Saturday, January 17, 2015

Who By Fire

Who By Fire / Fred Stenson
Toronto: Doubleday, c2014.
368 p.

In the mood for a balanced, complex read about environmental issues and family dynamics? Then this is one for you.

In Who By Fire, Stenson follows one farming family whose livelihood is destroyed by the construction of a large gas processing plant on the edge of their property. It begins in 1960s Alberta, with the Ryder family -- parents, 3 kids -- who try to hang on to their family farm while their neighbours are selling up. After months of sour gas, livestock deaths, sickness among the children, and no honest communication from the gas company, they've had enough of the constant stress. But it's too late; their property is now essentially unsaleable.

The story jumps between the 60s and the present, in which young Billy Ryder is now a grown man working in the oil sands in Fort MacMurray. He is a respected engineer, but he is also dealing with his own issues; a gambling addiction, a tentative new relationship, and a conflicted sense of responsibility toward his job and the local community.

I didn't expect to like this as much as I did. The writing is solid, and surprisingly fast-paced for such a dense literary read. I was completely sucked in by this story; while it tackles a big issue, it is extremely honest and balanced, and the action depends on the characters -- it doesn't feel like the idea is driving the plot to the detriment of the story, as can sometimes happen when a book takes on a contentious issue. Rather, Stenson lays out perspectives from many players in this larger story. Billy takes on the role of both affected family and later employee; his mother is tempted by a tentative affair with one of the early plant employees; their community is shaped by their interactions between employees and long-term residents. In Billy's adult life, he's also facing the conflict of what the company wants, and the rights of the local Native community. It's a long book, stuffed full of many kinds of people with different goals and different desires. But looking back at it, I only think about the characters -- they are the point of this one, not the plot.

Stenson's description of rural Alberta (landscape and communities) is both beautiful and honest, and nostalgia doesn't colour his depiction. He is equally dispassionate when he is talking about the events of the 60s as he is when completing the story of Billy and his two sisters in the present. He is not afraid to tackle the lived experience of Albertans affected by the downside of their economic powerhouse, oil & gas. In an interview with the Calgary Herald, when asked about taking one side of this issue, Stenson replied:
There’s this idea afoot that balance means you always come out in the middle. I think, well, if the truth is not in the middle, you have no business being in the middle. You should let the truth land where it lands. 
 I think he's done a fine job of that in this novel.

Highly recommended for readers who enjoy strong, complex characters facing serious change in their life and environment. It's an excellent literary depiction of a Canadian experience that is often overlooked.

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Further Reading:

To get a feel for this industry, try combining David A. Finch's Hell's Half Acre: Early Days in the Great Alberta Oil Patch for a history of the years 1914 to the Second World War, with Rick Ranson's modern take on oil sands culture, Bittersweet Sands: 24 Days in Fort McMurray.

To get a sense of more character-based Alberta history, try any of Fred Stenson's other novels, most of which are set much earlier, but have the same complex yet straight-forward writing style.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Count Me In!

Count Me In / Emily White
Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, c2015.
289 p.

I liked this one -- an unexpected pleasure that I first heard of randomly. The idea of it appealed: in this book, White details how she adapted when she moved back to Toronto from small-town Newfoundland after a relationship crashed.

In her small Newfoundland community, she felt like she belonged, like place itself was a connection. Could she start to feel connected to others in such a large city? And if so, how?

