Mistakes Were Made: Louise Penny, Bury Your Dead


I so want to love Louise Penny’s mysteries! She is one of the biggest names in Canadian crime fiction, which means (among other things) she has long been in my sights as a contender for my mystery class. And she has a lot of fervent admirers, including many of my friends. Also, of course, it’s always a pleasure to find books of any kind that I really enjoy, and even better to find a whole series. But after a few tries, I just don’t think it is going to work out that way for me with Penny.

I read Still Life first and thought it was just OK. Since then, I’ve started several others, picking them up almost dutifully on trips to the library, but I’ve always abandoned them after a couple of chapters. I did better with Bury Your Dead: I persisted to the end (though by half way through I wasn’t reading very carefully) because there was actually quite a lot I liked about it. For one thing, my personal taste doesn’t really run to the “village mystery” or cozy, and that’s more or less what Still Life and the other ‘Three Pines’ ones I’ve tried feel like (though formally they are hybridized with the police procedural). Bury Your Dead, however, takes us (mostly) out of Three Pines to Quebec City. There it tackles pretty ambitious historical and political themes with its focus on the beleaguered-feeling Anglophone community, Quebec separatism, and the symbolic significance of the “Father of New France,” Samuel de Champlain. Penny’s use of this broader context to motivate her specific murder mystery reminded me of Ian Rankin’s books dealing with Scottish nationalism.

I also liked Chief Inspector Gamache a lot: if I try another of Penny’s books, it will because he’s the kind of protagonist I enjoy following. Mind you, he’s also a pretty predictable type — not, in this case, like Rankin’s anti-heroic Rebus, but a close cousin to, say, P. D. James’s Adam Dalgleish. That’s OK: I like my detectives tall, dark, and brooding. Since my experience with the series is so limited, I don’t have a strong sense of Gamache’s relationships with the rest of his team, but what I saw seemed well-developed. I was also impressed with Penny’s obvious competence at plotting, and at the way she unified the three central stories of the book around the theme of mistakes — making them, dealing with their consequences, moving past them.

But! Despite these points in its favor, two features of Bury Your Dead really put me off. One was Penny’s stilted prose style, particularly its heavy reliance on portentous sentence fragments. To me, these always come across as cheap gimmicks, as a device an inexperienced writer imagines will create suspense and look stylish, but which really doesn’t and thus should always be edited, if not completely out, at least down to a bare minimum. Then, when it occurs, it would be genuinely striking. This is the sort of thing I mean:

He wished he could take that hand and hold it steady and tell him it would be all right. Because it would, he knew.

With time.


And now here he was, beneath the Literary and Historical Society, that bastion of Anglo Quebec. With a shovel.

Dead himself. Murdered.

Once or twice in a novel, in moments of extreme emotion, this kind of thing is OK. But Penny relies on this trick a lot, as if she doesn’t trust her readers to feel appropriately worked up without a signal. It got pretty tedious and detracted, I thought, from some of the novel’s most potentially moving or gripping moments. I wonder if her editors have ever resisted this habit — or maybe they like it.

I also got fed up with the manipulative way Penny strung out the novel’s backstory about a botched response to what turns out to be a terrorist plot. The aftershocks are significant and compelling, but because everyone in the novel already knows about it, keeping it from us felt really artificial — a trick, to play on our nerves, rather than a structural or thematic necessity. It’s true that I kept reading because I wanted to know what had happened, but I felt impatient rather than invested, which is not a good thing. It’s also not something I can ever remember having felt reading a Rebus novel, even though they have gotten longer and denser over the years.

Between the clunky writing and the contrived suspense, then, Penny might have forfeited her chance with me! If I’m underestimating the series, well, that’s my mistake and will be my loss. As I’ve said before, though, I have a lot of reading relationships to sustain as it is. Sara Paretsky has a new novel out, for instance, and V.I. and I actually have some catching up to do. I’ve got a lot of Ellis Peters still to read, too …

Family Drama: Balancing Act and Parenthood

balancingactBoth my reading and my TV viewing this week have been all about the intricacies of family life. Joanna Trollope’s Balancing Act is a classic “slice of life novel” — classic Joanna Trollope, anyway. I haven’t liked Trollope’s recent novels as much as her older ones (A Village Affair, for instance), and Balancing Act didn’t break that pattern: it felt a bit thin and perfunctory to me, as if she’d come up with the scenario and populated it with characters, but didn’t have much at stake in what happened to them. She’s adept at filling in the outlines of her characters, and I appreciate her attention to the personal significance of minutiae. But underlying Balancing Act are some pretty fraught questions about work and family (or work vs. family, as the novel’s title suggests), about work and identity — or work as a source of identity — as well as about creativity, autonomy, and emotional control. I suppose you could call her treatment of these themes “suggestive”: she doesn’t like a lot of exposition, preferring to step nimbly from one character’s point of view to another’s and let their individual experiences hint at the depths she’s not exploring on our behalf. The result is an easy read and one that highlights Trollope’s strengths — emotional finesse, clever orchestration of time and action — but also one that suggests the limits of her particular formula.

