Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

So, my grand plans for participating in the blogosphere regularly and in earnest this year have gone the way most of my New Year’s resolutions go: absolutely nowhere. In the first week of January I found myself suddenly with 5 jobs, and sadly wasn’t even able to post the last of my 2012 lists. So, because I still have not had time to do proper capsule reviews for my favourite literary reads of the year, I am just going to give you the list. If you trust my judgement, you should definitely pick these up. If you don’t trust my judgement (yet, because it is just a matter of time, really), you should look these titles up and get more feedback. I have no reservations at all in whole-heartedly endorsing every book on this list. They might offer something quite different from one another, but each title is moving and interesting or innovative in its own way. These are the books I would like to force on all my friends:

The Other City – Michal Ajvaz

Dublinesque – Enrique Vila-Matas

Varamo – César Aira

The Following Story – Cees Nooteboom

Spilt Milk – Chico Buarque

The Ocean Sea – Alessandro Barrico

The Man Who Walked Through Walls – Marcel Aymé

Man in the Holocene – Max Frisch

Circus Bulgaria – Deyan Enev

Train Dreams – Denis Johnson

Glaciers – Alexis M. Smith

Radio Iris – Anne-Marie Kinney

Tell the Wolves I’m Home – Carol Rifka Brunt

The Emperor of Paris – C.S. Richardson

Love and the Mess We’re In – Stephen Marche


Let me know if you agree. If not, that’s great too, because one of my favourite things about literature is that encourages debate and discussion. Happy reading!

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Recap: The Year in Reading

Well, I just squeaked in under the wire on my goal of reading 50 books for fun this year. So, as I get ready for the new reading challenge, I would like to revisit some of the books that saw me through 2012.

First book: The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, Volume 1 – edited by Joseph-Gordon Levitt

Last book: Hawthorn and Child – Keith Ridgway

Best read: Angelmaker – Nick Harkaway

Best book(s): Varamo – Cesar Aíra, The Ocean Sea – Alessandro Baricco

Best novella: Train Dreams – Denis Johnson

Best short story collection: The Man Who Walked Through Walls – Marcel Aymé

Best young adult book: The Seer of Shadows – Avi

Book(s) I haven’t finished (because if I really love a book, I don’t want it to end, and I foolishly slow down or stop reading to accomplish the not-ending) that would definitely make my “best of” list: Dublinesque – Enrique Vila-Matas, The Other City – Michal Ajvaz

Worst book: Swimming Home – Deborah Levy

I’m starting 2013 with a couple of goals in mind. I will try to read 52 books next year, in spite of the fact that I will be working 3 jobs for at least the first 6 months. I am also hoping to post on this blog on a more regular schedule. Wish me luck. I look forward to sharing my reads with everyone, and wish you all a joyous and book-filled new year!

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Here, finally, is the second installation of the books I had the most fun reading this year. These books were a blast. You should read them.

George and Weedon Grossmith – The Diary of a Nobody (Oxford): A friend gave this to me the last time I was in Scotland. I was so enchanted by its quiet charm and gentle social satire that I read it in a single sitting. The suburban Englishman’s diary entries of daily routines in Victorian England are full of slapstick and social faux-pas. I thought it was absolutely hysterical.

Kevin Barry – The City of Bohane (Jonathan Cape): Great read. The west Irish accent really comes through here in the speech patterns. There are wonderful turns of phrase, and a Burgess-like linguistic invention. I love Barry’s language, and the non-tech vision of the future gives the story an oddly workable hybrid of old west/1920s mobster feeling. The characterization could use some work, and the plot seems to lose steam, but all in all it was a very refreshing read. This is a must-read just for the incredible inventiveness of the language.

