Friday, February 27, 2009

A Friday tour

Since it's Friday and I've been catching up on some of my blog reading I'll share some of the links I've enjoyed:

Maryb over at Alone with Each Other has found a new perfume called In the Library! It's supposed to represent fine leather bindings and wood polish -- all I can say is I hope it doesn't smell like the public libraries I've worked in. Eau de Body Odour with a hint of musty doesn't seem appealing to me! Read the comments on her post for a wonderful description of how lovely a library can smell to a young boy.

Good news from Europa Editions, the American publisher of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a book dear to us all due to its recommendation from Dewey. In this season of publishers cutting back on staff, on marketing, on publishing itself, a small and quirky press dedicated to publishing works in translation has turned a profit. Could this be a good resource for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge? (Discovered at January Magazine.)

Local author R.J. Anderson is having her book launch for Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter (also known as Knife in the UK) here in my hometown next month! Yay! Can't wait.

Okay, okay, so I know it's from Oprah's Book Club site, but it's fascinating! What Tolstoy had on his bookshelf -- here's a list of 50 books he felt influenced his writing. Did you know he read Lao Tzu and Buddha?

Why buy used books? Check out this great article on the environmental benefits of buying used. Then read Christine's reasons behind her love for second-hand books. (I love them too. But Christine has found more interesting notes scribbled in her purchases than I ever have.)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Hatbox Letters

The Hatbox Letters / Beth Powning
Toronto: Knopf, c2004.
348 p.

This novel is a meditation on grief; the main character, Kate Harding, progresses through her sorrow after her husband Tom dies suddenly from a heart attack at age 50. I picked it up after having it on my list for a few years, mainly because it's set in New Brunswick and it has to do with letters. I am glad I finally did so, as the regal, measured writing of the first few chapters affected me more than I had first realized. I began reading this on a Sunday morning, and realized much later in the day that I'd had a musical phrase repeatedly running in my mind for no good reason. The descriptive strength of her writing, using all the senses and full of emotion, apparently called forth a soundtrack from the corners of my memory. This was a first!

I found that the structure and pace of the book, although considered slow moving by many readers, fit this novel perfectly. The pace of the storytelling matches the pace of Kate's recovery and return to life. The story moves slowly; time is thick and slow, like her perceptions of life without Tom, and there is not a lot of narrative action to carry you along. The movement is inside of Kate and her thoughts, feelings, reactions to life are what change by the end of the book.

The story told is not just about Kate, however. The story is enriched by Kate's discovery of her grandparents' life through their letters. At the same time as Kate's being left alone and at loose ends by the death of her husband, the family house in Shepton, Connecticut is being sold and she ends up with nine hatboxes from the attic, full of family papers. She sorts the papers and discovers that her grandparents' happy marriage was based on tragedy; their youth was scarred by the kind of deaths common to an era without much in the way of antibiotics or vaccinations. Their lives, revealing how love and contentment are possibilities even after great loss, sustain her in her sorrow. There is another element which adds forward movement to the book -- an old acquaintance of Kate and Tom's from the days when their children were young reappears in New Brunswick. Divorced from his wife, he is insistent about reconnecting with Kate, but in an obsessive manner which disturbs her. His behaviour, born of his refusal to let go of the tragedies of his past, subtly suggests that Kate needs to find another way to move forward.

The structure of the book was intriguing; as I've mentioned, the slow pacing is quite noticeable and takes a while to adjust to. Once I was hooked into the story, I could see that pace as a deliberate choice, reflecting the situation of our main character. It was also interesting, to me anyhow, to note that the parts about her grandparents' lives were written in the past tense while the sections in the present day are all in the historical present:

Kate leans in the doorway of the living room, arms crossed, the sleeves of a cotton sweater pushed to her elbows... In the corner is a stack of nine antique hatboxes. She has not touched them since they were set down a week ago, delivered by her sister, who drove them up from Hartford. ... Their smell has begun to permeate the room even though the windows are open. It is the smell of her grandparents attic, a smell she has not forgotten but thought had vanished, like the past itself. That it has not and is still here, the aroma of horsehair and leather, of apples and musty quilts, of old dresses and satin ribbons -- that this smell still exists here in this Canadian river valley, six hundred miles north of her grandparents' house, is disquieting. It awakens a feeling in Kate that she remembers from childhood, composed of odd emotional strands: love, sorrow, pain, contentment.

