Posts Tagged ‘reading’

To read: perchance to sleep

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Hello, friends. Most nights, before I sleep, I read. This is a constant tension: I always want to read more. I know very well that I should sleep more. And the two seem mutually exclusive.

That aside, I thought I’d share my current stack of books with you.

Ying's current reading

From the top:

Fancy Cycling, by Isabel Marks. This is a delightful photographic catalogue of the kinds of tricks Edwardian children, ladies, and men can perform on bicycles. Most of them are astounding.

This is one of the simpler stunts but I love how the rider is looking directly into the camera. It feels very modern, despite her hat and long skirt.

This is one of the simpler stunts but I love how the rider is looking directly into the camera. The photo feels very modern, despite her hat and long skirt.

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. My friend Trina lent this to me a few months ago and I’m fewer than 50 pages in. Sorry, Trina! I didn’t find it immediately compelling but she loves it so much that I plan to carry on. It’s just that all my other reading is getting in the way…

On the Yankee Station, by William Boyd. This is Boyd’s first collection of short stories, written before his first novel but published afterwards. It’s a bit uneven but very funny and strange and vivid. I began reading it for short-story inspiration (I’m writing one myself) but kept on because I love being in Boyd’s presence.

Jungle Soldier, by Brian Moynahan. A biography of my new hero/historical boyfriend, Freddy Spencer Chapman. Freddy’s a classic stiff-upper-lip subject and the biography is commensurately very thin. It fills in some details from his early and late life, but I’m better off reading…

The Jungle is Neutral, by F. Spencer Chapman

The Jungle is Neutral, by F. Spencer Chapman. This is my current favourite book and perhaps my favourite work of nonfiction ever. I really hadn’t expected to like Freddy so much. I was braced for a man of his generation (born 1907): a social snob, an unreflexive racist, an unapologetic colonialist. This isn’t the case at all. Freddy is immensely curious about the world, entirely willing to judge people on their individual merits and flaws, and endearingly passionate about food, even while suffering from bullet wounds, pneumonia, chronic malaria, ulcerated legs, blackwater fever, tick typhus, dysentery, and I-don’t-know-how-many-other ailments. Here’s how terrific this memoir is: I’ve been following Nick all around the house, reading excerpts to him. Another measure of how much I love it: I’m halfway through and already mourning the fact that it must end.

Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Gold Fields, 1896-1898, by William B. Haskell. I bought this in Ketchikan, Alaska, at a terrific indie bookstore called Parnassus Books. Haskell is very enjoyable company and reading him is such a lovely way to relive a family holiday while becoming familiar with the setting of my short story.

Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899, by Pierre Berton. It’s impossible to avoid Pierre Berton when you’re researching the Gold Rush. I lucked into this copy at the library’s used-book sale, and it’s been useful as a representative of the most romantic, legend-building, to-hell-with-historical-documentation view of the Klondike.

There it is: my reading brain, exposed. What are you reading, at the moment?


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First impressions

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Hello, friends. First Impressions is, of course, Jane Austen’s title for her first version of Pride and Prejudice. And in the same way that Elizabeth and Darcy come to realize that they were utterly mistaken in their first impressions, I’m also hoping that I’m wrong about the new book I’ve dipped into.

I’ve written before about my love for the novels of William Boyd. Boyd is that rarity, a writer who merges thriller with literary fiction, and he does so with authority and panache. (I also once read that he also makes award-winning wines near his home in the south of France. I haven’t checked into it, but I really hope it’s true.) Nevertheless, I was extremely nervous about his most recent novel, Solo.

As you can see from the cover, Solo is a James Bond novel. And that’s when my interest in it stalled.

Let me explain. I really enjoy action movies and have seen a fair few James Bond flicks. (Until Daniel Craig, my favourite Bond was Roger Moore. That always makes Bond aficionados groan. But here’s the thing: I have difficulty taking Bond seriously, so for me, Roger Moore was the perfect foolish, flouncing, smirking, stiff-limbed puppet who undercut the seriousness of the enterprise. Also, Sean Connery’s wildly meandering but too-frequently Scottish accent drove me nuts. In the non-Bond way.) But there’s a difference between watching a light-hearted action film and taking the time to read a book. A film is so easily here and then gone, reduced to a few clever lines of dialogue, a smart plot twist, and some great cinematography. But even a weak book embeds itself in your brain. It lingers.

