So much has happened since I last spent time in this space. My youngest grew out of her babyhood. My father became disabled and is now my legal, moral, and logistical responsibility. I went back to work part-time, then quit after acquiring an extensive private list of remarkable names that I can never use in fiction thanks to a non-disclosure agreement I signed to take the job. I spent a year in Denmark. I came back to southern Ontario and have spent the last eight weeks in the post-sojourn mindset, feeling like the year away was a socialist hallucination, because nothing really changes here except that there are more gross condo developments and, against all odds, a functional light rail system. Also, we got cats.
I want to write more about Denmark, because it was unlike anywhere else I’ve lived. But I’ve been meaning to write more about what I’m reading. Although I didn’t meet a single Dane who wasn’t a capable English speaker, and Aarhus boasted a beautiful modern library complex (Dokk1), the kids and I exhausted the children’s and adult fiction collections quickly. I’m not a huge fan of on-screen reading, but the Libby app saved us, and the kids loved listening to audiobooks (I am not an audiobook person, but it worked especially well for S, now 6, who wasn’t reading fluently yet but likes long and complex stories). It was a huge relief to return to our excellent public library, even if it meant leaving a land of free pediatric dental care, excellent public transit, and protected cycling infrastructure (waaaaaaahhh).
An incomplete list of books read this summer:
Shout, Laurie Halse Anderson. A memoir in prose from the acclaimed YA author. I read this mainly for the Danish parts – Anderson spent a year as an exchange student in rural Denmark, and speaks Danish. I was keen to see what she had to say about the country, and laughed when she described how tough her legs became from all the cycling (hard same, LHA). I am certain she can pronounce rødgrød med fløde better than I can.
Less, Andrew Sean Greer. After his younger lover marries another man, heartbroken novelist Arthur Less circumnavigates the globe, writing, lecturing, and attending literary events. The transliterated German in the Berlin section had me howling on a plane. Funny, hopeful, and warm with some admirable turns of phrase: “One person after another came up and said his mother was at peace. His mother’s friends: each with her own peculiar spiked or curled white hairdo, like a dahlia show.”
The Position, Meg Wolitzer. A group of adult siblings live with the enduring success of their now-divorced parents’ illustrated sex manual. Wolitzer’s interest in the family isn’t dissimilar to Jonathan Franzen’s, but she’s funnier, and more realistic and confident in the scope she attempts. (This isn’t to knock Franzen; I don’t dislike his novels, but prefer his essays, although….yeahhh.) I also read Sleepwalking, her first novel, which was juvenile as expected, but complete.
My Sister, the Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite. There’s sisterly love, and then there’s cleaning up your sister’s boyfriend’s murder scene. Worth it.
The Overstory, Richard Powers. There is probably a pun here, not seeing the forest, etc., but I’m too lazy to make it happen. Richard Powers wants you to care about trees. Indeed, it behooves all of us on this stifling planet to do so. The strongest portions of this book are about individuals and their love for specific trees; an environmentalist sit-in in the canopy of a giant redwood is a high point, as is the chronicling of the life of a lone, improbable American chestnut on a midwestern family farm. The more violent activism scenes, where the individual characters start to behave as a group, are saggier, and work less effectively. This is a novel that, for me, suffered from being read on a phone screen – it’s too sprawling to be contained on such a tiny, stupid device. Better to read it in a park with a maple throwing its keys at the page.
The Last Hours, Minette Walters. I’ve been trying to read more historical fiction lately, for secret reasons. Set in 14th-century England, The Last Hours recounts one demesne’s struggle to survive the plague. After her husband succumbs, Lady Anne, the clever, shrewd, beloved, literate, medicine-mixing, God-fearing, peasant-respecting, head of the household steers her serfs ably through disaster. I probably shouldn’t have finished this book, nor should I have ordered the second in the trilogy from the library. Lady Anne is a medieval Mary Sue, for which I have no patience. It’s not implausible that she has merits, but all of them?
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser. If you are an adult over whose childhood the Little House books exerted any influence at all, Fraser’s superb biography is worth reading (or, if you are me, borrowing from my library via the Libby app, failing to finish it within two weeks, and having to request it over and over again until completed. For god’s sake, get the paper copy). Fraser has done a huge service with this book. The volume of research she’s undertaken is staggering. Do we want to admit how much of these beloved stories is carefully constructed artifice? Probably not. Should we learn what really happened and try to accept it? A million times, yes. I’d known that Wilder’s daughter Rose had played a role in the publication of the series, but not the full extent of her codependence with Laura. It’s the stuff of an HBO miniseries.
Big Sky, Kate Atkinson. What a pleasure to return to private investigator Jackson Brodie’s world. I’ve read all Atkinson’s more recent literary – as opposed to detective, not that this distinction is terribly important – novels, of which Life After Life is the best, but she’s in her element with Jackson, keeping a whole sackful of knives up in the air and catching them with precision as they fall. The coming of Brexit hangs over Yorkshire like the fug of a coal furnace, but Jackson keeps ticking along, feeling his age in his knees, righting wrongs within his power and training his adolescent son to look, listen, and think. There is a sense that he can’t do this forever, and maybe Atkinson is reminding us that she can’t, either. But when it’s over, we’ll still have the music.
Spring, Ali Smith. I’ve so enjoyed Smith’s quartet – I always learn something that feels essential, and wonder how I’ve lived this long without knowing about, for example, Pauline Boty. In Spring, another chronicle of Brexit wounds, a child walks into an immigration detention facility and demands that changes be made. There are two ways to respond to disruption of the status quo: acceptance or rejection. That Smith shows us both is important, and also horrifying.
A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, Alicia Elliott. In the prairie town where I went to high school, there was a neighbourhood with housing mainly occupied by indigenous residents. It was far enough from the school that in the winter months, the walk was dangerously cold, so many students who lived there simply didn’t come to school much in the winter. I had lunch with my old principal (an old friend of my mother’s family) a few years ago. He told me that when he pushed the possibility of busing the students to school, the school board rejected it, pointing out that students from the other (whiter, wealthier) side of town didn’t have bus access either. Never mind that many of them owned their own cars, or were driven by their parents. If this seems problematic to you, read Alicia Elliott’s book, which pries open many aspects of the systemic racism that is considered perfectly normal by so many in this country.
Immigrant City, David Bezmozgis. I haven’t read Bezmozgis’ novels yet, but his stories are such a pleasure – like watching Simone Biles perform her floor routine, or Kipchoge run. His sentences never get in their own way. The assurance of his understatement carries him far enough that when the narrator of the title story leaves his young daughter in the care of perfect strangers while he purchases a secondhand car door he’s found on the internet, a beat passes before you go, “What?”
May your fall reading not be on a screen!