Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Delightful Book Kingdom of Shire or Why I've Been Musing on Muslin. . .

One of the more interesting imprints that I'm lucky enough to sell is a lovely small press out of England called Shire. You mostly see their books in museum stores - they publish short, beautifully designed and illustrated books on a variety of very specialized, esoteric, collectible and historical subjects ranging from Dolls House Furniture to the history of Old Lawnmowers or English Post Offices. If you collect antiques, love the Victorian era, steam engines or industrial history in particular, then you must check out their full backlist at (And if you are having trouble finding any of their books at your local bookstore, just ask the staff to special order them for you - they are very easy to get).
Shire also boasts what has to be my favourite author name of all-time - Twigs Way, author of books on topiary, garden gnomes and vegetable allotments. (The name initially conjured up the image of a friendly, grandfatherly-like gardener in tweed with a peaked cap, but in fact the author is a female archaeologist and historian and has endeared herself to me even more because she supports the Rabbit Welfare Association that helps improve the lives of pet rabbits of which she has fourteen, adopted from rescue centres. Next to Jonathan Coe, she's the author I'd most like to have a cup of tea with. Honestly.)

I've just finished reading a delightful new book published by Shire and written by Sarah Jane Downing called Fashion in The Time of Jane Austen. Downing looks at the fashion trends between 1791 and 1817 during the years when Austen was at the height of her writing career, a period described as, "a unique moment in fashion unequalled in its daring nudity, cropped hair and masculine styling until the jazz age nearly a century later." She shows how the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, Beau Brummel and the works of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron all influenced how women, men, children and Austen characters dressed and how their clothes not only defined their status in society but also how they quite literally moved within in. Shoes and accessories are also covered. I learned some fascinating tidbits of social history such as the use of "falsies" by men which were inserted into their tight fitting breeches in order to make their calves look more "poetic", or the invention of what sounds like the equivalent of today's Spanx - a tube of flesh-coloured knitted stockinette worn tight around the legs so that the airy material of the dresses wouldn't too clearly expose the outline of the buttocks or - most scandalous of all - get caught between them!

The book is amply filled with colour plates of paintings and illustrations from the newspapers and fashion magazines of the era. This is a must read not only for Jane Austen fans, but anyone who loves the history or literature of this period, who likes to watch historical dramas on TV, or simply loves their clothes. And here's a funny blog post on the recycled costumes used in various BBC literary adaptations from the terrific blog Jane Austen's World that not only covers all things Austen, but is a great resource for researching more about fashion during the Regency era.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Lost Booker shortlist announced. . .

They've announced the shortlist for the Lost Booker - a fun contest to recognize books from 1970 that, due to some changes in rules, weren't eligible for the Booker that year. The six shortlisted titles are:

The Birds on the Trees by Nina Bawden
Troubles by J G Farrell
The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard
Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault
The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark
The Vivisector by Patrick White

It's a good list; I've read five out of the six writers represented, though not necessarily the book being honoured. Best of all the winner is chosen by votes from the public. You have until April 23rd. All the details are located here. I've already cast my vote. . . hmmmm. . . what could it be, I wonder?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

NYRB Classics Giveaway. . .

Yippee! I'm halfway through!

Last Labour Day, I set out to read 50 NYRB Classics within a year, and I've now finished 25 books. I'm falling about a month behind, but the first half of the year is always really busy for me at work, and so I'm fairly confident that I can catch up. If I can't, I'll just extend my deadline until December 31st (hey, it's my challenge, I can change the rules) and that way, the length of the books shouldn't be as much of a factor in my selections (I have my eye on a 600 page novel as my next pick).

I must say, a part of me is happily surprised that I've gotten this far, as I'm always embarking enthusiastically on reading challenges and then quickly losing steam (or interest). But it's a credit to the editors at NYRB who really do have an eye for great literature, that this has been such an enjoyable journey. I keep discovering these amazing books and writers and the minute I've finished one book, I really look forward to browsing my NYRB shelf and seeing what next piques my interest. As an avid reader, I'm very grateful to all the folks at NYRB for keeping these books in print. For a full recap of my reading challenge so far, you can click here.

