Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Lively Links

As I've been reading so much Penelope Lively recently, I have began researching her online. She has a new book coming out this fall, entitled Family Album (which I am looking forward to greatly). This has increased mentions of her in various newspapers and so here are a few of the most interesting links I've come across in the last while:

Interview at The Guardian (July 25/09)

Her envy-creating writing space (Guardian, 2007)

Talking about herself as a reader, and then a writer (Guardian, 2004)

(A)musing about Rules (a restaurant) and Rosamond Lehmann

2008 lecture at Yale, (it's an hour long) about reading history and writing fiction, in conjunction with David McCullough -- fascinating look at history, memory, the art of fiction writing and libraries! Quote: "Libraries are notorious hotbeds of romance". :)

Two Lively

Continuing on with my Penelope Lively obsession this year, I have just read two more of her novels. These two, brief and of a little less complexity even though dealing with some of the same fascinating themes as the first two, are getting a write up together to help me catch up!

Spiderweb / Penelope Lively
London: Penguin, c1998.
218 p.

Stella Brentwood, retired anthropologist, has moved to a small cottage in Somerset. She seems to think that it will be a gentle place in which to spend her time, but, as Lively often points out, rural England is anything but idyllic. For an anthropologist who has spent many years observing cultures in other parts of the world, Stella seems remarkably oblivious to her own. She's settled on this particular cottage due to the influence of her oldest friend's husband -- her friend is now deceased but Stella recalls Richard as the most stable, stodgy, person she knows, and asks for his help in locating a house. He does so, but with more than just the ties of old friendship in mind. Her nearest neighbours, a family of husband, wife and two sons, are quite a creation; Karen, the mother is a completely mad, abusive harridan, and the two sons are scary delinquents. Stella waves at Karen as they drive by one another, assuming she's a nice country lady, and never learns otherwise. She also tries to be cheery to the boys, speaking to them and waving at various times. The boys take this to mean that the 'old bag' is mocking them, embarrassing them, being aggressive. Stella is also faintly surprised that she hasn't really spoken to anyone besides Richard. People keep themselves to themselves in this area.

Stella's determination to be wholly English and rural leads to the climax of the story. She gets a dog and is beginning to settle into being a householder, a settled citizen with house and dog. But her overtures of friendliness are not successful; rather, they stir up the locals, and her two delinquent neighbours, unable to stand her general kindliness, break into her house when she is gone and release the dog, who is later found shot under a hedgerow. This (to Stella) unprovoked violence unsettles and frightens her; when Richard steps completely out of the box she's put him in and proposes to her it completely throws her. Her observations have all been wrong -- and I do wonder whether it is this professional failing alone which precipitates her decision to sell her house and move back to the city. In order to overcome the situation in Somerset and move into more permanent status, Stella will have to stop observing and participate in the life around her. Rather than do that, she sells up and leaves the village, and the book concludes.

It was a fascinating look at how one sees the world around one, and how in turn one is perceived. Stella's anthropological background is an excellent structure with which to study this theme. Like most of Lively's books which I have read thus far, it is a brief novel; in this case, I felt that there could have been much more discussion about rural culture and about Stella's personality if she had decided to stay in Somerset and insert herself into the local surroundings. It would have been a different book altogether in that case; but there were so many tantalizing possibilities that Stella just couldn't reach for. It is rather entertaining actually, how Lively works against all the expected tropes -- Stella does not experience emotional thawing and a more open heart to the world etc. etc. via Richard's interest and a friendly local young person, all the kind of things you might expect in a sentimental book about a lonely female retiree. Rather, she remains utterly herself, unwilling to make those emotional connections and become a part of a community rather than just observing. Lively is never sentimental, just one of the things I enjoy about her writing. Here is Stella, summing herself up:

Her professional life has been that of a voyeur, her interest in community has been clinical. She has wanted to know how and why people get along with each other, or fail to do so, rather than sample the arrangement herself. She has been simultaneously fascinated and repelled. Moving around the world, she was always alert, always curious, but comfortable also in the knowledge that, in the last resort, this was nothing to do with her

Heat Wave / Penelope Lively
London: Penguin, c1996.
214 p.

This one, briefly, is about Pauline (freelance book editor), her daughter Teresa, and her daughter's philandering husband, Maurice. The three of them are spending the summer in a divided cottage in the middle of a field in the west of England. Appearance are deceiving; the cottages look old and quaint but are fully modernized inside, allowing Pauline to work remotely and Maurice to continue on with his book about tourism in England. The countryside is also not what it appears -- rather than idyllic and peaceful Pauline compares it to a huge industrial factory, with varied farm equipment rumbling up and down the lanes and through fields at all times. Another illusion is Maurice and Teresa's marriage; with a young son and a charming youthful wife, one would think Maurice would be a happy man, but no, he begins an affair with his editor's girlfriend. Pauline sees this clearly; Teresa is in denial. And Pauline also sees it mirroring her early marriage with Teresa's father, another unrepentant philanderer.

