Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best of the Year, 2009

Time once again for a look back at the year's reading. Did I meet the goals I'd set for myself? Well, since my reading goals are not too strict I don't have a lot of problem meeting them - the one thing I had wanted to do which I didn't end up doing a lot of was rereading old favourites (hopefully the Flashback Challenge will help me with that in 2010).

I posted a list of ten great books a few weeks ago, for Weekly Geeks, books I enjoyed and thought were well worth the time spent reading them, but who knows how many will appear on my best-of list now? And next month I could have a different list also...there are too many great books in the year to only love a few. ;) I had a great reading year -- I found so many excellent reads, which was very satisfying. Last year those kind of reads were a bit scarcer on the ground.

Here is a statistical look at my reading in 2009.

Books Read 2009: 180

By women: 119

By men: 54

non-gendered reading (multiple authors, etc.): 7

Fiction: 122

Non-fiction: 58

Rereads: 6

In Translation: 7
1 German, 1 Norwegian, 1 Chinese, 1 Portugese, 1 Quebecois, 2 French

Challenges undertaken: 5

Challenges completed: 2

Review copies read: 18

Library copies read: 137

My own books read: 29
(far more books bought than read on my shelves this year!)

Best of the Year


The Post Office Girl / Stefan Zweig

Broken / Karin Fossum

Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard / Eleanor Farjeon

Come, thou tortoise / Jessica Grant

The Children's Book / A.S. Byatt

Making It Up or Family Album / Penelope Lively

Honourable Mentions:

The Blythes are Quoted / LM Montgomery

Incident Report / Martha Baillie

The Good Mayor / Andrew Nicoll

The Day the Falls Stood Still / Cathy Marie Buchanan


Script & Scribble / Kitty Burns Florey

In Bed with the Word / Daniel Coleman

Read for your Life / Joseph Gold

Where our Food comes from / Gary Paul Nabhan


The Little White Horse / Elizabeth Goudge

Puppet Master / Joanne Owen

Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter / R.J. Anderson

1000 Shades of Blue / Robin Stevenson

Next year? Well, as my last two posts prove, I am going to sign up for a lot of challenges, read some of my own books, and hope to enjoy continued reading and blogging relationships. Can't wait to add to my own tbr when I read everyone else's end of year lists as well!

I also enjoyed taking part in the Year of Readers project in 2009, but did feel as if I wasn't really doing enough to raise money. Still, the total raised is a few hundred dollars, which will help PLOW a little bit. Thanks again to Jodie at Bookgazing for that great initiative.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Attacking the TBR

I am joining in on one last challenge, Emily's Attacking the TBR Challenge. I need to do this one; I have more than one bookshelf full of books I want to read -- things I've purchased randomly or been given or bookmooched, and so on. And I really do want to read them all; that is why I acquired them in the first place, isn't it? Emily's rules, such as they are, are as follows:

It begins December 1, 2009 (because I always believe in challenges that give you more than one year to complete) and ends no later than December 31, 2010, but it really ends whenever you manage to complete it.

Here are the rules:

1. Choose 20 books from your TBR list (or tome, if you are like me), and post them on December 1, 2009. If you'd like, you can tell us why you chose each book (I'm sure you can guess what I'd "like").

2. Read those 20 books.

3. Oh, did I mention? You are not allowed to buy any of them. If you don't already own them, you must beg, borrow, or steal them in order to read them

.4. Oh, I guess I forgot the other difficult part: you are not allowed to buy any new (or used. No, you can't get around it that way) books until you have read (or attempted to read at least 30+ pages) of all the books on your list.

5. There is one exception to the rules (because I am a fair kinda gal and belong to 2 book discussion groups): you may buy books you have to read for book discussion groups before you have read all 20 on your list, if you can't get them any other way (i.e. your library system doesn't have them and employs the Sloth Express to deliver all interlibrary loans). However, I highly recommend that you encourage your book discussion groups to read books from your list of 20.

6. And then that final thing: write a blog post about each book as you finish (or decide you can't finish) it.

This sounds like the perfect Challenge to me, and I have spent much time over my recent days off going through my shelves, deciding what I want to read right away. I've decided to count only books I currently own, no library books or borrowed ones. And I am starting on January 1st, as this week I still have my annual holiday trip to the Big City and its bookstores coming up.This is my working list, and I won't necessarily be reading them in the order they are listed:

1. Yellow Boots / Vera Lysenko
This is a classic of Ukrainian Canadian literature that I was lucky enough to find at a local used bookstore last year. I want to read this one, and it is one for my Canadian Book Challenge reading as well.

2. Return to Paris / Colette Rossant
Foodie writing, by an author whom I love. I read her Apricots along the Nile, about her childhood, some years ago (loved it) and this is the next stage in her life. Great writing, and recipes!

3. Heaven is Small / Emily Schultz
A new Canadian novel that I serendipitiously found a copy of. Must read! A man dies and ends up working for a huge romance publisher in an afterlife limbo, not realizing he is dead.

4. Seven Ravens / Lesley Choyce
A memoir of two summers, by a Maritime author I adore

5. Sunset Oasis / Bahaa Taher
I received this from the publisher about six months ago and still haven't read it. It was the first winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and it looks so good.

6. Hunting Unicorns / Bella Pollen

7. Things to Make and Mend / Ruth Thomas

8. Ursula, Under / Ingrid Hill

9. The Circus in Winter / Cathy Day

10. Field Guide / Gwendolen Gross

11. The Ballad & The Source / Rosamond Lehmann

12. Green Dolphin Country / Elizabeth Goudge

13. Angel / Elizabeth Taylor

14. Ship of Widows / Irina Grekova

I've had all the above for a long time, intending to read them - they are all by, about, and thematically concerned with, women and women's lives.

