Monday, December 31, 2007

First Lines Meme

I am absolutely loving many things about my new computer, not the first of which is being able to blog while watching television. Lame, I know, but when you've got a cold and have Faux-voed old episodes of Alias to combat the writer's strike, anything's entertainment. So, I've been making the rounds of the many blogs I haven't been able to keep up with over the last few weeks because things were so crazy between work and life. Quite a few of my blog friends have done the first lines meme, and so I thought, in the spirit of developing my own set of new year's revolutions, it might be a good place to start.
January 2007: It's oddly fitting that this book straddled by 2006-2007 reading; it's possibly the best book I've read in ages. (About Kevin Patterson's Consumption.)

February 2007: Last night, despite feeling desperately under the weather, I headed out in the cold to my first Sweater class at Knitomatic.

March 2007: 1. There is a lot of snow outside.

April 2007: I'm glad to be back from conference—it was a long week.

May 2007: There's nothing like sunshine...and a royalty cheque to brighten up your day.

June 2007: Well, Michiko Kakutani apparently vehemently disliked On Chesil Beach, calling it "a smarmy portrait of two incomprehensible and unlikable people" (link via Baby Got Books).

July 2007: Massey Hall in Toronto was the last stop on Wilco's Eastern Seaboard tour (dunno if that was the 'name' of the tour considering how totally un-rock sexy it is).

August 2007: I've been at a work conference since Sunday, and haven't been home a single night this week to really blog, so here's a quick catch-up...

September 2007
: Just a quickie post to say that I am utterly engrossed by Mad Men.

October 2007
: When I rode my bike into work this morning, still happy that even though it's October, the weather doesn't necessitate a heavy wool "biking" (translation old and crappy) sweater just yet, it was so foggy that it reminded me of Dublin.

November 2007
: Before reading any further, let me remind everyone about Kate Sutherland's marvelous All in Together Girls, it's a book of literary, some linked, some not, short stories that mainly take place in Saskatchewan.

December 2007
: I emerged from the boardroom momentarily to get a cup of tea yesterday.
We've been in sales conference since Sunday.

Oddly, three entries concern sales conference, which isn't all that strange considering they're always at the end of one month and bleed into the beginning of another. A few books, one knitting class, an obsession with Mad Men, some biking, and some complaining. Sure seems like my life.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Have Cold Will Photoblog Instead

The stupid cold hangs on for dear life, which makes me think that perhaps it's not a passing fancy kind of illness, but something with legs, and I am not prepared for that in the least.
It was snowing the other day just the kind of flakes that I love: big, awkward, sticky, and melting before they even hit the ground.
I tried to take a picture but the camera doesn't quite catch them in the right way. Regardless, they made me happy, in that way seeing snow from inside can make you happy, if only for a moment before you turn on the TV to realize the writers' strike is still going strong and your Faux-Vo is almost empty and the only Ethan Hawke going is Snow Falling on Cedars.
Ah, the week Between Christmas and New Year continues.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Keep Feeling Procrastination

I've got a cold so my head is totally foggy. Even though I should be writing now, I'm trolling the internet and making myself kind of sick. I watched an awful video, and not even by accident, of poor Brad Pitt trying to go to McDonald's with his kids. And as disgusted with the whole thing that I was (I could only watch about a minute), I kept thinking to myself, "but I'm still clicking on it..."

For the last few years I've flirted with giving up internet gossip and find myself, embarrassed and ashamed, typing in http://socialitelife.com at work in a spare moment or two between meetings just to give myself some sort of mental health holiday. Well, no more -- I know it's all holier than thou and kind of sanctimonious, but who really cares of Brad Pitt's taking his kids to McDonald's? Why does it deserve some sort of hallelujah chorus from all the kids around with their cell phones and snapping pictures -- how would that be to live your life everyday, in your own home, ransacked by hungry vultures all vying to do you harm in a small way. And then I click on it and justify the whole existence of the awful market, by paying the advertisers and refusing to ignore the dirty business entirely.

So that's my number one New Year's Revolution: Stop reading celebrity gossip. I highly doubt I'll be able to avoid it entirely, but maybe I can get back to the ragdoll of years passed, the one who would only use the web for good. Ha! Does she even exist anymore? Trails of her lost in cyberspace where she used to track down literary journals to send poetry and stories to, who wrote for great sites, and who wanted more than anything to write books of her own?

Let's find that girl again this year, shall we?

And here's what got me started on the whole Brad Pitt tangent anyway. An article I wrote for work about movie tie-ins is up on the homepage of MSN today. I read about 50 pages of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and even though I didn't finish the book, I was enjoying it. I simply got swept away by something else.

#84 - The Frozen Thames

It's a brave new world. I am sitting on my couch this morning with my brand new (gifted by my incredibly generous brother) MacBook in front of me typing this blog entry. After a false start, and a shady Future Shop clerk who sold him a used model that was actually missing important pieces (like the plug that goes from the power adaptor to the wall) and had a burned out hard drive, we're back on track this morning with a beautiful new machine that hums and looks absolutely gorgeous.
Having not owned a Mac before, I'm stumbling around, but the more I get used to it, the more I like it, and not just because the commercials with Justin Long are just so cute. I'm excited to learn how to cut movies and all that fun stuff -- but for now I'll settle for figuring out how to get a photo into this post.
Okay, enough preamble.
Oh, wait, more preamble.
Today is my 2nd wedding anniversary and the anniversary of our 9th year living together. Congratulations to us!
Okay, now that's enough preamble.
Helen Humphreys's The Frozen Thames is an interesting novel. Written as 40 short vignettes describing each time the Thames has frozen over the last 1,000 or so years (the book starts with the 1142 freeze). Each story captures a moment in time around when the Thames froze from all different walks of life, publicans, noblemen, Kings, Queens, clergy -- the characters are as different as the ice itself.
While some of the stories tend toward repetition (there are a lot of frozen birds and a lot of Frost Fairs), each one has intimate historical details that bring that particular year to life. Whether it's Queen Matilda fighting off her cousin in the first tale, or the strange inscription the mason makes on the stone in another, it's impossible not to be taken in by the stories and transported to a time when warmth was little but a figment of one's imagination.
Of the stories, my favourites include the Postscript, 1709, 1716, 1565 and 1809. And I don't want to give anything away really because it's a sweet little book to read. In the Author's Note, Humphreys explains that she wanted to write about ice at a time when our world might soon be without it entirely. To document the wonders of the cold so that there would be a record. A cool appreciation for a season so many of us simply try and avoid -- by staying inside, by wrapping up in sleeping bag coats, by travelling down south -- instead of maybe enjoying it a little, like so many of her characters who walk along the frozen banks wondering at the sounds, wandering over the makeshift tundras, and always realizing the inspiration within.
PHOTO IN CONTEXT: How I wouldn't love to simply have taken the book outside, plopped it into the snowbank, and shot the picture, but that would ruin the package, and it's a truly delightful looking book. Instead, it's a fairly typical shot of the book on the chair in our TV room.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

#83 - Triangle

Even without noticing it acutely, I'm probably reading a book a day, well at least over the last two anyway. This trend might need to continue as my body forces me to rest, having now come down with a rotten cold not even ten days after the plague, and not even a day after my RRHB himself survived the awful GI sickness. Isn't that what holidays are for?

Annnywaaay. Today it's Katharine Weber's excellent Triangle: A Novel. Started last night after we watched Eastern Promises (well, the RRHB watched the film; I half puttered about because I'd already seen the film), I just finished it moments ago, cuddled up with a cup of cold tea on the chair with Walter at my feet.

It's an interesting novel, both in the way Weber chooses to tell the story, swinging back and forth over Esther Gottesfeld's tale of the day in which she survived the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, and the modern day lives of Esther, her granddaughter Rebecca and her composer lover George. On the edge of death from the ripe old age of 106, Esther has kept a number of secrets about the fire for 90 years, details that an historian named Ruth Zion is desperate to pry out of her cold, dead hands. They are all fascinating characters all, but its truly Rebecca and George, whose final composition in the book finds its inspiration from those tragic events, who find their lives inexorably changed when Esther finally dies.

