Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reviving the Short Story Reading Challenge for 2010

I hosted the initial incarnation of the Short Story Reading Challenge in 2008 and was thrilled at the number of readers that I encountered through it who proved to be already devotees of or who were willing to embrace the short story form. I took a year off from challenges this past year, but after several expressions of interest in another round, I'm feeling enthusiastic about a revival of the Short Story Reading Challenge for 2010. So here goes. The challenge could take a number of different forms 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 2010. 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 as simple as participating in the short story discussions at A Curious Singularity throughout the year (after a lengthy hiatus, A Curious Singularity is also slated for revival in 2010⎯stay tuned for an announcement about that). 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 2010. 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.

The blog dedicated to this challenge can be found 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.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

First Lines Meme

I've borrowed the First Lines Meme from Melanie. The idea is to reproduce the first line from the first post of each month from the past year and to thereby create a collage that represents your blogging year. I altered it a little by skipping over posts that were quotations and also, after the first one, my ubiquitous library loot posts. If I included all of the latter the result would be awfully repetitive and you would be left with the impression that I spent the entire year lugging enormous stacks of books home from the library. Oh, wait, that's exactly how I spent the year. No matter, on with the slightly revised meme…

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

Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life is part memoir, part treatise/meditation on sustainable agriculture and ethical eating.

George Orwell's Books v. cigarettes is a recent volume in Penguin's "Great Ideas" series.

It's a good thing that so many people raved to me about Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; otherwise, I might not have persevered beyond the first thirty pages.

I'm stealing a moment from my end-of-term grading to pop in here and give a quick heads up to fellow North American fans of Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander novels.

I fear that Penelope Fitzgerald and I are not meant for one another.

I'm off on a pilgrimage to Mankato (aka Deep Valley), Minnesota to attend the Betsy-Tacy Convention.

My jaunt to Sweden began with five days in Uppsala and continues with five days in Stockholm.

The first book listed by Nancy Pearl in her recent NPR feature on “Mysteries You Might Have Missed Along the Way” is Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection.

With the release last week of new double-volume editions of the final six books in the series, all of Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy books are back in print.

I count myself among the L.M. Montgomery fans who feel a great sense of kinship with Anne Shirley but little or no affinity for Anne Blythe.

I began my grand Nancy Drew reread with a visit to the bookstore and, I confess, I felt my heart beat a little faster at first sight of the row of familiar yellow hardbacks on a shelf in the children's section.

The exercise presents an altogether accurate picture of my year in reading, beginning with a focus on food, ending with ambitious rereads of childhood favourites, and covering much else in the middle but with an emphasis on Swedish crime fiction⎯and of course, the summer highlights of my attendance at the Betsy-Tacy Convention in Mankato in July, and my trip to Sweden in August. A good year!

If you're a fellow blogger, why not have a go at the meme and see what it reveals about your reading year?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Talking About Books on the Radio

I was a guest yesterday on CKLN's "In Other Words" talking with host Jennifer LoveGrove about our favourite reads and some noteworthy literary happenings of 2009. My picks included Their Finest Hour and a Half, The Manual of Detection, Bright-Sided, the Betsy-Tacy reissues, The Blythes are Quoted, and more. You can listen to a recording of the show by clicking on the play button on the player below.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ursula Le Guin on Tove Jansson

Ursula Le Guin on Tove Jansson:

Anyone familiar with Jansson knows it would be unwise to dismiss her or patronise her work on any grounds. Her books for children are complex, subtle, psychologically tricky, funny and unnerving; their morality, though never compromised, is never simple. Thus her transition to adult fiction involved no great change. Her everyday Swedes are quite as strange as trolls, and her Swedish village in winter is as beautiful and dangerous as any forest of fantasy.

To read the rest of Le Guin's article, a review of a new translation of Jansson's novel The True Deceiver, click here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Thackeray on Dickens's A Christmas Carol

In his introduction to The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits, Les Standiford notes:

Dickens's contemporary, William Makepeace Thackeray, as scathing a critic as ever walked the streets of London, once said of [A Christmas Carol], "Who can listen to objections regarding such a book as this? It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness."

Standiford's book is full of interesting tidbits like this. I'm a quarter of the way into it now and finding it to be a fascinating bit of literary scholarship. I will no doubt write more about it here when I've reached the end.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

A Nancy Drew Mini-Challenge

I began my grand Nancy Drew reread with a visit to the bookstore and, I confess, I felt my heart beat a little faster at first sight of the row of familiar yellow hardbacks on a shelf in the children's section. However, on closer examination, they were not quite so familiar. Yes, they bore the same cover illustrations that I remembered from my childhood copies on yellow boards. But the contemporary editions are a more garish shade of yellow and the surface is glossy rather than matte. More of a concern though was a copyright date of 1987 inside. Might the changes be more than cosmetic? I suddenly recalled having read about an update of Nancy Drew in the 1980s, and I wondered if I would encounter an altogether different Nancy between these glossy, neon covers than the one I remembered. I decided I ought to do little research before making any purchases. After all, if the point was to revisit my childhood reading, nothing but the original text would do.

I soon learned that a 1980s update had indeed occurred, but that it had not involved any change to existing volumes. The 1980s Nancy who traded in her blue roadster for a Mustang convertible and embraced designer jeans and shopping malls was destined for a new series (The Nancy Drew Files) that launched in 1986, not for retroactive appearances in the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories of my youth. So the contemporary editions of the latter would serve my purposes.

But that was not the end of the matter. For along the way I discovered that the Nancy Drew books that I first encountered in the 1970s were not the originals that I fondly believed them to be, but rather a 1960s update of the original volumes from the 1930s and 40s. The impetus for that update was complaints from parents about racial stereotypes, but the revision process went well beyond attempts to eliminate those stereotypes. Beginning in 1959, a substantial overhaul of the first 34 volumes in the series occurred that involved paring down the books by as much as five chapters, to eliminate period details that would date them, and to heighten suspense. Some have argued that these revisions not only denuded the books of much of their atmosphere and hence their charm, but also changed the character of Nancy, and not for the better. The new Nancy, some opined, was less independent, more modest and ladylike, and more respectful of authority.

