Monday, December 31, 2007

Year End Tally

I read 118 books in 2007. That’s more than usual (in 2005 my total was 109, and in 2006 an even 100). I’m not surprised though, given what a busy and stressful year it’s been. That may sound counterintuitive, but when I’m crazily busy and stressed out, I’m much more likely to spend my non-work hours reading than, for example, out socializing. Under such circumstances, I relish, indeed require, the time I spend inside of books that much more.

101 of those books were fiction, and 17 non-fiction, continuing a trend away from non-fiction that I first noted last year. Perhaps in 2008 it will begin to tilt back? The fiction breaks down into 97 novels and 4 short story collections. This is many fewer short story collections than usual and I’m not sure how to account for that. If I added in all the individual stories that I read in anthologies, literary magazines and collected or selected works, the balance wouldn’t be quite so far off. Still. I think now is a good time for The Short Story Reading Challenge! The genre breakdown of the fiction is as follows: 28 literary or general fiction, 29 mystery, 25 children’s or YA, and, the surprising development, 19 fantasy. How did a genre that was scarcely a blip on my radar in previous years come to figure so prominently in this year’s reading? It’s all down to my newfound infatuation with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels—so funny and smart and politically astute. The non-fiction titles covered a range of subjects including biography, memoir, essays, travel, history, and health.

My year’s reading took on a decisively contemporary slant with 83 books from the 21st century (a full 27 of those first published in 2007), 35 from the 20th and a paltry single volume from the 19th. As is the case nearly every year, the sole 19th century author that I read was Robert Louis Stevenson. I think in 2008 I’m going to have to resolve to stretch further back in time more frequently.

My reading continues to be dominated by authors from England (42) and the U.S. (40), but with a respectable number of books by Canadians (14, a lot fewer than normal) and Scots (8) appearing in the final tally. But thanks to The Reading Across Borders Challenge, I did much better this year in reading works in translation: 11 works in translation read, rather than the usual token one or two. These eleven works were translated from Icelandic, French, Spanish, Polish, and Czech.

I usually read more books by women than men, but not this year: 64 by men, and 54 by women. Finally (and I note this here because it might explain how the male authors rocketed into the lead this year), there were a number of authors by whom I read multiple books but two in particular that dominated: Terry Pratchett (19!) and Paul Auster (8).

All in all, it was a very satisfying year’s reading.

Stay tuned for my list of ten favourites which I will post later this week.

Final Report on the Reading Across Borders Challenge

As I set about planning The Short Story Reading Challenge for 2008, I couldn’t help but reflect on what a negligent host I have been of my 2007 challenge, The Reading Across Borders Challenge. I was surprised (though delighted!) by the number of people who signed on to the latter, and while I initially attempted to maintain a complete list of participants, I soon lost track. As today is the last day of that challenge, I thought I’d try to recoup a little, offering up my own final report, and inviting participants to post their final reports, or to link to reports they’ve posted on their blogs, in the comments section below.

The idea behind the challenge was for participants to determine which countries or regions tend to dominate their reading and to commit to reading a number of books over the course of 2007 that took them beyond the borders of those countries or regions. I had discerned that my own reading was dominated by books originally written in English by authors from Canada, the U.S., and the UK, so I committed to reading ten books in 2007 by authors from elsewhere in the world, at least half of them works in translation.

I had no trouble meeting that goal but in so doing I didn’t end up ranging as far afield as I had expected. I would read one book, become enamoured with the author, then seek out their other works, then perhaps seek out books by other authors from the same region. So, rather than criss-crossing the world, I scarcely made it out of Europe. Ultimately, these are the books that I completed within the requisite timeframe:

1. Roberto Bolaño, Last Evenings on Earth (Chile) (translator: Chris Andrews);
2. Grégoire Bouillier, The Mystery Guest (France) (translator: Lorin Stein);
3. Arnaldur Indridason, Jar City (Iceland) (translator: Bernard Scudder);
4. Arnaldur Indridason, Silence of the Grave (Iceland) (translator: Bernard Scudder);
5. Arnaldur Indridason, Voices (Iceland) (translator: Bernard Scudder);
6. Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder (France) (translator: Joanna Kilmartin);
7. Patrick Modiano, Out of the Dark (France) (translator: Jordan Stump);
8. Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles (Poland) (translator: Celina Wieniewska);
9. Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Last Rituals (Iceland) (translator: Bernard Scudder); and,
10. Jiří Weil, Life With a Star (Czechoslovakia) (translator: Ruzena Kovarikova with Roslyn Schloss).

