Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Handwriting: Declining and Falling

Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting / Kitty Burns Florey
New York: Melville House, c2009.
190 p.

I received this book from Random House last week; I've already read through it and returned to certain pages to reread them. It's a wonderful book! With all the interest in snail mail penpals lately over at Eva's and Emily's, I thought that there may be a few more of you out there who would find this book fascinating. Florey's fervour about the process and history of handwriting is catching, and she talked further about it and this book over at Intelligent Life, on January 23, National Handwriting Day, of course!

Here's a bit of the blurb from the book jacket itself:

Florey tackles the importance of writing by hand and its place in our increasingly electronic society in this fascinating exploration of the history of handwriting. Weaving together the evolution of writing implements and scripts, pen-collecting societies, the golden age of American penmanship, the growth in popularity of handwriting analysis, and the many aficionados who still prefer scribbling on paper to tapping on keys, she asks the question: Is writing by hand really no longer necessary in today’s busy world?

If you have any interest in handwriting or writing implements you will find this book an absorbing read. Florey starts with her own life, talking about the training she received in elementary school in the Palmer Method of cursive writing. I have vague memories of the same; it's the strange 2 shaped Q that I recall. I never could force myself to create that shape, instead I copied the O and put a line through it. Handwriting, both everyday and fancier calligraphy, has always interested me. For a while there in my early teens I only wanted to write with a fountain pen, convinced I had been born into the wrong century. My father indulged me and printed up a batch of stationery in his print shop, ecru paper with a beautiful silhouette of a fountain pen across the top, with my name imprinted under it. That was an unforgettable gift!

A while ago (actually, in 2006) there was an article in the Toronto Star bemoaning the lost ability of young people to write in cursive. I remarked on it then and still feel that there is a place for proper cursive instruction in schools, even though that does make me sound like an old fuddy duddy. Florey discusses some of the different kinds of handwriting taught these days, seemingly mostly by homeschoolers, using programs such as the Getty-Dubay system. She also suggests that one of the reasons men especially are known for their bad writing is that cursive is taught in Grade 3, when girls are still ahead of boys in their development, and cursive is not reinforced in later years but it is simply taken for granted that students can scribble as needed. She writes in a delightfully humorous manner, tossing in hilarious random footnotes, and each tidbit was really entertaining. Along with the chapters on handwriting history and methods, pens and inks, manuscripts and graffiti, she includes sections about graphology. Handwriting analysis, like a horoscope, seems reliable to the analyzee, she suggests, because of the Aunt Fanny effect: "This could apply to you, me or my Aunt Fanny!" She delineates the differences between graphology and graphoanalysis, the latter created by a man appropriately named Milton Bunker. I also discovered that something I considered a deformity in elementary school is actually a well-known (and now very retro-cool) physical phenomenon in habitual handwriters: the lumpy callous on the left side of the middle finger of my right hand, where the pen sits, is called the Writer's Bump! Also, original quill pens were adaptable to righties or lefties; depending on which side of the bird they were plucked from, quills curved in slightly different directions. Along with these bits of useful dinner-party conversational gambits the book has numerous illustrations, of pens, personalities, penmanship samples, and various scripts. Florey delights in the joys and rewards of legible, attractive handwriting and encourages us to take pleasure in our own hand as well. It's an inspiring, funny and enlightening read for anyone who enjoys writing, pens, inks, stationery, letters, or the history of social movements. Did you know that good handwriting was once an indication of moral superiority? Well, all the more incentive to work on it now! Read this; you won't be disappointed.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Happy Chinese New Year!

January 26 begins the Year of the Ox! To celebrate what is known as the Year of the Ox, or Bull, or Water Buffalo, here is a list of possible Oxen themed reads:

Everyone knows the legend of Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox, Babe. Like everything American they are big enough to settle their big new country. And soon there will be a movie.

