Friday, 28 February 2014

Monday, 24 February 2014

February Reading Week Three

Carson McCullers
Carson McCullers
"Sojourner" by Carson McCullers (1955)

Inspired by the comments on this post at Shelf Love (which refers to this post at Alex in Leeds) I created a Short Fiction Jar.  I filled little slips of paper with the names of all the stories I've always wanted to read but never have.  I enjoyed my introduction to Carson McCullers' writing. She captured the emotions of the characters in "Sojourner" in some mysterious and magical manner - the story is conveyed somehow between the actual words.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (2006)

I came to this book with very low expectations, and was pleasantly surprised.  It's funny how that happens, isn't it?  A love story set in a Depression-era American circus, the story is intertwined with the life of the protagonist as an old man infirm, confused, unloved and neglected in a nursing home.  I watched the film before reading the book - a sequence I almost always avoid, but it didn't seem to matter in this case: I wasn't all that concerned about ruining my enjoyment of the novel.  There were a few faltering moments when the dialogue failed to ring true (the use of words like "mercurial" and "vernacular" by uneducated and unsophisticated characters), but I did enjoy the author's ability to fully render a scene.  The smell of sweat and animal waste and hay seemed to fill my nose as I read.  I wouldn't highly recommend it, but it was an enjoyable reminder of my childhood visits to travelling circuses.

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill (2006)

What a talent!  This is the story of Baby, a twelve-year old girl living with her heroin-addicted father in downtown Montreal.  If I had to find a comparison, it would be Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt for the gritty, poverty-hobbled story told through the eyes of a child who knows no other life and finds joy amongst the devastation of addiction and violence.  Normally, I stay well clear of grit and addiction and violence in my reading, but this is actually a surprisingly uplifting story of resilience and hope and inspiration that gently breaks your heart at the same time.

Also, bonus points for Heather O'Neill's clever inversion of Northrop Frye's theme of the "garrison mentality."

The Valley of Adventure by Enid Blyton (1947)

This was a fun little palate-cleanser after the emotional intensity of Lullabies.  One of my all-time favourites as a child, I must have read this story repeatedly for although I probably last read it when I was about twelve I remembered every plot twist, setting, and character quirk.  The Adventure series features four children and their pet parrot who, in typical Blyton style, end up in exotic locations uncovering international thieves and criminal masterminds.  On the island the children live in a cave (fostering years of dreams of cave-dwelling for me!): they deftly round up a posse of men profiting from the spoils of war.  What I hadn't remembered, or perhaps not noticed, was that the publication date of 1947 would have made the events of the second world war quite close to the original readers.  A fun adventure!

Nellie McClung by Charlotte Gray (2008)

First wave feminist Nellie McClung (1873-1951) fought her whole life for the disenfranchised and those lacking power of all forms in Canada.  She lived a life dedicated to public service; she was an author, a public speaker, an activist, and an Alberta MLA.  A campaigner in the temperance movement, and one of The Famous Five who worked on the "Persons Case" to have women included in the definition of a "person," making it possible for women to serve as senators.  She was the subject of this Heritage Minute.  Written by professor and eminent historian/biographer Charlotte Gray, this book is part of the Extraordinary Canadians series.  I found the narrative well written and very readable, and it makes me very keen to read Nellie McClung's own work of fiction and memoir. 

Friday, 21 February 2014

February Reading Week Two

 Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery (1921)

I have read Anne of Green Gables too many times to recall, but I think this is perhaps only the third time for Rilla.  It challenges Anne as my favourite of the series, and I am not ashamed to say I cried on four separate occasions whilst reading it.  Set from 1914-1919, the immediacy of the events of the war makes this a fascinating record of life on the Canadian home front filtered through the lives of the Blythe family and their neighbours in the tiny village on Prince Edward Island.  There is a perfect blend of humour, romance, levity and predictability to counterbalance the very real suspense, terror and heartbreak experienced by the characters (and readers!).

Septimus Heap Book One: Magyk by Angie Sage (2005)

I was intrigued by the series when I read Samantha's review, and pulled it from my daughter's shelf.  I'd never paid much attention to it because of the flashy cover and the flimsy page quality, but I did enjoy this book a great deal.  The quality of writing is stronger than I had expected, the characters were well-drawn and interesting, and, like the Harry Potter series, the magic was an added feature in the fictional world rather than the sole point of the narrative.  The characters still had to work through their issues - a magic spell could not always conveniently solve their troubles.  Once again I have learned my lesson about judgements regarding covers, etc. and go read Samantha's review!  She does a wonderful job exploring its merits.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

February Reading Week One

A little update on this week's reading.

