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Archive for February, 2013

Puppy LoveI have been having an odd sort of month, watching as my coworkers and superiors have been let go, waiting for it to be my turn.  And waiting.  And waiting.  I am perfectly at peace with leaving the company but I have been longing to know when exactly that would happen so I could start planning around it.  Now, finally, I know and it looks like tomorrow will be my last day.  This is delightful news and the timing is excellent (it means I’ll be heading off to California immediately) but while I was waiting for confirmation (which I only just got last night) I spent a lot of time reading light, fluffy books.  There is no point worrying about something you can’t control but I was doing that nonetheless: reading was the only reliable distraction.

One of the most enjoyable of the books I sped through in the last week was Puppy Love by Frauke Scheunemann.  Published in Germany in 2010, it is the first in a series of books but so far this looks like the only title that has been translated into English.  I saw it in House of Anansi’s catalogue last spring, asked if they would please send me a copy, and then let it sit on my shelf unread for a year.  But my timing turned out to be perfect: this week, a romantic comedy narrated by a dachshund was exactly what I needed.

When Carl-Leopold von Eschersbach, a dachshund whose mother is one of the distinguished von Eschersbach dachshunds (the less said about his father the better), finds himself rescued from a Hamburg animal shelter by the lovely Caroline, his life begins to change.  First, he finds himself with a new name, Hercules, and then he finds himself with a new friend and neighbour, the cat Mr Beck.  Already devoted to Caroline, Hercules takes it upon himself to first rid his owner of her awful, cheating boyfriend and then to find her a better mate.  Mr Beck, being more knowledgeable about human relationships than the young dog, becomes Hercules’ partner in his endeavour.  Caroline might be drawn to the wrong men but Hercules knows exactly what she needs in a companion, as he tells Mr Beck:

“She simply doesn’t know what would be good for her.”

“Oh, and you do?”

“Exactly.  I do know.  We’ll simply find a man I’d be happy to go hunting with.  A man who befits her high standards, of course; Caroline is not just any woman.  But also someone who would be a loyal master to his dog, who would treat him well, feed him daily and take him for lots of walks, because anyone who would treat his dog like that would surely treat his wife well. But Caroline simply doesn’t pay attention to these basic things.”

There is no shortage of candidates for Caroline’s affections: her friend and work partner Daniel would be very happy to get closer, a handsome actor pursues her after a chance meeting, and the vet, despite Hercules’ aversion to him, proves to be another strong contender.  Thanks to Hercules’ hard work, Caroline does, in the end, find the right man.

Told entirely from Hercules’ perspective, this was a very fun, sweet book.  Hercules’ confusion over human behaviour (especially male-female relationships) is amusing and his determination and relentless optimism were so very dog-like and endearing.  I am not sure I could handle an entire series written from his perspective (the fourth book is being published in April) but this book was very cute and the perfect distraction for me this week.

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badge-4Library 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.

No books for me this week!  I might be heading out of town for a couple of weeks so have suspended all my library holds for now and forced myself not to check anything new out.  I have, however, spent a lot of time searching the library’s ebook catalogue and bookmarking titles I might want to read while I’m out of town.  The only shame is that you can only “check out” five ebooks at a time – thank goodness I’ll have my computer with me while I’m gone and be able to download new books as soon as I finish the old ones!

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Speaking of Jane AustenThere is no doubt in my mind that Speaking of Jane Austen (or Talking of Jane Austen) by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern will find its way onto my “Top Ten Books of 2013” list at the end of the year; the only question is what position it will occupy.  Were I to make that list today there would be no doubt: it is far and away the best thing I have read in 2013.

I always enjoy reading other people’s thoughts on Jane Austen and, goodness knows, there are more than enough books and blogs out there to make even the most rabid Janeite happy.  My preference has always been for personal, informal lit crit: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Margaret Kennedy both wrote wonderfully intelligent and personal books that highlight both Austen’s technical genius and the kind of intense relationships her readers form with her characters.  Speaking of Jane Austen falls in this same category but is quite honestly so much more detailed and joyful than anything else I have ever read on Austen that it deserves to be in a class all its own.

