Matt’s Weekly Reads, March 11, 2023


Fifth Business (Deptford Trilogy 1), Robertson Davies (1970)

“This is the revenge of the unlived life, Ramsay. Suddenly it makes a fool of you.”

It’s impossible to summarize Robertson Davies’s all-time Canadian classic Fifth Business, but these words, spoken to our protagonist Dunstan Ramsay, a middle-aged school teacher, perhaps offer at least an entry into into it. The novel takes the form of a memoir, or perhaps better, an apology (in the Greek sense), by a newly retired Ramsay after reading a glowing but ultimately dismissive account of his life. Starting from his childhood in a small town in Southwestern Ontario around the turn of the last century, he traces the intersections of his life with various remarkable men and women, including the famous, the rich, the beautiful, the monstrous, the ostracized and forgotten, sinners and saints. He makes the case that, not only did he live his life, but that much depended upon it.

I first read this close to a decade ago. And while I remember thinking it was masterful, it didn’t leave much of an impression. I picked it up again now because I realized that I could not remember a single thing about it. And am I ever glad I did. Not only am I sure I’ll remember it this time, but it’s now become a well-deserved all-time favorite.

Read this if you’re interested in:

  • Canadian Literature
  • Twentieth Century History
  • Depth Psychology
  • Magic and Illusion
  • Hagiography

My Rating: Premise 8, Atmosphere 10, Main Character(s) 9, Plot 10, Intrigue 10, Relationships 10, Success 10, Writing 10, Enjoyment 10, Lasting Impact 10: TOTAL 98

Weekly Roundup

Dubliners, James Joyce (1914), 90: Questions as essential as finding your next meal and as big as national identity come to the fore in equal measure in this classic collection of short stories about different characters in Dublin around the turn of the last century. I’ve historically struggled with Joyce, but the short story format made this more accessible and I look forward to trying some of his longer form work again. The writing is impeccable and while many of the stories are more vignettes or details than ‘stories’ in the way we normally think of them, they were beautifully crafted. Highs: Writing and Characters; Lows: Plot (call me old fashioned, but I still prefer my stories to have beginnings, middles, and ends.) (Classics, Short Stories, Ireland, Irish Nationalism, Twentieth Century History)

Late Nights on Air, Elizabeth Hay (2007), 93: This Giller Prize-winning novel follows the complex and evolving relationships among a group of misfits who run a radio station in Yellowknife in the mid-1970s. This is stunningly atmospheric, both in terms of time and place, and the characters are difficult but real. The pace is slow, so it isn’t for everyone, but it really worked for me. Highs: Setting and Characters; Lows: Intrigue. (The North, Northwest Territories, 1970s, Canadian History, CanLit, Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry)

Well Traveled (Well Met 4), Jen DeLuca (2022), 92: Louisa has sacrificed fifteen years of her life to her legal career, but when she realizes that she’ll never make partner at her firm no matter how hard she works, she quits her job in protest. Now, at thirty-seven, she needs to figure out what she really wants to do with her life. Lucky for her, she falls in with the Renaissance-Fair-famous music group The Dueling Kilts, whom she’d met the previous Summer. Even more lucky for her, their notorious playboy guitarist Dex has eyes just for her. This is a solid installment in what is a delightful series of light, but touching, romance novels. Highs: Main Characters and Relationships, Lows: Lasting Impact (Romance, Renaissance Fairs, Starting Over)

The Long Run, James Acker (2023), 87: Bash and Sandro expect their final year of high school to be about managing the ‘track versus field’ rivalry and their own messy families before they can escape to the greener pastures of college. They did not expect to have their best laid plans complicated by falling for each other. In some ways this is a pretty typical queer YA romance; but it adds a great piece of representation, as I’ve never seen the dynamics of complicated, working-class families play out quite as fully or as well as they do here. This was a pleasant surprise. Highs: Main Characters, Premise: Lows: Setting (YA, Romance, LGBTQ2S+, High School Athletics)

Chef’s Kiss, Jarrett Melendez, illustrated by Danica Brine (2022), 84: Ben Cook has been on the fast-track to a job in writing for as long as he can remember, but when he can’t find a job after graduation, he’s forced to take work as a prep cook in a restaurant, where he discovers that there may be better creative outlets for him than the written word. (The hot sous-chef Liam doesn’t hurt either…) This was a cute romantic fantasy of the best-case-scenario ending for the no-relevant-jobs-after-graduation crisis so many twenty-somethings find themselves in. Highs: Main Characters and Relationships; Lows: Lasting Impact. (New Adult, Graphic Novels, Cooking, LGBTQ2S+, Romance)

Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson (1998), 85: This is strange little novella in verse is very loosely inspired by the story of Geryon and Herakles, recasting the two as queer youths in the late twentieth century. At this point the sympathetic linking of monstrosity and queerness is pretty well-worn territory and has lost the freshness I imagine it had when Carson wrote this. Because the book ends in media res, it is more successful as a poetic work than as a novel, and I’ve judged it mostly on this front: the juxtaposition of ancient myth and the (for her) present day is used with particular skill, and the precision of Carson’s language is gorgeous. Highs: Premise and Writing: Lows: Plot (Myths and Legends, Novels in Verse, LGBTQ2S+, CanLit)

Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932), 86: This charming children’s classic is a fictionalized telling of the author’s experiences growing up on the frontier of American settlement of the midwest in the 1870s. The stories are told from the perspective of a young child and are very simple accordingly. For present-day readers, it’s likely too simple to keep the interest of middle grade readers, so it’s likely best for an early reader audience. Highs: Setting, Lows: Plot (Classics, Children’s Literature, American History, Settlement, Pioneers, 1870s, Nineteenth Century)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: