Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art. . . "

Okay everyone, get ready to sigh and swoon and lament an age when poets not only wrote odes to their beloved, but some of the most beautiful love letters as well. Twitter just doesn't cut it, does it? On the weekend, I saw Jane Campion's new film Bright Star, based on the tragically short romance of John Keats and Fanny Brawne, and if this movie doesn't have you taking down your dusty anthologies of British poetry from university days, and reading some Keats, (and yes, all his greatest hits are in the movie), I don't know what will. Like these lines from his poem "To Fanny":

Yourself - your soul - in pity give me all,
Withhold no atom's atom or I die. . .

Heady stuff, eh? Do try and get an edition that includes some of the love letters as well, which are some of the most passionate ever written. Our movie-tie edition will include the complete poems and a good selection of letters, and also has an introduction by Campion. It will be available in November (in plenty of time to get into some stockings). The movie is very well done, certainly very beautiful to look at, and yes, quite romantic. One of my friends has been told in no uncertain terms by her husband, that she is not allowed to see the movie without him by her side. Critics have been effusive in their praise of Abbie Cornish who plays Fanny but Ben Whishaw as Keats, more than holds his own (you may remember him as Sebastian in the recent movie adaption of Brideshead Revisited). And most importantly, he has a lovely poetry-reading voice.

Keats isn't the only dead poet making the literary rounds at the moment. I've just started Adam Foulds' new novel The Quickening Maze which is on the shortlist for this year's Booker Prize (we found out late that we have Canadian rights to this, but the hardcover edition should be in stores and libraries now, and Vintage Canada has bought paperback rights and is bringing it out quickly in early November). Set about fifteen years after Keats' death, The Quickening Maze tells the story of nature poet John Clare, during the years he spent at High Beach Asylum. Located in the Essex countryside, it's not a prison; Clare is allowed to work each day in the gardens and for good behaviour, he can take walks in the nearby forests. Alfred Tennyson is also a character in the novel; he moves to a nearby house to be close to his brother who is also getting treatment at the asylum. I'm only about sixty pages in but I'm luxuriating in the pacing and lovely descriptions of nature; Foulds is himself an award-winning poet. And it's reminding me of yet another recent novel about a British poet - Robert Edric's In Zodiac Light - which traces the last days of First World War poet and musician Ivor Gurney, who was also confined to a mental institution.

Bright stars indeed, but quick to burn out.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sunburst awards announced. . .

The 2009 Sunburst awards for Canadian Literature of the fantastic have been announced. Andrew Davidson's The Gargoyle takes the prize, with Cory Doctorow's Little Brother winning for best YA novel.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

NYRB Challenge Book #4 - The Pure and the Impure. . .

I picked up Colette's The Pure and The Impure, translated by Herma Briffault, simply because I'd seen a number of French films at the Toronto Film Festival, many of them about love and relationships (and really, does anyone tackle l'amour better than the French?) and was in the mood for more. This is the first book by Colette that I've read and I think I might have appreciated it more had I been familiar with some of her novels.

According to her biographer Judith Thurman, who writes the introduction, Colette began writing this "investigation into the nature and laws of the erotic life" in 1930, working on it for several years. It was published in 1941 when Colette was sixty-eight. The narrative is a series of sketches of men and women, gay and straight, some of whom have been Colette's own lovers. She acts as a confessional conduit for the tormented and exasperated - lovers solicit her advice and reveal their secrets, jealousies and obsessions to her. There is a lot of world-weariness, narcissim and unhappiness in these pages leading to opium dens, alcholism, anorexia and suicide. One of the only happy portraits is that of the two "Ladies of Llangollen" who ran away from their disapproving families in 1778 to set up house in the Welsh countryside, where they lived in apparent idyllic happiness for fifty years - although as Colette reminds us, we only have the diary entries of one of the couple as proof.

There are veiled references to the French literati of the early 20th century and if I knew more about that period, I would doubtless get more out of this book; I found many of the early profiles left me cold because they were too short and detached to get a real sense of their subjects. But I am glad that I kept reading because the book gets very interesting in the second half when Colette injects more of her own personal observations into the narrative as she muses on the differences between lesbian, gay and heterosexual relationships and what happens when they foolishly mix. And she's very interesting on the societal malaise that hit women in post First World-War Paris:

Despair born of frustration drove women, after the war, to imitate the looks and manners of androgynous young men. They had reckoned on their men being delivered back to them full of frenzied desire. Then, becoming aware that their own apotheosis was not very dazzling, they began wildly to imitate the outward looks of the male tribe that was causing them such heartache. They cropped their hair, squandered a fortune at the shirtmaker's, and drank to excess. And they gained no ground, for they were not disinterested enough.