Tiffany Murray – Diamond Star Halo (Portobello): Tiffany Murray has an excellent ear for storytelling language. Here, she tells the story of the Llewellyn family who run a recording studio in rural Wales. The story follows the family from the 1970’s through to the 1990s. I especially enjoyed the character of Nana, and the back-story of Halo’s parents, which contains wonderful imagery and is emotionally pitch-perfect. There is a pseudo-taboo broken in the latter part of the novel that I wasn’t terribly smitten with, but it is a small flaw easily over-looked in light of the sheer joy to be found in the language, and the overwhelming charm of so many of the characters. Also, two of the best literary grandmothers EVER live within the pages of this book.

Robin Sloan – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux): Sloan’s fast-paced romp through bookshops, secret societies, and the world of high-tech gadgetry is an ode to friendship and a recognition that perhaps the tech world and the book world aren’t really as distant from one another in their principles as we have been made to believe. This one’s a bit slick, and not as “bookish” as I might have liked, but it made me think about my own book vs. tech assumptions a little more carefully. It’s a light, quick read, and very timely.

Patrick DeWitt – The Sisters Brothers (Ecco): Okay, this is a bit of a cheat because I technically read it last year, but it’s now available in paperback and was so entertaining that it deserves a spot on this list. If you haven’t read Patrick DeWitt’s dark and hilarious tale of two assassin brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, you have been missing out. It’s full of murder, gold, sibling rivalry, and a desperate need just to be loved. Fantastic!


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Continuing the holiday reads recommendations, here are five of my favourite short reads of the year – two short story collections and three novellas. All deal with rather dark subject matter and are fantastic reads.


Marcel Aymé – The Man Who Walked Through Walls (Pushkin Press): This collection of stories is absolutely brilliant. It belongs alongside the works of Borges, Kafka, Gogol, and Cortázar. The stories combine surrealism and biting social satire. Among the denizens you will find in these pages: a man who discovers he suddenly has the ability to walk through walls, a woman who can replicate herself infinitely, young boys dreaming of seven league boots, governments that can legislate leaps forward and backward in time.

Lucy Wood – Diving Belles (Mariner Books): These contemporary tales are drenched in Cornish folklore, and range from the charming to the downright unsettling. Most of the stories are wonderfully dark and incredibly original. For a debut collection of stories, this is rather masterful. If you’re a fan of Panos Karnezis or Karen Russell, these stories will be right up your street. They skillfully blend the fantastic with gritty realism, and are incredibly evocative of place – the wilds of Cornwall and the salt-sea air of its coastline.

Denis Johnson – Train Dreams (Picador): Denis Johnson’s latest novella is entirely deserving of all the praise heaped upon it, and in all honesty, should have taken the Pulitzer this year. Concentrated, evocative, and moving, the novella contains all of the mythology of the American northwest in its slim binding and at its core stands Robert Grainier, the hero figure – hardworking, taciturn, and touched by tragedy. Johnson weaves incredibly intense episodes from Grainier’s life into a tapestry of the history of the American West. Wonderful single-sitting read.

Chico Buarque – Spilt Milk (Grove Press): Eulálio Montenegro d’Assumpção – descendant of Portuguese nobility, former weapons dealer, great-great-grandfather of a Brazilian drug dealer – lies in a hospital bed in his one-hundredth year of life and remembers. In his old age and infirmity, his stories blend and blur, weaving together past and present through images, emotions, and associations in a rich tapestry of national and family history. The short novel was awarded two of Brazil’s leading literary prizes when it was originally published in Portuguese in 2009. Buarque is well-known as a musician in Brazil, and his prose has a rhythmic, musical quality to it that carries the reader forward effortlessly.

Max Frisch – Man in the Holocene (Dalkey Archive Press): This was my first experience reading Max Frisch, and it definitely won’t be the last. The narrative is interspersed with notes and clippings from the books in the widower Geiser’s house in a Swiss valley. Outside, an epic rainstorm threatens to undermine the very solidity of the landscape with landslides and rockfalls. Inside, Geiser’s mind is undermined by his inability to recollect things he once knew, and he obsessively writes down facts on slips of paper or clips paragraphs out of his books and fastens them to the walls of his house. The narrative is claustrophobic and perfectly suited to its subject matter: an isolated man suffering the indignities of age and senility and trying to find meaning.

