace this kind of genre-spanning refusal to be pigeon-holed; here, I couldn't find a comfortable foothold. And really, the suggestion of the possibility of an alien life form, or life force? Ridiculously out of place. (Oops. Did I just ruin it for you?)

I was never convinced that Smilla cared what had happened to Isaac up on the roof. Perhaps this is an effect of the translation. Perhaps her motivation is a kind of distinctly Danish or Groenlandian attachment emotion that I cannot hope to understand. Perhaps she really does not care what happened to Isaac; in fact, Smilla's investigation is to lay to rest the psychological demons leftover from her own childhood. Thinking of it in this last way, now, makes it a little better.

She's emotionally cold, or at least suppressed, though she evolves somewhat on this front. This makes her drive — her desperation — for truth all the more puzzling.

Smilla doesn't strike me as very smart, starting with the illogic of pursuing the question of Isaac's death. She knows mathematics; she knows ice and snow on molecular level; however, this is not a product of extraordinary intelligence, but rather an offshoot of her instinct. Neither is she street smart, walking into situations she shouldn't. Granted, she always extricates herself expertly, thanks to luck and instinct. (I suppose this raises some questions of definition. Is instinct a kind of intelligence? Are book smarts in and of itself not sufficient to prove intelligence.)

My instinct: I don't like her. But I am somewhat intrigued by her. (Strangely, I also relate to her, as far as goes her personal, banal emotional being anyway — not so much the daredevil breaking and entering or nothing-to-lose attitude regarding this still mysteriously all-important and all-consuming quest.)

Also, there are far too many people in this novel. I couldn't keep them straight. But I'm sure this is the fault of my divided attention.

I don't know any Danes personally but am a little puzzled by Smilla's assertion that Danes are essentially optimistic. 1. This runs contrary to my sense of the reputation of Danes. 2. The Danes in the novel do not strike me as optimistic. (Similar assertion, though less problematic for me, regarding their complacency.)

Mostly it was cold, just achingly cold, without inducing the wonder of snow I so wanted to experience.

In my opinion, the book's vastly overrated. (I wonder, was it so well rated to begin with? Why did the buzz of so many years ago stick with me? The promise of mathematics to be beautifully literarily rendered?)

February for me was emotionally volatile, physically less than healthy, mentally exhausting. My reading has been overall disjointed and not satisfying. Still, it can't all be me, can it?

Unfinished business
I've resolved to finish, finally, A Whistling Woman, by A.S. Byatt — I have 50 pages or so to go to be done with it.

I hate not finishing books and it's very rare that I don't. If I've brought a book into my home, it has already been very carefully considered and deemed worthy on some level. In recent months, however, it's becoming clearer that life is short; perhaps not all books are worth finishing after all. (I almost set Smilla aside.) At the very least, I ought to revise my criteria, or consider them more carefully, for bringing books into my home.

The book is full of interesting ideas, but I can't find the life in them. It's academic and cold, which to some degree is the point of her story, but the more it goes, I think Byatt writes like an academic — her books are an exercise. There's no writerly passion in her.

A Whistling Woman more than any other novel I've read in recent years has me dog-earing pages, noting paragraphs of insight, clever turns phrase. I reach for my notebook (or blog), but I'm always stopped from quoting at length like I'd like to. Stopped cold. I can't make it connect.

All of which has me thinking: what do I like to read? Books I've wanted to read for years disappoint me; books I'd be unlikely to pick up of my own accord surprise and engross me. (Nor is it lost on me that I have more to say about books that I don't like than those that I do.) Every book has its time and its place, but the spaces within me for them to fill up are shifting too rapidly for me to finger them precisely.


Anonymous said...

I think reading is a strange and ephemeral thing. Part of it is expectation-- I'm often drawn to the books I read because of a buzz around them, but sometimes it makes me expect too much. I can't just take the book for what it is. Sometimes a book I haven't heard of will take me by surprise, and there's a real pleasure in the discovery.

