Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Summer is Short. Read a Story. (#s 32-33)

I am very excited about a fun campaign we're running at work called "Summer is Short. Read a Story." Celebrating much-beloved but hard-to-sell short story collections for the summer months got me thinking about two books I finished recently: Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge and Gil Adamson's Help Me, Jacques Cousteau. Both books contain a series of linked short stories that have female protagonists: the former centred around an aging (and then retired) 7th grade teacher (the Olive Kitteridge of the book's title) and the latter around the ever-growing Hazel. Authors Adamson and Stout (who just won the Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge), while different in terms of their style and substance of their stories, have uncanny talents for characterization. They can sum up a character -- their habits, their emotions, their intentions -- often with just one heartbreaking sentence that seems to epitomize good writing. It's something I admired while reading both books over the past week.

Olive Kitteridge lives in a small-town in Maine, her husband was a pharmacist and her son grows up to be a podatrist, and neither truly lives up to her expectations. People in town are as kind to Olive as they are critical, and she's a presence in every single story, whether it's from the point of view of her husband or her neighbour. Each perspective adds a little bit more to her character, unravelling Olive like an onion until the final sentences of the book open her up to the core.

Echoes of small-town life can be found in Gil Adamson's stories as well, Hazel, who we see grow up from a young girl into a young woman, copes with the pressures of family life. Whether it's crazy uncles, oddish grandparents, fathers who can't stop tinkering or mothers who feel that they made a wrong turn somewhere, she grows up with a wild and unwieldy cast of characters who inevitably shape who she is as a person.

My reaction to both of these books was emotional -- I fell a little bit in love with these two main characters, Hazel for her rough and tumble time with adolescence and the pains that accompany growing up, and Olive for her tough-talking, no-nonsense approach to life that ultimately ends up alienating her from so many people that she loves. Modern life bleeds so many different colours, from rationalizing long-term relationships, their success or failure, from expectations we have for ourselves and how they change to the complex relationships between parents and children, and these two works explore these themes with a keen and affecting eye for detail and determination.

Highly recommended reads.

READING CHALLENGES: Help Me, Jacques Cousteau is the 12th title I've read for the latest Canadian Book Challenge. And, well, Olive Kitteridge is an award winner so maybe I'll create a new challenge for those, unless on already exists?

WHAT'S UP NEXT: I've started Denis Johnson's Nobody Move, Frances Itani's Leaning, Leaning Over Water and am halfway through Sarah Waters's latest novel, The Little Stranger. But Vanity Fair also beckons -- somehow I can't resist spoiled rich kids in Sofia Coppolla-inspired photo joints coupled with the Kennedys and more Bernie Madoff revelations. I mean, I'm only human people.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

#31 - Tea Time for the Traditionally Built

When I first started to work at Random House, I spent a lot of time getting to know the lists. It's not something that happens organically until you've worked at a publishing house for a while, and so I spent a lot of time combing through blogs getting to know the books. One of the first authors that I discovered was Alexander McCall Smith, and I started to read the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, quite simply because Sarah W had said so many nice things about the series that my curiosity was piqued. But the books are so short and easy to read, which meant that I devoured about six of them before feeling like I'd eaten too much candy: a little upset in the stomach but still somewhat high on the sugar.

Then, the TV show came along and I was worried, at first, that they wouldn't be able to capture the spirit and essence of the books. They did. Completely. Which meant that this weekend as the show came to a close, I was left without my weekly dose of Mma Romotswe. Well, that just won't do, so I picked up McCall Smith's latest book, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built. And it's just as sweet as the six or so other books I've read. The central mystery revolves around Mma Ramotswe discovering the reasons why a local football (read: soccer) club keeps losing matches, fixing up Mma Makutst's love life (oh Phuti!), and figuring out what strange noises the little white van is making and why. The themes that are present in each of the other novels are present: a strong moral sense, defining people by how they are treated and treat one another instead of their social and/or monetary status, simple solutions to complex problems. What's also present is Mma Ramotswe's particular talent of coming to conclusions that are both full of common sense and sassy smartness that you wish you had a No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency to figure out your life.