Throughout this project, she tries various methods to form social connections, from volunteering to church-going to activism to hanging out at community spaces and events, to name a few. She gives many different things a try, and goes into what was good and not so good about each. I probably was an easy target for this book, since White chooses things that appeal to my own introvert nature -- like White, I wouldn't go about this by signing up for team sports or politics; rather, she chooses smaller, more flexible kinds of activities. She does note however:
     At no point in my year and a half of looking for belonging did I even stumble upon an opportunity to join the sorts of large groups that seem to have been ubiquitous in the past... Aside from faith organizations, large groups simply didn't surface. It's not that I was avoiding them. They weren't there.
     Without setting out to do so, I wound up confirming a major point in the research on belonging: the groups you'll find will probably be small and informally structured.
Something I loved about this book -- she acknowledges that not every activity is really for everyone. For example, everyone is always told that to find life more meaningful you should volunteer somewhere, anywhere! White points out that unless you're volunteering willingly and in a situation that meets your own specific needs as well as the organization's, it can be a draining and not very effective attempt at inclusion. To begin her project, she took time to focus clearly on what her values were, and what she would be looking for that would be personally meaningful. She decides on these values.
Dog, nature, faith, home, neighbourhood. The list felt a bit garbled, like clues to a mystery I'd have to tease out. But at least I had the clues.
Another thing I really liked about this book -- White's brief conversation about public spaces. She mentions the Great Good Space, the kind of public space that is open to all and that allows people to spend time with others in public at a more general level of engagement. This civic space supports us in a way that is wider and different than our family and friends, and the places in which we find this kind of atmosphere are the civic institutions that are shrinking -- parks, community centres, libraries --  the kind of spaces we need to support not only with our (shrinking) tax contributions, but with our communal use of these spaces. Not surprisingly I agree with her assessment that libraries are a public good, a 'third space' that provides opportunity for civic engagement for all.

White structures the book logically, even if the chapters bleed into one another as her experiences pile up and overlap. It's broken up into these general areas: Home, Local Place, Caring, Faith, Volunteering, Buying. Plus of course, a general introduction to both her own life and the genesis of her project, and an additional conclusion on what this year and a half has taught her.

Sometimes these kind of life-project books are too earnest or well-meaning for my tastes, coming across as dull and procedural. I was very glad to discover that this was not the case with Count Me In. I enjoyed White's writing style, and her narrative was self aware (and self-deprecating) enough that her search to overcome her sense of disconnection did not annoy me -- a sad occurrence in some similar reads I've tried. I think there are some interesting ideas here that readers could ponder and even discuss, as they build their own sense of connection in places like book clubs!

Enjoyable and great timing in publication date, too -- it's a perfect choice for the beginning of a year as people are making resolutions. If you've resolved to get out there and make some new connections, this is the perfect read for you. If you are simply interested in the idea of communal spaces and ways for people to live together with a greater sense of connection, you will also find this a good read.

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Further Reading:

If the idea of spending time on a self-improvement project sounds like a good idea to you, you might want to try the classic tome on happiness, Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project.  Rubin decided to spend a year seeking what she most wanted in life... happiness.

For more from Emily White, read her first book, Lonely: Learning to live with Solitude. You will discover more about White herself, and her journey toward making connections with others.


Friday, January 09, 2015

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust / Alan Bradley
Toronto: Random House, c2015.
360 p.

I have loved this series since the very first book introduced us to Bishop's Lacey & our wonderful heroine. Flavia De Luce is a marvellous character, clever, wry, and yet still a young girl.

She's been 11 for the first 6 books -- but in this volume, she is now 12, and she's also living in Toronto, at Miss Bodycote's Female Academy, the school that her mother Harriet had attended. (I must admit to my fellow Canadians that I was rather hoping we might see a mention of Miss Scrimmage somewhere in this boarding school story...)

Flavia, as usual, starts off with a bang; in this case, a fellow student who bursts into her room and tries to hide from Miss Bodycote by climbing up the chimney...and dislodges a body. This seems like a startling way to be introduced to a new school, and a new country altogether, but nobody else at the school seems to be taking this unidentified body all that seriously.

Flavia is dreadfully homesick in this story, and so, I think, will many readers be. Where are her sisters, or Dogger, or even Gladys? Only in her recollections. While I was thrilled to read the descriptions of Toronto and to see Flavia navigate these new surroundings, there really is no place like Bishop's Lacey. All of Flavia's acquaintances in England are wonderful and quirky in their own right, but most of the girls (and teachers) at this school seem like ciphers. Not a lot of deep exploration of their characters or personalities, but then again, Flavia is really only passing through.

The plot of this story is as usual quite convoluted and complex -- I'm not going to try to go into it. The joy of this series is seeing Flavia encounter all the mayhem and try to make sense of it, we don't have to worry about it ourselves. Seeing her all alone in this setting really means that the story depends on her voice, on her perceptions (which are always shifting in this mysterious location). I thought it was a success, and builds lots of new directions into Flavia's world for her to explore in future.

