Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Happy Holidays. . .

Isn't this book wreath cool? And you don't have to rip up some masterpiece - I'm thinking this could be a great way to recycle galleys, or cheap paperbacks you'll never read again, or even books you've accidentally dropped into the bath (I can't be the only one who's done that!) into something beautiful. Instructions come from a crafty blog called Living With Lindsay - you can see step by step photos here.
I found this post via my favourite interior design blog, Apartment Therapy, which has just posted a 2009 wrap-up featuring decorating ideas for your personal library and ways to decorate with books. Get inspired here. I am so on the hunt for the perfect bookcase that will also act as a headboard.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Ten Books to Look Forward to in 2010. . .

Blogging might be a bit light over the next two weeks as we head off the holidays (and lots and lots of reading!) but I thought I'd leave you (tease you) with just a taste of some of the books I'm most excited to be selling and talking about in 2010. I've read some of these already and others are in a pile of manuscripts at the foot of my sofa, but the literary year is already shaping up to be a great one.

Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel
A thoughtful and provocative novel examining ways of portraying the Holocaust in literature. I liked this better than Life of Pi.

Curiosity by Joan Thomas
Any book set in Lyme Regis already has my attention.

Doing Dangerously Well by Carole Enahoro
Part of our annual New Face of Fiction program, this is a debut satirical novel about disaster capitalism and how a national tragedy in Nigeria opens the door for greed and corruption. It's also a slightly dystopian look at what happens in a world where water becomes a precious and expensive commodity.

Pullman takes on the "myth" of Christ in a fictional account of his life. This is going to be a very interesting and no doubt controversial read.

The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi, trans. by Polly Mclean.
Winner of the 2008 Prix Goncourt, this is a powerful little novel about an Afghan woman who unleashes all her frustrations and resentments on her husband while he is lying in a coma. Unforgettable and a terrific book club choice.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, trans. by Constance Borde and Sheila Malavony-Chevallier.
Finally an unabridged edition in English! The exisiting edition was translated by a zoologist in the 1950s. He cut out a huge chunk of de Beauvoir's writings including a section that examined the importance of seventy historical women. I think this is one of the most important books we'll be publishing in 2010; I can't wait to rediscover it.

Solar by Ian McEwan
Academic satire in the vein of David Lodge but much darker. Entertaining and very, very funny.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
One of my favourite authors - Both Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green are easily in my top ten best reads of the decade. I'm itching to get started on this manuscript but want to wait until I have a good chunk of uninterrupted time.

The Unspoken Truth by Angelica Garnett
This is a lovely and painful collection of short stories by the niece of Virginia Woolf (still living in her nineties) about artists, artistic jealousy and the loneliness growing up among bohemians. For Bloomsbury fans definitely, but also for readers who enjoyed A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book.

Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada, trans. by Philip Owens.
Melville House continues to bring back into print the work of this important German writer. After reading Every Man Dies Alone and The Drinker, I want to read every book by Fallada. This "new" one is set in Weimar Germany.

Happy Holidays to everyone - I hope you all give and receive the perfect book.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

NYRB Challenge #16: A Strange Love Story. . .

The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott is subtitled "A Love Story" but this is no traditional romantic tale. And though originally published in 1940, this beautiful novella is perhaps one of the most modern novels I've ever read.

The plot is simple. Our narrator, Alwyn Tower, is an American writer staying with his friend Alex at her house in the French countryside. One afternoon a wealthy Irish couple - the Cullens - come to visit along with Mrs. Cullen's pet falcon hawk Lucy. Alwyn observes them with fascination, along with their chauffeur and Alex's two servants, Jean and Eva. Over the course of a few hours a range of emotions will be visibly displayed by the actors in this domestic drama (or is it a farce?) ranging from jealousy and petulance to envy, anger and despair. Alwyn watches and judges and draws his own conclusions - and he almost always gets it wrong. It's such a delicious way of telling a story.