I attempted Devil May Care, Sebastian Faulks’s Bond novel from 2008, but didn’t get far. Faulks has a good reputation as a writer, but he hewed closely to the Bond tradition. I found Devil May Care to be a laundry list of shopping, snobbery, and boring sexual stereotypes. After a few chapters, I gave up and skimmed to the end, for the plot. Can you see why I’m so nervous about Solo?

I genuinely don’t know what to make of the first chapter, but I howled with laughter a few times. That’s probably a bad start for a Bond novel. But don’t take my word for it; let me give you some examples. In the first few pages, Bond wakes up in a hotel and eats breakfast:

“Bond smiled grimly to himself, slid out of bed and walked naked into the en suite bathroom. The Dorchester had the most powerful showers in London…” (4)

“He swallowed again – his throat was sore.” (5)

“He sprinkled some pepper on his scrambled eggs. A good breakfast was the first essential component to set any day off to a proper start.” (8)

Is that you, Bond, or is it my grandmother? I was half-expecting him to order chamomile tea. After Bond manfully eats breakfast (despite his sore throat), he declines a flirty invitation to a party and goes back to his flat to supervise some builders who “have found some damp in the drawing room” (11). And THIS is why I’m wondering what’s going on with Boyd’s Bond.

I think Boyd is too good a writer to slouch on the basic furniture of a Bond novel (luxury brands, cheesy sexual intrigue, crazed megalomaniacal villain). I suspect – I sincerely hope – that something more is going on. A subversion of the Bond tradition? Something deliciously loopy and off-kilter? We shall see.

How about you, friends? Have you read Solo or other Bond novels? What did you think?

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I was wrong

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

Hello, friends. Last week I mentioned my new and rather frantic interest in Fanny Imlay/Godwin/Wollstonecraft. After Judith Chernaik’s Mab’s Daughters and Janet Todd’s Death and the Maidens, my reading led me to Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation, and I am so glad it did.

I’ll start by confessing that I was never especially enamoured of the Romantic poets. I have limited patience for Wordsworth’s one true subject (himself), and while I was a lot more enthusiastic about the second-generation Romantics (a group that includes Keats, Shelley, and Byron), I wasn’t terribly interested in the personal details of their dramatic and scandalous lives. (Why? What was wrong with me, as a student?) Anyway, Daisy Hay changed all that last week.

Hay’s argument is this: although Romantic poets idealized the poet as a solitary genius, the best work of the poets Shelley, Byron, and Keats grew out of a lively intellectual dialogue within a community of artists. Hay reads their poetry against their lives, revealing friendships, conversations, fallings-out, love affairs, and acts of both courage and cowardice. And I completely buy her argument. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I lapped up this book. When I began it, I was primarily looking for more scraps of detail about Fanny (they are few; Hay relies on Todd’s biography), but instead found myself enthralled by the complexity and sheer vivid energy within this group of extraordinarily talented and clever people.


Journalist and poet Leigh Hunt was one of the anchors of this group for a long time. I had no idea that Leigh Hunt was mixed race! He had West Indian blood on his father’s side of the family and endured racist sneers about his skin colour and features. His persistent political radicalism was incredibly brave at a time when publishers were commonly threatened with imprisonment for criticizing the government (and Hunt did serve time, apparently for calling the Prince Regent “fat”). In Bleak House, Dickens cruelly caricatured Hunt as “Harold Skimpole”, a pretentious journalist who simply must live in luxury while his family starves. It’s good to see that portrait balanced.

I didn’t realize that Shelley’s critical reputation (as a poet) came about largely after his death. I think I conflated his privileged background with Byron’s and assumed that they’d both been early nineteeth-century rock stars. But no: Shelley was largely mocked and unread in his lifetime, and it was only long after his death that Mary Shelley could bring out an official edition of his poetical works.

I have a new appreciation for Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s stepsister and the girl who joined Shelley and Mary on their “elopement”. I had previously dismissed her as a Jane Austenesque demi-villain: a self-dramatizing second-fiddle with poor impulse control. But Hay has a lot of time and respect for Claire, and I find it persuasive. Claire was in (unrequited) love with Shelley and a loving mother to Allegra, her illegitimate daughter by Byron. She survived both Shelley’s and Allegra’s deaths with dignity and had the fortitude to start life over as a governess in Russia.

