Thursday, November 29, 2012

Drowning Rose

Read an excerpt of the opening chapter 
Drowning Rose / Marika Cobbold
London: Bloomsbury, c2011.
342 p.

What a busy, busy last few weeks I've had! I haven't had much time to blog, and my brain has been crying out for some fun reading. So I picked up this book, by a favourite author, Marika Cobbold. This is a classic story of a young girl out of place at a fancy boarding school, who will try anything to be accepted by the in-crowd of pretty rich girls.

Eliza Cummings, a ceramics restorer at the V&A, is recalled to her past by an unexpected phone call from her best friend Rose's father, now an old man in Sweden. Rose drowned while at school, and Eliza has always blamed herself. Now she has to revisit the buried past as Ian requests that she come and visit him after many years of estrangement.

The story moves between past and present, and I enjoyed both elements. I found Eliza's job interesting (though perhaps a little metaphorically laden, what with Eliza continually putting things back together again). Her struggles with relationships and moving house were fascinating, revealing her character and how her past has affected the way she deals with life, despite her attempts to forget her traumatic experiences.

As the story of their school years emerges, we see a situation in which the odd girl out is bullied and deceived, and finally lashes out. How Rose and Eliza are complicit in this situation slowly becomes clearer, and the story seems to have an inevitable end. The freedom and entitlement that the rich students live with is contrasted with the struggles of scholarship students and, sadly, neither of them come off too well. The hothouse environment of the girls dormitory is set off by the nearby school of boys who are brothers, friends and potential boyfriends.

While the setup may appear a little trite at first glance, Cobbold has a writing style that can make it fresh. Her particular voice seems to be both making the same assumptions about English society that the characters do and yet at the same time, looking in from the outside, with a certain black perspective. She is a Swedish and British author so perhaps this plays into her style. It skews the narrative just that bit, enough to give us a new perspective. She doesn't shy away from dark motives, while also celebrating beauty and hope. I've always enjoyed her writing, and this one provided a lot of entertainment and was the engaging read I'd been looking for.

In its themes and setting it reminds me of another darkly suspenseful 'school story', Carol Goodman's Lake of Dead Languages. It had the same sense of mystery, and the same kind of adult character looking back on a dark past. Both very good! And perfect for those cold, rainy (or snowy!) days when you just want to curl up under a blanket and read about the mystery and mayhem that is happening to someone else.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Baba's Kitchen Medicines

Baba's Kitchen Medicines: folk remedies of Ukrainian settlers in Western Canada / Michael Mucz
Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, c2012.
265 p.

This is a fascinating book I received thanks to the University of Alberta Press. As many longtime readers may know, I have a Western Canadian-Ukrainian background, so when I saw this book-- well, I knew instantly that I had to read it! And I was right. It's a combination of Ukrainian/Western Canadian history, and the history of herbalism and traditional health practices, another topic I have always been interested in.

Mucz is a professor of botany and ecology with the University of Alberta. In this comprehensive work, he looks at the history of home remedies within Ukrainian settlements in Western Canada, with most of the 'medicines' passed along by the women who took care of everyone. Besides the traditional herbal and plant mixtures that I was expecting (many of which travelled with them from Ukraine) there were strange and harmful treatments using things found at the general stores in Canada -- kerosene, petroleum, and so on. He shows how treatments for every conceivable ill were adapted to the local availability of plants in addition to new store-bought products. I found it intriguing that remedies could also differ among settlements, depending on which part of Ukraine the local settlers had originally come from.

Some of the treatments, ie: getting rid of warts by washing them in your own urine on the day of a full or a new moon, seem based in superstition -- but others, such as using yarrow poultices for bleeding sores, are accepted practice in herbal medicine and are still used today. The book tackles treatments by condition, so you can easily flip through and see what was in common use for a sore throat, for example. But it also delves into the historical moment, looking at the conditions that Ukrainian settlers were facing in daily life, and especially the way that women experienced their lives. Mention of endless pregnancies and the resulting added hard work make you realize the grinding nature of their lives, and understand the quiet tradition of herbs for pregnancies and for avoiding the same.

The book is based on interviews with over 200 Ukrainians who had settled in the West, mostly Alberta, from 1890 on, mostly elderly people who were children growing up in those years. There are stories and excerpts from the interviews throughout, as well as many historical photographs that capture the life of homesteaders. There are maps to help situate where the traditions are coming from, and excellent notes, appendices and as usual with this press, a wonderful index. (I have to mention again how much I love the practice of the U of A press of including the proofreader, copyeditor and indexer by name in the publishing data.)

