A Writer Reads: What I Did This Summer

(a post from guest author Mary Burns)

Do I read more in Summer?  Probably.  The light lasts longer, the warm temperatures encourage sloth.  I see more of friends for al fresco meals, and they often send me home with their recommendations, if not the actual books.  Looking over the stack of “to be returned,” I see that I have read a couple of books a week in the last month.  A few remain unfinished, including the Simenon I bought in Paris, which I read more slowly because it is in French.  Another, a philosophical work, is the last thing I read before sleep.  In both cases, I aim for a chapter at a time.

Seven Types of AmbiguityDuring the lazy afternoons, though, from my favourite reading chair near an open window or under a big straw hat on the patio, I have read Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen, in which I struggled to keep interested, despite having loved The Hours and Flesh and Blood.  Much easier to stick with, in fact hard to pull myself away from, was Seven Types of Ambiguity by the Australian writer Elliot Perlman, an insightful, cleverly told story from seven points of view.  Very smart, well written.  Then came the lovely, light memoir of a Dutch novelist’s time in Spain.  Spain, Body and Soul, by H.M. van den Brink, a book that includes recipes for some of the food he sampled during his various stays in that colourful country.  And Anne Enright’s Booker prize winner, The Gathering, which falls into a category I call “admire more than like,” because, although she is a wizard as a writer, there was something about the tone that put me off.

We Need New Names, by Noviolet Bulwayo, on the other hand,
belongs in my handfulWe Need New Names of real favourites.  This author’s voice is original, and her story of life in a Zimbabwe village, told by a girl named “Darling,” who later moves to Michigan to live with her aunt, is both informative and entertaining.  I like stories of immigration because they naturally include accounts of discovery and are inevitably also tales of struggle.  The endings are not always happy.  The later chapters of Bulwayo’s novel artfully broaden the picture to describe what immigrants in general face, and that is a particularly useful perspective considering the debates about the subject in North America, in the southwest U.S. particularly, and also in Europe.

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesIn We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, I met a character I didn’t expect to meet, and that is my small beef with this interesting novel.  Because I didn’t know the story beforehand, publicized though the novel has been, I wasn’t aware that the sister the narrator referred to through the first third of the book was actually a chimpanzee.  Fowler creates a lot of suspense by getting us wondering why she doesn’t see her sister and brother anymore, but when she finally reveals that Fern is a chimp I felt the writer stood somewhere behind me saying, “ah-hah! Didn’t expect that, did you?”  I understand why she might have done it; she didn’t want us classifying Fern immediately and filling out her character with our perceptions, I imagine; but I still don’t like that kind of author trickery.  It is a good read, though, and raises another important question, about our relations with animals.

The book I most recently finished The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, tells the story of the children of Hattie, who migrated as a young woman from Georgia to Philadelphia about the same time there was such a big influx of African-Americans from the south to the north, post WWI.  A few reviews I had read commented on the bleakness of the lives Hattie’s children lived, but I felt that the author, Ayana Mathis, was simply telling it how she saw it, and did so eloquently.  Mathis is a very strong writer.  To me, her work demonstrates the kind of strength that does not say “look at me,” but instead holds the reader with some kind of truth, which I want fiction to do.  I look forward to reading her next book.



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