Told in various formats (court transcripts, newspaper articles, phone conversations), and commenting mercilessly on the nature of storytelling itself, the novel is rich in fascinating details, not only about the music George composes and its compellingly scientific beginnings, but also in the nature of Rebecca's work as a geneticist, and how both of these things tie the couple together in ways that are not necessarily traditional, but certainly work to keep the two of them happy. It's a beautiful book about the nature of family, the threads of tradition, and a tragedy that defined the history of New York at that particular time and place.

Inspiring, addictive, ridiculously smart and completely effective, Triangle: A Novel might just be the perfect book for a partially snowy grey day in Toronto; miles and years away from 1911 New York, and worlds away from composers, geneticists, and all kinds of other things I would have never known about had I not finished Weber's work.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: I love the detail on the cover where the word "Triangle" is stitched onto a shirt (maybe a shirtwaist?), and wanted to highlight it with my photograph of the book sitting on my desk surrounded by used Kleenex (gross), pens, a notepad, with Helen Humphrey's The Frozen Thames underneath.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

#82 - Away

With Christmas decidedly out of the way, and the two of us absolutely crashing last night while we watched (and I bawled, natch) one of the greatest of the great movies, The Shawshank Redemption, we now come upon one of my favourite weeks of the year: Between Christmas and New Year (BCANY).

Goodness, a whole lot of nothing happens BCANY, last year we recovered from Cuba, the year before that we recovered from getting married (and watched all of the extended Lord of the Rings trilogy, awesome), and the year before that...well, you get the picture. We do a whole lot of recovering in the week BCANY. What generally happens is that I read a crapload of books, psyche myself up for the upcoming year, and generally bemoan the fact that I'm still sick (as defined by having to take stupid-ass medication) and going on my fourth year of dealing with this round of the disease.

So, as my year-end reading comes to a manic close, there might be a flurry of posts about different books I've finished. The first of which, Amy Bloom's Away, I have to say I enjoyed very much, and I hope that it starts a sort of trend. It's the story of Lillian Leyb, whose tale begins when her entire family is murdered in their home in a Russian pogrom and ends in the frozen tundras of the north. It's an epic book, one that takes Lillian, in her grief, to New York City, where she lives in the Lower East Side, and then, upon discovering that her daughter Sophie isn't dead after all, but rescued and spirited away to Siberia, on a journey all the way north. Lillian travels by train (in the closet), by boat (driven by her own hands) and sometimes by foot (blistered and bleeding), to northernmost Alaska, where she hopes to sail a boat across to Siberia and Sophie.

Bloom writes beautifully. The novel's research isn't obtrusive, but fits in the novel like sheets on a bed, lining Lillian's story with bits to keep her warm despite what she endures. The book isn't simply epic in scope, but also in story, along the way Lillian meets a cast of characters, and one would think it would be hard to keep them all straight, but Bloom's skill as a novelist never allows a single thread to drop untied. Instead, she's got a gift for ensuring that the reader knows the end to each main character. Tangential slips take off bit by bit as Lillian exits someone's life, and every question is answered -- even if it takes just a few paragraphs, Bloom makes sure you know what happens to the people that have touched Lillian's life.

All in all, it was a delightful book to read, and I loved the Canadian content, the Telegraph Trail, Dawson City's depleted "Paris of the North" status by the early 20th century, the bugs, and the idea of walking to the sound of your own voice, as Lillian does to keep going, telling Sophie stories with each step she takes. I won't ruin the ending, but I will say that I'd highly recommend this novel, regardless of the fact that my RRHB thinks the cover might just be the most hideous he's ever seen. I kind of like it, but am willing to hear arguments from either side.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: Away standing up on my new bookshelves, already crammed with books, candles, sunglasses, ARCs, computer cords, pictures, receipts, CDRs, brochures and a whole host of other crap.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Spare Time

Yesterday I wrapped the last of the presents, cleaned the house and got in some groceries to tide us over for the next few crazy days. My RRHB has been out of the house for the last eight days working, and he would have been at the job again today if he hadn't have woken up with the unbearable sickness that knocked me out ten days or so ago. Poor baby. Popsicles and rest for him.

I can honestly say that I've never been this organized before a holiday before. Usually we're both so busy and so crammed full of to-do lists that we're shopping right until the last moment and manically running around to get everything done. Not this year. We did the majority of the shopping three weeks ago and I finished everything off last week after work, and now with the wrapping done, I'm not quite sure what to do with myself.

A flurry of blog posts, catching up on my other blog reading, listening to truly glorious music on Studio Sparks and generally arranging my thoughts before heading out to my parents, sans the very ill RRHB, tonight. Spare time is truly a blessing.

Now if I could only open the file that shouts: "How about you work on your novel?"

Happy Christmas all!

TRH Movie - Sweeney Todd

We had a pass to go and see this last Wednesday, which meant a mad panic of finishing up the Christmas shopping (done!) and racing around to actually get to the screening on time, which we did, yay!

I'm not going to say too much beyond the fact that it was one of the most enjoyable films I've seen all year long. Yes, I realize it's a musical about a demon barber, and goodness is it gory, bloody and gruesome, but it's also whimsical, beautiful and supremely acted. But what I liked the most, apart from the utterly delicious art direction, was all the singing, from start to finish, just like a stage musical.

So, if you're out and about on Boxing Day and are in the mood for something that'll keep your toes tapping and force you to cover your eyes at the same time, this is the film for you. As my RRHB said as we exited the theatre: "It's got to be Tim Burton's best."

1001 Books Challenge - 2008

So my goal for the 1001 Books challenge is to try and read two titles per month. And in an attempt to not ensure my RRHB goes completely mad with the stacks of books consistently piling up on our shelves, I'm going to try and read the titles that I've already got in-house. So here's my list for the year:

1. War and Peace by Tolstoy
Having been assigned by my creative writing teacher in a manner of speaking, the claim that it's the most "romantic" book ever written is at stake. At 1448 pages, it'll be almost impossible to get through. Good thing I've got 11 days off starting today.

2. Invisble Man by Ralph Ellison
I should have read this novel during my undergraduate American fiction class, but I never got around to it. I've had the novel on various bookshelves over the years and I think it's about time I actually read the damn book.

3. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
Having read the first sentence about a dozen times over the past three years, I have to say it's still one of the best I've ever read. That doesn't mean I've actually found my way to the end of the book.
FINISHED JANUARY 2008

4. Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates
Something fun for the upcoming year.

5. Schooling by Heather McGowan
See #4.

6. The Sea by John Banville
Another book I've had on my TBR pile for quite some time.
FINISHED MARCH 21st

7. Drop City by T. Coraghessan Boyle
I picked up a copy of this at a used book store in Stratford, and although I'd never heard of T. Coraghessan Boyle before the 1001 Books list, the fact that part of the novel is set on a commune has me utterly intrigued. Who doesn't love a good commune story?

8. Islands by Dan Sleigh
Ever since I heard our family story that my great-great grandfather went off to the Boer War and never returned, I've been curious about South Africa. It's on my list of countries where I would spend two months if I got the chance to tour the world, if only to find out if the story is true, and this epic novel seems a good place to start.

9. July's People by Nadine Gordimer
Speaking of South Africa, another novel that's been on my TBR pile for years, I've already half-finished it twice. This is the year to get to the last page.
FINISHED JANUARY 2, 2008.

10. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
Recommended by Kath as one of the greatest novels of all time (at least I think that's what she said), I brought a lovely copy home from work, and it's going on the list.

11. Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Another "as recommended by" -- it's a friend's favourite novel.

12. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Continuing my love affair with Austen, I am so happy that I've still got novels of hers to read.
FINISHED MARCH 2008

13. Middlemarch by George Eliot
Another giant classic. Enough said.
FINISHED DECEMBER 2008

14. Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald
I have a copy. It's on a shelf. That's pretty much why it's on the list.

15. Philip Roth: The Plot Against America or American Pastoral
Both are on my 1001 Books shelf, so I'm not sure which one I'll choose, but I'm happy to try and read either one.

