My Winter 2016 Reads

This past winter—it feels good to say it’s in the past—I dedicated a lot of time to reading magazines and newspapers, but I still kept reading books when possible. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed over the last few months.

Undermajordomo Minor
by Patrick deWitt

deWittI really enjoyed deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, a book that took a playful approach to the Western genre but didn’t overdo the irony. The author has skillfully avoided having his brand overwhelmed by the plague of Canadian media coverage, the recurring theme of which focuses intently on claiming him as “ours.”

Undermajordomo Minor is an incredibly efficient book. By that I mean there’s no wasted space in the text—the action jogs along at a nice clip and the end of one chapter always leads you jumping into the next. However, the quick pacing also means that there are few wandering passages of the kind that reveal a bit of the author’s personality. I’m pretty sure general readers hate this stuff, but I enjoy a bit of flabbiness in a book. I’ll definitely keep reading deWitt, but I hope his next book loosens up the grip on executing a smooth plot line.

The Reason You Walk
by Wab Kinew

KinewI first started paying attention to Wab Kinew back when I heard him interviewed on the now-defunct Escape Velocity Radio podcast (featuring Chris Hannah of Propagandhi). I’ve since discovered he’s the same age as me and grew up not too far away from where I did. The similarities end there, though. Kinew’s world was different from the one I knew as a teenager in northern Ontario. There are many passages in The Reason You Walk that encouraged me to revisit the experiences I had while attending my high school, where a little under half of the students came from an indigenous background.

Kinew’s book is as much a confessional for the mistakes he identifies in his personal life as it is a revealing and accessible journey into the lives and practices of indigenous people in Canada. While reading about the author’s participation in sun dance ceremonies, I was literally gripping the book with both hands. I’m betting his name is one we’ll hear a lot of in the Canadian political arena in the future—particularly around the discussion of reconciliation. Reading The Reason You Walk is a good first step to learning what he’s all about.

My Brilliant Friend
by Elena Ferrante

FerranteFriendElena Ferrante, if you haven’t heard, is a name that carries considerable intrigue in the book publishing world because of the author’s severe reticence for media appearances. The presumably Italian writer has penned a tetralogy of novels (dubbed “the Neapolitan novels”) that revolve around the friendship of two girls. My Brilliant Friend is the first in the series. After reading Ferrante’s powerful Days of Abandonment, I was initially a bit underwhelmed with this book. The pacing and intensity are totally different from what I enjoyed in the earlier work.

Where the protagonist of Abandonment is inescapably doomed by her own dark thoughts, the main character of Brilliant Friend—”Elena”—has tunnel vision in her childlike admiration/competition with her best friend, “Lila.” The problem for me was that “Lila” isn’t really that interesting for most of the novel and doesn’t appear to deserve so much of our attention. But, through a series of events I’ll avoid describing here, she becomes a fierce character in the tough Naples neighbourhood where most of the action takes place. I think I’d bail on this series if it weren’t for the book’s final sequence, which somewhat makes up for the many lulls along the way.

“A Man in Love” (My Struggle – Part 2)
by Karl Ove Knausgaard

ManInLoveIn another European writer’s book series, Karl Ove Knausgaard takes a head-on approach to describing the small details of various aspects of his life. The first book really hooked me, but in a way that I can’t quite explain—or at least, not in a convincing fashion that would make others take up the series of six autobiographical novels that comprise My Struggle. Knausgaard’s writing is relaxing to me. I’m not flipping the pages to see what happens to a cast of characters; My Struggle is interesting because of the intimacy with the author, the unrestricted access to the mind of someone who clearly overthinks the minutiae of life as much as I do.

Part two of the series, “A Man in Love,” focuses on Knausgaard’s adult relationships with women. He doesn’t exactly come off as a knight in shining armour, or even a particularly repentant man who acknowledges his many missteps—including a section describing a bizarre but strangely underplayed moment of self-mutilation. Reading these books, it’s obvious that Knausgaard isn’t the most interesting person in the world. He is, however, one of the few modern writers to successfully sit down at a computer screen and write compellingly about his inner life for an extended page count. I’m down for book three.

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