A Writer Reads: for February 24th

(A post from guest author Mary Burns)

What to choose?

When you experience that quavery, sort of unsettled sense of being bookless, where do you turn?  It could be a public library, a friend’s cache, a street level or on-line bookstore.  There are millions of books available in all sorts of categories, SO many books; but what to choose?  Melissa’s site offers suggestions, and there are many other review sources, in print and on-line.  Librarians and bookstore owners who know their patrons’ taste will often help.  A librarian in my hometown of Gibson’s B.C., who knows that I spend part of the year in Quebec, introduced me to Louise Penny’s work.

I like to keep a few books going at the same time: a classic, because there are some of those I read when younger and need to revisit to remember; something in French, to retain and improve my skills; and a novel that will just hold me, take me away, into its language, its story, preferably both.  I am working on The Aenead, which I really enjoyed the first time; and a couple of French novels, one a mystery and one a classic (I see that I am sub-dividing my divisions now); but I needed a book for pure enjoyment and, since I was heading into the city to meet a friend who is a keen reader, I was sure he would loan me one he recently had read and liked.

Bring Up the BodiesBut I forgot to ask him ahead of time to bring one along.  We met at a busy coffee shop for lunch, the poet David Zieroth and I, and talked and talked about reading and writing, and he gave me his newest publication, The November Optimist, before we walked down the street to a lovely used bookstore, The Paper Hound, with its hundreds of tempting titles.  Again, what to choose? I was drawn to the Noir section and its collection of paperbacks with laughably lurid covers.  Also the children’s books section, which had charmingly labeled sub-shelves, such as “Indomitable Orphans”, and “Rat as Hero.”  But I left empty handed.  David had given me a couple of ideas, and so my next stop was the main Vancouver Public Library where the selection, of course, is immense.  But the two books he had recommended were unavailable.  I prowled the aisles of the literature and popular reading sections, amazed at my indecisiveness.  Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies stared me right in the face, one of the librarian’s picks, and a novel most of my reading friends had raved about, but … historical fiction, of that length?  Hmm.  All those great choices! Yet, once again I left empty handed.

That left me with The November Optimist for my ferry ride home.  Having read The November Optimistsections of it years before, when David was developing it, I did not anticipate any surprises, which probably contributed to my delight as I turned the pages, for his original idea had morphed, actually split, into two books.  This one is a slim and elegantly presented volume from Gaspereau Press.  The text is a long internal monologue, a kind of invented memoir, by an unnamed man – the book jacket describes him as a flaneur, i.e. idler or dawdler – who wanders his North Vancouver, B.C. streets observing and thinking, remembering and inserting passages from books, and carrying on imaginary conversations with a woman he doesn’t know but often sees, and with whom he imagines some kind of relationship.  The writing is beautifully precise, funny or touching or both, at points.

“The thin old lady wears a long green coat with a thick collar of genuine lustrous fox fur on the cold days that bring everyone out for the weak sun.  I’d seen her in summer, and although her garb has changed, her purse has not. It still dangles at the end of a strap, at the level of her knees, a black loaf shape that pulls her over to the left.  Teetering when she steps, not quite keeping to one side of the walk, she places her long thin legs wide apart for balance. The way she holds her arms, slightly bent at the elbows, suggests she’s about to take flight like some jittery, spindly shorebird.”

It happens that way sometimes: the poet found his material in his own neighbourhood, and I found an engaging read right under my nose.

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