Thursday, November 29, 2007

Harry Potter for Christmas?

This is a note for all you wealthy J.K. Rowling fans out there, somewhere. Rowling came to Toronto this fall and spoke to a crowd of 900. It was the only event in Canada at which she spoke and signed the final Potter book. My boss won tickets to the event (and I didn't - grrrr!!) But, seeing as how he's a nice and generous man, he's decided that his signed copy, which was signed and authenticated with a special sticker, is going to be sold on Ebay. The profit will go to our library's PLOW program.

Bidding starts at $950.00, so if you know of anyone with a fanatic interest in Potter and money to burn, please point them in this direction. Thanks all!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

An Acidic Read

Sulphuric Acid / Amélie Nothomb
London : Faber & Faber, c2007.

Another novella (her 20th) from Belgian author Amélie Nothomb, this could only have been written by a European. Wondering just how far reality shows will go seems to have engaged the imagination of many authors lately. I recently read a YA novel, Surviving Antarctica, using this theme. This novella is far darker, which is to be expected from this author.

The setting is France. The state of television is such that a new reality show called "Concentration" is all the rage. The show is as horrible as you might imagine from its name -- people are randomly pulled from the streets and sent to the concentration camp of the title. Every move is televised, and the thugs hired as kapos decide who will be sent to their deaths. Into this disturbing situation comes a beautiful young woman, Pannonique. Her beauty and nobility transfix viewers, and the producers allow viewers to begin voting on who is next up for death. It's the introverts, the old, the ungainly -- all those 'unmarketable' -- who go first. It's a chilling premise, both for the idea that the world could become so evilly callous, and for the shadows of Nazi camps which are evoked. I recognize her intent to point out the absurd fixation on celebrity at all costs, but I am nonetheless uncomfortable with the use of a concentration camp as the central image.

Eventually the whole show is brought to a halt by the selfish actions of one of the guards, who acts for Pannonique's sake. She is heroic by everyone's standards, for breaking apart the acceptance of the show's very existence, but she knows she has done it all for herself, not out of any sympathy or concern for the greater good.

I'm not certain where I stand on this novel. It is fully as dark and discomfiting as I'd expected, but I'm not wholly convinced that everything was necessary to the story. For one thing, prisoners are snatched off the streets, they do not volunteer -- thus the theme of "celebrity at all costs" is compromised. The victims here are not all willing. And I just could not get past the discomfort I felt with the concentration camp being used here. If feels somehow disrespectful, even though I understand her sharp-eyed purpose. (and such discomfort may be part of her intent as well.) So I can't wholeheartedly recommend this one. Unless you already have an interest in Nothomb, or want to read another reality show critique, I'd say pass by.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Yellowknife / Steve Zipp
Res Telluris, c2007.

I read this for the Canadian Book Challenge, after being kindly offered a copy from the author for the purpose. Steve Zipp is an author and a blogger who is participating in the Canadian Reading Challenge as well.

The setting is Yellowknife, capital of the Northwest Territories, on the eve of Y2K. Yellowknife draws in a variety of odd characters who survive on the edges, and each one has a story to tell. It begins with Danny, a drifter who finds his way to Yellowknife, ends up on the streets, and then lucks into a trailer-sitting job. As the book opens, Danny has just crossed the border into the NWT. He stops at a tourist information booth for directions:

She handed him a map, which he accepted gratefully, not having set eyes on one for days. His expression changed when he went outside and spread it on the hood of his car. There was an awful lot of empty space -- just lake, forest, and tundra, overlain by three or four roads and the migration routes of mosquitos. No wonder it was free. The cover said Official Explorer's Map. Probably you were expected to fill it in yourself.
For some reason, this struck me as hilarious, and I relaxed into enjoying the crazy antics of Danny and the other characters who are introduced quickly. There's Freddy, who Danny at first mistakes for another street person; there are the scientists working for the government at the Carboniferous Building - Drs. Peck, Smolt, Vomer, Ungle, and Nora Lobachevski, who plays the largest part in the story. As the Dept. of Wildlife is "re-organized", their offices get crammed into the basement of the building, Nora's desk fitting into the mouth of a tunnel which appears when the wall crumbles. She ends up living in her office as well, and one night explores the tunnel in her pj's. She meets an underground dentist (named what else but Cavity) and then wanders lost in the tunnels until she finally discovers a way out, which deposits her on main street so that she rushes home through the early morning streets in her bathrobe. Quite an image! There are countless other characters introduced, and countless subplots and shenanigans. You'll have to read it to get the full effect. I do think that giving the book the title "Yellowknife" is perfect, because it's the city and the landscape that are the true stars of this story; the characters just appear and make their slight way through this great constant.

