when the big book of the moment is not your cup of tea, but a gem of an essay collection is

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Time has not lately been my friend. I'm way behind on reading. I've got stacks of books here, begging for attention. I've got books behaving (for all the world to see) like furniture.

A few days ago I began to read the big book of the moment, an adult novel that has received every manner of acclaim, both from the prize givers and the lists. I wanted to love this book. I'd spent good hardcover money on it after all (something I thought about, something I must consider), and my friends were (mostly) enthralled. I chose it from the overwhelming pile, and I tried, believe me, I tried. Between sheets of baking cookies. While my husband watched Alaska shows. While I waited for the food shopping crowds to thin. I tried. I read. I tried.

Dutifully, I read. The story was important; I felt that on every page. But oh, those sentences. So relentlessly declarative. So devoted to moving the plot along at such a feverish pace that characters felt far more like symbols than people and scenes felt more like stage sets and philosophy felt stylized, rushed.

The book was an idea. But was it a book? And what kind of snob am I, to be asking such a question about a novel of what will be enduring prestige?

Had I, in the rush of my real life, in the daily swell of recommendation letters, bill writing, house cleaning, research, present wrapping, food buying, novel writing, forgotten how to read?

I needed to find out. I needed to get up early (this very morning) and reach for another book and determine whether I had lost my readerly touch, my patience, my gratitude for stories on the page. I chose Everywhere I Look, the new essay collection by the Australian Helen Garner. I opened up. I took a breath. I settled.

I settled and swelled. It took just a single page to believe in books again.

"When I was in my forties I went on holiday to Vanuatu with a kind and very musical man to whom I would not much longer be married, though I didn't know it yet," Garner writes—the fist lines of the first essay, "Whisper and Hum." She hates the tropics, she tells us, in the very next sentence, then:

And what I hated most was the sight of a certain parasitic creeper that flourished aggressively, bowing the treetops down and binding them to each other in a dense, undifferentiated mat of choking foliage. I longed to be transported at once to Scotland where the air was sharp and the nights brisk, and where plants were encouraged to grow separately and upright, with individual dignity.
Can't you just see it? Don't you marvel at how she chooses to introduce herself? As almost not married, as oppressed by density, as longing for sharp air and dignity?

I'm halfway through this collection now. I'll write more of it in the January edition of Juncture Notes, our memoir newsletter. I'm just here, on this blog, to say, Thank you, Helen Garner. Thank you, very much. For shaping and breaking and delineating your life in ways that bring about a pleasant startle.

Finally, a word on the photo: That is a photo I took in Berlin, a city for which we mourn over this holiday weekend, a city I came to love during my travels there and during my subsequent research for the Berlin novel, Going Over. We keep getting our hearts broken out here by losses, individual and obscene, suffered at the hands of cruel ideology. We don't know what to say. We remember the wild beauty of a place shedding a dark history and hope for that wild beauty to carry forward, while those who have been lost are remembered widely.


C S said...

Wonderful as always and love that you have / read / love this book. I bought it in Australia last year and me too -- couldn't put it down. First heard of Helen Garner in my very first writing class, a 2008 Sydney memoir course led by the wonderful Patti Miller (memoirist, writer and teacher extraordinaire, like you!).

Thrilling to see this book / essays on American reading/review piles :)

kate hopper said...

Yes to all of this, Beth. And I've just added Garner's book to my list.

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