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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Holiday Reading


In a teaching year, as I would be watching the pile of exam booklets dwindle, I would also be thinking about what I'd read over Christmas.  I want at least one book of a certain kind:  the kind of novel that so engrosses you that you look up between chapters or when you're called for meals and are surprised at where you are.  If I hadn't already started it, I'd put Kathleen Winter's Annabelle at the top of my list.  It's a remarkable book about a hermaphrodite born in Labrador--and when I write those words I realize that Winter has made Labrador sensuously present (if "Labrador" and "sensuous" aren't an oxymoron) and an unfriendly environment for a hermaphrodite.  (Is there a friendly environment for a hermaphrodite?)  Wayne's father wants a son, a son of a certain kind, so before Wayne is even conscious there's some ambiguity he has surgery that establishes the least problematic masculinity possible.  (And perhaps "least problematic" and "masculinity" are also oxymorons.As are "least problematic" and "femininity.")  Through the life of a young man who finds he's a hermaphrodite only when he's twelve, Winter explores two things at the same time.  One is the arbitrariness of masculinity, which unfortunately is presented to men in the novel (and elsewhere) as a set of inviolable codes--sometimes subtle, sometimes stark--they either live up to or fail to live by.  The other is the complexity of gender--how, if we're honest, most of us don't experience masculinity or femininity in any completely coherent or unproblematic way.  I've gotten to the point where Wayne/Annabelle has graduated from high school and left home, and I'm so engrossed that it's going to be read well before Christmas.

So Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues is the next one on my list.  The premise fascinates me, and I've read the opening paragraphs to make sure that I can hear a voice that will envelope me in its experiences and its world views.  I've often felt irresponsible for reading a page or two of something and deciding whether it will captivate me, as if I'm a style snob or can only accept the perspectives of a narrow range of people.  But I only do this at certain times of the year--usually at the end of a term, when I want to be transported by a voice.  And there's nothing overtly predictable in my judgements:  I don't need a male voice or a female voice; I don't need a particularly educated voice; I don't need the voice of a particular class or political outlook.  I need someone who can sing of the world, someone who is so taken with the world that she or he can't help singing.  Not for me, those times of the year, the reasoned voice of cynicism or satire.  I often say that it's as reasonable to say that the glass is half empty as it is to say it's half full, but at the end of a term I want the half full version.  Perhaps I want to believe that my teaching over the past thirteen weeks has accomplished something, just as I want to believe now that the ideas I've struggled to express will mean something to someone besides me.

During my Christmas reading, I also want one "big" book--something that has a certain kind of scope.  I don't know if Edugyan's book will meet this need, so I'm holding a new translation of Doctor Zhivago in reserve.  I haven't read this novel since the seventies, when I was studying Russian history at the University of Manitoba with a professor who couldn't figure out why I kept talking about fiction.  It's a kind if historical evidence--no?

Some of my reading over Christmas will be done on my new Kobo.  You can blame Hilda Lessways for the purchase.  She's a character in three of Arnold Bennett's novels; Bennett, in turn, is one of the writers that Virginia Woolf criticizes relentlessly.  I thought I should see what she was on about and so read Clayhanger this fall.  I'm sorry, Virginia, but I loved it--mostly.  The end was a bit tedious, as if Bennett was being paid by the word and not by the adroitness of his plotting.  I can see that Woolf, with her modern sensibility, would be put off by the endless detail about daily life in "the five towns," a group of industrial communities where clay ware is made, but I found it soothing to relax into the completely-realized world.  Clayhanger tells the story of Edwin Clayhanger, the son of a printer, as he makes his way in his father's business, leaving behind his dreams of becoming an architect.  Quite early on--and much against his will--he falls in love with Hilda Lessways, marrying her in the end and after seeminly endless complications.  Hilda Lessways tells this story from Hilda's point of view, and I'm naturally anxious to see what Bennett will do with a woman's life.  But alas, the U of R library doesn't have a copy of Hilda, so I am forced to depend on Project Gutenberg.  I have no idea whether I'll like an e-reader, but I think it's time to find out.


But I'm going to inaugurate my Kobo with Thoreau's Walden Pond.  You can't imagine Thoreau and a Kobo?  Have you seen the reconstruction of his hut at Walden?  It's about the size of a small bedroom.  It has a single bed, a stove, a bookshelf, a small cupboard, a table, and a chair.  Looking in the door, you wonder what else one needs.  Thoreau has a saying that has skulked around my life for around the last year:  "Simplify!  Simplify!"  His motto has prompted me to clean out my fabric stash and send anything I won't use to the quilt guild, to edit my cookbooks and bring them to the third floor of the university where they disappear rather quickly, to get rid of kitchen tools I no longer use.  My  Kobo is an effort to simplify.  I can slowly bring my Hemingway, my Fitzgerald, my Hardy to the third floor and try to seduce some eager undergraduate to take them home.

I didn't think I'd need to do this wishful thinking this year as I brought my chapter on Woolf's Between the Acts to a close.  But both writing and teaching demand that you are fully, deeply yourself; they relentlessly demand that you  muster all your intellectual and emotional resources in a way that's sometimes exhausting--though, of course, it's a satisfying, exhilarating exhaustion.  So I want to be somebody else for a while over the holidays; I want to inhabit and explore another world altogether.

The photograph at the top is of a Christmas quilt I've been appliquing and quilting as the days get shorter for the last four years or so.  The figures on the bottom are a shepherd, a sheep, and a charming donkey that come from folk artists around Atlanta.


The black and white photograph of Walden Pond was taken by Veronica Geminder.  You can find more of her work here.

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