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The Next Chapter

September 1, 2015

My August challenge has  accomplished what I’d hoped it would; I’m back to reading as my default, and fitting in everything else around books. I’m back to floating in a world of words, actually in a whole variety of worlds, and expecting to be both comforted and challenged by the words. I’m back to turning to books when I’m happy or sad or confused or just tired of pain. In other words, I’m back to my usual bookish self. I ended up reading forty-three books, so although I didn’t quite make all of my categories, I’m counting it as a success.

I’m slightly mystified by how easily this was accomplished; perhaps the break of a few months (in which I was still reading, but in a rather desultory manner) helped me immediately see what I’d been missing? Surely, giving myself a little checklist and concrete goal couldn’t be that effective? Could it?

I suspect the Protestant work ethic so widespread in US culture is at the root of all of this. Knitting is concrete; I plan a project, begin it, work on it for a long or short amount of time, and then at the end have a finished object to show, made with my own two hands, that occupies real space. There’s something addictive to that, and over time the physicality of knitting somehow made it seem more productive, more worthy of my time, than reading. Of course, I didn’t spell this out consciously before. If I had I would have seen the falseness of the reasoning, and returned to my usual balance. But for someone whose health prevents her from managing any of the typical accomplishments of her peer group, there was something deeply seductive about tangible results.

Ultimately, there isn’t a real dichotomy here, fortunately enough. I can fill my life with books and handcrafts, if not quite in equal measure.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my decline in reading also mirrored my decline in blogging. While posts are not as physical as mittens, they are still an end product. So I’d like to get back into the habit of writing them.

I must admit, I spent much of the month contemplating creating a new space, like Jane (another reader who knits) recently did, one that’s modelled on the type of things I was doing in my field notes post, weaving in bookish content with my other interests. A space without the almost nine years of history and expectations that have accumulated here.

The more I imagined a fresh start, the more my heart thrummed in recognition. The contemplation quite quickly turned into a resolution. And so, I invite all of you to visit my new space: The Charm of It (named for a favourite poem by Anne Sexton).

I’ll be leaving A Striped Armchair up for reference. I can’t imagine deleting so many years and words, nor do I want to. I imagine there will be some cross pollination going on as well, as I might recycle some posts from here in The Charm of It. I’m still waiting to see precisely what the latter wants to become. It will certainly contain much bookishness, as well as my more maker pursuits, like knitting and photography, and general life musings. As I write on my new about page:

I find, as I stand on the cusp of my thirties, that I’m drawn towards personal essays as a form of expression, towards writing deeply instead of widely. I desire a space to record my  intellectual curiosities and moral struggles and creative explorations, and I want it to be a calm, pretty kind of place at that. I want it to be a public space, so that I can connect with others who share such interests, so that we can talk and argue and grow together. I’m almost afraid to speak such desires out loud, though, because they seem to set an impossibly high standard. I’m not viewing these as goals though but as dreams, and if in the end they come to naught, well, that certainly would have happened anyway if I’d never tried at all.

Essentially, I’m hoping to recreate the atmosphere of a small, liberal arts college, but amongst a more diverse community, and when we’re all a bit older and wiser. ;)

I hope those of you who have enjoyed and supported A Striped Armchair will stop by and continue to share your wisdom and reading recommendations with me. I don’t feel as if I’m leaving the book blogging community, just expanding my focus. And I’ll certainly continue following all of your wonderful blogs!

Thank you so much for nine years of reading, commenting, e-mailing, and encouragement. Book blogging has changed my life, both in existential and very concrete ways. I now go by Eva in the offline world, although it’s my middle name and I used to go by my first. I wouldn’t be living where I am without blogging either. And I’m not sure I’d have been able to keep a sense of self in the face of my health and life struggles without blogging either. It’s been a wonderful ride, and I hope that The Charm of It does for my thirties what A Striped Armchair did for my twenties. It’s still a little baby of a blog, so I’m sure you’ll understand any tumbles as it tries to get its feet under it! I’d love feedback too of course.

With love and gratitude, and hopes that you will all come visit my new place,
Eva

Library Loot: August 14th

August 14, 2015

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Video

My apologies for the lower quality; the video is so long that the nicer quality option exceeded my weekly upload allowance at Vimeo. Consider that your warning! ;)

Project Bookworm Update: Books One through Eight

August 5, 2015

So far, my new project is going swimmingly! We’re five days into August, and I’ve finished eight books, checked off six categories (double-counting some) and am only sixty pages away from finishing the ninth. Now, I don’t expect this rate to continue; two of the books I finished were begun in July and several of them are on the shorter side (200-250 pages), so I’m sure I’ll come across some longer books that will balance them out. But I’ve certainly found how to motivate myself. ;) In between blog posts, you can follow along if you’re curious on Instagram or the page I’ve set up to track my progress. I just need one of those little counter bars. hehe

Unintentionally, all eight of the books I’ve read were written by women! Five are fiction, three are nonfiction. Four were physical books, three were e-books, and one was an audiobook. Three of the authors were women of colour and two were from the world outside the US & UK (Australia & Trinidad). The earliest book was published in 1969 and the latest in 2015.

