Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wordless on a Wednesday

I have two very intriguing books to discuss today -- both from Porcupine's Quill Press, in their new series of wordless novels. Both of these are books which use images to tell a story; as the publisher states:

The aim of this project is to publish wordless books created using the relief printmaking techniques of linocut, woodcut or wood engravings. Each book will feature original work created by contemporary printmakers. The reason for choosing relief printmaking to illustrate these stories is not only to pay homage to the artists who started the tradition of the wordless novel but to help revive interest and appreciation of the rich qualities of line and texture indicative of relief printmaking.

I had no familiarity with this tradition before receiving these books. However, being the kind of reader who must follow a new thread of interest, after reading these I did a little research into their history. Both artists mention the influence of Frans Maserell, a Belgian artist who is considered the master woodcut artist of the 20th century. He created the wordless novel, a story told in a series of single page woodcuts. There is a lot more to learn, and coincidentally there is a recent book on this very topic, entitled Wordless Books: the original graphic novels, by David A. Berona.

Anyway -- on to the books!

Let That Bad Air Out: Buddy Bolden's last parade / Stefan Berg
Erin, ON: Porcupine's Quill, c2007.
140 p.

This first novel in the series tells us the story of Buddy Bolden, jazz artist of New Orleans (b.1877-d.1931). Bolden is credited with being one of the first jazz musicians, but he died young and in disgrace: he collapsed during the parade which is the subject of this book and was sent to an asylum, where he later died. (Buddy Bolden is also the subject of Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter, the only one of Ondaatje's books I've ever managed to finish.)

The way this is laid out is as follows: beginning with a short 2 page introductory essay about the topic, and a one page explanatory essay by the author, the remainder is single sided linocuts, sharp black and white images taking us through the day of the parade. The images are intriguing, and the storyline is fascinating, but personally I would have liked more detail in the images to provide more narrative complexity. Still, it is a good start to this series and has a lively topic to explore.

Back & Forth / Marta Chudolinska
Erin, ON: Porcupine's Quill Press, c2009.
187 p.

This one, brand new, really caught my fancy. The artist is creating a novel in a genre sparsely populated by women, and yet the structure works so very well for this story. The story moves "back and forth" between Vancouver and Toronto, as the main character flashes back to her previous life in TO -- this is shown by switching the colour of the prints; Vancouver is an orangey colour while Toronto is in black and white. We see our main character alone at the beginning, and then begin to understand what is going on when we see the progression of a relationship in flashbacks. The smallest details tip us off; a glance, a puff of breath in cold air, a look of expectation on a face.

I found the narrative line of this wordless novel very easy to follow, and very evocative. The use of varied perspectives in the linocuts gives a sense of spaciousness, of an observing, outside eye. For example, in the first image we are looking down at a bedroom from above; in another, we are looking up a staircase leading out of the subway; in yet another we have the character barely appearing as she stares out the bus window and there is a real of movement in the print. I enjoyed this book, and as I haven't had a lot of experience with this type of story, I was relieved to find it engaging and quite complex. I would like to see more from Chudolinska, who is also a bookbinder and painter in addition to printmaking.

Thanks go, once again, to Porcupine's Quill Press for letting me experience these fascinating books which are outside of my regular reading routine. Nobody else makes me explore so many new things so often!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Reckless Appetites by Jacqueline Deval

Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, c1993.
196 p.

Another foodie book...but I enjoyed this one more than the Barbery I recently read. I was surprised that I enjoyed it more, however, as it is not really a traditional novel. Reckless Appetites tells us the tale of Pomme Bouquin, whose father is a chef; she is following in his steps. She is also hugely influenced by food writers, especially Colette. The storyline, as much as it can be followed, is that Pomme is trying to seduce her English lover Jeremy through a sumptuous meal: she reads through Colette as well as other writers and shares it all with us. Then Jeremy rejects her, and spurs her toward revenge. Mixed in with this narrative are some letters back and forth between her father and a French chef, sharing ideas for a literary themed dinner extravaganza (and through which we discover Pomme's inherited tendency toward betrayal and self centredness). There are also a couple of chapters written as food essays by Pomme as if published in a magazine, a chapter by Jeremy, another chapter by Pomme's American lover who is languishing in a Singapore jail, and throughout, always recipes. It's a bit of a mash-up but somehow I was utterly fascinated by it. All the literary language, the positive wallowing in food writing, and the multiple recipes were great. Pomme's character drives the tale: she is absolutely convinced of her own centrality to the world and her seductive, irresistible nature.

That said, if you're looking for a plot driven novel this is not it. If you like an essayistic tone and a lot of differing perspectives on the idea of food and its relation to comfort, civilization, and literary inspiration, then you may enjoy it. Also, much of the book is recipes - actual historical recipes from Dickens, Colette, Hannah Grasse and more. So, if you like reading recipes -- and I mean reading them, picturing the process of making them and imagining the results -- you will find much more depth to the book. If you tend to skip over recipes in books then this one will probably annoy somewhat, as at least a quarter of the book is in recipe format. I personally love reading recipes like novels (which could explain my 80+ cookbook collection) so I found this part of it vastly entertaining even though I have no intention to ever make any of them. There are also many tidbits about literary figures thrown in; one I found intriguing was a mention of Zola - in 1862 he found a job working in the shipping department of Hachette publishers! ;)
There is one chapter written by Pomme's American lover who is now stuck in a jail in Singapore; many reviewers have commented that it is out of place. It doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the storyline; however, it does give Deval some space to bring up some fascinating ideas about hunger and its significance culturally and morally. As opposed to the luxurious celebration of foodstuffs in the rest of the book, this chapter is a little more austere, and I think interesting for that reason.

I enjoyed her writing style and the collage effect of all the different techniques employed in telling this tale. Deval herself provides some insight into her approach in a couple of quotes from various places in the book; together they give us some indication that this structure is something she worked at quite deliberately:

A writer cannot create great works by writing to formula. Likewise, the best cooks are the ones who put something of themselves into the endeavor, not merely follow a set of instructions. Cooking and writing -- for Pomme believes that of all the arts, these are the closest allies -- when done with intent to achieve perfection, are demanding and very personal forms of work...

What Pomme wants her students to understand is that whether one's choice of artistic expression lies in literature or cookery, there's no point in doing either unless the creation is the best possible, the most deeply satisfying experience first for the artist and then for others, the thrill of creation born as much from the process as from the result. The pleasure a cook takes in composing a soufflé that holds its delicate, airy form is akin to what a writer feels when he has written the perfect story, or novel, or poem, knowing that it's good, very good, and couldn't be made better. ...

Room exists in the world for all sorts of bouillabaisse. Serious cooks must not close their minds to other ways of seeing and sensing and tasting. Acknowledge the artistry of another cook. You may become better for your willingness to learn.