She also has a very sensual, visceral way with language. Here she is on jealousy:

. . . it is a kind of gymnast's purgatory, where the senses are trained, one by one, and it has the gloom of all training centers. . . The sense of hearing becomes refined, one acquires visual virtuosity, a rapid and hushed step, a sense of smell that can capture the particles deposited in the atmosphere by a head of hair, a scented powder, the passage of a brazenly happy person . . . A body absolutely on the alert becomes weightless, moves with somnambulistic ease, rarely collapses and falls.

In the end, my favourite relationship in the book is not a romantic liaison at all, but the ongoing comic bond between Colette and Madame X - rivals for the attentions of the same lover. The intensity of their mutual antagonism keeps them both going. When Colette stops cursing Madame X for a couple of months because she is absorbed in her writing, a series of mishaps occur that she blames on this inattention; she falls into a ditch, loses a manuscript, three of her kittens die mysteriously. The two eventually become friends when the object of their jealousy has long left the picture and they can look back and laugh about it. I can see why this was considered a daring book of its times and while it's not my favourite NYRB Classic, I'm glad I read it. I will certainly seek out some of Colette's novels for future reading.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Kingston Rocks!. . .

As book reps and readers, we're used to attending a lot of literary festivals - but rarely have we been part of the line-up. A big thank-you to all the organizers of the Kingston Writer's Festival which hosted a Book Lovers lunch last Friday featuring the Dewey Divas. Ann and I got to talk about some of our favourite picks in front of a lovely, engaged crowd - almost all of whom belong to a book club. (And what a great idea to have wine on the table - we sound so much better after a couple of sips!). It was a terrifically run festival - interesting sessions, wonderfully marketed and organized and they made us feel so welcome. And a special thanks to the Kingston librarians who suggested us in the first place - we had so much fun doing this.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Generation A or why we need to keep on reading. . .

One of the books that I was really disappointed not to see on the Giller longlist announced earlier this week, was Douglas Coupland's Generation A, which so far is my favourite Canadian novel of 2009. He just keeps getting better and better. His last few books have all been Dewey picks due to their quirky subject matter, humour, and just great storytelling. He is always ORIGINAL and when you read as much as I do for work, that's something to be truly grateful for. I don't know how he does it, but he always has his finger on the pulse of society's neuroses, spinning a tale around those anxieties that is not only enormously entertaining, but really makes one think. In this case, one trembles a bit too.

Generation A is set in the near future when nearly all the bees have disappeared; the site of the last known active beehive has now become a UNESCO World Heritage site. Flowers have vanished and crops are failing. One day five complete strangers (the narrators of the novel) are stung in different places around the world - New Zealand, Paris, a cornfield in Iowa, Sri Lanka and North Bay - and are immediately taken into custody by security forces, isolated, and subjected to a barrage of medical tests as scientists try to figure out why they attracted the bees. Each of the five eventually finds out about the others and starts to make contact. And when they finally meet. . .

I can't write any more without spoiling the story and anyways, this has one of those plots that is impossible to summarize satisfactorily. Suffice it to say that if society read a little more, and used their blackberries a little less, we'd all be better off. This novel was just so much fun to read - it' s spot on about our obsessions with the cult of celebrity, the online world, video games, processed food, sex and shopping, and prescription drugs guarenteed to make us happy. How selfish and narcissistic and mundane our modern world has become; we desperately need to keep those bees buzzing! Here's a brief description of that malaise:

I hate the way our bodies move through the world, clip-clop, like beef marionettes. I hate how the world has turned into one massive hamburger-making machine, how the world is only about people now - everything else on the planet must bow to our will because there's no longer any other option. Fundamentalists rejoiced when the bees died out; to them it was proof that the planet exists entirely for and was entirely about people. How could such thinking not make you want to go out and vomit into the street?
That quote could almost have come out of Margaret Atwood's new dystopian novel The Year of the Flood, and indeed, it would be fun to read the two books back to back or compare them in a bookclub. They have completely different narrative styles and stories, but both authors employ their sharp satirical bite to chew on the damage we are inflicting on our world. Please recommend both books to teens as well - they are the generation that needs to pay attention.

