Saturday, October 31, 2009

Jackson's Haunted Hill House

New York; Toronto: Penguin, 2006, c1959.
182 p.

So, for my last choice for the RIP Challenge this year I finished the classic Haunting of Hill House, just in time. I am glad I finished it before the sun went down; it is the expectation, the waiting for something horrific to occur that I found to be the scariest part of this reading experience.

For anyone who doesn't know the premise of this novel, it is as follows:

Dr. John Montague desperately wants to find a real haunted house to study, and comes across Hill House. He writes to many people who have had some supernatural experience in their lives hoping that some of them will take him up on his offer to spend time in Hill House as his assistants. Only two do: Eleanor, a 32 yr old single woman who has spent her life caring for her mother, now deceased; and Theodora, a free spirited woman who is taking a break from her partner after nasty words were exchanged. Along with these two, a member of the family who owns Hill House, Luke Sanderson, joins in and they all spend a week together waiting for something to happen. The house itself is "not sane" -- built so that all angles and surfaces are not quite even, the architecture itself unsettles the group. The house seems to know who the weakest link is, and aims right for her. The housekeeper is creepy but refuses to stay in Hill House after dark, and as things begin to heat up, the nights get quite terrifying.

Jackson is very adept at writing in a polished and calm manner which belies what is really going on. Each character thinks they are handling the pressure well; only through various exchanges do we see their private fears revealed. Psychological terror is key -- each of them is waiting for something to happen, and even when something does occur, not all of them experience it. Is it real? It is a mental projection? The uncertainty adds to the fear, and there are some bloodcurdling scenes, as when Eleanor grips Theodora's hand in the night trying to stay calm in the face of noises at the door - except when she screams and the light goes on she sees that Theodora is just waking up, in her own bed.

This classic is written in the tradition of literary ghost stories, and as such does not have overt scenes of horror or gore. That's what I like about it -- the horror is all psychological, and though I read it and didn't think it had affected me, when I was thinking about it later, at night, in the dark, it began to really creep me out. I could admire the excellent writing while I was reading it, but the atmosphere of the book is truly frightening. Hill House is quite a creation, and it is most definitely the main character, determined to get its way. Well worth reading after all this time, this was the perfect novel with which to celebrate Halloween and the end of this year's RIP Challenge.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bookish Bits this week

I just have a few interesting bookish tidbits to share this weekend. I was planning on writing up another review, but have been busy with work, plus jumping around to catch up with all you Read-a-thoners! Also, my brain is fatigued due to a 4 hour train ride Friday that stretched into 10 hours thanks to delays. Argh. The worst part was, I ran out of books to read! Nooooo!!! >:0

Anyhow - at least I have a few interesting links to share:

Books & Authors - this Gale database was highlighted at the workshop I went to, and it seems really handy to discover connections between books. If your library subscribes to it you'll get more functionality but it's fun to explore as it is.

Ok, this one is really neat, especially for someone my age who was a HUGE Duran Duran fan back in their heyday (remember, I was only in junior high at the time)! On their website, Simon LeBon has a feature called Simon's Reader, in which he talks about books and the experience of reading and of writing reviews. It's quite fantastic! And there's an archive of entries all the way back to 2002, though there are only a few books a year. You have to take a look at this. Actually, the whole website has a lot of fun content on it. (to get to Simon's Reader, click on "writing" on the menu for that option)

Here's an Australian site called My Favourite Book - it is a set of booklists, celebrity recommendations and personal book-related stories sent in by readers. There's even a section specifically for Young Readers.

If you want to listen to some authors reading from their own works, Vanity Fair has a feature called "Writers Reading". They are mostly popular books, like the recent book by Paul Schaeffer, or Tracey Morgan's "I am the new Black", although there are a few memoirs of more serious tone like that by a woman whose parents were arrested as enemies of the Soviet Hungarian state. Fascinating to hear ten minutes or so of each author. And while you're over at Vanity Fair, try out the Proust Questionnaire, a survey Proust himself filled out twice during his life -- there's a new book filled with celebrity answers to this survey, and your answers are compared to theirs; it's kind of fun to try!

And for some random bookish love, try these British sites:
Reading for Life

The Reader Organisation

And for any other librarians out there, check out Opening the Book - I love their approach!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Mitchell's Under this Unbroken Sky

Toronto: Penguin, c2009.
354 p.

