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Friday, July 21, 2017

Some Short Story Suggestions

Sometimes short stories are the perfect read.  Between novels, I often take a break with a short story or two.  

If you are wondering what stories to read, you might want to take a look at this list of popular anthologized short stories prepared for Literary Hub:   http://lithub.com/the-most-anthologized-short-stories-of-all-time/.  I was pleased that some of my favourites made the list:  “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson; “Eveline” by James Joyce; “The Doll’s House” by Katherine Mansfield.

If you are looking for some of these stories and don’t have any anthologies at hand, check out https://americanliterature.com/short-story-library.  They have thousands of titles which you can read on the spot.

Here are a dozen stories which did not make the above list but which I used with my students in the past and which I think serve as a great introduction to the genre (an * indicates the author is Canadian): 
 “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét
“A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury
“The Pedestrian” by Ray Bradbury
“All the Years of Her Life” by Morley Callaghan*
“The Two Fishermen” by Morley Callaghan*
“The Last Leaf” by O. Henry
 “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs
“Horses of the Night” by Margaret Laurence*
“The Interlopers” by Saki (H. H. Munro)
“Laura” by Saki
“The Lamp at Noon” by Sinclair Ross*
“One’s a Heifer” by Sinclair Ross*

If you are really pressed for time, why not read some micro-fiction.  http://lithub.com/11-very-short-stories-you-must-read-immediately/ takes you to a site where you can read some very, very short stories. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review of INTO THE WATER by Paula Hawkins

3 Stars
This is Paula Hawkins’s much anticipated second novel after The Girl on the Train. I rated the latter as a 3-star read and Into the Water is about the same in quality. 

The novel is set in Beckford, a village in northern England.  Beckford has a river running through it and a drowning pool where several women have died.  The latest is Nel Abbott who had become obsessed with investigating the sometimes mysterious deaths about which she planned to write a book.  Jules, Nel’s estranged sister, arrives to look after Lena, Nel’s teenaged daughter, and begins to wonder whether Nel’s death was a suicide as Lena suspects.  It turns out that there are a number of people who disliked Nel and her pre-occupation with the women who had died.  Was Nel correct when she wrote before her death that “Beckford is not a suicide spot.  Beckford is a place to get rid of troublesome women”?

One of the problems with the book is keeping track of people.  First of all, there are the women who have died in the river:  Libby Seeton, Anne Ward, Lauren Slater, Katie Whittaker, among others.  One of the police detectives sums up the difficulty:  “Seriously, how is anyone supposed to keep track of all the bodies around here?  It’s like Midsomer Murders, only with accidents and suicides and grotesque historical misogynistic drownings.” 

Then there are the multiple viewpoints.  The points of view of ten characters are given, besides Nel’s which is given through her notes for her proposed book.  Unfortunately, the voices of the narrators are very similar in tone.  There is insufficient differentiation.  And because there are so many characters, each remains fairly flat.  Jules and Lena are the exceptions; they are both dynamic, but their growth is not well developed because focus is missing. 

Tension is generally missing, except for a couple of episodes in which the sense of danger and urgency is removed quite quickly.  The most common technique used to create suspense is the withholding of information.  One narrator comments, “I couldn’t touch her.  Not after what I’d done.”  Of course, he doesn’t explain what he had done.  Other characters are as secretive, and it is soon obvious that virtually all of the narrators are unreliable.  After a while, this technique of withholding information just becomes irritating. 

The portrayal of men is also problematic.  Almost all of the men are evil:  abusive misogynists, rapists, adulterers, pedophiles, or murderers.  The town seems to have no upstanding male residents.  The author obviously wants to show the effects of misogyny but portraying all men as bad suggests her viewpoint is skewed. 

Hawkins also tries to develop other themes:  the lasting impact of trauma and the unreliability of memory.  Unfortunately, the development is superficial so there is only a nod at literary depth.

Like The Girl on the Train, this book is a light, summer read.  Its short chapters make it an easy read.  Though somewhat entertaining, it does not stand up to careful scrutiny and literary analysis but is a fast read appropriate for a vacation.