Alongside all the human foibles being highlighted, Steve Zipp also manages to bring out some more serious issues. The effects of corporate and tourist incursions upon natural resources -- ie: fish stocks, gold, diamonds -- is discussed quite naturally, but it is illuminating. He comments on these in a manner which fits in to the story perfectly, not reading like a soapbox speech. For example, as Nora is stumbling into her old mine tunnel, she remarks to herself that

She'd been so consumed by the evils of diamond mining that she'd forgotten about gold, about the underworld that existed beneath her very feet... Back in the 50s, two children had died from eating snow laced with arsenic, a by-product of the gold refining process. Today a quarter-million tonnes of arsenic trioxide were stored somewhere in Giant's underground maze. It was a classic tradeoff, poison for precious metal. What would happen when the mine ceased production, the pumps stopped, the tunnels allowed to flood? How long would it take for the drums to rust through and the arsenic to leak out? There was enough to poison all of Great Slave Lake.

My only reservation with this book was that many of the characters disappeared from the narrative quite rapidly and unexpectedly. I'd have liked the various lives to have meshed more thoroughly and their futures to have been suggested more explicitly. Otherwise, I really enjoyed this read. It was a pleasure to read a book set in the North that was fun and satirical and which used its setting to such great advantage. I appreciate Steve offering us a copy of his book, which I don't imagine I could have easily stumbled across on my own. Thanks, Steve, for making my 'trip' to the Territories so entertaining!

Other Reviews by:

Gautami Tripathy

Elephant Dung Redux

Here's something unique for all those ecologically concerned, World Wildlife Fund type confirmed letter scribblers you may know. It would make a great Xmas gift for anyone who likes nice paper; journals, stationery and notecards are all available at Elephant Poo Poo Paper

Okay, so the name isn't really that mellifluous, but it's a neat idea. As I happen to know that elephants really like the fruit of the Marula tree, and also that my favourite liqueur, Amarula, is also made from the fruit of the Marula tree, I think a bottle plus some nice letter paper would make a wonderful gift basket. And I don't even work for the company!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Reading with Rilke (and Martel)

Yann Martel has most thoughtfully been choosing books I've already read during the past few weeks, so I'm easily able to keep up! But I think I want to revisit Rilke. I read this book some years ago (I think as a young university student) so it's time to read the letters again. Does anyone have any memories of this one? I read it for a class and liked it, then for a few years found it too over-used and clichéd, and then I seemed to have grown past that and liked it again. Strange; I'm going to reread it more carefully now, and see where I stand currently!

Latest Carnival

The latest Bookworms Carnival is up at The Armenian Odar Reads. The theme is short stories, and she's collected a nice range of posts, including a couple of original stories submitted from blogging writers. Take a look, and enjoy the options! Thanks for hosting, Myrthe.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tulips and Anne Frank

A Hatred for Tulips / Richard Lourie
New York : St. Martins Press, c2007.

"I am your brother," said the stranger at the door.
At first I thought he was one of those evangelicals who go from house to house peddling salvation, but then I looked more closely at his face and saw my mother's eyes looking back at me.
"Come in," I said.

From these opening lines on I was enthralled by this book. It is the story of Joop, who grew up in occupied WWII Amsterdam. His younger brother went to America with their mother immediately following the war, and Joop hasn't seen him since. Now Willem has returned, wanting to know something about Amsterdam and about his own childhood there. Joop gives him a little more than he'd bargained for; no nice neat family history, instead, a long and harrowing tale of the necessities of survival in wartime. Joop's tale involves Anne Frank, and the legends grown up around her -- he says "Three-quarters of Holland's Jews go to their deaths, worse than Fascist Italy, but thanks to Anne Frank the country has a reputation for heroism, resistance, humanitarianism. Why tinker with that?"

