January 18, 2016 § 7 Comments
There were a lot of 2015 books that I loved and really wanted to write about but just never managed it. And that’s ok, I’ve decided. There were books like Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows (had no idea where to start talking about it even though it was one of my top books of the year), Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall (felt as though I needed more art-world expertise to comment knowledgeably), Ravenscrag by Alain Farah, translated by Lazer Lederhendler (needed to read it at least once more and preferably three times) and Anne Garréta’s fabulous Sphinx, which I still hope to write about in detail, so I won’t talk about it here.
So here are my thoughts–definitely not critical, definitely not reviews–of four books from 2015. Three are Canadian and one is German. The first one is Carellin Brooks’ One Hundred Days of Rain. I’m a huge fan of BookThug fiction. Both their English-language books and their translations are always interesting and provocative. Just last season we had Jess Taylor’s Pauls (from which a great story was printed in CNQ 93), The Plotline Bomber of Innisfree by Jason Massey, and Grand Menteur by Jean Marc Ah-Sen (my review of which will be published in February at Full Stop. And then there’s Jacob Wren, whose work I have inexplicably not read. But that will change in 2016, when he publishes Rich and Poor.
One Hundred Days of Rain is the moving story of a post-breakup life. The narrator and her young son keep plodding on, through Vancouver’s endless rain and grey clouds, through difficult times and distressing incidents. It’s a story told in long fragments, with the short and choppy sentences conveying the narrator’s frame of mind. The first new situation she encounters is being arrested after a fight with her partner, being photographed and fingerprinted and eventually being barred from their home and contacting her spouse.
This is a life that has come apart, and yet still demands certain routines of the narrator as she deals with the constant obstacles to rebuilding something resembling her old life. The skill of using the weather as a meditative device without resorting to pathetic fallacy is one of the book’s great achievements, along with its beautiful depiction of how interior and exterior bounce off each other. It makes me very keen to read Carellin Brook’s wonderfully titled Fresh Hell: Motherhood in Pieces.
One morning last summer I woke up in the middle of the night with the lights on and Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s The Devil You Know under the bedclothes. And a good job it was that I did fall asleep on page 10, or I’d have been up all night devouring it. Women should read it because it’s a shiveringly good portrayal of the little accommodations we make every single day, the unexpected noises we are aware of, the decisions we make based on what seems—and sometimes feels—like irrational instinct. (I know there are women who don’t feel like this, who feel that their lack of concern about walking home across a park at 3am makes them special is nothing special, so congratulations to them on having never once been scared by a man, never once having stopped breathing from terror of what might happen next.) And men should read it because it’s such a startlingly good account of what it’s like to feel that kind of jumpiness.
I’m not going to summarise the plot, but in brief, The Devil You Know is a mystery/thriller, but it wears its genre very lightly. I mean that in the sense of feeling as though resolution and answers wouldn’t even have been necessary, because both the writing and the characters were so powerful that the plot seemed almost unnecessary. It’s set against the backdrop of the horrific real-life Paul Bernardo serial-murder case of the late eighties and early nineties; if you’re not Canadian, start by reading this excellent memoir piece by Stacey May Fowles. I’m only a thriller reader occasionally, and often disappointed when I do pick up the year’s top picks, but The Devil You Know deserves to be as well known as Gone Girl (it’s also way better written).
The last of my Canadian choices is Alison Pick‘s wonderful memoir, Between Gods, about discovering her Jewish ancestry and the hidden stories of her family. This is a truly fascinating and moving book that dives into the debates about nature versus nurture or blood versus culture in very personal and sophisticated ways. Although Pick was never especially Christian in anything more than a cultural sense, she feels the pull towards Judaism. Her depictions of how her search for the right God, and what wanting a God even means, affect her life and her family are honest and compelling. One of my favourite non-fiction titles of 2015.
And finally, The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping by Francis Nenik (translator Katy Derbyshire). I loved this tiny volume from Readux Press (you might have been hearing good things about Joanna Walsh’s Grow a Pair, also published by Readux and on which I am keen to get my hands). This story features two real literary characters, Ivan Blatny and Nicholas Moore. The first half of the book tells their stories, in parallel and on facing pages, the correspondences of the language used for each character mimicking the correspondences and coincidences of their lives.
The Moore tale begins:
When the critic George Steiner looked through the entries for the Sunday Times Baudelaire translation competition he was judging in 1968, he was no doubt a little surprised. Someone had submitted more than thirty versions of the same poem.
And here’s Blatny’s opening:
When the journalist Jürgen Serke came across a slim man with a small cut on his freshly shaven cheek in St. Clements Hospital in Ipswich in 1981, he was no doubt a little surprised. The man had been declared dead more than thirty years previously.
The two men were both twentieth century poets who started off well before being forgotten through a combination of unfortunate personal circumstance and changing tastes. The second half of the book is made up of the correspondence between the two men, which began in 1962 when Blatny wrote to Moore, whom he did not know. The letters reveal how their lives progress, and their attitudes to the disappearance of their early promise and fame.
I’m rather fond of slightly experimental fiction about real characters (like Harry Karlinsky’s The Stonehenge Letters), particularly scientific or literary ones. It would be easy to look up how far this little volume was based on fact, but I prefer to enjoy the fiction and the not-knowing, particularly when it comes in such a formally innovative package. This book costs almost nothing; try to get hold of a copy if you can.