Thursday, January 31, 2008

#s6 - 10 - Vacation Reading

So, this is the stack of books I brought with me on vacation. Maybe a bit too ambitious, but I did read 5.5 of them. Not bad, eh? At one point, I was so totally engrossed in The Good Soldier that my husband and friends marveled at how I totally ignored them until I had finished the last page. Ocean? Waves? Wha?

#6 - Another Thing to Fall

I know, I know, before anyone actually says it, I should never read the ARC of the LAST book in a mystery series before reading the first, well, many books. But after loving Laura Lippman's What the Dead Know this summer and being utterly giddy at the sight of her cameo in the first episode of The Wire this season (why are you not watching that show? Go. Right now, stop reading and start watching, honestly. It's the best show television has ever produced in my lifetime.), I couldn't help myself. I grabbed a copy off the publicity shelves and snuck it out before anyone could notice (yes, yes, I replaced it when I got back to work and my own copies arrived). Annnywwaaay. It's a Tess Monaghan novel. Once a fearless reporter for a Baltimore newspaper, Tess is now a private investigator, and in this book she's charged with the protection of an uppity actress who seems to be causing all kinds of problems on the set of the HBO series in which she stars. It's a taut, action-packed, first-rate detective novel that hooked me from start to finish. And I have to admit, the tongue-in-cheek references to a certain production currently filming in the so-called Charm City, were all kinds of wicked fun. Plus, isn't the cover bloody gorgeous?

#7 - The Abstinence Teacher

I came home convinced that my life needs more Tom Perrotta. My friend Randy gave me the ARC for The Abstinence Teacher back in the summer and it's taken me a few months to get here, but I am so glad that I took this book along with me and had the chance to give it the attention it deserved. Perrotta has such a gift for capturing the nuances of American life, the contradictions, the confusions, the Christian right in battle with the more liberal left, while ensuring that his characters aren't sacrificed in anyway for the overall themes conveyed in the story, that it's impossible to put the book down after you begin.

The book's two main characters: Ruth Ramsey, a sexual education teacher convinced that proper information and open honesty are the best tools she could possibly equip herself with in terms of her job; and Tim Mason, an addict turned born-again Christian who coaches the local soccer team Ruth's younger daughter plays on, find themselves in very adult and very difficult situations when it comes to their own families, their lives, and their careers. The themes in this novel, of how religion is polarizing much of the States, and the evaporation of the middle class, never overpower the story of Ruth and Tim's friendship. But they certainly make you think twice about the state of our society as a whole, which might be a bit heavy for the usual beach fare (goodness I counted a lot of Da Vinci Codes, honestly), but not for me. Highly recommended.

#8 - Astrid and Veronika

The Swedish entry in my Around the World in 52 Books, Sam lent me this novel before I left and it was a last-minute addition to the vacation pile. Veronika, a young writer who has just suffered a terrible tragedy, arrives at her rented cottage adjacent to a small Swedish village to find her only neighbour, Astrid, is nothing like the "witch" she was told lived in the house next door. The two women, separated by an entire lifetime, form a fast and furious friendship that allows each to free themselves of the ghosts plaguing both of their pasts.

Linda Olsson's novel is sweet and tender as the two women reveal themselves to one another through their stories. I have to admit that I found Olsson's storytelling a bit cloying: "Oh, let me tell you that story", but the further I drifted with Astrid, the more I enjoyed her character, and realized that the book means for you to find it awkward at first, just as all friendships are, until it's as if you've known the person beside you all your life. And the setting, especially Astrid's house and its descriptions, well, they absolutely made me think of Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses, and good grief did I love that novel. The landscape is rich and overall I did enjoy this book. One I never would have read if not for my challenge. And isn't that always the point?

#9 - My Name is Bosnia

My friend Kat recommended this book to me when we were discussing Russian novels for my Around the World in 52 Books challenge. I'm pleased I picked it up last year on a whim, because it fit nicely with my quest to finish The Canadian Book Challenge. As the book's author, Madeleine Gagnon, is from Quebec and part of the novel takes place outside of Quebec City and in Montreal, it's my book for that province. Gut-wrenching and unbearably sad, but hopeful by the time you get to the end, it was another book, like Astrid and Veronika that took me aback in terms of the writing style (but that could be down to the translation). The story of a young girl, Sabaheta, who comes out of the forests surrounding Sarajevo after the death of her father and changes her name to Bosnia, her journey, both emotional and physical, is epic as she tries to escape the war. Heartbreaking, that's a good word for this book, just heartbreaking.