I think if this book would have been published today it would have garnered much more attention, as the reading public is possibly more attuned to this kind of genre-less cut and paste style of fiction than it was in the early 90s. Web reading has perhaps accustomed us to following something through even without a strong narrative thread. In any case, I found this to be a very enjoyable, intelligent read. Definitely for anyone with an interest in food writing, or in literary feasts, or in a creative use of fictional style. I'll be rereading this at some point, I know.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Physics Novels that make a Big Bang

To celebrate the return of my new favourite tv show, The Big Bang Theory, I've created a new book list. Here are a few suggested novels which use physicists as characters or physics itself as a large part of the storyline (and no, I haven't read all of them, yet):

1. Changing Light / Nora Gallagher
I read this one in 2007, and thought it was very, very good. It features Eleanor Garrigue, a painter living in New Mexico in the 1940's, and her encounter with a Los Alamos physicist on the run, Leo Kavan. Those two main characters, plus Eleanor's friend Father Bill, represent Art, Science and Religion -- and there is much to discuss in 1945 Los Alamos. Really intriguing story, and enjoyably well written.

2. Oh Pure and Radiant Heart / Lydia Millett
A strange novel, this features Ann (a librarian) and her husband Ben (a gardener) and the time travelling figures of Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi. The last thing these three physicists remember before appearing in modern Sante Fe, New Mexico, is the blast of the Trinity test, the first explosion of a fission bomb in the 1940's. It is a wild ride from thereon in, and I think the theme is summed up nicely by Jeff at Bearcastle Blog: Their story read to me like an allegory of how scientists who love science and who have strong ethical centers (except maybe Szilard!) could have nevertheless ended up creating the nuclear bomb. They overlooked so much for working on the sweet problem.

3. Anna's Shadow / David Manicom
A new release from Vehicule Press, this novel is set in Moscow, early 1990's, and 2007 North America. Adrian Wells is a young diplomat who is assigned to watch Anna Mikataev, a particle physicist whose work has political repercssions. As the publisher puts it:
Scientific romance, or post-Cold-War thriller colliding with the new war on terrorism? If only Adrian Wells could be sure what kind of story he was caught up in. ... In the small basement room where Anna Mikataev lives, the force fields of sub-atomic particles, individual lives, and the politics of terror all meet.

4. The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer / Carol Hill
A cult novel from its publication, this is the story of Amanda Jaworski, physicist, astronaut, and roller skater extraordinaire. She is training to become the first person to travel to Mars, and when she does get to space she ends up battling with an mysterious being made of light, the Eleven Million Mile High Dancer, who embodies feminine power. The publisher states that "this ambitious novel is a rich and comic blend of physics, feminism, and political farce". And, Amanda has a marvellous cat named Schrodinger. Gotta love that!

5. Eifelheim / Michael Flynn
A science fiction novel nominated for a Hugo award in 2007, this is a story of first contact. But, the year is 1348, and a medieval churchman is the first to meet the Krenken, a race of giant grasshoppers. Yay, giant alien bugs. Just the book for me ;) All reviews I've seen praise his excellent depiction of the medieval mindset, and that alone makes me want to read it. There are also portions of the book set in contemporary times; a theoretical physicist and a cliometric [math] historian are both trying to figure out why the medieval village of Eifelheim disappeared suddenly during the years of the Black Plague and was never resettled like most other places.

6. Einstein's Dreams / Alan Lightman
This is the first novel by former working physicist Alan Lightman, who has gone on to write a few more novels and well as popular science books. This one is a brief set of meditations on time, framed by the idea that Einstein is mulling over all kinds of possible worlds. A beautiful little novel, it began Lightman's fiction career on a definite high note.

7. Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist / Russell McCormmach
Set in 1918, at a time when physics was changing irrevocably, this book details the thoughts of elderly physicist Victor Jakob, at the end of his career. His musings give us the history of physics and scientific life in the 19th century: the upheavals in science were enormous and right at this time classical physics was being overtaken by a much wilder modern approach -- it was the beginning of quantum physics and the ideas of relativity, and this poetic novel reveals the significance of those changes.

8. Properties of Light / Rebecca Goldstein
A novel full of crisp, intelligent writing and many academic conundrums, this features three physicists: Samuel Mallach (old, forgotten genius), his daughter Dana, and wunderkind Justin Childs. Justin rediscovers an old formula created by Mallach and wants to resolve it: it would be a way to reconcile quantum mechanics and relativity. When the Mallachs hear his intention, they manipulate him into marrying Dana; but professional jealousy, hubris, and the single minded pursuit of scientific truths unravel their relationships and they spiral down into a gothic morass of hatred, betrayal, suicide and more.

9. The Wave Theory of Angels / Alison MacLeod
Two sisters, a physicist for a father, an experiment with wave theory at the lab; and suddenly the elder sister is displaced in time, existing in two places at once -- today and feudal France. The two families are essentially identical: Giles, stone carver in France of 1248, has two daughters. The elder, Christina, is in a coma for no obvious reason. Skip to 2001: Giles Carver, physicist, is trying to figure out why his daughter Christina has fallen into a coma. Younger daughter Marguerite has a big part to play in deciphering the story's events. There are also many other parallels drawn between the two worlds. Fascinating stuff.

10. Particles and Luck / Louis B. Jones
Reasons to be grateful for a back fence: you're a whiz kid physicist and your neighbour is a divorced, bankrupt pizza restaurant owner. Or, in this case, both of these characters band together against a faceless corporation to build their own fence in the middle of one Halloween night. Mark Perdue, rich and established theoretical physicist, is drawn into the scheme by his hapless and yet somehow convincing neighbor Roger Hoberman. This sets the stage for a novel of ruminations on life, luck, coincidence and subatomic particles. It's been described as "hilarious", "quirky", "gracefully written", "an engaging novelistic equivalent of a unified field theory".

11. The Book of God and Physics / Enrique Joven
A thriller featuring a Jesuit teacher who joins a group fascinated by the secrets encoded into the famously undecipherable Voynich Manuscript. From the publisher: Written in an unknown language and illustrated with enigmatic drawings that no one has been able to interpret, the work first surfaced in the court of Rudolf II of Bohemia. This same Bohemian court also gave refuge to two of the greatest, and most controversial, scientific minds of all time: famed Dane Tycho Brahe and German Johannes Kepler. Is there a connection between Voynich and the brilliant scientists who frequented the court? Could the manuscript perhaps be the codified findings of either Brahe or Kepler, written in a special language to conceal their scientific discoveries from the Church and its brutal Inquisition?

12. The Beautiful Miscellaneous / Dominic Smith
Nathan's father is a middling successful particle physicist. He and Nathan's mother wanted -- expected -- a genius child. Alas, Nathan is eminently, conclusively normal. Until he is 17, that is, when he has an accident and wakes up with a brain injury that has left him with genius-like propensities. He is sent off to a school for prodigies where he makes friends, of necessity, with the consort of differently gifted oddballs. There, together, they must come to terms with their varied mental abilities as well as heavy parental expectations, learning to be true to themselves and their need for a social as well as a mental life. This sounds a bit YA after-schoolish in this brief summary, but isn't at all. It's actually quite moving; funny and sad and thoughtful all in one.

And to finish off our scientific study, lolcats, of course!

funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Crafty RIP Tour

Just a quick note for all you crafty Halloween lovers out there --

Explore this Halloween blog tour of crafters' studios, put together by a friend of mine, a soft sculpture artist of Scratching at the Window.

It's a great October event to support artists as well as raise money for Bat Conservation International (where you can even adopt a bat!)

There's a neat little interactive map to explore which goes live October 1st; give it a go. There's even a link to our favourite spooky Reading Challenge...will you be able to find it?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Barbery's Gourmet Rhapsody

Gourmet Rhapsody / Muriel Barbery; translated from the French by Alison Anderson.
New York: Europa, c2009.
156 p.

After reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog earlier this year and really adoring it, I was looking forward to this one. I'll be honest right up front: this book was nowhere near as appealing for me. The structure didn't really work, and the main character's quest did not engage my interest.

Here's the main idea: Monsieur Pierre Arthens, the self-proclaimed World's Best food critic, is lying in bed after being informed he has 48 hours to live. He spends his remaining time trying to recapture a lost flavour from his past, convinced that if he does so he will redeem his life somehow. Each chapter takes us into a sense memory of a meal he experienced at various times in his life, leading him closer and closer to an epiphany. It feels a bit forced, as each chapter ends with some variation on "no, that's not it", leading the reader onward. Interspersed with his chapters are short versions of Arthens as seen by the people (and cats and inanimate objects) surrounding him. They are nearly universal in judging him a horrible man, one who hates his children, ignores his wife (who inexplicably remains devoted to him), and is an arrogant, self serving individual. In short, Monsieur Arthens is, as some characters put it, "a real bastard". And I agreed; I didn't care if he found his elusive flavour before he died. As a matter of fact, if I had my druthers I would have had more fun helping him along than reading about his lingering on this side of mortality.

There is some discussion of philosophical themes as in Hedgehog, but the focus is really on food as Arthens' only true love. Foodies will enjoy the luxurious descriptions of all the food Arthens recalls. While some readers disliked the philosophical elements of Hedgehog, labeling them with such terms as 'pretentious', I enjoyed them, feeling that they were kind of the point of that book. Here there are a few but they feel slapdash, tacked on, not fully fleshed out. Also, it is difficult to believe that Arthens would take any time to wonder about philosophical ideas not directly connected to food; he has to be one of the least self aware or self examined characters I've met. In brief, here are the points I want to share:

Good things:
The language is elaborate, baroque, especially in M. Arthens' chapters when he waxes rhapsodic over food. However, as I continued reading and began tiring of his story, the language became slightly more annoying. Still, the adoration of food was quite pronounced and anyone who considers themself even slightly a foodie will likely be entertained. There were some lovely bits about the French countryside, and as Arthens' memories take him back to a time when he could have gone in a more authentic direction, the story warms up.

Best thing:
Reneé from Hedgehog has a cameo; one brief chapter, but it was very nice to see her again. ;)

Worst thing:
M. Arthens' cat Rick also has a chapter. It is the lamest part of the book; Rick even goes so far as to say "purrfect". Urgh.

So - I'd say the biggest problem in this book, in my reading, was that M. Arthens' dilemma had no resonance. I didn't really care if he succeeded in remembering that vague taste that tickled his mind. And then, when in the last chapter he does succeed, and has an epiphany that places his life and his professional success in a new light (not a flattering one) I found that epiphany rather banal. Sadly, the story seemed rather pointless, like a stylistic exercise which was quite impressive in itself but not great as a novel. If I hadn't read Hedgehog first, and been interested in finding out more about the residents of Arthens' apartment building from this point of view, I am not sure I would have enjoyed it much at all. But, I don't want to sound like there was nothing at all good about it -- it was clever, and the food descriptions so over the top as to be delightful, for the most part. The evocation of rural France was really beautiful, and there were some nice barbed statements about grandmothers' cooking far surpassing any fancy chef or critic's opinion. Getting glancing views of some of the characters in Hedgehog was enjoyable as well. I felt that this was obviously the first novel about these characters, and the apotheosis of creation came in Hedgehog, which I much preferred. Reneé and Paloma had some humanity to them with which to sympathize, while Arthens, sadly, was truly a contemptible character. This is not to say that there is no place for disagreeable main characters in fiction, or that one must be able to 'identify' with a character at all times; but I just didn't feel any sense of connection between Arthens and any of the other characters. It was as if he existed in grand solitude on a higher plane and his family, his peers, his protegés, all circled around him, with only his cat breaking through that barrier of misanthropy.

In conclusion, this insubstantial novel left me with a longing to recall the satisfying flavour of Barbery's much more filling second novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Read this one only if 1. you are a huge Barbery fan anyhow or 2. if you love baroque, wordy food writing.

Monday, September 21, 2009

White is for Witching

White is for Witching / Helen Oyeyemi
Toronto: Penguin, 2009.
227 p.

I read this because I met Helen Oyeyemi once at a Canadian Book Expo and was very impressed by her quiet self-possession; also because I have her first two books in the TBR pile; but also because I saw this new & shiny one come across my desk and I thought, wow, what a great RIP challenge read!

And it was certainly perfectly suited to RIP reading. Its creepy, gothic, dark and confused tone is unsettling. Set at Silver House, which becomes a character in the book, the atmosphere is cloying and nightmarish in theme and language, the story breaking up into haunting dream segments. There is a clever use of sentence structure throughout the book; as the story moves forward, at times it jumps, disjointed, from one storyline to another via the placement of one word joining two sentences. For example:

Miranda went to see if Deme and Suryaz were alright.
"Who is it?" the girls said together, when she knocked on the attic
"It's me," she said.
They wouldn't answer after


evening Emma and I broke up. Her parents were out and her house was full of music, music and every light in every room was on. She even had fairy lights twined around table legs. "Hello, Eliot..."

The story is centred on Miranda Silver, who suffers from an eating disorder, pica. Pica is an inherited difficulty; her mother and grandmother both apparently suffered from it as well. Her mother Lily, a journalist, died on assignment in Haiti, and Miranda has never quite recovered. She stays in her room, eating chalk and plastic utensils, not tempted by her chef father's wonderful cooking. Miranda, her brother Eliot and her father Luc have all moved back to the Silver family home, Luc having the idea to turn it into a B&B. But the house itself is not too keen on the idea; it prefers to keep only its own within its walls, and forever so -- the Silver women especially. We hear bits of the story from Eliot's viewpoint; from Ore's, a college friend who fancies Miranda; from Miranda's own perspective, and finally and most chillingly, a voice we come to realize belongs to the house.

The story begins with overtones of Snow White; apples, deathly sleep and being boxed up; but then it weaves its way through a house of mirrors until we finally come to some sort of conclusion, which is not certain or absolutely clear. What exactly has occurred? Who is responsible? It's a tale of madness and of obsession and is very spooky.

While the varied narrative voices were fascinating, unfortunately, I found it a little bit too confusing; no-one is really what they seem, but the text doesn't provide enough evidence for the reader to determine who is telling the truth, or even what the whole story really is. Unreliable narrators abound, but without a ground for comparison, it was hard to tell what it was about their narrative which was unreliable. I felt that the story really came together in the second half, once Ore becomes more involved in the tale telling. Ore's comparison of Miranda's phantasmagorical Goodlady with the soucouyant that she knows through legend make things more complex, more shaded. And she is a great narrator. I would have enjoyed a little more of her grounded position in the book. Also, the housekeeper Sade is sadly underused. What a wonderful, deeply centred and powerful woman she was! I was eager to learn more about her, what her power was and where it came from, to see her overcome all the gothic phantasms in the story. Sadly, it was not to be. I'd love a whole novel about that woman!

