Some highlights of my (very) short trip to Our Nation's Capital:
- Hanging out with Doppelsis and her brood. We went to an AWESOME used-book sale. It was in an historic mill that put out a call for book donations as part of a fundraising effort. They received so many books that they ended up reducing the sale price from a dollar a book to TEN CENTS a book. I almost cried at the fact that my tiny carry-on bag only allowed me to pick up two or three. Fortunately, Doppelsis picked up my slack and took home a shopping bag full of excellent picks.
- Catching up with my close friend David and his very cool wife Maria, something we haven't been able to do in way too long. David and I are book nerds from way back, and our weirdly intertwined work histories have included stints at our university newspaper, the same publishing company, and then alternating years in the same masters program. You know how it is with some friends where you rarely see each other face to face but when you do it's like you just saw each other yesterday? It was like that. Also, he used the word "louche" in a sentence. Which, you will agree, is awesome.
- I didn't run out of books after all. Whew.
Now, usually I list books in the order in which I read them. But then Princess Haiku asked me for my top three recommendations for new fiction, and I thought that was an interesting question. So I'm going to answer it, even though it means breaking from chronology and triggering my mild latent OCD tendencies.
[Insert caveat about the fact that, of course, my knowledge of new fiction is pretty limited because I've only read a handful of recent-ish titles. But I'll do my best with what I've got.]
Lullabies for Little Criminals
by Heather O'Neill (#13)
If you have a heart, this book will break it, but you should read it anyway.
Lullabies came to my attention when it was the winning title in CBC's annual Canada Reads challenge. (If you don't know about this event, you can get some background here.) It was championed by John K. Sampson of The Weakerthans, who also supported Miriam Toews's A Complicated Kindness when it won Canada Reads last year. And since I loved A Complicated Kindness, I figured Sampson might be backing another winner. He was.
What's so incredible about Lullabies (and about Kindness, for that matter), is that these two books -- very different aside from the fact that they're both coming-of-age stories about troubled young women -- can speak to so many people. In the wrong hands, these kinds of stories could so easily be relegated to the same part of the bookstore reserved for Judy Blume books and copies of Go Ask Alice. But O'Neill (and Toews, too, of course) are far too skillful for that. (Don't get me wrong: I love me some Judy Blume novels. But award-winning fiction for grown-ups they ain't.)
The other thing these stories share is a deceptive simplicity, which is ultimately what gets to you. Told in the first person, the narrators tell their stories in a matter-of-fact way that says, better than anything else could, how resigned they are to the tidal pools of bad luck that are pulling at them. What's so realistic -- and heartbreaking -- is how these young women, both bright and insightful people, are prone, as so many young women are, to turning their negativity in upon themselves, allowing themselves to self-destruct with an eerie acceptance of their fates.
It's not all bleakness, though, I promise. Seriously, read this book. And if you haven't read A Complicated Kindness, you should probably get on that, too.
House of Meetings
by Martin Amis (#14)
Er, this novel is a bit heartbreaking, too. I may as well tell you that up front. Though I have a feeling you'd probably pick up on that for yourself after I told you that a significant part of the narrative takes place in a Russian gulag.
The main character -- an aging former soldier turned political prisoner turned wealthy businessman, who defected to America after his release from slavery but is now returning to Russia for a tour of the gulags of northern Russia -- couldn't be more different from a young Canadian girl. Or not on the surface, anyway. But I kept thinking as I read this book about how people, or any other animal for that matter, behave when confined in unnatural ways, whether in actual prisons or homes they can't escape. And I was thinking about how, ultimately, the instinct is to destroy -- either yourself or others. In the case of the unnamed narrator in this novel, it seems at first that he directs his rage outward, but of course nothing's ever as simple as that.
As someone who gets most of their knowledge of history from novels, I found House of Meetings hugely educational. It's rare that a book can teach you while also profoundly moving you. I haven't felt this way about a novel since reading Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces (which, since I'm already being bossy, you should also read.)
The Good Husband of Zebra Drive
by Alexander McCall Smith (#15)
If you read the above books back to back, you might need a breather. This is where the latest instalment in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency comes in. I could tell you the plot, but if you're familiar with the series, you already know that the mysteries that form the ostensible plots of these books are just frameworks for McCall Smith's gentle ruminations on goodness: how rare it is, how we can recognize it and create it, and how we should forgive ourselves and start over when we fail.
On one hand, McCall Smith's books are easy reads, no doubt about it. But if you take away from his books the challenge of trying to be good, really good, you see that the hard part starts after you finish the last page.
So those are my three picks. What are yours?