I’ve been so busy with work this winter that my reading is falling behind. I know this because my teetering stack of unread books is starting to become structurally unsound.
It’s worth noting that the books I’m carrying around with me lately are sometimes literary magazines. After years of buying lit mags (or “supporting” them, as Canadian publications like to say) and then feeling guilty when I haven’t read them, and then reading them and being really bored by the stories selected for publication, I’ve finally settled into a groove of reliable favourites that I really look forward to each quarter: The Paris Review never disappoints; I’m just now getting into The White Review, which is designed beautifully; and Granta is a great source of voices I don’t usually hear from. Penguin’s The Happy Reader magazine, while not strictly a lit mag, is also a welcome addition.
The White Album by Joan Didion
I seem to mention Joan Didion in every other blog post. That’s because her writing is insanely good, from how she crafts sentences to her unique word choices to the overall hard-to-put-your-finger-on “meaning” in her essays. I picked up The White Album while visiting family and friends in British Columbia. While there are definitely some great essays contained in this collection, it lacks a bit of the punch that made such an impression on me in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. This book wouldn’t be the first I’d recommend to newcomers to Didion, but there’s still plenty to admire here.
NW by Zadie Smith
This is the first book I’ve read from Zadie Smith, despite everyone telling me that I should’ve started with White Teeth (not because they’re narratively connected but because that’s the book that garnered so much well-deserved attention). NW starts out great. I was totally on-board and ready to enjoy myself, but then things shift structurally. Smith introduces a kind of formatting that breaks up the reader’s focus and melts away that immersive quality she established at the beginning. It feels like what she was attempting to do stylistically was successful, but I think it comes at the cost of the reader’s enjoyment.
Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins
I had never read anything by Tom Robbins before Still Life. It’s totally outside the realm of books that I’d usually pick up on my own. Naturally, it came as a recommendation from a close friend. There’s plenty to like here, especially if you consider the time it was published (specifically in regard to the radical environmental politics of the time). The strangest part for me was Robbins’ portrait of an obscure royal family that has relocated to the US. It threw me for a loop tonally because I couldn’t tell what era was being depicted, or whether we were in a fantasy genre. That confusion is grounded by the antagonist/love interest character, though. Still Life with Woodpecker would probably be better enjoyed as a summer read.
Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright by Steven Millhauser
The title pulled me into this book. That and the fact that Steven Millhauser has been recommended to me a couple of times by people whose literary tastes I share. This book, however, fell far short of my expectations. Its high concept gets tiring after the first twenty pages: an articulate young narrator, Jeffrey Cartwright, is the self-appointed biographer of his equally-young friend, Edwin Mullhouse. Jeffrey frames Edwin as a future American literary legend, and because they’re so young it’s kinda cute. For a time. And then it’s just really boring. I skimmed through to see if Millhauser breaks through the narrative constraints he set up here… but nope.
Cathedral by Raymond Carver
Raymond Carver is a treat no matter how many times you read him. I can’t recommend his work enough – specifically Cathedral, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, or Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?. The intimacy and deceptive, simple approach he takes with each story seems so clearheaded, deliberate, and successful it’s frustrating to witness. I don’t know how many times I’ve read “Feathers” – it’s probably one of the best favourite short stories I’ve ever read because of what it evokes without bluntly stating any specific message. I occasionally find some echoes of his talent in the writers selected for publication in The Paris Review (which, again, I’d recommend you check out if you haven’t before).
Books on deck: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family (the first of his My Struggle series), Harold Brodkey’s Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, Peter Mathiessen’s The Snow Leopard, and Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy Snow Bird.