Archive for July, 2010

The NYRB Classic edition of The Summer Book by Tove Jansson is described on the back cover as “the essence of summer” and, after reading this delightful slim volume, I can’t disagree.  In fact, as we stumble headlong into August having seen more hail and rain than sun, this seems like the only summer I might experience this year.  But I can’t complain: wouldn’t you rather spend your summers on a Finnish island, exploring and discovering the world around you?

From the opening lines, Jansson paints a vivid picture of life on the island that continues throughout and one can almost smell and feel the scene she creates.  It’s a magical yet still realistic place, the kind you know exists somewhere and would love to find yourself:

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night.  The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colors everywhere had deepened.  Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rain forest of lush, evil leaves and flowers…(p. 5)

The short vignettes dealing with the adventures, games, and minor dramas of six-year-old Sophia and her elderly grandmother are simple but beautifully expressed, capturing the spirit and selfishness of youth as well as the exhaustion and bluntness that comes with age.  Both characters can be delightful, but they are both flawed and far more likeable than their more perfect counterparts that appear in similar (and infinitely lesser) novels.  Flawed characters are so much more loveable, a lesson that Sophia learns in a chapter entitled “The Cat.”

I’ve always been rather intimidated by Scandinavian writers, having the impression that their writing style was stark and rather brutal.  Perhaps this may be true of some authors but certainly not Jansson.  Her writing and stories are straightforward but still gentle and endearing.  There is subtle humour throughout, but generally I’d call the book sweet rather than funny (though “The Crooks” is very amusing).  Exactly the perfect reading for hot summer days, when all you want to do is loll about in the shade with a wonderful, easy book that sweeps you up into a world not your own.

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Friday Potpourri

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Heading off on my normal long-weekend commute today: straight from work to the airport and then just a quick jump over the Rockies and I’ll be in Vancouver for dinner!  When I used to do the Vancouver to Ottawa flight all the time it was such an ordeal (never mind having to bring at least two books to see me through a five hour flight) but this flight is just over an hour – magazine rather than book length.  I’m really looking forward to this weekend and will hopefully have a chance to relax a little and finally write up all the books I’ve been reading the last few weeks!  I feel I’ve been neglecting you all by not doing so and will feel much better once I’m all caught up.

Only happy stories this week!  I had some truly depressing articles saved up but I’ll hold onto them for a few more weeks.  I want to start my long weekend off on a positive note.

Not-So-Little Lamb: My favourite link this week has nothing to do with books, though it does come from the author of one of my favourite reads of 2010.  Elizabeth Bard, author of Lunch in Paris, has some amazing photos on her blog of a lamb roast in Brittany earlier this summer.  There is something about a whole animal being roasted on a spit that is just so appealing to my gastronomic soul.  A thing of beauty.

The Importance of Being Ernest:  I find I can not improve on what Alison Flood had to say about a very strange but very endearing competition:

After 11 years of toil, Charles Bicht has finally had his day. Dressed in a safari suit, the white-bearded Floridian this Saturday beat 123 other hopefuls to triumph in the annual Hemingway lookalike contest. I think this news has made me happier than almost anything else this week. I didn’t even know there was a Hemingway contest, and browsing a series of pictures of beaming bearded Papas is really the way I wish I could spend all my days.

A Boon for Book Voyeurs:  Apparently I am not the only person mesmerized by the Book Depository map.  It’s hypnotic, truly.  Haven’t you always wanted to see people in Norway buy Science Matters in real time? 

Gilded Romances of Dashing Dandies, Brooding Beaus:  Helen Simonson talks (again) about her love for Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels.  Speaking of Heyer, have you all heard about Austenprose’s month-long event “Celebrating Georgette Heyer”, beginning this Sunday and running all August?  I’ll be reviewing The Foundling as part of the festivities on August 13.

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Since it was officially announced earlier today over at The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader, I can now tell everyone that I’ll be joining Marg as the new co-host of Library Loot!  As a devoted library user, this is my favourite meme and I’m quite excited to be stepping into Eva‘s shoes to co-host.

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Library Loot

That project that I thought was done on Friday?  Not done and, worse, looking likely to continue for some time.  I am doing my best to fit in some quality reading time, between crises, but I’m not certain how diligent I’ll be able to be with my updates.  However, in the spirit of eternal optimism, I continue to collect new volumes from the library.  Here is my most recent haul:


We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
To be honest, I’m still a little wary of this one (despite the pleas from its vocal supporters).  But I will try it.  Probably.  If not, I’ll keep borrowing it until I do.  The start is promising, even I can admit that:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.  I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance.  I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.  I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise.  I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom.  Everyone else in my family is dead. 