And Westcott has nailed the essential dilemma of love - perhaps even more of an issue in tiptoeing through today's relationship minefields. As the conversation centers on the life of a hawk in captivity, the parallel question of love versus individual liberty is inevitably evoked. How much of one's own individual pleasures and freedoms should one have to give up for your partner? And is it worth it? The Cullens certainly have their marital problems. But it's also significant that Alwyn, looking back on that afternoon from a distance of twenty years, is still single:

Unrequited passion; romance put asunder by circumstances or mistakes; sexuality pretending to be love - all that is a matter of little consequence, a mere voluntary temporary uneasiness, compared with the long course of true love, especially marriage. In marriage, insult arises again and again and again; and pain has to be not only endured, but consented to, and the amount of forgiveness that it necessitates is incredible and exhausting. When love has given satisfaction, then you discover how large a part of the rest of life is only payment for it, installment after installment. . .

Michael Cunningham in his introduction gives the perfect comps for this book: The Great Gatsby, The Good Soldier and Henry James' novella The Aspern Papers. Do try and read it all in one sitting (it's 108 pages). And then keep it on your shelves; it's a story that will demand re-reading over the years, no matter whether you're in or out of love. A great choice for a bookclub.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

NYRB Challenge #15: The Tenants of Moonbloom. . .

The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Lewis Wallant was a book recommended to me right at the beginning of my challenge (thanks Brad!) and I enjoyed it very much. It also has one of the most beautiful and enigmatic covers among the NYRB Classics collection (it's a photograph called Cloud Cleaner by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison).

Norman Moonbloom, over-educated and under-lived, works as an agent collecting the rent once a week from the tenants in the four buildings owned by his wealthy brother Irwin. The job quite literally makes him sick. The apartments are in varying states of decay and cleanliness; the elevator in one building hasn't even passed inspection. The tenants are a motley group of writers (including one supposedly based on James Baldwin), musicians, unhappily married couples, Holocaust survivors, and a talkative "candy butcher" to name just a few. They are alternately angry, lonely, evasive, chatty, delusional and unfortunately most of them want to tell Norman all about their problems. He finds it a dangerous and depressing job. Sometimes his tenants throw things; one has even taken to hitting on him in hopes of a rent reduction. Almost all of them have a lengthy list of broken things that need repairing; one tiny bathroom wall is bulging with a sinister growth that eats into its occupant's - and Norman's -mental psyche. And there's no money for the expensive electrician and plumbing bills.

But when Norman shakes himself out of his torpor and finds a solution to both his personal malaise and a way to facilitate the buildings' repairs, his interactions with his tenants suddenly become a series of necessary rungs, a ladder that is "strong and real and capable of lifting him" (and another reason why this jacket cover is so perfect). The joy of reading this novel is definitely in Wallant's wonderful character and room descriptions and the terrific dialogue. His language just zings whether describing the energy of a room, ("Books did splits on the battered bed") or nailing the precise human sadness of a tenant, ("Basellecci was a man in a long interim of age"). Anyone who lives in an apartment knows that the building itself has its own aural quirks and forms of communication. There's a wonderful scene where Norman has been varnishing the floors and accidentally paints himself into a corner. He has to crouch there overnight until the shellac dries:

He heard the water in the pipes, the steam in the radiators, the dim traffic sounds, the almost imperceptible noise made by the walls of an old building. He heard doors closing in the hallways, heard voices tacking the never silent air, heard electricity in wires, heard wind carefully shaping the complex architecture of the city, heard the strangest beatings and flushings.

This is a strangely uplifting and frequently funny novel about ordinary people co-existing in a busy, indifferent city and the importance of personal space, no matter how small or humble. A great companion read would be another NYRB Classic about the human interaction with real estate in New York - L.J. Davis's A Meaningful Life.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tips for Starting a Reading Diary. . .

While talking to librarians about their favourite reading lists and compiling my own, the topic of reading journals came up. I find mine indispensable, mostly for making notes on manuscripts that I'm reading - it could well be up to eight months later when the book is published and I'm talking about it as a Dewey pick. I like to jot down first impressions, the odd quote and comps to other writers or books that come immediately to mind. I've kept a reading journal for almost fifteen years now and they are an odd assortment of various sized notebooks and journals. I used to record the number of books I annually bought (and the amount I spent) but that got too scary and I've since stopped. Now I use a Moleskin Weekly Planner that has the week boxed out on the left hand side and a blank, lined page on the right for notes. I also record the plays and movies that I've seen along with key appointments and various bits of miscellany - and it all fits easily into my purse. My reading journal has evolved into a series of little black books of my social and cultural life for that year and it's fun to look back and leaf through them.

