Saturday, June 29, 2013

When I Was Young & In My Prime

When I Was Young & In My Prime / Alayna Munce
Roberts Creek, BC: Nightwood Editions, c2005.
249 p.

This is a gorgeous read, a novel comprised of a mixture of prose and poetry, all presented in powerful, engaging language. A young woman watches her grandparents decline, mentally and physically. The changes that time brings to each individual as well as to their marriage all fall under her discerning eye.

The structure of the book includes monologues by various characters. It's not always immediately obvious who is speaking so the reader must pay attention, must involve themselves in decoding and deciphering the action. This sense of being slightly off balance mirrors the content of the book, the confusion of Alzheimer's but also the confusion of simply being young and not knowing what to do in life, or of being old and forced to transition away from what you know.

The narrative is intermingled with bits of poetry, dialogues, lines from a pamphlet explaining Alzheimer's, lists, diary entries and suchlike. It creates an unsettling feeling, a feeling of casting about for a firm perspective. But the entire point is, there isn't one.

Munce explores the nature of memory, the ways in which we cement our recollections and make them a part of our identity -- how we each share in our personal histories, as the centre of our own circle which then  overlaps with so many others. One event can be kaleidoscopic, with each player holding their own version in mind. It's also a meditation on how fragile and fleeting this memory can be -- what happens when we begin to lose it? Who do we become? And what becomes of a shared past if the people implicated in the past are no longer there to hold it?

There is a sense of how these issues affect both the grandparents and the narrator in this story. Earlier incarnations of both grandparents appear, their interior lives revealed; but the focus on identity, memory, and time also relates to the granddaughter's life and marriage. The narrative, themes and structure are braided into a whole, held together by a powerful sense of love between all three characters. It's very moving, both in its subject matter and the beautiful writing.

There is one section that just caught me, a description of the world and our uncertain tenancy:

High Park, a walk on my way to work.

Leaves at their peak, sunlight pouring profligate
from bluest sky. Luminous oranges, rusts and yellows on all
sides as I walk, scuba diver among vibrant reefs....

Lately the smallest thing --
...can hold me firmly, perfectly in place for a whole afternoon,
like a paperweight.

That we are here at all (even the words we and here -- even
words) seems fantastical....

There is nothing that is not exotic.

We're all, all of us, just visiting.

It's a wonderfully complex read, and I know on a second run through I will catch much more of the nuance. It was challenging and yet rewarding, an excellent discovery.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Flee, Fly, Flown

Flee, Fly, Flown / Janet Hepburn
Second Story Press, c2013.
244 p.

(spoilers ahead, kind of: the ending is revealed. But I feel this book is about the characters first, the setting and then the plot - so knowing the facts of the ending doesn't spoil the read, for me)

This is a great choice for a summer read: road trip, two feisty senior citizens, handsome young man driving, what could go wrong?

Quite a bit, actually, if we're talking Lillian and Audrey, on the lam from their Ottawa nursing home. They're partners in crime, chafing for an August vacation, still lively and vibrant and full of snappy dialogue -- most of the time.

Both of them have Alzheimer's, the severity of which differs from day to day, dependent on tiredness, hunger, or random chance. They both know they can't take the dull routine, boring food, or condescension of their children or the nursing home employees one minute longer, though. So they skip the joint.

They've carefully planned this. They escape from the home with their backpacks full of supplies (forgetting their medications), they 'reclaim' Audrey's old car which she had sold to her neighbours when moving to the home, they serendipitously find a driver hanging out on the Ottawa streets when Lillian realizes the driving is going to be too much for her. They tell this young man, Rayne, that they're heading west, and since he's hitchhiking home to Alberta he agrees to be chauffeur.

And they head for points west. The novel ranges across Ontario, into Manitoba, then crosses over into Saskatchewan and finally into Alberta before they are finally forced to call it quits. It's a great road trip, with nights in small motels, explorations of diners, grocery stores and shops along the way, and frequent stops at lakes, parks and other natural settings. Once Rayne figures out who they are and what they've done, thanks to national bulletins about two lost women, he panics and nearly leaves them. They convince him to keep going just a little longer, but the tone of the novel becomes darker, more ominous. You know that something has to happen, that they can't keep on travelling forever.

While, fortunately, there is no absolute tragedy, I felt that the conclusion of the book was a quiet tragedy. When Lillian has an accident, Rayne insists that the women call their children, and with that their trip is at an end. Lillian's daughter Carol arrives, Rayne quietly disappears (leaving the stolen car outside a police station) and the two women return home via airplane, back to the place they intended on leaving. There is some hope, as Lillian remains intransigent internally, already making plans on how to thwart everyone else's plans for her. But throughout the book, as we see the confusion and lapses both women suffer, we know that there is no escape, that they will never be able to leave care.

And it is very sad. The book is a light tale, intended to be a bit of a romp, I think -- look at that pink cover! But there was a level of discomfort in the reading, as I saw these two women losing control of their choices in life. This road trip was a last kick at the can, an attempt to recapture autonomy, and it fails. The book itself succeeds quite admirably at delving into the internal worlds of two women who are only seen as patients, at displaying the complexities of their lives and their ontological integrity despite such a desperate illness. When we are believed to be a "self" only through the action of our memory, what happens when that memory begins to fail? This is an issue that Hepburn is addressing here. It's a fun read, but anticipate some depth and some pathos along with the hijinks.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Inconvenient Indian

The Inconvenient Indian: a Curious Account of Native People in America / Thomas King
Toronto: Doubleday Canada, c2012.
288 p.

Like many others, I really love Thomas King. In fact I once went to a reading he was giving that started late because there were so many people they had to move us to a bigger room. He is a charming man, a funny and brilliant writer, and very convincing as well.

This is his explanation of Native life in the Americas from first contact onwards. Although his wife, Helen, told him he shouldn't start with Columbus, he does anyhow. And he goes into some detail explaining how he chose "account" rather than "history" for the title; history is too serious and comprehensive, while he just wants to have a bit of a conversation here. He does -- his tone is wry, amusing and yet so, so serious. As shared recently on twitter, at King's reading as a nominee for the Trillium award:

It's true, he uses his trademark humour to get across a serious point; the lightness and wryness of his narrative make it easier to absorb the details, they slip under defenses or denials before a reader realizes it. And there is much to absorb here. Although he begins in the Columbus years, he then quickly sketches out how what happened in the beginnings of colonization affects the present, and heads right into the 20th and 21st century.