16. Ulysses by James Joyce
We'll see if I actually get through this one. We'll see.

17. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
I recently re-watched the movie version (it was on TMN and I wasn't feeling well) and was surprised at how much I actually enjoyed it. I'm sure the book will be even better.

18. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
This book goes in the same category as The Good Soldier. I've stopped and started a dozen times since first picking it up in high school.

19. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Emma at work recommends this one. Hence, it's on the list.
FINISHED MAY 2008

20. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
This is for my 1001 Books club.
FINISHED FEBRUARY 2008

21. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Who doesn't love a good Wharton (it took my fancy; see below)
FINISHED APRIL 2008

22. Hunger by Knut Hamsun
The fancy struck me.
FINISHED NOVEMBER 2008

23. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Again, the fancy struck me.
FINISHED NOVEMBER 2008

24. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Because it was just that time of year.
FINISHED DECEMBER 2008

25. Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
Because there's a movie.
FINISHED DECEMBER 2008.

And that leaves a few more titles to be determined over the next few months if something simply takes my fancy.

The running tally: 161

Reading Resolutions

Now that I've got a glorious 11 days off and absolutely no freelance to do, I can actually start thinking about what kind of reading resolutions to tackle for 2008. I read 32 of my Around the World in 52 Books, and would have made it through more if my work reading hadn't filled up so much of my spare time. I added 13 more titles to the 1001 Books challenge, which brings me up to 145, which means I'm slowly but surely getting to my goal of maybe reading half the list in my lifetime.

I think I will surely update my Around the World in 52 Books for 2008, include an across Canada challenge, make a list of the 1001 books I'd like to tackle, and try to finish some of the great big books, like War and Peace, which I started yesterday -- 4 chapters down, hundreds more to go. Goodness, I really don't like long books.

So, lots more to come as I compile my lists over the next few days.

#81 - Mudbound

I set out wanting to love Hillary Jordan's novel, Mudbound, for one simple reason: the cover art is deliciously beautiful. The story of an almost-spinster, Laura, who marries late in life (at the ghastly age of 31), and soon finds herself on a mudbound farm in the Mississippi Delta caring for a cantankerous, racist father-in-law, a broken drunk of a beautiful brother-in-law, as well as her husband and two daughters.

Torn apart by two wars, Laura's husband, Henry, having endured the First World War, and his brother Jamie barely escaping the Second, the family tries to hold itself together in the face of adversity. It's always been Henry's dream to have land, and so when he buys a farm in the Delta and announces that's where they're all moving, Laura tries her best to remain positive and supportive. But when tragedy after tragedy forces them to live in the broken-down farmhouse with no indoor plumbing or running water, the true natures of everyone involved soon becomes apparent, which sets the story on its inevitable course.

Being a landowner means taking responsibility for the share croppers, and Henry, while fair, isn't one to rock the boat. Legions of racism, deeply embedded in the small-town South, cause all kinds of problems that are exacerbated by the return of Ronsel, a Sergeant in the Black Panther tank brigade, he's the eldest son of Henry's best farmer, Hap. When Ronsel and Jamie forge a clapped together friendship shook out over the lid of a bottle, the entire community turns against them, and it's this relationship that truly propels the conflict in the story.

Tragic, sad, moving, and inevitable, the novel captured my attention from its first page and I didn't put it down. It's one of those "read the whole book in one shot" kind of novels, and I highly recommend it.

#80 - Now You See Him

Eli Gottlieb's new novel Now You See Him, which I read in ARC format, comes with a note from the publisher that says, "I simply 'couldn't put it down' -- and you won't be able to either." And while I would agree that it's a literary page-turner, an elusive form of the popular novel that's so hard to get right (see Laura Lippman's excellent What the Dead Know as an almost perfect example), I'm not sure it's 100% effective all the way through.

The first two-thirds of the novel, where it deals with the untimely murder-suicide of Rob Castor, a writer from Monarch, New York who killed his ex-girlfriend, Kate Pierce, before taking his own life, are quite good. Told from the perspective of Rob's best friend Nick Framingham, whose having a hell of a time reconciling the absence of such a fury of a man from his life, the novel unravels layers and layers of untold stories, family secrets and hints to the obsessive nature of the crime. The novel rips along and I was quite taken by Nick's mid-life crisis.

But somewhere in the middle it gets kind of lost, and sort of muddled. There are obvious influences on Gottlieb's novel, namely John Irving, and if you're a fan of the former than I have no doubt that you'd enjoy this novel. While I read the novel primarily in transit back and forth from work, it never grabbed me the way I thought it would, despite the quality of Gottlieb's prose. And by the end, I have to admit, that I was rolling my eyes at certain plot twists towards the end, but that's no comment on the novel, but rather my own cynical nature. We're offering the book up in our Facebook group later next month, so I'll be curious to see what other people think too.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Best Books of 2007

So, all tolled I think I've probably read about 85 books this year -- the ones I haven't counted here have been Harlequins, and mainly manuscripts, so I don't want to review them here before they're finished and published. So, of the 80-odd books that I've read this year, here are the 10 that have stood out in my mind, books that I've thought of again and again, and books that I've recommended to maybe dozens of people, maybe even gone so far as to push a copy into someone's hands:

1. Consumption by Kevin Patterson
The very first book I finished in 2007 has resonated with me throughout the entire year. An impossibly sad yet utterly redemptive book, Patterson's novel might be one of the great overlooked Canadian books of last year.

2. Mothers and Sons by Colm Tóibín
Of the two Colm Tóibín books I read this year, this collection of short stories took me, as I said, "completely by surprise." They are magnificent, and I fell in love with them even more after hearing the author himself read at Harbourfront a few weeks after finishing the book.

3. Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey
The Australian entry in my Around the World in 52 Books challenge, Carey's latest novel might just be his best. What I wrote about the novel way back in March when I read it still stands as an apt description for how I felt about it: "Like a bucket of cold water dropped on your head on a hot day, Theft shocks you into submission with its bold, slashing strokes of brilliant prose that belt out the story." And I'm only a little embarrassed to admit that Butcher Bones remains the one literary character that, should he have existed in real life, I would gladly sacrifice a little marital, ahem, angst for...if you catch my drift.

4 & 4.5. The Road & No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
What more needs to be said about Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road? It transcends Oprah, won the Pulitzer, turned the words "post-apocalyptic" into watercooler conversation, and firmly established McCarthy as one of the greatest living American writers working today. None of this is surprising to a girl who includes All the Pretty Horses in the her top 10 Best Books of My Life list.

I also read McCarthy's No Country for Old Men this year, and am calling it number 4.5, and remember that I said this at the time: "Now, as you know, I was completely captivated by The Road. But No Country For Old Men blew me away. No one writes violence like McCarthy, and turns something that's often mocked in the popular media, or blown out in ways that ensure any impact of it gets lost between big guns and lots of useless fake punches, into literature."

5. Run by Ann Patchett
Critics were on the fence about Patchett's novel: EW hated it; the Globe didn't, and so on. Many people commented on the utterly contrived nature of the story. And yet, many people fell in love with Patchett's "snow globe"-like world within its covers. But I just adored this book from start to finish, couldn't put it down, and cried like a baby when it ended.

6. October by Richard Wright
While not on any of the other big Canadian lists this year, Wright's novel is probably my favourite work of Canadian fiction in 2007. Taut, blissfully traditional, canonic, and with touches of The Watch That Ends the Night, one of my all-time favs, I read this book in manuscript format on a streetcar ride home weeks after starting my new job.

7. The Accidental by Ali Smith
Another book that had tonnes of online buzz that before I finished it thought it might be slightly overrated. Boy was I wrong. It took me a couple of tries to get into it, but I am certainly glad that I did.

8. Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
Utterly heartbreaking and stirringly original, it's a post-colonial novel that I would have loved to have studied at university.

9. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida
Vendela Vida's book entirely surprised me. From the opening pages, you think you're reading a certain kind of novel, one that you've read many times before, and yet, by the end, you're utterly convinced that it's one of the most intriguing stories you've read in a long time.

