Archive for December, 2011

The Inspiring Psmith

I hemmed and hawed over which book to spend my New Year’s Eve with.  In the end, I found myself drawn to that most debonaire gentleman, most persuasive conversationalist, most loyal friend (and most irritating employee), Psmith. And so for the last few hours I have entertained myself most excellently with a perennial favourite, Psmith in the City by P.G. Wodehouse.

Psmith is my favourite Wodehouse character and this my favourite of the books he appears in.  Both Psmith and his trusted confidant/personal secretary/school friend, Comrade Jackson (known to most as Mike), find themselves employees of the New Asiatic Bank.  They toil in a dull, overstaffed office enlivened only by Psmith’s efforts to befriend his supervisors (discovering and then appealing to their passions for, respectively, football and politics) and to win over Mr Bickersdyke, the pompous bank manager whose loathing for Psmith only grows as that young man’s dogged efforts continue.  Meanwhile, Mike miserably longs for the sporting, outdoor life he is best suited for, taking little comfort in Psmith’s entertaining activities.

May we all enter 2012 with the same boundless energy, determination and optimism that Psmith exhibits on his first day of work in the Postage Department of the New Asiatic Bank:

‘What are you doing here? What have you come for?’

‘Work,’ said Psmith, with simple dignity. ‘I am now a member of the staff of this bank. Its interests are my interests. Psmith, the individual, ceases to exist, and there springs into being Psmith, the cog in the wheel of the New Asiatic Bank; Psmith, the link in the bank’s chain; Psmith, the Worker. I shall not spare myself,’ he proceeded earnestly. ‘I shall toil with all the accumulated energy of one who, up till now, has only known what work is like from hearsay. Whose is that form sitting on the steps of the bank in the morning, waiting eagerly for the place to open? It is the form of Psmith, the Worker. Whose is that haggard, drawn face which bends over a ledger long after the other toilers have sped blithely westwards to dine at Lyons’ Popular Cafe? It is the face of Psmith, the Worker.’

‘I–‘ began Mr Rossiter.

‘I tell you,’ continued Psmith, waving aside the interruption and tapping the head of the department rhythmically in the region of the second waistcoat-button with a long finger, ‘I tell you, Comrade Rossiter, that you have got hold of a good man. You and I together, not forgetting Comrade Jackson, the pet of the Smart Set, will toil early and late till we boost up this Postage Department into a shining model of what a Postage Department should be. What that is, at present, I do not exactly know. However. Excursion trains will be run from distant shires to see this Postage Department. American visitors to London will do it before going on to the Tower. And now,’ he broke off, with a crisp, businesslike intonation, ‘I must ask you to excuse me. Much as I have enjoyed this little chat, I fear it must now cease. The time has come to work. Our trade rivals are getting ahead of us. The whisper goes round, “Rossiter and Psmith are talking, not working,” and other firms prepare to pinch our business. Let me Work.’

Two minutes later, Mr Rossiter was sitting at his desk with a dazed expression, while Psmith, perched gracefully on a stool, entered figures in a ledger.

Happy New Year!

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When I was recapping my reading challenges for 2011 earlier this week, it became clear to me just what a wonderful time I’d had participating in the Eastern European Reading Challenge.  I did not reach my goal of reading twelve books – I managed eleven – but I learned so much and discovered some truly amazing authors who I had never tried before.  The challenge is being continued into 2012 and it didn’t take long for me to decide to continue with it.

I will again be aiming for the Scholar level (12 books).  Participates must choose titles about or by an author from any of the following regions: Croatia, Ukraine, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Hungary, Belarus, Estonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Czech Rep., Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Romania, Moldova, and Kosovo.  Ideally, I’d like to read 6 fiction and 6 non-fiction books for the challenge but I won’t hold myself to that.  As always, the most important thing is to enjoy what books I do choose.

Of course the highlight of signing up for any challenge is creating a book list and I’m quite proud of this one (look!  It has categories!).  If you’re interested in joining the challenge and looking for more ideas, you can also check out my initial list from when I signed up and my list of what I actually read (there is shockingly little overlap between the two).  If you have any suggestions of books that would work for this challenge, ones you’ve read or even just heard of, please let me know!  I’m always looking for new ideas.


The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky
The story of three unforgettable women whose destinies are tangled up in a family dynamic that is at turns hilarious and tragic.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić
Dubravka Ugrešić takes the story of Baba Yaga and weaves it into something completely fresh. The result is an extraordinary meditation on femininity, ageing, identity, secrets, storytelling and love.

They Were Counted by Miklos Banffy
An unrivaled portrait of the vanished world of pre-1914 Hungary, as seen through the eyes of two young Transylvanian cousins, Count Balint Abady and Count László Gyeroffy.

