Thursday, January 31, 2008

House in Paris

The House in Paris / Elizabeth Bowen
New York: Anchor, 2002, c1935.

This is the only book I have yet finished for the Outmoded Authors challenge (although I have Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno started & waiting on the bedside stack). I can also count it toward my Place choice for Annie's What's in a Name challenge! I've been putting off writing about it, however, because I'm not sure what to say. I wanted to love Elizabeth Bowen; one of my most respected history profs at university cited Bowen as her absolute favourite author and ever since then I've intended to read her. I liked this book, I even found some quotable passages which I delightedly copied out. But somehow it didn't coalesce into a Great Read, at least not for me. Perhaps I didn't quite understand the end, or perhaps the structure threw me a little. I'm not sure what it was.

In any case, the book begins with little Henrietta being met in Paris by an acquaintance of her mother's, who is essentially going to babysit for the day between Henrietta's trains. This lady, Naomi Fisher, and her stern mother Mrs. Fisher, have run a boarding house for young women for years, and are on this very day also babysitting a young boy, Leopold. It's really poor Naomi responsible for the children, as her mother is an invalid, ruling the house from her upstairs bedroom. Leopold is waiting to meet his mother, another friend of Naomi's, who is revealed to have had him via an affair and given him up. Leopold has never seen his mother, and doesn't know the true story of his life. As he and Henrietta come to terms with one another, their balanced tension ends part one of the story.

The middle section of the book is the backstory of Karen, Leopold's mother. This is the part I most enjoyed. Karen is a strange character, fairly passive and with no clear vision of the direction her very banal, suburban life should take. Staying as a student in the house in Paris, she meets a young man, Max, who visits the boarding house as a friend of Mrs. Fisher's. Although he is not supposed to talk to boarders, he does, and Karen takes him in dislike. It is through her friendship with Naomi that she meets him again a few years later, this time as Naomi's fiancé. It all goes to pot as Karen and Max begin what seems to be a rather short-lived affair. They meet once in France, and once in England (where the consequences of her actions catch up with her). She gives the child away, with no-one in England knowing about it. Strangely, it is Naomi who efficiently arranges Karen's 'trip abroad' and finds a family to take Leopold. After Karen is finally married she confesses to her long-suffering husband, who has the idea that they should bring Leopold to rejoin their family.

The affair has been precipitated by the unease Karen feels about her engagement to an earnest friend of her family, who is of the same class and will give her the same life she has always known. She begins to feel stifled by this idea and distances herself by taking a socially acceptable trip to visit her little-seen aunt in Ireland. This aunt and her odd Irish husband live in a small house overlooking the harbour, and it is when Karen first arrives that I think a very meaningful statement is made. Throughout the entire book, houses are minutely detailed. The erstwhile House in Paris, of course, but also Karen's family home, the empty house that Max and Naomi intend to purchase in England, the hotel where they have their tryst, as well as Aunt Violet's Irish home. Karen wanders alone through the living room, waiting for her aunt to come down, and thinks,

It is a wary business, walking about a strange house you know you are to know well...The you inside you gathers up defensively; something is stealing upon you every moment, you will never be quite the same again. These new unsmiling lights, reflections and objects are to become your memories, riveted to you closer than friends or lovers, going with you, even, into the grave: worse, they may become dear and fasten like so many leeches on your heart. By having come, you already begin to store up the pains of going look around is like being, still conscious, dead: you see a world without yourself.

It is this melancholy that permeates the entire novel. The setting seems blurred, a few precise houses linked by incessant travel. The characters are restless, they can't stay still.

The third section of the book then details the intersection of the first two. Karen is indeed in France, but can not bring herself to see Leopold after all. Her husband Roy goes in her stead, and Leopold, after some intense and dramatic disappointment, decides to go with Roy who on the spur of the moment takes him along when they drive Henrietta to her train. I think the idea is to go on to the hotel where Karen is staying. And that's where I'm not sure. Does Karen abhor the idea of meeting Leopold because he will look like his father? Or because admitting him into her life means she will have to acknowledge her premarital behaviour? Or simply because of the guilt of abandoning him so handily at birth? Perhaps by coming to Paris, Karen feels she is 'storing up the pains of going away'. I'm not sure her motivation is clear enough, at least not to someone not steeped in the social conventions of the era Bowen is writing about. I think I would have to reread, looking for clues carefully as I go rather than rushing to the end, thinking, does Leopold see his mother?!? And she did have me anxious about the poor lost soul.

