Friday, May 29, 2009

Library Gleanings

As I am finally back at work this week, I was able to gather up a few more goodies from the new arrivals. Some of them are ones I've been waiting for and some I found via serendipity. So I'll play along with Eva and Alessandra's Library Loot finding this week.

Here are the ones I carted home with me:
(I've already started three...)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets / Eva Rice
Headline, 2005.
448 p.

This last week has been all about comfort reading for me, and here's a book I'd specifically saved -- on Danielle's recommendation -- for a comfort read. It was wonderful. I bookmooched this one from Ireland, so read it in this edition with the rather sweet UK cover (I prefer this one to the North American cover).

Set in 1950's England, it tells the story of Penelope Wallace and her rock'n'roll obsessed younger brother, Inigo. The Wallaces live in a huge crumbling English country house, Milton Magna, their father's legacy to them. Their father was killed in WWII, leaving behind these two children, and their beautiful young mother, the grieving widow. He's also left a severe shortage of funds. As the story begins, Penelope meets Charlotte Ferris "in London one afternoon while waiting for the bus." This event changes her life, as the wacky Charlotte drags her along for tea to her Aunt Clare's, where Penelope also meets Clare's son Harry, slightly older and eccentric, who performs as a parlour magician for extra pocket money. Charlotte and Harry travel in exalted social circles and their friendship draws Penelope into a whirlwind of adventure and expanded acquaintance. She even meets a few brash Americans...

The tone of the book, as blurbed on the cover, does have shades of I Capture the Castle in its self-aware heroine, living in a crumbling ancestral home with no money, fascinated by Americans and focused on love. But it is also very much a book of the 1950's, revealing a rock-and-roll craze that I don't often associate with England. Full of eccentric English characters, revealing social conditions, ancient houses, True Love, teatime and Selfridge's, I greatly enjoyed this lovely and unusual novel. It was quite charming, in a good way.

I only had a couple of problems with it. First, I am not sure I agreed with the tidy (but rather fraudulent) solution to their woes at the conclusion. Also, the title didn't seem to fit, altogether, as the secrets which were being kept were pretty obvious early on and didn't seem very alarming or world-changing. Still, this was an entertaining read, perfect for my mood.

See what others have thought about it:

Danielle's Review

Bookbath's Review

Stuck in a Book's Review

Cindy's Interview with Eva Rice

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

International Man Booker Winner

Hurrah! Alice Munro has won this year's International Man Booker Prize. This prize is given to honour a body of work, and comes with a value of 60,000 pounds! Wow. She certainly has an amazing body of work to be considered, with at least 14 books and one more forthcoming.

It could not have been won by a nicer person, or a more fabulous writer. Congratulations to our local girl, Alice Munro!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tea and Scones with Alexander McCall Smith

Toronto: Random House Canada, c2009.

The Unbearable lightness of scones / Alexander McCall Smith
Toronto: Random House Canada, c2009.

My version of comfort reading must always include Alexander McCall Smith. How convenient then, that he has two new books just out -- not an unusual occurrence, however! First, I read the latest in the Mma Ramotswe series, Teatime for the Traditionally Built. The story follows much the same outline as the other books in the series: there is something odd going on and the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency must determine who and what is behind things. In this volume, Mma Ramotswe is faced with a situation she knows little about; the Gaborone football club seems to be losing a lot more frequently than is warranted and the owner wants her to discover whether there is a saboteur in the organization. She must enlist the help of her foster son, a youthful and enthusiastic football fan. Meanwhile, subplots include the much-lamented expiration of Mma Ramotswe's beloved little white van, and a rather racy attempt by Assistant Detective Grace Makutsi's nemesis, Violet Sepotho, to steal Mma Makutsi's fiancé. In this case, the women are aided by Mma Makutsi's other nemesis, apprentice mechanic Charlie. As always in these stories, individual foibles play a huge role. People's odd behaviours and secret hopes are brought to light, and as usual, there are bittersweet reflections:

The thought of [him] nursing secret, unfulfilled ambitions saddened Mma Ramotswe, as did the thought of people wanting something very much indeed and not getting the thing they yearned for. When we dismiss or deny the hopes of others, she thought, we forget that they, like us, have only one chance in this life.

