Wednesday, August 09, 2017

LM Montgomery's After Many Years

After Many Years: Twenty-One "Long Lost" Stories / L.M. Montgomery; selected & edited by Carolyn Strom Collins & Christy Woster. 
Halifax: Nimbus, c2017.
296 p.

This is a new collection of some of the multitude of short stories that L.M. Montgomery wrote for small papers and magazines over her career. 

As noted on the cover, there are 21 stories, and they are of mixed appeal. A few of them, written for Sunday School papers, strongly remind me of the moral-laden "Uncle Arthur" stories I read as a child. There is over-the-top melodrama in a few, and a touch of the uncanny in another. There are misunderstandings between friends and lovers, interfering older women, cats, cakes, needlework, and a lot of wry humour. Also heaps of descriptions of all the beautiful settings of farms, woods, shore, even cities. It's pure LMM.

If you are already a devout reader of everything LMM (as I admit to being) you will enjoy reading this even if the stories don't really stand up to the more polished work in her novels. But you can see many of themes that she worked with making their appearance here in other shapes. At the end of each story the editors note which paper it first appeared in, whether or not it's listed in the official bibliography and a few notes on what else Montgomery was working on or living through at the time of its publication. I found these notes a bit distracting and unnecessary and would have preferred to se them as notes in the back matter. I don't think general readers who aren't academics or completists would bother with the extraneous info, being more interested in the story itself. That said, I did find a real gem when the story notes for "The Pineapple Apron" shared that LMM published a doily pattern herself in a needlework magazine. I loved that! 

I especially liked the darkness of "The Mirror", the thrill of "The Use of Her Legs", and the humour of "The Matchmaker". The longest story, "Hill o' the Winds" was an entertaining look at young love at cross purposes, and the endurance of family feuds. 

Overall this was a fun collection and the proceeds go directly to the LM Montgomery Institute at the University of PEI so it's a win win to buy it and read it. If you like LMM or just generally vintage short stories you will enjoy this light read. 

Monday, August 07, 2017

Midnight Blue

Midnight Blue / Simone van der Vlugt; translated from the Dutch by Jenny Watson.
London: Harper, c2017.
327 p.

If you like historicals set in the Netherlands, something like The Girl With the Pearl Earring, you will probably also really enjoy this novel centred on the discovery and production of Delft Blue china.

This is the first of Van der Vlugt's three historical novels to be translated into English, and I hope the others will soon follow. It's a well-written, historically dense and yet character-driven story of a young woman's journey from young widowhood to the full use of her talents and drive as a mature and happy woman. 

Catrin is 25 when her older, abusive husband dies, in the spring of 1654. The other residents of her small village whisper that she had a hand in his passing; she's always been a little suspect because of her artistic tendencies anyhow. She decides very quickly that she will leave the village, finding a housekeeping job in Amsterdam and moving on despite disapproval for such a forward decision.

But her past follows her and so she must move on, and on. She ends up encountering Rembrandt and Vermeer, as well as other minor artists, who encourage her with kind words. She eventually finds herself in Delft, where she gets a job as a pottery painter. The pottery saves her; not only is it amenable work, and an income, but there she makes friends who help her through the crisis when it comes. 

Catrin is a no-nonsense woman who works hard but always has a view to art and beauty as well. She is forthright and honest, even while hiding secrets from her past that could catch her up in quite a final manner. I enjoyed hearing this story from her perspective -- some of the characters who show up in this tale are real names from history, and an afterword tells us some of the details about what happened after this story ends. The production of Delft Blue continued, and there are trails to follow if you are interested in the real-life characters. 

But as a novel, aside from the historical facts included, this stands up very well. Catrin is a complex and thoughtful character, and there are many discussions about the purpose of art, the quandries of guilt and responsibility, the reality of love and loss and much more. There is enough suspense and activity in her story to keep a reader focused and wondering what the outcome is going to look like. The writing style is quiet and restrained even when dealing with tragic accidents like the Delft Thunderclap, or the recurrence of the plague. Despite some of the darker themes, it's actually quite a light and engaging read.