Beth Powning is also known as a nature writer, and has written a memoir about the loss of a child; both of these experiences are fully present in this novel. Her descriptive abilities are stunning, each sense called upon so that you feel as if you are in Kate's old vinyl-floored kitchen, listening to the evening rain fall, feeling the cool damp breeze sifting through the window screens as she sits motionless, remembering. This evocation of the natural world was one of the rewards for sticking with the story. Kate's elaborate garden is also very important to her, it was something she and Tom built up together, and at the beginning the idea of having to deal with it all overwhelms her. By the end she has moved to a place where she is once again looking forward to caring for the garden, but in a new way. This is an introspective, meditative novel, and I think you have to be in just the right mood for it. It does lag in parts, but I was already so immersed in Kate's New Brunswick surroundings and her family history that I wanted to keep reading anyhow.

I can't say much against a book which results in my spontaneously humming Beethoven's 7th Symphony, 2nd movement for the rest of the day. It's like the emotion of the music was written into a book, and it's this one. Gorgeous book, gorgeous heartbreaking music.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Kate's Food & Fiction Meme

I spent last week away from my blog, and a few of those days involved visiting with my oldest friend, someone I've known since age four. A lot of that time passed quickly in laughter and reminiscences, so when I saw Kate's Food & Fiction meme, it fit right in to all the recent rehashing of childhood. All those books my friend and I read (we were the bookish, bespectacled girls at the front of the classroom) and traded back and forth and used for the source of our Halloween costumes --we were even inspired us to try the food our favourite characters ate. So you can see that this meme is quite timely! Here it is:

Food from fiction that you'd like to sample:

There are quite a few books that I recall causing gustatory dreams; so much so that I now own the Little House cookbook and one called Aunt Maud's Recipe Book -- LMM's family recipes. I loved the idea of raspberry cordial from Anne of Green Gables, and I am sure that my fixation with tea comes straight from Anne and Diana's pretension to adulthood in serving tea to one another. In Emily of New Moon there is mention of the pickles that the New Moon ladies are known for, and that seriously made me want to make my own pickles. Thank goodness my mother was skilled at it and could teach me! Then there are all those Enid Blyton books that made me want some ginger beer.

From The Magician's Nephew, in the Narnia series, I have always wished I could try the toffee tree which grew from a candy in Polly and Digory's pockets. Here's a land that is newly formed and still magical enough to grow a tree from the stickily wrapped toffee he and Polly plant:

The low early sunshine was streaming through the wood and the grass was grey with dew and the cobwebs were like silver. Just beside them was a little, very dark wooded tree, about the size of an apple tree. The leaves were whitish and rather papery, like the herb called honesty, and it was loaded with little brown fruits that looked rather like dates.... Polly and Digory got to work on the toffee-tree. The fruit was delicious; not exactly like toffee - softer for one thing, and juicy - but like fruit which reminded one of toffee.

A fictional meal you would like to have attended:

The Mad Hatter's tea party, of course! It still makes me laugh reading it over. But there are many more I'd like to sit in on.

Any of the Austin family dinners from Madeleine L'Engle's books; they are always so genteel and discuss Bach and science while Mother sits down calm and fresh from making a huge meal for all six of them plus various last-minute guests.

Or, while not a meal per se, the Sunday School picnic from Anne of Green Gables when ice cream is still a novelty and Anne tastes it for the first time. It was only one page long but Anne's first church picnic filled me with longing to be in Avonlea; I always felt like I was missing a party.

A memorable work of fiction set in a restaurant or a café:

Anne DeGrace's Wind Tails is a novel of many stories. It is centred around Cass' Roadside Diner, in an Albertan mountain pass, and follows a large cast of characters who move to, from and back to the diner again. With hitchhikers, truck drivers, bored policemen, hippies and diner staff alike taking their parts, this is a varied collection of tales to fascinate you.

And perhaps not set in a restaurant, but food related is the iconic short story "To Serve Man", by Damon Knight.

Food you've tried that didn't live up to the expectations raised by a fictional account:

As everyone's been mentioning, from reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe I thought that Turkish Delight would be heavenly. It wasn't.