This is the second Canadian Book Challenge choice I finished last weekend. It's about Ukrainian immigrants in Canada, set in the 1930's - both elements which appeal to me. Also, this is possibly The Book that spurred Victoria Glendinning's recent sniffy complaint about the boring tendency of Canadian fiction to focus on the past and forebears such as "Granny who spent her youth in Ukraine".

I loved the fact that this story was completely about a Ukrainian family in Alberta and their trials in the promised freedom of a new country. Teodor Mykolayenko, his wife Maria and their five children come to Canada, alongside Theo's sister Anna, her two children, and her nasty husband Stefan, a former army officer who is not adjusting well to becoming a nobody, a Bohunk on a hardscrabble homestead. Taking Theo, a character who had already suffered greatly in WWI and under Stalin, then drawing a portrait of the not much improved life of the family in the so-called land of plenty was illuminating. Their problems arise from climate (this is the Dirty Thirties), from miscommunication, from racism among Canadians of English backgrounds, and from the horrors they bring within themselves. The role of Ukrainians in agricultural settlement of the Canadian West was huge; even today the present day Ukrainian population of Canada is the third largest in the world, after Ukraine and Russia. This novel delineates the true difficulties that these homesteaders faced, and the relentless hard physical work it was to clear land and produce enough to feed and keep one's family. It also reveals the isolation that could result when a family left their homeland knowing they would never return, forced to rely on one another even when those relationships were not always friendly. Theo ends up caring for his own family and for Anna's, Stefan only reappearing when all the hard work is done and he wants to claim the spoils.

Unfortunately, I found this novel to be a bit narratively unsettling. I don't like the historical present tense very much in any case, but here especially I felt it didn't sit quite right with the story. Also, it is clear that the author is a filmmaker: she describes the action of the story in a series of images -- beautifully evoked, but the timeline was a little hard to follow as imagistic set pieces trumped straightforward narrative progression. It's not that I expect "this happened, then this, then this"; but a little causality and character development would have helped me to really believe the shocking conclusion. I was confused by the dates given in the preface and through the story, not being quite able to place all the events in sequence.

Also, it was really bleak. I know that the lives of settlers were very hard; poverty, drought, isolation, hunger all abounded, but surely there were a few good times as well. Every single awful thing that happened to Ukrainian settlers didn't have to be experienced by this hard luck family! The grimness of the book doesn't really lighten up; all the children are fairly miserable, obsessing over the few things they do possess -- a heart shaped stone, a chicken, a ball of dough representing Christ. Even when they are playing they are somehow subdued and afraid. The adults are necessarily stoic in the face of all this misery, Theo and Maria especially, while Anna goes a bit mad and her husband Stefan is a caricature of a drunken, self important bully. His final disappearance is questionably set up - would he really behave in such a manner? And I felt the same at the climax of the story - I was taken aback by the action; Theo's character throughout didn't seem to suggest that he would finally act as he did.

However, this is a B&N book club choice in the States, and seems to have been received very well. Many people with a lot more literary cred than I have love this book. It may feel very new and unexpected to people with no knowledge of Ukrainian settlement of Western Canada, in particular, and if it does enlighten people as to the presence of Ukrainians whose hard work settlement depended upon then I am very glad.

It was a thought provoking read about characters that overall I was quite interested in. Mitchell included a few interesting non-narrative additions such as a couple of recipes, and a description of period photos (not the photos themselves). There were some nicely drawn elements even if as a whole I found it just okay. But I really would have appreciated a few more sunbeams breaking through the lowering clouds of this unbroken sky.

Here is Shandi Mitchell talking about her book:

A few other opinions:

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sidura Ludwig: Holding my Breath

Toronto: Key Porter, c2007.
266 p.

I also got through two of my choices for the Canadian Book Challenge over the Thanksgiving weekend (there's a lot to be said for days off!)

Here's the first one I read -- it's set in Winnipeg, Manitoba in the 50's & 60's, among the Jewish community. Beth Levy is a young girl when her grandmother dies and she and her parents move into the family house, taking responsibility for Beth's two aunts, Carrie and Sarah. Carrie is a grown woman but Sarah is a teenager, much younger and less interested in tradition than her elder sisters.

