Sunday, August 30, 2009

Library Loot 9: Borrowing from Afar


Last Wednesday, I blogged from Sweden about historical figures in whom my interest had been piqued by museum visits. I kept an eye out for further information on them as I browsed Stockholm's bookstores, but, being unable to read Swedish, my options were limited. So I also flipped open my trusty netbook and browsed the Toronto Public Library catalogue from afar. Sure enough, there were some tomes listed there that seemed likely to satisfy my curiosity, and I placed a few holds. Less than a week later, I arrived back home to find three of those books already awaiting me on the hold shelf. Is it any wonder that I love the library? Here are the titles and authors, along with a descriptive paragraph from each book jacket:

Finding Atlantis: A True Story of Genius, Madness, and an Extraordinary Quest for a Lost World by David King: "What do Zeus, Apollo, and the gods of Mount Olympus have in common with Odin, Thor, and the gods of Valhalla? What do these, in turn, have to do with the shades of Hades, the pharaohs of Egypt, and the glories of fabled Atlantis? In 1679, Olof Rudbeck stunned the world with the answer: They could all be traced to an ancient lost civilization that once thrived in the far north of Rudbeck’s native Sweden. He would spend the last thirty years of his life hunting for the evidence that would prove this extraordinary theory." (I'm already a third of the way into this one, and finding Rudbeck's life and his theories every bit as fascinating as I anticipated.)

Christina, Queen of Sweden: The Restless Life of a European Eccentric by Veronica Buckley: "She was born on a bitterly cold December night in 1626 and, in the candlelight, mistakenly declared a boy. On her father's death six years later, she inherited the Swedish throne. She was tutored by Descartes, yet could swear like the roughest soldier. She was painted a lesbian, a prostitute, a hermaphrodite, and an atheist; in that tumultuous age, it is hard to determine which was the most damning label. She was learned but restless, progressive yet self-indulgent; her leadership was erratic, her character unpredictable. Sweden was too narrow for her ambition. No sooner had she enjoyed the lavish celebrations of her official coronation at twenty-three than she abdicated, converting to Catholicism (an act of almost foolhardy independence and political challenge) and leaving her cold homeland behind for an extravagant new life in Rome. Christina, Queen of Sweden, longed fatally for adventure."

Strindberg: A Biography by Michael Meyer: "Called 'that greatest genius of all modern dramatists' by Eugene O'Neill, Strindberg was one of the founders of the modern theater--a prolific author whose works prefigured those of Pinter, Beckett, and Ionesco. Yet, despite their admiration by such contemporaries as Ibsen, Chekhov, and George Bernard Shaw, Strindberg's works were misunderstood and rejected by his fellow Swedes, who throughout his life considered him a crank and a failure. In this definitive biography, Michael Meyer, the foremost translator of Strindberg's plays into English, presents a full and honest portrait of Strindberg as man and artist."

So, I'm back home in Toronto, but my education on Swedish history and literature continues.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Life According to Literature Meme

I couldn't resist borrowing this one from Dorothy. Like her, I didn't find it so difficult. My reading list so far this year provided multiple possible responses to most of the questions. Being a mystery aficionado, I had an especially broad range of choices for the types of death one! You can see that I took the easy way out there...

Here are the instructions: "Using only books you have read this year (2009), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. It's a lot harder than you think!"

Describe yourself: Lonely Werewolf Girl (Martin Millar).

How do you feel: The First Person & Other Stories (Ali Smith).

Describe where you currently live: Toronto Places (Mark Baraness).

If you could go anywhere, where would you go? Betsy and The Great World (Maud Hart Lovelace).

Your favorite form of transportation: Why We Run (Bernd Heinrich).

Your best friend is: Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren).

You and your friends are: Human Voices (Penelope Fitzgerald).

What's the weather like: Arctic Chill (Arnaldur Indridason).

You fear: The Abominable Man (Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo).

What is the best advice you have to give: What to Eat: An Aisle-By-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating (Marion Nestle).

Thought for the day: Heaven is Small (Emily Schultz).

How you would like to die: Sweet Death, Kind Death (Amanda Cross).

My soul's present condition: A Hat Full of Sky (Terry Pratchett).