I did find this book superbly written, in a quiet, precise manner. What I'd really meant to read was The Last September, but I couldn't find a copy at the moment I wanted it, so I picked this one up instead. It was intriguing, but I am still intending to find The Last September, preferably in the edition Eva talks about, which has a preface about writing the story, by Bowen herself. Doubly tempting. I'm glad I finally broke the ice between Bowen and I and intend many more meetings!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

RIP, Robert Weaver

I heard today that Robert Weaver has passed away, at age 87. I discovered him just a short while ago, when I read a new book on his legacy called Robert Weaver: Godfather of Canadian Literature. While the book was officially launched in Montreal in November, there is a Toronto launch planned for today; his family wishes it to go forward, and I imagine it will be a very moving memorial to him from many of the authors and literary types he influenced and promoted. If only there were more people like Robert Weaver.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ukrainian Penguins, and Death

London : Harvill Press, c2001
(originally published in Russian in 1996)

This novel is a selection for two challenges, Annie's What's in a Name challenge and the Russian Reading challenge. I wanted to read it because it is set in Ukraine, specifically Kiev. The fact that it was written in Russian caused a bit of a fuss in the newly sovereign Ukraine. Language has always been a hot topic in literature; just like Ireland and England, Russia and Ukraine have struggled with the politicization of language. Why the Ukrainian Kurkov chooses to write in Russian is a topic I am sure dissertations could be written on; however, they won't be written by me!
This book seemed like a good choice to get myself back on track with all the reviews I need -- want -- to catch up on. I just ran a preschool program (always enlivening) with the theme of penguins, perhaps unconsciously inspired by finishing this book. Now that I think on it, one of the picture books I used, Oliver Jeffers' Lost & Found, has similar themes: the loneliness of a boy and that of a penguin he finds on his doorstep. The boy decides to return the penguin to Antarctica, but eventually realizes that what the penguin really wants is a friend, not a trip home. "Complementary lonelinesses" is how Viktor Zolotaryov, protagonist of Death and the Penguin, describes his relationship with his penguin Misha; Viktor's plans to send Misha back to the Antarctic also come to naught. Very intriguing parallels!
Anywaaay, the basic plot of Kurkov's surreal story is as follows: Viktor is a struggling writer who dreams of being a novelist, but can only manage short stories. He lives in a small flat in post-Soviet Kiev, with his depressive penguin Misha, who he took in when the zoo was getting rid of animals it couldn't afford to feed. Just accept that initial absurdity and you can have a lot of fun with this story; it provides a look at the absolute corruption of a society shaking off its Soviet mores. Viktor finally gets a writing job; he writes obituaries for notable Kievans who are not yet dead. His florid writing style has found favour at the large newspaper he now works for, but he comes to realize that as he writes his obits, his subjects are dropping dead. He starts to question this, but drops it when his boss tells him,

"Think what you like. But bear in mind this: the moment you are told what the point of your work is, you're dead...the full story is what you get told only if and when your work, and with it your existence, are no longer required."