2. The Ox-Cart Man / Donald Hall, illus. by Barbara Cooney.

Originally a poem, and much revised into a picture book, this lovely old-fashioned story takes us through a country year with a self-sufficient family. This 18th century farming family uses an ox-cart to take their goods to market, where they sell everything including the ox and the cart in order to buy the things they need. The ox-cart man walks home to begin building another cart and raising another ox for next year. Perfectly illustrated by the inimitable Barbara Cooney.

3. The Story of Ferdinand / Munro Leaf

Okay, so Ferdinand is a bull, not an ox, but he is so delightfully charming I had to include him. I loved Ferdinand the peacenik bovine from the time I was a child. Just because Ferdinand is a bull doesn't mean he wants to be in a bullfight; he'd rather sit and smell the flowers -- until the day that five men come to find the meanest bull around for the bullring, and Ferdinand just happens to sit on a bee at that moment. The pacifist sensibilities of the story still hold up; it was published at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War and was seen by some as a comment on that situation. You can also watch a Disneyfied film from 1938.

Although in previous years I've chosen 5 representative books for the animal, this one was much more difficult! Even though I've been mulling it over for the past year I have only come up with three ox related stories. Please share if you have any more!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Thousand Shades of Blue

Victoria, BC: Orca Books, c2008.
240 p.

I got this YA novel from the library a couple of weeks ago, and as many of you noticed, the cover art is beautiful. It's collage work by Janice Kun, and I really think it reflects the tone of the story; wide-open, tropical, with a strong dark outline of a teenage girl as its focus.

The story revolves around Rachel, the middle child of a struggling family from Hamilton, Ontario. There are simmering issues in this family that we slowly become aware of -- primary in these is the fact that the oldest daughter Emma is brain damaged and has been put into an institution. This trauma is shattering the family, and their father comes up with the brilliant idea that they should take a year-long sailing trip to the Bahamas. As Rachel says:

The reason we were in the Bahamas in the first place was, according to my parents, to spend quality time together as a family. Don't laugh. Although, why not? Four people who could hardly stand each other on a good day moving on to a small boat together? I would have laughed if it wasn't my life that was getting turned upside down.

But this journey leads to self-examination and a tentative family connection by the end. The conclusion was very well done, not pat or simple, but fraught with complexity and yet possibility. I enjoyed the novel; the writing style was realistic, delineating each character believably. Rachel has a strong presence, and although she is full of teen angst, she is also a good kid, and clearly still part of her family. Her voice is at the exact right pitch; obviously teenaged and not full of unlikely adult insights. Her younger brother (wonderfully geeky Tim) and her parents are each individuals as well, and their interrelationships are not perfect but entirely comprehensible. It's actually a nice family to read about -- complex without stereotypes, a family you are pulling for. All of the information about sailing, the boat itself and the waterways they travel, is part of the story, and is fascinating and atmospheric. Stevenson doesn't fall into the trap of sticking in dull research just to get it in there; each element adds to the book.

The storyline develops the topics of autonomy, responsibility, sexual mores, and basic angst. It's well-done and brings up the idea of tolerance of shades of grey in life; in the title drop, Rachel muses that just as in the depth of ocean water:

Two feet and ten feet are shades of blue as different as misery and bliss, but when you are floating somewhere in between, it's not so easy to know if you have enough: enough happiness, enough love, enough trust. Our family is far from perfect, but maybe there's still enough there to keep us going. Maybe there's enough water under our keel to keep us afloat.

It's a well-written, original tale of a year in a family's life. Recommended.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Premio Dardos award

I haven't received one of these blog awards in a while now, so thank you, Save Ophelia! It's the Premio Dardos award:

The Premio Dardos Award aims to acknowledge the values that every blogger shows in their effort to transmit cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values every day. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.

By the rules, I am supposed to choose 15 blogs to pass this on to. But, while I do appreciate being recommended like this-- I have decided that I am uncomfortable picking a finite number of favourites -- I rather feel like I am picking teams in middle school and someone will be unintentionally left out and get their feelings hurt. So, I won't be selecting any names for awards and memes anymore: I keep my favourites in my blogroll which I am always adding to, and which can be perused for many, many suggestions as to fabulous blog reading. I appreciate the honour, and hope you will all realize that I pass on all honours to all of you, my wonderful bloggy associates.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Wild Nights!