A couple of years ago, I put together some tips for starting your own reading diary for our now defunct READ magazine. Here they are in case anyone feels inspired come January.

1. Begin with a beautiful notebook or journal that inspires you to write in it. Many stationery stores carry specific reading journals. You can also use a diary or a blank notebook. It should be small and light enough to tuck into a purse or briefcase.

2. Give yourself lots of space for each entry, at least one page. Put the date you started the book and why you picked that particular book to read. Was it a suggestion from a friend? Did you read a good review? Did the cover catch your eye? Is this a book from your adolescence that you are re-reading?

3. Record where you are and what you are doing while reading the book. Perhaps you are on holiday at a friend’s cottage, or travelling between cities on a Eurorail pass. Maybe you are reading your latest book club pick or an assigned novel for school. How does the place and purpose affect your enjoyment (or not) of the book?

4. As you are reading, use your journal to write down favourite quotes or lines. Improve your vocabulary by jotting down words you had to look up in the dictionary, along with their definitions.

5. When you have finished, write your impressions of the book. Did it meet your expectations or completely surprise you? What will you remember the most? What didn’t you like about it? You can even start your own rating system and give the book so many “stars” out of ten.

6. You can also use a reading diary to keep a running list of books you want to read, which is handy for those impulsive stops at a bookstore or library. If bookstores, new or used, are a destination point when you travel, keep a list of addresses and telephone numbers handy. If you are a voracious book buyer, you might be interested in recording the amount of money you spend on books annually, always keeping in mind that book collecting is the least harmful of all addictions.

7. Most importantly, make sure that when the year is up, or the journal is full, you go back and re-read your entries. A reading diary can provide a fascinating snapshot of your life; what we choose to read reflects our changing moods, friendships, lifestyles and intellectual curiosities. If you like reading bestsellers or literary prize winners, it can also provide a historical capsule of cultural trends.

8. Every few years, go back and re-read a book from either your childhood or one of your previous reading diaries and note how much you — and thus surprisingly, the book — has changed.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Favourite Reads of 2009: Janet's Picks. . .

Top ten lists are everywhere right now which is prompting me to make my own. Best of the decade is beyond me, I can barely remember last week, but I can certainly remember my favourite reads of 2009.

I had two favourite picture books this year, Gone With the Wand by Margie Palatini and Brian Ajhar, and Amiri and Odette by Walter Dean Myers and Javaka Steptoe. It is a great time for teen reads which made it hard to pick just a few, but Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, Here Lies Arthur by Phillip Reeve and Destroy All Cars by Blake Nelson (and a galley for the upcoming How to Make a Bird by Martine Murray) are all well worth your time. Each one reads like a perfect adult novel with teenage characters.
And I took time to read some wonderful adult books as well. I loved An Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, Me Cheeta (by Cheeta – it’s an autobiography), and Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower.

Gone With the Wand by Margie Palatini, illustrated by Brian Ajhar
I’m a sucker for puns of all kinds and this book is full of them, both visual and verbal, along with an endearingly hapless fairy godmother.

Amiri and Odette by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe
Such a dark retelling of Swan Lake, set in a violent urban environment. The images are painted onto concrete with gives them a very gritty texture. This book isn’t so much a traditional picture book as it is an illustrated poetry book for older readers.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
The second book in this irresistible trilogy, fresh and frightening at the same time.

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve
I loved this take on Arthurian legends with a violent and vengeful Arthur, hated by Guinevere. History from the point of view of the vanquished.

Destroy All Cars by Blake Nelson
Hilarious and tender story of a young man who is a radical environmentalist and a Marxist; he becomes completely undone by love.

