Archive for April, 2010

Friday Potpourri


Well, my lovely vacation is coming to an end.  Tomorrow, I fly back to Calgary which has, in my absence, been blanketed with snow.  Doesn’t sound very inviting, does it?  Clearly, the only good thing about my vacation ending is that I’ll have a chance to finally write up reviews of everything I read this week and respond to all your comments on my more recent posts (thanks for being patient with me).

Ten of the Best Breakfasts in Literature: not necessarily meals you’d want to eat yourself, but certainly memorable ones.  A wonderful mention of Wodehouse is included.

Esther Freud’s top 10 Love Stories:  I love this list and particularly enjoy Freud’s comments on Jane Eyre, a book I can’t stand but which everyone else seems to find terribly romantic and wonderful.  Added a few new titles to my TBR list, including The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann.

Parisians – An Adventure History of Paris:  I need this book by Graham Robb.  The New York Times describes his humourous writing style as “Ian McEwan’s by way of Anthony Lane’s.”  It sounds offbeat and I feel the desperate need to know what, exactly, an adventure history of Paris looks like.

Spoken from the Heart: The New York Times reviews Laura Bush’s memoir.  It doesn’t sound particularly brilliant but I am intrigued nonetheless, particularly after having read Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife earlier this year (in my pre-blogging days).

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God* comes to you and tells you that, from this day forward, you may only read ONE type of book–one genre–period, but you get to choose what it is. Classics, Science-Fiction, Mystery, Romance, Cookbooks, History, Business … you can choose, but you only get ONE.

What genre do you pick, and why?

*Whether you believe in God or not, pretend for the purposes of this discussion that He is real.

A question I have some experience answering!  At terribly random dinner parties, we occasionally descend into this kind of questioning and, as with all good dinner parties, the quality of the answer improves with the number of bottles of wine consumed and the lateness of the hour.

Ignoring the fact that I have very mixed feelings about Classics as a genre unto itself (because that brings us back to the question of what constitutes a classic and things just get messy), I have to say that this is a competition that comes down to History versus Biography/Memoir for me.  Fiction is all well and good but I get rather bored of it and, besides, what is there in fiction that isn’t pulled from real life?  History had a momentary edge in my mental calculations because it’s far easier to find a history book dealing with an obscure era than to find a biography dealing with a character from that time.  Still, I love the personal connection I have when reading a biography.  I love learning about other people’s lives, their little dramas and accomplishments.  The best biographies are romances and mysteries and histories that fulfill all of my reading needs.   

As much as I love Love in a Cold Climate, would I not rather read Mary Lovell’s excellent The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family?  Is there any history book or novel that gives a better feeling of Berlin in 1945 than the distressing A Woman in Berlin?  Even biographies of people in whose work I have no interest fascinate me, as in the case of Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St Vincent Millay.  Indeed, right now as my life, like any good Canadian’s, is consumed by the NHL playoffs, I yearn to pick up my copy of Ken Dryden’s The Game.

There’s a wonderful satisfaction that comes from reading that which I know to be true and, for that reason, I would always choose it over fiction.  Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction and all the more fascinating, especially when it comes to the stories of individual lives.

Absolutely, definitively, I would choose Biographies/Memoirs.

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As the light, filler posts of the last few days may suggest, I am enjoying my vacation far too much to worry about writing thoughtful, analytical reviews.  I am taking notes as I’m reading and eventually (probably) these will be typed up into something resembling coherent thought but for now I am happy to focus on having a good time. 

And who better to ensure a good time than P.G. Wodehouse?  Rather than a review (it’s Wodehouse, any review I was going to write was going to be overwhelmingly positive anyways), I shall simply leave you will delightful quotes from Heavy Weather:

From the introduction (by Anthony Lane): “The most that one can say of Heavy Weather, probably, is that it rotates around two topics of consuming interest: a) fat pigs and those who care for them, and b) willowy young men and those who care for them.  These two subjects are pleasingly entwined; to be honest, there is little to choose between them, although the leading pig, Empress of Blandings, far outstrips the resident young men in her poise and equanimity, and, for all one knows, her IQ.” (p. vii)


“The Hon. Galahad Threepwood, in his fifty-seventh year, was a dapper little gentleman on whose grey but still thickly-covered head the weight of a consistently misspent life rested lightly.  His flannel suit sat jauntily upon his wiry frame, a black-rimmed monocle gleamed jauntily in his eye.  Everything about this Muskateer of the nineties was jaunty.  It was a standing mystery to all who knew him that one who had had such an extraordinarily good time all his life should, in the evening of that life, be so superbly robust.  Wan contemporaries who had once painted a gas-lit London red in his company and were now doomed to an existence of dry toast, Vichy water, and German cure resorts felt very strongly on this point.  A man of his antecedents, they considered, ought by rights to be rounding off his career in a bath-chair instead of flitting about the place, still chaffing head waters as of old and calling for the wine list without a tremor.” (p. 40)


“…meanwhile I will be giving Pirbright his intructions.”