Despite a more limited scope than anticipated, I certainly don’t consider the exercise a failure. What could be better than discovering new authors whose work I can’t get enough of? And, as you’ll see when I get round to posting my list of favourite reads from 2007, three of the titles on that list come from this one. But, while continuing to follow up on this year’s fabulous discoveries (more books by Roberto Bolaño, Arnaldur Indridason, Patrick Modiano, and Jiří Weil, please!), I will also endeavour next year to continue to stretch my reading horizons, this time by seeking out works by authors from beyond the borders of North America and Europe. I’ve already got books by Chinese, Egyptian, Indian, Japanese, and Nigerian authors lined up. I won’t make it an official challenge, but I will think of reading across borders as a sort of a rolling challenge to guide my reading life in perpetuity.

How did you fare with your Reading Across Borders Challenge?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Short Story Reading Challenge

Regular visitors to this blog will have gathered that I’m a keen reader of short stories, so it will come as no surprise that the challenge I propose to host in 2008 is a Short Story Reading Challenge. The blogosphere abounds with reading challenges for the new year; I’ve already committed to rather a lot of them myself. But where challenges are concerned my attitude is unequivocally “the more the merrier.” I’ve never regretted signing up for one even when I didn’t finish it, so great is the pleasure of embarking on a reading journey in the company of congenial fellows, and so great the rewards of the encounters with new authors and books thereby provoked. And the beauty of short stories for the time-strapped reader is that they are, well, short. With that in mind, I offer up a variety of forms that the Short Story Reading Challenge could take depending on your level of familiarity with short stories and on the amount of reading time you expect to have at your disposal in the coming year.

Options 1 & 2: If you’re short on time, you can simply commit to reading ten short stories by ten different authors over the course of 2008. If you’re relatively new to reading short stories, any ten will do. If you’ve already got a lot of short stories under your belt, make it ten short stories by ten writers whose work you have not yet read. How about that—a year long challenge that you could conceivably complete in the course of a day! Of course, I would encourage you not to do that but rather to heed the words of Mavis Gallant, short story writer extraordinaire, who advises:

Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.

Completing this version of the challenge could be a simple as participating in the short story discussions at A Curious Singularity throughout the year. Or picking up a short story anthology, whether of classic or contemporary stories, or of stories of a particular genre or on a particular theme, and slowly working your way through at least ten of the stories contained within. Of course, my hope is that once you get started you’ll get hooked and you’ll spiral out into other stories by those writers and more!

Options 3 & 4: If you’ve got a bit more time to devote to this endeavour, you can commit to reading between five and ten short story collections over the course of 2008. Again, if you’re a short story novice, the world is your oyster as far as selection is concerned. But if you’re a seasoned short story reader, you’ll want to choose collections by writers whose short stories you have not yet encountered.

Option 5: This is the custom option under the rubric of which you can tailor your reading list to best meet your personal reading aspirations. You might wish to craft a list that focuses on a particular place, or era, or genre. Or you might wish to include reading about short stories as well as of short stories, for example, such works as Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. It’s entirely up to you.

If you’re aiming to read individual short stories and you’re not sure where to begin, check out the list of “ten truly great short stories” that William Boyd appends to this article on the short story. I also recommend the fine list of ten favourites that the Literate Kitten compiled last spring. You can find it here, as well as some recommendations from her readers in the comments section below the post. You’ll also find some great suggestions by dropping by The Book Mine Set for “Short Story Mondays.” And you may also wish to have a look at the stories that have already been discussed at A Curious Singularity, a list of which can be found toward the bottom of the sidebar there. If you’re looking for recommendations of short story collections, I encourage you to check out the short review, an online review site with an exclusive focus on short story collections. There is also an excellent review section (and many other great short story related resources) at story, a UK site dedicated to celebrating the short story form. Finally, for recommendations of both individual stories and collections of stories, you’ll find this article in The Danforth Review to be an indispensable resource. In it, 27 writers provide their lists of what they would include if they were called upon to put together the curriculum for an introductory-level course on the short story. Of course, I’m also hoping that participants and fellow bloggers will provide further recommendations of their own favourites.