Of course, what you really want to know is whether you should read them!

the tiger's wife by téa obrehtI’ve already talked about book one, What the Dead Know, so I’ll move on to book two, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. I’d been meaning to read this since it was published (I did my college honours thesis on the Balkan region), but I’d never quite gotten around to it. I got the push I needed when a Serbian friend recommended it to me. Now I wonder why I waited so long! This book was absolutely perfect for me: it weaves together contemporary life with folklore mysteries and quirky back stories a la magical realism, involves villages and forests but also cities and modern science (thus not infantilising the region), and leaves so much up to the reader. I adore authors who trust their audience, and Obreht has done so wonderfully. I loved it from the first page right through to the last, and I just hope she is working on her next book. In case you can’t tell, I would highly, highly recommend this one. If you’re looking for companion reads, I’d point you in the direction of Deathless by Cathrynne Valente for a darker, more fairy-tale than folktale look at Eastern Europe in wartime (Russia this time) or Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Croatian author Dubravka Ugresic, which is a rather more esoteric mix of folktale and everyday life.

the pine cone by jenny uglowI can’t say that I cared much for The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow. It didn’t live up to its promising subtitle: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine-Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary, simply because Uglow couldn’t really find enough sources for a book-length biography. So instead it’s a book about Losh’s eighteen century social context and family, with the occasional look at her life, which could have worked (I’m always happy to read social history!), if Uglow didn’t jump around quite so erratically, in both time and subject. I’m happy to read a book that makes me work, but the chronological jumping in particular made it much more difficult to form a full view of Losh’s time and place. I was also alienated by her colonial view of history and the occasional moments of classism. All this would have taken to fix is an acknowledgement or two of social privilege and the point of the view of the people in the various colonies, but as that never happened, I remained perturbed. She had this habit of attributing emotions to her subjects by quoting novels that were written around the same time period, which is something I find a bit questionable, albeit creative, and she seemed to interpret the main people she wrote about in the best light possible, a little more so than I would have liked. It had enough interesting bits that I kept going despite these qualms, but I’m not sure I’ll be trying her other books. Although they do all have appealing topics!

Luckily, I loved the other nonfiction book I was reading in tandem: Not for Everyday Use by Elizabeth Nunez. I loved it so much, and found it so thought-provoking, that I’d like to write an entire post on it, so for now I’ll just say that I recommend it to absolutely everyone! As a literary memoir, I imagine even those who usually prefer fiction will find it enjoyable.

scream in silence by eleanor taylor blandScream in Silence was the next in Eleanor Taylor Bland’s mystery series featuring Illinois cop Marti MacAlister. These aren’t traditional-style puzzle mysteries (a la Agatha Christie), more like police procedurals, but I love how Bland includes bits of Marti MacAlister’s personal life, and I admire the way each of the books really brings attention to the vulnerability of various segments of society. These aren’t comfort reads for me, since most of them portray at least a bit of either child or elder abuse, and sexual violence often comes up as well (none of these are ever written about exploitatively), but I’ll continue to read them, as they expand my world view, and I love catching up with Marti and her family. I’d certainly recommend them to others, especially those looking for diversity in their crime/mystery reading, although I’d tack on a trigger warning.

The camelot caperYesterday afternoon, I wasn’t feeling well. Usually I’d settle in for some Netflix, but I decided to try to find a book equivalent instead, so I downloaded The Camelot Caper by Elizabeth Peters. She’s one of those authors who sounds just up my alley on paper, and yet I’m never quite sold by her books, and this one was a disappointment. I expected a bit of a gothic romp, but what I got was so silly I can only imagine it was intentional pastiche. Which would be fine, if the characters ever came to life. Even the settings, full of English landmarks and steeped in history, fell flat. As it was, I was relieved to reach the end of this one. We all have different tastes, but I’d recommend Daphne du Maurier or Susanna Kearsley or Mary Stewart for anyone looking for a bit of gothic romance instead. ;)

The astrologer's daughterOnce I’d finished the Peters, I still wasn’t feeling well, so I decided to go straight into another novel. All I knew about The Astrologer’s Daughter by Rebecca Lim was that I’d found it on a young adult fantasy list. Let me tell, that cheerful, pretty, purple cover is possibly the most misleading cover I’ve seen in some time!!! This is a dark, gritty, suspenseful novel that I had me calling my mom when I had to walk Thistle around the block in the dark, because I was so creeped out. Far more crime than fantasy (the only magical element is the protagonist and her mother’s ability to create terribly accurate astrological charts), the crimes center around violence towards women, which is not my favourite. However, I cared about the characters from the first page (I’d love to spend more time with them!), and appreciated the atypical coming of age storyline, even as I kept turning the pages because I had to know what happened next. Lim is Australian, and the book is set in Melbourne, so it was also fun to explore a new city in the pages, and I imagine I’ll be looking for more of her work in the future. I just won’t read it near bedtime. I’d definitely recommend this to readers who enjoy thrillers or those looking for an unusual narrator. Just don’t be fooled by that cover, and expect a fun little steampunk adventure, with astrology thrown in for spice, like I did.