How to Make a Bird by Martine Murray
This book is coming up this summer, and I was utterly swept away by this ethereal and dreamlike story. It’s a heartstopper.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
There aren’t enough short stories in the world (especially with the demise of the New Yorker fiction issue). This book is full of perfectly constructed snapshots that let you see the full picture of the tragedy in lives that look so ordinary from the outside.

Me Cheeta
This book found it’s way on to the Booker longlist, then into my heart. A vaguely homoerotic love letter from Cheeta to Johnny Weismuller, it’s full of hilarious Hollywood “gossip”. The voice is simultaneously pompous (Cheeta complains about being overlooked for an Oscar) and touchingly innocent. Very funny, very tender.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
When the Queen of England checks out a book from her local bookmobile her world is changed as she becomes an avid reader. This book perfectly defines what it is to read voraciously, and how it changes our lives.

Because I have two weeks off at Christmas my stack of books to take to the west coast is growing by the moment – Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson, So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger, Homer & Langley by E.L . Doctorow, Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving and a book about Bangkok whose title I can no longer remember but am excited to read, along with some very appealing young adult ARCs. I wish you all a great holiday full of books that make you happy.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Favourite Reads of 2009: Maylin's Picks. . .

How to choose? It's been a spectacular year for readers, particularly for fiction.

And of course as a book rep, I'm always reading out of sync. Three monumental and incredible books that were published in 2009 (but that I read in manuscript form in 2008) were The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt, Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann, and The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, translated by Charlotte Mandell. Similarly, there are several books I've read this year, also in manuscript form, that would be contenders for favourite reads but they aren't being published until 2010: Ian McEwan's Solar, Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil, William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms and a powerful little novel called The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi, translated by Polly Mclean.

My three favourite Canadian novels of 2009 (though two of them weren't read this year), were Douglas Coupland's Generation A, Jessica Grant's Come, Thou Tortoise and Dragan Todorovic's Diary of Interrupted Days.

And then I also managed to read two big classics for the first time - Moby Dick and The Tin Drum - but then those two would probably make many people's best-books-of-all-time lists.

So if I stick to all the other books I've read this year (excluding my NYRB challenges as I'll make a separate list of favourites when the project is completed) here are my top 10 favourite reads of 2009, alphabetical by title:

Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour, translated by Sara Khalili
Provocative, funny, a great insight into daily life in Iran and a reminder of how lucky we are to live in a society without censorship.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbary, translated by Alison Anderson
A perfect little gem of a book.

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Just terrific storytelling.

Filled with funny anecdotes of pedestrian eccentrics, along with profound meditations on why walking is so essential.

Love and Summer by William Trevor
His writing makes you feel gloriously alive, but with a heightened sense of empathy towards his characters and their heartbreaking choices.

Wise but not weary ruminations on getting old without regret.

Summertime by J.M. Coetzee
Audacious and thought-provoking.

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo
Just a delightful read from beginning to end.

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, trans. by Thomas Teal (I read the galley of this before I started my NYRB challenge, so it doesn't count for that, but this was an unforgettable, sinister little novel with a tension to match Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal).

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, translated by Marlaine Delargy
One of the scariest books I've read for a long time; I'd like to believe that a society such as the one depicted here would never exist in Canada but. . .

And here are 10 books that I have sitting on my bedside table demanding that I read them over the holidays (which might just skewer this list by New Year's Eve):

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker
The Blythes are Quoted by L.M. Montgomery
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow
The Incident Report by Martha Baillie
Juliet Naked by Nick Hornby
Snow Job by William Deverell
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

NYRB Challenge #14: In which I encounter some scary 19th century vampires. . .

One thing NYRB is really good at is commissioning interesting and noted writers to pen the introductions to their books. I first picked up My Fantoms by Théophile Gautier, translated and with an introduction by Richard Holmes, because it was Holmes' name that caught my eye. I've enjoyed several of his books in the past, most notably his writings on becoming obsessed with his biographical subjects - Footsteps and Sidetracks - and I fully intend one day to read his monumental Shelley: The Pursuit, his biography of the poet which NYRB also publishes (only available in the U.S.)