Now, for my part, as a child reader I found my 1970s Nancy to be an independent, adventurous, and courageous heroine. And, as noted, the point of my current reread is to revisit that Nancy to find out what I make of her from an adult vantage point. But, in light of the above, distraction though it may be, how can I resist investigating the original Nancy? 1930s and 40s editions are not so difficult to come by in thrift shops and second hand bookstores (the illustrations above are scans of the cover and endpapers of one of my recent finds). And Applewood Books has reissued facsimile editions of many of them. So, armed with some of these, I'm poised to engage in a compare and contrast exercise.

This brings me to my mini-challenge. I encourage anyone who's interested in doing so to join me in comparing and contrasting at least two versions of Nancy Drew. That could mean reading two different versions of the same book, for example, the 1930 and the 1959 versions of The Secret of the Old Clock. Or it could mean reading installments from the Nancy Drew series of different eras: the original or the revised Nancy from the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, the 1980s Nancy from the Nancy Drew Files, the grade school Nancy from the Nancy Drew Notebooks, the college Nancy from Nancy Drew on Campus, the up-to-the minute Nancy from the Girl Detective series who apparently drives a hybrid car and wields a cell phone, or, most recently, the manga-style Nancy of the Papercutz Nancy Drew Graphic Novels. There's no deadline for this mini-challenge. All it requires is selecting and reading at least two different versions of Nancy Drew, and posting your thoughts on how they compare. Who's in?

For those interested in reading more about the ever evolving Nancy Drew, I recommend:

Melanie Rehak, Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her;

Carolyn Stewart Dyer & Nancy Tillman Romalov (eds.), Rediscovering Nancy Drew; and,

Michael G. Cornelius & Melanie E. Gregg (eds.), Nancy Drew and Her Sister Sleuths: Essays on the Fiction of Girl Detectives.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Random Thoughts on Paula Danziger's Can You Sue Your Parents For Malpractice?

Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice? held up to rereading much better than the other Danziger books I've revisited of late. It deals with many of the same themes as The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, but more subtly and more effectively. The characters (teachers, parents, cool kids, and rebels) are more complex and believable and, perhaps as a consequence, the family and school dynamics rang truer to me.

I also note that this is one of the few children's/YA books I've come across that portrays lawyers in a positive light. Perhaps it was one of the heretofore elusive sources of my own legal ambitions?

Finally, I must share the following passage because, holy dream date for the bookish girl:

     "Remember when you said you already knew about me?"
     He nods.
     "Well how did you? Was it my charm, wit, and stunning appearance?" I pretend to model.
     He grins. "No, actually it was books."
     "Yeah, books. I moved here during a vacation and didn't know people. So I spent most of my time reading books from the library. Almost every book I picked out had your name in it. Same with the school library. I figured we probably had the same interests. So I checked up on you a little. If I hadn't run into you and Bonnie that day, I would have met you some other way.
     Books. I can't believe it. Books.

Sadly, that scene will be nearly incomprehensible to contemporary readers who didn't experience a time when one signed books out from the library by writing one's name on the card in the pocket affixed to the inside front cover of the book. (And can I just say that I miss the history lost to us with the shift to a computerized system, although at the same time I can recall the embarrassment that that public paper trail could cause on occasion.)

So, a happy rereading experience all in all, not just for the book itself, but because it rehabilitates Danziger for me somewhat after my disappointment on my recent reread of The Cat Ate My Gymsuit.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Rereading Anne's House of Dreams & Reconciling with the Adult Anne

I count myself among the L.M. Montgomery fans who feel a great sense of kinship with Anne Shirley but little or no affinity for Anne Blythe. Yet Anne's House of Dreams, which marks the transition from one to the other, has long been one of my favourite books in the series. It was the first one that I owned a copy of, a chunky Canadian Favourites paperback edition that I received for Christmas at age eleven, and its battered state is a testament to the number of times I've read it in the intervening years. Thus I've always fancied it wasn't until the next book, Anne of Ingleside, that Anne and I parted ways. On my latest reread though, it became clear to me that while there are a multitude of reasons that I love Anne's House of Dreams, it was within its pages that my estrangement from Anne occurred. But perhaps along with that realization comes the perspective necessary for reconciliation.

I'll begin with the positive. What is it that makes Anne's House of Dreams one of my favourites?

The Sea: I've often wondered why Anne, who seems to thrill to every other aspect of the natural world, scarcely seems to notice the sea in Avonlea despite living within spitting distance of it. No matter, that lack is more than made up for by its pervasive presence in this book, once Anne and Gilbert arrive in Four Winds. Indeed, in a passage that I had forgotten, Anne muses on this shift:

There was a certain tang of romance and adventure in the atmosphere of their new home which Anne had never found in Avonlea. There, although she had lived within sight of the sea, it had not entered intimately into her life. In Four Winds it surrounded her and called to her constantly. From every window of her new home she saw some varying aspect of it. Its haunting murmur was ever in her ears. Vessels sailed up the harbour every day to the wharf at the Glen, or sailed out again through the sunset, bound for ports that might be half way round the globe. Fishing boats went white-winged down the channel in the mornings, and returned laden in the evenings. Sailors and fisher-folk traveled the red, winding harbour roads, light-hearted and content. There was always a sense of things going to happen⎯of adventures and farings-forth. The ways of Four Winds were less staid and settled and grooved than those of Avonlea; winds of change blew over them; the sea called ever to the dwellers on shore, and even those who might not answer its call felt the thrill and unrest and mystery and possibilities of it.

I'm the sort of impatient reader who usually skips past descriptions of nature, but I linger over and delight in every mention of the sea in this book⎯yes, "the thrill and unrest and mystery and possibilities of it." I'm quite sure that it was thanks to Anne's House of Dreams that I first fell in love with the landscape of Prince Edward Island.

