Thursday, April 18, 2013

Life After Life

I don't know why, but I haven't been reading well lately. That isn't to say I'm having a hard time with the words or anything – it's something about my choices. I've been reading and enjoying a lot of non fiction, but the novels have been feeling a little meh. There hasn't been anything wrong with them, but they haven't grabbed me the way books usually do, and I'm not sure if that's because I've been distracted lately (work is crazy) of if it's the writing or some combination of the two, but it's frustrating. The one bright spot in all of this has been Life After Life, the new novel by Kate Atkinson. I actually read it a month ago while on holiday and, even though I love it, I hesitated to write about it in case my recent literary doldrums interfered. But I've kept thinking about it, and Atkinson is everywhere at the moment, so I to put it out there and see if it breaks whatever fiction-meh I've caught.

The idea behind Life After Life is fairly simple: Ursula, born in England in 1910 (a year that makes keeping track of her age very simple) lives over and over again. That is, each time she dies, she is brought back at some pivotal moment before her death, and given a chance to do it again. For example, as a child at the beach, she and her older sister go wading in the water and are caught by a wave; they drown, but then a few paragraphs later they're saved by a man who was painting farther up the beach; at yet another return, Ursula has a bad feeling about the water and convinces her sister to build sandcastles instead. These deja vu feelings are basically all Ursula retains from life to life – although she gets a seemingly endless number of do-overs, she doesn't have the luxury of knowing what mistakes led to her death (or even that she died), just a feeling that she shouldn't be somewhere or do something. Furthermore, she does actually have die in order to get a do over, which is to say, sometimes excruciatingly bad things happen to her and the storyline continues and, because she doesn't know that death won't be permanent, she has no choice but just to continue.

Of course, not every do-over is successful. It takes Ursula several attempts to survive the Spanish influenza epidemic after the First World War, for example. This leads to a lot of repetitive story telling, which in short bursts can be a little much, but later on can prove immensely satisfying as you watch for the small changes that will affect the outcome 10 or 20 years down the road. It's an unusual way to get to know a character, since you get to see how she will react to various situations and also realize that, whether X happens or not, she sometimes ends up in the same place. For anyone who has wondered what if I hadn't/had done that? Where would I be now? Atkinson has done some of that thinking for you.

I'm not sure it should be called time travel, since that suggests an agency that Ursula doesn't have (how are the pivotal life moments decided, and by whom, are never explained), but I think this continuous cycle of life and death and sometimes literal rebirth would be tedious if it weren't for the time Atkinson chose to set her novel in. Nearly half the book is set during the Second World War and much of it during the Battle of Britain. Ursula's roles vary, but Atkinson's look at wartime London (and elsewhere) is gripping. Ursula's multiple experiences of the war, furthermore, allow Atkinson to explore various aspects of wartime life, which bring a richness to the experience of reading it. I feel like I've read a lot books (both fiction and non-fiction) about the war recently, but Ursula's was a unique perspective.

Life After Life is a perfect escapist novel. It's the kind of book you both want to keep to yourself and talk about with everyone. I will admit that sometimes I just hoped Ursula would die so she could get out of some situation or another, but Atkinson is tough on both her readers and her character, and no one gets off the hook that easily. It's a proper literary page-turner, and I'm not sure I've ever read anything quite like it.

Life After Life
by Kate Atkinson
Published 2013 (Bond Street Books edition) 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Some Great Idea

I work in news, so it's possible I just feel like certain stories are always running, but I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Toronto's mayor, Rob Ford, is in the news way more than he ought to be. For ridiculous things. I've only lived in Toronto for four and half years. It is, if I'm honest, a city I never wanted to live in. Toronto always seemed so big and impenetrable and busy, but it turns out that once you get out of the car and start walking around (and get yourself a home base) it's a great place to live. I've lived in three distinct neighbourhoods since moving here and my job means commuting from downtown to the north part of the city – part of the city formerly known as North York. The more time I spend here, getting to know different neighbourhoods and learning to better navigate the transit system, the more I love this city. Edward Keenan, author of Some Great Idea also loves this city, and he turned his relationship with Toronto in a book that should be on every nightstand in the city.