My Fantoms is a collection of seven stories written over Gautier's lifetime - the earliest published in the 1830s; the last in the 1860s. Gautier is best known for coining the phrase "art for art's sake" and for writing the story behind the ballet Giselle; these magical and mystical Gothic tales are very much in the same - frequently bloody - vein. Most center around the destructiveness of a forbidden or lascivious love as in "The Priest" where the title character falls in love with a beautiful woman that he glimpses while he is taking his vows. She quite literally sucks the blood out of him presenting a whole new take on religious rites. The appearance of vampires is also a guaranteed side effect of taking opium. Holmes notes that Gautier created one of the earliest female vampires in fiction, and essentially combined "the German ghost story with the French erotic tale". Beautiful women step out of tapestries to seduce unsuspecting adolescents, or lure their victims right up and into the grave. Two stories that I enjoyed very much were "The Actor" in which Heinrich gets tips on playing Mephistopheles from the devil himself, and "The Tourist" in which a young man becomes obsessed in a museum by a lump of lava from Pompeii that has preserved the imprint of a woman's breast. Later while wandering the ruins at night, he travels back in time and meets the woman herself with unforgettable results. The last story, "The Poet" has a very different tone - it's a memorial for his flamboyant friend, the poet Gérard de Nerval who committed suicide after an unhappy love affair.

Holmes provides both an introduction and a postscript revealing fascinating historical details about both Gautier and de Nerval's lives and how his own research has intersected with them. A strange but entertaining work.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Favourite Reads of 2009: Saffron's Picks

I am squeaking one more in! How to pick how to pick...

But hands down the single best book I read last year was Presentation Zen. For anyone that has to do visual and/or oral presentations this is a must read. His blog is very cool. There is a new edition of this coming out this Spring.

Next up is a cookbook. I have always been a fan of Mr. Oliver's and have cooked from his books often. Jamie's Food Revolution is a hoot to read and a delight to cook from.

For kid's books it had to be Me & You by Genevieve Cote. What a delightful tale of two best friends who want to be more like each other. I am always impressed with anyone that can write or draw, but to do both really takes the cake!

What We Eat When We Eat Alone is a little objet for fans of reading and eating (of which I am both). It is a book that I have passed on and reread in snippets. The illustrations are great and it has started some very interesting conversations about what we eat when we are alone? Do we eat over the sink, a can of spaghetti or do we go all out and totally indulge?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Favourite Reads of 2009 Part XI. . .

For our final list of picks from the library world, we travel to Oakville Public Library and glean what Susan Kun and Diane Crew - both from the Adult Collection Development Department - have been recommending this year.

Thanks to everyone who has participated over the last two weeks; these lists have been so much fun to read and I have some great new books to add to my reading pile and xmas shopping lists.

Susan's Favourite Reads of 2009:

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme
This is a lovely account from a wonderful woman's life. Julia Child embraced France and its culture and made it her own. We share her experience of attempting to learn to French cook in France - a daunting task for anyone. We can learn much from this story as she has a will to become very good at something that was not popular at her time. The writing was thoughtful and carried the reader along a journey - the best kind of memoir.

Cooking is more than creating food for basic sustance - it's about creating soul-warming comfort food for friends and family. This comprehensive volume, covers a tremendous breadth of recipes and reflects this new interest in food. Pouring over the glorious colour photos and learning about combining different flavours , makes this one of my favourite picks for the year.

The Post Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
The author delivers an imaginative and entertaining look at the implications of whom we choose to love. We follow Irina McGovern as it unfolds under the influence of two very different men. Irina, a Children's book illustrator is comfortable in a life in London with her partner Lawrence Trainer, a smart, disciplined intellectual at a prestigious think tank. Their relationship appears to be solid, until one night Irina finds herself dying to kiss another man; an old friend from South London, the stylish and fiery top-ranking snooker player, Ramsey Acton. The decision to give into temptation will have consequences for her career, her relationship with family and most importantly her life. This captivating work illustrates Irina's alternating futures with two men worlds apart, yet equally honourable. Shriver's exploration of the two destinies appeals to the what-if in all of us.

Globe & Mail columnist writes a no-nonsense book for those thinking about retiring with the what and how we should prepare. Allentuck clearly outlines areas such as; Registered Retirement Saving Plans, Old Age Security, tax-efficient investments, Canada and Quebec Pension Plans and how to build wealth. For an non-financial person, he provided the rethinking a whole new approach to something we all need to think about.

