Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Blog Birthday: The First Four Years

I made my first blog post exactly four years ago today. Here are a few paragraphs from that first post that explained my motivation and outlined my intentions:

I started a book journal in January of this year. I was inspired by the "Best Books of 2004" lists that several people posted on listservs to which I subscribe. I would have liked to have been able to contribute my own best reads of 2004 but I could barely remember what I'd read the week before, let alone a whole year's worth of books. I resolved not to find myself in the same position at the end of 2005. I also thought that keeping a book journal might compel me to slow down, to linger a bit over each book rather than blazing through at lightning speed. It doesn't seem fair to the authors who have sweated over each sentence not to pause now and again to appreciate the craft of their work.

Alas, my book journal didn't slow me down or render me a more contemplative reader. It's just a list of titles, authors and dates with the odd asterisk or three-word commentary to indicate which books I particularly liked and why. To begin with, this format may even have had me reading faster just to get the sense of accomplishment that came from adding another book to the list. It also had the unforeseen effect of making me feel like I had to finish every book I started, a mindset from which I thought I'd liberated myself long ago. Apparently I can still be motivated by a few more construction paper discs to add to my bookworm.

Hence this book blog. I intend for it to be both narrower and deeper than my book journal. I won't list every book I read here but I'll ruminate a bit on the ones that make me think. I'll write about good books and not-so-good books (for me, what doesn't work in an unsuccessful book can be as thought-provoking as what does work in a successful one), about books I couldn’t put down, and books I couldn't bring myself to finish. I will also occasionally post excerpts from old diaries about books that I found particularly intriguing or inspiring at other points in my life.

I have pretty much followed that template for the last four years, and the practice of blogging has had the intended effect of slowing me down and making me a more thoughtful reader. That much I anticipated.

What I didn't anticipate was the entry point that blogging would offer into a glorious community of readers. The only book blogs that I was familiar with then were a couple of personal blogs maintained by friends. I thought that those friends might read my posts, along with a handful of other friends and family members with whom I was already in the habit of exchanging book recommendations. I was thinking small and mostly doing it for myself. In short order, however, a few strangers dropped by, and I followed the links back to their blogs, then began working my way through their blog rolls. I was very excited and, frankly, awed by the wealth of book blogs that I found once I started looking. What joy to encounter legions of keen readers from all over the world and to be privy to their interesting, entertaining, and insightful commentary about an eclectic range of books without so much as leaving my office. And, of course, that wealth of book blogs has increased at an exponential rate in the intervening years.

The best books make me think, and so too do the many fine book blogs that I read. I regularly find myself prompted by blog posts to seek out books that I hadn't previously heard of, or that I hadn't thought I'd be interested in, to reconsider my assessments of books and writers, whether recent reads or old favourites, and generally to think more deeply about my reading and writing practices. I've had the good fortune to meet some of my favourite bloggers in person. And I've come to think of a number of fellow bloggers as friends.

My blogging has ebbed and flowed over the first four years, and I have no doubt that it will continue to do so in accordance with what I'm reading and how I'm responding it, with the degree to which I'm immersed in my writing, and with whatever else is going on in my life. But I can't imagine giving up blogging altogether. Because the discipline of writing about what I read is rewarding in and of itself. But most of all because I relish being a participant in this vibrant world. I want to thank those who stop by to read what I write here, and those who comment on my posts. And I want to express my deep gratitude to those who generously share their reading experiences on their own blogs and in comments on other blogs, and who have thereby enriched my reading life immensely.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Books That Travel With You

I'm leading a group read of Betsy and the Great World over at Maud-L at the moment. I've read this novel countless times and I find myself focusing on different aspects of it each time and sometimes noticing things that I've never noticed before, particularly this time through as I read it with a view to thinking up questions to generate discussion among fellow Betsy-Tacy fans. One of my current preoccupations is books mentioned within books, so this time round a passage describing the books that Betsy took with her to Europe (first stop: Munich) jumped out at me:

Opposite, beyond the door, were ranged the wardrobe and a table covered with a spread on which were pictures of Julia and Paige, Bob Barhydt, Tacy and Tib. Mr. Burton's chocolates (what was left of them) sat there and her books: The Beloved Vagabond, Little Women, Emerson's Essays, some Dickens, Thackeray, and Dumas, and The Oxford Book of English Verse. Joe Willard had sent her that from Cambridge. There was another book Joe had given her, a limp leather copy of As You Like It.

Perhaps that sounds like rather a lot of books, but remember that this is early 1914 and Betsy is anticipating spending a year in Europe, so she's traveling with a hefty trunk. Mind you, sometimes I find myself tempted to carry just as many on a weekend away, simply because I can't make up my mind what I might feel like reading in advance. Which brings me to my question for you. If you were going away for a lengthy trip, which books would you take with you? Are there particular volumes that you couldn't do without?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"... it's a question of weaving the net of coincidence as fine as possible."

