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Archive for March, 2013

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.

 Library Loot

It Ends with Revelations by Dodie Smith – I know none of Smith’s other novels measure up to I Capture the Castle but it is still fun to discover more of her work.

During a summer festival in an English spa town Miles Quentin, a distinguished actor, and his devoted wife become friendly with the local MP Geoffrey Thornton, and his young daughters Robin and Kit. All of these attractive, intelligent and busy people seem untroubled at first. But the surface of their lives conceals problems which start to come to light after the Quentin’s return to their London theatre world and the Thornton’s to their Westminster home. This leads to an unconventional love story in which loyalty may prove more important than love.

Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi – after a very, very long wait, I finally have my hands on this amazing-looking cookbook.  After just flipping through it quickly, there are easily a dozen recipes I want to try.

The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp by Eva Rice – Yay!  I am so excited this finally came in.  Rice’s last novel, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, was wonderful.

Country girl Tara is whisked off to ’60s London to become a star; there she is dressed, she is shown off at Chelsea parties, photographed by the best. She meets songwriters, singers, designers, and records her song. And she falls in love – with two men. Behind the buzz and excitement of her success, the bitterness between her elder sister Lucy and her friend Matilda haunts Tara. Their past friendship is broken and among the secrets and the strangeness of both their marriages, the past keeps on reappearing. 

What did you pick up this week?

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Library Lust

designer: Andrew Waller (of Mr Waller)

designer: Andrew Waller (of Mr Waller)

While I am violently opposed to the idea of bookshelves in my bedroom (I find them too distracting), I do love the look of this room and all the colour the books provide.

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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 got back to Vancouver yesterday afternoon and even managed to fit in a quick visit to the library once I had dropped my bags at home.  Priorities people! (It also helps that the library is on the way to the grocery store, where, having returned home to an empty fridge, I really did have to go.)  That said, I only picked up one book there; the rest of these are all e-books I downloaded over the last week while I was still out of town. 

Library Loot 2

Lunch with Jan Wong – a collection of celebrity interviews Wong, a Canadian journalist, wrote for the Globe and Mail during the late 1990s.

Out of the Blue by Jan Wong – after reading Lunch with Jan Wong and remembering how much I enjoy her writing, I grabbed this from the library after I got home yesterday afternoon.  It is a memoir of her struggle with workplace-caused depression and the only one of her books I haven’t yet read.

Fair Play by Tove Jansson – NYRB, who reissued this, describe it as “the type of love story that is rarely told, a revelatory depiction of contentment, hard-won and exhilarating.”  I have been meaning to read more by Jansson ever since I read her wonderful The Summer Book.

Library Loot 3

Notes From a Big Country by Bill Bryson – a collection of articles Bryson wrote for a British newspaper when, after twenty years of living in England, he and his family moved to the US.  I have read this a few times and it is always funny but still probably my least favourite of Bryson’s books.

The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson – Bryson’s road trip through small-town America.

Talking to Addison by Jenny Colgan – some tried and tested chick lit.  This isn’t Colgan’s best (check out Amanda’s Wedding) but I am very, very attached to some of the minor characters in this book.

What did you pick up this week?

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The Happy PrisonerAfter my first very successful encounter with Bloomsbury Reader (Another Part of the Wood), I quickly downloaded another of their e-books from my library.  First published in 1946, The Happy Prisoner by Monica Dickens is another gem, an intelligent but light character-driven novel about a wounded soldier trying his best to council his family members through their various crises.

The war is over but nothing has gone back to normal for Oliver North: he is lying in bed in his mother’s house, waiting for his leg to heal after the bottom half was amputated and for his weak heart to get stronger, it having been damaged by shrapnel in the same attack that damaged his leg.  Unable to move from the main floor room where his bed is set up, Oliver watches his family’s lives go on around him, happily doing his best to steer them when they come to him for guidance:

How wise Oliver felt lying here, knowing he could run people’s lives better than they could themselves.  He had visions of himself as the oracle and influence of the household, but it was difficult to be either an oracle or an influence when people kept going away and you could not get up and follow them and make them listen.