Joop was a boy when the war began, and his family consisted of his parents and two younger twin brothers. The shortages of the war meant he had to find work, to earn a few cents, and to help find food. He gets a job as a delivery boy in a produce warehouse, and makes special deliveries to people in hiding. This turns out to be a good position, as he is able to take meager shares of the food he is delivering. This is especially important as the war drags on; the title refers to the distaste Joop feels for tulips, having eaten the bulbs during the privations of war. Things are complicated by his hated Uncle Frans, however, who had joined the Dutch Nazi party at the beginning of the war and gone off to fight for Germany. When he returns near the end of the war, legless, he has the idea that Joop should take him along on deliveries. Not only will they keep Joop's job, they will make extra money turning in the people they discover in hiding. This snowballs until Joop is fired, and is led into an untenable situation with his last discovery, one which shocks Willem (and this reader). Joop mocks him for thinking he was going to come to Amsterdam and find a happy story to take home to tell his children and grandchildren. Rather he's hearing the whole story, with Joop relieved to unburden himself. Joop tells Willem,
"People who don't have secrets imagine them as dark and hidden. It's just the opposite. Secrets are bright. They light you up. Like the bright lightbulb left on in a cell day and night, they give you no rest."

The story reveals Joop's troubled relationships with his father and with his Uncle Frans. He has to rely on his own wits to escape the beatings and verbal abuse which seem to be his lot. It's his quick thinking and flexibility, mentally and morally, that allow him to survive the war years. At least that is what he wants us to believe. The final lines of the book cast a different light on everything that has come before. Do we take Joop's word on the story he's just related? Willem seems unsure -- as he's leaving, he asks Joop:
"Your story," said Willem. "It was true, right, all of it?"
"Would I lie to my own brother."

And that is one of the reasons I found this book such a good read. With the last lines, I had to reevaluate the book I'd just read. If his story is true, is it guilt eating away at him that has led him to tell the story, finally? If it is false, what would lead him to associate himself with such a dreadful action? And what part does the audience (Willem and the reader) play in Joop's confessions? This is a book that I'll be thinking about for a while.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Literary Make-out Meme

Ten Literary Characters I Would Totally Make Out With If I Were Single and They Were Real But I’m Not, Single I Mean, I Am Real, But I’m Also Happily Married and Want to Stay That Way So Maybe We Should Forget This.

I couldn’t resist the title of this meme, found over at Bookfoolery & Babble. Too funny. And there are so many hot imaginary men!

1. Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (self evident!)

2. Harvey Muldane from But Not for Me, a Harlequin I’ve recently confessed my soft spot for - he’s definitely Darcy inspired.

3. Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind

4. John Harmon, alias John Rokesmith, alias Julius Handford, from Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend

5. John Thornton from Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (or is Richard Armitage colouring my judgement here?)

6. Gabriel Oak from Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd - I like how he is steadfast and calm and a 'sensitive' man.

7. Hamlet : ok, so he's a bit looney but the dark handsome bad boy is tempting.

8. Percy Blakeney from The Scarlet Pimpernel

9. Sirius Black from Harry Potter (I caved; couldn't avoid the HP phenomenon. Although when I commented after seeing the movie that Sirius Black - as played by Gary Oldman - was hot, the 15 yr. olds in the back seat all groaned and told me I was weird.)

10. Aragorn from Lord of the Rings

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Giller Prize Winner!!!

Just announced:

Wahoo! Now of course I will have to buy it for myself because by tomorrow the hold list at the library will reach all the way to Yellowknife!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Arts & Crafts

Just for those of you in the Toronto area, I'd like to announce a new event being held at my library in a couple of weeks. We're having the first ever Arts & Crafts sale at the library! I've worked very hard on this one, and if you're interested in seeing more, try the blog I've set up for it. Hope to see anyone who wants an afternoon in Stratford!
**Addendum** It's evening, Nov. 17 - the show is done for this year. What a wonderful day, but boy am I tired! Great artists, yummy bake sale, and lots of help; what else can I ask for? Now for next year...

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Short Story Week, #7

All in Together Girls / Kate Sutherland
Saskatoon : Thistledown, c2007.

I can't have a full week of celebrating great story collections without including the marvellous All in Together Girls, by our very own Kate!

This is another collection of stories set mostly in Saskatchewan, and the setting was a large part of my enjoyment. The girls involved in these stories were recognizable as everyday teenagers, living their teenage lives with that mix of boredom and restlessness energy that so captures those years.

I especially like the story (the title escapes me, and my copy is not in my hands today; I'll have to append it when I get the book back!) in which a young girl visits her cousin in the city, and ends up going to a rock concert and then they all stay overnight at a male friend's home with no parents around. As they all get up in the morning, they panic a bit as an RCMP car pulls into the driveway; what have they done? But it is only the girl's father, whom she has called to come and pick her up so she isn't late for church. I laughed, because I related to this girl so much. I think I may have even done something similar to that myself. Kate has expressed the lives of girls in that specific place and time so precisely, so enchantingly.

