"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Friday, May 30, 2014

For Short Story Lovers: 31 Stories That Steven Beattie Thinks Are Terrific

Every year Quill and Quire's review editor Steven W. Beattie devotes the month of May to talking about 31 short stories that should be read by every lover of the genre.  Here's the link to this year's harvest, which looks terrific.

I must admit that I've not read most of the writers Beattie's picked this time around, but I'm making a list and intending to look for their works.  But he also includes several of my favorites, including Shirley Jackson, the American Richard Wright and Cynthia Flood. Definitely worth checking out. 

One quibble: it would be nice if Beattie included a printable list of the writers and the stories he's picked at the end of the exercise so you can take it with you to the bookstore/library.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Living with Sudden Riches: The List of My Desires and What Happens When We Get What We Want

One of the best selling books in recent years in France has been translated into English as The List of My Desires. In it a 47 year old very ordinary woman living in a small town wins about $30 million the first time she buys a ticket.  She keeps it a secret from everyone, even her husband, with some interesting but sad consequences.

One of the most amusing but scary scenes in the book is when Jocelyne picks up the cheque and is told what to beware of, now that she's rich.  The message is: sudden riches are usually not a good thing.

It's a book that my French book discussion groups found both a good read and an excellent starting point for discussions about what we really want.  In one of the English groups, a member had read it in translation and suggested it for next year's list (can't use it because at the moment there are not enough copies in the local library system.)

As for the truth about the nasty things that can follow winning big, today's New York Times contains a re-evalution of what happens.   "How to Win the Lottery (Happily)"  by John Tierney quotes some new studies which show that happiness may drop after a win when everyone you ever knew comes out of the woodwork, but can increase afterwards. People may "have to talk themselves into believing they deserved it," according to  Anna Hedenus, a sociologist at the University of Gothenburg, who did a study of 400 Swedish lottery winners.

Michael I. Norton, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School, adds keeping your win a secret  could help avoid bad consequences.  He says to tell  no one but your spouse; make no extravagant purchases or gifts at first, but slowly increase your spending and your giving so no one will suspect your newfound wealth.

Of course, in the novel, Joclyne's secrecy helps her not at all, and the NYT's story ends with a plea to secret winners to take part in a study of their experience. Tierney writes:
"We know you secret winners are out there. You have the power to disprove the curse of the lottery once and for all by writing me (or having your lawyer do it). We promise to protect your anonymity.  And we swear we won’t ask you to share the money.

The photo is a still from the French film which has its premiere this week, and for you who know French, here's the trailer. "

Monday, May 26, 2014

Mademoiselle Nancy: Building Vocabulary One Fancy Word at a Time

When I went looking on the web to find out the English name of Jane O'Connor's series of books about a little girl who wants to be chic, I was a little taken aback to discover she's Fancy Nancy.  We've been reading Mademoiselle Nancy to Jeanne (age three and a half) for about a month in French. 

Nancy says she plays better soccer when she wears  frou-frou socks, she thinks her family should take lessons in how to be chic, she loves fuschia (the chic or fancy way to say pink) and she is brought down to earth every time in a charming way, after having learned a number of new, gorgeous words. 

I haven't counted, but there must be at least eight books in the series, some of which were developed to expand the horizons of early readers. The stories in French would seem to be particularly useful for kids in French immersion.  Mademoiselle Nancy et le garçon de Paris, for example, takes place in some Canadian town where a newcomer plays "soccer" even though he comes from Paris: French kids would say foot.  But who's to quibble when Nancy is there to dance around.

Nancy's love for fancy words can come in handy when you're trying to get a child out of a potty mouth rut.  Jeanne thinks it's hilarious that there are other words for pipi and caca and actually will use them occasionally.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The View from Here: Lists of Books for 2014-2015

I haven't posted in several days, not because I haven't been reading, but because I've been reading so much.  Not only were the book discussion groups in full swing last week and the week before, I've been preparing the lists of suggested books for the 2014-2015 season of library sessions.  Not sure exactly how the line up will run, but here are the contendors.  The final choice will depend in large part on the number of copies available in area libraries.  

Good reading!

The Return by Dany Leferrière
From the Prix Medicis winner comes a haunting meditation on the nature of identity.
Dany Laferriere's most celebrated book since How to Make Love to a Negro, The Return is a bestseller in France and Quebec and the winner of many awards, including the prestigious Prix Medicis and the Grand Prix du livre de Montreal.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Nora Eldridge, a 37-year-old elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is on the verge of disappearing. Having abandoned her desire to be an artist, she has become the "woman upstairs," a reliable friend and tidy neighbour always on the fringe of others' achievements. Then into her classroom walks a new pupil, Reza Shahid, a child who enchants as if from a fairy tale...

