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Monday, April 24, 2017

75 Facts About L. M. Montgomery

In 1942, 75 years ago today, Lucy Maud Montgomery, best known as the author of the famous Anne of Green Gables series, died. 

For this anniversary, CBC Books has compiled a list of "75 facts you might not know about her life, death and enduring legacy":  http://www.cbc.ca/books/2017/04/75-facts-lucy-maud-montgomery.html.

A reddit user has put together a literary map  of the world; each book represented in the map is marked by that country’s "most famous or important novel."  Canada's book is Anne of Green Gableshttps://theculturetrip.com/europe/articles/this-literature-map-of-the-world-shows-you-every-countrys-favourite-book/.

There are 8 books in the Anne series: 
Anne of Green Gables
Anne of Avonlea
Anne of the Island
Anne of Windy Poplars
Anne's House of Dreams
Anne of Ingleside
Rainbow Valley
Rilla of Ingleside.

If you haven't read the Emily trilogy (Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily's Quest), I would recommend it as well.

For a complete list of Montgomery books, go to  https://www.fantasticfiction.com/m/l-m-montgomery/.

Review of DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY by P. D. James


A couple of days ago, I posted about classics being re-imagined as murder mysteries.  I suggested that Pride and Prejudice might make a good mystery, but of course P. D. James beat me to it with her Death Comes to Pemberley.  I read her spin-off a number of years ago.  Here’s my review: 

3 Stars
Before I read this book, I re-read Pride and Prejudice because it seemed a great opportunity to refresh my memory and to enjoy Austen's prose and social satire. Perhaps I should not have done so because my enjoyment of the mystery was greatly lessened; reading the two books together served only to emphasize that P. D. James is not Jane Austen.

Set in 1803, six years after Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage, the orderly life of Pemberley is disturbed by the unexpected arrival of Lydia Wickham, Elizabeth's drama queen sister, crying that her husband has been murdered. It soon becomes clear, however, that Capt. Denny, her husband's friend, has been killed and the scoundrel Wickham is the suspect. An inquest and trial follow. The ultimate solution is revealed through a clumsy deus ex machina: there are several last-minute revelations, including the cliche of a death-bed confession.

What is least enjoyable about the book is the characters. Elizabeth, the smart, sharp-tongued character of Austen's novel, has become dull and self-effacing. She says little and seems concerned only with propriety and the need to keep up appearances. She is very much a secondary character because the men soon become the focus.

Gone is the self-assured Darcy. After initially taking charge of the situation when Lydia appears, he soon becomes befuddled. Elizabeth and Darcy have become an old, too earnest, too dutiful couple, who seldom interact, much less exchange the witty banter which endeared them to Austen's readers.

In addition, other characters do not remain faithful to their depictions in "Pride and Prejudice." Rev. Collins becomes Mr. Bennet's nephew, instead of his cousin (3)? Colonel Fitzwilliam does not behave as Darcy's friend and has become a snob. James does try to offer an explanation for his change (25, 109), but it's not convincing.

The servants, Mrs. Reynolds in particular, are annoying in their efficiency. Mrs. Reynolds distributes candles in the hall (99), appears with water and towels outside the gunroom (101), provides hot soup in the dining room (105), and ensures there are blankets and pillows in the library (107). She does all this in a short period of time without the help of staff whom she ordered to bed to prevent any untoward inquisitiveness (99). James takes great pains to emphasize that Mrs. Reynolds is invaluable to Elizabeth and believes that "the family were never to be inconvenienced and were entitled to expect immaculate service" (20), but the woman can't be everywhere doing everything.

There are problems with continuity. Darcy somehow manages to do things he has no time to do. Darcy admits that he and his wife "have scarcely seen each other" (76) but she somehow manages to warn him about the conversation Col. Fitzwilliam wants to have about Georgiana (109). Furthermore, Denny and Wickham have a conversation enroute to Pemberley; this conversation leads to Denny vacating the chaise. No reader, once he/she learns the topic of that conversation, will believe that it would be discussed in front of Lydia, the other passenger in the chaise.