I know I'm not the only NYRB fan out there (or wanna-be fan) and so here's your chance to show your love. I'm giving away a fabulous NYRB bag filled with lots of NYRB books and galleys. Just leave a comment or e-mail me at and tell me which NYRB Classics book is your favourite and why. If you've never read one, tell me which one you'd most like to read. Their full list is located here. (And yes, I'm looking for recommendations for the second half of my challenge). I'll throw all names into a hat, pick a winner and then contact you for your mailing address. This contest is open to anyone living in Canada or the United States and I'll accept entries until Monday, April 5th, 2010.
Note: This contest is now closed.

Monday, March 22, 2010

NYRB Challenge #25: We'll Always Have Paris. . .

If there is one experience that I like to indulge in vicariously, it's living in Paris. I'm a sucker for Paris memoirs and so quite happily devoured Paris and Elsewhere by Richard Cobb over the weekend.

Cobb first went to Paris in the 1930s and ended up living there for many years while he did historical research on the French Revolution. This book is a collection of essays he has written about the city and its environs; some are autobiographical, others are reviews of books - mostly architectural or urban histories - that track the changing physical nature of its streets; others look at how writers, such as Georges Simenon, imaginatively depicted the Paris traversed by Inspector Maigret, or how the city of Marseille is different from the stereotypes enforced in popular culture. Cobb's relationship with Paris in particular, is an intense and knowledgeably visceral love affair, incomparable to any personal, human bonds. For example, the rewards of his first marriage - mentioned only in passing - to an employee of France's train network seem to reside solely in his acquisition of free rail tickets. Here the personal is purely geographical.

Along with his writing style, there were two things that I came to really admire about Cobb. The first was how quickly he learned and delighted in the French language, and immersed himself in various dialects throughout the country. This inevitably helps him in his research because he is fascinated by the stories of ordinary people in history. The second - which has immeasurably contributed to his sociological interests as well as to the fascinating details outlined in his writing - is how much he loves to walk in cities, exploring the streets at different times of the day, in all seasons, and really looking for that historical clue, or unique characteristic of a neighbourhood:

I feel Paris should be both walkable and walked, if the limitless variety, the unexpectedness, the provincialism, the rusticity, the touching eccentricity, and the often tiny scale of the place are to be appreciated.
And he is equally observing of other flaneurs:

Most interesting of all to me, is the individual unrelated to any group, the man the girl, or the old woman alone in the city, the person who eats alone, though in company, who lives in a furnished room, who receives no mail, who has no visible occupation, and who spends much time wandering the streets.
Paris has changed over the years and there certainly is a strain of nostalgia and even despair at the disappearance or destruction of historical buildings. And at times I found Cobb to be just a bit too detailed for this reader who has only been to Paris once; one will certainly want a map at hand to follow his wanderings, or at least have a vague sense of where the different arrondissements are located. And yet this is a minor fault and not always applicable; in the essay on Ixelles - a place I've never been to - he so beautifully paints its streets and parks at dawn that I felt I was almost cinematically present in the picture. But he is no sentimentalist - amidst all the loveliness the reader is suddenly jolted with this discovery:

At the approach to the avenue Louise a tiny hand protrudes from the lid of a crammed dustbin, in front of an affluent, unsympathetic, tall, and over-ornate apartment block. When the lid is removed, a minute, doll-like, quite naked girl is revealed - a diminutive Bruxelloise-to-be that never saw the day.
The cities certainly have their dark side. But this, argues Cobb, is the historical and contemporary reality behind the tourist screen. Paris and Elsewhere is a good companion, although very different in style, to John Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse, a more youthful look at Paris in the 1920s.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Future of Publishing

On the DK UK website there is a beautiful video entitled: The Future of Publishing. Just make sure you watch it until the end!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Friday Fun. . .

Too cool. Is this street art? A type of public lending library? I don't know, but it makes me want to go to Berlin. Thanks to Bookshelf for finding this.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Championing Some Canadian Gems. . .

