Why you should never read the blurb

February 10, 2015 § 4 Comments

I never read blurbs. I never have, not out of any particular reason, except possibly that summaries of novels rarely interest me. I don’t even open a book to read the first few pages. If I’m not going by reviews or recommendations, I really do judge books by their covers. It seems to work quite well for me.

Last week I read Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves for my book club. Not only had I not read any reviews of it, but I soon realised I’d thought the book we were reading was one by an entirely different Karen. It started off quite well, probably better than I expected. And then a few chapters in, there’s an astonishing revelation that turns everything you thought you understood on its head. It’s really quite an impressive authorial feat.

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The morning after I read that part, I idly glanced down at the back of the book while I was doing something else. The amazing twist was entirely given away right there! What a waste–at least that was my first impression. I am sure the book would not have had nearly such an impact if I had already known what was coming. It’s psychologically important in a meta sense too. This thing we now know would have changed how we read the story, and Fowler points this out. If you’ve read the blurb, you literally will not have the experience the novel thinks you have had or needs you to have had. There’s an interesting discussion of the spoiler situation here, though, and the different ways of enjoying the reading experience.

I wonder how the conversation between author and publisher went. Did Fowler try to object, on the basis that she had carefully crafted the novel to lead up to this crucial point? Did the marketing people roll their eyes and say, yes, but this is your USP? How can we not mention it? Fascinating to ponder. Safe to say I won’t be reading blurbs any time soon.

 

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Multilingual

January 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve always been fascinated by languages. One of my favourite series of children’s books (The Chalet School) was set in a boarding school in Austria and the pupils, who were from all over Europe, had to speak English one day, French the next, and German the next. I wished that it was a real school.

 

 

When I was 17 or 18 and thinking about university applications, I knew I wanted to study languages. I’d done seven years of French, five of German, four of Latin and one of Spanish. I was keen on doing something a little more out of the way. Icelandic was my top choice, followed by Dutch. Unfortunately for me, my class tutor advised me not to go for something so obscure because it wouldn’t be useful. Having no idea about the world, I didn’t realise that he meant this in a very narrow sense that bore no resemblance to anything I wanted to do with my life. I now understand that careers advisors saw languages as an added extra to offer in your career as a business person or in the civil service; I already knew I never wanted to work in an office, an opinion that later temp experiences confirmed.

 

So I stuck with French. During my degree I lived in France for a year. The expat community I ended up with was mostly Swedish (the other anglophones were housed on campus) with a sprinkling of Dutch. I soon realised I preferred Swedish to Dutch, and was quickly able to understand quite a lot of it (to my surprise, German + English helped a lot more with spoken Swedish than with spoken Dutch). Apparently, after a few glasses of vin rouge, I was even pretty good at speaking it, although in cold hard daylight I was always too embarrassed to be my friends’ performing seal (they thought it was hilarious because I sounded like the Swedish queen).

 

That was a long time ago now, but ever since then I have been telling myself that I would learn Swedish properly. And now, finally, I am. 2015 is my year of Swedish. I’m doing a combination of DuoLingo, Language Trainer and podcasts at the moment. Why bother? Well, for no reason other than I love learning languages.

 

One of the most fascinating things is when words for the same object are far apart. I was thinking recently about the word “toy.” In French it’s jouet, in Spanish juguete. The link in the Latin languages is clear (although intriguingly, the actual Latin word for toy seems to be the rather ungainly crepundia). German is Spielzeug (literally, plaything), and Swedish is leksak (leka and spela both mean “to play”). So I assumed “toy” must come from the second half of Spielzeug, but the OED tells me that the word is Middle English and of uncertain origin. There is a Middle Dutch word toy, and the later speeltuig. Wiktionary traces the word back through Old Dutch and Proto-Germanic to Proto-Indo-European: dewk, which means to pull or lead (like the Latin–and Italian–ducere).

 

Isn’t language brilliant? Icelandic next year.

 

[And there might be no photos on this blog until WordPress cooperates with my Mac…]

Best books of 2014

December 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve seen a fair few of these lists already, but I find the exercise interesting for myself, purely because I love lists, spreadsheets and all kinds of record-keeping geekery. I have no difficulty recalling that Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods was far and away my top pick from 2012, but 2013 is vaguer. Looking back through my notebook of books I read, the books I remember with most fondness are Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas (translated by Brian Zumhagen), Zadie Smith’s NW, Nicholas Royle’s First Novel, Ian Williams’s Not Anyone’s Anything, Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, Chimamandah Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah, Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, Sam Byers’ Idiopathy, Sophie Létourneau’s Chanson Française, France Daigle’s For Sure (translated by Robert Majzels) and Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative. Checking against my actual post, I’ve included Royle and Létourneau here but not at the time, and I included S.D. Chrostowska’s Permission. Interesting that the same books still stand out.

