The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne: You Should Not Read this Book Alone in January. And a #metoo digression.

As if to test whether I am in fact cured of my reader’s block, I read Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Published in 1955 the novel accords with its time in offering a methodical character study touching on themes of religion/morality, gender and class. It is to Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train what organic, fair trade, shade-grown, bird-friendly, coffee  is to maximum fizz cherry coke: infinitely more substantial, if tasting a little too healthy for satisfaction (and with all the same self-righteous satisfaction for reading it).

But really, if you accept its pace and its narrow focus, you’ll find yourself utterly absorbed and utterly devastated. The novel follows Judith Hearne as she attempts – once again – to meet a man (any man!) who might love her and rescue her from her desperate financial and social straits*. She is entirely pitiable, and (perhaps inevitably) primed to make you either appreciate the social connection in your own life, or to descend into a pit of wallowing sadness about your own isolation and loneliness. Probably not a book to read in January when temperatures are -40 so you can’t go outside and your only companion doesn’t do language and so you find yourself muttering about the existence of God and the dignity of single women. I mean. That could be any one. I’m just saying. That is to say, Moore does a tremendous job of encouraging the reader to empathize with Hearne, even while she is represented as boring, irritating and desperate: quite the feat.

*The reader should, of course, take issue with the representation of women as entirely dependent on men for sense of self and fulfillment. And not to excuse this representation because certainly there are many novels published in Canada in the 1950s that offer alternate visions/realities of femininity, (Gabrielle Roy, for instance) but this reader was willing to read the novel of and by its time and didn’t take too much umbrage with the way Judith casts about for meaning in the form of a man. Where I did find myself concerned is in scenes of sexual violence that present and uncomplicated representation of male violence as instinctual or impulsive, while simultaneously blaming the female character and/or altogether ignoring the consequences for her life of the experience of such violence. We might reasonably ask questions about what we can expect from Moore, writing when he is, and writing female characters. While we might make some allowances for the social mores of his time, I did find these scenes disturbing and the treatment of the women (that is to say, their literary representation, not their literal experience in the novel) put to service the characterization of the male predator, a frustrating and disturbing double “use” of the female character. Perhaps I am overly sensitive (yes, let’s blame me for my ‘sensitivity’) awash as we are in the #metoo moment, but I suspect most readers would find some level of irritation at the surface treatment of sexual violence here and the way it is rendered both quotidian and inevitable.

Okay. All that said, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the book (enjoyed seems like the wrong word for a reading experience that is so successful in making you feel so… sad). So if you find yourself looking for something to make you feel suitably smug about your reading habits… go ahead. Read it on the bus with its cover in full display, for you are someone who reads Literary Things. (also Literary Vice).

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Last Snow, First Light: I read a book! I read a book!

It has been… weeks. And weeks. Months, maybe. But I did it. I cracked my reader’s block, which is a real thing, I’ve come to understand. Thanks to the many of you who wrote with suggestions and sympathy for my vexed state. Ideas on how to break reader’s block included: read non-fiction, read a graphic novel, re-read an old favourite, read something short, read articles. While I appreciated all the advice, I ended up just… taking it slow. I read a few pages at a time and stopped putting pressure on myself to be reading. And worrying about why I wasn’t (had I broken my empathy?).

The book I eventually finished, Wayne Johnston’s Last Snow, First Light isn’t one you’d think would break reader’s block. It’s what you might call a slow burn. A mix of character study, realist drama and story-of-place there is – over the 400 odd pages – something of a mystery to be unraveled: what happened to Ned Vatcher’s parents, who disappear during a snow storm never to be seen again. But it’s mostly about the characters: the increasing weirdness of Ned as he gets richer and lonelier, the journey of Fielding (who some readers will recall from The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and The Navigator of New York – though tbh I’d forgotten almost all of both books. Barely a glimmer of The Colony except that Smallwood stamps around Newfoundland) to reconcile with her past by way of truth-telling and sharing, the re-defining of family from genetic bond to affiliative relations.

It’s a book that invites going slowly, and so suited my reader’s block recovery. With careful and scene-setting writing, the reader is on a leisurely pace to unravel the mystery, certainly not of the page-turning, heart-palpitating variety (and this reader could be contented whether or not it is ever solved (though Ned can’t be).

Well suited to a winter curl-up and a book club (I guess you could talk about the role of religion, the exploration of ‘family,’ and how much it is possible to drink without dying), I’m happy to recommend this one for a good read, if not a zippy one.

 

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Why Can’t I Read Anything?

I’ve started and put aside half a dozen books in the last month. I’ve made it two hundred pages into a couple of them before realizing I don’t care at. all. what happens to any of the characters. GileadThe Alice NetworkFresh Complaint, 4321, We Were Eight Years in Power… I’ve tried different genres. I’ve tried bestsellers and literary fiction. Either I’m having remarkably bad luck or my reading brain is broken.

So… please advise. What do you do when you can’t seem to read anything? When you don’t want to read anything? What should I be reading that will make me want to read again? What is wrong with me? Help!

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What We Lose: The Unhappy Holidays, or; How Grief Ruins Christmas

While paying for some Christmas ornaments, I asked the cashier if she was ready for the holidays. No, she told me, she was having a hard time this year because her dad died in the summer and she couldn’t bring herself to get excited or plan a big meal or take part in the usual family traditions. That’s shit, I replied, total shit. As if I know anything about real grief. She teared up. Yes, she said, it is shit. Thanks for saying that. I paid and left.

Most of what I know about grief I know from reading. And Zinzi Clemmon’s What We Lose is a tremendous education in the banality and exceptionality of loss – the way grief persists and permeats and shows up in unexpected places and in excrutiating ways. The novel achieves this by shadowing the story with the death of our protagonist’s mother. The death is at once the absolute focal point of the story, and the unseen stagehand. While there are sections that pull apart the precise experience of grief, the bulk of the text is working through other moments: a pregnancy, a romance, a friendship. But each of these other moments are coloured with grief, usually unnamed and unclaimed, but nevertheless powerfully present.

It is also a story about loneliness and home. It is written with precise language that is beautiful in its simplicity and specificity.

It is a book that made me remember to call my parents and ask how they’re doing because it reminded me they won’t always be alive, and neither will I, and that glimpsing that gaping sadness through fiction is as close to fully feeling as I want to get – ever – though I know of inevitability and loss and how naive I am to think I can put this feeling away as easily as closing a book. (And made even more poignant and heart-pulling to know that it was my mum who suggested I read it. Because what will I do when she can’t recommend books to me anymore. And so I stop thinking about that and call her to find out what she’s reading).

So, no, it’s not a cheerful holiday read. But perhaps a necessary one for inviting appreciation of those we have and had. And not in a saccharin, forget-their-faults kind of way, but in an acknowledgement of finitude and a welcoming of melancholy.

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