Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

2012 in books

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

Hello, friends! If you celebrated Christmas yesterday, I hope you had a blissful, delicious, festive day. This year, I included brussels sprouts in the meal (using this recipe) and they were superlative – the highlight of the meal for me. Unlikely, but true.

But I’m not here to talk about cruciferous vegetables. I wanted to share my absolute favourite books of 2012 with you:


You saw this one coming, didn’t you? I’ve already blogged about Charles Dickens: A Life twice (once at the start, and again on finishing), and raved about Claire Tomalin many, many times. It was splendid. Highly, highly recommended.


May I jump on the Hilary Mantel bandwagon? And yes, isn’t it a rather crowded bandwagon? Nevertheless, my favourite two novels of 2012 were Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Each book haunted me for weeks after reading it, and every time I casually open the book to a random page, my eye lands on a perfectly pitched, devastatingly good sentence.

Picture book

Am I the only person in the world who hadn’t heard of Jon J Muth? Nick picked out his telling of Stone Soup quite by chance, in a busy bookstore a couple of days before Christmas. It’s the Stone Soup story you already know, transposed to historical China, featuring three Zen monks. The illustrations are profoundly beautiful – this cover image I grabbed doesn’t begin to do justice to the light in the paintings – and the story is deeply, solidly rooted in a love for China and Zen Buddhism. It’s one of the few picture-books I want to gaze upon for a long, long time.

And these are my end-of-year selections. What were your favourite books of 2012?


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The inimitable (redux)

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

Hello, friends. I’ve been enjoying Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life so very much, and I was deliberately slowing down towards the end so as to spin it out a bit longer. (Anybody else do that?) But I finished it last night with an immense sigh of satisfaction. And I’ve been thinking about Dickens’s reckless, utterly driven pace of life and death.

It was clear that his death was approaching. He’d had a stroke, was increasingly weak, and unable to walk at times, but he persisted in keeping up a demanding schedule of public appearances. In his last, dying days, Dickens:

– met with Queen Victoria, rather reluctantly, and fumed about her “preposterous” book, Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, behind her back

– gave a final series of public readings, in which he couldn’t pronounce “Pickwick”. It came out, variously, as Pickswick, Pecknicks, and Pickwicks

– dined with the American ambassador and Disraeli, and breakfasted with Gladstone

– advised his daughters in an amateur theatrical they were putting on

– supervised extensive renovations to his country house at Gad’s Hill

– made an inventory of the spirits consumed at Gad’s Hill House: rum, sherry, brandy, and “Very Fine Scotch Whiskey”

– and, of course, worked on his last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood

As Tomalin points out, there’s a huge amount of contradiction here. Even as Dickens acknowledged his mortality with a farewell reading tour and getting his will and other papers in order, he was also renovating his house, worrying about how much whiskey remained in the cellar, and writing instalments of another full-length novel.

His last days stand in sharp contrast to those of Jane Austen, who also knew she was dying. Austen’s priority (apart from her family) was to finish her last, masterful novel, Persuasion, and I’ve always been convinced by arguments that Persuasion ends so rapidly because Austen was working against time.

Tomalin’s final paragraph is a brilliant compression of the major themes and ideas she develops through the book. It’s too long to quote here, but if you’re at all interested in Dickens as a writer, I urge you to read this bio. It does everything a good biography should: expanded and enhanced my appreciation for the subject, inspired me to read more about people and things related to Dickens, and galvanized me to start re-reading the novels.

I think I shall begin with Great Expectations.

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In praise of Hilary Mantel

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

Hello, friends! This summer, while on vacation, I wandered into Armchair Books, the lovely independent bookstore in Whistler, BC. (It’s a great bookstore – well-curated, friendly staff who are happy to special-order for you, and they have a ladder that slides along the wall on a rail, so you can reach the really high shelves!) I wasn’t looking for anything in particular and ended up buying Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, purely because the first paragraph bowled me over.

I normally have a thing about reading books out of order (Bring Up the Bodies is the continuation of, but not really a sequel to, Mantel’s Booker-Prize-winning Wolf Hall), but it was so good I couldn’t stop. I read it obsessively, delightedly, and frequently gasping with admiration for Mantel as a writer.

There’s been a great deal said about Bring Up the Bodies, obviously, but today I want to talk about three things that particularly struck me (continue to strike me, since I’m now reading Wolf Hall and savouring every last sentence) about Mantel’s writing. These are things that really set the books apart from me, and have me determined to read Mantel’s entire body of work and to pray for her continued good health for many decades to come.