Parenthood is kind of similar. For one thing, like all of Trollope’s novels that I’ve read, it begins with disruption — a spanner (or, in the case of Parenthood, a few spanners) thrown into the works of a family situation that already quivers with the potential for conflict as well as connection and celebration. The first season of Parenthood, for instance, includes Sarah moving back into the fold, bring her own children and thus complications with her and inevitably creating more complications; the unexpected news that Crosby has a son; and Max’s Asperger’s diagnosis. That’s a lot of hares to start running all at once, but a weekly serial drama needs lots of subplots to sustain it, after all! I wasn’t immediately hooked on Parenthood, but I was content to watch something low key after Wallander (which is great but also intense, violent, and pretty dispiriting), and the show has definitely grown on me. (We’re not even done with Season 2 yet, though, so please don’t throw out plot spoilers in the comments!)

Parenthood_S1One thing that I find different about Parenthood, compared to much of the TV we’ve binged on over the past year, is that precisely because it is so focused on family life, it provokes personal reflections in a way that most crime shows rarely do (the exception would be Last Tango in Halifax, another intimate family drama). Happily, most of us will never encounter the kind of horrific scenarios that drive each episode of Wallander forward. But we all have families, in one form or another! And parenthood has preoccupied a great deal of my time, energy, and mental resources for 18 years now. As I commented in my last post, I prefer to keep the details mostly to myself, so all I’ll say is that there have already been plenty of moments in Parenthood that resonated with my own experience of both the challenges and the rewards of being a parent — or, for that matter, with being a daughter, and being a wife! Watching Wallander, I might mutter “he shouldn’t be going out there without back-up!” but it doesn’t really mean anything to me personally. Watching Parenthood, it’s hard not to get caught up in debating whether they (any of them!) are making the best choices, or wondering what I would say or do in the same situation — or just to laugh ruefully and say “yup, that’s about right.” So far nothing about the show strikes me as particularly artful or groundbreaking, but that’s fine with me: it’s sincere and well-acted, and while some of the plot twists are kind of silly, others seem to me spot-on examples of why parenting is at once the best and the worst gig imaginable. This may not be the most sophisticated reason to like a TV show, but hey, not everything has to be Deadwood, right?

“A Book of All My Secrets”: The M Word, ed. Kerry Clare


I got to a poem about us, about how quickly our children become themselves, and as I blithely read the poem over the air, my five-year-old daughter suddenly, breathlessly, began to sob. She was inconsolable. When my husband could finally calm her down enough to speak, she blurted out, “Mommy wrote a book of all my secrets.”

It seems appropriate to be posting about The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood on my son’s 18th birthday. Milestones like this inevitably provoke reflections: memories good and bad, nostalgic and bitter, celebratory but always (in my experience, anyway) more complicated than you anticipate — or might be willing to admit, at least in public.

That’s what makes The M Word so surprising, and also moving, gripping, funny, and, occasionally, really uncomfortable to read: the writers put it all on the table, all the confusion, ambivalence, difficulty, suffering, hope, despair, and insight that swirl around people’s different experiences with motherhood, whether they are or aren’t mothers, however motherhood is defined, and whether their situation arose from choice or accident, gift or tragedy. As many of the writers observe, there’s a popular public story about motherhood that is all bliss, smiles, and cuddles. For many of them, there is plenty of bliss, but that’s rarely the whole story and often not the story at all. The M Word doesn’t try to tell one story: it allows, even insists, on the coexistence of many different ones.

All of the stories are interesting, though I expect that for most readers, as for me, the intensity of interest will vary. Paradoxically perhaps, since I’m a mother myself, one of the essays I found most compelling was Patricia Uppal’s “Footnote to the Poem ‘Now That All My Friends Are Having Babies: A Thirties Lament,'” a mildly abrasive commentary on pregnancy and motherhood from the perspective of a woman convinced she does not want children. “Perhaps it is my workaholism that keeps me childless,” she speculates. “I know I would resent the time spent away from my computer and notebooks. I already do. I think our three cats are demanding, and I frequently have to shoo them away as they bat my hands while I type.” Although my decision about parenting was not hers, I understand her resistance to it, and I know she’s not wrong about the threat of resentment. Other essays, though, bring out parenting’s rich and varied rewards (which it is hard sometimes not to think of as compensations). Still others emphasize loss — Christa Couture’s heartbreaking “These Are My Children,” for instance:

Sometimes I feel my mothering is finite, or plays on a loop. I can replay both of my children’s lives to their conclusions in my mind, rewind, and play them again. There is no wondering what they will become.

And still others take up abortion, adoption, and infertility with the same frankness, offering the same unsparing emotional revelations.

The M Word is a very personal book. Is there a point at which writing about our own experiences as parents becomes an invasion of our children’s privacy? Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang’s “Mommy Wrote a Book of All My Secrets” is the only essay that directly confronts this question. I found it very thought-provoking because I have chosen to be fairly reticent about my children — and indeed all my family and friends — here. For one thing, Novel Readings is not meant as a confessional space: its focus is just different. I do write the occasional personal post, and I don’t try to keep the rest of the writing strictly impersonal. One of the things I cherish most about blogging is the freedom to be more openly myself while writing,whether about Christmas or about books.  But my private life remains private (or, you might say, my public presentation of my private life is carefully curated!). Crucially, I choose what to say about myself in this public space, and I don’t think I have the right to make that choice for other people by sharing their stories (or my perspective on their stories) — by turning them into subjects or characters in my story. Clearly, a lot of writers feel otherwise, including everyone who has ever written a memoir and many (such as Miriam Toews) who have written conspicuously autobiographical fiction. I’m not saying they are wrong to do so (and I have read and admired plenty of life writing of one kind or another), but I can sympathize with Tsiang’s daughter (quoted above), with her sense of injury at the unexpected exposure. I’m not sure I agree with Tsiang that this was her daughter’s “first lesson in the fact that you cannot love without exposing yourself”: maybe so, but it’s one thing to expose yourself to your loved ones and another to find your secrets broadcast on the radio. At least Tsiang learns a lesson too: “that it is both a responsibility and a privilege to write about the ones you love.”