If I have one (slight) criticism, it's that all of the books are essentially the same: local mystery, personal problem (either Mmas) that needs sorting, and larger life lesson. Yet, this is the very sameness I craved this week while feeling terribly unwell. Familiar characters, familiar situations. The experience of reading these books is akin to watching every episode of ER or Law & Order. And I know a lot of the repitition is for the people picking up the series halfway through...so really, it's not a true critique of the novels themselves.

The book was delightful, I mean, of course it was -- it was just what I needed this week and my only complaint was that I read it too fast. Yesterday as I was waiting for the very late TTC, I finished this book, read the P.S. section of Bonjour Tristesse, and bemoaned the fact that all of my electronic reading gadgets had run out of juice. There's nothing worse than being a reader caught with no words to feast her eyes upon.

READING CHALLENGES: AMS was born in Zimbabwe. And he's actually the first African novelist I've read in ages for my Around the World in 52 Books challenge.

NOT WORTHY OF A FULL POST NOTE: I also read #32 this week -- Pillow Talk by UK chicklit author Freya North. The story was sweet, and I'm not going to lie, there were places where I actually teared up, even if I did get a little embarrassed by a couple throbbing members along the way.

WHAT'S UP NEXT: Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge.

#30 - Bonjour Tristesse

Francoise Sagan published Bonjour Tristesse when she was just eighteen years old. Precocious, intelligent and hideously spoiled, the novel's heroine, Cecile, leaves Paris to spend the summer on the coast of the Mediterranean with her father and his mistress, Elsa. As Cecile describes, "The first few days were dazzling." Romance floats by on a boat carrying a young man named Cyril, and the two begin a love affair. Her days are carefree until her father, a bit of a playboy who has never settled down, invites a friend, Anne, to come and stay with them as well. 

Anne and Elsa are as different as two women can be, and what starts off innocently soon morphs into a love triangle that Cecile manipulates from her position as daughter, lover and friend. Spoiled and used to getting her own way, Cecile isn't happy with a very specific turn of events so she does everything within her adolescent power to impose her will upon the adults. Her childish actions have very grown up consequences, and not a single person on that dazzling vacation walks away unscathed. 

The novel is short, succinct, and the narrative style reminded me a little of Breakfast at Tiffany's. Cecile's own short fallings are endearing, and the entire book makes you long for those days when you were foolish enough to act upon your feelings every single moment of every single day. The P.S. section in my copy contained an interview with the author as well as a truly captivating essay about driving -- just perfect for the start of summer when all I can think about is taking a road trip and spending hours in the car just driving, not really caring if I get anywhere in particular. 

READING CHALLENGES: Sagan was born in France, so that takes care of that country for Around the World in 52 Books. Reading her novel made me long for Paris, because it was just about a year ago that I was there with Sam. Also, Bonjour Tristesse is on the 1001 Books list, so that's two challenges with one short page count (130!).

#29 - Brooklyn

Weeks have passed since I finished reading Colm Toibin's ridiculously fabulous new novel, Brooklyn. When the book arrived in the mail, I let it sit on my desk for a couple of days because I knew it was one of those books that once I started reading, I wouldn't be able to put it down. Both of Toibin's previous books were equally excellent but Brooklyn is hands down my favourite. In fact, I'm going to say that it's probably the best book I've read so far this year. 

Eilis has spent her entire life in the village of Enniscorthy where she spends her days taking bookkeeping classes and her nights being ignored by local boys at local dances. She lives in the shadow of her successful, poised, well-dressed older sister Rose, who has built an existence for herself in the small town with a good job and a passion for golf. When a priest from Brooklyn comes to visit and offers Eilis the chance at a new life -- a job, a place to stay, a world away from Enniscorthy -- and she takes it. After all, both of her brothers have left to make their fortunes in England, and Rose does nothing but encourage her to take the chance. 