Leslie Moore: I'm ducking as I write this, but I've always found Diana Barry to be an awfully bland character. She's a loyal and good-hearted person, and she certainly provides a rapt audience for Anne's imaginings and escapades. But Anne and Diana have never struck me as having much in common and I've never understood the source of their enduring connection. Whereas, I have no trouble understanding why Anne is drawn to the vivid and complicated Leslie Moore. At one point it's noted: "There was a certain tang and savour to the conversation when Leslie was present that they missed when she was absent." Exactly. She gives that tang and savour to the whole book.

Miss Cornelia: Another of my favourite characters in the series, Miss Cornelia Bryant, is introduced in this book. Like Mrs. Lynde in the earlier books, she's a reliable provider of comic relief (and given the tragedy that threads through the plot, that comic relief has perhaps never been more necessary). But she's no pale imitation of Mrs. Lynde; she's her own woman⎯a true original and an altogether delightful character.

The Plot: Many of Montgomery's books tend toward the episodic but not this one. It's one of her most tightly plotted and suspenseful novels. Admittedly aspects of the plot are melodramatic and there are moments when it's difficult, especially as an adult reader, to maintain one's suspension of disbelief. Nevertheless, I relish the shift and the demonstration of Montgomery's writerly range that it represents.

With so much to recommend it, what is it in this book that caused the rift between the once beloved Anne and me?

Exhibit A: Anne in reply to Paul Irving's mention of seeing some of her work in magazines:

"No. I know what I can do. I can write pretty fanciful little sketches that children love and editors send welcome cheques for. But I can do nothing big. My only chance for earthly immortality is a corner in your Memoirs."

Exhibit B: Anne in response to Gilbert's suggestion that she try her hand at writing up Captain Jim's life-book:

"No. I only wish I could. But it's not in the power of my gift. You know what my forte is, Gilbert⎯the fanciful, the fairylike, the pretty. To write Captain Jim's life-book as it should be written one should be a master of vigorous yet subtle style, a keen psychologist, a born humourist and a born tragedian. A rare combination of gifts is needed. Paul might do it if he were older."

Exhibit C: Anne in response to Owen Ford's mention that he'd been told she's a fellow writer:

"Oh, I do little things for children. I haven't done much since I was married. And I have no designs on the great Canadian novel," laughed Anne. "That is quite beyond me."

Not just a belittling of her own talents, but an assumption on each occasion that a male writer is better suited than she is to the task of writing something substantial and important. Anne was my first writing role model, and this has always felt like betrayal times three. But is it really?

The foregoing statements would be a betrayal of Anne's writing ambitions only if she has writing ambitions. Perhaps she doesn't. Perhaps Anne isn't a writer at all. I found this idea startling when Katrine Poe posited it in an essay on Anne in Nancy Drew and Company: Culture, Gender, and Girls' Series (edited by Sherrie A. Inness). But the more I thought about it, the more I agreed with her. Anne writes stories in Anne of Green Gables as part of the story club that she starts with Diana, Jane, and Ruby. She attempts to write a magazine-worthy story in Anne of Avonlea but, diligently though she works at it, the endeavour doesn't seem to move her much beyond the melodramatic plots and purple prose of her story club efforts. And thereafter, she confines herself to occasional sketches such as the dialogue between flowers that she composes while awaiting rescue from the Copp girls' hen house on the Tory Road. Each instance seems to represent a momentary enthusiasm, not a driving passion to write. Think of the grit and determination with which Anne pursues and achieves the things she really wants: an education, a home, a family. If she had a passion to write, she would write. Her imaginative life is of continuing importance to her, but putting any of it down on paper seems more or less incidental.

If this is true, then the source of the sense of betrayal that this book generates in me is not identification with Anne, but misidentification with Anne. In which case, I ought to be able to let it go, or rather, to let Anne let it go without taking it personally. (And, after all, it's not as if losing Anne as a writing role model in my youth left me bereft. I still had Jo March, and Emily Byrd Starr, and Betsy Ray to sustain me.) So I leave this rereading of Anne's House of Dreams prepared to let Anne be herself, rather than who I wanted her to be when I was a twelve-year-old aspiring writer. Can I maintain this live-and-let-live attitude through Anne of Ingleside, hands down the Anne book I like least, and the rest of the series, and on into the newly published The Blythes Are Quoted? We'll see…

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Aritha van Herk on L.M. Montgomery's The Blythes Are Quoted

Aritha van Herk on what's new about the new L.M. Montgomery book:

The Blythes are Quoted collects 27 short stories about different characters from communities that we recognize as part of Montgomery's map of Prince Edward Island. They are interspersed with poems "authored" by Anne Blythe and her son, Walter Blythe, and accompanied by vignette-like commentaries on those poems from members of Anne's family. These dialogues reflect the Blythe family's memories and cognizance, thus recording an intimate conversation that resonates beyond their circle. More important, they shape this book into an allegory channelled by the medium of sorrow.


It is Walter's poetic voice, alongside Anne's, that frames this collection, making it less a sunny-side-up Anne redux than a multifaceted ghost story, and a subtle condemnation of the destructiveness of war.

To read the rest of van Herk's excellent review, click here.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Librarians love good readers..."

From Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and me, Elizabeth by E.L. Konigsburg (a marvelous book which I somehow missed in childhood despite having loved others by Konigsburg):

So it happened that we got to meeting in the library every Saturday morning "at 10:00 a.m. o'clock of the morning," as Jennifer said. We'd check out our books. I usually took out one book besides renewing The Black Book of Witchcraft. Jennifer always took out seven books. I could tell that the librarian liked Jennifer even though Jennifer never said "hello" or "good-bye" or "please" or "thank you." Librarians love good readers, and Jennifer was that. In fact, Jennifer wasn't just a good reader, Jennifer was a serious reader.