Some Great Idea is an analysis of post-amalgamation Toronto – just the past 15 years, plus a few important influencers from the city's history. To describe it broadly, Keenan's book gives a rundown of what happened when the City of Toronto was amalgamated with its neighbouring municipalities (Etobicoke, York, North York, East York, and Scarborough) and then looks at the work and legacies of the three post-amalgamation mayors: Mel Lastman, David Miller, and Rob Ford, who is still in office. Each one brought his own brand of urbanism to bear and, says Keenan, each one mobilized a core of people, exciting his followers and infuriating his opponents and thus drawing an increasing number of voices into city politics. Of course, you can't talk about the city now without talking about its past, and Keenan folds the stories of historically important Torontonians into his narrative, as well as looking at how the various pieces of the new city had been planned and developed. It is, for someone who didn't grow up in Toronto, and incredibly edifying view of the city.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

My Life in France

It is still winter. I know it's February and that February means winter and so I should expect that it would be winter, but man, it is still winter. The thing is, that by now, the last day of February, it feels like we should be almost finished with winter, but I suspect that isn't the case. We had a pretty un-wintry December and January, and the late descent of winter is depressing with its cold and snow. It's the kind of weather that makes me want to hunker down indoors and read and knit and cook hearty meals, but the tricky thing about that (at least where cooking is concerned) is that I have to leave the house for groceries, and this weather makes me not want to go outside. Obviously I have to, but I'm doing it as little as possible, so instead of heading to the grocery store every time I feel like cooking, I've started turning to Julia Child instead. Her memoir My Life in France (written with her nephew Alex Prud'homme) is full of food and warm weather and it is exactly the kind of delicious escapist read I need to get me through the depths of winter.

In a nutshell, My Life in France is the story of the Childs' (Julia and her husband Paul) life abroad. They moved to Paris shortly after the Second World War and Paul worked as a cultural diplomat while Julia cast about for something to do. When she set upon cooking, she signed up for the Cordon Bleu and as dismayed to find she'd been placed in a class for housewives. After some trouble from the woman who ran admissions, she managed to be transferred into the main chef's class and although she didn't find success immediately, she was so determined to learn and so interested in everything that she, of course, was successful in the end. She became friends (as much as you can be, I suppose) with the chef who taught her class, and began working on her own recipes and versions of recipes in the evenings after class. She was, in a word, obsessed, and it was an obsession that drove her for the rest of her life.  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sleeping Funny

I am not a particularly strategic reader. Okay, that isn't entirely true, but I don't feel strategic when I choose books. I do make an effort (although it's hardly a chore) to read predominantly female authors and also focus on Canadian lit. This doesn't mean I won't read men, or that I don't read international offerings, but there are a lot of books out there and, consciously or not, most readers have a way of narrowing down what makes it into their to-be-read pile. Sometimes genre can be enough, but whatever way you choose your next read, chances are that a strategy is involved. In the last while, part of my strategy has been to read more short story collections. I really like short fiction, so it has been a happy turn of events that CanLit Knit has embraced short stories as well. Most recently we read Miranda Hill's Sleepy Funny, and although it wasn't everyone's favourite so far, it was mine.

The first story is set in a tony neighbourhood in a city I feel I should recognize, but can't quite (it could be Toronto or Vancouver, or a fictional mash up, but I'm not sure it quite matters). The neighbourhood is a cul de sac on which all the families are friends, the women are all successful, and everyone follows a sort of unwritten code. And then a new family moves in. The premise is not unique, but the way the story unfolds is nonetheless satisfying in the way Hill uses and subverts the tropes were accustomed to. The story is told from the perspectives of several of the women who live in the niehgbourhood, offering insight into their lives and children and views of the new neighbour, Michal Revivo-Smitherman, her husband, and their three children. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Speaking from Among the Bones

So, I'm not totally sure what happened to January except that it seems to have blown by and, despite my best intentions every week, I never managed to make it over here. My work schedule has changed a bit, and I was away, and there are lots of reasons that January was a bad blogging month, but that stops now, because it's February and high time I got my act together. January was, I should say, an excellent reading month, and one of the definite high points was Alan Bradley's latest Speaking from Among the Bones. I am generally quite sceptical about series. I don't like getting sucked in and feeling obliged to read each new book as it comes out, especially since I tend to outgrow series and then become increasingly disappointed with each book as I (and likely the author) get tired of the characters and the plots. All of that being said, Flavia de Luce has yet to disappoint, and although we're getting to the point in the series where Bradley must necessarily offer the background of his previous books as little asides, his plots and intrigue remain as fresh and fun as ever.

