Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 Year End Reading Retrospective

It is that time of year, isn't it? I've been seeing round-up posts popping up everywhere, and there is something quite satisfying about quantifying what you've been doing all year. Of course, this time of year also makes me realize I will never have enough time to read all the books I want to, probably not even all the books I have on my shelves. But I will keep trying, nevertheless. 2007 was a good year for reading - all the encouragement and suggestions from bloggers and our many challenges kept me picking up one book after another. How pleasant!

Books Bought 2007
Honestly, no idea. I don't keep track at all (perhaps that's why my shelves are overflowing)

Books Read 2007

By Women: 88
By Men: 52
Non-gendered reading (multiple authors etc.): 6

Rereads : 4

In Translation: 8 (oh, that's low. I have to try harder to increase the variety of my reading choices)

Non-Fiction: 32 (12 of these were on writing/literature)

Multiple Books by the same author:
3 - Alexander McCall Smith, Martine Desjardins
2 - Wilkie Collins, Frances Itani, Elizabeth Goudge, Jane Austen, Ray Bradbury, Earlene Fowler

And as for my favourites, well, it's hard to choose favourites, I've read so many really good books this year. But if I was to pick, by completely subjective criteria like how much fun I had reading or how much I admired the writing style, or how I was surprised by something utterly unknown to me when I picked it up, my Top Fiction reads of 2007 would be:

5/6. Smuggling Donkeys / David Helwig
A Feast of Longing / Sarah Klassen
4. Changing light / Nora Gallagher
3. Remembering the Bones / Frances Itani
2. Fairy Ring / Martine Desjardins
1. The Dream Life of Sukhanov / Olga Grushin

Likewise for Non-Fiction:

3. Burning down the House / Charles Baxter (read recently and not reviewed, but enjoyed)
2. Art Objects / Jeanette Winterson ( I was astonished by her brilliance)
1. Lectures on literature / Vladimir Nabokov (I just finished this, on the recommendations of many bloggers and am amazed by him and ready to start at the beginning again)

And just for interest's sake -
Challenges Joined 2007: 5 (2 still ongoing)

Challenges Completed 2007: 1 (yes, that's right -- 1! although that's not stopping me from joining a ton more for 2008!)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Edwardian Adventurers

San Diego : Harcourt, 2001, c1978.

This novel, originally published in 1978, is set in the Antarctic, 1909. In Keneally's preface, he states that he wanted to discuss the ever-fascinating subject of all-male expeditions to the South Pole in a way consistent with the times; to look at an expedition within an Edwardian mindset. Although all of the gentlemanly Edwardian explorers give no hint of conflict in their journals, Keneally wanted to approach a situation rife with it. This idea meshes well with another book I've been slowly reading, Francis Spufford's I May be some time. In that book, Spufford examines the Idea of ice in the Edwardian imagination. In this novel, Keneally takes that sublime appeal of the icy wilderness and peoples it with prosaic Edwardian men. It succeeds admirably, even with a few loose ends left dangling.

It is a reminiscence told by Anthony Piers, the expedition's artist. He is 92, living in a seniors residence in California, and this distancing in time allows us to benefit from his pointing out the differences in belief he was under as a young man and as a seasoned adult. The group of 26 men is heading to Antarctica just a few years before Ernest Shackleton's Endurance would head to the South Pole. Sir Eugene Stewart is leading a scientific cohort, but along with the varied geologists, zoologists, & meteorologists is included a journalist, Victor Henneker. He is supposed to supply news to the outside world, but as is discovered, he is keeping a logbook not only of worthy news but of all the scandals of his fellow travellers, for blackmail or for tabloid income. Various fellows are revealed within the journal as adulterers, thieves, or heaven forbid, homosexuals. When Victor is found dead outside at a weather screen, the tenor of the isolated group changes. Was it an accident? Murder? Was one of their small number responsible for such a violent act? Who can be trusted? Was it the mythical Forbes-Chalmers, a lost individual from a previous expedition rumoured to be living as a hermit on the Antarctic plain? As Anthony is involved in questioning his colleagues, his Edwardian ideals are battered, foreshadowing the loss of innocence of the coming war years. As the situation comes to a head, Anthony realizes what is about to happen, and says, "It was the act that rendered the condition of the century terminal. Nothing ever since has surprised me."
The voice of this novel evokes the Edwardian gentleman, and the descriptions of an Antarctic station are superb. Despite the figure of Forbes-Chalmers flickering in and out of the story and fading away in a flimsy manner at the end, this is a closed circle. You can feel the cold and the dark and the small society ensconced there.