10. The Gathering by Anne Enright
This novel hit me like a punch in the stomach, and I loved every word. As I said, "The narrative that spills out over the next few hundreds pages fights with itself at every turn, angry, raw, overwhelmed, Veronica [the protagonist] takes hold of what's left of her life and shakes it, pulls all the pieces down around her and then can't really tell how to put them back together again. In the end, I'm not clear if she has or not, but it doesn't really matter because this book is so painfully honest about life, about family, about tragedy, that becoming 'normal' again isn't much the point."

But I'd have to say that my all-time favourite book I read all year might just have to be Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses. I'm pulling it out of the top 10 and saying that it's the book that I would least recommend, but it's the novel that I think in terms of skill, in terms of story, in terms of pure power of its prose that I adored the most out of all the books that flew past my hungry eyes this year.

And if the top 10 could include more books, I'd have to say these are my honorable mentions: Kate Sutherland's All in Together Girls, Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer, and Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Santa, Baby!

Last Friday, before the illness felled me like a giant tree, we had our holiday party for our group. There was a Kris Kringle involved, with a limit, and while I missed the present opening part of the evening (we went to go see Christine Fellows), I did end up receiving my gift on Monday morning.

What did Santa deliver?

Only the A&E mini-series, Pride and Prejudice, starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. For those of you whose memories are as jammed full as mine, I'll remind everyone that I caught all kinds of flack at our last sales conference for coming out on the "pro" side of the Keira Knightley / Joe Wright version. Someone out there not only remembered, but has since decided to school me by making it impossible for me not to also watch the earlier version.

I tried to convince the RRHB that we watch it last night (oh, sure, he was all in the "why don't we watch Pride and Prejudice niceness while I was sick, but now that I'm just about back to normal, he's no longer so inclined) to no avail. Anyway, he's away at the beginning of January recording, so I'll have the television all to myself, and with the writer's strike, I'll take the protest even one step further and cut myself off from the networks entirely.

Well, that might be a bit harsh.

But still...Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, how exciting!

Happy Christmas to me.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Good Grief

Certainly hasn't been the weekend I expected. We went to see Christine Fellows on Friday at the Music Gallery, and it was a lovely show, as always. I took my needle, and then we went to bed, nothing unusual, right? Until about 4 AM when I woke up and was so very sick that I proceeded to throw up once every forty-five minutes to an hour until about 2 PM the next day.

I'm still not 100% better.

It's been years since I've been that sick. Sure, the occasional cold or lung infection, no biggie, I can handle it, but drop down fever so you can't even leave your bed and feel woozy to the point you can barely stand up barfing up all kinds of gross things in your stomach, well, that's not a way to spend the holiday season.

So, we're quarantined.

Which is okay because it's a snow day. And who doesn't love a snow day? At least today I can read, I couldn't even do that yesterday. I finished Jennifer McMahon's new book Island of Lost Girls (#79), which comes out in May 2008, so I don't want to say too much except I liked it, and it reminded me a lot of Laura Lippman's What the Dead Know.

And now I have to go back to bed.

Sigh.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

#79 - Pretty Little Liars

Okay, I hate secrets. I have a hard time keeping them and even harder time not knowing if someone whispers, "I have a secret." There's just something in me that has to know. It's gotten much better the older I get, and obviously, I've learned to keep as many secrets as I've maybe leaked, but Sara Shepard's book Pretty Little Liars certainly understands girls like me when it comes to the whole idea of a mystery: I simply have to know what happened and why.

For years, I've read the ends of mysteries half-way through. I am not unapologetic about this -- I certainly know it ruins the surprise, but goodness, I just can't help myself. I read spoilers. I know what's about to happen on Corrie Street because, let's refrain here, I just need to know. So you can imagine what happened when I read an entire YA novel based on the idea of secrets: I almost imploded.

Who is the mysterious "A" that keeps tormenting the girls? Why is she doing it? What happened that set the four girls apart in the beginning? There are so many mysteries and secrets running amok in this book that it's almost impossible to keep them all straight, which is kind of half the fun. So if you're looking for a pure guilty pleasure, I'd say give Pretty Little Liars a try. Not as addictive as The Luxe, but just as fun.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

TRH Updates - December Madness

There are reasons why I hate starting every post with, "Goodness, I am so busy I barely have time to sleep these days." Firstly, it's boring, no one cares how busy I am. In fact, I don't even care, and I'm the one living this manic life. Secondly, being swamped with work doesn't count as almost every single person I know professionally and personally is in the same boat. Thirdly, I miss the comments, the emails, and frankly, the love, that I get from my blog and when I don't post, I don't get anything back. After all, you get back what you put out in the world, right?

So, I apologize in advance for the brief list-post detailing what's gone on in the past few weeks. I know it's just not the same.

1. Sales conference sucked up a good chunk of my life in the last couple weeks. However, it introduced me to Tim Winton, an Australian writer who has written a beautiful, lyrical and utterly compelling novel called Breath that I devoured in a 24-hour period (#77). It's not coming out until next year so I won't go into too much detail except to say that I would urge anyone and everyone to pick up his book of short stories The Turning and let me know what they think. It's the book that's top of my list now.

2. Another book I read before conference made me think that the subject matter of stories doesn't matter as long as the telling is compelling. (Am I rapping? Take it to the break! Yeah.). The Art of Racing in the Rain (#78) has a dog for a protagonist. A dog obsessed with race car driving. Do you think that deterred me? No, it did not -- it's a charming, engaging and sweet book that proves, much like Friday Night Lights, the power is in the storytelling and not the subject matter. This is an interesting lesson so late in life.

3. Zesty and I went to go see Atonement. I think she had a greater emotional response to the film than I did, having read the book and remembering how heartbreaking the story ends up being. It's a beautiful movie with an interesting soundtrack, and I think James McAvoy is simply delicious, but on the whole I'd give it a solid B, maybe moving on to B+ in certain parts. There's a scene when Robbie's at Dunkirk filmed in one long, gorgeous shot that truly brings home the destructive, debilitating experience for British soldiers in the Second World War. With none of the Hollywood-style American touches of huge explosions, instead showing a choir of rag-tag men battle weary and broken who are singing, the film takes a totally different point of view than that which we're used to in terms of exploring the war.

4. Awww, Enchanted. I was so glad that Tara was home for a whirlwind weekend that we got to see this film together. It was the perfect girlie movie. Amy Adams is delightful, and will probably get nominated for an Oscar. I can take or leave McDreamy. You get the feeling that his giant head wobbles a bit from walking around with all that hairy ego.

5. Dirty Dancing: The Stage Show? So not worth the money. The Evil Empire (where we were all employed three years ago, before half of us were unceremoniously fired) Ladies and I got together for a lovely pub dinner and set out to get our hearts broken by Baby. Only it never happened. Because the show is awful. Not even good-bad like Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights which was awesomely bad, and hilarious. The stage show truly sucks, despite its lovely art direction: the dialogue is painful, the performances beyond wooden, and the leads don't sing. In a musical. And there's no dirty dancing except one very small part at the beginning. Trust me, it's not worth it, even for the laughter factor (we cackled through the entire performance). It's troublesome because we were laughing at the actors and not with them, which is never a good thing.

So that's about it in terms of my latest cultural indulgences. Lots more to come in terms of reading challenges, my top 10 books of 2007, my top 10 movies, and all kinds of other delightful lists that I adore making. And I promise, more regular updates.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Wonder Redux

I emerged from the boardroom momentarily to get a cup of tea yesterday. We've been in sales conference since Sunday. Sitting, listening, laughing, joking, learning, and being overwhelmed by the sheer size of the jobs ahead of us for the next year.

When I came into my cube the hawk was soaring so close to my window that I saw the whole spread of his wings. It's as if he knew I'd been looking out for him ever since his impressive dive last week. He flew by at the one moment I had in my day to actually see him simply to remind me there's a whole world moving at a pace entirely different then the click of a PowerPoint presentation.