His ironic tone when it comes to white society, to aboriginal groups themselves, to his own biases and preoccupations, carries the book. He is able to see things from a remove, noting the ironic juxtaposition of tourism, politicking, land claims, images of the Indian throughout North American history, and more. The book informs, entertains, and also pricks the conscience. Really? Did that really happen? Was that history completely made up? Did no-one ever pay for that crime? Were -- are -- conditions really like that? These and similar questions kept arising as I was reading. And I have a BA in Canadian history, one in which this book would have been extremely illuminating, and for which it should be a required text now.

I did know many of the facts and stories he shares, but I knew them intellectually and from one perspective. I think that the strength of this book lies in both its tone and the intimate knowledge of the author of both the facts and the feelings behind the examples he shares. He is exacting in his recounting of the factual record, at times inexorably so. Yet he also insists upon the primacy of the more amorphous motives, emotions, and lived experience of these events. It is a powerful blend, and makes this a necessary read.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The New West: In Calamity's Wake

In Calamity's Wake / Natalee Caple
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2013.
296 p.

This is a Western, a modern Western that owes much to the dreamscapes of modern film, to magical realism, and to feminist rewritings of the great themes of epic Western novels. There have been a few books in Canadian fiction lately to use the historical Northwest as their canvas, and this fits right in; it's set in the late 1800's in the Badlands area.

Miette is a young woman who is searching for her mother after her adoptive father, a priest, dies. She sets off across the West (the region is not clearly demarcated into US and Canada at this point in history, at least not for those living there) on her quest. Her aim is to find her mother Martha, more commonly known as Calamity Jane.

The story moves with a dreamlike intensity at the beginning, and it reveals Miette's state of mind -- her shock at the loss of her foster father, her vague idea about where to start in her search for her mother. She runs across random people on the road, and either avoids or engages as she feels led. Her narrative is loose, with the rhythms of travel, as she searches throughout the novel for the most recent trace of her mother.

Interspersed with Miette's chapters are those of Martha. Most of Martha's chapters are third-person, and they reveal elements of Martha's life, the bits which have been adapted, enlarged, exaggerated, created, to form the figure of Calamity Jane. This story is a search in many ways: Miette's actual search for her mother, but also a search for the truth of Martha's life. Is there one? The novel examines the process of myth-making, of how Martha became Calamity Jane.

The story ranges over the West, with barrooms, outcasts, wolves, outlaws, danger, prostitutes, vaudeville, and many other western tropes. It mixes fiction with historical fact, on both people and events, and creates a collage-like reading experience. I thought it was interesting -- original and fresh. But I didn't love the book, finding that the unsettled, dreamy style went on far too long for my taste. I wanted something to happen eventually, but the disjointed nature of the narrative (while a conscious choice clearly made for artistic reasons) kept me from really investing in the story. I admire this book, for its creativity (and the gorgeous book design) but it's not something I'll read again. Stories about the West intrigue and fascinate me generally, but I just couldn't fully connect with this one.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

All Mary Maclane, All the Time

I Await the Devil's Coming / Mary MacLane
Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2013, c1902.
162 p.

Melville House has released the diaries of Mary MacLane, the first of which was a popular hit at the turn of the last century. They've also released her second, I, Mary MacLane, but I haven't got to that one yet.

I've known of MacLane for many years; I've always had a particular interest in diaries and diary fiction, and many years ago now, I worked at a library that was selling off a variety of its very old books. At that time I picked up both volumes of Mary MacLane's writing, for $1 each. They've been on my shelves ever since, from whence I've glanced into them but never read them straight through.

Once this shiny new edition crossed my desk, I knew it was time to focus. So I've read this one, I Await the Devil's Coming, the title of which was considered a bit too daring at first publication, when it was published as The Story of Mary MacLane.

Through this diary we get to know the interior landscape of this very unhappy, stifled 19 year old girl, a peacock among pigeons. I must admit that my eyebrows went up pretty high at times... she is a odd one, certainly. She was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, but at a young age her family moved to the States, eventually ending up in Butte, Montana. Her surroundings have a strong influence on her; she notices the variety in a seemingly bland landscape, as well as the variety in the inhabitants of this small western town. But being so far away from everything, so far West, when she wants to be in the cosmopolitan East, adds to her frustration.

She thinks of Butte as a provincial backwater in which the expectations for proper behaviour are untenable. She admits freely that she enjoys stealing; that she wants the Devil to come and awaken her sensual side; that she is in love with the one lovely woman who ever understood her; that her family is made up of dullards with whom she has nothing in common, neither affection nor sympathy. I think she would have been a very difficult person to live with, so perhaps her mother shouldn't be blamed for wondering where this cuckoo in her nest came from.

Mary releases her tension by taking long solitary walks and observing the landscape, she talks to unfortunates whom other people avoid, she enjoys the pleasures of good food. As she says, it's hard to be miserable when she has a fine rare porterhouse steak and some green young onions inside of her good, strong young woman's body. There's a lengthy section in which she describes the pleasures of eating olives that was quite amusing -- it resembles a mindful exploration of eating, a century before mindful eating was a practice. She begins it with this:

    I have acquired the art of Good Eating. Usually it is in the gray and elderly forties and fifties that people cultivate this art -- if they ever do; it is indeed a rare art.
    But I know it in all its rare exquisiteness at the young slim age of nineteen -- which is one more mark of my genius, do you see?

It's almost pathetic to see the gratitude she has to the one person who has ever taken her seriously as a person, the schoolteacher who has now moved away. You get the feeling while reading that everyone else simply avoided her, either that or was continually saying, "For goodness sake, Mary!"

She chafes miserably at her surroundings, and is blunt about her desires and her longings. She craves fame and attention as well. When this diary was published, she got what she wanted: it became a huge hit, and she left Butte to travel around the country, packing lecture halls and becoming a celebrity. She used her sudden income to live a Bohemian life in Manhattan, among other places. Alas, the fires of fame die quickly, and her second diary, published 15 years later, wasn't nearly as successful. Mary would ultimately die at 48, from unknown causes, alone in a Chicago hotel. A sad end for a passionate woman who, it seems to me, needed the kind of help that wasn't readily available in those times.

She has a lively, direct writing style, with humour popping up unexpectedly. Contrasted with the dejection and loneliness that also fills the book, it creates a complex life story. This makes interesting reading, but also uncomfortable reading, for me. Mary seems fairly unstable, and when you know how her life ends up, it makes reading about her hopes and desires seem very sad. But this book certainly shakes up some of the truisms about life in the early 20th century; there were people like Mary, people who made her into a celebrity for a time, people with whom her own struggles resonated in some way. It's good to remember that there is always real, powerful, human desire simmering, no matter what year it is.

(read Michael Dirda's very good review at the Washington Post for more detail)

Monday, June 24, 2013

Mouthwatering Vegan

Mouthwatering Vegan: over 130 irresistible recipes for everyone / Miriam Sorrell
Toronto: RandomHouse, c2013.
280 p.

