Sunday, January 25, 2009

Questioning a Contradictory Review

In today's Toronto Star, there is a review that strikes me as rather contradictory by James Grainger of Lee Gowan's new novel Confession. The setting of the novel apparently moves back and forth between Toronto and the fictional town of Broken Head, Saskatchewan. On the one hand, Grainger criticizes the Toronto segments for reproducing stereotypes of urban Canada:

The Toronto scenes read like writing exercises for an Urban Alienation 101 course. Canada's biggest city is unwelcoming, smelly, a monoculture of empty consumerism and disconnected crowds – in other words, yet another in a long line of dismissive portraits of urban life brought to you courtesy of the Seriously Literary Canadian Novel.

But on the other, Grainger questions Gowan's portrayal of Saskatchewan for, at least in part, not sufficiently meshing with the stereotypes that he and fellow eastern Canadians hold of it:

The problem here is the novel's reliance on transplanted Southern Gothic literary conventions, none of which really takes root in the dry, cold countryside of Saskatchewan, where most of the novel takes place. Perhaps the Prairies are too freighted, at least for us Easterners, with associations of stoic farmers, grim Presbyterianism and the perpetual grind of hard work to stand in for the crime- and Jesus-haunted literary traditions of the American Pentecostal South.

Surely those associations of "stoic farmers, grim Presbyterianism and the perpetual grind of hard work" add up to no less dismissive a portrait of rural life and are just as much a product of the "Seriously Literary Canadian Novel" with which Grainger takes issue in the other passage that I quoted above? An odd move then to criticize the book for departing from them.

Myself, I'm intrigued by the prospect of a prairie gothic turn. With a foot firmly planted in both Saskatchewan (my childhood home) and Toronto (my current home), and as an admirer of Lee Gowan's previous work, I'm looking forward to reading Confession and arriving at my own assessment of his portrayals of both realms and, of course, of the novel as a whole.

Happy 250th Birthday to Robert Burns

Today is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns. Alas, I will not be celebrating the occasion by partaking in any Burns Supper festivities, mired as I am in exam marking this weekend. But I will celebrate in my own small way. This afternoon I will buy myself a copy of Robert Crawford's new biography of Burns, titled simply The Bard. (I've been eagerly anticipating this one for some time and it goes on sale in North America this very day. And after his masterful Scotland's Books, who could doubt that Crawford is perfectly suited to the task of bringing to life Burns and his work in his and its full complexity?) Then later this evening, I will raise a glass and declaim a few of Burns' poems. (I find that reading them aloud increases the pleasure of them exponentially.)

Here's one of my favourites:

A Man's A Man For A' That

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

For many more fine Burns' poems, click here.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Appeal of Scandinavian Crime Fiction

John Crace on the appeal of Scandinavian crime fiction:

While some of Scandinavia's literary elite looked down on [Peter] Høeg and [Henning] Mankell abandoning serious fiction in favour of something unashamedly mass market, there's little argument that they set the standard for what followed. Their books may have been populist but they were never pulp, and the quality of writing in Scandinavian crime fiction has remained, in general, a notch or two higher than elsewhere.

But no one buys a thriller for the writing alone: the Scandinavians have consistently come up with great plotlines that are as cold and bleak as the locations in which they are set. It's this sense of the other that sets them apart.

For the rest of the article, click here. And don’t neglect to scroll down to the very end for Crace’s list of authors to watch out for, complete with brief bios and series descriptions—an excellent resource if this is a new arena for you.

More Powerful in the Reading than in the Hearing

For a most interesting analysis by Stanley Fish (law and literature scholar extraordinaire) of the text of Barack Obama's inaugeral address, click here.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Food-Focussed Fridays

I’m in dire need of some blogging discipline and to that end I’m experimenting with a weekly feature. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about food lately so I’ll make that my focus. Welcome, then, to Food-Focussed Fridays. Every Friday, I’ll report in on or offer up a quotation from whatever I’m reading on the topic of food be it a memoir, a cookbook, a social history, a food industry exposé, a treatise on nutrition, a manifesto on eating locally, or just a particularly toothsome passage of fiction.