I'm still excited that the little, relatively unknown, book, Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner won Canada Reads last week, not least because it was one of my Dewey picks when it was first published. And we're always rooting for the little guy. Now, we know we'll never get asked to be on the Canada Reads panel, but that won't stop us from voicing our opinion on which book we'd love all Canadians to be reading. So I polled the Deweys and here's what we'd defend. Give these little gems a try:

Janet's Pick: Lightning by Fred Stenson
I’m a sucker for a western, and when you give me a western with a hero who loves Whitman I’m pretty much a goner. So I loved Fred Stenson’s gorgeous Lightning, and if you haven’t read it, run right out and get it. Right now. Lightning is the story of cowboys driving a herd of cattle north through Wyoming and Montana and into Alberta, settling in Calgary in the late 1880s. Lightning has a compelling story, characters that will stay with you forever, and poetic sentences that will have you calling your friends saying “listen to this.”

Lahring's Pick: The End of the Alphabet by C.S. Richardson
It engages with the first sentence, it continues to engage, then knows when to quit. It addresses big questions deftly and lightly. There is not a single wasted or jarring word; indeed, there are so many pitch-perfect turns of phrase that you want to stand up and cheer, but don’t because it would interrupt the pleasure of the reading experience. It is affectionate without being sentimental, serious without being ponderous. It is not self-consciously Canadian, which is perhaps its greatest strength. It is a man’s story written for women, which makes it accessible to a wide range of readers.

Maylin's Pick: No Fixed Address by Aritha van Herk
This continues to be one of my favourite Canadian novels of all time, and has only further endeared itself to me since I became a sales rep myself (although I've never remotely had the types of experiences that our heroine has on the road). This road novel gets full marks for originality and sheer, delicious adventurousness as we follow Arachne (what a great name) as she travels around the Prairies selling lingerie out of her back trunk. She's feisty and funny and one of the most unexpected characters in the whole of Canlit.

Saffron's pick: Louis Riel by Chester Brown
I loved this book because it was such a gripping read; the story goes to the heart of our Canadian identity and a conflict that some would say is still with us. The illustrations are phenomenal. Because of it’s graphic nature, it is accessible to a wide range of readers. I think Canada should read it because it was a compelling time in our history and it is just darn unputdownable!

Susan's Pick: The City Man by Howard Akler
This wonderfully evocative noir novel takes readers into Depression-era Toronto’s mysterious criminal underworld. Eli Morenz is a reporter who covers crime and becomes tragically involved with Mona, a beautiful pickpocket.

NYRB Challenge #24: Soul of Wood. . .

Soul of Wood by Jakov Lind, translated by Ralph Manheim, consists of the title novella and six other short stories all of which share the author's unique style of nervously energetic prose, balanced between the comic and the nightmarish. The writing disturbs because the background to these stories is the Second World War and the Holocaust, and yet Death has a cleverly macabre sense of humour. And even in the midst of war and tragedy - or perhaps because of it - opportunists, sadists, and hypocrites are flourishing.

And so we read stories such as "Journey Through the Night" where a traveller on a train to Paris discovers his fellow passenger is a cannibal who makes a convincing argument as to why he should willingly become his next meal . Or "The Judgement" in which a convicted murderer waiting for his execution uses his last request to see his father in the hopes that he can allow himself one last victim. My favourite in the collection is the quirky "The Window", in which an unhappy man makes a strange bargain with the neighbour he has been watching in the apartment window across the street. They agree to meet in a bar but the man turns out to be someone rather unusual. How can you resist a story with this opening sentence: "When her behind left him cold he knew it was all up with love."

The title novella is a disturbing tale about Wohlbrecht, a man with a wooden leg, who hides a disabled Jewish child in a secluded cabin after his parents have been sent to a concentration camp. Wohlbrecht does it out of greed but when he fails to sell the parents' apartment for his expected price, he ends up in an asylum spying on doctors giving lethal injections to patients. After the war, in order to ingratiate themselves with the Allies and avoid imprisonment, he becomes part of a race to find the boy and take the credit for his survival. But what has happened to the boy in the meantime? As in many of the other stories, the narrative conjures up mad, almost mythological hallucinations, and tosses them into a horrific history that unnerves while it fascinates.

