How Leslie got her groove back




By Leslie Shimotakahara
(Toronto: Variety Crossing Press, 2012, 190 pp., $18.95 CAN, paperback)
Available in Canada only via Publisher Variety Crossing Press,

Leslie Shimotakahara, the heroine of a new book entitled “The Reading List,” is a woman with a problem: She has lost her ability to read. That is, in the course of undergraduate studies at McGill University, attending graduate school at Brown University, completing a dissertation in English literature and receiving her doctorate, she has grown so enmeshed in recondite theoretical and postmodern approaches to literature that she has grown detached from the joys of simply reading and appreciating great novels. Worse, the only job in her field is in a small university in a backwater of Nova Scotia, with students who cannot follow her hifalutin lectures and redolent with wariness of outsiders — especially a fourth-generation Japanese Canadian.

Shimotakahara ends up fleeing to her parents’ house in Toronto, where she tries to figure out how to get her groove back, and how to gain the understanding of her parents — especially her hard-driving Daddy. The tool she brings to the task is a reading list of classic novels for her father.

The reading list serves the author as a plot device.

Each chapter of Shimotakahara’s work takes inspiration from a different book from the list, such as Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth,” or William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” Of course, there are several renowned works that track great works of literature or folklore. The chapters of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” track “The Odyssey of Homer,” while Primo Levi’s “The Periodic Table” takes its themes from chemical elements. Yet, by examining her story alongside that of the heroes or (particularly) heroines of the fictional works whose contents she explicates for the reader, she is not only able to reawaken her old deformed love of reading but to analyze her situation.

To effectively face her crisis, however, she must explore her family history, including both Japanese American and Japanese Canadian ancestors, and uncover some long-buried family mysteries. The wartime confinement of ethnic Japanese communities on both sides of the border hangs heavily over the work, and there is interesting material in it for historians.

“The Reading List,” though it bills itself as a memoir, actually brings together a number of genres, including family drama, textual criticism, and even a sort of mystery story. Perhaps more than anything else, it is a remnant of that old-style volume, the spiritual biography; the main character is like a convert who suffers a crisis of faith. To be sure, she is not an ascetic in her approach. On the contrary, she is literally seduced into taking up literature as a career path, by a charismatic older Jewish classmate at McGill University who penetrates her mind as easily as he touches her in other ways.

Nevertheless, like the earlier religious seekers, she must ultimately face and survive “the dark night of the soul” in order to find herself again through the book. The book has other strengths. She writes with fine grace and wit, and has an ear for dialogue as well as a talent for vivid characterizations — especially those of the author’s parents.

While my own experience as an academic has been rather different than that described by Shimotakahara, I cannot help but admire her struggle to recapture the joy of ideas, as well as the almost subversive way that she interpolates her illuminating commentaries on the great novels into a volume for the general non-specialist reader. Indeed, it is a measure of the success of the work that the author has whetted my own interest in exploring the novels she describes.

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