Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book #60: My Holiday Reading

“For weeks the kid been going on and on about how dreadful we sound.  He kept snatching up the discs, scratching the lacquer with a pocket knife, wrecking them.  Yelling how there wasn’t nothing there.  But there was something.  Some seed of twisted beauty.”
                                                                                              -Esi Edugyan, Half-Blood Blues

Ever since childhood, my favourite thing about the Christmas holidays has been the lazy, languid days of curling up in my bathrobe and doing nothing but reading all day.  And this year has been no exception.  Right now, as I write, I’m wearing my favourite black terry cloth robe, a stack of books teetering on the sofa beside me.

Not surprisingly, I got a lot of gift certificates for bookstores for Christmas.  The first book I bought was Esi Edugyan’s Giller-winning Half-Blood Blues.  I read this novel in just a couple days, unable to put it down.  What a pleasure to become immersed in the strange, delicious world of this novel, the underground jazz scene of Berlin and Paris during the Second World War, as seen through the eyes of Sid Griffiths, a “half-blood” musician from Baltimore, whose skin is so light he can almost pass for white.  But just the opposite is true for others in the band, most notably Hieronymus Falk, who, despite being the youngest, is the genius of the group.  Hieronymus – “Hiero,” as he’s known – is a “Rhineland bastard.”  He’s of mixed German and African parentage, fathered by a Senegalese soldier who was serving as part of the French colonial troops occupying the Rhineland after World War One.  Despite growing up being reviled for his skin and relegated to a stateless identity, Hiero has musical talents that win him the name “Little Louis.”  Sid and the others take him under their wing, as a little brother at first, but as Hiero develops as a musician and artist, his remarkable abilities lead to tensions and rivalry.  Particularly where a certain singer, Delilah Brown, is concerned.  Sid becomes enamoured from the moment he first glimpses her strangely glamorous turban and thin, stark body and mesmerizing, pale green eyes.  Although she returns his affections, to an extent, she appears far more enticed by Hiero’s musical brilliance.

This is what I found so compelling about this novel: Edugyan brings to life a slice of history that until now, I’d known very little about, yet she does so through the lens of a set of characters and relationships that are so rich they’re constantly drawing me in.  Who among us can’t relate to the predicament of being jealous of a more talented friend?  Yet what under normal circumstances would simply be clashing egos and rivalries over art and women lead to much larger, tragic events in Nazi-occupied Germany.  Sid’s guilt and tormented conscience over whether he could have done something to prevent Hiero’s capture by Nazi police, in the riveting opening scene, lays the ground for his emotional journey in the rest of the novel.

And now, I've just started reading Chattering by Louise Stern, a slim, elegant collection of stories that I stumbled upon quite randomly a few days ago at a used bookstore on Ossington.  The best $4 I’ve spent in a long time.  Narrated from the perspectives of different deaf characters, drawing upon the author’s own experience, these stories give an intriguing glimpse of what it feels like to be constantly struggling to express oneself through sign language, body language and scribbled notes – heightening the ways in which we all feel estranged from language at times.  Young and surprisingly adventurous, these characters hitchhike with strange men, sleep on the beach, wake up in weird, risky places.  In between stories, I’ve turned my attention back to Haruki Murakami’s tome-like latest novel 1Q84, which is gradually drawing me in….  So much holiday reading to do….

Photo from: here


Brenda said...

I am reading IQ84. Only up to page 45. It is well written, but so daunting to read such a large book. I don't feel I have the time to devote to it.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

I agree that 1Q84 is overwhelming in length... I feel like I'm reading a modern-day Canterbury Tales. I plan to read it in sections in between other novels and my own writing over the next several weeks (or months!)

jsstuntman said...

At one of our family gatherings, someone said that he read the book in 4 days !

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

That's amazing. He must have devoted the entire four days to virtually nothing but reading. Back in my grad school days, we used to do that and read novels like Ulysses in just a few days to discuss them for seminar. A part of me misses those luxurious nothing-but-reading days...

Fairday Morrow said...

Half-Blood Blues sounds liks a fascinating book. I really like what you had to say about the book- you made me want to read it! Also- I am wishing I could have a couple of days curled up on my couch reading. Hopefully soon!

Happy 2012!

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

I hope we both find some time to luxuriate in the pleasures of reading... Happy 2012, too!


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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.