************************************************************************************
This book reminded me of the Drowning Pool I encountered in Iceland. In Þingvellir National Park I saw the Drekkingarhylur (Drowning Pool) where, between 1618 and 1749, eighteen women were executed by drowning.

The Drekkingharhylur in Iceland's Þingvellir National Park

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Jane Austen Day

Today, on the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, the Bank of England unveiled its new £10 note that features the author.

Of course, since it’s a noteworthy day, a number of sites have prepared special features about Jane Austen. 

Signature has a 26-page PDF entitled The Essential Guide to Jane Austen which has 12 articles including titles such as “10 Lessons for 21st-Century Women from Jane Austen,” “Jane Austen Secret Radical: A Book-by-Book Breakdown,” “Austen Heartland:  A Guide to Jane Austen Houses and Places,” and “6 Jane Austen Novels Ranked by Their Sexiness.”  Go to http://www.signature-reads.com/download/the-essential-guide-to-jane-austen/?aid=randohouseinc18668-20&ref=PRH89E76C0DD80C&linkid=PRH89E76C0DD80C&cdi=321A47B09DAD4547E0534FD66B0AE227&template_id=6728 to download the guide for free.

BookRiot has 15 articles about Jane Austen, including discussion of film and comic book adaptations of her novels:  http://bookriot.com/tag/jane-austen-day-2017/ .  For a chuckle, make certain to read “From Pemberley to Trump Tower: Jane Austen Quotes Meet Trump Tweets.” 

If you want to test your knowledge of Austen’s novels, go to http://www.cbc.ca/books/can-you-identify-which-jane-austen-character-said-these-lines-1.4209381.

Since I’m Canadian, I loved this feature from CBC Books:  http://www.cbc.ca/books/7-canadian-books-to-read-if-you-love-jane-austen-1.4209088.  Some Canadian books are recommended depending on which Jane Austen character is your favourite.

Vacation Reading: Some Shakespeare Perhaps?

It’s summertime and people are going on vacation.  Whether heading to a beach or elsewhere, readers have to pack at least one book.  The decision as to what to take can be stressful.

BookRiot recently had an article listing five questions one should ask when picking what to take to the beach:  http://bookriot.com/2017/07/12/answer-these-5-questions-to-pick-your-next-beach-read/.

Some people might never consider reading a Shakespeare play while on holiday, but a writer for Signature makes a strong case for choosing one of the Bard’s dramatic offerings.  “While others are engrossed in plots about assassinations, thwarted love, cheating cheaters, and political intrigue written in the empty-calorie style of a cookie cutter kind of paperback writer, you can read those same plots in the gorgeous words of Shakespeare” (http://www.signature-reads.com/2017/07/shakespeare-perfect-beach-read/?ref=BEBF7DBE6741). 

And if you do opt for a Shakespeare play, why not consider The Merchant of Venice?  In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Stephen Greenblatt wrote about how that particular play is a cure of xenophobia.  Greenblatt writes, “this is a playwright who could depict on the public stage a twisted sociopath lying his way to supreme authority. This is a playwright who could have a character stand up and declare to the spectators that “a dog’s obeyed in office.” This is a playwright who could approvingly depict a servant mortally wounding the realm’s ruler in order to stop him from torturing a prisoner in the name of national security” (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/07/10/shakespeares-cure-for-xenophobia).  Yes, indeed, perhaps Shakespeare is the writer to read in this first summer of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Clinton Versus Trump: Reading Suggestions

Yes, the election is over – though Trump does seem to forget that, though he did NOT win the popular vote, he can stop campaigning.  Nonetheless, two interesting articles about the chosen of the Democratic and Republican parties came to my attention recently.   

A couple of weeks ago, Electric Literature wrote about Hilary Clinton’s attendance at the American Library Association conference where she listed a number of books that have made their way to her reading pile:  https://electricliterature.com/hillary-clinton-is-reading-a-lot-of-mystery-novels-and-you-should-probably-join-her-a54a0fbfea5a.  I was pleased to learn that she loves the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny, the Canadian mystery writer.