1. She writes in the continuous present tense (unless her protagonist, Cromwell, is remembering something from his past). This seems like an obvious point, but the effect is of extraordinary immediacy. You’re right there, in medias res, and it never ceases. However, pulling this off through a big fat novel is so hard to do, I can’t even…

2. She eschews self-consciously poetic language. Mantel isn’t a “beautiful” writer, in the sense that her prose is larded with metaphor and excess padding. But her choice of words is exquisitely direct, and she knows that less is more. The pared-down quality of her prose is, instead, poetic.

3. She is a master of understatement. She doesn’t spell out a single thing unless it’s absolutely essential. Significant things happen in the interstices. The reader gets it. And it’s all the more powerful because it hasn’t been announced, parsed, and summarized.

If it’s not already glaringly obviously, I would love to write this well, one day. In the meantime, I’ll work away at my own books, read others, and gloat over the fact that the world contains books this astonishingly great.

What have you read recently that blew your mind? What, specifically, did you admire about it?

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Sniffle, Sob, Sigh

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

Hello, friends! I was recently talking to my friend Sarah, who confessed that there is a recurring fictional scenario that never fails to make her cry: it happens (frequently in detective novels) when a character survives an ordeal, only to realize that at last, she feels safe. Another friend, whom I’m not at all sure would like to be named, is consistently moved to tears when characters behave better than they thought themselves capable.

Picasso, Weeping Woman (1937)

Me, I’m a shameless blubber. For example, the scene in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, when Mrs. Bulstrode learns of her husband’s disgraceful past and responds with such humility and devotion? Gets me every time. But I’m not afraid of the obvious, either! The “Doomsday” episode of Dr. Who, when Rose Tyler parts forever from the Doctor? I was soggy with tears. (My husband, who saw it first, warned me. He knows me and he warned me. And yet, the end completely dismantled me).

This is the only way in which I (very slightly) resemble Charles Dickens, who also loved vicarious sentiment. He once said, of going to the theatre, “I invariably begin to cry whenever anybody on the stage forgives an enemy or gives away a pocket book.” If Dickens can weep at trivial incidents and contrived situations in public, that’s good enough for me.

So, this week, please tell me: are you a soft-hearted weeper, or one of the dry-eyed types who look so bemused at my type?

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At the Scene of the Crime

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

Hello, friends! I’m so excited about this week. Tomorrow, I’ll be skyping with a group of YA readers in Prescott, Arizona. And this weekend, I’m appearing at the Scene of the Crime Mystery Festival on Wolfe Island, Ontario. I’ll be there with DJ McIntosh, John Moss, and Thomas Rendell Curran, as well as the deliciously named Ladies Killing Circle.

I love Scene of the Crime. It’s friendly, informal, and it includes a church-ladies’ dinner that usually ends with pie. The first time I went, I was an aspiring writer and I went at the encouragement of my friend Jay Ridler. I met – gasp! – Real Live Authors, who were approachable and funny, and with whom we all went for drinks afterwards. So I’m especially thrilled to be going back this year as one of the authors. I will do my best to be as engaging and welcoming as they all were to me. If you’re in the Kingston area, please come! It’ll be delightful.

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On having it all

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

The best thing I read this past week was Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”, in The Atlantic. (Thank you, Stephanie Burgis, for linking to it on fb!) It’s a long, thoughtful, nuanced article that, despite its deliberately provocative title, is a powerful argument for fairer, more flexible working conditions for Americans.

Essentially: nobody who is tied to a rigid work schedule can hope to “have it all” – by which Slaughter means professional success and work-life balance. And while Slaughter is talking primarily about women like herself – affluent, powerful,¬†highly educated mothers, the kind who most people see and marvel, “How does she do it all?” – it’s also applicable to men.

Are you up for a long read? If so, I’d love to discuss it with you. My main questions so far are:

– Slaughter is a seriously elite academic, talking about other super-high-powered women. What does her argument mean for average workers – for example, someone who works in retail and has to be in in the workplace in order to work?

– Why hasn’t Slaughter questioned the very idea of the mega-hour work week? Is it really an achievement to work from home if you’re still sending email at one a.m.?

What are your thoughts and questions?


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Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Hello, friends. The best thing about grad school, in my opinion? The really smart, interesting people I met, and how they’ve enriched my life and stretched my brain. One of my friends, Keri Walsh, recently blew my mind. (This has been an ongoing theme, recently. Other friends introduced me to Smiling Victorians and the Female Detective in past weeks, both of which are also completely awesome.) Keri posted on facebook about Seth Koven’s Slumming, an electrifying study of Victorian attitudes towards the poor. (Incidentally, you can tell when an academic book is especially juicy; they print a paperback version that, unlike the hardcover, costs less than $100.)

