Friday, January 29, 2010

The TD National Reading Summit has just sent a shout out for volunteers. I strongly encourage you to sign up for this amazing project. They are looking for a truly national particpation to achieve this amazing goal!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Beautiful Bookends. . .

Design Sponge has a round-up of terrific looking bookends to spruce up your home. If you are like me and use every possible surface to stack and display books, then you'll find some good inspiration here. I'm definitely lusting after this very expensive Fornasetti one! (Thanks to MobyLives for the link).

Monday, January 25, 2010

A BookBook For Your Notebook. . .

I'm digging these "book covers" for your MAC notebook. Called the BookBook, the zippers are also supposed to look like bookmarks. Though I'm not convinced on the company's claim that these protective sleeves also work in terms of security, disguising the laptop as a "vintage piece of literature". But maybe thieves aren't as literary-minded as I am; I'd make a beeline for the vintage looking book! More info here. (Thanks to Olduvai Reads for the link).

Friday, January 22, 2010

Two Mysteries to Thaw Out With. . .

The mild weather this January (relatively) has allowed my roving bookshelf eye to rest more kindly on these frigid-sounding titles from last fall. Last weekend I was in the perfect mood for reading some good mysteries and these two certainly didn't disappoint.

I'm hooked on the Erlendur novels from Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason and his latest, Hypothermia (such a great title), translated by Victoria Cribb, is a masterfully crafted read. Inspector Erlendur, out of all the gloomy, unhappy detectives in the Nordic crime world, seems the most obsessed with the ghosts of his past. When he was a child he lost his younger brother in a blizzard and the body was never found. As a result, Erlendur is tenacious in never giving up on missing persons' cases. A depressed woman named Maria has hanged herself in a small cabin by Lake Thingvellir, the site of her father's accidental death many years ago. It seems like a simple case of suicide but Maria's friend Karen isn't convinced and as Erlendur starts unofficially poking around, he not only has his suspicions, but manages to stumble on a few clues that might also reveal what happened to two young people who disappeared thirty years ago. The intricate plotting cleverly parallels the continuing story of Erlendur's personal life - his attempts to reconnect with his estranged children and even thaw out the chilly relations between himself and his ex-wife. Guilt, despair and forgiveness are at the core of both narrative strands. It's a riveting and touching read.

Snow Job by William Deverell is something completely different. I have no idea why it has taken me this long to finally read one of Deverell's books especially since he was the creator of Street Legal which, in its time, was one of my favourite television shows. It was a smart, witty series and Snow Job shares all of those characteristics. Retired lawyer Arthur Beauchamp just wants to retreat in peace to his goat farm on a West Coast island, but he's stuck in an ugly, noisy, Ottawa apartment during a cold winter because his wife Margaret has won a seat as the Green Party's first MP. Arthur gets further drawn into politics when a delegation of visiting ministers from the oil-rich country of Bhashyistan are killed when a bomb detonates in their car, and he is entrusted with defending the prime suspect - if he can find him first. Meanwhile the Conservative government is facing a crisis because Bhashyistan has just declared war on Canada and is holding five employees of an Albertan oil company hostage. Three Canadian tourists have gone missing in the country as well. An election is looming, ministers are squabbling and defecting, the interests of several oil conglomerations are suspect, and there's a scheme to deflect blame for the killings onto eco-terrorists - two of whom are employed by Arthur and Margaret as caretakers on their farm. When one of them sleepwalks into Arthur's bed and is spied by the island's notorious gossip, he's also burdened with the stress of having to explain "The Episode" to his wife.
Whew! There is a lot going on in this book which mixes contemporary political satire with a mad espionnage caper, but it's a terrific and entertaining ride. The paranoid machinations of spin and ego going on behind closed doors on Parliament Hill are hilarious. As is Arthur's ongoing relationship with a CSIS spy who may or may not be a double agent. Beauchamp may not be much help on his wife's political campaign trail, but he certainly gets my vote of approval.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Canadian author's film makes Best of the Decade poll. . .

If you're a film buff and in the Toronto area over the next few weeks, you should definitely check out Cinematheque Ontario's latest schedule. Starting tonight and running through to February 23rd, they are showcasing films that made TIFF's Best of the Decade poll. You can see the full list here. I'll be practically camping out at the theater - many of these films were never released in Canada and of those that were - blink and you missed them.

Of particular interest is a 2007 film called Silent Light, directed by Carlos Reygadas about a romantic triangle in a small Mennonite community in Northern Mexico. You can read more about this and watch the trailer here. And yes, if the actress playing the wife looks vaguely familiar, it is indeed Canada's own Miriam Toews, author of A Complicated Kindness and The Flying Troutmans. I remember reading interviews with her about this film - I'm thrilled to finally get the chance to see it (author photo by Carol Loewen).