I’ve posted in the past about how Donald Trump does not read books (http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2016/08/american-presidents-and-presidential.html) though he has inspired novels (http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2017/03/trump-inspired-novels.html) and lists of books to be read during his presidency (http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2017/02/what-to-read-during-trumps-presidency.html).   Though Trump might be hard pressed to recommend any books, besides the ones he purportedly wrote, those of you on Twitter might want to check out #TrumpBiographyTitles.  There you will find title suggestions for the president’s future biographers.  Among my favourites are Trumplethinskin, A Man for all Treasons and Fifty Shades of Orange.


Sunday, July 16, 2017

Second Anniversary of Schatje's Shelves

Today is the second anniversary of this blog.  Schatje’s Shelves was started on July 16, 2015.  I’ve posted reviews of the 146 books I’ve read in those two years; in addition, I’ve also posted 113 reviews from my archives.  250+ reviews in two years isn’t bad!

Since January of 2017, I’ve posted 196 times; that’s a blog entry every day – all about books and reading. 

Writing a blog can be time-consuming, but I love reading and enjoy sharing books with others.  So I will continue reading, reviewing, and blogging and, hopefully, other book lovers will continue to follow my blog.

Some photos of Schatje's library and its decor:

Schatje loves her new bookish rug!
                                                                                                                  
Is this Schatje?
Or is this Schatje?









How Schatje tells time in her library
Schatje's husband gave this sketch for the library.

Image may contain: 1 person
Every reader needs a handmade book-themed lap quilt!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Review of STRANGE THINGS DONE by Elle Wild

2.5 Stars
This book came to my attention because it won the 2017 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel.  The fact that its setting is in the Yukon also appealed to me.

Jo Silver is a journalist who arrives in the Yukon just as winter is closing in.  After losing her job at a Vancouver newspaper, she has accepted the position of editor of the Dawson City paper.  As soon as she arrives, she finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation, and it quickly turns out not to be the only criminal investigation in the remote northern community.  Being new to the town, she doesn’t know whom she can trust when she starts trying to get to the bottom of the deaths and disappearances.

One of the things constantly emphasized is that Dawson City is almost totally isolated from the outside world in the winter: “Last chance [to leave Dawson City] before freeze-up: when the Yukon River froze and the ferry to the west was dry-docked.  Then the Top of the World Highway to Alaska would close, the airport would follow suit, and the Klondike Highway – the only route out via the south – would begin to snow in.”  My understanding is that the Klondike Highway is maintained and kept open year-round, though obviously a snow storm might make driving difficult.  And in March, a friend posted a photo from the Dawson City airport before taking a flight south.  The author also repeats several times that Dawson City has no cellular service.  Again, my research suggests that this is not true; the town has had 4G service since 2012.  The novel is set in 2004 so perhaps the community was absolutely isolated in the winter at the beginning of the century?  Surely there must have been some way of bringing in provisions.  People with medical emergencies could not be taken for treatment outside the town?  Is the author guilty of some exaggeration in order to heighten the suspense? 

Jo is not a convincing character.  For an investigative journalist, she certainly lacks common sense.  She knows so little about Canadian geography that she brings only rubber boots when she moves north?  On her first night in town, the day before she is to begin her new job, she gets so drunk that she has almost no memory of what happened?  She makes stupid, thoughtless decisions; for example, how many times will she visit a site where she is in danger of being shot?  She breaks the law in order to investigate a person’s disappearance? 

Jo is also a poor judge of character.  She may be a cheechako, a newcomer, but when choosing whether to trust someone, she ignores all the clues pointing to that person’s trustworthiness or lack thereof.  She is attracted to a man who has a reputation as a womanizer and is a viable murder suspect?  After a few of her actions, she just becomes irritating.

The police are portrayed as inept.  Jo keeps stumbling over bodies and so becomes a suspect when she reports them to the police?  The police seem not to investigate a disappearance very seriously, yet arrest Jo on the flimsiest speculation?  Even the police in Vancouver are inept:   Jo feels guilty for going along with a police request, a request that had dire consequences.  Her constant agonizing over this decision becomes annoying because it is the police who are responsible for what happened.  The focus seems to be on showing Jo to be smarter than the police.  Naturally, she also has the ability to melt the heart of a policeman:  “melted him like snow”!

