Book Reviews

September Wrap-up

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Books I read for Early Review

Literary Titans Revisited ed. Anne Urbancic

32841205This work is a transcript of sixteen interviews conducted in the late 1960s by Earle Toppings with great Canadian literary figures. I received a copy for review from the editor and I think this is a great new primary source upon which to rely when conducting research in Canadian literature. Full review HERE.

 

The Biophilia Effect by Clemens G. Arvay 

51RnoLAew9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This book is a beautifully written work about humans’ connection to nature and the effect nature has on our body and our chemistry. Arvay follows medical studies showing how significant it is to live among trees and to be as close to nature as possible. This book will be coming out in January 2018. Full Review HERE.

 

Books I read for myself

 

15811570Odd Type Writers by Celia Blue Johnson

This book covers the quirks of famous authors. It covers anything from the time of day they wrote, their word counts, or the colour of ink they preferred to use. I enjoyed it a lot and I thought it deserved a longer explanation immediately after I read it, so I wrote a review, even if it was a book I read for myself. Full review HERE.

 

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron 

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This book was really not for me. I was surprised to see Martin Scorsese give a blurb on the back, so I picked it up. A trend on YouTube for lifestyle vloggers is to promote “morning pages” where you should brain-dump words on three pages each morning to clear your head and make space for creativity. This book is where the idea came from and then just spread online. Other than that, I didn’t find many other useful tips. A lot of the things here are journal starter sentences like “when I was a kid I missed out on…” and you’re supposed to treat it like a self-help/therapy workshop to journal your ideas. A lot of the pages here were either the author talking about her extravagant and adventurous life, or lists and lists of affirmations for yourself along the lines of “creativity is God’s gift to us.” It’s a lovely sentiment, and I think many of the ideas could have been easily summarized and made into a pamphlet (and that includes the affirmations). This book is 231 pages of the repetition (in different ways) of the three essential points I mentioned above. To be fair though, she does title the book “The Artist’s Way…a SPIRITUAL PATH to higher creativity” so I guess that one’s on me.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope 

359586I never had the chance to study Trollope in undergrad so I thought I’d give the Barchester Series a try. The series is six books long and begins with The Warden. I read the first twenty pages and realized how lost I was because I didn’t understand Anglican terminology. I put together this Anglican Terminology PDF and printed it out (attached it to the book) and resumed reading. For the most part it’s a bunch of English men who are part of the parish discussing wages and minutiae around their roles, as a young doctor moves into town and decides to open a hospital. The text is mostly heated debate in town over where finances should go. Reading it I didn’t feel ‘entertained’ or even that into it, but as I put it down over the course of the month I kept thinking of that transition stage where those same Anglican terms I had to look up were dominant, and those were the main jobs that would be paid in society. There was a shift that occurred when medicine as we know it today started to be incorporated into actual health-care facilities, and a lot of these jobs were threatened and over time disappeared or became a lot less paid. I think I’ll give book two of the Barchester Chronicles a try because I’ve been told it’s much better but if it doesn’t hold up I think I will stop with Trollope there.

To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck

763798This book is about a man named Joseph whose father passes away and who begins to have a connection with land. So much so, that he strongly believes a tree up on a hill overlooking his newly-acquired land IS his father. There are fleshly desires, discord among brothers, and a character named Juanito who is from Mexico and not only is a worker-friend of Joseph’s but he does certain things in this novel that push the plot forward. Yes, “California,” “Bible Themes,” and “Saucy relationships” are the plot of A Steinbeck novel, but this one felt different than his other works. I read online that he spent longer writing this novel than any of his other larger works, and I think that struggle shows because it didn’t flow. I had most issues with the character of Juanito and I think they were accentuated by the current political situation between the things being said by the ‘leader’ of the United States towards and about Mexican citizens. His portrayal, way of talking, and overall presence felt like a caricature. I wanted to see more of the connection to nature, I wanted more from the presence of the tree. The tree was alluded to and discussed the same way we see the green flashing light in The Great Gatsby, but here it was such an important part of the plot that I wanted more from it. It’s evident how Steinbeck wanted to illustrate roots and the inability to leave a piece of land as if it was a person. That theme and the tree, as well as allusions to Biblical Joseph were all executed nicely, but the conversation and character development were truly lacking. The exchanges made between Juanito and Joseph almost put me to sleep, the conversation in general was so lacking and not believable…I don’t think people would ever talk that way. I thought about it, and I’m willing to forgive Steinbeck simply because it’s his third work. His first two works flopped when they came out and I think he was still working on his craft at this point. This is my second Steinbeck this year, and I will certainly keep going.