In any case, as confused as I may have been, I was also in awe of Oyeyemi's fresh voice, her ability to see things and to express them so individually. It's amazing to me to read a book so very stylistically impressive from such a young author (who, nevertheless has 3 books published!). While I had a few difficulties with this one, reading it makes me even more eager to go back and read the two Oyeyemi novels I have waiting. Both her technique and her energetic storytelling is engaging, making for quite a compulsive read.

A few extras:
Marvellous interview at The Guardian

Spooky Trailer:

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi from Picador on Vimeo.

Other opinions:

Reviewed by Liviu at Fantasy Book Critic

Tamaranth talks about it

Friday, September 18, 2009

Poetry on a Friday Afternoon

What better to end a week of bookish goodness than hearing an author speak? Today I was lucky enough to hear poet and novelist Steven Heighton read at my library. He was a great presenter; cool and energetic and clever/experienced enough to know that reading straight for 30 minutes is NOT INTERESTING when the audience is sitting on uncomfortable stacking chairs. He read in two "sets" with time for questions and discussion (and stretching) in between. And it was great. He read some of his older, published poetry as well as some works in progress (fascinating), and read excerpts from his two novels, Shadow Boxer and Afterlands. I read Afterlands quite some time ago, and really enjoyed it. (But to get a very enthusiastic opinion from somebody who's just read both novels, pop over to Bookpuddle to read Cipriano's take on them!)

Hearing an author speak about their writing life always inspires me to remember to really see things, to ensure that I make a place for creativity in my life. It was a wonderful talk, and gave me lots to think about on my walk home through the beautiful fall weather.

I bought one book, his collection entitled The Address Book, from which he'd read a touching poem about his daughter. How can you not love poetry that includes lines like:

Who is it loves you, his heart now a lantern

in the dark wood of halfway through? The one
you made solid when he felt himself shade,
who made his way back from the border, made good.
(from The Wood of Halfway Through)

or, from another short poem entitled "Desert Psalm":

As thermals at sunrise draw swallows in geysers out of the dead
mouths of abandoned mines, as if birds were the desert's
address to the sky and earth's inner anthem embodied
Let these words lift that same way

It was a great afternoon, and I highly recommend picking up some of Heighton's work. And remember to support the efforts of your own local libraries and arts organizations when you can, and make it out to one of the readings they work so hard to put on!

Final BBAW Day: State of the Blog report

For the last day of BBAW, we are to:

Write in 50 words or less…what do you like best about your blog right now and where would you like your blog to be a year from now?

For me, this question is pretty easy:

1. I like my blogging routine. I'm happy that I finally changed the template even if I still have a few more tweaks to make. I'm happy with my traffic, though I always appreciate comments. I enjoy having a place where I can revel in my reading and other people understand, and care!

2. As for where I'd like to be by next BBAW, probably just caught up with so many new bloggers; update my blogroll and leave more comments. I'd also like to try to review more of the books I read -- I read so many that I don't even mention.

There - just about 50 words each! BBAW has been a great experience this year and lots of fun stuff uncovered. And to think I wasn't planning to participate very much. :)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

BBAW: Bloggers' Book Recommendations

I have two bloggers who I read pretty much daily to thank for my recent obsession with Penelope Lively, two bloggers who mentioned two different Lively books which started me off on a reading binge.

First of all, Dorothy at Of Books and Bicycles reviewed Lively's Booker winning novel, Moon Tiger in October of 2007. Here's part of what she had to say about it:

[Lively] has a quiet, understated way of writing that can work magic on you and leave you moved and wanting more. ... She’s getting at the idea that how we choose to tell our story shapes the story itself. There are no meaningful facts outside a story told by a particular person in a particular way. This holds true for the narrative of history as well; to study history is to study the manifold ways people have told the story of humanity over time.

As a former history student this intrigued me. I had moved this book up on my mental TBR list, thinking I'd get to it soon. Then, in March of this year, I read a quote about libraries excerpted from Lively's book Consequences, on the Canadian blog Pickle Me This. It was so delightful that I thought I needed to read Consequences immediately, if only to find that quote to add to my commonplace book. And I loved it. That started my infatuation; I read Moon Tiger next, then a few more, and then I was just lucky enough that Lively had a book coming out this fall (Family Album, which I've just discussed). And I am lucky that she has quite a backlist as well, so I still have new books to explore.

Thanks to these two intrepid bloggers, I've had months of a wonderful reading streak, with many more chances to indulge my new addiction in future. :)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Family Album by Lively

Family Album / Penelope Lively
Toronto: Key Porter, c2009.
261 p.

I can summarize this book very succinctly: Brilliant!

I've been reading a lot of Lively lately, but this new novel really impressed me. It has a contemporary feel to it, it's clever and deceptively simple, and I really think she is just getting better with every book she writes.

Family Album is the history of a house, and the family which inhabits it. Allersmead is a big house, well suited to the Harper family of two adults, six children and an au pair. The tale is told by an omniscient narrator, but with sections focused on each of the various characters. Lively provides glimpses into the family dynamics via succinct moments, from childhood to a time when all the children have left home. Her precise eye captures a scene, a statement, a personal habit which sums up a character, allowing you to extrapolate further in imagination. There are family secrets here, but nothing horrific, no "child called It" in this tale. With the cover intimating something awful, and dark hints thrown in all along about something not quite right, I expected the eventual revelation to be a little more shocking. Not that I wanted something awful to appear, it's just that it did seem to be suggested. But that is one small quibble in a fully enjoyable reading experience.

The story circles around Charles and Alison who marry quite young, a seemingly mismatched couple, but with their first child on the way there wasn't much choice for them. Alison is completely and utterly focused on home and children; Charles sometimes feels incidental to her life plan. Charles, meanwhile, is an independent academic, writing popular books about topics such as "Youth Culture around the World". He is independently wealthy thanks to a prescient ancestor who invented household products such as Vim and Dettol. Alison, though, is most proud of the fact that she has six children: "none of the other mothers have so many". Her sister-in-law Corinna has no children, by choice, and is eternally grateful for it, especially after spending time at Allersmead. I was impressed by how Lively creates two such different women with drastically opposite viewpoints on children and family life; yet neither is condescended to or presented as having made the "right" choice. All the characters are flawed in some way -- being human with no pretensions to perfection. Eldest son Paul turns out to be a bit unmotivated in life, Gina is brisk and investigative, Sandra is unusual (she loves fashion and matures early), Roger and Katie are a unit of two within the family, and youngest sister Clare is lithe, blond, and only interested in dancing.

In a story with such a large cast, a couple of the characters inevitably get short shrift, and in this book, the fourth and fifth children, Roger and Katie, are the least detailed. Still, they move to North America in adulthood, Roger to Toronto and Katie to the US and this allows for some discussion of Canadianness -- which of course I loved! Roger marries a Toronto girl who is of Chinese descent, and the first time she meets Roger's clueless parents Charles wants to know where she is from, to place her. He asks if she's from Hong Kong or Taiwan; Susan, being thoroughly Canadian, calmly replies, "Toronto."

The book is centred in Allersmead; Charles and Alison bought it when they were first married, and the story carries us through the family trials and tribulations until such time as, perhaps, with children all scattered around the world, it is time to move on. The chapters are brief but as usual with Lively, full of telling moments. Family dynamics are front and centre, and it is next to impossible not to have a favourite (for the reader as well as for the mother in the tale). I must admit Alison drove me a bit batty, but I found it very interesting to wonder why she irritated me. And why Gina was my favourite.