And considering the title, I also must mention this prescription for tea drinking:

"I will put the kettle on," said Mma Makutsi briskly. "We have had a very big shock this morning, and tea will help us get over it. That is what tea does. That is well known."

The second book I read is the fifth in McCall Smith's "Scotland Street" series. This series began as a newspaper serial and thus consists of short chapters following a number of different characters. This collection takes us to Australia with Matthew and Elspeth, on their honeymoon, in which Matthew gets swept out to sea by a rogue wave and is presumed missing, leaving us hanging for several chapters until we finally learn of his fate! We also re-encounter my favourite character, the eternally 6 yr old Bertie, who achieves his dream of joining the Boy Scouts and coincidentally runs across Ian Rankin, making another cameo appearance. It's a very funny scene. We follow Domenica and Angus (with dog Cyril in tow) and get to the bottom of the Spode teacup theft which has been building since the previous book in the series -- and also find out that new neighbour Antonia is dealing in an unusual and illicit substance.

There are many musings in this book about various social and/or moral conundrums, a hallmark of McCall Smith's style which I appreciate, and there is also a sharper sense of humour, more satiric, than is used in the Botswana series. It highlights Edinburgh and McCall Smith's familiarity with his home in a reliably amusing manner, and the format is perfect for reading bits between other books. As ever, I recommend Alexander McCall Smith in all his many permutations.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Labyrinth Gate

The Labyrinth Gate / Alis A. Rasmussen
New York: Baen, c1988.
345 p.

I love this book! I've just reread it; according to my records that makes it 12 times now. It's generally about a once a year read. :)

It tells us the tale of Sanjay Mukerji and Chryse Lissagaray, newly married and on the way to their hotel from their wedding reception, when they look at what they believe is a wedding gift -- an elaborate set of tarot cards. In the elevator up from the parking garage, Chryse drops the cards and immediately the power goes out. They gather together the cards in the dark and then they slowly realize that the elevator door is now mysteriously a heavy wooden door. Pushing it open, they arrive in St. Christobal of the Gates, a church in the town of Heffield, in the country of Anglia. This is an alternate world reminiscent of England, but a matriarchal one and full of magic. The tarot deck they possess is a powerful one, known in this world as The Gates. (Rasmussen includes an appendix describing the appearance and the magickal correspondences of each card).
Sanjay and Chryse stumble out into a working class riot, and are rescued by two slumming aristocrats, Julian and his trouser-clad friend Kate. Going home with them, they begin a journey through this strange land, looking for a way home. They develop deep friendships, become embroiled in a political conspiracy, find a new direction for their lives, and yes, eventually discover a way home.

The story is brilliantly constructed: the labyrinth is a major symbol in the book and the story itself spirals inward, creating more complexity as it goes. There are some marvellous characters -- Julian and Kate who rescue Sanjay and Chryse in the beginning, and Julian's Aunt Letitia, a mage in her own right. The Regent, Princess Blessa, is scary and obsessive and a great villain. The entire company of fellow travellers is introduced as Sanjay and Chryse, Julian and Kate, all join an archaeological expedition to find the fabled city of Pariam. We meet Professor Farr, absent minded archaeologist (for whom Sanjay has begun working as secretary), his daughter Maretha and niece Charity; common labourer and overseer Thomas Southern; and the notorious, disreputable yet immensely handsome sorcerer, the Earl of Elam, whose price for funding the expedition is marriage to the virginal Maretha. (Maretha is one of my favourite characters and seeing her come into her own as the story develops is something I enjoy each time I read it.) The quest for the labyrinth city of Pariam, fabled city of The Daughter (a goddess) draws the attention of the Regent and of the Earl; it holds a secret treasure of great power which both of these magicians desire. Sanjay and Chryse have also been told by another mage, Madame Sosostris, that this treasure will lead them home. The stage is set for grand adventure and romance, and that's what the story delivers.

