& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Book Extract: The Reading List

Leslie Shimotakahara
Leslie Shimotakahara is a young, disenchanted English professor struggling to revive her childhood love of reading. Her father Jack, recently retired from a high-powered corporate job, finally has time to take up reading books for pleasure. The Reading List tells the story of Leslie’s return home to Toronto to rethink her life and decide what to do next. At the same time, she bonds with her dad over discussions about the lives, loves and works of the novelists on their reading list – Wharton, Joyce, Woolf and Atwood, to name a few. But when their conversations about literature unearth some heartbreaking, deeply buried family secrets surrounding Jack’s own childhood – growing up Japanese-Canadian in the aftermath of World War II – Leslie’s world is changed forever. Could discovering the truth about her father’s past hold the key to her finally being happy in love, life and career?

Excerpts from The Reading List.

Reprinted with the permission of Variety Crossing Press.

“Poplar or cherry?” Daddy said.  He slid a brochure across the table. 

I stared at the caskets, so solid and heavy, and something about the ruffled satin lining in Pepto-Bismol pink made me giggle.  Is that the wall Granny would want to stare at for all eternity?

Daddy had spent the past three days meeting with funeral home directors, comparison shopping, planning ahead for the inevitable.  At least it gave him something to do. 

“It’s big business.” He flipped open his laptop to show me a website. 

What balls these people had.  Who charges $39.95 to light a memorial candle?  The website was full of ways to activate your PayPal account, buy services, and even avoid going to the funeral altogether, while appeasing your guilt. 

Daddy smiled grudgingly.  “Absolutely recession-proof.”

“You should have gone into the funeral business.”

“Oh, yeah.  Can you see me with old ladies crying on my shoulder?”

We continued joking, but something about the whole thing really got to me.  Spending all this money and the person being honoured wasn’t even around to enjoy it.

“I’d rather just go the way of Addie Bundren,” I said.

Daddy looked at me blankly.

I explained that Addie Bundren is the cranky old matriarch at the centre of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.  The novel begins on the eve of her death, as her son, Cash, is making her casket, sawing and sanding boards.  All her kids – Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell and Vardaman – are crowded around her bedside watching her die, just like we were all hovering around Granny.  After her death, they pack her into the casket and load the whole thing into a horse-drawn buggy to make an epic journey across the land to Jefferson, Mississippi, where Addie wishes to be buried with her own people, rather than by her husband’s side. 

“A homemade casket,” Daddy said, shaking his head. 

“You should read it.” 

“Maybe I will.”

As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that much more is at stake than just an eccentric lady’s dying wish.  Addie Bundren wants to be alone.  Alone in death.  To put the final nail in the coffin of a life lived in solitude and despair.

An image of Granny being carted away by horse and buggy popped into my head.  She was no less a strange, impenetrable woman.

A few days later, I was revising the syllabus for my Modern American Literature course (just in case I needed it for next year).  Last year I’d deluded myself that undergrads could handle Absalom! Absalom!  What had I been thinking?  Even Faulkner scholars are baffled by what he was up to in telling the legendary story of Thomas Sutpen, in flashbacks by multiple narrators whose accounts fail to match up.  The reader is left guessing about who Thomas Sutpen really was.   

My course evaluations reflected just how much the students loved the novel (I’d finally forced myself to read through the pile).  “What was Faulkner on when he wrote that crap?” wrote one kid.  “Half the time I didn’t even know who’s speaking – everything blended together like a bizarre dream.”

Since I would have to teach a Faulkner novel (what’s an Am Lit class without Faulkner?), I figured As I Lay Dying was a better bet.  Although the novel is told from fifteen different perspectives, at least it’s always clear who’s speaking; each chapter is titled with the name of the speaker.  And the plot is simple, deceptively simple.  At first glance, you wonder why Faulkner is spilling so much ink over an old lady’s death.

But Addie Bundren gradually draws you in.  She has shameful secrets at the core of her being.  As soon as she dies, the neighbours are all gossiping about how quickly the Bundrens pack her up and cart her off.  

I wondered if Granny’s neighbours were talking about Daddy.  They must have seen him packing boxes at her house.

Despite Daddy’s show of wanting to get her death over with, however, I could tell that deep down he was astonished it was happening at all.  I could see it in his childlike air, his petulant gaze, the way he stomped around the house.  In a way, he reminded me of Vardaman, Addie’s youngest son.  After her death, Vardaman bursts into the barn; the warm, rank smells envelop him and mix with the smell of his own vomit and tears and everything seems very close and suffocating.  The little boy is so overwhelmed that he wants to lash out at something, anything, “You kilt my maw!” burning at the back of his throat. 

Yet racing through the dust and striking the horses can’t make it better, can’t bring his mother back.

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