Then there are the anachronisms. Darcy looks at his wristwatch - about a hundred years before such timepieces came into popular use. Some of the dialogue uses diction (such as "subconscious") inappropriate even to the loose approximation of nineteenth-century prose that James attempts. The references to characters from other of Austen's novels seem contrived and introduce problems with time elements. James' attempt to appear to be an Austen expert (by alluding to several of Austen's novels) serves only to reveal the opposite.

James may have written the book as an homage to Austen, but it does not succeed. In its dark mood and supernatural elements it is more reminiscent of Wilkie Collins and Charlotte Bronte. In her author's note, James even apologizes to Austen because she strongly suspects Austen would disapprove of her bringing "odious subjects" to Pemberley.

Combining a mystery with a comedy of manners makes an uneasy mix of genres. The mystery is mediocre with too-obvious clues. Missing is the sparkle provided by Austen's clever social commentary; as a result, the book can only be described as lacklustre. Fans of P. D. James may enjoy the book more than fans of Jane Austen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

World Book Night


Tonight is World Book Night in the United Kingdom and Ireland.  It was first celebrated in 2011 on March 5.  A year later, it was moved to April 23, the UNESCO International Day of the Book and, probably, the birth and death date of William Shakespeare.

World Book Night is a celebration of reading.  Books are given out with a focus on reaching those who don’t regularly read, and are gifted through organizations including prisons, libraries, colleges, hospitals, care homes and homeless shelters, as well as by passionate individuals who give out their own books within their communities.

World Book Night is run by The Reading Agency, a national charity that inspires people to become confident and enthusiastic readers.  For information about the event, go to http://worldbooknight.org/about.

A couple of years ago, in honour of this event, The Telegraph newspaper featured a quiz of 30 opening lines of classics.  See how many you can identify:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/11556189/World-Book-Night-How-well-do-you-know-famous-novels-opening-lines.html.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

R. I. P. Julia Wagg



Julia Wagg (nee Alarie) was a student in my creative writing class from February to June of 1998.  She was one of the most creative students I ever had the privilege to teach.  She died on April 14; today, her memorial service is being held.

Her obituary (http://www.fco-cfo.coop/death-notice.php?id=41557#.WPal6wf4pmw.facebook) indicates that she was an extraordinary person, as does this story (http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/julia-wagg-1980-2017-a-force-of-nature-in-ottawas-lgbtq-community) written about her in The Ottawa Citizen.


At the end of each creative writing course, I compiled an anthology featuring the best work of the students.  The anthology of Julia’s class was entitled Playing Famous; six of Julia’s pieces appear in the book. 

In honour of Julia, I’m copying the poem that Julia included in that anthology.  I don’t think she would mind my sharing it.


Adopted

I am your ugly, ugly instant kid
   By default
   Because it was a cabbage patch
   Full of rejects
   From which you carried me away

Your heart deifying regret
   Since the day
   The papers were signed
   You keep them in a cigar box
   On the top shelf of your closet
   Like the car registration in your
   Glove compartment

And you gladly deny accountability
   For my mistakes –
   Like breathing.
   Blame the genetic Pez dispenser
   For my conduct on this earth

You forget that ownership
   Is nine-tenths of the law

You’d even gnaw your hand off
   That you might trade me in
   A pointless exchange
   Because forsaken
   Was the merchandise
   From conception

The residue of a walking womb
   Afraid to use coat hangers
   For anything but hanging coats

Sympathizing with no one
   Save myself
   Personal pity party

Do unto others
   As you would do unto yourself
   Well, that’s fine for the prophets
   But in suburbia
   Murder isn’t legal

Me, myself, and I
   Rejects are we all

Though she may not have been famous for her writing, Julia was certainly a writer.  Here’s what she wrote one week before she died:  https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/i-am-going-die-julia-wagg-chrl.  She never lost her skill with words.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Happy 91st Birthday to the Queen!


