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Weekend reads: Homesick for other worlds
Kingston's Bruce Geddes - author of the ambitious new historical fiction novel Chasing the Black Eagle - shares his summer reading list
Last weekend at Lean Out, we kicked off our summer fiction series with the Toronto author Jason Guriel, who expounded on the titles that helped inspire his recent sci-fi novel. Today, we check in with the Kingston-based author Bruce Geddes — a friend and one of the most prodigious readers I’ve ever met — for a chat about his own reading recommendations.
Bruce has a new historical fiction novel out, Chasing the Black Eagle (which I was lucky enough to read pre-publication, and was happy to blurb). “It’s the story of a young man named Arthur Tormes, who is blackmailed into spying on a real life figure, Hubert Julian, who is a pilot and an adventurer and a daredevil, but also possibly a charlatan and con man,” Bruce says. “Arthur spends the next 14 years of his life following him from New York City, and Harlem, to Ethiopia and Europe, trying to find out who this man is.”
The inspiration for the novel came while reading about Ethiopia, a country Bruce visited a decade or so ago. “I was reading a story about Haile Selassie’s coronation in Ethiopia in 1930, and saw a reference to Hubert Julian,” he explains. “It was written in a way that contemporary readers would obviously know who it was. So that got me curious about who Julian was. I started reading. And the more I read, the more I was fascinated. There’s so many absolute lies about him — a lot of which he told himself — out there. Part of the fun of researching was unpeeling all those layers, and finding out what was truthful and what wasn’t.”
Bruce worked on the manuscript for eight years, and his research took him to the National Archives in Washington, where he read Hubert Julian’s FBI files, which revealed a lot about his later life as an arms dealer. He also had researchers in England look through foreign service files on Julian, went through old newspaper clippings, and interviewed an historian of early African American aviation.
Now, with Chasing the Black Eagle out, Bruce joins Lean Out for a chat about his summer fiction reading list.
The Librarianist, Patrick deWitt
I bought The Librarianist, which just came out last month, because I read Patrick’s The Sisters Brothers. It won two of the three major prizes in Canada when it came out and was shortlisted for the third — and it’s just excellent. It’s just amazing. So, I have continued to read his stuff. I don’t think any of his books have ever matched the level of The Sisters Brothers, and this one is no exception. But it was an enjoyable read.
The structure is quite unique. It begins with the protagonist, Bob, as a 60-something year-old retiree, a former librarian. There’s four sections of the book, and the first one starts when he is 65 and he starts volunteering at this old age home. At the end of the section, we find out that one of the residents is a woman who left him for his best friend some 40 years before. Then we jump back 40 years and learn about that relationship. In part three, we have four days in the life of 10-year-old Bob during the Second World War, where he ran away from home. In part four, we return to 2006, I think the year is, where he develops a relationship with his former wife’s child. I won’t give anything more away than that.
The structure is interesting. You think of Titanic — everybody who goes to Titanic knows that at the end, the ship is going to sink. This is similar in that we know where Bob ends up, and then we find out how he gets there. It’s an interesting way to reverse dissect a life, and a character. And I think deWitt does a really great job.
He’s B.C.-born, which is how he becomes eligible for all the Canadian prizes, but he lives in Portland, Oregon. And this book is set in Portland.
Homesick for Another World, Ottessa Moshfegh
The first short story collection [I want to highlight] is by Ottessa Moshfegh, an American writer who is most known for My Year of Rest and Relaxation — which is just an amazing title.
The stories [in Homesick for Another World] are all fantastic. She has a unique voice. She’s a true stylist. It’s wonderful. The story that really stands out is “Slumming.” It’s about a teacher who takes her summer vacation in a rural [town], a place that that might have been prosperous a century ago, with glove factories and hat factories or something like that, but has fallen on hard times.