There’s lots in The M Word that made me think — often about my own experience of motherhood, as a mother and as a daughter, but also about what I know my family and friends to have gone through, hoped for, lost, or celebrated in this context, and about experiences and attitudes entirely different from mine or theirs. When I picked the book up (motivated by knowing Kerry Clare as a Twitter friend and author of the splendid blog Pickle Me This) I was a tad skeptical: I didn’t think I was actually that interested in motherhood as a topic. I realize now that’s because I hadn’t given it as broad a scope as Kerry and her contributors do. The result is a collection that confounds expectations.

“Intimate and Uncharted Territories”: Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Butterflies in November


I’m not taking much with me. The main thing is to hold onto as little of the old clutter as possible. It’s not that I’m fleeing anything, just exploring my most intimate and uncharted territories in a quest for fresh feelings in a new prefabricated summer cottage planted on the edge of a muddy ravine with my hearing and sight-impaired four-year-old travelling companion. The most important thing is to never look back, to only ever sleep once in the same bed and to use the rear-view mirror out of technical necessity and not to gaze into one’s own reflection. Then, when I eventually return, I will have become a new and changed person, by which time my hair will have grown down to my shoulders.

I can see why the reviewers quoted on the back of Butterflies in November use words like “zany,” “quirky,” and “whimsical” to describe it. I think, though, that they were settling for these terms because they couldn’t find quite the right way to describe the novel’s strange sensibility. They make it sound cute and lighthearted, which it is not, though it is certainly funny — but unexpectedly so, and also sometimes grimly so.

I can’t find quite the right words to describe Butterflies in November either. But I enjoyed it very much, partly because it kept taking me by surprise. Its story is simple in outline. Broken up with by both her husband and her lover, the narrator sets out on a road trip that is also a journey of self-discovery. Her unlikely companion is her best friend’s four-year-old son Tumi, who is in need of a care-taker because his mother Auður, pregnant with twins, has slipped on the ice while bringing food and comfort to the narrator after her break-up, and been hospitalized as a result. “I just don’t have that maternal gene,” protests the narrator when Auður asks her to look after Tumi. Her resistance to having children was in fact one factor in her husband’s departure. “The sight of a small child doesn’t trigger a wave of soft maternal feelings in me,” she explains to us;

All I get is that sour smell, imagining their endless tantrums, swollen gums, wet bibs, sticky cheeks, red chins, the cold dribble on their chins. . . . They need hot dogs and ice creams, after which they’re packed into the cars again, reeking of mustard, their faces plastered in chocolate. The parents look tired and don’t even talk to each other, don’t communicate, don’t notice the dwarf fireweed or glacier because of their carsick children. . . . If one really put one’s mind to it, it might be possible to develop the ability to read two pages of a book in a row. . . . No, it’s not my style.

“Mark my words,” says Auður, “he’ll change you.” And because Auður is her best friend and she can’t see a way to say no, she accepts the charge and sets off with Tumi, who wears a hearing aid and peers at the world through thick glasses. This odd couple heads out on Iceland’s Ring Road, ending up at the small town where the narrator’s grandparents once lived, where they stay for a while before eventually heading back to Reykjavik. Simple, as I said — but  the story is constantly strange in development and detail, with elements and incidents that seem random and yet are somehow suggestive of greater meaning and purpose, to the narrative and perhaps to the narrator’s life.

What unifies the novel’s episodic parts is the narrator herself. She is conspicuous for her reticence (“you’re like a closed book,” says her husband, soon to be her ex-husband), and yet her memories are often heartbreakingly confessional and her observations combine revelation and insight: it’s how she talks about what happens that I liked, more than any particular event. About half way along their drive, for instance, she crashes into a sheep. (This is the second animal she has killed with her car since the book began: the first one was a goose that she went on to cook for Christmas dinner.) Mild weather has kept sheep out roaming later in the season than usual, and many times on the road she has had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting one, but then, “on the forty-first time, the inevitable happens” and she slams into one. “It is precisely at that moment,” she says,

that it first dawns on me that I am a woman caught in a finely interwoven pattern of feelings and time, that there are many things going on simultaneously that have a significance to my life, that events don’t just simply occur in a linear sequence, but on several planes of thought, dreams and feelings at the same time, that there is a moment at the heart of every moment. It is only much later that a thread through the turmoil that has occurred will emerge. It is precisely in this manner that the destinies of a woman and a beast can intersect. The woman is listening to a Spanish love lament and glances through the rear-view mirror to see how her deaf travelling companion is dealing with his chocolate milk and banana when, at that very same moment, a sheep decides to step onto the road in front of the car, or suddenly panics — how should I know what goes through the mind of a thoroughbred Icelandic sheep? Time is a movie in slow motion.

She’s unsentimental and often has a hint of acid in her tone. When her ex-husband shows a tendency to drop in to their home to pick up things he has “forgotten,” for instance, she wonders,

The question I am confronted with is this; for how long should deserting husbands be allowed to come back and take showers? What if he carries on like this, long into his new relationship? How would I explain these endless repeated clogs of hair in my shower to a new potential partner with perhaps a hairless chest?