What can I say about this book? It is exactly what it says it is -- over 130 mouthwatering recipes, with tons of absolutely spectacular photos that add to the temptation to make every single recipe as soon as possible. It's broken up into various standard categories, like breakfasts, desserts, mains and so on, but you can really tell that the author has a British background, as there is also an entire chapter of curries!

The author grew up in London and Malta, of Greek background, and all those influences show. There are tempting dishes which meld traditions, and yet most of the recipes are fairly straightforward for those familiar with vegan cooking. For those new to the concept, she also provides an intro about herself and why she cooks vegan, as well as a glossary of a basic vegan pantry. She also recommends Becoming Vegan by Vesanto Melina and Brenda Davis for info about nutrition, a book I often recommend myself. This book was sparked by the success of the author's blog, Mouthwatering Vegan, still going strong. Lots to explore there, too.

If you're looking for a mainstream, appealingly beautiful vegan cookbook, this could be it. There are numerous full-page photos, lots to dream over, and a variety that I haven't seen in some of my other vegan/vegetarian cookbooks. While there are a few standards, there are also newer-to-me curries and fusion dishes. I'm pleased with this one, and have numerous post-its flagging pages to try next. I think this will be a fun resource to have on my shelf. And I always love it when an author's name suits their subject so well!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

John Saturnall's Feast

UK cover - the one I read
John Saturnall's Feast / Lawrence Norfolk
London: Bloomsbury, c2012.
408 p.

I first heard of this as a recommendation from another book blogger (Gavin at Page 247) and thought it sounded like something I would enjoy. I've finally read it, and thankfully, she was totally on to something! This was an enjoyable read, combining English history (right around the years of Oliver Cromwell and the Restoration) with food -- the main character, John Saturnall, is a cook.

I love reading old recipes, and so that was part of the delight of this novel. Norfolk describes the dishes made in the enormous Buckland Manor, where John ends up. There are excerpts from a book attributed to John Saturnall, with woodcut style illustrations, describing events and feasts, interspersed with the regular narrative. And much of the forward movement of the story is tied up in John's progress through the kitchen, from scullery to head cook.

As the book begins, John and his mother live in a small village where she practices herbalism and helps women through health issues. But, of course, the fanaticism of the Cromwell years is coming, and his mother is denounced as a witch. They flee up to Buccla's Wood, a place where locals will not go, believing that is the original dwelling place of Bellica, during whose reign the valley was a paradise of lushness and ease but who was also called a witch and destroyed by an early priest.

US Cover - which do
you prefer?
John eventually gets discovered and sent to the Manor and his life truly begins in its kitchens. His mother has passed down the story of The Feast, a tradition from the years of Bellica, a tradition that his family is intimately connected with. He is always searching for the perfect food, the perfect feast to offer, using his unusual skills of taste and smell to create new and elaborate dishes. One of his triumphs is a pastry case filled with clear jelly, with pastry shapes embedded within (a little fancier than a jello mold, I must say). This dish brings him to the attention of the King.

But throughout his culinary journey, he also has to discover how to live with other people. The massive household staff becomes his family, replete with friends and enemies alike. John also catches the eye of the daughter of the house, and their slowly building relationship is also one of the key elements of the book. At the end we discover one of the reasons they are so tied together, another example of how history is never truly shaken off, but resurfaces with its influence over and over again.

I loved the way that Norfolk incorporates all the particular archaic language of cookery from that era. It adds so much to the book, flavouring it with a strangeness and mystery that whets the appetite for more. (Norfolk has added a short glossary to his website if there are too many strange terms for the reader). I think that most of the vocabulary can be easily understood in context, although I am glad they modernized the spellings -- no f/s confusions here. I enjoy reading older cookbooks (like Pleyn Delight, which I own) so was already familiar with some of the foods, but I think that Norfolk has really succeeded in creating a picture of a crowded, busy, working kitchen and the divisions between kitchen staff and household or estate staff as well. Different strata of society are revealed, especially when Buckland plays host to sad King Charles I. And Sir Kenelm Digby even makes a cameo, to my delight.

This was not a perfect book -- the pacing sometimes seemed uneven, and there were a few things like the Crabbe and Goyle-like bullies when John arrives in Buckland that seemed too obvious a choice -- but nevertheless I enjoyed the read very much. The atmosphere was slightly mythic with its references to Buccla and the Feast passed down the generations, as well as John's uncanny ability to identify ingredients. There was history, action, betrayal, true love, and the pleasures of magnificent food. A wonderful book to sink into for an entire weekend.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Comfort Foods for Breakups

Comfort Foods for Breakups: the memoir of a hungry girl / Marusya Bociurkiw
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, c2007.
171 p.

This memoir blends the power that food holds to evoke memory and emotion, with the author's experience of ethnicity, sexuality, and loss. It was wonderful.

Marusya Bociurkiw is a Canadian-Ukrainian author, one whom I've only discovered fairly recently (The first work of hers which I read was her novel Children of Mary, a while ago now). This book includes many Ukrainian themes, mostly in the sense of personal history, and how ethnicity affects the larger experience of life.

It consists of a set of essays, broken up into four thematic sections, but all the essays link into one another, with resonances between them no matter what section they live in. It's loosely arranged by these four themes:

  • Mama's Kitchen and Beyond
  • Food for the Soul
  • Food Voyages
  • Food for the Body

Bociurkiw is also a lesbian, and much of the angst in this writing comes from her struggle to balance her Ukrainian identity, and her family's expectations, with her sexuality. She writes about the many relationships that she has had, and has lost, and how food plays a role in those as well. "My lovers never go hungry." she states, and after reading page after page about her love for food, both in its reality and as a symbol, you immediately believe her!

There is a comment early on that perhaps reveals the impulse toward memoir. It's a statement that resonated with me -- the truism that you begin to live differently at forty has been more than cliché in my own life, and so I appreciated this:
Turning forty, you see the expanse of your life for the first time, like getting onto a rise of land after driving through prairie for a very long while: where you came from, where you need to go. It hurts, to turn forty.

Bociurkiw has close but difficult relationships with family members, and much of the heartbreak in this memoir revolves around the loss of a brother, a brother who had already estranged himself in many ways but occasionally connected with her through their shared culinary heritage. She also shares the ups and downs of a rocky mother-daughter relationship over many years. When she shares a story of the two of them making varennyky (perogies) together, each in their own way, I felt the emotional pull of that moment. When sharing her life stories, she also meditates on the vagaries of memory. In the preface she shares this insight:
I am my family's self-appointed bearer of memory, recalling the absent spaces, recording the recipes, searching for the glimmer of devotion, the aroma of happiness, the back beat of bitterness. Between recipes and stories, I will ask myself a thousand times: who owns these memories? How is it that each of us remembers in a different way?

