The New Year’s resolution I thought would be easiest?
To keep this page up to date.
Not good enough, just to check in here once a year, and write a bit about a selected few. (Said I.) No no, I will record everything….
All very well. January’s nearly over! Nonetheless here goes...
Books read so far this year:
William Boyd – Waiting for Sunrise
Rose Tremain – Merivel A Man of His Time
Louise Erdrich – The Round House
Alice Munro – Dear Life
M.G. Vassannji – The Magic of Saida
C.P. Boyko – Psychology and Other Stories
First question: What makes a work of fiction real?
I was so looking forward to reading prize-winning British writer William Boyd’s Waiting for Sunrise. I found previous books of his both riveting (in the “rattling good yarn” way) and also insightful and wise, and I was particularly taken with Any Human Heart. (The TV series made from this was not a patch on the novel, to my mind.)
So why was I disappointed with his last novel, Waiting for Sunrise? For one thing it seemed to have a lot of “stuffing”, a lot of – well – unnecessary words, and, surprisingly, also sentences that struck me as just plain ill-written.
But the main thing that disappointed was that the whole thing did not feel “real” in the way that a full-blown fully-imagined work of fiction can. Perhaps I just didn’t get it. Perhaps it was too subtle for me. I felt the characters had been walked through their parts, rather than walking through them on their own; and some of the choices the central character made (well, many of them!) seemed so oblivious of the woo woo clues of danger planted all around, that – though the novel certainly is a page-turner – by the time I’d swooshed through to the end I didn’t much care.
No way should this discourage others from reading the rest of Boyd, though. (I’d be most interested to hear from those who disagree with my appraisal of this one.) And I suspect his new “Bond” novel will be a hit.
On the other hand, it was wonderful to encounter Merivel again, the deeply-flawed central character of Rose Tremain’s earlier Restoration, which is one of my all-time favorite novels. Here he is again – still flawed, and still searching for the personal inner “restoration” which, to his mind at least, has always just eluded him. Now both he and his mentor and patron, King Charles II, are on the edge of old age – which does not stop Merivel from setting off on new quests along a wonderfully realized fictional journey that is deeply moving.
Quite a leap from Tremain’s late Seventeenth Century England, to Louise Erdrich’s The Roundhouse, a heart-wrenching story of a crime and its consequences on a First Nations Reservation in North Dakota in the 1980’s. Erdrich writes with such compassion, from such a deep well of experience and knowledge, that – though the tale is ultimately tragic – it is at the same time strangely uplifting, perhaps mainly because she lets us see so clearly into the heart of the young protagonist.
Ah. Then Alice Munro’s Dear Life. What can one say about her stories that has not already been said? I know that one ought not read short stories “all of a gulp”. But with Dear Life I found it impossible to finish one story, and not start the next, led on by acerbic, straight-faced, first sentences that at the same time provide a shiver. “At that time we were living beside a gravel pit.” Or, “A woman goes to her doctor to have her prescription renewed. The doctor is not there…” Here is life indeed, set out for us with Munro’s extraordinary ability to eviscerate a complex human situation with the delicate scoop of a grapefruit spoon, leaving us dazzled by how she manages to do this, again and again.
I have just finished M.G. Vassanji’s The Magic of Saida. I was sad to leave. Though the story is in some ways strangely told (one man's very intimate and personal story, looped through a sort of voice-over by a second character) the occasional moments of confusion were swept aside by the power and interest of the story; and not by just the story, but by the chance to visit East Africa – Tanzania and Uganda during the area’s late colonial period and the ensuing changes during the latter part of the twentieth Century – all so vividly and personally told, that we are there, we (or at least I) able to understand that history as never before. Even more important though, the fully-rounded humanness of even the minor characters.
As to Psychology and Other Stories – I am halfway through and still shaking after encountering one of the scariest characters in CanLit, surely – a certain Mr. Custard. (I’ll say no more, not wanting to spoil the tale for others.) I’ll be reading with C.P. Boyko tonight, January 30th, at a Vancouver Writer’s Festival event, and I look forward to meeting the author of this unsettling and insightful collection.
Also reading tonight, Bradley Somer, from his new novel Imperfections, which is billed as "a genre-bending novel that sits solidly in the foggy area between fact and fiction."
This sounds like fun. (Early in Feb, I will report.)