Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for December, 2018

I shall be rather sad to see 2018 go.  While the world had its problems, for me 2018 was a wonderful year.  I spent lots of time with loved ones, travelled to some beautiful places, and started a new job that makes me happy every day to go to work.  Everyone I love is well and content and I am being supplied with almost daily photos of my one-year old niece – life is good.

My busy year cut into my reading time but I still managed to read (if not always review) some wonderful books this year.  Here are my ten favourites:

10. Green Money (1939) – D.E. Stevenson
After reading more than three dozen books by Stevenson, I thought I’d read everything worth reading.  Happily, I was wrong.  I loved this Heyer-esque comedy about a young man suddenly saddled with a beautiful and dangerously ignorant ward.  This is Stevenson at her most sparkling and confident, full of humour and warmth.

9. Anne of Green Gables (1908) – L.M. Montgomery
Is it fair to put a book I’ve read twenty or more times on this list?  Possibly not (and sorry to Sword of Bone by Anthony Rhodes, which almost made my top ten but was bumped in order to include this) but I’ll do it regardless.  Anne of Green Gables is perfect.

8. A Positively Final Appearance (1999) – Alec Guinness
Who knew an actor could write so well?  This was Guinness’ third book but it is the first I have read (though certainly not that last).  Covering the period from 1996 to 1998, his diaries are marvellously free of celebrity gossip and are filled instead with sharp observations about the world around him, a fond portrait of his family, and, best of all, insightful comments on the books he is reading.

7. Lands of Lost Borders (2018) – Kate Harris
After overdosing on travel memoirs last year, I restricted my intake in 2018 but thankfully still made room to enjoy this beautifully-told tale of a great adventure.  Harris’s memoir of cycling along the Silk Road, from Istanbul to India, was a wonderful reminder of the joy of exploration.

6. Bookworm (2018) – Lucy Mangan
Mangan’s memoir of childhood reading was warm, funny, and stirred up wonderful memories of my own early reading.  Intriguingly, there was very little overlap between the books Mangan loved and the ones I read as a child but that made no difference to my enjoyment.  Mangan captures how it feels to be a child who makes sense of the world through what she can find in the pages of books and that is definitely something I can understand (as I suspect can most of you).

5. When I Was a Little Boy (1957) – Erich Kästner
A beautifully written – and illustrated – memoir of growing up in Dresden before the First World War, I adored this Slightly Foxed reissue.

4. The Fear and the Freedom (2017) – Keith Lowe
A superb look at how the legacies of the Second World War shaped the second half of the twentieth century.  Lowe looks at so many things, including the inventions and institutions that were created as a result of the war, but I was most fascinated by the less tangible changes it wrought, the mythological, philosophical, and psychological shifts across the countries impacted.  I found the chapter on Israel especially memorable, where the Holocaust survivors were initially treated harshly since their victim-status did not fit with the young country’s view of itself as a nation of heroes and fighters.  The way the nation’s identity changed as survivors began telling their stories in the 1960s, from a nation of heroes to “a nation of martyrs”, is fascinating.

3. The Flowering Thorn (1933) – Margery Sharp
After a few hit-or-miss encounters with Sharp, this was the year she became one of my favourite authors.  And that all started with this tale of a sharp young society woman whose life changes when she adopts a small boy and goes to live in the country.  In another author’s hands, this could have turned into something unbearably twee.  Instead, it is sharp and marvellously unsentimental yet still full of warmth.  I adored it and am already looking forward to rereading it.

2. The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (1996) – edited by Charlotte Mosley
Great wits and writers, Mitford and Waugh’s letters cover decades of occasionally hostile friendship, stretching from World War Two until Waugh’s death in 1966.  Both rather competitive by nature, they saved some of their best material for this correspondence – sloppiness (like bad spelling) was called out.  Full of fascinating tidbits about their own books as well as their famous friends, I was utterly absorbed by this book (and by Waugh’s awfulness).

1. The Unwomanly Face of War (1985) – Svetlana Alexievich
Without question, Alexievich’s ground-breaking oral history of Soviet women’s experiences of the Second World War was my book of the year.  More than one million Soviet women served in the military during the war (half of them in active combat roles) and Alexievich captures the full and fascinating range of their experiences in their own words.  It is a powerful and upsetting book and one I will not soon forget.