The second to last essay is simply entitled "Varennyky" and I would have bought this book for this essay alone. It was entertaining and  quite magical for me, as Bociurkiw describes a potluck-style Ukrainian Christmas Eve dinner (brilliant idea, by the way, I think I'll adopt it) for which one of her friends suggests she'll go buy perogies at the grocery store. Bociurkiw is struck dumb by this unthinkable suggestion. But despite her horror at her non-Ukrainian friend deciding to make the varennyky herself, and using a Transcarpathian recipe besides, it turns out to be a hit. And when she later tells her mother -- and all of her mother's varennyky-making church lady friends --  this tale, they simply pause and note the differences, then her mother comments, "I'd like to see her recipe." It's a moment that speaks to me of the danger of fetishizing, or freeze-framing, tradition, making it into an historical curiosity rather than an ever-evolving daily reality. Perhaps this is more of a danger for those of us who are hyphenated Canadians, further down the line from 'the source'.

Bociurkiw shares that recipe, by the way, and a few more besides. It was charming to find the first recipe unexpectedly at the end of one essay, "Sunday Soup", a recipe for minestrone. She plays with the idea of food and heritage, and the symbolism of hospitality, comfort, and identity that lies within those concepts. Sometimes food even fails her. As she says in the essay "Potatoes":
Dionne Brand writes, in A Map to the Door of No Return, "Too much has been made of origins." Some days you eat and eat and it just doesn't feel like home. Roots can nourish, but they can also develop a bitter taste. Sometimes, they can make you ill. That day, at the Plaza of Nations, I ached for something to feel familiar, but none of it did, not even the food. 

While this was appealing to me especially because of the Ukrainian themes, there is much more besides. The author has lived in many parts of Canada, and she shares impressions of Toronto, B.C., Alberta and her travels to and from all these places. She also shares essays about her travels, to Ukraine, but also to France, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Switzerland, even homely places like Nova Scotia. There is a lot of traditional memoir, with the sharing of both family stories and details of her many romantic relationships. Food plays a role each time, and reading this book you get a sense of the physical pleasures of food, of the beauty of scent and flavour and even texture of the food we choose to eat.

But we also get the sense that food is, and always has been, part of our identity. Our childhood foods are comfort foods, familiar to us and echoing with meaning, while our willingness to accept and sample the foods of other cultures as we mature may become a sign of our worldliness, a move beyond a single sense of identity. Bociurkiw skillfully intertwines the elements of food, ethnicity, and sexuality, showing that each of us has to choose how much of each ingredient we incorporate to develop our personal identity.

The writing flows, and her choice of detail illuminates each story. This was an absorbing read, full of struggle, and losses, and sorrow, but also containing joy and pleasure in the small beauties of life.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Threading Light

Threading Light: Explorations in Loss and Poetry / Lorri Neilsen Glenn
Regina: Hagios Press, c2011.
144 p.

This is a beautiful book, made up of essays, anecdotes, and poems, all linked together into one narrative. Some of the poems come from Neilsen Glenn's most recent collection, Lost Gospels (a book that I absolutely loved, by the way). And they all work together in a way that left me astonished by the power of this small book.

More than a memoir, this is a look at loss, from childhood experiences of death, to adult losses. It is also a meditation on  poetry, and how prose and poetry can act as secular prayer, as secular comfort in loss.

The interconnectedness of the writing works very well. The reader can process each essay/poem on its own, before moving on. The language and the content both call out for slower, focused reading and this is facilitated by the format. I found that I read slowly, marking passages, and thinking about how this book connected and expanded on other reading I've been doing.

Some of the striking lines I found:

Memory is a cracked bowl, and it fills as it empties. Memory is what we create out of what we have at hand -- other people's accounts, objects, flawed stories of our own creation, secondhand tales handed down like an old watch... To write is to fashion a bowl, perhaps, but we know, finally, the bowl can not hold everything.

Art grounds our grief in form; it connects us to one another and to the world. And the more we acquaint ourselves with works of art -- in music, painting, theatre, literature -- the more we open ourselves to complex and nuanced understandings of our human capacities for grief. Why else do we turn to a stirring poem when we re mourning? Why else do we sing?

It was a beautiful, thoughtful read. She has a way of sharing Deep Thoughts about life and art which is very compelling and sits right on the edge of painful and beautiful. My very positive impression of her writing that I received from Lost Gospels, the poetry collection that was my first introduction to her work, was made even stronger by finally reading this volume. This is a book that I think will most definitely hold up to multiple rereadings, there is so much to it, so much to ponder for anyone interested in the area of grief or loss or even the healing power of poetry.

I strongly recommend this one.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Writer's American Notebooks

American Notebooks: A Writer's Journey / Marie-Claire Blais; translated by Linda Gaboriau
Vancouver: TalonBooks, c1996.
208 p.

This is a collection of short essays by Québecoise writer Marie-Claire Blais, all focusing on her experiences as a non-American writer living in America.

It begins with her first sojourn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a young woman, during the years of social unrest around the Vietnam War. She continues on with stories of all the famous artists, writers, actors and musicians -- and there were many -- whom she met during her early years and also later on, during years that she stayed in Cape Cod and Florida.

Her life is replete with art in all its forms, and her sojourns at the Cape Cod shore in a kind of artist's colony of friends are intriguing. She saw the reclusive Anthony Perkins at a distance once and recalls his sweet smile. She discusses the past lives of Russian exiles, royalty in the old days. And she focuses quite a lot of attention on the social situation of Black Americans, in particular her poet friend Robert, who was partnered with a white woman much older than he was -- after she passes on, he ends up moving to Paris to live like other American exiles, trying to grasp their homeland through distance.

The chapters are brief, usually focusing on one idea or one encounter, but with the same people often returning in multiple chapters, as social circles cross, or relationships widen or deepen. Blais talks about the social conditions at that time in America, the unrest about war and pacifism, racism, poverty, immigration; but  she also looks at it from the perspective of an outsider, a Québecoise writer observing a coterie of American artists. There are discussions about art, about why and how and whether to make Art; there are off the cuff remarks referring to the progression of her own novels as they are in process. Somehow it all feels quite nostalgic, as if it is about a lost world. It doesn't seem to have any particular message, or theme, apart from recollections of this artistic circle that slowly died out and scattered. It's a collection that ends up feeling rather dream-like in its snatches of portraiture and events both pleasant and terrible.