The tension builds as the constricted locale, the heat and the inescapable proximity to one another begins to fracture their familial ties. The conclusion comes suddenly and shockingly, even though it is fully supported by the earlier story. Reading this novel about emotion, about jealousy and fidelity, and the appearance of truth vs. its actuality is like being blinded by the summer sun; you dwell in its brightness and one you've finished you emerge blinking. It carries with it a sense of a brooding storm developing over the entire story, like a summer sky does in a heat wave. Compressed within an apparently small, domestic setting, Lively tells an affecting story.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Categories of Wished-for Reading

Over at Of Books & Bicycles, Dorothy recently posted a list of all the categories of reading she wants to get into. She bemoaned the duality between reading one subject deeply or all subjects cursorily; many others, including myself, feel as if she has struck a nerve with this idea. Also, as Stefanie says, I offer up the reader’s lament, if only I were wealthy or someone would pay me to read all day! Thus, here is my own list of categories I want to read, if I ever become focused enough to stick to one theme:

Victorian Lit: all those unread novels by Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell, Collins, Hardy... I could go on, but you get the idea. No matter how many I've already read, there are always more to tempt me. And then there are all the biographies of the Victorians. Sigh. (This is a popular area, tempting Dorothy and Danielle as well) And along with these I would really like to read up into the Edwardian age.

Science Books: I do try to read a regular rotation of science books, though I never seem to get to them frequently enough. Joining the Science Book Challenge has given me a bit of a push, and I've discovered a few really good reads. But of course now that I see other people's reading I have a longer TBR than ever

Virago, Persephone, NYRB: these publishers can never go wrong. I love their books.

Random Classics: as Dorothy said, there are all those classics that you've somehow missed out on reading. For me, that would be largely the Russians, but also some of the French writers, and of course, random novels from elsewhere.

Poetry: I enjoy poetry and go on a bit of a reading rampage every April, but I'd like to be a little more systematic and read all year round, plus study some of the lit crit around some of the poets I don't know too much about

Letters and Diaries: Stefanie mentioned this category, and it reminded me that I used to read this kind of thing quite extensively. I haven't for a while...why? I love them! I have quite a number of collections of letters and a few literary diaries that are now calling to me from their dusty homes on the shelf.

Mid-century women's fiction: I have a strange fascination with little known women who were popular enough at one time but are largely forgotten or considered pretty much non-literary these days -- Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, and those types of writers.

Works in Translation: I could always use more time to fit more translated works in. There are just so very many I want to read, and I am always finding more. It would be nice to wallow in the literature of one country for a while and then move on to another, and another...

Ukrainian history and literature (esp. Canadian-Ukrainian works): this area should be self-evident. I want to read more about my family heritage, and explore how others write fiction about their experiences as immigrants or first/second generation Canadian Ukrainians.

Re-readings: I never feel like I have time to reread all the things I'd love to. There is always something new calling out to be read! I have spent most of my reading time lately reading contemporary fiction, but would love to revisit some childhood classics, and for some reason I am really itching to reread Woolf, and maybe Proust as well.

How about you? Are there whole whacks of literature that you'd love to dive into if your time was utterly unlimited and you could read to your heart's content? Have you already made a list like this that I have missed?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Earth Hums in B Flat

The Earth Hums in B Flat / Mari Strachan
Edinburgh: Canongate, c2009.
329 p.

Look at this book. Could you resist it? The title, the cover image, even the font, all conspired to make this a must read for me, even without taking into account the story. And it was the story which first made me search this one out, after hearing about it on various blogs. Besides, it was written by a librarian, so automatically I had to look into it! :)

It's set in Wales, which is a place I haven't really read that much about, compared to the other UK countries. It tells us the story of 12 year old Gwenni Morgan, who is a "quaint" child in the eyes of her village (though her mother tells her it means they think she's odd). She does seem a little odd; she is convinced she can fly, and by repeatedly saying so it becomes a sore point in her family. She is certain she sees faces in the distemper on the pantry walls, the Toby jugs on the shelf have personality, and when she sees a rich woman wearing a fox stole she is saddened and wants to bury it to free the fox's spirit. She also sees a lot of what goes on in the village, without necessarily understanding it -- she's a 12 yr old who is desperately trying not to grow up. Her best friend Alwenna (whose mother is the town gossip) turns on Gwenni and announces she will no longer be her best friend; Alwenna is now too interested in boys to bother with Gwenni's childish antics.

Despite all this, Gwenni is an appealing narrator. She is uncertain about the greater world, but determined to hold on to what she believes, no small feat in the face of her cruel mother (taunting her with her unwantedness) as well as Alwenna telling her she is as doo-lally as the rest of her family. As Gwenni finds out more about the realities of village life, including the mystery of what has happened to a missing shepherd, she pushes away understanding, not wanting to leave her imaginary world to face up to the miseries of adult life. And as we learn more about her family background and the mental illness that has been passed down from mother to daughter, we begin to wonder if Gwenni herself is simply an imaginative child or if she is exhibiting signs of a genetic malady. I've seen this book described in a couple of places as a mystery, but I don't think it fits in to that genre at all. There is indeed a mysterious death at the beginning, and Gwenni tries to find out what has occurred, but she is not simply an amateur sleuth, and that event is not the main story, to my mind. It's a tale of her search for family secrets, and an enquiry into her place both within the family and within the village. Sadness, secrets, misery, adultery, madness, cruelty; all these play a part in Gwenni's family -- and yet, she is resilient and unbowed, thanks mainly to the support and love from her father (her Tada) and her paternal grandmother. Her oddities make for amusing moments in the story, and create a memorable and original character. However, it's the secrets she discovers and decides to keep at the end of the story which point out that she is, after all, growing up. To remain creative and fanciful and yet not mired in her odd convictions is the balance she will have to strike in order to avoid being subsumed by the family heritage of mental illness. This is a strangely dark yet hopeful book, and is told quite beautifully and engagingly.

