Time now for the fourth instalment of #AYearInBooks, in which I track the non-academic reading I do. Here’s why I’m doing this. I’ve got eight books (or series) for you this time. When I started the first, there was snow on the ground; I finished the last on a hot summer day. And yet – a curiosity of Fredericton’s climate – it’s was only six weeks!
The Fionavar Tapestry (Guy Gavriel Kay, 1984-86). This is actually a trilogy: The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road. I’ve been re-reading old favourites a lot lately and these are very near the top of my list. They’re epic fantasy, à la Tolkien (Kay helped edit some of Tolkien’s posthumously published material) – but with much more humanity, more adult relationships, more lyrical writing, and many more surprises (revealed connections, along the lines of what made N.K. Jemesin’s Broken Earthso astonishing). Now, “better than Tolkien” would be fighting words for many fantasy buffs (a fight best undertaken with an elven sword, of course), but if anything qualifies, to me Fionavar is it. There’s an urban fantasy angle too, in that the protagonists include five University of Toronto students who are brought from our world into Fionavar to play roles in the battle between good and evil (except it’s more textured than that). I think I mentioned last time that in Alan Garner’s Elidor, there’s a passage where I still shiver upon each reading – even after dozens. In The Fionavar Tapestry, there are many such passages. I’ve enjoyed Kay’s other books too – like the more historical-fiction Sarantine Mosaic– but I always come back to Fionavar.
The Shape Shifter (Tony Hillerman, 2006). I’m not sure how I’d missed this instalment in Hillerman’s series of about 20 superb mysteries featuring detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, both of the Navajo Tribal Police. The settings (in the Four Corners area of the southwestern US) are beautifully depicted, and both Leaphorn and Chee are interesting characters moving across traditional and modern Navajo life. The Shape Shifter is one of the lighter entries in the series, built around a famous Navajo rug that resurfaces after its presumed loss in a fire. It’s not as culturally rich as some of the earlier books, but it’s an easy read and a comfortable reminder of what makes the Leaphorn/Chee novels so enjoyable.
Binti (Nnedi Okorafor, 2015-2019). This was a recommendation from a Twitter follower (thanks!). The Binti trilogy follows a distant-future girl of the Namibian Himba people as she goes off-planet to study mathematics at an interstellar university. It’s a coming-of-age story in which Binti needs to find herself and her place in the (very diversely peopled) universe. I liked Binti (the character) a lot. I liked Binti (the trilogy) a fair bit, although I would have liked it more if it had had a more coherent narrative arc. That just isn’t its style; Binti figures herself out through a succession of smaller happenings rather than a single trilogy-spanning challenge. But for characterization and settings it’s an enjoyable read. I’ll look for other books from Okorafor – I think Who Fears Death might be next on my list.
The Winds of Marble Arch (and Other Stories) (Connie Willis, 2007). I love Willis’s novels, especially her time-travel series (see Blackout/All Clear, here). The Winds of Marble Arch is a hefty collection of her short fiction. I didn’t read it all at once (turns out her voice loses its freshness a bit from story to story); rather, I’ve been dipping in for a story or two between longer books. As you’d expect from Willis, most stories involve very ordinary people caught in quite extraordinary situations. My favourite story, “Jack”, takes us back to a frequent Willis setting – London during the Blitz – for a redemptive tale of a man who’s disturbingly good at locating victims under the rubble. (Note that many of the stories here also appear in other Willis collections, notably Fire Watch and Impossible Things.)
The Lighthouse (PD James, 2008). This is a relatively late chapter in James’ detective series featuring Adam Dalgliesh – and it’s by far my favourite in the series. I think it’s the Agatha Christie-esque setup, with a murder on a small island off the Cornish coast, with only a dozen possible suspects and every one with a motive. Plus, there’s a lighthouse, and who doesn’t like lighthouses? A light read – lighter than usual for James – and my only disappointment is the author’s note explaining that Combe Island isn’t real. Because, murder scene or not, I so very much want to go there.
The Fiery Cross (Diana Gabaldon, 2001). The fifth in Gabaldon’s monstrously popular Outlander series of time-travel-historical-romance-adventure pageturners. I’m probably not the intended audience for these books, but I’m too old to care. More here about Claire, Jamie, Brianna, Roger, and the web of other characters as they homestead in 1770s North Carolina. This book has less of an overarching plot than a long (1400 pages!) series of events – something it has oddly in common with Binti, above – but like all the books in the series, it’s captivating. Here’s something interesting: I’m five books and thousands of pages into the series, with modern-person-in-a-different-time featured on every page. But I was still brought up short by this line, as Roger surveys in the North Carolina wilderness: “a horde of vivid little parakeets came chattering through the trees”. Those would be Carolina parakeets, extinct in 1918. The parakeet reference brought me up with a start, perhaps because it wasn’t centred (the way a passenger pigeon scene is a few pages later, but just mentioned matter-of-factly in passing. So much has been lost.
Once In The West (Poems) (Christian Wiman, 2014). I really wanted to like this little book of poems, with their meditations on mortality, and faith, and place. But I failed. The book is sprinkled with arresting turns of phrase – the self-delighting skywriting of swallows or one wants in the end just once to befriend / one’s own loneliness. But I’ve pointed out before that no book works for everyone, and perhaps that’s particularly true of poetry. Too many jangling rough cuts, too many harshly assembled portmanteau words, and too little clarity of sense for my ear. But I’d suggest that if you aren’t reading – or at least starting – a few books you don’t like, you’re not being adventurous enough.
Packing My Library (Alberto Manguel, 2018). I stumbled quite randomly across this little book and found it charming. The book was inspired by his packing up of his 35,000-book personal library. It’s a series of short reflections about reading, and books, and libraries (and it would be hard to find three things I’m fonder of than those). Manguel calls his reflections “An Elegy and Ten Digressions”. You can add “digressions” to that list of things I’m fond of! Manguel’s “Second Digression” is about where ideas for writing come from, or rather, about how mysterious that is: “In most cases, the moment of literary creation is as unknown to us as that of the universe itself”. I can tell you exactly the moment of creation for The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, but yes, the moment of creation for Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider is an enigma, even to me. That’s just one way Manguel’s musings about books and libraries resonated with me. If you like books and reading (and if not, what are you doing this deep in this post?), Packing My Library will have things to say to you, too.
That’s all for now. Drop back in a couple of months from now to see what I’m reading next.
© Stephen Heard June 25, 2020
Image: One of many bookshelves in my own library – not as big as Manguel’s, but equally treasured. This is about half of my stack of unread books. It never seems to get any smaller!