In Brooklyn, Eilis finds herself, she works hard as a shop girl during the day, and continues to learn bookkeeping at night. Simple goals, but all within reach. And her life truly opens up when she meets Tony. Her homesickness has passed, and despite the moral strictness of 1950s America (not to mention Ireland), Eilis actually feels happy until tragedy brings her home. Everything is different now. Eilis is different, changed, more confident, schooled, and experienced, which leads her to a crossroads. Does she stay in Enniscorthy or does she return to Brooklyn, to Tony?

The story reads overtly simplistic when you think about it -- a coming of age tale, an immigrant's experience -- but Toibin's skill at telling it remains unwavering throughout. His language, his ability to cast the characters, to explore their emotional situation without ever having them openly express an emotion stunned me. What more can you ask of a book than it be a well told story with well developed characters who make a choice that ultimately defines their life in the end? How many young girls emigrated, found themselves away from home, unhappy, and then surprisingly ensconced in a new life that widens their world? 

Eilis doesn't always make the right decisions. Her human flaws are always apparent. Yet, her story has you engaged from the very moment the novel opens with the simple action of her watching Rose come home from work. If anyone out there has read and hasn't fallen completely in love with this novel as I have, I will swear right now that we can never be friends. 

READING CHALLENGES: I'm counting Toibin as my Irish entry for Around the World in 52 Books. It's also #1 so far in terms of the 30-odd books I've read so far this year...

Stunned And Stumped

We're still missing our desktop. Luckily, a darling old friend has fixed it for us, but we forgot the power cord, which means we're still on the laptop. That's not a bad thing. But it's strange to be so without what you're used to. Freelance is piling up. Blog posts are piling up. Life is piling up. Today my electronic gadgets all died on the way home as I had just finished my book -- that meant I had nothing to read while waiting and waiting and waiting for a Tamil-stopped streetcar. 

This morning, I woke up at 4:36 AM and couldn't get back to sleep. Good for the garden, because it meant I had time to head outside before getting the morning routine started, and water the plants with the rain barrel versus the hose. Bad for actually being awake. The day started and ended off in a haze... and now I'm sucked into the last episode of America's Next Top Model

Friday, May 08, 2009

#28 - Under the Skin

The closest book I can compare Michel Faber's truly creepy, utterly addictive novel Under the Skin to would be Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. I've been classifying it as speculative fiction, a book that takes place in a world that looks very much like our own, but slowly reveals itself to be very, very different. Isserley spends her days hunched behind the wheel of a slowly-breaking down vehicle trolling for hitchhikers along the A9 highway in Scotland. Her world is skewed, not only from the giant glasses she wears, but also because of her strange occupation. Little spears in the seat of the car sedate the hitchers once she's determined whether or not they'll be missed, and their bodies transported back to a farm where others of her race wait to process the "vodsels."

Slowly over the course of the narrative you learn that Isserley, although she refers to herself as a human being, is quite different from the rest of us who define ourselves by that term. Her body mutilated so she can appear as close to normal in the "vodsel" world atop the earth, she's in constant pain and her job takes its toll. I don't want to give away too much of the plot because Faber's ability to unwind the story over the course of the novel remains its strength. The further along you get, the further you realize how troubled Isserley is -- both physically and psychologically.

The only other book by Faber that I've read is The Crimson Petal and the White, which, to this day, remains one of the most frustrating reads I've ever suffered through. The book sprawled all over the place, tumbled along for almost 1,000 pages (or at least it felt that way), and never came to a satisfying conclusion. The exact opposite is true of Under the Skin. The narrative is crisp and almost cinematic, you feel your own legs cramp as Isserley spends yet another day behind the wheel trolling for her victims. You shake your head as they get in the car. You feel even worse after the book finally reveals exactly what happens to them once they decend into the depths of the world underneath the farm.

To say this book wasn't what I was expecting would be an understatement. And it's it just wonderful when that happens?

READING CHALLENGES: Under the Skin is on the 1001 Books list, so it'll count towards that challenge, and Michel Faber was born in The Hague, The Netherlands, so that's one for Around the World in 52 Books too.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

TRH Update: A List

How do weeks go by and have I zero time to update this space? Not having a computer complicates things because it means that I can't sit down after dinner and write a quick post, and squeezing anything other than work into day to day life seems almost impossible. Here's where I am lately:

1. Saw the kidney doctor lat week and he said two things: one, I have excellent blood pressure and considering I have barely exercised in the last six months, that was a relief; two, because there's so much extra protein in my pee (gross, I know), I might have to take more medicine to stop it from mowing through my organs and causing even more damage.

