Friday, July 21, 2017

Dr. Edith Vane & the Hares of Crawley Hall

Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall / Suzette Mayr
Toronto: Coach House Books, c2017.
224 p.

This is a wild and wacky read, very very Suzette Mayr. It expands on the themes of women's lives, sexuality, and identity which permeate her novels.

It's also very much about the dysfunction in a very strange academic setting.

Dr. Edith Vane is a professor at Crawley Hall, a crumbling arts building alongside the new and fancy buildings put up for the business school right next door. This building has strange hallways, doors, and sub-basements that Edith eventually comes across, expressing her annoyance that not only is their building full of asbestos, crumbling ceiling tiles, and maggots, there are apparently also supernatural shenanigans going on. She takes this quite matter-of-factly as just another annoyance.

The book chronicles her increasing concerns about her performance review under the new Dean who is very, very focused on highly public and visible achievement. Edith has persevered for a decade and has finally had her book on African-Canadian pioneer housewife memoirist Beulah Crump-Withers published, but now that's not even good enough, as it's only being published by the University of Okotoks Press, not a prestigious British press.

She also has to contend with a cast of odd colleagues, who seem to keep dropping like flies, and with the reappearance of her nemesis, her old thesis advisor Lesley Hughes who loves to take credit for everyone else's work. Really, Mayr has thrown every dysfunction into this story!

Oh, and have I mentioned the strange and ominous lurkings of the many unafraid hares in the grounds and indeed inside the actual building of Crawley Hall?

The weirdness is entertaining and hallucinatory. What is actually happening? Can Edith's perceptions be trusted? It's a dark and downward spiralling story, but it is still an immensely satisfying and entertaining reading experience. The only lightness comes in Edith's new relationship with barista Bev, a happy occasion for her, but even that falls apart eventually.

Poor Edith. She has it hard, and just wants a decent office, no evil department head, and a new blouse that doesn't have a pattern that shifts and grows right off her sleeves. Plus no awful students, and time to focus on her true interest, Beulah Crump-Withers.

You've got to read this to get the full experience though. When Mayr mentions the term "hare-brained", she really means it. 

This is funny, dark, truly strange, and yet so recognizable in many ways. I really enjoyed it.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Sensemaking by Madsbjerg

Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm / Christian Madsbjerg
New York: Hachette, c2017.
216 p.

This thought-provoking book by the founder of ReD Associates -- a strategy consulting company based in the humanities -- was fascinating and full of great concepts.

The premise is that only those who think deeply and in context can really illuminate truth and understanding, in ways that the wide but shallow cast of algorithmic data can not match. Madsbjerg stands behind this belief, with his company which employs anthropologists, sociologists, art historians, and philosophers (at least according to the book blurb!) There was a lot of solid content here that I think anyone with a humanities degree who feels undervalued in our modern business oriented world can appreciate.

Yes, understanding history and context and human nature helps us make better decisions personally and socially. Having respect for study and knowledge and understanding will help things run better. These shouldn't be startling concepts but they seem to be in today's culture, so much so that this whole book is a strong argument for more support culturally and financially for the humanities in higher learning.

I loved a lot about this book. I also feel strongly that the human sciences have a lot to offer, and shouldn't be pushed aside in favour of  "practical" degrees, or whichever corporate-supported faculty seems to be getting all the funding. As Madsbjerg states,

We dismiss this cultural knowledge -- cultivated through humanities thinking -- at great risk to our future. When we focus solely on hard data and natural science methods -- when we attempt to quantify human behaviour only as so many quarks or widgets -- we erode our sensitivity to all the forms of knowledge that are not reductionist. We lose touch with the books, music, art and culture that allow us to experience ourselves in a complex social context.

He goes on to state that people's sense of the meaning of the data they are seeing is far more important that homogeneous data and input. The arts and humanities allow us to experience the differences between people across years and cultures; they allow us to inhabit another person's world and understand them better. Focusing only on hard data erases these differences, seeing only a shallow average at best.