I picked this up by chance, not having it on any list to get to one day -- but ended up reading it bit by bit during lunch breaks and spare moments. It kept me interested over a long while, as I read each short essay and then pondered it until I found time for the next. It seemed to capture a certain era, a particular style of artistic life, that I felt close to while I spent time with this book. It was an interesting and unexpected effect, and I'm always pleased when I'm surprised by my reading. Perhaps now I should read one of her novels...

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Humphreys' Nocturne

Nocturne / Helen Humphreys
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2013.
224 p.

I seem to have read a streak of memoirs lately, unusual for me. It started with this one, by an author whom I really admire. Humphreys lost her younger brother to pancreatic cancer, and this book is her response to her grief.

Her brother was a concert pianist and composer, and the two of them were very close. The format of the book is a series of letters she is writing to him, describing their shared memories and telling him of her experience after his loss. It covers family history, discussions about art, unanswered questions between them, the idea of memory, and other themes.

It was beautifully written, in Humphreys' usual spare but poetic style. There were sentences that stood out and particularly caught my attention, such as:

Everything holds memory. A house will remember a person after he's gone by the slight sway in the floorboards in the front room at the window where he used to stand for hours. It remembers the pot of geraniums on the back porch by the faded circle in the grey paint. We move through spaces that have held on to other lives and will learn the shape of ours, will hold on to the way we walk through rooms, how we touch what we touch. 


At the end, we are all far from home. We are far from home, and what we hope for is that someone will fashion us a light, so that we too will not have to wake in darkness.

I was touched by many of the stories, both personal and artistic, that Humphreys shares. But, at the same time, this book felt unbearably intimate, as if in reading it I was trangressing a very private relationship. The grief, the directed communication that the letter format allowed, all made me feel a bit like an eavesdropper. While I appreciate the skill of Humphreys as a writer, and the unbearable experience of grief that she is expressing, I felt that it was somehow too personal. There were moments when the words spoke to a wider world, but so much of the writing is so much for her brother and for their lost relationship that I felt like a nosy parker reading it.

However, that may be my own response alone, and yours may be totally different. So if you have read this, or plan to, please share your thoughts. It is a beautifully made book and if you are interested in this kind of read, it may be right for you.

Monday, June 17, 2013

VB6 for Meatless Monday

VB6: eat vegan before 6:00 to lose weight and restore your health... for good / Mark Bittman
New York: Clarkson, c2013.
276 p.

I recently read this one, interested because I've been vegetarian for over 20 years, and have been eating more and more vegan-like, though I am definitely not a strict vegan at this point. I wanted to see what Mark Bittman, a food writer and carnivore, had to say. His doctor stated that at age 57 he had the beginnings of poor health, and suggested that the best solution was to become vegan.

So Bittman came up with the VB6 plan, something he thinks is both healthy and practicable for those who don't choose to take up the vegan lifestyle for philosophical reasons. The idea is that for most of the day you eat a vegan diet, and after six, during that dinner hour that most people find hardest to change, you can eat meat,dairy, and sweets, but in moderation. Bittman thinks that dinner is about much more than food; it's about community and sociability, and to tell yourself that you can no longer eat or drink familiar foods with your friends and family will doom you from the beginning.

The six key points of this way of eating (he hesitates to call it a "diet") are as follows:

1. Eat fruit and vegetables in abundance
2. Eat fewer animal products
3. Eat (almost) no junk food
4. Cook at home as much as possible
5. Consider quality over quantity
6. See your weight as just one component of good health

Each of these elements is then further discussed, with tips on how to make them work for you. The second half of the book is broken up into recipes for different times of day: breakfast, lunch, snacks, dinner, and one on some basic "building block" staples. The dinner chapter is almost entirely meat dishes, but the rest are, obviously, vegan.

To someone starting down this path, I think this book would be very useful. I know people who have been put off the idea of veganism when it was suggested by their doctors because everything they read focused on animal rights, not a concept in their purview at all. Bittman's focus on the health aspect (even while he does mention the environmental and animal costs of factory farming) is one that might be more easily assimilated by those new to vegan eating. The recipes are simple and basic, using familiar foods, with tips on how to add flavour with herbs & spices and cooking techniques.

While as a longtime vegetarian, this book didn't teach me anything very new, I appreciated the way Bittman presented vegan eating, and know that I'll be recommending this to one of those "you should become vegan" people I know! Eating less of processed, animal products in any way is a good thing.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Shakespeare Saved My Life

Shakespeare Saved My Life : Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard / Laura Bates 
Napierville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, c2013.
291 p.

Is Shakespeare still relevant? Professor Laura Bates and convict Larry Newton would both answer a  resounding yes.

In this book, Bates discusses her years of teaching Shakespeare in prisons, a program that she started with the belief that Shakespeare had something to say to prisoners. It consisted of reading excerpts of Shakespeare's plays weekly, and meeting to discuss both the content of the plays and how it reflected elements of the readers' own lives. They dealt with themes of violence and complicity in Macbeth; racism, jealousy, or the influence of bad friendships in Othello; or the very fact of being imprisoned, in Richard II. This was a program that drew Larry Newton out of his years of silence in solitary confinement. (

At first, Bates wasn’t sure that she could work with Newton -- he seemed very intense and dangerous as her first impression. But he responded immediately to the excerpt Bates shared with those interested in the program: Richard II's speech beginning “I have been studying how I may compare / this prison where I live unto the world.” Shakespeare clicked with Newton, and he became her star pupil, and the focus of this book.

Bates not only discusses Shakespeare, she also examines the American prison system. Throughout the book, she shares Larry's story, of a youthful environment that encouraged him to turn to petty crime and street life. At 17, he murdered another young man, and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. Because of his youth and naivete at the time, he was convinced to sign away all rights to appeal the sentence, despite any rehabilitation he might undergo. Bates compares his sentence to that of other prisoners who have done far worse and yet leave prison, who have that hope ahead of them. She talks about her new knowledge of the criminal justice system, particularly how it deals with youthful offenders.

She also explains how prison life functions, how racism, homophobia, hatred and love of power are rampant. The interaction of the details of daily life in prison with the words of Shakespeare is powerful. Newton draws stark and direct links between the mistakes he and other prisoners have made and the psychological insights in Shakespeare. His life changes with this new focus, and he becomes acknowledged as the local expert, sharing teaching duties.

As he writes in the introduction to The Prisoner's Guide to the Complete Works of Shakespeare (a workbook that Bates is trying to get published):
What I can tell you is that ANY serious reader of Shakespeare is going to experience an evolution! ...It is not Shakespeare's offering that invokes this evolution. The secret, the magic, is YOU! Shakespeare has created an environment that allows for genuine development.
In the many examples Bates shares, the idea that Shakespeare can change lives is made real. As prisoners confirm when she asks, reading Shakespeare has literally saved lives, as students have become more self-aware and have resisted violent, reactive behaviour. And it has also saved the wasted lives of those like Newton, giving them new purpose, focus, and understanding.

