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.