If you love Flavia already, you're going to be waiting for this one. If you haven't yet encountered her, begin at the beginning to get the full Flavia effect. You may enjoy the darker undertones in this installment. Recommended!

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Further Reading:

While the location and the set-up are both quite different, the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters have a similar quirkiness and scientific outlook. Both series are driven by their main characters.

Another quirky series that is focused on character is the Erast Fandorin series by Boris Akunin. Fandorin is a Russian detective who solves unusual mysteries using the power of deduction, and has a unique perspective on life and society.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Happy Ukrainian Christmas!

Happy Ukrainian Christmas to all!



This Christmas falls on a work day so the meal is an easy one for me; no traditional 12 courses tonight! I've made this pierogi lasagna instead, with a side of kale & beets. Hope that you are enjoying the day no matter what you are doing.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Between Gods

Between Gods / Alison Pick
Toronto: Doubleday Canada, c2014.
400 p.

This was an engrossing read -- not my usual kind of book, as it's a memoir of a woman's search for her cultural & religious roots, set amidst a tumultuous period in the author's life.

Pick is living in Toronto, considering marrying her long-time boyfriend and having a child, while suffering from depression and trying to keep writing. She only discovered as a teen that her family was Jewish -- her paternal grandparents escaped from Czechoslovakia in WWII and never mentioned again that they were Jewish. Pick decides that she now really needs to explore this, and she recounts in this book the time she spent seeking a place for herself between the very general Christianity she grew up with, and being Jewish. Technically though, since her mother isn't Jewish, neither is she. And so she must go through the long process of conversion.

There are ups and downs for Pick within this journey of conversion; she finds barriers and difficulties in her road toward acceptance as a Jewish woman. There are also many hard times in her personal life, many revealed in all their soul-baring rawness -- emotional and physical crises that seem far too personal for a reader to stumble upon. But even while I am not a big fan of TMI (one reason that memoirs can be tricky for me) and there may well be TMI in this one, objectively, Pick is an extraordinary writer and her revelations are made in such a way that this reader, at least, never felt like a voyeur.

Pick's family is interesting, and her interactions with them are shared as an integral part of the book's focus.  Her father, in particular, also undergoes a transformation during her own search for her roots. Pick is a literary writer and a poet, and that skill with language shines through in this story. It's beautifully told, with haunting images and metaphors, language that doesn't overwhelm the story, and a clear sense of what's important to tell (there are no wandering, irrelevant digressions). It's a powerful look at the place of religion and cultural identity in modern life, and how knowing -- or not knowing -- our past shapes so much of our personal present. I read this in pretty much one fell swoop; it's hypnotic, a book in which you'll want to read just one more page...until you're at the end. Recommended for those who love well-told, very personal, stories of finding meaning in one's own life.

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Further Reading:

Readers of this memoir may also want to go back and find Pick's novel Far to Go, which uses themes of the Holocaust and European Jewish life, and which she was writing during the time she relates in this memoir.

If the appeal for you is an author exploring family history which was kept secret for many years, you might try Don Snyder's Of Time and Memory, a story of a son trying to uncover the truth of his mother's life -- a mother who had died when he was 16 days old, and was never spoken of again.

Friday, January 02, 2015

What We See When We Read

What We See When We Read: a phenomenology with illustrations / Peter Mendelsund
New York: Vintage, c2014.
419 p.

What better way to begin a readerly year than by sharing a book on the phenomenology of reading? Do you ever puzzle over the process of reading -- wonder how we actually do it, how we take a story and bring it to life? Then pick this up for some inspiration.

I loved this book; it was one of my top reads of 2014. It's an odd little book full of brief chunks of text interspersed with varied illustrations, all to embody the message of the book itself. How do we see when we read -- how do we perceive, make words on paper into a fully elaborated mental world?

It's a book best read in short bursts, I think. Read a section, take in the way Mendelsund has used the book design to emphasize his ideas, and think about it yourself for a while. Return and read some more.

The style and illustration may be too much if taken in all at once; they may overwhelm the intent of the book. And that is to be avoided at all costs -- this book needs to be appreciated.