Here's hoping that the librarians at my local branch feel the same way about me despite my penchant for requesting all manner of books from far flung branches and hogging a large section of the hold shelf on a regular basis...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Shelf Discovery Challenge


I've been successfully resisting participation in reading challenges all year, feeling that I needed a bit of respite after getting carried away with them in previous years and thereby transforming my pleasure reading into a source of stress. But Booking Mama's Shelf Discovery Challenge dovetails so nicely with my current project of revisiting the books that mattered most to me in childhood that there's no way I'm going to pass this one up! The challenge simply involves choosing six of the books featured in Lizzie Skurnick's Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading, and reading and posting about them between November 1, 2009 and April 30, 2010. Here are my choices:

Judy Blume, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret;
Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy;
E.L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler;
Beverly Cleary, Fifteen;
Bette Greene, Summer of My German Solider; and,
Elizabeth George Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

I'm looking forward to revisiting each of these books, and to comparing notes on the experience with other participants in the challenge.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Book Sale Finds

I didn't get carried away at today's book sale, but I did come away with some good finds, each just a dollar or two apiece:

C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism;
Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel: essays on fiction;
Jeffrey Meyers (ed.), The Craft of Literary Biography;
Eve Garnett, Further Adventures of the Family from One End Street;
E.L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler; and,
Carolyn Keene, The Clue in the Diary.

An odd mix of weighty litcrit tomes and kidlit classics that nicely reflects my current preoccupations.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Why I Still Love Encyclopedia Brown

I've just reread the first of Donald J. Sobol's Encylopedia Brown books, Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, and it is readily apparent to me why I loved these books as a kid, and why kids today continue to embrace them. Here are some of the reasons:

1. Ten-year-old Encyclopedia Brown is an irresistible character. Sobol introduces him thus: "Leroy Brown's head was like an encyclopedia. It was filled with facts he had learned from books. He was like a complete library walking around in sneakers." People are always asking him questions. For example, old ladies stop him in the street to ask his assistance with crossword clues. He always knows the answer, but he pauses a moment before offering it up because he's afraid people won't like him if he comes off as too smart. When Encyclopedia uses logic to help his Police Chief father to solve a case for the first time, his mother suggests that he could be a detective when he grows up. But Encyclopedia figures there's no time like the present and he puts out his shingle immediately. He sets up the Brown Detective Agency in his family’s garage, offering his services for 25 cents a day "plus expenses." Just like that, he transforms what could be a social liability⎯his intelligence and his bookishness⎯into a source of power, not just for himself, but also in service of other kids who are the targets of local bullies Bugs Meaney and his gang.

2. I don't like Bugs Meaney⎯he's a nasty piece of work⎯but I do like his name, and I like that Encyclopedia has an archenemy with whom he does battle.

3. When you make a habit of besting the biggest bully in town, you need protection, so Encyclopedia acquires as a bodyguard the strongest person in Idaville below the age of twelve. That person? Sally Kimball. But brawny though she is, she's no bully. She too uses her powers for good, protecting younger, smaller kids from Bugs Meaney, and also, together with a team of fifth-grade girls, devastating Bugs and his gang in a girls-against-the-boys game of softball. And besides her physical toughness and athletic prowess, Sally is also pretty and smart (almost, but not quite smart enough to stump Encyclopedia with a logical puzzle of her own devising). So she becomes not just Encyclopedia's bodyguard, but also his partner in the detective agency. That's a lot of stereotypes about girls and their capabilities sent tumbling via the character of Sally Kimball, particularly in 1963 when the book was first published.

4. But the greatest pleasure of the book is, just as I recalled in my previous post, the opportunity to follow the clues and solve the cases (10 contained in each book) alongside Encyclopedia. When his mother asks him, after his first success, how he went about it, he explains: "I got it from a book I read about a great detective and his methods of observation." This is a nod to Sherlock Holmes, I think. In any event, a combination of close observation and deductive reasoning is certainly the secret of Encyclopedia's success, and the key to the same for the reader who aspires to solve the cases him or herself before flipping to the back of the book where the solutions are revealed. Some of you know that I'm a lawyer and a law professor. Much is made of the mystical process by which students learn in first year law school how to "think like a lawyer." On reflection it occurs to me, with apologies to my first year law professors, that I may in fact have received my earliest lessons in how to think like a lawyer from Encyclopedia Brown. At the time I couldn't have connected Encyclopedia's brand of logic with the work that lawyers do (I think I may have to credit Nancy Drew with making that connection explicit for me⎯another current reread). But in all likelihood it would have been in the solving of those puzzles that I first developed the taste and talent for logical reasoning that ultimately led me to pursue a legal career.

I'll stop there, but stay tuned for a follow up post on Nancy Drew, and possibly a forthcoming law review article: "Learning to Think Like a Lawyer from Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew". . .

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Childhood Reading: Mysteries

A number of recent experiences/events have conspired to propel me into a new writing project: a series of essays on my childhood reading. The last thing I need is a new writing project, what with so many others (at last count, two novels-in-progress and two substantially researched and partially written legal monographs) already underway. But this excavation of my childhood reading is enormous fun and, as I have as yet attached no particular expectations to it, rather liberating. So I'm running with it.

My current preoccupation is with the mysteries I read as a child. I think that my first mysteries were Donald J. Sobol's Encyclopedia Brown books. My recollection of these is rather hazy. I know that I read many of them but I doubt that I reread them the way I did other favourite series. In retrospect, I realize that Sobol must have been having fun playing off the conventions of adult P.I. novels, with Encyclopedia Brown, "boy detective," setting up a detective agency in his family's garage. If I recall correctly, each book contained a number of mini-mysteries for readers to solve, so the chief pleasure of them was not a sustained narrative, but the puzzle-solving exercise⎯an aspect of adult mysteries that still appeals to me.

I think that from there it was on to Nancy Drew. Again, my recollection of these is hazy, although I know I read many of them and, indeed, even owned several. Enid Blyton's Famous Five novels followed shortly thereafter. I remember my brother and I purchasing stacks of these and sharing them back and forth on our summer trips to Scotland to visit my grandparents.

Of course, there was also Lousie Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, one of my childhood favourites. But I'm inclined to think of Harriet more as an aspiring writer than an aspiring sleuth, the whole spy thing notwithstanding. Still, I'm going to reread it together with some Encyclopedia Browns, and Nancy Drews, and Famous Fives, to see if it fits somehow. For that's what I'm doing now in service of my essay on this topic⎯rereading several of each. You can see why I'm having such fun with this! There are eight Encyclopedia Brown books, and two Nancy Drews already making their way to me via my public library's hold system. And I have several of those battered paperback Famous Five novels still on my shelves, handy for revisiting.