I loved reading this. I don't think I can sum it up any better than they have on the back of the book:
Baba's Kitchen Medicines is a thorough, charming, and often moving work of anthropology, history, and ethnobotany that will find itself at home on all manner of bookshelves.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Monkey Ranch

Monkey Ranch

Monkey Ranch / Julie Bruck
London, ON: Brick Books, c2012.
84 p.

This week, the Governor General's Award: Poetry (English) was won by Julie Bruck, for this collection. I've had this book for quite some time, and just realized I've never talked about it on this blog.

The cover is so striking it's hard to ignore this one**. And you'd be well advised not to ignore it, as it is full of striking poetry, words that evoke places, emotions, people, strongly and memorably. Bruck engages with both small, enclosed and domestic happenings and wider ranging, international settings and incidents. Her vision incorporates it all.

I love her style: it's not self-referential crazy wordplay nor does she use deliberately confusing techniques. Her writing is straightforward, calm and conversational, but her mastery of this style allows her to express sharp opinions, deep insights and  clear characterizations. I suppose it is simply my kind of poetry. I enjoyed the stories she was telling through these poems, and felt as if I was overhearing or perhaps catching an unexpected glimpse of other lives while reading.

Hearing about her win today inspired me to look back to see if I'd already mentioned this book (no) and then to pick it up and read through it again. Still wonderful! I have a few that particularly spoke to me but they all had some hook that caught me and kept me reading. One that really resonated with me was a brief poem called "How to be alone" -- in it, a baby is being put to bed and encouraged to sleep. The line that jumped out was some advice from their parenting book, suggesting they tell the child "there is no more today". Bruck catches the existential trauma in that phrase and turns it into this brief but powerful poem, a recognition and expression of an apparently mundane moment turned immensely meaningful.

But this is one collection from which I can't really pick out a favourite, as there are so many outstanding choices. I'm not exaggerating or getting fan-girlish -- there really are few disappointments here. It's clear that she is an accomplished poet with an eye for the small, telling detail in everyday life and in the larger sphere as well. Her win at the GGs was very well deserved. This is a satisfying, lovely book for so many reasons.

Brick Books has a lot of great links to follow from this book's product page; interviews with the author, readings, reviews, some poems to whet your appetite, and more. Take a look to explore further! I'm sharing their youtube recording of Julie Bruck reading from this collection below, as well.

**a note on the cover art, from Brick Books:

The cover painting is a detail from Cookie...waiting, by Donald Roller Wilson. More of DRW’s work can be seen at By generous permission of both the artist, and the collection of Patricia Altschul.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Voyage of QV66

The Voyage of QV66 / Penelope Lively
London: Heinemann, c1978.
192 p.

This is one of Lively's children's books that was recommended to me recently by another Lively reader. I never need too much encouragement to pick up one of her books, as I'm a big fan of her writing. But this one had not really come up on my radar yet, so I was pleasantly surprised by my discovery of it. 

Lively writes children's books that are fairly complex, in that she doesn't talk down to her readers. She is good at creating an initial situation that is unfamiliar, while not over-explaining things, trusting the reader to catch on as they go along. 

This book opens with a strange premise: there are various animals gathering together into a "tribe" of sorts -- a dog (our narrator), a cow, horse, cat, bird and a strange animal who is different from everyone else. Upon discovering this strange brown, furry animal, who is named Stanley, it is decided that they will all travel to London to find out just what Stanley is. 

The story of their voyage -- how they do it, and why, and what happens when they get there -- is situated within a Britain that is devoid of people. The QV66 mentioned in the title is a boat that the group of friends finds and claims as a way of getting to London, since most of the countryside is completely flooded, with little hilltop islands left here and there. Stanley, being an unusual kind of animal, thinks and puzzles his way to creating and building new tools and objects, for example, scavenging some wheels and attaching them to the boat so that Ned, the horse, can pull them overland when necessary. 

The narrative voice is wry and amusing, and the animals each have their own particular personality which led to some amusing reflections by this reader. Lively creates a backstory for the animals that allows her to comment on some religious and military elements, as well as the most obvious issue of climate change and a great flood. It seemed timely to read this right now, especially as the group reaches London and describe exploring a subway station that is dark and watery and smelly. The flood has left traces of human inhabitation behind that animals everywhere are reusing and repurposing to their own desires. 

Once in London, Stanley figures out what kind of animal he is, and that he isn't the only one of his kind. But this is not the cathartic happy ending that he expects; in fact, he is quite put off by his discovery, and rejoins his happy band of friends to continue their journeying ways. In a way, I found the ending satisfying. And in a way I didn't -- as the way forward leads out to sea I found that I was uneasy when imagining what lay ahead for this motley crew. 

