Archive for September, 2010

I’m not quite sure if I want to class Bliss by O.Z. Livaneli with my other recent lackluster reads. On the one hand, it certainly didn’t thrill me. You’d think that the story of Meryem, a young woman raped by her uncle and of Cemal, the cousin who has been tasked with carrying out the honour killing would be gripping and most likely disturbing. Instead, it was a bit muddled. On the other hand, it held my interest, which many books have failed to do recently, and each of the three main characters gives fascinating insight into the multiple identities of modern Turkey.

Meryem is bright and energetic, a winsome, naïve fifteen-year old village girl from Eastern Turkey. When Cemal comes to take her away, to Istanbul she is told, the reader knows by the responses of the villagers (cruel jokes from some, tears from others) the true fate of the other girls who have ‘gone to Istanbul’, the girls who no one has heard from since. But Meryem, in her innocence, is excited to begin her journey, to see the world beyond the valley she has known all her life.

Cemal, to me, was the most fascinating of the three main characters. Four years older than Meryem, he is just returned from military service when his family presents him with his horrible duty. After years spent fighting Kurdish rebels, Cemal is unsteady, a man trained for violence but not for reasoning. As Cemal struggles with the duty he knows is morally wrong, Meryem remains innocent of the awful fate intended for her. And so they travel the length of the country, from the eastern border to Istanbul and coastal communities beyond, in an uncomfortable alliance.

On this journey, they meet İrfan, a professor tired of his over-privileged, indulgent life in Istanbul. Having left his wife and his possessions behind, İrfan has bought himself a boat and is sailing to nowhere, drinking too much and contemplating his failures. Cheerful stuff. Coming across Meryem and Cemal, he invites them abroad to serve as his crew and off they all sail into the sunset. And into lots of conflict.

It’s through İrfan that the reader really gets to hear about modern Turkey. From Meryem, we learned of village traditions and Islam as interpreted by the whims of the local Sheikh, from Cemal of warfare and the struggle to stay true to what he learned in the village in a more secular, educated society, and from İrfan of the decadence of the liberal, European-style West, of scantily clad women and expensive restaurants, in stark contrast with the tribal ignorance of the east. It’s not just like two difference countries: it’s like two different centuries.

The ending was, for me, far from satisfying. Interesting, yes, but Meryem’s ending felt far too neat for a story that had been anything but. As much as I hate to say this, I think I actually preferred the film adaptation (which is what prompted me to borrow the book in the first place). They’re not terribly similar, but both are definitely worth checking out. What they have in common is the ability to inspire a desperate need in the reader/viewer to visit Turkey.

When Meryem and Cemal got off the train in Istanbul at Haydarpaşa Station, they shared the same feelings as the Megarians, the Vikings, the Crusaders, and many others who had come there over the centuries: amazed admiration. They had all felt that this city was like no other city past or present. (p. 150)

I have always wanted to visit Istanbul and as I was reading this as one of my friend was planning his trip to Turkey (he’s there now); I became increasingly jealous of him as I progressed through the novel.

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Marg and myself that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries! 



To The Castle and Back by Václav Havel

As president of Czechoslovakia and of the nascent Czech Republic, playwright-turned-statesman Havel led central Europe out of communism and into the twenty-first century before stepping down in 2003. With this book, Havel reflects upon his 14 years at Prague Castle but resists the constraints of a traditional memoir, instead combining retrospective commentary with excerpts from memos written to his staff while in office. Although fragmentary and offered with minimal context, these excerpts provide a diarylike glimpse into a leader simultaneously confronting challenges both major (Havel’s struggle against so-called Mafia capitalism) and mundane (Havel’s struggle to master his own computer system). Besides providing insightful, gently ironic commentary on the rigors of democratic leadership, Havel’s unconventional narrative form also highlights his personality–his struggles with writing, his fondness for smokers, and his admiration for Madeleine Albright–somewhat above his significant personal achievements. He also weighs in on current events, including the Iraq War and the obstacles to complete European unification. The net result is a fresh and intimate self-portrait

Beyond the Chestnut Trees by Maria Bauer
Reloot.  I borrowed this back in May but never had a chance to start it. 

Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart
I loved Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers and Away and was excited to have actually gotten this within a month of it being released.  Usually, I’m either much farther down on the hold list or it takes longer for the book to be processed into the system.  The book has also been placed on the longlist for this year’s Giller Prize, increasing my interest in it.

Set in the present day on a farm at the shores of Lake Erie, Jane Urquhart’s stunning new novel weaves elements from the nineteenth-century past, in Ireland and Ontario, into a gradually unfolding contemporary story of events in the lives of the members of one family that come to alter their futures irrevocably. There are ancestral lighthouse-keepers, seasonal Mexican workers; the migratory patterns and survival techniques of the Monarch butterfly; the tragedy of a young woman’s death during a tour of duty in Afghanistan; three very different but equally powerful love stories. Jane Urquhart brings to vivid life the things of the past that make us who we are, and reveals the sometimes difficult path to understanding and forgiveness.