“Tell him to lurk.”


“Some rude disguise such as a tree or a pail of potato-peel would help.”

Lord Emsworth reflected.

“I don’t think Pirbright could disguise himself as a tree.”

“Nonsense.  What do you pay him for?” (p. 43)


“No healthy person really needs food.  If people would only stick to drinking, doctors would go out of business.” (p. 44)


The happiest of Wednesdays to you all!

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Teaser Tuesday is hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading.

Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page.  Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page. You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

There were no other people at the spot and it was easy to imagine, when the sun started to go down and deer and echidna and paddymelon melted out of the bush, that they shared some secret with the land, that they and they alone lived in a way that set the precedent for all future campers.  The two most perfect people on the planet.

~After The Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld (p. 143)

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Library Lust

credit: Alejandro Erickson

What better way to start the week than with a picture of my absolutely favourite library?   The Library of Parliament in Ottawa is probably the first library I fell in love with and that feeling hasn’t faded.  I want to visit it, I want to work in it, I basically want to live in it.  As far as I am concerned, this library is perfection.

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Isa & May by Margaret Forster tells the story of Isamay (named for both her grandmothers), a graduate student working on a thesis about the role of grandmothers.  Examining the roles of historical figures such as Sarah Bernhardt, Vanessa Bell, and Queen Victoria, Isamay also uncovers secrets in her own family, where both her grandmothers have played important and conflicting roles in Isamay’s life. 

I was very close to my maternal grandmother.  Born in 1921 in what is now the Czech Republic, she lived through some rather awful times.  She’d grown up in a wealthy family, learning the skills appropriate to such a life, including sewing, baking (not cooking), and how to manage servants.  She was to start University, studying literature, in 1939 but the school was closed by the Nazis.  During the war, her father died after being ‘questioned’ by the Gestapo, and she married my grandfather as an alternative to being sent to work in a munitions factory in Germany (a favourite target for allied bombers).  Yes, very romantic.  After the war, communism.  Such fun for all.  In 1968, a few years after being widowed, she made the decision to leave the country and immigrate to Canada with her two daughters (ages 13 and 20).  She worked as a tea lady and a cleaning woman until she mastered English, eventually moving on to a role in research.  She had two grandchildren (me and my brother), retiring the year I was born, and to say that her life revolved around us is actually a bit of an understatement.  Growing up, more often than not it was my grandmother and not my parents or my nanny who picked me up from school.  She volunteered in the school library while I was in elementary school and lived in an apartment just a few blocks away from my house when I was young.  She could be strict and unyielding but my brother and I adored her, and we were adored in return.  There were very rigid rules about what was correct and what was not (correct: top grades, short hair, neat clothing, good manners; incorrect: we were too afraid to find out), and though this attitude both frustrated and amused us, we did as she said for the most part.

My grandmother (age 16 or 17)

So is it any wonder then that I jumped to read a book about grandmothers, when mine had been such a large influence on my development?

Unfortunately, despite how much I had been looking forward to this one, I found it ultimately disappointing.  I found both Isa and May appealing but not Isamay, the protagonist.  She seemed so…clueless, I suppose is the best word.  She knows almost nothing about her boyfriend Ian’s past, despite having been together for several years, and though this bothers her, she seems unable to articulate this frustration to him and so she just grows more curious and more suspicious, trying to piece together clues she gathers surreptitiously.  A very strange dynamic for a relationship.    

But it is Isamay’s naivety about grandmothers that frustrates me the most.  She does not understand why it is that one generation wants to see the next continue, why a parent is so eager to see their son or daughter have children of their own.  She dismisses the responses her grandmothers give her, about the importance of the future and continuity.  I found this entire outlook strange.  If you’re going to go looking for answers, admittedly from authorities on this matter, why would you not accept them?  Is it not basic human nature to want to see your line continue, to know that even once you are gone those related to you will remain?  That you made some mark on the work, left something of lasting value?  And to know that not only did you have children but that your children had children and so on, what relief.  Biologically, this is why we’re here after all.  Not to make money, not even to read books, but to propagate the species. 

