Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

I read The Catcher in the Rye in Grade 11 and didn't really see what all the hype was about. I kind of liked it, but I read it as a modern reader would, not as someone who perhaps understand the time it was published and, therefore, what made it seem radical. I was bored by On the Road, too, although perhaps I ought to reread both of these books now that I know more about them both. The reason I even bring these books up is because they're what The Mysteries of Pittsburgh are compared to. Why, considering my dislike for both those books did I pick up Michael Chabon's debut novel? I don't know. But reading it has made me reconsider my previous judgments.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was written in the late '80s, but set in the early '80s. I was born in '86, so admittedly the 1980s in general are not lodged in my memory as much more that occasional scenery and memories of toys or visiting my new baby sister in the hospital. However, it is a timeframe I understand. Normally, besides where neon and technology are concerned, it doesn't seem like we're all that far removed from that decade; sure, things have changed, but nothing fundamental. Except, of course, for AIDS. And gay rights. The entire way we talk about sex, actually, has changed quite a lot, although that's easy to take for granted. What has any of this got to do with Chabon's novel? Rather a lot.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Bookshelf nostalgia

In the last month or so I've been thinking a lot more about kids' books that I usually do. Firstly, a good friend of ours became an uncle and has been talking about wanting to prioritize giving books to his adorable new niece; secondly, my cousin's son turned 1 a couple of weeks ago; and thirdly, I spent the weekend at home in Nova Scotia (hence no post last week) and it's pretty much impossible to sleep in my childhood bedroom without being reminded of all the books I enjoyed there – especially the bedtime stories my parents read to me as a kid.

On top of all that, I've been knitting like crazy, which means that my Aunt Pat is constantly on my mind. She was an incredible knitter and sewer, but she was also a wonderful book-giver, and worked as a librarian when my mum was a kid (she is, technically, my Great Aunt Pat, but we never called her that). Aunt Pat had a list of books she felt it was important for her nieces and nephews to read and so, each Christmas, along with a gorgeous piece of handiwork (always accompanied by an identical, Barbie-sized article) came books. I can't remember all the books Aunt Pat gave me over the years, but I do remember getting classics like The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden and somewhere I have a scanned copy of the handwritten list she kept that let her know she was on track. 

Anyhow, all of this has combined to make me start thinking about what I would consider my essential childhood reads. I loved, for example, the Anne of Green Gables books and the Little House on the Prairie books – both series my parents read me – and I gobbled up the original yellow hardcover Nancy Drew books, but before that, when I was reading picture books, there were some definite household classics. 

Beatrix Potter's books, for example, were a staple. Both my parents have an English background, and so knew about her world of talking mice and frogs in waistcoats, so when the gas station had a promotion (something like: fill your tank and pay $1 for a hardcover Beatrix Potter book – don't you wish that still happened?) they took advantage and eventually amassed the entire set. I still love those books. The Little Critter books by Mercer Mayer were also a big family favourite, and although I remember liking the Berenstain Bears books by Stan and Jan Berenstain ("no space grizzlies at the table" remains a Hickman saying to this day), I also remember my dad not liking them so much, but still.

Here are some more of my favourites (although I'm sure to miss a few):

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Antagonist

I have always been a big reader, and although I don't always have as much time as I'd like to dedicate to reading, I mostly do okay and manage to fit my reading into the time I have alloted to it. When I was a kid, though, when a book would grab me I pretty much could not put it down. I would read for hours and hour, and when that wasn't enough, I'd sneak the book places and read places I shouldn't. I have several distinct memories of reading during class, with the book under my desk, in Grades 8 and 9 and St. Joseph's Convent, where, let me say, novels were prohibited in the first place. Strangely, I don't remember if I ever got caught, but I doubt I was so subtle that none of the teachers knew what was up. Anyway, it has been a while since I felt so compelled to read a book, but Lynn Coady's The Antagonist had me almost missing transit stops, reading with a booklight at night, and wishing desperately that I could pull it out of my bag when work got slow.

The Antagonist is a one-sided epistolary novel. That is, e-mails are sent, but we only get one side of the story. The novel opens with Rank (nickname for Gordon Rankin, Jr.) writing an angry, and thus a little all over the place, e-mail to Adam, a guy he used to be friends with who, it seems, has written a book about Rank and something that happened to them when they were in university together. Rank is angry that Adam used him. Rank is angry that Adam told lies about him. Rank is angry that Adam boiled down huge parts of Rank's life to one-off throw-away sentences. So, Rank decides he's going to set the record straight and tell Adam his life story, to show him how much he got wrong in his book.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Year of Magical Thinking

When I was growing up, my parents' bookshelf was a source of great fascination. Why would they want to read about that? I would wonder at titles like The Wealthy Barber, or any of their gardening books. There seemed something very other about grown-up books, and although I read Tolkein at a fairly early age, it wasn't until I was in probably Grade 8 that I felt like I was reading books for grown-ups. Really, the idea that my parents and I might share books blew my mind. It seems strange to think that now, when we pass books around as a matter of course, but there was a time when, every once in a while, I felt like I was reading something just a little beyond my depth, and it was a feeling I loved. I haven't felt that way in a really long time, but reading Joan Didion's first memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking did make me wonder if it was a book I was too young to fully appreciate.

 The Year of Magical Thinking is the story of the year after Didion's husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, dropped dead of a heart attack at the dining room table. Their daughter Quintana – whom Didion writes about in Blue Nights – is in a coma in the ICU of the nearby Beth Israel North. John drops dead; Didion calls the ambulance; the paramedics arrive, work on him, take him to the hospital; she also goes to the hospital, she fills in paperwork; her husband is pronounced dead; she goes home. Didion's parents are dead, she has had friends die – death is not a mysterious action for her, yet she insists on spending the night alone because John might come home. Later, when she feels compelled to start getting rid of his clothes, she is able to clear out most things, saving only a few of her favourite sweaters, but cannot bring herself to get rid of his shoes. How can he come back, she thinks, if he doesn't have any shoes?

Real Time Web Analytics
Powered By Ringsurf