Viktor's disinclination to find out what is really going on makes perfect sense in this chaotic and surreal world, full of danger for the curious. Misha, who lives behind the sofa in an incomprehensible flat, mirrors Viktor's existence in an incomprehensible society. This does not prevent him from continuing to write obits, however, as they pay well.
Viktor's philosophy of life is to endure. He lives in an austere solitude, broken only by Misha's presence. Of course, Misha being a penguin, there is no communication, only side by side solitudes. Nonetheless, Misha's existence leads to Viktor's befriending the local policeman, Sergey Fischbein-Stepanenko. That friendship begins to break the chill of Viktor's relations with other people, but ends badly. He also takes in the young daughter of a character known as "Misha non-penguin", a shady compatriot of his new boss, but doesn't feel much beyond duty in caring for her. Sergey's niece Nina becomes the little girl's nanny and quickly also Viktor's lover, although there doesn't seem to be any feeling between them besides utility. They come to resemble a family unit, but it is in appearance only. He almost makes that imaginative leap to empathy and compassion with Misha - trying to find out why he is depressed by consulting a retired penguinologist, taking Misha out to a frozen lake to swim, feeding him copious amounts of seafood, and finally booking a place for him with the Ukrainian Antarctic Committee's research trip to Antarctica - but when Misha is held captive at a veterinary clinic by Viktor's pursuers, well, he essentially abandons him to his fate. The book is very clever, with much black humour, and the sense of individuals adrift in a disconnected society is communicated very clearly. In all the reviews I've looked at, Kurkov's artistic descent from Bulgakov is mentioned repeatedly. Since I haven't yet read Bulgakov, I can't really comment on that, but it certainly makes me want to pick up Bulgakov as my next Russian read. (in between my ongoing War & Peace reading, of course!)
I'm also looking forward to reading some current Ukrainian literature, written in Ukrainian, from the point of view of some of the new young Ukrainian nationalist writers, post-Orange Revolution. Perhaps I will glimpse a view of Ukraine from other eyes than those of a Russian living in a state cast adrift from the Soviet Empire.

Monday, January 21, 2008

To while away the time...

Since I don't feel very readerish lately, perhaps I should start from scratch and create my own little book...
Check out this lovely video for bookish inspiration:

Thursday, January 17, 2008

All read out??

I'm dragging my feet a bit this last week or so. I can't find anything to read. I start something but lose interest after two pages. I have a bunch of reviews to write up of some really excellent books I finished late December/over New Year's, but I can't seem to string my thoughts together very coherently at all. I'm preoccupied with work matters.

And my throat hurts. And I'm tired. And...what's that you say? Stop whining? Oh, alright. I have a long weekend coming up so perhaps with some R&R&R I'll feel better. That's rest, relaxation AND reading, which I will hopefully be ready to dive into once more.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

La Sagouine, or, The Washerwoman

Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Press, c2007.

This Acadian classic has just been reissued in a new translation by Wayne Grady. It was a breakthrough when it was first published because it was written using Acadian French, the dialect used by Acadians, giving them a literary voice; it is so reflective of speech that it first appeared as a series of radio monologues. It is a grouping of thematic ruminations spoken by La Sagouine (the washerwoman), on such varied topics as Spring, the Census, or Priests, and has been performed onstage many times. The language is such a major part of this book that there has been some question as to how well a translation can capture the original spirit or intent of the text. I found, however, that I had a real sense of this woman and of the lives of those in her community; she is a straight talker. Her manner of speaking is eerily familiar to my non-Acadian ears, a result perhaps of Wayne Grady's translation, drawing parallels between the poverty of La Sagouine's life and that of others' elsewhere in Canada.
Here are some of my favourites among the pithy things she says:

What I think is that if you want to be happy you got to be able to hope for something better than what you got... It's not having a thing that makes a person happy, it's knowing you're going to get it.

We're not any closer or further from death, just because we got a calendar, and we can't stop the days from passing by just by giving a name to them. Well, maybe we can't stop them, but at least we can watch them go by and know that some of them are better than others.

La Sagouine was such a major part of the upgrowth of Acadian self-identity that she has even inspired an entire Theme Park! Who knew? It's a slick website, offering perhaps another literary place to go if you're already in the Maritimes for some LM Montgomery tourism.

**NB - I had earlier published misinformation!!! I'd misread and claimed it was written in Chiac; not so, an astute reader pointed out, rather it was the quite different Acadian French. That's the great thing about blogging, even when you make a mistake it can be quickly corrected rather than being in permanent print for you to cringe at forever... :)

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Happy New Year and A Happy Winner...

You'll never believe what we've drawn out of the shapka! Or maybe you will... it's the name of the winner of our draw. Wait, it's two names... a second copy has come into my possession, so it's going out via this draw as well. (I hardly need three copies of the same book on my shelves, now do I?)

Copy one of The Madonnas of Leningrad is going to Bridget at The Ravell'd Sleave. Email me your info, Bridget, and I'll get it right off to you. The second name was Eva at The Striped Armchair. Ditto, Eva, I'll send it along as soon as I know where to send it to!