Wild Nights! : stories about the last days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway / Joyce Carol Oates
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2008.

This is a book I received from HarperCollins last fall; but I got distracted and have just now read it. It's a collection of five stories, previously published, each focusing on one iconic American writer. Because it is Joyce Carol Oates writing, each story is structurally balanced. The stories are also interesting by virtue of their style; she uses the style of each writer while writing about them. Poe and Hemingway come across most strongly, and it reveals her ability to use both style and substance to reflect her ideas.

The two stories I found most successful, or personally interesting anyhow, were the two using Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allen Poe as their starting points. Each used the character of the writer but altered it so that we weren't dealing with the reality of each individual. The three other stories, based on Henry James, Samuel Clemens and Ernest Hemingway, proposed to reveal to us the interior lives of these authors' last days. There is a standard disclaimer on the copyright page -- "Wild Nights! is a work of fiction. The characterizations and incidents presented are totally the product of the author's imagination and have no basis in the real lives of the authors depicted." In addition, she does state at the end of the book what led her to create each story; suggestions from unfinished manuscripts, authors' letters, biographies etc.

Nevertheless, I still feel uncomfortable with the idea of using real people as the main character in an introspective piece of fiction. I've always found it a bit questionable. I have a distaste for putting words, or worse, thoughts, in an actual person's voice. It seems to me like an ontological violation, and I vastly preferred the stories here which did not depend on that trope.

All five stories are rather dark, describing dysfunction and distress. I'll look more closely at my favourite of the five, "EDickinsonRepliLuxe". In this futuristic tale, a lonely couple, the Krims, decide to purchase a RepliLux of Emily Dickinson; this is a clone of sorts. They imagine it will be a comfort, another being in the house and so on. Yet she turns out to be a shy, neurotic figure gliding about the house silently. At this point I was thinking: they were surprised by this why? It is a clone of a famous recluse after all. But Oates makes this silent figure a powerful one; her perceptions and thoughts become of paramount importance to the wife, who is driven to figure out what Emily is thinking, to become close friends and to share that interior life which in its withholding is powerful. The husband, on the other hand, takes a more traditional approach to asserting his power over the Emily; he enters her room and tries to force himself on her. Finding that the clone is not anatomically correct he does not technically succeed, but the attempt destroys the sympathy between the household members and Mrs. Krim disappears with the Emily. Although the emphasis on Emily being the possession of Mr. Krim is a little heavy handed in this scene, the story is still elegantly told. It's a sad, brief tale looking at loneliness, at powerless vs. powerful, and what being human means. Intriguing.

Listen to Joyce Carol Oates discuss this book on NPR.
Read an excerpt on her website.

Blog reviews at:
In Laurie's Mind
The Library Ladder

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Another thousand or so to add to the TBR...

I've just noticed the Guardian is posting a list of their choices for "1000 Novels Everyone Must Read".

So far they've created a list of Crime Books and the latest selections are on the theme of Love... and although I question the inclusion of some of the titles under the aegis of love stories, as always, a list is entertaining to scroll through. They've even included a couple of my favourites -- Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle and Rosamond Lehmann's The Weather in the Streets and The Echoing Grove.

Take a look yourself if you need a list fix!

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Valley

Toronto: Key Porter, c2008.
292 p.

This first adult novel by YA author Gayle Friesen shows its antecedents. I enjoy Friesen's YA novels, notably Janey's Girl, which shares many of the issues focused on in The Valley. I so wanted to love this book -- I enjoy Friesen's writing, and the themes of religious questioning and family legacies held great interest. However, it seemed to me in the end to be a YA novel which outgrew its genesis.