15. All the Names / Jose Saramago
Do I need to give a reason to read Saramago?

16. Four letters of love / Niall Williams
I've had this a long time, supposed to be fabulous and the author is Irish - I like that.

17. The Rain before it falls / Jonathan Coe- I've been wanting to read something by Coe; he championed Virago press last year which made me really fall for him. And this story is supposed to be inspired by Rosamond Lehmann and her sister.

18. Henrietta's War / Joyce Dennys - a slim epistolary novel I recently won from Thomas of My Porch, it is a collection of letters set in England during WWII

19. So long a letter / Mariama Ba - an even slimmer epistolary novel, set in Senegal; supposed to reveal women's lives in an extraordinary manner

20. Any of the titles I own by Penelope Lively which I haven't read yet - because I adore Penelope Lively and intend to read every single one of her titles sooner or later. My greatest reading discovery of 09! (titles include: The Road to Lichfield; Passing On; The City of the Mind; Next to Nature, Art; Judgement Day)

And there are my twenty. There are many more that I may reach for if one of these doesn't catch my fancy, including

Embers / Sandor Marai
The Deadly Space Between / Patricia Duncker
The History of Love / Nicole Krauss
Must Write / Edna Staebler (diaries)
Pursuing Giraffe / Anne Innis Dagg (nonfic)

Thanks, Emily, for hosting such an inspiring challenge!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Challenge List the First

Here are my Challenge lists for the Challenges I am going to undertake in 2010, not forgetting the ongoing Canadian Book Challenge which is still underway, of course. I'm a big one for creating book pools rather than strict lists - don't want to feel that my reading is a prescribed chore, and this way I just have more to choose from!

Science Book Challenge -- it's as easy as pi! (love the slogan)
(3 books)

One of my favourite challenges, for 2010 I have a number of science books around the house which I really want to get to. I had all these on my list for last year, but ended up reading three totally different titles. So I'll try again with these three:

Mauve / Simon Garfield
The story of William Perkin, a young inventor in the mid 1800s who discovered how to make dyes from coal tar, accidentally. He was really searching for a way to create artificial quinine.

The Arcanum / Janet Gleeson
About the Western discovery of how to make porcelain

Empire of the Stars / Arthur I. Miller
One of my favourite topics: astrophysics and how discoveries are made or affected by the personalities involved, with all their human failings.

I'd also like to get my hands on a biography recently voted top science book of 09 by, the story of Paul Dirac. It's entitled The Strangest Man, written by Graham Farmelo. (there is also a lecture available by Farmelo on this topic) This era of physics is one of my favourite scientific subjects to read about, so will have to locate a copy of this one. All I know about Dirac presently is what I learned from one of my favourite nonfiction reads of last year, Gino Segre's Faust in Copenhagen.


Healing Spaces / Esther Sternberg

Mauve / Simon Garfield


Colourful Reading Challenge

This is going to be totally random, probably all books I read for other challenges or just pick up for fun. The Challenge is to read 9 books all with a different colour in the title throughout the year. I have my Science Book Challenge pick above, Mauve, and one I have TBR for the Canadian Book Challenge, Vera Lysenko's Yellow Boots, to begin.


Yellow Boots / Vera Lysenko

Green Dolphin Country / Elizabeth Goudge

Mauve / Simon Garfield

The Woman in White / Wilkie Collins

What's in a Name 3

I've done this challenge for the last two years (though this year I didn't quite keep up!) I love its random selections. These are some of the ideas for titles to choose from - they may still change throughout the year! This year the categories are:

A book with a food in the title

Honey and Ashes / Janice Kulyk Keefer (memoir)
Plum Bun / Jesse Redmon Fauset
Daalder's Chocolates / Philibert Schogt
Read: The Spice Necklace / Ann Vanderhoof

A book with a body of water in the title

The Waves / Virginia Woolf
By the Lake / John McGahern
The Seduction of Water / Carol Goodman
Read: Cool Water / Dianne Warren

A book with a title (queen, president) in the title

Sir Charles Grandison / Richardson (also for Chunkster)
The Case of the General's Thumb / Andrey Kurkov
Mrs. Dalloway / Virginia Woolf
Read: Queen of Hearts / Martha Brooks

A book with a plant in the title

The Blue Flower / Penelope Fitzgerald
Read: The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag / Alan Bradley
The Betrayal of the Blood Lily / Lauren Willig

A book with a place name (city, country) in the title

Read: The Road to Lichfield / Penelope Lively
The Enchantress of Florence / Salman Rushdie
Return to Paris / Colette Rossant (nonfiction- food writing)

A book with a music term in the title

The Ballad and the Source / Rosamond Lehmann
Music of a life / Andrei Makine
Song beneath the ice / Joe Fiorito
Read: Trumpets Sound no More / Jon Redfern


Flashback Challenge

All about rereading. This one has different levels of reading to choose from, but I think I'll sign up at the Literati level, six or more books. This is because I want to follow their suggestion of rereading childhood, high school, and adult choices.

Childhood Selections: this year I want to reread the entire Anne series by L.M. Montgomery, since I just finished the new publication of the restored Blythes are Quoted.

High School level: There are a few books I may choose from -- I haven't reread To Kill a Mockingbird since high school and might like to try that. But there are non-school books I'd like to revisit, including Watership Down or maybe Elizabeth Goudge's Green Dolphin Street, of which I remember very little - I think I was too young when I first read it.

Adult choices: There are two books I'd particularly like to reread - Virginia Woolf's The Waves, and Gwethalyn Graham's Earth and High Heaven.