She’s unapologetic about her own affairs, which seem incidental compared to her interest in freedom. “I’m not sure I want to be taken care of,” she tells Auður from her new home; “the men here are so considerate; they want to fuss over me.” When her ex-husband tracks her down there, already fretting under the cares of his new wife and child, he says, “The good thing about you is that you never placed any demands on me,” but she tells him to go home.

Her fundamental isolation remains, then, but Auður is right that Tumi changes her, just by being with her and thus forcing her to tend to his needs. The two of them are strangely suited, alike in their uncomfortable relationship with the world around them, and in their struggles to communicate with other people. There’s no dramatic rewriting of her place in the world — no epiphany, no moment in which she resolves that she’d rather be more intimately connected with it, or with others. Instead, she seems to become more at ease with herself, her idiosyncrasies complemented by Tumi’s affectionate clasp, both literal and metaphorical.

At the end of the novel, she has resolved to travel abroad, taking Tumi with her. “I don’t want to lose you,” says her local lover.” “I need to go on my own first,” she tells him, “then we can go somewhere together, if we still want to.” The novel ends with a suggestion of growth and change still to come, rather than an achieved conclusion.

The book isn’t over when the novel ends: the last 30-40 pages turned out to be recipes. That took me by surprise in two ways. First, as usual I’d been keeping an eye on how many pages remained, and so I didn’t realize the novel was ending until I saw that it was over. (This confusion was exacerbated by the inconclusive nature of the ending itself.) Second, I hadn’t thought it was a novel about food in any significant way, so I didn’t understand why the last stage was recipes. I’m still not sure, but I’m glad I didn’t skip this section, as it contains some of the book’s funniest moments as well as the indisputable claim “Tea can never be praised enough as an afternoon refreshment.” I’m taking to heart the author’s caution, though, that “certain of these dishes may work better on the page than on a plate,” and I think I won’t have a go at actually making any of them. Except maybe “Undrinkable Coffee,” and that will be purely by accident, honest.

A Tether In Time: Penelope Lively, Dancing Fish and Ammonites


Memory and anticipation. What has happened, and what might happen. The mind needs its tether in time, it must know where it is — in the perpetual slide of the present, with the ballast of what has been and the hazard of what is to come.

I mostly enjoyed Penelope Lively’s Dancing Fish and Ammonites — which is not, strictly speaking, a memoir but, as she says in the Preface, “the view from old age.” But I also thought, as I read it, that she had been given a free pass somewhere along the editorial line. Perhaps the thought was that having published so much finely-wrought prose already, she had earned the right to ramble on a bit, to opine and speculate and meander at will.

Dancing Fish and Ammonites is not a boring book, though by and large it covers familiar territory. Lively herself often remarks in passing that she’s talked about the biographical details elsewhere (in Oleander, Jacaranda, for instance), and the central themes are ones she acknowledges have been central to her fiction: memory; fact and fiction; history, both personal and public; the meaningful tangibility and endurance of objects (“I am an archaeologist manquée,” she says in one of the book’s least likely but most engaging chapters, “Six Things”). A newer preoccupation, or at least one with more urgency here, is aging. “Old age is in the eye of the beholder,” she says in her chapter on that topic; “I am eighty, so I am old, no question.” So her reflections on her continuing themes are colored — shaded, often — by her awareness that her time to think (and write) about them is probably running out, and a desire to understand and remember the life she has had, especially as marked out by the books and objects that surround her now. “These, then, are the prompts for this book,” she says:

age, memory, time, and this curious physical evidence I find all around me as to what I have been up to — how reading has fed into writing, how ways of thinking have been nailed.

And that’s what she goes on to talk about. There’s a chapter — unflinching, but also strangely bracing — on old age: “I remember my young self, and I am not essentially changed, but I perform otherwise today.” There’s a chapter on “Life and Times” — for me, the least successful of the book, but an interesting concept, to highlight the major historical events of her lifetime and “fish out what it felt like to be around at that point,” a personal counterpoint to “the long view, the story now told.” There’s a chapter on memory that moves between specific memories of her own and reflections on what we now know about the varieties and functions of memory — it raised questions for me about what makes someone else’s memories interesting, as the ones she offers from her own life are almost defiantly ordinary (“I am staying with my aunt Diana and her family in Kent. Winter 1947, and bitterly — famously — cold. I remember going to bed with all my clothes on”) and yet in the mundane details, “the trawl from the mass of lurking material,” there is something captivating. Maybe her trick is tacitly implying that our memories, too, no more extraodinary than hers, are also worth lingering over.

The most inviting chapter for me was “Reading and Writing.” “I can measure out my life in books,” she says;

They stand along the way like signposts: the moments of absorption and empathy and direction and enlightenment and sheer pleasure.

She doesn’t talk in detail about any of them, but she writes well about what it’s like to be a reader. I particularly liked her tribute to libraries:

Early reading is serendipitous, and rightly so. Gloriously so. Libraries favor serendipity, invite it; the roaming along a shelf, eyeing an unfamiliar name, taking this down, then that — oh, who’s this? Never heard of her — give her a go? That is where, and how, you learn affinity and rejection. You find out what you like by exploring what you do not.