It's the story of Gloria, a woman suffering from lengthy depression, who is returning to her family farm in BC after many years living away. She comes from a Mennonite community and at 17 had left the community and her faith, running away to Winnipeg with one of her best friends. Now she is returning, with her 15 yr old daughter Julia in tow. We're not exactly sure why they've decided to go back, and the details surrounding her departure in the first place are slowly meted out until we are finally able to reconstruct her childhood trauma and the cause of all her years of depression, just in time for a touching, sentimental conclusion.

Unfortunately, the story did not really catch me. The trauma which affects Gloria is extended over many years; nearly twenty, in fact. Would she really have let herself block out the events of her childhood for so long, when it was destroying her marriage and her ability to mother Julia, even while she was still speaking and visiting with her parents, and in close, constant contact with the friend with whom she had left BC? Perhaps, but it did take me out of the story somewhat, not sure I really believed it. Also, it is the events of Gloria's teenage years which are the meat of the story, not at all her life -- actual or emotional -- as an adult. Her daughter Julia is also a major character in her own right. There are many elements of the story which echo YA concerns. It's a search for Truth, a paean to the power of friendship, a struggle to find one's place within one's family and in the wider world, and an examination of faith and beliefs. There are also stylistic techniques which are strongly reminiscent of YA literature; slang, frequent pop culture references, descriptions of clothing and appearances.

Don't get me wrong, I read a fair bit of YA and enjoy it. There is nothing wrong with this book because it has YA overtones. I found it jarring, however, that the tone and storyline of the novel seemed so YA, while the sensibility and narrative voice were definitely adult. Perhaps that reflects Gloria rather well; she's an adult -- a mother -- but is emotionally at the level of her teenage self. The adolescent issues of struggle with one's mother run both ways for her, both as Julia's mother and with her own Mennonite mother. It's this flaw in Gloria that ultimately makes me feel that her final insights and her new lease on life are rather sad, almost glib, rather than uplifting. Disappointingly, I have to give this only a so-so rating, but hold great hopes that Friesen's next book will be more in my line.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

2009, International Year of Astronomy

I enjoyed reading along with International Polar Year in 07/08, and think following along with the International Year of Astronomy will also be fun. Their site has lots to explore, including a blog called Cosmic Diary, written by a large group of international astronomers, a large selection of images as part of an Earth to the Universe project, a whole project about Dark Skies, and many other things to discover.

I think that this will fit in perfectly to the Science Book Challenge -- I'll read astronomy books as part of my ongoing challenge. I have one on hand right now that I was thinking of reading:

And to give you a bit of a laugh, not taking ourselves too seriously:

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Zweig's Post Office Girl

The Post-Office Girl / Stefan Zweig; translated by Joel Rotenberg.
New York : NYRB, c2008.
257 p.

I've had a bit of a slow start to my reading year, but have just been electrified by this fantastic novel. It was a stunning, powerful book which I couldn't stop reading, despite the slightly odd cover. It's edgy and despairing and beautifully written.

It's the story of Christine Hoflehner, a 28 yr old provincial post office clerk in Austria. It's post-WWI; her life has been stunted by the war, which has taken up the years of her youth. She lives in one musty attic room with her mother and spends her days at her enervatingly boring job, sitting behind a grille in a small office, alone all day. Her married siblings don't visit often, rather leaving Christine in charge of her invalid mother. This dreary life changes when they receive a telegram from her Aunt Klara, who had emigrated to the United States before the war and is now a wealthy woman. Klara is visiting a resort in Switzerland and wants them to join her. Christine goes to the posh resort, arriving with one small straw suitcase, wearing her provincial yellow coat. Her aunt makes her over, cutting her long braids into a glamorous bob and buying her stylish sporting clothes. Christine discovers a whole new youthful self and for one glorious week is the belle of the resort, sought after and feted by all. Then, all crashes down around her when her aunt and uncle, on the strength of a whispered rumour, suddenly decamp and send her home.