I’ve created a blog dedicated to this challenge, which you’ll find here. On it, participants can post reading lists, recommendations, and reviews of specific short stories and short story collections, as well as ruminations on and links related to the short story form more generally. If you’d like to participate in the challenge, let me know in the comments section below or via e-mail. Even if you don’t plan to participate in the challenge, please post the titles of some of your favourite shorts stories or the names of your favourite short story writers below so that participants in the challenge can benefit from your recommendations.

For my own Short Story Reading Challenge, I plan to read ten short story collections by ten writers whose work I’ve not read before. I’m in the midst of compiling my list. But before I post it, I promise to post my own list of favourites from a lifetime of short story reading, so watch this space for that.

Happy Reading!

Friday, December 28, 2007

A Dizzying Day's Reading

I felt a sudden compulsion today to read my way to the end of the many books that crowd my bedside table, each of them somewhere between a half and nine-tenths read. I finished four of them and read a good bit of a couple more. It made for a dizzying day of abrupt shifts in mood. I walked across the Cevennes with Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey Modestine, I travelled the Mississippi in a houseboat with the grieving Mary Morris, I revisited Sikeston, Missouri with Terry Teachout, I reviewed obesity research with Gina Kolata, I drifted in and out of the lives of the expatriate writers that people Roberto Bolano's short stories, and I paused now and again to savour one of George Murray's sonnets. Marvellous books every one of them and I'm not entirely sure why I've let them all languish unfinished for varying lengths of time. With the short stories and the poetry it's deliberate. I like to sit with a story or a poem for a while rather than rushing headlong into another, so it often takes me weeks and months to work my way through collections of short stories and poems. But what of the rest? In large measure it’s simply that I'm prone to reading far too many books at once. I'm an undisciplined reader who will read only the precise book that I'm in the mood for, so it's not unusual for me to put one book, even a very good book, aside in favour of another on a whim. Indeed, sometimes it's the very best books that I put aside at moments when I just don't have it in me to give them sufficient attention. I note though that novels are seldom to be found among the unfinished books. So evidently the narrative thread usually present in a novel can make a serial monogamist out of this promiscuous reader. And by contrast I can't help but think that I've been giving short shrift to the non-fiction books in drawing them out so long that I don't give myself a proper chance to appreciate them as wholes rather than as sums of parts. Perhaps next year I'll try not to stretch myself quite so thinly across so many books.

One Stirring Hour

Robert Louis Stevenson on sleeping afield:

Night is a dead monotonous period under a roof; but in the open world it passes lightly, with its stars and dews and perfumes, and the hours are marked by changes in the face of Nature. What seems a kind of temporal death to people choked between walls and curtains is only a light and living slumber to the man who sleeps afield. All night long he can hear Nature breathing deeply and freely; even as she takes her rest she turns and smiles; and there is one stirring hour unknown to those who dwell in houses, when a wakeful influence goes abroad over the sleeping hemisphere, and all the outdoor world are on their feet. It is then that the cock first crows, not this time to announce the dawn, but like a cheerful watchman speeding the course of night. Cattle awake on the meadows; sheep break their fast on dewy hillsides, and change to a new lair among the ferns; and houseless men, who have lain down with the fowls, open their dim eyes and behold the beauty of the night.

From Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879).

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Books Given and Received

I trotted out this list already in a comment on LK's blog last week, but now that the gifts are all opened, I can post it here without fear of giving away any surprises. I always buy a book or two for everyone on my Christmas list. I get such pleasure out of trying to match up each person with the right book(s). For the most part, I'm told that I do pretty well. So, on to the list.

For my dad: Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (a gloomy, atmospheric Icelandic mystery novel) and Scotland's Books: the Penguin History of Scottish Literature by Robert Crawford.

For my mom: Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear and Findings by Kathleen Jamie (a wonderful book of natural history essays by a Scottish poet).

For my brother: Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life by Steve Martin and The Book of Dave by Will Self.