And I was struck by what she says about reading as a writer. “Henry James and Elizabeth Bowen,” she says, “taught me that writing can be expansive and complex but still be accurate and exciting;”

I had no thoughts then of writing myself — I was reading purely as a gourmet reader, refining taste, exploring the possibilities. Now I think that a writer’s reading experience does not so much determine how they will write as what they feel about writing; you do not want to write like the person you admire, even if you were capable of it — you want to do justice to the very activity, you want to give it your own best, whatever that may be. A standard has been set.

That rings true to me, or at any rate it sounds right to me, like what a writer should feel about writing.

In the final chapter, called “Six Things,” she picks out six objects from her home and offers a kind of “thick description” of them: what they are and look like and feel like, where they came from, how they fit into the stories and themes of her life. This chapter felt particularly random, and yet at the same time that is its point, its structure, so that seems an unfair criticism. I like poking around people’s homes and seeing what they have: people’s things can be so revealing (“tell me what you like,” Ruskin said, “and I’ll tell you what you are”) and that’s the underlying justification here, a last attempt by Lively to explain (archaeologically, as it were) who she is, by excavating her life and interpreting a sample of its remnants — “the detritus of the past.”

“Time itself may be inexorable, indifferent” Lively writes in her chapter on memory, “but we can personalize our own little segment: this is where I was, this is what I did.” Dancing Fish and Ammonites isn’t a revelatory book, but it adds to the other writing Lively has done to personalize her little segment. I liked spending this further time with her.

“Shaped Into Stories”: Carol Shields, Small Ceremonies


It’s the arrangement of events which makes the stories. It’s throwing away, compressing, underlining. Hindsight can give structure to anything, but you have to be able to see it. Breathing, waking and sleeping: our lives are steamed and shaped into stories. Knowing that is what keeps me from going insane, and though I don’t like to admit it, sometimes it’s the only thing.

I didn’t love Carol Shields’ Unless the first time I read it. Over time, though, my appreciation for it has grown a lot. It is smart and interesting about abstract literary problems (how we define literary greatness, for instance, or what kinds of stories we consider important), and it’s told in a wry, self-aware voice that invites intimacy but also allows for some distance. It seems to me a novel that wants us to think along with Reta, its narrator, rather than pressuring us to identify with her. Her discoveries — about her life, about her family, about herself — provoke us to discover things about ourselves, partly through discovering how far we agree with her. I enjoy the experience of being with Reta, who is sometimes abrasive, sometimes pedantic or overly insistent, but who is always trying, especially to find the meaning, the story, to make sense of things.

Shields’ first novel, Small Ceremonies, turns out to have a lot in common with Unless. It too has a writer for a narrator, one who through her work is trying to shape lives into stories. Judith is a biographer whose current subject is the Canadian pioneer writer Susanna Moodie. She’s perplexed by Susanna’s character, which she feels she can’t clearly discern through the materials available to her, including Moodie’s own voluminous writings. The problem of figuring out who people are is one unifying theme of the novel: Judith is puzzled, also, by her husband’s lingering opacity, by her childrens’ otherness, by her friends, by herself. Biography seems a natural form for someone so preoccupied with how externals reflect but also conceal internal qualities. But biography also epitomizes the limits we always face in understanding other people. “I can’t quite pin it all down,” she says, speaking in context about the Moodie biography but in a phrase that applies much more widely to her perceptions across the novel.

The plot of Small Ceremonies turns on Judith’s attempts to switch from biography to fiction. Unable to get a novel off the ground, she ends up stealing an idea from another writer (we have to take her word for it that it’s a brilliant idea, fresh and original), only to have “her” idea stolen in turn by her writing instructor after she has abandoned it. I found this plot itself pretty thin; its interest comes from the questions it provokes about literary originality and indebtedness. “Writers can’t stake out territories,” says the writer who persisted where she did not and turned the twice-purloined idea into a successful novel; “one uses what one can find. One takes an idea and brings to it his own individual touch.” Is he right? In a way, he is. “Where did Shakespeare get his plots?” he demands when Judith attacks him, angrily declaring him a “swine.” But these abstract questions prove less important, though (or so I thought), than the moral one: Judith herself is most upset by the dishonesty, the “casual treason,” of her friend and teacher. The situation becomes another opportunity for inquiry into character as defined by external actions, or, looking at it another way, for character to define itself in response to events.

As with most first-person narrators, Judith is the most important character in Small Ceremonies. Like Reta in Unless, she has a lot of rough edges. She’s hasty, blunt, and sometimes mean, as when she scorns her Milton-professor husband’s idea to weave a tapestry conveying the intricate patterning of themes in Paradise Lost. She is not the kind of “likeable” character much-debated (and often dismissed) in recent discussions of the place of anger in women’s fiction: rather, she is flawed in ways that aren’t at all extraordinary. Shields is good at this kind of thing, at creating people and families that are normal enough to bristle with irritation, to turn querulous or defensive, but also to soften into affection, in the familiar emotional oscillation of everyday life. I think Unless is a much more polished and elegant version  — the various parts and ideas of Small Ceremonies didn’t feel as well-coordinated, and the language was sometimes overdone in ways I found distracting. This isn’t surprising, of course, as Unless was Shields’ last novel, written almost three decades later than Small Ceremonies.

