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Archive for October, 2010

Library Lust

What library wouldn’t benefit from having a tented reading area?  So brilliantly cosy!  I also love that it’s on a platform – steps make any room special.

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Friday Potpourri

Hi-tech or lowbrow?  Lucy Mangan considers ebooks.

Apartments with Libraries – a slideshow of New York City apartments with libraries.  Some are more impressive than others, but it’s still worth checking out.

Lydia Davis on Writing a Translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

Buying Books is Fun, With a Glass in Your Hand – Elif Batuman considers how ebooks have changed her buying habits.

Travel Writing is Dead

‘All Facts Considered’ By NPR’s Longtime Librarian

Have a wonderful weekend!

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Before moving to Calgary, I had been searching for a copy of Beyond the Chestnut Trees by Maria Bauer for years.  Yes, I could simply have ordered a second-hand copy offline but that is far too simple and takes all the fun out of the hunt.  Besides, I’d never even seen the book – how could I part with my money when I didn’t even know if the book was any good?  But then I moved to Calgary and, wonder of wonders, the library had a copy.  I borrowed it immediately but was never in quite the right mood to read it so back to the library it went.  This cycle has repeated itself more times that I care to count over the last few years but finally, finally!, I was in just the right mood to pick it up and learn about Maria (Kahler) Bauer’s life growing up in Prague, recounted upon her return forty years after leaving. 

A brief warning: a wrote this post in a bit of a rush, wanting to make sure it would be posted on October 28th, the anniversary of the day Czechoslovakia declared its independence from Austria-Hungary.  Timing is everything.  that said, I have so many emotions tied up with this country and topic that any review of this book was going to be a bit muddled no matter how long I took to write it. 

I grew up surrounded by Czechs (commonly referred to as cancelled Czechs by the family wits) who had left either in ’48 or ’68.  The Kahlers, however, left long before that, in the summer of 1939 after the Germans had invaded.  The story of their rather convoluted exodus makes for fascinating reading.  From Prague they went to Paris, where they met up with another refugee, a young Austrian whom Franz Kafka had introduced Maria to at a ball in Prague: Robert Bauer.  When France fell, the Kahlers and Bauer fled to Portugal, where Robert and Maria were married.  From there they sailed for America to begin poorer and definitely less interesting lives (well, the senior Kahlers at least.  Robert pursued a fascinating career in journalism and politics that took him and Maria around the world, though that is only alluded to here).  Happily, Maria doesn’t spend too much time describing her life in America; the focus is mostly on her idyllic youth in Czechoslovakia and then her experiences and impressions on returning in the early 1980s.

I am a hopeless snob in that I prefer to read about people with money as opposed to those without.  You can have Angela’s Ashes, I’ll stick to people who have their own castles.  Admittedly, Czech castles are really just large manor houses but they’re lovely and I’ve been fixated on them since I was five.  And the Kahlers (Maria’s father was Felix von Kahler was a wealthy German-speaking Czech of Jewish ancestry, although the family was non-practicing) had one, as well as a large mansion in the city.  As is inevitable in any refugee story, the family lost all their wealth and most of their possessions when they fled and would never regain anywhere near the kind of affluence they had once enjoyed.  In a particularly upsetting interlude, Maria returns to the family castle as an adult.  While the countryside remains beautiful, the building and grounds have been almost destroyed during years of communist rule.  Again, a familiar story: I remember when my uncle regained his family’s property after the fall of communism and the all the years and effort he and my aunt put into restoring it. 

The most enjoyable parts of the novel are Bauer’s charming recollections of brief scenes from her childhood.  The book is loosing structured, jumping between decades with ease and some frequency, so no particular incident is analysed too closely, just sketched out for the reader to absorb and smile at.  Especially memorable were Bauer’s remembrances of summers en famille in the country – I was jealous enough of the castle but then she introduces her Parisian-dwelling aunt and uncle, which just makes it that much more glamourous! – and the description of a long but chaste relationship with a teacher during her school years.

