Wednesday, December 14, 2005

BOOKS: Read It Again... for the Very First Time

When I ruthlessly cleaned my shelves a couple of months back, I made a small stack of books that, not only had I not read, I had forgotten I even owned. These included:

John O'Hara
's collection of three novellas, Sermons and Soda-Water. (If you've never read John O'Hara, I forgive you. But only temporarily. If you still haven't read him in six months, there's going to be trouble. Start with Appointment in Samarra or BUtterfield 8, and work from there.)

Neil Postman's The Disappearance of Childhood, which I've been meaning to read for years. The Disappearance of My Memory is more like it.

Stephen Jay Gould's I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History, which I picked up shortly after Carol Shields passed away. I read a lovely tribute to Shields in the paper, and it talked about how her graciousness and curiosity about the world remained with her till the end. To illustrate the latter, the eulogy mentioned that Shields was in the middle of reading a book of Gould's essays. It didn't name which one, so I picked up this one based on the title, which sounded interesting (as opposed to the title of his book Ontogeny and Phylogeny, which frightened me). I'm not the best reader of non-fiction, alas, so I still have to get to this.

There are a handful more, but you get the idea: good books that are long overdue in receiving my attention and respect. But what's much more shameful are the books I picked up from my shelves and knew right away that I'd read... but couldn't remember a single thing about them. Such was The Roaring Girl.

The Roaring Girl by
Greg Hollingshead (#47)
What makes my literary amnesia more embarrassing is that this collection of short stories won the Governor General's Award when it came out in 1995, so it merits remembering, right? But what makes me feel really stupid is that these stories are so goddamned great. What else could have been going through my head the first time I read these that would have driven all memory of them from my brain?

1996... 1996... 1996...

Oh. Er. Yes. That year happened to mark the height of Vancouver's underground party scene. Suddenly everything makes much more sense. Well, you're only young once, and at the time it sure
seemed like I had a lot of spare brain cells kicking around. Those grow back, right?

The up side to all this is that I got to enjoy these stories afresh. And hey, if this is what getting old is like, sweet! If I can look forward to reading nothing but
Jane Austen novels over and over without them ever going stale, sign me up.

Hollingshead's stories parry back and forth over the line between urban disillusionment and suburban angst. The settings and characters are all vastly different, but what these tales all share is Hollingshead's amazing ear for dialogue, as well as his sly knack for mixing sadness with dark (and sometimes not-so-dark) humour.

There's an
Alice Munro-esque air about this collection, and I say that as a compliment, not to detract from Hollingshead's fresh, distinctive storytelling gifts.

I did a little digging to see what Hollingshead has published since
The Roaring Girl and was gratified to learn that he's been somewhat prolific. I may have to give his latest novel, Bedlam, a go. If I don't forget.


Essy said...

Given a long enough book, my mom could keep reading the same story over and over and it would be fresh each time.

Of course it makes discussing books with her hellishly difficult, since I have to catch her more or less the moment it's finished.

I find I'm most prone to vanishing-plot-syndrome when I read books very quickly. If I read a chapter at a time over a period of weeks, a book will stay in my head. Ask me what happened in the last Harry Potter and... um... somebody... died? Maybe? I think a couple of the kids might have hooked up...

This gets especially annoying when I read something in one sitting because I think it's really good. When I subsequently try to pimp it to people I find I've forgotten half the plot.

"No, really you have to read The Time Travellers Wife. It's incredible."

"What's the main character's name?"

"... I don't know."

Carrie said...

I have the same problem especially if I read a slew of books by the smae author at once. This happened with Muriel Spark, and with Evelyn Waugh, and with every shoert story collection I read...

Of course when someone asks me a detailed question about Cryptonomicom, or some other nerdy book I love, I'm off and running with names, analysis and sequel points.

Sometimes it may be better just to forget.