Something else I found distracting in Small Ceremonies was a brief but virulent attack on Middlemarch that occurs , quite unexpectedly, about half way through. “When I was about fifteen years old,” Judith tells us,

I read a very long and boring novel called Middlemarch. By George Eliot yet. I got it from the public library. (All girls like me who were good at school but suffered from miserable girlhoods were sustained for years on end by the resources of the public libraries of this continent.) Not that Middlemarch offered me much in the way of escape. It offered little but a rambling plot and quartets of moist, dreary, introspective characters, one of whom was accused by the heroine of having ‘spots of commonness.’

The point turns out to be that Judith sees “spots of commonness” in the man who ends up stealing her (stolen) plot. But that doesn’t begin to explain this particularly petulant squib! (It’s also inaccurate — it’s not “the heroine” but the narrator who contemplates Lydgate’s “spots of commonness.”) The degree to which this paragraph threw me off track in my reading is partly idiosyncratic, I realize. It made me fretful for the rest of the novel, though, not just because harumph WRONG!!!, but because it seemed potentially important precisely because it appeared so uncalled for. Is this seemingly gratuitous section actually doing some important intertextual or metafictional work — giving us clues, for instance, about Judith’s own writing or Shields’ own fiction? Is it a deliberate attempt to make Judith look bad? If so, to what ends? I wondered if Judith would come back to Middlemarch later on and reconsider her immaturely dismissive view of it; when she didn’t, I wondered if that passage was there to drive a wedge between Judith and Shields for us — because I can’t believe that Shields, who used the squirrel’s heartbeat passage from Middlemarch as the epigraph for Unless, could ever have seen Eliot’s novel that way. Maybe she did, but that still doesn’t explain why she needed to say so in this way (“moist”? “yet”?) at this point in her own novel. At any rate, I find it easier to forgive Judith for this bad moment than Shields, but it’s true that 1976, when Small Ceremonies was published, was very early days for feminist criticism.

Back Again — With Books!


Why is book shopping part of any vacation I take? It’s not as if we don’t have bookstores in Halifax. I think it’s something to do with the feeling of freedom from constraints that holidays bring. If I’m not responsible for work, regular meals, or housecleaning, surely I can be irresponsible in other ways too! Not that buying books is necessarily irresponsible. As my wise sister once pointed out to me (and she’s a person who has bought a book or two in her day…) a new book costs about the same as a decent (not even a really good) bottle of wine — and it lasts a lot longer and can be shared more widely! Besides, I’m an English professor, a critic, and a book blogger: books are necessities, not luxuries, right? (I feel pretty safe asking this rhetorical question here, since people who disagree are unlikely to be reading.)

My book haul this time is actually quite modest, especially considering some were gifts and one is a loan from my mother. I could actually go “book shopping” just on her shelves and make out better than in most bookstores, as there is a lot of overlap between our interests and tastes. Her Bloomsbury section alone is a treasure trove! And if you want to read about the history of the Balkans, she’s there for you. But I restrained myself and took only Carol Shields’s Small Ceremonies. I’m teaching Unless again this fall and this is one of Shields’s that I have never read. It has a great opening line — understated but immediately engaging in a way that reminds me of Anne Tyler: “Sunday night. And the thought strikes me that I ought to be happier than I am.”

olafsdottirMy mother and I made our traditional trip to Hager Books in Kerrisdale, which has a relatively small but carefully curated selection that always provides many tempting options. Here too I was restrained, though! I chose Penelope Lively’s Dancing Fish and Ammonites, which I had eyed there last year in hardcover but which is now available in a neat paperback. I liked Oleander, Jacaranda a lot; this later memoir looks as if it will focus more on Lively’s writing life. My other choice was more impulsive. In general my book browsing this trip was influenced by my frustration with the highly-touted The Goldfinch, and as a result I was drawn to books I had heard little or nothing about — which has its own risks, of course! (Serendipity isn’t always the worst guide, though, as I found when against all precedent I chose Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden a few years back.) I don’t know exactly what made me pluck Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s Butterflies in November off the shelf, but once I had, everything about it appealed to me, from the cover design to the description of it as “a charming story of a free-spirited woman who reaches a life-changing juncture and embarks on a whimsical Icelandic road trip that sets her on a new course.” Who could resist? (I’m not sure if I mean the book or “a whimsical Icelandic road trip,” which actually sounds pretty inviting to me. If you come calling in a month or two and I’m nowhere to be found, I may be in Reykjavik.)

Small-Blessings_tpWords like “charming” can be warning signs for me, and yet I was also drawn to Martha Woodroof’s Small Blessings, which has a blurb from Oprah.com calling it “a charmer.” Oh dear, right? But it’s about a college professor and a book store manager, and (like Small Ceremonies) it looked like it would have an Anne-Tyleresque vibe. I looked at it in Hager Books but decided against it. When I stopped in at Indigo a couple of days later, though, there it was again, and this time I bought it. I read most of it during my long travel day home and finished it up this morning. It is charming. It’s not as good as the best of Anne Tyler, but it has the same interest in fairly ordinary people figuring out how to be happy, which is nowhere near as small a topic as it sounds. I appreciated how unpretentious the novel was: it never seemed to be straining after something the novelist couldn’t do. Usually I admire ambition: once again, I blame The Goldfinch — which, while not exactly a failure, seemed arrogantly inflated — for my seeking modesty for a while. Small Blessings does a lot less than The Goldfinch, and it doesn’t even aspire to be a novel of ideas (as far as I could tell). But what it does, it does nicely, with (yes) charm.