And finally if you want to know whether Douglas Coupland thinks this

is the most attractive, evil or loneliest letter of the alphabet, or need full instructions on how to make the Earth Sandwich described in Generation A, or are just curious about his answers to a number of other challenging questions, check out this YouTube video.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Carfree and Carefree. . .

Today is World Carfree Day and seems an appropriate moment to reflect on my one year anniversary of urban living and working without a car.

It was little more than a year ago that I was rear-ended at an intersection while driving home (fortunately, no one was hurt) and it jolted me in more ways than one. The whole back of the car was smashed and took several weeks for repairs. Desperately needing to get to Niagara-on-the-Lake because I had Shaw Festival tickets, I tried every car rental place and found it impossible to find anything available at the last minute on a summer weekend. So I turned to and lo and behold there were numerous cars in my neighbourhood that were free. The light bulb went on, I made it to the theatre, and shortly thereafter gave up my car in favour of a Metropass and a Zipcar membership and I've never been happier.

Some of my colleagues thought I was nuts. My commuting time to the office has nearly doubled (it's now an hour and 15-20 minutes on average each way) and I frequently have to carry heavy piles of manuscripts, books and catalogues home in a backpack as opposed to the trunk of a car.
But I absolutely love it and, apart from the environmental advantages, here's why:

1. I never have to worry about trying to find a parking spot on the street again, especially in winter when most of the spaces disappear under ploughed piles of snow.
2. I never have to worry about the car being buried by said snowploughs and having to dig it out and chip the ice off the doors. I can't tell you how much stress this used to cause me.
3. I have added 2.5-3 hours of time to myself during the commute. I can sleep, read, catch up on podcasts, listen to music, daydream or people watch on the bus; someone else is doing the driving. Plus I like the 15 minute walk to the bus stop. I can take a variety of routes, some through a park and can even grab a latte on the way.
4. I've lost 8 pounds, kept it off and dropped one dress size. I feel healthier and more energetic than ever.
5. With my Metropass, I've been exploring more neighbourhoods in my city.
6. If I still had the car, I would probably never have bought my foldable bike; the joys of cycling again have been a big part of my summer. It's also been fun rediscovering the train (in some cases even cheaper than zipping a car) but then Brief Encounter has always been one of my favourite movies.
7. It's fun to carpool with the Deweys - all of whom have been generous and supportive.
8. With Zipcar, you can drive a variety of different cars like the Mini Cooper above. That was an experience. It was 6am and dark when I first got into one - took me 20 minutes to figure out the ignition. Car manuals are hopeless. But once I got it going, it was a cute little thing with a nice sunroof.

Note that I haven't given up driving entirely - as a book rep for a large publishing company (lots of catalogues), I still need a car for many of my appointments and Dewey gigs. Fortunately there are so many Zipcars in my neighbourhood that I've never been unable to book one (even at the last minute, like this morning when I thought I'd made a reservation, and all my usual cars were booked and my cell phone battery died, and after finding a phone that worked, the closest car that was free was two subway stops away in a garage under a building, and I was running late, and then I couldn't figure out how the parking pass worked to lift the garage barrier, and I was on a steep ramp with an angry line-up behind me and sliding backwards the moment I took my foot off the brake. . .ah, just another frantic day in the life of a rep. . . )

Obviously, this won't work for everyone. If you live in the suburbs where there aren't any zipcars, or your workplace isn't accessible by transit then this isn't a viable option. But corny as it may sound, going carless is similar to giving up cable TV, which I also did around the same time. I feel like I've decluttered and cleansed my life and the fact that both rejections have freed up so much more reading time is just an added bonus.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Boys are Back. . .

So here are some tips for surviving a film festival. Always carry a good book (lots of reading time in the line-ups), manage the fluid intakes wisely because there isn't always time to head to the washroom, and always, always, make conversation with the strangers standing in line around you, because you never know when you'll meet someone who knows someone who knows someone else who can get you within ten feet of this, beautiful, beautiful man!

