Saturday, January 26, 2013

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Twenty-Three

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

I read this book for the first time in 1985, as a required text for English 20. I read it in a weekend, caught up in the family saga, the astonishing characters, the Biblical exegesis and the American philosophy. Reading this book encouraged me to discover other Steinbeck novels, to study existentialism, and, by extension, to become a student of literary Modernism. I can almost draw a line from this novel to my master's work in English, and I can confidently relate this novel to so much of the reading I've done since leaving high school. This is truly a central text in my personal canon.

And I ADORE the character Sam Hamilton. Having read the novel so many times, I feel I know Sam personally. Sam is probably my favourite character in literature, and I urge you to read the novel simply to meet this astonishing figure.

This was my second high-school Steinbeck novel, the first having been Of Mice and Men, which my English 10 teacher required us to read the year before. I have of course read The Grapes of Wrath, as well as several of Steinbeck's lesser-known novels. That said, I've managed to miss some of his other high-profile books, a terrible admission from a self-professed Modernist specialist. But there's time to go back and read those that I've missed. (I'm more into the women of Modernism, and the ex-pats, anyway.) I imagine, however, that I will continue to reread East of Eden every few years for the rest of my life: it is always poignant, striking, vivid, and inspiring.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Twenty-Two

Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety

Thinking about this novel takes me back to long summer days in the garden of our St Albert house and to the utter abandonment one experiences when reading truly outstanding books. There is a joy to reading certain books that only English majors seem to understand. This is one — such a gloriously beautiful book!

I had read some Stegner (The Big Rock Candy Mountain) in my twenties. And one of his short stories, too. I can't even remember now why I read Crossing to Safety, but I am so glad I did. Stegner has created breathtakingly gorgeous prose: the book overflows with sentences to re-read and cherish. It's a pity that literary tastes have changed such that writing of this calibre is only inconsistently valued today.

The book is also a compassionate examination of relationships, loyalties, and the gifts we receive. It follows the lives of two couples whose paths entwine when the men meet as young faculty members. One couple is glamorous and outrageous, the other quieter, subtler. We watch their lives advance together through happy and difficult moments. From this description, the novel may not sound very appealing, but the imagery, the storytelling, the characterization, and the prose itself are astonishing. Perhaps we want simply to watch lives like these unfold, or perhaps we long for close friendships like these; the chance to follow Larry, Sally, Sid, and Charity feels rare and special — at least to me.

From this novel I moved on to Angle of Repose, another masterful, award-winning novel. But I prefer Crossing to Safety. Whether it's the academic setting, the images of nature, the study of commitment, self, and identity, or just its seemingly effortless craft, this book stands among my favourite reading experiences of the last decade. I hope you too will read it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Twenty-One

Andrew Sayer, The Moral Significance of Class

The Moral Significance of Class is another crucial book — perhaps the most crucial book — from my dissertation work. As Sayer makes clear, class is not merely a matter of income, a level of education, or a practice of manners. Class has to do with the constant conflict between those who have power and those who don't, and this conflict necessarily has a moral edge. From the opening words of the book — "Class is an embarrassing and unsettling subject" — Sayer reminds us that a different world is possible; this social organization is only one of the options, and when we make choices that reduce the dignity and social participation of others, those choices also have a moral edge.

Discovering this text helped me to feel confident to take a normative position in my dissertation, which is to say that I make judgements in my diss: I argue that what is isn't good enough and could be better. These are unusual claims in a dissertation, but they felt — and feel — right for me.

What I particularly like about this text is that it's written in a strong voice with a wry sense of humour. For instance, at one point Sayer remarks, "class inequality would not be acceptable if only the dominant classes were nicer!" It is also deeply engaged in human dignity, as this comment shows: "The appropriate response to situations in which goods (whether objects, behaviours or institutions) are monopolized by particular groups is to enable equal access to them. The appropriate response to situations in which 'bads' are unequally distributed is to eliminate them, not distribute them more equally."

I refer to Sayer's work throughout my dissertation, although moreso for research methods than for his discussion of class. Still it is this book, and this treatment of class, that provided a significant breakthrough and energized my final few months of writing. Which of course changed my life.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Twenty

Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction

I was introduced to Tom Robbins' writing in high school. My first Robbins novel was Jitterbug Perfume, which is an intoxicating book and probably should also be on this list. Soon after reading Jitterbug Perfume, I found Another Roadside Attraction, a book that truly changed my life. It is a surreal romp from the forests of Washington to the Vatican and back again, set in the age of love and flowers. It involves football and Southern boys, a baboon, the Corpse, a flea circus, talking produce, and lots and lots and lots of drugs, sex, and music. It is a quintessential novel of the Sixties (despite having been published in 1971). I have read it countless times; it is a feel-good novel and always reminds me of very happy times.

I ADORE Robbins' character Amanda Ziller. She is with me much of the time. She is likely the character from literature I'd most want to be (at least when I'm not in a Virginia Woolf phase). This novel also taught me how to walk in the rain and how to enjoy mushrooms. It taught me about scent. It taught me about friendships that endure. It taught me to be tickled by language. The sixteen-year-old I once was was astonished that a book like this even existed; the wistful would-be writer I am today wishes I had the imagination to create something like it.

I can't begin to summarize the plot of this novel. It's more than a story; it's an experience. If you don't enjoy absurdism, if you can't read magical realism, if you're glad that the hippies were wrong, you should give this novel a pass. But if you're willing to alter your thinking — and maybe your life — Another Roadside Attraction is an outstanding place to start.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Nineteen

James Reaney, Colours in the Dark

I read this play late in my fourth-year undergrad experience. I was taking a course in contemporary Canadian drama. (This was the same year that Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love was produced at the Kaasa Theatre and later at the Roxy; it was also the same year that I first saw Goodnight, Desdemona... produced — see above.) Although I didn't know it at the time, Colours in the Dark was the play I had been waiting my whole undergrad career to read.