Elder sister Violet, horse faced and happier in pants than skirts, finds herself with an unexpected chance at romance.  Younger sister Heather, mother of two small children, has been struggling for years as a single parent, ever since her husband was captured as a POW in Asia.  Now that he has returned from the East, she is struggling to readjust to the man she once adored but now barely knows.  Others bustle in and out of Oliver’s room – a young cousin, an old girlfriend, his brothers-in-law, and, of course, his doting mother – everyone telling calm, steady Oliver their troubles.  Everyone, that is, but Elizabeth, Oliver’s invaluable but reserved nurse.

What a wonderful discovery this was!  I adored my first encounter with Dickens (Mariana) but since then had begun to wonder if she was for me, having had mixed reactions to the books I had read since then.  While I don’t particularly enjoy her much-admired memoirs (One Pair of Hands, One Pair of Feet, etc), I really do enjoy her fiction.  Dickens’ writing is simple but admirably so.  She writes clearly and with great humour and, something I am coming to appreciate more and more, has complete control over the pacing of the story.  It never drags or rushes but proceeds at exactly the right rate towards the happy ending.  Another great offering from Bloomsbury Reader!

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Another Part of the WoodAlmost exactly a year ago, I bought a Kobo Touch e-reader.  I have been thankful for it many times since then but probably never so much as when I recently discovered that my library’s e-book collection included a copy of Another Part of the Wood by Denis Mackail.  I have been eager to read more by Mackail since discovering the charms of Greenery Street in 2010 and especially since becoming a wee bit obsessed with the many books written by his elder sister, Angela Thirkell.  Though Mackail was a busy writer (you can find his full bibliography here) his books have fallen sadly out of print.  Greenery Street is readily available from Persephone and, thanks to Bloomsbury Reader, Another Part of the Wood can also easily be got, albeit only as an ebook right now.  And it is well worth getting.

When eighteen-year old Ursula Brett, known to most as Noodles, leaves her respectable but unexceptional school (the kind that is very proud that it has never trained a girl for higher education), she is excited to have (in her mind at least) passed from schoolgirl to proper grown-up woman.  But neither St Ethelburga’s nor Noodles’ disinterested guardian have done anything to prepare the pretty, friendly young woman for a world full of men.  Almost immediately after leaving school, she runs into trouble:

For though no one seems to be quicker than Noodles at identifying rather awful men when they cross her path, experience suggests that no one is less capable of dealing with them once they have done so.

First, she finds that she has attracted the unthreatening but determined attentions of a ne’er do well neighbour.  She is properly horrified by his interest but not so horrified as her guardian, who packs poor Noodles up and humiliatingly sends her back to St Ethelburga’s.  (Coincidentally, being sent back to school after having graduated has been one of my more intriguing recurring dreams since I left my own school, though I think my dream self views the whole exercise as less traumatic than poor Noodles does.)  After a few disastrous weeks back at school, where it is discovered that she has forgotten most of what they taught her before she left, Noodles finds herself running away to join a seedy variety show in a seaside town.  As you do.  Noodles remains remarkably plucky (an adjective I don’t get to use as often as I’d like) throughout her adventures , even as her innocent approach to the world undergoes a necessary change: Noodles quickly learns that her polite ideas about being nice to everyone who is nice to her isn’t always the best or safest approach.

Meanwhile, as Noodles is bouncing around from school to home to school to seaside, her brother Beaky and his flatmate Snubs are toiling away at unimportant jobs in London.  Beaky is struggling with his passion for the lovely Sylvia Shirley while Snubs, the more level-headed of the pair, takes an usual amount of interest in the updates Noodles sends her brother.  When she disappears from St. Ethelburga’s, the two young men set off in search of her, with their adventures (and misadventures in poor Beaky’s case) proving just as amusing as Noodles’.  The story bounces between them, Noodles, and, on occasion, Sylvia, tracking the parallel activities of all the characters until they all come together for a very happy ending.

This is a fun and funny book and for me half the joy was seeing how Mackail’s work fits in with that of his friends A.A. Milne and P.G. Wodehouse, two of my favourite authors.  The characters’ nicknames are certainly Wodehousian: how well I could imagine Drones members or visitors to Blandings called Noodles, Snubs, or Beaky.  And there are definite flashes of A.A.M.-esque frivolity:

‘Oh, look at them all!’ says Sylvia – meaning the human beings.  ‘Aren’t they marvellous!’

