Archive for May, 2010

It feels like ages since I’ve written a review (rather than just one week) so bear with me as I work the rust out of the system.  Give me a few days and I’m sure everything will be back in working order.


Benny & Shrimp by Katarina Mazetti is almost certainly a book I would not have picked up, would never have heard of, if I hadn’t one day wandered into a bookstore that I rarely visit and found it on the Staff Recommendations shelf.  I was in fact more intrigued by the novel’s country of origin (Sweden) than its description of a love story between two thirty-something opposites who meet in a graveyard.  Quirky, Scandinavian fiction?  Count me in.

Shrimp, properly known as Desirée (I would prefer to be called Shrimp, frankly), is a widowed librarian who in the months following her husband’s freak death finds herself crossing paths with the farmer Benny, whose parents occupy the cemetery plot next to Shrimp’s husband.  Both Benny and Shrimp are initially upset to have to share what should be private time at their loved ones graves but, as time goes on, they find themselves drawn together.  And when they finally take a running leap into that inevitable relationship, it’s electric and messy and clearly doomed but so, so fascinating to read about.

The novel is short – only 209 pages – and reads faster than most books that length because of the constant switching between perspectives after only three or four pages.  This is a narrative where it would be very easy to take sides and I thought that by switching so frequently, by presenting both character’s struggles in such a sympathetic, articulate manner, Mazetti made it much more difficult to pass simple judgments on either lead.  That didn’t prevent me from doing so (I come from a long line of dairy farmers, so my sympathies were always going to be with Benny and his commitments to his family farm) but it still felt balanced.

It is a novel about love.  Sort of.  Shrimp’s marriage to the cerebral Örjan was ordered and neat, designed to offer comfort and companionship but never any excitement and really not very much love, not even platonically.  Certainly not the kind of chemical reaction that she and Benny have right from the first moment.  It’s difficult to think of two people worse suited for a relationship: Benny longs for the traditional, for a good farm wife to cook and clean and raise children, a woman who can understand what it means to run a farm, what kind of sacrifices are necessary.  Shrimp is not that woman: Shrimp lives in town, can’t cook and has no interest in learning how, loves books and the theatre and the Opera and foreign films at the cinema.  Neither is terribly willing to adapt to the other’s way of life, to make the kind of sacrifices they know are necessary in order to make the relationship work.

Is that love?  What is love?  Is it a chemical reaction, desire, a ravenous need to jump into bed all the time, victim to a ticking biological clock?  Or is it the well-ordered, emotionless partnership that Shrimp had with her husband and that Benny finds with Anita?  From my way of thinking, it’s neither but then, even as a teenager, I never had one of those hormone-driven crushes or relationships that are thereafter labeled ‘first love’ and alluded to indulgently, nostalgically as time passes.  I think too much.  That’s always been my problem when it comes to matters of the heart (well, when it comes to everything, actually) and I have always managed to reason myself out of any illogical emotional attachment.  The relationship between Benny and Shrimp fascinates me because it’s the kind of thing I simply cannot imagine happening to me.  They cling to each other for so long, even as they’re stubbornly pushing away and fighting, in a way that makes absolutely no sense to me.  Wanting, I understand.  It’s the giving in; the indulging when you know it’s not going anywhere that gives me pause.  I just don’t see the point.  Better to have loved and lost, etc, aside, what is the point of expending all that energy on something that you’re already actively working against to ensure it doesn’t succeed? 

Alright, now that I’ve revealed far too many personal details, best to end (unlike the novel, which remains rather open-ended, in order to accommodate the sequel that does not appear to be available in English.)

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Checking in

via onlyinbooks (tumblr)

Bit of a chaotic week here, for no particular reason.  The long weekend back home was perfect, making my return to Calgary all the more painful, and on Tuesday I finally started my new job.  Clearly, the excitement has been too much for me and very little reading has been done.  I feel scattered and a little breathless so I’m taking a few days off blogging and commenting to catch my breath and realign (and clean – my apartment became mysteriously dirty in my absence).

I did finish Mrs Tim of the Regiment though and will probably be posting my (very positive) thoughts on Saturday or Sunday. 

Hope everyone is having a good week, accompanied by good reads!

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Library Lust

credt: lightgazer (flickr)


Flying back to Calgary this afternoon after a wonderful weekend in Vancouver.  Given that, what could be more appropriate than a picture of the modern, Roman-inspired Vancouver Central Library?