There are some colourful secondary characters, as one would expect.  It is these eccentrics who often steal the limelight.  Sally, Jo’s roommate, for instance, is a much more interesting character than Jo though some of her behaviour isn’t just oddball, but stupid.  A seasoned Yukoner would go out in stiletto boots into the bush during a snowstorm?  And no matter how independent and quirky the people, is it likely that a piece of outdoor art would be erected at the beginning of winter? 

The ending is very abrupt.  The motivation for the killings seems really weak.  And though Dawson City in the winter “might as well be on another planet,” the killer has a means of escape not previously mentioned?  Much is also left unexplained.  Certainly, I craved more information about the Cariboo/Alice story which seems to have a connection to current events in the town. 

The writer uses some imaginative comparisons:  “Her face looked like a store receipt left in the bottom of a handbag for too long.”  Unfortunately, there are too many similar water analogies:  “attempting to attribute meaning to anything in Dawson was like trying to look at something underwater, where the shape and size of a thing changed when you reached toward it” and “Somewhere just below the calm surface of her subconscious, something menacing floated yet, threatening to breach the still waters and emerge at any time” and “Jo had the feeling of looking at something underwater, flitting just below the surface, and not being able to make out exactly what it was.”

I so wanted to like this book, but I found too many weaknesses in it.  For me, the most memorable line is about a young girl’s disappearance eight years earlier:  “’That happens sometimes in the North.  Especially to First Nations girls, but nobody talks about that.’”

Friday, July 14, 2017

On Bastille Day: Must-Read French Books




Today is la Fête nationale in France.  The day, known by many as Bastille Day, commemorates the Storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, a turning point of the French Revolution.



In honour of the day, I thought I’d share a list of 100 Must-Read Books Translated from French.  The list appeared on the BookRiot site last year:  http://bookriot.com/2016/07/25/100-must-read-books-translated-from-french/.   There are books from Québec and Belgium and various French-speaking African countries as well as France itself.

Happy Reading!
Bonne Lecture!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Lucy Maud Montgomery's Missing Stories

Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables, has been in the news recently.  This past spring, CBC and Netflix released the first season of the latest version of the much-adapted story of Anne Shirley.  I have yet to watch the series but its reviews have certainly caught my attention.  The series has been called grim, bleak, and gloomy (http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/05/anne-of-green-gables-netflix-review-anne-with-an-e-bleak-sad-wrong).  Others have called it “the darkest, truest rendering to date of what being a redheaded orphan in 1890s Prince Edward Island would have been like” (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/television/breaking-bad-writer-brings-dark-sensibility-to-anne-of-green-gables/article34336503/).  It has also been labelled super dark and feminist: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2017/03/16/cbc-anne-the-series_n_15406054.html.

Last week a collection of 21 newly-discovered L. M. Montgomery stories was published.  After Many Years: Twenty - One "Long Lost" Stories by L.M. Montgomery brings together pieces originally published between 1900 and 1939 that haven't been in print since their initial periodicals.  While Montgomery's early works were geared for children, her stories written after Anne of Green Gables (published in 1908) featured more adult characters and appealed to more adult readers.  Apparently, the hunt is still on for about 50 more missing stories.  See http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/lucy-maud-montgomery-lost-stories-published-1.4189787 for the story behind the search. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Þrístapar and BURIAL RITES by Hannah Kent

My husband and I recently returned from a week in Iceland.  One of the places we came across in our travels around the Ring Road was Þrístapar.


Þrístapar was the site of the last execution in Iceland in 1830.  Two people were executed at that time, one of them being Agnes Magnúsdóttir.  What does this have to do with books and reading?  Well, the book Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is a fictionalized account of the final months in the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir.  I posted my review of the book a couple of years ago, but I thought I’d repost it.  It is certainly a book worth reading, and it has special meaning for me now that I’ve visited Iceland.