#10 - The Good Soldier

Saving the best for last, of course. After many, many false starts, I was determined to bring Ford Madox Ford's classic novel with me so I would absolutely have no choice but to finish. I've mentioned, at least two or three times on the blog before, how much I love the first sentence of this book: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." And considering the man telling the story, John Dowell, is also central to its plot, setting it up this way immediately clues one to the fact that he's an utterly unreliable narrator, and isn't that just delicious. When we first meet John, he's still in love with his wife, a woman with a bad heart who needs constant caretaking and long, restful periods spent at Nauheim. An American couple of a certain stature, the Dowells count themselves lucky to find company with the Ashburnhams, an upper calls British couple who also vacation for their health. "The Good Soldier" of the novel's title refers to Ashburnham, and the further we go into the utter depths of why it's such a sad story, the more we uncover, or discover, rather, that nothing is as it seems, either with the Dowells or the Ashburnhams.

Indeed, it's the saddest story I'd read in a while, but the writing is just so exact and so true, and the narrative so utterly engaging that I am ashamed to have put the novel down so many times before actually finishing it. I earmarked passage after passage of prose, and even pressed the book to my chest and uttered a few, "oh no's" while reading in a totally melodramatic fashion as I grew cold on the beach when the sun started to go down, and literally refused to speak until I had finished. Part of my own 1001 Books challenge, I utterly agree with the inclusion of this novel on the list, and if I were still studying, I think I would devote pages and pages to the effectiveness of Ford's unreliable, utterly immovable and somewhat (if I'm being honest) idiotic narrator.

Whew! It certainly was a lot of very good reading. Good, I love vacation. I started What is the What on the last day we were there, and I'm this-close to finishing. So it was 5 Beach Books, Ragdoll styles on vacation last week.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: The stack of novels on my hotel room bed.

READING CHALLENGES: Oh, almost too many to list: 1001 Books, The Canadian Book Challenge, Around the World in 52 Books, it was a great catch-up week.

#5 - How to Talk to a Widower

I've read every single book Jonathan Tropper has ever published, oddly enough. They're utterly readable works of commercial fiction that swoop in, grab a heart string or two, and carry you off into a story complete with humour and wit, with a healthy dose of good storytelling. Highly plot driven but ultimately about the main character, Doug Parker, How to Talk to a Widower is certainly as enjoyable as his two previous books, The Book of Joe and Everything Changes.

The title refers to a column the protagonist begins to write for a men's magazine in the US upon the tragic death of his wife. Their relationship told mainly in flashbacks, and Doug's inability to move past her death and get on with his life forms the emotional epicenter of the book. Hovering on the sidelines as he grieves are his highly dysfunctional family (a doctor of a father who has had a stroke; two sisters who take high-maintenance to new heights for completely different reasons; and a mother who pops prescription medicine and dolls out advice with the dryness of the martini she's consistently holding in her hands), his friends (some, ahem, friendlier than others), and his teenage stepson. All the characters seem to orbit around Doug's emotions until they simply can't take it any longer. And the progression from widower to man finding his way in a life he never expected to find himself is oddly satisfying. It's a sweet, satisfying, perfect-for-plane-rides book that kept me good company while we flew to Mexico.

I envy Tropper's voice, the ease in which he writes tragedy into his characters, and the sweetness in terms of everyday family life he finds to colour out the edges of each of his books. On the whole, I'm willing to forgive the clichés, the movie of the week plot devices, in favour of wholly embracing the lovely mess Doug creates of his life. I got a little teary, I'll admit.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: The ARC resting on my tray table on top of two issues of Vanity Fair that I finished first. I think, if we had any spare cash at the moment, I would subscribe. Can one truly subsist without knowing the crazy ins and outs of world royalty you've never heard of? Without the February "starlet" who's career plummets after their cover shot? Without the rambling articles of whats-his-name? Sigh.

A Mexican Adventure?

Perhaps the title is misleading -- because, while we had a great time, it wasn't necessarily an adventure in the purest definition of the word simply because we stayed at a lovely resort called the Palladium Vallarta about an hour outside of Puerto Vallarta. I mean when all your meals are taken care of, they hand you clean towels each day, and there's comfortable beach side seating, there's not a lot to do except relax, which is exactly what we did.

So in the spirit of last year's write up of our trip to Cuba, here's the good, the bad and the strange and the worst.

The good: Wow was the resort ever nice, with its lush scenery (a botanical garden) and access to a fairly private beach with crazy huge waves perfect for surfing, wave jumping and other water activities (like snorkeling, which the RRHB did a fair bit of). The food was also quite good, and I ate so much fruit and veg that I felt like a squirrel shoring up for winter. The weather could not have been more perfect, hot as heck during the day, cool during the evenings, and generally spectacular and sunny. Also, our friends, Stephen and Amanda, were there too, which meant the boys could entertain themselves while us girls stayed back reading if we felt like it.