It's a seamless mix of fact and fiction - with a gorgeous cover - and I read it straight through. 

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

August is Women in Translation Month!

And here it is, August again! I will be reading along with #WomenInTranslation month, created and hosted by Meytal at Biblibio.

This is an initiative to increase the visibility and enjoyment of women's writing in translation. According to her stats, only 30% of translated fiction is by women. We need to read and share and encourage more publication of women's writing. If you want more statistical info and great analysis of the state of women's writing in translation, you must check out her blog.

I have a list of potential reads for this month, but knowing me I will probably not stick to this list -- and most likely not read them all! But these are a few titles that are at the top of my list at this point.

Compartment No. 6 / Rosa Liksom (I'm about halfway through now)

Girls of Riyadh / Rajaa Alsanea

My Brilliant Friend / Elena Ferrante

Moomins Series / Tove Jansson 

If you want to see what I read during last August's Reading Challenge month, which was made up of a lot of French Canadian writing, you can see that list here.

And here are the women in translation that I've read and reviewed in the year in between #WITMonth 2016 & 2017: I honestly thought there were a lot more. I do have a few titles that I've finished but not yet shared that I will be reviewing during this month.... those titles to come!

Read & Reviewed 2016-2017

The Silent Rooms / Anne Hebert; translated from the French by Kathy Mezei

The Tin Flute / Gabrielle Roy; translated from the French by Alan Brown

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem / Sarit Yishai-Levi; translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris

The Party Wall / Catherine Leroux; translated from the French by Lazer Laderhendler

How about you? Will you be reading along at all? What are some of your favourite books by women in translation? Do you have a favourite translator?

11th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - August Roundup

1. Click on the icon above
2. Add a link to your review. (Please link to your specific review, not an entire webpage.)
3. Add your name and in parentheses the title of the book, such as Melwyk (Anne of Green Gables) 4. In the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. "This brings me up to 1/13")
5. In the comment section below, note whether you've read a book which meets the monthly
    challenge set via email for participants.

 And in prize news, congratulations to Heather at Books & Quilts for winning the amazing 13 book prize pack offered as a starting gate incentive by Simon & Schuster Canada! We hope to see some of those titles reviewed in this year's challenge!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Dr. Edith Vane & the Hares of Crawley Hall

Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall / Suzette Mayr
Toronto: Coach House Books, c2017.
224 p.

This is a wild and wacky read, very very Suzette Mayr. It expands on the themes of women's lives, sexuality, and identity which permeate her novels.

It's also very much about the dysfunction in a very strange academic setting.

Dr. Edith Vane is a professor at Crawley Hall, a crumbling arts building alongside the new and fancy buildings put up for the business school right next door. This building has strange hallways, doors, and sub-basements that Edith eventually comes across, expressing her annoyance that not only is their building full of asbestos, crumbling ceiling tiles, and maggots, there are apparently also supernatural shenanigans going on. She takes this quite matter-of-factly as just another annoyance.

The book chronicles her increasing concerns about her performance review under the new Dean who is very, very focused on highly public and visible achievement. Edith has persevered for a decade and has finally had her book on African-Canadian pioneer housewife memoirist Beulah Crump-Withers published, but now that's not even good enough, as it's only being published by the University of Okotoks Press, not a prestigious British press.

She also has to contend with a cast of odd colleagues, who seem to keep dropping like flies, and with the reappearance of her nemesis, her old thesis advisor Lesley Hughes who loves to take credit for everyone else's work. Really, Mayr has thrown every dysfunction into this story!

Oh, and have I mentioned the strange and ominous lurkings of the many unafraid hares in the grounds and indeed inside the actual building of Crawley Hall?

The weirdness is entertaining and hallucinatory. What is actually happening? Can Edith's perceptions be trusted? It's a dark and downward spiralling story, but it is still an immensely satisfying and entertaining reading experience. The only lightness comes in Edith's new relationship with barista Bev, a happy occasion for her, but even that falls apart eventually.