519hYy-b03L._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_Oh my goodness, this post has gotten long! Only one book left to write about: Gale Lawrence’s The Indoor Naturalist. I’ve read and loved Lawrence’s other natural history essay collections, which are all based on a column she wrote for her Vermont newspaper, and aimed at novice amateur naturalists, so I was intrigued about what she’d find to write about in the more domestic setting. I shouldn’t have been surprised at how much she manages to cover; from the more obvious pet and houseplant sections, we move on to everything from yeast to centipedes to dust. A charming little collection, it would work wonderfully as bedside reading as well, if you can manage to stop an just an essay or two. I ended up gobbling these up, and if it’s not my very favourite of her books, I’d still happily recommend it to everyone. Lawrence is another one of those authors I think would win over even readers who don’t usually care for nonfiction. Of course, the closer you are to New England, the more relevant you’ll find her topics, but this book is less place-specific than the others. Much better than the unfortunate cover implies!

It’s funny, in retrospect the first books of the month have included some disappointments as well as some new favourites. However, even the less than great ones don’t seem to be dampening my reading enthusiasm, which seems like a good sign. And with that, I think I’ll go bury my nose in a book for awhile, and give my hands a rest.

My Summer Reading Program: Project Revive the Bookworm

August 2, 2015

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Earlier this summer, I realised that I simply wasn’t reading enough. This made me a bit panicky: why was I spending all of my time on things other than books, when I’ve been a bookworm for as long as I can remember? Ultimately, I think there are a lot of reasons, but I’ve decided to come up with a little summer reading program, just to run during August, that will hopefully revive my bookworm status!

Like many of you, I love making lists, and then getting to check things off as I finish them. So, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I also keep wanting to revive my blogging, but weeks go past without me even realising it, so at the very least I’ll be checking in once a week to report on my progress/gush about my new favourites that I think you should read too. ;)

Because I want to re-associate reading with light-heartedness, I picked the categories off the top of my head. Feel free to suggest other categories you think I’d enjoy, or any books you’ve really loved that would fit in here.

Without further ado, here’s my list:

  • Read 35 books in August
  • Read a book that’s been translated
  • Read a’genre’ book by a GLBT author
  • Read a mystery book by a new-to-me author
  • Reread a novel
  • Read a book by an Indian author
  • Read a science fiction book recommended by Jo Walton
  • Read a book about the Ottoman empire
  • Read a book of bookish essays
  • Read a book written before 1500
  • Read a book set in Scandinavia
  • Read a book by an author the same age as me
  • Read a book with a bookish heroine
  • Read a book of natural history essays
  • Read a book by a new-to-me 19th century author
  • Reread a nonfiction book
  • Read the next book in a series I’ve begun but not finished
  • Read a book found by using the random number generator and the Dewey Decimal system
  • Read a book set in or about upstate New York
  • Read a fantasy book by an author from somewhere other than the US or UK
  • Read a book from the Orange Prize shortlists

There! That’s 20 categories, which accounts for a bit more than half of my monthly reading aim. We’ll see if that’s enough to inspire without boxing me in. Also, I’m totally fine with counting books for as many categories as they’ll fit in, since this is all about fun anyway. I only mention one book for each category, but that’s a minimum, and I might end up exploring some of these more thoroughly.

whatthedeadknowAnd now, I really should get back to reading. ;) I’m in the middle of The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obrehtt at the moment, and I cannot wait to watch the story continue to develop! For those keeping score at home, it will fall into the Orange Prize category, as well as the one by an author the same age as me (technically she’s seven months older, but I think a year margin on either side is reasonable!). And this morning I finished my first August book: What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman. It doesn’t fall into any of the categories above, but it was a damn good book. I read it as an audiobook, and I was utterly addicted to it, to the point of just lying on the couch listening to it instead of turning on Netflix or anything like that. I’m quite fussy about what mystery/crime/etc. books I like, so I didn’t expect to fall so hard for Lippman (I tried her for the first time last month with The Girl in the Green Raincoat), but I have. What I really love is the way she takes typical plots that make girls/women into decorative (so to speak), or at least one-dimensional, victims and instead uses them to explore patriarchy’s lens towards women, keeping everyone involved a subject instead of an object; so far, the crime stories read as neither exploitative or ‘excepto-girl,’ but as genuine engagements with how it is to be a (middle/working-class, straight, white…not much intersectionality that I’ve seen yet) woman in the contemporary US. That, and I love how wonderful she is at keeping me reading at a breakneck pace, because I just have to find out what happens next! ;) Thank goodness she has quite a backlist for me to explore! (While I clearly recommend her books, I will add that the way she writes about weight and the physical appearance of characters is deeply problematic at times. She’s one of those authors who’s really good at writing in different characters’ voices, and sometimes the voices she’s writing in are obnoxious, so it makes sense they’d dismiss characters as ‘fat,’ but I have yet to see her provide any real counter-examples/counter-dialogues to the ‘fat=bad/skinny=good’ paradigm. Which sucks.)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (thoughts upon rereading)

July 18, 2015

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Squeaking in under the wire, I’m doing a Saturday review-ish post to join in the fun of the Shirley Jackson Reading Week, which ends today.