The bad: The resort, as lovely as it was, ended up being quite far from town, which meant that it was an expensive cab ride ($40 USD), and the exchange rate we were getting was terrible. It just meant that you were trapped there unless you paid an exorbinent amount of money or took a bus for hours to get into the city centre.

The strange: There was a zoo at the resort. The animals included: two ostriches, two monkeys, some lemurs, some peacocks, deer (in heat) and other birds I can't name off the top of my head. And a botanical garden. Oh, and two crocodiles and some boa constrictors, which they promptly fed teeny WHITE BUNNIES to the horror of the kids standing there crying: "They're not, sniff, sniff, going to f-f-fed those bunnies to the --"

The amazing: I saw a whale spurt water from the beach. They spawn in Bay where the resort was situated, which was kind of cool. Not as fun as our friend Steve who surfs as he reported his nature sightings at breakfast, many of which included seeing the whales breech. I was jealous, I'll admit, but not enough to get me on a surfboard at 7:30 AM that far out with giant waves barreling down on me.

The activities: Lots of swimming, sunning, and reading on the beach. One day, my RRHB and I went horseback riding through the Sierra Madre mountains to a lovely waterfall, and then we all 4 went into Puerto Vallarta for a day toward the end of the trip to do some shopping and some sight-seeing. All in all, pretty amazing and relaxing. Who knew it could be that good?

The absolutely worst: So, the RRHB and I took a cab with a woman who was actually sitting near me on the beach the last day we were there to the airport. Not all that bad, right? Except I had actually moved AWAY from her because she was coughing like a maniac and the last thing I wanted from my vacation was to get sick. And then, as if my luck couldn't get any worse, it did, as the cab driver was also deathly ill, barely hanging on, and sucking back cough drops at an alarming rate, each one having little to no affect upon containing the rattle emaniating from his brittle lungs. Oh. And then Burlington Mom says: "But it's so very hot, couldn't we turn on the air conditioning!" Thus trapping all of the germs IN THE CAR and nailing the last iron in my coffin. In less than twelve hours I had a blistering cold sore and a wicked cough that has since developed into sinusitis and quarantined me at home until Monday. But I have freckles and a tan!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

#4 - The Outlander


Preamble: I've got to write things in order or else I'll totally forget bits and pieces along the way. Just before finishing up The Outlander for The Canadian Book Challenge I read the second book in the Pretty Little Liars series, Flawless, and thought it was a bit of fun (#3 for the year). Then, just before we left for Mexico, I finally finished Gil Adamson's The Outlander, which I'm using as Alberta for the before-mentioned reading challenge. Adamson's book has been on my nightstand for months. I picked it up after reading the somewhat controversial article by Noah Richler in Macleans last year, with the thought to reading all three novels discussed (next up, and the final title Richler critiques in his piece, Jacqueline Baker's The Horseman's Graves).

The Outlander tells the story of a nineteen-year-old widow, Mary Boulton, who flees her homestead in rural Alberta after murdering her cheating brute of a husband. Chased by his almost-twin brothers, each tall, blonde and brutish, the widow soon finds herself deep in the Rockies, lost in the wilderness and on the edge of death. That is, until she meets the ridgerunner, William Moreland, who saves her from starvation and a little from the madness that has haunted her ever since the terribly tragedy forced her from her miserable home. Their time together is brief, but it has an impact on both Mary and William, and their feelings form the emotional backdrop for the rest of the novel.

Alone again, and now hunted almost to the brink of her own sanity, the widow is finally shown kindness by the Reverend Bonnycastle, or "Bonny" as she calls him, in a tiny mining town called Frank. A world away from her own upbringing, the widow finds herself approaching happiness for the first time in her young life. But the hunters do not give up the hunt, and each day they grow closer to finding her, and ruining her tenuous grip on both reality and her own survival.

Adamson's book feels epic, both in its scope and its language, as it sweeps across the landscape, leaving trails of interesting metaphors and intricate detail that create a vivid picture of the experiences of her protagonist. It's an engaging novel, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. If the purpose of my participation in The Canadian Book Challenge is to read from coast to coast, I am certainly glad I finally read Adamson's book. Filled up with local history and real people (although fictionalized for the purposes of the narrative, of course), the most interesting parts of the book are the things that happen to the widow and the people she meets, not necessarily the drive for her to escape her dead husband's merciless brothers.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: Simply a link taken from the publisher's website, in case anyone was interested in knowing that it took Adamson 10 years to write this novel.

READING CHALLENGE UPDATE: So...this takes care of Alberta! And Canada for that matter (I'm killing two challenges with one read).

