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Cottage Reads 2015

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I’m of the privileged few able to take a week holiday in the Muskokas each summer. This holiday is shared with my family (though my partner has fewer weeks of vacation and was working) and so involves a combination of swimming, hearts tournaments, making ‘suggestions’ about how to eat/sleep/parent/live and reading-in-proximity. It was newly wonderful this year as my nephews are old enough now to turn the pages of their board books, and to make gleeful noises at the appropriate places in The Paperbag Princess. In my family, reading is both a solitary activity and a shared practice. Count me privileged in two ways then: spoiled in the ways of cottage; spoiled in the ways of books.

I probably read more than the rest of my family this past week because I’m a grumpy introvert and I insist both on shared reading time and hours (and hours) of time alone on the dock with a book. But even with this additional solo-time, I read less this year than in the past. I attribute this ‘lost’ time to the bountiful addition of time shared with E. and M. as we screamed up and down hallways, paddled in the shallows and practiced over and over and over saying “Auntie E” (it didn’t work).

So what did I read? And what would I recommend taking on your own cottage vacation (should you be lucky enough to get one)?

The Pope and Mussolini – David Kertzer

My mum has been going on about how good this book is for ages. It’s the non-fiction account of the rise of fascism in Italy and the relationship between the Pope and Mussolini that made this rise possible. I don’t read much non-fiction (as you know) and would never have picked this one up without mum’s insistence. And I didn’t finish it because a) I didn’t care about the story b) that’s the only reason. There were certainly narrative elements that helped this reluctant non-fiction reader to stay interested – neat character descriptions and conflict – but on the whole I just… didn’t care.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie – Ayana Mathis

Despite being more short story collection than novel, I really enjoyed this one. Each chapter follows a different child of Hattie, with Hattie making her own appearances at different points. The first chapter that narrates Hattie’s experience parenting two sick twins is incredibly moving. And sets the stage for a series of provocative, emotional and taught explorations of growing up, class, race, sexuality… it’s got a lot going on. And where you might expect this range of thematic interest to lead to less depth, it doesn’t (I talked about the same with The Bone Clocks – this book isn’t nearly as good at That Great Book, but it is good).

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce

This one reminded me a lot (a lot) of A Man Called Ove. The same sort of whimsical tone, the same exploration of what makes meaning in life, the same absurdist plot premise (in this case our protagonist is walking the length of England to ‘save’ his once friend from cancer), the same easy enjoyment and sense of contentment on conclusion. It’s a book that wants you to feel good about yourself, about life, about connections to others, about the possibility for late-life change, for reconciliation. It’s a feel gooder if I’ve ever read one.

The True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

I think I remember this being one of M.’s favourite books and I always meant to read it for that reason. Why did I wait so long? What a delight. A romp through history. The historical fiction ‘true history’ of Ned Kelly presented as autobiography (so cue my favourite things: historical fiction & metafiction). It’s an at time playful, at times painful look at the relationship between state and criminal and our efforts to memorialize ourselves (and to make our lives meaningful). Gosh, and the writing is so good.

That’s it for my summer reads. I’m now gearing up for fall teaching and book clubs. If you have more recommendations or requests, you’d best get them in soon. Oh. That’s not true. I’m waiting for my advanced review copy of the new Jonathan Franzen to arrive. (I can’t wait) (even though I’m waiting). (I’m so excited) (even though I’m usually a Franzen complainer). (end post). (now).

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Summer Reading List

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What makes for a great summer read? I remember listening to a great episode of Slate’s Culture Gabfest (if you don’t listen, this podcast is the only reason I know the terribly little I know about movies, music and celebrity – looking at you P.) on the qualities of a summer book that included arguments for books of ‘escape’ (that is, books that aren’t emotionally or intellectually challenging), giant books that you’d otherwise not have time to dedicate to reading and books with heady plots that might capture interest for long stretches.

I’m not sure I have a ready answer to ‘the qualities of a great summer read’ question. Perhaps I’ll use this summer’s list to develop some kind of framework or taxonomy. What I do know is that each year I put out a call to friends and family for their suggestions. I populate a list that sits outside my usual, ongoing and interminable pile of recommendations and to-reads, because this list is the one that I promise to read, and do read while on vacation.

And so this week coming I head out on my first of two vacations this summer. I’m grateful to have the time, and looking forward to the chance to read. Thanks to those who suggested titles for me. I’ve put in my order at the library, and have picked up the following

Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer (already fifty pages in to this one) Double suggestion made me put this one right to the top of the list. That and it was the only suggestion that clocked in under 400 pages (really? you all want me to read giant books?) and I wanted an early success.

Bleeding Edge – Thomas Pynchon (those who have been reading the blog for any duration will know that I have long resisted the urging (taunting?) of N. to read Thomas Pynchon. Perhaps he’s worn me down. Perhaps it’s my guilt for not being a better long-distance friend. Perhaps it’s my sympathy for his soon-to-be-no-sleep-ever-father-of-twins status, but I’ve committed to read it. The real shit of it is I secretly worried he’s been right the whole time and I’m going to love it.

Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi I know nothing about this one other than P. recommended it and she’s been right with all her other suggestions. Even in suggesting a short story collection. Gasp.

The Pope and Mussolini : the secret history of Pius XI and the rise of Fascism in Europe – David Kertzer 99% of the time my mum is right about the book she suggests I’ll love. It helps that she reads 99% more than I do (she reads a lot) and that she knows enough about me to know what I’ll like. I have to say, she’s been going on and on about this one lately to the point that I’ve suspended my outright ban on non-fiction and am prepared to read it. Also because I love her. 

My Struggle – Karl Ove Knausgård One part deferrance to my supervisor-hero’s wisdom, one part realization that this book is on the top of a bazillion best-of lists, and one part guilt that the last book L. suggested (a collection of Lorna Crozier’s poetry) I actually read but failed to blog (don’t worry, it’s the only time that’s ever happened. *wink*). Let’s be clear: I’m not committing to all four volumes.

Station Eleven – Emily  St John Mandel Because Amazon said I should. (And a half a dozen others).

It’s exciting to imagine that with *two* vacations this summer I’ll get to put out *another* call and collect another set of magic. Until then I thought I’d leave you with one or two of my own suggestions for you to read this summer. Books that I’ve read in summers past (I’ve chosen books from the pre-blog era to give you something I’ve not otherwise reviewed) and really loved. Read em’ if you like. Let me know what you think.

City of Thieves – David Benioff: Siege of Leningrad. Boy must find a dozen eggs or be sentenced to death. Incredible mix of humour, intensity and imagination. Oh, and historical fiction.

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The book that introduced the image and mystery of  ‘the cemetery of forgotten books’. Mystery, literary love affair and suspense coiled around magic realist elements.

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