It’s overcast with a bit of a chill in the air as I write this post. My steaming cup of chai and delicious Date Bar are a welcome treat for me as I think about what I’ve read recently. I also have a bowl of the last of the summer fruit, peaches and raspberries, mixed in with the first of the fall fruit, homemade applesauce, which I think perfectly fits in with this time of year, the seasonal transition, as well as the book I read last week.
My Friends’ book club met on Monday to discuss The Winter Palace, and I know I promised highlights of this discussion, but we didn’t really discuss the novel much, mainly because hardly anyone finished it. This was not due to lack of interest, but more to do with events in life getting in the way. So we talked about politics, historical and current, and about Catherine the Great. One member brought in lovely coffee-table books about the Winter Palace and 18th Century Russian rulers, which was quite fascinating. We got to see what Catherine really looked like, as well as Peter and Paul, and we learned about real people on which some of the author’s characters may have been based. Anyway, those are the highlights from the meeting, and even though they weren’t directly about the book, they were still related in some way.
My goal was to read one particular book last week, and I’m glad I found the time to do so. Autumn, by Ali Smith, is the first in a quartet, Seasonal. It was a book I’d picked up at the Owen Sound Public Library book sale about which I knew nothing, but I loved the book cover design. According to Wikipedia, it is a novel about "the state of the nation" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autumn_(Smith_novel). Of course I wanted to read it as the summer turned to autumn, and I’m so glad I did, as not only is it about the state of the nation, but the season itself, and what it represents, how it relates to time and memory, and what the “autumn of life” might look like. The novel opens with an unnamed man being washed up on the shore of a lake, with wild ramblings about being both young and old, making a suit out of leaves, watching young women dancing around, and being dead. It turns out that this unnamed man is Daniel Gluck, a former songwriter who, at the age of 101, now resides in a long-term care facility. He is visited by the acerbic Elisabeth, a young woman who grew up next door to Gluck and formed the type of special friendship that can only exist between individuals of vastly differing ages who, nonetheless, share a particular view of something, in this case, the world of art. Gluck becomes Elisabeth’s unofficial tutor and mentor, as her feelings towards her mother growing up, like most teenagers, are condescending at best. We are treated to snippets from Elisabeth’s life growing up, to her present day experiences, as well as to Gluck’s early years. They often discuss art, mainly the collages and art of Pauline Boty, the only female British pop artist of the 1960s, according to Elisabeth. She is fascinated by Boty's art, and goes on to become an art history professor, never giving up her dedication to promoting the love of art to young people. These snippets are interposed with memories told in poetry, with song lyrics, with bits of news (this novel is set during the EU Referendum, with its political uneasiness, people both rejoicing and feeling miserable), and fragments of Boty’s life before her premature death shortly after her first child was born. I know nothing about this Baily Prize-winning author, but I was intrigued by the cover design and picked it up for about $2.00 at the book sale. It was definitely an interesting read, lyrical and melancholy, sad and bittersweet, at times tender and also jarring. The friendships between unlikely individuals, the connections between those who consider themselves to be isolated, was moving and true, a real reflection of the human condition. It reminded me of the Man Booker nominee I read a while ago, From a Low and Quiet Sea by Irish writer Donal Ryan. Both dealt with isolation and connection, about the need to reach out and break down invisible walls that are the barriers to forming relationships with others. I loved it, and have just put on hold the next book in the series, Winter, as well as Ali’s Bailey Prize-winning 2015 novel, How to be Both. An aside: I went to see Linwood Barclay at the Waterloo Public Library One Book One Community event this past week, and something he said rang true while I was reading this novel. Being a writer of crime fiction, he, like most other crime writers, is able to put out approximately one book each year. He was speaking of Wayne Johnston, and how writers of literary fiction sometimes take four or five years to write a book, and he wondered aloud whether maybe their computers were broken or their keyboards weren't working. He also said that literary writers just didn't know how to create a plot. Of course he was kidding. He then clarified that even if he had ten years, he could not write a book as fine as one of Johnston's novels. I thought of this as I was reading Autumn, and how it was not about a plot so much as character, and how it would have taken time and focus to create such a lyrically-resonant work that so succinctly captures the human experience.
That’s all for today. Enjoy the rest of the weekend and remember to find time to read.Bye for now…