Or how about a book that didn't live up to the memory of food? I read Miss Osborne the Mop around Grade 3 or so, and the main thing I remembered about it was that the female character found a magic pair of glasses that would bring to life anything looked at through them. She and her boy companion look at a chocolate cake in a magazine and it pops into reality, and my goodness, how that cake lived in three layer glory in my imagination, shining with its chocolatey potential. How disappointed I was upon rereading it when I found that the children were unsatisfied with the cake; it didn't fill them or please them the way a Really Real cake would have. I suppose there's a didactic lesson to be learned there, since the rest of the book was mainly about housecleaning.

An unappetizing food description from fiction:

From one of my favourites from childhood, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, a lesson in how not to make cornmeal mush:

Toward evening they set her to the easiest task they could devise -- the making of corn pudding. The corn meal had to be added to the boiling kettle a pinch at a time. Before half of it was consumed, Kit's patience ran out. The smoke made her eyes water, and there was a smarting blister on one thumb. She suspected that Judith had invented the irksome procedure just to keep her busy, and in a burst of resentment she poured in the remaining cupful all at once. She learned her mistake when the lumpy indigestible mess was ladled onto her wooden trencher. There was nothing else for supper. After one shocked stare, the family downed the mess in a silence that made Kit writhe.

A recipe you've tried or a meal you've recreated from fiction:

I've had madeleines and linden flower tea in honour of Proust (though I must say that linden itself turns rather slimy which is a bit offputting when cleaning the pot. Use teabags.)

As for a direct recipe, I once made banana filled cinnamon buns from a recipe in one of Diane Mott Davidson's mystery novels. It was for a library luncheon and the dough was rising so much it was overflowing the mixing bowl so I quickly tried to fill it and roll it out before it became The Blob. It was my first try at yeast bread and despite everything they turned out AMAZING and everyone asked which bakery I'd got them at. He he he.

Food you associate with reading:

I don't really associate anything much besides tea. I love to have a cup of tea with my reading, which often leads to a surfeit of caffeine, all the better to stay up late reading... Otherwise I don't eat and read at the same time very often; I can't recall doing it very often as a child either.

Your favourite food-focused book/writer:

I discovered Colette Rossant and have really enjoyed her family memoirs, especially Apricots on the Nile. She is a marvellous writer who interweaves family and social history, and includes recipes. Her writing is completely infused with nostalgia and is irresistible. She is part French and part Egyptian, but grew up in Cairo in her paternal grandparents' household, and every element of all those things shows up in her books. They are a delight.

I've also just finished a wonderful book, Where our food comes from, by Gary Paul Nabhan, about the importance of seeds and maintaining genetic diversity in the world's food supply. He's an ethnobiologist (what a job!) and a professor and the book traces Nikolai Vavilov's footsteps through the world's centres of diversity. Fascinating, and up for a full review soon.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Martin Pippin and Tales of Love

New York: Lippincott, 1949, c1922.
305 p.

This is a lovely story, written by poet, librettist and author Eleanor Farjeon. I've read and loved some of her other work, but this is acknowledged as one of her best. It is also very hard to get hold of. I finally found it through interlibrary loan and sped through it this week. I wanted to read it because it was by Farjeon, and hadn't realized that in its form of interlocking tales it would be perfect for Valentine's Day!

It is the story of Martin Pippin, a wandering minstrel who comes across a young man, Robin Rue, crying for the loss of his sweetheart Gillian. She has been locked up in the wellhouse in the apple orchard by her father, guarded by "six young milkmaids, sworn virgins and man-haters all", Joscelyn, Joan, Jessica, Jane, Jennifer, and Joyce. Martin takes on the task of restoring Gillian to Robin, and to do so he must inveigle his way into the orchard and try to get the six keys to the padlock on the wellhouse from the six girls. While wondering what to do about Gillian, the girls are told by a gypsy that:

Nothing but a new love tale will overcome her broodings, and where the case is obstinate one only will not suffice. You say she has pined upon her love six months. Let her be told six brand-new love tales, tales which no woman ever heard before, and I think she will be cured.

When Martin appears he offers to tell them such new tales. The girls are also swayed by the fact that they are terribly bored in their apple orchard life, and Martin is quite a lot of fun.