Friday, November 30, 2007

A List...Of Things Left At Home:

1. Wallet. Luckily, I had five dollars in my bag, which meant I could still have lunch.

2. Friday Night Lights for Sam.

3. Homemade muffin baked by my RRHB.

4. TTC tokens. See above. Lunch cost $3.00, which means I've got two dollars and some pennies to take the subway home.

5. The part of my brain that remembers things. Even when set out the night before (see #2) so one wouldn't forget them.

Canada Reads

Goodness, is it just me, or is the Canada Reads list this year somewhat uninspired? I love both Timothy Findley (and I count Not Wanted on the Voyage among my all-time favourite books) and Mavis Gallant, but I'd have to say that the majority of Canada may have already read both of those authors? For my money, I'd love to see Icefields win, as it's the only title on the list that I read and thought, 'now that's an interesting choice.' And, it's not often that I link over to the Q&Q, but they've kind of hit the nail on the head with the opening sentence, "There's a distinct last-century feel to the next Canada Reads lineup, which CBC Radio unveils today."

Wonder

Right now, they're playing some beautiful music on the CBC, something about the beginning of Advent, and I haven't the faintest idea what the recording is. Not that it's even that relevant, because the sky is clear from the 20th floor, and there are birds outside floating, as if to the music, with one soaring eagle (I think) who dove at just the right moment before the chorus came in and the pigeons scattered around. It's almost as if the soundtrack from inside my earphones reached up and outside reminding me that life goes on every day in simply magical ways if I just take the time to look up from my desk.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

#76 - Late Nights On Air

Elizabeth Hay's lovely, Giller-winning novel took me quite some time to read. Set in Yellowknife in 1975, the novel follows a group of CBC radio people as they make their way through an informative part of their lives. Touched by the presence of two relative strangers, Dido from The Netherlands and Gwen from small-town Ontario (if I'm remembering correctly), the station's manager, Harry, finds his life categorically changed from the moment he meets both women. Their presence in his life and at his station act as a kind of impetuous for change for many of the other people these two come into contact with, and in his own way, Harry falls for both, with differing results.

As the novel drifts in and out of the lives of the various characters, you can tell that Hay feels out each and every one with an intensity that can do nothing except inform the story. As the life in the station exists both on and off the air, it becomes apparent that each person in her narrative has come north and stayed for different reasons. There's something so subtle about Hay's writing, and about this story in general, that builds up over the time spent engrossed in the book.

And when the four main characters, Gwen, Harry, Ralph and Eleanor, set off into The Barrens for a trip of a lifetime, you know that they'll come back changed. It's a novel about that moment in life that you only realize later has come to define your entire life. While all the characters are too close for this to become clear, the narrator gives little hints throughout the text (meant to serve maybe as suspense; in my opinion not entirely necessary), and on the whole it works well structurally.

While I haven't read many of the other shortlisted titles (just two Effigy and Divisdero), I do think that Hay's novel has the scope, the emotion, and the heartbreak to be a novel deserving of the prize. I adored Garbo Laughs, and I felt this novel taught me many things, not only about life north of sixty, but also about the idea of radio, the importance of it in the lives of these characters, how sometimes a career isn't necessarily built but its found, and that love can move in many forms within a person's heart.

It's interesting that two of the more intriguing books in Canadian fiction this year have been set in the North, Kevin Patterson's brilliant Consumption, and now Late Nights on Air. Maybe it'll get more people thinking about how different the landscape will be in the next fifty years if we don't make an effort to preserve it. Every inch of Hay's novel is full of the scenery, not just to set the story, but to inhabit it, like we do our desk chairs every day, from the flora, the fauna, the wildlife, it's a world that demands attention, and not just on a fictional level.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: I finished the book in bed this week, and so a picture of it on my bedside table taken from the perspective of my head laying on the pillow.

TRH Event - Dave Eggers

The weather outside my window at work turned ominous in the afternoon. First there was whirling snow. Then there was strange looking rain. Then so much wind that you could see whitecaps on top of the puddles on the buildings. Finally, there was sun. Bright sun reflecting in the windows in the condos across the way. Fascinating.

It all seemed quite fitting to head off to St Barnabas Anglican Church to see Dave Eggers in all his McDreamy hair, fidgety hands, and soft-spoken intelligence. The church filled up quickly and so I was especially glad to have the rock star treatment from my friend Randy, who was kind enough to bring me along as his guest. We had good seats but the church pew was kind of hard on the old tragic hip.

It's been years since I've seen Dave Eggers, way back around the time when McSweeney's was all the rage and I was working at a now defunct Canadian magazine doing the worst imaginable job: customer service circulation. Numbers so do not befit this girl. And it explains why I hate the phone so much, still to this day. The event I saw was at the Horseshoe, and Eggers was accompanied by Neal Pollack. They did a really funny bit about superheroes and he drew many pictures on an overhead projector about some kayaking trip. Then, he was incredibly patient as people asked some really dumb questions about his first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Annnywaaay. When Eggers came up on stage this time, he seemed so unassuming with his shirt hanging out of his grey cable knit sweater all collegiate and kind of preppy. But he was also almost stumbling over himself in a nervous way (goodness do his hands fly when he's talking), and kind of sweetly funny, starting off by teasing the TINARS guy about not knowing he wasn't supposed to use a lectern, asking if there were any parishioners in the audience and joking up some girls in the front row. Once he started talking about his new book (we were at the paperback launch), he sobered up, and told the audience about how What is the What, the biography of Valentine Achak Deng, began, carefully and with an incredible amount of detail. And once it was all over, the picture show reminiscent of something you'd experience at a local Rotary dinner (awesome), and the short videos, he answered questions, many of which were intelligent and well thought out, which is always appreciated at these kinds of things.

As much as I enjoyed the atmosphere of the church, beer would have been good too. But all in all it made me want to read What is the What, and got me thinking about oil, China, Sudan, humanitarianism, artists as activists, curly hair, local action, international action, Jane Fonda, the novel as memoir, Truman Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and a whole host of other random thoughts in my poor, muddled brain.

Monday, November 26, 2007

#75 - The Luxe

What a completely and utterly guilty pleasure this book turned out to be. Anna Godbersen's The Luxe takes place in New York in 1899, and many around the office have declared it's Gossip Girl meets Edith Wharton, but even more addictive. I have to say that I set aside the last 100 pages of Late Nights on Air, this year's Giller winner, just so I could read this book uninterrupted over the past couple days. It's that addictive.

As many of you know, I'm not one who does well with moderation (she says after watching the entire first season of Friday Night Lights again), and after a couple of really heavy movies, I needed something light and fluffy to bring me back down to a happy place. The Luxe was just the book. Centering around society girls Elizabeth, her sister Diana and her "best" friend Penelope, The Luxe imagines a world where beautiful gowns are hand-made, husbands are arranged from other good families, and under no circumstances does one get involved with the help, regardless of how dishy they might be.

It's a sweet book that melts teen romance into historical drama, and if you're at all into reading YA fiction, you'll enjoy it immensely. Once you get sucked in, I guarantee it's impossible to stop. Kind of like Friday Night Lights. Sigh.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

TRH Movie - American Gangster

So Zesty and I decided to go and see a movie together yesterday afternoon, and we had both thought that American Gangster might just be the kind of flick for a no-boys afternoon. She picked me up at 3 PM, after I had spend a delicious lunch-brunch with Sam and Sadie, and we drove off to the Queensway only to discover the film's 4 PM show time had been cancelled. I whipped out my blackberry, we got back in the car, and we ended up in good time at the Paramount downtown only to discover that its afternoon showing had too been switched around. So, back in the car we got, racing up to the Varsity only to get there absolutely in time for the 4:20 show (snacks and seats saved in time to actually even get to see the commercials before the previews).

Was the film worth all that? Maybe not. I mean, it's not a bad movie by any standards, but it's certainly not the best picture I've seen this fall of truly excellent movies. In some ways, it felt like a substandard season of The Wire crammed into one two-and-a-half hour film. Sure, the performances are good, but it's certainly not the lean, mean film that it absolutely could have been. Denzel Washington plays Frank Lucas, a gangster who revolutionizes the drug trade in NYC during the heyday of the 70s, when over half the cops in the city were crooked and on the take. Russell Crowe plays one of the only honest cops on the block, Ritchie Roberts, who gets assigned to a new drug task force after turning in close to a million dollars in unmarked bills, much to his partner's chagrin. The back and forth between Lucas and Roberts starts slowly, as both try to stay under the radar of one another, just trying to do their respective jobs. With the appearance of Blue Magic, a better product at a lower price, all of that changes.