Today is Queen Elizabeth II’s 91st birthday.  To celebrate the longest reigning monarch in British history, CBC Books compiled a list of a dozen nonfiction, fiction and children's books that feature Elizabeth and document her extraordinary life:  http://www.cbc.ca/books/2017/02/12-books-to-celebrate-queen-elizabeth-ii.html.

The only book on that list with which I am familiar is The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett which imagines the queen’s literary odyssey.  One of the highlights of the novella is the observations about literature and reading.  I featured my favourites in an earlier blog entry:  http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2015/09/queen-elizabeth-iis-literary-odyssey.html.

Happy birthday, Your Majesty!

Re-imagining Classics as Murder Mysteries

Re-imagining classics as murder mysteries is not new.  But a new twist was introduced last month.  A Twitter hashtag was born that sparked the re-imagining of numerous classic novels as murder mysteries. #andthenthemurdersbegan took flight after @marc_laidlaw tweeted, “The first line of almost any story can be improved by making sure the second line is, ‘And then the murders began.’”

I think Pride and Prejudice would work well as a murder mystery:  “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  And then the murders began.

If you want to read people’s suggestions, follow the thread at https://twitter.com/search?q=andthenthemurdersbegan&src=typd.

In a recent BookRiot article, Kate Scott suggested three other books which might make good mysteries:  http://bookriot.com/2017/03/22/3-classic-novels-reimagined-as-thrilling-murder-mysteries/. Also in BookRiot, if you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, you can check out a list of re-tellings:  http://bookriot.com/2017/03/27/i-spent-a-month-reading-sherlock-holmes-retellings/

Thursday, April 20, 2017

2017 Man Booker International Prize Shortlist


The Man Booker International Prize is given to a book in English translation, with a £50,000 prize for the winning title, to be shared equally between author and translator.  Its aim is to encourage more publishing and reading of quality works in translation.

The shortlist was announced earlier today:
Compass by Mathias Enard (France); Charlotte Mandell
A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman (Israel); Jessica Cohen
The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway); Don Bartlett and Don Shaw
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (Denmark); Misha Hoekstra
Judas by Amos Oz (Israel); Nicholas de Lange
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina); Megan McDowell


The winner will be announced on June 14.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Judge a Book by Page 69


We’ve all heard the adage about not judging a book by its cover.  So how do you decide if a book will interest you?

Well, you could start reading it.  The first chapter is designed as the hook.  It’s the part of the book that almost certainly went to the publisher first.  The problem is that the opening doesn’t always give you a good feel for the book as a whole.  I can’t begin to count how many books I’ve read where the introduction piqued my interest but then it quickly waned thereafter. 

Recommendations from friends are often a good indication as to whether you will enjoy a book.  The caveat is that you need to have similar reading tastes or that word-of-mouth suggestion has little value. 

Personally, I like reading book reviews.  They often help me decide if I want to make a purchase or borrow from the library.  Of course, I’d like to think that some of you use Schatje’s reviews posted on this blog to help you add to your to-read pile. 

If you haven’t tried it, there is the page 69 test.  Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian philosopher, academic, and prophet of the modern media age, had a theory:   read page 69. If you like it, then chances are you'll like the rest of the book too.  The idea is that page 69 gives you the chance to see the story in the early stages of its full flow:  a bit of action without any spoilers.

Try it for yourself.  Grab a book you’ve already read and see if page 69 would have grabbed your attention.  Then the next time you are considering a book, carry out a similar experiment.  I think it’s a great way to discover new books and authors in a brief but surprising encounter.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review of THE LAST DAYS OF CAFÉ LEILA by Donia Bijan (New Release)


2 Stars
I enjoy books which illuminate other cultures so I really looked forward to reading this book.  Though it does indeed provide details about Iranian culture, it does so in a narrative that I can only describe as awkward and unsophisticated. 