The world-building is excellent; the matriarchal nature of this parallel society is reinforced by toss-off comments about Anne Shakespeare and a female Bach. The structure is based on the deck of Gates; each chapter is named for a card and the world's magic is based within the archaic images on the cards, drawn from the distant past when the rites of Pariam were ascendant. There is an interior logic which holds and all the elements of the action are carefully considered. There is a wonderful reversal near the end which makes perfect sense once you've read it but it is not telegraphed beforehand. Even so, the thing that keeps me coming back to this book is, first, the wonderful magic in this world, but even more so the amazing characters. I love Sanjay and Chryse, Maretha and the Earl and many of the secondary characters as well. It's a satisfying read, full of humour, romance, adventure and creativity. I've enjoyed it each of my 12 times through!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Summer Reading Habits

This week over at Weekly Geeks there are two questions. The first concerns Memorial Day, but since I am not in the US and it is not a holiday here in Canada, I chose the second -- how does the change of seasons affect your reading habits? There were a couple of questions within this theme:

Do your reading habits change over the summer? Do you choose lighter fare? What do you enjoy to take to the beach, for example?

Summer doesn't cause a lot of change for me -- I am generally a mood reader so I can suddenly be taken with the urge to read "beach books" in the depths of winter or bleak and wintery Russian novels in August. There is one thing I find, however: I always think I'll have tons more time to read in the summer. I rarely take holidays over the summer so there is no reason for this belief -- I guess years of following the school schedule has trained me to think of summer days as longer and more carefree, nonetheless. So I have great, if unfounded, hope for lots of reading being done!

What is the ultimate summer book?

I don't know about an 'ultimate' choice, but I read Janice Kulyk Keefer's The Ladies' Lending Library in the summer of '07 and found that to be a great summer read. It is set at Kalyna Beach and takes place over the summer weeks that a community of women spends at their cottages; really timely and it just feels like summer.

What are your favorite travel guides -- official or unofficial guides?

Well, again, since I don't get away much, one guide I've found that is tons of fun is Lonely Planet's Guide to Experimental Travel. It's all about travelling where you are. Very quirky and fun.

Well, although I've just said that changing seasons don't affect my reading habits, I have been making a tentative plan for my reading this summer. I've been feeling an urge to do some rereading, and think that I will dedicate this July & August to just that -- rereads of books I first read years ago. I'd really like to tackle Watership Down, LM Montgomery's Emily series, Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham, some Thomas Hardy or Virginia Woolf (probably The Waves) and whatever else strikes my fancy. I've just finished rereading the fantasy novel The Labyrinth Gate, a true comfort read for me and a return to some familiar writing. I love all the new books I've been discovering but want to revisit some old friends as well. Does anyone else try to balance new releases with older ones -- either rereadings or just finally getting to items on the TBR? Or does that element matter to you?

Friday, May 22, 2009


New York: Berkley, c2004.
269 p.

After recently reading Kitty Burns Florey's treatise on handwriting, Script & Scribble, I started noticing how often I handwrite things (often) and how much I used to write things like letters (much more often than currently). It was a fascinating read; I enjoyed it greatly, and so did Stefanie at So Many Books recently. I also serendipitiously heard an interview with her on CBC radio last week (May 17 broadcast).

But, I had never read or even come across any of her fiction previously. This week, as I had some time off work and I have been recuperating from a disturbingly lingering virus, we decided to cheer ourselves up with a day trip -- and of course ended up at a large Chapters (Canadian chain bookstore, fyi). I was skimming through the sale fiction and came across one of Florey's novels, Solos. Now, I knew nothing about it, but seeing her name made me grab it, and then reading the back convinced me:

Emily Lime, whose name reads the same backwards as forwards, is a photographer and word-lover-at-large. Her Brooklyn neighborhood teems with eccentrics and their myriad pets-and Emily is proud to call many of them her friends. Although the thirtysomething crossword junkie is flying solo and down on her financial luck, she's learned to be happy with life's simple pleasures. Things get complicated when Marcus Mead, Emily's dog-walker-cum-Scrabble-rival, comes into the picture. Widely considered an oddball, the endearing twenty-year-old has unwittingly become Emily's absurd, unrequited love. The only problem (besides the sixteen-year age difference) is that Marcus's father is Emily's paranoid, unsavory ex-husband-and he wants her dead. More specifically, he wants Marcus to kill her. And now it'll take some cunning to solve the puzzle that is their lives...