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Given all the controversy and the excessive press coverage that surrounded its publication, I think I was expecting The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman to live up to all that hype.  Perhaps I was expecting something challenging and offensive, certainly I was expecting something fresh and original.  However, after reading this slim volume, I was singularly underwhelmed.

By now, I’m sure that most people have heard the premise of the story: Mary is visited by an ‘angel’ (who looks suspiciously like one of the boys in the village) and conceives twins who, when born, are named Jesus and Christ.  Jesus is an energetic and mischievous child, hugely charismatic, while Christ is weaker, happier to study and pray than to play with the other children.  When Jesus begins his ministry, Christ is convinced by a mysterious stranger to document his brother’s teachings, to keep records of what is said and of what ‘miracles’ Jesus brings about.  This was perhaps the only aspect of the book that I found at all intriguing: Christ as Jesus’ PR rep.  Rather than always reporting them as the truth, Christ’s intention after Jesus’ death is to refine the stories, to essentially create a more dramatic narrative of his brother’s life, using artistic license where need be (‘if the child born in the stable had been not just a human child, but the very incarnation of God himself, how much more memorable and moving the story would be!’ P. 243). 

I suppose I was mostly disappointed simply because the story didn’t seem very creative.  Yes, the twin-angle was new but everything else, all the secular explanations of what had actually happened, seemed like the kind of thing that children puzzle out, trying to come to terms with the fantastical stories in the Bible, trying to determine what bits might actually be rooted in truth. 

Monty Python’s Life of Brian still does it best.

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Recent Arrivals

I realised that over the last month I’ve had a number of new arrivals invade my already over-crowded bookshelves but, with a lamentable lack of manners, I’ve yet to introduct them to you all.  How very remiss of me, particulary as I’m certain that at least three of these titles will provoke congratulations from a number of you.

Yes, I finally have some grey-cover Persephones of my own!  Ordered during Persephone Reading Week, The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Consequences by E.M. Delafield, and On the Other Side by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg all arrived within the last few days and were joyously welcomed, other books pushed aside to make a home for them on one of my more prominent bookshelves.  I adore them and I haven’t even started to read them yet.  It’s strange, I’m so excited to start them but I’m also just enjoying the flush of pride that comes with ownership, with seeing them there and knowing that, after lusting after them for so long, they are now mine. 

I obtained a copy of The Doctor and the Diva by Adrienne McDonnell through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.  Centering, strangely enough, on a doctor and an Opera diva at the beginning of the 20th Century this book was inspired by the author’s own family history.  With settings switching from Boston to Trinidad to Florence, I’m interested to see how it turns out.  The reviews I’ve seen so far have been overwhelmingly positive, so I’m hoping for good things.

Finally, the earliest arrival back at the beginning of the month was The Legacy by Kirsten Tranter from Karen at BookBath.  I’ve wanted to try this one since reading Karen’s enthusiastic review back in February and so was delighted to win a copy.

And there we have it.  What do you think of my new arrivals?

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Friday Potpourri

credit: brownies and butterflies (flickr)

Off to Vancouver this afternoon to spend the Victoria Day long weekend with my family! For someone who hates flying, I certainly seem to do a lot of it – this is my second flight this month.  Well worth the fuss and the stress though.

I’ve gathered a couple of articles this week dealing with reading material aimed at or dealing with teens.  The NYT reviews some recent (and some not-so-recent) coming of age novels, including my newly beloved The Rehearsal, and the Guardian defends teen fiction (though most of the titles mentioned are ones I remember reading well before my teen years), including a shout out to Paula Danziger who I had completely forgotten about until reading this.  It brought back fond memories of Remember Me to Harold Square and Thames Doesn’t Rhyme with James.

Having just rediscovered the delights of Agatha Christie, I was excited when a friend forwarded this article to me last week, giving the Guardian’s list of Christie’s top ten mysteries.  And I’m not the only blogger renewing his or her interest in Christie’s works: Matt at A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook also recently came across the Guardian list and Simon at Savidge Reads seemed to thoroughly enjoy Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?  I might have to pilfer some of my parents’ tattered paperback editions when I am home this weekend…

Anne over at The City Sage had a beautiful post earlier this week of inspirational home libraries.  These examples are slightly more achievable than the dream libraries that you are routinely subjected to with my Library Lust posts- no second levels or oak panelling in sight!

