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Tuesday, February 21st

February 21, 2017

I realise I failed to report on the book club meeting yesterday and I’m sure you, dear reader, are keen to know how it went. (I also didn’t make it to the gym yesterday, but that was not entirely my fault. I got caught up in internet research on a summer road trip proposed by my friend Irmani and lost track of the time.)

So, the book club… Fortunately the former librarian came prepared. She brought a volume of critical analysis of children’s books which included a segment on Harriet the Spy. We began with her reading excerpts from this. I don’t pretend to remember much of what this academic had to say. What I remember is that everyone in the group disagreed with much (if not all) of the analysis. There was also general consensus that we all just wanted to slap Harriet. We also all thought Ole Golly was the most interesting character and most of us lost what little interest we had in the story after her departure from it. (Unfortunately no one could explain why she was called “Ole” when her name was Catherine. This question intrigued me more than almost anything else in the book.)

General verdict? This book may have been deemed revolutionary in its time, but the protagonist Harriet is incredibly unsympathetic and if any of us had 11-year-old daughters (or sons) we wouldn’t be keen on them reading it.

The conversation then moved on to what books we ourselves had read as children. It seems most of us had moved on fairly quickly from Black Beauty and White Fang to Nancy Drew. (It surprised me to learn that, in this room filled with Canadian women, I was the only one who’d read Anne of Green Gables. I would have thought all Canadian children – at least the girls – were obliged to read that book.) When someone commented on the obvious strangeness of Nancy’s friend George, who was obviously a lesbian, suddenly having a boyfriend, I said he was obviously a beard: George and her boyfriends were the Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester of young adult fiction. Then we all topped up our glasses.

I have no recollection from the inaugural meeting of the Bad Girls Book Club (you had to be there) that a second book had been selected, but it seems one was. Next up is Not Wanted On This Voyage by Timothy Findlay, a fable, apparently, about Noah’s Ark. Hmm. We shall see.

And now a few words about non book club books. Some time ago I wrote about my concern that depression had robbed me of the ability to read anything except mysteries. By the time I was writing that entry I’d been back on meds for a while and had just finished reading Americanah, one of the books that had been lingering in the scary pile of Literary Fiction in the corner of my front room.

In the past couple of months I have been reading a lot more Literary Fiction. When my library hold of My Brilliant Friend, the first volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series finally turned up, I absolutely hoovered it up. I can only guess how beautiful the writing must have been in the original Italian, but kudos to Ann Goldstein for her translation. This first book begins in the post war years in Naples. Without getting down in descriptive narrative (which drives me insane – Thomas Hardy, anyone?) the book manages to make you feel as if you are there, with the two young girls, Lena and Lila, who are growing up in a particularly impoverished neighbourhood. The next three novels in the series (which I quickly ordered in turn from the library and also hoovered up) follow the two as young, middle aged and eventually old women.

Although it is Lila who refers to Lena as her brilliant friend in the novel, it is the uneducated but nonetheless brilliant Lila who haunts Lena and causes her to question the value of her own accomplishments throughout the series. That really rang a cord with me. I suspect most people have had a Lila in their lives, the astonishing friend who  obtains with ease that which we most covet. It takes a long time to understand that these individuals did what they did on purpose, purely to undermine us, their supposed friends. We are the victims of their narcissistic charm. They may assume it is their right, but in the afterlife they will never, ever gain admission to that cosmic cocktail party.

Anyway, anyway… If anyone reading this wants to know more about Ferrante’s thoughts on the series, here’s a link.

The next two books that turned up from the library involved multiple narrators.

the-breakThe first, The Break by Katherena Vermette, was impossible to put down. It begins with Stella (a First Nations woman married to a white man) witnessing the assault of a teenage girl. The story unfolds told from the perspective of the victim and multiple generations of First Nations women who are related to the victim or connected with the crime. (The only male voice is a young Metis policeman.) Each and every one of these women is a fully realised character, whose pain can be felt viscerally. (The Metis policeman not so much.) Given how much of the pain of these many of these women had been caused by men, it is difficult to decide whether their willingness to give another man a chance is a testament to their optimism or self loathing.

It is Vermette’s first novel and it is astonishing.

homegoingThe next book was an equally astonishing debut novel, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. The story begins in late 18th century Ghana. The first chapter is written from the perspective of Effia, a beautiful young woman who is married off to a British officer. The next chapter is told from the perspective of her unknown half-sister Esi, who is kidnapped from her village and sold into the slave trade in the United States. The stories in these two chapters are fascinating, but that’s all we get of these two women. Subsequent chapters are written from the perspective of Effia’s descendants in Ghana and Esi’s descendants, first enslaved, eventually freed in the United States. The novel takes the reader down the generations from the 18th century to the present day.

Like The Break, all Gyasi’s characters are fully realised, which was actually my biggest problem with this novel. I wanted to know much more about each and every one of them. The snapshot chapters weren’t enough. I would have happily read the life story of every single character. Of course that would involve dozens of novels, which it would take a very long time to write. (I’d probably be dead before the final one came out.)  Still, for anyone interested in the history of the slave trade and the sins and horrors perpetrated by the British, the Americans and Africans themselves, this is a completely engrossing overview.

There was one thing that annoyed me about The Break, Homegoing and all four books in Elan Ferrante’s Neapolitan series and that had nothing to do with the quality of the writing. What annoyed me was having to give them back to the library when I’d finished reading them.

Throughout my adult life I have always been able to buy books. Even after the black dog descended, robbing me of my ability to complete contract work, even when I was reduced to attempting to subsist on my survivor benefits from Mike, I still had that little pension (the one I could actually start drawing on in my fifties) from my days in journalism. The little pension that left me with a little wiggle room, the room to go out for dinner with friends occasionally, the room to continue buying books whenever I wanted to do so. So, once again, thank you very much, stupid fucking Brexiters for your stupid fucking vote last year. My wiggle room is gone. I’ve said it before and now I’ll say it again: Fuck you.

Thank the goddess for libraries.

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