Review of Burial Rites
4 Stars
 This is a fictionalized account of the final months in the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. It is 1829 in northwestern Iceland; Agnes is placed in the custody of a farmer in the months leading up to her execution. As she awaits her end, she helps with the farm chores and comes to know the family who are her custodians. She also meets with a clergyman, Thorvadur “Tóti” Jónsson, who is to serve as her spiritual guide but who becomes her confidant; it is to him that she relates much of the story of her “miserable, loveless life” (211).

Agnes emerges as a fully realized character. There is a great deal of sympathy for her since her life was nothing but “a dull-eyed cycle of work . . . nothing but chores, chores, chores . . . the stifling ordinariness of existence” (210). There is also much to admire about her: intelligence and compassion. She even shows compassion towards a woman who spreads gossip about her. She is not perfect, however. Because her life was circumscribed by isolation, loneliness and abandonment, she naively fell in love with a man who paid her some attention: “For the first time in my life, someone saw me, and I loved him because he made me feel I was enough” (210). And she was certainly slow in realizing the truth about her relationship with this man.

One of the themes is that truth is not simple and straightforward, but open to interpretation. Agnes herself claims that there is “’No such thing as truth’” (105) because different people think different things are important, and for her, “There is only ever a sense that what is real to me is not real to others” (106). Agnes tells Tóti “’All my life people have thought I was too clever. . . .If I was young and simple-minded, do you think everyone would be pointing the finger at me’” (126). She believes she is not believed because, “’how other people think of you determines who you are. . . . People around here don’t let you forget your misdeeds. They think them the only things worth writing down’” (104).

Agnes tells Tóti her version of the crime, but it does not tally with what the officials believe happened. Does she tell him the truth or is the District Commissioner correct when he says, “’I do not doubt that she has manufactured a life story in such a way so as to prick your sympathy’” (162)? Does she choose a “young and inexperienced” churchman believing that she can manipulate him into appealing her death sentence? Certainly her thought that, “I will have to think of what to say to him” (97) could suggest forethought and planning.

There is no doubt that being an audience “to her life’s lonely narrative” (158) influences the listeners. At the beginning everyone is reluctant to have anything to do with Agnes; Lauga, the younger daughter, is openly hostile. Margrét fears for her family’s safety with a murderess in the house, and Jón worries about the influence Agnes might have on his daughters. Their attitudes change gradually. Margrét, who initially speaks of Agnes as a murderess and a criminal, later tells Agnes, “’No one is all bad’” (259) and “’You are not a monster’” (307). Margrét realizes that her relationship with Agnes has become “more natural and untroubled” but what is also interesting is that “Margrét worried at this” (192).

Tóti’s reaction to Agnes is also interesting. Agnes tells him that they had met years previously when he had helped her ford a river, yet he “couldn’t remember meeting a young woman” (78). Later, however, he “thought again of their first meeting . . . a dark-haired woman preparing to cross the current . . . Her hair had been damp against her forehead and neck from walking. . . . Then, the warmth of her body against his chest as they forded the foamy waters on his mare. The smell of sweat and wild grassing issuing from the back of her neck” (200). Does he really remember this first meeting?

The Icelandic setting is almost another character in the narrative. The descriptions of the harsh climate, the increasing darkness as winter looms, and the barren landscape certainly reflect Agnes’ feelings of loneliness. There is also no doubt that such an environment can have an influence on people’s actions. At one point, Margrét says, “’It’s hard to be alone in winter’’’ (260). As winter advances so do the reader’s feelings of dread about what will happen to Agnes.

It is evident that the author did considerable research and she gives a vivid picture of rural life in Iceland in the early 19th century. I was not aware of the high level of literacy amongst Icelanders as far back as that time period. The inclusion of historical documents provides some facts about the case and stylistic contrast to Agnes’ interior monologues.

There is much to like about this book. It is not perfect because some of the minor characters, especially District Commissioner Björn Blöndal, are stereotypes, but it does have much to recommend it: suspense, a great mystery, a wonderfully atmospheric setting, and interesting character development.