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Sunday, January 8, 2017

2016: The year of reading Scottish

I realized that 2016 was my year of reading Scottish when I closed out the year reading an Inspector Rebus  by Ian Rankin, a writer I often find myself reading over Christmas break.

It was also the year that Shakespeare’s Macbeth was played at the Stratford Festival, so I read the play itself over the summer, in a couple of versions. Lady Macbeth by Susan Fraser King was suggested to me at a bookstore in Stratford, and altho it was a bit historical fiction (romance)-y it was a deeply researched work, which aimed to show Lady Macbeth according to the actual historical record, rather than as a figure in a story aimed at James I of England, the Scottish James VI, who inherited the English throne from his cousin Elizabeth I and who had reasons to support his succession with popular works. 

I watched Braveheart, because Mel Gibson used Polanski’s version of Macbeth to inspire his movie, and I am hoping to watch Polanski’s Macbeth before the new year resumes. 

I read both the first volume of the memoirs of James McLevy, McLevy: The Edinburgh Detective and David Ashton’s The Shadow of the Serpent, from the fictional Inspector McLevy Mystery  Series. McLevy was a real detective working in Edinburgh at the turn of the 20th C, and is a lovely backgrounder to Ian Rankin, and these were the first books of the year. I read them in Kindle, and great hospital waiting room reading they were, too.

I also watched the Korean historical drama series  Moon Lovers/Scarlet Heart Ryeo, a succession story with many parallels to Macbeth in addition to the succession struggles, including the female use of soft power rather than legal or armed strength. It was a stunning window into a beautiful and ritualized world of Korea 1000 years ago.

That series connected thru to Margaret Drabble’s Red Queen, also based on a real person, a Korean queen whose real diaries exist in three original versions, and whose first English translators used Macbeth to illuminate the machinations she described. (That work is still on my to-read list.) This was my first Drabble. I tend to prefer the other sister, and I did also read an A.S. Byatt, The Game this year, and it was masterful, as expected. 

Shakespeare, if not specifically Macbeth, was also strong this year, starting with finally reading a book handed down to me by my mother, published in 1935, but still the ranking work on the subject: Caroline Spurgeon’s Shakespeare’s Imagery and What it Tells Us, with lists and handmade charts, and beautiful essays connecting Shakespeare’s imagery with his life and comparing his imagery to the imagery of other writers of the period. I also read Michael Wood’s Shakespeare, which was written to accompany his BBC series In Search of Shakespeare that I watched a year or two ago, and which really gave me some updated ideas about Shakespeare around his likely crypto-Catholicism. It was especially effective in requiring a re-think of Romeo and Juliet, handy to re-watch because that is the tragedy at Stratford this coming year!

I also finally got to A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, which is a very satisfying mapping of King Lear onto an American prairie farm, a stunning book which I overlooked during my year of reading Lear. For the record I did also read another alternate Romeo and Juliet, but it was not a favourite.

And in keeping with the dark wintery feel of Scotland, I read a couple of mysteries from melancholy places like Sweden and Vermont, and a very dark summery mystery by Cormac McCarthy, Outer Dark, which I am pretty sure is The Inferno. 

I reread Jane Eyre with one of my kids as mandatory summer reading, and was mightily impressed by the power of Jane as well as the power of Charlotte Bronte as a writer and moralist. I saw and felt why the book remains a generally-considered top 10 book in English. (Sadly, I did not actually read a first edition copy.)

The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne was a huge favourite of the year. It is about a 6’7” weight-lifting Mormon librarian with Tourette’s. Oh and it’s a non-fiction memoir!

Dystopian fiction is still hanging in there with the Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver. I read this in a reading group with a few of my high school classmates, and I preferred it to my own choice for that group, a book by Canadian writer Maggie Helwig, Girls Fall Down

Then there was my beautiful Slavic mermaid favourite by Michelle Tea, Girl at the Bottom of the Sea, the second in a series published by McSweeney's, and my other YA favourite of the year Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, a real piece of meta-fiction, the writer’s fan fiction version of the fan fiction created by a the main character in her book Fan Girl, who writes about a fictional piece of fiction…

The graphic non-fiction winner of the year is Alison Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, I book I often recommend to people looking to get into graphic. Bechdel is also the source of the fabulous Bechdel test, which is a bar of acceptability reached if two named women characters can be onscreen in a movie without talking about a man.

The total books read was 50 of which 19 are on this list, not the highest count ever, but many really great books. Additionally connected are a film, a play IRL and on video, and a TV series. Eight books were by Canadian writers, eleven were fiction, two were memoirs, two were about Shakespeare.

