Last year, if you recall, I didn’t get my mother any Christmas books (it was a shameful moment, not necessarily redeemed by the fact that I got her loads of other shiny pretties), so this year, I improved my previous standings: I got her one.
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin (2012, Harper) is, at first glance, an almost outrageously handsome book. It seems to tell you, by the very look of it, that it will be both durable to hold and magnificent to read. Coplin’s story is described by Holloway McCandless (what a gorgeous name, right) of Shelf Awareness as “an extraordinarily ambitious and authoritative debut”, which, when one thinks of debuts, is what one wants to hear. Set in the rural reaches of the Pacific Northwest at the end of the twentieth century, The Orchardist has one of those plots that gives you faint goosebumps under your arms and across your nape, just considering it. It involves a kind, reclusive man interfacing with two young pregnant girls who trespass on the fringes of his land and the cockles of his heart. There’s trauma, and acts of redemption, and the bedrock of an America that scarcely resembles the one of 2013. My mother has already read it, and loved it. She deemed it “serious, important writing”, a moving, beautiful story, movingly and beautifully told.
I gave more than one Christmas book last year, however. To my best friend, I gifted Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas (1994 reprint, Penguin). It is her favourite memoir in film, and we both predict/hopefully anticipate that it will be her favourite memoir in print, too. (An outrageously goodlooking image of Javier Bardem from the 2000 movie is plastered across its front cover, which, one imagines, would spike impulse sales considerably.) The New York Times Review of Books describes Arenas’ prose reminiscences as “a book above all about being free”, charting in often painfully honest chapters the episodes of sexual persecution that have defined his queer autonomy, and political suppression that has stifled his creative work. Nor, one notes grimly, are the two methods of censorship mutually exclusive. This is the world on which so much of the Cuban writer’s fiction is founded, and Before Night Falls grants the reader the freedom of access to anti-regime, anti-persecutory reading: freedoms that Arenas himself often worked and lived without.
My brothers gave me three books, two of which suit each others’ company as impeccably as cucumber sandwiches and Darjeeling tea: North Parade Publishing collector’s edition copies of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility and Northanger Abbey. Perhaps alarmingly, or predictably, I’ve read no Austen in her totality other than that which I studied, because, well… I don’t know. One needs to be in the precisely perfect alignment of mind and disposition to delve into Austen for pleasure. These volumes might well lend themselves to that faster than the others in my possession. Incredibly portable, endearingly tiny, and interspersed with charming black and white illustrations, these are true keepsakes. I will endeavour to fill out my collection with the remaining titles, and actually strive to read them all.
The third of the books from my brothers is the hauntingly-covered Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (2009, Alfred A. Knopf), whose super popular The Time Traveller’s Wife endeared me in no way towards it. (Please remember that I am a book snob, and that book seemed to have “Oprah’s Book Club” smeared all over it. For all I know, it could be a good read.) Her Fearful Symmetry seems more promising, telling the tale of two intensely bonded sisters, Julia and Valentina, and their acquisition of a London apartment that looks over the impressive Highgate Cemetery, home to the bodies of several departed luminaries. As ghost stories go, it seems a juicy, engrossing tale, with, I hope, a shiver or two tucked inside.
My mother gave me seven books this year, a diverse and merrily motley lot. James McBride’s Song Yet Sung (2008, Riverhead), is heralded by the New York Daily News as “a gripping tale filled with acts of cruelty and humanity that surface at unexpected times — and in unexpected people.” Set in the days preceding the Civil War, it hones in on the fugitive journey of Liz Spocott, a runaway slave cursed/blessed with visions of a disturbing future. Beset by bounty hunters, wading through swampland, Liz’s journey is at once intensely personal and emblematic of a larger, more disquieting conversation, one that McBride explores with utter candour and grace. The only reason I don’t read books like this immediately is because I’m afraid of what they’ll do to my insides. I always get around to them, though. They are necessary.
Ivan Turgenev’s First Love (2005 reprint, Barnes & Noble Books) is widely celebrated as one of that prolific Russian author’s most favoured pieces of short fiction. “Anyone who has ever been in love,” the blurb of this edition proclaims, “will be touched by this tale of passion and disillusionment.” Given that my previous year was characterized by mostly contemporary reads in both fiction and non-, First Love feels both mirthful and apropos: a reminder that a look, a glance, a well-considered waltz backwards into the archives of classical literature can elicit rejuvenating effects. Coming in at just under seventy pages, I don’t think I’d be remiss in casting this slim volume as a potential Story Sunday pick, sometime later down in the 2013 calendar.
Run by Ann Patchett (2008 reprint, Harper) is touted by Jonathan Yardley of Washington Post Book World as “a thoroughly intelligent book, an intimate domestic drama,” one that deals, above all else, with concerns of family. Patchett’s fourth novel, Bel Canto, thrust her into the spotlight: the three books that preceded it received acclaim, certainly, but not quite in the way that the PEN/Faulkner award-winning Bel Canto did. Run‘s biggest worry, out the gate, must have been on how it would stack up –even if Patchett didn’t trouble herself on this issue, the critics would. The author is talked up by The New York Times Book Review as being “more hammer and nails than glue and lace”, which is enough to make me wheel back and take serious note, on its own. I haven’t even read Bel Canto, though, so here’s what I’ll do: read Ann Patchett backwards, like my fingers are tamped down on a VCR’s rewind button. We’ll see what insights and revelations emerge.