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Hummingbirds by Joshua Gaylord is yet another novel set at an all-girls school, examining the relationships between students and teachers.  Reading this so soon after The Rehearsal certainly did Hummingbirds no favours but I think I would have been disappointed regardless.  Though there were some good passages and a few flashes of wit and wisdom, the story was slight with little to sustain even a determined reader like myself.

The hummingbirds of the titles are the teenage girls who attend the Carmine-Casey School for Girls in New York, where for several years Leo Binhammer has enjoyed his role as the sole male in the English department, appreciating his novelty appeal and the adoration he receives from his students.  However, as the novel begins the English department is welcoming a new teacher, Ted Hughes (yes, that’s really his name).  Binhammer is threatened by his new rival but is drawn to him nonetheless, befriending Hughes, all the while holding on to a secret that involves them both.

The secret is, frankly, ridiculous.  The tension it is supposed to create when revealed feels manufactured, a clumsy plot device.  The novel is relatively graceless to begin with but this was a particularly awkward set up, a sort of false climax that I couldn’t bring myself to care about.  However, it does act as a separation point in the narrative: everything leading up to this confrontation feels like one, cohesive book, while the bit that follows (a relatively short section) feels completely separate.  The characters are familiar but the focus shifts to an incident so clichéd and predictable that you feel certain that the author felt it had to be tacked on merely because it was expected and that the end was as good a place as any to put it.

The parallelism between the teachers and the students was the only elegant part of this book: the rivalry between Binhammer and Hughes is echoed in that between the academically-inclined Liz Warren and the provocative Dixie Doyle.  Dixie was a disappointing character – far too flat and vapid, a particular feat considering how many passages are narrated from her perspective.  Hughes received a similar treatment, coming across as bland and unobjectionable for the most part, getting some wonderful lines but nothing that revealed his motivations or thoughts.  Binhammer, a bundle of insecurities and neuroses, was frustrating but you could (to a certain extent) understand where he was coming from.  The same could be said for Liz Warren – not that she is insecure, but that she is relatable.  Liz is a serious girl, an over-achiever, rather indifferent to the social norms of teenagers.  She doesn’t have that rage or false sense of indignation that many authors imbue such characters with, making them into dull stereotypes.  She does well at school, she is involved in extracurricular activities, she has friends, but she remains one of those teenagers who don’t seem like a teenagers – a middle-aged person masquerading in a young body.  The kind of student that teachers are both impressed by and wary of, unable to classify as either a student or a peer.

Clearly, Liz was my favourite character.  How to resist someone who, after being called ‘precocious’ by adult women in a situation where they view her as their rival, mentally remarks “precocious is what they call smart people before they are old enough to be taken seriously” (p. 287). 

Again, as with The Rehearsal, there were interesting thoughts on the power dynamics of school relationships: teachers and students, men and women.  Again, for the most part, the female students came out with the dominant role.  At several points, various teachers remark about how the girls treat their favourite teachers: “The girls,” one character remarks, “are fiercely loyal to men” (p. 237).  They are, of course, but the men, especially Binhammer, need this loyalty, need this love, to feel worthy and powerful.  When the girls threaten to switch their allegiances to Hughes, Binhammer feels impotent.  It is the girls who determine the power hierarchies at the school, at all levels.  They sense insecurity, weakness, in the men and so grant them attention and power, at least until someone more desperate, male or female, comes along.  Ah, the capriciousness and unthinking responsibility of youth.

Can anyone recommend more successfully-executed novels that deal with this same theme (relationships between students and teachers)?  Aside from Jean Brodie?

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So many books read, so little of interest to report.  You have all been incredibly patient, even going so far as to humour me by commenting on what were clearly filler posts (the idea of going a day without posting fills me with dread – I am working on this).  Bless.  The truth is that after reading The Rehearsal, which blew me away, I had a lot of trouble settling on any one book and, when I did, nothing that I picked seemed particularly worthy of its own individual review.  So, I have decided just to bombard you with all of the books I read last week in one post.  Fair?