I am very glad to have been introduced to the writing of Jakov Lind whose own life story is as extraordinary as anything he has written. He was born in Vienna into a Jewish family, escaped to Holland during the war where he changed his name and then ended up back in Germany working as a courier for a Nazi shipping department. The introduction quotes Lind on this incredible dual identity:

As Jan Gerrit Overbeek, I felt safe for the first time. It is crazy, walking around freely when one really should be sitting in a concentration camp. Crazy, perhaps, but a craziness that made me content, and happy.

Open Letter Press has recently published two novels by Jakov Lind in translation. I have Landscape in Concrete already on my shelves and I will be getting a copy of Ergo as well. Lind is definitely a unique and talented writer that I want to read more of.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Orange Prize Longlist announced. . .

One of my favourite prizes of the year as I always get introduced to some great writers and this year is no exception as first time novelists go up against Booker prize winner Hilary Mantel and other favourites Barbara Kingsolver, Sarah Waters, Andrea Levy and Lorrie Moore. Here's the longlist in full. The shortlist will announced April 20th and the winner on June 9th.

The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison
The Rehearsal By Eleanor Catton
Savage Lands by Clare Clark
Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig
The Way Things Look to Me by Roopa Farooki
The Twisted Heart by Rebecca Gowers
This is How by M.J. Hyland
Small Wars by Sadie Jones
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Secret Son by Laila Lalami
The Long Song by Andrea Levy
Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
The Wilding by Maria McCann
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
The Still Point by Amy Sackville
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Book Review Bingo. . .

This made me laugh (and cringe a bit as I've probably been guilty of using quite a few of these, both in writing reviews and as a sales rep) but a book reviewer has now created Bingo cards for book reviews. You could play the game during book club discussions or while reading your favourite newspaper reviews or listening to book shows on the radio. Sales reps could secretly play it at sales conference or while ploughing through catalogue copy. And I think you could challenge yourself to find which book contains the most superlatives on its jacket blurbs with bonus marks if you get Bingo out of it. Or find the best, funniest or most ridiculous "x meets x".

Saturday, March 13, 2010

NYRB Challenge #23: A French Treat. . .

After reading J.G. Farrell's Troubles, I knew exactly what book I wanted to read next. How, I wondered, would a French author, best known for having founded the experimental Oulipo Group, tackle Dublin's 1916 Easter uprising? And so Raymond Queneau's We Always Treat Women Too Well, translated by Barbara Wright, was the next book extracted from the bulging NYRB bookcase.

It's a somewhat difficult novel to characterize; I suppose if it was drama, it would be French farce. The story takes place in a Dublin post office during the 1916 Easter Rebellion. No, not the General Post Office that has gone down in history, but a smaller branch named Eden Quay, which is taken over by seven members of the Irish Republican Army all named after minor James Joyce characters from Ulysses (which of course had not yet been written in 1916 - that's part of the fun). The men are nervous, naive, unorganized and a bit scared. Complicating matters are two women - a young postal clerk who after being released foolishly comes back for her handbag and gets killed in the front yard, and Gertie Girdle, another employee who was locked in the lavatory, delivering Molly Bloom-like soliloquies when the rebels first entered. She poses the biggest problem because the men alternately fall in love with her or jealously lust after her, and when they realize the latter, they can't let her go for fear she'll talk and ruin their reputations. She also happens to be engaged to one of the British commanders in charge of routing the rebels and she has a seductive survival plan of her own.

There's a fair bit of misogyny at work here, but it's also a satire of nationalism, militarism, religious and moral hypocrisy, and, as John Updike notes in his introduction, "the ineluctable banality of existence". It is certainly a bawdy (and body) novel that has fun playing with language and narrative, and part of the naughty fun (should you so choose) is in compiling a list of the many different euphemisms Queneau comes up with for, ahem, male tumescence. My favourite is, "Dillon had to recognize the fact that he now occupied a slightly greater place than he had a few instants before." Yes, it's all a bit silly - black humour and purple prose - but a very clever kind of spoof and great fun to read.