I read this book quickly, as the themes were fascinating to me. It's another use of bibliotherapy, something I am very interested in (and know that other groups provide in prison settings as well, such as Changing Lives Through Literature) I did find the writing style a bit prosaic, especially since Bates is an English professor, but wonder if she was trying to simplify as much as possible to reach an audience outside of other academic, bookish people. After all, the message of education's benefit to prisoners needs to be shared with those to whom it is not self-evident. This is made very clear in the last pages of the book, when she shares that education programs in Illinois prisons have been cut and the rehabilitative power of reading and learning is in danger of being lost altogether.

But I do hope that this book finds its audience. Hearing in her own words how her work with the "most dangerous" convicts changed and benefitted their lives can hopefully alter perspectives of those in power. The stories are personal and moving, and show clearly both the social cost of imprisonment and the social conditions that lead to so many mistakes. To read this book is to believe that literature can change lives. I hope more readers discover this.

Megan's review captures some of the hesitancy I had about the writing style

Mary's review shares some of the insights the prisoners shared from their perspectives in reading the plays.

*read and/or listen to an interview with Professor Bates about her work in prisons, on NPR

Read an excerpt of this book to get a feel for how the prisoners reacted to this program and engaged with Shakespeare

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter

Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter: growing up with a gay dad / Alison Wearing
Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2013.
292 p.

To provide full disclosure, I must tell you that I've met Alison, and have featured her on our local blog, Stratford Authors. Thus, I will not be 'reviewing' this book as much as highlighting it. I think it is a worthwhile read, interesting and evocative of her unusual life experience.

This memoir of a woman growing up with a gay father is a fascinating read: while it was a shock for the entire family for her father to come out as gay in the 80's, there is a calm about the book, an understanding of having gone through something that is not a tragedy, that has turned out quite happily in the end.

Wearing takes us through her childhood, to that moment of change, and beyond, to how their life is now. She begins with her own experience, then lets her father tell his story in the second section of the book, finishing up with a short section about how her mother was affected by all this. The book concludes with a "happily ever after" kind of ending -- everyone in the family gets along, including her father's partner of 30 years who is a part of the clan.

There are family photos interspersed in the book, as well as wonderful endpapers that are entirely photos. The cover image also comes from a family photo, and altogether, the book feels like a fabulous family album.  I loved this design element, and thought it was a brilliant idea.

I most enjoyed the beginning of the book, Alison's own story, perhaps because I could most relate to her perspective. Her father's story runs parallel to the history of gay experience in Toronto, and Canada in general, so provides a look at the way gay and lesbian life has changed immensely in the past 30 years. There is no earth-shattering drama here, simply a well-told story of upheaval in one family's life.

To follow along with her adventures being interviewed about this book (and her one-woman show of the same) along with her father, check out her Tumblr page. Lots of links and fun pics, too.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Shelf Talkin'

I had a fun opportunity to create something at work this week -- we had a "craft time" moment in our staff development day, inspired by the work of local author Marthe Jocelyn. Marthe recently published a book called Sneaky Art, featuring random acts of public art that kids can make, things that will surprise people and hopefully bring a smile to their day. Some of the photos in the book even featured our library!

So we took inspiration from one of her ideas, and created our own shelf-talker "conversation bubbles" to stick into books on the shelves, suggesting content, or perhaps a reading situation which a book might suit. After pondering for a while, I came up with this theme:

This is a view of my staycation bubble as you're walking down the aisle. Below I've turned it around to catch the sun, and so I can show you which book I chose. While Astrid & Veronika is not light summer reading, it does take you away into a Swedish summer, with a very memorable scene in which the two main characters decide to go swimming at the if you can't get away, read yourself away.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Barbara Pym, and Life Moves On

This is a weekend miscellany, a few bookish thoughts to share today.

First of all, I am saying farewell to Pym Reading Week. Many thanks to Thomas at My Porch for alerting me to this readalong event and for his hosting. Check out his wrap-up posts for numerous links to some Pym love! Considering that I didn't know if I would participate until a few days beforehand, I have really enjoyed this week, and read some more Pym from my Pym Pile, and found new bloggers who are also Pym readers. And discovered many recommendations for authors to follow up with... Angela Thirkell, Hazel Holt, Anita Brookner, Iris Murdoch, the Penelopes (Lively & Fitzgerald), Catherine Fox, Stella Gibbons... who all have some level of similarity to elements in Pym.


A little late to the game I've discovered Alex in Leeds' Book Jar. It's a wonderful concept, reminds me of something faintly similar I did as a  young teen, and had completely forgotten about. She's already read & reviewed 3 titles pulled at random from her jar. Take a look -- would you keep a TBR this way?


Last but not least, it's time to start thinking about the next round of the Canadian Book Challenge! It is Year 7, and I'm looking forward to another fun year of reading 13 Canadian books from July 1/13 - July 1/14. John at Book Mine Set hosts this one, and it is very simple: read anything Canadian, and review it online to share. I've enjoyed this for the last six years and am already pondering a theme for year 7... even if you don't join in, be sure to check out his compilations of links for all of the previous years. It's a treasure trove of Canadian book suggestions!
7th Canadian book challenge

Friday, June 07, 2013

The Attractive Rattle of Tea Things

Today I thought I'd share a few quotes from Pym's work about one of my own favourite subjects, and one she talks about extensively... Tea!

Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, 'Do we need tea? she echoed. 'But Miss Lathbury...' She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.
 ~Excellent Women

I was so astonished that I could think of nothing to say, but wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand on every dramatic occasion.
~ Excellent Women

Do you know, Wilmet—’ the dark eyes looked so seriously into mine that I wondered what horror was going to be revealed next — ‘he hadn’t even got a teapot?’
Goodness! How did he make tea, then?’
He didn’t — he never made tea! Just fancy!’
Well, one doesn’t really associate Piers with drinking tea,’ I said.
He drinks it now,’ said Keith, in such a governessy tone that I began to feel almost sorry for Piers.
~ A Glass of Blessings

Ianthe was not the type to pour herself a glass of sherry or gin as soon as she got home from a day's work, nor yet to make a cup of tea. One did not make tea at half-past six in the evening like the 'working classes', as her mother would have called them.
~ An Unsuitable Attachment

It was to be a confrontation in daylight and at the tea table, Leonora realised, dealing as calmly as she could with the business of getting an extra cup and saucer and pouring tea.
-- The Sweet Dove Died