For my 13-year old-niece: Enter Three Witches by Caroline Cooney and How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff.

For my 10-year-old niece: Wild Girls by Pat Murphy.

And for Eric: This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel Levitin and Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music by Phil Ramone.

As for books received, well, no one gave me any books. But before you start feeling sorry for me, let me assure you it's not that nobody loves me nor that the people who love me don't know how much I love books. It's just that they've noted a distinct lack of control on my part when it comes to book buying and they've sensibly concluded that if I want a book, chances are I've already got it. However, I followed Bloglily's example and put a couple of books under the tree for myself, two that I've been very keen to acquire: The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter and the aforementioned Scotland's Books: the Penguin History of Scottish Literature.

Now we can all happily read away the rest of the holidays.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Story For Christmas

I've written just one story set at Christmastime, so in honour of the day I'm posting a recording of me reading it aloud. It's titled "The Story of Her Life," and it appears in my recent collection, All In Together Girls. To hear it, click on the title of the story on the player below. (Thanks to Eric for the fine recording job.)

Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate Christmas, and happy holidays to one and all!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Vote for the January Story Selection at A Curious Singularity

The stories nominated to serve as the focus of our January discussion at A Curious Singularity have a distinctly Russian flavour. No doubt this has something to do with the fact that several members of the discussion group are eagerly anticipating the Russian Reading Challenge. Our three nominees are:

Isaac Babel's "My First Goose" (1926);

Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat" (1842); and,

Alexander Pushkin's "The Snow Storm".

Please let me know, in the comments section below this post or its duplicate at A Curious Singularity or via email, which of these stories you would prefer to discuss in January.

In the meantime, there are still a couple of weeks left to contribute your thoughts on Elizabeth Taylor's "Miss A. and Miss M.", the story currently under discussion there.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

My Neighbourhood

Check out this short video all about my neighbourhood. About four minutes in, you'll get a peek at the local library my visits to which I regularly mention here. I didn't know until I watched this program that it's one of three Toronto libraries that was built in 1916 to mark the three-hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare's death.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Byron the Proto-Celebrity Dieter?

Here's a weird tidbit from an unexpected source:

     Byron's constant battle with creeping pudginess—he inherited his tendency to plumpness from his obese mother, he said—was of never-ending fascination to his fans and critics in Europe and America. And nearly everyone who despaired over how hard it is to lose weight understood his lament that everything he ate turned to fat on his body.
     Edward John Trelawny, a fierce competitor of Byron's, wrote, "Byron had not damaged his body by strong drinks, but his terror of getting fat was so great that he reduced his diet to the point of absolute starvation. He said everything he swallowed was instantly converted into tallow and deposited on his ribs." Byron, he added, "was always hungry," and when he gave in and ate, he instantly gained weight.
     Byron's diets were legendary—one raisin and a glass of brandy a day, or a mess of greens doused in vinegar. He'd stave off hunger pangs with tobacco and green tea. And, over and over again, he resorted to drinking vinegar.
     Historian Lois Banner notes, "The popularity of drinking vinegar to lose weight can be traced directly to Byron, whose most popular regimen, according to some accounts, was to subsist for some days on vinegar and water."

From Gina Kolata, Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss—and the Myths and Realities of Dieting (2007).

First Lines Meme

It's terribly lazy of me to do memes two days in a row. But I'm grading essays, and formulating exam questions, and finishing an article, so blogging of the sort that requires a sustained attention span is out of the question. Besides, I like this meme, which I've borrowed from Danielle, who in turn borrowed from Sylvia. It involves "posting the first sentence of each month from your blog," thereby creating a patchwork representation of your year in blogging. I've fudged it a bit, skipping to the second post of the month if the first began with a quotation rather than a sentence I penned myself.

January: In 2007, I plan to do the following… [I realize that’s only part of a sentence, but it leads to five detailed reading resolutions of which, nearly a year later, I must shamefacedly admit I have accomplished only one.]

February: I'm in Boston and Cambridge this weekend.

March: The 2007 Tournament of Books kicks off at The Morning News on Thursday.

April: I'm a born procrastinator.

May: This time last year I was in Scotland, and I'm feeling rather mournful about the fact that I'm not there now.

