Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Things read during recent stolen moments!

I know, my pretties. You missed me, right?

The past few weeks have flown by, a crazy muddle of various things, including Reading week at the college, some massive promo for some library programs (art, gardening, legal aid), a Freedom to read week event for LANCR that was great, but also kind of a comedy of errors, two conference calls for the BOYCA shortlist (announced today!), a deadline for Algonquin stuff, and some other random things. In addition to all that, I've been swamped with after-work stuff - fear not, I haven't recently developed a glittery social life, it's just cat-sitting and physiotherapy for a knee injury I sustained at work in January. Yeah, you try fitting in 3x physio a week, when you already work two nights a week and teach on one of your mornings off. I'm not complaining; just saying it requires a certain finesse, every spare second of free time, and a long-suffering spouse.

Meanwhile, now that I have been released from the BOYCA reading list for another year, I can go back to reading some adult novels. Here are some things I've had on my living room reading table / in my handbag / on the staffroom table / at physio in the past few weeks:

Great House by Nicole Krauss: I loved, loved, loved 2005's The History of Love. Great House is less neatly tied together, in terms of plot; The History of Love was full of somewhat unlikely coincidences, and a lot more humour to relieve the tension of some of the heartache. The Washington Post's Ron Charles says Great House "doesn't take [as] many risks" as The History of Love, and thus also "never dazzles us, never sweeps us away. Its beauty is a heavy brocade of grief that won't let these characters soar." I think I agree with him, but I don't think that this is a criticism, per se. I think Great House is just a different kind of book, showing a less perfect set of human relationships. The Telegraph says that Krauss, in this novel, "gives us her tragic vision pure. It is a high-wire performance, only the wire has been replaced by an exposed nerve, and you hold your breath, and she does not fall." I would agree.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman: I confess I mostly read this to see if it was worth recommending to the spouse and his mother-in-law; they enjoy their religious debates, and I thought a myth told by an atheist might be a good discussion starter. This book took me awhile to get the hang of: it is so simply written that I found it rather disarming; the thing is, despite the simplicity of the text, it is a deeply thoughtful examination of truth, fact, mythology, faith, fame and envy. Essentially, Pullman makes Christ and Jesus into two different characters who are brothers. While Jesus is the one with the fan base, Christ records his travels and preachings, embellishing and manipulating the facts of their story to allegedly get at the "truth" of things. I thought this was an interesting idea, but neither character jumped off the page for me, in the end. Read more via the Guardian if you wish.

Something Missing by Matthew Dicks: File this one under "randoms"; I think it was something I picked up at a Divas talk...? Anyway, it's a strange and thoroughly entertaining story of an professional thief who suffers who begins to feel that he should help the people from whom he steals.... Mayhem ensues, of course. A quick read.

Folly by Marthe Jocelyn: This one was like candy, so easy and fun to read. Technically a YA title, this was at least one reading level up from the, oh 38-odd books I just polished off for BOYCA. On that subject, Folly was shortlisted today for one of the other CLA Book Awards, the Young Adult Book Award. Folly is a richly-detailed historical novel set in Victorian London, and following the plight of a young girl sent into service by her unkind stepmother; before long, she finds herself in London, and in love. For romance-loving teens, or the Upstairs, Downstairs / Downton Abbey crowd.

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell: As usual, when this came in, I thought blankly: did it win something? Get shortlisted for something? Looks familiar.... Welcome to my world. Anyway, this novel won the 2010 Costa Novel Award, and you can read an extract here. In the end, this story took awhile to get going, in my opinion; the first half drags a fair bit. The second half, however, is riveting. Essentially, this is the story of another Alexandra (!), known as Lexie (no. Just NO, before you ask...). A young Lexie leaves her stifling Devon home after being sent away from university (in England in the 1950s, for exiting a door marked for men after an examination). She takes up with charismatic magazine editor, Innes Kent, and begins a whirlwind life in Soho. An alternate strand in this story depicts the struggles of Elina, a new mother in modern London, whose partner, Ted, seems to be rather falling apart at the seams; twists and turns in the two women's stories reveal that they are, in fact, linked. An interesting examination of the evolution of women's roles in society, and the impact our childhood has on us as adults.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender: Well, this was an odd book, in a kind of wonderful way at first, and then in mostly just a strange way. At age 8, Rose discovers (via her mother's lemon cake) that she can taste the emotions of the person who prepares her food; the lemon cake tastes so overwhelmingly of sadness that Rose is ill. You can imagine how this might pose various problems: for one thing, forget about enjoying a cookie from the local bakery, and also forget about the concept of "too much information" - Rose simply can't stop the insights that come from other people's food, and she learns some disturbing and unwanted things about those around her. In the last 50 or so pages, this book takes a bit of a weird turn, and I wasn't sure I wanted to go there, honestly. I have to say I ended up feeling the same way about this that I do about most sweets: at first I'm all, yeah, fabulous, and then when I take the 3rd bite, I begin to wonder why I'm eating this and what else I would rather have eaten, and then when I put the fork down I pretty much remember why I don't eat sweets a lot: I don't really like most of them. Sorry!

The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna: I don't know how I ended up reading so many novels about women who either have children or don't; I guess you could say that's a central choice for female characters of a certain age, but I must say I was beginning to feel a bit stifled by these stories as I put down the last book on this list. This is a bit of a read-alike for The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist.... The Birth of Love weaves together four stories, each pertaining to childbirth and/or the mother-child relationship. One, in the past, details the mental breakdown of a real-life physician, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis (who discovered that rates of "childbed fever" could be drastically reduced by physicians washing their hands); another follows modern-day mother, Brigid, whose hopes of a home birth are somewhat confounded. Yet another, this time futuristic, storyline consists largely of trial transcripts from a post-apocalyptic England, where several men and women are accused of conspiring against their authoritarian government by protecting a pregnant woman, also named Brigid. Finally, the last storyline involves an anxious writer who attends his own book launch but is plagued by worries for his own ill mother. While I can understand the Guardian's comparison of this book with The Hours, I didn't enjoy it as much as Cunningham's novel. I was drawn to both Brigids (although I found the links between the two strained credibility), but less to the other characters.

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