speaking of being out of time...

So, my Christmas break ends Saturday. And, efforts to read no less than 10 books in 11 days.... failed. I haven't even started the book club book yet.

Bright side? Excellent times with family and friends in the coffee shops of my hometown, in the town across the lake, and in gorgeous Vancouver.

Now, I have started Joseph Boyden's Through Black Spruce.

Confession: I have a massive crush on Boyden's writing. I love the weight he gives to speech and conversation in his novels, the way he captures the rhythm of language.

Example: "I healed over time. We all do. Your mother, she came to visit me in the hospital after the beating. She would bring a book with her and try to read it to me so that I was forced to pretend sleep. She's a good woman, your mother, but she's been weakened by Oprah." (p. 16)


out of time

To read Out of Africa is to, at first, keep images of Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in your mind.

And then, it is an uncomfortable journey through a kind of colonialist ideal few people of European origin truly want to own up to. In her descriptions of the people native to Kenya's Ngong Hills, Karen Blixen leans heavily on Christian imagery, animal imagery and a "white man's burden" brand of condescension. Like all pioneers, I suppose, Blixen tells tales of amazing and intriguing adventure while she sees herself as something of a parent to the farmers and servants who people her plot of land.

I don't want to undersell the book -- I really enjoyed it, despite a kind of unease that comes with reading a selection of non-fiction stories nearly 80 years after publication. My time is different from her time; what she would have seen as a modern treatment of everything around her, I see as patronizing and, at times, racist.

Nonetheless, this is the story of Blixen's love for Africa, her farm, and to small degree, the man she planned to be buried with. Her tales bring to mind an Africa that no longer exists; a romantic continent of mystery consistently undermined by the Europeans who took it through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Towards the end, as Blixen watches the Kikuyu dance, she writes, "It was not I who was going away. I did not have it in my power to leave Africa, but it was the country that was slowly and gravely withdrawing from me, like the sea in ebb-tide." (p. 324)



Weird admission: I grew up around every kind of Mormon kid you can think of, and yet I have rarely thought about how sex and Mormonism (don't) mix.

And when I say "every kind of Mormon kid you can think of," I am indeed talking about, well, Bountiful.

So, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance -- as a memoir -- could not possibly be more of a departure from my idea of what it means to be Mormon than you could get. Here we have a young woman -- a year younger than me, actually, and I'm trying not to think about what that says about what I've accomplished so far in my life -- struggling to be a good Christian and a modern woman. Perhaps, on the surface, that leads one to imagine a story of 1. a series of bad dates, 2. leaving her religion behind altogether or 3. finding the man of her dreams and living happily ever after.

But memoirs are real life, and Elna Baker brings so much more than you might imagine to the page. Here is a Mormon girl with great (often hilarious) parents, who wants desperately to lose weight, who corners herself into "happily ever after" and then has to figure out what that might actually mean.

It's brilliant. Laugh-out-loud, close-your-eyes-because-it's-too-awkward, learn-about-Mormon-underwear, remember-your-first-kiss, remember-your-first-heartbreak, remember-who-you-are brilliant.

Bizarre example -- perhaps not the best, other parts of her story are so much better, but I don't want to ruin them for you, and this illustrates Baker's unique neuroses --

"As I sat across from Jeff, I could think only of the things that would happen to me if I did something impure like let a man touch my boobs. My body was a temple and I needed to respect it as such and not defile it. The things I did with other people before I was married would limit my ability to completely love my partner because it introduced an element of comparison. Sexual acts were supposed to make me feel unholy in the presence of God, like my light had been diminished. I thought about what Mormons call the 'eternal consequences' of your actions: Sexual immorality is the second worst sin, the first being murder...." (p. 63)

You might -- if it doesn't make you throw up in your mouth -- call it a "coming of age" memoir.

And on that note, I'm going to mention I finished reading The Stone Angel a couple days ago.

I kind of can't believe I only discovered Margaret Laurence this year. Like, can I really have called myself a book snob before 2009 if I hadn't read Laurence? I love her. I love that reading her work makes me feel more connected to Canadian history, and specifically a younger kind of Canadian history that starts west of southern Ontario. I am charmed and made uncomfortable by her characters, their loves, their mistakes, and their never-resting unhappiness with their lives. I loved The Diviners, I liked A Jest of God, and I fricking can't believe I lived before meeting Hagar Shipley. Could there be a character more self-aware, regretful and watchful, who also manages to know absolutely nothing of herself? I actually laughed out loud in one spot of the book, when she is drinking with a stranger in an abandoned fish warehouse; he tells her of his wife, she says, "Well, the poor thing.... Fancy spending your whole life worrying what people were thinking. She must have had a rather weak character." (p. 227)

Ah, Margaret Laurence -- how you winked at your readers.


remember who you are

Ok, this might be my favourite book dedication ever:

Mom and Dad,
I could never have done this without your faith, support, and constant encouragement. Thank you for teaching me to believe in myself, in God, and in my dreams.
This book...aside from the nine F-words, thirteen Sh-words, four A-holes, page 257, and the entire Warren Beatty chapter...is dedicated to you.
You might want to avoid chapters twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, anything I quote Mom saying, and most of the end as well.
Sorry. Am I still as cute as a button?

Cute, right? It's from The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance. So far, hilarious.
I'm in the mountains for a few days, and have a pile of books to read. Literally, a pile. Think Cameron Diaz in The Holiday. Yes, I watched that movie. What of it?
My get-relaxed-quick readings include:
Margaret Laurence's The Fire-Dwellers (a companion, it appears, to Laurence's A Jest of God);
Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman;
Michael Ignatieff's The Russian Album;
Rajaa Alsanea's Girls of Riyadh;
Lizzie Skurnick's Shelf Discovery;
Karen Blixen's Out of Africa;
Joseph Boyden's Through Black Spruce;
and Elizabeth Hay's Garbo Laughs.
Yes, lugging this many books through an airport does land you in a conversation with security folks who have novel suggestions. (Apparently I should read Cormac McCarthy.)


quiet meditations

Years ago I read Edeet Ravel's Look for Me; it was memorable for the quiet feeling the main character was distant from her own society and the neighbouring society she couldn't quite access.

Beyond that sense of loneliness and fear, I have to admit I don't remember much of the book.

Ten Thousand Lovers is a different story. Again, the main character -- Lily -- is distant, almost untouchable despite the first-person narrative. But this time, it is her love affair with Ami, an Israeli interrogator, that is somehow untouchable, deceptive, not quite what it appears and yet naggingly familiar. Lily and Ami are a tale without a happy ending, not unlike Israel and Palestine.

Sorry, that's terribly simplistic and depressing. Ravel's book is not, not at all. It is somehow adventure and love story and a piece of history.