When did I make the leap to adult mysteries, and where did I begin with those? I'm going to have to think a bit longer to pinpoint the when, but I'm quite sure it was straight from the foregoing children's mysteries to Agatha Christie. I remember that a friend from camp loaned me some Ellery Queen books at one point, but I don't think they hooked me the way that the Christies did.

Did you read mysteries in childhood? Which ones and why those? If you moved on from there to adult mysteries, which ones did you sample first?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Betsy-Tacy Giveaway Results!

My apologies for being so slow to draw names for this giveaway. I was waiting for the copies of the books that I'd ordered to arrive so that I would be able to mail them off immediately to the lucky winners. As you can see from the above photo, they have indeed arrived. They make an impressive looking stack, do they not?

I'm pleased that so many people are interested in reading these books, and I wish that I had a copy to give to everyone who entered. Alas, I had to narrow it down to four. I did so using an online fruit machine thingy to randomly pick names from the list of entrants. And without further ado, the four winners are:

A Bookshelf Monstrosity
Dorothy W.

Please email your mailing address to me at and I will pop your book in the mail pronto. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A New Discworld Novel

Today is the Canadian release date for Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld novel, Unseen Academicals, and I confess to being positively giddy at the prospect of getting my hands on a copy. (It came out in the US last week and in the UK the week before that, so wherever you are, there's a good chance that you too can obtain a copy.) In it, apparently, the wizards of Ankh Morpork's Unseen University are compelled by Lord Vetinari to revive their ancient football tradition and, what's more, they must win the big game without the aid of magic. An irresistible premise, no? My very favourite Discworld novels are the ones that centre on the City Watch. And the novels featuring the witches are a close second. But as an academic and a football fan, I'm confident that I'll find this latest Discworld installment highly entertaining as well.

That's the UK/Canadian cover on the left, and the US one on the right. I think I prefer the former. And you?

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Charms of Anne of Windy Poplars

I've heard many people over the years name Anne of Windy Poplars as their least favourite book in L.M. Montgomery's Anne series. I run hot and cold on Anne; there are a number of installments in the series that I love, and others that I skip over now on every reread. But I believe I go against the grain in counting Windy Poplars among the loves.

Windy Poplars covers the three years that elapse between Anne and Gilbert's engagement at the end of Anne of the Island and their wedding at the beginning of Anne's House of Dreams. They're apart for these years, with Gilbert at medical school in Kingsport, and Anne serving as Principal of Summerside High School, and the novel is comprised entirely of letters from Anne to Gilbert. They're not love letters⎯whenever Anne is feeling romantic, we get only suggestive ellipses⎯but chatty, thoughtful, and humorous descriptions of this new place and the new people she encounters there.

For those for whom the Anne/Gilbert romance is a central attraction of the series, this is just wasted time. I'm not one of those people. I confess that I've always found Gilbert rather dull⎯truth to tell, the only one of Montgomery's romantic leads that I've got any time for is Barney Snaith in The Blue Castle. But, major caveat here, the tenor of the correspondence in Windy Poplars, even though we get only one side of it, makes me like Gilbert more, because it so clearly conveys the depth of their friendship. It convinces me that Gilbert truly is the one for her.

Because it's a novel in letters, Anne is the narrator of the tale, and this is Anne's voice as we've not heard it before. Anne's over-exuberance in the earlier books can make her a bit exhausting at times. But here, although she's still that spirited Anne, we get her in contemplative moments, and we see her having a sense of humour about herself and those around her. And, we get to witness Anne's facility with her pen first hand. If she had employed these storytelling skills in her public writing rather than ultimately selling herself short, on the eve of her wedding, as one who "can write pretty, fanciful little sketches that children love" but "nothing big," then she might well have had a successful writing career echoing that of her creator.

Finally it's the humour in this book that is the major draw for me. In previous books Montgomery has depicted the adult shenanigans of small communities with the same sharp-eyed insight and wit, but mostly as a backdrop to the doings of precocious children. Here, it's front and centre in a book which therefore strikes me as a very adult one. I relish the depiction of the inner working of Summerside society, in particular the role within it of the ruling family, the Pringles, who initially do their best shut Anne out. And although the cast of characters is large, all are fully realized and altogether loveable or pleasurably hateable or an intriguing in between.

I'm particularly fond of the widows (Aunt Chatty and Aunt Kate) and the inimitable Rebecca Dew with whom Anne boards at Windy Poplars. And so, I leave you with a description of them from near the beginning of the book as Anne is just settling in to her new digs:

"The widows are going to wear well. Every day I like them better. Aunt Kate doesn't believe in reading novels, but informs me that she does not propose to censor my reading-matter. Aunt Chatty loves novels. She has a 'hidy-hole' where she keeps them ... she smuggles them in from the town library ... together with a pack of cards for solitaire and anything else she doesn't want Aunt Kate to see. It is in a chair seat which nobody but Aunt Chatty knows is more than a chair seat. She has shared the secret with me, because, I strongly suspect, she wants me to aid and abet her in the aforesaid smuggling. There shouldn't really be any need for hidy-holes at Windy Poplars, for I never saw a house with so many mysterious cupboards. Though to be sure, Rebecca Dew won't let them be mysterious. She is always cleaning them out ferociously. 'A house can't keep itself clean,' she says sorrowfully when either of the widows protests. I am sure she would make short work of a novel or a pack of cards if she found them. They are both a horror to her orthodox soul. Rebecca Dew says cards are the devil's books and novels even worse. The only things Rebecca ever reads, apart from her Bible, are the society columns of the Montreal Guardian. She loves to pore over the houses and furniture and doings of millionaires.