2. One should never get organized for one's taxes in January. One will lose half of the things one is supposed to bring with her to the accountant and then forget the rest. What does this mean? Going through all the receipts again to see what's missing.

3. Our house is coming along swimmingly. My RRHB has built a deck off the back where a gross, disgusting, rotting mudroom used to be and I am spending every spare moment outside. Last Saturday I got up early (he was working out of the house) and spent every minute from about 8 AM until 1 PM in the garden and on the deck. Fresh air truly revitalizes.

4. Pigeon by Karen Solie is one of the best books of poetry I've read in ages. Her poems inspire a sense of wanderlust that I forced us to indulge in when we made a day trip to Point Pelee two weekends ago. Pictures are here. This would be book #26 for the year. I'm sorry the review is so short. But just know it's the perfect book to read in the spring and her observations about how the modern world interacts with nature made my heart skip a beat.

5. I've also finished reading Paulo Coelho's Veronika Decides to Die (#27). The tale of a young girl who tries to kill herself only to discover that life can be redeemed at any moment was...okay. Certainly not my favourite of all of Coelho's books that I've read, but I enjoyed thinking about how Buffy would play the lead in the film and how they'd adapt it for the big screen. The love story is sweet and he writes about mental illness with an alarming accuracy -- it's no One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but more of an exploration of how creative minds are sometimes forced into difficult situations when the normal limits of society cannot bind them. Maybe the idea of redemption was a little too obvious throughout the book for my tastes. But it's apparently Coelho's most autobiographical book, and the P.S. section at the back of my copy was fascinating to read in term of his own experiences with mental hospitals and the barbaric treatments he himself suffered. Also, this book is on the 1001 Books list, so I can add on to that challenge, which is good. I'm so far behind in my reading it's actually shocking.

6. I'm halfway through Francine Prose's amazing biography about Anne Frank. It's coming out next fall so more on that later. As well, I finished what might be my favourite novel I've read so far this year, Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, but I want to write a proper post about it, so, again, more to come on that title too.

7. The week before I saw the kidney doctor, I also saw my family doctor about a world of issues. Mainly the fact that I haven't felt like myself in months, the grumps have taken over, and maybe the prednisone crazies have stuck around in ways that they haven't in over 10 years. That's been part of my radio silence too -- who wants to read about my sadness over and over again? There are far better things to do. Right now I'm just figuring my way out. See #8.

8. The garden. Wow, who would have ever thought that I would become a gardener. But there's something magical about planting seeds and watching them sprout. Last year I tackled vegetables and this year I planted some flowers (none of which have started to grow beyond seedlings yet). I like to plant things with a purpose so a lot of them are either edible or have beneficial properties for birds, bugs and butterflies. More pictures to come. But what I do know is that taking a half-hour, an hour, fifteen minutes and spending it outside after a long day has made all the difference.

9. All of the meds have combined to make me more tired than I ever thought possible. The more I push through the exhaustion, the better I seem to feel, but I'm also irritable, grumpy, short-tempered and so fuzzy-headed that I can barely put a to-do list together. Anyone have any suggestions?

10. I've been obsessively using Purell these days. Not just because of the Swine Flu hysteria but more because I've picked up every single little bug that's gone around. There were about six weekends in a row where I was either running a fever, barfing (that was a pleasant one), coughing, more coughing, wheezing and/or feeling stuffy-headed from various viruses.

11. Marley and Me is quite possibly the most boring film I've ever watched. Next to The Watchmen, where I fell asleep, in the theatre, right before the sex scene. Wow, that was a shocker to open up your eyes too. Also, Jennifer Aniston is orange. Throughout the entire picture.

Okay that it's it -- /babbling.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Disaster!

Our computer is down for the count -- hence the radio silence. Fingers crossed it gets fixed soon because I have a half-dozen book reviews to post!