An interesting fact: when Gwenni is flying, she says she hears the hum the Earth makes, and when she hums that sound to her school music teacher he tells her it is a B Flat. Gwenni may just have been right -- was she really flying? The Chandra X-Ray Observatory found that a black hole in the Perseus cluster does indeed emanate sound waves which correlate to B Flat. Is the music of the spheres a symphony in B Flat? (and B Flat has a few other strange qualities as well). Fascinating resonances to this title, in many ways.

Other Opinions:

Dovegreyreader finds it talks to the same issues in other books she was reading

Lizzy Siddal likes it; but is Tada too saintly? She follows her review up with a chat with Mari

Savidge Reads gives us a male point of view on this book

Read Waterstones' Interview with Mari Strachan

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Theroux's Far North

Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, c2009.
296 p.

From Saskatoon to Siberia... quite a way to go in both setting and theme! This post-apocalyptic survival novel by British author Theroux is a great read, similar to many other classics of this genre, but has a few differences which I really liked. First, this world seems to have been shaken more by climate change than a nuclear event (though it's unclear) but it is a reason that the main character can survive quite well in Siberia (it's warmer and has a growing season). Second, there is a flavour of the Western about it, what with lawless ragtag groups, hunters, and traders making their way through the largely uninhabited spaces. Our main character, Makepeace, is constable in the town of Evangeline, which now holds perhaps one or two other families tucked away somewhere out of sight. People keep their heads down, they struggle to put aside food and last as long as possible. Makepeace patrols the empty village, carefully watching the rare passersby on the great road which wends its way southward. When a Chinese woman appears out of the ruins of the town after one of these caravans passes, Makepeace is brought back into a world where human contact matters. Some time later the stunning sight of a small airplane flying overhead, and crashing, inspires a search into the possibility that life, technology, culture, has remained somewhere Out There.

This first third of the novel was the strongest part, for me. It described the everyday duties left to Makepeace, and what remained of the family home after parents and siblings had died: an untuned piano, some books, a garden plot. The minutiae of survival was fascinating, as was the routine that Makepeace kept to, patrolling the abandoned town just in case, rescuing books from where they had been used for fire starters, or were crumbling to mould. Once the narrative left the town, following Makepeace out into the world, into encounters with a mad religious enclave, then servitude to a corporate gulag, then an expedition to a ruined metropolis to scavenge what remained, it seemed more like set pieces. Time passes rapidly but the pace of the storytelling moves slowly. Eventually the hope of a civilized life remaining outside fades to disillusionment, ending up (after much struggle) back in the family home although not quite alone this time. While I found most of this interesting reading it didn't grab me in the same way as did the solitude and slow revealing of Makepeace's past in the first sections.

There were a few elements I found a bit jarring, one being the discovery of a mysterious glowing substance in the bowels of an abandoned city - it seemed rather science fiction-y and not quite necessary to the storyline, which began more like a Western survivalist tale. But that's just a quibble. One other, more important, difficulty I had was in the conclusion. Without giving too much away I can only say I found it odd that Makepeace suddenly became a sentimental, almost mawkish character in the final pages. I didn't really believe it and would have preferred a return to the crystalline solitude of the opening. The loss of hope of a better, outside world seems to have destroyed the self-sufficiency displayed throughout the book, and I suppose that does make perfect sense; if we have nothing to hope for is there really any incentive for survival?

Still, I really loved the reading experience -- I couldn't put it down and enjoyed the creative use of Siberia as a landscape, and the Russian elements, as well as the backstory which was doled out to us piece by piece. I liked the atmosphere of the book, the Siberian silence and the utopian dreams which led American pacifists to establish settlements in the great wasteland of Siberia in hopes of attaining a perfectly simple life. Of course, human nature does not allow perfection, and this book shows that both in big ways and in small, individual moments. This is a great read, especially if you are a fan of the many books featuring post-apocalyptic survival that seem to have sprouted up in the last few years. It has some original touches and a wholly surprising revelation early on which I loved. My take: slightly flawed but still well worth a read.

Read a bit of the opening

Other reviews:

Luanne at A Bookworm's world loves it

Nicola at Back to Books considers it thoughtfully

Corey at Shelf Monkey views it with a writer's eye

Friday, July 17, 2009

Art of Salvage

The Art of Salvage / Leona Theis
Regina: Coteau, c2007.
360 p.

This is a novel about family, about mothers and daughters, and how we create our identity. Set in Saskatoon, it's my first choice for the 3rd Canadian Book Challenge. It appealed to me because of its setting as well as storyline; I grew up near Saskatoon so always like to see it represented in fiction. This turned out to be an absorbing read with two strong lead characters, Delorie and her daughter Amber.