I found the historical examples far more interesting than the predictable intrigues of Isamay’s own life.  Queen Victoria is always my favourite grandmother, but it was interesting to hear about some others that I knew less about, like Sarah Bernhardt and George Sand. 

Overall, an interesting concept but executed in a way that ultimately frustrated me with the lack of emotional connection between the protagonist and her subject.

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Library Loot

Lots and lots of books this week, all the better to see me through my California vacation!

Heavy Weather by P.G. Wodehouse
There’s nothing so dependable as a good Wodehouse novel for a vacation, particularly one set at Blandings.

Green Metropolis by David Owen
Sub-titled: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability.  Yes, this is what we call preaching to the converted – still looking forward to it though.

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn
If I can’t go to Le Cordon Bleu, I can at least live vicariously through those who have!  After being fired, Flinn moves to Paris and enrolls in the prestigious culinary school.  Sounds a bit like one of those middle-aged-woman-discovers-meaning-of-life-by-abandoning-career books, but it is in Paris and I have been promised recipes, so I’m willing to at least try it.

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
I don’t think I’ve read any Christie since I was twelve and my best friend and I worked through our way through all the Poirots and Marples we could get our hands on.  It was a busy summer.  Our survey, while enthusiastic, was not thorough, and I don’t believe I’ve read this once before. 

After the Fire, a Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld
Do any of you not love this book?  All my favourite book bloggers seem to have adored it so that when I saw it on the ‘New & Notable’ shelf at my library, I snatched it up (snatched is perhaps too timid a description – I may have sprinted to the shelf when I saw it from a distance and then glanced jealously about, suspicious that some other patron might try to rip it from my arms).  

The Fire Gospel by Michel Faber
Theo Griepenkerl is a modest academic with an Olympian ego. When he visits a looted museum in Iraq, looking for treasures he can ship back to Canada, he finds nine papyrus scrolls that have lain hidden for two thousand years. Once translated from Aramaic, these prove to be a fifth Gospel, written by an eye-witness of Jesus Christ’s last days. But when Theo decides to share this sensational discovery with the world, he fails to imagine the impact the new Gospel will have on Christians, Arabs, homicidal maniacs and Amazon customers. Like Prometheus’s gift of fire, it has incendiary consequences.

Germania by Simon Winder
I minored in modern German history at University, so this was a ‘must read’ for me from the moment I first heard of it.    

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine
On Sunday, Eva gave a brief but enthusiastic review of this one and I ordered it from the library immediately!

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Friday Potpourri

A wonderfully decorated parking garage

10 Authors Every Jane Austen Fan Should Read – Part I & Part II: an interesting, if mostly predictable list of authors, some of who I consider favourites already (Elizabeth Gaskell, Alexander McCall Smith, Stella Gibbons) and some that, however hard I try, I struggle with (Barabara Pym, Penelope Fitzgerald).  Anyone you think is missing?  Anyone one here who absolutely should not be? (#10 perhaps?)

Three Books for the Closeted Francophile: alright, so I’m hardly closeted, but I am a Francophile!  To my surprise, NPR came up with a list of three books of which I have only read one.  This is the reason I am so very fond of NPR in the first place: they always come to the rescue with such inspiration when my TBR list is looking particularly short, helping me to bulk it back up.

Controlled Chaos: A Day Working the Rikers Island Book Cart: the obligatory library-related item, but for a very special library with some rather unique patrons (who apparently have a passion for National Geographic magazine).

Have a wonderful Friday!  I’m off to Palm Springs as of 2 o’clock this afternoon for a week in the sun with my parents and, of course, my books!  Looking forward to reading Henrietta’s War with palm trees swaying above me…

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My conversion into a graphic novel fan continues!  A quick review now for what was, in fact, a very quick read. 

Apparently, based on my conversations with friends who saw me reading this during my lunch hour, there are still people left in the world who have not heard of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.  For these readers, a quick summary:

In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq.  The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country. 

Admittedly, I know very little about Iran.  We covered the bare minimum in high school history classes, so I knew the basics about the overthrow of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution, but Satrapi personalises those events, providing a glimpse into life inside the country during those tumultuous times.  But it also provides a glimpse into the mind of a child coming of age under very usual circumstances, which is what makes this book stand out.

Satrapi is a delightful protagonist – unique from our first introduction to her, as a ten-year old who can’t understand why, in the wake of the Islamic Revolution, she now has to wear the veil (though she may prefer to play with it in the schoolyard).  Quickly, we flash back four years, to a six-year old girl determined to become a prophet and who holds private conversations with God each night.  Irresistible.