Poor Edith. She has it hard, and just wants a decent office, no evil department head, and a new blouse that doesn't have a pattern that shifts and grows right off her sleeves. Plus no awful students, and time to focus on her true interest, Beulah Crump-Withers.

You've got to read this to get the full experience though. When Mayr mentions the term "hare-brained", she really means it. 

This is funny, dark, truly strange, and yet so recognizable in many ways. I really enjoyed it.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Sensemaking by Madsbjerg

Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm / Christian Madsbjerg
New York: Hachette, c2017.
216 p.

This thought-provoking book by the founder of ReD Associates -- a strategy consulting company based in the humanities -- was fascinating and full of great concepts.

The premise is that only those who think deeply and in context can really illuminate truth and understanding, in ways that the wide but shallow cast of algorithmic data can not match. Madsbjerg stands behind this belief, with his company which employs anthropologists, sociologists, art historians, and philosophers (at least according to the book blurb!) There was a lot of solid content here that I think anyone with a humanities degree who feels undervalued in our modern business oriented world can appreciate.

Yes, understanding history and context and human nature helps us make better decisions personally and socially. Having respect for study and knowledge and understanding will help things run better. These shouldn't be startling concepts but they seem to be in today's culture, so much so that this whole book is a strong argument for more support culturally and financially for the humanities in higher learning.

I loved a lot about this book. I also feel strongly that the human sciences have a lot to offer, and shouldn't be pushed aside in favour of  "practical" degrees, or whichever corporate-supported faculty seems to be getting all the funding. As Madsbjerg states,

We dismiss this cultural knowledge -- cultivated through humanities thinking -- at great risk to our future. When we focus solely on hard data and natural science methods -- when we attempt to quantify human behaviour only as so many quarks or widgets -- we erode our sensitivity to all the forms of knowledge that are not reductionist. We lose touch with the books, music, art and culture that allow us to experience ourselves in a complex social context.

He goes on to state that people's sense of the meaning of the data they are seeing is far more important that homogeneous data and input. The arts and humanities allow us to experience the differences between people across years and cultures; they allow us to inhabit another person's world and understand them better. Focusing only on hard data erases these differences, seeing only a shallow average at best.

He illuminates this sense of standardization required by technology -- whether of physical materials or in people's education and training -- by referring to Heidegger's 1954 essay on Technology, a look at "modern ideology, our world without meaningful differences."

The whole book is infused with references to philosophy, sociology, history and so on: he lives what he teaches. Unfortunately, the one drawback is that all of the humanizing and thinking and interpreting is done in the service of Business. Madsbjerg's company consults with CEOs of major corporations, and works on understanding customers and their contexts in order to better serve R&D and marketing. This really jumped out at me after recently finishing F.S. Michael's Monoculture, a look at the economic master story that overwhelms everything in our culture. 

But there are still important truths here, and ones that the corporate world needs to hear, with its insistence that employees are just cogs, needing to be standardized to make them easily replaceable, and referred to as human capital (gosh, I hate that phrase!) 

The final chapter, What Are People For?, speaks to this idea. And I found it uplifting and powerful in its simplicity. Madsbjerg says:

What are people for? People are for making and interpreting meaning. ...
What are people for? Algorithms can do many things, but they will never actually give a damn. People are for caring.

This is one business book that is well worth reading for everyone. If you ignore the businessy case study bits it reads like an essay on the vitality of learning for its own sake. And I really enjoyed it.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Canadian Book Challenge: July's Big Prize

To celebrate the start of our 11th Year of Canadian Book Challenge Reading, we have a fantastic prize pack offered by Simon & Schuster Canada. They will send out a set of 13 Canadian books during the month of August to the lucky winner of our July draw. 

This prize pack is open to everyone who signs up to the 11th Annual Canadian Book Challenge by the end of July. No required reading for this one; just sign up and pledge to read along this year. 

Here are the details of what's included in this prize -- just click through on the titles to see more details about each book. Thanks to S&S for the huge variety they've offered here, from graphic novel to romance to thriller, horror, YA, nonfiction and literary reads!

Simon & Schuster also has a great Canada 150 site for their Canadian authors if you'd like to check that out for more readerly inspiration