There is a wonderful story, Cool, about the various influences of friends; Beth gets her head turned by Eva, the new girl at dance class. The story reveals how she deals with Eva, and how her long-standing friend Lorrie still exerts influence as well. There are other stories that are not strictly about girls, for one about the interactions of women who have known each other since their teenage years, you can read Aerial View of A Dinner Party.

These stories have an energy running through them as they detail moments in the lives of girls, and of women. They will absorb you as you are given glimpses of changing lives. This would be a wonderful collection of stories to share with your sisters or girlfriends.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Short Story Week, #6

A Feast of Longing / Sarah Klassen
Regina: Coteau, c2007.

I haven't read Sarah Klassen before, but this book came across my desk and looked really appealling. I have to say I am very surprised that this isn't on any big awards list this year, as I absolutely loved it, and was really taken by the way each story is so exquisitely constructed. The book collects 14 stories, most set in Manitoba, but a few are also set in Ukraine. (I was surprised by it when I came across the first one, and of course I would find it fascinating!) Like many Westerners, Klassen has some Ukrainian background, and has taught English in Ukraine as well.

These stories deal with the human longing for meaning, for significance, for agency in one's own life. They study quiet lives struggling with quiet moments of great internal import. (Quiet moments at least most of the time; there is a rape scene in one story.) Klassen is another poet who has turned to stories, so her observations are precise. She creates complex characters - fathers, daughters, wives, errant children - who inhabit worlds that are fully enfleshed even in such short fiction. There is a novel's worth of story in each piece; I was impressed by the quality of the storytelling and the representation of the smallest variations of human emotion.

One of the stories that I enjoyed most was entitled "Beyond the Border". It relates the experiences of a group of tourists of Ukrainian background who are trying to visit the village their forebears came from. After much confusion and back and forth with border guards, they make it, and spend the day wandering around a village where people are living their everyday lives in the houses their ancestors had fled. As an emotional resolution to their search for roots, it is a bit of an anticlimax - they wander about and then get back on the bus. The interplay between their expectations and their experience is skillfully handled, and the interchanges between all the tourists are wonderful.

There are so many insights to discover in this collection. I highly recommend it.

Book Cover Meme

Janefan tagged me for this one a couple of weeks ago, and I've finally remembered to post it! The process:

Type your first name into Amazon and show the first or most interesting book cover that results. Since I'm Canadian, I tried first and found one of my favourite children's books! Both this one and the first in the series, Scaredy Squirrel, are fantastic to read one on one, and feature Scaredy, a neurotic squirrel. They are absolutely hilarious; I love them.

Then, just for interest's sake I tried The first one to turn up was another kids' book, one I've heard about but have never read. Cute cover, though.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Short Story Week, #5

Up on the Roof / P.K. Page
Erin, ON : Porcupine's Quill, c2007.

This is the latest collection of short stories by Canadian literary doyenne P.K. Page. At 90 years of age she is a master of her art. She is best known for her award winning poetry, but has published story collections as well. This one includes 11 selections, most of which first appeared in various Canadian literary journals.

The title story is that of a man who moves up to his roof to get away from his wife, but his wife does him one better - she moves out and installs an alarm system so he can't get back in. Despite its being the title story, it wasn't the one I found most interesting. I liked "Stone", the tale of Cass Stone, a sculptor with family issues; I found it very rich and dense. The characters and their motivations were well drawn, and there was a positive resolution at its conclusion, something often missing in the short stories I've read in the last while. Another favourite here was "Birthday", the story of an old woman who is about to experience a birth of another kind -- the final sentences are beautifully wrought.

Because P.K. Page is 90, and because she's been writing for 60 years, she has a definite voice. I found it refreshing to read; her style and her subjects are not constrained by themes common to young writers who've gone though creative writing classes, or even by current literary fashions. Her writing is not at all old fashioned, it still reads as relevant and current, but I think her long experience gives her the ability to write as she wishes to and it is her outlook as an elder which makes her different. I'm trying to think of how to say this properly - so many writers as they age stop writing, unable to produce anything truly creative or original. P.K. Page doesn't seem to have that problem, she is creating new work, not rehashing her old. I hope if anyone else has thoughts on this topic they will weigh in.
In any case, this is a collection I will likely reread, and learn from.