Read Full Post »

Library Lust

photo credit: Andreas Von Einsiedel

photo credit: Andreas Von Einsiedel

Perceptive readers may remember this room from when Margaret Powling featured it on her blog back in April.  It looks so comfortable and inviting – the perfect place to escape to with a few good books.

Read Full Post »

Growing up, I loved to read about Victorian explorers.  I loved to hear about the cartographers and botanists and naturalists who set off across deserts and jungles and mountains guided by a spirit of adventure and more curiosity than was often good for them.

As the world has developed and become better connected, its mysteries have dwindled.  Modern-day explorers are lamentably scarce on the ground but not – I was delighted to discover when I picked up Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris – extinct.

Growing up in a small rural community in southern Ontario, Harris loved tales of Marco Polo and dreamed of becoming an explorer in her own right.  But she dreamed of reaching into the heavens – her destination was Mars.  She excelled at school, studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and was working on her Ph.D. at MIT when she finally realised that space wasn’t what she was really looking for.  She wanted more earthly adventures so, combining her fascination with wildness conservation with her childhood love of Marco Polo, Harris set out with a childhood friend to cycle along the Silk Road, from Turkey to India via Central Asia, Tibet, and Nepal.  It was a thrilling but also terrifying leap:

Beyond avenging my childhood ideals of explorers, and figuring out how to be one myself, I wanted to bike the Silk Road as a practical extension of my thesis at Oxford: to study how borders make and break what is wild in the world, from mountain ranges to people’s minds, and how science, or more specifically wilderness conservation, might bridge those divides.  So there I was, rich in unemployable university degrees, poor in cash, with few possession to my name besides a tent, a bicycle, and some books.  I felt great about my life decisions, until I felt terrified.

The book chronicles their journey across Asia, as well as dipping into Harris’ earlier years as a way of explaining how she came to go on this crazy, marvellous adventure.  She is clearly an overachiever – her academic CV makes me feel like the laziest person on the planet – but her achievements are all a result of her genuine and intense enthusiasm for learning.  Like all the very best and most fascinating people, she is fascinated by the world.  It’s impossible not to find that kind of enthusiasm engaging.

Not only is she a talented scientist and a capable outdoorswoman, she is also a beautiful writer.  I picked the book up because I was fascinated by the journey but found myself utterly absorbed by Harris’ writing.  She writes clearly, warmly and beautifully – the way I wish I could write, in fact:

…exploration, more than anything, is like falling in love: the experience feels singular, unprecedented, and revolutionary, despite the fact that others have been there before.  No one call fall in love for you, just as no one can bike the Silk Road or walk on the moon for you.  The most powerful experiences aren’t amenable to maps.

This passage about Ani, once part of Armenia but now in Turkey, was one of my favourites:

As the sun blinked cold and low over the mountains, the “city of 1001 churches” caught light the way I wished history would: the crumble and decay illuminated, some foundations still solid, graffiti aged gracefully to art.

And what of her other destinations?  The beauty of travelling by bicycle is the time it allows for observation and interaction.  Without the purple prose or excessive introspection common to lesser travel writers, Harris chronicles their encounters with local residents, wildlife, and – always key when cycling – topography.  Most hair-raising are the two instances when Harris and her travel companion snuck across the Chinese border into Tibet.  I certainly wouldn’t recommend trying that!  (And especially not right now, with China looking for any excuse to arrest Canadians in retribution for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou earlier this month.)

It is a fascinating and beautifully-told tale of a great adventure and, most importantly, it cannot help but make you feel excited by all the mysteries and secrets the world still has to offer.  We are all explorers in one way or another and Harris reminds us of how thrilling – and terrifying – that is.  Read it and be inspired.  Or, to experience the same journey in a different medium, check out the trip highlights video.

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).  

Read Full Post »

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading 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.

Sharlene has the Mr Linky this week.

I’ve been having trouble settling down with a book recently.  I’ve made it 100 or 200 pages into so many books recently only to realise I’m not all that interested in learning how they end.  Rereading has been far more successful – I was absolutely enthralled by A Desperate Fortune, despite having read it several times before, and sped through Home from the Vinyl Cafe – but I long for something new.

Which brings us to this week’s loot.

After reading Weekend at Thrackley earlier this year, I didn’t really have any intention of reading more by Alan Melville.  But the comments to that post were so encouraging about his other books (Quick Curtain and Death of Anton) that I thought I’d give them a try, and throw in one of his plays (Simon and Laura) for good measure.