I think a large part of why I enjoyed this book so much is because, frustratingly, there really aren’t that many books about Czechoslovakia or its refugees.  Everything I know comes from my family and no one was ever willing to go into as much detail or describe their emotional journey as intimately as does Maria Bauer.  Maria was only a few years older than my grandmother.  They grew up in the same country and though my grandmother’s family was nowhere near as wealthy as the Kahlers, they still had a governess and a cook, a driver and a gardener and little children neatly dressed in sailor suits.  So I look for the similarities and I cling to Maria’s descriptions of her return after a forty year absence, searching in her words for a glimmer of my own grandmother’s experience when she went back for the first time, seeing old school mates and relatives, old haunts and homes after a long absence. 

Sometimes it’s difficult for me to remember that not everyone wanted to leave, that the people who got out aren’t necessarily considered the lucky ones by those who remained.  An old acquaintance of Bauer’s gives this other perspective, acknowledging the problems of life under first the Nazis and then the Communists but casting them aside in favour of family, friends, and a city that only grows more dear with time:

…I have no intention of leaving here.  I don’t like the conditions here any better than you.  There is widespread corruption and life is hard and drab, but it’s my home and I am not unhappy.  No regime can hurt the beauty of the country and the city, which I enjoy more the older I get.  And I have my friends who are all in the same boat.  To me, old friendships and roots and family are more important than freedom and prosperity in a foreign country.  When I heard about the way your parents lived in the States, I didn’t feel sorry for them for losing their fortune – I knew they could handle that – but because they were unable to return home.  Who was it that said ‘Blessed are those who can die in the land of their forefathers?’ (p.141)

One thing common to all the memoirs I’ve read (admittedly not many but everything I could get my hands on) and all the people I’ve talked to is how difficult it was for them to leave Prague, which, even in their adult minds, remains the most magical place on earth.  I think a lot has to do with, as Bauer says, growing up in a city that seems to be composed almost as much of myth as reality.  All Czechs, adults and children, seem to have a love of fairy tales and the fantastical that presumably traces back to this.

I think it is hard for any child to accept reality when it starts to filter into its make-believe world.  But in Prague it seemed particularly confusing since nothing in Prague was real.  History, legends, and reality were so intermingled that it was hard to distinguish among them. (p. 16)

All in all, this was a bit of an emotional read for me but one that I enjoyed greatly.  I can heartily recommend it as a wonderful insight into life in Czechoslovakia between the wars and a fascinating description of the flight of refugees.  I’ll certainly be looking for a copy to add to my personal library now. 

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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! 

I must admit that some of these were books I picked up just before I got sick and they have been sitting around, patiently being renewed, eager to make their Library Loot debut once I had recovered.  But I am well now and have regained my ability to concentrate so here’s hoping they’ll soon be read.  Many thanks to Marg for having covered the last three Library Loots while I was ill!

 

Bad Blood: A Memoir by Lorna Sage
There was an interview earlier this month in The Guardian with Lorna Sage’s daughter that made this memoir, published ten years ago, sound irresistible. 

Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?  How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life by Thomas Geoghegan
I never get tired of hearing about the benefits of socialism, though I resent the generalization in the book’s title – from everything I’ve read this book is about contrasting America with the Continent.  No need to drag Canada (or Mexico for that matter) into it, particularly since Canada is already ‘alarmingly’ socialist according to many Americans (see health care debates from earlier this year). 

Aristocrats: Power, Grace, and Decadence: Britain’s Great Ruling Classes from 1066 to the Present by Lawrence James
I have heard some not so great things about this once since it was published last year but I can’t not try it for myself.  How to resist something so freakishly ambitious that it spans almost a thousand years!

Curiosity: A Love Story by Joan Thomas
Another novel about amateur paleontologist Mary Anning (the other being Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures).  It was also on the longlist for this year’s Giller Prize. 

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Everything I’ve read by and of Fermor has made me eager to read this memoir.  At the age of eighteen, Fermor set off on foot from London, headed to Constantinople.  Because these are the kinds of adventures that seem like good ideas when you’re eighteen, presumably.  This book covers his journey as far as Hungary. 

Everything Is Going to Be Great: An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour by Rachel Shukert
A European adventure of a rather different type:

When actor and writer Shukert realizes her passport was never stamped on her entry into Europe, as an ensemble-cast member in a New York–based play on tour, she decides to take advantage and string her vacation along indefinitely. After the show’s stints in Vienna and Zurich, Shukert stays (squats might be more appropriate) with two friends in Amsterdam. Indeed underfunded and overexposed, Shukert’s life as an expat in the so-called Venice of the North provides lots of hilarious fodder for the memoir it will become. Shukert possesses a certain talent to find the funny in almost any situation, and her shockingly personal and irreverent writing makes for many laughs, but not at the cost of losing our sympathy in the face of her deepest disappointments (Booklist).