There is a pervasive sense of paranoia throughout the book, and no wonder.  Satrapi’s parents were not passive bystanders to the events taking place: they were protestors, Marxists activists who saw many of their friends disappear as the situation worsened.  The most chilling moments in the book come from Satrapi’s encounters with other dissidents, whether it be her beloved uncle (executed as a Soviet spy) or two communist family friends who come to dinner shortly after being released from jail, full of details about the torture techniques used on them.  This kind of personal detail is certainly not what they taught us in my history classes and had an incredibly powerful effect.

I’m already eager to pick up Persepolis II, the story of Satrapi’s return to Iran after years spent studying abroad.  Satrapi’s illustrations aren’t in and of themselves particularly special, but her story is and absolutely worth reading.

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I’ve been trying to formulate a response to Enlightened Sexism by Susan J. Douglas for the last five days, ever since I finished reading it.  It wasn’t the most enjoyable read: the topic matter is, understandably, disturbing and Douglas bombards the reader with media and pop culture references, occasionally losing her own train of thought.  Not an easy read then, but a relatively quick one and certainly interesting, even if many of the arguments and examples have been heard before.

Something about this book never quite clicked for me.  I agreed with most everything Douglas said and yet at no time did I feel the excitement I usually do when following an argument that intrigues me.  I think it might have been a case of too many examples and not enough analysis.  It felt like Douglas got so caught up in her case studies that she forgot to tie them back to the points she was attempting to illustrate.  Yes, the information presented was interesting, but what did it mean?  Even her initial definition of enlightened feminism seems indistinct, beginning with a relatively clear statement (see below) but then dragging on for several pages:

Enlightened sexism is a response…to the perceived threat of a new gender regime.  It insists that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism – indeed, full equity has been achieved – so now it’s okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women. (p. 9) 

I was able to tolerate Douglas’ use of Valley-Girl speak throughout (it was, like, really annoying) but I lost some respect for her when, while discussing the Sex and the City franchise, she made a sweeping generalization about the show appealing to all women.  Seriously?  No wonder I found the rest of the analysis confusing – even the author can’t remember that she’s supposed to be arguing against the stereotyping of women.

Two chapters particularly stood out for me: one was “Sex ‘R’ Us”, which turned my stomach with it’s details about how sexualized products are marketed to young girls, the other “You Go, Girl”, which discusses the portrayal of African-American women in the media.  For me, and most Canadians I’ve talked to, race and religion are probably the two most confusing things about the U.S., the issues where our generally similar cultures differ the most.  As soon as you cross the border, even into the Northern, liberal states, as an outsider you’re immediately aware that sensitivity to or at least consciousness of race relations saturates the culture and a natural mirror of that is the media.  Douglas’ survey then, of stereotypes of black American women on television, was fascinating, but I really had no cultural frame of reference.

Unfortunately, one of what should have been the strongest chapters was the weakest for me, analyzing the portrayal of women with power, taking as examples Sarah Palin, Katie Couric, Hilary Clinton and, my favourite, Martha Stewart.  Douglas’ argument isn’t particularly exciting or inventive:

It was the news media and its coverage of prominent, successful women that provided a Rorschach of lingering, jittery anxieties about women and power.  Here, in the news, there remained a deep, unyielding contradiction between and discomfort with “female” and “power.”  Forty years after the women’s movement, “female” is still equated with being nice, supportive, nurturing, accommodating, and domestic – not compatible with anything that might involve leadership.  “Power” is equated with domination, superiority, being tough, even ruthless.  These two categories simply are not supposed to go together.  If some woman seeks to meld these polar opposites, our cultural magnets start spinning out of control, screaming “incongruous” and, even louder, “inappropriate.” (p. 272)

More importantly, I didn’t feel her examples were sufficient even for this tired old argument.  Stewart and Clinton as symbols of power, absolutely, but Couric?  Again, my cultural frame of reference may be skewed here, but does a news anchor really have that much power?  She isn’t shaping government policy or running a business empire, she’s providing nightly news to a rapidly decreasing band of elderly viewers.  Couric was the first woman to anchor an American evening news program on her own, granted, but is her power then granted simply by having been a pioneer in what many already view as a dying trade?

Obviously, not my favourite book of the year and not the book I’d hoped for, either as a student of media studies or of feminism, but still an interesting read for those interested in either topic.  An essential read, perhaps, for the women of Generation Y, those who were just a bit too young for Ani DiFranco and Alanis Morissette, fading emblems of the last feminist push, and but who were just the right age for the mainstream swell of enlightened feminism, the post-Spice Girls fallout if you will.

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