Saturday, 7 June 2014

May Update

In two days Elizabeth, Orca (our dog) and I will be heading off for our almost five thousand kilometre drive to the cottage.  In anticipation, I thought I would focus on books about relocation, migration, and exploration during the month of May along with whatever else might catch my fancy.  There is nothing I love more than road trips and reading about them is almost as fun as the real thing, so this has been a very good reading month!

My summers are relatively technology-free so although I will continue to read as many books as I can, I may not have a chance to check in here until I return home in the fall.  I will be trying to keep up with my favourite book blogs and to comment on your blogs as my increasingly dumb smart phone allows.  I wish you all a happy, healthy and safe summer, and thank you for another year of stimulating book talk and recommendations for what to read next.


The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (1998)

This is the story of Erasmus Darwin Wells, a naturalist, who in 1855 accompanies his friend (and fiance of his sister) Zechariah Voorhees on an expedition to the Arctic in search of the missing Franklin expedition.  In her detailed rendering of the ship, the landscapes, the events and the characters Andrea Barrett creates a story so real that I found myself frequently forgetting that it was fictional.  Definitely one of the best books I have read this year, I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone, like me, who is interested in the Arctic, or Human Against Nature stories, or historical fiction that does not pivot around romance or PC revisionism.  It is an inspirational story of endurance in a harsh environment, of survival against the odds.  The Voyage of the Narwhal also explores the limitations of human perception, challenges to friendship, physical disability, healing from loss, and the hubris of the young.  After I read the text, I borrowed the audiobook from the library and listened to it, beautifully read by Peter Riegert.


Where's You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (2012)

After reading Lucy's review and Dolce Bellezza's review I felt inspired to check out this quirky novel.  As an introvert with my own decided horror of Parent Council wine and cheese events, I could sympathize with Bernadette's issues.  While I really enjoyed the book, I didn't love it as much as I was expecting.  I wanted more depth to the characterisations and less slapstick predictability.  I did enjoy it a lot and I've kept my copy because I know I'll be going back to re-read the description of Bernadette's architectural masterpiece.  I could just picture the eyeglass curtain!


Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers (2011)

To promote settlement in seventeenth-century New France, girls and women were sent from France to marry and populate the colony.  Franco-Ontarian Suzanne Desrochers explores the stories of these "filles du roi" through Laure Beausejour as she travels from the Salpêtrière poorhouse to Ville-Marie (Montreal).  Desrochers has created thoroughly well-rounded characters neither wholey good nor bad but convincingly human.  This is an incredible debut novel for Desrochers filled with convincing details about the challenges of life in the new colony.  Highly recommended.



Light on Snow (2004) and Stella Bain (2013)
by Anita Shreve

I didn't realise until after I'd finished Stella Bain that it is in fact a sequel.  This may have explained why I felt there was something missing from this story, but I suspect not.  Simplistic, predicable, at times straining credulity, I found the characters shallow and the medical conditions to be convenient plot devices.  The same was true for Light on Snow which was one of those mindless but entertaining bits of fluff.  I was in the mood for some easy reading and these fit the bill.  I occassionally feel the need to check out a contemporary author I wouldn't ordinarily be drawn to just to see what the fuss is all about.  Curiosity has now been satisfied.  Both books were from my neighbourhood Little Free Library.



The Building of Jalna by Mazo de la Roche (1945) 

When I was a young teenager I haunted our small-town library, and around the age of 14 challenged myself to read through the shelves alphabetically.  I don't recall how far I made it through the collection, but it was at least to the D's because I remember the Jalna series by Mazo de la Roche.  Chronologically the first in the series of 16 books which were published between 1927 and 1960, the Building of Jalna is about retired officer Captain Philip Whiteoaks and his impetuous Irish wife Adeline, both members of the aristocracy who met and married in India and decide to settle and build their legacy in southern Ontario after spending a winter in Quebec in the mid-nineteenth century.  This is a series that sold more than eleven million copies in 193 English and 92 foreign editions, but has since fallen by the wayside.  Perhaps this is because of some of the dated attitudes such as the inherent superiority of the landed gentry, the prejudice against natives and the outright hostility toward mixed race inhabitants of the region (Metis).  I also found the attitudes of the main character, Adeline Whiteoaks toward motherhood fascinating.  Pregnancy was an unfortunate period best ignored by tightening one's corset even if it lead to discomfort and miscarriage; children were a regretable inconvenience. An interesting take on the immigration story with obvious influence from Gone With the Wind and Scarlet O'Hara.  This book, although published 18 years after the first in the series is the chronological beginning of the family story.  Not convinced it would be worth re-reading the others but enjoyed this one for what it was worth.