This Victorian Life by Sarah A. Chrisman 

25159463This is a work of non-fiction and a sort of experiment. Sarah A. Chrisman and her husband decided to adopt a Victorian lifestyle all the way down to the details. They both had advanced degrees and a life in this world, but decided to take things slowly, step away from technology and start living like Victorians with all the details. I said ‘details’ a lot but that is what is mostly discussed. The minutiae of corsets and other clothing articles, the stationary for letter writing and creating the draft of this book, the cooking methods…absolutely every little thing was slowly changed in their household to mimic a Victorian household. Chrisman kept writing how liberating it was so have things slow down and not be so caught up in this modern world of constant distraction and instant gratification.

I  read this book in preparation for Victober and I think it’s nice in a Walden-type experiment kind of way. The whole time though I kept thinking about ‘choice’ and ‘consent’ because I think that was vastly overlooked when Chrisman wrote this. The whole time she would say “I didn’t realize how great this was,” or “how hard it would be to thaw the frozen toilet water” etc. but it makes a HUGE difference that she knows she has a choice. Not just over herself as a woman, but having the knowledge she has autonomy over her own body, that she can say ‘no’ to certain marital pressures, that she has rights as a citizen…but also knowing that should she get sick she would go to a good sanitary hospital where she won’t die of consumption, she won’t die in childbirth, that there are methods to prevent that….I think all the difficulties, the REAL difficulties of the Victorian period weren’t captured. What made those novels dark or that time period different was largely highlighted by the frustrations women like Jane Eyre would have for lacking status, money, autonomy, (or in Bertha Mason’s case good healthcare). I couldn’t bring myself to care of Chrisman’s experiments with stationary, Thanksgiving recipes, and bicycles when she kept repeating “I was trying to live exactly like a Victorian” and “it’s all down to the details” when the reality is far from it. I am not trying to be harsh here because I did enjoy reading this very much, but that thought was at the back of my mind the whole time. Being aware that at times she reminds readers that she has a B.A, and her husband has a Masters degree in Library Science, that she typed the manuscript of this book for publishers, and other details as such, I remembered what she said in the introduction and that was: this is an experiment. The reason I mentioned Walden before is because Thoreau is often criticized for not being too far away from the town when at Walden Pond, and being pampered by the Emersons, so people read his ‘experiment’ with a grain of salt. I think in that same way I’ve been reading This Victorian Life. It certainly is a fun read so I recommend it. I can see how for two people who love something like the Victorian period together this could be fun a fun project, but again: knowing that they can at any point CHOOSE something different and the idea of having a choice in the first place…skips over all the real life anxieties of a true Victorian.

Other Reading

I also re-read Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. Perhaps one day I’ll write a proper analysis of it, but since it is not a first impression I don’t think I’ll critique it much right now. I am currently reading Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. I have been neglecting Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings since July and it’s not because I don’t love it, I actually can’t stop thinking about it, but for some reason I got caught up in other books. I think I need to give it the attention it deserves very soon. I also read some of the essays by Ursula K. Le Guin from The Wave in the Mind but I don’t have a strong opinion on any individual essay just yet. All I can say is that Le Guin is one of the most advanced and progressively-thinking writers out there.

Literary Titans Revisited | Review

“Their writing explores themes in our society…the plight of the marginalized, the environment, the difficulties of finding one’s self and place, the anxiety of getting it all wrong, the longing for love, the search for justice.” —Anne Urbancic

32841205Professor Anne Urbancic (at Victoria College, University of Toronto) assigns her first-year students to explore in depth a library’s archive, write a detailed essay, and present it to the class. One of her students, Griffin Kelly, discovered in her search a series of compact discs in the Victoria University Archive at the E.J. Pratt Library. What she found were 16 interviews conducted by Earle Toppings with some of Canada’s top novelists and poets who were leading figures in the emergence of Canadian identity in literature. Kelly brought Mr. Earle Topping—an editor turned radio host who still resided in Toronto at the time—to speak to the class. Thus began the project that has now been turned into the book Literary Titans Revisited. Urbancic called upon four students, including Griffin Kelly herself, Geoff Baillie, Amy Kalbun, Vpasha Shaik, and the E.J. Pratt Library’s leading Reader Services librarians Agatha Barc, and Colin Deinhardt to collaborate on transcribing the interviews.

Urbancic notes in the introduction that:

“While Canada prides itself on its many excellent and exceptional authors and poets… they had not often appeared on the world’s literary stages until the second half of the twentieth century.”