There is no pleasure so complete as reading a book about a topic you love by authors whose tastes match yours in every particular.  I had expected, after reading her memoir, to enjoy Sheila Kaye-Smith’s (SKS) chapters the most and was surprised – but delighted – to enjoy G.B. Stern’s (GBS) just as much.  Both women felt similarly towards the six books but even in their agreement they retain their own unique personalities.  They are warm and funny and their joy at getting to explore any and every Austen-related topic that catches their fancy is immense, as was my joy in reading.

The authors trade off, chapter by chapter, touching on every imaginable topic: the influence of current events on Austen’s writing; the “chumps” in her novels and which ones are most loveable (answer: Mr Woodhouse and Mrs Dashwood); SKS’s desire to know what the heroines were wearing and eating; life in the country; women’s education and accomplishments; Austen’s portrayal of decidedly unspiritual clergymen; the importance of letter writing; and then, most enjoyably, discussions of characters Austen failed to bring to life (GBS picks include Colonel Brandon, Eleanor Tilney and Lady Catherine de Bourgh; SKS is disappointed by Mary Bennet, Mr Palmer, and Lady Russell) and characters who are mentioned but never emerge from the background (Mary King, Colonel Forster, Isabella Thorpe’s friend Miss Andrews, etc).  There is a shamefully difficult quiz (which can be found in its entirety here), with questions like: What kind of apricot did Dr Grant discuss with Mrs Norris and what was the price of it? And What do we know about – (a) Miss Grantley, (b) Mrs Speed, (c) Miss Pope, (d) Charlotte Davies, (e) Miss King, (f) Biddy Henshawe, (g) Lady Stonoway, (h) the Lady Frasers, (i) the Tupmans, (j) Lady Mary Grierson?  Who???  Immediately following these stumpers there is a section of odds and ends, brief musings from both authors on topics that did not fit elsewhere in the book.  After “The Mansfield Park Quartette”, which despite its title is really a chapter discussing all of the romantic pairings in all of the six books, this miscellany was my favourite section, offering perfect observations like:

However often I may re-read Jane Austen, I am for ever discovering some new small proof of genius in a sentence.  I have just found a gem of irony: it occurs after the scene in Persuasion where Frederick and Louisa go nutting down the hedgerow and (his subconscious still sore over the loss of Anne) he extols in an exaggerated style her firmness, decision and strength of mind.  Then, a little later, in family conclave: “Louisa now being armed with the idea of merit in maintaining her own way…”

No small part of my delight came from the discovery that both GBS and SKS counted Emma as their favourite of Austen’s works.  It is no secret that it is mine, too.  After years of searching, I have finally found a book that spends enough time dissecting and heaps enough praise on Emma to satisfy even me.  I loved reading about their worship of Mr Woodhouse, their fantasies of what it must be like to attend a dinner party at Hartfield, their reasons why Mr Knightley is the Austen hero they would most like to marry (Henry Tilney coming in second, as well he should), and, most of all, why they adore dear, flawed, adorable Emma.  I was particularly touched by SKS’s comments about how her relationship to Emma has changed over time:

At the start, Emma was my contemporary; now she might be my granddaughter, but I still have that warm, urgent sense of a personal relationship.  It is curiously charming, this experience of growing up with and round and past a character, entering into ever-changing and new relationships with it as one passes from girlhood’s interest and envy into motherly affection and grandmotherly pride.  Dear Emma!  Dear snobbish, cocksure, deluded Emma! – “faultless in spite of all her faults.”  She is and will doubtless always be my favourite among the Jane Austen heroines…

