Monthly Archives: January 2015

‘The Girl Who Was Saturday Night’ by Heather O’Neill

The Girl Who Was Saturday NightstarstarstarstarUs Conductors won the Giller Prize last year. The Giller Prize is a literary award instrumental in encouraging and supporting Canadian authors. Many Canadians watch this prize for the winner, but also (as with most prizes) pay close attention to the shortlist. One of the books on the shortlist was The Girl who Was Saturday Night. The French Canadian setting caught my eye because I have a friend who is a French teacher and an avid reader of literary novels. She got it for Christmas and I’ve asked her if I may share what she said about it. Thanks Alice!

Heather O’Neill, the author of Lullabies for Little Criminals (2007 winner of Canada Reads and numerous other awards including the Orange Prize) is from Montreal. The book is about “gorgeous twins Noushcka and Nicolas Tremblay who live with their grandfather Loulou in a tiny, sordid apartment on St. Laurent Boulevard. They are hopelessly promiscuous, wildly funny and infectiously charming. They are also the only children of the legendary Québécois folksinger Étienne Tremblay, who was as famous for his brilliant lyrics about working-class life as he was for his philandering bon vivant lifestyle and his fall from grace. Known by the public since they were children as Little Noushcka and Little Nicolas, the two inseparable siblings have never been allowed to be ordinary” (Amazon).

Guest Post by Alice Vanderkooy:
It is a beautiful read and a wonderful testimony to the importance of being nurtured, as well as the incredible resilience of those who grow up with dysfunction, the pull of staying with what is familiar even if it’s obviously not good for you, and the strength it requires to unhitch oneself from such a past. The ending will stay with me for a long time. I think it is a book I will probably re-read at some point.

It took a bit of time and at the beginning I found it bizarre, until the characters grew on me, and I could see beyond the “outer” to the inner. The book is strongly connected to Quebec and the ethos of the 80’s, as well as the impact of the years previous to that. I would wonder how those who have no connection to Quebec history and culture would respond to the book. If nothing else they would miss the significance of some of the references.

‘The Girl on the Train’ by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainstarstarstarHere’s a compelling domestic thriller that is already a runaway bestseller in UK and North America. It’s going to be one that people are talking about.  Along the lines of Gone Girl and Before I Go to Sleep (both of which are now movies), this is one of those books that will grab you and keep you going to the very end.

Every morning Rachel Watson takes the train to London. Every evening she takes the same train back. The train slows and stops in the same spot which happens to be the neighbourhood where she used to live with her ex-husband. As people do on commuter trains, she notices things, and begins to imagine she knows the couple who are often out on their verandah when she passes by. She even gives them names, Jason and Jess. A harmless fantasy, until one day she sees something shocking, and against her better judgement, she gets involved.

The trouble with Rachel though, is that she is an unreliable narrator. She drinks heavily and often cannot remember things. She has lost her job, suffers from low self-esteem, and often questions her own judgement.  As we get deeper into the story, we realize that Rachel may not be the only unreliable one. None of the main characters seem credible. Who to trust? Who to believe?

‘Us Conductors’ by Sean Michaels

Us ConductorsstarstarstarMusic critic and blogger Sean Michaels won the Giller prize for this debut novel in 2014. I was hoping that All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews would win this Canadian award, but ‘Us Conductors’ is a well written novel with a fascinating subject. The book is a fictional account of the life of Lev Termen, Russian scientist, inventor of the theremin, and often referred to as the Thomas Edison of Russia. You get bonus points for knowing what a theremin is without looking it up. Sheldon plays one in an episode of The Big Bang Theory.

The theremin is a unique instrument because you don’t actually touch it while playing. You move your hands through an electric current between antennas creating an eerie sound. It does look a bit like conducting and of course the title word also refers to the scientist’s love of all sorts of electrical inventions including metal and motion detectors and a listening device used for spying.

The story of Termen’s life is gripping. He travelled America promoting the instrument he thought might be mass produced. He became a reluctant spy, was frustrated by unrequited love, and spent many years in a Siberian gulag upon his return to Russia. Clara Rockmore was the love of Termen’s life, but he never married her. See her in the video below, playing The Swan. She obviously became very accomplished on the instrument. You’d think with all that raw material the author could have made the novel into a page turner, but for me it just wasn’t. Having said that, it was beautifully written and very interesting and in the end I think it does deserve the attention it has received.