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This post was originally going to be a “top 5 books” I had the most fun reading this year. Clearly, I too much of a good time, because there were so many fun books I was loathe to exclude that the post is now a top 10 in two parts. If I was still working at the bookshop, these are the titles I would handsell dozens of. Like a boss.

Nick Harkaway – Angelmaker (Alfred A. Knopf): This book was an absolute blast! It is raucous and original. Mild-mannered clockworker with gangster heritage, octogenarian former super-spy with ugly pug sidekick, super-villain with creepy minions, elegant doomsday machine with… bees. What more could you ask for? The writing is snappy and funny, and the book is chock-a-block with great characters. If you’re looking for a bit of clever fun, look no further. The book is so good that months later, I am still thinking about it and chuckling about some of the best bits. Seriously. Just buy it. It’s fantastic.

Dan Rhodes – Little Hands Clapping  (Canongate): By turns macabre, hilarious, moving, and disturbing, this is the perfect novel for those people on your shopping list who are a bit dark and twisted. Set primarily in a German suicide museum, the story weaves together the tales of the museum’s caretaker, its patrons, its visitors/victims, and a local doctor. Two of the main characters are rather sinister and conspire in disturbing ways, breaking taboos that some readers might have a tough time stomaching. But, there is also a very charming love story and several fascinating characters. The story can be gruesome, but it is also enchanting and funny. It is a rather macabre fairy tale and a refreshingly original read.

Missy Marston – The Love Monster (Vehicule Press): This darkly hilarious tale of Margaret H. Atwood (not to be confused with the writer) is wonderfully lively and honest about the miseries of our quotidian existence. It is an excellent character study of Margaret (separated, psoriasis-riddled, bad job, bad attitude, and observed by aliens) and the people in her orbit, as well as an astute catalogue of many types of love (good and bad, romantic, platonic, familial, etc.). The conclusion was a bit “Hollywood happy-ending”, brought about by a deus ex machina (or more properly, an alien ex ufo), but it works because the bulk of the story isn’t sickly sweet. By the end, the reader is really rooting for Margaret, foibles and all. The story is incredibly well written – snappy and funny and poignant – and is a pleasant change from usually dour Canadian fiction. One of my favourite CanLit reads of the year.

Susan Hill – The Small Hand (Profile Books): Okay, this is “fun” in the way that having the bejesus scared out of you can be fun. Hill is a master of the ghost story novella, as evinced by The Woman in Black. However, the story here is more masterful than the Gothic exercise that her first ghost story was. Still here though, are the tropes of the isolated, dilapidated house, the tragic death of a child, and the questionable psychological state of the protagonist. Woven into this conventional tapestry are threads of memory, guilt, and dread. This is a first rate ghost story, tense and well-wrought, and suitable for gobbling up in a single sitting on a cold, dark, winter’s night.

Jasper Fforde – The Eyre Affair (Penguin): Again (as with The Book Thief in the previous post), I’m way behind on this one. I’ve had it on my shelf for years, and just never got around to it, as is often the case with books I’m quite certain I will enjoy. I’m sure there’s a word for that particular syndrome, and if there isn’t, there should be. In any case, this was great fun to read. It’s the action-packed story of Thursday Next, a Special Operative in literary detection, who gets caught up trying to solve case involving the kidnappings of literary characters from the pages of their books, particularly one Jane Eyre. It’s funny, surreal, and full of literary jokes. What’s not to like? If you are already on the Jasper Fforde bandwagon, the seventh book in the Thursday Next series, The Woman Who Died A Lot, is available now.