At a Loss for Words

Toronto : HarperCollins Canada, c2007.

Before this year ends, I want to get in a few last reviews of some of the reads of 2007.

But this title pretty much describes what I'm feeling about this book. I'm not sure what to say about it! I've read most of Diane Schoemperlen's work and I admire and enjoy her erudite style. The Governor General's Award-winning short story collection Forms of Devotion is my favourite of her works, but her most recent novel, Our Lady of the Lost & Found, was also a very good read.

This novel, however, did not grab me in the same way. The premise : a writer, suffering from writer's block, rekindles a romance with her high school era boyfriend. Using crossword puzzle clues, horoscopes, and prompts from books about writing to reflect on her text-based romance (conducted primarily through email) the narrator writes her way toward a new novel, and ultimately toward revenge.

This is as clever as anything Schoemperlen has written. Her trademark dry humour and vivid intelligence shine throughout. Nonetheless, I have to very reluctantly state that the email format did not work for me. Probably close to half the story is told in email -- although not directly, rather, the narrator is giving us both sides of the story. For example:
In a lunchtime e-mail you said, I've just been out for a walk. The tulips here are so beautiful! I almost wrote "two lips". Oops......Freudian slip!
I said, Four lips are better than two! These two are going to have some lunch now...although they can think of a few other things they'd rather do!
You said, Smooch! Yes, I see what you mean......four are much better than two!
I said, Thanks...I needed that! Not nearly enough smooching going on around here (i.e., zero!) to suit me.
You said, We are in total sync on that topic! very hard today....(smiles).
I said, I'm thinking about or eight hours' worth! I've really done myself in! We've been very naughty today!
You said, Naughty...yes...I loved it! The sun shines more brilliantly now because of our shared thoughts. Gotta run...

Unfortunately, recreating the excess punctuation and banal details of an email did not engage me. My mind began to go numb in the same way that it does when I am forced to read numerous real emails at once. I appreciate what Schoemperlen is trying to do here but I just didn't find this novel up to her previous levels of excellence. Perhaps she has succeeded too admirably in making the male character completely loathsome. Reading his pat and condescending (and poorly written) communications made my skin crawl -- and made me wonder how this otherwise clever and engaging narrator could fall for his lines. And perhaps it was just my discomfort with this clearly unequal relationship and the narrator's doormat tendencies which made this a difficult read for me. Perhaps it has nothing at all to do with the novel's structure, but my own strong dislike of the storyline itself. Another reader may have a completely different reaction, so don't be put off by mine. Still, I'd recommend especially her Forms of Devotion for a first look.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas to all!

Wishing everyone a relaxing and entertaining holiday with lots of family togetherness and yet lots of time to read...

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Home(sick) for the Holidays

I'm feeling a little homesick this week. It would be nice to be with my extended family at Christmas, but I just couldn't swing it. So, no Saskatchewan for me this year...although technically most of my family is now in Alberta...but Cipriano's glee at getting away to Sask just rubbed some salt in the wound! No, seriously, every now and again I feel this longing for where I grew up, even though I've now lived away from Saskatchewan longer than I lived in it. Childhood years seem so much longer somehow. In any case, to assuage my homesickness, I was thinking about books set in Sask, and I realized I haven't put together a book list in ages. So,here's a book list about Saskatchewan.