It was a fascinating read, though. Lively is particularly good at drawing sharp portraits of human foibles, and here she turns that to the new society of animals which has arisen. There is a resurgence of tribalism,with the main lot of creatures being -- literally and figuratively -- sheep. A few of the more clever species, like crows, dogs, and apes, have taken on the role of priests, warriors, or bureaucrats, while others are either followers or very independent creatures in their own right (like Stanley). It seems to hold a mirror up to our own civilization and what we may become in times of crisis. Various animals have decided on their own new rules and means of living, and as many other readers have mentioned, this lends a hint of  "Animal Farm" to the tale.

While dealing with serious issues, this story is also simply a good read. The journey to London is the purpose of the story but doesn't bring the happy ending the travellers expect. However, seeing the destroyed landscapes and derelict cities through their eyes was pretty interesting for this reader, and I imagine would be so for juvenile readers as well, who may be trying to puzzle out what exactly the animals are seeing as each incident is recounted. I thought the premise was very well done, and the story was dense with ideas and incidents, making it a perfect source of further discussions for readers too young for Animal Farm.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

In Remembrance

Today in Canada it is Remembrance Day. We remember and honour the contributions of our military in times of war. As my husband's father and uncles were all in the war, we remember them and their contributions especially at this time of year.

There is an interesting interview with one of our uncles (age 91) regarding his service in Sicily, just posted by CTV Montreal. He is a vibrant and active veteran who is concerned with the preservation of history and the honourable treatment of veterans. He is also featured in a piece about a commemoration of Operation Husky, in Sicily
Veterans remember the invasion of Sicily | CTV Montreal News

And there is also an article about another member of this same family, who contributed to the war effort at home in a very unusual way, before enlisting in the air force. This year we are seeing quite a few mentions of our family in the press, which is quite amazing, and so meaningful.

I'd like to finish by sharing my favourite poem for Remembrance Day, written by a Canadian doctor in WWI and familiar to all Canadian schoolchildren:

By John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead: Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved: and now we lie
In Flanders fields!

Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw

The torch: be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields

Composed at the battlefront on May 3, 1915 

during the second battle of Ypres, Belgium

Friday, November 09, 2012

Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore

Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore / Robin Sloan
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2012.
288 p.

I read this charming book over a weekend -- and what fun it was! It's the story of Clay Jannon, a young man in San Francisco who is job hunting after losing his web design gig for a bagel company. He wanders into Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore when he stumbles upon it by chance and sees a "help wanted" sign. And then the story begins...

Mr. Penumbra's is a mysterious vertical bookstore: the shelves go up and up and up. And certain books on these shelves are only for the use of special customers who borrow rather than buy. Clay begins to wonder... just what is going on?

It's when Clay gets sucked into trying to figure out what exactly Mr. Penumbra's is that the story begins to really get exciting. The mysterious and atmospheric setting of the store is so well-drawn I was beginning to wish that I could drop by and push open the door myself! As someone who has owned a small bookstore, I appreciated the small quirky things that Clay notices about the store and its infrequent customers, and his sudden rash of ideas about how to promote and make the store a success -- very amusingly realistic!

And as a former bookstore owner as well as a librarian, I do love the world of books. But I also love the world of technology and all the amazing possibilities it opens up for us, as individuals and within the world of books and libraries. Somehow, Sloan has created a book that is of the moment, a book that celebrates all the weird and unbelievable things that we can do with technology -- well, perhaps what the young and clever programmers, artists and Google employees in the story can do with technology -- and yet at the same time honours and celebrates the magic of the written word in all its complex history. It is pitch perfect; he creates a mysterious secret society who worship the words of Aldus Manutius, an early printer, and love the book as the ideal physical object. And then he and his group of friends (conveniently including a venture capitalist who can fund their travels and adventures) try to solve the mystery of Mr. Penumbra's secret society using the latest technologies -- data visualization, Google's powers of massive computation, portable handmade scanners, and so on. These two aspects meld very well, and make for a delightful tale that celebrates nerdy cleverness with energy and enthusiasm. Books are not denigrated, while technology is not worshipped mindlessly. He strikes just the right balance, and shows that book lovers and technophiles are not exclusive sets.

I also really enjoyed the characters with whom Sloan has populated this story. Clay himself is not too annoying, as youngish slackers can often be in these kind of stories (at least to me). He is too energetic and not cynical enough to irritate! His friends, including a fellow nerd from childhood (now a successful tech business owner), his sole coworker at the bookstore (a grad student), and sometime girlfriend Kat (Google employee), are all appealing and fun to read about -- it's not all just Clay. Something I liked was the relationship between Kat and Clay. She is a whiz, a very bright and ambitious woman who also happens to be pretty cute. She and Clay start a relationship, but she is allowed to develop throughout the book and when she keeps advancing in her work at Google she starts to become a person who is clearly out of Clay's league. In many books like this, she would have been slotted as the pretty girlfriend, lucky to be slumming it with Clay...but here, she grows past him and moves into another level of success that he can't compete with. I loved that she was a strong, successful, brilliant and ambitious character.