Are there any other Windy Poplars fans among you?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Betsy-Tacy Fans and the Great World

Betsy and the Great World is the ninth book in Maud Hart Lovelace's ten volume Betsy-Tacy series. It begins in January 1914 with 21-year-old Betsy Ray starting up the gangplank to the S.S. Columbic, then docked in Boston harbor but shortly bound for Europe. Two and a half years have passed since the end of the preceding book, Betsy and Joe, and much has changed. Most startling on first reading for fans of the series is finding Betsy embarking on this adventure alone. Best friend Tacy is conspicuously absent, as are Tib and Carney and the rest of Betsy's Deep Valley Crowd. And the devoted Ray family⎯parents Bob and Jule, and sisters Julia and Margaret⎯is nowhere in evidence.

But we soon learn that these characters are as supportive of Betsy as ever, albeit now from a distance. Indeed, the trip to Europe was her father's idea. He could see that Betsy had gotten off on the wrong foot at college, that she hadn't been happy there, and concluded that perhaps a different sort of education would serve her better. Initially he suggested the sort of guided tour that her older sister had taken a few years previously, but Betsy persuaded him otherwise:

"No, Papa!" Betsy knelt beside him, her hands on his knee. "Guided tours are all right for some people, but not for a writer. I ought to stay in just two or three places. Really live in them, learn them. Then if I want to mention London, for example, in a story, I would know the names of the streets and how they run and the buildings and the atmosphere of the city. I could move a character around in London just as though it were Minneapolis. I don't want to hurry from place to place with a party the way Julia did."

And this is just what Betsy does, settling in for a time in Munich, then Venice, then Paris, and finally London (where the start of WWI ultimately cuts her travels short), meeting new people, making the most of every experience, and collecting story material all the while.

Fans of the earlier books can't help but miss Tacy and the Crowd and the Ray family. After all, the fun and the warmth of these friendships and this family is a major part of the appeal of the Betsy-Tacy series as a whole. But at the same time, it's exhilarating to witness Betsy becoming increasingly independent and ever more confident in her abilities as a writer. Betsy's journey in this book, both literal and emotional, was a great source of inspiration to me as a young reader and remains so still. As a world traveler, an independent woman, and a writer dedicated to her craft, Betsy was and is a heroine to emulate. This is why Betsy and the Great World is my favourite installment in the Betsy-Tacy series. And it doesn't hurt that it has one of the most satisfying endings that I've encountered in any book. I cry every time.

I'm not alone in taking inspiration from Betsy's travels. I canvassed the membership of Maud-L on this point and learned that a number of my friends and fellow Betsy-Tacy fans had been emboldened by Betsy to embark on similar adventures, some following directly in Betsy's footsteps, others traveling to destinations of their own but feeling a kinship with Betsy while doing so, and even adopting Betsyish turns of phrase in describing their adventures to loved ones back home. Here are some of the travel tales they generously shared with me:

Sallie K.: "My first trip to Europe in 1967 was greatly influenced by Betsy's trip in 1914. I wanted to go by ship, and there were still passenger ships plying the Atlantic Ocean in 1967, so I booked passage on the Queen Mary (yep, the same one that now resides in Long Beach CA). Before I left for New York City, my sister who had introduced me to the Betsy Tacy book series, gave me a package that included different presents to be opened each day of my voyage to Southampton England. The first was a small, leather-bound journal entitled "My Trip" - almost like Betsy's from Julia and Paige - and in which I wrote all during my stay in Great Britain. I didn't do as much traveling that first trip as Betsy did, but spent my whole 6 months in Great Britain exploring it from the tip of Cornwall to the top of John O'Groats in Scotland. On a later trip, also by ship, I visited Munich and Oberammergau in memory of Maud Hart Lovelace and her fictional character, Betsy Ray."

Wendy reports having visited all of the Betsy and the Great World sites in Munich, most of them in Venice, and some in London, and she singles out as highlights "seeing Marco's choir stalls at San Giorgio Maggiore and going to Sonneberg." Of the latter she writes: "Even in 1999, I was delighted to find that solo lady tourists in Sonneberg were so rare that people would pop their heads out of their houses to stare at me as I walked by."

Margaret: "Somehow, in reading all the Betsy-Tacy books, I had missed out on Betsy and The Great World. When I finally read it, it immediately became one of my favorites in the series, and I have probably reread it the most. I like to travel, and I have been to Paris more than once. One of my favorite memories of the city is the time a friend of mine and I were just wandering around the streets, shopping and looking at things. We turned a corner and unexpectedly there it was-- onze rue Scribe, the AMEX office. 'That's where Betsy went!' I said excitedly to my friend, who had no idea what I was talking about."

Jen: "I sent the following e-mail to my beloved husband after my day in Athens, pretending to be Betsy in the Great World: 'Our deck is full of drying underpants. Don't ask. Mom got us kicked out of our room this morning. Don't ask. At an outdoor cafe, a handsome Greek man put his hand in my hair and stroked my head. Ask all you want, I won't tell.' :) Travel is SO broadening!"

Ruth: "I took my very first cruise this summer (I'm almost 58) to Alaska. It was wonderful because I was partially raised there and was going back more or less. Also got to see my uncle. But my Betsy experience was sitting out on the deck chair on my balcony on the ship in the cold air, with a woolen deck blanket over me! (It took me a day to figure out that the nice 'afghans' on the couch were actually deck blankets!) And they were much appreciated! So I sat there and felt like Betsy on the Columbic and thought how wonderful it was to be there!"

Susann: "What I most love about Betsy and the Great World is that we get to see Betsy traveling ALONE. She makes friends and has companions for part of her journey but, really, Betsy is on her own, literally and metaphorically navigating her own course. Much as I enjoy traveling with friends and family, I also love to set out by myself. You see things differently when you're on your own. Betsy's solo trip to Sonneberg reminds me of my trip to Salzburg, when I was a 19-year-old student spending a semester in London. Just as Betsy indulged her inner child to visit the 'doll center of the world,' I knew that I couldn't leave Europe without paying homage to The Sound of Music. Folks thought I was a little nuts to head all the way to Austria, just for a Julie Andrews movie. But I was so excited to set off on my 'crazy expedition,' follow my heart's desire, and see one more corner of the Great World."