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This year things have seemed flatter. I haven’t read as much, for one thing, as real life has been inconveniently overwhelming, and I’ve often been disappointed by books I was looking forward to. I did love:

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  • A Map of Tulsa by Benamin Lytal (another great success for And Other Stories)
  • Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
  • Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes, translated by Jamie Bulloch
  • Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
  • Tongues of Flame by Tim Parks
  • Les États-Unis du vent by Daniel Canty
  • The Freedom in American Songs by Kathleen Winter
  • Between Gods by Alison Pick (the only non-fiction on the list)
  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner
  • A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (not because it was innovative, because it wasn’t particularly, but because I loved its rhythms, reminiscent of Anakana Schofield’s Malarky)
  • The Last Days of My Mother by Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson (I didn’t *love* this at the time but it has stuck with me).

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Eleven books, five women, five men and one I’m going to Google … okay, six men. One short story collection, one memoir, two translations, only one person (as far as I know) who isn’t white. This list is all the books I wrote down as favourites from the year before I counted. It doesn’t feel as strong to me as last year’s list, though, so I think it’s time to return to book choice as dictated by most burning desire to read rather than library due date or other obligation. Here’s to 2015 as a year of amazing books. I’m getting in an early start with Ivan Vladislavicć’s The Restless Supermarket (mind-boggingly different from Double Negative) and Frédéric Beigbeder’s Oona et Salinger.

Looking back and ahead

January 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

In 2012 I had one clear favourite out of all the books I’d read: Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods. This year I had no single best book. Here are my top ten books from 2013, plus a bonus one, in no particular order.

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (which I reviewed for the Globe and Mail)
  • The Canvas by Benjamin Stein, translated from the German by Brian Zumhagen
  • Idiopathy by Sam Byers
  • For Sure by France Daigle, translated from the French by Robert Majzels (which I reviewed in last week’s TLS [paywall])
  • The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan (which I reviewed for the National Post)
  • First Novel by Nicholas Royle
  • Not Anyone’s Anything  by Ian Williams
  • Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavic
  • Permission by SD Chrostowska

And now some recommendations for 2014. Two of my friends are bringing out books: Jonathan Bennett’s excellent The Colonial Hotel and Michelle Berry’s Interference, which I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading. I’m also looking forward to Carrie Snyder’s Girl Runner, Eliza Robertson’s Wallflowers and Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. On the translation front I recommend Quebec author Raymond Bock’s Atavismes (translated by Pablo Strauss), from which two very good stories were excerpted in the Review of Contemporary Fiction last year and Julia Deck’s Viviane: A Novel, which I suspect Kerry Clare (whose forthcoming non-fiction anthology The M Word looks absolutely fascinating) would like.

Six Canadian writers I wish would hurry up and publish another book

January 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m not including people who published a book in 2013, nor people who have one coming out in 2014 (post to follow…probably), but here’s a very short list of some of the Anglophone Canadians I want to read more of, and soon. Maybe some of them have been quietly beavering away and do in fact have a book coming out this year. So much the better. Whenever their books are launched, I’ll be first in the queue. I wish I could have included images but WordPress was not cooperating.

Pasha Malla

The Withdrawal Method, Malla’s debut short-story collection, is fantastic. Its stellar nature may have led me to be overly harsh when reviewing People Park, and I could well be in a minority of one in thinking it wasn’t his best work even though it was fascinating, ambitious and clever. Nonetheless, I look forward eagerly to a new Pasha Malla book. For a little taste, check out Malla’s fantastic review of Robert Walser in the Globe and Mail last year.

Ian Williams

Another great short story writer. Williams’ Not Anyone’s Anything is, like The Withdrawal Method, the perfect blend of realism and grounded fantastic. Williams is also a poet and was shortlisted last year for the Griffin Prize.

Jessica Grant

Everyone seems to love Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise, and I think its success is partly down to the fact that it can be a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I liked her short stories in Making Light of Tragedy even better. What will be next?

Anakana Schofield

Malarkey was one of the big seriously literary novels of 2012 for me, with its strange but brilliant mixture of exuberance of tone and the grief and darkness it deals with. Since Malarkey took ten years, we might be waiting a while for the next book, but we know it will be excellent.

Heather Birrell

Heather Birrell’s second short-story collection, Mad Hope, was another great 2012 book. I didn’t intend this post to be about so many short-story writers, but it is a genre that Canada as a whole excels in. A bit more to the realist end of things than some of the others, Birrell can write stories that feel as though they actually thump you in the chest.

Madeleine Thien

Simple Recipes came out when I was living in Vancouver and Thien was quite possibly the first young Canadian writer I had read. She’s written three books since then, the latter of which, Dogs at the Perimeter, was a powerful and lyrical novel about the aftermath of the Cambodian genocide. On top of her fiction writing, Thien is also a smart thinker.