The Zombies are Back!

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has been an unqualified hit. It has made the publisher, Quirk Books, one of the most successful independent publishers of last year. Danielle Johnson, who is the publicist at Raincoast Books, did a fun blog on how she put together the press kits for the prequel Dawn of the Dreadfuls. Lots of imagination and blood abound! As a Colin Firth fan I find the whole phenomenon a bit sacrilegious; apparently millions disagree with me.
The prequel will be out March 23, 2010.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Canada Reads Winner. . .

Hooray! Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner, translated by Lazer Lederhendler wins Canada Reads! I'm so excited that Canadians will be reading this novel, especially since most of us Anglophones (and I embarassingly include myself) don't read a lot of French Canadian literature. I know I'm more likely to read a novel in translation from France rather than Quebec and I keep sternly rebuking myself for this. Nikolski is also a nice break from the heavy, historical novels we often associate with Canlit. It's refreshing to read a novel that is playful, urban, clever and funny. And don't forget that Lazer Lederhendler won a Governor General's Award in 2008 for his translation of this book. When the Dewey Divas visit Ottawa Public Library, we're joined by a French rep from Montreal, who recently was enthusiastically talking about Dickner's next novel Tarmac which will be available in English translation in Spring 2011. She kindly gave me a copy (I can read French, albeit very, very slowly with a dictionary close by) and I'm now inspired to set aside the time and read it.

More Great Reading From Around the World. . .

The longlist of fifteen books for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has just been announced. I'm particularly thrilled to see Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, translated by Charlotte Mandell, on it. This book has received tons of polarized reviews and it's a tough read in terms of subject matter but I thought it was so ambitious, so astonishingly original and completely unforgettable. And what a feat of translation! Philippe Claudel's Brodeck , translated by John Cullen, is also on the list and on my to-be-read pile. It was one of Lahring's Dewey picks of the fall and I loved his last book By A Slow River, as well as his movie I've Loved You So Long. You can read the full longlist here.

The finalists for the Commonwealth Writers' Prizes have also been announced. Michael Crummey has won the Best Novel category for the Canada/Caribbean region with Galore. And Shandi Mitchell has won in the Best First Novel category for Under This Unbroken Sky. They now go up against the winners from the other regions. Full information can be found here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Winners of the Best Translated Book Awards 2010. . .

In the novel category, the winner was The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven, translated by Dalya Bilu. For poetry The Russian Version by Elena Fanailova, translated by Genya Turovskaya and Stephanie Sandler, took the honours. You can also read an interview with M.A. Orthofer, one of the judges and the man behind The Complete Review, which is a great resource not only for reviews of works in translation, but book news from around the world.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

It's All Talk. . .

I am always in awe of authors who can write brilliant dialogue - for me this trait is where most novels - particularly contemporary ones - fail to convince. So I'm loving this top ten list from The Guardian, lauding novels that have mastered this tricky art. I really must go and find a copy of Natalie Sarraute's The Golden Fruits.

Battle of the Books. . .

If you like a little bit of literary tussle, there are two fun competitions going on this week. Canada Reads on the CBC will have narrowed down its list of five books it thinks the country should all be reading, to one winner by Friday. If you can't get to the radio to hear the daily battle, That Shakespearean Rag is offering a recap and amusing commentary on how well the celebrities are defending (or not) their chosen books. I'm still rooting for Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner, translated by Lazer Lederhendler.

Over the border, the Morning News Tournament of Books has just gotten underway. Each day a different judge (they are bloggers, writers, critics) evaluates two books and picks the winner out of each. That book then goes on to a semi-final round against another book, and so on, until there is a winner. (There's also a Zombie round, where discarded books get a second chance). The list of books chosen is always a good one and the commentary by the judges is very astute and often quite entertaining. There is also commentary on the judges' choices. I'm particularly looking forward to the March 12th match-up when one of Lahring's favourite Diva picks, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie goes up against one of my favourite Diva picks, Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic. Two completely different type of books - I can't imagine which will come out on top. You can follow the whole tournament here.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Ghostwriter. . .