The Canadian Book Challenge

I haven't quite got all of the books organized in my mind yet for this particular reading challenge. Some I'll gather as I go along and some I'll pick up along the way as new books come out this year. Regardless, I wanted to keep a master post for The Canadian Book Challenge like I've done with the two other lists I've got for this year. As the challenge actually started in October, I'm counting at least one book I've read since then towards my ultimate goal of reading "The White Stripes Way (From Sea To Sea To Sea)." Here's the list so far:

1. Newfoundland: Alligator by Lisa Moore book actually read Air Stream Land Yacht by Ken Babstock.
2. Prince Edward Island: Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery. Book actually read Rilla of Ingelside.
3. Nova Scotia: Saints of Big Harbour by Lynn Coady. Book actually read: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill.
4. New Brunswick: The Lost Highway by David Adams Richards
5. Quebec: My Name is Bosnia by Madeleine Gagnon, Translated by Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott
6. Ontario: Consolation by Michael Redhill
7. Manitoba: See the Child, David Bergen
8. Saskatchewan: The Horseman's Graves by Jacqueline Baker
9. Alberta: The Outlander by Gil Adamson
10. British Columbia: Stanley Park by Timothy Taylor. Book actually read for BC, After River by Donna Milner.
11. Yukon Territory: I Married the Klondike by Laura Beatrice Berton
12. Northwest Territories: Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay
13. Nunavut: Unsettled, Zachariah Wells

Saturday, January 26, 2008

We're Back

And it's snowing. How fitting.

Am super tired from travelling for many hours picking up unexpected guests on flights and hurry up and waiting.

Have a bit of a tan and a Mexican cold (oh, just let me tell you about the cab driver). Had many adventures: one of which included a horse and a waterfall.

Read 5 books.

And there was an ostrich at the resort.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Someone Quite Smart...

...sent me over this quote a couple of days ago to mull over. It's from Sharon Butala's The Perfection of the Morning:

“I wasn’t yet using writing as an instrument of self-knowledge, although I had already begun that first, surprising probing into what really makes the world go round: people’s motivations, their secret, even unconscious desires, what they must surely love or hate, revealed not by what they declared but teased out from the way they moved their bodies, or blinked or looked away, by their actions, or by small, half-heard asides.”

Ever since Monday night, when my teacher said that I'm writing a book that 100 other Canadians (or people for that matter) could be writing, and that even if I did, by some stroke of grace, manage to get it published, he would never read it, I've been having a few sniff-sniff feeling sorry for myself days. But I was glad that Sam sent this over because it got me thinking about the idea of describing characters, their actions, and their reactions in this way; from their smaller movements and knowing that it might be a nice way to approach writing about people outside the main characters.

So what if I never get it published. Right now my goal is simply to get it finished.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Muddled And Awake

So very many things can happen in a week. And then life interferes with posting. But as I tried to sleep for an hour but couldn't, I decided to get up and troll the internet. I've landed here after much procrastinating, having always promised myself that I wouldn't blog tired. What are promises if not to be broken?

So, what exactly happened in a week? Well, we went to go see There Will Be Blood, which is very good, and I think Daniel Day-Lewis will win the Oscar.

I saw the Super Fancy Disease Doctor today and he proclaimed (for the most part) the disease in remission. Cause for celebration, absolutely. But not 100% out of the woods. I was explaining to the Super Not-So Fancy Just Yet Intern that I am so tired these days I can barely make it up a flight of stairs. At first I thought maybe I was anemic but my bloodwork is bloody brilliant. Pun absolutely intended. So they're stumped. Could be the disease, could be adjusting to lower meds, could be just the ills of every day life. All that means is more tests: chest x-ray, more bloodwork, 24-hour pee test (gack), and maybe chest CT if they see anything. Awesome.

Or not.

But maybe I'm just tired of the disease in general and it's bumming me out. Years and years of meds have absolutely worn me down to the quick.

I'm in the middle of The Outlander for my Canada challenge. More on that later.

We leave for Mexico in two days. I'm already packed. This says nothing about my organizational skills but everything about how much I love to pack. Seriously. I love to pack. LOVE. TO. PACK.

Two burly fellows came today and installed brand new windows. Four of them, including one that will eventually live above my sink in the kitchen. Every woman needs a window above a sink. I can't remember where that comes from. If someone remembers, please remind me.

Writing class was utterly painful yesterday. So much so that I have taken a severe beating. If black and blue weren't such a tired metaphor, I'd use it.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

#2 - July's People

Nadine Gordimer's July's People is a bloody good book. A book I wasn't necessarily expecting to be as riveting as I certainly found it, and by far one of the best titles I've read from the 1001 Books list. In fact, I was so obsessed with finishing that I stood on Lansdowne Ave and read the last two pages before walking home. Some guy walked by, chuckled, and said, "Must be a really good book."

Uh, duh.

The story takes place in South Africa in 1980 during an uprising, which is fictional, where the country is invaded by Mozambique. With mayhem all around, Maureen, her husband Bam, and their three children are forced to flee the city. Their servant, whom they call July, offers to take them to his village, where they settle in his mother-in-law's hut for the time being.

