Sunday, April 21, 2013

Read recently: now with a stowaway to New France, a WW2 female spy, a mother of a god, an American Civil War vet, a Montreal taxi driver, two ballerinas, Hahvahd grads, and some regular normals

Hi, my name is Alexandra and I have a library book hoarding problem. I totally just returned at least five of these unread. Argh!

I like doing these posts because I get to talk about books that people might not have heard of that I enjoyed but that don't fit together thematically, and also because at times like these, when it seems like I spent an inordinate amount of time staring out the living room window, organising tax information, or watching terrible TV, the list serves to remind me that I am still an OK reader. Whew.
  • The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan: made me homesick for ballet (not uncommon). Not as great as I was expecting it to be, given the hype. An interesting exploration of Degas's Little Dancer Aged Fourteen using contemporary ideas about  physiognomy. For me, the most compelling aspect of the novel was the relationship between the three sisters and their common love of dance, as each strives to lift themselves and each other from the poverty of 1880s Left Bank Paris through a variety of honest and dishonest means.
  • Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese: a book that should be read by all Canadians. Heart-breaking in subject matter and haunting in tone. Wonderfully, simply written.
  • The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan: one of my guilty pleasures, a novel exploring the lives of four female Harvard grads as they approach middle age. Did they make the right choices? Are they growing apart from one another? Have they sold out their dreams? The novel is structured around the 5-year updates provided by alumni for the "red book" of the title (srsly, I would kill myself if I had to write these). Funny, dramatic (if implausible!), and entertaining: like reading your high school yearbook if people's thoughts made it in there.
  • Speaking From Among the Bones by Alan Bradley: I am a huge fan of Flavia, and this latest volume in the series doesn't disappoint. Again, as with The Painted Girls, but even more so in this case, the relationship between the three de Luce sisters is what absolutely makes this series for me. It's odd, nuanced, and full of real emotion. Speaking ends on a horribly tantalizing cliff-hanger. The next volume could mark a tremendous change in the series, but in a certain sense I think this was needed.
  • Above All Things by Tanis Rideout: I have no patience for stories of athletes (hegemonic masculinity, competition is king, etc., etc.) But..... but. This little gem of a novel by a Canadian (!), written from alternate perspectives, traces Mallory's last Everest climb in 1924. One of my favourite time periods? Check? English boarding school ghosts? Check? Female perspective? Check. OK, then, I guess I will give it a shot. I mean, you could write a whole novel just based on this photograph, for heaven's sake. So this is about Ruth and George, and their love, and the choices they both make that lead George up the mountain for the third time, never to return. This is a book both about the consequences for George of his fascination with the climb, and the far-reaching consequences for those he loves and leaves behind.
  • The Tinsmith by Tim Bowling: strange little novel about two American Civil War veterans (a Union doctor and an escaped slave) and "the kind of violence that we do" to one another. Many amputations and lots of salmon feature prominently.
  • Carnival by Rawi Hage: I enjoyed this more than I thought I would, given the outlines of the plot (such as it it). Which is not to say it wasn't weird: it was.
  • Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn: another guilty pleasure, this one interesting for its ruminations on strange life choices, be it monarch or royal staff member. This is an odd but lovely book about Queen Elizabeth II escaping Buckingham Palace in a hoodie, in search of cheese, due to a sort of delayed mid-life crisis. The Queen's take on major historical figures, and modern society, including race relations in England, are treasures.
  • Whirl Away by Russell Wangersky: great, if wistfully sad, collection of short stories.
  • The Tale-Teller by Susan Glickman: historical novel about a young French Jewish girl who dressed as a boy to travel to New France. A latter-day Scheherazade, she weaves a wild tale to the authorities in an attempt to remain in the new world (suck it, Aaron Hart). This book makes you work for the truth, which is in some ways simply as Esther puts it: "I did not run away from my faith. I ran away from the limitations that faith subjected me to."
  • The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things by Lorna Crozier: patron recommendation!
  • Web of Angels by Lilian Nattel: fascinating exploration into dissociative identity disorder.
  • The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro: meh. I loved the art history and descriptions of the forgery process (a giant oven! Seriously!). I could have slapped the main character in the face for her romantic vacillations and delusions, though.
  • Inside by Alex Ohlin: I stayed up until 2am finishing this, because I was so concerned for the main characters' well-being that I could not, in good conscience, close the covers on them. As the Post put it, a cheery little book with "multiple suicides, failed relationships, crumbling families, abortion, a homeless teen and, for good measure, the Rwandan genocide." Oh, and skiing on Mount Royal.
  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth E. Wein: delicious, delicious, delicious. I don't know what else to say. A teenage British spy captured by the Gestapo is forced to write out her confession: another latter-day Scheherazade. With more tense twists in the road than a drive through the French Alps, this one is truly worth the hype it received, and ignore the teen label. It's for any woman who has a best friend she would die for. As my friend Lina put it:
    "Code Name Verity is that rarity among rarities in Young Adult Fiction these days: it is a book about a friendship between women without any bullshit. They are not fighting over a guy. One does not become popular and leave the other behind. Neither is the other’s sidekick- Verity and Maddie are equally skilled in their different professions, they have equally strong personalities. There is no pettiness, no jealousy, no weird obsessions with each other. No need to spend every freaking moment together talking about asinine things (sorry. I obviously have a beef about how women friendships are portrayed in popular media)."
  • The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin: the mother of God suffers from post-traumatic stress, and is potentially held captive, in this oddly moving novelisation of the post-resurrection early church. Mary reflects back on her son's life, presenting a nuanced (sometimes painfully realistic) portrait of Jesus: sometimes selfish and always blindingly charismatic. The disciples don't get off any easier, either. Excellent review here.

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