There is tea over here,’ said a voice at Dulcie’s elbow, and she found Miss Wellcome standing by her. ‘You take a plate and choose what you want, then pay for what you have  a good idea, I think.’
Yes, isn’t it  and rather like life,’ said Dulcie. ‘Except that there you can’t always choose exactly what you want.
— No Fond Return of Love

The subject of Miss Clovis’s quarrel with the President was known only to a privileged few and even those knew no more than that it had something to do with the making of tea. Not that the making of tea can ever really be regarded as a petty or trivial matter and Miss Clovis did seem to have been seriously at fault. Hot water from the tap had been used, the kettle had not been quite boiling, the teapot had not been warmed…whatever the details, there had been words, during the course of which other things had come out, things of a darker nature.
-- Less Than Angels

She went out of the room and I could hear her filling a kettle and collecting china. I also heard a step on the stairs and Julian's voice saying, “May I come up? I can hear the attractive rattle of tea things. I hope I'm not too late?”
~ Excellent Women


And of course I must share once again the delightful mixture of tea and libraries that I found recently in a history of my local library from 40 years ago -- the last page had only this:

Pym: A Cover Story

Thomas of My Porch has issued a challenge this week for all we Pym readers... he suggests creating one's own cover for a Pym novel. While this is a rather intimidating idea, especially considering his fascinating post on the original, much admired, designer of the Dutton Pyms, Jacqueline Schuman, I thought I'd give it a go.

Since I read and enjoyed An Unsuitable Attachment so much this week, I thought I'd riff on the library content and try to create something with a library motif. Thanks to the very fun catalog card generator, and of course Flickr's Creative Commons, I began. Note that I am not a very good photo editor/manipulator!

First was this tea-themed faded glamour:

(teacup image via a bevy of, Flickr)

I liked this image, but didn't think it quite worked. The card doesn't meld in enough, my designer skills are pretty crap, as I mentioned. 

So then I thought, well, go minimalist! Library all the way, and got:

(card catalogue drawer image from j l t via Flickr)

I actually rather like this one. Looks like a punchy reissue, nothing girly about it at all. And the card acts as title & author as well, something I've always thought would be neat to see on the cover of a book. Of course, I could have continued on and actually added some subject headings, and maybe I will at some point -- but this will do for now!

What do you think? Would you read this book if it looked like this?

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Pym's Excellent Women

Excellent Women / Barbara Pym
New York: Pan Books, 1995, c1952.
240 p.

Meeting Mildred Lathbury in this novel was like making a new and quietly entertaining friend. Her first person narrative is so self-deprecating, and she has such powers of observation and understatement! She is an "excellent woman", the type of middle-aged spinster who devotes her time to the church and good works, who takes on others' burdens as her own.

And yet, she sees herself as such and maintains an ironic perspective on her place in the social strata. Against expectations, she is not pining for the local bachelor vicar, although she is good friends with him and everyone assumes she is in waiting, so to speak.

However, Mildred's quiet and fairly predictable life is shaken up when new tenants move into the flat below hers. The flashy Napiers, Helena and Rocky, are unlike any other people she has known, and they quickly become involved in her life. Helena, an anthropologist, couldn't care less about housekeeping or cooking, shocking Mildred with the mess she leaves strewn about. Helena is currently in the throes of a passion for her fellow anthropologist Everard Bone, who is rather clueless about it all and frightened by Helena's declaration of love. Rocky, meanwhile, is an inveterate flirt who even works his charm on Mildred, who thankfully is sensible enough to eventually see through it. As the Napier marriage shifts, Mildred is placed in the middle, expected to communicate between Rocky, Helena and Everard, even looking after having furniture shipped from the Napier's flat to their cottage to which Rocky has decamped, Helena having gone to her mother's.

Meanwhile, the vicar Julian and his sister Winifred have taken in a new lodger, Allegra Gray, a clergyman's young widow, who works her wiles on Father Malory. An engagement arises, distressing Winifred, who will be expected to leave the vicarage to go somewhere, anywhere, once they are married. Mildred is also caught in the middle in this situation, due both to her friendship with the Malorys and to Allegra's assumption that Mildred is a disappointed spinster who wanted Julian for herself. Mildred realizes that no matter how much she protests, nobody is ever going to believe that she had no interest in marrying Julian, so she resigns herself to playing the role of chief disappointed parishoner. During lunch conversation between Allegra and Mildred, when Allegra is 'breaking the news' (or perhaps more properly, gloating) about her engagement, Pym's bookish references arise once more. Allegra, fashionably nibbling bits of her lunch, says lightly that she is like the girls in Crome Yellow. Having just read Crome Yellow myself, I recalled the story of three fashionably waif-like sisters caught gorging on banquets in private...

But, in all of her messengering between all these people, Mildred begins to develop some kind of stilted friendship with the awkward Everard Bone. He invites her to dinner with his mother, a scene that is classic and very funny, as his mother is a bit of a crank who is convinced that birds are going to take over the world. Mildred is able to keep a sense of the absurd and find this meal entertaining. As the book ends, Mildred is once again having dinner with Everard, this time at his home, and cements their friendship by taking on the proofreading and indexing of his great work, despite knowing nothing of either the subject or the niceties of such tasks.

There are so many asides and pointed comments in this book -- Mildred is very funny, even if she doesn't necessarily see herself that way. She is self-aware and always interested in other people; she gets involved in all of this interpersonal wrangling despite admitting to herself near the end that she was tired of bearing other people's burdens. She is the quintessential 'excellent woman', but one who perhaps is not content with  that role. In stepping outside of that role she is amusing, independent, and in the end I think admirable.

*in reading An Unsuitable Attachment, I noted a reference to Mildred that gives us some hint of her future. It's always fun to see how Pym inserts characters here and there in all of her books! 

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

An Unsuitable Attachment

An Unsuitable Attachment / Barbara Pym
London: Panther, 1983, c1982.
255 p.

There are a few unsuitable attachments in this book, a few more than the primary one which is considered socially suspect, due to the male party being younger than the female! There is the vicar's wife who has an obsessive focus on her cat Faustina; and there is the nebulous relationship between anthropologist Rupert Stonebird and the vicar's sister-in-law Penelope, two lonely people who seem to me to be temperamentally unsuited.

But the primary titular attachment which is most unsuitable is that between middle-aged librarian Ianthe Broome and her new coworker, the (younger by 5 years) John Challow. John is not quite the type of man that Ianthe generally knows, not a curate, vicar, anthropologist or civil servant, rather, a man who "likes putting up shelves". But that doesn't stop her from following up on her attraction, though John seems rather callow (or shallow?) to me (named well!).

