Saturday, June 16, 2007

Memento Mori

I am falling behind in my book tracking!

My latest read was Memento Mori by Muriel Spark. The title is Latin and translates to, "remember you must die." The plot is launched when elderly people begin receiving phone calls from an anonymous caller who reminds them of their impending death. Despite it's morbid theme, the book is quite humourous and looks at aging sometimes with gravity, but mostly tongue-in-cheek-ishly.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Good Earth

Perhaps it's a little backwards, but I'm doing a little research on Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth, having finished it early this morning, sitting on a sunny front porch, coffee mug resting on the bistro table beside me. What I did know: The Good Earth won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, a year after it's publication (it's printed on the front and back cover of every copy of this book I've ever seen!) and that Buck won the Nobel Prize for literature. What I didn't know is that this novel is the first in a trilogy--although that makes sense, based on its ending. I was also amazed to read her biography; what a truly inspirational humanitarian! I also didn't know that it was an Oprah's Book Club pick in 2004. Well, Lyndsay's Book Club recommends it, too.

The Good Earth tells the story of the familial, moral and economic cycles of Wang Lung, a Chinese farmer, pre-revolution. The fact that it's written by a white woman (granted, a white woman who was raised in China by missionary parents) forces you to read the story with a certain amount of criticism, but Buck's storytelling skills are good enough--and her attention to cultural details is fine enough--that quite often, any problem of narration disappears.

A repeating theme in the book is what happens when "the poor get too poor and the rich get too rich." (General idea: there's a shift in who holds the power--the poor become ambitious and the rich become careless and lazy.) It's a really interesting way to look at the world, although slightly depressing, since Buck's message seems to be that material wealth and idleness leads to inevitable corruption.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Penelopiad

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood is considered a "parallel novel;" it retells The Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus' wife. I've been reading a lot of parallel pieces lately (Wide Sargasso Sea, Till We Have Faces, Not Wanted On The Voyage), and I think I'm about through with metafiction for a bit. I'd like to say that's why I didn't enjoy this book all that much, but really, I think this book is more of a gimmick than a carefully-wrought work of art.

The Odyssey is an epic poem attributed to Homer. It's the sequel to The Iliad, which tells about the final year of the Trojan War and the eventual fall of Troy. The Odyssey is the recount of Odysseus' journey home after the war, and his many "detours"--it takes him 9 years to return. During Odysseus' absence from Ithaca, his home becomes overrun with suitors who are after Penelope and trying to take his place. The Penelopiad imagines what happened while Odyesseus was away and gives creative consideration to the female perspectives that are overlooked in Homer's poems.

While the novel has a bit of imagination, it's not beautifully assembled. It hardly contains enough content to be considered a novel, although that's how it's been marketed. Like a last-minute university paper, the text is well-spaced and framed with fat, white margins in order to stretch it into a 200-page book. What's most interesting about it is the voice that Atwood gives to the 12 maids who Odysseus inexplicably killed upon his return. Mostly though, it seems that this book is just a chance to apply Atwood's celebrity to a string of books known as the "Myths Series." This is the kind of book that you can read a few pages of in the bookstore, appreciate the idea, and return to the shelf without any desire to finish it.

This would, however, be an interesting read to add to a course where Homer's works were being studied. ..

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

White Teeth

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Monday, May 07, 2007

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A Short History of Indians in Canada

Thomas King is, without a doubt, the most featured author in my list of books. There is, however, good reason for that! He writes satire unlike any other, and I just can't get enough salt-in-the-wound humour these days.

I've just finished, A Short History of Indians in Canada. The title alone was enough to stir up controversy among those who saw me reading it, the common response being a nervous, "Er...what is that book about?" (The best answer I've been able to come up with, for the record, is, "Well, the title says it all.")

In this collection of short stories, you will find:
-reverence and irreverance, sometimes at the same time.
-King writing in a woman's voice (only for 1/2 dozen pages or so, but I believe it's a first)
-(some) stories that have no obvious connection to aboriginals in Canada
-broken families; broken relationships; broken promises
-snappy jokes
-jarring juxtapositions (I'm still working on the incorporation of Star Trek into Canadian history...)

