Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Textbook of the Rose

The Textbook of the Rose / Joann McCaig
Dunvegan, ON: Cormorant Books, c2005.
168 p.

Another tale of a middle aged woman having a bit of a life crisis: but this one was much more satisfying for me.

It has heft, it struggles with the questions of love and relationship, power, friendship and more. Stella is a professor of medieval literature, and the novel's structure is influenced by medieval narrative conventions -- it begins with a prologue, proceeds through a series of passus, and ends with an epilogue. It's also shaped by taking the form of a romance quest, with mentions of Gawain and of the Canterbury Tales throughout. I found that this layered the story in a way that I found rewarding to explore, with deeper meanings echoing through the pages.

Stella is in her forties; she has an ex, Jake, who left her for a younger grad student. She has two children. She has a love affair with a much younger man, an innocent, halfway through the book. Or does she? The way Stella tells her story, revises her story, recants and reasserts what is truth, makes reading this a continual fascinating puzzle. What is going on and why is she telling us what she does? It's not so much that she's an unreliable narrator or that she is delusional -- not at all. It's the shaping of her story to hold meaning for her, taking imaginative flights into what could hold meaning and shaping them to fit her reality. The interplay of structure and story really appealed to me, and I enjoyed the surprises and doubling-back within the narrative.

Stella has friends and acquaintances within her work world, many women, and they get along for the most part. They are able to share their experiences and feelings about the way their disciplines are changing, what the new trends in scholarship are and how that makes them feel about the security of their positions. They also frankly discuss the place of older women in their situation.s and ponder what is to be done. I liked the fact that Stella didn't see every other woman as a rival, even with the betrayal of her protege, the promising grad student who ended up leaving her studies to start up a relationship with Stella's husband. And even that grad student isn't portrayed as an evil villain but has some complexity to her character.

This novel has enough plot to keep you reading -- a good main character -- fairly straightforward language even with the medieval influence -- and a nice sense of a prairie summer particularly in the middle sections. I enjoyed this and think it will be one I'll read again.


For this year's Canadian Book Challenge I've chosen as my theme "Small-Press-Palooza" Thus, for each book I'm including a link to the small press who has published it. Take a look -- there are wonderful small presses all over Canada!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Sorensen's Large Harmonium

A Large Harmonium / Sue Sorensen
Regina: Coteau Books, c2011.
208 p.

This is a light, breezy story of an academic in Winnipeg who has a charming husband, a sex life of rabbit-like regularity, a precocious two year old called Little Max, a career crisis, and an acerbic wit when it comes to literature.

It's fun reading, despite the life crisis that Janey endures. She experiences a regular depression each year at the same time, following the academic calendar. This year, she also has a friendly minister to counsel her through the depths.

She's the Bridget Jones-like main character who is surrounded by fellow academics -- all women, all of whom she seems to have prickly relationships with. She also has to deal with her astonishingly good natured and well adjusted husband's best friend Jam (one of those men who never wants to grow up), and his annoying parents who drop in for a visit unexpectedly. She seems to be a bit of a mess, although I can't really see why. She has a great husband, a civilized job, a young healthy child, an apparently active sex life, someone to confide in.... oh well, I suppose it is just her character, overthinking everything and stressing out about perfection.

The story takes us through the year, with obnoxiously funny asides as to the literary worth of the Brontes, or the character her husband should be if they were literary characters.("Rochester! Why should I be Rochester? He's a bastard.") Right from the first line it's evident that this book is going to be full of literary nods: "I say I will buy the Jiffy Markers myself."

I enjoyed all the references to art and books -- even the over the top comparisons Janey makes ("I am reading my way through the novels of Charlotte Brontë, mostly, I think, so I can feel superior to her.") They show Janey's own obliviousness and insecurities. When she can stop being so flippant and take herself seriously for a minute, and open herself to some self awareness, she does understand that her life is pretty grand as it is. The most serious moments in the book come when she is speaking to her minister and he is helping her see the source of her neurotic beliefs.

Her husband Hector, a music professor, has his own events to deal with -- politicking in the music department, or the accidental fatherhood of his best friend, for example. But he is definitely a partner in Janey's life, and one who seems extraordinarily patient and present for her. Their child, though, comes across as a bit of a cipher. He's there to serve a purpose, but doesn't feel like a character in his own right, to me.

The title, seemingly odd at first glance, is referenced near the end, when Hector and Janey are practicing a piece he's written. Janey comments:

"I liked the sound of the harmonium, the other day... It sanctifies the story somehow, makes it more understandable. But it doesn't sound too solemn. I guess it really is a small organ, isn't it? I never thought of it that way before."