This is one I just reviewed; it's a wonderful story collection. Her novel, The Horseman's Graves, is still ahead for my delectation.

This is an old chestnut but it is still amusing (at least to me). It is an academic study of the fictional Sarah Binks, and both in subject and form it is cleverly put together. Sarah is known as the 'sweet songstress of Saskatchewan', and she has to be the worst poet in Canadian history. An example:
The farmer is king of his packer and plough,
Of his harrows and binders and breakers,
He is lord of the pig, and Czar of the cow
On his hundred and sixty-odd acres.

3. Joanne Kilbourn mystery series / Gail Bowen

For some light mystery reading, I like this series set (mostly) in Regina. One of my favourites was "Murder at the Mendel", (set at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon.) Although Joanne seems to come across a LOT of dead people, I guess it's not too far-fetched, as Regina has held the distinction of being the murder capital of Canada in real life.

4. A Student of Weather / Elizabeth Hay

This 2001 novel by this year's Giller Prize winner is one of my favourites of her books. It begins in Saskatchewan, and is the story of two sisters and how their lives are affected by the appearance of a young metereologist in their household during the Dust Bowl of the 30's. It doesn't stay in Sask the whole book, as the younger sister heads off to Ontario and New York.

5. All in together Girls / Kate Sutherland

One I've also just reviewed, this is a short story collection with some stories set in Sask. It's an enjoyable and recognizable read, and after you've finished it I dare you not to try to find her first collection, Summer Reading. Because you'll want to!

**And before anyone tells me I forgot one, As for me and my house by Sinclair Ross would be on my Anti-List. Can someone tell me WHY this book is so famous and taught so often? It gives me the heaves. The only good thing to come out of it is Saskatchewan poet Lorna Crozier's collection, A Saving Grace: The Collected Poems of Mrs. Bentley, a series of poems from the point of view of the main character.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Annie's "What's in A Name" Challenge

This Challenge has been on the horizon for a while and I looked at it repeatedly but was quite convinced that I'd taken on enough Challenges for the next year. However, as I see more participants' lists, and realize that double-Challenge books are permitted, I'm irretrievably tempted. There are quite a few books I could use for more than one Challenge, plus this just sounds so random and so entertaining. Besides, it runs the entire year -- there's no reason I couldn't do it, right? So with great humility I will eat my words and I will take on JUST ONE MORE CHALLENGE!

So, over to Annie-the-amazing-10-yr-old's random categories:

Book with a Colour in the Title:

White / Marie Darrieussecq (from my Polar Reading list)
The Golden Notebook / Doris Lessing

Book with an Animal in the Title:

Death and the Penguin / Andrey Kurkov (this is a choice for the Russian Reading Challenge as well)
Turtle Valley / Gail Anderson Dargatz (pick for the Canadian Book Challenge)

Book with a First Name in the Title:

Anna Karenina / Tolstoy (Russian Reading Challenge again, obviously!)
The Solitude of Thomas Cave / Georgina Harding (from my Polar Reading list)

Book with a Place in the Title:

Skating to Antarctica / Jenny Diski (Polar Reading again)
The House in Paris / Elizabeth Bowen (for the Outmoded Authors challenge)

Book with a Weather Event in the Title:

The Ice Child / Elizabeth McGregor (Polar reading)
Sunlight on a broken column / Attia Hosain (sunlight is kind of weatherish, I think)

Book with a Plant in the Title:

Seduction of the Crimson Rose / Lauren Willig (because this 4th book in one of my favourite fun series is coming out in Spring 2008 and I know I'll read it as quick as I can)
The Wife Tree / Dorothy Speak

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Literary Doppelgangers

For your amusement:

Here's a friend of mine dressed up like Margaret Atwood for a Come-as-your-favourite-literary-figure party. Shaving would have made the resemblance really eerie!
Who would you go as?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Absorbed in CanLit

The Canadian Book Challenge run by John at The Book Mine Set has sent me off onto a side path; after beginning a number of novels set in varied Canadian provinces, I've left them all half done and sadly unattended as I take a detour into three books about the beginnings of CanLit. I'm reading through them, fascinated by the glory days when Canadian literature started becoming more than an oxymoron. They are all by or about men - I'll have to search out a few others soon - but for now I am finding them oddly riveting.