Stripped of their city life, their status, and with nothing but the colour of their skin and a few prized possessions (a "bakkie" [truck] and a rifle) to remind them of what life was once like and despite their fiercely liberal beliefs, Bam and Maureen struggle to get along in this foreign world. Fighting fleas, sickness in their children, language difficulties, and a whole host of other problems, it's a challenge just to get through a day.

After weeks pass, the family starts to adjust, and the little motions that happen in families start again. The children make friends, and even Maureen finds herself more comfortable around the other women, gathering greens for dinner with them, speaking in broken Afrikaans to them, and managing the hut with a strong hand. But as a whole the family cannot flourish in the environment, and as a result, the relationship between July and the Smales breaks down.

Once affable, even amiable, small things pick away at the core differences between them: how July refuses to give back the car keys after taking a trip to town; how Maureen lords the information of his city mistress over him; and how he adjusts to life back in the village full time, how his own presence effects his family unused to seeing him home. Themes of racial inequality are impossible to ignore, as they're turned on their heads, then ripped apart, and forced into situations that exploit how the idea of the liberalism so cherished by Maureen and her husband in a philosophical way is almost farcical.

In one of my undergraduate classes in post-colonial literature, I read Gordimer's Burger's Daughter, which I remember to be just as poignant and readable as July's People. It was the same year that I read my first novel by J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, but for some reason, I carried on reading him and abandoned Gordimer altogether. Maybe now is the time for me to read more Gordimer? Especially considering how much I enjoyed this novel.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: Because I didn't have my camera with me on Lansdowne as I read the last two pages, I've piled the book up on a stack of ARCs that I have to take back to work. Oh, and there are some stocking feet poking their way in as well as the library book I need to return. Ah, the life of a literary gal.

READING CHALLENGES: July's People is on two of my lists: the 1001 Books I'd like to read this year, and the South African entry in my current Around the World in 52 Books. I'd highly recommend it for either. Oh, and I think Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature (which I just confirmed on Wikipedia; she won in 1991), so we can add that to the major award winners that I've read in my lifetime too. Whew. Kind of like a bird life list for bookish peeps.

Feeling Linkish

In consistently trying to keep SavvyReader interesting (you can tell me if it's not; I won't be offended), I've been trolling the web for links today. Not all of them related directly to work, but I still found them interesting:

The Guardian posted a list of the 10 Best Lit Blogs a while back that led me over here where I discovered yet another cool reading challenge. Oh, and I didn't know that 2008 was considered the International Year of Planet Earth. I might just sign up to read Krakatoa too.

People are apparently proclaiming classical music, somewhat like the novel, dead. As a girl who listens to CBC radio 2 on an almost daily basis, I'm not 100% convinced this is true. And I'm glad this guy doesn't think so either. But goodness, I remember taking a philosophy of music course in university, and wow, what a mistake. Our prof was crazy (at one point he fell OFF the podium and broke his arm) and I was absolutely not cut out for that kind of "theory." Give me Descartes any day.

This best of list is completely unlike any other I've read for books in 2007.

And poor Tom Wolfe. Yawn.

Okay, I'm officially linked out for today.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Around the World in 52 Books - 2008

I've been mulling over whether or not I want to restrict my reading by doing the Around the World in 52 Books challenge again this year. But I think my overall reading was absolutely enriched by forcing myself out of my comfort zone (read: Canadian fiction) that it would be a shame not to try again, even if I did only manage 33 overall countries. So, here's the list. I've copied the remaining countries I didn't get to in 2007, and added a few books that have been lingering on my shelves, and will be adding more authors as we go along, having promised myself not to simply read another book by the same writer I read last year as a way of easily knocking countries down off the list. So, here's where we are so far:

1. The Successor, Ismail Kadare, Albania
2. The Attack, Yasmina Khadra, Algeria
3. The Turning, Tim Winton, Australia
4. The Outlander, Gil Adamson, Canada
5. The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende, Chile
6. Soul Mountain, Gao Xingjian, China
7. The Trial, Franz Kafka, Czech Republic
8. The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, Dominican Republic
9. The Outcast, Sadie Jones, England
10. Voice Over, Celine Curiol, France
11. Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald, Germany
12. Our Sister Killjoy, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ghana
13. Disappearance, David Dabydeen, Guyana
14. The Melancholy of Resistance, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Hungary
15. Halldór Laxness, Independent People, Iceland
16. The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai, India
17. The Sea, John Banville, Ireland
18. Let it be Morning, Sayed Kashua, Israel
19. From Harvey River, Lorna Goodison, Jamaica
20. The Unconsoled, Kazuo Ishiguro, Japan
21. Petals of Blood, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, Kenya
22. DeNiro's Game, Rawi Hage, Lebanon
23. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid, Pakistan
24. Blindness, Jose Saramago, Portugal
25. The Woman Who Waited, Makine, Russia
26. Nurudin Farah, Links, Somalia
27. The Speed of Light, Javier Cercas, Spain
28. The Sweet and Simple Kind, Yasmine Gooneratne, Sri Lanka
29. July's People, Nadine Gordimer, South Africa
30. Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis, Spain
31. Dave Eggers / Valentino Achak Deng, What is the What, Sudan
32. Astrid and Veronika, Linda Olsson, Sweden
33. All Soul's Day, Cees Nooteboom, The Netherlands
34. In a Free State, V.S. Naipul, Trinidad
35. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk, Turkey
36. Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri, United States