It's a fantastic presentation of family life in a large group of siblings, with eccentric parents, and an au pair who stays for thirty years. I really can't describe much more of a plot; that's about it. But it is in the telling that this story shines; Lively captures the essence of suburban middle class living, all the petty things you remember about childhood and sibling relationships. Some of her regular preoccupations show up here -- family, the vagaries of memory, the history of a house (with resultant past and present existing side by side), academic characters -- but somehow this book feels more open, fresher and very modern, with new fascinations arising. Gina is a journalist who travels the world; Sandra ends up in Italy; Clare travels the world with her dance troupe. The final chapters are emails between the siblings, which feel so realistic yet are not vague or wordy filler but a brilliantly obvious usage of modern communication. The last page of the book I loved so much I can't even express it. It reminded me of a favourite Canadian novel, David Helwig's Saltsea, in its use of a house to express passing time and the ever changing nature of time and circumstance.

Anyhow, I am going on a bit about this really quite brief book, but I loved it. A favourite out of all the Lively I have read so far, I am going to buy my own copy so I can read it again and savour all the nuances. It's her voice that captivates me, and I very much enjoyed the way she told this story.

BBAW Reading Meme

It's BBAW, Day 3: today's project is a meme, in which brevity is of the essence -- so here are my very brief and to-the-point replies!

Do you snack while you read? If so, favorite reading snack?
No, not generally. I don't like to get stuff in or on my books! My only snack is a cup of tea.

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?
I guess my librarian side just can't do it; I do not mark up books. My favourite reading aid recently is a pack of post-it flags -- that way I can mark everything down in my reading journal after I've finished.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears?Laying the book flat open?
Again, librarian! So I always use a bookmark, though that can be a receipt, an old slip of paper, or even (gasp) a real bookmark.

Fiction, Non-fiction, or both?
Fiction! No, non-fiction. No, both!

Hard copy or audiobooks?
Definitely hard copy. I've tried audiobooks but I just can't do it.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of chapters, or are you able to put a book down at any point?
I much prefer reading to a chapter break. I'll only put it down in the middle if I have to.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop to look it up right away?
Nope, if I can't Italicpuzzle it out from the context I'll flag it to look up later.

What are you currently reading?
Let's see, Muriel Barbery's Gourmet Rhapsody, Victor Lodato's Mathilda Savitch, Joan Clark's Road to Bliss, Joseph Gold's The Story Species. For starters.

What is the last book you bought?
Colette Rossant's foodie memoir, Return to Paris

Are you the type of person that only reads one book at a time or can you read more than one at a time?
See above. No, seriously, I prefer having at least three on the go for different moods and times of day.

Do you have a favorite time of day and/or place to read?
If I have the day off I love to read on my front porch in summer, or in a sunny window in winter. Otherwise, anywhere will do! And I can not fall asleep without reading something first.

Do you prefer series books or stand alone books?
Generally stand alone, though I have read a few series I enjoyed.

Is there a specific book or author that you find yourself recommending over and over?
Right now I am going through a serious Penelope Lively craze. Read her!

How do you organize your books? (By genre, title, author’s last name, etc.?)
Um, bad librarian... I don't organize them at all. I get enough of that at work. ;) I just pile them on to the first available space in the bookshelf.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Interview with a Blogger

As part of BBAW, today's celebration includes interviewing another blogger: today Kailana of The Written World and I are exchanging a quick set of questions. It's the Insta-Interview version, as we decided to interview each other since our original partners hadn't replied. We've asked each other the same questions: here are my answers; then pop on over to her blog for her replies.

1. As a Canadian blogger, do you make an effort to read Canadian or does the 'nationality' of a book matter to you? What is your favourite Canadian novel?

I do make an effort to keep up with Canadian fiction, as I feel it is important to know what is going on in my own milieu. (also, it’s important for my job!) I also love participating in the Canadian Book Challenge and finding out what everybody else is reading and enjoying. But I also like to read books from elsewhere, so that I’m not restricted to a view of only what is around me. I guess nationality would affect my reading in that I’d be more likely, not less, to pick something up if it was from somewhere else that interested me.

2. 'Do your real life friends/family know you blog/read your blog? Does this make any difference to how you write?

I never thought that my family read it until my dad started asking me things about it!  So now I know that they read it, but it doesn’t really change what I write. I’m close to my family and we talk a lot so they probably know everything I’m likely to say, anyway! I do tell everyone about my blog now, but when I started it I wasn’t saying anything. Now that I’m more comfortable with it even my coworkers know and look at it.

3. I was reading at work the other day & someone asked me what I was reading. Before I even had a chance to answer, he said 'a romance'? Do reading stereotypes bother you? Do you prefer/avoid any genres due to lurking stereotypes?

Well, I can’t imagine what I would have said to your co-worker! ;) I only had that happen to me once: one summer I was working in a mall selling raffle tickets and to keep myself sane I was reading a lot. This particular day I was reading a textbook for a course I would be taking in the fall, on Feminist Theory. An older man came up to buy a ticket and asked if I was enjoying my smut novel. Then I closed the book and he saw the title and backed away slowly…

But I read nearly every genre according to my mood. Except horror, I generally avoid. I like creepy and ghostly but gory I can’t take. I didn’t realize until now that I do make an effort to keep reading intellectually challenging work partly because I don’t want to be pigeonholed as reading only ‘women’s fiction’, with all the sexism that carries with it. Don't know if that is buying in to the whole stereotype, though!

4. How do you feel about covers of books? Do you judge books by their covers? Is there something that could appear on a cover that would make you not want to read the book or be seen in public with it?

I like good design that reflects the story. And if there’s a nice cover it might suck me into to checking out a book I might not have otherwise – at least to read the summary and a page or two. And an ugly cover can put me off even if I do want to read the book! As for appearing in public… well, when I was younger I would never have appeared in public with a romance novel, even though I do read them relatively often. Now, I don’t care, if I feel like reading a Regency romance I will. The only things I’d be hesitant to appear with in public these days would probably be erotica with sexy covers (just embarrassing to have strangers ask you about it!) or books about any specific health concern, for the same reason. Otherwise I don’t have any real concerns about what the books I read look like.

5. What's the biggest change in your reading habits since you started blogging, if any? Reading choices or ways of reading?

I’d say the biggest change I’ve noticed is that I read more carefully; I will take notes sometimes, and think about the story as I’m reading, trying to figure out what I want to say about it. And I find I can recall the books I’ve reviewed quite clearly also. It’s nice.

The other big change is in the range of my reading. Since I began blogging in 2006, I’ve found most of my reading through other blogs. I read the newspapers / online reviews also, but most of the titles that are new to me come from bloggers. And I feel like I know a lot more about the genres that I don’t read as regularly – graphic novels and science fiction in particular. It’s been enriching to my own reading life as well as my professional knowledge. Blogging has been a wonderful experience!

Monday, September 14, 2009

BBAW blog highlights

It's the first day of Book Bloggers Appreciation Week! I'm going to be trying to write daily posts along with all the BBAWers: today's 'assignment' is to highlight some of the blogs you visit often that might not have shown up on the shortlists, so BBAWers can explore them. Then add your post to the list at BBAW -- there are already over 100 posts linked, and new blogs to me popping up everywhere. How exciting! Here are a few that I enjoy regularly -- there are so many of you that I read often: this is just a sampling.