Seriously, how could you not want to read this? I was very glad I picked it up because it was just as enjoyably well written as her nonfiction was. I loved the character of Emily Lime, and her odd fixation on numbers and anagrams and palindromes and so on (in fact it kind of reminded me of John Green in a way; there were even some Last Words thrown in there!)

The book starts with Emily and Marcus at the dog park, and their relationships with animals, both pets and wild animals, are integral to the book. Not only theirs, but everyone they know; Emily's landlady only likes renting to pet owners because she feels they are more warm hearted and trustworthy. (Emily has a dog and a bird and ends up with 2 cats as well) It's all set in the area of New York known as Williamsburg, and the setting is a huge part of the story; it's a love song to urban living, which was very convincing, almost making me feel nostalgic for the cramped apartments of my student days. Almost. It has a really nice feel to it, full of strong friendships and the consolation of animal companionship. Great supporting characters add to Emily and Marcus' stories, and there are lots of literary elements I loved, like the Trollope reading group they all belong to or the discussion of the Proustian maxim that we only want what we can't have. It was a charming novel, but definitely not twee; there were complex and dark themes as well. Some of these dark elements of the story didn't seem to quite fit in to the light tone the book began in, but I could see where she was going with it, and it did work in the end.

One of the things I really appreciated about this book was how everything didn't get neatly tied up in a sentimental ending. There are ambivalences and complexities; are some people just made to be 'solos'? Is a couple the only possible form of happiness? This resistance to tidy endings did not preclude a great sense of hope from infusing the story, however, and the creation of so many people who just loved life in all its imperfect glory highlighted the fact that we don't need Perfection and complete closure to live a happy life. Sometimes it is simply the uncertainty of life and our determination to forge on that makes it so overwhelmingly beautiful. I greatly enjoyed this one and if you'd like to take a cheap trip to New York while getting to know a group of fascinating, clever animal lovers, pick up this book and escape for a few hours.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Great Encyclopedia of Martha

Random House Canada, c2009.
416 p.

I love Martha. No two ways about it, despite my lack of domestic ability and the disdain for her we all cultivated in university, I love Martha.

That is why I was so thrilled to receive a copy of her huge new Encyclopedia of Crafts from Random House Canada. I thought, I will make one or two of these crafts and post pictures! This will be fun! But then I was reminded of how I am really not up to Martha's expectations. My craft attempts look more like preschool activities than decorative objects you would be proud to put on a wall. Still fun, though, and perhaps on a second try I'll have gotten the hang of it a little more (there is a reason I am a book blogger and not a craft blogger, you know).

This encyclopedia is amazing, though. If you are a big fan and have bought and kept most of her magazines you probably won't need this. Most of the crafts are recycled from earlier publications and Martha Stewart Online. But, if like me, you don't have a collection of MS Living magazines and like to look at all the pretty pictures for inspiration, you will love this book. Like all of her publications, the photos are gorgeous. Everything looks so Perfect and so genteel. But there are ideas that are very simple and yet lovely, honestly. Ones even I can do. There are over 400 pages of ideas, plus a wonderful reference section of commonly needed supplies, plus templates for many of the crafts. There are full instructions and lots of pictures to guide you. What else can you expect from Martha but perfection? It is an endless source of inspiration and I am sure that after a bit of practice a couple of the ideas here may turn into Christmas presents this year. Now if only I could suddenly become as disciplined as Martha as well...