Delores is 19, from a small town and a troubled family -- her father has a drinking problem. She moves to Saskatoon and starts up a new life, distancing herself from her family, getting a job at a bar and making new friends. She changes her name to Delorie. But all too soon, she has to depend on her mother again; she gets pregnant, and as per the usual advice in the 70's, it is suggested that she give the baby up for adoption. In preparation she lives in a home with other pregnant girls, where they are all warned against forming any emotional attachments to their babies. Most of them won't even see the baby before it is claimed by the adoptive family. Delorie fully intends to do this, but when she finally contacts her mother near the end of her term, her mother convinces Delorie to give the baby to her own family to raise. The only part of the equation that seems to stick with Delorie is the advice to remain emotionally distant, which she does; baby Amber doesn't even discover that Delorie is in fact her mother, not her older sister, until she is 8.

And then there's Amber's story. When we meet her we discover that at 25, Amber is adrift, not sure quite what to make of herself. She is now living in Saskatoon, single again, and working at a cafe. She is affected by mood swings, resembling bipolar disorder. With extraordinary energy she runs through Saskatoon on her accustomed routes, seeing the beauty of landscape and people. When down, she curls up in her apartment unable to function or believe in any goodness in herself or the world. She also collects odds and ends of things, salvaging parts of her past to try to create some understanding of both past and future. Out of some of these odds and ends, in a wonderful scene, she creates a mobile utilizing a symbolic totem for each family member she wants to represent. She uses a piece of a broken teacup for her mother, a badge for her father, photo for her brother, a piece of her own hair for herself, but is stumped when it comes to Delorie, and especially when she tries to encapsulate her birth father who she knows very little about. She is trying hard to salvage a relationship with Delorie, whom she has never understood nor been cherished by.

The novel is divided into four parts; in the first we see Amber and Del together by chance, watching the demolition of a house they had both lived in as young women new to Saskatoon. Amber only finds out at that moment that Delorie had lived in the same building years before. She salvages a doorbell plate as a memorial, leading us to discover her habit of scavenging physical items from the world around her. The second section takes us back to Delorie's life, explaining and grounding her character as someone defined by one major derailment in her youth. In the third, Amber gets her space to explain how this has all affected her; with the people she knew as her parents, not grandparents, now deceased she is reaching out to sister/mother Delorie. By the fourth section of the book, Amber and Delorie have indeed salvaged some connection between them, as precariously balanced as the mobile Amber creates.

The cover of this novel is extraordinarily fitting; it is obvious that the designer read the book. The colour (amber) and the mobile come straight out of Amber's storyline. The description of the mobile matches the image on the cover -- I flipped back and forth to examine it once I reached that part of the book. Excellent book design which I really appreciated!

I think this would be an excellent choice for book clubs; there is much to discuss in this book -- teenage pregnancy and how it was and is dealt with; the emotional scars of family secrecy and addictions; family relationships and identity; how a person develops a sense of self; and many other tangential topics. While I didn't find it perfect -- it was hard to see how Delorie had become the person she was as an adult, for example -- and the pace of the story didn't always work for me, it was so intriguing I had to keep reading. Amber, especially, was a wonderfully complex character.

Also reviewed at The Literary Word

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Bibliophilic Booklist

Stefanie of So Many Books has an interesting post about books which feature bibliophilic themes; she highlights A.S. Byatt's Possession and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose as good examples, after being inspired by an article in Library Journal entitled Bibliocentric Fiction. And she is asking for your favourites too... there are already many intriguing books in the comments on her post but as I was mulling this over, I realized I could think of so many that it was time for a Book List! I could probably also include my most recently read & reviewed, Martha Baillie's The Incident Report. But here is my own selection of some of my favourite bibliophilic reading -- perhaps because of my profession(s) it comprises books featuring both librarians and booksellers:

1. Parnassus on Wheels & The Haunted Bookshop / Christopher Morley
Two books about a peripatetic bookseller and his longsuffering wife, these are delightful, charming, amusing, clever, and any other period adjectives you could come up with. They are great fun and are both available in full text in various places around the internet. If you are a bookish sort, you will love them for sure.

2. Autumn Rounds / Jacques Poulin
A slim French Canadian novel about an older gentleman from Quebec City who drives a bookmobile around the more secluded areas of the province, this has a light and yet melancholy tone. He finds a new love interest when a street circus appears outside his apartment, and she travels with him on his final bookmobile rounds, where he worries about such things as new reading coordinators needing to be arranged once he's retired.

3. Club Dumas / Arturo Perez Reverte
Most people will have heard of this one; most will probably have read it. It features seedy antiquarian bookscouts, mysterious texts rumored to exist, murder, mayhem... and Johnny Depp as hero Corso in the (otherwise mediocre) movie. What is not to like?

4. Salamander & The Logogryph / Thomas Wharton
Thomas Wharton's bookish bent is obvious in both of these hard to find books. Salamander is a magical and dreamy journey, following printer Nicholas Flood through an 18th century carnival of experience. Books, reading, the library of Alexandria... many things make their appearance in this one. As for The Logogryph, its subtitle, A Bibliography of Imaginary Books, may say all that is needed. If you need more convincing, it meditates on the act of reading itself, and is stylistically influenced by Calvino and Borges. Try it.

5. The Ink Drinker / Eric Sanvoisin
A French children's book about a vampire who only drinks ink, this chapter book was wonderful. Odilon works in his father's bookshop and hates it, until a strange customer turns him into an ink dependent vampire. It is weirdly funny and very creative, perfect for young boys as well as easily entertained adults! ;) Followed up by A Straw for Two, in which Odilon finds a girl vampire to share his ink drinking with.