There's nothing subtle about the film, and that doesn't mean it's not a good picture, but you get the feeling Washington's playing the same character he played in Training Day, which was never my favourite of his films. The fine line Lucas draws between the kind of businessman he imagines himself to be and the business that he's in remains the most interesting part of the character. And Crowe's missing the same spark he had in the earlier 3:10 to Yuma, a film that saw him perhaps not rest entirely upon his laurels. But I'd argue in this film, there was never a moment where I felt I hadn't seen the same story before told in much of the same way. I'd be curious to see which movies from this heady fall season are still standing come Oscar time, and I have no doubt that this one will be recognized, regardless of whether or not its truly deserving. A solid B-, I would think.

TRH Movie - Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

My RRHB is away in Sudbury recording, so I decided to do something completely and utterly out of character: I went to the movies by myself. At night. On a Friday. I had a book (in a very Rory Gilmore moment) for the pre-show annoying commercials, I had popcorn, and I had a ridiculous urge to see Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Not simply for the whole Ethan Hawke factor, but more so because I had heard and read so many great things about the film, that I wanted to see it before it disappears from theatres in Toronto. My poor aunt, with whom I had plans to see the movie in the first place, fell ill with a nasty case of pneumonia, which meant that she needed to stay home in bed. I was looking forward to seeing her, but of course, I'm wishing she gets better by resting up. So, I went alone. It's character building right?

Annnywaaay, that got me out in relative suburbia by 7 PM on a Friday night with hundreds of other happy movie goers. Surprisingly, I didn't feel too weird being there by myself, happily lined up, got my ticket, the good seat by the railing and settled in with The Luxe before the movie started. It being Friday, there were tonnes of people around me, too much perfume, too much chatting, and I got stuck in a slightly broken chair. Not off to a good start, but the film soon sucked me in so much that it wouldn't have mattered where I ended up sitting and how uncomfortable I was by the end.

And when the movie starts, it's deceptively quiet. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Andy, a relatively successful accountant whose desperately in love with Gina, his wife, played by Marisa Tomei. While on vacation in Brazil, they seem to reconnect, to discover what's important, even if it soon becomes apparent that they're both moving in different directions. Once home, Andy feels that getting back to Brazil and starting all over again will save their marriage. He sets out on a dangerous course to try and get them there, involving his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) in a plot meant to knock off their parents jewelry store. Money problems solved, right?

Both brothers are stuck in situations entirely of their own making: Andy addicted to various substances, including his wife; Hank suffering the fall-out of a truly bad marriage who can't quite keep away from the drink long enough to actually be a man and stand up for himself. Things go from bad to worse when all the plans for their so-called victimless crime wreck havoc on the lives of everyone around them, and then some. There's not a single character in the film that makes you feel any kind of sympathy, even when Andy pours his broken heart out to his dealer in a pristine environment to shoot yuppie smack, you're shouting at him in your mind to just do the right thing, to not let what's about to happen happen. And as the situation goes from very bad to worse than one could possibly imagine, you desperately want them all to wake up and face their lives with a level of honesty that might redeem them in the end.

On the outside, everything looks great, if life were all about appearances. Andy and Hank wear their suits well, and they go through the motions, either truly able to weather the line between right and wrong with any kind of cold-hearted integrity. While the film's really about the men, it's a bit of a shame that all the female characters, with the exception of the mother (and for reasons that I won't spoil here), feel overplayed and under-written, Gina's all body with no heart, and Amy Ryan (who plays Hank's beleaguered ex-wife) doesn't do much more than swear (rightfully so) at her ex. As well, at first I was put off by the terribly derivative way of storytelling, of showing one event and then switching back to the "2 days before the robbery."

But as the film progresses, the device becomes more and more effective, a way for the film to show the events from multiple perspectives, fitting everything back together with a point of view that only a skilled filmmaker like Lumet could pull off. Kelly Masterson, the film's screenwriter, has created a terrifyingly bleak world with a cast of characters who cut so close to the bone of the human condition that they become more compelling the worse they act, each personifying an age-old sin representing all that's wrong with our world. Events of the film are so shocking that at one point, a woman behind me shouted, "OH MY GOD!" when something particularly awful took place.

It's an excellent film that explores right and wrong, good and bad, and all of the other black and white morals that refuse to let the characters out of their grasp for a second. Regardless of the unlikable nature of any of the characters, the performances in the film are riveting, and as much as I never want to inhabit that kind of a world, I do have to admit that it makes for one hell of a movie.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

NY Times Notable Books

I was blogging over at Savvy Reader this morning about the NY Times Notable Books list. A few years ago, I printed off the list and tried to read every single book on it, but got stalled somewhere around the first five. But that's not to say that there aren't wonderful books on the list, just that I, once again, got sidetracked by something shiny before truly getting through the before-blogs-even-existed challenge.

But this year, without even trying, I've already read quite a few of the titles (The Gathering, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, Mothers and Sons, On Chesil Beach, and Out Stealing Horses). And there are quite a few books on the list that are currently sitting on my bedside table waiting for some attention, and I love that there are so many literary biographies on the nonfiction list.

I've decided I'm going to do my own top 10 list of books that I've read this year, but I probably won't get to it until the beginning of January, as I'll be counting the very last pages that get read towards my end of year goal.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

'Tis The Season

The weather might bless us with the first snow of the season tonight. While I'm not a huge fan of winter, I love the first snow. It's so pretty and white and, well, seasonal. But it also starts me thinking that my life might simply get even busier once next week ends. It's already booked up with a couple of parties, a reading, a Broadway-style show, a celebration, a lovely rock show with Christine Fellows on December 14th (if you're not doing anything, please come, it's at the Music Gallery, and she's so brilliant), and that little family celebration called Christmas.

Gack!

I've already had to pause yoga until the new year because I'll be missing three upcoming classes and there's no point in paying if I can't even get there.

How to remain sane? Now, that's the real challenge.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Closing

We're heading up to the cottage for the very last time of the season. It's bittersweet. I always regret leaving because there's a part of me that feels like it's home up there, and it's hard for me to sometimes admit that so much time has passed.

That life moves so quickly.

That time can feel painfully long or painfully short, and still be exactly the same physical distance between one point to the next.

Things I did today:

1. Bought a pair of super-cute silver shoes for a work function. (I went,. I felt uncomfortable, but was excited to see our company win a prestigious award for some terribly hard work and some ridiculously creative thinking).

2. The reason why I'm still up has everything to do with Friday Night Lights. First off, why in heaven's name does Matt kiss every girl he comes into contact with, and then apologize. At least Saucy Caretaker got in the car before he could possibly do that mumbling thing he does. Aw. And my favourite line, "Don't you whisper-yell at me. Don't you whisper-yell at me."

3. I've been reading and loving Late Nights on Air. More to follow.

4. Vacation is bliss.

5. Why do people on television wear so much makeup in bed?

6. There's drywall on some parts of our new walls. Drywall makes everything better.

7. Smoking Aces is a very disturbing movie. Perhaps I should have picked something a little more light-hearted to watch in my final vacationing hours.

8. Wireless internet is fun.

9. I am sure that I might be the only viewer of Men in Trees that recognizes Jerome from North fo 60. He's kind of playing a version of the same character. But that's okay. The show just quoted Kierkegaard.

10. Riggins is still hot. Homeless, but hot.

10.5 I am trying to convince my RRHB to get back to the city in time to go and see Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dennis Hopper Quote Of The Week

I know the title infers there may be more, but for now, let's begin with Dennis Hopper's key to good acting:
"You need to relax -- that way you can access your imagination. If you're not relaxed, you only have access to your intelligence."

And my teacher said that awesome needs to be ripped from our language forever. I, for one, do not agree because what other word to describe the above?

Seriously awesome?