The highlight of the week, and this is sad, was Hungry by Crystal Renn (with Marjorie Ingall).  A barely literate memoir by someone born in 1986 (people my age should really not be allowed to write memoirs), Hungry begins with tales of Renn’s happy if unconventional childhood, leading up to the moment she was ‘discovered’ by a scout and told that if she could get her weight down to 110lbs (at 5’9), the modeling agency would be interested in her.  Renn did even more than was asked: she got her weight down below 100lbs through a combination of anorexia and compulsive exercising and, at fourteen, earned her ticket to New York.  There, she was miserable and unsuccessful (yes, it is a morality tale as well).  Eventually, she came to her senses, made her health a priority, and switched to plus-sized modeling, where she has been hugely successfully as a US size 12 (at approximately 165).  Renn is now one of the few modeling faces (and, it must be said, bodies) that are instantly recognizable even to people like me, who know nothing about the modeling world.  A very typical celebrity memoir, the book comes across as very frothy for the first half and preachy towards the end, when Renn advocates for the HAES (Healthy at Every Size) philosophy and devotes many pages to her arguments about acceptance and empowerment.  Far, far too many.  The message is good, but the reader is bombarded and then bored with it.  Still, it’s a fascinating story of a woman who has made a very real difference in a generally sizest industry, conquering the accepted wisdom that plus-size models only have limited appeal.  I may have been unfairly won over by the photos as well – I do love nice, glossy, colour photos. 

Renn's most famous work (for Breast Cancer Awareness)

I also read two (count ‘em, two!) graphic novels: Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle and Blankets by Craig Thompson.  I was incredibly unwhelmed by Blankets, which was disappointing after reading so many enthusiastic reviews.  The illustrations were fabulous but the story seemed rather dull and predictable to me.  There was no tension in it, nothing that made me care about the narrator or his life events.  Burma Chronicles, on the other hand, was just as delightful as Delisle’s Pyongyang.  There’s something terrifically charming about Delisle; both his illustrations and his sense of humour endear him to me.  Certainly, this is the best way to experience any military dictatorship. 

Moving on from Burma to India, I read The Immigrant by Manju Kapur.  The story of an arranged marriage and the ensuing culture-clash when the wife, Nina, comes to join her husband in Canada, this should have been right up my alley.  It was not.  The first section, handling the events leading up to the marriage, was fascinating but after that everything fell apart and focus shifted entirely to the sex life of the couple.  Sounds salacious but it was in fact terribly, terribly boring.  I persisted until the end, hoping it would improve.  It did not.  I enjoyed the author’s style of writing so will (after I recover from my disappointment) attempt to track down more of her work (Difficult Daughters seems to get high praise).

The weekend was then spent reading ridiculously fluffy Regency romance novels.  I knew, years ago, when I started reading Georgette Heyer that she was viewed as a gateway drug.  Lauren Willig’s novels signaled another slip (confirmed when I reread The Masque of the Black Tulip on Saturday).  Finally, my former manager (of all people) recommended that I try the newest book by Kate Moore (with the awful title To Tempt a Saint) and down I went.  It was quickly followed by the equally ridiculously-named (but far superior in style and substance) Then Comes Seduction by Mary Balogh.  I am a ridiculous snob and even as I enjoy these books I feel rather ashamed of even having ‘lowered’ myself to crack the covers (and rather afraid that I will be shunned by other bloggers).  But such books are fun, not even remotely as explicit as some of the other literature I read (see The Immigrant above) and, while I’d never spend money on them (thrift overlapping with snobbishness), my library seems to be stunningly well-stocked.  Not the sort of thing to read all the time but, as a diversion every once in a while, very pleasant.  The Balogh book was also surprising descriptive about garden layouts, which, combined with the recent improvement in the weather here, has reawakened my passion for landscape design, a passion I suppress all winter long and obsess over most summers.  The appropriate volumes have been ordered from the library and it won’t be long before I’m daydreaming about sunken gardens, blossoming orchards, and fragrant rows of roses.

Sunken Garden at Upton Grey

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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!

What girls know is that everything good, honest, or true has a price, the payment of which – whether actual or anticipated – takes all pleasure away from goodness, honesty, and truth.  Boys do not function this way.

~Hummingbirds by Joshua Gaylord (p. 143)

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Library Lust

credit: emgonzalez (via Museum of Moments)

How better to start the week than with a glimpse of the beautiful Melk Abbey library in Austria?

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