The story moves through the years from Beth's childhood until she is ready to spread her wings and head away for college. Each chapter is from Beth's point of view but focuses on different moments in her upbringing; her mother's rise into the highest ranks of the Jewish women's organizations and her concern for tradition and keeping her family close by; her aunt Carrie's fixation on her long deceased brother Phil and on a secret that she keeps for many years; and her aunt Sarah's dissatisfaction with life in Winnipeg and her longing to escape - which she does in later years.

The telling is quite measured and subdued: there seemed to be a little too much telling at the expense of showing, at least to my taste. However, I did find the story interesting because it was about a situation that I knew little about, that of the Jewish community in Winnipeg, and I also enjoyed getting to know some of the characters. A few of the minor characters especially were quite intriguing; some of Beth's friends were people I would have liked to get to know. I also liked Beth's interests in life -- even though it is the 60's she is fascinated with science, especially astronomy. This interest is formed partly from her aunt Carrie sharing Phil's love of the stars with Beth since childhood, but the result is that Beth studies astronomy and physics in college. This leads to the crisis point of the novel: Beth is offered a graduate student position in Chicago and with her aunt Carrie's help overcomes the sense of duty drilled into her in order to achieve her dreams. She discovers throughout the novel that she is not her mother, nor her aunts, but is made up of a mixture of family traits -- and that she has to choose which parts of her character are most important for her to develop.

Overall, it was a good first novel but a little slow moving. It didn't grab me, but it did illuminate aspects of Canadian life that I was unfamiliar with in a way that kept me reading. I think that the difficulty I had with it was that I preferred Aunt Carrie to Beth so would have been more intrigued by the story Carrie might have told; but that is my own bias, not a fault of the book. It is still an eminently readable story which just might be a favourite of another reader - don't pass it over on my opinion alone.

Other readers:

Boston Bibliophile gives it a "to borrow" rating

The Literary Word rates it a favourite

Dovegreyreader calls it a pleasure to read

Thursday, October 15, 2009

It's my Birthday, and I can throw myself a party if I want to...

Ok, so it is my birthday today, and what am I doing? My last children's program of the fall session, actually! Since they fell on the same day I decided to make an occasion of it and throw myself a party -- me and fifteen 3 yr olds! ;) It was hilarious fun; all the moms and grandmas also got into it and we had a wonderful morning. Here's the treats I made (vegan chocolate cupcakes from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World) but I adapted them to child-size servings.

And if anyone is interested, here are the books I ended up reading in between all the singing and dancing.

1. Happy Birthday, moon / Frank Asch.

I find this series of books by Asch, featuring Bear and often his friend Bird, always work with this age group. And they are highly adaptable to many themes. Plus I really like them!

2. The Surprise / George Shannon; illus. by Jose Aruego & Ariane Dewey.

This one tells us about Squirrel who wraps himself up in a series of nesting boxes as a birthday present for his mother. It is really cute and all the boxes are different shapes and colours which is useful for interactive questions with the kids.

3. The Surprise Party / Pat Hutchins

Another old book, but one I enjoy reading. Rabbit is going to have a surprise party, but as the message gets passed along it gets increasingly garbled. It is a fun take on the game of Telephone, but all the animals get the invitation by the end and they have their party.

4. The Party / Barbara Reid
This one is a rhyming story about a big family party for Grandma's 90th birthday. It has the amazing illustrations of Barbara Reid; made with plasticine and really, really colourful.

5. Happy Birthday to you, Blue Kangaroo / Emma Chichester Clark

And the final story, from one of my absolute favourite series, about Lily and her Blue Kangaroo. Here Lily is having a birthday party that is ALL about pink (and funnily enough every single little girl present today was wearing pink). Poor Blue Kangaroo feels neglected and wanders off to wrap himself up in a sock and feel sad. Lily ends up by saying that she loves both pink AND blue. It's adorable.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Read for your Life: Gold's prescription

Well, it's been a long and unintentional blog break! I've been so busy with life and with reading that I didn't realize how long it had been since I last added something here. Whoops. Oh well, I've spent so much time reading that now I have lots of goodies to share with you. I've been especially busy reading a lot of non-fiction, some of it for fun and some of it work related. Here's one that is kind of both -- it's about reading, but more than that, it's about the importance of reading fiction and literature to find our way through this life. It was fantastic.