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
Abducted as an 11-year-old child from her village in West Africa and forced to walk for months to the sea in a coffle—a string of slaves— Aminata Diallo is sent to live as a slave in South Carolina. But years later, she forges her way to freedom, serving the British in the Revolutionary War and registering her name in the historic “Book of Negroes.” This book, an actual document, provides a short but immensely revealing record of freed Loyalist slaves who requested permission to leave the US for resettlement in Nova Scotia, only to find that the haven they sought was steeped in an oppression all of its own.

Runaway by Alice Munro
The incomparable Alice Munro's bestselling and rapturously acclaimed Runaway is a book of extraordinary stories about love and its infinite betrayals and surprises. In Munro's hands, the people she writes about—women of all ages and circumstances, and their friends, lovers, parents, and children—become as vivid as our own neighbours. It is her miraculous gift to make these stories as real and unforgettable as our own.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Described by William Faulkner as the best novel ever written and by Fyodor Dostoevsky as “flawless,” Anna Karenina tells of the doomed love affair between the sensuous and rebellious Anna and the dashing officer, Count Vronsky. Tragedy unfolds as Anna rejects her passionless marriage and must endure the hypocrisies of society.

Room by Emma Donaghue
To five-year-old Jack, Room is the world. . . . It’s where he was born. It’s where he and Ma eat and sleep and play andlearn. There are endless wonders that let loose Jack’s imagination -- the snake under Bed that he constructs out of eggshells;the imaginary world projected through the TV; the coziness ofWardrobe beneath Ma’s clothes, where she tucks him in safelyat night, in case Old Nick comes.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini's novels have sold more than 38 million copies worldwide. Now, six years after A Thousand Splendid Suns debuted at #1, spending fourteen consecutive weeks at #1 and nearly a full year on the hardcover list, Hosseini returns with a book that is broader in scope and setting than anything he’s ever written before.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Self-made, self-invented millionaire Jay Gatsby embodies some of Fitzgerald's--and his country's--most abiding obsessions: money, ambition, greed and the promise of new beginnings. "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine morning--" Gatsby's rise to glory and eventual fall from grace be comes a kind of cautionary tale about the American Dream.

The Magic of Saida by M.J. Vassanji
The Magic of Saida tells the haunting story of Kamal, a successful Canadian doctor who, in middle age and after decades in North America, decides to return to his homeland of East Africa to find his childhood sweetheart, Saida. Kamal's journey is motivated by a combination of guilt, hope, and the desire to unravel the mysteries of his childhood--mysteries compounded by the fact that Kamal is the son of an absent Indian father from a well-to-do family and a Swahili African mother of slave ancestry.

Running the Rift  by Naomi Benaron
Running the Rift follows the progress of Jean Patrick Nkuba from the day he knows that running will be his life to the moment he must run to save his life. A naturally gifted athlete, he sprints over the thousand hills of Rwanda and dreams of becoming his country’s first Olympic medal winner in track. But Jean Patrick is a Tutsi in a world that has become increasingly restrictive and violent for his people. As tensions mount between the Hutu and Tutsi, he holds fast to his dream that running might deliver him, and his people, from the brutality around them.

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jessi Adler-Oslen
Carl Mørck used to be one of Copenhagen’s best homicide detectives. Then a hail of bullets destroyed the lives of two fellow cops, and Carl—who didn’t draw his weapon—blames himself. So a promotion is the last thing he expects. But Department Q is a department of one, and Carl’s got only a stack of Copenhagen’s coldest cases for company. His colleagues snicker, but Carl may have the last laugh...

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nikolas Butler
When the four men at the core of Shotgun Lovesongs came of age together in Little Wing, Wisconsin, the highest point of the tiny farm town was the abandoned mill. Now in their thirties, Ronny’s trying to start a life after rodeo and booze, Kip has come back to pour stock-market millions into reviving the mill, Hank’s followed his father into farming, and Lee’s indie-rock career--built on his legendary DIY recording in a Little Wing chicken coop--has shot him into another social stratosphere. Nickolas Butler’s debut novel was inspired in part by the life of his high school friend Justin Vernon, who took the 2012 Grammy for Best New Artist as Bon Iver, and despite its occasional flirtation with stereotypes, his characters and their friendships have authentic souls. Through fights, reconciliations, and celebrations, Butler’s polyphonic story swells to a full-throated anthem about the expansive possibility born of belonging to a deep-rooted community, a kind of America we want to believe might welcome us all home. -

Distantly Related to Freud by Ann Charney
It’s Montreal, 1953, and eight-year-old Ellen, an only child prone to daydreaming, and her mother, a woman who believes in the promise of fresh starts, have moved into a large house on the flanks of Mt. Royal. To make ends meet, Ellen’s mother takes in a group of refugees from Central Europe, whose erratic behaviour and dark view of human nature captivate the young girl’s imagination. Ellen sees the refugees as a potential source of valuable information about her own background, of which she has heard little, except for a few stories about a lost golden civilization and the family’s distant connection to Sigmund Freud.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simpson
The feel-good hit of 2013, The Rosie Project is a classic screwball romance about a handsome but awkward genetics professor and the woman who is totally wrong for him
A first-date dud, socially awkward and overly fond of quick-dry clothes, genetics professor Don Tillman has given up on love, until a chance encounter gives him an idea.
He will design a questionnaire—a sixteen-page, scientifically researched questionnaire—to uncover the perfect partner. She will most definitely not be a barmaid, a smoker, a drinker or a late-arriver. Rosie is all these things. She is also fiery and intelligent, strangely beguiling, and looking for her biological father a search that a DNA expert might just be able to help her with.

The Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella
   When her old boyfriend Ben reappears and reminds her of their pact to get married if they were both still single at thirty, Lottie jumps at the chance. But not everyone is thrilled with Lottie and Ben's rushed marriage, and family and friends are determined to intervene. Will Lottie and Ben have a wedding night to remember ... or one to forget?

Canada by Richard Ford
    After his parents are arrested and imprisoned for robbing a bank, fifteen-year-old Dell Parsons is taken in by Arthur Remlinger who, unbeknownst to Dell, is hiding a dark and violent nature
that interfereswith Dell's quest to find grace and peace on the prairie of Saskatchewan.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As she prepares to graduate and tries to understand why her college love life has not lived up to expectations, she finds herself unexpectedly in a love triangle with two very different guys. Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Explaining irrationality: Téa Obreht's Take

 This week I've been rereading Téa Obreht's fascinating The Tiger's Wife in preparation for the Atwater Library's book discussion.  The book, which take place in the aftermath of a war in an unnamed Balkan country is an astounding combination of solid, evocative writing about what appear to be real events and magic.  
I have yet to figure out what it all means, but I think the clue may lie in this:
"when confounded by the extremes of life – whether good or bad – people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening. He learned that, no matter how grave the secret, how imperative absolute silence, someone would always feel the urge to confess, and an unleashed secret was a terrible force."
Worth reflecting on.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Another Can Lit Giant Falls: Farley Mowat Dead at 92

The past few months have been tough for Can Lit: Alistair MacLoed and Mavis Gallant both dead, and now Farley Mowat falls.

The Globe and Mail's obituary quotes him as saying: “Fuck the facts. The truth is what is important," when "inconsistencies," to give them a polite name, were brought up between his log books of time spent in the Arctic and the picture he painted of Inuit life in People of the Deer. Seems he didn't spend much time there, in truth.

But where is the truth, one might ask.

The man had his heart in the right place, and got turned back at the US border at one point because of his opposition to the Vietnam War (that's where the cartoon by Aislin comes in.) 

Monday, May 5, 2014

In the Country of Men: Political Novel That Maybe Isn't on Target

There's a bit of confusion in the news today about who is/will be the Prime Minister of Libya.  The BBC reports that Ahmed Maitig was sworn in, but apparently did not have the 121 votes necessary to win the job. The vote by parlementarians had been disrupted last week when gunmen surged into the assembly chamber, and the next vote was not recorded properly.  Nevertheless CNN reports that Maitig has been confirmed as prime minister.

The kerfuffle is symptomatic of the fall-out from the Arab Spring and the overthrowal of Libya's dictator Omar Qaddafi.  The struggle to found a democratic state  has been tortuous, but at least it seems to be less filled with torture than was the long dark period that preceded it.  How difficult it was has been on my mind, as my book groups have discussed  Hashim Matar's novel In the Country In it a small boy betrays his father who is taken by the dictatorship and tortured terribly.  The child does not understand what he has done, and when he is spirited out of the country, never to see his father again, he returns  in memory to what happened.

The book has been an international success, in large part, I think, because of the supposedly inside look it gives to a country weighed down by a revolution gone wrong.  The story is affecting--the boy is his mother's confidant, he admires his father greatly, he does not understand the evil that is afoot--but, according to some of my bookies, fatally flawed.

In the first discussion I led, two women were furious about the fact that the boy is portrayed as innocently giving away the secret of his father's political activism.  That doesn't happen in political families in countries like Libya, both said.  One came from Iran, the other's parents were part of the Haitian diaspora.  Both insisted that the first thing a child in such a family learns is never, ever to mention anything about what is said about politics inside the home.

"The boy was a fool, or his parents were," the Haitian woman said.

"We never knew who else was against the Shah until after he fell," the Iranian one added.  She said she was astounded to learn that one of her friends also was from a dissident family--and that an aunt by marriage had been an informer.  Talking about what you really think was just too dangerous to do around people that you weren't absolutely sure of.

The other members of my groups didn't see this until it was pointed out to them, as, I suspect, was the case for most readers in freer countries. The book can be read in many other ways--in another group, one of the members thought it was about child abuse since the mother can be seen as seducing her son.  Others thought it was about the thin line that separates courage and betrayal and sadism, and the ease with which it can be crossed.

Nowhere in the interviews I've read does Matar talk about the boy's role in his father's fate.  Is this a major fault?  I'm inclined to think it is.