Bellfield Hall by Anna Dean, The Thoughtful Dresser by Linda Grant, A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka
It shouldn’t be too difficult to determine which blog I was reading last week…Billed by Eva (The Striped Armchair) as “wonderful books you should know about”, how could I resist?  I’m particularly interested in the Pasulka, which, the book jacket advises, “weaves together two remarkable stories, reimagining half a century of Polish history through the legacy of one unforgettable love affair.”

Why We Act Like Canadians by Pierre Berton
As a Canadian, I consider it necessary to contemplate the national character at least once a year (generally more than that, but I’ve always been an overachiever).  Though not an official requirement of citizenship, it is a bit of a national obsession.  I love Berton too, which helps. 

The Other Family by Joanna Trollope
Trollope has the ability to disturb and comfort me at the same time with her unerringly insightful domestic dramas.  Here, she tackles the story of the two families of a recently deceased entertainer.

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Friday Potpourri


This week got away from me a few days ago.  On Monday, actually.  Basically, I’m writing this one off entirely.  There hasn’t been much reading, much sleeping, or much of anything not related to the project I’m currently working on.  But now it’s done!  My time is my own again and I am more than ready for this weekend and lots and lots of reading (of all those great titles I picked up at the library last week)!

Have any young readers in your life looking for summer reading ideas?  The Guardian gets nostalgic, remembering Willard Price’s Adventure series about ‘Hal and Roger Hunt, the brothers who travel the world capturing animals for their father’s Long Island zoo.’  Irresistible.    

Are you brave enough to share your literary humiliations?  To admit to all those gaps in your reading?  Let me start off: I have never finished a Dickens novel.  I’ve absorbed enough from various cultural sources that I can describe, in detail, the plots of at least six of his books and answer any question Jeopardy! may throw at me, but I have never read any of them.  What about you? 

In honour of the Season Four premiere of “Mad Men” this weekend, Flavorwire gives us The Definitive Mad Men Summer Reading List, featuring all the books mentioned over the past three seasons (starting off with one of my own favourite summer reads, Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything).  I am also terribly excited by one of the titles mentioned at the end, The Fashion File: Advice, Tips, and Inspiration from the Costume Designer of Mad Men.  It won’t be released until the end of October but I can’t wait to flip through it!

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Library Lust

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There’s something about leather chairs in a library that is just so right.  Deep, chocolate-coloured leather too – none of that harsh black.  I generally loathe leather furniture (which is very inconvenient at this point in my life, since all my male friends who are bach’ing it refuse to buy anything else) but I am always willing to make an exception when it comes to libraries.

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People’s attitudes towards death and aging fascinate me, particularly in our youth-obsessed culture.  I grew up in a world where at least one tennis mom on each court had obviously had something nipped, tucked, or plumped and where men in their fifties welcomed new additions to their second families with the dire prospect of hitting retirement well before their child’s graduation from high school.  These were people who fought Father Time with every fiber of their being, spending time and money and, most of all, energy in an attempt to turn back or at least hold the clock.

That always works out so well, doesn’t it?

Growing up as I did, with a pessimistic babi and a father who specializes in estate planning (nothing says ‘fun day at work’ like talking with people about their inevitable demise!), I suppose it’s only natural that that my attitude towards death has always been rather matter-of-fact (aside from a brief period when I was eight and terrified myself by imagining the emptiness of nonexistence).  Few things bother me more than the phrase ‘if I die’, unless it’s accompanied by ‘while climbing this sheer rock face above a river filled with crocodiles’ or some equally specific circumstance.  You are going to die.  It’s going to happen, hopefully when you are very old, but still, it’s a certainty.

Diana Athill proves in Somewhere Towards the End to be one of the people who understands this, not that it makes the process that much easier.  Recalling a conversation with her octogenarian brother, Athill summarizes his feelings: “what filled him as death approached was not fear of whatever physical battering he would have to endure…but grief at having to say goodbye to what he could never have enough of” (p. 75).

Athill doesn’t pull many punches.  She has written a very personal and very fascinating memoir of aging, of reaching the end of a rich and long life.  I discovered quite early on that I don’t particularly like Athill.  She comes across as one of those insufferably self-righteous, PC-obsessed, left-wing zealots – a subtle version, admittedly, but one all the same.  Her vocal rejection of the ‘wicked nonsense’ that framed the basis of the Empire and the upper-middle class she was born into, her distinctly unconventional relationships/living arrangements, her preference for black lovers over white…it was all intoned in a vaguely superior tone that irritated me to no end.  To other readers, with different frames of reference or personal opinions, these same traits may make her seems incredibly modern and forward-thinking. 

That said, disliking Athill doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate her lovely prose.  It’s clear and simple, direct and energetic.  The voice of an eighty-nine year old woman sounds remarkably similar to that of a woman fifty years her junior, only possessed of more experience and a better writing style than most.  Having spent most of her life as an editor, she certainly knows what she is doing. 