I'll attach a photo from, one which is in the book as well, which I think was my favourite idea, new to me. I've purchased a few supplies but haven't tried it yet. I have three huge pine trees in my back yard so thought this would be easy enough to try out -- I think it's a beautiful creation. Florets from pinecones, how brilliant. You have to admit these are pretty:

Friday, May 15, 2009

Bookmarking It

I've been away from my blog for over a week -- really away from the Internet in general, as I have been quite violently ill for the past week with some kind of nasty bug. I had to call in sick to work for more than one day, which I hate doing, and for two days I could scarcely open my eyes or bear to have music/tv/audiobooks on as my ears hurt so much. Those were two pretty crummy days, let me say. At least my husband could read to me, which he did; we've begun the first book in the new Vish Puri mystery series by Tarquin Hall , The Case of the Missing Servant. Just what I needed! Anyhow, as I am now somewhat on the mend, I had to pop in just to participate in this week's Weekly Geeks project -- all about bookmarks. They ask:

Do you use bookmarks or just grab whatever is handy to mark your page? Do you collect lots of different bookmarks or do you have a favorite one that you use exclusively? If you're not someone who uses bookmarks on a regular basis, have you ever used anything odd to mark your place?

I love bookmarks, and my husband has even more than I do (but then he's been collecting longer!) We like them as art objects, as historical documents, and as clever bookish items. I have a few favourites I like to use; for example, I have some with herb & spice images that I use with my cookbooks. I have some with pressed flowers that I enjoy using when I am reading Victorian literature. Most of the time though, I am not nearly so well organized or well prepared and end up using slips of paper which are near at hand, despite the plethora of real bookmarks in the house. Some of these end up being grocery receipts, old to-do lists, notes to myself which are incomprehensible when I read them after they've been stuck in a book for ages, and so on. I have discovered one odd source for very effective bookmarks, though; the perfume counter at the nearest department store. Have you noticed that the little paper thingies that you're supposed to spray perfume on, I assume, are the perfect bookmark shape and size? I use them all the time now -- they are always changing and I find new kinds like the one with a crown at the top on a strip of paper (although I can't remember the name of the perfume...oops) or an apple shaped "Nina" one. My all time favourite is the lovely yellow one for the perfume Poème that Juliette Binoche used to hawk. It started me on this kick as it seemed very apropos for the purpose. Anyhow, no pictures or futher ruminations to share tonight - must take more drugs and get to sleep!! Hopefully my brain will be recovered enough to start some reviewing again next week.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Graham's Swiss Sonata

Swiss Sonata / Gwethalyn Graham
Toronto: Cormorant, 2005, c1938.
360 p.

After a long month of focusing on poetry, I now have quite a number of reviews to catch up on. One book that I really would like to point out is this winner of the 1938 Governor General's Award. It was 25 yr. old Graham's first novel. (Her second and last novel, Earth and High Heaven, went on to win the GG in 1944.) Graham was a fascinating woman, born in Toronto to a liberal and socially aware family, and attuned to prejudice in all its forms. Her politics and convictions can be seen in all her work, even if her personal life did not always run smooth. This novel, springing from her own experiences at a Swiss boarding school, takes place over 3 days in 1935, immediately before the plebiscite in the Saar, to determine whether the mineral rich territory would remain French or revert to Germany, thus providing the Nazis with coal for their military efforts. The characters, 27 female students and 7 teachers, represent their countries and ethnic backgrounds to create a microcosm of the wider world. As one of the instructors says near the conclusion of the story:

It has really been most illuminating, this experience of observing the world at close quarters... see what a muddle we are all in, here, in this cross-section of life, and you begin to understand the world a little.

The main character of the story is Canadian student Vicky Morrison, whose calm, authoritative presence in the school disturbs some of the teachers. Most of the other students look to her natural leadership, although she goes to some pains to distance herself from their willingness to bow to her inherent authority. In the introduction, Elspeth Cameron states that one of the major flaws of the novel is Vicky's improbable and unlikely character; mature, centred, almost saintly. I see how the portrait of Vicky is just about unbelievable; however, I was, in the end, convinced by her despite her melodramatic past. One of the difficulties with the students is that in this finishing school, there are girls from 14 to 21. While the women seem to hold modern views, there is always the fact to be considered that 21 yr old women are still treated as schoolgirls. Clearly, Vicky as a woman in her 20's with quite a bit of life experience already, will sound much more mature than homesick 14 yr olds.

