Naomi Beth Wakan’s Book Ends is chatty, personable and plain-spoken, and unfolds organically—a bit like a chat over tea with a favourite aunt. This hybrid survey/memoir proceeds month by month through a year of the author’s peripatetic reading. Wakan, a poet and writing workshop leader who lives on B.C.’s Gabriola Island, is led only by her particular interests, which roam well beyond literary fiction in English. The honesty and unpretentiousness of Wakan’s prose often lend Book Ends a casual, blog-like feel (not a bad thing). The author, who is in her 70’s, seems to have little patience for literary snobbery, and is more interested in articulating her frank responses to what she reads, than in advancing a particular critical agenda or creating a writerly persona.
Books covered here range from the classics (Dr. Faustus and Lady Chatterly’s Lover) to the contemporary (novels, memoirs, biographies); from the practical (gardening guides) to the inspirational (Love that Dog and Writing Life). Wakan spends a good chunk of the year rereading The Tale of Genji, a classic of Japanese literature, in a translation new to her (Royall Taylor). The book acts as a kind of throughline, informing some of her other reading and her world-view. Dense with Buddhist ideas, particularly the notion that suffering is caused by attachment, The Tale of Genji also moves her to write a poem titles “15 Canadian Loose-leaf poets” when a favourite poetry book falls apart in her hands as she fetches in down from a shelf. Many of the author’s musings are interspersed with her own poems, which she has been prompted to pen by the notions and characters she encounters in her reading.
Wakan’s responses are also very much grounded in her day-to-day. She makes connections to her life history, but also to what is most immediate—the goings-on in her house, her garden, her island. In fact, she locates much of her reading material at the GIRO (Gabriola Island Recycling Depot). This groundedness, in combination with the chronological format of the text, often makes the book seem colloquial in the truest sense. The quaintness that permeates the narrative, however, can be misleading.
Indeed, Wakan’s kindness, openness and generosity towards the authors she encounters through their words make her occasional make her occasional moments of cheekiness or irreverence that much more incisive. Some of that edge comes through in a no-nonsense remark she makes after reading Nothing to be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes, a meditation on the writer’s fear of death. She has little patience for his neuroses, explaining that ‘Tragedy keeps us fixated at the navel level of our own ridiculousness.’ She eventually advises Mr. Barnes to ‘acquire a mortgage’ as she finds it “concentrates the energies so nicely.’ Then she muses on the fact that losing a breast to cancer may also have salutary effects as it ‘does rather prepare you for what might well be total annihilation.’ And whatever inverse relationship the reader may establish between Wakan’s homespun approach and sharp intellect is obliterated by lines like the following which references Marcus de Santoy’s Music of the Primes: Searching to Solve the Greatest Mystery in Mathematics: ‘It’s the end of June and for some reason I’m feeling sad, so a three-hundred-page book on prime numbers may be just the answer to my woes.’
One of the final series of books Wakan reads is Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, in which the author recommends that for ‘those of us who feel deeply and who are at all conscious of the inextricable tangle of human thoughts there is only one response to be made—ironic tenderness and silence.’ And yet, the strength of this book lies very much in the writer’s willingness to share her thoughts and spark a conversation based on her expansive love for the written word.”