Noor, recently divorced, returns to Iran after a 30-year absence to visit her aging father Zod.  Noor is accompanied by her recalcitrant teenaged daughter Lily.  In Tehran, Zod continues to run a restaurant, Café Leila, which is a neighbourhood gathering place started years earlier by his parents.  Noor is returning home but Lily has difficulty adjusting to life in Iran. 

There are numerous flashbacks.  The reader learns about the emigration of Zod’s parents from Russia; Zod’s studies in Paris and his marriage to Pari; Pari’s death; Noor’s life in California and her marriage and divorce.  There are even flashbacks describing the lives of the employees at the café. 

The story is narrated from multiple perspectives:  Zod, Pari, Noor, Lily, Lily’s father, Noor’s brother, Zod’s estranged brother, Zod’s sister-in-law, the café’s errand boy, etc.  The author obviously wanted to create well-rounded characters, but the effect is a lack of focus. 

The impression is that the author didn’t know whom to focus on so she put a spotlight on everyone.  For example, it is not necessary to go on and on about Karim’s becoming besotted with Lily.  We are told that he can’t stop staring at her and that he can’t concentrate at school and that he keeps repeating her name to himself and that he gets her a kitten and that he will do anything for her and . . .  Karim is a minor character and there seems little purpose to being repeatedly told that he is in love with Lily.  For all the references to him, Karim remains a flat character. 

Zod is a major character but he is not believable.  He is just too good to be true.  He cares about everyone, is wise, is unfailingly optimistic, and is loved by everyone.  He is given the homage “never seen but for martyrs and mullahs”?!  His behaviour, however, is inconsistent.  He tells his daughter to visit him and to bring Lily with her:  “Pack a bag for you and Lily and come visit your old father” but then he scolds her:  “You brought Lily into danger and discomfort . . .”  He even asks, “What lesson did Noor aim to teach by bringing her here?” 

There is much telling and little showing in the book.  Noor is supposed to be a dynamic character who grows, but we are only told that she grows.  We are given a thorough description of her flaws:  “Blinded by her troubles, unable to raise her head, to exert herself, clinging to the exaggerated memories of her youth.  When had this girl, who defied them in childhood, who never got her way fast enough, grown timid and undemanding, so frustratingly passive in the face of humiliation?  Why did she think herself so undeserving of love, merely enduring life like a pebble in her shoe and side stepping people’s shortcomings, talking as though she had caused Nelson’s infidelity – a watchfulness grown inward, doubtful and wary of her own child even.”   Her parenting is thoroughly criticized:  “For too long Noor had auditioned for motherhood, fun mom one day to authoritarian the next, careening from affectionate to cool, indulgent to critical, hands-off to hovering, and if Nelson was the arbiter, the easygoing dad, there to keep the peace and make their meals festive, it only heightened the pitch of her pendulum.  It was exhausting being Noor, but she meant well.  She always had meant well.”

Then we are told that Noor’s “reaching out to Nelson, recognizing she couldn’t sway Lily without him, was a big step for her” and “Noor eventually came to learn that we see what we want to see.”  We don’t see her learning these lessons; we are told she has these insights.  Noor’s only observation about her own behaviour is that she has taught her daughter to be afraid:  “’all I’ve ever done is show you how to be afraid.’”  Of course Lily’s behaviour with Karim does not seem like that of someone who is afraid.  Her father, in fact, loves her because “she could not be depended upon to comply with form.  Her bold, brutal honesty was what he admired.”  And Noor’s decision at the end suggests she is still auditioning for motherhood so there is little growth in her character. 

One of the major techniques of showing is dialogue.  This novel has little dialogue and certainly no extended conversations that would reveal character.  The dialogue that is included seems to serve little purpose.  For instance, a discussion about the ingredients in piroshkies is hardly revealing; Noor asks her father, “’Didn’t you used to put cream in the spinach filling?’” and Zod answers, “’Mm.  And sometimes hard-boiled eggs.’” 