I was also disappointed by Smilla's Sense of Snow; I remember that, though it's been years since I read it, I remember thinking, what is all the fuss about? One thing I did like was the fact that it left me with a strange, pervasive mood. Chilly. And I have to respect a book that affects me physically in some way, that lingers.

I'm one of the lazy readers, I'm afraid, who often doesn't finish books. I find myself reading several at a time, and inevitably don't get back to some of them. And the ones that don't interest me I just put aside. Why bother? There are too many wonderful stories out there just waiting for me.

Anonymous said...

So glad you are enjoying Ami's 'The Birth House'. I was quite surprised too, to be so engrossed in the story. The author truly is a gifted storyteller (though truth be told, I found the first 3/4 of the novel to be much stronger overall than the last 1/4. But still a big thumbs up for me).

I'm also very pleased to help you out of your reading slump. It was actually Ami's book that got me out of mine, and I'm really getting back into my reading groove, enjoying the deliciously creepy 'Perfum' (thank you for mentioning the book on your blog!)

I think sometimes it's good for us to read books (or start them, at least) that we don't like. It is just another great avenue for self-descovery, really. I don't think it's good enough to just know what constitutes good writing and good storytelling – one must also be very aware of what is not so good. Can't have sunshine without some shadow.

Anonymous said...

You are right to question why some books you have waited to read all your life fall flat (too much expectation?) while others, unexpectedly, find their way into your heart.

I have learned that there is a time and a place for certain books. I have books that I've excitedly purchased with the intent of reading them at once. Yet, when I crack the pages open...they don't do a thing for me. This used to frustrate me a great deal. Surely I know what I like to read...right?

Eventually, I pick up something else and move on. Then, one day...months down the road...I will think "I should try that book again." For whatever reason, those same opening lines have a new meaning, they grip me, interest me and I'm off and reading. Sometimes months are not enough. I have a few that were immediately chucked to the back of the shelves, only to seek them out years later and find a perfect kinship. Others are still waiting.

I've come to believe that I have to be ready for a particular book. I need certain life experiences, insights and interests to make a book now-fascinating that only a year ago seemed pure drudgery. I'm not quite sure what that is - perhaps something to do with our subconscious mind and the many things we are always trying to work out, connect, illuminate and so on. While I've not figured that out, I've learned to trust the process insofar as I don't toss the books out upon first realization that I'm not ready yet. Or the second. Or the third.

Then of course, there are the books that seem to have no time or place for me. I just don't like them. :-)

eronston said...

I was surprised when I read Smilla's Sense of Snow - I had not heard much hype about it, but I enjoyed it. Part of the reason (which is something you mention) is the feeling of "coldness" that you come away with while reading the book. Hoeg does an excellent job of capturing that emotion or connection that makes me think of isolation and fields and fields of endless white landscape - something that also parallels Smilla's isolation and emotional distance. I think this is why the book worked for me (all I truly remember now when thinking of this novel is how it captures winter). Smilla must be read in winter because it captures winter - much the same way I think Thomas Hardy invokes autumn (every year around September I toy with the idea of re-reading Hardy). Other authors do this to me - Garcia Marquez must be read in early summer. If I try to read these during the wrong season, they just don't grab me.

Cipriano said...

The way you speak of slogging through the end-portions of Byatt "to be done with it" is sort of how I have felt, reading a few things by Iris Murdoch.
It is a sad thing to WANT books to end, and worse when they have been things you really anticipated reading. Forever I have wanted to read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. And Eliot's Middlemarch. For one reason or another, both have eluded my diving into them, and when I finally do, I already feel I will be disappointed, because of having built them both up so much in my mind.
And then, as is being discussed here, occasionally, a reader will slip into a book unexpectedly (a real sleeper, something you would not EXPECT to be good) and voila! The miracle happens. The thing is unforgettable. This has happened with me, with books by Sarah Willis [who? Exactly! Read her.] Or Emma Donoghue's Slammerkin. Fabulous book. Who has ever heard of it though? Dennis Bock's The Ash Garden, same thing. Amazing book. Or, the thing I just finished tonight, Rupert Thomson's The Book of Revelation. Amazing stuff.
Sleeper books.
Books that don't put you to sleep!