The story begins with a children's rhyme played as a game, and the music is included at the back of the book. Farjeon has created this as well as many songs and rhymes within the text; this is one of her strengths in all of her work, and in her fabulous poetry. The children play this game but do not know the source of it, from the depths of the murky past, oh, some two or three years ago. Farjeon will now tell us the real story, that of Martin Pippin. Thus there are really two framing stories, and the tales that Martin tells are further enclosed. Farjeon's writing style is very dream-like and suits these fairy tales perfectly. Both the entire book taken as one piece and each of the tales included are fairy tales, love stories with obstacles to be overcome, elements of magic, and the unreal quality of a dream. They are beautiful and the stories are so interwoven that at certain points Martin interrupts his own telling to question the girls as to whether he should continue, since we hear their reactions as we hear the story ourselves. He convinces them each, one by one, to give up their dislike of men and to regain belief in love (and, incidentally, to give him their key).

Martin's tales are all original, and each is different in form, but all are romances in the full sense. Lots of chivalry, magic, royalty, mistaken identities and bittersweet happy endings. The tales he tells are as follows:

The King's Barn in which a king with only a barn left to his name finds his true love by learning blacksmithing and trying to join a monastery,

Young Gerard in which an orphan shepherd boy and the lord's daughter find love after she is married against her will and a flood sweeps her cruel husband away,

The Mill of Dreams in which a young girl kept isolated in a mill by her father gives a young beggar some bread one night and dreams of him for the next twenty years,

Open Winkins in which a family of five brothers known variously for cheerfulness, beauty, wisdom, and courage discover that a loving heart and fraternal bonds can break enchantments and bring true love

Proud Rosalind and the Hart-Royal in which a beautiful young woman, last scion of a royal family, lives in the castle ruins and is scorned as a delusional vagrant, until a royal tournament comes to the village and she finds a champion, assisted by the local blacksmith

The Imprisoned Princess in which a princess is imprisoned on an island, guarded by six gorgons, until a Wanderer appears to try to rescue her. He amuses the gorgons by telling stories but the last gorgon remains oburate and the princess dies of a broken heart and the gorgons fade into their maiden graves.

Joscelyn objects to this last story. But Gillian goes free, and then there are not-so-girlish voices all around Martin in the night, and the milkmaids disappear as well. Martin stays around until the end of the story, though, going up the farmhouse and chatting with Gillian's father in a scene which makes you question the girls' story altogether. He is also part of the final scene with Gillian and the weepy Robin Rue, which ends in an unexpected and utterly romantic way -- of course! This was such a lovely read, and so worth searching out. I need a copy of my own now, as I know I'll want to read it again to savour the clever writing and the songs and the fairy tales (my favourite was "The Mill of Dreams").
Happy Valentine's Day to everyone!

**I read this in a 1949 library edition (with the cover you see above). It was a delight to smell the old paper, to read the stories in an old edition that others had read, and to read it curled up under a blanket. But, since it is so very hard to find, you could also try reading it all online, hosted at A Celebration of Women Writers online. (where you can find hundreds of other amazing books by women)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Library Loot

Library Loot is a weekly event hosted by Eva and Alessandra

This week it seemed to be about non-fiction for me. I brought home:

1. People are Idiots and I can prove it / Larry Winget (already finished it: see previous post)

2 . Tofu Cookery / Louise Hagler (25th Anniversary Edition)
Because I love cookbooks and surprisingly don't have this one

3. Rich Brother, Rich Sister / Robert Kiyosaki and Emi Kiyosaki
This one is a look at money and spirituality, from the viewpoints of Robert Kiyosaki, well known financial writer and originator of the Rich Dad, Poor Dad franchise, and his sister Emi, a Buddhist nun. So far I've read about 75 pages and it is a fascinating study in contrasts.

4. Dreams from my Father / Barack Obama
Does this need an explanation?

And some fiction:

Purple for Sky / Carol Bruneau - Canadian fiction, set in Nova Scotia, dealing with women and family secrets and family legacies; this seems to be a theme in my Canadian reading lately!

Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard / Eleanor Farjeon - more on this tomorrow; it is a book from the 20's and is a perfect choice for Valentine's Day. I've finished this one already.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin's 200th Birthday

Thanks to Bookishgal, I have just discovered that there is a huge blog swarm going on from today until Sunday celebrating Charles Darwin's 200th birthday. Bookishgal has written a great post on The Origin of Species -- have you read it? I haven't, although I feel familiar with Darwin's concepts. To read hundreds, nay, thousands of posts about multifarious aspects of Darwin, check Blog for Darwin.