Kornél Esti by Dezső Kosztolányi
Here is a novel which inquires: What if your id (loyally keeping your name) decides to strike out on its own, cuts a disreputable swatch through the world, and then sends home to you all its unpaid bills and ruined maidens? And then: What if you and your alter ego decide to write a book together?

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth
Joseph Roth’s classic saga of the privileged von Trotta family encompasses the entire social fabric of the Austro-Hungarian Empire just before World War I. The author’s greatest achievement, The Radetzky March is an unparalleled portrait of a civilization in decline, and as such is a universal story for our times.

The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek
Hašek’s most important work was centered around the deeply funny story of a hapless Czech soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army — dismissed for incompetence only to be pressed into service by the Russians in World War I (where he is captured by his own troops). A mischief-maker, bohemian and drunk, Hašek demonstrated his wit in this classic novel of the Czech character and preposterous nature of war.

Cape of Storms by Nina Berberova
Nina Berberova portrays a very specific generation––one born in Russia, displaced by the Revolution, and trying to adapt to a new home, Paris. Three sisters––Dasha, Sonia, and Zai––share the same father, Tiagen, an attractive, weak-willed, womanizing White Russian, but each thinks differently about her inner world of beliefs and aspirations, and consequently each follows a different path.

The Golden Bird: Folk Tales from Slovenia by Vladimir Kavčić
Eighteen tales from Slovenia tell of clever and magical animals, beautiful princesses, brave princes, ogres, and demons.


Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
It is an old, old tale, the German story of Briar Rose, the Sleeping Beauty. Now one of America’s most celebrated writers tells it afresh, set this time in the forests patrolled by the German army during World War II. A tale of castles, of mists and thorns, of a beautiful sleeping princess, and an astonishing revelation of death and rebirth.

Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore
A sweeping epic of Russia from the last days of the Tsars to today’s age of oligarchs.

The Siege by Helen Dunmore
A brilliantly imagined novel about war as experienced by ordinary people, and a profoundly moving celebration of love, life and survival.


On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe by Andrzej Stasiuk
Andrzej Stasiuk is a restless and indefatigable traveller. His journeys – by car, train, bus, ferry – take him from his native Poland to small towns and villages with unfamiliar yet evocative names in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Albania, Moldova and Ukraine.

Blue River, Black Sea by Andrew Eames
A journey along the Danube to the heart of the Europe nobody knows, exploring how much we really know about the “New Europe.”


How I Came to Know Fish by Ota Pavel
Ota Pavel’s magical memoir of his childhood in Czechoslovakia.

Forbidden Bread: A Memoir by Erica Johnson-Debeljak
The author leaves behind a successful career as an American financial analyst to pursue Ales Debeljak, a womanizing Slovenian poet who catches her attention at a cocktail party. The story begins in New York City, but quickly migrates, along with the author, to Slovenia. As she struggles to forge an identity in her new home, Slovenia itself undergoes the transformation from a communist to a capitalist society.

A Romantic Education by Patricia Hampl
Golden Prague seemed mostly gray when Patricia Hampl first went there in quest of her Czech heritage. In that bleak time, no one could have predicted the political upheaval awaiting Communist Europe and the city of Kafka and Rilke. Hampl’s subsequent memoir, a brilliant evocation of Czech life under socialism, attained the stature of living history, and added to our understanding not only of Central Europe but also of what it means to be engaged in the struggle of a people to define and affirm themselves.


When Miss Emmie Was in Russia: English Governesses Before, During and after the October Revolution by Harvey J. Pitcher
An intimate and revealing portrait of pre-Revolutionary Russian society which, contrary to received wisdoms, reveals a complex, liberal and humane society, full of enormous potential and past achievement. It is also the biography of five intrepid women who, by travelling abroad and working as governesses in Russia, achieved an intellectual dignity, a purpose and an authority which was denied them in their homeland.

Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes
Beginning in the eighteenth century with the building of St. Petersburg and culminating with the Soviet regime, Figes examines how writers, artists, and musicians grappled with the idea of Russia itself–its character, spiritual essence, and destiny.

Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939-1945 by Peter Demetz
A dramatic account of life in Czechoslovakia’s great capital during the Nazi Protectorate.

The Last Days of the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport
The brutal murder of the Russian Imperial family on the night of July 16–17, 1918 has long been a defining moment in world history. This book gives a riveting day-by-day account of the last fourteen days of their lives, as the conspiracy to kill them unfolded.


We the People by Timothy Garton Ash
On 4 June 1989 the Communist regime in Warsaw collapsed as Solidarity won the election, 12 days later Imre Nagy was buried in Budapest, 31 years after his execution. The Berlin Wall came down and in Prague, Vaclav Havel masterminded the Velvet Revolution. Timothy Garton Ash was witness to all these events.