There are intrusive statements and comments throughout.  In case the reader wouldn’t realize it, he/she is told “Neither Lily nor Karim could be expected to understand a world where such things were possible, that an innocent girl would be burned alive for refusing a ludicrous marriage proposal.”  The narrator even addresses the reader:  “Maybe if you’ve lived as long as he had, you knew all too well that looking for blame was futile, that you need not go back and ask for explanations.”  And the tone can be downright preachy:  “Because if our parents didn’t exalt us, we spend our adult lives blaming them – for not doing this, and not doing that, not being ‘supportive,’ not making an appearance at our first recital, being overprotective or aloof, damaging our self-esteem.  Yet at our best or worst, who sees everything?  Who knows us best?  Who waits and waits to see what we yet may be?  Then one day they’re gone and it’s just you, and there’s nothing left to squeeze, no one to blame for the dismay over the course your life has taken.”

As I mentioned at the beginning, I love books that highlight other cultures.  The problem with this book is that it sounds like an essay at times:  “The cuisine of Northern Iran, overlooked and underrated, is unlike most Persian food in that it’s as unfussy and lighthearted as the people from that region.”  And “It’s customary in Iran for a family member to wash the body of the deceased; there are no undertakers and no viewings, burial is swift.”  We are told that Noor’s sister-in-law “was incapable of tarof (a custom of self-deference exclusive to Iranians)” and then the reader is given several examples of her lack of decorum.  Since this sister-in-law never appears in the novel, is the purpose of this paragraph just to discuss an Iranian custom?  And the descriptions of food go on and on:  “He filled the pockets not just with beef and onions, but peach jam, saffron rice pudding, smoked sturgeon, potatoes and dill, cabbage and caraway apples, duck confit and chopped orange peel . . .”

The author has included some Farsi to add local colour but, again, the translations are awkwardly inserted in parentheses immediately afterwards:  “’Agha (Mr.) Nejad, how are you feeling?’”  A reader shouldn’t have to be told that tarof means self-deference when the subsequent sentence (“She spoke frankly and without decorum”) indicates its meaning.  And would a person actually use a conjunction, and only a conjunction, in another language:  “’It’s been a good adventure for her, and you, pero (but) –‘”   When Lily asks Karim, who speaks little or no English, “’How do you say brother?’” he understands her question and immediately replies, “’Baradar’”? 

I fear I have been rather harsh in my review, but I honestly find little to recommend this book.  I read an eARC so perhaps changes will be made.  

Note:  I received an eARC of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Capturing the Odour of Books


For many bibliophiles, there’s nothing that beats the smell of books.  That’s the reason why some readers prefer the printed book to ebooks. 

A team of researchers concluded that the smell of books is a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.  Of course, there’s more to the book smell than just a blend of pleasant scents.  It’s memories aroused by that smell.  The nose is connected to the limbic system responsible for our emotions, so smell is one of the strongest ways to trigger happy memories of reading.  If you are interested in why people love the smell of old books, watch this video:  https://ebookfriendly.com/love-smell-old-books-video/.

There are a number of fragranced candles which claim to recreate the book smell.  For an overview of book-scented candles and perfumes, see this blog:  https://ebookfriendly.com/book-smell-perfumes-candles/. 

There’s an interesting experiment involving the smell of books happening at the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan.  Researchers are capturing the smell of its old books to reconstruct the building’s 1906 aroma.  “Their main tool, in addition to their curious noses, is a small glass dome that can gently rest on a centuries-old book without damaging it, collecting its character with molecules on a wax needle.  Later these odors can be analyzed with a mass spectrometer, and ultimately, with scents of weathered leather books . . . a profile of the Morgan Library in 1906 can be created” (http://hyperallergic.com/360698/smelling-the-old-books-of-the-morgan-library/).