I first read We Have Always Lived in the Castle during a lazy Sunday morning in 2008, because another book blogger told me to.  It’s a slim book, hovering between a long novella or short novel, so it only took me a few hours, but what magical hours they were! Merricat quickly became one of my favourite narrators, and seven years and two or three rereads later, she easily remains on that list. She prefers books of fairy tales or history, she’s half feral, and she uses much of her will and intelligence to try to control her world with sympathetic magic or comfort herself with imaginary scenarios to distract herself from her essential powerlessness. In other words, she’s creepy as hell, in a way likely to make many a homebody bookworm squirm a bit, and seeing the story unfold through her eyes is what makes it such a gothic masterpiece. Here is how the book opens, which ought to convince you to read this in case you haven’t already:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

The last time I glanced at the library books on the kitchen shelf they were more than five months overdue, and I wondered whether I would have chosen differently if I had known that these were the last books, the ones which would stand forever on our kitchen shelf.

The entire book is written in that same sure voice, and reading it again, I was left in awe of Shirley Jackson’s power. Everything about We Have Always Lived in the Castle is perfect, and if you’ve yet to encounter it, you are in for a treat. You should also stop reading now, so that you can uncover the story at Jackson (and Merricat)’s pace. I’m about to discuss a couple of themes in the book, and while I won’t give away everything, I personally think the less you know before your first read, the better. Oh, and I should say now that I read it as an audiobook this time and was very impressed with Bernadette Dunne as the narrator, so I would recommend that format as well as the print version.

It’s funny how different the same book can appear upon multiple visits! When I first read it, I was young, and brash, and while I loved it, I mainly read it in terms of the characters, and their individual strengths and failings and quirks. This time, I noticed much more of the systemic themes explored in the book, especially the performance of female-ness, and being a young woman in a patriarchal society. Constance, the older sister, takes care of their ill older uncle and cleans and gardens and cooks, she is sweet and accommodating and never loses her temper, satisfying every whim of Uncle Julian’s and Merricat’s regardless of the work it will make for her. She always seems to agree with whatever they’re saying too, or pretend in an interest in their obsessions, rather than put up a fuss. We’re told early on that she’s beautiful, the gold & pink & cream type of beauty beloved of fairy princesses. Even her book preferences run towards cookbooks; she finds deep fulfillment in the cycle of growing, cooking, and preserving food, which she tucks into her day around the multitude of little tasks required to keep a large house and two dependent adults all living well. The kitchen and the garden are the seat of her power (sidenote: I love that Jackson allows for the pleasure of traditionally feminine skills, instead of dismissing them, and would highly recommend Jo Walton’s Lifelode for a similar view), and she’s happiest when they’re orderly and sparkling in the sun; in fact, she never leaves them. Merricat runs whatever errands are needed outside of the house. When a cousin appears, a thirty-two-year-old man used to getting his own way and never compromising for the pleasure of others, Constance incorporates his new demands and obsessions into her routine without a problem. She’s used to adjusting herself to the desires of others. She’s also excellent at finding the little pleasures in a difficult life, and I love her for that.

Merricat, however, is at 18 fulfilling none of society’s expectations for young women. She pays no attention to her appearance, or acquiring any skill in the ‘domestic arts,’ or the opposite sex. In fact, she barely seems to acknowledge any other people really exist in the world, except for her or Constance,  unless she’s either tormenting them or, in the case of the villagers, hiding from them. She spends much of her time outdoors, crawling into burrows or digging in the ground or hiding in fields. While she likes her house, her power is found on the grounds of the estate, especially the wilder places like the woods and meadows. While she does try to disappear while she’s in the village, on her home turf she is constantly trying to change things to suit her best, through magic or demands or whatever seems best suited to the occasion. Even her approach to the villagers, pretending they’re not there, and hiding from them whenever possible, is an act of will, a refusal to accommodate them and allow them to torment or even gaze upon her. She loathes the cousin who comes to visit, as he tries to change all of their lives to suit his own preferences, and force her to become a typical young woman. As his interference escalates, she fights back, trying to drive him out of the house by (almost) all of the means at her disposal. The world she lives in, a world with magic possibilities and pitfalls, owes everything to her imagination, not society’s strictures. Even on the occasions when she must adjust a bit to others, in order to get food at the grocery store or books from the library, she curses them inwardly. Her voice sounds younger than her eighteen years, more child-like, precisely because of this adherence to her own version of reality, as well as an utter lack of sexuality. She seems far more child or crone than maiden or mother, like a dark female-version of Peter Pan. Because of course, when girls hit puberty (and the rest of her family died when Merricat was twelve), they are expected to begin shouldering the male gaze and take on all of the other burdens patriarchy demands of women. What might happen if they didn’t? Merricat is many of the fears of uncontrollable women come to life.