The Czech Reader: History, Culture, Politics edited by Jan Bazant, Nina Bazantova, and Frances Starn
The Czech Reader brings together more than 150 primary texts and illustrations to convey the dramatic history of the Czechs, from the emergence of the Czech state in the tenth century, through the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 and the Czech Republic in 1993, into the twenty-first century.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Oh, the excruciating pain of making this list!  I am very pleased with the end result but how cruel to have spent the last few days playing off my favourite books against one another to get down to the ten you see here (and ten it must be for when I attempted to make a list of fifteen things got wildly out of hand).  What I did realise quickly was what an excellent reading year I’ve had, full of wonderful, memorable books.  May 2012 bring more of the same!

10. The Unlikely Disciple (2009) – Kevin Roose
The best books are the ones that get you so excited that you cannot stop talking about them, so that soon all your friends and family know exactly what you’re reading.  That is what happened while I was reading The Unlikely Disciple.  Roose, then an undergraduate at Brown, went ‘undercover’ for a semester at an evangelical Christian university.  His insightful, respectful, and very detailed chronicle of his time there left me highly entertained and incredibly engaged, pondering some of the issues he touched on (the influence of religious groups in politics, evangelical Christianity’s attitudes towards women, and journalistic ethics, to name a few) for weeks after I had finished reading.

9. Skylark (1924) – Dezső Kosztolányi
Set in 1899 in a small town in Austria-Hungary, this is the story of Skylark’s mother and father and the joyous week they spend enjoying themselves while their spinster daughter is away visiting family.  Mother and Father’s excitement at their outings to the restaurant and the theatre (and, in Father’s case, a meeting of the local drinking club) is humourously and heartwarmingly told but it is the return of the pathetic, pitiable Skylark (and Father’s outburst in anticipation of her return) that truly makes this a brilliant novel.  A wonderful and sympathetic view of the burden faced by parents with beloved but unmarriageable daughters. 

8. An Appetite for Life (1977) – Charles Ritchie
Ritchie, though he was a prominent diplomat, is now best remembered for his skill as a diarist and rightly so.  This, the earliest published volume of his diaries, covers the years 1924-1927, as Ritchie was finishing off his studies in Halifax and then experiencing the delightful distractions on offer at Oxford during his first year there.  Ritchie is marvellously candid and his daily ponderings – here, unsurprisingly given his youth, focused on women, sex, and school – manage to be both amusing and touching.

7. Christopher and Columbus (1919) – Elizabeth von Arnim
I took the longest time to decide which von Arnim novel was going to make the list but this beat out The Pastor’s Wife by the sheer force of its charm.  A light, fanciful escape from reality, Christopher and Columbus tells the story of two orphaned teenage German-English twins and their exploits once shipped off to neutral America by their uncle during WWI.  While sailing, Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas befriend the delightful, doting Mr Twist, an American millionaire who made his fortune by designing a no-drip tea pot.  The adventures of this trio make for enchanting reading, with von Arnim’s witty narrator saving it from descending into anything too saccharine.

6. Earth and High Heaven (1944) – Gwethalyn Graham
Without question, this was the biggest reading surprise of the year.  My first reaction upon finishing was that it was the most Persephone-like non-Persephone book I’ve ever read.  Set in Montreal in 1942, the novel revolves around the challenges faced by Erica Drake, an editor at a newspaper, and Marc Reiser, a lawyer, when they meet and fall in love.  Anti-Semitism and family relationships are at the heart of this novel but it is also full of comments on the war, whether it be French-speaking Canada’s reluctance to be involved or the deadening effect of the destruction of the London Blitz, experienced first-hand by Erica’s sister.  It is an absolutely amazing novel that deserves a much wider audience.

5. Hostages to Fortune (1933) – Elizabeth Cambridge
My love for this quiet novel has come on slowly.  I enjoyed it when I read it, yes, but with each passing month I find myself loving it more.  I remain particularly impressed with Cambridge’s portrait of Catherine and William’s marriage and how it evolves, through separation during the war, the arrivals of babies, and the numbingly chaotic years spent scrambling to raise ( and afford to raise) their three children.

4. The American Senator (1877) – Anthony Trollope
My first encounter with Trollope was an unqualified success.  Since then, I’ve read The Warden and Barchester Towers and enjoyed both but neither came close to equaling my delight with The American Senator.  Was it Mr Elias Gotobed’s comically offensive but generally true statements that charmed me so?  The love story of the gentle, deserving Mary Masters?  Or was it the magnificent anti-heroine, Arabella Trefoil, whose single-minded pursuit of a husband  is awesome to behold?  The combination of these stories makes for an eventful, always fascinating, deeply satisfying novel that quite rightly convinced me that Trollope was an author after my own heart.