Susan Kun is Manager of Adult Collections and Woodside Branch at the Oakville Public Library.

Diane's Favourite Reads of 2009:

What a great year this was for fiction lovers! A couple of splendid books from two of my old favourites, writing at the top of their form: A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall were special delights. Apart from these, however, there were other less heralded books that gave me a lot of pleasure, and, as always, there were books written years ago, that had somehow slipped beneath my radar back in the day, but which made me wonder how on earth I had managed to live this long without reading them! In no particular order, here are some of the books that I particularly enjoyed this year:

Juliet Naked by Nick Hornby
He's one of my special favourite authors, so I rushed out to get a copy of this when it was published. It did not disappoint. Hornby's characters are always so right on. Tucker Crow, a singer-songwriter who gave up his career, and lapsed into total obscurity some decades ago, has a few die-hard obsessive fans, who chronicle every second of his brief span of fame, and argue with each other interminably (through the magic of the Internet) over minute points of style and meaning in his songs. What happens when the real Tucker appears in the life of one of these fans? This book tells us all about it with Hornby's own unique brand of humour, and his special gift of bringing losers with strange obsessions to full life on the page.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson
Translated from the original French, this is a book that has lived with me since I read it, and one which as I was reading, I could hardly bear to put down to eat, sleep or go to work, even though conventional "action", as such, is pretty much missing from its pages. The two central characters, an elderly concierge, Renee, and twelve year old, Paloma, both live secretive lives, concealing their true natures and their fierce intelligence from the world until a Japanese business man moves into the same apartment building, and brings them together and into the open. No summary could ever really do the story justice; it's one that has to be read and savoured - a truly beautiful book.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
She is a writer who really understands the old-fashioned art of story-telling, and this is one of those fabulous, just curl-up-and-sink-into-it, great reads! A four- year-old child is found wandering on a pier in Australia having apparently crossed the ocean alone. She is given a new life and a new identity, and it is up to her granddaughter to untangle the truth of what happened to her grandmother. The story interweaves past and present events, and as it unfolds, secrets which have been long-hidden and long-forgotten are brought into the light of day again, all building to a totally satisfying conclusion. Great fun to read.

A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy by Charlotte Greig
Susannah Jones is a student at Sussex University in the 1970s, and this engaging debut novel chronicles her coming of age, and the choices she makes with the help of the modern philosophers she is studying in her courses. Charlotte Greig writes with charm and humour, and the ‘70s English university scene resonated very strongly with me, but Susannah has life-changing decisions to make, which cannot be taken lightly. This novel provides much rich food for thought and discussion.

The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell
This is one of those books which eluded my attention for years and I cannot think how I remained oblivious to it for so long! It won the Booker Prize in 1973, and was one of the six novels shortlisted for "Best of the Bookers" in 2008, (eventually losing out in the vote to Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children) Set during the Indian Mutiny of the mid-nineteenth century, it manages to succeed both as an exciting adventure story, and, at the same time, as a deeply thoughtful novel of ideas, holding up to scrutiny issues of race, class, the meaning of civilization and the effects of Empire. And, somehow, amidst scenes of despair and horror, it manages to be laugh-out-loud funny, too. If you like historical fiction, you should definitely seek this one out.

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks
This book for me summed up the twenty-first century world as it exists for those who happen to be born into one of the more privileged nations. The focus on making money, the disconnectedness of individuals, the greed, banality, triviality and emptiness of daily life for so many, is balanced against the real joy to be found when, against the odds, individuals come together and find each other. John Veals, a hedge-fund manager, is as nasty a piece of work as any to be found in literature, and the games he plays with the fate of nations all in the pursuit of making a financial killing are blood-chilling. Who is the real terrorist in this novel? I know who I would pick!

Overqualified by Joey Comeau
And finally a short, amazing book which, in just 96 pages, (ostensibly cover letters for job applications to various companies) breaks your heart. As you piece together the story, you realize that the central character is hanging on to sanity by a thread; that a much-loved brother has died; that his home life was tragic and that his current romantic life is full of thorns. It's poetic and fragmented, sad and comic by turn, and like nothing else I've ever read.