Thanks everyone for joining in - I hope you'll still track down this wonderful read at the library and give it a go. It's worth it.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Russian Reading Kick-Off

***sticky post***
***scroll down for newer posts***

I've been eagerly awaiting the beginning of 2008 mainly because that meant the start of Ex Libris' Russian Reading Challenge! In honour of this great challenge, I'm offering up one of my favourite books of 2006 for the taking. It's The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean. This is a first novel, and although it was written in English by an American, the story is based in the Siege of Leningrad during WWII, jumping back and forth between one of the characters' experiences then and now, as she begins to suffer from Alzheimer's. It's an extraordinary novel, beautiful and memorable. If you'd like to read it, put your name down in the comments and I will draw for it on January 14, the New Year according to the Julian Calendar.

Picture Books with Yann Martel

For Christmas week, Martel suggested three picture books to our Prime Minister Stephen Harper for his reading list. He suggests that these books may be shared among families.

I've read the picture books; Imagine A Day written by Sarah L. Thomson and illustrated by Rob Gonsalves, and The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburg. They share a common denominator of mystery and imagination -the image here is from the gorgeous Imagine a Day, a book well worth looking through. If you are amazed by the detailed and whimsical illustrations you can also look for his corresponding picture book, Imagine a Night. And the Harris Burdick faintly reminds me of those "Uncolouring Books" which were popular in my 70's childhood, the ones with a few lines sketched out and a written prompt suggesting a picture that you would then create yourself. In this case, you are encouraged to write your own story to explain the images. As usual, Van Allsburg's pictures are extraordinary and a wonderful spur to the imagination.
Astrid Lindgren's The Brothers Lionheart is the third suggestion, a slightly longer book for older readers, and I recall looking at it some years ago, though all I remember is a story about two dying brothers, war/freedom fighters, and suicide. Hmm. Perhaps I'd better take another look and figure out why this is a suggested read.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

In Related News: Science Book Challenge!

My rash, excessive and exuberant joining of challenges in the last few weeks has had an unexpected effect: it has spawned a new and fascinating challenge which I now must be a part of. It's the Science Book Challenge, hosted by Bearcastle, who is a newbie to the book challenge world. As part of his company Ars Hermeneutica, besides the previously mentioned Sun Truck project, there is a great area of his website called Book Notes; this challenge wants people to contribute to that area. If you like reading science-related books, of any kind, join up and check out some of the book notes which already exist on his site.

Here are The Rules to the challenge:

1. Read three nonfiction books this year related to the theme "Living a Rational Life", broadly construed. Each book should have something to do with science, how science operates, or science's relationship with its surrounding culture. The books might be popularizations of science, they might be history, they might be biography, they might be anthologies.

2. After you've read it, write a short note about the book; 500 words would suffice. What goes in the note? The things you would tell a friend if you wanted to convince said friend to read it, too. Naturally, you can read some of the existing Book Notes for ideas.
Don't worry if you find that you've read a book someone else has also read; we welcome multiple notes on one title.

3. Get your book note to me and I'll post it with the other Book Notes in that section at Science Besieged.

4. Tell two other people about The Science-Book Challenge.

Well, three books this year I think I can do! And with all the fiction I've taken on lately, it's good to be prodded to keep reading something in the non-fiction realms as well.

Science Literacy for a new year

As Litbloggers, we all have a high regard for literacy. We understand the importance of being able to function in a text-based world. But beyond basic literacy, even beyond basic numeracy, there is a special focus on Scientific Literacy at Bearcastle, a wonderfully intelligent and wide-ranging blog I read regularly. The bloggers at Bearcastle run a company called Ars Hermeneutica, focused on encouraging widespread scientific literacy. Their current big project is the Sun Truck. This is a travelling educational exhibit designed to entice kids to get excited about science. As they say,

Targeted at pre-teens and their parents, The Sun Truck will awaken a sense of wonder and excitement in people who think that science has no personal relevance for them. We invite our visitors to see science for themselves and to know the natural world through their own senses. We encourage everyone to explore what is all around us each and every day. We want to show kids and adults first hand what science is and how it works. We want to enrich lives and empower citizens by opening minds to science as something that everyone can understand. The Sun Truck pilot program will deploy two mobile observatories across Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia. Together they will take 150 week-long visits to neighborhoods throughout the region, bringing a fresh, first-hand look at science within sight of 2 million people.