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I have not been hugely successful with my recent picks.  Everything has sounded so intriguing but then once I started reading nothing has been able to hold my attention.  The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden had been praised by other bloggers but its tepid prose and rather unimaginative plot did nothing for me. 

It was all much ado about nothing for most of the novel.  With their mother sick in hospital, thirteen-year old Cecil Grey (a girl, despite her name) and her siblings are left to their own devices at Les Oeillets, the French hotel where they are vacationing.  But the Greys are not the hotel’s only residents.  Most importantly, there is also Mademoiselle Zizi, the owner of the hotel, and her charming English lover, Eliot, who becomes the children’s de facto guardian while their mother is ill.  And, of course, there is Cecil’s suddenly beautiful sixteen-year old sister Joss…

The tension that is supposedly the allure of the novel is non-existent.  Eliot is a suspicious character from his first introduction and the heavy-handed hints dropped throughout the short novel make certain there is no surprise as the novel reaches its climax.  His brief and rather innocent flirtation with Joss causes the most conflict but, again, it is predictable and tiresome.  Not even the arrival of the police could generate any excitement as I forced through to the conclusion. 

I didn’t find any of the main characters particularly interesting or sympathetic – the only character I liked and wanted to know more about was the loathed Uncle William, too dull and conservative to provoke any affection in the children until he comes to their rescue.

Obviously, this was not a great success with me.  Reading it, I felt much as I did when reading Rosamund Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz earlier this year: a promising premise that never did anything to elevate itself beyond the humdrum.  All the ingredients were there to make it an interesting story: quirky, temporarily parentless-children, a narrator on the cusp of adulthood, a jealous, exotic Frenchwoman, a dashing, mysterious leading man…But a good story is more than just the sum of its parts and this one left me cold. 

I’m still willing to give Godden another try but not sure which of her many books to try.  In This House of Brede seems to come highly recommended but I can’t work up much enthusiasm for the tale of a professional woman who joins a cloistered Benedictine community.  I had wanted to try The Peacock Spring, but my library doesn’t seem to carry it.  Perhaps it would be best to go with Godden’s A Time to Dance, No Time to Weap, the first volume of her memoirs.  Non-fiction is often so much more interesting than fiction, I find.

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Is there anything more frustrating than reading a good book that, with a judicious editor, could have been great?  The Best-Laid Plans by Terris Fallis skewers two of my favourite satire subjects: politics and higher education.  Daniel Addison, a young political aide for the Opposition, quits just as the country in preparing for an election but grudgingly agrees to locate a candidate for his new riding to run against the country’s amazingly popular finance minister.  Daniel gets his candidate, a dour engineering professor named Angus McLintock, by guaranteeing that there’s no way this election can be won and by agreeing to take over Angus’ much hated English for Engineers teaching duties.  But, as the title suggests, things go somewhat awry.

Daniel, as our hapless everyman, is both endearing and annoying.  He comes across as timid and susceptible.  With few exceptions, his successes are brought about by quirks of fate and have nothing to do with his intentions.   

Angus, on the other hand, is magnificent.  Plain-spoken, unconcerned with appearances, and utterly unpredictable, he is a force to be reckoned with.  He is a folk hero for a modern, jaded age, a politician with no political agenda.  And he has a homemade hovercraft, which makes him ridiculously cool.  Even if he is an engineer (as a B.Comm I am sworn to mock engineers as they were the only foes worthy of our attention on campus).  Indeed, my favourite parts of the novel might have been the English for Engineers (E for E) classes that Daniel gives to hopeless first years.

When you tire of mocking politicians, academics are always a worthy target and the following exchange between Lindsay, the object of Daniel’s affections, and Daniel discussing their prolonged adolescence/continuing education, amused me to no end:

‘…I sometimes think I’m pursuing the graduate degree because I don’t know what I want to do.  A master’s seemed like a worthwhile stalling tactic.’

‘In my humble, PhD-addled opinion, staying in school is seldom a bad idea regardless of the reasons.  I don’t think I really started to appreciate the university experience until halfway through my master’s.’ (p.82-83)

This seems to encapsulate the attitudes of so many of my friends, who, two years after we graduated, are starting their PhDs, fully planning to spend as many years as possible hiding out on yet another university campus. 