It's irresistible, is it not, a book that makes you want to travel the world?

(Thanks to TLC Book Tours for inviting me to participate in the Betsy-Tacy blog tour.)

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Betsy-Tacy High School Books Giveaway!

With the release last week of new double-volume editions of the final six books in the series, all of Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy Tacy books are back in print.

The series begins with Betsy's fifth birthday in Minnesota circa 1897 and, in ten volumes, documents her childhood and high school years, her early struggles to establish herself as a writer, her solo trip into the Great World (Germany, Italy, France, and England), and finally her wedding and the beginning of her married life. The books become steadily more sophisticated in style and content as Betsy matures, thereby continuing to appeal to young readers as they grow up alongside Betsy and her friends.

If you're a regular visitor to this blog, you'll know that these books were childhood favourites of mine, and that I continue to love them beyond reason. The early books, which are utterly charming reads for children, have been more or less continually in print in recent years. But, until now, not so the high school books and beyond. And, while I'm fond of the early books, the later ones have a special place in my head and my heart. They are the ones that I revisit again and again as an adult. So, it makes me extraordinarily happy to see them back in print and available in stores for other readers to discover and, hopefully, embrace as I and countless others have done.

The new editions consist of three double volumes, each containing two installments in the series. This doubling up is a good thing given the addictive quality of the series--very hard to stop after just one! And it gives each volume a satisfying heft which, I like to think, will be appealing to young readers who have grown up on Harry Potter and the Twilight series and expect a lot of book in their books. The covers feature the same charming Vera Neville drawings that graced the originals. And, as added bonuses, each volume also features a foreword by a famous fan (Laura Lippman, Meg Cabot, and Anna Quindlen respectively) and an afterword that provides some background information on the real people and places that the fictional characters and settings are based on.

There is much to celebrate here, and I'm celebrating with a giveaway! I've purchased a few extra copies of the first volume, Heaven to Betsy/Betsy in Spite of Herself which takes Betsy through her freshman and sophomore years of high school, to give to readers of this blog. Are you interested in receiving a copy? Are you a neophyte, ready to embark on your first ever read of a Betsy-Tacy book? Or perhaps you'd like a copy not for yourself but for a daughter, granddaughter, niece, or young friend who you think would enjoy these books? Don't worry about starting in the middle of the series if you've not read the early books. The high school books can stand on their own and I actually think they're a better introduction to the series for older readers. But perhaps you have read the early books, and you're now keen to encounter the high school Betsy? Or maybe you loved the series as a child and would like to take this opportunity revisit your old friends in Deep Valley? Whatever the source of your interest, let me know in the comments section below if you'd like a copy of this book. If more people express an interest than I've got copies, I'll draw names on Friday night.

Good luck! And stay tuned for another Betsy-Tacy post tomorrow, this one focused on my favourite book in the series, Betsy and the Great World, as part of a Betsy-Tacy blog tour which is currently underway.

UPDATE: You can find the list of winners here.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Latest Library Loot

I found this marvellous lot of books awaiting me on the library hold shelf today (I'm too lazy to think of clever ways to describe books I haven't yet read, so I'll just paste a few paragraphs from the publishers' catalogue copy below to give you an idea of what delights I'm in for):

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt: "The Children's Book is the absorbing story of the close of what has been called the Edwardian summer: the deceptively languid, blissful period that ended with the cataclysmic destruction of World War I. In this compelling novel, A.S. Byatt summons up a whole era, revealing that beneath its golden surface lay tensions that would explode into war, revolution and unbelievable change — for the generation that came of age before 1914 and, most of all, for their children. The novel centres around Olive Wellwood, a fairy tale writer, and her circle, which includes the brilliant, erratic craftsman Benedict Fludd and his apprentice Phillip Warren, a runaway from the poverty of the Potteries; Prosper Cain, the soldier who directs what will become the Victoria and Albert Museum; Olive's brother-in-law Basil Wellwood, an officer of the Bank of England; and many others from every layer of society. A.S. Byatt traces their lives in intimate detail and moves between generations, following the children who must choose whether to follow the roles expected of them or stand up to their parents' 'porcelain socialism.'"

Brooklyn by Colm Toíbín: "It is Enniscorthy in the southeast of Ireland in the early 1950s. Eilis Lacey is one among many of her generation who cannot find work at home. Thus when a job is offered in America, it is clear to everyone that she must go. Leaving her family and country, Eilis heads for unfamiliar Brooklyn, and to a crowded boarding house where the landlady’s intense scrutiny and the small jealousies of her fellow residents only deepen her isolation. Slowly, however, the pain of parting is buried beneath the rhythms of her new life — until she begins to realize that she has found a sort of happiness. As she falls in love, news comes from home that forces her back to Enniscorthy, not to the constrictions of her old life, but to new possibilities which conflict deeply with the life she has left behind in Brooklyn."

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall: "Full of incredible characters, amazing athletic achievements, cutting-edge science, and, most of all, pure inspiration, Born to Run is an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong."

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker: "The Anthologist is narrated by Paul Chowder -- a once-in-a-while-published kind of poet who is writing the introduction to a new anthology of poetry. He's having a hard time getting started because his career is floundering, his girlfriend Roz has recently left him, and he is thinking about the great poets throughout history who have suffered far worse and deserve to feel sorry for themselves. He has also promised to reveal many wonderful secrets and tips and tricks about poetry, and it looks like the introduction will be a little longer than he'd thought. What unfolds is a wholly entertaining and beguiling love story about poetry: from Tennyson, Swinburne, and Yeats to the moderns (Roethke, Bogan, Merwin) to the staff of The New Yorker, what Paul reveals is astonishing and makes one realize how incredibly important poetry is to our lives. At the same time, Paul barely manages to realize all of this himself, and the result is a tenderly romantic, hilarious, and inspired novel."