Diane Crew is the Adult Collection Development Assistant at the Oakville Public Library.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Favourite Reads of 2009 Part X. . .

Today we have a great adult list of favourite reads from Valerie Casselman, Senior Collections Specialist in the Adult Materials Collection Development Department at the Toronto Public Library.

Valerie's Favourite Reads:

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
Masterful novel about life among a group of bohemian friends in late Victorian and Edwardian England, where much that is dark lies hidden beneath the talk of social, political and artistic ideals.

Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hoffman
A claustrophobia-inducing portrait of life in Nazi Germany, told through the story of a couple who attempt a small and ultimately futile act of resistance.

Family Album by Penelope Lively
Another wonderful domestic novel by Lively, this one about a seemingly perfect family with a long-held secret.

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Perceptive, witty, and wrenching, the novel is the coming-of-age story of an observant but innocent college student in the mid-west in the immediate aftermath of 9/11

The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville
A scholarly and bookish British sailor in the New South Wales of 1788 begins a tentative and tender relationship with a young aboriginal girl.

Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon
Like his novel The Lazarus Project, this collection of stories is a post-modern exploration of literature, identity, and exile.

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
Nothing really to say: more pitch-perfect stories by Munro.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake is my favourite Atwood novel so I was eagerly waiting for this one – essentially a retelling of that original story, set in the same bioengineered world, but this time from the perspective of the members of a back-to-the-land cult called God’s Gardeners.

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks
A hilarious and oh-so-sharp-tongued satire of modern Britain with a large cast of characters drawn from all ranks of British society: an evil financier, a bookish barrister, an entrepreneur, an MP, a suicide bomber, a Polish footballer, an Eastern European “model”, a literary critic/book reviewers, and a Tube driver.

And finally, anyone involved in the publishing, selling, or buying of books ought to read How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely. The main character decides that to impress his recently engaged ex-girlfriend, he will endeavour to write a bestselling novel. Much hilarity ensues as he draws up his list of Rules for writing his novel. The book features encounters with recognizable types of writers, book tours, creative writing students, and a terrifically funny and deadly accurate parody of the New York Times Bestsellers List.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Single Man or why Colin Firth should grace more book covers. . .

I am usually not a fan of movie tie-in covers, but I'm loving this one from the University of Minnesota Press. Okay, it is Colin Firth (and have you checked out the photo from the Globe and Mail interview here? - scroll down a bit to swoon) but he's completely in character and the image would have been enough to pull me into the book even if I didn't know about the movie.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood is a very moving novel about a single day in the life of George, an English professor who is still grieving over the recent death of his lover in a car crash. It's Cold War 1960s California - a world in which being gay is feared as much as being a communist (has anything changed much in that state?) We follow George as he wakes up, makes breakfast, goes to the gym, drives the freeway to work, teaches a class, has dinner with an old friend and ends up at a bar by a beach. The intensity, scorn and anger of George's thoughts and perceptions of the world and people around him, are the driving force behind this novel. Isherwood balances some very funny and cynical observations on being a gay, cultured, Brit living in suburban sprawl with the simultaneous acknowledgment of how lonely and isolating it is. This is a short, intense, and very beautifully written novel, excellent at quietly portraying the endless ache of grief that can painfully resurface in someplace as banal as a supermarket. It's the simple, daily, taken-for-granted things about love that George misses the most:

He pictures the evening he might have spent, snugly at home, fixing the food he has bought, then lying down on the couch beside his bookcase and reading himself slowly sleepy. At first glance this is an absolutely convincing and charming scene of domestic contentment. Only after a few instants does George notice the omission that makes it meaningless. What is left out of the picture is Jim, lying opposite him at the other end of the couch, also reading; the two of them absorbed in their books yet so completely aware of each other's presence.

Can't wait to see the film this weekend! You can watch the trailer here.

And if you'd like to read another good Cold War campus novel, try May Sarton's 1955 novel Faithful Are the Wounds.