I knew that the nineteenth century was a time of major private philanthropy: serious-minded people worked hard to help the socially marginal, at a time when laissez-faire politics ruled supreme. What I didn’t know was that the term slumming was also coined at that time, to describe the fashion (yes, I said “fashion”) for touring slums to get a thrill from how the poor lived. Here’s a satirical example from Punch, which Koven discusses in his introduction:

The clergyman in the middle, with a well-dressed lady on either side of him, strolls through London’s East End as though it’s a zoo. The East Enders know why he’s there, of course, and stare right back at him, commenting on his hat. The cartoon is captioned “In Slummibus” because slum tourists often rented omnibuses in which to do their slumming. I guess they felt safer that way.

This is an extension, of course, of the English habit of visiting insane asylums as a form of entertainment. (The former premier of Alberta, Ralph Klein, revived this tradition in his own way in 2001 with a drunken visit to a shelter, where he shouted abuse at homeless men and threw pennies at them.) And many slum tourists had good intentions, as Koven points out. But it’s a new lens through which we can view the Victorians.

The Victorians are like us, in their urban chasm between rich and poor; in their desire to be daring, fashionable, and well-entertained; in their desire to do good; in the confusion, scandal, and constant one-upmanship of their media; and in the wild energy and tension with which they lived their lives.

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A Reader Reports: Boys’ Club

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Hello, friends. I just noticed that I completely forgot to blog last week. Apologies. I don’t know what to say except that I may have lost the entire week, while I was at it. Am I really a week older, with almost nothing to show for it? *headdesk*

It’s been a while since I talked about my recent reading. There’s been a lot of distraction, a little crafting, many bits of the New Yorker (one day, I’ll read every article in a given issue, but I don’t think it’ll be this year), and three astoundingly good books, in particular:

Ordinary Thunderstorms, by William Boyd

Ordinary Thunderstorms starts as a straight-up thriller of the best kind: bold, expansively imagined, and genuinely, well, thrilling. In the opening scenes, a rather bland young academic becomes a murder suspect and loses his identity through a chain of small but damning accidents. It is one of the most terrifying things I’ve read precisely because the protagonist Adam is, as his name suggests, such an Everyman.

The novel makes its way through different contemporary Londons, which I loved, and there’s a juicy corruption scandal at its heart. But an interesting thing happens along the way, which is that the pace of the thriller starts to meander and it doesn’t really matter, because the social world of the novel is so fully realized that you become fully engrossed in that, instead. It’s a thriller that becomes an examination of different lives, and which then refuses fully to resolve itself. I really enjoyed that perversity of genre.

I could pick at a few things here – Adam’s academic career is given unnecessary prominence, I think, because it offers a nice conceit for the title but there’s exactly one point in the plot at which it really seems relevant. Otherwise, Adam could have been a classicist or an economist or a linguist and it wouldn’t really matter. But overall, I enjoyed this immensely and am now obsessed with William Boyd’s work.

The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger’s Child is wonderful – a selective survey of the twentieth century through the lenses of poetry, biography, and gay culture. The novel is also an extended joke about literary detective-work: just as you think it’s going to turn into a gay Possession (by A.S. Byatt), it pivots again and stumps you. The Hollinghurst novels I’ve read until now (The Swimming-Pool Library; The Line of Beauty) have been set in exclusively – almost claustrophobically – male worlds, so it’s interesting to meet a major female character, Daphne, who’s well delineated, moderately sympathetic, and also completely infuriating.

Hollinghurst’s historical research is wonderfully detailed. I’d never wondered about the working lives of English bank tellers in the 1960s, but I can picture them now. This is also a novel about place, but unlike Ordinary Thunderstorms, it’s about the way time overlays places and things, and transforms them quite unrecognizably.


Any Human Heart, by William Boyd

After Ordinary Thunderstorms, I couldn’t wait to read another William Boyd novel. Then I remembered that my husband’s been after me to read Any Human Heart for years. I flicked through it idly several years ago but didn’t find it compelling then. Now, it’s entirely the reverse, and I’m haunted by Logan Mountstuart, its protagonist, in the best possible way.