To build up a well educated and scientifically literate nation, they need help. If you are at all interested in this idea, pop over to their site, take a look, and spread the word. Or donate time, talent or money to their pursuits!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Akunin's State Counsellor

The State Counsellor / Boris Akunin
ARC - January release date (in UK)
trans. by Andrew Bromfield (the same translator who has a new translation of War & Peace now available from HarperCollins)

I was lucky enough to pick up one of these ARCs a couple of months ago. I've been saving it for the Russian Reading Challenge, and I started it a few minutes into the new year. As with every Akunin I've read, once I've begun it's hard to read anything else in between! In this 6th volume of the Erast Fandorin mystery series, Fandorin is a bit older, a bit more settled into his role as a government detective. For those who haven't read anything in this series before, the setting is pre-revolutionary Russia, and Fandorin is a handsome, charming private detective who has worked his way up into a position as State Counsellor, the head detective for Moscow province under the Governor General, Prince Dolgorukoi. The story begins with a murder -- a general is murdered on his private train and Fandorin is the prime suspect. He needs to clear his name by discovering who the killer was and why he killed the general, but he is thrown back onto his own devices for the investigation as his government role is usurped by a flashy policeman drawn in from St. Petersburg. Working independently -- though of course with the help of his trusty Japanese valet -- he charms a revolutionary young woman and works his way into the ranks of the young terrorists swarming through Moscow. As usual, his leaps of logic and implacable reasoning lead him toward success. These mysteries are light reading, but also surprisingly violent, perhaps reflecting the outlook of Georgian author Boris Akunin (real name Grigory Chkhartishvili). Each volume in the series so far is written in a slightly different style, reflecting the many possible types of mystery stories. This book is very much a political thriller, and Erast has to play the political game to survive this time around. My only complaint is that it was pretty clear to me by about halfway through who the 'bad guy' was, but it was still an entertaining read about one of my favourite detectives.
This series is immensely popular in Russia, with two of the volumes made into films, the earlier Turkish Gambit, and this very novel.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Acorn's Island

The Island means Minago / Milton Acorn
New Canada Press, c1975.

I've been so busy making reading plans for the new year, I haven't been looking back enough -- and I have a slew of reviews to catch up on. I'll call this my week of reviews and try to talk a bit about some of the books I read as the year was turning over.

First off, there's this book of poetry and essays, by Milton Acorn. I would not have read this one if it hadn't been chosen by Yann Martel in his quest to get our Prime Minister to read. But it was, and I thought it might also be an interesting book about PEI for the Canadian Book Challenge; I will of course be reading lots of LM Montgomery in this 100th year since the publication of Anne of Green Gables, but something PEI and not Montgomery sounded interesting. And interesting was what I got with this one.

Acorn was a poet and an activist, commonly known in his time as "The People's Poet". This book is published by NC Press, and is very seventies. On the copyright page, it reads "NC Press publishes books and pamphlets that will be of assistance in the Canadian People's struggle for national liberation." The poetry and especially the essay on the revolutionary history of Prince Edward Island gives me the impression that if Milton Acorn hadn't been a poet and a part of the literary community he'd have been just another of the nutty conspiracy theorists accosting everyone in the public library. This collection reflects its time as well as Acorn's strong political opinions.
Still, some of the poetry is quite striking, and the essay on PEI points out some fascinating items I hadn't considered, notwithstanding my BA in Canadian History. One of these things is how the fact that PEI was settled by tenant farmers of absentee landlords reflected itself in the landscape. The curving roads, the screening bluffs of trees, all assisted in the resistance to tax collectors approaching for their take. As he says when people remark how pretty PEI is, 'it was formed by revolution'. There is a feeling of dusty idealism to the poetry and the historical rants; still, it is somehow charming. In Yann Martel's essay to the Prime Minister about this book, he states :
The Island Means Minago represents yet another thing a book can be: a time capsule, a snapshot, a museum shelf of old dreams—that is, a reminder of a past future that never became (but is perhaps still worth dreaming about).
I concur. Here is one of the (non-political) poems I most enjoyed:
Trout Pond
The woods, spruce twisted
into spooky shapes
echo the trickle of water
from raised oars.
Above pale ripples
a redwing blackbird fastens
legs crooked and beak alert,
to a springing reed.
My father's whiteheaded now,
but oars whose tug
used to start my tendons
pull easily these years.
His line curls, his troutfly drops
as if on its own wings,
marks a vee on the mirrored
ragged spruceheads, and
a crane flapping past clouds.
(once again Blogger has no poetic soul and will not let me space the verse correctly. It is written in 4 stanzas, the first 3 with 4 lines and the final stanza holding 5. Argh.)