An unusual tale that had its merits, though I felt a lack of complexity in the main character. The relationship between Janey and Hector felt a bit twee from time to time, but otherwise, they were a novel couple. It was a good read, one in which I most enjoyed the many references to other literary, musical and artistic work.

For this year's Canadian Book Challenge I've chosen as my theme "Small-Press-Palooza" Thus, for each book I'm including a link to the small press who has published it. Take a look -- there are wonderful small presses all over Canada!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bone Coulee

Bone Coulee / Larry Warwaruk
Regina: Coteau Books, c2011.
248 p.

This contemporary novel set in South Saskatchewan plays with the past and its secrets. Mac Chorniak, a farmer of Ukrainian descent, faces the arrival of two new neighbours in their small town: a young Aboriginal woman and her mother. Unknown to him, the mother Roseanna is the sister of a man murdered years before by Mac's group of four friends in a teenage brawl, and she's determined to make him pay.

The cover is a beautiful one which illustrates the belief of Roseanna's own grandmother, that an owl flying overhead at night is a bad omen: a belief borne out by its happening the night Thomas was killed.

The interplay of secrets, past and present, and the question of cultural identities, informs this book. The multicultural nature of Canadian society, even in a very small Saskatchewan town, is part of the storyline. What is Native land, who decides on Native rights, and what does it mean to be a hyphenated Canadian? Mac explains in a tv interview at one point in the story that:

"I've lost what little of the language I knew. Once the language is gone, everything's gone but the Easter eggs, if you have a wife or daughter who will paint them. You dig for roots when the stem has shrivelled and died. My years of trying not to be Ukrainian have made me nearly as English as Abner."
But while the questions this book explores are both serious and multitudinous, I'm not sure whether it is too local for a wider audience. Saskatchewan places, political parties and personages (as well as provincial scandals), artists and musicians are continually named throughout the tale (and it was a bit of a shock to my suspension of disbelief when near the end I read the name of real musician Andrea Menard as a performer in a big show being put on at Bone Coulee: a shock to me because I went to high school with her and it was just weird to see her name there! ) It's fun in one way to check off the familiar names and events, but in another, I'm not sure non-Saskatchewanians would enjoy it in the same way.

The themes of each chapter, and the characters, are widely representative of rural Saskatchewan, and many rural concerns are discussed. Hunting, land rights, people from Toronto, historical artifacts (and who they belong to), Natives and racism, the roles of men and women, are just some of the topics playing a part in this book. Unfortunately for me as a reader, much of the male conversation in the local diner frustrated and irritated me -- perhaps I found it had too much verisimilitude!

So while I appreciated what Warwaruk was doing (and really liked the Ukrainian elements and the references to the poetry of Shevchenko) this wasn't a read I really cherished. I liked it, but found it a little issue-heavy. Some of the scenes were vivid and memorable, while others seemed to just keep the story going. It was interesting, and a vision of a place I've haven't seen that much in Canadian fiction -- multicultural, modern Western life.

For this year's Canadian Book Challenge I've chosen as my theme "Small-Press-Palooza" Thus, for each book I'm including a link to the small press who has published it. Take a look -- there are wonderful small presses all over Canada!

More About Coteau Books

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Byatt's Ragnarok

Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2011.
192 p.

I read this book in ebook format, quite a while ago now, and had to refresh my memory by looking through it again. It's part of the Canongate Myths series, which I've really enjoyed thus far, and am not sure why I didn't talk about this book when I first read it!

I like A.S. Byatt's writing, and this book highlights her particular style in its retelling of the Norse myths. She frames the myth with the fictional yet autobiographical character of a young girl evacuated from London during WWII, who has just discovered a book of Norse myths. The uncertainty of wartime, the inability to see ahead and know whether the world would continue on or be totally destroyed in a man-made Ragnarok, makes this first reading experience particularly fraught with tension. This child reappears interspersed with the myths throughout this small book.

But, as mentioned in Eva's review over at The Striped Armchair, this isn't a book to read for plot or character as much as for the love of an author's style, for her precise language and the rhythms of her storytelling. It consists of a fairly straightforward retelling of the end of the world according to Norse myth. And I did have a vague familiarity with these stories, but this book draws them into fullness -- the darkness, the betrayals, the violence and bloodshed, all are very evident. Byatt does not try to draw direct parallels to her framing story or try to explain to us what these myths mean, she simply presents them. In fact, in her afterword, I came across a marvellous explanation of myth.