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore: "Set just after the events of September 2001, it is a story about Tassie Keltjin, a twenty-year-old making her way in a new world and coming of age. Tassie is a “smile-less” girl from the plains of the mid-west. She has come to a university town, her brain on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, and Simone de Beauvoir. In between semesters, she takes a part-time job as a nanny for a family that seems mysterious and glamorous to her. Though her liking for children tends to dwindle into boredom, Tassie begins to care for, and protect, their newly adopted little girl as her own. As the year unfolds, she is drawn even deeper into the world of the child and her hovering parents, and her own life back home becomes alien to her. As life reveals itself dramatically and shockingly, Tassie finds herself forever changed — less the person she once was, and more and more the stranger she feels herself to be."

The Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling: "1855: The Industrial Revolution is in full and inexorable swing, powered by steam-driven cybernetic Engines. Charles Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine and the computer age arrives a century ahead of its time. And three extraordinary characters race toward a rendezvous with history - and the future: Sybil Gerard - fallen woman, politicians tart, daughter of a Luddite agitator; Edward "Leviathan" Mallory - explorer and paleontologist. Laurence Oliphant - diplomat, mystic, and spy. Their adventure begins with the discovery of a box of punched Engine cards of unknown origin and purpose. Cards someone wants badly enough to kill for..."

Add to these a couple of DVDs of Inspector Lewis episodes, and you can see that I'm in for some excellent Fall entertainment courtesy of my local library.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Paul Auster on Samuel Beckett

Paul Auster on Samuel Beckett & literary mentorship:

"We weren't friends at all," he says. "I mean, you can't call it friendship, it was hardly even an acquaintanceship, but there was some feeling of solidarity, I felt, from him towards me, and I appreciated it very much. And I think now that I'm an old fellow and I see young writers, you know, there is always this feeling of tenderness and fear that you have for them.

For the rest of the Auster profile in the Irish Times from whence this snippet comes, click here.

Symposium on Book Blogging

There's a very thought-provoking symposium under way on "The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time," conceived and hosted by D.G. Myers of A Commonplace Blog and Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence. Myers & Kurp have put a series of questions designed to provoke reflection on "the past, present, and future of this youngest of literary genres" to a number of book bloggers. Six responses have now been posted, and I understand that there are more to come.

You can find Myers' introduction to the symposium here, and the first six responses from participating bloggers at the links below:

Miriam Burstein (The Little Professor);
Frank Wilson (Books, Inq.);
Benjamin Stein (Turmsegler);
Michael Gilleland (Laudator Temporis Acti);
Mark Athitakis (American Fiction Notes); and,
Walter Aske (Elberry’s Ghost).

The symposium has me mulling afresh over some of the big questions of book blogging and has also exposed me to some bloggers of whom I hadn't previously been aware and whose blogs I'm now keen to read. If you haven't already, I encourage you to stop by A Commonplace Blog and Anecdotal Evidence to read the contributions of the participants and to chime in with your own views in the comments sections.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Art of Selective Subtraction

Will Ferguson on the distinction between fiction and travel writing:

I've always said that fiction and travel writing are comparable to two types of sculpturing. Fiction is like working with clay; you build something up from a single character, an image, a scent. It's the art of addition. Nonfiction, and travel writing in particular, is like working in stone, cutting away everything that doesn't fit. You start big and pare down, reducing the mass of possibilities, trying to decide what matters, what doesn't. Any destination might conjure up a number of vastly different books, even from the same author. Focus on one through-line instead of another and the book – like the journey – will suddenly veer off, leading you in startlingly new directions. Or over the edge of a cliff. Travel writing is the art of selective subtraction.

Click here to read the rest.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Neil Gaiman's Library

Click here to check out Neil Gaiman's bookshelves at shelfari. I am overwhelmed with envy and admiration. I wouldn't dare put my books in the basement for fear of the damp, but I want just such a library somewhere in my house!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

The first book listed by Nancy Pearl in her recent NPR feature on Mysteries You Might Have Missed Along the Way is Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection. I didn't miss that one⎯it was one of my favourite reads of the year so far. But I did miss telling you about it, so I'm going to piggyback on Pearl's recommendation to do so belatedly now. Pearl beautifully sums up this very difficult to sum up book as follows:

Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection is the sort of novel that is impossible to characterize with any accuracy. An amalgamation of literary fiction, fantasy and mystery, it echoes with tributes to the writing of Borges, Calvino, Auster and Kafka. But for all that it may resemble, The Manual of Detection is entirely original. Set in a building known only as The Agency in an unknown, somewhat eerie city, the novel features Charles Unwin, a finicky, routine-driven clerk who works for a famous detective named Sivart.

One day, everything in Unwin's ordered life is thrown into disarray when Sivart's boss is murdered, Sivart disappears and Unwin is unwillingly promoted to detective from his lowly position as a clerk (a job he looks forward to every day). The only way Unwin can get his beloved clerkship back is to find Sivart, but while trying to do so, he uncovers the existence of a dastardly plot to take over the world by an organization bent on infiltrating people's dreams.

It sounds promising, does it not? And that promise is fully realized in the novel. Here's a list of overlapping reasons why I loved The Manual of Detection:

1. The plot is crazily inventive. There were moments when it was all so surreal that I just let myself drift (dreamlike) and didn't even try to follow the thread of the plot. But then some connection would spark for me and I'd be fiercely puzzling it all out again. The latter mode of reading was a cerebral pleasure, and the former, just a pleasure.

2. The novel is marvelously atmospheric. The universe that Berry has created here is one that I relished inhabiting. I didn't want to leave it at the end. (For a taste of it, click over to the book's website which somehow conjures up the same mood.)

3. The novel both is The Manual of Detection and is about The Manual Detection. I'm a sucker for books within books, and this one is framed very cleverly and with a deeply satisfying attention to detail. For example, early on one of the characters makes reference to page 96 of the Manual. I immediately turned to page 96 of the novel and was pleased by what I found there.

4. It is full of arresting images that have stuck with me weeks afterward, chief among them, our reluctant hero Charles Unwin bicycling in the rain under an umbrella ingeniously hooked to his handlebars.

I can't wait to see what fabulous book next emerges from the fertile brain of Jedediah Berry. In the meantime, I'll likely reread this one a time or two.

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.