The Guys
We all know that men are in the minority when it comes to book blogging. But it is nice to get their perspective as well, so I'll suggest a couple that I enjoy --

Cipriano is a regular blogger who posts nearly daily, sharing cartoons, quotes, his own poetry, and lots of very funny stories and reviews. I can count on him for a good laugh really often!

John hosts one of my favourite Challenges, the Canadian Book Challenge. He is located way up in Northern Canada, and reads lots of contemporary fiction, poetry, children's books and nearly anything else; and he also has many great features on his blog like Saturday quizzes and a biweekly 2-book showdown. Lots of interest to read here.

Jeff blogs about American politics, social issues, Science, music and books -- always something thought-provoking to find at Bearcastle. And, he hosts the marvellous Science Book Challenge. And, he runs a company promoting science literacy. And, his was one of the first blogs I found by chance way back when I began blogging. Lots of reasons to read him!

Ok, I had better not leave out my own husband's blog! He is an infrequent poster, but always has very thoughtful opinions on books and bibliographic matters. Since he also blogs, he understands my compulsive need to read, write posts and follow hundreds of you, as well! In fact, we've finally broken down and got ourselves a laptop so we can both be blogging at the same time. :)

Then there's the female side of the equation ... so many favourites I will just mention a couple that are fairly new to me:

Booking it Bus StyleRosemary is from LA and writes about books, cooking, and LA life in general. As this is totally unknown to me, I love reading her thoughtful posts about living carless in LA and all that results from that choice.

Kiss a Cloud
Claire reads a wide variety of books and posts about them with lovely images and interesting notes about where she's read things! She is an ambitious reader, recently tackling Bolano's 2666 and Proust, and joins many reading challenges, which provides many opportunities to add to the TBR.

Fleur Fisher ReadsFleur reads things I haven't always heard of -- quite reasonably, seeing as she is in England! She reads, reviews, and knits (with pictures). And even though she's English, she's read one of my favourite bits of Canadian fiction, Ethel Wilson's Hetty Dorval. Yay!

Dreadlock GirlSomehow I had missed coming across Bethany's blog until recently...I am glad I found it because there are lots of great reviews, and great photos. Recently she posted photos of her trip to a rare book room which was absolutely drool-worthy. Plus she rates books by number of chickens, how can I not love that? :)

So these are just a few of the many blogs that enrich my reading life. I have many more in the sidebar, and am always adding to the total.

Now go on over to BBAW's roundup post and prepare to spend some time discovering new voices -- it is addictive!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Spilling Clarence

Spilling Clarence / Anne Ursu
New York: Hyperion, c2002.
280 p.

I picked up this one on a bit of a whim: nice cover, it's about memory, writing seems ok... and I am glad I did! I really enjoyed this first novel by Anne Ursu (I have a copy of her second novel, The Disapparation of James, but haven't read it yet).

The premise is that the town of Clarence, a quiet, peaceful place that depends on the local college and the local pharmaceutical plant for employment, suffers a chemical spill. The customers in Davis & Dean, local chain bookstore, have to stay put until the warning is lifted -- and this introduction to the characters sets up the style and tone of the rest of the book:

This is the emergency broadcast system. This is not a test. All residents of Clarence are asked to stay where they are. Repeat, stay where you are. This is not a test. All residents of Clarence, stay inside. Stay tuned to this station for further instructions...

Outside the window of the store, creatures covered in yellow billowy plastic begin to appear, carting road blocks.

The customers in the bookstore start.

What the --

Yellow guys do not just happen. Yellow guys are not in my life. Yellow guys do not just emerge out of thin air. Yellow guys are in the movies. Yellow guys are not real. Yellow guys are for Chernobyl, not Clarence. Why don't I have a yellow suit? I do not have a yellow suit. Where the hell is my yellow suit? I quite clearly need a yellow suit.

People begin to stare at each other more frankly. They appraise obviously, guiltlessly. Their eyes ask, Who are these people? Is one of them responsible? Are they all bystanders too, hostages in a movie, trapped in an elevator, on a bus with a bomb? Will we be huddled here, days later, on the floor, dirty and thin? One person always dies. One is always afraid. One is brave and sneaks through the vents and frees us all. The rest are extras, with muddy, panicked faces, providing occasional squeals and moans.

And through the room, the thought passes: I am an extra. The time has come, and I am just an extra. ...

A dozen lives flash before a dozen pairs of eyes, and the reckoning begins: Nothing. I've done nothing. I am nothing. I am a waste. It has all been wasted. I could have done so much. I would have done it all differently. Now I become a cancerous blob with a tail and too many toes, a living hideous monument to failure and regret.

But our heroes do not reckon. Reckoning is for people whose lives have motion. Susannah Korbet and Bennie Singer look at their lives at the same moment and find that they feel nothing.

Of course, they look at the present. They stalwartly refuse to awaken what lies in memory.

The story circles around a few groups of people who bump into each other in various ways. Professor Bennie Singer, his daughter Sophie, and his mother Madeline are one such group. At Sunny Shadows, Madeline's retirement community, there are her friends and even a possible suitor. Into this mix comes Susannah Korbet, whose boyfriend Todd works in the labs at the college, studying memory. Then there are all the characters offstage, in their memories, who reappear, sometimes disastrously, when the chemical spill begins to have its effect. The airborne chemical was deletrium, which has the capability of unlocking all the parts of the brain which hold memory. It acts randomly, causing differing reactions; Madeline's suitor Calvin, who was at the liberation of Dachau, is rendered catatonic by those memories. We are let into the lives of the main characters quite deeply, shown how their suppressed memories make up their identities, but we also graze by quite a number of incidental characters. Some of these are Sophie's teacher, Ms. Plum; a few neighbors; some schoolchildren; each has a page or a paragraph of their memories slipped in, and each time it was like seeing a whole other story developing in just a few words.

This theme has the potential to become heavy handed and depressing, but Ursu writes with humour and with a polished style that is compassionate yet distanced, not becoming maudlin. She blends all the characters' storylines effectively, with only a few blank spots showing -- for example, Todd, Susannah's boyfriend, is a bit of a cipher; not enough background on him to know who he is, and since he is mysteriously largely unaffected by the spill we don't get the goods on him. Still, I loved the idea of the story, and was delighted by the writing. Formal yet playful, it allowed for digressions on ideas of memory and the uses of forgetting, without losing the narrative thread.

There were a couple of elements to the story which I found a bit flawed. One was that the characters all tended to sound fairly similar, especially in one vocal tic that more than one character revealed -- the tendency to say someone's name repeatedly, ie: Todd often says "Zana, Zana, Zana, Zana". This is acceptable on its own, but later Madeline comes out with the same speech pattern, talking to Sophie and to Calvin, but since Todd and Madeline haven't even met it doesn't make sense for both of them to use it. I also wonder why, in the course of all these resurgent memories, was each character affected so terribly -- they were all traumatized, sad, unhinged by the flooding memories. Surely someone, somewhere, must have recalled something good? Perhaps she was making the point that we tend to suppress the bad memories, not wanting to deal with the emotions they bring up.

