Reading in 2012, an update.

It’s Blue Metropolis time here in Montreal, and after almost skipping the entire thing, ended up thoroughly enjoying the two events I attended. First I spent an hour on a rainy Saturday afternoon watching a bunch of readers crowded into a small gallery space. The highlight was Tamara Faith Berger, who’s book I had just finished the day before. It had been awhile since I’d attended a reading, and I forgot the kind of charge that comes along with watching writers read from their work. I came home inspired and ready to get back to writing seriously again.

At the last minute I decided to see Joyce Carol Oates. She’s such a huge literary figure and I imagined that someone who has written 70 books could only be stern and, frankly, terrifying. I showed up at the Grand Bibliotheque de Montreal naively expecting to buy tickets at the door only to realize that the event was sold out. Oops. But, just like that, a stranger appeared with a ticket she no longer needed. “Um, I’ll take it,” I said, and then she even shook her head when I took out my wallet to pay.

The interview between Oates and Eleanor Wachtel (a voice that I’m more accustomed to hearing in the car on a Sunday afternoon, not on stage and coming from an actual body), was one of the most fascinating literary events I’ve attended. Unlike my original assumption, Oates was warm and humble. She spoke, amazingly, in fully formed paragraphs. She talked about things like raising chickens when she was a child, the long series of cats she’s had in her life, why places like Niagara Falls inspire suicide, the habits of couples where one or both partners are writers, the myth of Medusa or the concept of an eclipse as ways of explaining the purpose of art, her family and the seeds of many of her novels. Thank you, stranger, for that ticket.

On the topic of books, I’ve read many in the past few months that I’ve enjoyed and meant to write about. It feels too daunting to write about them now, so I dipped into the pile by my bed and had a look at the pages I’d dogeared during my reading. For reference, these are a few things I marked:

From Zona by Geoff Dyer, a shot by shot description of Tarkovsky’s movie, Stalker, which I’ve only seen (maybe?) 15 minutes of. I liked the book a lot, though.

But perhaps that is and always will be one’s deepest wish: to have the terms of the offer slightly amended so that it can be retrospectively applied, to build a time machine, to go back and have another go, another punt, another throw of the dice, this time knowing the result in advance. The question, I suppose, is this: is one’s deepest desire always the same as one’s greatest regret? (Geoff Dyer then goes on to discuss how, if so, his greatest regret is that he’s never had a three-way.)

From The Secret Lives of People in Love by Simon Van Booy (a collection of short stories set in Paris, Rome, Kentucky, Greece – basically every place I am a sucker for reading about):

A filthy homeless man is squatting with the American tourists and telling jokes in broken English. He is not looking at the girls’ shaved legs but at the unfinished bottle of wine and sullen wedge of cheese. The Americans seem good-natured and pretend to laugh; I suppose the key to a good life is to gently overlook the truth and hope that at any moment we can all be reborn.

The Pont des Arts is wooden, and if you look through the slats, you can see boats passing beneath. Sometimes small bolts of lightning shoot from the boats as tourists take pictures of one another, and sometimes they just aim and shoot –I like these kinds of photographs best, not that I have a camera–but if I did, I would randomly take pictures of nothing in particular. How else could you record life as it happens.

A tiny, perfect phrase from Tamara Faith Berger’s Maidenhead, which is actually a big, raw book about teenaged girls and sex and obsessions and finding oneself. Top notch subjects, all of them:

I’d be more than an open book too. My spine would crack, I’d fall out in halves.

From The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, which I mostly read curled up on the couch at the apartment I stayed in Manila:

When you’re young – when I was young – you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books. You want them to overturn your life, create and define a new reality. Later, I think, you want them to do something milder, something more practical: you want them to support your life as it is and has become. You want them to tell you that things are OK. And is there anything wrong with that?

(I also read The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, which I especially enjoyed because I was at the height of my Downton Abbey phase, and was only interested in reading about British families, the rich ones and the not so rich ones. Alan Hollinghurst is a master, and I’m sure I highlighted excerpts from the book, but I read it on my Kindle, and my Kindle is now out of batteries and I can’t find the charger. Real books 1, e-books 0.)

From Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of hiking the PCT shortly after her mother’s death. I was a fan of Cheryl Strayed before I even knew her name, one of the legions of people who gulped down her anonymous Dear Sugar column over at The Rumpus. Her writing is a kind of magic.

I lay back and closed my eyes and let my head sink into the water until it covered my face. I got the feeling I used to get as a child when I’d done this very thing: as if the known world of the bathroom had disappeared and become, through the simple act of submersion, a foreign and mysterious place. Its ordinary sounds and sensations turned muted, distant, abstract, while other sounds and sensations not normally heard or registered emerged.

I had only just begun. I was three weeks into my hike, but everything in me felt altered. I lay in the water as long as I could without breathing, alone in a strange new land, while the actual world all around me hummed on.