The topic of Canadian identity in literature is still relatively new compared to its English and American fellows, and resources on Canlit authors are still being pieced together. What Urbancic created with Literary Titans Revisited is an excellent primary source for future Canlit students. Each writer’s interview with Earle Topping is preceded by a brief introduction including biographical material, a portrait, relevant and major contributions, as well as a brief analysis of their overall influence on Canadian literature and culture. The first section ‘Prose’ includes interviews with six novelists including Margaret Laurence, Morley Callaghan, Hugh Garner, Hugh MacLennan, Mordecai Richler, and Sinclair Ross. The second section ‘Poetry’ contains the remaining ten interviews—among which are Al Purdy, Dorothy Livesay, and Irving Layton—to name a few. Lastly, the seventeenth chapter contains an interview with Earle Toppings who discloses his interviewing process, the composition of his questions, and the experience of interviewing the sixteen authors. Finding how he came up with the project and the recording devices he used at the time is an inspiring reminder of how much one can do with minimal resources.

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Statue of Al Purdy in Queen’s Park (unveiled in 2008).

The authors shared personal anecdotes, life struggles, and their creative process. Some poets read aloud to Toppings some of their newly composed poems which are not necessarily the ones that later on appeared in print. When it comes to transcribing the poems, this collection stays true to the recordings rather than what was finalized in print. What I found particularly interesting was how at the moment Canadian writers were asked how some of their life experiences connect to their artwork, they began by discussing either a British or American author as an example of how that can happen. Morley Callaghann speaks of Conrad and Joyce, Hugh Garner of Fitzgerald, Hugh Maclennan of Hemingway, and Mordecai Richler of several authors like George Orwell, and Norman Mailer. While trying to find the Canadian voice, these Canadian authors were still using American and British identities as a crutch even in the late sixties.  These interviews are a clear depiction of the search for a unique voice. Simultaneously, some keep in perspective the problematic consequences of Canadian history. Urbancic emphasizes that Al Purdy for instance:

“points out in his poignantly metaphorical verses about broken indigenous art pieces that represent the plight of Canada’s First Nations.”

This book has been published by Dundurn Press and is currently available for purchase (click here) and at your public library (click here). I would recommend this work to anyone who is interested in Canadian Literature, wants to be in the presence of Canadian literary titans, and interested in aspects of the creative process. Lastly, I would hope that all libraries will have this book in their collection. This collaborative project supplemented with the editorial work of Anne Urbancic is a new excellent primary source in Canadian scholarship.

May Wrap-Up | 2017

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Books I read for Reviews (with links)

  • Drinks with Dead Poets by Glyn Maxwell. A poet/professor wakes in a town where he must teach a syllabus on dead poets, and the dead poets come to life (To be published in August of 2017)
  • Matter & Desire by Andreas Weber. Academic text exploring the relationship between our existence and nature through erotic experience (To be published August 3, 2017)
  • The Man Who Loved Libraries by Andrew Larsen. This is a very short children’s book about Andrew Carnegie (to be published August 15)
  • Thin Places by Lesley Choyce. Free verse poem telling the story of Declan Lynch who can hear voices and follows them. (To be published July 29, 2017)
  • The Excursionist by J.D. Sumner. This is a travel satire with a very grumpy main character (published May 17)
  • The New Voices of Fantasy edited by Peter S. Beagle. A collection of new fantasy short stories (to be published August 18, 2017)
  • Scion of the Fox by S.M Beiko. Young adult book with magic, battles, family traditions and history, and is very much entwined with the natural realm (out for publication October 17, 2017)
  • Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith by Shaun Hume. Pleasant children’s adventure about Ewan Pendle who receives a special education. (published)
  • How to Read Nature by Tristan Gooley – book on navigating through nature and reviving the connection between ourselves and the natural realm (out for publication August 22, 2017)
  • Of Men and Women by Pearl S. Buck – short essays comparing the American household to that of China, published/written in 1941, currently being republished in a newer, updated eBook edition (out for publication June 27, 2017)
  • Ex Libris – Anthology of Sci-fi and Fantasy short stories with Librarians, Libraries, and Lore (out for publication July 11, 2017)
  • The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory by Chris Banks – poetry collection (out for publication Sept 5, 2017)
  • Hunger by Roxane Gay – a memoir; a history of Roxane Gay’s body and experience with weight gain (out for publication June 13, 2017)
  • Up Against Beyond by Jason Holt –Poetry collection (out for publication July 20, 2017)
  • Iain M. Banks by Paul Kincaid –academic book, short biography, close analysis/reading of Iain M. Banks and his works published both as ‘Iain M. Banks’ and ‘Iain Banks’ (out for publication May 30, 2017)

Books I read for Myself

I had a great reading month mostly because I had all the time in the world: no work, no school, no exams.