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I'm Hungry For This. . .

I knew I shouldn't have opened this up before lunch time, but if you are like me and the winter months are all about comfort cooking - then run out and get the latest issue of Fine Cooking. I was salivating just from the cover - there are recipes for three of my favourite all time comfort foods - Mac & Cheese, Chinese dumplings and six! (bless you) recipes for slow cooking braised short ribs. Full table of contents located here. Okay, back to work now as I try not to think of my boring left-overs in the fridge.

Monday, January 18, 2010

ALA Awards Announced

The ALA Awards were announced this morning at the ALA Midwinter Conference in Boston. Three big awards... three Dewey Diva picks! Can we pick them or what? :)

The winners are:

For the full list of honor books follow the link to the ALA website.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

NYRB Challenge #18: Returning From the Gulag. . .

Vasily Grossman's monumental novel Life and Fate has long been on my list of books to tackle one day. So I knew that at some point in this challenge, I'd definitely be reading the much shorter Everything Flows, translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler and Anna Aslanyan. This is definitely the book that has made the most emotional impact on me so far.

I'm still in awe at how much Grossman packed into a narrative that is barely longer than two hundred pages but then I think of what Solzhenitsyn accomplished with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The two books are perfect companion reads.

Everything Flows opens in a railway compartment where huddled silently in a corner, Ivan Grigoryevich is travelling to Moscow to see his cousin Nikolay. It's been three decades since the two men met; Ivan has only just been released after serving a thirty year sentence in the Soviet gulag. Stalin is now dead and Russia is not only changing but trying to grasp the massive implications of Stalin's murderous policies. While the novel focuses on Ivan's slow and difficult reintegration into society, there are also portraits of other luckier, Russians such as Nikolay, a scientist who chose his career over his conscience, and of Pinegin, the informer who ended up sending Ivan to the camps. Two particularly powerful segments deal with women's stories. Masha, a wife and mother, is separated from her family; her experience in the camp is a visceral example of Ivan's acknowledgement that, "in the labor camps of Kolyma, men were not equal to women. Men, really, had had it easier." Then there is the story of Anna Sergeyevna, a woman that Ivan lodges with when he finds work in a small town. She tells of her part in Stalin's horrific starvation economic policies in the early 1930s that resulted in the deaths of millions of Ukranian peasants. Yes, it's graphic. And an unutterably sad and powerful piece of writing.

Another extraordinary section of the novel is chapter seven in which Grossman explores the idea of informers and collective guilt:

At one end of the chain were two people at a table, drinking cups of tea and chatting. Next, in cozy lamplight, someone cultured and educated composed a report; or perhaps an activist gave a frank and straightforward speech at a meeting of the collective farm. And at the other end of the chain were crazed eyes; damaged kidneys; a skull pierced by a bullet; gangrenous, pus-oozing toes that had been bitten by the frost of the taiga; scurvy-ridden corpses in a log hut that served as the camp morgue.

There are brief descriptions of four different informers and their varying circumstances, and then a trial where the complicated issues of guilt are raised and debated. In a society of state-sponsored murder - who can claim to be entirely innocent? Why isn't the government itself being put on trial? And who has the right to ultimately judge? These are not the only questions raised in a novel that also attempts to place Stalin's era in the context of all Russian history. Grossman also challenges the notion of whether life and history are the progression of humanity's fight for freedom, or whether there really is no evolution because violence and its chaos is a constant that will always be with us, no matter what form it takes. I will leave it to the readers to come to their own conclusions and to discover which theory Ivan (and Grossman) end up espousing.

Kudos to NYRB for providing extras at the back of this edition: excellent end notes, a very helpful historical chronology, notes on the background to Stalin's agricultural collectivization policies, and an extensive glossary of historical, political and artistic people and organizations mentioned in the book.

This is an incredible novel that definitely deserves a wide readership. I'll also be checking out Grossman's journalism covering the Second World War, collected in A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, edited by Antony Beevor.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

It's On The List. . .

I do love making lists. Things to do, places to visit, and of course books to read. The Infinity of Lists by Umberto Eco, translated by Alastair McEwan, is a gorgeous book that has been sitting on my bedside table for a few weeks (I haven't read it yet, but have looked at the pretty pictures). It's an exploration of society's endless fascination and obsession not only with lists, but collecting, cataloguing, repetition and replication, beautifully illustrated with examples from art and literature. Michael Dirda from The Washington Post (always on my list of favourite book critics) has an enthusiastic review here. And you'll learn something too - such as the difference between asyndeton and polysyndeton.