Added after this master list:

37. Hunger, Knut Hamsun, Norway

#1 - I Married The Klondike

As of about 8 AM this morning, I was reading the following books: July's People, War and Peace, What Was Lost, Under the Volcano, The Outlander and I Married the Klondike. The first title in this list of the ridiculously scattered reading I finished was Laura Beatrice Berton's I Married the Klondike, a memoir written by Pierre Berton's mother about her time in the North. Not unlike Out of Africa in tone, but with a softer, sweeter core, Berton's story rolls along with a merry voice that shows the author not only clearly enjoyed her life, but also the setting in which she lived vigorously for many years.

As a schoolteacher living at home in Toronto, Miss Thompson (the author's maiden name) left at twenty-nine to teach kindergarten in the Yukon. During her years in Dawson City, she fell in love, raised a family, and stayed until her husband ultimately lost his job during the Depression. Leaving behind "the Outside" world for a hard, but happy, life full of old prospectors, prostitutes, upper class society mavens, politics and adventure, it's a completely charming story of a different kind of life lived.

If I have one small criticism, it's that the book reads perhaps a bit too much like a small town newspaper account of the author's time in the Klondike. There are few interpersonal details, which I guess isn't really the point she's trying to make, but rather record a history that was definitely only known to the few hearty pioneers who settled Dawson City. And I would imagine that the distance I felt in the narrative might too be evidence of Berton's own upbringing -- written long before the A Million Little Pieces style of memoirs, it's no doubt she didn't simply refuse to talk about the more personal aspects of her story, but having them within the narrative may not have ever even crossed her mind.

I know, however, that books aren't read in a vacuum, and I'd have to say that the same kind of quasi-racism that troubled me in Dinsen's book, kept nagging at me here too, when Berton wrote things about the "half-breeds" and "going wild like the Indians", the book made me kind of uncomfortable. It's interesting then to note that, in all honesty, I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy the book as much as I did.

The history of the Klondike is a subject I find fascinating. Ever since I wrote a series of articles about it for History Television, it's been something I float back to on occasion, and it was interesting to read the history from a woman's point of view -- to get the perspective of one not intending to strike it rich, but of an adventurous woman who sets out to take a challenging post for one year and ends up spending her entire life. As Berton notes, "I imagine that in everyone's life there eventually comes a moment when a simple question, or a chance meeting, or a knock on the door, changes the entire course of one's future."

Lastly, wouldn't it be fun to take part in the Berton House Writer's Retreat?

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: I read a copy of the book that had a library binding and so decided not to take a picture. Instead, I found the original jacket image from M&S (which wasn't hard, ahem, Amazon!), but if you're looking to read the book now, Harbour Publishing has the book back in print.

READING CHALLENGE:
I'm going to try and balance out my Canadian reading and participate in The Canadian Book Challenge this year (In case you're wondering, I've picked #1 The White Stripes Way). I'm counting this book as my Yukon entry, even before I decide what I'm going to read for the remaining rest of the provinces and territories!

TRH Movie - I Am Legend

Goodness. Note to self: should only see scary movies with RRHB to grab on to because poor Zesty and I were quite beside ourselves by the end of the 101 minutes. Overall, I really enjoyed I Am Legend. It reminded me a lot of 28 Days Later, just like Charidy from work said, and Children of Men (my favourite film of 2006). In some ways, I think the marketing for the film might be doing it a disservice, positioning the film as some sort of Will Smith post-apocalyptic situation, man vs. environment kind of thing, but the movie runs deeper than the trailer or posters might have you think.

Smith plays Dr. Robert Neville, a Lt. Col. who remains in New York to battle the human disaster inflicted by a cure for cancer that goes awry -- devolving people into zombie/vampire-like creatures that cluster in hives and feed. Once the virus goes "airborne" the entire population of the Earth is almost wiped out, save the 1% who are curiously immune to the virus, and those who have managed to stay alive despite now becoming food for the "nightstalkers". His motivation for staying behind is noble -- modern science created the situation, and he's looking for a cure, which he believes can only exist at Ground Zero. But there are emotional reasons for his actions as well, many of which come to light during flashbacks to the moment when the government closed off "the island" of NYC from the rest of the country.