Mendelsund is very intelligent, very aesthetically particular. He was a concert pianist before he became a book cover designer, and one of the best, at that. His varied artistic practice shows in the elements he highlights here. He points out that description in novels is vague; we don't know exactly what Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary looks like, we take the authorial hints and fill it in ourselves. And how is that done? He has many comments on the process we take to get there. He also discusses the fact that as our culture becomes more and more visually saturated, reading is not disappearing; rather, it's one way we can experience culture without having to see very much at all.

I was very fortunate to be able to meet Peter Mendelsund this fall, when a library committee that I'm on invited him to speak at an event we were hosting. He is intimidatingly brilliant in person, yet also friendly and funny. I'd already read this in preparation for that event (and loved it) so I'm not recommending it just for the author's sake, despite how impressed with him we all were ;)

It's a book I've been dipping into again and again over the last few months, thinking about an angle he takes on a particular part of reading, pondering my own thoughts. It's a great book for the habitual reader. Lots to think about here, whether you agree or disagree with his aesthetic.

Me, delighted to meet Peter Mendelsund
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Further Reading:

If you like the idea of examining the interior process of reading, with more of an emphasis on the actual design features of a book (including typefaces) than the content itself, try Gerard Unger's While You're Reading.

If you're more intrigued by the psychological pretzels we twist ourselves into in order to comprehend text as living story, check out a neuroscientist's approach to the physical setup we have developed that makes reading possible, in Proust & the Squid, by Maryanne Wolf

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best of the Year, 2015

Time again for the yearly roundup of favourites... I always wait until the very last minute in case something spectacular pops up at Christmas... you just never know! All of the "best of" lists starting in September really make me feel sad for any books published at the end of the year :)


I also like to create a statistical summary of my year, just because I like seeing the numbers and think about what and how I'm reading. 

So here is how 2014 shook out.


Total Reading: 157

Authors

Female: 126
Male: 30
Nongendered (multiple authors): 1

Genre etc.

Fiction: 128
Non Fiction: 24
Poetry: 3 
Plays: 2  

In translation: 

French (Quebecois): 3
French: 1
Norwegian: 1
Italian: 1
Dutch: 1

My Own Books: 57
Library Books: 72

Review Copies:  15

Rereads: 1
E-reads: 12

Author who I read the most from: Alexander McCall Smith, with, I believe, 4 titles. All pretty recent too...the man's a writing machine.

So. Much like every other year, I read more women than men (though this year the balance was heavily weighted to the female side, perhaps because of my Century of Books project, in which I'm focusing on women). I read a lot more fiction than non-fiction, actually more of a divide than other years even though fiction is usually my top choice. I read fewer works in translation -- want to address that in the new year. And my own books vs. library books is a pretty close number -- especially if you count in the ebooks of which only 1 was a library ebook.

It was a pretty good reading year, with some wonderful finds, though I did stumble across a few real stinkers as well. Here's to a little more variety in my reading year ahead.


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Best of the Year

These were some of my favourite reads this year, for their wonderful characters, or their enchanting style, or even for their unique take on the world. These are books that spoke to me in some way.






Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

This post-apocalyptic novel was a surprise; hopeful and beautiful, it has been the book I've recommended most since I read it. 

Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Great characters, great setting, enthralling though laconic storytelling. I highly recommend this modern Western.

Little Bastards in Springtime by Katja Rudolph

A disturbing yet ultimately life-affirming story of a boy who survives the siege of Sarajevo then emigrates to Toronto... while not perfect, this was a powerful debut novel that really struck me.


An old classic that I'd put off reading thinking it would be too sentimental. Not at all! It is certainly English and of its period, but it has humour and hope in it too.


This shocking novella is still as powerful as the year it was published. Unbearable tension, unflinching conclusion -- this is a must read. 

Plum Bun by Jesse Redmon Fauset

Angela changes her life by deciding to "pass" as white in 1920's New York. Lots happens because of it. This was a fascinating read that was full of social commentary, but also really good characters.

Non-fiction: I read a few excellent non-fiction books this year, too, but haven't yet reviewed my top 2 picks, found below.


This is a fantastic memoir of Pick's search for her Jewish roots and what went on in her life while she was pursuing the truth of her past. Amazing writing, powerful insights; I couldn't put this one down.


A brief book, a meditation on how our brain works as we read. Full of short bits of text and accompanying illustration. One to read in small bites. Fabulous ideas from an intimidatingly clever writer/designer.