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I know, I know! It’s too early to talk about the holiday season. But the decorative lights are going up, and here in the Canadian hinterland there’s already plenty of snow on the ground. Actually, the primary reason I want to get this post out so early, is so that you have a chance to seek these books out at your local independent bookshop, and if they don’t have them in stock, you’ll still have plenty of time to order them in before the orgy of greed begins.

I’m going to stick to books I’ve read in the last 12 months, so some of these titles will be brand new, and some will be older books I’m just getting around to reading. I’m going to start with Young Adult fiction because it is the smallest and most manageable list. Disclaimer: I don’t read a lot of children’s books or young adult fiction, so I can’t give much insight into age appropriateness or reading levels. Ask your independent bookseller for help on that score. These books are reviewed from an adult reader’s point of view.

Markus Zusak – The Book Thief (Knopf Books for Young Readers): Okay, I know I’m late to the party on this one, but as I said, I don’t read a lot of YA, so the ones folks recommend to me will often sit on the shelf for months or years before they are picked up on a whim. I read this while traveling in Romania, and was so affected by it that as I finished it on the plane to my next destination, I was silently, unapologetically weeping. The story is narrated by Death and follows Liesel Meminger, a foster child living outside Munich, through the Second World War. As should be evident from the title, a key theme is the importance of books and stories as nourishment for our souls. All of the characters have tremendous depth, and the story is very moving.

Avi – The Seer of Shadows (HarperCollins Canada): In spite of the fact that Avi writes books marketed for children, his language is more sophisticated than that of most contemporary adult fiction writers. This was my first exposure to Avi, and I was originally drawn to the book by the fascinating subject matter, early photography and the spirit photography hoaxes of the late 19th Century. Horace, a rational young man apprenticing to a society photographer, and Pegg, an African American servant girl in the wealthy Von Macht household, join forces when the spirit of the Von Macht’s dead daughter Eleanora begins appearing in photographs intent on exacting vengeance upon those who abused her. The story is vivid and full of wonderful imagery and detail about the magic of photography. Avi writes vividly about a fascinating historical period full of sweeping technological and social change, and tells a rather frightening ghost story as well.

John Green – The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton Juvenile): This novel will make you laugh and break your heart, often at the same time. In a wonderful narrative voice, Green tells the story of Hazel, a 16-year-old girl battling terminal cancer, trying to live some semblance of a life, and crushing on a boy. The story is honest, funny, and wrenching. The reactions of Hazel, her family, and her friends to the limitations and frustrations of illness (especially terminal illness) ring true and take the novel far beyond the realm of schlocky, sentimental teen cancer stories into the realm of insight and empathy. Given the subject matter, you can expect this story to be a weeper, but oftentimes the weeping is accompanied with laughter at the cleverness, making this a perfect and cathartic good read.

Patrick Ness – A Monster Calls (Candlewick): Having lost my father to cancer when I was 14 years old, I found this story particularly wrenching. Also, you must buy this in print (not digital) because Jim Kay’s illustrations are stunning and evocative. Conor O’Malley’s mother is dying of cancer, and after her treatments begin the nightmares start. An ancient yew tree monster visits Conor every night at the same time. Ness approaches the subject matter with tremendous clarity, especially those things one feels they should never think, or thinks they should never feel, in such situations. The story is complex and moving.

Victor Lavalle – Lucretia and the Kroons (Random House Digital): This was one of the first titles I read entirely in digital format (and that is currently the only format it is available in). I found this story readable and compelling. The young protagonists deal the monstrous in everyday life (terminal illness, urban decay, seeking a sense of belonging, etc). Lucretia is a brave and determined urban heroine who risks a horrifying urban netherworld of mutilated crack-heads in an attempt to save her terminally ill best friend. The nightmare world that LaValle creates can be read as a sort of urban spiritual limbo, which will certainly resonate with a metropolitan audience.  I did find the writing to be a bit lacking stylistically, especially compared to the richness of the writing in the previous four titles on this list, but this is definitely an interesting read, especially for those who enjoy urban dystopian fantasy.