One last note: the settings are great. Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore is atmospheric and realistic, Google itself is amazing to visit through this story, there is a Gothic and marvellous headquarters for the secret society of booklovers, even Clay's apartment is fascinating thanks to his roommates. There is one amazing location, a museum/archive that Clay has to visit to find a particular item, that is fantastical, lively and  enthralling for this librarian to ponder! You might be able to tell by now that I really, really enjoyed this book and found it fun, energetic and perfectly drawn. Lots of fun to read, and, it glows in the dark :)


As I mentioned a few posts back, I was just at a library workshop that inspired me to try something new. I was shown a site called "Spicy Nodes" and tried my hand at making a reading map. Because I've just finished this novel, I used it as the basis for this map, suggesting directions one many take after reading this book, using my library's resources. Hope you enjoy trying it out!

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds

The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds / Alexander McCall Smith
Toronto: Random House, c2012.
272 p.

While reading this latest installment in the Isabel Dalhousie series (#9) I couldn't help thinking that the subtitle should read "It Looked like Spilt Milk." Hazards of doing preschool storytimes, I guess! But the idea that things are not always what they look like is a good summary of this story, as well.

Isabel is called into sleuthing mode again for a friend of a friend. Duncan Monrowe has had a painting stolen from his home, and is worried it is going to be ransomed. He just wants it back, unharmed. Isabel agrees to help, and begins her quiet style of investigation, discovering in the process that the thieves may be closer to home than expected.

Meanwhile, Isabel and Jamie move on with their lives, having words with a prickly Grace while beginning to think that Charlie is a prodigy, getting involved in Eddie's life again, and pondering the state of Isabel's philosophical journal and the perils of being an academic seeking publication.

As usual in these books, Isabel ponders the finer points of the situation -- she never takes things for granted, but carefully teases them apart to try to get a clear, understandable view of a situation. This isn't always possible, and one thing I very much appreciated in this particular book was the realistic nature of the theft: there isn't always a clear villain, and suspicions might not lead to proof.

Isabel is an odd character, interesting while not always relatable. She is a person who lives in her mind, and thus has a fairly small circle. Sometimes her small orbit starts to feel a bit enclosing, but McCall Smith adds in enough side characters and moments of natural grace to carry the story forward, providing a window to a wider world. I enjoy visiting her world and this volume was no exception to that.

PS -  the day I received my copy, I just happened to be colour coordinated with this lovely sky blue cover! I was thrilled to open the envelope and see what awaited :)

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Saturday Snapshot: Piper Down!

This is a photo I snapped during my trip back to Montreal a few months ago. Downtown, at Ogilvie's department store, the noon hour is marked by having a piper march out the front door and around the building to re-enter by the side door (which incidentally used to lead directly to their book/stationery department, thus was always my favoured entrance!)

At this particular moment I just happened to be across the street and snapped a quick pic, only realizing later that the window models were also very interested in what was going on. What do you suppose they were thinking?

Is there anything under that kilt?

Thank you Alyce, for hosting this terrific Saturday Snapshot meme @ At Home With Books.  

Friday, November 02, 2012

RIP VII: A Challenging Round Up

Well, it's now November. Already! Where does the time go, I ask myself, and hear everyone else around me asking. You know how in The Age of Miracles, the earth's rotations slow and days get longer.....well, it feels like THE OPPOSITE OF THAT right now!

I was reading for the RIP VII Challenge this year, which lasts 2 months but somehow felt like it lasted 2 weeks. In any case, I was able to meet my challenge to read 4 eerie, spooky, or speculative books. Of course, they bear no relation to the list I'd created at the beginning of the challenge! But they were good, overall -- except for one that I really didn't like and was really disturbed by, not in a  very good way. Here are the titles I actually finished:

1. Splendours & Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz
2. The New Moon's Arms by Nalo Hopkinson
3. Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Steven K  (this was the "icky" one)
4. Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt
5. The Cast Stone by Harold Johnson

It was a good, spooky fall of reading! And I had fun being a part of the Online Halloween Studio Tour -- showcasing my labyrinth themed fabric journal covers. The Tour has actually been extended for a week so you still have a brief time to click over and check it out!

Hope you all had a delightful Halloween and aren't suffering from too much of a sugar hangover, or feeling too sad about just being yourself again. As I mentioned on the other blog I write, for my journaling business, remember to embrace your inner pumpkin this week!