I’ve already started Quick Curtain and it is wonderful – exactly the kind of fun, absorbing read I needed.

What did you pick up this week?

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).  

Read Full Post »

Merry Christmas

Wishing you all a happy and wonderful Christmas, however and wherever you are celebrating.

For me, Christmas is all about family and traditions and in our family those traditions are invariably Czech.  To bring a little bit of Czech Christmas into your lives, I wanted to share these Josef Lada paintings.  Lada was a Czech artist who is best known as the illustrator of the The Good Soldier Švejk but it is his scenes of rural life that I love best.  We had a book of them that I would pour over for hours as a child and I love them still.

Merry Christmas!

Read Full Post »

For me and many other Canadians (and enlightened Americans living near the border), one of the much-anticipated pleasures of the holiday season for many years was listening to Stuart McLean debut a new Christmas story on his CBC radio show.  You knew you could tune in and spend half an hour that would lead you from collapsing with hysterical laughter to blinking back surprisingly emotional tears.  It was a wonderful tradition.

Stuart passed away from cancer in February 2017 so intellectually I know there are no more stories coming.  But emotionally, I know nothing of the sort.  I long for his characteristically humorous and touching stories this time of the year and, even if Stuart is no longer around to read them, we still have his books to keep us company.  And so, earlier this week, I found myself reaching for Home from the Vinyl Café.

Published in 1998, this was Stuart’s second volume of Vinyl Café stories.  The Vinyl Café was the name of his radio program but it was also the name of the record shop run by Dave, the hapless hero of his stories.  Dave, his wife Morley, and their children, Stephanie and Sam, were the focus of twenty-odd years of radio stories as Stuart chronicled their lives in a normal Toronto neighbourhood with stories of neighbourhood rivalries and friendships, social faux pas (something Dave was particularly subject too), Stephanie and Sam’s growing pains and Dave and Morley’s nostalgia for their own childhoods.  They were wonderful stories and this book is a particularly wonderful collection of them.

It begins with the first – and one of the very best – of the Vinyl Café Christmas stories: “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  This appears to be available on the CBC website (here – this story starts around 24:30) so if you’re able to listen, go now and do so.  It will be time well spent.  Just make sure you’re somewhere you can laugh uproariously without alarming too many people.  Dave’s wife Morley, after years of carrying the burden of all the holiday preparations as well as the day-to-day administering of their busy family, accepts Dave’s offer to help with Christmas this year: Dave can cook the turkey.  He commits, happy to make a small offering towards marital harmony, but realises only on Christmas Eve that he has forgotten to buy the turkey.  Determined to have the perfect Christmas dinner ready for his family (who are conveniently out of the house volunteering for most of Christmas day), he uses all of his ingenuity to acquire and cook a bird.  But the path he takes is far from conventional and the results are hysterically funny.

The next story in the collection is one of my all-time favourites and could not be more different from “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  “Holland” tells the story of how Dave and Morley met in the 1970s and their early married life.  It’s a story about the struggles to combine lives and traditions, and the work – and love, and patience – that is required to make that happen.  It’s a beautiful story and one that has stayed fresh in my mind ever since I first heard all those years ago.  Someone has helpfully uploaded it to YouTube so you can listen here (it’s been split into two parts).

There are some other equally classic stories in this book – “Burd”, about what happens when a rare bird decides to winter in Dave and Morley’s backyard, and “Polly Anderson’s Christmas Party”, which involves an awkward neighbourhood gathering and a mix up with the eggnog bowls – but others I’d forgotten.  So many of the stories look at the anxiety Dave and Morley feel as parents, worrying about Sam and music lessons, or Stephanie and teenage romances, and they show what Stuart could do so well: make fun of the little things while always staying true to the heart of the matter.

I love these stories.  I have read them countless times and I will read them countless more, alongside all the other volumes of Stuart’s books.  They bring me great pleasure at this and any other time of year and I hope, if they’re not already a part of your life, you will give them a try.  I can’t imagine them not bringing you joy.

Read Full Post »

Library Lust

Wormington Grange (photo credit: Hugo Rittson-Thomas)

Read Full Post »

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading 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.

Have you stocked up on books for Christmas?  I am urgently placing holds, willing everything to arrive by Sunday (the last day my library is open until the 27th) so I have supplies laid in for the holiday break.  I still have my fingers crossed that some long awaited holds will come in before then but these books will keep me well entertained regardless:

Prague Spring by Simon Mawer – Naturally, I’m intrigued by any novel about the Prague Spring.  This sounds like it is focused on outsiders’ perspectives and I’ve been seeing lots of enthusiastic reviews in my favourite publications.