Like Children of Men, what scares me most about films like this is how rooted they are not necessarily in fact, but in the very near distant future. It's the ease with which humanity as we know it can be destroyed that stays with me and makes me think about how tenuous the grasp of civilization is on society in general. It's all very philosophical, I know.

But in a sense, I heartily disagree with Owen Gleiberman, who said, "Let's be honest: The peril of infectious disease, while quite real, is hardly the anxiety of the moment." In that I don't think the point of the film is to comment necessarily on the peril of infectious diseases, but the pace in which the modern world wants to tinker with nature and take it to an edge, thinking that we'll inevitably win. That our actions have no consequences, and in dealing with those actions, there's a responsibility to find the parts worth saving and hang on to them. If we look at it that way, there's no doubt that the themes of the movie are incredibly relevant to the global conversations of today about cloning, pandemics, environmentalism and a whole host of other socio-political debates.

Annywaay, back to the movie. Smith's performance is solid, even heartbreaking in parts, and the movie was paced well enough that boredom in the form of the Tom Hanks-type in Cast Away never sets in. The special effects, beyond the fairly typical looking CGI creatures, are truly magnificent in terms of the look and feel of an the accidental wilderness of the reclaimed New York City. Some of it's a bit over the top, but I appreciated it none the less (and I'm thinking of just one scene in particular that I won't spoil here). Completely worthy of gift certificates on a Saturday afternoon.

Sunday Morning Distractions

Procrastination in the form of avoiding reading internet celebrity gossip has since discovered these things:

1. Ray Charles sings "(Night Time Is) The Right Time". A song I heard in the diner yesterday during brunch with Sam and Sadie and couldn't remember where I had heard it recently. If by "recently" my brain means two years ago when we watched the movie Ray. I have since downloaded the song from iTunes, another glorious diversion, along with Ruth Brown's wicked "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean."

2. Impressive coverage with impressively impressive magazines about fifth and final season of The Wire. A Hot Document from Slate. A Hot Read on theAtlantic.com entitled "The Angriest Man in Television." The most annoying writer in the history of television criticism weighs in and says nothing.

3. The VON sent nurses to the Yukon to help the miners. Faith Fenton accompanied them and wrote articles for the Globe. Further clicking reveals a book published by my own company.

4. Next week's episode of Friday Night Lights looks so good.

5. Dave Grohl cracks me up. And when Britney Spears shows on up CBC.ca, that means it's news, right, and not gossip? But, seriously, shut up Dr. Phil, I can barely believe you're remotely interested in her mental health, and I can foresee a "ripped from the headlines" episode of Law and Order in the works the minute people wake up and start paying the writers. Sigh.

It sucks me back in every time.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

TRH Ramblings Version '08

I might have mentioned that I'm a band widow this week as my RRHB is up north recording. It's been a productive time. Managing to keep to my page-a-day challenge, and being in the middle of approximately 5 books, many of which I intend to finish before he gets back, it's nice to have some alone time, even if I do get a bit lonely. And I also haven't been sleeping all that well, and only managed about four hours last night -- even so, I'm surprisingly not cranky. Instead, I woke up ready to write a list about all of the things I am thankful for on this gray, rainy Saturday morning:

1. Last night's episode of Friday Night Lights. I watched it in real time after I put my nephew to bed (I was babysitting), which only reminded me how much I hate commercials. There were so many reasons to like what was happening: the way Lyla reacted to her mother's engagement, Tim's experience with being the boy who cried wolf too many times, how he flourished in a sense in a family environment, and how it was Coach that made the mistake. But what I liked most of all is the fact that the show doesn't turn to stunts to drive up the ratings and melodrama, like, ahem, others. While there was a tornado in town, it didn't become the centrepiece of a ridiculous rescue mission. Instead, it was a source of conflict when Laribee was forced to bunk in with Dillon for football practice. But more so, it was the everyday tragedies that followed that really drove the story forward. I was up for the good portion of last night thinking about the idea of everyday tragedy. Damn you FNL (but in a good way).

2. Hearing a song that you weren't expecting and having that make you dance around your writing room singing "You're my wonderwall." And then putting it on repeat. And maybe repeating it again, oh and listening to Neko Case in the car on the way home from brunch.