He illuminates this sense of standardization required by technology -- whether of physical materials or in people's education and training -- by referring to Heidegger's 1954 essay on Technology, a look at "modern ideology, our world without meaningful differences."

The whole book is infused with references to philosophy, sociology, history and so on: he lives what he teaches. Unfortunately, the one drawback is that all of the humanizing and thinking and interpreting is done in the service of Business. Madsbjerg's company consults with CEOs of major corporations, and works on understanding customers and their contexts in order to better serve R&D and marketing. This really jumped out at me after recently finishing F.S. Michael's Monoculture, a look at the economic master story that overwhelms everything in our culture. 

But there are still important truths here, and ones that the corporate world needs to hear, with its insistence that employees are just cogs, needing to be standardized to make them easily replaceable, and referred to as human capital (gosh, I hate that phrase!) 

The final chapter, What Are People For?, speaks to this idea. And I found it uplifting and powerful in its simplicity. Madsbjerg says:

What are people for? People are for making and interpreting meaning. ...
What are people for? Algorithms can do many things, but they will never actually give a damn. People are for caring.

This is one business book that is well worth reading for everyone. If you ignore the businessy case study bits it reads like an essay on the vitality of learning for its own sake. And I really enjoyed it.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Canadian Book Challenge: July's Big Prize

To celebrate the start of our 11th Year of Canadian Book Challenge Reading, we have a fantastic prize pack offered by Simon & Schuster Canada. They will send out a set of 13 Canadian books during the month of August to the lucky winner of our July draw. 

This prize pack is open to everyone who signs up to the 11th Annual Canadian Book Challenge by the end of July. No required reading for this one; just sign up and pledge to read along this year. 

Here are the details of what's included in this prize -- just click through on the titles to see more details about each book. Thanks to S&S for the huge variety they've offered here, from graphic novel to romance to thriller, horror, YA, nonfiction and literary reads!

Simon & Schuster also has a great Canada 150 site for their Canadian authors if you'd like to check that out for more readerly inspiration

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Purple Swamp Hen

The Purple Swamp Hen & other stories / Penelope Lively
New York: Viking, c2016.
197 p.

I've read all of Penelope Lively's novels and most of her short stories, at least all the ones I've been able to get my hands on. And almost all of her children's novels too. I really like her writing.

So I was pleased to see this new collection of 15 stories, and was looking forward to reading it as soon as I could. Thankfully, I really enjoyed it.

These stories are both a bit lighter and a bit more edgy than some of her other writing. The title story in particular surprised me with some of the slightly risque content - not what I'd expect to see in her work. But it was a great read; set in Pompeii, told from the viewpoint of a purple swamp hen who was kept as a decorative fowl for the garden, somewhat like peacocks now. (by the way, have you ever seen a purple swamp hen? I'd never even heard of one - they are quite astonishing). It is clever, with a modern feel, even while clearly sharing Lively's preoccupation with the past and with the "what ifs" that I've seen in some of her other short stories. The narrator is unforgettable, that's for sure.

The other stories are contemporary, and deal with families, relationships, misunderstandings, history, the presence of the past in the present: all of Lively's usual preoccupations. And the reason I love her writing so much. Because these are short stories there isn't as much room for her lyrical explorations of thought to spool out, so the storylines are necessarily more compact. Her style really shines in a novel, but in these stories she allows herself a punch line, so to speak, and the stories often have a reversal at the conclusion. There's a bit more "liveliness" (am I allowed to say this?) in some of the stories because of their brief nature.

The closing story, "The Third Wife" is equally as snappy and satisfying as the first, as an odious man gets his comeuppance. Though you can sort of see it coming, the tale is still entertaining and pleasing. There are other quieter stories about marriages and friendships, and even a couple of ghost stories -- one about a girl in a garden was my preferred ghostly tale, even if it was obvious as to plot -- nobody does atmosphere like Lively does.