June: I acquired many new books on my recent travels.

July: I'm not planning any further actual travel this summer, and I'm a great fan of travel writing, so how could I resist the Armchair Traveler Reading Challenge?

August: Recent circumstances have propelled me into a spate of light reading and I've come across a few good books along the way.

September: I've been mulling over Litlove's meme about the joy of language.

October: I've been mulling over Grace Paley's "A Conversation with My Father" for weeks now.

November: I have long been familiar with the work of Scottish writer Edwin Muir, particularly with his poetry and his extraordinary travelogue Scottish Journey.

December: There's a lovely essay by Denise Hamilton in this weekend's Los Angeles Times on her enduring fondness for the books of Beverly Cleary.

If you're curious about where any one of those first sentences leads, click on the month to read the full post from whence it came. It sounds as though I'm forever travelling, thinking longingly of travel, and/or mulling over some book or other. An eerily accurate snapshot of my life…

Monday, December 10, 2007

Seven Things Meme

I've been tagged twice now (first by seachanges and then by Ella) for the seven things meme, so clearly it's time for me to give it a go. It's described by some memers as "seven weird things" and by others as "seven random things." Like Dorothy, I prefer the random formulation. It seems an odd enterprise to confide weird things about yourself to people who don't know many normal things about you. I suppose some things qualify as objectively weird, but for the most part, I think a bit of context is required to distinguish weird from normal. Without context, all you've got is random. Although, I suppose a collage of random could add up to weird. Anyway, enough preamble, and on to the seven things…

1. Every time I have a fever, I dream the same dream.

2. I love the prairies and the sea in equal measure but it makes me anxious to be amidst mountains.

3. As a teenage camp counsellor, I once succeeded in starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together.

4. I can throw back straight scotch or tequila like a pro, but just a few sips of a drink containing vodka makes me feel as if my limbs are not my own.

5. My lifetime coffee intake tops out at a single cup. I didn't like it, and never had another. (Funny how the scotch drinking didn't follow the same trajectory.) Lest you think that renders me caffeine-free, however, I have to confess that I drink many many cups of tea every day. I love tea.

6. I refuse to spend money on taxis if I can possibly avoid it. I'm extravagant in many respects but I believe extravagance should yield pleasure and, while I concede that they can be convenient, I get no pleasure from taxi rides. I'd rather walk or take public transit. In light of this, it will not surprise you to learn that I rarely wear high heels.

7. After a lifetime of being mostly indifferent to the fantasy genre, I have so enthusiastically embraced Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels that they comprise more than one-fifth of the 100 books I've read so far this year.

If you fancy undertaking the seven things meme, consider yourself tagged!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Beverly Cleary

There's a lovely essay by Denise Hamilton in this weekend’s Los Angeles Times on her enduring fondness for the books of Beverly Cleary. Click here to read it.

I haven't reread Cleary's tales about Ramona and Beezus Quimby since childhood though they were certainly favourites back then. I do periodically return to her YA books Fifteen and The Luckiest Girl though. I suspect that these books are too innocent for today's sophisticated YA readership, but I love them still. And I highly recommend Cleary's two-volume memoir, A Girl From Yamhill and My Own Two Feet. The memoirs are a particular treat for Cleary fans of course, but will also be of interest, I think, to anyone intrigued by how writers and books are formed.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Elizabeth Bowen on Plot

Elizabeth Bowen on plot:

     Plot might seem to be a matter of choice. It is not. The particular plot is something the novelist is driven to. It is what is left after the whittling-away of alternatives. The novelist is confronted, at a moment (or at what appears to be the moment: actually its extension may be indefinite), by the impossibility of saying what is to be said any other way.
     He is forced towards his plot. By what? By the “what is to be said.” What is “what is to be said”? A mass of subjective matter that has accumulated—impressions received, feelings about experience, distorted results of ordinary observation, and something else—x. This matter is extra matter. It is superfluous to the non-writing life of the writer. It is luggage left in the hall between two journeys, as opposed to the perpetual furniture of rooms. It is destined to be elsewhere. It cannot move until its destination is known. Plot is the knowing of destination.

From Elizabeth Bowen, “Notes on Writing a Novel” in Pictures and Conversations (1975).