Any Human Heart is a fictional diary and one of the best things it does is remain convincingly the voice of the same person, even while he ages from teenager to old man over the course of a century. There are jokes (like Zelig or Forrest Gump, Logan Mountstuart meets an absurd number of celebrities, including Hemingway, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, and Picasso). There is heartbreak – oh, is there ever heartbreak. And there’s the entire twentieth century as a backdrop for this unbelievably rich and unpredictable life. I can’t say enough good things about it.

One of the funny things about this instalment of A Reader Reports is that all 3 books are by men – a reversal of my usual pattern. What are you reading right now? Do you tend to (unconsciously) favour male or female writers, or are you that rare thing, a balanced individual?

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What made you a reader?

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Hello, friends. This week, a local journalist, Hollie Pratt Campbell, interviewed me. In the course of our conversation, Hollie said that while she now reads mostly adult books, it was Young Adult fiction that made her a reader; that really stirred her love of books, as a younger reader.

I was thinking about why that’s the case, and I suspect it’s to do with the importance of story in young people’s lit. Young readers don’t read primarily for gorgeous prose, elaborate narrative structure, or postmodern wit. (Which is not to say that they don’t appreciate all those things; they can be sophisticated readers.) But before all else, they want a fully developed story with complex characters and a conflict that gets resolved.

There’s a purity to writing for kids that’s incredibly satisfying, precisely because of these elements. As an adult, I too enjoy the quest. I want to solve the problem; I long to overcome the challenge. When life is messy and ambiguous, it’s a relief to pull things together neatly in a plot.

The plot, however, is just the hook. What remains for me are the characters and their specific struggles. If I think about the books that made me a reader, I think of the Murry family, in Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quartet – loving, often separated, intrepid. Emily Starr, the idealistic, lonely, aspiring writer created by L. M Montgomery. Even the Naughtiest Girl, a spoiled brat who’s determined to be expelled from her boarding school, yet comes to belong there (it’s a series by Enid Blyton).

What do you read for – plot, characters, something else? And what are the books that made you a reader?

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A Picture-book Christmas

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

Hello, and I hope your holidays were properly blissful! We had a wonderful Christmas and today I thought I’d share with you the picture books we unwrapped as a family this year.

I’m one of those parents who squints at a toy and thinks, “Huh. That’ll be a hit for all of eleven minutes,” before clutching my wallet tighter. But I love, love, love buying books for my kids. This year, we chose:

Someday, by Alison McGhee and Peter H. Reynolds

Okay, this is not actually a book for children. This is a gorgeous, shamelessly sentimental book for adults, and I confess that I can’t read it without crying. In fact, I first saw it when doing a bookstore visit in Toronto. There I was, standing beside my publicist, waiting to meet some booksellers, when I picked this up off the shelf. Three minutes later, I was misty-eyed and desperately hunting for a tissue. The book shows a mother imagining her infant daughter’s life and all the things the child might do as she *sniff* grows up. The illustrations are very Quentin Blake, but softer, which means I’m a sucker for them, too.

This New Baby, by Teddy Jam and Virginia Johnson

This new baby sleeps in my arms

like a moon sleeping on a cloud,

like apples falling through the rain,

like a fish swimming through the sky…”

Teddy Jam might be my favourite pseudonym. (His real identity was a secret until the death of award-winning Canadian novelist Matt Cohen in 1999, when they were revealed to be the same person.) Jam’s poetry is spare and surprising, and the illustrations in this re-issued edition of the book work beautifully with Jam’s free verse. It’s a gorgeous and subtle book.

In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak

I’d heard of In the Night Kitchen, but never before read it. Crazy, I know! I’m so glad this was prominently displayed in my local indie bookseller’s very small picture-book section; I might never have noticed it otherwise. And it is pure gold. I love that Sendak makes no attempt at logic, no effort to please a particular age bracket. It’s lunatic and brilliant as a result, and we can’t stop chanting, “Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter! We make cake, and nothing’s the matter.”

Ruby, by Colin Thompson

Another crazy one! We chose this one for the amazing illustrations, but the story (about a family of tiny, tree-root dwellers who accidentally get caught up in an Austin 7 Ruby) is slowly growing on me. At one point, the mother in the story exclaims of her impetuous son, “He hasn’t even grown his second button yet!” My guess is that there’s a time at which this story will seem completely reasonable, but at the moment I’m still shaking my head at the Green Virus who climbs out of the car’s ashtray. Our resident 3-year-old, however, thinks it makes perfect sense. Delightful nonsense, of the Alice-in-Wonderland variety.

What books did you give and receive this holiday?

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