6. The Dido Hoare series / Marianne Macdonald
A mystery series set in the UK featuring antiquarian bookseller Dido Hoare, these mysteries revolve around either specific manuscripts, or take place within a bookish world. There are 8 books in the series, and Dido, single mother, antiquarian sleuth and general busybody is a likable main character.

7. The Grand Complication / Allen Kurzweil
Alexander Short is a young, stylish reference librarian. Despite appearances, his life is crumbling around him. In steps Henry James Jesson III, an old, eccentric bibliophile who appears in Alexander's library to offer him some afterhours work: tracking down the missing elements of a cabinet of curiosities Jesson has obtained. Alexander takes on the research, only to discover there is more danger, intrigue and mystery (not to mention erotic pop-up books) involved than he had anticipated.

8. The Silver Bough / Lisa Tuttle
A fantasy novel steeped in Celtic myth, this is a brief and lovely read. Kathleen Mullaroy leaves London for the small Scottish town of Appleton, to take up a new post as head librarian of the tiny locale. I loved this library, with its cupola and hidden rooms and stacks full of old and mysterious books. The rest of the story, populated with interesting human characters, randomly appearing kelpies, faeries, and magical apples was good too... but I adored the library. :) Here's Kathleen:
She loved the look, the heft, the weight, the smell, and the fact of books—all those miniature embodiments of other lives, other times. Thoughts and dreams preserved for posterity, to be summoned back to life through the act of reading.

9. Ships that pass in the night / Beatrice Harraden
Okay, this 1893 novel isn't strictly bibliophilic, in that a book is not at the centre of the story. But Bernardine meets a writer known only as The Disagreeable Man at a sanatorium in Austria, they eventually come to develop a cordial relationship, then Bernardine recovers and goes home to resume work in her uncle's bookshop in London. The Disagreeable Man follows where, alas, there is a very unsatisfying sentimental and melodramatic ending, very Victorian potboilerish. But it has a great quote with which to finish this topic:

"I should not be surprised if you were able to write a book after all. Not that a new book is wanted. There are too many books as it is; and not enough people to dust them. Still, it is not probable that you would be considerate enough to remember that. You will write your book."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Incident Report

Toronto: Pedlar Press, c2009
195 p.

This new novel by Martha Baillie (employed in the Toronto Public Library system over the last 20 years), tells us a story in the form of incident reports from a character who works in the Toronto Public Library system. Miriam Gordon is a restrained yet fragile kind of woman, very wary about making connections with others. The story progresses through incident reports filled in at work, required when a member of the public does anything unusual or threatening. It adds in sketches of her coworkers which amused me greatly. It continues to keep our interest by also interspersing incident reports from Miriam's own life; she meets a young man, Janko, a Slovenian artist now living in Toronto, and they begin a relationship. But Miriam begins finding ominous notes at the library, beginning with a seemingly innocuous page of sheet music from Rigoletto, an opera about a hunchbacked jester who tries to defend his daughter's honour against a lecherous Duke, only to have it go oh, so wrong. Someone out there seems to see himself in the hunchback's position in relation to Miriam and the creeping menace, along with Miriam's chillingly calm refusal to take it seriously, causes a frisson of foreshadowing which comes to a rather shocking and disturbing conclusion.

It is an intelligent story, full of literary and musical references, to Rigoletto and also to Satie. The Grimm Brothers and their not-so-nice tales make an appearance, A.A. Milne is referenced, and an epigram by Ray Bradbury, ironic in this context, opens the book: Without the library, you have no civilization.

But the parts I recognized most were the tales of the patrons and Miriam's long suffering and matter-of-fact recounting of such interactions in the language of the incident report. Karen Luscombe at the Globe and Mail reviewed this book quite glowingly a few days ago, speaking of it in terms of Satie's piano piece Vexations (840 repetitions of one theme) and as an 'unsettling dreamscape', a description I find quite apt. However, she also states that:

Miriam's Rigoletto mystery only heightens Baillie's absurdly normalized mania: The library serves as a kind of outpatient ward for a rather creaturely cast of literate “nutters” – some deeply sympathetic, others not so much. One patron directs traffic with a teabag; another, who threatens to “cut off” Miriam's arm, harbours “a large knife and a can of bear repellent” in his bag. ... Baillie is a subtle portraitist and creates an engaging heroine with rich psychological nuance. Somehow, despite Miriam's automaton-like impassivity, her evolution matters to us. When she happens upon a “sticky mess” left by one of the library's “determined masturbators,” Miriam's absurd über-restraint simply compels: “The books, soiled by what looked like common semen, we bagged in clear plastic and I withdrew them from the collection. No other actions were taken.” The effect simply harrows.

As an employee of public libraries over the past 15 years or so, I missed the "absurdly normalized" part. And the "absurd uber-restraint". It all seemed so very normal and everyday to me. But it did make me think: did Baillie intend all the incidents to seem surreal and unsettling to the layreader as part of the psychological development of Miriam's character? And does the fact that I overlooked the absurdity and surreal nature of these incidents say more about me than Miriam?? ;)

Nevertheless, the actual danger and fear that Miriam experiences at one point did make me shiver, and see how her public facade was part of her intrinsic defense against an uncertain world. The conclusion makes complete sense in that light. I do think that more than an attempt at heightening surreality, or creating a world of unreal, nightmarish effect, the incident reports show "the subtle dynamics of a socially exposed workplace", as the book description at McNally Robinson would have it. Baillie herself stated in an interview with the Toronto Star that about 90% of the incidents came from either her own or her coworkers' experiences.

For me this was one of those books that I couldn't look away from; the occurrences Miriam notes were cringingly all too possible, but in counterpoint we have her delicately told moments of private life. Her unfolding love story challenges the dysfunctional social interactions she suffers each day, but to what extent? How much can she count on it, or expect it to remain within her grasp? The literary references sprinkled throughout should give you some clue to the tone of the book, and if anyone has read it I would love to exchange ideas about the conclusion. I am still mulling it over and am not sure what to think of it; is it as it seems or is there something more there to uncover? A fascinating and original book which I am glad to have come across.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Weekly Geeks World Tour

This week's Weekly Geeks asks you to tell us about your globe trotting via books. Are you a global reader? How many countries have you "visited" in your reading? What are your favorite places or cultures to read about? Can you recommend particularly good books about certain regions, countries or continents? How do you find out about books from other countries? What countries would you like to read that you haven't yet?

I do enjoy reading about places 'elsewhere'. Fiction provides an excellent opportunity to really get into somebody's mind and see the world from their point of view. One of my favourite Proustian quotes which encapsulates this idea for me says that "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."

Some of the places I seem to read about most, besides my own North American surroundings, are England, France, Eastern Europe (especially Ukraine), Japan and China, and a smattering of various other countries here and there. I particularly enjoy reading about Ukraine, because of my family background, and since my trip to Kyiv I've only become more fascinated by Ukrainian culture. I also really enjoy reading Scandinavian fiction, for no real reason except that I somehow connect with it. Nevertheless, when I was looking at my reading habits for this post, I realized I haven't read as widely as I had thought; I am aware of many books in translation, which are on my TBR, but I haven't actually read as many as I anticipated. One of the areas that is lacking which was pointed out by this exercise was South America. Except for Garcia Marquez, I haven't made great inroads into the writing of South America, although there are so many authors to choose from!

One of the ways I find suggestions for great international fiction is through all of you: other bloggers' reading habits inspire my own, very often. There are also a few sites that result in growing lists of things I really want to buy! One is World Literature Today; they have limited content up at their website but it is fascinating stuff. Here are a few works in translation I've read recently and really enjoyed --

Over at One Swede Read, there's a list of all the countries of the world with the relevant books she's read slotted in. (And she reviews a wide variety of world fiction). It's a handy way of keeping track, and seeing where your titles tend to pile up. And of course there's always a map -- Weekly Geeks has provided a link so we can all create our reading maps this week. I like what Christina over at Jackets & Covers has done with her map; she's created one map to show where she has physically travelled, then a second to show her bookish rambles. I haven't gone many places in real life, but my reading rambles are quite extravagant, so I'm stealing her idea! To see what other people are reading and what their suggestions for international fiction are, be sure to visit other Weekly Geeks -- I've already discovered both new bloggers and numerous new titles.

First, where I have actually gone...

create your own visited country map

Then, where my reading has taken me...

create your own reading map

Friday, July 10, 2009

Library Loot

Once again Eva's weekly library loot post draws me in... she always finds so many great reads it is inspiring. Here are my finds this week:

Recommended by a number of bloggers, this first novel by Welsh writer Strachan takes place in Wales, and features a young girl as narrator. Gwennie is a bit odd; she's certain she flies at night, and she sees things she doesn't understand. Her innocence is not cutesy, rather her lack of knowledge of the adult world results in a plot in which she slowly chips away at the secrets her family holds. It sounds intriguing, and is set in a place I haven't read much about.

My first read for the Canadian Book Challenge, this one takes place in Saskatoon -- might as well start in my home province. :) It tells the story of Delorie, new to Saskatoon from a small town, and all that occurs after she becomes pregnant then gives the baby to her own mother to raise. According to the dictates of the day, she maintains an emotional distance from baby Amber. It's told in alternating sections from Delorie's and Amber's perspectives (though not in first person).

Another book to feed my recent Penelope Lively fixation! This one features Stella Brentwood, retired anthropologist who retires to a small cottage in Somerset, only to discover that her new neighbourhood may be more difficult to understand than any of the societies she's studied over the years.

An entry in the "Once Upon a Time" series, this YA retelling of the story of Sheherezad looks appealing. Out of all the authors who write for this series, Dokey is my favourite, and she always has something to say about the act of storytelling itself.

And, not a library book, but a book I purchased off the library's sale cart -- something I am very excited about as I didn't even know it existed -- Elizabeth Goudge's autobiography, The Joy of the Snow!! I love Elizabeth Goudge even is she is a bit "old fashioned" and I'm thrilled by this find. On first flip through there does look to be a chapter or two about her religious views but also a fair amount on the writing life so it should balance out. Plus she talks about all the houses she's lived in, something I find strangely fascinating.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Coal & Roses

Coal & Roses / P.K. Page
Erin, ON: Porcupine's Quill Press, c2009
93 p.