Strange Heaven by Lynn Coady (1998) 

How do you know what is normal, and how do you chart a path for your own life, when you are surrounded by nothing but varying shades of craziness?  Such is the dilemma of almost eighteen year old Bridget, temporarily in the psychiatric unit after giving her new baby for adoption.  How do you start fresh when the life you live seems to be propelling you down the same old ruts.  Lynn Coady is able to capture the nuance of language and attitude of Cape Breton with such honesty I am transported to the small Nova Scotian town where I grew up.  Her skill as a writer, already astounding in this, her first novel, just keeps getting better.  Earlier this year I read The Saints of Big Harbour (2002) which I LOVED, and am in the middle of The Antagonist (2011) right now (even better!).  Hellgoing (2013), for which I have very high hopes, is on my nightstand to be read next. 


Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (2012)

Me Before You is an exploration of end-of-life ethics disguised as a romantic novel.  I am decidedly not a reader of the romance genre, but I stuck this one through to the end mainly because it was a very easy read and I did get suckered in wondering how it would end.  An unambitious twenty-six year old woman without any clear direction in life is hired as a helper for a depressed quadriplegic man.  Things progress just as you might imagine they would.  It has all the subtlety of a sledge-hammer, but the message of not wasting time, of living life to the fullest, of the value of setting goals and pursuing dreams is inspiring in its own way.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

May Nature Notes


Inspired by Edith Holden's "The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady" I have been trying to capture moments of outdoor beauty.  We have had an uncharacteristically hot month and the lilacs are just on the verge of popping out.  It is a very popular flower to plant in our neighbourhood so we are anticipating bouquets of colour on every corner to brighten us after the incessant brown and grey (and white!). 

We had a much too-short weekend visit to the mountains in celebration of my birthday and Mother's Day during which I ate my body weight in amazing food and then we all soaked in the outdoor hot-tub whilst the snow fell.  I could hardly believe that I forgot my camera, especially when Orca and I encountered a curious mule deer on a short hike.  I saw two deer about 50 metres down the trail.  Orca was on his lead but I let him set the pace in approaching them.  It was fascinating to watch as he stopped, sniffed the air, and proceeded with caution.  The deer closest to us was doing exactly the same thing.  I was excited to see it take steps toward us!  As we moved closer and closer I watched both dog and deer conversing in subtle ways.  The deer moved toward us at the same rate Orca was moving forward until they were only about 6 feet apart.  That was when I wished I had not forgotten my camera!  I was wondering if they would actually touch noses when the furthest deer startled and bounded away, followed by Orca's new friend.  As a city dog he is used to having squirrels and cats to chase out of the yard but this was his first up-close encounter with a wild animal.

A Painted Lady butterfly experiement

June 2014


Friday, 2 May 2014

April Nature Notes



Inspired by Edith Holden's "The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady" I have been trying to capture moments of outdoor beauty.  I was able to find some little bits of green in sunny southern nooks and crannies at the end of this month.  Spring is one of the longest seasons here and starts when we are still winter's thrall, knee deep in the white stuff and in the seventh or eighth month of boots and coats.  We tell ourselves "Spring is Coming!" for at least two months of yo-yo-ing temperatures and the occasional blizzard until the rains of June arrive.  Last week we were blessed with three days of temperatures in the 20s and it was bliss!  This morning my car dinged a Possible Icy Roads warning that alerts me when temperatures dip to 3 degrees, but never mind: "Spring is Coming!"

And so are the lilacs :)




April was a mixed bag of reading for me.  I absolutely adored Once, Only the Swallows Were Free by Gabrielle Gouch.  So beautifully written, the author recounts her early years in communist Romania, and her family's eventual emigration to Israel.  She intersperses the account of her return to visit her half-brother who remained in Romania with the memories of her childhood and adolescence, as well as the history of her parents.  She did an excellent job of depicting the oppression of the communist state, of knowing everything you said and did could come back to haunt you.  I have been quite ruthlessly purging all books I have read and know I will not re-read.  I am keeping Once, Only the Swallows Were Free, if not to re-read, to eventually pass on to just the right friend.