Of course, we only ever see Constance through Merricat’s eyes, which are notoriously unreliable and certainly influenced by a diet of fairy tales full of mirror-image sisters. But in the story we have, the two sisters are like two sides of the same coin of woman-ness, the angel of the house and the unrepentent witch. The irony is that, due to the suspicion of Constance as poisoner, her very domesticity is also viewed as suspect and something to be feared, as displayed by the disgust and hate the villagers show to both of the sisters. Neither is acceptable to the traditional patriarchal order, and so both become bogeymen. Their wealth and upper class status and white skin preserve them from physical violence by the villagers, and allow them to live in a little world of their own. But they pay dearly for that isolation, especially Constance.

Well, that is just one of the themes that really struck me this go round, but I’m already over twelve hundred words, so I’ll close this post for now. I’d love to continue the discussion in the comments, especially with those of you who have already read the book, so the spoiler-averse readers might want to avoid the comment section this time! Or be careful at least. I’ve decided I haven’t quite had my fill of Jackson yet, so I checked out the ebook of The Lottery and Other Stories and will be diving into those soon. She’s also made me crave Margo Lanagan, another writer who masterfully blends genre fiction with a deep questioning of societal mores, and Elizabeth Nunez, who uses the gothic genre for the same ends. Just in case you’re looking for some companion reads! ;) There’s always Jo Walton’s Lifelode too, as I already mentioned, in which a Constance-like woman has found herself in a considerably happier situation. I can’t think of too many Merricat-like characters I’ve encountered in other books, more’s the pity.

Library Loot: July 16th

July 16, 2015

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

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Look at that! I actually recorded a video and managed to get it on the blog. Baby steps. ;)

Titles Mentioned

  • Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber
  • Angels and Insects by A.S. Byatt
  • The Loch by Janet Caird
  • The Sorceress and the Cygnet by Patricia McKillip
  • The King’s Peace by Jo Walton
  • Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo
  • The World Split Open: Four Centuries of Women Poets in England and America
  • Not For Everyday Use by Elizabeth Nunez
  • The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Erlich
  • The Case for God by Karen Armstrong
  • The Indoor Naturalist by Gale Lawrence
  • Knitting Ganseys by Beth Brown-Reinsel
  • The Complete Book of Traditional Guernsey and Jersey Knitting by Rae Compton

In the midst of the pet interruptions and giggling over covers, I forgot to mention that I heard about the poetry anthology from Lyn of I Prefer Reading.

Reading Snapshot: July 7th

July 7, 2015

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I always like to view the beginning of a month, a year, even a day, as the best time to start any projects or new habits. Holidays are markers of their own, particularly the solstices and equinoxes. But I miss nattering on about books now and don’t see the point of waiting for a tidier time to begin.

Late this afternoon, a rain storm suddenly blew in after a blindingly sunny and hot summer day. Of course this thrilled me, and after a bit of knitting, I quickly settled on the couch to read and listen to the rain and generally show my thanks for the weather change.

I began with nonfiction; I just finished up another nonfiction book I’d been reading, so it was time to begin a new one. I had high hopes for Here Lies My Heart, an essay anthology on marriage, because it was published by Beacon Press, one of my go-to publishers for thoughtful nonfiction. Unfortunately, the anthology didn’t live up to those hopes, and by fifty pages in, I was restlessly paging through, trying to find an essay I liked. Even jumping around didn’t improve matters, so I decided it’s going back to the library unread. Luckily, I’m also in the middle of Karen Armstrong’s excellent The Case for God, which is a sort of philosophy of religion primer that is just up my alley. I opened up the pages, eager to get back into it, only to discover halfway through a chapter, as Armstrong expounded on Thomas Aquinius’ theology, that my brain simply wasn’t up to it. I’ve been struggling with a flare up for quite awhile now, and while it’s gradually getting better, and today was a two steps back kind of day.

In the past I probably would have kept going, at least to the end of the chapter, but I’m currently practicing how to be gentle with my limitations, and I’d rather save the book until I find it a treat again. So I opened up yet another one: The Cold Song by Linn Ullman, trans. by Barbara Haveland. Ullman is a Norwegian author, and this is a vaguely disquieting book centered around the disappearance of a young woman from a small coastal town, and the people who knew her, particularly the family who employed her as an au pair. It’s not a thriller precisely, more like psychological fiction, and it has some traditionally gothic elements like weird children, quirky personal rituals, and the ability to make nursery rhymes sound creepy. All of which made it just perfect for a rainy afternoon; I’ve less than one hundred pages to go and expect I’ll finish it before bed time tonight.