The first is Robert Lecker's Dr. Delicious. (Montreal : Vehicule Press, c2006) Now, I have to say that I found the title weird and uncommunicative of content, but upon reading the first pages, it is explained that "Lecker" can be loosely translated from German as "Delicious". Professor Lecker sees himself as a serious scholar, with all the attitudes and actions that entails, but when he thinks of himself as Dr. Delicious, a whole new and much hipper persona arises. Lecker is a professor at McGill University - I myself used many of his books as texts in my lit classes at McGill although I never did have him as a professor. Alongside this 'respectable' professorial life, he was also a co-founder of ECW Press, and much of the memoir deals with the down and dirty details of running a small press in a small country with small amounts of cash. If you have any interest in small presses, or in Canadian literature's very existence, or in how a man shaped a literary life for himself in this country, give this one a try.

Next is a book of reminiscences and interviews with and about a giant in the creation of a Canadian literature, Robert Weaver. Strangely enough, it is called Robert Weaver : Godfather of Canadian Literature. (also published by Vehicule Press, 2007) Weaver is a fascinating figure, a generous man who gave many current CanLit stars their beginnings; for example, Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood. He worked for CBC Radio(based in Toronto) and co-founded the Tamarack Review, and in all these ways influenced the development of a national literature. The paeans to him by many different authors included in this book show how vital his role was.

And last is Matt Cohen's posthumous memoir Typing: a life in 26 Keys. (Toronto : Random House, c2000.) He mentions Robert Weaver in this book, and apparently in not so saintly a way as the previous book I listed. (this is hearsay; I haven't reached that point yet.) However, considering the very small community of writers, editors, publishers, and general book people in the Canadian inner circles, as well as Cohen's famed irascibility, I am not surprised that there are strong and diverse opinions about all the same people. All the same, I am finding that reading all three concurrently makes me think about what it meant to try to be a writer in a country that was focused outside itself, and what it meant to try to illuminate the possibilities of a integral Canadian literature. And it makes me grateful for the vibrant and exciting literary world we inhabit today.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

First Lines Meme

Here's a meme I saw Danielle and Kate do this week, and it is intriguing to look back at this time of year, so I'll give it a go also. The purpose of this one is to post the first lines from each month's first post, and see what results.

January: Audrey Thomas' Graven Images is one of those books that just appeared in my collection somehow; I was intrigued enough to read it, even though I'd never heard of it.

February: I've somehow watched three British literary adaptations in the last week or so; could explain why I haven't been posting here or even catching up on my various Challenge books!

March: Here is a meme I found posted by Bookfool.

April: Ah, April. It's enchanting, and what better way to enjoy it than through poetry?

May: As I was just mentioning a few posts back, writer Yann Martel is sending our Prime Minister a book every two weeks, hoping that he may read one and gain some appreciation of what the arts can do in our lives.

June: Hi all; it's a busy week for me here.

July: My recent reading of Frances Itani's new book has got me thinking about all the Canadian novels I've read featuring older women looking back at their lives.

August: Due to popular demand, here is one of my favourite foods to eat, explained.

September: I've just heard with sadness the news of Madeleine L'Engle's death. (Sept. 6, 2007)

October: I am sorry that I've been away from my blog for a while; family things happen that require one's full attention.

November: This is the latest collection of short stories by Canadian literary doyenne P.K. Page.

December: After much beginning and re-beginning, after putting this book on a couple of Challenge lists(Carl's RIP II, my personal Polar Reading list), I have FINALLY finished reading this 102 page novella.