Martin Beck's philosophy of police work in a nutshell:

Police work is built on realism, routine, stubbornness and system. It's true that a lot of difficult cases are cleared up by coincidence, but it's equally true that coincidence is an elastic concept that mustn't be confused with luck or accident. In a criminal investigation, it's a question of weaving the net of coincidence as fine as possible. And experience and industry play a larger role there than brilliant inspiration. A good memory and ordinary common sense are more valuable qualities than intellectual brilliance.

From Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Abominable Man (Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal) (1972).

Monday, June 15, 2009

"He's no deid at the end..."

Ian Rankin on whether the protagonist of his forthcoming novel, one DI Malcolm Fox, is likely to become a recurring character:

"Well, I like him and he's no deid at the end, well not at the end of the second draft," said Ian. "But I do like him. He's an engaging and likeable character and someone I have enjoyed spending time with, so you never know."

The Complaints is due out in September, and I can't wait to read it.

(Thanks to Donna for the link.)

Alexandra Leggat's Animal Launches in Toronto on Friday Night

If you're in Toronto on Friday night, you won't want to miss this. For more about the book, click here.

Final Thoughts on The Fire Engine that Disappeared

I'm always curious as to how other readers' impressions of a book align with or differ from my own. When I reached the end of The Fire Engine that Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, I did a quick scan of review sites and found that other readers had expressed disappointment in it, opining that it didn't measure up to the rest of the Martin Beck series, particularly the book that immediately preceded it, The Laughing Policeman. Well, I must confess that I haven't yet acquired a copy of The Laughing Policeman and, as a consequence, I skipped straight from #3 (The Man on the Balcony) to #5. And without The Laughing Policeman—which is by many accounts the standout of the series—looming over it, The Fire Engine that Disappeared held up just fine. Indeed, my impression of the series, as expressed in yesterday's post, is that it gets better and better with each book.

I was thoroughly puzzled by the mystery at the heart of The Fire Engine that Disappeared—the links between a disparate group of small-time crooks and their connection to the big, shocking, and seemingly professional crime that occurs at the start of the novel—and enjoyed unraveling it alongside Martin Beck and his team. The accent truly is on team here, as the reader witnesses not just Martin Beck and his usual colleagues working together, but also their assistance from and cooperation with other branches of the Stockholm police, a laconic Malmö detective, and a counterpart of his in Copenhagen, as the case takes on an international dimension. I felt that I got to know Martin Beck much better in this installment, and I also relished learning more about the thoroughly unpleasant but very intriguing Gunvald Larsson. The only negative for me is that there seemed to be more in this book of an element in the series of which I am wearying—a string of minor female characters who appear to be willing to sleep with anyone at the drop of a hat. Could this be an accurate reflection of sexual mores in Sweden in the late 1960s? Or is a nod to hard-boiled crime fiction convention? Regardless, it feels out of step with what otherwise seems to be a realistic portrayal of 1960s Sweden. That's a minor annoyance however and my enthusiasm for the series continues unabated.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

How are things going?

A snippet from The Fire Engine that Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö:

     On the Monday after Ascension Day, Martin Beck called up Malmö and asked how things were going.
     Hammar was standing 6 feet away from him and had just said: "Call up Malmö and ask how things are going."
     He regretted asking the moment he heard Månsson's voice, for suddenly he remembered the innumerable times over the years when he himself had been the recipient of the same idiotic question. From people in more senior Positions. From the press. From his wife. From foolish colleagues. From inquisitive acquaintances. How are things going?
     Nevertheless, he cleared his throat and said:
     "Hi. How are things going?"

The Fire Engine that Disappeared is the fifth installment in the Martin Beck series which, I'm finding, gets better and better with each book. I quote the foregoing passage because it exemplifies the tone of the whole series and that—as much as the riveting plots, the intriguing cast of characters, and the penetrating glimpses into 1960s and 70s Swedish society—is what has me so thoroughly captivated by these books.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Penelope Fitzgerald's Human Voices

I fear that Penelope Fitzgerald and I are not meant for one another. Human Voices was highly recommended by friends whose opinions I trust and whose tastes I often share. It's set in WWII London, where I've chosen to spend a good deal of my reading time lately. And it's about the BBC, an institution for which I have a great fondness. It ought to have been perfect for me, but, alas, it was not.

There was something about the style that Fitzgerald employed in the novel that scattered my attention. I didn't dislike reading it, but nothing made a sufficient impression to stick with me after I closed the book—not the characters or the setting or the various incidents that studded the narrative. If I made the mistake of putting it down without marking my place, I was lost as, even minutes later, I couldn't remember which bit I'd already read and which I hadn't.