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I had high hopes for The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz.  On paper, it sounded like just the book for me: when have I ever turned down an ex-pat memoir about life in Paris?  Including recipes usually just sweetens the deal.  Not so this time.

Lebovitz is a pastry chef, which means that most of the recipes in this memoir (because it’s impossible to write a Paris-based memoir without recipes these days) are for sweets.  His constant discussion of chocolate and other sweets weren’t fascinating enough to draw me, a savoury rather than sweet girl, in.  The best food writers (think Nigel Slater) can overcome any reader’s preferences with effortless grace.  Lebovitz was never once able to make me share his passion for marshmallows or macarons.  That said, the recipes are clear and succinct and probably the best parts of the book, even though I wasn’t intrigued enough to try any of them.

I think what bothered me most about was the sheer arrogance Lebovitz displayed by moving to Paris without speaking French or even trying to understand the culture before arriving.  Yes, he repeatedly chides ignorant American readers against coming to France and pulling an “Ugly American” – expecting to speak English and receive American-style service and deference.  But that doesn’t stop him from doing the same and then adopting a kind of smug amusement as the quaintly rigid ways of the French.  They trim green beans! (don’t most people?)  They expect you to wear real clothes – not sweats! – when appearing in public! (like most civilised societies)  And don’t even get him started on the etiquette surrounding any kind of shopping!  I could have understood some naïveté initially but it is sustained throughout the book and, after a while, it grates.

There were some unintentionally hilarious moments, such as this quote:  “Aside from our ability to form ourselves into nice straight lines in service-oriented situations, one of the most enduring traits of Americans is our ability to be self-deprecating and laugh at our foibles” (p. 77-78).  If you’d asked me to name nations that were good at queuing, I can assure you America would not have been top of my list.  Same goes for their ability to laugh at themselves, both as individuals and, especially, as a nation.  These traits are typically, and with some reason, ascribed to the British and, to some extent, other mild-mannered members of the Commonwealth with self-esteem issues.

None of this was helped by the sheer ugliness of the hardcover edition I borrowed from my library.  The chosen typefaces (and there were several) clashed horribly with one another and gave the book a dated, 1990s appearance.  Considering that it was only published in 2009, this is inexcusable.  The cover design is beautiful; it’s a shame that the same kind of aesthetic didn’t extend to the book’s interior. 

A great disappointment.  Perhaps this is best suited to those who haven’t read much about Paris previously but for those familiar with the city and its sights and customs it is a tedious waste of time and effort.  Much better to reread the delightful and thoughtful Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik or new favourite Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard.

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Is there anything more fascinating than the end of the world or, at the very least, society as we know it?  I’ve loved apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction ever since my father first handed me an old, beaten up copy of Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle when I was thirteen or fourteen.  Part of the reason I’m drawn to Douglas Coupland is because he seems to share this fascination: he’s certainly touched on it in several of his previous novels and with Player One: What Is to Become of Us it takes center stage.

A story told in five hours, from five perspectives (though only four characters), Player One contains a typical Coupland assortment of oddballs and losers trapped in a suitably bleak airport hotel cocktail lounge.  Even at the best of times, is there anywhere more depressing than the hub of soulless hotels, restaurants, and bars that encircle any modern airport?  Having found myself trapped repeatedly in these places, I know only too well the loss of identity that a traveler can feel surrounded by inoffensive, forgettable décor, remarkable only for its complete lack of distinguishing characteristics.  And that is where our main characters, supplemented by several welcome and unwelcome visitors, find themselves as the world as they know it comes to an end.