If you fancy having a go at this one, consider yourself tagged!

Friday, August 28, 2009

" good fragment for every 500 nails..."

Andrew Brown on becoming an English writer while living in Sweden:

In the busy banging solitude of the factory I taught myself to write English. I hardly spoke it to anybody then. I worked in Swedish, I was married in Swedish; I thought and dreamed in Swedish too: it's still the language in which I think of fishing technicalities. But I still read mostly English books, and I wanted to become an English writer. The first thing I bought when we got married was an ancient office typewriter, with its base machined from solid brass, which went on an old desk borrowed from Anita's younger sister. I knew nothing about myself and very little about the world so it was hard to find a subject. But as I worked with the planks, hauling and banging and building the boxes, phrases would appear to me. If they were good, I grabbed the thick pencil used for marking wood and scribbled them on the cardboard dividers from the cases of nails. This allowed me one good fragment for every 500 nails I fired in. When I came home, the breast pocket of my overalls might have half a dozen of these bits inside it: sawdust would fall from the seams as I pulled out the cardboard strips and placed them beside the typewriter.

From Andrew Brown, Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared (2008).

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Travels in Sweden (Actual and Literary)

My jaunt to Sweden began with five days in Uppsala and continues with five days in Stockholm. As far as reading in Sweden goes, in Uppsala, my mind turned primarily to biography thanks to some extraordinary tales I heard from a museum guide. Queen Kristina (1626-1689), for example, sounds like quite a character, a queen who consorted with philosophers and scientists, was very supportive of the university, and ultimately abdicated the throne to follow her religious convictions. I'd like to learn more about her. And then there was a pair of Uppsala professors who were highly accomplished and also extremely eccentric. First to capture my imagination was Olof Rudbeck (1630-1702), simultaneously professor of something like nine different subjects as disparate as medicine, music, mathematics, and history. He was the builder of the extraordinary Anatomical Theatre where public autopsies were conducted for the edification of medical students and the entertainment of tourists. I'd like to read a biography of him and also some of his own writing. I wonder if his final work in which he posited Sweden as the cradle of civilization has been translated into English? And also Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), father of modern botany, travel writer, and self-marketer extraordinaire. I'd like to learn something of his life, and also to read his account of his travels in Lapland. However, possibly the coolest thing that I saw in an Uppsala museum put me in mind of an English rather than a Swedish writer. I couldn't help wondering if the amazing Augsburg Art Cabinet served as the inspiration for Terry Pratchett's Cabinet of Curiosities. Click over to a virtual tour of it, and see for yourself.

In Stockholm, my literary preoccupation is fiction. I'm dashing about looking for English translations of Swedish crime writers whose books are difficult to come by in North America. And I'm also stocking up on translations of such Swedish classics as August Strindberg's The Red Room, Kerstin Ekman's Witches' Rings, and Hjalmar Soderberg's Martin Birck's Youth. Incidentally, the picture that heads this post is a portrait of August Strindberg painted by Edvard Munch which I had the pleasure of viewing in the Moderna Museet yesterday. And in keeping with the theme, today I'm planning a trip to Strindberg's house.

I'll post a fuller account of my travels when I get back home to Toronto. But in the meantime, I may post the odd quotation here from my new Swedish books.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

L.M. Montgomery on the Short Story

From a journal entry by L.M. Montgomery dated January 17, 1911:

...I tried to do a little at revising a short story this evening. Mr. Page wants to bring out a volume of short stories sometime and I am re-writing such of them as are worth including in such a volume. I think very few of them are. Most of my short stories were written as "pot-boilers." I should like to write some good short stories. I consider it a very high form of art. It is easier to write a good novel than a good short story...

The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, Volume II: 1910-1921 (edited by Mary Rubio & Elizabeth Waterston).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Learning's Best Justification

From Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels:

I knew I was going to like Prof. the Rev. Darcourt. He seemed to think learning could be amusing, and that heavy people needed stirring up. Like Rabelais, of whom even educated people like Parlabane had such a stupid opinion. Rabelais was gloriously learned because learning amused him, and so far as I am concerned that is learning's best justification. Not the only one, but the best.

As you might gather, I've begun a reread of The Rebel Angels and am thoroughly enjoying it...