Open House Author line-up announced. . .

If you are going to be anywhere in the vicinity of Toronto from April 30th - May 2nd, then definitely check out the second annual Globe and Mail Open House Festival of author events. Random House of Canada is proud to be a sponsor of these three days of author readings and discussions and there are some terrific writers participating: Ian McEwan, Peter Carey, Pico Iyer, Giller Prize winner Linden MacIntyre, Colm Toibin, Jane Smiley, Alexander McCall Smith, Michael Crummey, Camille Paglia, Joanna Trollope, Calvin Trillin - the list goes on and on.

Full details can be found at the festival's website located here. Tickets go on sale January 23rd with proceeds going to PEN Canada, Frontier College and the Toronto Public Library.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hull's Most Famous Librarian Gets Feted

I've always had a soft spot for Philip Larkin's poetry; for a dose of surly grumpiness on the disappointments of daily modern life, you really can't beat him. I pick up his Collected Poems whenever I need a chuckle or to be reminded that things are never that gloomy. Just read his poem "Toads" and "Toads Revisited" anytime you have a bad day at work.

Larkin also spent numerous years as a librarian at the University of Hull in the city where I was born, although I've never actually set foot in my birthplace because my parents left before I was old enough to walk and I've never been back. A couple of years ago, Hull was voted as England's number one crap city to live in which didn't exactly make me nostalgic for a visit.
However, this would be a good year to make that pilgrimage. Hull is marking the 25th anniversary of Larkin's death with a series of celebrations including a tourist trail as outlined in this piece from The Independent. A website, Larkin25 will also list information about other upcoming events.

And if you are a fan, I highly recommend getting a copy of the audio CD Pretending to Be Me. This is a recording of a one-man play written and performed by the British actor Tom Courtenay and it is just hilarious! Courtenay plays an older Larkin reflecting on his life and work and in the course of the play, he reads a number of Larkin's best-known poems from "This Be The Verse" to "The Whitsun Weddings". A real treat for Larkin admirers but if you love Alan Bennett and his unique type of British humour, you will also definitely get a kick out of this. It's on my iPOD - ever ready to rescue me from the blues.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Literary laughter with a bit of murder thrown in. . .

If you are looking for some light, literary murder and mayhem to get you through the long, January nights then you need to immediately start reading the mysteries of Edmund Crispin. Just try not to laugh! Vintage U.K. has been bringing his marvellous books - originally written in the 1940s and early 1950s - back into print (three more came out last November). They feature eccentric (is there any other kind?) Oxford professor Gervase Fen and though the plots are completely crazy and improbable, you forgive him everything because the wonderful, frequently literary, repartee that dazzles the pages is just so enjoyable. These books are quite simply scrumptious. I blogged a while ago here about his most famous mystery The Moving Toyshop, and now I've just read the very first Gervase Fen book The Case of the Gilded Fly.

It's an absolute delight. The first chapter starts by introducing all our main characters and suspects who are all en route to Oxford to take part in the production of an important new play, but are currently stuck on a slow moving train from London. The chapter ends omniously: "And within the week that followed three of these eleven died by violence." The first victim is Yseult Haskell a beautiful but bitchy actress, the former lover of the playwright, and hated by almost the entire cast. When she is found shot not very far from Fen's own college rooms, he is inevitably - and gleefully - on the spot to start investigating. Part of the fun is the constant banter between Fen and his friend Sir Richard Freeman, Chief Constable of Oxford. The latter fancies himself as much of a literary critic (and has actually published three books) as the former believes himself to be a detective. The two love to tell each other how to do their jobs.

P.D. James is a huge fan and highlights Crispin in her recent book Talking About Detective Fiction. She calls the character of Gervase Fen a "true original" who "romps through his cases with infectious joie de vivre in books which are genuinely very funny" and notes that the books, "are always elegantly written with a cast of engaging, witty characters. . . Crispin is a farceur, and the ability successfully to combine this less-than-subtle humour with murder is very rare in detective fiction."

I couldn't agree with her more. Six of the nine Crispin books are now available. In addition to the two mentioned above, there is Holy Disorders, Swan Song, Love Lies Bleeding, and Buried for Pleasure. P.G. Wodehouse meets Dorothy Sayers -just the comic tonic to take us through to spring.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A DVD With Attitudes. . .