Of course, no snapshot would be complete with mentioning the audiobook that’s currently keeping me company. After a couple disappointing ones by new-to-me authors, I treated myself to a reread of Passage, the third of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife quartet. I read them in print the first go round, so I thought an audio reread would be fun, and it has been. I’m only sorry that I’ve almost come to the end of it! If you haven’t read Bujold yet, you’re missing out.

With that, I’ll get back to my pets and my books and a cloudy summer evening. I love how long twilight lasts up here during these months. I’m thinking of crafting a little summer reading program for myself, to add more appreciation to my least favourite season. But more on that later.

Library Loot: May 1st

May 1, 2015

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Happy May Day! I’m going to celebrate with a golden hour flower walk, bringing my camera to take as many flower portraits as I can find, and by beginning to write in my new notebook. Yesterday, I recorded a vlog telling you all about what I found in my latest browsing session at the library; it came to a bit over twenty minutes, so you might want to brew a pot of tea or grab your preferred handwork while listening. Or you could always save it for your next walk, if you don’t mind not seeing the covers. Because of its length, I had to export it at a lower quality so that the file size would be small enough to fit within my Vimeo upload limits, so it’s a bit fuzzy at full size on my 23″ monitor. But I checked and it plays all the way through this time at least! Without further ado:

Titles Mentioned

  • Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
  • The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donahue
  • The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat
  • Grimus by Salman Rushdie
  • The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
  • In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon, edited by Zaoyu Jingcha
  • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich
  • The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszewski
  • Moral Ground, edited by Kathleen Dean Moore & Michael Nelson
  • Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand
  • Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
  • Race of Scorpions by Dorothy Dunnett
  • Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear
  • The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham
  • Stones of the Wall by Houying Dai
  • Trader by Charles de Lint
  • Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman
  • The Turnip Princess by Franz Xaver von Schonwerth
  • Up Ghost River by Edmund Metatawabin
  • The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar

So tell me: have you read any of these? Where should I start? And have you stumbled across any surprise gems at your library lately?

A Weekend of Reading: Brown Girl in the Ring, Lord Hornblower, The Bone Knife, and Marta Oulie

April 29, 2015

Between the read-a-thon and a Sunday afternoon spent planted in my armchair to encourage Moth and Thistle to keep sleeping near each other, during which I only had my Nook within reach, I’ve got several books to discuss! Let’s just dive in, shall we?

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo HopkinsonBrown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson was one of the last books of hers I had left to read; she’s a firm favourite of mine but I still managed to be surprised by just how much I loved it! The plot summary, which included the phrase ‘post-apocalyptic Toronto’ and the the first chapter, about acquiring a heart for a transplant, made me believe I was in sci-fi or dystopian territory, where I only venture with very trusted authors. But it turns out this speculative fiction leaned more towards the urban fantasy side, with duppies and voodoo gods and various magical talents throughout the book, which of course made me love it even more! Downtown Toronto has, through a series of political events, been abandoned to its fate; there are no more government services and walls divide it from the still prospering suburbs. While there certainly are crime rings that have moved in, Hopkinson also shows the resourcefulness of the people who now make their home there, from the ones that garden and hunt in a former park to all the various goods and services that are bartered. Ti-Jeanne, the heroine, lives in a calmer part of town with her grandmother, a wise woman and healer, and her new baby, so new he hasn’t yet been baptised. She’s reluctant to embrace her grandmother’s ways, which combine western medicine with folk healing and Caribbean voodoo rites, and is just trying to figure out how to create a life for herself and her new baby, when she finds herself thrust into a power struggle with the merciless, seemingly omnipotent head of the biggest gang, whose power seems to come from a perversion of voodoo practices.

This is very much a Brier Rabbit type tale, in which Ti-Jeanne must use her wits and allies to take down an opponent who is, on the face of it, terrifyingly more powerful than her. And Hopkinson handles it brilliantly: the plot is paced perfectly, and there’s always just enough exposition to keep the reader from being lost, but not so much it pulls you out of the story. I cared about all of the characters, both minor and major, and throughout the rollercoaster ride of a plot, I couldn’t stop reading. This is such a rich book too, full of strong women who nevertheless suffer from various effects of patriarchy, and one that examines all of the ways love can go right or wrong, and how we find ourselves trapped by decisions we’ve made in the past. Hopkinson’s descriptions are so vivid I felt like I was in this changed Toronto with Ti-Jeanne and her family, from her grandmother’s house to the underground passageways to the CN tower. And when the gods appear, they command enough fear, majesty, and love, to feel perfectly authentic too. This book has some dark moments and challenging scenes, but I promise you it’s worth it. At the end, I felt uplifted rather than depressed. I can’t recommend this enough! I’m also going to count it as my ‘folklore’ choice of the Once Upon a Time Challenge, since it includes various Caribbean ballads and just as the right feel for that. I know that can be a tricky category, so if you’re a participant still looking for a good choice, do yourself a favour and pick up Brown Girl in the Ring!