It was the first half of the novel that let me down, the over-long section leading up to the fateful election.  The narrative rambled and the so-called amusing bits about Daniel slipping in dog shit were painful: does Fallis really think people who are looking for political satire are the same to enjoy such juvenile humour?  What could have been amusing bits were drawn out for too long, belabouring a once funny point and destroying any traces of wit.  As readers are too often reminded, drama is easy, comedy is hard.  It requires restraint and a light touch, trusting that the reader is intelligent enough to understand.  The novel did settle as it progressed though and my amusement by the end was genuine and unmarred by the embarrassment of earlier gaffs.  I’m quite looking forward to the newly-released sequel, The High Road, and hopeful that Fallis’ second effort will refine on the promise of his first.     

More than anything, this book made me desperately miss Ottawa.  After Vancouver, there is no where in Canada that I love more.  With his many mentions of local attractions and favourite restaurants, Fallis made me long for a city that I once knew so well but now haven’t visited in more than two years.  That’s a desperately long time to have gone without visiting the National Gallery, eating at Mamma Teresa’s or just wandering through Byward Market or along the canal (or skating along it in the winter).  At the end of the novel, the city is brought to a standstill by a massive blizzard, watched from a room overlooking Parliament at the Chateau Laurier by two of the main characters.  As much as I loathe snow, I can’t think of a more romantic setup than that.  And whatever flaws this novel may have, I will forgive them all for this one sentence, describing Daniel’s feeling on the exquisite Library of Parliament, possibly the most perfect place in the nation for any true bibliophile: “I’d entered that place dozens, even hundreds of times and always felt a slight wobble in my knees as I passed over the threshold”(p. 166).

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Library Lust

via Apartment Therapy

I don’t even have the words to describe how this room makes me feel.  It’s warm and cozy without being cluttered and those gorgeous sofas clinch it for me.

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Friday Potpourri

via intothewordless (tumblr)


Top 10 Stories About Sisters – My greatest fear growing up was that my parents would decide to have a third child and that I would end up with a sister.  It used to keep me awake at night when I was four or five and, at one point, my brother and I plotted how we would run away if our fears were realised.  A brother, we agreed, would be tolerable, but a sister was asking too much of us.  Even for someone like me though, this list is an interesting one.  It includes some classics but then also has some very dubious choices, including an edition of The Twelve Dancing Princesses illustrated by Jane Ray.  Why would you pick Jane Ray when Ruth Sanderson’s gorgeous version could be had instead?

Judging a book-lover by his cover – online dating based on book tastes?  A bibliophile considers the service.

5 Books to Ignite an Opera Obsession – according to NPR, “if you really want to delve into opera, perhaps even become an opera geek, you need to enhance your opera-going experience by bulking up on books.”  When someone encourages me to buy books on a topic I’m already interested in, I take notice!

Against Promotional Author Photographs – a rather amusing summary of the cliched poses authors assume when taking promotional photographs. 

Have a wonderful weekend!

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Had anyone given up hope that I was ever going to post a review again?  No, just me?  My reading blocked translated into a writing block, hence the numerous filler posts you’ve been feed over the past few weeks.  Thank you for not abandoning me in the meantime.  Happily, I am reading again, meaning that I have something to write about, starting with Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie

As the story begins, Luke Fitzwilliam finds himself in a train compartment with Miss Pinkerton.  Luke knows instinctively, cringingly, when he finds himself alone with Miss Pinkerton that his journey will not be as peaceful as he had hoped:  “Being a man of many aunts, he was fairly certain that the nice old lady in the corner did not propose to travel in silence to London” (p. 5).

Luke is returning to London after years spent in the Far East as a policeman.  Miss Pinkerton is going to Scotland Yard, convinced that a murderer is responsible for a number of recent deaths in her village of Wychwood and likely to strike again.  Luke dismisses Miss Pinkerton’s fears as those of an easily excited old lady.  However, when Luke hears that Miss Pinkerton was killed within hours of their meeting and then sees the announcement of yet another death in Wychwood, of the very gentleman that Miss Pinkerton had identified as the next victim, Luke sets off to investigate.  Armed with a policeman’s professional knowledge and a truly flimsy and suspicious back story, Luke descends on the village and, like many of Christie’s protagonists, wanders around casting suspicious glances at all the wrong villagers (and lustful ones at a particularly clever young lady who fingers the murderer long before Luke).  Clueless narrators – or ones who are very confident but have the wrong end of the stick completely – work wonderfully, particularly when they’re as sympathetic as Luke.    