I love the motivation of Christine Nelson, curator of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan, for getting involved :  “One of the reasons I was very drawn to working with this project was that for years people have come to me and said: ‘Oh God, it must smell so great where you work! I remember that old book smell from my favorite library so well.’ Everybody has some sort of olfactory memory of a library that probably had an effect on their lives” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/03/arts/morgan-library-book-smell.html?emc=edit_cnda_20170304&nl=canada-today&nlid=65852785&te=1&_r=1).

And I came across another article, this one in The Guardian newspaper, about researchers creating a historic book odour wheel:  “In a paper published this week in the journal Heritage Science, Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič describe how they analyzed samples from an old book, picked up in a second-hand shop, and developed a ‘historic book odor wheel,’ which connects identifiable chemicals with people’s reactions to them. Using fibers from the novel, they produced an ‘extract of historic book,’ which was presented to seventy-nine visitors to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Chocolate, cocoa, or chocolatey were the most frequent words used to describe the smell of a copy of French writer Panait Istrati’s 1928 novel Les chardons du Baragan, followed by coffee, old, wood, and burnt … The researchers believe the historic book odor wheel could become a useful diagnostic tool for conservators across a wide range of areas, helping them to assess the condition of objects through their olfactory profile” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/07/the-smell-of-old-books-science-libraries).

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Review of KILL THE NEXT ONE by Federico Axat

4 Stars 
This psychological thriller, the first book of this Argentinian writer to be translated into English, begins with an attention-grabbing opening: “Ted McKay was about to put a bullet through his brain when the doorbell rang.  Insistently” (3).   The rest of the book is a roller-coaster ride.

Justin Lynch, the man at the door, convinces Ted to kill a man who escaped punishment for murder and Wendell, a man who also wants to die.  In return, Ted will then be killed.  Having an inoperable brain tumor and believing it would be easier for his family to cope with his murder than his suicide, Ted agrees.  Then things become really weird:  the intended victims are not exactly as Justin described and Ted starts having bizarre dreams and feels he is being watched.  He goes to see Dr. Laura Hill, his therapist.  Through his conversations with her, we are given some insight into his family life and his past.  To avoid spoilers, I can say no more except that nothing is as it seems. 

There are many puzzling questions for which the reader craves answers:  Is Ted a good guy or a deranged killer?  Is his brain tumor causing hallucinations?  How did Justin come to know about Ted’s plans to commit suicide?  Is Laura a trustworthy, caring professional or an ambitious manipulator? 

At times the plot is very confusing.  It is like Ted’s mind which is full of elusive memories, “just bits and pieces, all jumbled together.”  As Ted tries to put together those pieces into a sensible whole, the reader must try to do the same to the plot.  Readers who do not like plots which are difficult to understand should probably stay away from this book.  I must admit that after the first 100 pages, I was ready to give up, but then I got to Part III and I became fully engaged.

There are numerous twists and turns in this very fast-paced narrative.  Some suspension of disbelief is required, but I found the book so interesting that it was easy to suspend disbelief.  I just got sucked into the multiple layers and possible alternate realities.  The epilogue left me puzzled in a way that inspires me to re-read this book at a later date. 

The game of chess is significant for Ted and is mentioned several times.  I had heard of the paranoia of Bobby Fischer and the strange behaviour of other grand masters of the game, so I was interested in a theory suggested by Laura:  “’Chess is a little paranoia-provoking in itself.  You constantly have to be anticipating threats that might never materialize, and the possible variations are virtually infinite.  Brilliant chess minds analyze those variations, the possible moves, one after another, each one leading to limitless ramifications.  Apply that same structure off the chessboard and the result is catastrophic’” (187). 

It’s difficult to say too much about the book for fear of ruining it for other readers.  If you like a devilishly twisted and convoluted plot, this novel is for you.  If you like books with psychological layers, this novel is for you.  It is certainly a book I enjoyed as a totally immersing escapist read.