Hmm, very strange, I seem to be fond of making excuses for not posting. And when I do post it's all about my reading (except my wild and crazy foray into food in August...) A few challenges make their appearance, as well as another meme. A pretty accurate overview of the year's writing, spookily enough.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Take this with a grain of salt

trans. by David Homel and Fred Reed
Vancouver : Talonbooks, 2007.

This is the third book by Martine Desjardins that I've read this year, and will be the last until she writes another. It's amazing that you can read a book so much faster than an author writes one. And in this case I'll be tapping my foot impatiently until another book is written, and then translated.

This book, like her others, is fairly short. It is set around 1791, and tells us the story of Lily McEvoy, who lives alone in a rackety old mansion in rural Quebec. Her father, a wealthy salt mine owner, and mother, who was rumored to be a water nymph, have died. Lily has engaged a master stonecarver to work in her inherited salt mine for over ten years, to carve out a funereal chamber in which will lie her mummified parents. Lily herself has been eating and sniffing powdered salt, convinced it holds magical properties, but as the maids say to one another, "She is drying out from the inside. Like a bone gnawed to the marrow, like a green birch consumed by fire. She doesn't drink enough and she salts everything...The salt she's eaten is withering her skin. Already it has shrivelled her heart. "

As the book opens, Lily has decided that after ten years, Master Anselm the stone carver needs to be paid. She sets the house into an uproar by telling the servants that there will be a guest to supper. Lily has not had anyone inside the house since her parents died, so this is a major undertaking for the maids. It also upsets Titus, a servant of the house who grew up alongside Lily and was betrayed by her in his youth. Desjardins' gothic imagination is in full flight here, as in her first novel, featuring mummified bodies, clandestine births, jealous violence, musty old houses, and family secrets. The major symbol of the book is salt itself, its many properties elucidated by Lily or by others such as the local Bishop, who introduces Lily to the delights of salt-sniffing. Salt's preservative and seasoning abilities are important, but so is its blighting effect on growth. Lily's focus on her past, her looking back, has biblical overtones; she is like Lot's wife who for looking back at Sodom and Gomorrah was turned into a pillar of salt. It's Lily's fixation on grudges held for years which is drying up any chance of a future. The story also touches on Quebec's history, faintly, mentioning the Plains of Abraham and various tensions which result, mentioning also Lily's Irish family's part in the battles to defeat the French in Quebec.
Desjardins used crystal and ice as the predominant image in her first book, Fairy Ring, then gold in All that Glitters, and now salt. I can only wait to discover what she will fasten upon for her next book. She's an original voice, very clever and precise, and her novels are challenging but ultimately rewarding.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Polar Reading TBR List

In answer to a couple of questions as to why I've been so obsessed with polar-themed reading, it's because I've been working away at a list of Polar themed books since March, the beginning of International Polar Year. I was inspired by all the scientific studies that would be occurring, along with my everpresent fascination with Edwardian explorers and the Arctic/Antarctic.
I haven't read as many as I'd planned, but it's a rather amorphous list, always changing as I go. I'm reading ya and adult fiction, as well as a few non-fiction choices. So far I've found some really amazing work, some by chance, books I've picked up solely because they had some connection to the Poles or arctic regions. But for the next year and a bit (until the end of IPY in March '09) here are some of the books that are on my radar:

1. The Ice Child / Elizabeth McGregor
2. The Solitude of Thomas Cave / Georgina Harding
3. The Frozen Deep / Wilkie Collins
4. Arthur Gordon Pym / Edgar Allen Poe
5. White / Marie Darrieussecq
6. Antarctic Navigation / Elizabeth Arthur
7. The Terror / Dan Simmons
8. The Survivor / Thomas Keneally (am half way through his excellent "Victim of the Aurora")

9. Troubling a Star / Madeleine L'engle

1. I May be some time / Francis Spofford (I'm about 1/3 through this one at present)
2. The Worst Journey in the World / Apsley Cherry-Garrard
3. Fatal Passage / Ken McGoogan
4. Lady Franklin's Revenge / Ken McGoogan
5. Skating to Antarctica /Jenny Diski