Does adding an adverb help?

Self Portraits - Millbank And Stratford (Some Shadows Work, Some Don't)

Research has been going well, although I'm afraid that my body is simply too run down full stop because I feel like I've got a bloody cold, again. I'm coughing and I have a basketball inside my chest that's making it hard to breathe. The end decision is that I need to give up some of my extra curricular activities. School's set so it'll either be yoga or dance and as I've been too ill for dance over the last few weeks, I'll probably hold off starting that again until the warmer months.

Annnywaay, I had a brilliant time in Millbank and Stratford earlier in the week doing research for the book, and I've got a mind full of great ideas I'm going to let bounce around in my brain before I get down to the serious business (like another page-a-day challenge) of my next draft. The Stratford-Perth archives were a grand success. But I think that I'll need to go back, maybe at the end of December (depending on their Christmas archives) to read more about Millbank, as I'm having trouble finding information on the town. The Milverton Sun newspaper (now defunct) seems to be a good place to start, and I found some local history (albeit written in verse, wha?) that was helpful too.

Melanie and I had a wonderful dinner in town and my hotel room was hilarious. Roasting hot, full of potpourri pillows, and with a divided up bathroom (toilet separated from the shower stall by a wall and a pillar or two), it was actually quite homey and just what I needed. I'm a bit frustrated that I've been checking my blackberry too much and worrying about work but I'm trying to let that go, at least for tomorrow.

In terms of family research, my trip to the Ontario Archives wasn't as successful, but I did find lots of Land Record information for my Irish ancestor. Now all that remains is tracking down the proper microfilm, which is so labour-intensive that I just couldn't handle it on another empty stomach. So, I went home and had a sandwich. Sometimes, a little cheese, lettuce and bun is all you need to really feel like your life is all good.

#74 - The Lambs Of London

For the first time since starting all the various challenges, I actually kind of disappointed in one of my books of choice. In the manner of swapping out already-decided books for ones that are a) more accessible and b) perhaps shorter and c) actually grabbing my interest at the moment, I've changed Cloud Atlas, which I absolutely will read one of these days, for Peter Ackroyd's The Lambs of London. It's also a fitting historical novel to read for the Around the World in 52 Books challenge, as it's based on real people (Charles and Mary Lamb, authors of Tales from Shakespeare) and set in London during the late 1700s-early 1800s, which means it'll at least give me an accurate flavour for the time and place.

But I can't help but feel slighted by the novel. Yes, it's an interesting piece of historical fiction; yes, it cannot be denied that Peter Ackroyd knows his stuff; and yes, I found the characters and their situations relatively interesting. In short, Charles and Mary Lamb, themselves troubled in different ways (Charles by drinking; Mary suffers from a bipolar disorder) meet an equally troubled (even if it's not apparent at first) William Ireland. Insistent upon proving his mettle to his bookseller father, William finally gets the attention and acclaim he feels he deserves when he uncovers a number of Shakespearean documents.

Unfortunately for me, I found the story somewhat uninspiring, and a lot of the historical details felt forced and often jumped out like a grandstanding football fan forced out of the stands. On the whole, the plot was fairly predictable despite how interesting I found both the characters and the setting. In truth, I don't quite understand why the book was included on the 1001 Books list despite, as RG (the writer who submitted the book to the anthology) insists the author "playing to his strongest suits." And the themes of literary and personal "fraudulence" ring quite hollow in terms of novels in this genre, if I'm being completely honest.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: The book on the patterned furniture in my Stratford hotel room.

1001 BOOK SCORE: 145

52 COUNTRIES: England

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

#73 - The Death Of Ivan Ilyich & Master And Man

After my teacher "assigned" Tolstoy's "Master and Man" as required background reading for my own work, I decided to kill three birds with one story collection (homework, 1001 Books, Around the World in 52 Books). I've left behind The Brothers Karamazov for now and replaced it with the Modern Library edition of two Tolstoy stories: "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" and the aforementioned "Master and Man."

Now I'm going to get this out of the way first, I haven't read a lot of the Russians. It took me months and months, and then years and years, and then four separate tries, to get through Crime and Punishment. I'm glad I did, but for a girl that likes to power through her reading because there's simply so much to read, I find that to be a tad labour-intensive.

However, both stories were quite short, and the entire collection clocks in somewhere around 120 pages, and there's a power to Tolstoy's storytelling, especially in "The Death...", that remains captivating. I mean, there's a reason why he's on the 1001 Books list, and of the two stories, I did enjoy "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" slightly more than "Master and Man."

So, I've read Russia. It was cold. It suffered through its characters. It made me appreciate living in a world with modern medicine and a warm winter coat. But in terms of actual critical opinion, there's nothing that I could possibly say that might remotely be original. So I'll tell a story instead.

Last night when I told my teacher DG that I had read the story, he went on a good, long diatribe about how War and Peace is quite possible the most romantic book ever written. It's the only book that made him weep. That's right, weep. So now, I've essentially been assigned a 1,500 page book by the teacher simply because he thinks I would absolutely enjoy it. And if Virginia Woolf made a case for the Russians, as he said, shouldn't I?

So in starting my thoughts about a reading challenge for next year, it might just be to tackle the "giants" of our canon, but I'm afraid that'll throw me right off my goals and I'll never catch up to Stephen King's 75 books a year, which, for the first time since I've started TRH, I'm actually on track to do. Here's a question: how many of you out there have read War and Peace and what did you think? Is it the most romantic book ever written? Like, ever?

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: Is rightfully missing because I've already given my copy to a friend in my class.

1001 BOOKS SCORE: Sitting at 144. Desperately trying to get to 150 by the end of the year...

Monday, November 12, 2007

TRH Movie - No Country For Old Men

Yesterday was Remembrance Day, and for shame I only realized when I looked at my TTC transfer on my way to work. Granted, on our way home yesterday we walked past Soldier's Tower, and paused. It's a beautiful monument, covered in wreaths, and lit up from the bottom in that way that feels so respectful. I've written before about the particular significance of Remembrance Day, and it always makes me think of my grandparents, and my great-grandfather, who served in the First World War. Almost every part of my being Canadian is a direct result of them, and that's not something to be forgotten.

I spent most of my day at the office yesterday tidying up some stuff before my holidays this week. And it's nice sometimes to be there with no meetings, no distractions, nothing to keep from concentrating and getting a lot of things done. Although I did promise myself after the evil Boss From Hell experience I would never work weekends again, I feel so much better leaving now for a week now that my entire to-do list has been crossed out.

So when the RRHB called and suggested we go see a movie, at first I balked, because there's always more I could do, and then decided that we should maybe go and see No Country For Old Men. There's no end to my adoration for Cormac McCarthy but having sat through All the Pretty Horses and then writing a very long article for the now-offline Chicklit about how frustrating the adaptation was, I was worried. Until I found out, months ago, that it was a Coen brothers' film.

An incredibly honest adaptation, the Coen brothers' storytelling, straightforward but with incredible impact, ensures the film truly feels like the book brought to life. They've stripped out what won't work on film (a lot of Ed Tom's internal narration; some of the more violent scenes) and added in bits that made the movie more effective (like the visual aspects of the setting; in the sense that it truly brought your mind's eye to life), and the end result is quite spectacular.

Okay, that's not normally a word I would use to describe a film, but the acting is superb, the source material strong, and I really feel like the movies coming out this fall in terms of quality of both film making and storytelling are a cut above. The movie starts off with Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) hunting in the dry Texas back country where he comes across the detritus, human and otherwise, of a drug deal gone bad.

And even though he knows it, Llewelyn makes a few decisions that change the course of his life forever, most importantly, he picks up a satchel carrying about two million dollars of heroin money. Money that doesn't belong to him. Anton Chigurgh (a merciless Javier Bardem), hired gun and strangely philosophical hitman, is charged with tracking him down. On the other side of the law, there's Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the sheriff in the town where Moss lives, who sits at a crossroads in his own life.