My other Indigo purchase is similarly small-scale, though not necessarily unambitious: I chose a volume of Alice Munro stories to add to the too-few I already have. I’m always vowing to read more short fiction in general and more Munro in particular. I chose Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage because it includes “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which I have read and found thrilling and deeply moving. (It’s the basis for the film Away from Her, which I thought was very good.)

The only other book I bought on the trip was a slim book about Emily Carr, from the Vancouver Art Gallery. I have always loved Carr’s paintings, particularly the ones that are almost entirely trees: they so wonderfully capture the mystery and majesty of the coastal forests I grew up beside. Perhaps because her work was so casually familiar to me, I have never tried to actually learn about Carr as an artist, though I have owned her autobiography Klee Wyck since I was a child. There’s something poignant about looking at Carr’s rich, dark woods now, when fires are burning along the coast and this kind of dire forecasting is in the news:

Over the next century, climate scientists predict that Vancouver Island’s iconic trees—such as the cedar redwoods, western hemlocks and Douglas Firs—could die off in large numbers, completely transforming the island from a rainforest ecosystem to something else entirely.

The other books in my photo are also artsy. One is a collection of Arts & Crafts postcards, a souvenir from my parents’ recent trip to England. (My problem with this sort of thing is that the cards are always so lovely that I hesitate to use them as they are intended! Maybe I should buy one of those photo frames with a whole bunch of spaces and create something decorative out of them.) And finally, we visited a wonderful woman who is a dear friend of my parents and who recently celebrated her 100th birthday. Knowing my love of 19th-century literature, she very kindly gave me a beautiful Jane Austen “daybook” from the British Library. It is full of elegant illustrations and choice quotations from Austen’s novels. I hate to sully it with my not-so-elegant handwriting, but it would be very useful for me to enter the birthdays of everyone in my family: maybe if I did that I wouldn’t be late with gifts for anyone again!


My trip was about a lot more than books, of course: that’s just the part it seems appropriate to write much about here. Most important was the chance to spend time with my parents, and with my brother and sister and their families, and to catch up with some of my cherished friends. I was very happy to be able to do all that, even in the middle of a heat wave (and even when the city was blanketed in smoke from the fires). It’s good for my soul to reconnect with them all, and it’s also always restorative to soak in the beauty of the mountains and the sea.



Briefly: Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

  It seems a bit perverse to write a short post about a book as long as The Goldfinch. But even if I weren’t still on vacation, I don’t think I would want to write a long one, because despite the book’s length I find I have little to say about it — or maybe that’s because of its length, which really wore me down.

I know, I know: I read long books for a living! And it seems as if hardly a reviewer missed the chance to call The Goldfinch “Dickensian.” The thing about Dickens, though, is that he’s The Inimitable, and Tartt is … hmmm. Well, I don’t have much to go on, but based on The Goldfinch I’d say Tartt is a competent contemporary novelist with big ambitions who really needed a more assertive editor.

Yes, I held the length of The Goldfinch against it. Not at first: I enjoyed the feeling of tipping over into a big immersive novel, and the story-telling, at first, was very good. Things started to drag in Las Vegas, though, and really they dragged for the rest of the book. I found myself strongly tempted to skim — a temptation I did not always resist — because I didn’t find the writing very interesting, or Theo, and Boris thoroughly annoyed me, and both Pippa and Kitsey were cliches in their own ways. I zipped through the “climactic” section in Amsterdam paying only enough attention to find out what happened, and that’s not the worst: the worst is that I barely cared.

And then I got to the very last section, in which Theo philosophizes about art and life and the meaning of it all — and it seemed so unearned, by him and by the novel. Where was that perspective — where were any of those deeper questions — for the rest of the novel? In itself, it was an interesting meditation on beauty and despair and what lasts and what we value and why. I can imagine finding it deeply satisfying as a way to end a novel about those things. Up to that point, though, I just hadn’t found The Goldfinch to be that book.

No doubt ingenious readers can explain how in fact that’s somehow the point, or how if you just look at the earlier parts the right way, they turn out to be profoundly illuminating about something besides drug-addled idiocy and vomiting. I could probably spin a story like that myself about the novel if I put my mind to it! It’s festooned with praise and prizes: I’m quite prepared to be persuaded that it’s better than I thought. I’m certainly not going to read it again to double-check, though, and I’m always going to be happy to reread David Copperfield.That’s my test of what’s really “Dickensian”!

On Vacation!

I am in Vancouver enjoying some relaxing and sociable time with family and friends. As seems to be traditional, I have arrived in the middle of a heat wave! Happily, my parents have a lovely shady garden where we can shelter from the sun.


In the meantime, the July issue of Open Letters is live, so head on over for lots of good bookish reading, including my review of Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. After much debate — internal but also with my wise co-editors — I decided to “spoil” the ending of the novel because my reaction to it was so specific I could not see how to have the discussion I wanted about the novel without going into details. So if spoilers are something that bother you and you haven’t read A God in Ruins but expect to, consider yourself warned.

There’s lots more to read in the new issue, including Anne Fernald on a recently released biography of Virginia Woolf, Steve Donoghue on a new translation of The Tale of Genji, Robert Minto reviewing the reviewers of a new biography of Saul Bellow, and our traditional summer reading feature, with lots of “cool” recommendations from the OLM team.

Enjoy, and Happy Canada Day!