According to my Audible App I also spent about 8 Hours listening. The listening included a variety of dramatizations of classics, or some audiobooks for the things listed below where I would follow along in the text while listening to an audiobook.

I read two short stories:

“The Machine Stops” – by E.M. Forster which already made it onto my ‘favourites’ list. The story is written in 1909 but it’s highly prophetic and describes a time where people are glued to conversation machines and lose touch with the organic. It’s like a “pre-WALLE” critique of our attachment to screens.

“The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allan Poe. This story took me a while to get into, mainly because I wasn’t sure what was happening for the first few pages. A man wakes up tied, in a pit, where a pendulum swings above him (one of those with a blade) and he doesn’t know why. He spends the story figuring it out. It didn’t really strike me in any way and it’s not as memorable as “The Black Cat.”

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

9200000000656014I then read my monthly classic. This month I chose The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Again, this didn’t sit with me quite as well as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. What I’m saying is: I can see why it’s important, I can engage in conversation about many aspects of it BUT reading it wasn’t a very exciting experience. Anne looked at domestic abuse and the ways women would put up physical barriers like Wildfell Hall itself. I liked the many perspectives in this work but I had one major issue with this novel and that was the characterization of Gilbert Markham, the first narrator. Gilbert as a first narrator to me was so feminine that I had a hard time imagining this man as a (straight) man. Everything he said was something I could never picturing a man caring about like the way a woman’s eyebrows look like, or the fabric of their clothing. It sucks that in my head I kept comparing Markham to manly Rochester and Heathcliff but one cannot help but lump the Brontes together. I would have no problems with bending gender norms and stereotypes but I think in this case Anne Bronte just didn’t know how to capture a masculine voice. I did enjoy that Helen was a painter and the descriptions of her paintings got to me in a very heartwarming way. Helen’s character is very interesting.

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

sleepinggiantsI am not sure how to describe the synopsis without spoilers. I’m going to briefly borrow parts from the synopsis at the back. Rose Franklin falls through the earth when she is a child and ends up in the palm of a giant metal hand. She spends her life studying physics and gets involved with a military/science team in search for other remaining parts of these giant metal giants which are scattered worldwide. The book is written in interview format. Interviews are conducted with Rose connecting her personal experience to the expeditions, with Kara Resnik (a military leader on this mission), and with other members involved in this investigation. I sort of imagined it as someone from the Pentagon interviewing all the people involved or around anything relating to these robot parts showing up all over. There are romances hidden, mysterious components to the robots or “giants” and it’s definitely not boring. I read this book with the text in hand and with the audiobook. It is an experience I recommend mainly because audible has different voices for the different characters and you really experience their presence. Lastly, I couldn’t help but be reminded of A Monster Calls, The Iron Giant, and most of all the giant guardians that are dormant in Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire. I don’t know if anyone remembers those but as a kid I watched Atlantis so many times and the moment when the giants pop out from the ground to protect the city is a scene forever ingrained in my memory. I don’t know if I’m alone in making this association.

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River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

river-of-teethThis is a small novella that just got published by Tor.com. In the early 20th century America had a plan to import hippos to supplement the meat shortage. The plan was scrapped but Sarah Gailey re-imagines an alternate 1890s where hippos are present in the U.S. It’s a weird hybrid of fantasy and a westerner. This is the story of Winslow Houndstooth who rides his hippo. Every rider in this book has a hippo. Tor.com published an article introducing every hippo by name here. The novella is only 170 pages and a very easy read. The cover art is done by Richard Anderson and designed by Christine Foltzer. I’ll put together a better review for this on Goodreads later tonight.

Concluding Thoughts and Announcement

My favourite reads this month were Drinks with Dead Poets by Glyn Maxwell and Ex Libris: Libraries, Librarians, and Lore. I’ve also been reading Age of Myth by Michael J. Sullivan which I have not yet finished so it will be featured in next month’s wrap-up.

announcement-clipart-cliparti1_announcement-clipart_09BIG ANNOUNCEMENT! Along with Ennet House I will be reading Infinite Jest from June 1 to September 18 (along other books of course). If you would like to participate there is still time to get the book and join our community. More details on this HERE. Everyone is welcome!