When Ianthe's aunt and uncle (also clergy) hear the news that she is intending to marry John, they come to her vicar's wife, Sophia, to see if she could put in a word.

"She told me she loved this young man -- John, isn't it -- but I never realized that she wanted to marry him." Sophia said.
"At least he works in a library," Bertha murmured. "One does feel that is something."
"He is not, I understand, a qualified librarian?" asked Randolph in a brisker tone, as if he had decided to make the best of a bad job.

I enjoyed Ianthe a great deal, and her interactions with her coworkers, John and Mervyn. There was a lot of library humour, including the three musing over a damaged book just returned -- is it HP sauce? or A1? So familiar... Mervyn, her boss, is a querulous man, older than Ianthe, who still lives with his mother and covets Ianthe's lovely inherited furniture. He gets irritable over many things, many familiar things, including the following:

"Now here's something wrong again," he said, picking up a card. "London colon -- not semi-colon and not comma. I should have thought it wasn't too difficult for other people to get the details right occasionally. That doesn't seem too much to ask, does it? I can't see to everything myself."

Perhaps it is simply librarian humour, but I laughed a lot in this book. Pym's wit is so wry and catches the nuances between people so well. All of the characters exist in relationships of one sort or another, unhappy marriages, unhappy singledom (or hopeful singledom), in close friendships or simply propinquity. The circle of characters includes a couple of people we've met in other books, but the primary relationships are all focused on this story. Members of the parish even go off on a trip to Rome together at one point, a not completely successful pilgrimage of sorts. Sophia is deviously trying to matchmake for her younger sister, so is suspicious of the very self-collected Ianthe.

Pym's familiarity with other books comes through clearly as Sophia and Ianthe stay on alone for a few days to visit Sophia's aunt. As they climb up to her villa, Ianthe comments.

"It's lovely," she said. "It reminds me of The Enchanted April -- the wistaria and the roses..."
Sophia had forgotten what happened in that book, but remembered enough to realize that there was a sort of bringing together of husbands and wives and that in the end everybody was satisfactorily and happily paired off... That was not the sort of thing she wanted to happen and must be prevented at all costs...

I was amused by this exchange, as the entire trip to Italy had put me in mind of Enchanted April myself. I like how Pym both reflects and influences other writers: as I've been reading a few of her novels this week, I see similarities to Elizabeth von Arnim in her work, in the pointed comments and women's relationships especially. But I'm also feeling that her influence has appeared in authors like Alexander McCall Smith (as I mentioned in an earlier post) and also one of my great favourites, Penelope Lively.

I enjoyed the tone of this book and the bit of happiness that comes Ianthe's way. I found this novel particularly entertaining (probably the library content) and complex in the way that the entire narrative and all the characters were woven into one whole story which is hard to tease apart into individual constituents.  Taking one situation out of the context of the whole makes it less plausible, less probable or meaningful. This is one that I've already reread pages of, and know that I'll pick up again, often. I think it has become my new favourite Pym....for the moment....

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Happy 100th, Barbara Pym!

Today is the centenary of Barbara Pym's birth, certainly a wonderful time to celebrate her literary legacy! I was fortunate enough to awaken this morning to a feature on Barbara Pym on the CBC's Sunday Edition, hosted by Bill Richardson (a former librarian and very amusing writer) which I hadn't known about beforehand. It didn't uncover anything new for the Pym fan, but was a wonderful appreciation of her work and her life.

And then I lazed about with my morning tea, finishing off A Few Green Leaves, which I very much enjoyed. The more Pym I read, the more able I am to recognize recurring characters, a particular pleasure, I think.

But the highlight of the day had to be our tea to celebrate the centenary. I joined in on the Virtual Tea Party which heavenali was hosting on Facebook, and had a small at-home tea just for the two of us here. A great reason to get out the wedding china, and use the linen napkins that I picked up at a jumble sale at the nearby Anglican church a while ago -- appropriately Pymian, I believe.

The sandwiches and salads I made myself, but my lovely husband dashed out early this morning to pick up some fresh scones from our favourite local supplier, they are always so tasty and so substantial! Of course we finished off with tea and a biscuit, and the tea seems to taste so much nicer in these delicate cups. I keep telling myself I must use them more often.

The tea table awaiting our attention

Lunch is ready, with cucumber sandwiches, potato salad
and a citrusy lentil salad: scones and tea up next!
Our teatime conversation also reflected a few Pym preoccupations, as we are both librarians and second-hand book dealers as well, though no anthropologists or curates here. I was able to share some of the library humour in An Unsuitable Attachment, which I am finding very amusing indeed. Perhaps the humour in this particular book will be most amusing to librarians, as it is so spot on -- but I would be glad to hear from any non-librarians who have an opinion on this book ;)

Thanks again to all the hosts of Pym Reading Week for the inspiration to celebrate Pym this week!

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Miss Pym and I

For the first day of Barbara Pym reading week, hosts Thomas and Amanda have shared how they met Barbara Pym. Which made me think about how and when it was that I first read Pym.

As far as I remember, I'd been aware of Barbara Pym as a name. But I was under the impression she was a mid-century British writer, probably of little interest to me -- why I made this assumption, I am not quite certain, as I do read quite a bit of both mid-century and British women's novels.

In any case, there were two elements that made me decide to read my first Barbara Pym, a few years ago now. First was the general influence of so many bookish blogging friends mentioning her novels, continuously, in an offhand manner that suggested that of course one must also be a fan. More specifically, the influence of Kerry at Pickle Me This, a member of the Barbara Pym Society! If so many people who I loved to read and take advice from agreed, then it must be time to pick up a novel. I had No Fond Return of Love in the house so I started with that one. And quickly realized that this was a wonderful author who was going to become a favourite, which she has.

A secondary impulse toward reading Pym came from a stranger direction. I am, despite his enormous popularity, a fan of Alexander McCall Smith, having read every single book in his multitudinous output. I can't recall where I read that he is a Pym fan, and that he's read all of her work and recommends it, too. But, wondering about it, I went into my first Pym read with that in mind. It was fairly easy to see her influence on him, actually: in some of the phrasing, in some of the focus on domestic detail, certainly in the observation of people and their personal oddities. My discovery of Pym has added extra depth and a resonance to my McCall Smith reading.

So, I am at that lovely stage in which I have read just about half of her work, and have nearly half left unread.  I've managed to collect up all of her novels excepting three titles, which I'm still on the hunt for. And I'm on the hunt for Some Tame Gazelle which is somewhere in my house, I swear, though I was unable to rustle it up for this photo:

Scheduled Reading for this Week:

An Unsuitable Attachment
A Few Green Leaves
A Very Private Eye