C.S. Forester's  Lord HornblowerC.S. Forester’s  Lord Hornblower was the other novel I read during the read-a-thon. I used to really enjoy the series and somehow fell out of reading them, so I thought I’d pick them back up (I’m reading in published order instead of internal chronological order). The first part of this was filled with what I’ve come to expect: nautical adventure and derring-do, interspersed with much soul-searching on the part of Horatio, who is still deeply enmeshed in the war against Napoleon. However, then the story took a swerve I wasn’t expecting, and one that I found deeply disappointing, so that by the end of the book I’m not sure if I’ll pick up the next one. Granted, the next few in published order go back in time for Horatio, but knowing what he’ll decide to do in later life has sort of soured me for spending more time with him. I don’t mind some tarnish on my heroes, but I prefer there to be a good reason for the tarnish. Perhaps I’ll reconsider in a few months, but especially after the richness of historical novels by authors like Dorothy Dunnett and Hilary Mantel, this one fell a bit flat. Perhaps I’ve outgrown Forester? And perhaps I should give Patrick O’Brien yet another try (this would be my third attempt to get into Master and Commander) to fulfill my seafaring yearnings. I’d still definitely recommend the series in general, for when you’re in the mood for a light but not thoughtless adventure story, but read them in internal chronological order instead so you don’t get to this one until almost the end!

The Bone Knife by Intisar KhananiSunday afternoon I spent reading more of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (a marvelous book that I’m still in the middle of but shall devote an entire post to when I finish it) and then two novellas, all luckily available on my Nook! I downloaded The Bone Knife by Intisar Khanani for free after enjoying Thorn a few months ago, and as OUaT has me in a fantasy mood, I couldn’t resist picking up. It turned out to be shorter than I expected (about sixty pages, although the ebook was one hundred twenty pages, the second half proved to be an expanded sample of Thorn), but no less enjoyable for that. We open with three sisters in the kitchen of their home, whose usual routines have been thrown into disruption by the mysterious man who’s come to visit their father, and who seems suspiciously like a fairy. The story is told in first-person by Rae, the eldest sister, whose clubfoot sets her a bit apart from the rest of the village. She’s smart and resourceful of course (this is a fairy tale!), but what I really loved was the relationship between the three sisters: affectionate, supportive, and exasperated all at once. Khanani does a great job drawing the reader right into her worlds, and I’m pleased to learn that she’s planning a trilogy featuring Rae in the future. For now I’d definitely urge you to treat yourself to The Bone Knife for a pleasant hour or two if you enjoy fairy tale inspired fantasy (the ebook is available for free so it’s an easy treat), and if you haven’t read Thorn yet, get that one too while you’re about things. And I hope her trilogy comes out sooner rather than later!

Marta Oulie by Sigrid UndsetTo continue the novella theme, I then read Marta Oulie by Sigrid Undset, trans. by Tiina Nunnally. I’ve enjoyed all of the Undset I’ve read, both her historical fiction and the stuff set in her contemporary time of the early 20th century. This was her first published work, and it shows a bit of unevenness, as you might expect from a debut novel. The pacing wasn’t quite perfect, but pretty soon I was too interested in Marta Oulie, the narrator. Like The Awakening, which was written just a few years earlier, it chronicles the inner emotional life and turmoil of a seemingly satisfied privileged wife and mother. Marta opens with a confession of adultery and her subsequent misery, and then moves between flashbacks from the past and recounting of ongoing events, trying to figure out what went wrong in her marriage and why she feels so stifled now. It is very much a feminist book, arising from a turbulent time, but while Marta is in one sense a mouthpiece for her author, her personal sense of anguish and frustration feel very immediate. While this doesn’t have the power or polish of her later writing, it is very much worth reading, and I’m pleased Nunnally did a translation (she’s my go-to Norwegian and Swedish translator). I certainly recommend it, especially for those interested in the Belle Epoque period or early feminism or classics by women.

Whew! I think it’s time for me to get away from the computer and go enjoy a fine spring day in the woods with Thistle. But I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, so hopefully I’ll manage to tell you about more of the books soon! I’m slowly easing back into the blogging habit, but it’s too early to see if it’ll stick this time. I want it to.

Field Notes, vol 19

April 26, 2015

Last month marked six months since my move, and I’ve added a bit of decorating to the apartment since my original post. I want to get back in the habit of posting today but am a bit too worn out for much typing, so I snapped some photos and will take you on a tour! I forgot to take any pictures of the bathroom and the closet is not in a state to be photographed, but I got a few in the kitchen this time. Half of it is sorted the way I’d like; the other half of the kitchen is still in progress though, so that part has to wait. ;) And there are plenty of photos of the main space, this time with a wider angle lens too! Now that I’m on Instagram a couple people have mentioned wanting to see more, so this should work for that as well. Clicking on the photos should enlarge them.