We are making our summer plans, and Elizabeth and I have decided that along with our dog Orca...

... and here he is!
we will drive the 4000 kms at the beginning of June to our cottage in Ontario.  Erin and Howie will fly to meet us at the end of the month.  We are trying to come to a consensus about audiobooks this week.  We've done this drive every summer since 2009 and I'm thrilled to do it again this year.  I actually like highway driving, and a road trip is better as a getaway than a visit to a Caribbean resort in my book.  We'll take the better part of a week to do the "northern route" around the top of the Great Lakes.  As soon as we decided how the Getting There was going to work out I got excited about the drive.  Although I'm not sure I'd want to live in remote northern Ontario (and I certainly wouldn't want to pay the gas prices!) there is something so invigorating about the area.  Trees and lakes and rocks.  Rocks and lakes and trees.  People joke about how boring it is, but they joke about the prairies too and really, is there anything more beautiful than an endless field of wheat rippling in the breeze?

Rushing River Provincial Park (east of Kenora, Ontario)

So, in anticipation of that experience I read Mary Lawson's Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge, both set in the fictional town of Struan, which I imagine to be somewhere near Kirkland Lake, Ontario.  While the remoteness and the natural surroundings provide a backdrop, the real focus of Mary Lawson's writing is on characterisation.  There is no confusing one character for another, their profiles are so well drawn they do emerge fully formed.  They are books about the small moments in the lives of ordinary people living their lives in ordinary ways.

My Little Free Library find this month was J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy which I think everyone read two years ago, so as usual I am a day late and a dollar short.  Like many others I found the bleakness and the cruelty of the characters rather challenging.  I searched for just one person to be nice to someone else, but almost in vain.  Her depiction of addiction (cause and effect) was powerful and graphic and yet very sympathetically portrayed.  Terri has to be one of the most heart-breaking characters I've ever read.  I wanted so much to see more resilience in some of the characters, but the way she was able to find nobility in the most unlikely places and to develop the characters through both their individual and collective pasts was fun to read and brought back many memories of the small towns in which I've lived.

I have failed miserably on my decision to forego buying any new books this year, but every purchase has made me very happy so I've forgiven myself and will probably continue to ignore that half-hearted decision.  Last week I had an astounding experience at a charity shop where I found that someone had donated 28 Virago Modern Classics (green covers) all in pristine condition and priced at less than $2 apiece. I only have my own experience to go on but I thought that was quite a find!  I shall look forward to working my way through some very new-to-me authors in the coming months.

On tap for May I have decided to focus on books that feature travel because the anticipation of the journey is half the fun, isn't it?  At the moment, I am thoroughly enjoying Andrea Barrett's The Voyage of the Narwhal, a fictionalised account of Arctic exploration and the search of the missing Franklin expedition.  Also on my little pile are Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, for which I've yet to see an unfavourable review, and am possibly the last person for whom it is still unread; Ethel Wilson's The Innocent Traveller, about which I know nothing except the name of the protagonist, but is a must-read after reading Hetty Dorval and The Swamp Angel; and Suzanne Desrochers' Bride of New France, a debut novel set in the 17th century about les filles du roi who travelled from France to Quebec to populate the New World; and the second in the childrens' series Mennyms in the Wilderness by Sylvia Waugh, about the suburban family who are forced to move to the country without revealing the secret they have successfully hidden for over forty years (they are life-size ragdolls).

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

March Nature Notes



Little glimpses of nature in my corner of the world, inspired by Edith Holden.









One might get the impression from these photos that spring arrived this month.  If only.  We have shovelled our front walk every single morning for a week.  We did have a reprieve earlier in the month when we saw some blue in the sky to relieve us of the incessant grey, and we did enjoy some chinooks that melted almost all the accumulated snow.

That's my great-grandmother in the white.
I've been working on a family history project which has reduced my reading time, but I have enjoyed a few good books this month.  I am very close to completing my first classic in quite some time - The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton - an anomoly amongst all the uncharacteristic 21st century books.  This is my introduction to Edith Wharton and although it took me a little bit of time to get into the swing of it, I am thoroughly enjoying her wonderful character building, and the depictions of Old New York, and the struggle between individual desires and the sacrifice of self for the stability in the status quo.  Such impressive representations of women!