Since I haven't read any of his big works, and I don't work directly in a field in which Darwin plays a big role, I thought I would just share a little bit of writing from his journals which has always amused me. Here he is deliberating on the pros and cons of marriage (and for the record he did eventually decide it was worth it and marry his cousin Emma):

This is the question

Children — (if it Please God) — Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, — object to be beloved & played with. — —better than a dog anyhow. — Home, & someone to take care of house — Charms of music & female chit-chat. — These things good for one's health. — Forced to visit & receive relations but terrible loss of time. —
W My God, it is intolerable to think of spending ones whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all. — No, no won't do. — Imagine living all one's day solitarily in smoky dirty London House. — Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, & books & music perhaps — Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro' St.

Not Mary

No children, (no second life), no one to care for one in old age.— What is the use of working 'in' without sympathy from near & dear friends—who are near & dear friends to the old, except relatives
Freedom to go where one liked — choice of Society & little of it. — Conversation of clever men at clubs — Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle. — to have the expense & anxiety of children — perhaps quarelling — Loss of time. — cannot read in the Evenings — fatness & idleness — Anxiety & responsibility — less money for books &c — if many children forced to gain one's bread. — (But then it is very bad for ones health to work too much)
Perhaps my wife wont like London; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool —

My favourite part: "better than a dog anyhow" ;)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Winget's Way

Shut Up, Stop Whining & Get A Life / Larry Winget.
Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, c2004. 229 p.

People are Idiots and I can prove it! / Larry Winget.
New York: Gotham, c2008. 224 p.

I read these two books by Larry Winget this week; Shut Up was his first, and People are Idiots is his latest. He has two other books, one on work and one on finances, but these two have the most similarities. They are both in the personal development field, but with a definite and original voice. Winget does not suffer fools gladly, as may be surmised by his titles, and reading his no-nonsense writing was quite refreshing.

He says in the introduction to his latest that his approach will help those who need a kick in the butt to get going; if you like warm fuzzies he is probably not your man. He also says that his approach won't be for everyone, but although there were a few things I didn't agree with (or should I say, that made me uncomfortable!) he comes from a place of common sense and practicality. Why isn't your life the way you'd planned it to be? Because you don't have a plan. How do you lose weight? Eat less and exercise more. Want to quit being broke? Spend less, earn more. Even though this may sound abrasive -- which he admits to being -- it is entertaining and more than that, it did give me a kick in the butt. I am not fond of many books in the self-help genre, and have a visceral reaction to the platitudes of The Secret; Winget doesn't have much patience with the idea of 'thinking' your life better, either. He says "What you think about, talk about and then get off your butt and do something about will come to be." Action is key.

There are many things I like about Larry Winget: his fearlessness, his sarcastic humour, his obvious intelligence, his wacky fashion sense, and the fact that he has a degree in Library Science! Obviously, as a librarian, I am glad to count him in even if he doesn't actually work as a librarian (if he did he certainly wouldn't be so well known or well off!) But something else I really admire is his focus, in all of his books and on his blog, on the importance of education. He consistently recommends reading as a key to success, and he reads a lot himself. He estimates he's read over 4000 books over the last 20 years which averages out to about 200 a year, and he is a very busy man. What I also like is that he does not read or recommend reading only functional books, by which I mean self-help, financial, workbook kind of books. All reading will only assist in enlarging your world and increasing the likelihood of success. Here are Larry's rules of reading (abridged) from his first book Shut Up, Stop Whining and Get a Life. To receive the full effect, read his book!

How to Read a Book

1. If at all possible, buy the book. ... If you simply cannot afford to buy the book, then go to the library and check it out.

2. If the book is yours, mark it up. Write your name in it. ... Make margin notes.

3. Tell everyone what a great book you are reading. ... It is also a great way to boost your own ego because it is doubtful they have read any books recently so you can be proud and brag that you have. Plus it might encourage them to buy a book and read it.

4. Do not loan anyone your books. probably will not get the book back. If it is a book that really has spoken to you, you will want it back.

5. Buy lots of books. ... Have a "to be read" shelf: a stack of books just waiting to be read. Always have a few books waiting on you.

6. Read several books at the same time. ... Have a variety of books available that fit the time, the place, and your mood.

7. Do not hesitate to stop when you find yourself in the midst of a bad book. You may get 25 pages into a book and decide it is not saying anything to you. Put it down and get another.

8. Read for different reasons. Read to learn. Read to lift your spirits. Read for pure entertainment. Any book is better than most television.