One of my favourite reads so far in my NYRB Challenge has been Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (see my review here). So I've been treating myself with the three-part British mini-series, filmed in 1992. It's extremely well done and follows the book very closely. The screen writer is Andrew Davies who seems to be penning every British costume drama these days - you'll know him from the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice or the recent adapation of Bleak House. Full of delightful British eccentrics played ably by a great cast including Richard Johnson, Douglas Hodge, Elizabeth Spriggs and Tara Fitzgerald. Look for a young, pre-Bond Daniel Craig and teenager Kate Winslet in minor roles.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

2010 Best Translated Book longlist announced. . .

This is one of my favourite awards. If you've been lurking on this blog at all you'll know that I love reading international literature and much of that is in translation. The books are chosen not only for the skill of the translation, but the quality of the book as well. (And I'm thrilled to see Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone nominated). It's a great list to introduce yourself to some of the best writers from around the world; this year's longlist includes authors from 23 different countries writing in 17 different languages. Starting next week over on the Three Percent blog (run by Open Letter Books, itself an excellent publisher of literature in translation) they will highlight each of the 25 longlist titles daily. The shortlist will announced February 16th.

For the full longlist click here.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

NYRB Challenge #17: A Modern Italian Classic. . .

The holidays have allowed me the time to endulge in a longer NYRB novel and so I picked up That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda, translated by William Weaver. While the title sounds like it could be a song written by Noel Coward, the style and subject matter certainly couldn't have. Weaver writes in his forward that for contemporary Italian literature, this novel, begun in 1946 and published in 1957, is held in the same high esteem as Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past and The Man Without Qualities. High praise indeed. It's certainly shorter than all three of these novels and while I haven't yet read Musil (it's on my list for 2010), That Awful Mess bears some narrative comparison with Joyce and Proust in how the particular story widens out to encompass, celebrate, condemn and satirize society as a whole.

The story is set in 1927 in the early years of Mussolini and opens with two crimes that take place on the same floor of a wealthy apartment building. First an elderly woman is robbed of money and her jewels. Then shortly after, her beautiful neighbour across the hall is found in a pool of blood with her throat cut. The murder victim is Liliana Balducci, a friend of Detective Francesco Ingravallo of the Homicide Division, who now is entrusted with finding her killer. But this is not your typical murder mystery, although a number of suspects are identified and questioned. Gadda instead uses the crimes as a premise for a detailed exploration of Italian society with its petty corruption, informers, and competitive jealousies between the police and the military. The death, while initially described in brutal detail, soon recedes into the background as each new clue becomes a convenient segue towards another exposition on character, society or history. The police are always rushing around on motorcycles, bicycles, carts or on foot. The prose is equally energetic and bawdy, with an extensive vocabulary, and Gadda shares with Joyce a peculiar interest in all things scatological. This is the type of novel where several pages are employed in describing the reaction of chickens to a train passing close by. His style can best be illustrated with an example, such as the following passage describing the once esteemed automobile belonging to the Chief of Police, now fallen on hard times:

So that everyone, now, in that car, political or non-political, stuck his head in unwillingly and a cautious shoe after the head, the other shoe still on the ground, and a suspicious, examining eye, nostrils the same: as if, from such muck, vapors could steam forth, conjunctive to the odor, pallors of lemures of more than one three-months' old dead infant, with the tail all coiled, and the little head of a donkey. Careful, frowning, uneasy. The idea that there had settled in the cloth (of the seats) some organic ejection of the more popularly known variety now obsessed every user; it made fearful the more cautious, and cautious even the bold and heedless, were there any. All of them hesitated a little (very little), scared, each, of his own basic decorum, that is to say the decorum of the seat, of the pants: those so dignified trousers, paid for in installments, month by month, in sums withheld from salaries, with the respective tightening of the belts of the same. Once stuck to the bottom, well, it's obvious enough, every least-deserved stain, in maculating the splendor like the most reputable spots of Father Secchi, stained the luminous rotundities of the photosphere.

It goes without saying that nevertheless, all the police still consider it a mark of prestige to be able to borrow and drive the car.

This novel had sections that sang with exuberance and wit, and others that I sometimes found a bit of a slog but that was no doubt due to my unfamiliarity with Rome, religious iconography and Italian history. Weaver does provide helpful footnotes along the way, especially for political references but he also acknowledges that a lot of Gadda's brilliance lies in language puns (similar to Joyce) that can't be translated, and his use of multiple dialects that don't resonate with non-Italians. However, I can still appreciate what an accomplished novel this is and both grin and grimace at the selfish and suspicious world it portrays where almost everyone is definitely guilty of something.