I finally read Lynn Coady this month (Saints of Big Harbour) and immediately got my hands on Hellgoing (most recent Giller winner) and Strange Heaven (her first novel).  I like her writing a lot, and having grown up in small town Nova Scotia I felt a real connection to the setting.

One of the parts of parenting I enjoy is keeping current with what my daughters are reading, what they are discovering on their own, and having them recommend their favourites to me so we can discuss them.  Elizabeth is just dipping in to the YA-type books and I'm having a bit of trouble keeping up!  I made it through 2/3 of the Veronica Roth Divergent trilogy in time to see the movie with her.  While I cannot admit to enjoying the writing (each 500 page book could easily have been pruned down to 150 pages, and read like the first draft of a screenplay), the themes have served for terrific discussions.  She just finished The Fault in Our Stars, and is starting The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  Such great catalyst for discussion!

Happy April everyone!

Monday, 31 March 2014

Saturday, 1 March 2014

February Nature Notes

Inspired by Edith Holden
A sunny day amongst the evergreens.

Cotton Candy Snow at the front door.


Canada Goose

Friday, 28 February 2014

Monday, 24 February 2014

February Reading Week Three

Carson McCullers
Carson McCullers
"Sojourner" by Carson McCullers (1955)

Inspired by the comments on this post at Shelf Love (which refers to this post at Alex in Leeds) I created a Short Fiction Jar.  I filled little slips of paper with the names of all the stories I've always wanted to read but never have.  I enjoyed my introduction to Carson McCullers' writing. She captured the emotions of the characters in "Sojourner" in some mysterious and magical manner - the story is conveyed somehow between the actual words.



Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (2006)

I came to this book with very low expectations, and was pleasantly surprised.  It's funny how that happens, isn't it?  A love story set in a Depression-era American circus, the story is intertwined with the life of the protagonist as an old man infirm, confused, unloved and neglected in a nursing home.  I watched the film before reading the book - a sequence I almost always avoid, but it didn't seem to matter in this case: I wasn't all that concerned about ruining my enjoyment of the novel.  There were a few faltering moments when the dialogue failed to ring true (the use of words like "mercurial" and "vernacular" by uneducated and unsophisticated characters), but I did enjoy the author's ability to fully render a scene.  The smell of sweat and animal waste and hay seemed to fill my nose as I read.  I wouldn't highly recommend it, but it was an enjoyable reminder of my childhood visits to travelling circuses.



Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill (2006)

What a talent!  This is the story of Baby, a twelve-year old girl living with her heroin-addicted father in downtown Montreal.  If I had to find a comparison, it would be Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt for the gritty, poverty-hobbled story told through the eyes of a child who knows no other life and finds joy amongst the devastation of addiction and violence.  Normally, I stay well clear of grit and addiction and violence in my reading, but this is actually a surprisingly uplifting story of resilience and hope and inspiration that gently breaks your heart at the same time.

Also, bonus points for Heather O'Neill's clever inversion of Northrop Frye's theme of the "garrison mentality."



The Valley of Adventure by Enid Blyton (1947)

This was a fun little palate-cleanser after the emotional intensity of Lullabies.  One of my all-time favourites as a child, I must have read this story repeatedly for although I probably last read it when I was about twelve I remembered every plot twist, setting, and character quirk.  The Adventure series features four children and their pet parrot who, in typical Blyton style, end up in exotic locations uncovering international thieves and criminal masterminds.  On the island the children live in a cave (fostering years of dreams of cave-dwelling for me!): they deftly round up a posse of men profiting from the spoils of war.  What I hadn't remembered, or perhaps not noticed, was that the publication date of 1947 would have made the events of the second world war quite close to the original readers.  A fun adventure!


Nellie McClung by Charlotte Gray (2008)

First wave feminist Nellie McClung (1873-1951) fought her whole life for the disenfranchised and those lacking power of all forms in Canada.  She lived a life dedicated to public service; she was an author, a public speaker, an activist, and an Alberta MLA.  A campaigner in the temperance movement, and one of The Famous Five who worked on the "Persons Case" to have women included in the definition of a "person," making it possible for women to serve as senators.  She was the subject of this Heritage Minute.  Written by professor and eminent historian/biographer Charlotte Gray, this book is part of the Extraordinary Canadians series.  I found the narrative well written and very readable, and it makes me very keen to read Nellie McClung's own work of fiction and memoir.