A Short History is a potentially quick read that should, in my opinion, be read slowly. I've been savouring it for about three weeks, and I think I'll go back and read some parts again.

Drawing on the high school history class theme of my Beauty Tips post, I think that some of these stories would fit much better in history class than English class...and I'm going to start sneaking copies into my would-be-history-teacher friends' bookshelves just to see what might happen.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Beauty Tips From Moose Jaw

I've just finished a course on teaching writing. One of the main questions we struggled with in our twice-weekly class discussions was how to escape from the dreaded 5-paragraph essay format when creating writing assignments. I'd like to give a copy of Will Ferguson's Beauty Tips From Moose Jaw to each and every high school teacher with any kind of connection to teaching Canadian history or geography. Ferguson gives an excellent example of how writing about history doesn't have to be boring! (In fact, it can even be funny!)

My friend Lynne says that this book is what inspired her to travel across Canada. I can see why! Ferguson does a good job of making the everyday interesting. (Read this book and you'll have a new level of respect for the cultural significance of a grilled cheese sandwich, for example.) Continuing on the grilled cheese theme, some chapters in the book are a little...dull and synthetic. Those would be the ones stuffed into the middle--the three-chemicals-short-of-a-garbage-bag filling that holds the gloriously toasted bread (ie. the opening and ending chapters) together.

My advice to somebody who's thinking about reading this book: if a chapter gets boring, skip on ahead to one that looks more're not going to miss much! This would be a good book to find on tape for a road trip, or to read at a summer cottage....or even to read aloud with a group of friends, if you're into that sort of thing. Ferguson's skill with language makes this a book that sounds good (ie. even funnier) out loud.

Another disappointment I had with the book is that so many good sights and sites are skipped over. I suppose that could be part of the point of the whole book. For each and every, "Oooooh. I wish he'd included a chapter about...." there's a fascinating history assignment waiting to be written.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Larry's Party

I am buoyant with joy, having just finished Larry's Party by Carol Shields. The book is almost completely responsible for this buoyancy, but the sunshine streaming in the window; the coffee in my hand; and the sudden realization that I love the word buoyant and all its variations--all of these things are helping, too.

So, Larry's Party is a recent acquisition, but Carol Shields is an old favourite of mine. This book is Amelie-like in its exploration of the beauty of triviality, the excitement of mundanity... It's a look at the life of Larry Weller, one average guy from Winnipeg whose passion for mazes turns him into something of a novelty. The book is all about Larry--his life, his work, his wives--but really the entire novel leads up to a final chapter--the description of Larry's dinner party--where a relatively mundane occurance becomes a beautiful end. I'm still too buoyant to give this note any justice, but I would highly recommend this book for just about anybody. There are times when Shield's attempt to write from a man's perspective seems a little off (but really, who am I to judge, not being a man myself) but if you can get over and through that, you're on your way to a wonderful read!

Friday, March 30, 2007

Running In the Family

After the god-like feat of completing Atlas Shrugged, I've opted for something a little lighter for my next read, both physically and philosophically speaking.

Michael Ondaatje's Running In the Family was thrust into my hands by a friend while we ransacked the racks at a charity book sale. "Have you read this?" she mumbled, half of her attention focused on me, the other half focused on scanning the rest of the titles in the shelf she was currently perusing. "You probably have, 'cause it's good."

I hadn't read it, and I never turn down a recommended book! Since I liked In the Skin of a Lion, and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is on my must-read list, I figured that spending $2 on another of Ondaatje's books would be a sensible investment.

So far, it's paying off! This book is arranged as a memoir, with bits of story, poetry, photographs intermingling to paint an autobiographical tale where truth takes a backseat to beauty. I'm really enjoying it so far. I suppose I should attempt to articulate why: I think it has something to do with how Ondaatje represents history as memory--a not-to-scale map of stories that have been told and retold enough times that they become the significant elements of a family history. I like the idea that history lies in incidents; that incidents can have more impact than big-picture themes...

Atlas Shrugged

This book was recommended to me by a Kindergarten teacher! I suppose I should clarify that she doesn't read this sort of literature to her students; it might be a little bit over their heads.