Arguably the sexiest thing beneath the Christmas tree addressed to me, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (2012 reprint, Vintage) is going to be the first book I read by this legend of an author. I am excited. I am so excited. This book seems strange and compelling and entirely unpredictable, and I want to know it, the way you would want to know the dark, Aragorn-esque stranger in the corner of the tavern. The Times calls it “a work of maddening brilliance”, and so wide is the net of global recognition flavoured with quirky, creatively fecund singularity that Murakami’s cast around him, one is inclined to agree vigorously even before reading the first page. Set in Tokyo’s 1984, the novel follows the intertwined stories of Tengo and Aomame as they venture deeper and further down rabbit holes of parallel worlds and suspicious ghostwriting assignments. I would like to repeat, just for the record, that I am so excited.
Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt (2012 reprint, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is described in the last lines of its blurb as a novel that dares to push the envelope where historical fiction is concerned. It illuminates the life of Roger Casement, the Irish nationalist whose humanitarian work deeply discomfited those accused of its crimes, notably the British in Northern Ireland. Convicted and executed by the British, stripped of his rank and title, Casement’s pioneering work was so sullied by his disgraceful end that real interest in his legacy only peaked again in the 1960s. This novel feels formidable, masterful and deeply rewarding. I shall have to acquire a copy in its original Spanish, and read the two side by side.
Edited by R. V. Branham, Curse + Berate in 69+ Languages (2008, Soft Skull Press) is a reminder that my mum is possibly more of a badass than I will ever be. There is very little I can say explicitly about this irreverent, whimsical, yet clearly superbly researched book that won’t get Novel Niche slapped with an NC-17 rating, which really is the core of the compendium’s, er, charms. Disclaimer: Wanting to use several of these gorgeous, filthy expressions doesn’t make you a bad person, but inventing and engineering social encounters so that they escalate into verbal bloodbaths, just so you can shout out “trust fund hippie” in French, or “five-faced hypocrite” in Tagalog: well, that’ll probably get your Miss Manners card revoked.
I’m not joking. My Fantasies: An Erotica Journal by David Russell and Gary Silver (2006, Clarkson/Potter Publishers, Random House) is precisely the sort of book my mother would give me, with or without any expectations that I’d fill in the lined pages, which feature helpful prompts such as “Here are my instructions for the perfect massage…” This gift, I think, is most telling: of how few boundaries there are in the discussion of what governs good and bad in printed matter, in the creator & progeny relationship of which I am one half. What is even more endearing, and comforting, is that this is the way it has always been — not that my mum was giving me erotica to read when I was in pinafores, no, but that the conversation on reading has never felt stilted, blinkered or reined in by dictates of “You shouldn’t”, or “Good/chaste/charming girls don’t read those awful things.” Panelled with quotes by the usual suspects (Pablo Neruda; Gustave Flaubert; The Kama Sutra; Rumi), and tastefully (yet pulse-tinglingly?) peppered with illustrations in unobtrusive sepia, this pocket journal is precious, darling: a fitting accoutrement to the love you’re making or dreaming up.
From she who knows the mettle and measure of my reading life with as much intimacy as my mother, I received The Children’s Book, by A. S. Byatt (2009, Alfred A. Knopf). For a long time in my teenaged years, I would tell anyone who asked that my favourite book was Byatt’s Possession. It was. Never had I read something so perfectly, ornately itself, if that’s at all coherent — this unabashed love letter to epistolary ardour, to the secret lives of writers and the conventions of two ages colliding into each other. Everything Byatt writes feels forged in a master (a mistress!) class of writing well, and I cannot fathom that The Children’s Book, loosely based on the life of English children’s book author E. Nesbit, will feel any differently. I don’t have the full measure of The Children’s Book (and when does one have the full measure of a book, ever, really?) but I can tell that it will lend itself to cloistered, intense readings. I will read it so fixedly that the rest of the world will fall away, and people and places will seem strange, when I return to them again.
Now, to my resolution. It’s simple, really.
In 2013, I resolve to read for pleasure as I damned well please.
I know that sounds a little repetitive and haughty, but let me explain. Over the past year, the work I do has been sharply characterized more and more by what could be called professional reading: reading tailored to published reviews, blog posts, and social media commentary. It’s like what I do at Novel Niche, but also not quite: each job owns its distinctive tone, and none is a mirror image of the way I write about books and an involved reading life here. Vast tracts of my time are spent with books in various official review piles, and this is bloody fantastic, but it’s also work. The distinctions are subtle but the end tasks remain thrilling. There are precious few things I would rather be doing professionally.
That said, when I read for pleasure, without a deadline or copy edit attached, I intend to do so while revelling in the freeness of choice, and the fullness of that particular range. Maybe I’ll read a book on a carousel, or in a park with a vagrant sitting next to me all day, muttering about the weather. Maybe I’ll read at a funeral. Maybe I’ll read manga and review it like classical literature. I might finally begin reading more books in Spanish, in public transit. Incomplete memoirs published without endings; Japanese erotica with or without tentacles; books I’ve had stowed away with the best intentions for years; books that Rory and Jess enjoyed poring over together in between smooches; books that Jesus Christ might pick up in a Barnes and Noble: I’m cutting any vestiges of reading propriety that could potentially be lingering.
A reading life isn’t a prolonged Advanced Honours Literature class, or at least it shouldn’t be. There is no way to do it wrong, unless perhaps you never open a cover. So this year, I’m resolved on making no resolutions other than opening as many covers for pure pleasure as I can lay my hands on. I look forward to your company, Novel Nichers, and to the continued joys of the round circle of commentary, clickage and steadily good vibrations that I always want to encourage here. Merry, mirthful 2013!