It’s certainly not one of Christie’s best efforts; indeed, it’s not even particularly memorable.  It is, however, still good fun and a pleasant, cozy story to spend a few hours with one afternoon.  If nothing else, it entertained me with some excellent quips about aunts that seem very much like refugees from Miss Marple stories:

Every man should have aunts.  They illustrate the triumph of guesswork over logic.  It is reserved for aunts to know that Mr. A is a rogue because he looks like a dishonest butler they once had.  Other people say, reasonably enough, that a respectable man like Mr. A couldn’t be a crook.  The old ladies are right every time. (p. 204)

How strange that a book about murder can be so delightful and comforting.  Classic Agatha Christie, I suppose, to make the reader feel so safe and entertained even as the body count grows to rather alarming heights.  Murder is Easy only confirmed what I realised when reading The Moving Finger in the Spring: Christie is far wittier and intelligent that I had remembered and clearly deserving of more of my attention.  Perhaps she will finally help me conquer my prejudice against the mystery genre!

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Marg and myself that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries! 

 Marg has the Mr Linky this week.


Bliss by O.Z. Livaneli
Inspired to pick this up after seeing the film adaptation.

Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge
Didn’t get a chance to start this one last time I checked it out of the library and I really do want to read it. 

Not that Kind of Girl by Carlene Bauer

Raised in evangelical churches that preached apocalypse now, Carlene Bauer grows up happy to oblige the God who presides over her New Jersey girlhood. But in high school and college, her intellectual and spiritual horizons widen, and she becomes skeptical of the judgmental God she’s been given. Still, she finds it hard to let go of the ideals she’s been raised with, and to rebel as she knows she should. She loves rock and roll, but politely declines offers of sex and drugs; she thinks the Bible and the Norton Anthology of American Literature are equally authoritative guides to life. Since there are no churches worshipping the Jesus Paul Westerberg sang about in “Can’t Hardly Wait,” and no tidy categories for those who are neither riot grrrls nor altar girls, she hovers between a hunger for the world and a suspicion of it.

In her twenties, however, determined to make up for lost time, Bauer undertakes a belated and often comic coming-of-age in New York City. Between late blooming at parties and staying late at work, it seems that she might become as bold as she’d hoped to be—even if the late blooming is a little more hapless than highly erotic. And yet the city and its pleasures do not distract her from another hope: that she might learn how to have a faith that she can truly call her own. Enter the Catholic Church, and a conversion. But then she falls in love, and loses her religion—which leaves her wondering just what it means to be good.

The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz
A popular title at the library!  I requested this back in July and, finally, it arrived.  Always intrigued by ex-pat tales of life in Paris, I had to finally try this for myself after reading countless positive reviews. 

The Unexpurgated Beaton: The Cecil Beaton Diaries as he wrote them, introduced by Hugo Vickers
I did not get on with the Noël Coward diaries at all.  Beaton is much more dependable.  The perfect bedside reading!

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Giller Prize Longlist

The longlist for this year’s Giller Prize was announced yesterday and I have read exactly one of the nominated titles: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman.  I do have two others (Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart and Curiosity by Joan Thomas) on hold at the library but what’s truly sad is how many of the titles I’m completely unfamiliar with.  It’s not unusual that I’m completely oblivious to short story collections coming out – that’s par for the course – but how did I miss hearing anything about the soon to be released Player One by Douglas Coupland (based on his 2010 Massey Lecture)?  Between his writing and his art, does Coupland never rest? 

What is rather exciting here is the gender balance of the nominated authors: 6 men to 7 women.  With the never-ending discussion among bloggers and critics of why literature by men seems to be taken more seriously than that by women, it’s nice to see equal recognition. 

Here’s the full list:

David Bergen for his novel THE MATTER WITH MORRIS, Phyllis Bruce Books/Harper Collins Publishers Ltd.

Douglas Coupland for his novel PLAYER ONE, House of Anansi Press

Michael Helm for his novel CITIES OF REFUGE, McClelland & Stewart

Alexander MacLeod for his short story collection LIGHT LIFTING, Biblioasis

Avner Mandelman for his novel THE DEBBA, Other Press/Random House of Canada

Tom Rachman for his novel THE IMPERFECTIONISTS, The Dial Press/Random House of Canada

Sarah Selecky for her short story collection THIS CAKE IS FOR THE PARTY, Thomas Allen Publishers

Johanna Skibsrud for her novel THE SENTIMENTALISTS, Gaspereau Press

Cordelia Strube for her novel LEMON, Coach House Books

Joan Thomas for her novel CURIOSITY, McClelland & Stewart

Jane Urquhart for her novel SANCTUARY LINE, McClelland & Stewart

Dianne Warren for her novel COOL WATER, Phyllis Bruce Books/Harper Collins Publishers Ltd.

Kathleen Winter for her novel ANNABEL, House of Anansi Press

Have you read any of these titles?  Any predictions for the shortlist?

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Library Lust

via Apartment Therapy

While I definitely prefer to order my books by theme or alphabetically by author, I can’t deny the visual appeal of sorting them by colour.  In this library, I love how the rug coordinates with the books, picking up the blues, the creams, the yellows, etc.  The various items fitted in amongst the books also appeal. 

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