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.


  1. Enjoy your break!

    1. Thank you, Karen! Wishing you a wonderful summer too.

  2. This looks to be a great bunch of books. I w=think that I would like to read them all. This is a also a neat theme to list together.

    Have a great trip and a great summer!

    1. Yes, it was a very good reading month, Brian.

      I've decided that I am going to try to read books in groups of three for a while. I sometimes feel that my choices are so random; I'm always jumping between decades and genres which can offer it's own connections but I have enjoyed it so far, reading books loosely around the theme of travel, and now reading 3 of Lynn Coady's books in a row. I'll let you know how my experiment goes at the end of the summer. Have a great summer, Brian!


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