3. Wives and Daughters (1866) – Elizabeth Gaskell
I feel a bit of a cheat to place a reread so high on my list but…This book is absolutely perfect and fully earned its spot.  I don’t think I will ever tire of Molly Gibson, Cynthia Kirkpatrick, Squire Hamley or, that most magnificent creation, Mrs. Hyacinth Kirkpatrick Gibson.

2. Howards End is on the Landing (2009) – Susan Hill
In any other year, this book would have probably garnered top spot.  Hill’s memoir of a lifetime spent in the company of books and other authors delighted me from the first page to the last.  Everything about this book was perfect for me.  There was enough of the familiar in Hill’s reading to comfort me (because one of the delights of reading about books is coming across opinions on books you know well) and enough of the new to excite me and make me eager to track down those unknown titles.  Even before I had finished reading my library edition, I rushed out to buy a copy of my very own.

1. Summer Half (1937) – Angela Thirkell
Anyone who has been following my blog this year could have probably predicted that Thirkell would take the top spot.  Since my first encounter with Thirkell last January, I have fallen completely in love with her Barsetshire novels and, of the twelve I’ve now read, I think Summer Half is the most perfectly formed.  It centers on the masters and students of Southbridge School and their interactions with some of the local families.  As with all good Thirkell novels, romance is in the air and the narrator’s sharp wit is there to comment on both the comically disastrous pairings and the ideal but bumbled ones.  Most importantly, Summer Half introduces my favourite Thirkell character, the astounding Lydia Keith.  Of all the books I read this year, not only is this the one that I am most eager to return to, it is the one I most wish I owned countless copies of so I could pass it on to everyone I meet.

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader 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!

Just one book for me this week!  I placed a hold on Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James as soon as it appeared in the library catalogue months ago.  I’ve read a number of very critical reviews since it was published but I’m still looking forward to reading it and seeing how I respond to it.  I don’t take Austen dreadfully seriously and am not easily offended by new entries into the Austen industry so I am hoping for a bit of fun.

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While I’ve loved GGK’s historical fantasies (A Song for Arbonne, The Lions of Al-Rassan), there is something so irresistible about Tolkien-esque high fantasy, which The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay definitely is.  Indeed, there may be too many Tolkien references for some but in a novel like this, where an entirely new world has to be explained to the reader, it is actually quite useful to encounter such familiar features. 

The Summer Tree (1984), the first book of the trilogy, begins at the University of Toronto in Convocation Hall, where the reclusive Professor Lorenzo Marcus is giving a lecture.  Later, our five main characters – Kevin Laine, Paul Schafer, Dave Martyniuk, Kimberly Ford, and Jennifer Lowell – find themselves in conversation with the professor, only to be told that his real name is Loren Silvercloak and that he wishes to take them back to Fionavar, his world, as guests, to the celebration of the King’s 50th year on the throne.  Five strangers, one for each decade of the King’s reign.   I love the idea of five U of T students being transported into this other world but I find it more than odd how willing they are to go (except for Dave, making him my immediate favourite).  But go they do, into a world very different and far more dangerous than the one they have always known.

The first book is mostly a set up for the rest of the trilogy, introducing characters and creating the tense standoff between dark and light that provides the focal conflict.  Important work since this is a plot-driven story and it is vital that the reader have a good understanding of everything that is at stake.  Tension and atmosphere are more important than characterization (again, reminiscent of Tolkien and just about everyone who has ever written an epic fantasy series).  The Wandering Fire (1986) and The Darkest Road (1986) continue the story and with each volume it only gets more complex and more intriguing.  There are some logical leaps that I wasn’t quite able to make or crucial events and actions that seemed to make no sense in any kind of context but I found it was best to just suspend my disbelief and enjoy the journey.  Kay is masterful at pacing – probably his most remarkable skill in these books – and I was constantly breathless while reading, always eager to turn the page and to continue on the journey.

Since plot is the focus here, it seems a shame to give too much away.  But there are elves, dwarves, an exiled Prince, a chilling villain, a child of dark and light who truly controls the fate of Fionavar, and, as if that weren’t enough, an overwhelming dose of Arthurian legend, with King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot playing significant roles.  With so much happening, there is no chance to ever be bored.