The novel opens with Flavia and her sister Ophelia in St. Tancred's church, where Feely (as she is affectionately/not-so-affectionately know) is practicing on the organ and Flavia is contemplating the grisly scene of St. John the Baptist's decapitation. Feely is practicing the organ because she has taken over as the parish organist, the previous organist having gone missing about six months previous. It's a week before Easter and, on top of that, mere days before the tomb of St. Tancred is to be opened. Feely, though, is complaining about the sound of some of the pipes, so she and Flavia go into the organ – something Flavia didn't know was possible – to check things out and find a bat inside there with them, which terrifies Feely and sends them both home. I had no idea such a thing was possible and, I have to say, it's little value-added details like the names of the organ pipes that make Bradley such a good read.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

My year in reading

Happy New Year! I have been a bad blogger (read: AWOL blogger) recently, and there are many reasons for that. One of the big ones, though, is that my life has changed a lot in the last eight months and that has thrown a lot of my reading habits into disarray. I love reading and I love blogging about it, so I'm going to really think about how to better prioritize those two things in 2013.

In the meantime, here's what I read in 2012:

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov (translated by George Bird)
The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
The Antagonist by Lynn Coady
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
The Paris Wife by Paula McClain
Dr. Brinkley’s Tower by Robert Hough
Coventry by Helen Humphreys
Radio Belly by Buffy Cram
Irma Voth by Miriam Toews
Touch by Alexi Zentner
Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay
Seen Reading by Julie Wilson
Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
Instruction Manual for Swallowing by Adam Marek
The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam
Magnified World by Grace O’Connell
Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger
A Complicated Kindess by Miriam Toews
All Wound Up by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee
Above All Things by Tanis Rideout
That Summer in Paris by Morely Callaghan
Open by Lisa Moore
The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
The Reading List by Leslie Shimotakahara
Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
One Good Hustle by Billie Livingston
The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy
The Deception of Livvy Higgs by Donna Morrissey
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Mister Roger and Me by Marie-Renée Lavoie
Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
The Blondes by Emily Schultz
My Life in France by Julia Child
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
84, Charring Cross Road by Helene Hanff

That's 41 books. I'm partway through the 42nd book I started in 2012 (Sleeping Funny by Miranda Hill) and also listened to 3 audiobooks (When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and Me Talk Pretty One Day all by David Sedaris, who I think his hilarious). 
As a total number, it's fewer books than last year, but in a way I'm happier about what it represents. It can get really easy to start reading for numbers – choosing short or easy books because you know you'll get through them quickly and they'll pad your total. Competitive reading may sound silly, but on the Internet there is always someone to compare yourself to, especially if you admire them. Certainly one of the reasons my reading list is shorter this year is because I have partially changed jobs and thus have much less of a commute during which to read. Another big reason is because of all the knitting I did (that, at least in part, explains the audiobooks). I also joined a couple of book clubs, and experience I'm really enjoying because they push me to read outside my comfort zone. 

Here's what my reading looks like, by the numbers:
Novels: 27 Non-fiction: 7 Short-fiction: 6 Comic: 1

Female author: 28 (two novels by Miriam Toews) Male author: 12

I had a great year for short-fiction and non-fiction, and I can remember plot details about every novel I read, as well as how I felt about them, which is pretty great. Overall, I'm happy with my reading, and that I let myself linger with books I loved rather than trying to race through them on some self-imposed deadline. 

2012 was, for me, a great year for reading. I've been debating whether to do a best-of list, and I think instead I'll just make a list of the books that still stand out as memorable and recommendable now that I have the whole list in front of me (it's easy to be enthusiastic while reading or just after finishing, only to have the book recede after some time has passed). In no particular order, here are the books I read this year that I want to reread (or want you to read, so we can talk about them):

The Antagonist by Lynn Coady (I stil think about Rank sometimes and wonder how he's doing.)
Irma Voth by Miriam Toews (She needs to write something else soon!)
Touch by Alexi Zentner (I still get a little breathless when I think about this story.)

Seen Reading by Julie Wilson (So inventive and fun – as a TTC rider/reader, this is omnipresent.)
Above All Things by Tanis Rideout (Mountaineering is fascinating, and the writing is so excellent.)
The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy (More than any other book this year, this one threw my heart around.)
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (It pissed me off and you should probably read it.)
My Life in France by Julia Child (One day, I will live in France again.)
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner (The writing is so, so beautiful and frustrating and real.)

What were your top reads of 2012?
Real Time Web Analytics
Powered By Ringsurf