Sunday, August 09, 2009

15 Toronto Books in 15 Minutes

I did a general version of this meme a while back, but Amy Lavender Harris, valiant champion of Toronto literature, tagged me with this Toronto-centric version on Facebook, and of course I can't resist.

Here are her instructions:

"NB: I've altered this meme to focus on Toronto literature and tagged 15 people.

Rules: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Tag some friends, including me because I'm interested in seeing what books my friends choose."

And here is my selectively annotated response:

1. L.M. Montgomery, Jane of Lantern Hill.

This novel probably provided my first encounter with Toronto. It is often described as if the portrait of Toronto in it is unremittingly negative, simply a foil to the delights of Prince Edward Island. But even at its most negative, Grandmother's crumbling gothic Toronto, it is rather compelling. And let's not forget that Jane does find a Toronto neighbourhood, and house, to love at the end (apparently one modeled on LMM's own house in Swansea).

2. Morley Callaghan, Such is My Beloved.
3. Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels.

I don't think Toronto is explicitly named as the setting in either of these novels, and reading them before having been here, I didn't recognize the city. But both are old favourites and I'm keen to reread them now that I know Toronto well.

4. William Burrill, Hemingway: The Toronto Years.

I also read this one before setting foot in Toronto, and read it to learn about Hemingway not about Toronto, being totally caught up in the lost generation at the time. Again though, I'd like to reread it for the insights it has to offer into Toronto in that period.

5. Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride.
6. Dennis Lee, Civil Elegies.
7. Katherine Govier, Fables of Brunswick Avenue.
8. Russell Smith, How Insensitive.

I like to get acquainted with a new city through its literature and for that reason I sought out a lot of Toronto books shortly after I moved here. These four (two novels, a story collection, and a book of poetry) were standouts.

9. Rosemary Sullivan, Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen.
10. Rosemary Sullivan, The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out.
11. Douglas Fetherling, Way Down in the Belly of the Beast: A Memoir of the Seventies.

I read these two biographies and this memoir when doing a bit of research into literary Toronto in the sixties and seventies. Each brought different aspects of that time, place, and subculture vividly to life.

12. Maureen Jennings, Except the Dying.
13. Pat Capponi, Last Stop Sunnyside.

Good crime fiction is often lauded for the sense of place it evokes. These two, each the first in a series, illuminate very different Torontos: Victorian Toronto in Jennings' Inspector Murdoch mysteries, and contemporary Toronto (particularly Parkdale) from the perspective of those disenfranchised by poverty and mental illness in Capponi's Dana Leoni series.

14. David Gilmour, A Perfect Night to Go to China.
15. Howard Akler, The City Man.

And finally two recent Toronto novels that I particularly liked and admired. I wrote about the former here, and the latter here.

I won't tag anyone, but I do invite my Toronto friends to join in and list their favourites. And for those of you from elsewhere who are perhaps not so familiar with Toronto literature, how about adapting the meme to showcase the literature of your city or region for the benefit of those of us who like to travel through books?

Monday, August 03, 2009

Joyce Maynard on Betsy-Tacy

Joyce Maynard on her love of Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy books:

One other element of the Betsy-Tacy story I loved had to do with Betsy's aspiration to be a writer. She carried a little notebook around with her, and wrote stories all the time, which she read out loud to Tacy and their other friend, Tib. Back in those days, children in children's books usually did things like play baseball or ride horses. I loved it that finally I had found a character who did something I did.

To read the rest of Maynard's essay, click here.

(via Book Club Girl)

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Little House Books

For a very interesting article in The New Yorker by Judith Thurman on Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Little House Books, click here.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Alex Good on Negative Reviews

Alex Good on negative reviews:

The spectre of criticism becoming nothing but advertising and propaganda raises another question. What is it about books that makes us think they should be held immune from negative reviews? Do people complain about negative film reviewing? Should every movie, even that one with all the robots, get a thumbs-up, or at least be rated four stars out of five? Expanding the list of cultural products, should car columnists be warned against writing negative car reviews? After all, we might have saved a lot of good manufacturing jobs in our auto industry if we had only raved about the latest offerings from GM.

To read the whole of Good's article, click here.