If you are in the mood for a really good old-fashioned thriller - the kind that instead of knocking you over the head the obvious, instead relies on an intelligent script, great acting, and atmospheric music - then check out Roman Polanski's The Ghostwriter, based on Robert Harris' novel The Ghost. It stars Ewan Mcgregor (who has never looked more appealing) as the title character, (we never find out his actual name) who is hired to help out former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (played by the charming Pierce Brosnan) to pen his memoirs. Only someone doesn't want the book published; the last ghostwriter who took on the job ended up murdered. At the same time, demand for the book is high as Lang is all over the media, accused of international war crimes for ordering the torture of four prisoners. The movie has a great ensemble cast including Tom Wilkinson as a university professor with old ties to Lang, and Olivia Williams who plays Lang's long-suffering wife. And the movie contains the most suspenseful scene probably ever filmed at a book launch; a few publishing jokes are also thrown in.
Ironically and rather eerily, the movie opened (in Toronto at least), just days after the announcement that Tony Blair's memoirs would be published in September. Note to any CIA operatives who may be reading this: I DO NOT have a copy of the manuscript!

Monday, March 8, 2010

In Honour of International Women's Day. . .

On International Women's Day, it's important to acknowledge that however far we feel feminism may have helped women in the West, there's still a way to go, and in particular millions of women in developing nations struggle daily not just for equal rights, education, and to live without the fear of continual violence, but to put food into the mouths of their families and to rebuild their communities devastated by war or famine. Here are a couple of new books to recommend to patrons and especially teenage girls:

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
These authors have travelled around the world looking at the oppression of women in developing countries and showing how global poverty can only be fought when women are given educational and economic opportunities. This book contains a lot of stories of hope, showing how some women have completely changed their lives with just a little bit of help, empathy and opportunities.

Because I'm A Girl by Tim Butcher, Xiaolu Guo, Joanne Harris, Kathy Lette, Henning Mankell, Deborah Moggach, Marie Phillips and Irvine Welsh
This anthology of short stories ties into Plan's campaign to help fight childhood poverty, in particular by focusing on educating young girls around the world. In this collection, the authors have travelled to several different countries and written about issues facing the young women in them, from lack of education, to genital mutilation, to the inability to access birth control or health care during pregnancies.

I Am An Emotional Creature: The Secret Lives of Girls Around the World by Eve Ensler.
From the author of the Vagina Monologues comes a new series of short pieces based on interviews that Ensler has done with girls from around the world. She recounts their struggles, unhappiness, fears and insecurities covering issues from anorexia, rape, peer pressure and pregnancy, to dealing with genital mutilation or working in a sweat shop. Also recommended is her very powerful and disturbing book Necessary Targets: A Story of Women and War.

Friday, March 5, 2010

NYRB Challenge #22: Pack Up Your Troubles. . .


This is why I embarked on this challenge; I knew I'd discover some extraordinary writers who, for whatever reason, had disappeared into relative (and inexplicable) obscurity and J.G. Farrell is just such a one. I picked up Troubles because it was one of the titles that popped up on the longlist for the recently announced Lost Man Booker Prize which recognizes novels published in 1970 that, due to changes in the rules, fell through a timing gap and weren't considered for the prize. I've also had a fascination with Irish history ever since I took a Modern Irish Drama Course - and of course there's no getting away from the "Troubles" when discussing either the history or the literature of that period - or indeed any part of the 20th century.