My inability to distinguish between the characters was a particular problem. The senior staffers were generally referred to not by their names but by acronyms of their job titles: the RPD and the DPP, and I kept forgetting what jobs the acronyms denoted and which man held which job. (I've just gone back and looked them up—the RPD is the Director of the Department of Recorded Programmes, and the DPP is the Director of Programme Planning.) The junior staffers (RPAs—assistants to the RPD), were more often referred to by their names (Lise, Vi, Teddy, Willie, and so on) but, even so, I had trouble telling some of them apart. I'm sure that this was quite deliberate—the senior men being so completely identified with their jobs that they scarcely needed names, and the junior staffers being viewed as largely interchangeable by the senior men. In the abstract, this seems to me very clever, but the ultimate effect was that the novel slid past me without leaving much of an impression, either positive or negative.

As I noted above though, other readers have responded very differently, and I can't help but think that this is a case not of a flawed book or of a flawed reader but of a mismatch between reader and book. So those of you who loved Human Voices, please offer up a counterpoint to my view with a comment below or, if you've written about the book elsewhere, with a link to your post/review. And I'd be grateful too if fans of Fitzgerald's work more broadly could tell me if you see this book as representative of her style as a whole, or if there are others of her books that you would recommend I try despite not having been much taken with this one.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Library Loot 7: Still Under the Influence


This week's haul has me once again following up on recommendations from fellow bloggers as well as pals from goodreads and Maud-L.

Lenz by Georg Büchner (translated by Richard Sieburth): Litlove wrote an eloquent post about this one recently that sparked my interest. Here's a bit of the cover copy description: "Lenz, Georg Büchner's visionary exploration of an 18th-century playwright's descent into madness, has been called the inception of European modernist prose. Elias Canetti considered this short novella to be one of the seminal reading experiences of his entire life, and writers as various as Paul Celan, Christa Wolff and Peter Schneider have paid homage to it in their works. Published posthumously in 1839, Lenz is a taut case study of three weeks in the life of a schizophrenic, perhaps the first third-person text ever to be written from the 'inside' of insanity." And the lovely archipelago books edition that I've borrowed has the German text on one side and the English translation on the facing page in the style of some poetry translations, and it includes some of the source material from which Büchner worked. I fully expect that I'll soon be buying myself a copy to keep.

Tell Me: 30 Stories by Mary Robinson: A guest post at Maud Newton by Carrie Spell prompted me to seek out some of Robinson's work. I put three of her books on hold, and this collection of her short stories was the first to arrive. From the back cover: "These stories—sharp, cool, and astringently funny—confirm Mary Robinson's place as one of our most original writers and led Richard Yates to comment, 'Robinson writes like an avenging angel, and I think she may be a genius.'"

Havana Red by Leonardo Padura (translated by Peter Bush): You may have noticed that my crime fiction reading has had a decidedly Scandinavian flavour of late. When I came across a mention of Padura's Havana quartet on PBS's Spotlight on World Mysteries, I thought perhaps it was time for a change of climate. From the back cover: "The first of the Havana quartet featuring Lieutenant Mario Conde, a tropical Marlowe. A body is found in a Havana park. A young transvestite dressed in a beautiful red evening dress, strangled. The victim had fled his family, finding refuge with Marqués, a forgotten man in his own country, an author and theatre director once condemned by his government for being a 'heretical homosexual,' living alone surrounded only by books, his house in ruins. In the baking heat of the Havana summer Conde moves through a Cuban reality where nothing is what it seems, a dark, fascinating world of men and women born in the Revolution who live without dreaming of exile and seek their identity in the midst of disaster."

The Ark by Margot Benary-Isbert (translated by Clara and Richard Winston): This is a YA novel that tells the tale of a family struggling to get by in post-WWII Germany. My friend Melody recommended it highly on goodreads, particularly to fans of the Betsy-Tacy series.

The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane by William Holtz: This one came to my attention via goodreads as well, this time courtesy of Melissa, another Maud-L pal. Rose Wilder Lane was the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder and, according to this biography, had a fraught relationship with her mother, and also a substantial role in the shaping of her mother’s books. I've been curious about Lane ever since reading somewhere that the character Mrs. Main-Whittaker in Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy and the Great World is based on her, and now seems like a fine time to learn more about her.

Exchange by Paul Magrs: I spotted this one on Melanie's latest library loot list. After clicking through to the publisher's description, I felt that I must read the book immediately: "Following the death of his parents, 16-year-old Simon moves into his grandparents' claustrophobic bungalow, which quickly becomes a refuge from his bullying peers. United by their voracious appetite for books, Simon and his grandmother stumble across the Great Big Book Exchange—a bookshop with a difference. There they meet impulsive, gothic Kelly and her boss, Terrance—and the friendships forged in the Great Big Book Exchange result in startling and unsettling consequences for all of them."

I seem to be doing awfully well here with recommendations from friends whose names begin with "M." Dial "M" for books?