But that is not to say that they do not heap praise on the other books and the other heroines.  Catherine Morland and Anne Elliot are held in particular esteem (as GBS says, “There is no end to what I can find to praise in Anne Elliot; she deserves all the felicity which her creator bestowed upon her.”), Elizabeth is admired, Fanny is admitted to have virtues than both women feel would have been better served by a marriage to Henry Crawford, Elinor is esteemed and Marianne…frankly, I was surprised by how tenderly Marianne was treated, how sympathetic and admiring both SKS and GBS were to the young girl’s tragedy.  We are reminded how ill-behaved Marianne is compared to other girls of her age (can you imagine Catherine Morland, also seventeen, forgetting herself in public the way Marianne does?) but that does not override their love for her.  The discussions about Marianne and her emotions were some of the best in the entire book, with SKS in particular admiring the “power and sympathy” with which Austen presented “the flaming spirit of youth”, with all its attendant flaws.  The way GBS contrasts Marianne’s suffering with the turmoil experienced by the other heroines was also intriguing:

…the young girl’s tragedy is so vividly translated, and she lies on her bed at Mrs Jenning’s house in Conduit Street, with Willoughby’s letters in her hand and ‘almost screams with agony’, unbearable revelation of what someone we love can do to us if their love is not so great as our own, that it does not seem possible ever to dislike Marianne again.  Poor child; poor wounded child.  Even Anne is not so tormented, for she must always have had a mind to sustain her, even at seventeen; whereas Marianne has evolved no such protection against the storm.  Marianne can only rush out in the thin shoes into a damp shrubbery on a rainy night, and thus fashion some sort of fool’s consolation out of rashness.  Emma, too, like Anne, has a mind with which to meet grief; she is heavy-hearted, but she is not sunk when she believes she has lost Knightley to Harriet; she can still determine that her father shall feel no effects from her own grief.  Yes, Emma, as well as Anne, commands our respect.  Jane Bennet and Elinor Dashwood can also meet perfidy and disillusion with fortitude and put on a serene disguise.  Elizabeth is given very little suffering to try her; she has but hardly discovered that she could love Darcy after rejecting him than here is Darcy back again; ready to stoop his pride and put his fortune to the test for the second time.

I loved all of the questions this book brought up, both serious and whimsical.  While it is little short of ecstasy for obsessive Janeites to spend hours considering which of the heroines you would most like to meet, which hero would make the best husband or which scene you wish you could step into, I was brought up short by SKS’s confidence that all Janeites would roughly agree on how to order the six novels according to their merits:

There is one subject which true Janeites never weary of discussing, though as far as my own experience goes no discussion has ever been brought to a satisfactory conclusion.  By this I do not mean that it has never been settled; on the contrary, it is always settled much too easily.  There is very little difference of opinion among Jane-lovers as to the relative merits of the six novels.  You are not likely to find any one of them maintaining that Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey are flawless and none of the rest is worth reading, or that Sense and Sensibility is a finer book that Persuasion.  As a body we are agreed that the standard is very even and very high; none of the novels is disappointing, but if a list were to be drawn up either Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility would be at the bottom and either Emma or Persuasion at the top. SKS

As usual, I was in complete agreement with SKS and GBS (for the record, I would rank them as follows: Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and, finally, Pride and Prejudice) but I know from past discussions that many of my readers will disagree!  I can vaguely understand how people can shuffle the bottom four around but to rank Emma and Persuasion as anything other than one and two (or vice-versa) is inconceivable.

This is the Austen book I have spent years searching for.  It is intelligent and energetic, quick witted and affectionate.  It is, quite simply, perfect.

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How to be a WomanAfter I finished reading Moranthology, I had all sorts of questions about Caitlin Moran.  There are just enough details about her life in that collection of articles  – about her childhood, her husband, her teen years as a wunderkind journalist – to make me want to know more.  Her memoir, How To Be a Woman, happily answers all of those questions and proves that she can be just as entertaining a memoirist as she is a columnist.

The memoir is framed around various experiences in Moran’s life that have helped to define (for her) what it means to be a woman.  She discusses with her usual humour her first period, her overweight youth, her first encounter with sexism in the workplace (which she handles with impressive bravado), her marriage, her experiences with childbirth and abortion, and her opinions on those hot button issues that allow outraged responses from a good proportion of readers (topics like the porn industry, modern standards towards body hair, how female celebrities are treated in the media, etc).  Moran is never short on opinions and, whether you agree with her or not, she is always entertaining in her arguments.