Best Reading of 2015

This post was delayed by the death of the small blog, but I decide my blog is still the place to keep track of certain things, such as the annual review of books, so I am going to publish the results from a couple of years now.

In the place of honour during 2015:

My beloved Instagram

The wonder of curating your own magazine of images, with the possibility of conversing directly with artists and photographers and dog-owners. and making actual friends that you might otherwise never's a winning formula and I have enjoyed many happy hours looking at and reading Instagram posts. And posting.

And despite feeling like I read less because of the appeal of Instagram, I controlled my reading more carefully and got thru a lot of great books.

Luckily I still keep LibraryThing active so I can be reminded of books read and enjoyed over the past two years.

I enjoyed a mini-theme around the artist JMW Turner featured in an exhibition at the AGO. They were showing clips from, and I was able to see Mr Turner the movie. It was a great period piece and I thoroughly enjoyed it. And I reacquainted myself with Dark Clue by James Wilson, a lovely dark Victorian-style gothic novel around an investigation of Turner, altho she was born late in his life, so he is not really a Victorian character.

I read and shared with my kids the fantastic graphic memoir Pyong Yang by Guy Delisle, a French-Canadian artist and writer. It's a book we find ourselves returning to to from time to time, both for content and beauty.

Ghost Town, by Patrick McGrath is a set of three short stories about different periods of New York history. I was lucky enough to read it just after a trip there, and I was able to recollect those historic streets way downtown as the setting for the stories. Delicious.

Thug Notes: A Street-Smart Guide to Classic Literature by Sparky Sweets PhD was a laugh-aloud yet totally accurate review of...classic literature. Love it! And it looks great on your shelf.

I read a textbook for a class in Writers' Craft taken by one of my kids, which was also kind on an ultimate reading list of classics and undervalued books: Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose. This book will stay close as a great source of reading ideas, and ways to think about books.

Super Mutant Magic Academy by Canadian artist Jillian Tamaki is a brilliant wordless graphic novel, faintly Potteresque, illustrating the social life of current high school students. Outstanding!

I spent a little time in a kind of Edwardian trance, for some reason a state I adore. I read The Jinx by Théophile Gautier (which is actually a mid-19th C work, but feels impressionistic and pre-war) and
the novella Mortal Coils by a very young Aldous Huxley. Both were incomparably lovely.

I participated in the frenzy over My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. I quite enjoyed it, and I could feel it in relation to the stories of the youth of my Italian in-laws, but when it came time to read on, I just wasn't motivated. If the rest of the books fell in my lap, I might read them, but I didn't seek them out. There was a different kind of frenzy of comment when the real identity of the author was revealed, and I found it distasteful.

A favourite quirky read was The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer, a novel about the mourning period for a Russian Jewish woman mathematician and a review of her life by one of her less-gifted children. Love a good piece of mathematical fiction.

I am always on about Shakespeare, and the book I studies and loved this year was Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt. As more and more original source material is digitized, many forms of historical research are able to move forward, not least of which is the study and tracking of the life of Shakespeare. There was also a new edition published of Shakespeare's Beehive by antiquarian booksellers George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler. I really like to stay current with this story, and I really can't believe it isn't better known! The writers are coming to speak at Stratford in 2017, and I have already bought my tickets.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Australian Richard Flanagan was one of those books that sears your memory so that you can never contact something without seeing the images generated by the writer. This book deals with Australian POWs in Japan, and shortly after the book was published the Japanese had an exhibition of records supporting the truth of something that was spoken of in this novel. Scary. Awful. Brilliant.

I read a second Edith Wharton, House of Mirth and found it so much better than Age of Innocence, which seems to be the more popular book and movie. The story is much more brutal, and the characters are stronger. I'm not sure why it is eclipsed.

I started reading Michael Harris's The End of Absence in a library books, and ended up buying it on my Kindle so I could underline his pithy comments about our new world of connectivity.

Finally, I now keep a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo handy by my bed and on my kindle. It really is a revolution of simplicity, and super useful.

I should also note that after reading many references to the brilliant modernist writer Henry Green, of whom neither I nor any of my favourite and exalted reading friends had heard, that in a small group we ordered a set of his titles and shared them around. Final thoughts of all of us: not convinced he should be in the first rank.

I took a run at Johnathan Strange and Mr Norell which had long been on my list to read, and I found it boggy and overlong and abandoned it mid-way. Darn it. I hate when that happens.

Here are the stats
total books: 48
best books: 17 plus 2 alsos
fiction: 9
non-fiction: 7
short stories/novellas: 3
about books: 4
graphic: 2
memoir: 1
how-to: 1
films: 1

It was a good year!