But the characterization was a problem for me.  I cared deeply about the fate of Fionavar and came to love many of the characters from that world but never felt any real affection for most of the five travellers from my world.  The only one whose fate I was really concerned about was Dave.  The other four find themselves wrapped up in mystic, magical plots and I was concerned and intrigued by the challenges they faced but Dave was the only character whose emotional reactions and responses registered with me, the only one who felt authentic through all three books.  And perhaps most tellingly, he is the only one who truly evolves over the course of the story, going from a reserved, insecure young man to a confident member of a close-knit clan, able to accept the love of others and express his own.

While there were many things I loved about this story, I think it is clear in his later books how far Kay has come in terms of characterization and his writing style.  There are a few too many Yoda-esque passages here and far too many moments where characters suddenly understand or see what sad fate awaits them and where all the reader is told is how sad it is, not what the fate is.  Alright and vaguely intriguing the first dozen times, quite irritating every time after.

But Kay does write truly magnificent action scenes.  I would be perfectly happy just reading about one battle after the other, even though that would make for a ridiculously illogical plot.  But he writes them so well, paces them so perfectly, and never focuses too long on any one place or person.  They are magnificent and they are done just as well here as in any of his later works.

A wonderful, entertaining read, certainly one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read, but not quite as brilliant as Kay’s other books.

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credit: Horia Varlan (flickr)

Retrospective posts seem to be going up on blogs everywhere as 2011 draws to a close.  I have been loving the many 2011 favourites lists, which making for some excellent and very tempting reading.  My list is a few days off, both because I’m finishing off a book that might very well make it on and because I find it excruciatingly difficult to pass judgement on the many wonderful books I’ve read.  I’ll draft a list one day and then come back the next and wonder what I was thinking; how could I have though ——– was worthy of the list?  How could I have excluded ———?  List making is serious business, a delicate art rather than science, and I have some difficult choices ahead of me.

Less challenging, thankfully, is recapping the challenges I participated in this year (excluding the Canadian Book Challenge 4, which wrapped up at the end of June): the Victorian Literature Challenge and the Eastern European Reading Challenge.

My goal for the Victorian Literature Challenge was to read between 5 and 9 books.  I had an enormous amount of fun coming up with a book list for this challenge and then promptly ignored all Victorian lit for several months.  As usual when I spend hours making a reading list for a challenge, I ended up reading almost nothing from it.  It took me until April to get started on the challenge, with a wonderful reread of Wives and Daughters, one of my all-time favourite books.  I then read Agnes Grey and, in Anne, finally found a Brontë sister whose work I can enjoy.  I tried Mrs Oliphant for the first time, reading her novellas The Rector and The Doctor’s Family, and was not particularly won over (though listening to the BBC radio dramatization of Miss Marjoribanks this autumn has made me wonder if I shouldn’t give Oliphant another chance).  And, most wonderfully of all, I finally discovered Trollope.  I enjoyed The Warden but fell completely in love with The American Senator.  Reading Trollope has truly been one of the delights of 2011 and, having now amassed a considerable collection of his novels, I plan to continue my enjoyment in 2012 (and, most likely, every year after, reading and then rereading).

Here is the list of what I read for this challenge, with snippets from each review:

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (highly recommended)
“Gaskell’s straightforwardness has always appealed to me. Artifice and obfuscation are the talents of her minor characters, never her heroes or heroines, admirable for their plain speaking and clarity of purpose. Never is this contrast clearer than between Molly and her stepsister Cynthia. Cynthia bursts into the novel and into Molly’s life in a whirl of colour and energy. She is beautiful and captivating, spirited and somewhat mysterious. She can be all things to all people, knowing how to act best to please each member of her audience. And though the contrast between her and the honest, direct Molly is great, they quickly become close confidents, true sisters…”

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
“This is not an affectionate portrayal of the life of a governess. It stresses the isolation Agnes feels in the households where she is employed, how powerless she is in dealing with both the children and the adults but, generally, it is by no means a dreary book. If anything, it attempts to cover too many things in too few pages, turning this into a book crammed with wit, romance, a shocking amount of moralizing (usually expressed with some painfully affected writing), and some rather heavy themes (isolation and oppression being the two main ones). It is an interesting but confusing mix.”

The American Senator by Anthony Trollope (highly recommended)
“After reading The American Senator by Anthony Trollope, I am now certain that Trollope will become one of my favourite authors. I had suspected as much before but, now that I have finally read him, I know. So chatty, so funny, so detailed, so entertaining – this book was everything that a book should be!”

The Rector and The Doctor’s Family by Margaret Oliphant
“I found Oliphant’s writing style unmemorable and uneven, with some quite clever passages followed by pages and pages of dull plodding stuff, and her tendency to moralize reminiscent of all those lesser Victorian novelists who rely on sentiment rather than skill.”