Updated: actually read

As for me and my house / Sinclair Ross

Green Dolphin Country / Elizabeth Goudge

Anne of Green Gables / LMMontgomery


Chunkster Challenge

This was the first challenge I ever participated in, and I think it is time to give it another go. I'm only going to sign up for the Chubby Chunkster level, which is three books over 450 pages in 2010. I may read more but am just starting with this. Some ideas for the books I'm going to read are:

Middlemarch / George Eliot (880 p) [read]

The Terror / Dan Simmons (765 p)

Sir Charles Grandison / Richardson (1159 p)

Gold Bug Variations / Richard Power s (635 p)

Celestial Harmonies / Peter Esterhazy (841 p)

Ursula, Under / Ingrid Hill (476 p)

Updated: Actually read:

Green Dolphin Country / Elizabeth Goudge (575 p.)

Gaudy Night / Dorothy Sayers (557 p.)


Our Mutual Read

I love the name of the Challenge, and its potential for spending lots of time with Victorian literature! I think I will sign up at

Level 2: 8 books, at least 4 written during 1837 - 1901. The other books may be Neo-Victorian or non-fiction

And here is my list which is only a starting point:

Middlemarch / George Eliot

The Woman in White / Wilkie Collins

The Way we live now / Anthony Trollope

Bleak House / Charles Dickens

News from Nowhere / William Morris

Sylvia's lovers / Elizabeth Gaskell

Two on a Tower / Thomas Hardy

Also read:
Trumpets Sound no More / Jon Redfern (NeoVictorian)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

First lines meme

Once again, this fun meme is great for the end of the year. Take the first line of each month's post over the past year and see what it tells you about your blogging year.

Here's a book we all need as we head into another year of reading from our vast lists. [Steve Leveen's Little Guide to your Well Read Life ]

The Weekly Geeks assignment this week caught my eye:
What are you passionate about besides reading and blogging?

March has arrived, Spring is getting closer, hurrah!

It's back! April brings with it the status of National Poetry Month, and I am going to celebrate once more, just I have in 2007 and 2008, by posting a poem daily.

In this strange and short novel by Portugese speaking Angolan author Agualusa, our narrator is a gecko.

This Sunday I had a very pleasant outing; a few of us from work decided a while ago that we would like to go down to another theatre town in the area, Niagara-on-the-Lake, to the Shaw Festival.

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.

As always, John at the Book Mine Set, host of the excellent Canadian Book Challenge, does things in style.

Again with Penelope Lively! I know, I am going through a definite Lively phase.

It's already October, I can hardly believe how time has been flying!

Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while will know of my love for Alexander McCall Smith.


[The Blythes are Quoted] is the restored, full version of a collection first published in 1974 as The Road to Yesterday.

A pretty accurate vision of the year: authors, books, challenges, a few mentions of the seasons, and a little extracurricular cultural outing in June. Leave a comment if you try it so I can see your yearly report as well!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas

to all my lovely bloggy friends!

In the middle of the table was a Christmas tree, alive and growing, looking very much surprised at itself, for had not Tom dug it up from the plantation whilst they were at church, and brought it in with real snow on its branches? The rosiest of apples and the nicest yellow oranges were strung to its boughs, and some sugar biscuits with pink icing and a few humbugs from Tom's pocket lay on the snow, with a couple of gaily coloured texts and a sugar elephant. On the top of the tree shone a silver bird, a most astonishing silver glass peacock with a tail of fine feathers, which might have flown in at the window, he wouldn't say Nay and he wouldn't say Yea.

Susan was amazed. If an angel from heaven had sat on the table she would have been less surprised. She ran to hug everybody, her heart was so full.

They had been so busy getting ready, for Tom only thought of it when Dan was telling him the station gossip of Mrs. Drayton's Christmas tree, they had neglected the dinner.

"Dang it," Tom had said, "we will have a Christmas tree, too. Go and get the spade, Dan."

The ground had been like iron, the tree had spreading roots, but they had not harmed the little thing, and it was going back again to the plantation when Christmas was over.

The turkey was not basted, and the bread-sauce was forgotten, but everyone worked with a will and soon all was ready and piping hot.

The potatoes were balls of snow, the sprouts green as if they had just come from the garden, as indeed they had, for they too had been dug out of the snow not long before. The turkey was brown and crisp, it had been Susan's enemy for many a day, chasing her from the poultry-yard, and now was brought low; the stuffing smelled of summer and the herb garden in the heat of the sun.

As for the plum pudding with its spray of red berries and shiny leaves and its hidden sixpence, which would fall out, and land on Susan's plate, it was the best they had ever tasted. There was no dessert, nor did they need it, for they sipped elderberry wine mixed with sugar and hot water in the old pointed wine-glasses, and cracked the walnuts damp from the trees.

~from The Country Child by Alison Uttley

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve arrives

I love Christmas Eve - there is a such a peaceful, homey feeling about it. Gathering together and opening a gift or two, quietly listening to Christmas music, knowing that nearly everyone has the time off to relax and the world slows down...there is something beautiful about it. I love to read old fashioned books at this time of year as well, and my new tradition after last year's discovery of this lovely book is to reread the Christmas chapters of Alison Uttley's The Country Child. Here is a little bit of Susan Garland's Christmas celebrations:

The postman came through the wood with a bundle of letters and Christmas cards. He stood by the fire and had a cup of tea, and admired the decorations whilst Margaret opened her cards with cries of happiness, and excitement. She didn't stop to read them, she took out all the cards which had no names on them and popped them into envelopes. Then she readressed them, dexterously reshuffling and redealing, so that the postmans should take them with him, a thrifty procedure.

Susan had a card which she liked above everything, a church with roof and towers and foreground covered with glittering snow. But when it was held up to the light, colours streamed through the windows, reds and blues, from two patches at the back. She put it with her best treasures to be kept forever.

It was nearly time to start for church and all was bustle and rush as usual.... Down the hill they went, Mrs. Garland first, Susan walking in her tracks, through the clean snow, like the page in 'Good King Wenceslas', along the white roads unmarked except by the hooves and wheels of the milk carts, to the tune of gay dancing bells to the ivy-covered church.