Monday, January 07, 2008

Chunkster Challenge, redone

Okay, one more challenge! My eye has been caught by the reinvigorated Chunkster Challenge, being hosted this year by So many books, so little time. Even though I didn't come close to meeting my goals with this one last year, it was fun. And I think it would make a lovely counterpoint to the Short Story Challenge -- a few stories, a reaaallllly long novel. Balance. So I'm going to sign up again, and fortunately, cross-challenge books are permitted. Yay, War & Peace!

The rules:
  • To qualify the book must be 450 pps regular type OR 750 pps large text.
  • You must read FOUR chunksters (one each quarter), you OBVIOUSLY may read more
    The Challenge will run Jan 7th, 2008 - Dec 20th, 2008 (the only chunky thing occupying my mind over Christmas is ME! AND I am using my foresight remembering my inbox on Dec 31st/ Jan 1 of THIS year when all the challenges ended). BUT any chunkster started after Jan 1 qualifies.
  • OH THERE WILL BE PRIZES - one a quarter. Prizes to be determined later ( so making the rules on the fly here, peeps). Think small and fun, not big and chunky.
  • Sharing reviews mandatory, format still to be determined.

My choices:

For now, as I begin War & Peace, I'll count it toward this Challenge as well as the Russian Reading Challenge. I'll see what else pops up in coming months, perhaps some Dickens, perhaps another Russian, perhaps something wonderfully odd and unexpected...

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Ukrainian Christmas greetings!

Today is Christmas Eve for the Eastern Orthodox. As it is also a Sunday, I had time to cook a huge and proper Christmas meal; perogies, cabbage rolls, borscht, various beet and mushroom and sauerkraut sides, fruit and poppy seed cake for dessert (well, okay, so I bought a few of these things). Now that I'm so completely stuffed that I can barely breathe, it's time to sit down and enjoy the gift I was given for the holiday -- the Pevear & Volokhonsky War & Peace! Yes, my dear husband knew how much I was coveting it and it appeared, like magic. I can't wait to dig in. Pity that work gets in the way of all this reading ahead! :) Now I feel like I'm really taking on a Russian Reading challenge...

Friday, January 04, 2008

Short Story Reading Challenge

Yes, another Challenge which is irresistible! I'm joining Kate's Short Story Reading Challenge - over the last year I've become particularly enamoured with short stories, and I know already there are a few collections I am going to be reading in 2008. So I am joining in on her very flexible challenge, and am taking Option 3 (or 4) : to read 10 collections of short fiction over the year (option 4 is to make all these by authors new to you - I'll give it a try but I know I want to read ten in either case).

I want to read some of the collections I already own, or can pick up at the library. Here are a few I'm thinking of reading (although I know I'll be picking more up as I come across them all year) :

1. We are not in Pakistan / Shauna Singh Baldwin

2. Blackouts / Craig Boyko

6. The Devastating Boys / Elizabeth Taylor

7. The Stories of Nabokov / Vladimir Nabokov

8. Alice Munro - something, I'm not sure what yet
9. Pleased to meet you / Caroline Adderson (on Kate's recommendation)

10. Something gothic and ghostly for the RIP challenge this fall; either Isak Dinesen or Elizabeth Gaskell's gothic stories, or perhaps Robertson Davies' collection of ghost stories.