This giving and snatching away of a better life embitters Christine. She can't stand the people, the impoverished surroundings or the awful job she holds in Klein-Reifling; rage at poverty crushes her and the future looks bleak and endless, worse than before her experience of wealth. On her arrival home she discovers that her mother has died, but this is just another burden laid on her shoulders. She buries her mother and disperses the wordly goods, paltry as they are, among the siblings. Then:

At last they've gone. Christine throws the window open. The smell is suffocating, the smell of stale cigarette smoke, bad food, wet clothes, the smell of the old woman's dread and worry and wheezing, the awful smell of poverty. How terrible it is to have to live here, and why, who's it for? Why breathe this in day after day, knowing that there's another world out there somewhere, the real one, and in herself another person, who is suffocating, being poisoned, in this miasma. Her nerves are jangling. She throws herself down onto the bed fully clothed, biting down hard on the pillow to keep from screaming with helpless hatred. Because suddenly she hates everyone and everything, herself and everyone else, wealth and poverty, everything about this hard, unendurable, incomprehensible life.

The second part of the novel deals with Christine's readjustment to life back in her small village, alone now. She is agonizingly unhappy and decides to splurge and go to Vienna on the train. She does so, but it disappoints; the high life is not available to her. Since her sister lives in Vienna, she decides to visit so the trip isn't a total waste. In the family's company she meets Ferdinand, an old war friend of her brother-in-law's, a man who spent six years in the war and as a POW in Russia. He is understandably a bit messed up, and the fact that there is widespread unemployment in Austria -- as a 30 yr old war veteran he must scrabble for temporary employment -- makes him very unhappy. He starts out pleased to have run across Franzl but quickly reveals his disaffection:

"No, my friend, I'm past that. I'm not going to buy the line that others are worse off, no one's going to convince me that I was 'lucky' because I've still got all my arms and legs and I don't walk on crutches. No one's going to convince me that breathing and getting fed is all it takes to make everything all right. I don't believe in anything anymore, not gods or governments or the meaning of life, nothing, as long as I feel I haven't got what's rightfully mine, my rightful place in life, and as long as I don't have that I'm going to keep on saying I've been robbed and cheated. I'm not going to let up until I feel I'm living my true life and not getting the dregs, what other people toss out or couldn't stomach. Can you understand that?"
Everyone looked up quickly. A loud "yes" full of feeling, had come from somewhere. Christine flushed when she saw them all looking at her. She'd thought "yes," she knew she'd felt it strongly, but the word had just slipped out.

Christine is the flame and Ferdinand the dry tinder, and when they meet the situation becomes combustible. They start meeting every weekend, but soon they realize there isn't money left for Christine to continue taking the train to Vienna weekly. Shame consumes Ferdinand because he has no money for her or any home to take her to, and they start to consider suicide. Then they get another idea...

I won't tell you what that is, because it is part of the genius of the book that every page is a surprise, further revealing the agonies of inescapable poverty. Reading this book is the perfect antidote to any La-Boheme-style romanticization of poverty. It reveals the ugliness, both physical and spiritual, that comes from constant want. It is shocking and yet, sadly, recognizable and relevant. This book is apparently a bit of an anomaly among Zweig's works; it is more desperate and raw than his earlier books. Not having read anything else by him yet, I can't comment on that, but on the strength of this one I am going to continue to search out his work. Interesting tidbit: this was unpublished at the time of his death (a suicide pact with his wife in 1942), and was only published in German in 1982. It is still immensely powerful, and was a truly memorable reading experience.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Return of Weekly Geeks

Weekly Geeks is back! Thanks to the dedicated souls who took Dewey's creation on, we have a new 'assignment'. This week's challenge is as follows:

In the spirit of the amazing community building that Dewey was so good at, tell us about your favorite blogs, the ones you have bookmarked or subscribe to in your Google Reader, that you visit on a regular basis. Tell us what it is about these blogs that you love, that inspire or educate you or make you laugh. Be sure to link to them so we can find them too.

As you may be able to tell from my blogroll, I follow many, many of your writings. I'm continually finding more to add as well -- there are so many great blogs I read regularly! Not knowing quite how to choose just a few, I am going to note here some of the ones that I've been reading the longest, since the beginning of my blogging life.