Yes, I know - and all I could come up with was this blurry photo. Well, wouldn't your hands shake too?
Oh, and the movie? Not bad either. The Boys Are Back is directed by Scott Hicks (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedars) and is based on the book by Simon Carr. Clive Owen plays Joe, a top sports writer, whose wife suddenly dies of cancer leaving him grief-stricken and suddenly the only parent to their six year old son. Then his older son from a previous marriage - also dealing with parental issues - arrives for a visit. I normally roll my eyes at stories of men suddenly discovering that taking care of children is difficult, time-absorbing and involves a change in lifestyle; I've just known too many who have chosen to walk away from their responsibilities instead. But the script is quite good and not overly sentimental and Joe makes plenty of serious mistakes over and over again until it all finally sinks in. The acting is great, as are the shots of Australia. It'll hit all the right buttons, but thankfully it's not as riddled with cliche as movies in this genre tend to be. And it's nice to see Owen in a different type of role. Mind you, it's just nice to see him.

NYRB Challenge #2 & #3: In which I go to the dogs (and the movies too!). . .

Let me start by saying that I've never been a dog owner. I classify dogs in the same category as cars and kids; I can understand the appeal, but for me - too much work and worry. This hasn't stopped me though from thoroughly enjoying these two short canine tales, both of which were published in 1956 but couldn't be more different in style and content.

My NYRB Challenge Book #2 is the very funny memoir My Dog Tulip by British writer J.R. Ackerley, which I picked up both because I had a ticket to the new animated film screening at TIFF, and I couldn't help laughing at the E.M. Forster quote on the back: "It is the biography of the New Dog - a creature comparable to the New Woman that disturbed our grandparents."
Tulip is a young Alsatian that Ackerley acquires when he is in his fifties and she completely changes his life, despite the fact that she is badly behaved, barks at everyone, and has very unpredictable bowel movements (the chapter simply titled "Liquids and Solids" is Ackerley's comic account of dealing with the latter in this era before "poop and scoop" laws). However the two absolutely adore each other and the reader can't help but smile at Ackerley's determination to make Tulip happy by ensuring that she experiences all that a female dog should - namely sex and pregnancy. Two thirds of the book follows his many frustrating attempts to find Tulip a proper mate; who knew how complicated canine sex was? But the deed is finally done and there is a very touching scene when Ackerley watches throughout the night as Tulip gives birth to her puppies (though you'll be shocked by what happens next). Even if you are completely indifferent to dogs, the strength of this memoir is definitely the writing which will charm and surprise with its candor whether Ackerley is describing the inexhaustible and unsuccessful wooing on the part of Tulip's suitors - many of them too small to do anything about it - to the heartfelt gratitude he feels when they both relieve themselves in the park and Tulip makes a point of sprinkling her own urine on his: "I feel that if ever there were differences between us, they are washed out now," he writes. "I feel a proper dog." (Must be a guy thing). He is also very good at describing dog owners to comic effect. My favourite quote shows the strong and beautiful bond between the two: "Tulip never let me down. She is nothing if not consistent. She knows where to draw the line, and it is always in the same place, a circle around us both."
I saw the animated film of My Dog Tulip last night. It's directed by Paul Fierlinger who is also the main animator along with his wife Sandra Fierlinger. He draws the images and she paints them. He was at the screening and in the Q & A that followed he explained how the images were created. The entire movie was hand-drawn but using a computer software program that allows the process to be paperless. He draws the frames on a computer slate and later the colours are painted in. It still took two and a half years to complete. I enjoyed the film; the style of animation (which is far more sophisticated than it initially looks - lots of interesting things happening the in the background) works well with the basic simplicity of the story, and Fierlinger has stayed very close to the book (95% of the narration is taken directly from it). Christopher Plummer is a marvellous choice for the voice of the crusty and cynical Ackerley. There are many sexual references and jokes, but these are rendered in an non-explicit, almost cartoonish style - while not a children's film specifically, I don't think it will unduly disturb any kid 12 and up. You can see clips and the trailer at the movie's website located here.