Byatt says:

This is how myths work. They are things, creatures, stories, inhabiting the mind. They cannot be explained and do not explain; they are neither creeds nor allegories.

And that perhaps is the reason to read this book, and others in this series. Rather than explaining, myths stand alone and outside our individual minds, and point to the great unknown, to the existence of a reality created by and yet also outside our own imagination. Byatt's authorial hand is evident in this book and yet she also seems to be a conduit for a larger, older story. This contradiction explains, for me, the continual appeal of old myths that remain powerful in the human psyche, even without any intent to explain our world.

Ragnarok introduced me to the Norse myths in a way that I hadn't read them before, and the almost stately progression to complete destruction of the world was neatly choreographed and communicated by Byatt. This was quiet, intellectual and utterly bleak, all at the same time. Quite a reading experience, which I'd recommend if you have any interest in the way that myths shape our worldviews even today. Or if you simply want to read another Byatt book and sink into her prose stylings.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Unflinching Phrases for Luminous Book Reviews

If you're stuck for words trying to come up with that perfect phrase for your next book review, here's a little inspiration. Ron Charles (Doctor of Blurbology) shares his best tips!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Quiet: a look at Introversion

QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking / Susan Cain
Crown, 2012.
352 p.

What do I really need to say about this book? It has launched itself into the world with a huge celebratory splash! I've been seeing Susan Cain interviewed, reading about her and about this book and hearing people talking about the very important issues she has illuminated. And I don't believe that any of this is any more than what is justly deserved by this marvellous, thorough, and inspiring read.

I suppose I should start by saying that I am an introvert, and have always known that and been comfortable with it. However, others have not always been so comfortable, something that I know other introverted friends have also had to deal with. "Why are you sitting there reading? Go outside and play with the other kids." I heard that a few times, certainly. Or, "You've got to be more outgoing and improve your customer service skills", which I've also heard, and which in this context meant, be louder, more smiley, more chatty with the complete strangers who you come into contact with. Nothing to do with actually providing the service that the customer was asking for.

Thankfully those days are in my past. But experiences like this are reason enough for me to strongly, fervently recommend this book to everyone. Yes, EVERYONE. Parents, bosses, friends, coworkers, teachers, partners -- everyone. Introverts may come to a better understanding of themselves and find words to describe their experiences more clearly. Extroverts may come to a better understanding of the introverts in their lives and not be so determined to make everyone else comply to their preferences.

Susan Cain has created a very complete look at the way introverts are limited in our extrovert-focused society. She breaks the book up into specific themes; work, parenting, social life, and so on, and explores how introverts experience these things according to their personality preferences and how their preferences are often discounted or criticized because they aren't the extrovert preference. She is careful to point out that there is nothing inherently "better" or "worse" about either introversion or extroversion -- but that the Extrovert Ideal dominates our society and makes it difficult for many introverts to feel comfortable expressing who they are. The basic difference between the two lies in the way that each is energized -- introverts are drained by too much stimulation and recharge by spending time alone in a quiet setting, while extroverts feel understimulated by too much quiet, alone time and like to recharge themselves with lots of stimulation, whether physical activity, noise, or lots of other people. Shyness is a separate trait altogether, even if it is often confused with the idea of being introverted. Cain notes that a shy extrovert has it very tough: wanting to energize around other people but being afraid of social judgement (shyness).

I've read a number of books about introversion, but I particularly enjoyed this one because Cain is a really good writer who has created a book that flows, and enlightens in an entertaining manner. She explores super-extroverted settings like the gigantic American Saddleback Church, or a Tony Robbins seminar, and explains her points with plenty of fun anecdotes AND plenty of scientific studies to back them all up.

The key statement of this book is that introverts have valuable personality traits that shouldn't be discounted or ignored any longer. Cain compares the situation of introverts (who make up anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of the population) to that of women at the start of the feminist movement: their talents and skills were being suppressed and wasted under the masculine ideal, and she sees the state of introverts today as similar to this. With the current organizational structure of education, the workplace and social expectations all fostering the ideal of charisma, personality, togetherness and appearance, introverts have to struggle to keep up and spend much of their energy on coping strategies. Not to mention that they begin to discount their own specific personality and preferences.