Like I said, the performances are all outstanding, but what's more, I've read the book, so I know what happens, and parts of the movie still had me gripping my RRHB's arm and gasping. Now, that's a sure sign someone's doing something right.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Presents From The Road

Jim Bryson's new CD: Where the Bungalows Roam. "Pissing on Everything." Makes me sway in that happy way, back and forth, waving and smiling, as he says. But in a good way.

Friday Night Lights

Most of my being tired last week has completely to do with the fact that I absolutely stayed up way, way too late (like 2 AM most days) watching the first season of Friday Night Lights. There are many reasons why I like the show, not the least of which is the fact that the adult storylines are given as much, if not more, importance as those belonging to the teenagers. But I feel a list would be far more appropriate:

1. I know nothing about Texas or football. This does nothing to dissuade my obsession with the show. In fact, it's kind of irrelevant.

2. I'm old but I still remember what it's like to be a teenager. I think, anyway. And there's a lot of what Matt Saracen goes through, being somewhat parentless, dealing with a lot of adult situations, and the pressures of always trying to do the right thing, that I can absolutely relate to. This is no comment on my upbringing but rather what it's like to grow up without parents who can see to you on a day-to-day basis.

3. Riggins is hot. Like, really hot.

4. There's something about portraying the ins and outs of everyday people, granted they are in quite heightened situations (paralysis, murder, Swedish potheads, new babies, sexual assault), in the style the show is shot (a lot of hand-held cameras) that seems to work.

5. It's compelling. See #3.

6. There are enough characters to keep it interesting but not too many that you start not caring. It would be good if they didn't drop storylines as often as they seem to do, see Matt's grandmother's caretaker, but I know it's hard to tie up all the threads so people keep watching.

7. Television on DVD is dangerous, primarily because for obsessive-compulsive people like myself, it's almost impossible to stop after just one episode. I mean, I can barely stop after five, six, seven and it's 2 AM and I'm thinking, "hell, just one more, I'm already tired, what's the big deal?" Note to self: I own the DVDs, so I can go back to it at any time. I don't need to suck it all up real quick and then get a version of TV brain freeze. However, it does give you quite an appreciation for quality storytelling if it can stand such vigorous viewing. In a way, that's how I know the writing for the show is really good -- it builds over time, but it also sustains like a film.

8. I actually cheered when the season finale happened. State champs! Yeah.

9. There are bits that deserve to be rewound. See #3.

10. I've been missing that one TV show that really hooked me ever since Gilmore Girls ended. Now FNL is only in its second season, and it's not really slumping (but the whole Landry-murder plot really needs to wrap up; I know they want a key drama, like Jason's accident, to tie the whole season together, but really, it's not it), if anything, I think I should have waiting to start watching until S2 is on DVD too, and that way I wouldn't be reading spoilers and obsessively searching the internet for the next-weeks that the damned Canadian broadcaster refuses to air. Sigh.

10.5. See #3.

It Happened Last Saturday At The Sadies

We saw them. The show was very good. Andre Ethier was incredible. And then fellow who I am not familiar with took the stage, maybe he could have brushed his hair, but whatever, I felt like I was in Singles. That's no comment on the quality of his performance, just that after Andre Ethier, it seemed incongruent.

Regardless, that's not the point of the post. In speaking with a friend of ours, the RRHB said something about Ethan Hawke. To which, said friend said, "What a [insert derogatory comment here]."

Apparently, he and his wife had seen Ethan Hawke at the Toronto airport around the time of the festival surrounded by his "people," barking on the phone and wearing a baseball cap. Tucked sideways. Yes, sideways. I can't help but have preconceived notions, such as the aforementioned feeling as though I was in Singles when a guy with long, scraggly hair came on stage and got all emotional. Really? Sideways?

The Sadies rocked though. It was packed, and we were both tired from moving furniture all day, the RRHB having injured himself in the process, so we only managed to stay until mid way through their set, which was still 12:30 AM. All in all, a good night for fun.

#72 - The Old Man And The Sea

The Hemingway phase continues. I finished The Old Man and the Sea last weekend but have been so busy that I haven't had a chance to put my thoughts down. It's a swift and sure novella that seems to be an almost perfect meditation on the classic theme of man versus nature. I can completely see how this tipped the Nobel Prize committee in his favour after it was written. The story, which follows an old Cuban fisherman on his last great run with a giant marlin in the Gulf Stream, seems simple at first, and somewhat matches Hemingway's stripped down prose, but it's actually quite complex.

Despite Hemingway's deeply unemotional prose, the book certainly isn't afraid to plainly state how pain and suffering refuse to play fair and how some people simply have bad luck (as Cormac McCarthy points out). You feel endlessly empathetic for Santiago as it becomes clearly apparent that despite eighty-four days out at sea, the fish are no longer swimming in his stream of luck. In a way, that's kind of the strength of the book too. This idea that bad things are always happening to good people. To men who have lived long, honest, impoverished lives.

It's also a good story to illustrate how human beings are simply powerless in terms of facing nature and winning. Like Sean Penn's Into the Wild, the landscape is as much a character in this piece then the old man himself. The small boat, the thin line, the hard tug of the marlin, they all combine to create an atmosphere the old man will never free himself from. I'm sure that there have been better words spilled about the book, so I won't go on here. My 1001 Books tome states that critical opinion is varied on The Old Man and the Sea, but I come down on the side that it rightly deserves to be called a classic and on the list.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Giller (And The Giller Light)

A bunch of us publishing types were down at Steam Whistle Brewery's Roundhouse for the Giller Light party last night. It's always fun to see people out and about celebrating books. Although I do have to make a confession that up until the very moment before I left for the party, I was obsessively watching Friday Night Lights, which is quite possibly the best show on network television. And then I ducked out right after the announcement was made that Elizabeth Hay had won. I'm waiting for my copy of her book, Late Nights on Air to come in the mail, after reading Kerry Clare's recommendation, I had put it high on my 'want to read list,' and have been waiting patiently ever since. I enjoyed her previous novel, Garbo Laughs, very much.

Anyway, a friend has saying, "choose tired." That when you've simply got way too much life to live and not enough hours in the day, simply choose to be tired. And it's going to be that kind of week. School monday, Giller Light Tuesday, Weakerthans Wednesday/Thursday (with a dance class thrown in there), and then I think we're going up north on Friday so we can close the cottage on Saturday. Crazy.

The light at the end of the tunnel? I have taken next week off to do some research for my book and I'm incredibly excited about it. Day trip to Millbank, Ontario Monday, and then overnight to Stratford to look at the archives on Tuesday.

Friday, November 02, 2007

#71 - So Long A Letter

As I make my way through my Around the World in 52 Books challenge, I'm find that not only are the authors unfamiliar to me, but the history of their countries and their experiences are eye opening as well. Having never been to Senegal, which is a country in Western Africa where the majority of its people are Muslim, the charged words of Mariama Bâ's So Long A Letter truly brought me into a world I have never experienced.

Told in epistolary format, middle-aged schoolteacher Ramatoulaye writes writes to her oldest friend, Aissatou, after the death of her husband. She struggles through her feelings about the event, which are made more complex by the fact that her husband took a second wife just five years before his death. Heralded for her feminist point of view, the narrative examines the wide differences between men and women in her society. Not just regarding the idea of polygamy, but also in terms of education, jobs and money.

Ramatoulaye is a strong heroine, a mother to twelve children, she's educated and works as a schoolteacher. The range of emotions she feels, at first when she discovers her husband has married again (no one told her), then when she comes to accept his death, and finally when she moves on with her new, independent life, are the blood of this book. At times the story feels secondary to her more philosophical musing about the curves that life throws, and she's very keen to urge young women to make their own way in life. In a way, the book is almost a parable to younger Senegalese women who should take Ramatoulaye's lessons and live accordingly. Which isn't to say it's not a successful, albeit short, book. On the whole, it reminded me a little of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and I enjoyed reading it.

It had been many years since I'd picked up a copy of a title from Heinemann's African Writers Series, and I'm glad that my challenge has brought me back. I'm reminded of how I used to seek these books out in the years after I finished my undergrad degree, before life took over and bestseller lists flaunted their accessible yumminess. Regardless, I feel richer for having read Mariama Bâ's book.