Niki: The Story of a Dog by Tibor Déry, translated by George Szirtes, is a very different breed of dog story and #3 in my NYRB Challenge, picked up because I was fascinated that it was published in the same year as the Ackerley and seemed an ideal pairing. This is a novel set in Hungary after the Second World War, amidst the fears and violence of ongoing political unrest. Niki is a scrappy little terrier who is adopted by the Ancsas, a couple who have lost their son in the war. When the husband gets a new job in Budapest, they move from the country to a tiny flat and things start to fall apart. Niki is not an urban dog and has a hard time adjusting. Mr. Ansca gets shifted to a number of jobs for which he is highly overqualified and then one day he doesn't come home and no one knows why. His wife is left to fend for herself and with little money, she has to question whether or not to keep the dog which is now viewed by a suspicious and hungry society as a luxury item. But Niki is the only thing she has left, and so she strives to provide as much love and happiness as she can for the inconsolable dog who is missing her master. This sad novel explores the difficulties of true communication between dogs and humans. This incomprehensibility is played for laughs in My Dog Tulip, but here, Niki stands in for the Hungarian citizens - they too can't understand why people suddenly disappear with no explanation given or how long this state of suspension will last. It takes a physical and mental toll:
The bitch neither cried, nor argued, nor protested, nor demanded explanations; and it was impossible to convince her. She simply resigned herself to her fate in silence. This silence, which resembled the ultimate silence of a prisoner broken in body and soul, was, for Mrs. Ancsa, like a violent protest at the nature of existence itself.
I was oddly touched by both books which of course were as much about the owners of Tulip and Niki, and their own quests to fight loneliness and connect emotionally with the world. Dog lovers will find their own personal touchstones within these pages, but any rendition of a relationship has a universal appeal and relevance to all humans - even those not attached to a leash.

2009 CWA Dagger Shortlists

'Tis the season for award announcements it would seem! On September 7th, the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) announced the shortlists for their 2009 Awards. The CWA Dagger Awards are the longest established literary awards in the UK and are internationally recognised as a mark of excellence and achievement. I'm a voracious mystery reader and I always find that these shortlists make a great a shopping list to take along to the bookstore when I'm on the lookout for a new author. It's particularly nice to see a Canadian on the list for the New Blood Dagger- Robert Rotenberg (Old City Hall). NB- I've noted the Canadian publishers below if they differ from the UK publisher.
The shortlist for this year’s CWA Gold Dagger, for the top crime novel of the year are as follows:
I'm so happy to see The Coroner by M.R. Hall on the list! This was one of my Dewey Diva picks from the Spring list (a must read if you are a Lynda LaPlante fan). The sequel The Disappeared is coming on our Winter 2010 list.

The shortlist for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger for first books by previously unpublished writers is:
The shortlisted titles for this year’s CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger (thriller novel) are:
The awards above will presented on Wednesday, 21st October, 2009. Already presented (in July) were the following awards:
  • 2009 Debut Dagger for best unpublished work (Catherine O’Keefe, The Pathologist)
  • 2009 International Dagger for best mystery in translation (won for the THIRD time in four years by a favourite of Maylin's- Fred Vargas and translator Sîan Reynolds for The Chalk Circle Man)
  • 2009 CWA Dagger in the Library to "the author of crime fiction whose work is currently giving the greatest enjoyment to library users"- awarded to Colin Cotterill Quercus

Monday, September 14, 2009

I Just Discovered Ian Rankin

About a year after the final installment of of the wildly successful Inspector Rebus series, I have just discovered Ian Rankin. I really do quite enjoy mysteries, so I am quite shame faced that I have come to him so late. It has been an absolute pleasure getting these books in series order from my library. Sometimes reading him I find I need a Scottish dictionary even though I am well versed with the Scots way of talking.
What a treat to end the summer reading only question is what next?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

What's wrong with this Picture?. . .

Well Colin Firth was a no-show. No reason was given, but if I were to hazard a guess, I'd think perhaps it's because he actually saw his movie. Oh dear, oh dear. Let me just put it this way. If you haven't read the book and you like horror movies, you might enjoy this. If you have read and loved the book and aren't too keen on blood and maggots, then you might want to give Dorian Gray a pass and perhaps rent director Oliver Parker's other Wilde movies - The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, both of which are fine adaptations.

The highlight of the night occured while I was in the long line-up snaking along the side of Roy Thompson Hall. We caught a fleeting glimpse of George Clooney coming out the back entrance after his movie screening.

The rest of this weekend is devoted to independent films from Britain, Germany, Denmark, New Zealand and France, which is fine with me. I think I've had enough of Hollywood for the moment.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Toronto Film Frenzy. . .