Inside it was warm and beautiful, with ivy and holly, and lovely lilies and red leaves from the Court. The rich people wore their silks and furs, all scented and shining. Susan looked at them and wondered about their presents. She had heard they had real Christmas trees, with toys and candles like the one in Hans Andersen, which stood up in a room nearly to the ceiling. She would just like to peep at one for a minute, one minute only, to see if her imagination was right.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Challenges: a beginning

There are many Challenges I'd like to be a part of next year, but I haven't made all my lists yet. As a foretaste of all the reading mania to come in 2010 here are the ones I am thinking about joining in on:

The Science Book Challenge (hosted by Scienticity/Ars Hermeneutica) - easy! 3 science-y books throughout the whole year! I love this challenge and always join in

Emily's Attacking the TBR Challenge - read 20 books from your TBR before buying anything new - can read your own, or borrow them, just not buy them. Boy do I need to do this - more space on my shelves would be great!

What's in a name 3 - I love this challenge, and need to continue on with it next year as well

Flashback Challenge (via Eva) - rereading some old favourites is part of my plan for 2010 anyhow, so this is the perfect fit

Colourful Challenge I like random challenges and this one sounds really fun

Chunkster I haven't done this in a while, but I love a good long read

Our Mutual Read Because who can resist more Victorian reading? ;)

Just a few I'm thinking of! Lists to come...

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Niceman Cometh

Erin, ON: Porcupine's Quill Press, c2008.
171 p.

Here is likely my last review of the year, and my only read for the Canadian Book Challenge this month. It was a quick and enjoyable read, by David Carpenter, fiction editor for Grain magazine (one of my favourite literary mags) among other things. This novel made it to the ReLit awards longlist this year, a great place to find small press reading suggestions. It also won the Saskatoon Book Award for this year.

This book takes us through a year in the life of Glory Sacher and her six year old son Bobby, down and out residents of Saskatoon. They've just moved in to a new apartment on the top floor of a house - and their landlady has just died. Glory is left to deal with the landlady's very creepy son Jerry, as well as her last boyfriend Ricky Bullerd, late night DJ and terminal ladies' man. Ricky is convinced that they need to get back together and with his emotional harassment and Jerry's physical harassment, Glory really needs to catch a break.

To get poor Bobby's mind off all the scary and uncertain things in his life they end up at the mall at Christmas. They go to see Santa, at which point the story lines converge -- Glory and Bobby meet James Wellington Waller, an overweight single man taking on the Santa role for some extra cash at Christmas (his day jobs of writing an 'Events' column in the local paper and writing fortunes for cookies are just not paying the bills). James is incontrovertibly a nice guy, in strong opposition to the other men in Glory's life. They are both taken with the other, though it takes a few more months for either of them to act on this attraction. Bobby's fondness for Santa (or Satan as he miswrites, humorously) doesn't hurt, either.

The male characters in this book are examined quite thoroughly - each has their own characteristics which explain their behaviour and their longings. The title hints at Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, a play replete with alcoholic, misogynistic, useless men. Ricky and Jerry certainly reflect these characteristics, but hope for a nice guy is found, even if James Wellington Waller appears at first to have some of the same useless characteristics. I wasn't crazy about the character of Glory; she seems to be a focal point of the three men's visions of themselves rather than a truly compelling person, at least in my view. But there were some nice elements of her character drawn out, especially when she is talking to her friend Jolene.

Another strong element of this story is Saskatoon itself. The routes the characters walk or drive along, the buildings referenced, the weather, the characters, all create a clear picture of the city. I felt the wind and smelled the river while I was reading, and each season of Glory's year plays its part. Here is one quote, when James Wellington Waller is feeling the winter blahs:

Perhaps the real problem was November. Blame it on November in Saskatoon. This was the first of five long months of winter. The lows had been hovering around minus thirty C for three weeks straight, but really winter had only just begun. The last withered leaf disappeared on Hallowe'en. The first big snow came on All Souls' Day. Now the wind blew through everything, even the plaster walls of James's sad old apartment. Seasonal affective disorder. It sprang not from the sudden absence of light, but from the imagination turned morbid. The foliage out on the prairie, the pussywillows out on the sloughs, the leaves on all the elms and maples lining the streets: none of these would ever return. Never, says Lear. Never. Never. Never. Never. He wasn't talking about the death of Cordelia, he was talking about November in Saskatoon, maimed and dusty survivor of the Great Depression, huddled between the prairie to the south and a fringe of parkland, clenched beneath the black uncaring cosmos like a cactus in the wind.

David Carpenter is a writer with an extensive oeuvre, and has also recently published a collection of short stories called Welcome to Canada . I'll be reading that sometime soon as well. If you want to hear him reading a section of this book, one in which James Wellington Waller first puts on the Santa suit and practises his Ho Ho Ho, you can find a link to the audio excerpt on Carpenter's website.

I am enjoying how the books I've chosen for this year's Canadian Book Challenge (my theme is books set on the Prairies) have had such a sense of place. Saskatoon is coming through clearly, even if I do wonder whether that is just because I'm from Saskatchewan. Would people still be enthralled if they'd never been to Saskatoon? If you've read any of the books I'm talking about, please share your impressions. This particular novel was full of word play, of characters just odd enough to be realistic, of a love of place, of a storyline edged with darkness yet redeemed by hope. Santa really is a nice man here, and the potential inherent in Christmas really delivers. Christmas somehow allows us to lower our barriers of cynicism, just a little, and believe in the possibility of love, of sharing, of kindness. It is the central point which this novel revolves around, both in the sense of timing and in meaning. Kindness and love triumph, in their own particular way.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

NaNoWriMo Merch Delights

Look what Santa brought me, a little early this year!