I had never before heard a single word about the botanist Elizabeth (Bess) Kent, Leigh Hunt’s sister-in-law and intellectual companion. Her first book was Flora Domestica, a delightful-sounding volume about container gardening enriched by quotations from the poetry of her brilliant friends. Hay describes it as far more than a poetic primer on potted plants; instead, it proclaims “a message of democratic luxury” by claiming that “one did not need to be rich enough to travel to experience the pleasures of nature, since nature could be domesticated in a portable garden”.

One question that occurs to me is the matter of radicalism and youth. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley were so painfully young when they eloped, and certainly that youthful idealism informed their writing and their actions. Because so many in the group died fairly young, it would be interesting to trace how their radical politics shifted over time. It’s a commonplace to say that people become more conservative as they age, but that seems borne out in the lives examined here.

But this is me wandering away. Overall, Hay is a fine biographer, striking just the right balance of sympathy and firm judgement. And she’s opened my eyes to the marvels of a group of poets I too-quickly skimmed over as an undergraduate. I was blind, but now I see.

I shall read on.

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The woman without a name

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Hello, friends. Recently, I mentioned reading and loving Claire Tomalin’s biography of Mary Wollstonecraft. I’ve now become completely obsessed with the question of Mary Wollstonecraft’s elder daughter, Fanny. Fanny was born in 1794 in revolutionary Paris, the result of a short, passionate affair between Wollstonecraft and a handsome, fickle, frequently dishonest American named Gilbert Imlay. Imlay promptly tired of Wollstonecraft, moved to London, and set up house with an actress; he never displayed further interest in either Wollstonecraft or their infant daughter.

Wollstonecraft returned to London as well, with her toddler, and married the philosopher William Godwin in 1797. Shortly after, she died from complications of childbirth. (The new baby, Godwin’s biological daughter, grew up to be Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.) Godwin raised both girls and then some: he soon remarried and formed a blended family of five children, none of whom shared a pair of biological parents. Fanny and Mary grew up knowing that they were half-sisters and the daughters of the scandalous genius Mary Wollstonecraft.

The Godwin household was intellectually demanding, emotionally remote, and paralyzed by debt. The second Mrs. Godwin sounds like a deeply unpleasant character who, in fairy-tale fashion, resented and oppressed her stepdaughters. Mary asserted herself by eloping with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and writing a genre-defining bestseller, Frankenstein. Fanny tried to make peace within her fractured and fractious family and committed suicide in a coaching inn at the age of 22.

I’ve now read two books about “the Shelley circle”, combing them for details about Fanny. Let me tell you a bit about what I’ve found.

This is Mab’s Daughters (UK title) by Judith Chernaik. I couldn’t find a decent image of the North American edition, which is titled Love’s Children, but it’s the same novel. Yes, it’s a novel and it’s a quiet, contoured, persuasive, imaginative recreation of the voices of the four women closest to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley: his first wife, Harriet; his second wife, the novelist Mary; his sister-in-law (Mary and Fanny’s stepsister) Claire Clairmont; and Fanny. Chernaik’s gift is balance and restraint. She takes these extraordinary lives filled with scandalous episodes and renders them entirely plausible, anchored by loyalty (between sisters) and love (for learning, for travel, but mainly for Percy’s genius). I admire it hugely.

I just finished Death and the Maidens, by Janet Todd. Fanny is typically a footnote in the stories of other great minds: William Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley. The traditional line goes something like this: “Poor, depressive Fanny, what a pity. Her death is important because of what it tells us about so-and-so…” This biography is Todd’s corrective, an effort to place Fanny’s story at the centre of her own life. Todd argues that Fanny was intelligent, politically conscious, opinionated, and warm-hearted. She tried repeatedly to reconcile her sister Mary with her stepfather Godwin (there was a rift after 16-year-old Mary ran away with Shelley; it ended only after Mary and Shelley were legally married, two and a half years later), and hoped to escape her stepmother by going to live with Mary and Shelley. Fanny never got her wish; never received an invitation even to visit Mary for a few days.

Todd argues that this rejection was the central force that pushed Fanny into suicide. It’s an interesting theory but will always remain so; there is scarce evidence of Fanny’s last days, and the people closest to her remained silent. Even at the time, rather than risk the scandal of a suicide in the family, they refused to claim the body. Fanny was abandoned in death, and buried in an anonymous grave in Swansea (the city where she died). While I enjoyed learning more about Fanny’s life, I found Todd’s clear antipathy towards Percy Bysshe Shelley rather distracting, and I wish the footnotes were more thorough. What dominates overall, however, is Todd’s clear affection for Fanny, and her desire to do Fanny justice.