Anyone have any other suggestions? I've found a few really intriguing YA novels so far. There seems to be a fascination with Antarctica in particular, especially with Scott. It makes for good fiction!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Canada Reads, of course it does

The latest list for February's "Canada Reads" week is now available. You can win a set of all five books plus bookbag in a weekly draw, if you so wish. The line-up consists of five books, none of which I've read, EXCEPT for Thomas Wharton's Icefields. That's the book I was going to pick when I suddenly became famous and was begged to participate in Canada Reads! Sigh, I guess I'll have to go through my list again and select another first choice, just in case, you know. I'll have to wait until fame descends, though, because as John discovered, they don't want just any Canadian putz telling us what to read...
If you were going to choose a Canadian book to champion on Canada Reads, what would it be?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

And speaking of the Poles...

As I'm on the theme of the Poles, and Christmas just happens to coming up, how about giving a polar bear for Christmas? You can do so at the WWF's Polar Bear Central, a site which also has an amazing array of information on WWF's work in the Arctic, ecards, fun stuff to download etc.

Or check out Polar Bears International's lively website and gift shop.

You can shop at the Canadian Wildlife Federation's site; one of their many projects is to help protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska by supporting the Canadian government's opposition to development of the ANWR. There's also the Alaska Wilderness League, an American group determined to protect Alaska's wild spaces.

In association with IPY, there's a group of artists who are celebrating the centennial of the first navigation of the Northwest Passage at Arctic Quest. Take a look if you want to see original art intended to focus attention on the beauty and fragility of the Arctic ecosystem, or want to support their charitable efforts in education.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Madly Mountaineering

At the Mountains of Madness / H.P. Lovecraft
New York : Modern Library, 2005.

After much beginning and re-beginning, after putting this book on a couple of Challenge lists(Carl's RIP II, my personal Polar Reading list), I have FINALLY finished reading this 102 page novella.

I'm not sure why it took me so long to read the whole thing. Perhaps it was the hundred other books distracting me, or perhaps it was the prose itself; the story is presented in the form of a scientific report, so begins intentionally dry and verbose, contrasting with the increasingly sensational content. The story goes as follows: a scientific research team from Miskatonic University heads to Antarctica in 1931. They are there to do geological research, but in the course of their drilling a smaller expeditionary group comes across a subterraean chamber in which lie the bodies of 8 very strange, winged beings. Being scientists they are very excited and proceed to perform an autopsy on one creature. When the narrator and his team make it to the camp, it is to find a disastrous situation; their colleagues and all their sled dogs have been slaughtered, and the alien bodies are gone. The narrator and another colleague, Danforth, set out to follow the signs indicating where the bodies may have disappeared to. They take their plane toward the mountains on the horizon, the eponymous Mountains of Madness. There they discover strange formations which are a bit unsettling, and when they cross the mountains they discover an ancient stone city which stretches for miles. The isolated, utterly alien city on this Antarctic plateau must be explored, they are scientists, after all. So they land and begin exploring, going further and further into the city. They go down through the remaining structures until they are entering an underground tunnel; at this point they discover the missing corpses of one of the scientists from the camp and one of their dogs, bound to a sled like specimens. As they enter the caverns, they come to realize they just might not be alone after all. The horror is such that as they are racing back toward the surface and their plane, Danforth starts gibbering out the names of the subway stations of the Boston-Cambridge line. I found that moment very chilling indeed, and Danforth is never quite right after that.
It's a fascinating book, and the edition I read includes a lengthy essay, Lovecraft's "Supernatural Horror in Literature". After this eerie tale of supernatural horror in Antarctica, I feel I should read Dan Simmons' Arctic story, "The Terror". I am glad I've finally finished this classic by Lovecraft. There are still many Polar themed books ahead for the last month of this first International Polar Year, but I'm relieved that IPY really runs for 2 years, until March 2009; I'll need that long to catch up to my growing Polar TBR list.