Anyway, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is a major commitment, weighing it at 1069 pages in squint-sized print. The basic premise of the book is examining what would happen if the powerhouses of the world went on strike and refused to carry along the leeches and mooches any further. It plays out as a bit of a mystery novel, so, aside from spots where Rand's own philosophy (Objectivism) takes over and weighs things down, the plot moves along pretty quickly.

Some quotes-for-thought from the book:

p. 447 para 2:
"He was seeing the enormity of the smallness of the enemy who was destroying the world. ... If this is what has beaten us, he thought, the guilt is ours."

p. 461 para 4
"People with pleading eyes and desperate faces crowded into tens where evangelists cried in triumphant gloating that man was unable to cope with nature, that his science was a fraud, that his mind was a failure, that he was reaping punishment for the sin of pride, for the confidence in his own intellect--and that only faith in the power of mystic secrets could protect him from the fissure of a rail or from the blowout of the last tire on his last truck. Love was the key to the mystic secrets, they cried, love and selfless sacrifice to the needs of others."

I think that the portion in the last 1/10th of the book, where John Galt takes over the airwaves and preaches his philosophies for three hours, would make an interesting book club chat. But I'm not sure I would want to impose reading this entire book on somebody just to discuss that part....

Anyway, my biggest issue with Rand's theory--that nobody does anything completely honestly unless it also has a selfish motivation--is a bit off the mark. I also think her idea that nobody in society should benefit from a "free ride" off the others is a bit drastic. In Rand's world, children, the disabled, etc. are not factored in to the equation.....

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis.

"When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?"
(Part 2, Chapter 4, Paragraph 1)

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is my friend Lynne's favourite book. That--and its intriguing title--is what prompted me to read it!

With parallels to Jane Eyre and Huckleberry Finn, I was really impressed by the beauty and message of this book. I also learned as much about bees from reading it, as I did about spiders from reading Charlotte's Web!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

As For Me and My House

I finished reading Sinclair Ross' As For Me and My House last night. The plot is about as flat as its Saskatchewan setting, but there's something about the way Ross crafts his writing that kept me reading. It's rather bleak and depressing, which is probably another reason I liked it.

I don't want to say too much and spoil the plot, but I will say that it's an epistolary novel--sort of. It takes the form of a preacher's wife's diary, for precisely one year, I think during the early years of the Depression. As with most things epistolary, there's as much in what's not being said as in what's being said and truth becomes a rather subjective, er, subject.

Also, it's one of the few Canadian novels I've read that delves deeply--if at all--into art and the artistic temperament.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Wide Sargasso Sea

I just re-read Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, a book that was part of an Am. Lit/Jane Eyre seminar I took last year. Beyond the first 20 pages, I remembered almost nothing of the book, so it was a fascinating re-read, and my head is still spinning from Rhys' maddening representation of madness (clumsy sentence, but the best I've got right now.)

Wide Sargasso Sea tells the backstory of Bertha Mason, how and why she met and married Rochester, and where her madness stems from.

Of interest in the book: jewelry as currency for the women (most of whom are currency themselves) and the fascination with dresses. I'm going to assume these are deliberate connections with Jane Eyre and return to ponder Rhys' focus on this.

Also of interest: employer/employee relationships. Lines are muddled all over the place re: who is in control when. This fits really well with Mr. Rochester's relationship with Jane in Brontë's novel.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

From Reader To Writer

While picking up texts at the university bookstore earlier this month, I couldn't help but scan through the required readings for other courses. One book in particular caught my eye. Unable to take a course on how to teach children's literature, because I already I have a full-year kid-lit course as part of my undergrad degree, I was still intrigued by one of the readings for the class: From Reader To Writer: Teaching Writing Through Classic Children's Books by Sarah Ellis.

This is a short book that focuses on how some of the most loved and well known books of children's literature can be used as examples of particular writing styles and strategies. Most of my favourites, including C.S. Lewis, Louisa May Alcott, Katherine Paterson, Jean Little, Tolkein, Lewis Carroll get a full chapter devoted to their work.

Ellis does a good job of providing some interesting background trivia that will help engage students in the literature and suggests texts for various grade levels (most are junior and up). She also suggests complementary writing activities and exercises that can be done as a class. A decent teacher resource.