My third book is Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics. I’m only partway through and will wait until next week to talk about it, but I’m enjoying it immensely.

At this point, I’d like to explain the title of my post. At birth, Fanny’s name was officially recorded as “Françoise Imlay” (Wollstonecraft and Imlay were still a couple, just about, and they were living in Paris). After Wollstonecraft’s death from complications of childbirth, Godwin chose to raise Fanny as his daughter and she became known as Frances Godwin. Despite carrying the names of these two men, however, Fanny was technically illegitimate and never legally adopted. Her name should always have been Fanny Wollstonecraft.

I find it both fascinating and moving that readers still can’t agree on her name. Todd reclaims her as Fanny Wollstonecraft; at other times, she’s Fanny Imlay (wikipedia) or Fanny Godwin (with explanations). It’s tricky to find her in an index. And this elusive quality, the fact that we can’t even work out what to call her, is reflected in her life. No diary survives; her letters are partly destroyed; there is no known portrait. And for a very long time nobody found her remotely interesting, except as an adjunct to the lives of others.

Poor Fanny, indeed.

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Lumpito and the Painter from Spain

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Hello, friends. Two weeks ago, my children and I had the pleasure of discovering Monica Kulling and Dean Griffiths’s utterly charming picture-book, Lumpito and the Painter from Spain. (Disclosure: I am friendly with Monica and an admirer of her many other books.)

The story features a dachshund named Lump (pronounced “loomp”, meaning “rascal” in German) whose owner, David, takes him from Rome to the south of France to meet Pablo Picasso. Picasso nicknames the dog “Lumpito” and artist and dog get along so fabulously that Lump refuses to go home with David. Instead, he remains with Picasso.

Like many of Kulling’s other books, Lumpito and the Painter from Spain is based on a true story. Kulling tells us that Lump later appeared in some of Picasso’s work, notably his Las Meninas, after Velazquez. If you click on the link to wikipedia, you can see one of the Las Meninas paintings (there are 58 in total) with a small, long dog in the foreground. That’s Lump!

Something about the story seemed familiar. I wondered whether I’d actually heard it before, or whether it was simply too good a tale to remain untold in one form or another. And then I got distracted.

It took Nick to put things together. When I was 21, I travelled to France on my own. One of the few things I bothered to lug back with me was a gift for Nick: a copy of photographer David Douglas Duncan’s Viva Picasso.

Neither of us reads Italian and even as a second-hand copy, the book was fabulously expensive (for the 21-year-old me!). But it was so compelling that I couldn’t leave it. Besides, it was the photographs I loved; I still don’t know what the introductory text says.

Flash-forward to 2014. Nick read Lumpito and the Painter from Spain to our children, then pulled out Viva Picasso. And there it was: David Douglas Duncan’s intimate photographs of Picasso in Cannes, dancing with his children, eating lunch, showing off, holding forth, and, yes, playing with a sweet-looking little dachshund. We met Lumpito years ago, and never even knew it. Maybe we should have tried to read the Italian, after all.

I absolutely love these sorts of reflections and convergences. They give me the shivers, in the best possible way, and I’m so thrilled that Monica Kulling and Dean Griffiths triggered one with their beautifully told, vibrantly illustrated picture book. Thank you, Monica, for this window into art history. It’s an absolute delight.

What about you, friends? Have you heard any echoes across the years, recently or otherwise?

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Murder as a Fine Art

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Hello, friends. It’s been a pretty unhealthy few weeks in my household. Nick is going into his 5th straight week of viral bleurgh (three separate viruses one after the other, we’re pretty sure) for which his lungs are taking a beating, and I strained my back last week before promptly coming down with a cold. Basically, he can’t breathe and I can’t move. We’re like the dangling punchline of a bad joke.

So it was with a powerful need for diversion that I opened David Morrell’s Murder as a Fine Art.

It was recommended to me by Toronto children’s author Monica Kulling, whose work I love. Monica said it reminded her of the Agency novels and I’m always simultaneously worried and intrigued when someone says that. I mean, Monica meant it in the nicest possible way, but good grief – what if it’s crap?

In this case, however, I needn’t have fretted. Murder as a Fine Art is a wide-ranging, tightly plotted book with an absolutely terrific premise: controversial essayist and notorious opium-addict Thomas de Quincey comes back to London at the age of 69, is drawn into a re-enactment of the most gruesome mass-murders England has ever seen, and solves them in the company of his clever, independent daughter, Emily, and two members of Scotland Yard.

The novel is ferociously well researched, hits a number of great Victorian themes (rational dress, anti-Irish prejudice, the 1854 cholera outbreak, the Opium Wars) and sets out to have a good bit of deliberately cheeky fun, too. Morrell’s de Quincey has a distinct and instantly recognizable conversational voice, both elegant and incisive. And in Morrell’s vision, there’s nothing de Quincey can’t do, given sufficient incentive (and laudanum, which I’ve written about before.) In any fictionalized form, de Quincey would be a genius. But in this thriller, de Quincey – an elderly man in poor health, a drug addict of nearly five decades – can leap from moving carriages, outrun an elite group of soldiers in the fog, defend himself (with only a teaspoon) against an armed and highly trained killer, climb trees while handcuffed, disguise himself to elude professional spies, and mobilize an improvised army of beggars and prostitutes for the sake of “England”. It’s so audacious it makes you laugh, even while you indulge in the fantasy.

Things that might trouble a reader? Lots and lots of graphic violence, which is certainly not to everyone’s taste. Morrell also assumes that you know absolutely nothing about Victorian London and lays it all out for you in a straightforward way. (Sometimes this is jarring: the repeated mention of giving a poor child “a cookie” each week for learning to read the Bible, for example. It’s okay, editors! We’ll figure out that “a biscuit” is both a treat and a bribe.) I didn’t mind it, though.

And while I was treating my own back with heat, Tylenol and arnica gel, it was doubly good fun to read about the miraculous pain-relieving properties of laudanum. Nevertheless, I think I’ll stick with my trusty hot-water bottle.

How was your week, everyone? What are you reading?

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Mary Wollstonecraft

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Hello, friends. A couple of days ago, I finished reading Claire Tomalin’s The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft.

Mary Wollstonecraft, painted in 1797 by John Opie

This is Tomalin’s first book, it’s forty years old (originally published in 1974), and it remains the definitive biography of the first feminist. I read the revised edition of 1992, when it was re-issued to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Wollstonecraft’s incendiary A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but the revisions are light. And WOW, is good biography ever addictive. There are so many fine, thoughtful, glowing reviews of The Life and Death of MW and I don’t feel the need to add to them. But I wanted to highlight a few things that particularly stood out for me.

– One of Tomalin’s finest traits as a biographer is her measured, conscientious empathy with her subjects. She doesn’t take sides in a blind fashion, but remains alive to how each person in a situation may have felt. She even manages to be balanced in her treatment of Gilbert Imlay, who usually reads like a music-hall villain.

– Mary Wollstonecraft was a hothead and a completely unreasonable prima donna. It’s what enabled her to write such radical polemic, of course, but it makes for difficult reading. The peace-loving part of me wants to beg her to take a deep breath (or ten) before charging into a situation. Then again, what do I know about genius? Maybe it needs to trample a few victims in its course.

– This is hard to express without sounding gender-essentialist, but Tomalin’s very clear understanding of childbirth and breastfeeding really makes a difference to the elucidation of Wollstonecraft’s state of mind, at times. A biographer who didn’t grasp the medical and psychological complexities involved would be less effective at interpreting certain lines in the letters and in (Wollstonecraft’s husband) William Godwin’s diary.

– There is no getting over the bitter irony of Wollstonecraft’s dying from complications of childbirth (retained placenta, septicemia). Her death was excruciating and long-drawn-out. In a different time and place, it could have been averted entirely, either through effective birth control or better medical hygiene and technology.

– Wollstonecraft’s husband, friends, and fellow intellectuals sold short her intellectual legacy. I don’t think I realized how completely alone she stood, in her intellectual position, or just how unready the world was for her arguments. Even the other radical thinkers of her day seemed to think she’d gone too far, and then there were the so-called friends (notably Amelia Opie) who turned around and attacked her once she was no longer alive to defend herself. Wollstonecraft remained as isolated after death as she frequently was in life.

– Wollstonecraft was an unfavoured daughter, a governess, a mediocre schoolteacher, and a hack journalist; an emotional tyrant who lived more frequently in conflict than in peace. She was also a self-taught intellectual, an independent woman who earned her own living, an effective negotiator, a courageous and sturdy traveller, a loving mother, and a genius who knew nothing of compromise. We are lucky to have Tomalin’s portrait of her.