Nevertheless, this book was very enjoyable. I appreciated Ursu's style, as well as the numerous characters she had in play throughout. By ranging from a six year old to an octogenarian soldier she allowed for many experiences and recollections to be included, which resulted in a story full of moments that make you examine your own memories, or your patterns of dealing with emotional trauma.

Part of the charm of the story is the idea of reassessing your life after truly seeing your past. There is another fictional character who is the template for this kind of renewal, and Ursu gives him a nod -- let me give you a hint. The book ends at Christmas; the first line is "The break room microwave is dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that." This line seemed vaguely familiar and I puzzled over it until I suddenly recalled Jacob Marley.

Setting, characters, theme, language -- I enjoyed them all. It's a great first novel, and I'm looking forward to reading the next.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Lively: Making It Up

New York: Viking Penguin, c2005.
215 p.

This book by Penelope Lively is different from the others I've read so far, in a couple of ways: first, it is a collection of eight stories rather than a novel, and secondly, it moves out into a wider range of settings and imaginative themes than the novels seem to. It has a freshness and a light touch which I admired greatly -- I think that it is one of my favourites of her work so far.

Lively takes her interest in the past and the vagaries of fate to great lengths in this book: each story has sprung from a moment in her actual life - that moment is told to us as preface to each story. But then she flings out her imagination, to create another person she might have been if things had happened differently, or to imagine a world without her in it, or even just what kinds of things might have occurred to someone else in her particular circumstances. It is a dazzling idea, and the stories are successful glimpses into other lives, fascinating and all very different. Lively has said in an interview that these are not biographical, not about her at all - the impetus behind them was her habit of wondering about the turns of chance, but they are all very much fiction. In the preface she states:

...the mythology that is intriguing today is that of imagined alternatives. Somehow, choice and contingency have landed you where you are, as the person that you are, and the whole process seems so precarious that you look back at those climactic moments when things might have gone entirely differently, when life might have spun off in some other direction, and wonder at this apparently arbitrary outcome... This book is fiction. If anything, it is an anti-memoir. My own life serves as the prompt; I have homed in upon the rocks, the rapids, the whirlpools, and written the alternative stories. It is a form of confabulation.
I particularly enjoyed "Comet", a tale about a woman in London whose half sister Penelope died in a plane crash years before, but whose remains have just been discovered, bringing up all kinds of memories and undercurrents in present day Sarah's life. It is a touching story, and somehow gallant, imagining the world going on without one's possible self in it. And of course Lively has to create a version of the myth of Odysseus and Penelope: in her memoirs which I've recently read, she makes mention of how she enjoyed reading the Odyssey as a child because she was right in the middle of it, as the long-suffering wife Penelope. She retells that bit in the lead up to this story, and then provides a very amusing take on the aftereffects of Odysseus' carousing and return home, and Penelope's reactions, in a modern setting of artists' colonies and London parties. Some of the other settings are shipboard off the coast of Africa during WWII, an archeological dig in the 70's England, at war in Korea, or even Number Twelve Sheep Street, a marvellous old house inhabited by a crochety spinster, the last of her line. Here is how we are introduced to the house:

A house that contains books has concealed power. Many homes are bookless, or virtually so, as any house hunter discovers. And then suddenly there is a place that is loaded -- shelf upon shelf of the things -- and the mysterious charge is felt. This house has ballast; never mind the content, it is the weight that counts -- all that solid, silent reference to other matters, to wider concerns, to a world beyond these walls. There is a presence here -- confident, impregnable.

It continues in that vein, with a larcenous nephew, an old bookseller, and a vaguely scatterbrained housewife researching a book all making appearances. What an enjoyable story!

I found myself copying out many passages from these stories, and will search out some of her earlier collections as well. It was nice to view her writing from a different angle, and to watch her working out her fascinations with the themes of memory and recollection and happenstance in another form. I highly recommend this collection.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Historical fiction at the Bookworms Carnival!

Just a quick note -- this month's Bookworms Carnival is featuring Historical Fiction. Teddy Rose at So Many Precious Books, So Little Time has put together a wonderful assortment of links to both reviews and articles on reading and writing historical fiction. She's organized them by country as well, so any history you want to read about can be discovered! Take a look. :)

Friday, September 04, 2009

Puppet Master

Puppet Master / Joanne Owen; illustrations by Mutt Ink.
London: Orion Children's Books, 2009, c2008.
214 p.

Wow, here's one creepy little children's book I didn't even know about until it appeared on my desk -- just in time for the R.I.P. IV Challenge! It's a story set in Czechoslovakia, written by a Welsh author, taking place in a fairy tale-like atmosphere, and I mean the Grimm kind. It is set in Prague, in a cold and snowy January, 1898, with lots of timeless myth and mystery surrounding the story.

Milena lives in Prague with her grandmother. Her father, a famous puppeteer with a marionette theatre called The House of Dream Delights, has died in a stage accident. Her mother disappeared soon after. Milena has her grandmother and her two magical aunts, Tereza and Katerina, to care for her, and a true friend, Lukas, to accompany her on her adventures. She is convinced her mother Ludmila is still alive, and is waiting for her return. Legends of the mythical founding of the country by three princesses are interwoven into the story, told to Milena by her grandmother, and set apart in the text by grey illustrations along the pages. There are also 'letters' looking as if they are in handwriting, sketches of botanical images, theatre tickets and so on, enhancing the dark and magical atmosphere of the story.

At the opening of the story, Milena and Lukas meet a Svengali-like puppet master who is about to put on his travelling show, using marionettes who are startlingly lifelike. He is huge and scary and yet charismatic, and is bent on convincing the entire town to attend his festivities, the better to gain control over their minds. He is bad enough on his own: but just wait until you make the acquaintance of his twin apprentices, Zdenko and Zdenka. Now they gave me shivers. A dark and whispery pair, they seem to move effortlessly, appearing and reappearing where they are not quite expected. They have a strong prediliction for dead things, dried up things, dark things. Their malice toward Milena seems stronger and more visceral than even the Puppet Master's. Milena discovers through all of her family's storytelling that she is descended from Libuse, the princess who founded Prague, and it is up to her to save the city.

She and Lukas attend the Puppet Master's show, and try to go backstage to examine the marionettes a little more closely, as they seem to have a strange habit of moving when no-one is holding the strings. Along with the head marionette maker Karel, a young man with partial amnesia, they enter into a plot to rout the Puppet Master and free his hypnotized captives. It all follows along mythic lines, with suitably gothic weather, characters, and plot. It is a sharply told tale, with murder and violence and feminist themes right out there in the open. The language is that of a fairy tale, with characters who are Evil or Good, but also a few that could be either. The finale is not exactly final, but allows for a creeping shiver as you realize that perhaps all the Evil is not at an end after all...

The production of this book is something special as well; the illustrative matter is given a copyright credit, suitably, since it is a vital element. The idea of marionettes, of control or the question of 'who is pulling the strings', is used very fittingly. It comes out of a tradition of puppet theatre that is not the childish thing we may imagine today. It reminded me of the puppet theatres of A.S. Byatt's "The Children's Book"; in that story, the German puppeteers perform a version of Cinderella in which the stepsisters' feet drip blood and the original Grimm violence is fully present. These theatres have the same feel, and that eerie tradition comes into play throughout this entire book.