The narrator goes there and interacts with the locals, and develops a fairly serious drug addiction, and has reckless sex with one of the locals. But through it all, she pretty much doesn’t give a shit about what’s happening. There’s something that subverts your expectations — as with all the stories in this book. These are characters who tell it like it is, who are in bad relationships but stay in bad relationships and justify it. None of these characters are people you would call healthy, in a psychological way. But they are entertaining, and Moshfegh presents them beautifully.
That Old Country Music, Kevin Barry
The second collection [I want to talk about it] is by an Irish guy named Kevin Barry. The story that stands out to me is the title story, “That Old Country Music.” This is about a young woman who is four months pregnant and is waiting for the father of her child, her fiancé, to arrive. He’s planning to rob a gas station and join her, and they are going to drive off into the sunset. Of course, he never shows up. From the very first page, you know exactly what is going to happen. I love it because it shows that you can take a theme like that — that’s been treated over the years, in many ways, including in country music songs — and find something new about it.
The Irish short story tradition is just so rich; Barry is the latest generation in a long, long tradition. The language here is just so beautifully rhythmic. All those cliches about Irish literature definitely apply to Kevin Barry.
Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill
The last collection [I want to highlight] is a little older; it came out in the late 80s. But it’s current right now. Probably the best known story from this collection is “Secretary,” which was made into a movie starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, about an 18-year-old woman who gets a job as a secretary in a legal office. When she screws up, the lawyer spanks her. It becomes super confusing. Because on the one hand, the woman seems to kind of like it, in a sexual way. And in another way, she doesn’t.
We did this in a short story club that I belong to, and the debate over it was really robust. Each of us could cite parts of the story that showed, “Yes, she likes it,” or “No, she hates it.” So, you end up really confused about what she’s feeling — and how we should feel about what she’s feeling. Which I think is fantastic, because it forces you to keep thinking about the story.
The reason I chose it is because, not too long ago, Mary Gaitskill came out with a story that rewrote this story, from the perspective of this 18-year-old woman, 30 years later. It’s almost like a post-#MeToo sort of thing. Gaitskill has this revision of how it happened, and she almost seems to be clarifying that, yes, this was an abuse of power, a power imbalance. The debate I’ve had about this is whether that’s fair or not. Whether a writer should be able to go back and revisit stories that might have come off fine at the time, but don’t come off so great now.
Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan
I chose Manhattan Beach because it’s a 400-page, plot-driven — very conventional in a lot of ways — historical novel. I think this sort of novel just doesn’t get praised enough. It’s the kind of book that anybody can read, of all tastes, whether you’ve got a PhD in English, or you’re the kind of person who reads a couple books a year. It moves along beautifully. The writing is incredible, and the research is fantastic too.
It’s also really instructive for people like me, who write historical fiction. Because there’s always an internal debate about, “How much do I include? How much do I show my research? Am I showing off too much? Am I distracting from the story because I want to show what it was like to drive a car in 1912 — something that may be kind of boring?” But Egan has stuff like that. For example, the lead character is a woman named Anna who gets a job in the early 1940s in a shipyard in New York, a place where warships go to be repaired. She gets a job as an underwater diver, a welder, I think. There’s several pages of description of how to put on this suit, which was a 250-pound suit that this woman had to wear and be able to walk around in, and navigate, and do all she had to do underwater. It’s a very long description, and it’s very detailed. It’s clearly super well-researched. But it really works, and it shows you how you can integrate [that kind of historical detail].
I don’t know exactly how she does it, to be honest, but she integrates that historically interesting stuff into an otherwise fantastic story of a young woman coming of age. I think she does that as well as anyone I’ve ever read.
If you want to hear more from Bruce Geddes, he will be at the Fan Expo today in Toronto.
I’m away right now on a short holiday right now. But stay tuned, podcaster Aaron Pete is guest hosting Lean Out next week, bringing you a conversation with Daniel Ortner, a lawyer for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which has filed a lawsuit against the California Community Colleges system over its new DEI regulations.
See you all next week!
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