I've written a little about Page's work previously, and how much I admire her for continuing as a strong and vibrant creator into her 90's. She seems to be able to work in many formats; this book is a collection of 21 glosas. In case you are as unaware of this poetic form as I was, here's a definition:

Glosa = Originating in the late fourteenth to early fifteenth century Spanish courts, the glosa is a way for poets to exchange or build upon one another’s ideas in a structured poetic form. A glosa normally has four ten-line stanzas preceded by four lines quoted from another poet (this quatrain also acts as a kind of epigraph to the poem). Each stanza ends with a line taken sequentially from the borrowed quatrain. While there is no required metre, lines 6, 9 and 10 of each stanza are often end-rhymed. The glosa picks up on the concept of glossing – that is, elaborating or commenting on a text. Poets often vary the form slightly – for instance, by making some or all stanzas shorter than the standard ten lines. [From In Fine Form – The Canadian Book of Form Poetry]

What this means in practice is that Page has taken four lines from various poets, including such names as Anna Akhmatova, Gwendolyn MacEwan, Borges, Lorca, and Wallace Stevens. She begins with a quatrain from one of their poems and then glosses on it. In Akhmatova's case, there is a triple glosa, three quatrains from her work commented on for a big finish. The design of the book really adds to the experience of reading; before each glosa, there is a page with a brief biography and a portrait of the poet Page is referencing for her own poem. It's a wonderful way to discover new poets, and new depths to the poets you may already be familiar with. Reading these felt like eavesdropping on a discussion between poets, themes and ideas drawn on and expanded upon by a new sensibility. It was intellectually fascinating, and inspiring -- it made me think that I should be more careful to take note of my responses when I am reading a poem. Even if I am not about to break out into a wild orgy of glosa composition, I can still take the time to mull over a poem and think about the ways its lines may be interpreted according to my own experiences and knowledge.

Once again, this volume put out by Porcupine's Quill Press is a lovely book; good design, nice paper, attractive cover, quality binding, and of course, excellent content. I have not yet seen a P.K. Page volume that I haven't liked.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A Force of Nature

New York: Atlas, 2008.
207 p.
Another choice inspired by the Science Book Challenge, this book is part of a series called "Great Discoveries". I read another in this series last year, Miss Leavitt's Stars, and really enjoyed it. So I thought I'd read this one as well; it's written by a biographer and political correspondent, not a science writer, and is a tiny bio at 207 small pages -- how do you compress a life like Rutherford's into just so much space? Well, Reeves has succeeded admirably.

I picked this up for many reasons: I like reading about physicists at that time period, and I was interested in Rutherford because he spent a few years teaching at McGill University, my alma mater. (In fact the physics building was named after him, and you can now take a virtual tour of the Rutherford Museum - a room full of his old equipment and apparatus).

It tells us the story of a man who was described by a colleague as "a force of nature". He was an exceptionally bright New Zealand farm boy, and his career began in the 1890s, when he won a scholarship to Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, then the premier centre for physics studies. He was always very confident and self-assured, not fitting into the genteel English gentleman scientist mould very well; he was once described as looking like an Australian shop-keeper, and when he gave radio addresses it was joked that he didn't need radio to reach the colonies (his voice was notoriously loud, so much so that in later years researchers put signs up in the labs Rutherford supervised reminding "people" to lower their voices so as not to disturb the various delicate measurements going on). But nobody ever denied his brilliance.

He was recognized as a great experimental physicist and a mentor, involved in hundreds of atomic discoveries (like the orbital structure of atoms, the concept of the half-life of radioactive materials, and the achievement of Cavendish Lab being the first to split the atom). His own work as well as his particular genius at mentoring other young men make his place in physics a vital one. However, he championed not only other men: in 1920, Cambridge University was experiencing a post-war boom, and to reduce the number of students it was suggested that women be refused admission. Rutherford, along with chemistry professor William Pope cowrote a letter to the London Times, stating:

For our part, we welcome the presence of women in our laboratories on the ground that residence in this University is intended to fit the rising generation to take its proper place in the outside world, where, to an ever increasing extent, men and women are being called upon to work harmoniously side by side in every department of human affairs.... at the present stage in the world's affairs we can afford less than ever before to neglect the training and cultivation of all the young intelligence available. For this reason, no less than for those of elementary justice and of expediency, we consider that women should be admitted to degrees and to representation in our University.

Go, Ernest!

I enjoyed this short history of Rutherford's life, even though I know there is much more about him to learn. That's what the bibliography is for, I suppose: now I will have to look up a longer biography and read it too. This was well written, and talked about a scientific life in the way that I enjoy, full of gossip and personal tidbits which make the person real to me. (His wife telling him at dinner, in front of important guests, "Ern, you're dribbling again" just made me laugh). The science is very clear, both the explanation of various experiments and of their significance -- plus there are some great photos of the labs and the scientists involved. Entertaining to see the relatively unsophisticated equipment they used to make these extraordinary discoveries! I like this series for its engaging approach to scientific lives, and recommend them to anyone looking for a brief but fascinating introduction to various characters such as Rutherford. I think they might be particularly appealing for science minded high school students, but as someone far away from the teenage years I can state that I found this thoughtfully written and a satisfying read.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Gatekeepers: A History

Gatekeepers: Reshaping immigrant lives in Cold War Canada / Franca Iacovetta
Toronto: Between the Lines, c2006.
370 p.

