I dedicated my summertime to Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod, Hemingway and Deborah Levy.
In July, I read four books: Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro, Island by Alistair MacLeod, In Our Times by Hemingway, and The Cost of Living by Deborah levy. I loved them all. It’s hard for me to say which is my favorite.
1. Review of Dance of the Happy Shades was already posted here.
2. Island by Alistair MacLeod
Alistair MacLeod is a great Canadian writer. It’s bad that many people don’t know him. His stories are mainly about Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, about fishermen, miners or farmers, about staying or leaving, about struggle to survive, about hard physical work.
The 16 short stories were written from 1968 to 1999 and is chronologically arranged in the book. Obviously, his early works are more classic and tightly constructed while the later ones are more expansive, containing stories within stories, but are even more powerful in spite of that looseness of structure. Being older, he is more preoccupied with the passing of a way of life and the distant past, the Scottish origin of his characters.
MacLeod’s world is a masculine one of complex relationships between sons, fathers and grandfathers, as well as close ties to beloved dogs and horses. Under his pen, the fathers are always kind to his kids, stoicism and fortitude, loving his homeland, having no choice but long-suffering. The mothers appear mostly in the background who are feared, cold, practical, trying to get rid of the now-and-here life without success, although there are still a few fine portraits of individual women who are venerated, or simply loved. In the meanwhile their kids, mainly the eldest son, eager to leave for the future, for the unknown wide world outside.
His prose looks like plain and simple, yet elegant and free flowing with power in it, extremely tight and fluid which moves his narratives forward in a cinematic fashion.When reading, you cannot ignore the landscape, the community in Nova Scotia, in Cape Breton. The people, the animal, the tree, the land, the see, he loved everything there.
“The Boat” is a great piece, full of love for his father. When I re-read it, the impression is stronger. It’s more like an essay rather than a short story, not too much plot, but the narrative, the portrait, his father’s life, his mother’s life, the lives of the fishermen in Cape Breton. You can feel the deep love through his words.
My favorite stories are: “The Boat”, “The Vastness of the Dark”, “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood”, “To Every Thing There Is a Reason”, “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun.” Next will be his novel NO GREAT MISHIEF.
If you want to learn English writing, his works are good choice to learn from. I sure re-read his short stories.
3. In Our Times by Ernest Hemingway
I finished reading Truman Capote in June. Reynolds Price said: “In the twentieth century, only two writers of distinguished fiction managed to become American household names—Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote.” So, you see, it’s time to read Hemingway thoroughly.
In Our Times is his second book. His first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, was self-published. The three stories are included in In Our Times too. Reading the juvenilia of a good writer is always enlightening. You get to see what of their voice was congenital, and have the linear relationship between volume of practice and quality of output revealed with vivid clarity.
I think these stories quite dark; They are a meditation on suffering. The themes of his stories are war and returning from war, bullfighting, hunting, fishing, difficulties of marriage, and disappointments.
Hemingway’s style is again a sparse, simple but efficient prose that works so well, and he has that knack of easily conveying deep emotions within a matter of minutes through the great use of dialogue. His dialogues in the stories are amazing.
“Why did he kill himself, Daddy?”
“I don’t know, Nick. He couldn’t stand things, I guess.”
“Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?”
“Not very many, Nick.”
“Do many women?”
“Don’t they ever?”
“Oh, yes. They do sometimes.”
“Where did Uncle George go?”
“He’ll turn up all right.”
“Is dying hard, Daddy?”
“No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.”
In terms of style, his is a kind of tough-minded minimalism that allows for very little commentary, few adverbs. Not flowery or “showing off” as he would have said; straightforward, simple, direct prose, which maybe come from his career—journalist.
The construction of this book is interesting and experimental. Two parts interweaves in this book, one is some sketches about war, bull fighting; the other is main part of Nick Adams short stories about love, friendship, returning home from war, humanity, nature, fishing…I feel both parts subtly connecting interior.
My favorites are: “Indian Camps” and “Cat in the Rain”. Next stop on the Hemingway train for me: Men without Women.
4. The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy
The Cost of Living is a memoir about the period following Levy’s separation from her husband. She moves into a dreary apartment unit with her two daughters, loses her mother, takes every job she is offered, and continues writing, in a rented garden-shed. Everything is entirely new, home, and work.
The book is also about other things, like cycling up and down a hill between the garden shed, home and grocery store; buying a chicken to roast for dinner which tumbles out of the torn shopping bag and is flattened by a car; putting up silk curtains in the bedroom and painting the walls yellow; showing up to a meeting about optioning the film rights to her novel with leaves in her hair; visiting her mother at a hospital. When her mother was too ill to eat or drink, she brought her ice lollies from a Turkish kiosk. Her mother’s favorite flavor was lime which, in the final days of her life, the kiosk did not have.
She is truly, in Henry James’s phrase, someone “upon whom nothing is lost.” She captures the trivial and frivolous incidents in her life and understands the profound implications of them.
I like to read her contemplation to her own life, her viewpoint on many things. I am not feminist, but I agree what she says: “When our father does the things he needs to do in the world, we understand it’s his due. If our mother does the things she needs to do in the world, we feel she has abandoned us.”
Recently, memoir is a very popular genre. It seems every one can write about themselves, a period of their lives. I hope I can write like her, writing down what I am thinking, what I am feeling.