The Warden by Anthony Trollope
“What I particularly loved about The Warden were Trollope’s descriptive passages. Most of these were mere tangents to the main plot, with Trollope poking fun at newspaper men, politicians, clergymen, lovers, spouses…really anyone and everyone who could possibly be woven into the story however remotely, but they had me giggling away throughout the book. It is these passages that allow the observant, witty narrator to establish himself as the most entertaining character of all.”

And then there was the Eastern European Reading Challenge.  My aim was to read 12 books either by authors from or set in Eastern Europe.  Considering the generous definition of ‘Eastern’ (here, “Eastern Bloc” countries are all considered Eastern, regardless of their actual geographic orientation), I thought this would be a breeze.  It really just seemed like a challenge tailor made to encourage me to read more Czech literature, history, and biographies, maybe with a dash over to Russia or Hungary for a bit of variety.  Again, there was a delightful book list made to start things off and, again, I ended up reading very little from it (3 titles, somewhat better than the 1 I managed from the Victorian lit list).  I started off well but then read nothing for the challenge between June and November.  Whoops.  Readers may have noticed a flood of reviews over the last few weeks of Eastern European titles in my desperate attempt to catch up and meet my targeted 12.  But with only a few days left in 2011 and mountains of other, non-Eastern European books that I’m eager to read, I am officially admitting defeat and calling it quits at 11 books.  Though it was hectic towards the end, I had an amazing time with this challenge.  I ventured well outside of my comfort zone and found some absolute delights on my journey (The Snows of Yesteryear, The Gardener’s Year, Skylark, and Prague Tales stand out – several of which are currently in competition for spots on my Best of 2011 list).  This challenge did absolutely what a challenge is meant to do: it expanded my horizons as a reader, enriching my life by introducing me to the unfamiliar.

Here are the 11 (sadly, not 12) books I read:

A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova
“…a good but certainly not great memoir of Gorkhova’s life growing up in St. Petersburg during the 1960s and 1970s. Gorokhova is charming and at times quite engaging; overall, it was a pleasant but not particularly special or memorable reading experience.”

The Snows of Yesteryear by Gregor von Rezzori (highly recommended)
“Strictly speaking, yes, this is a memoir but really it is von Rezzori telling the life stories of those who surrounded him in his childhood and adolescence. He is their biographer but also our subject. Through portraits of five others – his nurse, his mother, his father, his sister, and his governess – von Rezzori tells the story of his family and his early life, a strangely rootless existence begun in Czernowitz (in Austria-Hungary) in 1914. His homeland eventually became part of Romania and von Rezzori seems to have accepted and love his new country though he was ethnically anything but Romanian.”

The Russian Album by Michael Ignatieff
“… a thoughtful, intimate book, absolutely worthy of all the praise that has been heaped upon it since it was first published in 1987.”

Far to Go by Alison Pick
“This really should be a book that I have strong feelings about – it was, after all, a book I was quite excited to read, so much so that I requested a copy from the publisher; when have I ever been able to refuse a book about Czechoslovakia, never mind one set in the exciting years of 1938 and 1939 and written by a Canadian? And yet even as I was reading it, I felt strangely disconnected from it. It was neither glaringly bad nor especially good.”

The Gardener’s Year by Karel Čapek (highly recommended)
“Even new as I am to the obsession, my own recent gardening plights, the missteps and mistakes that were weighing heavily on my soul, were perfectly echoed by Čapek, as though he had been in the garden witnessing my incompetence only a few days previously…”

The Legends of Prague by František Langer
“While these stories are definitely friendlier and less bloodthirsty than the ones I adored as a child, they are still captivating and delightful. And they do what any book about Prague should do: bring the magic of that city to life, allowing the reader, regardless of age, to take as a matter of fact that normal Praguers share drinks with known water sprites and headless horsemen, that statues act as godparents, and that saints still shape the city as they wish to see it, regardless of the bureaucrats’ intentions. Because if it could happen anywhere, it would be there…”

Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi (highly recommended)
“When the Vakjay’s beloved, spinster daughter Skylark leaves for a week to visit relatives, Mother and Father don’t know quite what to do with themselves. Their lives revolve around their much loved, ugly, dull daughter and in her absence they find themselves doing the most unexpected things. They dine out, reconnect with old friends and make new ones, go to the theatre, and Father even attends one of the Panther drinking club’s infamous Thursday nights (which all of Friday is needed to recover from). It is an inversion of the classic plot of children running wild once adult authority and supervision is removed, but here it is Skylark, the child, whose mild, loving attentions and constant presence at home restricts her parents.”