An excellent and serendipitous find at this time of year, I recommend this one to anybody interested in puppets, in folktales and legends, in strong female characters, in a Czech setting, in book design itself, or is simply looking for a well constructed gothic entertainment.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Library Loot: September Scores!

Library Loot is hosted by Eva and Marg each week, and this week I really had to participate as I brought a bagful of great items home with me. (though never as many as Eva finds!)

Here is what I have to read in the upcoming weeks:

Family Album / Penelope Lively

I have been waiting for this one for ages and am so excited it is finally here. Although the cover is rather dull, nowhere near as delightful as the British cover, all I need to know is that it's the new Lively. Excellent!

The cover on the right is the one I am reading: I am also appending the British cover and an alternate North American cover. Which would make you pick this up?

Gourmet Rhapsody / Muriel Barbery

And another new book by a great author...I read Elegance of the Hedgehog a few months ago and simply LOVED it. How can I resist another book about a food critic who was one of the characters in Hedgehog? And the cover is in the same style as well, very charming and very appetizing. :)

Reckless Appetites / Jacqueline Deval

This novel from 1995 intrigued me because it is about food -- Pomme is French and the daughter of a chef. It is packed with historical recipes (fascinating!) and is written in what seems to be a bit of a pastiche of correspondence, Pomme's own essays, and told in different voices... it looks very interesting and could be either really good or not so good. We'll have to see.

Spilling Clarence / Anne Ursu

The odd title caught my eye, and when I saw it was a novel about memory, I was hooked. Reading so much Penelope Lively lately has attuned my reading eye to the vagaries of history and memory; this one promises a modern, American take on what purpose memory serves in our lives, and what and how we remember. The town of Clarence is split in two between a university on one side and a pharmaceutical factory on the other -- as the book opens there is a chemical spill at the plant. After a few hours, the townspeople are told all is well, nothing to worry about. But the spill has released deletrium, a chemical which allows all your memories to resurface, and it is affecting everyone in town...

Read for Your Life: Literature as a Life Support system / Joseph Gold

I just ran across this again and since I've been meaning to read it for ages, I brought it home. This sounds like a definite must read: Dr. Gold is a former literature professor and family therapist who is talking about literature's role in self therapy. As the blurb says: "both a self-help guide and a testimonial to the power of literature. Offering a wide range of familiar books and clinical examples, Dr. Gold illustrates the ways our daily reading can lead to sound mental health and personal empowerment." Sounds delightful!

And my last library find was a cd: Oliver Schroer's Camino: Solo Violin and Ambient Recordings from the Camino de Santiago. On his website it's described as "the musical and photographic record of a thousand kilometre trek along the Camino de Santiago." It is utterly gorgeous, and you can listen to clips at the website. Sadly, Oliver has passed away due to leukemia, but he has left a beautiful legacy in his stunning music.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Life of Lively

Again with Penelope Lively! I know, I am going through a definite Lively phase. I have just read, side by side, her two books based in her childhood, both not strictly memoir but more essays springing from her experiences. They reflect what I've come to think of as her major themes in fiction: memory, perception, the role of physical objects in one's recollections, history, women's lives.

Oleander, Jacaranda / Penelope Lively
New York: HarperPerennial, 1995, c1994.
133 p.

This is Lively's attempt to reconstruct a child's perception of the world. She had an unusual childhood, growing up in Egypt, unable to travel back to England until after WWII. Her parents suffered a nasty divorce when she was 12, and she was sent back to England to go to school, remaining with her father's family. She didn't return to Egypt for 40 years.

Near the beginning, she states:

I have tried to recover something of the anarchic vision of childhood -- in so far as any of us can do such a thing -- and use this as a vehicle for a reflection on the way in which children perceive. I believe that the experience of childhood is irretrievable. All that remains, for any of us, is a headful of brilliant frozen moments, already dangerously distorted by the wisdoms of maturity. But it has seemed to me that it might be possible to take these pictures in the mind -- those moments of seeing -- and, by turning them into language, to look both at the way in which a child sees and at how this matches up with what it was that was seen.

And this book is a series of moments; memories recalled with clarity, and sense perceptions. Things smell, or have sounds, textures, bright colours, attached to them. Egypt is rather taken for granted, as it was just home, after all. Some of these moments come with philosophical enlightenment: the title derives from a car ride in which the young Penelope was watching the trees go by, naming them "jacaranda, oleander" and then suddenly realizing that in the near future, on the way home, she would be doing the opposite, "oleander, jacaranda". The concept of a person in time broke in upon her consciousness at this young age, and hasn't seemed to desert her since.

It is definitely a childhood from a different time. Even in England things were moving ahead during and after the war, but out in Egypt an Edwardian childhood seemed in order. Penelope rarely spent time with her parents, rather being cared for by Lucy, her nearly heroic nanny. The separation from Lucy upon her return to England seems to be the great trauma of the entire situation, but as usual Lively tells us the facts without attendent sentimentality. Another of the traumas she suffered in England was being sent to a girls' school; from a solitary child being schooled alone by her nanny/governess, she was thrown into a crowd of adolescent girls from which there was no escape. It was a very sporty school -- literature was not highly regarded, revealed especially in the fact that one punishment was to be sent to the library for an hour to read. Horrors!

This was not a memoir which attempts to reveal the private person, or assign blame for any character flaws. It is a look at memory, at the possibility of regaining the perspective of a child when looking back. It was a brief glance at an intriguing life, shaped by the interests and philosophy of a mature writer, and thus of great interest.

A House Unlocked / Penelope Lively
London: Viking, c2001.
221 p.

In this work, Lively moves forward to the years she spent in England, living at her grandmother's Somerset house in between school terms. Golsoncott looms large in her recollections, and she paints a picture of a dreamy, old fashioned English society where children were not the centre of attention. Her grandmother and Aunt Rachel (a spinster and well regarded artist) cared for her there, but Lively also introduces us to her two bachelor uncles with little use for women, who lived together and spent their time reading and writing rhyming verse.

The book is really a collection of essays, on various topics which arise from the study of objects in the house. Lively references Frances Yates' The Art of Memory, and turns the idea of building mnemonic rooms into using actual rooms as prompts for memory. The chapters begin with items such as a hand embroidered firescreen, which records the presence of six child evacuees in the house during WWII, and then moves on to talk about the differences between the health of rural children and those from poor London families. Or she looks at the garden and begins a discussion of design trends and the results of shaping landscapes in rural England. Or then, after examining her grandmother's prayer book, laments the loss of small village churches decommissioned due to lack of a congregation. It's a wide ranging and intriguing approach to the history of England through the 2oth century; personal and yet about everything.

The lack in this book is mainly in its dearth of photos -- there are none. Talk about physical artefacts would have been bolstered by a few images of said items. The most evocative item for me was the embroidered firescreen which by a great coincidence is shown in the Guardian's article revealing Penelope Lively's modern writing space. It's lovely.

Reading these two books together has given me a good overview of Lively's concerns and preoccupations in her writing life. It has also revealed the genesis of some fictional events in her novels, and was a great duo to read before I tackled her recent collection of stories, Making it up. Fiction based on alternative outcomes to real pivotal moments in her life, I've just finished that one and will be talking about it soon.