Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Winter Palace

The Oscar nominations came out this week and, for some reason, I feel like I've been reading a lot about the debate about the award for Best Costumes. Generally speaking, it comes to the idea that costuming a contemporary movie is much more difficult than a period piece because it's so much more obvious when a detail is wrong; however, the Academy is always seduced by the rich fabrics and perfect detailing of historical pictures, and thus those costumers typically pick up the award. Costumes can make or break a movie, but they can also have that effect on a novel. If, for example, a writer chooses to bring the issue of clothing into a story (and many don't, besides a brief mention here or there), they need to find a balance between doing so with all the confidence and pitch-perfect styling required of a film, and keeping the mentions from overwhelming everything else. My big complaint with Émile Zola, to that end, is the pages and pages he devotes to describing his characters' clothes (it was a stylistic choice, but still). Perhaps the best author-come-clothier I've read in a long time is Eva Stachniak, as presented in her novel The Winter Palace.

Don't misunderstand me: There is a great deal – a great deal – going on in The Winter Palace that has absolutely nothing to do with the clothing. But, set as it is in 18th centure Russia during the reign of Elizabeth the Great, clothing is a recurring motif, and the luscious, vivid descriptions of the gowns and uniforms brings the court to life and offers nuances for the reader to pick up for themselves. The story, though, is not about a wardrobe. The novel opens in 1743, two years after Elizabeth seized the throne of Russia to become Empress of all Russians. At the outset, though, the novel takes place outside the palace, in the home of a Polish bookbinder who has come to Russia to seek his fortune. His daughter, Varvara (the Russian version of Barbara, her Polish name) is in her early teens and being schooled in languages, dance, art, and all the requisite talents of a woman who could become an asset to the court. That happens sooner than planned, however, when her mother dies of cholera and after barely a few months her father dies as well. Varvara, in whose voice the novel is written, is taken to the palace to be a maid in the Imperial Wardrobe.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Death and the Penguin

I know the cliché is don't judge a book by its cover, but I really think we ought to be more specific, because at least in case, it ought to be don't judge a book by its cover lines. Cover lines are those oh-so-tantalizing mini-reviews (often riddled with ellipses), and even though I know they're selected and edited to avoid any ambiguity about a book's greatness, I still fall for them from time to time. Certainly, some review sources carry more weight than others (I'm sucked in faster by the New York Times Book Review, for example, than I am by a publication I'm not familiar with), but still, I sometimes fall for the hype. This isn't to say that good cover lines are lies – often it's quite the opposite – but the they do sometimes unfairly set up a book to be something it's not, thereby building up my expectations and leaving me disappointed to find a book is not what I thought it was, when in fact it's still excellent. This was the case with Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov (and translated by George Bird); the cover professed a "a tragicomic masterpiece" via The Daily Telegraph and I went in expecting laughs. What I got, though, was something much deeper and, to my mind, much more interesting.

Death and the Penguin is set in Kiev during, at my best guess, the mid- to late-'90s. When it opens, Viktor Zolotaryov, an aspiring writer, has just finished a short story he intends to try and sell to a newspaper. When his first choice turns him down, he goes to the competition, who ask him to leave it behind for review. He isn't expecting much, so when he gets a call he's pretty thrilled. Only, the newspaper doesn't want the story; instead, the editor in chief calls him in for a meeting – he wants Viktor to write obituaries. But, he adds, they won't be your regular obits, they will be written while people are still alive, filled with details about their accomplishments and relationships – he calls them obelisks – and Viktor can decide where to start by picking "notables" out of the newspaper. For his trouble, he'll make $300 a month. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl

In the two-and-a-bit years I've been writing Books Under Skin, by far my most blogged about author is Roald Dahl. It's strange, really, since this isn't a blog specifically for YA or remember-when literature, but it was through reading his books that I think I first became aware of what he was doing as an author. I'm not talking about a formula – those were revealed to me through the may yellow-spined Nancy Drew books I read – but rather the idea that he was trying to pass on a notion of how the world could be. Although most of his stories ended happily, that was only brought about by a character's ingenious plan and/or hard work, suggesting that more than just luck was involved. Anyway, I loved it and I'm pretty sure I've read every one of his children's books as well as some of the ones he wrote for adults. I also read both his "autobiographies" – quotation marks because, true to style, Dahl wasn't against flubbing some of the details to make a story more fantastic. All of which is to say that when Donald Sturrock's biography of Roald Dahl, Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl came out, I went right out and bought it.