3. The power of imagination and text messaging to keep you company when you're so tired you can barely think.

4. Going to the movies in the afternoon. With gift certificates.

5. Brunch. This blog. And Q-tip. In that order.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Things I Am Embarrassed To Admit

My RRHB tells me consistently that I have no sense of humour, which may or may not be true, so I'm embarrassed to admit that this made me laugh a little. I went through a Tom Green phase many years ago, and even went so far as to read his book, Hollywood Causes Cancer. I have to admit that maybe this bit went on for perhaps too long, but I do admire his tenacity, even when it starts to maybe not be so funny any more.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

TRH Movie - The Hottest State

Goodness. I don't know why I watched this movie. I mean, I know why I watched the movie, as many of you can guess, but it was just so annoying on so many levels. First off, I think it tried too hard to sell the story of a young actor who gets his heart broken for the first time on the path to adulthood. And secondly, the whole film would have gone down better if the characters weren't caricatures -- and if there wasn't all the quasi-deep crap surrounding everything they said. Honestly, it was a little like watching an episode of Dawson's Creek where you barely believe a word that comes out of everyone's mouths they're so bloody serious all the time.

But that's not to say that the movie doesn't have its moments. Any time Laura Linney's on screen for one thing, and the relationship she has with her son, the main character, William, is quite lovely. Oh, and I adored the soundtrack, with its lovely Emmylou Harris song, and I think it was shot beautifully, all golden and glowing, like the idea of youth itself. I just think that the words might have needed a bit of a second draft. And the female character, Sarah, was really underdeveloped, her actions mimicking the idea of an independent spirit rather than imbuing them with the strength Hawke obviously meant to infer within her character. I think I would have much preferred the movie between William and Michelle Williams' character, Samantha, she has such a lovely depth to her that made me want to see more of how damaged the two of them would have been to one another.

So some good, some bad, but nothing to deserve the absolute ire from Scott Brown over at EW. Harsh.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

New Year's Revolutions Are Working

So in my attempt to not read celebrity gossip, I decided to use the internet for good and thought I'd check out The New Yorker's web site when I needed a mental break from work. Am I ever glad I did. Here's Jhumpa Lahiri reading and discussing William Trevor's story "A Day."

Lahiri says she would be "lost" without having discovered William Trevor. Is there an author out there that you'd be lost without discovering? For me in my formative years it was always Kerouac and Henry Miller -- not that I would ever write like either, but I obsessed over their absolute abandon of a 'normal' life for their art. And they wrote about places and people I was dying to see and meet. And now Paris and Big Sur, California are two of my favourite places that I've visited. Funny how those things work out, isn't it?

In terms of writers, Roddy Doyle is on my life list of writers to look up to, also the Margaret Atwood that wrote Surfacing, which is my favourite of her novels, and these days I'm kind of obsessed with Tim Winton after reading Breath, which I think will be one of the best books I'll have read this year...

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Year's Revolutions 2008

So I had some good New Year's Revolutions last year. And I think I managed success with a few of them, and so I'm integrating this year's into my check up with Revolutions 2007:

1. I am two-thirds done a giant draft of the novel, and am quite further ahead then where I was last year. This Revolution will continue this year -- I want to get one good, readable draft done of what I'm no longer calling "the long story" but actually owning up to the fact that I'm trying to write a novel.

2. The weight thing...I have since discovered that it's probably the methotrexate that's stopping me from losing weight. I biked, had a dance class, did pilates, yoga, walked, stopped driving everywhere, and even made a very conscious effort to eat right, and I lost a whopping six pounds in total. And then I tried to not eat very much at all, at least a third of what I was eating before, and managed another two pounds. Lastly, I had a long conversation with an old friend who is also taking the meds, and she noticed the same thing, dieting, exercising and still gaining weight, so that convinced me even more that it's the drugs and not me. I am still going to try to be as healthy as possible this year but realize that there's not a lot I can do while I'm in my 4th year of taking meds for the disease.

3. Up next is something of a personal nature. I am going to try and be less judgmental of people. It's something I do all the time, make quick decisions about who and what people are before I really know them. We had a house guest for the past couple days and he said in passing, "You know, it's truly hard not to judge people." and I turned to him and said, "It's actually an impossibility for me." Maybe I'll be able to do as well with that as I've done with complaining this past year. And I'm adding in the whole stopping celebrity gossip here too. Because it's kind of the same thing -- I'm being judgmental when soaring through intimate details of stranger's lives.

4. I failed miserably at watching less television. But I did manage to read a heck of a lot more books this year, so I'm assuming that came from TV time. This year I'm going to keep up with my page a day challenges and keep reading. I'd like to get to 100 books this year. I made it to approximately 90 this year (including the Harlequins), which isn't bad at all. It's only 10 more.

5. Lastly, I'm going to keep better track of things, budget better, and not be so messy at home so that our weekly cleanups take hours more than necessarily because I pile all my clothes up when I get home from work. We'll see how that one goes. I have a few very particular things I'm saving for, and I want to make sure I'm not being frivolous with money. That's much easier said than done.