And now that I’ve read about Wollstonecraft’s life, I’m going to re-read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. What are you reading right now?

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Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

Hello, friends. Tomorrow is Thursday, November 29 and I will be in Calgary, Alberta! Specifically, I will be doing two readings at different branches of the Calgary Public Library.

Reading 1:
Crowfoot Library 

8665 Nose Hill Drive

11-12:30 p.m.
Reading 2:
Village Square Library

2623 56 St NE

2 – 3 p.m.

Both readings are open to the public so if you’re in the area, I’d love to meet you. I’ll also be signing after each reading.

I am really looking forward to visiting Calgary for the first time, but for the past few days I’ve also been consumed by an extremely worthy question: what will I read on the way? I have a roughly 12-hour journey each way, if you factor in transit time. It won’t be my favourite part of this week, that’s certain, but it’s also a terrific chance to immerse myself in a few books. So far, I’m thinking of these.

I’ve read bits and pieces of The Urban Bestiary, and it’s absolutely delightful. I can’t wait to learn to see all these common (and frequently pesky) urban animals through Haupt’s affectionate, knowledgeable eyes.

I’m really quite excited about Death Comes to Pemberly. I’m just a little nervous that my hopes might be too high.

My friend Jill recommended this one, with the strict warning that I might find myself bawling in public. I am okay with that.

Any other suggestions, readers? For me, a travel book needs to be extremely compelling, so that I can read through discomfort and frustration. I need to feel as though I’m spending time with someone smart and interesting. And apart from that, I’m wide open. Suggestions?


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That’s my agent!

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

Hello, friends. This past weekend was the Thanksgiving holiday in Canada. I am still coasting on leftovers (that’s a splendid thing, in my opinion), basking in crisp sunshine, and in total denial of the sudden onslaught of Christmas cack in the retail world.

This is not a terribly new video and I can’t seem to embed it here the way I usually do, but I’m linking to it anyway because hey! that’s my agent! Without further ado, here is Rowan Lawton of Furniss Lawton, with her Top 3 Tips for getting published.

Also, I’m reading Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America. I’ve said this before, but Peter Carey is absolutely bonkers. I’m adoring it. What are you reading right now?

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Anita Brookner

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

Another week, another missed blog post. I’m so sorry, friends. I’ve been wrestling with my sluggish internet connection for far too long, and am hoping to get it sorted out this week. I had no idea that upgrading my connection could be so complicated.

However, I have not spent the entire week on hold or talking to technical support. I have also been reading, of course. Last week, we did a little day-trip to Prince Edward County to pick local blueberries (it’s the tail end of the season; we’ll go during the first week of August, next year) and ended up at Miss Lily’s Café in Picton.

Miss Lily’s serves pretentiously packaged but absolutely delectable coffee from Toronto. And it’s connected to Books and Company, an airy and beautiful independent bookseller with a resident cat. It was hot outside, I felt weary, and the children were industriously painting themselves with ice cream. Nick said to me, “Why don’t you slip in for a browse?”

I was only waiting to be asked. I shot inside and, two minutes later, was perusing Books and Company’s small used-book section and asking myself, in genuine astonishment, Why haven’t I ever read Anita Brookner? They were offering a used copy of Hotel du Lac for $3.50. Ridiculous! How could I not?

So. Hotel du Lac.

This is the edition I bought, although someone's attempted to peel off the Booker McConnell sticker.

Nothing much happens in the first half, and the “scandal” constantly, mysteriously mentioned in that first half is thoroughly foolish and predictable. This is the point. The novel is a window into the acerbic, curious, slightly depressive, and uncompromising mind of its protagonist, Edith Hope (“a writer of romantic fiction under a more thrusting name”), who spends a week or so at a Swiss hotel in the off-season.

The novel is beautifully written, with a clarity and precision that’s quite startling to read. And it’s a quiet but steady – intransigent, even – tract about the importance of respecting and holding to one’s own standards and beliefs, even when they offend and inconvenience everybody else.

I’m afraid that sounds like faint praise, but it’s an old-fashioned book in the best sense of the word. It is a success on its own terms, which is precisely what it set out to be.

Have you discovered or rediscovered any authors recently? What are you reading? Also, did you get your fill of local berries this year? I feel a deficiency!

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