This past Yuletide, I received ten books from my mother, who is the original (and still the best) literature-gifter in my life. She knows that books, not Blackberries, are the presents that truly delight me—and the feeling is bookwormishly mutual. I’ll explore the Yuletide novel cheer from both sides: first, my mother’s offerings of paper, ink and imagination to me, then mine to her. Without further ado:
1. Diary of a Bad Year – J.M. Coetzee
My mother has been giving me Coetzee for years now. Perhaps 2011 will be the year in which I finally begin reading him in earnest. I remember tiptoing around his work as a young teenager, mortified, appalled and sickly compelled by the passages I couldn’t help steal glances of, out of Disgrace and Badlands. At 24, I can think of no better endorsement for a writer than work you just can’t get out of your mind or stomach, even if it’s just a distressing snippet that’s haunted you for years. (Perhaps especially if it’s such a snippet.) Diary of a Bad Year is a story of dubious morality, lust and avarice, told in three voices simultaneously. Yes, I am certain this is the year to read Coetzee.
2. The Known World – Edward P. Jones
The back jacket cover of this handsome edition (Amistad Deluxe, Harper Collins 2006) of Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel declares:
“He was thirty five years old and for every moment of those years he had been someone’s slave, a white man’s slave and then another white man’s slave and now, for nearly ten years, the overseer slave for a black master.”
From just this, I’m already intrigued. Any novel that compellingly and masterfully seeks to reorder, retell or critique the cruel and arbitrary assignations of merit decreed by history is a book I must read.
3. Lost in the City – Edward P. Jones
This collection of fourteen stories hinges on “the lives of African American men and women who work against the constant threat of loss to maintain a sense of hope.” There are stories within such a compilation, one feels instinctively, that cannot be denied. This is one of the most powerful elements to short fiction writing—the conveyance of entire lives in a matter of lines. You get the impression, just by leafing through the pages of Lost in the City, of the sheer immensity of scope and significance of the lives that lie within, waiting to intersect with yours.
4. Telex from Cuba – Rachel Kushner
I remember unwrapping Telex from Cuba, poring over its blurb, then declaring to it, “Well, you look original.” It touts itself as “the first novel to tell the story of the Americans who were driven out of Cuba in 1958”, ensuring that my interest is piqued, in a similar manner to my anticipation of reading The Known World. This seems like a gutsy, ambitious first novel, and I am always eager to sink my teeth into those.
5. Coronado – Dennis Lehane
Lehane’s crisp, unflinching prose has fuelled some of the best and bleakest crime/suspense films in recent memory, namely, Gone, Baby, Gone, Mystic River, and Shutter Island. This collection offers an exciting look at the author’s short fiction, as well as a play in two acts. This is precisely the sort of fiction against which many people have accused me of being strongly biased. I am looking forward to reading it—and I will likely expound on my overall lack of enthusiasm for the genre of crime fiction (spoiler: so much of it is formulaic, snoozeworthy drivel) when I review Coronado, but I’ll probably spend more time talking about how Lehane exemplifies action/suspense writing done right.
6. The Enchantress of Florence – Salman Rushdie
Having not yet read Midnight’s Children (gasp! the horror), The Ground Beneath Her Feet is my favourite Rushdie—it is a haunting story, exquisitely told, as one imagines, somewhat enviously, that only Rushdie can. The Enchantress of Florence includes the tales of an achingly beautiful princess, a mysterious conjurer bearing a missive from Queen Elizabeth I, and the story of many stories that explore the threads between East and West. Sounds like typical Rushdie, right? That’s particularly why I have high hopes for this book. We shall see if it will dethrone my current preference in the Rushdie-canon.
7. Free Love and Other Stories – Ali Smith
I’ve already read one of the stories from this first collection of Smith’s. Entitled “Text for the day’, it documents erstwhile-bibliophile Melissa’s rejection of her scarily over-catalogued life. She traverses locations with no apparent motive, tearing out the pages of books as she goes. The blurb of the collection attests that “the stories in Free Love are about desire, memory, sexual ambiguity and the imagination.” Having also read the titular story, I’m inclined to nod, respectfully, at that endorsement.
8. Like – Ali Smith
I haven’t pored over this one extensively, just yet. Here is what its blurb says:
“Ali Smith evokes the twin spirits of time and place in an extraordinarily powerful first novel. By turns funny, haunting and moving, Like soars across the hidden borders between cultures, countries, families, friends and lovers, and teases out the connections between people – the attractions, the ghostly repurcussions.”