The city is all abuzz; The Toronto International Film Festival started yesterday and people are having so much fun rushing around the city from film to film. Never mind the celebrity watching, just people watching is fascinating. TIFF always means long lineups but they are filled with real film buffs; half the fun is having spirited conversations with the people around you. I'm going to be cramming 17 films into eight days - it began wonderfully last night with Pedro Almodovar's new film Broken Embraces. Absolutely terrific - make sure you catch this when it opens in theatres. It's the story of a blind filmmaker named Harry Caine, his agent, her son, and Caine's lover played by the stunningly beautiful Penelope Cruz who has never looked (or acted) better. Some of the stunning images had me gasping at their beauty. As it's the story of a filmmaker there are lots of references to other directors - there's a bit of a Hitchcock feel to some scenes, and definitely more than a couple of nods to Louis Malle's films, in particular Elevator to the Gallows and Damage.

Unfortunately due to scheduling and availability of tickets, I'm not seeing any Canadian films. But I will be picking up a copy of the just published Toronto On Film by Geoff Pevere et al. It'll be freshing to read about movies where Toronto plays Toronto and not just as a stand-in for an American city. The University of Toronto Press also has a great new Canadian Cinema Series where each volume focuses on a specific film. Earlier in the year I was at the launch of Denys Arcand's Le Déclin de l'empire américain and Les Invasions barbares by André Loiselle that was accompanied by a screening of the first film, which I hadn't seen in ages. I've subsequently bought it and its sequel on DVD and I never get tired of watching this group of funny, selfish, egotistical and yet loving group of friends as they navigate the emotional and intellectual challenges of life. Makes a great double bill for the weekend - and no line-ups!
Tonight - Colin Firth and Dorian Gray.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

NYRB Challenge Book #1 - Indian Summer

Despite the political incorrectness of the title, it was the word "summer" that jumped out at me from the shelves and made Indian Summer by American author William Dean Howells my first of fifty NYRB books I'm trying to read in a year. Mind you the book was first published in 1886 and it doesn't take place in a North American autumn at all, but during one winter and spring in Florence, Italy. As Wendy Lesser notes in her introduction, the title, "a veiled reference to the weather's deceptiveness" is the same concept behind the idea of Indian giving, "the sense of promise offered and then snatched away" and these are some of the themes that embed themselves into Howells' novel.
Theodore Colville has returned to Florence at the age of 41, nearly twenty years after he was rejected by the young woman he fell in love with. Her friend at the time, Mrs. Lina Bowen, is now a widow living in the city with a young woman named Imogene in her care. Through a series of rash impulses and misunderstandings caused by an adherence to society's moral codes, Theodore finds himself engaged to Imogene in what is perhaps one last attempt to regain - and redeem - his lost youth. But that is only the beginning of his problems in this restrained comedy of manners. The American abroad is a common motif also depicted by Howells' contemporaries, Henry James and Edith Wharton and you can certainly recommend this novel to fans of those two luminaries. But Howells has a lighter narrative touch and is much funnier (Colville's main charm is his sense of irony and enough self-deprecation to make one think he should have been born English). Howells' Americans may adapt to the Italian city more easily than E.M. Forster's Brits in A Room With a View but they share the same sensibilities in creating a community that rarely is inclusive of Italians themselves. Readers of a certain age will also take umbrage (or chuckle ) at the many references to people in their forties being "old". Fortunately there is the wise retired Rev. Waters, a man in his seventies, who offers this apt summation (not only of the age, but to the novel as a whole):

At forty, one has still a great part of youth before him - perhaps the richest and sweetest part. By that time the turmoil of ideas and sensations is over; we see clearly and feel consciously. . . We have enlarged our perspective sufficiently to perceive things in their true proportion and relation. . .Then we have time enough behind us to supply us with the materials of reverie and reminiscence; the terrible solitude of inexperience is broken; we have learned to smile at many things besides the fear of death. We ought also to have learned pity and patience. . . Yes, it is a beautiful age.

If you agree with any aspect of this passage, then this is a novel whose time has come for you.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Booker Prize shortlist announced. . .

Hooray, my favourite (A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book) is still in running. Joining her on the Man Booker Prize shortlist are:

J. M Coetzee - Summertime. (Really happy to see this on the list as well. It's his best novel since Disgrace.
Adam Foulds - The Quickening Maze
Hilary Mantel - Wolf Hall
Simon Mawer - The Glass House (on my to-be-read list for sure)
Sarah Waters - The Little Stranger
The winner will be announced October 6th.