I know I said that I was going to try to write more this month, but I'm just not really feeling in the writing mood, you know?  So, rather than let another week go by without writing anything, here are some very quick thoughts on the four novels I finished this week:

The English version  - same cover
Génération Filles: Au-delà des limites par Melanie Stewart (1999) [French, originally published in English as Pushing the Limits, translated by Anne-Françoise Loiseau]

Trying to work on my long-neglected French reading skills.  I was half way through this one before I realised that the peripheral character named Barbie was that Barbie (it was her home town of Malibu that tipped me off, and the little pink B on the cover suddenly made sense).  I was pleased to make it through the whole book quite quickly since it's been a very long time since I've read anything in French.  While I certainly wouldn't highlight this as a great piece of writing, it gave me an appreciation for beginner chapter books.  This one perfectly suited my abilities at the moment in terms of vocabulary and grammar.

Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery (2000) [originally published in French as Une gourmandise, translated by Alison Anderson]

The premise of the book is far-fetched; a nasty food critic with 48 hours to live searches for a taste that has eluded him.  The descriptions of food preparation and consumption are guaranteed to elicit activation of the salivary glands. I found the succession of short, first-person narrations disorienting, and none of the voices interesting enough to really hold my attention.  I am unsure about whether this is a result of something crucial being lost in translation.  Perhaps if I continue to read more Barbie novels I will soon be able to tackle this in the original French.

Letters from a Lady Rancher by Monica Hopkins (1982)

This book is an absolute joy which should be celebrated along with all the classics of the pioneer experience.  Monica Hopkins was a young English woman who moved to a ranch near Priddis, Alberta after her marriage in 1909, and in letters to an Australian friend recorded the first 26 months of her experience.  Her attitude shines from the pages; she tackles the hardships and isolation and discomfort of life as a lady rancher with an enthusiastic sense of adventure, good humour and without any hint of complaint or self-pity.  She records the details of her daily life in the house and on the range, interactions with neighbours and trips to nearby towns (Calgary, Banff) with careful observation and a compelling writing style.  I highly recommend this book, originally published by the Glenbow Museum in Calgary in 1982.

Bear by Marian Engel (1976)

Winner of the 1976 Governor General's Literary Award, Bear is the story of an archivist, Lou, who spends a transformational summer on an island in northern Ontario cataloguing the estate and library of Colonel John William Cary.* There she discovers that she is also responsible for an aged bear that has been held captive on the property.  I was apprehensive to read this classic of Canlit because it has had more than it's fair share of controversy, but I really enjoyed it!  Bear reminds me a great deal of Margaret Atwood's Surfacing as the protagonist enters a fantasy world (sort of) where she struggles through a personal identity crisis that very much reflects the gender inequities of the time.

*Interestingly, my three brothers are named John, William, and Cary :)

Saturday, 1 February 2014

February Intentions

My intentions for February are to share more thoughts on the books I read than I did in January, and to read from this stack:

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood (1988)
- Margaret Atwood's seventh novel and finalist for both the Governor General's Award and the Booker Prize.

Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery (2000)
- since I'm planning to read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I thought I'd read Gourmet Rhapsody first since it is her first novel, and they share a setting. It is the only library book in my pile.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2006)
- recommended by Lucy (Tolstoy Therapy)  and Bellezza (Dolce Bellezza).  Thank you!

Bear by Marian Engel (1976)
- winner of the Governor General's Award, and a New Canadian Library title.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (2006)
- my Little Free Library Project find for February.

A Student of Weather by Elizabeth Hay (2000)
- one of my favourite authors (Diane Schoemperlen) says: "Elizabeth Hay lays bare the perilous power of love and all that we prefer to keep hidden about ourselves.  Unsparing and unsettling, this exceptional first novel shines." Sounds too intriguing to leave on the shelf!

Letters from a Lady Rancher by Monica Hopkins (1982)
- letters home to England written from 1909-1911 by a young woman who married a rancher and started a new life as a homesteader in the foothills of southern Alberta (re-read)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
- it's African-American Literature Month at the Classics Club, so I'm hoping to read this classic by Zora Zeale Hurston

Dust Tracks of a Road by Zora Neale Hurston (1942)
- autobiography of this Harlem Renaissance author.

The Stones of Florence by Mary McCarthy (1956)
- to satisfy the inevitable February wanderlust.

Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery (1920)
- Elizabeth and I have been working our way through the Anne series.  Rilla is next up, and perfect timing for contemplation of the centenary of the First World War.

Dear Life by Alice Munro (2012)
- I plan to read a short story collection each month this year.  This is my choice for February.

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill (2006)
- Canada Reads Winner 2007; I read a short biography of the author and am fascinated by her!

The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy (1945)
- winner of both the Governor General's Award and the Prix Femina of France, a New Canadian Library title, and Gabrielle Roy's first novel (I'd like to work through them in order).

Génération Filles: Au-delà des limites par Melanie Stewart (1999)
- I want to improve my reading in French so I'm starting easy.  Very easy.

Edited to add:
Magyk by Angie Sage (2005)
- recommended by Samantha (A Musical Feast) and already well underway!

I don't really expect to read all these books in one month, but I am really excited about each of them.  Have you read any of them?  Are there any you would suggest I bump to the top of the pile?  This is the first time that I have stated my reading intentions.  Usually, I decide what to read next as I finish my current book, so this is a bit of an experiment.  Do you set monthly intentions for your reading, or do you play it by ear? 

February 2014