It sounds like a whole lot of vague, spooky deliciousness, doesn’t it? I wonder if I will be amused, haunted and moved, as advertised?
9. Now is the Time to Open your Heart – Alice Walker
I feel rather gauche, since I wasn’t familiar with any of Alice Walker’s work apart from The Color Purple, when she’s got at least ten works of fiction to her name (not counting her non-fiction and poetry collections.)
Herein lies the story of the sojourner, Kate, who uproots herself from all vestiges of the familiar to embark upon a voyage of self-discovery. (Her lover simultaneously undertakes his own parallel, separate-though-inextricably-connected journey.) Do you believe that Alice Walker can turn out a tender and triumphant vision quest of a story? I do, even based on my solitary yet unforgettable past travels in her writing.
10. The Laws of Evening – Mary Yukari Waters
Arrestingly presented (Scribner trade paperback, 2003), this debut collection of short fiction would beg to me to rescue it from a bookshop shelf, and I am certain I would have answered. These are eleven “graceful, expertly crafted stories, set in Japan, (which) explore the grey areas between the long shadow of World War II and the rapid advance of Westernization.” As loath as I am to declare, unwaveringly, that The Laws of Evening promises to be a good read, I am entirely sure I will not be able to resist reading it for long.
I’d say that my mother has an eerily good sense of what appeals to me, bookwise, but there’s nothing eerie about it at all. She’s been the one feeding my voracious appetite for reading since the beginning of my beginning. Thankfully, I’ve gotten just as good at predicting what appeals to her, too. Here are the offerings from Literature-land I found for her (I find it fitting, somehow, that total turned out to be exactly half of what she gave me!)
1. The Florabama Ladies’ Auxiliary & Sewing Circle – Lois Battle
Yes, I can see all you self-proclaimed readers of serious fiction furrowing your brows at the title of this one, but having perused it myself, I can attest to the fact that the writing is solid, substantial, and funny. It documents the travails of a group of recently-fired lingerie seamstresses as they cope with their suddenly unemployed status. My mother is currently reading this one, and her prognosis so far is positive. According to her, the plot is convincing enough (while at times sympathetic to a movie one might or might not spy on the Lifetime Channel), the characters are well-drawn and engaging, and the overall effect (she’s midway in) is that of a band of middle-aged women trying to furnish their lives with purpose and re-empowerment.
2. Shepherds Abiding – Jan Karon
In this, book eight of her heartwarming, soul-food-esque Mitford Years/Father Tim series, I’ve got no doubt that Jan Karon delivers more of the same nostalgic and sentimental fare in this Christmas-themed installment. Of Shepherds Abiding, Karon herself says: “This Mitford story presented itself to me, quite unexpectedly, and asked to be told. I hope readers will find it a perfect refuge from the holiday frenzy.” I have thought, since encountering the Mitford tales, that they exemplify what is best about quietly contemplative, serialized offerings of their ilk – they are told with illuminating grace, love, and considerable talent.
3. The Birth House – Ami McKay
A handful of years ago, novelist McKay came to inhabit a 20th century Nova Scotian birthing house, the historical details of which (specifically, details concerning the woman who managed the house, a pioneering midwife) eluded her. History did not sate her curiosity, or slake her imagination, so The Birth House is the product of McKay’s investigations and fictive ruminations on the legacy of birthing houses, midwivery, the conflict between holistic and scientific medicine, and the timeless, unassailable bonds of sisterhood.
4. Our Father Who Art in a Tree – Judy Pascoe
I confess, the intricately detailed drawing of a tree, as well as the quirky title, drew my hand toward this book, but the description convinced me to keep, and gift it. Having recently completed the novel, my mother found it sadly charming; life (and death) affirming: a brief, slow carousel ride of loss, of succumbing, coping, and finally, surpassing grief.
5. The Glass Castle – Jeannette Walls
The only memoir on our shared Yuletide list, I have heard The Glass Castle declared to be the sort of book that makes one profoundly glad for their upbringing, for the travesties of their youth and adolescence, which, when compared to Walls’ own oft-nightmarish background story, seem positively peachy. The memoir opens with Walls shamefacedly trying to ignore the sight of her mother, rooting through a garbage can, from the former’s vantage point in a comfortable city cab. One can only imagine the revelations—some bleakly humourous, some humourlessly bleak – that lie in wait.