The next batch of capsule reviews will focus on my favorite adult reads of the year. The biggest problem with that project will be whittling the list down to something manageable!

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I have noticed a pattern in my reading material of late. Three of the novels I finished over the summer have as their protagonists three very quirky single women.

Alexis M. Smith’s charming and quiet novel Glaciers (Tin House, 2012) gives us a single day in the life of a hipster heroine, Isabel, who works in a Portland library repairing damaged books, recalls with nostalgia a childhood in Alaska, shops at thrift stores, and crushes on a former soldier colleague. The surreal Radio Iris by Anne-Marie Kinney (Two Dollar Radio, 2012) features Iris, a loner who works in an office building for a mysterious and shifty boss (at a company whose purpose or product she cannot determine), and who feels drawn to a strange man in an office down the hall. Missy Marston’s The Love Monster (Vehicule Press, 2012) is a portrait of Margaret H. Atwood: senior editor at an insurance company, psoriasis sufferer, soon-to-be divorcee, best friends with a bottle of gin, and object of affection of an alien observer. No, not that Margaret Atwood. Yes, an actual alien.

While all three novels are tremendously different in tone (gently nostalgic, vaguely sinister, and darkly comedic), they all seem to address a fundamentally existential angst. All of these women are seeking fulfillment, meaning, and emotional connection. Unsurprisingly so, the project proves more difficult than advertised. In a refreshing twist, these are not the sad and silly women of Chick Lit who obsess over shopping, socializing, and snagging a man. Nor are they the glamorous women of Sex and the City, and for that I am grateful, for those women always made me feel like a failure at my own small life.

Smith, Kinney, and Marston imbue the quotidian with significance. They do not shy away from the loneliness, the isolation, or the confusion of their characters. They do not pathologize singlehood; nor do they pathologize solitude. They do not diminish the existential crises of their characters by solving those crises with shoe shopping or going for martinis with “the girls”. Their jobs aren’t glamorous; their love/sex lives aren’t fulfilling. There is no guarantee of Hollywood happy endings, and there are questions about what form any “happiness” might take.  Smith, Kinney, and Marston look the sadness of the single girl right in the eye, and accept it for what it is – a path to self-awareness and self-acceptance, and an acknowledgement of the importance of the fleeting pleasures and human connections of this world. Isabel, Iris, and Margaret are recognizable and real, and will resonate with readers because the struggle for connection and for a meaningful life strikes a chord in our increasingly technologically connected, but ultimately emotionally disconnected, world. C.S. Lewis is purported to have said, “We read to know that we are not alone.” In these three female characters, I found kindred spirits.

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Last year, a friend joined a group that was challenging people to read at least 50 books in a year. While I did not participate in that group’s activities, it did inspire me to keep track of my recreational reading last year. When I tallied my reads at the end of 2011, I made a horrifying discovery. I had only read 19 books for fun. 19. Me. The bookworm extraordinaire. I hung my head in shame.

Now, of course, I certainly read more than 19 books, but all of my other reading was work-related. That’s what happens when you are teaching literature at two universities, working at a public library, and trying to research a doctoral dissertation. So, this year I decided to join a reading challenge on Goodreads in an attempt to make myself more accountable for my reading habits. Working in book-centric jobs means that my downtime is often spent as far from “work” materials as I can get (lots of movies, tv, and old school video games). Goodreads has been a great platform for keeping track of my reading progress, and with a few friends on it as well, it is public enough to shame me into at least trying to meet those reading goals.

I have set myself a goal of reading 50 books for pleasure this year, and as of this moment, I am 3 books ahead of my required pace. I have a few tricks to help me maintain my pace:

1. I only read books that I think will be fun/interesting/compelling books. I won’t choose the books someone else has guilted me into reading (I’m looking at you, “Top 100 books to read before you die” lists). A book I feel obligated to read often sucks the fun out of the entire enterprise causing me to abandon the whole project. There will be a day when I will tackle War and Peace, but it is not this day.