It's my package of NaNoWriMo Merit Badges, delightful little pins to proclaim all the noveling tricks I got up to in November. I love the procrastination vaccuum, even if housecleaning is not my stalling method of choice. They are so cute and were such fun to find in the mailbox! Can't wait until next November, when I can work on 'earning' a few more of these badges. I certainly earned the caffeine buzz one this year, as well as the "and" - designating the overuse of unnecessary words to reach 50,000! Surprising myself, I also 'won' NaNoWriMo this year, reaching 50,000 words in a fun and crazy month of writing. Maybe next year I'll buy a tshirt. ;)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Baker and Van Booy: Two reviews

I have a few more books I would like to review before the end of the year; there are some that I've really enjoyed and want to share before year end and all the wrap-up that comes along with that. Plus I will be putting up my Challenge post very soon! I have quite a few challenges that I want to participate in next year, though never as many as Eva dares to do. :) Completely unrelated to the value of each of these books but kind of randomly strange - they are both 256 pages long.

The first that I liked a lot was the short story collection Love begins in Winter by Simon Van Booy. [HarperCollins, c2009. 256 p.]

I read it a while ago, but didn't know how to talk about it -- it is so fabulous! It's a collection of five short stories, set in different places around the world. The first story opens in Quebec, a place close to my heart, though it doesn't stay there for the entire length of the tale. Van Booy captures the fragile emotional states of his characters so well, and encapsulates a whole life in a moment. His writing is elegant and accomplished and enjoyable to read. My favourite story had to be "The Missing Statues", in which a man who sees an empty spot in a row of statues while in Rome breaks down, weeping, recalling a childhood moment in Las Vegas. The images from that story have stayed with me, and the childhood emotion was powerful and moving. I enjoyed this collection greatly - but wish I would have posted about it sooner! (I should also mention that this collection won the Frank O'Connor prize for short fiction, a prestigious award worth quite a bit. Nice work.)

Other views:

Gavin at Page 247 found it "dreamy and lyrical ... perfect for dark rainy afternoons curled up with a hot cup of tea."

Caribousmom says that "Van Booy’s prose is a bit like listening to a complicated musical performance – at once beautiful and elusive."

Bookfool over at Bookfoolery & Babble states that "I don't think I'm ever going to have any trouble at all with that promise I made to myself to read absolutely everything the man ever writes."

Another book I enjoyed recently was Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist. [Simon & Schuster, c2009. 256 p.]

It features Paul Chowder, a poet who has been given the job of writing an introduction to a poetry anthology -- but can not do it. He has a terrible case of writers block; it is so bad that his girlfriend has left him because of his inability to do anything. The book consists of a long disquisition on first, his own personal situation, but secondly and perhaps most importantly, on the state of poetry itself. Paul Chowder is a lecturer, and he gives us lessons throughout the book on rhyme, meter, the horrors of enjambment, the role of music in poetry and so on. It is utterly captivating, and unexpectedly funny. The narrator's voice is entertaining and absolutely convincing, and there were so many really funny bits that I read it with great enjoyment, finding it hard to put down between reading times. It is a quick read but also one with some elements to ponder, and if you like poetry at all I think you will really love this. If you aren't a big poetry fan, you will also enjoy it, as the character of Paul Chowder and his descriptions of the poetry world have enough drama and humour to keep your interest. Will his girlfriend come back to him? Will he ever finish the introduction he is supposed to be writing? These questions lead us forward but are almost incidental to the wave of poetic philosophy that Paul is sharing with us throughout. A wonderful book that I am recommending to many people!

And here is quite a wonderful essay by John Crowley on this book!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Proust and the Squid

Proust & the Squid: the science of the reading brain / Maryanne Wolf
HarperCollins, c2007
320 p.

This is another selection in my current streak of books about the purpose of reading in our lives. This one differs a little as it focuses on the neuroscience behind the process of reading, and looks at it also from the point of view of the brain which can't quite figure out that process, the brain of dyslexics.

I found it overall an engaging read; neuroscience is intrinsically fascinating to me, and to have neuroscience and reading in the same book, well, how could it get better than that?

The book is set up in three sections: the first, a look at how reading and writing evolved in history; the second, a look at how the brain deciphers written language and shapes itself to become a reading brain; and the third, a discussion of what can be learned about the brain and reading through the study of dyslexic brains.

I love this kind of writing; reading is obviously very important to me, personally and professionally, and this gave me a lot to think about. The first section, on the development of writing and alphabetic systems in human history, ties in to a couple of other books on my shelves (and doesn't reading one thing always lead to more?). I'm currently reading Joseph Gold's The Story Species, which also discusses this topic, and have Leonard Shlain's The Alphabet and the Goddess on tap. Looking at how the actual form of writing, whether alphabetic or ideographic, affects the brain, Wolf draws many conclusions about the process of deciphering text. This then leads in to the second part of the book, a discussion of how children's brains are shaped by learning to read, and how the brain adapts itself to support the reading function. Not knowing the science behind this topic, I can't say whether it is all as straightforward as is presented, but Wolf writes very compellingly, and has many endnotes to support her argument. (which of course leads to more reading...)

The last section of the book was focusing on dyslexia, Wolf's area of study. While it was interesting and certainly showed how passionate she is about this topic, it was of slightly less immediate interest to me. Educators might find it very helpful, however, and parents of dyslexic children certainly would as well. I enjoyed this book - her writing is very readable despite some of the dry research she is sharing. This is a good book to pick up if you are interested in the development of reading itself and how our physical structure supports our cultural invention of reading and writing.

If you are intrigued by the science of the reading brain there is also a wonderful website called On Fiction which is all about the psychology of reading and links to hundreds of other books and research that you might like to explore.