Do not limit your reading to one genre. Reading only self-help books will soon make you immune to the good they can do. So read books on philosophy and spirituality and read great biographies -- but also read some junk just for fun, like mysteries, how-to books, horror, humor and the rest.

For a fresh, irreverent take on personal development, from a man who can't be pigeonholed, try any of Larry Winget's books. They might annoy you, they will probably make you laugh, and they are great for stimulating discussion about nearly any topic.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Return of March Madness

Calling all Canadians!

HarperCollins Canada is running their March Madness contest again this year. They're matching up 64 books and you have to go and vote for your favourites. Through the process of elimination each week the pool gets smaller until finally, in 6 weeks, there will be a winner declared.

After you go and vote you can enter your name into a draw to win ALL of the books in the matchup. That's right, all of them. Good luck fellow Canadians (excluding Quebec).

Monday, February 09, 2009

Cover Art

Weekly Geeks is colourful this time around; we are told:

This week it's all about judging books by their covers! Pick a book--any book, really--and search out multiple book cover images for that book. They could span a decade or two (or more)...Or they could span several countries. Which cover is your favorite? Which one is your least favorite? Which one best 'captures' what the book is about?

I've chosen to highlight some of the incarnations of L.M. Montgomery's Emily of New Moon. Anne of Green Gables is of course better known but I love Emily and thought there were some interesting covers to share. (If you want to see hundreds of covers for all of LMM's books try looking at the LM Montgomery Book Cover Gallery or at a sampling over at a fancy page created by a partnership of LMM sites and libraries and the virtual museum.)

Here are some of the covers I found:

The first 2 on the far left are my favourites; the first because it is the copy I read many times over; the second because it is the original cover and very beautiful. There are a few covers here I've never seen before, which is great, and then there's the lovely 60's one in the second row, ew. I really like the one with the silhouetted tree and Emily beneath, it is new to me. I'm not sure which one I think captures the story best, though; most of them seem to reflect both the story and the era in which they were created. I find the last one to be very reminiscent of The Borrowers or Magic Elizabeth, and a few other children's books of the 60's/70's. I wonder if it was the same artist? This was a fun exercise, and I've enjoyed looking at some of the other participants' choices as well; I'll have to find some time and look at them all.

Saturday, February 07, 2009


Toronto: HarperCollins, c1993.
226 p.

This was the second novel by Canadian born, Paris based Nancy Huston. It is set in Alberta, where Huston was born, and follows the history of Alberta from settlement through World Wars, the Depression and forward. It runs through four generations of the Sterling family, told by narrator Paula, as a reimagining of her grandfather Paddon's life. Entitled Plainsong, it hints at medieval plainsong (mentioned in the text), a form of song which has one simple line, with no flourishes or harmonies. It echoes Paddon's isolation, as well as the religious themes threaded throughout the novel. Plainsong also gives me the sense that Huston is telling as an epic the story of a man who lives a stifled, frustrated life, as in Homer's opening lines of the Odyssey:
"Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course"

Told in the unusual 2nd person narrative style, the book is addressed to Paddon. While the attempt at 2nd person often fails, here I found it successful. The idea that an individual is essentially unknown plays out in this telling; Paula was Paddon's favourite grandchild, and now that he has died, she is trying to figure out the reality of this man whom not many people loved as wholly as she did. She is trying to recreate his life story, and the technique of addressing it to Paddon gives us the feeling that she is waiting for him to reply, to tell her that she's on the right track. The writing style is flowing, elements like long sentences with few commas contributing to a rhythm that feels like a train in motion. (one reason why I feel this cover is perfect for the book.) Paula's imagination leads her on and on until near the end of the book she breaks in as herself once or twice, asking whether she's got it right. That element highlights the creative act necessary in understanding another individual, in life or in fiction. Another interesting stylistic choice in the novel is that it opens with Paddon's death, and although Paula then moves through his life non-chronologically, the story leads us to the moment of his birth, and even earlier, to the moment of his conception. It draws attention to a person's character and life being shaped by more than the individual personality, rather placing them into a familial and geographical context.