2. When I feel pressure because I’m falling behind, I am not above reading novellas or short story collections to quickly add a couple titles to the “read” pile. A side effect of this tactic is that I have read some incredible short works. They are the literary equivalent of appetizers that can be consumed in a single bite, but the real fancy, filling kind – crabpuffs and stuffed mushroom caps. Avoid the cocktail weenies.

3. Keeping track of what I’ve read inspires me to seek out other recommendations, and my “to read” list is now more than double the size of the list for the books recorded as “read”. This means I always have something to seek out or look forward to reading, so I don’t spend days trying to find something new to read.

Using Goodreads to track my reading has made me more aware of my habits, and more conscious of making time for pleasure reading. And I have continued to read for fun in spite of my reading-heavy jobs. In fact, rather than burning out on books, I find my reading libido ramping up, because I no longer associate the activity with “work”. It has become a joyful, pleasurable pursuit again. And, to be honest, I’m really looking forward to the bragging rights when I meet my 50 book goal.

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Summer Readings

Against all odds, I actually managed to read some books this summer that were purely for pleasure. I started with Patrick DeWitt’s marvellously rendered, darkly funny tale of two cowboy assassin brothers, “The Sisters Brothers”. There is bloodshed, sibling rivalry, and existential crises, but throughout the entire novel I could not help but grin at the tale told in the voice of Eli Sisters, the overweight brother with a crisis of conscience and a need to be loved. Eli struggles with his overbearing brother Charlie as they travel to California on a job during the goldrush.

Then, seeking a lighter read and attracted by the striking new cover art, I finally picked up Melissa Bank’s “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing”. Following the protagonist Jane through a series of short stories as she learns to navigate the seas of love, the book was a pleasant surprise containing emotional depth as well as humour.

I continued with Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians,” finally getting around to reading it just as the sequel “The Magician King” is set for release this fall. While the literary genealogy of this novel is rather obvious, I did enjoy the darker direction that Grossman took, choosing to focus on the navel-gazing, hedonistic, and ultimately unfulfilled youth confronted with disillusionment when they discover that magic is real. Grossman very deftly takes a familiar premise and overturns our expectations. I’m thoroughly looking forward to the next book.

Slightly less satisfying, perhaps because of my higher expectations, was Kristen den Hartog’s new novel, “And Me Among Them, the story of Ruth, a young giantess, and her parents. The tale is told in the voice of Ruth, but I found that voice to be oddly distant and not terribly engaging. The characters of Ruth’s parents, and indeed even Patrick, the neighbour boy, are far more interesting than Ruth or her best friend and worst influence, Suzy. The back stories of Ruth’s parents, Elspeth and James, were the most vivid and emotionally affecting episodes in the novel, and both were well written. I only wish the rest of the novel lived up to the same standard, as I think den Hartog has great potential as a writer. My favourite of her books is still “The Perpetual Ending,” which is definitely worth tracking down.

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Stumbling around the web today and I came across this gem on The Guardian website. The Guardian is exploring the literature of “new Europe” in a series of articles, compiling a reading list based on reader recommendations. While I do find this a commendable effort, the problems with this approach are pretty self-evident. A quick glance at their spreadsheet of suggestions will pick up on a number of duplicates – the list would have benefitted from being consolidated and edited in some fashion. I also perceive problems when it comes to leaving the selection solely in the hands of The Guardian’s readership. While they are certainly counted among the highly literary (the Guardian’s book section is excellent), it might have been interesting to speak with scholars or citizens or bookshops and newspapers of the country they are creating the reading list for, because an outsider’s vision of the best of a nation’s literature is certainly going to be limited. Still, a great way to broaden one’s literary horizons. Perhaps I will chime in with my own list of favourites by nation as I continue this blog.


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