They are.

‘Oh, look at that fat one!’

The fat one is really a splendid example.

‘And that one with the bare legs!’

The one with the bare legs might not appeal to all tastes, but is distinctly worth looking at.

Published in 1929, Another Part of the Wood is a comic novel very much of its time.  In other words, it is perfect for me.  I dearly hope more of Denis Mackail’s books are reissued soon.

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Without ReservationsHer in late fifties, divorced and with two grown sons, journalist Alice Steinbach decided to take a sabbatical from her work in Washington, DC and spend a few months travelling alone in Europe.  Her aim was to rediscover her independence (having spent years defining herself in relation to others) and she recorded her experiences in this lovely memoir, Without Reservations.

Steinbach did not explore much of Europe but instead focuses on a few specific areas – Paris, London, Oxford, and various locations in Italy – all of which, I think we can agree, would be lovely place to spend any amount of time.

Though she sets out on her own, Steinbach seems to spend very little of her travel time alone.  In Paris, she falls in love with a Japanese businessman whom she is able to reconnect with throughout her time in Europe.  In Milan, she meets the most engaging of her travel companions, a young American woman on her way to her fiancé in Florence.  In London, she falls in with loud, outgoing and obscenely wealthy Australians.  Even on a day trip into the Cotswolds she manages to find someone to spend the afternoon with.

This way of travel is utterly foreign to me and, though I would frankly find these constant connections a bit hellish, I cannot help but admire the ease with which Steinbach attracts new friends (even if the friendships only last the day).  She is a true journalist, unable to resist a chance for conversation, the opportunity of hearing someone’s life story, and so she spends more time recording the details of these encounters than she does describing the places she visits.  In this way, this is not quite the travel memoir it at first appears to be: Steinbach is a wonderful writer and a fabulous observer of people, but not places.

Mostly, Steinbach reflects on her life so far and her family.  The focus of her thoughts is generally on how her routine, busy life in Washington differs from what she really wants in life, what it is that makes her happy and excites her.  A lot of time is also spent remembering her grandmother and pondering how her father’s early death affected her personality.

For me, this introspection could, at times, grate.  Steinbach is very intelligent but also very romantic and very earnest.  Some of her fantasies had me rolling my eyes and I am still not sure I can forgive her for her almost complete lack of a sense of humour.  She is very enthusiastic and optimistic and that should be endearing but I found her continued earnestness almost embarrassing.  The combined lack of humour and determined, almost aggressive focus on self-discovery don’t mare the book but do clearly signal the author’s nationality.

I have read this before, shortly after it was first published in 2000, and will doubtless read it again one day.  Steinbach only published three books before she died in 2012 – two travel memoirs and a book of personal essays – but she was a beautiful writer, clear and concise, and I look forward to reading her other books.

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Library Lust

photo credit: Simon Watson

photo credit: Simon Watson

If I were a thousand times cooler and trendier than I actually am, this is where I would live.  But maybe minus the electric blue coffee table…

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Early this morning, I set out on a hike with my father and a family friend and headed up into the nearby mountains.  I have been visiting Palm Desert for 27 years (I was six weeks old on my first trip) but I had never been up that high on foot into the hills.  It was absolutely stunning (but gruelling – that is one steep climb!) and it was great to really see the desert up close.  The cacti are just a week or two from bursting into bloom so it wasn’t quite as colourful as we’d hoped but I got to see so many plants and animals up close that we certainly don’t have in Vancouver.  Thankfully, there were no snakes about (which is something I always worry about) but there were lots of lizards and birds.  It really is amazing that so much can live up there, in such inhospitable circumstances.

Here are a few pictures from this morning’s hike!

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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.

I’m still on holiday and still getting by with ebooks, though I am starting to miss the greater variety offered by the normal, physical library collection.  Ebooks are awfully convenient but the selection is still sadly limited!

Library Loot

More Baths, Less Talking by Nick Hornby – a collection of Hornby’s bookish columns for the Believer, full of many great reading recommendations.

Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes – I have never read this, though I love the class of books its success inspired.

Without Reservations by Alice Steinbach – a travel memoir by an American journalist who took a sabbatical and travelled around Europe on her own for several months.

What did you pick up this week?

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My excitement about having more time to blog while on vacation obviously hasn’t translated into actual blogging.  I should have anticipated this since, as always, Claire in holiday-mode is busier than Claire in work-mode.  But it has been a lovely break, if not a restful one.  The weather has been perfect, we’ve just had a fabulous party for my parents’ 35th wedding anniversary, and I have been reading like a fiend.  So far, unemployment is treating me very well.

I have been feeling guilty over the past few weeks for not blogging about the three books in Phillip Rock’s Greville Family Saga but just could not work up the enthusiasm to do so in detail.  The books, originally published in the late seventies and early eighties, have recently been reissued and are being marketed on the strength of their similarities to Downton Abbey.  The first book, The Passing Bells, opens in the summer of 1914 and follows the characters through the first half of the war.  Circles of Time picks up a few years later, looking at the impact of the war in both England and Germany, and the trilogy concludes in A Future Arrived, which jumps forward to the Second World War.

The Passing BellsI read The Passing Bells countless times as a teenager and still love it.  It is just as soapy as I remembered but it is great fun.  The writing is not brilliant and it feels very much of its time but it is an entertaining story and Rock is excellent at incorporating historical events into the story.  That is the real issue with the first book: the events and the characters’ experiences are generally better described than the characters themselves.   But Rock does manage to fit a lot of different perspectives in to this relatively short book, between the people at home, the frontline nurses, the career soldier who finds himself enraged by the waste of human life, the young romantic who goes mad after his experiences in France, and, most importantly, the young American journalist who records everything in clear-sighted journal entries that are the highlight of this volume.

circles-of-timeCircles of Time, perhaps because it doesn’t have any big historical events to structure itself around, is a much less eventful book and focuses more the personal lives of the characters from the first book.  It is a fine, entertaining story but the structure is a little uneven and I can’t quite put my finger on why that is.  The book takes a serious turn in the second half when Martin Rilke, the Greville’s American cousin, now a famous journalist, visits his Rilke cousins in Germany and witnesses firsthand the absurdities of the Weimar Republic (from mad hedonism in Berlin nightclubs to assassinations in the streets) and the beginnings of the Nazi party in Bavaria.

A Future ArrivedThe third book, A Future Arrived, is a mess.  Honestly, I wouldn’t even recommend reading it.  The structural problems that plagued the first two books completely finish this one off, and the situation is not helped by the introduction of younger characters who are either poorly developed or second-rate copies of their elders.  It is a messy, unsatisfying book that lacks the historical detail that redeemed the flaws of the earlier novels.  Just read the first two books and forget there is a third one.

Sorcery and CeceliaAs for other books, I enjoyed Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer but am afraid I don’t have all that much to say about it.  It is an epistolary Regency-era fantasy novel – and isn’t that a mouthful?  It is the kind of fantasy I like the least – magic has never done it for me – so I think I enjoyed it less than other reader might have but both main characters (Kate and Cecelia) are great and the book is really very fun.  There are two more books in the series and I’ve already got one of them loaded on to my Kobo.

More Baths Less TalkingMore Baths Less Talking by Nick Hornby, which I read just before Sorcery and Cecelia, is a collection of Hornby’s monthly columns for the Believer about his reading choices and I got some great reading recommendations from it.  I love Hornby’s picks – he mentions many books I have already read or which are already on my TBR list – but, ultimately, he is still Hornby and I still just don’t like him all that much.  I don’t dislike him, but I have very little in common with him and don’t find his viewpoint particularly engaging or his style particularly interesting.  It is entirely a matter of taste.  There are three other volumes of earlier columns that I will probably track down one day but I’m not going to rush out to grab them.

I have some more exciting books to review soon, ones that I want to do justice to with dedicated posts – an excellent Monica Dickens novel, a lacklustre Persephone, and two fabulous Georgette Heyers among them – but for now I’m headed back to the pool.  Work, work, work!

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