The value of this book at this moment is that it has opened up a lively discussion of its themes, without the derogatory judgements of introversion that I've heard so often. Perhaps we are just ready for it, perhaps as Cain notes, our society shows some signs of looking for a quieter, less frenetic state of being. Or perhaps I've just been missing those conversations ;) I think that this is an important book, one which should be read by policy makers, by businesspeople and managers, by extroverts who need a little illumination. Introverts may have different preferences than those expressed by the 'norms' of the work world, but the introverted worldview, once given the space to flourish, may change everything.

Read this. Be illuminated. Change the world!

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Happy 200th Dickens Birthday

It's the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth, and 2012 is shaping up to be a Dickensian year, hopefully only in the sense of rereading him, not reliving Dickensian social conditions!

I received an email today notifying me that the Royal Mail is previewing a selection of stamps that celebrate the life and works of Charles Dickens. Unfortunately I can't use UK stamps here in Canada, but they sure are literary, and nice to gaze upon!

The Royal Mail says:

The Dickens Collection, to be released on June 19th, will mark 2012 being the bicentenary of the novelist’s birth. The issue will consist of ten stamps, as well as a Miniature Sheet and feature iconic characters from some of his most famous novels, including Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities.

The two sample stamps below feature illustrations from Dickens' first novel, The Pickwick Papers (originally serialised and entitled The Posthumous Papers of Pickwick) and his 1838 novel, Nicholas Nickleby.

Do you still write snail mail letters? If so, do you like to select specific stamps to match each letter? I do, and I really like literary themes. These would be perfect, but, I'll just have to keep using my Anne of Green Gables stamps for now ;) Does your local postal service create special stamps to celebrate literary icons?

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Reading for the Health of It

I'd like to share some exciting news...

I am speaking this afternoon (as part of my regular day job) at the Ontario Library Association Super Conference on "Reading for the Health of It". This is a subject I love to talk about; there is so much research to support the health benefits and I always love giving people even more reasons to read! I'd like to share a few highlights of my presentation with all of my blog readers so that you can also discover some of the key health benefits that arise from the simple act of reading.

1. Physical Health

The obvious physical health benefit of reading is in its power to strengthen and develop our brain. As we read we create new neural connections and pathways; our brain literally expands. Having higher numbers of neural pathways helps us to ward off the effects of brain diseases like Alzheimer's or dementia, or to recover from traumatic brain injuries. The brain has more options to rewire itself to keep us symptomless for longer in the case of these situations.
But reading also benefits us physiologically in a number of ways. Reciting certain types of poetry can benefit our blood pressure, as I've written about previously. And reading has been shown to be one of the best and quickest ways to experience stress relief and relaxation. Reading can benefit our immune response as well.

2. Mental Health

More than just our physical brain, however, reading supports our mental health. The psychology of reading is a key area of study right now, with a great number of researchers located in Canada (with a wonderful website, OnFiction.ca) Reading in groups is one method to combat depression or social isolation, with studies showing that the act of reading results in some of the same benefits as medication can give a person. And a book serves as a kind of cheap virtual reality machine: parts of the brain that light up while reading about an activity are the same parts that light up when a person is actually performing that activity.

3. Emotional/Social Health

One of the biggest effects of reading lies in the emotional, or social, realm: reading about other lives and experiencing life through another perspective builds empathy. Empathy is the key to building a society that is cohesive and supportive for all its citizens.

Literature gives us one of the only ways that we can enter another person's mind and see through their eyes, have access to their thoughts, and truly experience their perceptions. Reading a novel gives us a way to experience unfamiliar situations or to find others who've had the same difficulties as we have and to learn how they've dealt with them. A book can give us the words to name our experience, and in this way, make it easier to comprehend and communicate. This is the principle behind bibliotherapy, which is part of what I do over at my business, Four Rooms, and which I've also talked about previously.

4. Spiritual Health

It may seem strange to think of reading as benefitting us spiritually. But the process of reading itself, that reaching out which we must do to encounter another, separate and distant mind -- that of the writer -- can be considered a spiritual process. That mind can never be fully known, but we can encounter it and strive to get outside ourselves briefly. Spiritual disciplines like our capacity for attention, our ability to listen, or our mental organization and alertness are also mirrored in reading; we build these strengths when we read narrative fiction.

So, in these ways reading interacts with all aspects of health and is measurably a healthy practice! There are many more examples of how it can benefit us and different areas to talk about, but, I am just highlighting some of the ones I find most fascinating -- I don't think you want to read a whole paper about the topic ;) So the next time someone tries to make you feel guilty about reading instead of exercising, just think of how you are benefitting your health in a different way, and keep on with your novel!