The Book Mine Set

John is the originator of the Canadian Book Challenge, one of my personal favourites. He reviews a lot of short stories, children's books and poetry, and posts weekly word games. He is a very Canadian blogger admirable for his energy and consistency in his blogging; how does he do it with small kids and a full time job? I stand in awe.


Cipriano reliably offers great quotes and very personal reviews of the books he's reading. Somehow he always has hilarious experiences while reading in cafes and food courts; I know I will end up laughing while reading his posts. Furthermore, he shares his original poetry, which is darned good.

So Many Books

Stefanie is a library student and is full of enthusiasm; she reminds me of why I started out in this field in the first place. She is a brilliant blogger who reads and blogs about an intimidating number of classics (Herodotus or Emerson, anyone?). I also love her posts, with photos, about the luscious vegan food she and her husband prepare for their holidays and celebrations. Yum! Another inspiration.

Tripping Toward Lucidity

Andi is always entertaining and posts about being a college instructor and a student simultaneously. As part of the team behind Estella's Revenge, she has also been a big influence on me since I began blogging. All that bookish goodness! She has a personal, humorous touch and a wide ranging reading list that I admire.

A Striped Armchair

Eva is such an energetic reader - she's an inspiration. She reads a lot of non-fiction, which I can always use suggestions about as I never really read enough. Her brilliant suggestions for science reading as well as for her own challenge, the World Citizen Challenge, will keep me reading for years.

A Work in Progress

Danielle reads constantly! She always has interesting suggestions on mystery reading, among others, and shares images of her beautiful needlework as well. I enjoy catching up on the latest English fiction and historical books coming out when I read her posts; she is always up on the latest things. And nobody can do lists like Danielle. :)

And there are so many others that I follow regularly, but this list has to stop somewhere!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Library Loot

Eva over at The Striped Armchair has come up with a great idea; a weekly post of your library finds! Since I am always finding tempting items I thought this would be a good one to participate in. I often bring books home, flip through them and end up not even reading them, but the browsing is half the fun!

This week's haul:

The Post Office Girl / Stefan Zweig

A Thousand Shades of Blue / Robin Stevenson (YA)

Beatitudes / Hermenegilde Chiasson (poetry)

Reading by Lightning / Joan Thomas

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Magician's Book winners

First of all, Merry Christmas to all the Ukrainians out there! If I had a Cyrillic keyboard I could wish you a proper holiday. :)

As my Christmas gift to you all, I've drawn the 3 winners for Laura Miller's The Magician's Book. They are:

Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness

Kate from Kate's Book Blog

JaneFan from The Bookworm's Hideout

Congratulations to the winners!
But don't lose hope, if you didn't win this time around, pop over to Fresh Ink Books, where Sandra has a giveaway of this book in the works. Good luck!

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Booklovers' links for the New Year

Here's a book we all need as we head into another year of reading from our vast lists. I was tempted when I found a mention of this in January Magazine; reviewer Steven Miller summarizes it in the following way:

In just five short chapters, Leveen explores audio books (one of my New Year’s resolutions is to be less snobbish about reading a book with my ears), how to develop a sensible “to be read” list (which he agreeably calls a “List of Candidates”), how to regain the feeling of being in “book love,” and offers a passionate defense of marginalia (the writers of which he calls “footprint leavers”).


Don't forget, you have until the 6th to enter my giveaway for Laura Miller's The Magician's Book. But there is another one I'd like to point out.

Remember when I talked about local author R.J. Anderson's faerie story, Knife? Well, she's giving a copy away and you can enter until Jan. 8. This book looks great, and you'll have a chance to read one of the first copies. And when you click over you can also read a few of her entertaining posts!

And just because it's beautiful, take a look at the Vancouver based Regional Assembly of Text. What a store! If you like stationary and paper goods as well as vintage typewriters, you'll wish you lived in Vancouver. I love their idea of regular letter writing nights. I need to get back in the habit of sending postal mail; I used to quite often!