Trapped inside the lounge are Karen, a single mother who flew in to Toronto to meet a man she met online in a Peak Oil Apocalypse chat room; Rick, the lounge bartender and alcoholic; Luke, a pastor who stole his congregation’s savings and fled; and Rachel, also known as Player One, a teenage Hitchcock-esque blonde incapable of normal human interaction, determined to get pregnant to prove her humanity.  They’re a strange lot and it is through their eyes that we witness a rather eventful five hours as oil prices hit unimaginable heights and society, as a result, descends into anarchy.  I am incredibly appreciative that the crisis is economic rather than a more clichéd catastrophic natural disaster or act of war/terrorism. 

The novel, perhaps disappointingly for some, doesn’t have that much to do with the chaos happening outside the lounge.  Trapped inside, the characters ponder many things – including human identity, religion, ethics, and the afterlife – little of which have much to do with their new reality.  It’s an interesting character study and I was fully engaged while I was reading it, particularly with the strange but wonderful Rachel.  Perhaps the most interesting question raised was ‘what is it to be human?’  Given that this was written for the Massey Lectures, the entire point of which is the discussion of ideas, I say that it was a success as even now, weeks after finishing the book, I’m still pondering some of the questions it raised. 

Coupland clearly has an idea of what this new world will look like, where oil will never go below $350 a barrel, as he has created a complete glossary or “Future Legend” for the New Normal.  With such a complex vision of what the future will look like, it seems strange that it’s merely tacked onto the end.  This is where the creativity went, this is where his imagination ran wild, not in the body of the text but in the appendix.  I find that both strange and wonderful.  Strange because I would have loved to have read more about the evolution of this New Normal but wonderful because it’s just barely sketched out for us and each reader can imagine it for him or herself. 

In fact, Coupland seems to have been busy writing glossaries/guides lately: The Globe and Mail recently published his “A Radical Pessimist’s Guide to the Next 10 Years”, which is as fascinating, and plausible, as it is pessimistic. 

Many thanks to Trish at House of Anansi Press for sending me a copy of Player One to review after I’d expressed an interest in my Giller Prize Longlist post.  The time between when my post went up and when I got her email (less than 12 hours) was particularly impressive – if only I could be so prompt with my reviews!

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Library Lust

I want desperately to tidy this room and reshelve all of those books but, aside from that, it’s rather perfect.

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Friday Potpourri

credit: Toast catalogue

 

It’s me!  I’m alive!  I’m not sure I can adequately explain how exciting it is to feel like a real person after having been so ill for so long.  Here’s a cunning piece of advice: don’t get pneumonia.  Trust me on this one.

My recovery time did not involve a lot of reading, sadly.  For most of the last few weeks I’ve simply been too ill to concentrate on anything and it’s only been in the last three or four days that I’ve been able to start reading again.  There’s nothing like picking up a book and sinking into a good story after an extended withdrawal.  It was rather heartbreaking to have to cancel so many of my holds that came in to the library while I was ill and unable to either pick them up or read them.  And, of course, half my hold list came in during this period.  It would, wouldn’t it?  But I’ve raid my shelves for some of my favourite comfort reads (R.F. Delderfield, Stuart McLean) and I’d like to think that they’re speeding me on the road to recovery.   

For me, it will be a weekend of reading, resting, and probably sterilizing my no-doubt infectious apartment.  May your weekend be even more thrilling!

Block That Adjective! – Alexander McCall Smith on writing concisely.

Three Books to Help You Enjoy the Apocalypse – definitely not the books I would have chosen (and this is a topic that has long interested me) but an intriguing selection.  Bonus points for mentioning the amusingly named Facebook group “”The Worst Part of a Zombie Apocalypse will be Pretending It’s Not Awesome.”

In Defense of Naïve Reading

Novels don’t need to be ‘nice’

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Why I’ve Been MIA

I’ve got walking pneumonia, which is exactly as pleasant as it sounds.  I haven’t even been able to read, nevermind blog.  However, I’m now on medication and should be seeing an improvement in the next day or two.  Let’s hope so!

May you all have a happy (and healthy) weekend and Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow Canadians!

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Archive Raid

You must read, Alice, before it’s too late.  You must fill your mind with the invented images of the past: the more the better…These images, apart from anything else, will help you put the two and twos of life together, and the more images your mind retains, the more wonderful will be the star-studded canopy of experience beneath which you, poor primitive creature that you are, will shelter: the nearer you will creep to the great blazing beacon of the Idea which animates us all.

– Fay Weldon, Letters to Alice on first reading Jane Austen

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