Monday, September 7, 2009

My School Project: The 50 Book NYRB Reading Challenge. . .

Labour Day marks the end of summer for most people, but for me it's a wistful reminder that my school days are over and done with; it's hard to suppress that itch I still get to go school supply shopping. Part of the fun of each new term was making a pile of the required texts in delicious contemplation of hopefully discovering new writers, different eras, and challenging ideas. And as I was dusting my crowded bookshelves this weekend, I realized I have more than enough unread treasures in my own personal library to continue this tradition. I usually wait until January to assign myself some reading challenges, but since so much of my life has been oriented around the school year (I still use a September - to- September daytimer), I'm in the perfect mindset now to enroll in a new venture. And I know exactly what "course" I want to take.

Long before Random House started distributing New York Review of Books Classics (which I now proudly get to represent), I'd been an avid collector. I loved the eclectic selection of titles and authors, the thoughtful introductions, the handsome covers, their trade paperback size - so easy to pop into a purse - and price. They used to be hard to find in Canada and every time I went to the States for a holiday or Book Expo, I'd stop at a bookstore and buy five, ten, or twenty to bring home. I now own 184 but as is the curse of many a bibliophile with too many literary passions, I've only gotten around to reading 22. And yet I can honestly say that I've consistently enjoyed every single NYRB book that I've ever read. Some have been more to my taste than others, but each has offered something unexpected and the line has introduced me to many new authors I would never have otherwise read - especially classic works by international authors in translation, a genre they excel in.

Well, I'm not getting any younger and NYRB continues to publish 15-20 new titles every year. It's time to get serious and start making inroads into their rich list. And so I'm going to try my darnest to read and blog about 50 of their titles from Labour Day Weekend 2009 to Labour Day Weekend 2010. That's roughly one a week, with a couple of grace weeks for some of the longer books. I have no set order; whatever takes my whimsy that week will suffice, although I will leave some of the shorter books for times that I'm particularly busy. And I wouldn't look for Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1424 pages) to pop up anytime soon. I'm also going to try not to read the same writer back to back or consecutive writers from the same country. And I'll make a conscious effort to explore the many genres that NYRB publishes - not just great fiction, but memoirs, letters, biography, history, travel, philosophy and poetry too. Since most of the readers of this blog are Canadian, I'm going to stick to those books that have Canadian rights, although many that don't are available in Canada from other publishers.

Do check out their incredible selection of books at their U.S. website here. I'll just end this post by listing my ten favourite NYRB Classics among those I've already read. And I'd love to hear from any fans with recommendations of what to read next.

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares. A revelation. Completely original. Completely unforgettable.
Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang. Very moving stories about life and love in mid-20th century China.
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (available in Canada from Virago). Every librarian needs to read this very funny novel.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (available in Canada from Sort of Books). Such beautiful, delicate, uplifting writing about nature, time, death and human relationships.
Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge. A powerful novel about trying - and failing - to escape the horrors of the twentieth century.
Mary Olivier by May Sinclair. A modernist masterpiece from an unjustly forgotten author.
The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin. Playful and witty - this novel is made up entirely of dialogue as hundreds stand in line for days never really certain what they are queuing for.
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim. The perfect, magical fairytale to curl up with on a rainy day.
Stoner by John Williams. A heartbreaking novel about the loneliness of academia.
The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig. An aching look at the desperate and lonely lives of women in post WWI Germany.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Toronto Film Festival - lots of book adaptations coming this fall. . .

Excuse me for a moment of Torontocentrisim but this is one of those days when I absolutely love this city. Time for the annual craziness that is the Toronto International Film Festival. Single tickets went on sale this morning and after staying up late last night shuffling my various flowcharts, maps and too many post-its to count, and then struggling with an overburdened website that kept crashing on me, I have finally emerged victorious with tickets for 17 films. Lots of book adapations will be coming to screens this fall, (although I'm still waiting for Coetzee's Disgrace which I saw last year at TIFF to surface). Nevertheless if you are the type who likes to read the book first, grab a pencil.

Movies that I did manage to get a ticket for include The Boys are Back based on the memoir by Simon Carr and starring the oh-so-handsome Clive Owen. Then there is the film She, A Chinese directed by the multi-talented Xiaolu Guo and based on her novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers. I'll also be catching the animated film My Dog Tulip, based on the classic memoir by J. R. Ackerley. The voices are provided by Christopher Plummer, Lynn Redgrave and Isabella Rossellini. Speaking of classics, I also have a ticket to the gala premiere of Dorian Gray, based of course on Oscar Wilde's famous novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. This pic just happens to star Colin Firth (!) and Ben Chaplin. I'll report back.