Reading contemporary Canadian plays was an eye-opening experience for me at this point. Of course I had read Shakespeare in high school and in first- and second-year university. And of course I had read modern plays in high school English, too: Twelve Angry Men, The Glass Menagerie, Death of a Salesman. You know, standard-issue drama that every "well-educated person" should have read. But reading Romeo and Juliet and Tennessee Williams is very different from reading the plays of Sharon Pollock and David Fennario. Most importantly, they write the drama of Canada, of places I have seen and lived in; and I could stage the plays in my mind (for that, I'm grateful for several years of receiving comp tickets to the Citadel and the Kaasa in my teens). Reading Blood Relations and Balconville and Leaving Home and The Donnellys excited my literary imagination in ways that previous drama units had not. (It probably didn't hurt that I was dating someone who lived and breathed the theatre, too.)

At the same time, I was immersed in my early study of Modernist poetry, which I would pursue further through my master's work. Colours in the Dark, for whatever reason, pulled Canadian drama, Modernist poetry, and my sense of place together in a dazzling way. I love this script: it's surreal and dreamy and very much of its moment — and quite Canadian. It contains stage directions that are literally impossible to enact. But I would certainly like to see a director try!

You're not likely going to read this play, but if you did, I hope you would have as eye-opening an experience of the drama of place and time as I did.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Eighteen

Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass

I read The Golden Compass almost a decade ago at the encouragement of my young friend Kate. I loved that book and immediately read The Subtle Knife, the follow-up book in the series. I had to wait a few months before I read The Amber Spyglass, though, and I'm glad: I think it's the strongest book in the trilogy. The whole series could easily appear in my five-star list, but this book, in which Lyra and Will's missions and relationship develop fully, is certainly my favourite, the text with which I identified most immediately and completely. It changed my relationship with texts for children and young adults and led me to take courses in my doctoral preparation that I might not otherwise have taken; these have subsequently led to publishing and research directions I will likely pursue for the rest of my career.

If you haven't read the His Dark Materials trilogy, or at least seen the film The Golden Compass, I cannot begin to explain the plot of this series. Suffice to say it is an alternative-Earth fantasy for young adults, with many steampunk elements. It begins in Oxford but eventually spans the globe and other realms. The series might be read by upper elementary students, but I suspect the philosophy in the text would be meaningless to many children. For people who have begun adolescence and the process of individuation, though, the series poses important questions about the self, power and control, loyalty and friendship, and spirituality: big questions that many of us spend our adult lives contemplating. Pullman didn't intend the novels to be read only by young people, and I would definitely encourage adults to read this series. It thoughtfully explores themes of innocence and knowledge, love and sexuality, divine purpose, and much else.

And I adore the daemons! After reading the first two books in the series, I wanted a daemon, and for days after I finished The Amber Spyglass I felt incomplete without my own daemon.

If you enjoy speculative fiction and are looking for a text that will encourage you to think critically about what you know and believe, this series — and this book in particular — will make an excellent choice.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Seventeen

Alistair Macleod, No Great Mischief

I was a graduate student doing my MA before I learned about Alistair Macleod's fiction. I am so glad I was introduced to his writing, though, because I love his short stories and, even more, his novel No Great Mischief.

No Great Mischief is a novel of Cape Breton. It's also a family saga, and a novel of separation and reunion. And, since it seems to be a theme lately, perhaps also a novel of redemption. The most famous line from this novel provides its most apt thematic summary: "All of us are better when we're loved."

This novel has won numerous awards and is the subject of publishing lore, as Douglas Gibson has told and retold the story of wresting the near-final manuscript from the author in order to see it published before Doug retired. Referring to the title itself, critics have compared the plot to the history of Canada itself. What was life-changing about this novel for me was its fusion of story, technique, and artistry. Every word is perfect; I lingered over the text, read it lovingly. As I am someone who consumes texts professionally, reading in this manner is striking and memorable. The story of love, faith, struggle, and belief in human dignity is arresting and profoundly moving. This novel may bring you to tears; it is certainly worth your time and attention. I hope you will read it.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Sixteen

Ann-Marie MacDonald, Goodnight, Desdemona (Good Morning, Juliet)

This book found its way to a position on my list as live theatre. I have seen this text enacted on stage three times and have re-read the script many times because it is such a pleasure. If you have any fondness for Shakespeare, this text will encourage you to rethink what you know and to reconsider what you believe. This text has special resonance for me, though, because of the time and circumstances of my discovering it.

Perhaps you know Ann-Marie MacDonald as the author of Fall on Your Knees (a novel that didn't quite make my five-star list but is very, very close). She is also an actor and a playwright — or at least, she wrote this play. Goodnight, Desdemona is the story of Constance Ledbelly, a failing academic who is on the verge of discovering the secrets to Romeo and Juliet and Othello: they weren't supposed to be tragedies but comedies, and the lead female characters weren't supposed to die. But to learn this secret, Constance must enter the texts themselves. Comedy ensues.

Goodnight, Desdemona is funny: funny enough that your core may hurt from laughing. There is great word play and tight script-writing. The text is also sharply feminist. In short, there's a lot to enjoy in the book — even more if you get to see the text on stage.

If you enjoyed Shakespeare in Love, you will enjoy Goodnight, Desdemona. It is witty and irreverent and pointed and thoughtful — qualities that make the best theatre, and that make for good reading generally.