Sunflower by Gyula Krúdy
“…a strange, strange novel and not in a particularly endearing way. If I hadn’t been reading it for the Eastern European Reading Challenge, I’m not sure I would have stuck with it until the end. It confirmed all of my family’s most dearly held prejudices against Hungarians. Here, they are the dramatic, suicidal, alcoholic, crazy, passionate and rather obsessive eccentrics I have been forever warned about and yet are sadly uninteresting.”

How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulić (highly recommended)
“Although this was written twenty years ago, I was astonished by how informative I found it, how many of the essays brought new details to my attention that have never been mentioned in the histories or even memoirs that I’ve read covering the same area during the same time period. I may be astonished by that, but Drakulić would not be. She knows that the lives and stories she is concerned with, those of normal, unexceptional women, are the ones most easily ignored and most quickly forgotten. And yet by lacking any kind of political power, they were the ones whose lives most clearly mirrored the politics of the day…”

Café Europa by Slavenka Drakulić
“Here, the essays are more cynical, more disappointed, written in the mid-90s when Drakulić was clearly frustrated by the lack of change in post-communist Europe. The governments may have changed but people’s attitudes have not. Whether it is people lying to and cheating the customs officials or the widespread apathy when a democratic government behaves with the arrogance and secrecy of a communist one, citizens mourning a dictator or Bulgarians grudgingly providing customer ‘service’ with a grimace rather than a smile, Drakulić’s observations are always intelligent and absorbingly personal.”

Prague Tales by Jan Neruda (highly recommended)
“All set in the Malá Strana district of Prague…the stories were originally written in the 1860s and 1870s before being collected and published together in Czech in 1878. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect before I started reading. Neruda is primarily remembered as a poet and these are certainly not what I would expect from a poet. Tender and sharp, witty and sympathetic, each story reveals Neruda’s skill as a realist.”

I truly loved my reading challenges for 2011, despite a few issues along the way, and am now in the midst of trying to decide what to join for 2012.  The Eastern European Reading Challenge is being continued so that is a definite option but I do also like the idea of trying something new.  If you’re participating in or are hosting any challenges next year that you think I might be interested in, please let me know!

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A Very Thirkell Christmas

Merry Christmas to all!  After years of attempting to curb my ever-expanding book collection, my family has finally given up and, to my delight, this Christmas the bulk of my presents were books.  And not just any books: I was presented with 6 Angela Thirkell novels and 1 Anthony Trollope.  Perfection.  I’ve had real trouble finding Thirkell in used bookstores but my parents were able to stop at Powell’s in Portland on their way home from California earlier this month and, clearly, they had some in stock.  I am absolutely delighted, especially since I’ve been so eager to get my hands on High Rising and August Folly, early books in Thirkell’s Barsetshire series, neither of which are available at the city or university libraries.

It’s been a perfectly lethargic Christmas Day here, filled with much reading (me: Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope; mother: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht; father: Jerusalem: the Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore), much munching of Christmas cookies and cake, and, drawing on sugar-induced founts of energy, walks along the beach.  We’re off to dinner tonight with the family of my brother’s girlfriend and no doubt in for a treat as her mother is an amazing cook.  Life is very good indeed.

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As it is Christmas Eve, it seemed only right to search out a few festively attired libraries.  A very Merry Christmas to all those who are celebrating this weekend, either today or tomorrow!  In our house, Christmas Eve is the most eventful day, with the big meal (fish – thankfully not the traditional carp– and potato salad, in the Czech tradition) and presents happening tonight.  However you celebrate, wherever you celebrate, or even if you aren’t celebrating, have a wonderful weekend!

Eldon House (London, Ontario)

Southern Living

Country Living

The Library at the White House, circa 1995

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A Glove Shop in Vienna and Other Stories by Eva Ibbotson is an interesting (though difficult to obtain) book, a volume of short stories first published in 1984.  They were written early in her career as she was still developing an authorial voice, so while many of the themes and characters are classic Ibbotson, her style and skill can vary widely between stories. While I loved the most Ibbotson-esque stories, I think what I most enjoyed about this volume was reading some of her early experiments, seeing how she played with different stories, different characters, and different perspectives while developing herself as a writer.