Other reviews:

Tom at A Common Reader sums it up very nicely

Eva at A Striped Armchair gives it her seal of approval

Jess at Start Narrative Here takes a look

Friday, December 11, 2009

Corduroy Mansions: nearing the end

I've been reading along with the latest serial novel by Alexander McCall Smith, part two of his Corduroy Mansions series. It's called The Dog who came in from the Cold, and is being posted online at The Telegraph. As usual, AMS has created a great group of characters -- my favourite is definitely Freddie de la Hay, the dog of the title. There are odious MPs, art students, a wine merchant, a psychologist, health food store employees, publishers, a Yeti, and various other amusing individuals whose lives cross paths in many ways.

There are always some touching sentiments in AMS' books, things that make me pause and look at them twice. Here's a quote from a chapter in which roomates Caroline and Jo go to Caroline's parents' house for the weekend:
[Caroline] knew why her friend was crying. She was crying because she was far from home, and who among us has never wanted to do that? There need be no other reason; just that. We cry for home, and for flowers on tables, and biscuits in little tins, and for mother; and we feel embarrassed, and foolish too, that we should be crying for such things; but we should not feel that way because all of us, in a sense, have strayed from home, and wish to return.
Or this reflection, by wine merchant William, after he has lent his dog Freddie de la Hay to MI6 for an undercover operation:
Just as Freddie de la Hay was missing him, so too was he experiencing that sense
of incompleteness one feels when a familiar presence is suddenly no longer there. Such feelings can be profound and long-lived, as when we lose a close friend or a member of the family – at that level, we are in the presence of true grief – or they may be less substantial, more transient, as when a shop or coffee bar we have grown to like closes down, or a favourite office colleague is transferred. These may seem little things, but they constitute the anchor-points of our lives and are often more important than we imagine. If we lose enough of these small things, we risk finding ourselves adrift, as William now felt himself to be.
I've found it easy to become fond of many of the characters (and finding others not so endearing!) and am really sad that the novel is coming to a close this week. Pop on over and take a look if you haven't yet -- there will be just over 70 chapters by the time it finishes, and you can read them all, or listen to Andrew Sachs reading them to you if you'd prefer that. It is well worth it, for an entertaining read full of gentle humour, personal foibles and definite English eccentrics.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

YA Year End Roundup

In my effort to catch up a little on reviews before the end of the year, I'm going to provide a quick look at a few YA novels I've read recently. The first two are both Canadian books:

Not Suitable for Family Viewing / Vicki Grant
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2009.
290 p.

I've read both of Vicki Grant's earlier novels for younger readers, about the wonderfully funny Cyril MacIntyre and loved them for their humour and for their main character. This one is a bit different: it's for an older audience, and the main character is a teenage girl. However, the sense of humour and the importance of family ties are still in evidence.

We have Robin, a girl who is a bit overweight and feels rejected by her thin, beautiful and busy tv talk show host mother, Mimi Schwartz, and overlooked by her father and his new family. It seems to her that she has a closer relationship with their long time housekeeper than with her own mother.

Robin finds a ring and a photo hidden in her mother's room, both of which are from a school in small town Nova Scotia. As a New Yorker who believes that her mother was brought up in Brooklyn, this confuses Robin mightily, and she decides that she will take off to Nova Scotia alone instead of going to her father's for the weekend as she was supposed to. She has no problems with finding the money to do so, but once she arrives in Nova Scotia she realizes she is woefully unprepared for the realities of being on her own in a small, rural setting without cafes and buses and people everywhere.

She comes across a friendly face even though she doesn't realize it at the time: she hitches a ride with a young man driving a dirty old brown van, and begins to have visions of disaster.
The self defence expert said I'm supposed to poke the guy in the eye with my keys.
Like I know where my keys are. I never know where my keys are! I bit my nails down to the quick last night so they're not going to be much good either. ...
He turns into a driveway in front of this old ramshackle house. He stops the car. He goes, "I think this is what you want," and leans his big body across mine....
I don't remember what they tell you to do at this point. All I know is that I'm not going to let anything happen. There's no way. My body knows that even better than my head does. It's like a reflex or something. I punch the guy as hard as I can right in the face. He goes flying back. ...
I say, "Don't hurt me. Please don't hurt me. I've got money."
He goes, "Me? Hurt you? What are you talking about! You're the one who just punched me in the face! I'm on my way home from work, minding my own business, when some nutcase flags me down and punches me in the face!"...
The guy's got very white teeth. They almost glow in the dark. I wish I'd noticed that before. I would have been a lot less likely to think he was a psychopath, had I seen those teeth. (My impression is
that homicidal maniacs don't have a lot of time to spend on dental hygiene.)

Lots of research at the small local library follows, along with the beginnings of romance, and Robin discovers her mother's secret. The conclusion is not exactly a surprise but the story is well drawn and entertaining. (and for all you fellow Canadians, for some reason I couldn't help picturing Dini Petty as the mother). A fun and light read, despite a few more serious issues coming up in the storyline.

Road to Bliss / Joan Clark
Toronto: Doubleday, c2009.
271 p.

I really like some of Joan Clark's adult books: her novel Latitudes of Melt is one of my favourite books of the last few years. She is also known for her young adult books, but unfortunately I didn't find this one all that compelling, despite its possibilities. It is about a young man, Jim Hobbs, who walks away from Toronto (and his dysfunctional family life) after a power outage and widespread chaos. He hitches a ride and makes it all the way to the Prairies, where he finds an abandoned farmhouse and decides to stay awhile. He camps out there, and meets Miriam -- one of his neighbours from the commune the next farm over. Majestic Farm is a religious compound, complete with patriarchal structures, young women who are not allowed to leave the farm and are made to cook and clean and bear children, restrictive and archaic societal rules, and so on. It felt a little heavy-handed and and a bit old fashioned, and I never really felt a connection to any of the characters. So while it was an interesting enough idea, I can't say I was overwhelmed by it. Just a so-so read for me.