“Ragged, Inglorious, and Apparently Purposeless”: Iris Murdoch, Under the Net


Like a fish which swims calmly in deep water, I felt all about me the secure supporting pressure of my own life. Ragged, inglorious, and apparently purposeless, but my own.

In the very last chapter of Under the Net, I finally arrived at a passage that was the kind of writing I’d expected from Iris Murdoch:

Events stream past us like these crowds and the face of each is seen only for a minute. What is urgent is not urgent forever but only ephemerally. All work and all love, the search for wealth and fame, the search for truth, life itself, are made up of moments which pass and become nothing. Yet through this shaft of nothings we drive onward with that miraculous vitality that creates our precarious habitations in the past and the future. So we live; a spirit that broods and hovers over the continual death of time, the lost meaning, the unrecaptured moment, the unremembered face, until the final chop chop that ends all our moments and plunges that spirit back into the void from which it came.

OK, “the final chop chop” is unexpectedly colloquial, but overall this is more or less what I thought a “philosophical novelist” would sound like, or write about.

I’m not sorry Under the Net was not like that all the way through. In fact, I’m thrilled and relieved that it wasn’t, because imagine how dreary and pretentious it would have been! I am sorry, though, that I had so little understanding in advance of what Under the Net actually is like, or is about, because most of the time while I was reading it I felt quite adrift — not in an angrily puzzled way, but in an off-balance, faintly delirious way. I could tell that the novel was some kind of kunstlerroman — that Jake was somehow becoming something more or other, especially as a writer, than he was at the start. It felt like a quest plot, too, though a strangely erratic one, as Jake rushed off in one direction and then another, each time quite sure of what he was doing but rarely of exactly why or to what larger end. “There was a path which awaited me,” Jake says at one point, “and which if I failed to take it would lie untrodden forever.” His challenge, and thus our challenge, is first to discern it, and then to follow it.

For a while I concluded that the aimlessness, the fits and starts, were themselves the point: that Jake’s peripatetic misadventures stood in for a vision of life as itself without direction or purpose. I’m still not entirely sure that’s not the point — but at the end of the novel there’s a sense, not of everything coming together into a shapely unity, but of Jake gathering up the loose ends and preparing to make something more out of them. If I’d read the Introduction first, rather than last, I would have  seen this coming. Instead, the Introduction confirmed it for me: “In a nutshell,” says Kiernan Ryan helpfully, “Under the Net is Jake Donaghue’s account of how he became the writer who wrote Under the Net.” Aha! Although where, in Under the Net itself, qua novel, is the evidence of that slow-growing self-awareness and control? Maybe that’s to imagine Jake becoming a different kind of writer — the kind Pip is, for instance, in Great Expectations, one who infuses the story of his past inadequacies with the wisdom they helped him acquire. Maybe Jake has not acquired any wisdom, or maybe he doesn’t believe in art with such a moralizing bent. Ryan notes the novel’s affinity with a literary tradition I don’t know well at all: “the French surrealist Raymond Queneau, to whom the novel is dedicated, and the novels of Samel Beckett,” for instance. My disorientation arose, that suggests, from my associating the idea of a “philosophical novelist” with a different tradition — with George Eliot and Henry James, for instance, not just in their realism and moral seriousness but in their overt designs on their readers. What in either of them could have prepared me for the Marvellous Mister Mars?

Ryan’s introduction points out a whole range of things that I really didn’t grasp about Under the Net and philosophy — or as philosophy. If I reread Under the Net, I would try to focus on the meanings he sets out for its motley array of characters and its bizarre, seemingly haphazard events. That would be the way to a good reading of the novel, or at least a better one than I managed this time. In my defense, though, I don’t think that happy confusion is an illegitimate first response to Under the Net. Murdoch’s choice of an unaware first-person narrator means that we are necessarily in a different position than we are with Eliot or James: short-sighted or deluded where he is, hampered by his limitations of perception and insight. This doesn’t mean we can’t tell when he’s screwing up, but it does make it more of a pleasant surprise when he arrives at some self-knowledge, as when it occurs to him that his former lover Anna “really existed now as a separate being and not as part of myself”:

Anna was something which had to be learnt afresh. When does one ever know a human being? Perhaps only after one has realized the impossibility of knowledge and renounced the desire for it and finally ceased to feel even the need of it. But then what one achieves is no longer knowledge, it is simply a kind of co-existence; and this too is one of the guises of love.

There he goes again, being philosohical! And this, too, is near the end of the book, so it feels like somewhere Jake has arrived after some effort. The puzzle of Under the Net is how exactly he figured this out — and also how seriously we are  supposed to take it, given how bad Jake’s understanding of himself, of others, of life, has been up to this point. It feels more like a revelation than like any form of Bildung, and simply happening upon a significant idea is not a particularly philosophical method.

I could quote more of the introduction about how this all actual reflects “the fundamental wisdom that suffuses Iris Murdoch’s fiction,” and how the novel is “the imaginative embodiment of Murdoch’s artistic creed,” but that would be to borrow someone else’s comprehension as a mask for my own ongoing bemusement. Under the Net is the first Murdoch I’ve read. Maybe the pieces will fall into place as I read more! In the meantime, I look forward to my book club’s discussion tomorrow.


Blog Archive


Comments Policy

Comments that contribute civilly and constructively to discussion of the topics raised on this blog, from any point of view, are welcome. Comments that are not civil or constructive will be deleted.

All entries copyright Rohan Maitzen. If you use material from this blog, please give proper credit to the author.