But apart from all my appreciation for the structure of the novel, it also tells an absorbing story of generations of a family, the problems handed down one to another. These include adultery, physical abuse, emotional coldness, and the inability to achieve worldly success. Even so, there are moments of happiness and peace in life. Paddon had gone to university and found it immensely fulfilling; he intended to write a comprehensive dissertation on the concept of Time. But life intervened; he married and had children and began farming. His frustrated ambitions and search for meaning to life combine to make him deeply agnostic, in opposition to his Lutheran wife and Catholic missionary sister. The religious schism as well as his tendency toward violence harm his relationships with his wife and with his children, and he only finds the ability to relate peaceably to family once he has grandchildren. One part of the storyline has him having a long term affair with a Native artist. This allows for his softer side to be shown, as well as to tie Native history into the Albertan history of his own family. It was fascinating but perhaps not 100% likely. Still, the self-destructive nature of Paddon's life, covering so much time and so many historical events (the Depression, the first ever Calgary Stampede, etc.) makes for compelling reading. I felt like the prose carried me forward, trying to pick out the trajectory of a circumscribed life. Here is Paula near the beginning, recalling a part of her relationship with her grandfather:
When I was about six you lifted me next to you on the piano bench and told me about Scarlatti's cat. One day, you explained, Scarlatti's cat marched delicately across the keyboard, setting its paws down precisely and at random, every five semitones or so, and the composer made a fugue of the melody thus produced. That, you told me, is love.

Listen -- one note after the other, going up. Slow strange solitary notes. A lot of flats. A lot of black notes. One, one, one, one, one, one -- going up. Listen -- in an inimitably minor key. You walked across the keyboard of the century, Paddon, trying to watch where you were going, and you failed. Listen to the notes. Black and white notes played out virtually at random. But a lot of flats. A lot of accidentals. You kept on waiting for Scarlatti to intervene, didn't you? You couldn't believe there was no Scarlatti, there never would be any Scarlatti. You would rather have smashed the piano to smithereens than accept the idea that no Scarlatti would come, ever, to build a fugue around your mournful melody.

This excerpt gives the sense of the man Paddon was, how people saw him. I admired how Huston was able to take the life of such a man and make it so sympathetic and so interesting. The writing itself was a big attraction as well; it is accomplished and poetic. This book won the 1993 Governor General's award for Fiction in French once Huston had translated it herself (a bit controversial at the time as it was first written in English). Huston habitually translates her own works, however, whether she writes them first in French or English. This was a fascinating read and I will be looking for more of Huston.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Library Loot

Library Loot is hosted each week by Eva at A Striped Armchair and Alessandra at Out of the Blue
These are a few of the items that caught my fancy at the library this week:

Publisher's Summary:
Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France's past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl's ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d'Hiv', to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah's past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.

Publisher's Summary:
Beth Powning offers readers an unforgettable story of love, grief and renewal — both past and present — as well as her extraordinary perceptions of the natural world. At the age of fifty-two, Kate Harding has hit a crossroads: the pain that overwhelmed her when her husband died suddenly from a heart attack the previous year hasn’t diminished, and she is at a loss as to how to go on with her life. Living alone in her large Victorian house, its emptiness magnified by memories of better days, Kate can only dream of a time when her grief will abate, at least enough to allow her to hope for change.

Something to watch as well, if I can get over my Keira Knightley aversion. I am hoping that Ralph Fiennes cancels her out. And I hear that the costumes are beautiful.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie : a Flavia de Luce mystery / Alan Bradley
Toronto: Doubleday, c2009.
304 p.

Here's a book I received from Random House and read cover to cover within two days of its arrival. It's gorgeous! Look at that cover! It is one of my favourite colours, known in the quilting world as the fabric colour "Poison Green". And my goodness, was that a huge tip-off to the storyline.

This astonishingly fun read stars Flavia de Luce, nearly 11 and extremely precocious. So much so that for the first couple of chapters I wasn't quite sure Bradley would pull off this voice; a child so arch and so widely informed, as well as being a crack chemist with her own Victorian era chemistry lab, could this work? Well, yes, yes it does. Once you accept the fact that Flavia is not just an 11 yr old English girl, she is Flavia, everything goes smoothly. It is an original and entertaining voice, hugely amusing and clever. The eccentric de Luce family lives in the English countryside in the 1950's; Flavia and her two older sisters, Daphne and Ophelia, live with their absent minded father Colonel de Luce and ex-military man turned handyman, Dogger. Their mother Harriet died years ago and one thing Flavia holds against her older sister Ophelia is that Feely has memories of Harriet, while Flavia does not.