The insights into Athill’s life and youth are interesting and may lead me to pick up the other memoirs she has written, but what I was drawn to most was her writing on the aging process, her perception of what is happening to her body.  At the beginning of the volume, she remarks on how poorly documented a period in the human life cycle the last years are.  Not altogether shocking – I can think of a number of reasons why one might not be able to or want to spend one’s final years writing about the process of dying – but how wonderful that someone did take the time to document it and in such a detailed and thoughtful manner.

For anyone who enjoys memoirs, I’d recommend this without reservation.  Even if you aren’t a fan of memoirs, I’d urge you to try this.  It’s rather short and the chapters are equally brief and self-contained.  If nothing else, it would be a simply wonderful style guide for How To Write. 

A few favourite passages:

Growing old sucks or, as Athill says:

… there’s no denying that moving through advanced old age is a downhill journey.  You start with what is good about it, or at least less disagreeable than you expected, and if you have been, or are being, exceptionally lucky you naturally make the most of that, but ‘at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near’, and that is sobering, to say the least. (p. 179) 


Considering the importance of interacting with young people:

What is so good about it is not just the affection young people inspire and how interesting their lives are to watch.  They also, just by being there, provide a useful counteraction to a disagreeable element in an old person’s life.  We tend to become convinced that everything is getting worse simply because within our own boundaries things are doing so.  We are becoming less able to do things we would like to do, can hear less, see less, eat less, hurt more, our friends die, we know that we ourselves will soon be dead…It’s not surprising, perhaps, that we easily slide into general pessimism about life, but it is very boring and it makes dreary last years even drearier.  Whereas if, flitting in and out of our awareness, there are people who are beginning, to whom the years ahead are long and full of who knows what, it is a reminder – indeed it enables us actually to feel again – that we are not just dots at the end of thin black lines projecting into nothingness, but are parts of the broad, many-coloured river teeming with beginnings, ripenings, decayings, new beginnings – are still parts of it, and our dying will be part of it just as these children’s being young is, so while we still have the equipment to see this, let us not waste our time grizzling. (p. 83-84) 

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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!

‘At our African camp we often have a problem with lionhairs on the chaise lounge,’ said Hannah defensively.

‘Lions are lounging on your lawn furniture, and the only things you’re worried about are the lionhairs?’

~Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen, p. 69

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Library Loot


For a weekend where I had so many wonderful books at my disposal, I have done very little reading.  Lots of cleaning though.  Lots and lots of cleaning in preparation for friends visiting on Monday.  But now that the dust bunnies have been vanquished and all my wood work is shiny and smelling of lemon oil, I think I am ready to settle down with one of these new titles:


Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge
This has been lurking on my TBR list after hearing it mentioned repeatedly and enthusiastically by Rachel at Book Snob.  It felt like time to finally investigate it for myself. 

Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa
I read the NPR review of this back in April and, though slightly disturbed, I was nonetheless intrigued – enough to place a hold on the library copy which finally came available this week.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen
When this was released last year, it immediately went onto my wish list.  The reviews were good and, most excitingly, there were Mennonites!  Any story involving Mennonites is one for me; I have been strangely fascinated by them since I was little, mostly since my father’s family comes from an area of Ontario with a large Mennonite population and they always had the nicest, largest farms and gorgeous draft horses (these are the kind of things my family is impressed by).  Not Amish, not Hutterites, just Mennonites.  I fully acknowledge that this is weird.  I am okay with that.     

The Summer We Read Gatsby by Danielle Ganek
Summer fluff.  No nutritional value. 

Great Expectations: Twenty-Four True Stories about Childbirth edited by Dede Crane and Lisa Moore
This title was mentioned recently in a column in The Globe and Mail and I thought, hey, why not?  Silly, silly Claire.  I am two stories in and already deeply traumatized.  I read too much historical fiction when I was young in which every second female character seemed to die in childbirth and, after years of working to exercise those particular demons, they are back with a vengeance.  Fun.  The stories are excellently written, just terrifying. 

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell

Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb
Remember when I first mentioned this one?  No?  Probably because it was all the way back in April!  But it finally arrived and I’m quite excited.  The chapter titles alone are fascinating: The Man Who Saved Paris, A Property in Bohemia, The Day of the Fox…most intriguing.

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I write like
P. G. Wodehouse

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!


I would love to believe this.  I don’t, but I truly would love to.  Because I am naturally distrustful of such things, I tried four different writing samples (it’s also the weekend and, clearly, I have time on my hands).  Three times I came up as Wodehouse, once as Margaret Atwood.

This tool might be misguided, but at least it’s flattering.

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