This fascinating history, winner of the Canadian Historical Association's 2007 Sir John A. Macdonald Prize, was a great read. I am particularly interested in this topic; my BA was in North American History and Literature, and I've kept reading history since, though with not quite as much regularity as I've kept reading literature! Still, I have a fondness for Canadian history, and this book, exploring the role that immigrants played during the Cold War, was a complex and thorough reading experience. The focus is primarily on European immigrants, including Ukrainian & Soviet immigrants, which, if you've been reading this blog for any length of time you will know is personally of interest to me. So for all of those reasons, I found this book both illuminating and surprisingly entertaining.

Iacovetta is a feminist, labour, gender, and migration historian -- and all of these topics are rolled into this narrative. The book looks at those whom she calls "gatekeepers": middle-class institutions (like the Red Cross, the IODE, church and ethnic organizations, even the NFB) and middle-class individuals (journalists, social workers, hundreds of volunteers) and their role in 'Canadianizing' newcomers. But it also looks at the experience of immigration from the newcomers' point of view, and how they in turn influenced the gatekeepers. Each chapter takes one aspect of immigration and discusses it from a variety of angles; for example, the first chapter looks at how the press presented both political and human interest stories. In further chapters, she then examines governmental and institutional attitudes towards socializing all these new immigrants, as well as pointing out the place of Canadian but ethnically based groups, such as the Ukrainian Canadian Committee, in shaping views of how one should remain ethnic while becoming Canadian. The views of such support groups were prescriptive, most of them being strongly and vocally anti-leftist and anti-Communist. (This was the Cold War, recall).

An element I was drawn in by was the focus on women's experiences; many of them were joining husbands or families that had come ahead, while others were single refugees without a family structure to protect them. Iacovetta draws on magazine and newspaper reports - from such mainstream publications as Macleans and Chatelaine - to reveal a fear of female sexuality which informed the treatment of immigrant women. If they followed the strictures laid out for them, learning how to become good housewives and raise morally upright Canadian children, all was well. When things went awry, and domestic violence or more forthright feminine behaviour was revealed, the women were punished by being blamed for any problems which arose. This included having their characters maligned even when they were the victims of violent crime. She discusses a number of criminal investigations among immigrant populations in which women were murdered, and how the focus of coverage was on explaining why these women brought this violence upon themselves (variations on the old and tired 'well look what she was wearing' accusations in cases of rape). In fact, there were numerous social and economic reasons behind these happenings, which Iacovetta delineates and explores further.

Chapter Six, entitled "Culinary Containment?", provided an entertaining look at how 'postwar food and nutritional gatekeepers', such as dieticians, public health nurses, social workers, food writers and so on, influenced middle-class aspirations among newcomers. While many of the women entering Canada at this time had previously worked or been alienated from a home for many of the war years, the Canadian ideal was still the 'domestic containment' of women as homemakers. Women's magazines and television, including NFB films, strongly pushed for the retention of ethnic foodways as a way of making immigrants feel connected to their roots while minimizing subversive political activities. This multi-cultural view held that culinary pluralism was a method of making incoming cultures part of the greater Canadian whole. Still, much emphasis was placed on the consumer desires for new and shiny kitchens full of large North American appliances, and reliance on flashy supermarkets. Furthermore, the well off and comfortably housed nuclear family stood for democracy, as opposed to the Soviet family where the mother had to work outside the home and struggle for enough food to get by. Iacovetta talks about various NFB films made for educational purposes, to inform the gatekeepers and encourage the 'correct' aspirations in immigrants. One such example is Arrival, made in 1957, showing how an Italian woman becomes accustomed to her new life partly through the comfort of appliances and abundant food.

This is quite a complete history on this subject, full of great archival photos, a tempting bibliography and useful index. It reminded me of why I loved my history degree so much in the first place, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in either women's history, the stories of immigration to North America, conditions of the Cold War years, or simply well written social history with tons of fascinating tidbits. I always know I have really enjoyed a book when I can pick out bits to use as witty dinner party reparteé ;) But seriously, if you enjoy reading nonfiction and like women's history, this one is a great find.

Check out Between the Lines' website; they publish some fabulous history and socially relevant nonfiction -- their backlist as well as forthcoming publication list is quite tempting!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Happy Canada (Book Challenge) Day!

I am so thrilled - not only is it Canada Day, and I have the day off - but it is once again the start date for a great reading Challenge, the Canadian Book Challenge 3. I love this challenge; it's so flexible and well organized and just a lot of fun. The Challenge is to read 13 Canadian books from today, July 1/09 to June 30/10. Just 13! Easy stuff when there is so much to choose from; there is no restriction on what kind of book you want to read - fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, YA, picture books,'s all up to you.
The last two years I've tried reading one book from each of the provinces and territories, so this year I'm going to shake things up a little for myself. My plan for the Canadian Book Challenge 3 is to read novels set in the Prairies (Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba). If I finish way ahead of schedule, I will try reading 13 YA novels with the same setting. Of course, plans may go awry, but I know that in any case, I will most certainly have read 13 Canadian books by next July 1.
Pop over the Book Mine Set and sign up. You know you want to! ;)