Admittedly, I only agreed with her opinions about 50% of the time but this is not meant to be a general guide to others on how to be a woman: this is a book about Moran and how she, over the course of more than twenty years, tried to figure out what it meant for her.  Does every woman’s path to becoming a woman include the contemplation of what to call their genitals?  God, I hope not.  But that doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate other lessons Moran learned along the way.

For me, the chapters on “Why You Should Have Children”, “Why You Shouldn’t Have Children” and “Abortion” were the most interesting.  They felt more sincere and less jokey than other sections of the book and I found Moran’s account of her abortion very powerful, both in her description of the physical process and in her analysis of how uncertain society is around women (especially ones who are already mothers) who do not weep with despair when they choose to terminate a pregnancy.  There was certainly no weeping for Moran:

I can honestly say that my abortion was one of the least difficult decisions of my life.  I’m not being flippant when I say it took me longer to decide what worktops to have in the kitchen than whether I was prepared to spend the rest of my life being responsible for a further human being, because I knew that to do it again – to commit my life to another person – might very possibly stretch my abilities, and conception of who I am, and who I want to be, and what I want and need to do – to breaking point.  The idea that I might not – in an earlier era, or a different country – have a choice in the matter, seems both emotionally and physically barbaric.   

The most attractive thing about this book is how self-aware Moran is and how good natured she is about making fun of her younger self.  There is nothing so insufferable as a writer who cannot recognize how insufferable they are (or, hopefully, were).  Moran handles some weighty subjects in a humourous and thoughtful way, making this book a pleasure to read.

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Library Lust

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Usually, there is nothing I like better than some built-in bookshelves.  Usually.  These I hate.  I hate that they wrap around that tight, awkward corner.  I hate that they go right up to the window casing.  And I really, really hate all of those ridiculous little lamps hanging off every available space.

On the other hand, I quite like that chair.

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badge-4Library 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.

I may not have received any bookish birthday presents yesterday but I did make an amazing bookish discovery: the library has been holding out on me.  It turns out that there is a source for ebooks that, until yesterday, I didn’t know existed.  The catalogue is partially but not fully linked to the main library website (I know, it’s ridiculous) so there are titles available that you can only see if you search directly in the ebook catalogue.  Most excitingly, I discovered that I can access some of the Bloomsbury Reader ebooks that I have been eyeing for months and had given up hope of the library acquiring.  Joy!

Library Loot 1

Another Part of the Wood by Denis Mackail

A Future Arrived by Phillip Rock – the third and final book in the Greville Family saga.  While the first book was set during WWI and the second in the early 1920s, this one catches up with the characters in the 1930s.

Velvet Dawn by Rowena Summers

Library Loot 2

Closed at Dusk by Monica Dickens

The Happy Prisoner by Monica Dickens

What did you pick up this week?

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It is time for an extra-special edition of “Library Lust” – and on a weekday no less!  It is my (27th) birthday today and to celebrate I am sharing my five favourite libraries from the last year.  Here they are, in no particular order (you can also check out my favourites from 2012 and 2011):

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Blue library from Elle Decor

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Oresund home 2 via skeppsholmen.se

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War and PeaceHave you heard that Andrew Davies is adapting War and Peace into a six hour television miniseries?  Davies is responsible for some of my very favourite adaptations – Wives and Daughters (1999), Vanity Fair (1998), and, of course, Pride and Prejudice (1995) – and I cannot wait to see how this turns out.  Having seen how wonderfully he handled both Elizabeth Bennet and Becky Sharp, I trust Davies to do full justice to the entirely charming Natasha.

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Vancouver in February

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is no where I would rather be in February than Vancouver.  The rest of the country is still frozen in winter while on Saturday people here were running around in shorts or tee-shirts.  How smug we get to feel, living in such a perfect place!

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Library Lust

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Though my favourite part of this room is the floor, I also love the juxtaposition of the small window seat and the bookshelves.  All too often I go to my shelves to grab my next book and end up spend an hour cross-legged on the floor flipping through my collection.  A window seat would be much more comfortable!

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