Reading was a bit of a slog during the month of May. I’m going to blame it on the warm weather and a busy calendar, both of which distract me from reading. In order to get through books at the rate I’d like, I depend on uninterrupted evenings of peace and quiet, and god knows those have been few and far between over past weeks. That being said, I did manage to squeeze in the mandatory four-per-month in order to keep up with my goal to read 52 books this year — and I tackled Ivanhoe, which is something I’ve been meaning to do for years. (More on that below!)
1. Cool Water by Dianne Warren
This is a lovely novel, set in a sleepy little town called Juliet, in Saskatchewan. It traces the events of a single day through the lives of various community members, from the young single farmer whose adoptive parents recently died and the banker whose wife relentlessly nags him to a stressed-out family who’s deeply in debt and the woman who runs the local diner. All the characters’ lives are interconnected somehow. I loved the novel for its honest and beautiful depiction of small-town life. Warren’s writing is easy to read and her character development makes the book compelling. Now this is some CanLit that I really enjoyed!
2. A Book of Matches by Nicholson Baker
A man decides to start his day by sitting in front of a fire for as long as it takes to use up a book of matches. He gets up at 4 a.m., makes his coffee, and lights the fire with a single match. Then he writes whatever he’s thinking about. As early morning thoughts often are, the short chapters of this book are utterly random and quite hilarious at times. He meditates on the family’s pet duck, the torture of wearing socks with holes in them, how he met his wife, the ant farm that his daughter had a few years back, trying to pee standing up in the dark, etc. His musings go on and on. The book was entertaining because these are precisely the mundane sorts of thoughts that I have on a regular basis, but would never consider writing about, and yet he’s turned them into a book.
3. The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart
After reading and disliking Away, Urquhart’s novel which was nominated for the Canada Reads awards this past winter, I decided to give her another shot with The Underpainter. I enjoyed this book much more than the other. I loved the northern Ontario setting on the shores of Lake Superior, but the main character was a horribly self-absorbed man who was utterly incapable of love. I guess that was the point of the book, since his inability to give ends up destroying his relationships, but it’s hard to connect with a book when there’s nothing likeable about the main character.
4. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
As the cover of my old paperback edition announces, this is “the great historical novel of chivalry in all its splendour… The love, the danger, the daring of knighthood in all its glory.” Ivanhoe tells part of the story of Robin Hood, complete with Friar Tuck, King Richard the Lion-hearted who has recently returned from a crusade to the Holy Land, and his corrupt brother Prince John’s attempts to seize the throne. Added to the mix are a Jewish moneylender and his beautiful daughter, who is accused of witchcraft, and an old Saxon lord who resents the Norman invasion of England. Ivanhoe is the name of one of Richard’s best knights and the disowned son of the Saxon lord. It’s a dense, action-packed novel, complete with tournaments, castle sieges, dungeons, and disguises — and, all throughout, the pervasive attitude that chivalry trumps everything else. What shocked me, though, was the horrible racism toward all Jews. Called “the accursed race” and the “scourge of good Christians,” they are treated worse than animals, and Scott seems to think this is normal. I started Ivanhoe with high hopes, since it’s a famously epic story, but, to be honest, I was a bit disappointed. I enjoy classic literature very much, but this one didn’t resonate with me as much as I’d hoped.