Susan Sanford Blades, “The Definition of Hunger”
This February, Sheila Heti read at Open Space Gallery in Victoria. I was immediately taken with her guts and honesty—not to mention her cute outfit. Her latest, How Should a Person Be?, could be described as a non-fictional novel. A large portion of its content consists of transcribed tape-recorded conversations she's had with friends. I loved it for the same reasons I loved Sheila herself: the book unapologetically covers art, love, female friendship, blowjobs ... My copy is riddled with underlined passages; it's tough to pick only one to share, but perhaps this is fitting: "He seems to take himself and art very seriously. It's nice to take it seriously while also leaving your back door open. I mean, your pants down."
Leslie Buxton, “Cheat”
Right now, I’m reading the late Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. In her early adolescence, the award-winning poet lost half her jaw to a rare cancer which left her disfigured and struggling throughout her life with matters of identity and beauty. Her memoir describes how she dealt with the hours of painful treatments, her classmates’ jeers and gawking strangers. Grealy’s candour is uplifting. Instead of falling into the trap many memoirists do of fashioning family members into perfect cardboard characters, she truthfully scrutinizes her parent’s behaviour during illness, describing the awkwardness of her father’s hospital visits and her mother’s frequent cautions not to cry. The result is a realistic portrait of people trapped in a brutal situation. Still, what truly sets this memoir apart is it’s candour, clarity, and lyrical prose.
Kate Cayley, “The Summer the Neighbours were Nazis”
I am reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I’m probably the last person in the world to get to it. It's wonderful—this sprawling wild vision of American history and also of one family, as seen through the intersex narrator Cal. I haven't been reading novels these days, tending more towards short stories, and I think I'd forgotten how a novel can slowly unfurl, coming back brilliantly to some place or person from a hundred pages ago. The voice is essentially comic, not in a trivial way, but in the sense of a profound and matter-of-fact optimism which is not the same thing as sentimentality. But it doesn't shy away from horror or tragedy, just looks at them squarely and dispassionately, almost in passing. It’s a thrilling funny book which allows itself to be big and ridiculous.
I've also just started Alex Leslie's debut short story collection, People Who Disappear, which I was very excited to read. I fell in love with her story, Preservation, after reading it on the CBC Literary Awards website years ago (it won second prize). The stories are beautiful, evocative and lyrical (to the point of sometimes being opaque) and render a kind of queer experience that I think doesn't show up enough in fiction. But I'm only a few stories in.
Youri Cormier, “Bricklayers”
The thing about beating one’s head repeatedly against the project of trying to complete a PhD in war theory is that your brain starts to feel like a battlefield. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is the heavy artillery. Clausewitz’s On War is all over the place, dense, and rapid, like a volley of gunfire. And Arendt’s On Revolution and the Origins of Totalitarianism are so destabilizing, you thought you had dodged the last bullet … but then shrapnel hits. So you’re tired, wounded by the complexity of it all, and at a loss for words. You finally get a sense of what they mean by ‘fog of war’: I have no idea where I am or what I am doing here at all.
At last, I come across Winston Churchill’s Memoirs of the Second World War. Not only is a brilliant account of his experiences, thoughts, and decisions in those crucial years; it also appears to me as a beacon of humanity and logic among the ashes and embers in my mind. He won the Nobel for literature for good reason: the writing is pithy, the depth of his knowledge is exceptional, and the tone of his personal account guides you, as though a strong hand pulling you out of the rubble, to safety, and eventually to an understanding of this most traumatic experience in our history.
Michael Crummey, “Love’s Undercurrent”
I'm about halfway through a re-read of Marilyn Robinson's Gilead, a novel I picked up a couple of years ago and haven't been able to get out of my head. I can't think of the last time I voluntarily re-read a novel just to spend more time in that world, but this one is just as rich and compelling the second time through. The book, by and large, is a meditation on spirituality and physical existence, on questions of truth and honour and justice. Which makes it sound about as dull as dishwater. Which it ain't. It also suggests the author might be proselytizing in some fashion. But she ain't (at least as far as I can see). The voice of the narrator is note-perfect, and its keeping company with his way of thinking and seeing the world that makes the book such a pleasure, even when I don't share the sentiment. Elegantly and effortlessly plotted, understated and profoundly beautiful. I haven't read anything else by Robinson before or since, and that seems like a real oversight on my part.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien guided me into new territory as a reader, and for that I will always be indebted to the writer. We never begin a journey of gathering new knowledge without being first convinced that its weight is worth shouldering. Traditionally I avoid stories about war because I feel I cannot bear them, or because I feel I will not like them. Although as my sister once told me, before she jumped out of a plane, we must try new things. So I accepted the tangible and intangible “things” that came neatly packaged in this pliable paperback and began reading it in the serenity of my den. What impression was I left with? The soldiers carried keepsakes from their past, their cherished memories with the heavy weight of Sisyphus’ rock. What I learned was to never deny the self certain experiences. Sometimes the moment we read the first chapter of a book we are enlisted into an army of words, following phrases dutifully until we reach a foregone conclusion: the human condition may be a burden, but we carry it everywhere.
Elizabeth Haynes, “Eggplant with Pomegranate”
I just finished reading Say Her Name, a memoir by journalist and novelist Francisco Goldman (Grove Press, 2012) about his life with and the tragic early death of his young wife, fiction writer and PhD student Aura Estrada. It is a poignant, beautifully written memoir that I would highly recommend.
Anu Jindal, “Bread & Butter Story”, “Afterword: Bread & Butter Story”
Lately I’ve had Isaac Babel’s The Collected Stories near to hand at all times. The book has been simultaneously inspiring and terrifying. Inspiring because Babel pairs a terrific amount of energy with an incredible economy of words. Terrifying maybe for the same reason. Also, because he accomplishes it with a bothersome appearance of ease and shrugging confidence, as if half-asleep. And there’s not a dud in the collection; each story manages somehow to be funny, touching, aching, and brutal at once, with just a quick turn of his hand. All of it’s up there in Babel’s sleeve.
The opening of “The Road to Brody,” testifies to this pretty ably: “I felt sorry about the bees. The fighting armies treated them most brutally. There were no bees left in Volhynia. We defiled the hives. We destroyed them with sulphur and blew them up with gunpowder. The smell of singed rags reeked in the sacred republic of the bees. Dying, they flew around slowly, humming so that you could hardly hear. And we who had no bread extracted the honey with our swords… There were no bees left in Volhynia.”
I prefer Walter Morison’s translation to the more recent Peter Constantine one, not that I know a word of Russian. Morison’s translation seems the more economical, clear, and unencumbered of the two.
I've lost myself completely to Graham Swift's Wish You Were Here (Swift won the Booker for Last Orders several years ago, and for good reason). The novel is an extraordinary exploration of collective grief and personal anguish. Set in 2006 in the English countryside, it takes backward glances to the war in Iraq, mad cow disease, and the unravelling of rural life in England. Swift's narrative meanders but then builds to an almost unbearable conclusion. His stoic characters, which are few in number, breathe from every page, probably because of Swift's uncanny ability to capture inner-voice. But be prepared; this is not a novel for the faint of heart. Personal tragedy is at the core of this tale, which is perhaps best read in November.