These four months are the period of my adult life, more than maybe any other, that I cannot now recall as anything more defined than a fever dream. It’s only now that I recognize how little I had considered what I might practically do with myself after May 2013. I read these books through four months of what I can only process now as an extended phase of magical thinking. If I track the books I read in order to structure my memories – to create a false narrative – and if I keep these lists to not forget: this is the list, the archive of my Spring 2013, and this is the anchor and frame for those months.
- Michael Herr, Dispatches (1977) – This was on the discount shelf at Munro’s; the best of the Vietnam books for just $6. This is wonderful and great and all the better for not trying to force any narrative logic or sense on the events at hand. These things happened, in a linear sequence, and that is that. After this I started reading Stanley Karnow’s history of Vietnam, which I took with me to Harrison for a week.
- Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011) – I had been reading Vietnam forever but was only through 150 pages. I read bits and pieces in Harrison and when we started our vacation to Long Beach in Washington state I put it aside for this tiny little book I bought in Vancouver. An “unconsciously unreliable narrator.” I agree with the review clip inside, that I will want to read it again to see how it all worked. A wonderful trick of a novel.
- Alan Furst, The World at Night (1996) – I read this in Long Beach as well; it was my backup to Vietnam in Harrison and it came in handy after all. I never travel without a backup book. This was all about Paris and gloom and the best thing about these Alan Furst novels is that I can’t remember a thing about them after I’ve read them aside from the broad strokes – the country, and the MacGuffin, mostly – and the mood. I’ve read four of these novels now, and have eight to go. Eight years from now I’ll be done, and can start them again, fresh as ever.
- Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon (2000) – Back at home in Victoria I kept reading about Paris. I was in Paris for only two days in 2007. I spent one whole day riding the Metro – could I get to all the train stations in a day without taking the wrong transfer? – and I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend my time than being a citizen in a huge city, making my way around as any citizen might. Adam Gopnik was in Paris for five years as a correspondent for The New Yorker and this book collects his writing from that time.
- Stanley Karnow, Paris in the Fifties (1997) – While Adam Gopnik was living and writing in Paris, Stanley Karnow – who died in January – was collecting his papers from his time as a correspondent in Paris for Time magazine in the 1950s. This book is identical in intent and structure but 45 years older. I bought this in 2009 at a bookshop in Port Alberni and wondered at the time if I would ever actually read it and I am glad that I finally did.
- Elizabeth Hay, Captivity Tales: Canadians in New York (1993) – Rather than a New Yorker lost in Paris, here is a Canadian lost in New York. I bought this in June 2012 at a bookshop in Sidney and Robin read it when we went to Quadra Island later that summer – the bookmark is a Quadra/Cortes ferry schedule. This is as good as The Only Snow in Havana and together they are better than anything Elizabeth Hay has written since. I finished this on the Clipper while traveling to Seattle to see a Suzanne Vega show.
- Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin (2000) – I bought this on our trip to Long Beach at a strange little shop called Banana Books. It’s easy to take novels by Margaret Atwood for granted in Canada and I felt that buying this in Washington state and then reading it in Washington state would take me out of a Canadian lens in order to simply read a great big amazing novel. I read this in Seattle, in a hotel and over lunch and at the Library and then on the train to Vancouver to see a Mark Kozelek show at the Biltmore.
- Russell Smith, Muriella Pent (2004) – I bought this ages ago, maybe in 2008, from Bibliophile on Commercial Drive and since then I’ve bought three of Russell Smith’s other books and really enjoyed reading them. I enjoyed this too and kept thinking about The Mimic Men by VS Naipaul as I read it – Marcus Royston as Ralph Singh.
- Patricia Highsmith, A Dog’s Ransom (1972) – This was tough to read as always but not as lasting or as meaningful as The Talented Mr Ripley or Strangers on a Train. I just don’t need to collect that many more books by Patricia Highsmith.
- Martin Cruz Smith, Polar Star (1989) – The second Renko book, a great little Soviet mystery on a boat in Alaska.
- Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm (1997) – Another great cheap book from the Munro’s discount shelves. I wanted to keep reading about the ocean after Polar Star and this was perfect.
- Mark Kurlansky, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell (2006) – Another book about the ocean. A history of oysters in New York, and a history of New York – its restaurants and its tourists and its waterfront – told through oysters.
- Donavan Hohn, Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them (2011) – My last ocean book of the spring, about the North Pacific Ocean and ocean currents and trans-Pacific shipping and beachcombing and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and rubber ducks and also about writing a book dealing with all of these things.
- David Mitchell, W.A.C. Bennett and the Rise of British Columbia (1983) – I was reading this on the ferry over to Vancouver to join Robin at the BCTF meeting when I was assigned to work in Vancouver-Fraserview. I was reading it when I first took the #20 bus out to the campaign office at Victoria and 54th. I finished it the next weekend in Youbou. A really marvellous political biography and a good perspective on what we do in this province today.
- Judith Nies, The Girl I Left Behind: A Personal History of the Sixties (2008) – I read this over two days at Youbou. My very favourite sort of book: a personal history, telling the story of the times through a person’s own lens. And a marvelous hook: Nies’ husband comes home from work in 1970 to report that the FBI had showed him the file they had collected on her; the history stretches back and forward from there. A difficult opening set-piece and a book that does not fail to meet its own bar.
- Ann Patchett, Run (2007) – I rushed to finish this before I left for Vancouver. I liked Bel Canto but I think I tend to read Ann Patchett books because of Truth And Beauty, which isn’t like anything else she’s written. This is a sturdy book. The clip inside says that too: “More hammer and nails than glue and lace… her books tend to be such solid, weight-bearing constructions.” I loved the description of Rudy Wiebe, Sweeter Than All the World, as “a construct of hammer and tongs” but I don’t feel the same way about Run, “more hammer and nails.” A brief, well-contained novel but one I don’t feel very much about.
- Andrew Sean Greer, The Story of a Marriage (2008) – I didn’t like this, and I don’t think that’s just because it was the wrong book to turn to in a busy week. It’s too clever, and the plot is driven less by empathy or even by its own needs but by the need to build in artificial surprises. There is a point of surprise in a good novel – a point where I can feel a heart swell or a caught breath – but this novel left me dulled. The question of ascribed agency – if the author has done what I think he has, I don’t like it. I want more empathy, or at least more exposition of its absence, in a novel. But the self-conscious plotting makes me wonder if I missed a step, or if there’s an angle of approach I missed early on. That’s not how I like to leave a novel. There’s a lesson here – I bought this little book for $5 off the Munro’s discount shelf mostly for the cover, which is beautiful.
- Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be? (2012) – Conversely, I initially felt as though I gave this book short shrift, reading it on the bus and late at night in North Vancouver. I thought it might be more interesting if I spent more direct time on it – reading it over a weekend. It could be interesting in what it is (“a novel from life”) and in structure but on reflection, and in reading more about it I think it just wasn’t very interesting. A book that teases with structure is a daunting thing: there’s something big going on here. There’s a focused purpose. I thought I’d missed it at the time but I think it simply isn’t there, at least in any way that I could tease out. A distancing device – a novel from life – can be satisfying in itself but this wasn’t and the novel inside couldn’t trump the structure.
- Richard Ford, The Sportswriter (1986) – This is good. I didn’t need to spend the time, because the story was there, the narrative had me and I could drop in and out and I had it – a caught breath, a heart swell – the rush of a good novel. There is rigour here – more, perhaps, than in How Should A Person Be? Maybe a big novel – although is this even a big novel, written to cover a weekend where not much even happens? – is itself a distancing device, and the absence of those distancing tropes in How Should A Person Be? left me lost with a rawer story.
- Ellen Ullman, The Bug (2003) – Every day, back and forth on the bus. I read Close To the Machine in December and went to Russell Books the next day to find this and there it was on the shelf. There is rigour here again – I needed to focus to read about computers and programming and things I didn’t know, and it was wonderful, precisely the separation I needed on the bus, back and forth, late at night in North Vancouver.