 

 

Alice, What’s the Matter?

October 11, 2013 § 3 Comments

I’ve just been on the phone with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and they’ve confirmed that I’ll probably lose my right to residency for publishing this post. Or they would have, if they actually had phone lines to call.

(The title of this post is not an entirely gratuitous Terrorvision reference, since the lyrics are oddly apposite to the case at hand.)

Alice Munro: Nobel winner. Every time I read an Alice Munro book, which is once every few years when I start to suspect, once again, that I must be missing something, I quite enjoy it. I admire her sentences and her clever ability to know people, to get at what is “true” in the small details of motivation and grey thinking. But once I’ve finished the book (and this year, wanting—and failing—to be Christian Lorentzen, I even read two back-to-back) I fail to find a bigger mental home for the ideas in it. When there’s a Munro on my shelf I don’t race to pick it up because I think I already know what’s in it.

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Yesterday I spotted only one Canadian expressing disagreement with the general Alice-adoration. I’m sure there were many I didn’t see, but the people I saw referring to negative reactions to the gong were mainly talking about dreading the backlash. This tweeter enjoyed Munro’s early books but felt that later ones covered already-worked ground. Across the pond, various male UK critics and writers—all of whose opinions I respect—got into a little spat about Munro’s importance. I agreed with them all to some extent—with Lee Rourke’s opinion that Munro’s “work is necessary and great to read. It speaks to us, shows us ourselves. But what does it disrupt? What does it fracture?” as well as with Stuart Evers’ retort (admittedly not quite in response to this particular tweet): “Oh for fuck’s sake, Lee that is just utterly bollocking bollocks.”

Mine is probably the worst kind of philistinism, the kind that blows in the wind, veering first one way and then the other. Munro’s writing inspires admiration while I’m reading it but I don’t find it exhilarating. In the end, though, Rourke and Evers don’t find themselves quite as far apart as the above suggests. Their reactions and responses to Munro’s writing are similar, with both admiring her and recognising the “truth” in her writing. What they disagree about is its importance.

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Since I’m female, the dismissal of a woman writer as unimportant purely because she doesn’t disrupt the dominant cultural energy is a luxury I can’t enjoy, however ambivalent I might feel about the writer’s works. Alice Munro is 82: we readers less than half her age and of a certain political persuasion have simply not had to live in the world whose dominant cultural energy she did in fact disrupt. The fact that a female author is considered worthy of transmitting these mainstream ideas is something I find just as significant as concerns over her adventurousness or lack of it. One of her collections is called Lives of Girls and Women. Does your average man-reader, one looking for fiction that reflects a majority experience back at him, go into a bookshop and pick that up?

Recently I heard Kathleen Winter talking about writing. A question from an audience member asked her if she felt social pressure to write strong female characters. The questioner (who was perhaps in his twenties) may not have intended it this way, but the implication was that this might not be representative of how women truly are. Winter pointed out that she spent many years writing—and feeling pressure to write—stories with strong male characters because that’s what the literary establishment likes and rewards. The dominant cultural energy is not so very changed after all.

The original point of this post, before I got sidetracked with working out what I actually felt about Munro and the critical scepticism, was to point out that beyond the big names (Munro, Ondaatje, Atwood) CanLit is a diverse place, even if much of its more experimental side never gets to travel beyond the borders. For readers whose taste is more Goldsmiths Prize than Richard and Judy, I’ll be writing next week about some disruptive Canadian writers you really should have a look at.

CWILA 2012

July 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

Interesting takes in various places on the CWILA count. Jonathan Ball counted up his own reviews last week. My 2012 count, on a far more modest scale, is as follows: five reviews published in the Globe and Mail in 2012, three by female authors and two by male. One was Canadian, one American, one Australian and two from the UK (including Ian McEwan, demonstrating that reviews of big-name male writers can sometimes get assigned to unknown female book reviewers). I wrote my first review for the National Post last autumn, of a book by a Canadian woman.
Looking back over the blog numbers for 2012 only, I find (counting single or joint reviews, not brief mentions):
Canadian men: 2
Canadian women: 8
Non-Canadian men: 6
Non-Canadian women: 14
And then there’s my interview series (not including translators):
Canadian men: 4
Canadian women: 11
Non-Canadian men: 4
Non-Canadian women: 9
For someone who’s not even Canadian, there are certainly a lot of Canuck writers on my shelves. I felt sure my overall reading was much more evenly split between the sexes, so I counted up 2012 as well as 2013 so far. In 2013, I was surprised to discover, 75% of the novels and single-author short-story collections I read were written by women. In 2013, at present, the numbers are, incredibly, exactly fifty-fifty.

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