As the story begins, a regular summer of chemistry experiments and bicycle rides lies ahead for Flavia. However, things take a turn when she first overhears her father arguing with someone in his study in the dead of night, and hours later discovers a body in the cucumber patch. It is actually not quite a body when she finds it; it is a man who breathes out his last word into her concerned face (and coincidentally passes on his terrible cold while he does so; as Flavia comments near the end of the book, "Thanks buckets, Horace"). Much can be explained by Flavia's reaction upon finding the dying man:

I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.

Flavia realizes that he could have been murdered by Dogger or even by her father, so decides to investigate before the police bungle up all the clues. She even uses the rarely open town library in her search - how could I not love that? The chase is on, and Flavia's discoveries lead to mayhem and, eventually, the truth being revealed.

I loved the setting; the author is a Canadian who has never lived in England but he has English antecedents and as he commented, has read a lot of English novels. The setting, Buckshaw House, is perfect and as rambly and tumbledown as anyone could wish. Flavia is unique and so funny, and I loved her sisters and all their interactions as well (especially Flavia's revenge on Ophelia at the beginning of the book). Middle sister Daphne was particularly lovable; she wants to be a writer and spends the entire story with her nose stuck in one book or another. This one comes highly recommended, especially if you like English mysteries or are looking for something unconventional to shake you out of a reading slump -- this could be it. Both intelligent and vastly entertaining, I am very glad to hear it is the first of a projected series. I enjoyed this one immensely! It's available in Canada and the UK right around now, but apparently those of you in the US will have to wait until April. Make a note; it is a wonderful read with a strikingly individual, resourceful and police-pestering narrator.

Join the Flavia de Luce fan club!
Read an excerpt!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

New Fantasy Book Award

FYI -- a new Fantasy award has been created in memory of David Gemmell -- it's the:

At their very cool website they say:

The DGLA will be presented for the very first time in 2009 for the best Fantasy novel of 2008. The award will be given to a work written in the 'spirit' of the late, great David Gemmell, a true Master of Heroic Fantasy.
And, we want YOU - the readers who love the genre to VOTE to decide who makes the Short-list!

Yes, that's can vote for your favourites of 08. There is a huge list you have to click through to see, so if you are a fantasy aficionado you will have fun over there.

Sad news for this Canadian librarian

I have now confirmed the sad news that Book Expo Canada is no longer in existence.

I've gone to BEC the past 3 years and have really loved it; I found authors there that I would not have otherwise, like Kate Story, and Barbara Murray. I enjoyed meeting new authors and connecting with old friends in the publishing world. I will really miss it!

Here's my account of 2008 (meeting Paul Gross among other things!)
And 2007 (getting a copy of Frances Itani's Remembering the Bones was a highlight).

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Weekly Geeks: Passions and Fascinations

The Weekly Geeks assignment this week caught my eye:

What are you passionate about besides reading and blogging? For example, are you crafty (knitting, woodworking, scrapbooking, model building)? Do you cook? Into gaming (computer or board)? Sports (player or spectator)? Photography? Maybe you like geocaching, rock climbing? Or love attending events like renaissance fairs, concerts? Music? Dancing? You get the idea. Tell us why you're passionate about it. Post photos of what you've made or of yourself doing whatever it is you love doing.

This really made me stop and think; lately I've been feeling quite one dimensional. I love reading. It is what I do, almost always. I read and blog and write at home, then at work I spend all day dealing with books and readers (I am a librarian). My husband is a bookseller so we are busy with that as well, books again. For enjoyment I often write letters. Most of what I do is most definitely text based.

This Weekly Geeks made me consider what other kinds of things I have enjoyed that I am not paying much attention to any more. I used to sew quite a lot, but haven't done much, besides a few Christmas gifts, in ages. I'll have to remedy that! Here are a couple of sewing blogs that I like looking at, and think I should spend a little more time trying out some of the projects:
Crafty Girls (a friend of mine, I always like to see what she's up to!)

Another thing I absolutely love, but haven't been focusing on as much as I used to, is cooking. I've been a vegetarian for about 17 years and I love trying new recipes. I've been getting more and more interested in veganism over the years and right now my three favourite cooking people are Sarah Kramer, Jae Steele and Isa Chandra Moscowitz. I am especially fond of Jae Steele's Flax Maple Cookies. So very easy and really, really yummy. Hmmmm, maybe I should go make some now... thanks for the reminder, WG.

photo by Jae Steele