Most of the stories are plain, simple Ibbotson romances and family tales and most are carried off with her usual charm, though lack the conviction and joy she was able to infuse into her novels.  But they are entertaining, the perfect light tales to dip into before bed.  There is “This Beetroot is Not Screaming” about how an earnest young agricultural student upsets the faculty with her soft-hearted attitude towards animals, ultimately gaining the affection of the narrator, one of the teachers; “Osmandine” about a free-spirited actress who assumes a position as a pharmacist while the real one is hospital and cures the ailments of his customers  without resorting to silly things like their doctor’s prescriptions; and the excellent “The Little Countess” about an uncompromising young English governess and her struggles to sort out the needlessly but humourously complicated lives of the Russian family she works for.  “The Little Countess” also added something a bit different in how it was told, giving us the limited perspective of an essentially comic character, related by yet another character. This was probably my favourite story, the one that came closest to creating the vivid places and people I’m used to from Ibbotson, as well as including all of her excellent humour:

It was only in the evenings that my grandmother began to feel the strain.  For just when she began to think of a light supper and an early night after the day’s work, everyone at Yaslova woke up.  The Count came in from the stables.  The Countess, a devout and dedicated hypochondriac, left her bed.  Petya abandoned his books, neighbours arrived by troika or on horseback and the samovar was carried out on to the veranda which ran the length of the house.

And there, drinking interminable glasses of tea with raspberry jam and being bitten by mosquitoes, everybody, said my grandmother sadly, just sat and sat and sat.  Sometimes they talked of the hopelessness of Russia’s destiny; sometimes they discussed the total uselessness of their beloved ‘Little Father’, the Tsar.  Occasionally, the old tutor would read aloud from Pushkin and everybody would explain to my grandmother (in the French they all spoke, even to say their prayers) how much more beautiful, inflected and sensitive the Russian language was than any other language in the world.  And no one, said my grandmother sighing, ever went to bed.

The Amazon, Vienna, Russia, Paris, England…Ibbotson’s favourite locations are all present and accounted for but she bounces gleefully between decades.  I’m so used to reading her historical novels that when I came across the first of her stories set post-World War II, I couldn’t quite believe it.  Mentions of mini-skirts, bikinis, etc may have momentarily thrown me for a loop but it was enjoyable to see her handle more modern subject matter (including a hilarious international beauty competition in “This Year’s Winner”).  That said, not all of her modern stories worked: there are two first-person narratives about adultery that are particularly unoriginal and unconvincing.  But I did still enjoy reading them, seeing how she tried to approach a topic, characters, and a style so different to what she was generally drawn towards.

I read this at the end of November and it is the perfect book to read before Christmas, not just for its generally warm, comforting tales but because it contains no less than three Christmas stories.  Persephone Biannually readers may remember “A Question of Riches” from the Autumn/Winter 2010 edition.  There are also “Vicky and the Christmas Angel”, about a young Viennese girl’s discovery of who really brings the children’s presents, and “The Great Carp Ferdinand”:

The role the Great Carp Ferdinand was to play in the life of the Mannhaus family was simple, though crucial.  He was, to put it plainly, the Christmas dinner.  For in Vienna, where they celebrate on Christmas Eve and no one, on Holy Night, would dream of eating meat, they relish nothing so much as a richly-marinated, succulently roasted carp.  And it is true that until you have tasted fresh carp with all the symphonic accompaniments (sour cream, braised celeriac, dark plum jam) you have not, gustatorily speaking, really lived.

…But the accent is on the word fresh.

The story follows the impact Ferdinand the Carp has on the Mannhaus family in the days leading up to Christmas, while he occupies the maids’ bathtub and endures frequent visits from members of the household, who come and pour out their thoughts to him.  Growing up terrorized by stories of bathtub-dwelling carp and the amazing effort that it took to kill them (the first Christmas after she was widowed was the only year my grandmother ever tried to kill the carp on her own.  It, to say the least, did not go well.  Every year after, she compromised on freshness to spare herself the battle) I was highly entertained by all aspects of this story, particularly the arsenal of weapons the men folk armed themselves with when preparing to do battle with Ferdinand.  There is a romance here too and a rather charming family but it is Ferdinand who steals the show.

And, in the last, busy few days before Christmas, I am feeling particularly drawn to this description from “Vicky and the Christmas Angel”:

But the angel in the household of Herr Doktor and Frau Fischer had help.  In the kitchen Katrina, fat and warm and Czech like all the best cooks in Vienna, produced an ever-growing pile of gingerbread hearts and vanilla crescents; of almond rings and chocolate guglhupf.  Vicky’s mother, pretty and frivolous and very loving, helped too, whispering and rustling behind mysteriously closed doors.  As for Vicky’s father, erupting irately from the green baize door of his study shouting, ‘Bills!  Bills!  Nothing but bills!’, he possibly helped most of all.

A Glove Shop in Vienna and Other Stories is far from perfect but I loved it nonetheless.  A number of the stories are truly excellent, balancing humour and drama, creating interesting plots people by intriguing characters.  Other tales only hit one note, but, generally, it is an unobjectionable one that hardly distracts from the reader’s enjoyment of an excellent story.  Indeed, my main problem with this book is how difficult it is to find!

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I don’t usually get that excited about films (particularly ones that aren’t coming out for almost a year) but…

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