House of Gold by Natasha Solomons – I tried with this one.  I really did.  For years, I’ve felt like Solomons was so close to becoming an author I could really enjoy (her early books – Mr Rosenblum Dreams in English and The Novel in the Viola – had promise but were far from perfect) and I really thought she’d turned the corner.  Her last novel, The Song Collector, was marvellous and I loved every page.  Unfortunately, the magic has not lasted and this tale inspired by the Rothschild family has proved a big disappointment.  I made it halfway through but have given up in disgust.

The Assassination of the Archduke  by Greg King and Sue Woolmans – I’ve borrowed this a few times over the years but never gotten to it.  Assassination might not be everyone’s idea of Christmas reading but I’ve always been interested in Franz Ferdinand and this book has come highly recommended by other history geeks.

Walking to the End of the World by Beth Jusino – Always on the lookout for new travelogues about walking, I was at the top of the hold list for this memoir.

Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg – Another favourite topic is the social impact of urban planning so this look at the important role played by shared public spaces sounds excellent.

Falling for London  by Sean Mallen – This memoir of a Canadian journalist’s experiences after landing his dream posting in London is in every shop window I pass these days.  I love any sort of ex-pat memoir but one set in London is particularly alluring.

What did you pick up this week?

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).  

Read Full Post »

Arts Club production of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” (photo credit: David Cooper)

Today is the anniversary of Jane Austen’s birth but, being unintentionally ahead of the game, I was already paying homage to her yesterday.  I went down to Granville Island (which is always far more joyous in winter than in tourist-ridden summer) to my very favourite theatre to see the delightful “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon.

Set two years after the events of Pride and Prejudice, “Miss Bennet” reunites the audience with favourite characters as they prepare to spend Christmas together at Pemberley.  The family arrives in waves, with the BIngleys and Mary Bennet arriving first, followed by Lydia alone (Wickham, obviously, not being welcome), with Mr and Mrs Bennet and Kitty to follow on Christmas Day.

But soon it is not just Bennets descending on Pemberley.  Lady Catherine de Bourgh has recently passed away and it has been discovered that, due to the conditions of her late husband’s will, Rosings now passes to Arthur de Bourgh, his nephew.  Mr Darcy has invited Arthur to join them for Christmas and soon Anne de Bourgh, showing much of her mother’s determination, arrives as well.

Mary Bennet takes centre stage here and, as played by Kate Dion-Richard, is wonderful.  In the two years since her sisters married, she has matured but no one seems to notice.  Jane and Elizabeth, when reunited, barely acknowledge their younger sister is in the room.  They don’t stop to consider how Mary must feel, left at home with their ill-matched parents, expected by everyone to remain a dutiful old maid, content to be quiet and alone with her books and piano.   But Mary is not content and she wants more, even if she doesn’t quite know what that would be.

She is still Mary – socially awkward with her dedication to absolutely factual statements, absorbed by lengthy dense books that her sisters can’t begin to understand, and happier in a library than a ballroom – but she is far more interesting and energetic than Austen ever made her.

Arts Club production of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” (photo credit: David Cooper)

Mary is saved from spending the holidays entirely alone in the library by the arrival of a fellow socially-awkward bookworm: Arthur de Bourgh, played absurdly well by Matthew Macdonald-Bain.  An only child who went from home to school to Oxford, Arthur has lived in an almost entirely male and almost entirely academic world.  He is in no way prepared for his role as master of Rosing – or for a Christmas among the lively Bennet sisters.  He is particularly not prepared for Mary Bennet, with whom he instantly feels a kinship.  Their shared joy in discovery and learning, and their general conversational awkwardness make for some hilarious and heartwarming scenes.  Everyone in the theatre spent the entire first act, as these two got to know one another, with a broad smile on their face.

There are, of course, comic complications but it is a Christmas play – and more importantly an Austen-inspired one – so all ends well.

The set was gorgeous, all the actors were excellent, and every theatregoer had a marvellous time.  It’s playing until December 30th and I’m already considering going again.  After all, it’s hard to have either too much Christmas or too much Austen in your life, especially when it is this much fun.

Read Full Post »

Library Lust

credit unknown

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »