Reading list

by little red pen

Occasional notes on what I’ve read.

Usually when people ask me what I’ve been doing, my mind goes completely blank or I can only remember the Listener, the Cat’s latest adventure series, a spy thriller and a newsletter from the council. I know I’ve read more interesting and significant stuff, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was.

Sometimes I’ll remember how what I read made me feel or the state of mind I lurched around in after finishing a book, or I might remember the countries I visited and the characters who lived there, but have no idea which author took me there or what the book we journeyed in was called. I’ve even resorted to wandering along my bookshelves pointing at things with happy recognition. “I read that one,” I’ll say. “Oh, and that. That was an absolute cracker.”

So, I thought I might start writing a few notes on everything I read. Sort of a record, sort of a diary. This is a good time to start because I’ve been at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival (the acronym, inevitably, being DWARF) and my mind is full of writers, words, the magic that happens in books. Also, Ian is making doughnuts. And it’s Friday. Pretty good, huh?

Ann Patchett, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage
Ann Patchett is one of my long-term favourite writers. I started with Bel Canto, which lived in my mind for a long time as one of the most surprising and beautiful books I’d stumbled across, then some years later raided the library for more. I’ve bought a couple, and if I spotted others in a shop I’d likely buy them. Her books make good presents and lovely Sunday-afternoon bookshelf items. Patchett is one of those authors you want everyone to read: “You must read Taft,” you’ll say. “I can’t believe you haven’t read Taft. Or RunRun really got me.”

I found This is the Story a year or so ago, devoured it, then was reminded of it when I was thinking about my favourite memoirs for a workshop I did during the DWARF. We were asked to bring along our picks and be prepared to read a selection; I had a big crisis about what would work and lugged a dozen books around town all day. We didn’t end up doing the readings, but it was great to think about what I like in a memoir and why. It turns out that the best memoirs aren’t necessarily the most quotable: The Periodic Table has a lot of tricky words that could get embarrassing in a roomful of attentive strangers, and Stet is a moving and glorious whole, full of people and stories, but doesn’t lend itself to easy extraction.

Patchett, though, is eminently quotable; I could open her book anywhere and give you a slice of wise and well-honed prose that will have you thinking for hours. Case in point:

We ease into the late-morning traffic of downtown Billings, the plastic-wrapped captain’s chairs cradling us like La-Z-Boys. Two blocks out, a black-and-white dog runs into the street and heads straight for our front wheels. Karl slams on the brakes. We then discover the First Great RV Truth: Like ocean liners and oil tankers, RVs do not stop. While Karl grinds the pedal into the carpet, I scream at the dog, “Go! Go!” We might have clipped its tail but the dog itself is spared, and we, very nearly stopped now, are ecstatic. We did not kill a dog in the first five minutes of the trip! We say it out loud to one another. What a good omen! What a positive sign! Five minutes in a Winnebago and we haven’t killed anything. (p 91)

This is the Story gathers essays from Patchett’s long and varied writing life. It’s a pleasing way to get a sense of a person; you find out what matters to them, you get a flavour of the world around them and the people and animals that shape their life, you know the things they’ve tried and the values that drive their decisions and actions. You know what makes them tick. It will also leave you with images that you can pull down from your mind on a bleak autumn afternoon, polish, hold to the light:

The books, the cities, the stores, the airports, the crowds, or lack of crowds, all fall under the heading “What Happened While I Was Away.” What I always remember clearly are the times I saw other writers, the way pioneers rolling over the prairies in covered wagons must have remembered every detail of the other settlers they passed, cutting through the tall grass from a different angle. “How was it back there?” you shout out from your wooden porch.

“Rough,” your fellow homesteader calls back, and raises his bottle of Evian in warning. “Be sure to drink your water.” (p 164)

Three days I’ve had that image in my head now, the homestead, the porch, the long grass. The calling across open space, the raised bottle of Evian. And it’s taught me something about writers and what book touring is really like. I can see it now.

I should warn you though, you might finish this collection wanting to get a dog, get divorced, get married, try out for the police academy, open a bookstore, hold your grandmother, write novels, go to Paris, be with your best friend, go to university, live somewhere with rampant plantlife, go to the opera and try life as a nun.

I did.