The book is structured like a sonata; told in three parts the action begins quickly, builds and then concludes with a rather melancholy tying up of loose ends. Creating the interplay between 34 distinct characters is a difficult feat, and does not always wholly succeed, with some voices sounding quite similar. Still, the reappearances of the themes from different viewpoints resembles, rather impressively, a fugue rather than a sonata.

There were a few elements of this novel which I really admired. One is the structure itself; the division into three, and the development of some of the main characters' family backgrounds creates an ever deepening story. The assumptions about women's place in the world feel very modern, at least not what I would think of when I imagine a provincial Swiss school in the 30's. Psychological insights are keen, although there are some which do sound very dated -- psycho sexual dramas, mainly. Still, all this serves to buoy the characters and all their interplay, making the students more than simple representatives of a specific political or national position.

This brings to me to something that I kept going back to throughout my reading. This book was set in 1935, published in 1938 -- and yet the political understanding of Nazi policies and the Party's views on Jews was absolutely crystal clear. Graham exhibits a clarity of thought which seems to be based on hindsight, but there is no getting around the fact that it was published in 1938 to great international acclaim, winning the Governor General's award in Canada and becoming a bestseller in the USA. I kept asking myself, how did she come to have the kind of comprehension of Nazi racism and thuggish politics that we now take for granted, and why did no-one, of all her readers, take it as seriously as she did? How could people say they had no idea of what was happening in Germany and Nazi occupied Europe when this young 25 yr old girl clearly understood and in this novel delineated common occurrences of racially based arrests and executions, work camps and disappearances? She doesn't, of course, talk about the concentration camps which still lay in the future, but the trajectory of this hate based regime seems quite obvious. It was disconcerting to see that the awareness of Nazi policies, outside of Germany, did exist early on without sparking outrage. I found this a prescient book, full of pointed comments on the social mores and political machinations of the day. However, the characters were intriguing and the setting stifling enough to fascinate beyond the historical interest of the theme. This would be a great book to spark long discussions about a wide variety of issues. Search it out; it is worth reading!

**I am also going to reread her second novel sometime this year as well and will report back when I do

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Book of Chameleons

The Book of Chameleons / José Eduardo Agualusa; translated by Daniel Hahn.
New York: Simon & Schuster, c2008.
192 p.
In this strange and short novel by Portugese speaking Angolan author Agualusa, our narrator is a gecko. (In interviews he says that the book is an homage to Jorge Luis Borges, and the gecko is Borges reincarnated -- due to my lack of familiarity with South American fiction I didn't catch that while reading, but it makes perfect sense now that I've seen it mentioned.)
Our gecko (a charming narrator) lives in the house of Felix Ventura, an albino who makes his living by creating illustrious pasts with a full complement of ancestors for those who feel rootless. There is nothing criminal in his creations; at least, not until he is approached by a large-sized foreigner, who wants a complete new identity. Felix's work provides new futures for his clients, but how much can really be forgotten? And can one's personal life truly escape the political reverberations of the Angolan Civil War?
This is a brief novel, with only a few characters, and most of it takes place in Felix's house -- but it feels expansive. It abounds in ideas -- in meditations on identity, on truth and memory, on literature, but it is not drily cerebral. Rather, it is very sensuously told, the heat and the scents of the country creating an enchantment over you while reading which makes you believe you are really listening to a gecko speaking. It is a dream which is abruptly shattered at the conclusion as political realities intrude on the attempt to forget the past and reforge a more palatable future. There is a thread of mystery throughout the novel; who is the foreigner? Are the people who visit Felix telling him the truth about their lives? Why does Felix seem to be the fulcrum for these lives to intersect?
This is a brilliantly told, fascinating novel drawing on South American, Spanish and Portugese literary traditions. The author, born in Angola, lives partly in Angola but also in Brazil and Portugal. His well-travelled, wordly mind is in evidence here, to dazzle us with an original and unusual tale. He has written 7 novels, 3 of which have been translated into English so far. I'm looking forward to finding more of his work, and hope there will be further translations as well. The original title of this one was O Vendedor de Passados. However, I think the English title, The Book of Chameleons, manages to capture the ever shifting nature of identity in the story, even though the main narrator is actually a gecko. ;) If you'd like to read a very different kind of African book, this is well worth searching out.