Major Brendan Archer goes to Ireland to reluctantly fulfill his duty to marry Angela Spencer, a woman he vaguely made promises to during a leave in Brighton. It's 1919 and the war is over but definitely not forgotten, at least for Archer who has recently been suffering from shell shock. Angela lives on the southern coast in a crumbling three hundred room hotel called the Majestic, rather haphazardly run by her father and some old, decrepit servants. Archer is appalled by the deteriorating conditions - holes in the roof and rotting floors, damp sheets and unmade beds, and areas almost completely overrun by cats; he even finds a rotting sheep's head in his bedroom's chamberpot. He resolves to leave as soon as possible. Two years later, even though Angela has since died, Archer is more ensconced than ever in this strange community of stalwart Anglo-Irish Protestants, consisting of the fiercely stubborn and eccentric owner, Edward Spencer, and a group of elderly, single women - apathetic yet resilient guests who remain at the hotel because they have nowhere else to go. And there's also old, blind Mrs. Rappaport, Angela's grandmother who seems to live in a cupboard, released only for meals.

"How incredibly Irish it all is!" thought the Major wonderingly. "The family seems to be completely mad."

And yet Archer feels increasingly responsible for watching over this extended family - perhaps because no one else seems to care. He's also fallen in love with an opinionated and headstrung woman named Sarah - who happens to be Catholic. His timid wooing of her amid the heightened tension in the village between Sinn Feiners and Edward, is played out in a comic way but with very real and threatening undertones of violence - with increasing implications for Archer, no matter how detached and apolitical he tries to remain. There is unrest and disorganization in both the hotel and the country's politics, but Farrell does an interesting job of placing it in context among the "troubles" in other parts of Ireland, the world and in particular the British Empire by randomly injecting snippets from newspaper articles into the narrative. News of deaths in Belfast lie alongside reports on unrest in India and South Africa. And throughout there are constant reminders of the horrors and sadness of the world war that may be over, but still troubles the minds of its veterans. It's a wonderfully written novel that I can't get out of my head. I found it tragically funny, and wistfully sad, and I loved following all of these deluded characters who nevertheless keep their heroic stiff upper lips while the only world they've known trembles around them.

Troubles is the first book in Farrell's loose Empire Trilogy; the other two are The Siege of Krishnapur (which won the Booker Prize in 1973) and The Singapore Grip, both also published as NYRB Classics, and definitely on my to-be-read list. Meanwhile it'll be interesting to see how Troubles fares in the Lost Booker Prize contest.

Retro-fit your Keyboard. . .

Too cool. You can indulge in a little nostalgia by affixing these typewriter key stickers to your laptop. Of course you won't get the sound effects that for me, are the real charm of typewriters. I'm just old enough to have learned how to type in high school on one of those old machines with blank keys and a textbook of endlessly repeating sentences. One of the most useful things I've ever learned. (link via How to Be A Retronaut)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Celebrate Procrastination Week! (next week)

All of us have life changing books we have read, and this is one of mine...seriously. Eat That Frog is a very simple and straight forward book on how to stop procrastinating...and I truly try to eat a frog once a day!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

All About Alice. . .

I'm still not sure whether I'll go and see Tim Burton's version of Alice in Wonderland - I'm gettting rather tired of movies that rely too heavily on computers for their special effects, though I'm sure it'll be visually stunning. However, the New York Times has this review of a 1933 version, that has just come out on DVD and I'll definitely be checking it out. Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle. Gary Cooper as the White Knight. W.C. Fields as Humpty-Dumpty. The imperiously delicious Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen. And the delightful Edward Everett Horton (you'll know him if you're a fan of Astaire/Rogers films) as the Mad Hatter! Can it get any better than this? The Times notes that, "seen today, it’s still a profoundly creepy experience. This Wonderland is not the proto-psychedelic playground of the 1951 Disney animated version, but a distorted, claustrophobic environment populated by menacing, bizarre figures."

Of course this is a great time to re-read Lewis Carroll's classic book. And on my reading pile is a new novel, Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin, a fictionalized account of the girl who inspired it all - Alice Liddell Hargreaves. I can also recommend Stephanie Bolster's White Stone: The Alice Poems which I read many years ago when it was first published. It won the 1998 Governor General's Award for Poetry and explores the life of Alice, both the real girl and the literary legend. Like the kids who inspired Christopher Robin or Peter Pan - it's a tough and haunting legacy to live with.