Read for your life: literature as a life support system / Joseph Gold
Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2001.
380 p.

This book is a classic in the field of bibliotherapy. It is also a wonderful read in itself. Dr. Gold is a therapist who was first an English professor, so his expertise both in counselling and in literature is inspiringly thorough. Here he discusses what reading fiction can do for individuals, both in a general, developmental way, and in the context of specific wellness issues such as depression or issues stemming from childhood trauma.

But the joy of reading this one, for me, was just in its love for the power of literature. Gold reaffirms all the things that constant readers like us believe about the value of reading and of reading fiction in particular. For librarians who are interested in Reader's Advisory, it is essential reading -- and there is a wonderful (though long) readers' questionnaire at the end which could assist in developing similar tools; it discusses preferences according to mood, thematic interest, setting, etc. But besides the useful elements, there is also great enjoyment in his thoughtful statements about literary life.

Here's a quote about habitual reading:

Reading fiction is good for you, and important and necessary to you. Go ahead and do it. It is not a fringe activity or "merely" entertaining; it is profoundly useful as part of normal development in a civilized, literate community. ... Reading is not necessary for our survival, if by survival we mean eating and staying warm. It is necessary to our larger survival, however, to an enriched, aware life in which we exercise some measure of control over our well-being, our creativity and our connection to everything around us.

And then there are a few statements that I loved, as they reflect the experience of blogging about books, in my opinion:

The act of reading is essentially private, but the consequence of reading is a shared experience, first with the writer, often with some other reader of the same book. ... Reading can be like calling someone to the window to share a scene that is important to the viewer. Through the window of story we can look out together on a world of experience that would otherwise be invisible to the other, retained in a private past.

There's not a lot I can say about this book without quoting it in its entirety. I loved it -- the principles he bases his practice on, his literary suggestions, his absolute belief in the primacy of fiction in creating a civilized, self-aware world, his obvious love for literature, and many more elements of the book all appealed to me. In fact, this is a book I am going to have to buy for my own use; I've already renewed it to the limit from my library! I've read it twice and have made notes, and have also searched out his second book, written much more recently, called The Story Species. That one seems to be more about the historical significance of storytelling in human history - still intriguing.

So, if you have any interest at all in how literature can improve and comfort and expand our lives, this comes highly recommended. Full of ideas on the uses of literature, this is a great resource for both people in the fields of librarianship or bibliotherapy, but is also a wonderful read for anyone with a passion for the primacy of reading (and specifically, of fiction) in our everyday lives.

Friday, October 02, 2009

October begins...

It's already October, I can hardly believe how time has been flying! Time to review my various challenges and see how I'm doing (among other things). October is one of my favourite months: fall weather, pumpkin scones, cocoa, chrysanthemums and opals as the month's symbols, oh, and my birthday :)

To begin:
The Canadian Book Challenge 3. Well, somehow in September I didn't finish a single Canadian novel for this challenge. I did read a few Canadian YA novels that I've yet to review, but in October I am planning on finishing and reviewing the 3 Canadian novels set on the Prairies which I've already begun reading. These three are:

- set in Winnipeg amongst the Jewish community in the 50's & 60's; narrator is first person, a young woman named Beth Levy (it is pretty interesting already, two chapters in)

- set on the Prairies in general, this is a historical novel, a tale of a Ukrainian family of settlers who seem to go through unremittingly gloomy days. We will see.

- set in Saskatoon, this novel by the fiction editor of Grain magazine promises to be somewhat humorous and hopeful even though it is about a young boy's experiences of the losers his single mother gravitates toward. Promises to end well.

And now, for the 4th Annual RIP Challenge -- luckily I was able to finish and review two great books for this challenge in September, leaving me only two which I must finish this month (although there are many more which I want to finish!) I've begun Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca and just want to keep reading it; wow, it's good!

And speaking of the RIP Challenge, now that it is October there is another site to explore that is rather ghastly and ghoulish - the Halloween Studio Trick or Treat online tour. This is set up by the artist at Scratching at the Window and features a whole group of artists & crafters to explore. There is also a link to our favourite challenge: try to find it!

And in other October news, if you'd like to find something Magical, Mysterious or Musical to read this month, pop over to Chumley & Pepys Books where we are having an October MAGIC, MYSTERY & MUSIC SALE. New items added every week so check back!