A great addition to her list, I was pleased to read it even if it does mean I'm running out of new Lively material! A few more of her backlist story collections and I'll be caught up.

Read this alongside another of her collections (and my favourite), Making It Up, and you will get a strong sense of her style and her writerly themes.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Welcome to the 11th Annual Canadian Book Challenge with Canadian Road Trip Novels!


Welcome to the kick-off of the 11th Annual Canadian Book Challenge! We're glad to have you along for the ride. Haven't signed up yet but are intrigued? Head on over to the FAQs and decide if you'd like to join in on this relaxed reading challenge. We hope you will. 

For this Challenge we ask that you read and review 13 Canadian books from July 1 - July 1. Easy peasy, right? You can find the review roundup post for each month easily by clicking on the "Review" logo link in the right sidebar at any time.

This year's theme is highways and byways, and as we all know, there's nothing better than a road trip! Lots of tunes, snacks and somewhere to go, and we're set. Of course, there will also have to be a book in there somewhere to make things perfect.

Here is a list of 13 Canadian road trip novels to inspire you during this Highway themed 11th Annual Canadian Book Challenge:

1. Volkswagen Blues / Jacques Poulin: the classic Canadian Road Trip novel; Quebecois drives cross-country through America searching for his brother Jack Waterman, last seen in San Francisco

2. Cadilllac Couches / Sophie B. Watson: two young women road-tripping from Edmonton to Montreal and back again, following musicians & festivals

3. Flee Fly Flown / Janet Hepburn: two Alzheimer's patients break out of their Ontario nursing home and head for Alberta

4. The Flying Troutmans / Miriam Toews: Hattie takes charge of her niece & nephew when her sister checks into an institution; to keep busy they head off on a road trip with no real destination, in search of their long-gone father

5. Station Eleven / Emily St John Mandel: a gloriously affirmative post-apocalypic story in which a troupe of Shakespearean actors travels a ravaged country

6. Running on Fumes / Christian Guay-Poliquin: post-apocalyptic confusion & a hallucinatory drive from Alberta to Quebec

7. The Line Painter / Claire Cameron: a car breaks down in Northern Ontario; the woman inside hitches a ride with someone driving a truck & painting lines on the road.

8. I'm Thinking of Ending Things / Iain Reid: a short road trip to the main character's parents country house & back -- but a shivery one

9. The Little Shadows / Marina Endicott: an old-fashioned road trip in which the three singing Avery sisters & their mother travel the vaudeville circuit pre-WWI when their father dies and leaves them destitute

10. Sweet Jesus / Christine Poutney: three adult siblings facing massive life changes head off  together to find the adopted youngest's birth parents in New Mexico

11. Road Signs That Say West / Sylvia Gunnery: three sisters, heading West from Nova Scotia while their parents are away for an epic road trip together - sibling rivalries and deeper themes illuminate this YA novel

12. Travels with My Family / Marie Louise Gay & David Homel: a young boy narrates the story of his travels with Mom, Dad & little brother as they search out some unusual tourist locales during their summer vacation

13. Carson Crosses Canada / Linda Bailey: a cheery and cute picture book to go from BC to Newfoundland along with Carson & his granny

14. Nonfiction bonus!

Riding With Rilke / Ted Bishop

Feast: stories and recipes from an edible roadtrip

Canada's Road / Mark Richardson

And finally, a very cool blog on Road Trip Reading by a travel writer who matches places to books - check it out!

11th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - July Roundup

1. Click on the icon above
2. Add a link to your review. (Please link to your specific review, not an entire webpage.)
3. Add your name and in parentheses the title of the book, such as Melwyk (Anne of Green Gables)
4. In the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. "This brings me up to 1/13")

Anyone signing up for the 11th Annual Canadian Book Challenge by the end of July will be entered into a draw for a 13 book prize pack generously offered by Simon & Schuster Canada!

All other draws in upcoming months are exclusively offered to #CanBookChallenge participants via email.