Fridays are also the days that I expect to have a bit of time for cooking this term, so I may double up and report on my culinary adventures here too. Mind you I’m not very domestic, and just turning on the stove is a culinary adventure for me. Nevertheless, in a quest to up my vegetable intake, I’ve resolved to attempt a new soup recipe every week for the remainder of the winter. If I make good on that, I can offer up soup reviews alongside book reviews.

Here are some of the recent acquisitions that I expect to be writing about in the coming weeks:

Andrew Carmellini & Gwen Hyman: Urban Italian: Simple Recipes and True Stories from a Life in Food;

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life;

Harvey Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: the Transformation of the American Diet;

Harvey Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America;

Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health;

Michael Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals;

Paul Roberts, The End of Food; and,

Alisa Smith & J.B. MacKinnon, The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating.

And two new releases that I haven’t got my hands on yet but that I’m keen to acquire:

Mark Bittman, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating; and,

Hank Cardello & Doug Garr, Stuffed: An Insider's Look at Who's (Really) Making America Fat.

On the menu for next week then, a post on Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle accompanied by a report on the soup of the day. Right now it’s a toss up between Warm Pea Soup (surely the “Warm” in the title is redundant? would anyone serve cold pea soup?) and Carrot with Red Lentils…

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"It is a complex pleasure and a difficult pleasure..."

Virginia Woolf on the duties and pleasures of reading:

[W]hen the moralists ask us what good we do by running our eyes over these many printed pages, we can reply that we are doing our part as readers to help masterpieces into the world. We are fulfilling our share of the creative task - we are stimulating, encouraging, rejecting, making our approval and disapproval felt; and are thus acting as a check and a spur upon the writer. That is one reason for reading books - we are helping to bring good books into the world and to make bad books impossible. But it is not the true reason. The true reason remains the inscrutable one - we get pleasure from reading. It is a complex pleasure and a difficult pleasure; it varies from age to age and from book to book. But that pleasure is enough. Indeed that pleasure is so great that one cannot doubt that without it the world would be a far different and a far inferior place from what it is. Reading has changed the world and continues to change it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Today's Library Finds

I stopped in at the library on my way home today and found this tantalizing haul awaiting me on the hold shelf:

Nemesis by Jo Nesbo: I’ve not yet read any Nesbo, but I’ve developed an affinity for Scandanavian crime fiction, and his Norwegian mystery series featuring Detective Harry Hole (of which this is the most recently translated installment) comes highly recommended by Danielle.

Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan: Pollan’s In Defence of Food was one of my favourite reads last year, and I’m keen to catch up on his earlier work.

Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America by Harvey Levenstein: I think that Pollan led me to this one as well via the footnotes in In Defense of Food. I’ve got a lot of food books on the go these days, and this history should help set the context for many of the others.

Loose Girl: a memoir of promiscuity by Kerry Cohen: A review by ragdoll at My Tragic Right Hip put this one on my radar and I'm looking forward to diving in.

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff: I can’t remember where I heard about this one, likely a newspaper review given the amount of buzz it appears to have generated. In any event, the marvellous Victorian style silhouettes on the cover catch my eye every time I walk into a bookstore, and the description on the book jacket has me thoroughly intrigued:

"In the wake of a wildly disastrous affair with her married archaeology professor, Willie Upton arrives on the doorstep of her ancestral home in storybook Templeton, New York, looking to hide in the one place to which she swore she’d never come back. As soon as she arrives, though, a prehistoric monster surfaces in Lake Glimmerglass, changing the very fabric of the town. What’s more, Willie’s hippie-turned-born-again-Baptist mother, Vi, tells her a secret she’s been hiding for nearly thirty years: that Willie’s father wasn’t the random man from a free-love commune that Vi had led her to imagine, but someone else entirely. Someone from this very town. As Willie puts her archaeological skills to work digging for the truth about her lineage, she discovers that the secrets of her family run deep when past and present blur, dark mysteries come to light, and the shocking truth about more than one monster is revealed."

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert: I spotted this one in a random bookstore browse but showed uncharacteristic restraint in noting down the title and ordering it later from the library rather than buying a copy then and there. It’s a very thought-provoking book by a psychologist on how poor human beings are at predicting what will make us happy. It fits in nicely with some of the reading I’ve been doing lately about the mind and the brain. Plus the author is very funny and it’s already proving a pleasure to read.

If you’re getting the idea that I’m on a bit of a non-fiction kick these days, you’d be right!