Thursday, July 26, 2012

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

Short stories, as I said in my last post (sorry that it was two weeks ago – summer is messing with my schedule), make for great summer reading. Generally speaking, they require much less commitment than novels, meaning that if you forget your book at the cottage, or put it down for a few days, picking it up again is easy and relatively guilt-free. For more or less the same reasons, I think short story collections make for great book club picks. If someone can't finish (or has barely started), they can still be part of the discussion, there's less pressure not to spoil the ending, and chances are even if all the stories aren't universally liked, everyone will find one or two they connected with. At least, that's certain to be the case with Zsuzsi Gartner's Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, which was the pick for the inaugural CanLit Knit book club meeting.

I have been reading a lot of untraditional short stories lately (both successful and less so), but Gartner's collection was by far the most intriguing. Her stories are set largely on the West Coast, and mostly in Vancouver in a sort of present-adjacent. That is, the world of her characters is, on the surface at least, not very different than ours, but things happen that are just strange enough to make you question whether they're possible in the world we know. This kind of questioning, though, is what I loved most about Gartner's stories, because it forces you to wonder whether the action is actually happening, or if it just appears that way to the narrator.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Summer reading list

Instead of the regularly-scheduled review I would normally run, today is going to be all about summer reading. If this seems like a cop-out, well, it is and it isn't. Besides being a place where I get to think and write about books every week, this blog is where I point people who ask me what I've been reading lately and ask what they should read next. Never do I have this conversation more than in the summer, when people want to know what to bring with them to the beach or the cottage, or just what they should be reading on the weekends. It seems that, even when people aren't on vacation, summer is their designated time to read for pleasure, whether that means it's filled with guilty-pleasure books of just time to read, period. 

So, in the spirit of summer, I thought I'd do what I did last year and recommend some great summer reads, and also come clean about what I'm planning to read (I mean, you'd find out soon enough, but I guess this way you can track my success, or read along with me). I did this last year as well and people seemed to like it, so I thought I'd try it again.

Six books you might want to read this summer:
The Antagonist by Lynn Coady – Suitably set in the summer, The Antagonist is a one-sided epistolary novel about Rank, a one-time enforcer, who is trying to set the record of his life straight. It's funny, it's heartfelt, and Rank is so fully-realized you'll almost think you've stumbled across a trove of someone's private correspondence. It's riveting.
Irma Voth by Miriam Toews – The story of Irma, a mennonite living in Mexico, has a lot of elements that, now that I'm thinking about it, hearken back to the summer books I loved as a kid. It's a kind of coming-of-age story – certainly it's about discovering who you are and what you're capable of – and it's filled with Toews' signature humour and insight. It's exactly the kind of book that offers up equal parts excellent writing and entertainment, and it is not to be missed.
Touch by Alexi Zentner – If you are not such a fan of the heat, perhaps you can take vicarious comfort in the dark and freezing winters Zentner evokes in his haunting, beautiful, and magical story about family legends and how thin the line between folklore and reality becomes in the dark, empty woods. It's a masterful story, beautifully told, and offers a little something different if you're a fan of the mysterious but tired of detective fiction.
Up Up Up by Julie Booker – Summer reading is often done either in long leisurely chunks, or in short breaks in between lots of activities, and a short story collection is an excellent way to bridge the two. Booker's stories are especially suited to summer because many of them have to do with travel, as well as how to fill the boredom that can set in when our regular schedules are suddenly altered. It's great reading, perhaps even better because it gives you the space to pick it up and put it down guilt-free.
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright – Romance is traditional summer fare, but Enright turns things around a little by writing about a relationship that began as an affair, told from the perspective of Gina, one of the lovers. I've written quite a lot about it already, but suffice to say, it is a gorgeously constructed novel and will more than hold your attention wherever you engage in your summer reading.
The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock – Non-fiction doesn't make everyone's summer reading list, but it almost always makes mine. This is an alternate to the juicy celebrity memoir, telling instead the story of an 18th century woman who invented her own art form. Truly, Mary Delaney's life story is absorbing and juicy enough to stand up on its own, that she managed to become such an incredible artist is the icing on the cake. I'm tempted to point this book toward gardeners especially, since Delaney's art was the immaculate recreation of flowers out of paper, but really it's the kind of intricate and inspiring story that would capture the attention and imagination of almost any reader.

Five books I'll be reading:
Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
The Water Rat of Wanchai by Ian Hamilton
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
(Obviously I will be reading more books than this, but these are at the top of my list.)

So, there you go. What would you recommend people read this summer? What do you plan to read? And, perhaps most importantly, where do you plan to read your books and does that affect what they are? (For example, I try not to take hardcovers to the beach so I don't get sand in the spine, but maybe that's just me?)

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Professor and the Madman

I'm not sure its really possible to be an avid reader and not love words. Oh sure, you can get caught up in a plot or start to fee at home with certain characters, but deep down, there has to be some kind of abiding word love, or you'd just watch lots of movies. Some people write interesting words down in lists, either to remind them to look up their meaning or just as a reminder to try using them – whether you do this or not, it is proven that readers have much wider vocabularies than non-readers (although whether or not that vocabulary is on display is another thing entirely). I am not someone who compulsively looks up words, but when I need to, I go to the dictionary – the OED, to be precise. For simple spelling, it is sometimes easiest to just use Google, but for meaning, or if there's likely to be a disputed spelling (American vs. Canadian, for example), I pick up the hard copy. I have been told that this is "old fashioned," but I don't care; there is something so lovely about leafing through pages and finding new words and/or discovering new meanings for words you thought you understood. But for all this, I never put that much thought into how my little dictionary came to be, which is why Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A tale of murder, insanity and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary was so particularly attractive to me when it first caught my eye a few years ago. (Nevermind that it took me years to actually pick it up and read it).

Winchester splits his narrative, more or less, between two men (as indicated, I suppose, in the title): James Murray, the titular professor who helmed the OED through the majority of its making, and William Minor, the American "madman" who helped. The relevant thing here, if you are only familiar with the concise or "little" versions of the OED, is that in the big, authoritative volume, the words are all accompanied by several quotations from literature that indicate not only their meaning(s), but also their history of use. It seems like no big deal now to find any old quotation, but in the late-1800s and early-1900s, when the dictionary was being compiled, everything had to be discovered manually, which required a whole lot of readers.

Real Time Web Analytics
Powered By Ringsurf