Author Feature: Mary Oliver

Mary OliverMary Oliver is an award winning American poet (Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award among others). Full disclosure, I am not much of a poetry fan. But my friend introduced me to Mary Oliver’s poetry (thanks Nel!) and I have to say I am enjoying her poems thoroughly. They are down to earth and approachable and most important – understandable! I feel like her imagery and observations are so everyday and recognizable, I am continually thinking “Yes, I’ve seen that too!” or “Yes, I’ve noticed that, and look how nicely you’ve put it into words for me!” Her main focus seems to be about how humans interact with the natural world – the wonder and the pain of it–this is no hallmark card writing, there is no flinching from what is difficult, giving it a ‘real’ feel. Here are some brief samplings:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?” 

**********

“to live in this world

you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go”

**********

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”

**********

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

Poetry and short story are so different from novel or non-fiction reading, and I’ve been challenging myself to venture into those arenas since it is not my natural inclination. Having a collection ready for a daily dose seems to work best. I have Dog Songs and A Thousand Mornings on my Kindle and  I enjoy dipping in for a quick read, just a poem or two, to savour for the day, like a piece of dark chocolate. I am sure I will be adding more of her collections to my library as time goes on. I had never heard of Oliver before, but when I mentioned her name at the breakfast table over Christmas, a couple of my children said they enjoyed her work and immediately mentioned their favourites!! Here are some of her main works. She has always been a private person and prefers to let her work speak for itself, but she has a website where you can learn more. Mary Oliver Website

Here are a few of her collections:

New and Selected PoemsWhen New and Selected Poems, Volume One was originally published in 1992, Mary Oliver was awarded the National Book Award. In the years since its initial appearance it has become one of the best-selling volumes of poetry in the country. This collection features thirty poems published for the first time in this volume, as well as selections from the poet’s first eight books.

Blue HorsesAt its heart, Blue Horses asks what it means to truly belong to this world, to live in it attuned to all its changes. Humorous, gentle, and always honest, Oliver is a visionary of the natural world.

A Thousand MorningsIn A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver returns to the imagery that has come to define her life’s work, transporting us to the marshland and coastline of her beloved home, Provincetown, Massachusetts.

ThirstThirst, a collection of forty-three poems, introduces two new directions in Oliver’s work. Grappling with grief at the death of her beloved partner of over forty years, she strives to experience sorrow as a path to spiritual progress, grief as part of loving and not its end. And within these pages she chronicles for the first time her discovery of faith, without abandoning the love of the physical world that has been a hallmark of her work for four decades.

Dog SongsA collection devoted to dogs, celebrating how her furry friends have enriched her world.

‘You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes’ by Chris Hadfield

You Are HerestarstarstarstarMaybe it’s the proximity of my house to Heathrow but the speed at which we can hop and bop around the world amazes me. London in the morning, Hong Kong at bedtime. Dubai for dinner,  Los Angeles for lunch. But circling the globe in 92 minutes aboard the International Space Station, definitely takes the jet setting cake.

Chris Hadfield, Canadian and author of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, has produced a whimsical annotated scrapbook that is actually a unique geography and art lesson. With the perspective that emerged from Hadfield’s sojourn in space, he presents a beautiful picture book that is both a commentary on human life and a visual essay on the awesome wonders of creation.

‘You are Here’ is a quirky reversal of what we earthlings do when we try to find images in the clouds. Hadfield has a creative eye and a sense of humour that makes this collection of unique photographs a lively addition to any coffee table. A great gift idea.

‘Happy New Year’

Reading QuoteLast year I started 2014 by posting something about what I call “book pile angst“. That sense of “I may not live long enough to read all the books in my book pile” or “I may die in my sleep if that bedside book pile falls over in the night” (a line by fellow book lover Nancy W. that still makes me chuckle!), or “I must be mad, ordering more books from the library when there are so many books on my own shelf I’ve never read!” There were many of you who said ‘Amen’ to my advice to realize that you will never, ever catch up and that it is impossible to read everything. So stick to what you enjoy and let the rest go!

P1070084Here’s my pile. There’s even a book in there that belongs to someone else…yikes, now that’s full disclosure (can you spot it Ina?).  Yes, book lovers, we suffer from this angst but we also embrace the enjoyment of books and reading. Don’t let the tyranny of the book pile mess with your mind and cause you shame. Consider it a treasure trove just waiting to be cracked open. Let it make you feel better, not bitter. It’s the possibility that resides in all those words and thoughts and stories.

Thanks so much for another wonderful year of journeying together on this blog and this incredible adventure called reading! Happy New Year!

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