An authorized biography, I discovered in a Q&A I did with Charles Foran (author of Mordecai: The Life and Times), means that the subject or his/her estate has a say in the final product. That is, in return for access to all the personal documents and letters and whatever, they can theoretically veto something they don't like. I only mention this because, as an authorized biography, Sturrock's not only seems remarkably thorough but also not all that pandering. Dahl was notoriously reclusive when it came to his writing life and shy about talking to the press, and, considering how watered-down (though hilarious) his autobiographies are, it's quite something to see his life laid out like this. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Joy of Books

What happens when you leave the bookstore at night? A book party, of course.

This was shot in Type, one of my very favourite Toronto bookstores and it is just beyond delightful. The fun thing about seeing books in a video (for me, anyway) is that somehow seeing a book you've read flash by on the screen is like seeing someone you know appear as an extra in a movie – it's silly that seeing something you recognize should be so exciting, but it's like you're proud they made the cut. Anyway, enjoy!

Thursday, January 5, 2012


When you pick up a novel, you're entering into a tacit agreement to suspend your disbelief – or at least try to. In science fiction, this is an implicit requirement of the genre: you agree to believe in whatever world the author has created provided what happens there is logical within that setting. In more realistic fiction, the suspension is more subtle, but it's still there – you have to at least sort of believe that story is possible in order to become invested in the characters – and I like to think I've become pretty good at immersing myself in the world of each book I read, not questioning the author's choices unless something really doesn't add up. In straight fiction this is pretty easy and I do it without thinking about it; in fiction based on real events and/or people, thought, I sometimes get tripped up. Would they really have thought that? I wonder to myself, and then find myself searching for historical inconsistencies. It's annoying, but it isn't something I can usually control. When I read Joan Thomas' Curiosity, though, I was so quickly pulled into the story that I didn't have time to nitpick – my disbelief nowhere to be found in the face of such a fascinating story.

Curiosity alternates between the lives and perspectives of two characters: Mary Anning, a poor girl living in Lyme Regis on the English coast, and Henry de la Beche, an upper-class boy expelled from military college. Both Mary and Henry are fairly young when the novel begins (9 and 14 perhaps) and over the course of the book their lives converge and they grow up. But this really isn't a coming of age novel in the traditional sense, and what intrigued me wasn't so much the suggestion of an impossible love story between Mary and Henry, but rather the emergence of the science behind fossil collecting and the discovery and attempts to understand the first dinosaur skeletons. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

What I wrote about in 2011

Yesterday I broke down what I read in 2011, and, it may surprise you, that does not entirely reflect what I blogged about last year. Certainly, many of the books I read I then wrote about (although often not in the order I read them), but I also try to write about older books, literary awards, and various things that interest me. Thus, in 2011, of my 93 posts, 52 were reviews and 41 were tagged as "extras"

Here's how those reviews break down:
novel - 40
non-fiction - 5
poetry - 5
short stories - 3

Twenty-two of those reviews were of works written by men (with two of Alan Bradley's novels), and 31 were of works written by women (with two novels by Margaret Atwood in there). 

So, what is the point of doing all this? Mostly, I think it's important (for me) to take a step back and look at what I'm reading and writing about. Certainly I write mostly about fiction (which reflects what I mostly read), but it's easy to get caught in a cycle of just reading a book and then writing about it without thinking about how it fits into the bigger picture of what's out there and interesting to read and talk about. These lists help me think about what I should try to focus on in the coming year and, as always, offer you the chance to tell me if there's something you'd like to see more of.

So yay! I'm getting pretty excited about all the reading I'm going to do this year. Top of my list are:
The Antagonist by Lynn Coady
The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg
The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak
Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
Magnified World by Grace O'Connell

Sunday, January 1, 2012

What I Read in 2011

I've been doing this list since I started blogging and, I'm pleased to say, every year the number of books I get to read in a year has increased. I was a little worried about this year, since I had a master's thesis to research and write (and none of that work really qualifies here), but I managed to make up for my slow start. In all, I read 51 books (I'm part way through the 52nd), which is pretty alright I think. I'll break down the list at the bottom, but in the meantime, here's what my 2011 bookshelves look like (with links to relevant reviews that I wrote for Books Under Skin) in chronological order of reading. As always, a star indicates a reread, of which there were surprisingly few this year.

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