P1160990Come on inside! Once the door is closed, I can hang up your coat for you on one of the entryway hooks. My coat lives on one, and when I don’t have guests I keep Thistle’s leash on the other. I got that tote bag at the Strand bookstore on my recent trip, so I popped it up there to admire for a bit! The window in my door lets in the hallway light at night, so I had to cover it up. In an attempt to make it more decorative, I added a few postcard prints by Emily Winfield Martin. I didn’t manage to include my rug in the photo, but there’s a little rug to hold shoes under the hooks.

On the other side of the door sits my bookcase, six feet by six feet square and with shelves deep enough to hold books on both sides! It divides up the big main room of my living space, making a little hallway, in addition to holding all of the bits and bobs I’ve gathered over the years. And keeping my books easily accessible of course! ;) The vintage quilt now lives there too; since I brought Moth in, I decided the hand stitching would be safer on the shelf than used as a slip cover over a chair. I still pull it out as a throw though, as I’m a big believer in using objects, even pretty ones. Anyway, you’ll also notice the bottom square is empty too; Moth really enjoys the little tunnel it provides her, so I’ll just have to limit my library books in future! Surely I can manage that without too much difficulty. ;) I’ve got space for at least thirty without touching that square, probably more. There’s also a scratching post at the end of the bookcase now, yet another cat modification!

To the right of the entryway is the kitchen. As I mentioned, it’s a work in progress, but here are a few photos. I have two little ‘still lifes’ set up on the counter, my aprons hanging for easy accessibility (I’m far too sloppy of a cook and dish washer to not have aprons in my life), and a fridge that’s slowly getting more decorated; when people send me cards, I pop them up there. I have a few birthday ones to add actually! I use the book print up top to try to disguise the ugly box the sewing machine lives in. ;) As you can see, I have an abundance of cupboards and addiction to the little removable hooks! The white container with a sprout on top is a compost bin my sister got me for Christmas. I wish I’d taken a better photo of the soap dispenser; it’s a handmade piece of pottery in beautiful teals and browns that my mom got me for Christmas from Etsy. Next time!

I showed you the main space in the first tour, but a few things have changed since then. Mainly, I got some decorations up on the walls! My ceilings are quite tall, so it took me awhile to decide what to do with them. Above my computer is a wreath made out of fiber, to reflect my knitting and spinning hobbies (isn’t it in beautiful colours? it’s from this store in case you’re interested & the seller does custom orders), and then photos of friends and family attached to a yarn braid with tiny clothespins. There’s also the giant cat tree in the corner; it looks particularly dramatic from this angle, but from where I usually sit it blends into the walls better!

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Then I turned the wall above the couch into a ‘gallery wall’ style display, with some more Emily Winfield Martin prints, some photographs I’ve taken over the years, and a couple pieces of art I’ve picked up in my travels. The unicorn print and a couple of postcards are the newest additions; I got them at museums in D.C. and New York City. And my leaf print mirror, which I’ve had since high school! Above the top of the little cabinet, which I use as a ‘landing strip‘ I’ve added a couple more postcards and another little ‘still life’ arrangement. The jar contains currency from all over the world, brought back by my dad from his work trips and then from me on my adventures. The beautiful embroidered bird resting against the doors is new; I just received it on Friday and I haven’t decided where it will live yet. So it’s staying there while I think it over! And note Moth, enjoying the blanket. ;)

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Just so Thistle isn’t left out, here she is enjoying her own blanket on my big reading chair. Usually I would’ve tucked the footstool in for photos, but I wasn’t going to disturb her nap! The suitcase is just wide enough for a couple of books, a pot of tea, and a snack, so it works as an end table in a tight space. And I included view from my chair, except the window scene is blown out because the camera can’t see both the room and brighter outdoors at the same time! Since I took the quilt off the little armchair, I got another cream blanket to work as a slip cover, and a little quilted blanket to go on top for Moth, since I guessed it would be a good window viewing spot for her. They’re both machine washable, so very pet friendly!

The opposite wall has my bed, with the old, inaccurate world map on it (it uses a projection that makes the northern hemisphere look far bigger in comparison to the southern than it is). I received an accurate National Geographic one for Christmas, that you saw in a kitchen shot, but the muddiness of the colours and smallness of the actual map made it impossible to see any countries, so I’m sticking with the old one for now. On top of the Korean jewelry box, a hand-me-down from my mom, I’m keeping some poetry books so that I can read a poem before I go to sleep each night. Most of that pile was bought at a bookstore in New York City that Clare showed me. :)

Well, my dinner is ready, so I should probably go. But I hope you enjoyed this new little peek into my space! Almost everything I own has a story to tell, but this post would be far too long if I mentioned them all. I love living in a sort of scrapbook space though. Even if it occasionally requires some extra dusting. ;) And just because I can, here’s a sleeping kitty face to finish things off!

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