I've also read a few other teen novels, ones which need little explanation as they are so well known. First of all, I finally got my hands on John Green's Paper Towns. I enjoy John Green's writing so much, and found Paper Towns to be fascinating and fun, yet with a mysterious character at its centre to intrigue the reader. Although I still like An Abundance of Katherines best of all his books, this one was certainly entertaining.

I also picked up, finally, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks. I liked it, but had a few problems with the storyline. Frankie didn't always make a lot of sense to me, but she was certainly full of spit and vinegar and a nice antidote to the girls who stand at the edges of stories and wait for the boys to do something. She sure had the Criminal Mastermind position wrapped up in this story.

One last YA book I read was the latest in the Once Upon a Time series -- I like this series for its attempt to retell classic fairytales although some of the volumes work better than others. My favourite author who contributes to this series is Cameron Dokey, and her most recent creation is called Winter's Child, based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. It was pretty good, even if the end was a bit abrupt and a bit too pat for my liking -- but then fairy tales are supposed to end with happily-ever-after, aren't they? What I like about Dokey's tales is that in each of them there is always something about storytelling itself, which is a nice touch.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

You want me to do what?

You Want Me to Do What? Journaling for Caregivers / B. Lynn Goodwin
Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing, c2009.

I was offered a chance to review this book as a part of a WOW (Women on Writing) blog tour. I jumped at it because I love the topic of journaling, and think it is a very valuable part of self care. I was interested in seeing what B. Lynn Goodwin had to say, as she experienced firsthand the strain of caring for a parent with Alzheimer's, as well as having a background as a writer and English teacher.

This was also the first time I've read an ebook entirely online. I wondered if I would have trouble adjusting to the format, and truth be told, I did find it a bit discombobulating to read the entire book in electronic format. I am just used to paper copy and do prefer it. However, this kind of book is well suited to the e-format, as it has brief blocks of text and lists of questions with a lot of white space left for filling in answers, in the paper copy, or I suppose once you've printed off a page of the e-copy you've bought. In any case, reading it was not difficult, even if I am still more comfortable with hard copy.

But on to the content -- both my sister and I read this ebook; I have a background in libraries & literature, while my sister (K) is a Recreation Therapist specializing in seniors health (she runs a senior care business called Wayfinders). Both our impressions follow:

Me: Lynn introduces the book with a little information about the health benefits of journaling: to reduce stress, open up perspective, reduce feelings of powerlessness, to work through the range of emotions stirred up in the experience of caregiving. Journaling allows the caregiver some space for vital self care. She references some of the major research into journaling, including that of Dr. James Pennebaker. The value of journaling is made explicit, reassuring anyone who may feel that sitting down to write about their own feelings is somehow a bit flaky or self-indulgent (not my view but I know some people who would have difficulty focusing on their own emotions).
K: I agree that this ebook could be a very useful tool in support groups. Caregivers are not only dealing with the ever-shifting demands of Alzheimer's, but also with years of pre-existing family dynamics. In a support group, people may feel less guilt and fear at expressing to themselves the negative emotions they are feeling because others are doing the same exercise.

Me: She follows this introduction with a huge number of prompts, which are beginnings of a sentence to lead journallers into writing. For example, a few prompts are "The truth is...", "Yesterday I believed...", "It's hard to admit...", "If need be..." What should be mentioned is that she leads workshops in this area, and this is a kind of workbook which grows out of that experience. I think that this book would work really well in a group format, with a facilitator guiding the writers. Anyone in a caregiving situation who is accustomed to journaling or to any kind of self reflection could easily pick up and use this book as is, but if the person has not developed the habit throughout their lifetime, some guidance would be helpful. Also, a group setting may also appeal to people with a more kinesthetic or auditory learning style, while a visual learner would probably have the most success using the book on their own.
K: As a support group facilitator, you could use some of the open ended prompts as a way to stimulate discussion and problem solving amongst the group, in addition to using them as journalling prompts. Additionally, this stylized journalling could be turned into a creative arts program for those in care that have maintained their cognitive capacity, or even as verbal prompts to stimulate reminiscing activities with Alzheimer's clientele.

Me: From a literary perspective, I feel that this brief workbook is something to use in a hands-on setting. People new to journaling or just too tired to search out their thoughts while staring at a blank page could benefit from the prompts, which are intended to trigger recollections or awareness of what the journaller is feeling. It follows in the line of many journaling books, but in a more practical and immediately usable format; it's light on theory and heavy on the guided prompts. There is also a more literary bent at the end of the book: there is a section on turning your journaling into publishable writing. Lynn runs a website called Writer Advice, and her focus on writing and publishing comes through in this book as well. I am a big fan of journaling, but wonder whether turning the kind of personal writing which comes from journaling into publishable writing is always possible, or even desired by many who may be put off by the idea of having to create something considered publishable. I believe that journaling is a valuable and meaningful habit to cultivate, however, and enjoyed seeing Lynn's perspective on the topic, particularly how it applies to the needs of exhausted caregivers.
K: Having worked with family caregivers for many years as part of the professional care team this would be a handy resource to be able to share with certain ones, but the suggestion also carries a risk: I have met many that merely suggesting this type of an approach to self care would be perceived as insulting - why on earth would they need to do this? They have a COMPLETE handle on everything that is going on. Another risk is that it means actual writing that someone else could stumble across and read - once written, twice shy! Suggesting this resource could very well put someone on the spot and make them feel like they're not doing a 'good job'.

To maximize the various uses of a book such as this, a good recreation therapist could introduce it as a communication program and integrate the family into the program, and as they see the positive impact of using verbal journalling with their loved one, they could then be provided this book as a resource to use at their leisure, in their own personal time.