There's also a lot of buzz about the film adapation of Sapphire's Precious , Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Up in the Air, based on the very funny novel by Walter Kirn. This movie stars George Clooney and he's perfectly cast as the main character who is obsessed with racking up his air miles. Authors are also the subject of a couple of films. Jane Campion's latest, Bright Star, details the love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. And the opening film is Creation, directed by Jon Amiel and starring Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin, just beginning to write On the Origin of Species, with Jennifer Connolly as his wife Emma. I'm sure these last two films will get wide distribution later in the fall.
Ten days of coffee-fueled adrenalin. Can't wait.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Guardian First Book Award Longlist Announced

The longlist for the Guardian First Book Award 2009 was announced last Friday, August 31st. The longlisted books are:

The Secret Lives of Buildings, by Edward Hollis, coming from Henry Holt in North America (non-fiction)
Direct Red, by Gabriel Weston, Bond Street Books (non-fiction)
The Strangest Man, by Graham Farmelo, Basic Books (non-fiction)
A Swamp Full of Dollars, by Michael Peel, IB Tauris (non-fiction)
The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton, Granta in the UK, coming from Little Brown Spring 2010 (novel)
The Wilderness, by Samantha Harvey, Nan A. Talese Books (novel)
The Girl With Glass Feet, by Ali Shaw, coming January 2010 in North America from Henry Holt (novel)
The Selected Works of TS Spivet, by Reif Larsen, Hamish Hamilton/Penguin (novel)
An Elegy for Easterly, by Petina Gappah, Faber (short story)
The Missing, by Sian Hughes, Salt (poetry)
The lucky winner receives a £10,000 prize. Previous winners of the Guardian First Book Award have included Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer.

The five shortlisted books will be announced in November and the overall winner will be announced in December.
It's such an interesting list, and I'm thrilled to be representing three of the books on it- The Secret Lives of Buildings, The Rehearsal, and The Girl With the Glass Feet. I've also had a copy of 'The Selected Works of TS Spivet' sitting on my coffee table since July that I've been meaning to get to.
This announcement can't have come at a better time- I'm heading off on holiday next week and desperately needed some help shortening the list of books I wanted to bring with me. I always find packing my books much harder than packing my clothes, as my typical vacation reading 'longlist' looks more like the IMPAC Dublin Longlist (much, much, longer than the one above)...

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

If Memoir is the Food of Love, (or Love of Food), Read On. . .

There are a lot of interesting food memoirs coming out this fall, and here's one of the first - out next week. In The Gastronomy of Marriage: A Memoir of Food and Love, Michelle Maisto starts to fall for Rich on their first date when he orders a chocolate soufflé. Later when she visits his apartment and sees a DVD of A Room With A View on his television set, it pretty much seals the deal. "A decade after first seeing the movie, I still pined for a man who could kiss me with the urgency that George kissed Lucy in the field of violets," she writes. (Sigh. Don't we all?) Rich loves food, loves to cook, is a huge reader and obviously has great taste in movies. By this time I'm half in love with the man myself.

The two become engaged and start living together in an apartment in Brooklyn and the book focuses on the year leading up to their wedding. In particular it looks at the compromises and conflicts that inevitably ensue when two independent people start living together. Closets and cupboards; Maisto focuses on the latter. He likes eating meat; she doesn't. She likes her peanut butter in the fridge, cold and crunchy. He wants it warm and creamy in the cupboard. These may seem like minor details, but anyone who's experienced this will nod in recognition. (I've had several heated discussions over my refusal to part with my beloved Marmite. Sorry, it's non-negotiable.) Still, food and cooking brings the two of them closer together especially as they explore each other's cultural heritages and try not to overly stress about the wedding plans. I'll be honest - there are parts of this memoir that are bit too syrupy for my tastes, but it's a good premise and I think will definitely appeal to young couples and readers who preferred the "Julie Powell" story of Julie and Julia. There are also recipes sprinkled throughout the narrative and I did get a good tip on how to prevent what the Americans call Popovers and what I call Yorkshire Pudding, from deflating after it leaves the oven.