Over all, this book is full of information that could be used in many different settings, with caregivers and beyond. In a workshop setting, a facilitator could introduce basic techniques, elucidating the uses and benefits of journaling for people who may not be naturally inclined to use the written word as a coping mechanism. This is a good beginners resource for individuals looking to explore the journaling path.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Christmas time is here....

Oh, it is that time of year again, the time when whole days disappear and you don't even realize that it has been a week since you read anything or even looked at your own blog....yes, Christmas time. I can't believe how neglectful I have been of my own reading and of my poor little blog in the last few weeks. Christmas is a busy time and I have been busy, doing quite a bit of sewing which I can not share here as some of the recipients read my blog! ;)

But I will share a couple of great crafting sites I've discovered lately - if you want some inspiration for last minute gifts, try one of these:

Sew Mama Sew - most crafters know this site, but I have had fun looking through it, especially her November posts, in which she lists an entire month's worth of fabric based gift projects. Wow. Lots to inspire you here.

Just Something I Made - This is my favourite new crafting blog - and more than that, it is a wonderful blog full of inspiration for all kinds of creativity. Author Cathe Holden is a graphic designer and has an amazingly creative turn of mind. She shares tons of her graphic work from vintage books and advertisements, free to download, to use for crafts, business logos, blog buttons etc. She just asks that you don't use her images and turn around to sell them. I spent literally hours looking through this site last week! (artsy-crafty button above by Cathe)

Make + Do - I came across the above site due to a random mention on this Canadian Living craft site (which runs all year round as well). There are lots of more traditional crafts here, lots of knitting, which I am hopeless at, but some other good ideas and good links too.

Tomorrow -- back to regular programming with a review of a book on journaling.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Blythes are Quoted

The Blythes are Quoted / Lucy Maud Montgomery; edited and with an afterword by Benjamin Lefebvre
Toronto: Viking Canada, 2009.

This is the restored, full version of a collection first published in 1974 as The Road to Yesterday. That version was expurgated, removing some of the darker elements of the stories, and all of the poems and dialogues which Montgomery had inserted between sets of stories. Anything new by LMM is exciting to me, and I was eager to read this.

I loved it; it was such a delight to be discovering something new in her voice - now I want to go back and read all her novels again, starting with the Anne series. The title comes from the fact that all of the short stories have some reference to the Blythe family; what they will think of the action, their children's behaviour, the good Dr. Blythe's advice, and so on. Everybody seems to know them! There is poetry between the short stories which is attributed to Anne Blythe, with some of it presented as her son Walter's as well. I really enjoyed the poetry interspersed with the stories in this book; a lot of LMM's poetry is very old fashioned; rhyming, full of overblown descriptions of nature and so on. But in this book we see some of her later poetry, and while it is still formal (she despised free verse) there are a couple of very touching pieces which break free from the adoration of nature and the sentimentality which characterizes much of her poetry. Perhaps it was just her changing outlook; in one of the stories a character says that believing all children are equally lovable is "sentimental piffle". Along with the poetry we have short dialogues from the family (and Susan Baker!) responding to the poems and referencing occasions from the past, which readers of the series will recollect from earlier books.

A couple of the stories really are very dark, for example we have a woman avenging her illegitimate daughter by murdering the daughter's abusive husband -- and no one knows that the faded older woman is both the birth mother and the murderer. Even more scandalous, she shows no shame when admitting it on her deathbed. Another story is amusing, if a bit risqué, as a man seeks out the woman he believes he loved when a young man, neglecting his own wife to do so (she was only his second choice after all). He gets his comeuppance when the youthful crush turns out to be bonkers and drives him madly around the countryside, in his pyjamas. Okay, it really was quite funny. There are shades of spiritualism, thwarted love, illicit affairs, cruelty to children and wives, all sorts of things one wouldn't associate with the author of Anne of Green Gables. Of course, if you've read the recent biography, The Gift of Wings, or any of LMM's journals, that darkness won't really surprise you.

But there is also a sad echo of Lucy Maud Montgomery's own troubles during WWI; the book is arranged so the first half is prewar and the second postwar. There are poems by Walter Blythe included, and as fans of the Anne series know, this is the romantic, literary son who dies in the war. There are family dialogues following the poems, and in these the sense of loss and sorrow is clear. LMM had extreme difficulty dealing with the tragedies of war, and the final poem in this book reflects a sense of the futility of war. The manuscript was apparently delivered to her publisher the day she died, in 1942. I wonder what part her view of the war which was then underway played in the themes of this book. It is a sad, powerful, fascinating and priceless restoration of the complete work that LMM originally intended. An absolute must have for any fan of Montgomery, and highly recommended to those new to her work.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Canada Reads, 2010 lineup

Well the lineup of books and their defenders has been announced for Canada Reads. There is already a #CanadaAlsoReads hashtag to follow on twitter which is bringing up some interesting titles from readers which are more intriguing to consider, at least for me.

The five books which will be under discussion for Canada Reads are:

The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy (defended by Samantha Nutt)

Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott (defended by Simi Sara)

Generation X by Douglas Coupland (defended by Roland Pemberton, aka Cadence Weapon)

Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner, trans. by Lazar Lederhendler (defended by Michel Vezina)

Fall on your Knees by Anne Marie Macdonald (defended by Perdita Felicien)

These are all sturdy Canadian reads, all quite well known already, I'd say, except for perhaps Nikolski (which is, incidentally the only one I've read from this list, and I quite enjoyed it). There is always the question, is Canada Reads there to promote lesser known or older books, or just to talk about books which are familiar and more easily accessible? I guess it just goes by panelist choice, but the only book I'm enthused about this year is the one chosen by the one writer on the panel.

But I do have to admit, I don't usually read along with lists like this, so it really doesn't matter too much what I think: I know that each of these books will by this time have a waiting list at my library. Do you have a favourite on this list? Do you read along with Canada Reads, or is there another similar event in your area that you follow?