Posts tagged ‘books’

Us Conductors by Sean Michaels


What a great book this is – I highly recommend it. Us Conductors is a love story, a spy novel, a history lesson and a biography all in one. The story is based on the inventor of the theremin – a musical instrument that creates sound from electricity. The story (based on a true one) is set between the two World Wars and follows the life of the Russian inventor as he travels to America at the behest of the Russian state to show off his creation.

I am one of those stodgy souls who still reads the newspaper, and every weekend I eagerly turn to Sean Michaels’ column about music in the Saturday Globe. I’d buy the paper just for that section, and it’s made me a fan of the music blog Said the Gramophone as well. His book, Us Conductors, was sitting on a cart waiting to be put away at the library a few weeks ago when I was there picking up my latest stash of kid materials. As much as I’m loving Baby Signs and Raffi (and I do actually really like Raffi) these days, us mommies need something with a bit more depth and intrigue to balance out the day. I don’t know if I would have read it if I hadn’t come across it by chance. Too often I am disappointed in the prize-winning books (Us Conductors won the Giller Prize last year), but not this time. There is a freshness to the voice, a creativity to the storytelling and a level of effort and craft to the writing in this book that is really special. After reading all those music reviews I’m not surprised – all of those elements are in his weekly column, too. To see that style played out over the course of a whole novel was just delightful.

Another thing to point out: I think men will like this book. So much literary fiction is geared toward a female audience and I often see the men in my life struggling to find a good book. There’s a little bit of James Bond in Lev, the inventor, who is a spy as well as a scientist, and the time period the book is set in shows the seeds of the Cold War brewing between the United States and Russia.


July 29, 2015 at 10:51 am Leave a comment

A Tale For The Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

I really liked this book. I think almost anyone would. It reminds me of The Night Circus that way – a novel I can recommend far and wide. A Tale For The Time Being is a page-turner, easy to sink into, and even though it is full of very erudite themes, like philosophy, quantum physics and Zen Buddhism, you never feel like you are stretching your brain too far since the narrative is structured around the diary entries of a teenage girl from Japan. This makes it light and easy to read, despite the fact that you are being enriched by substantial questions like what is the nature and meaning of existence. I am full of admiration for Ruth Ozeki because of this. It would be easy for the book to be dry and academic, but with her style of writing it is playful, thoughtful and engrossing.

I find myself with lots of time for reading while I spend hours and hours breastfeeding our new baby every day. The book has to be very good, though, as I am always exhausted since we seem to have created the worst sleeper in the world! I’d welcome any recommendations for good books. There are two good used bookstores plus the library and beautiful Munro’s Books in walking distance of our house and it’s always nice to be able to browse the shelves with a purpose.

January 27, 2015 at 2:45 am Leave a comment

Beachside with The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

luminaries on the beach

Does it need to be so long?

Isn’t that the only question when it comes to an 832-page book?

Eleanor Catton’s novel, a mystery set in 19th century New Zealand during the gold rush, has been praised for its storytelling prowess and awarded The Man Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award, among other honours. 28 years old, author two successful novels, winner of mega literary prizes: sounds like the type of person you might love to hate. Until you hear her talk about her work. A couple of months ago I listened to Hal Wake’s interview with her and I was smitten by her intelligence and passion for writing, and also her clever use of astrological charts as a way to structure the book.

The Luminaries is a perfect title to reflect the celestial underpinning of the story, and to represent the cast of characters that light up the gold rush town of Hokitika. The tangling and untangling of more than a dozen lives and stories – chemist, whore, chaplain, hatter, hotelier, banker and so on – is what made the book for me. I like how they are all someone, how each character has a purpose in the story and a place in the town.

It’s inspiring to read a book as meticulously crafted as this one. I agree with the prize juries and critics that the structure Eleanor Catton employs is brilliantly executed and conceived. It’s a symphony, not a sonnet, though, so be prepared to settle in.

If you’re going to read this book, may I suggest a week at the beach? It fits in beautifully with all things aloha where I am right now.

waipio valley2

hawaii orchid

pink plumeria

sunset palms

January 17, 2014 at 11:36 pm Leave a comment

Winter reading

january booksSanta brought me this lovely mountain of books – the full trilogy of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam books and Eleanor Catton’s prize-winning 832-page brick. I’m halfway through Oryx and Crake at the moment. I felt guilty about not reading any of Atwood’s recent novels, but now I am so glad I waited for the whole series.

As for the brick, I think it is coming to Hawaii with me next week. Also tempted to sign up for the free one-month trial on Oyster or Scribd while I’m there. The Netflix of books…could be very dangerous.

January 2, 2014 at 11:08 pm 2 comments

Pear and fig grilled cheese

pear and fig jam grilled cheese

I once lived in a house in Victoria with fig, pear, and plum trees. I was a university student then, studying art and English literature. Thinking back, I’m wistful for all the picking, poaching and preserving I could have done, should have done. I didn’t worry about things like that, though. I just sat in the sun, ate fruit from the trees, and leafed through thick books.

That was the year The Riverside Chaucer came into my life, thickest of all the thick books. I’m not sure what that has to do with figs, except that here it is, fig season, and I’ve been seriously regretting my decision to donate that book to the library book sale lately. Somehow the two must be related.

I’m sure I’ll understand why some day. In the meantime I’ve got sandwiches and nostalgia for the fruit trees of old to pass the time.

Pear and fig grilled cheese
Makes 1 sandwich

This sandwich is the result of some delicious leftovers from our local cheese shop. It is delicious made with sliced fresh figs (if you are lucky enough to have them) or fig jam.

Butter two slices of multigrain sourdough bread and spread thinly sliced figs (or jam) jam on the other side of the bread. Layer on thin slices of aged cheddar cheese, pear and red onion, and grill the sandwich in a frying pan until golden brown.

August 19, 2013 at 10:28 pm 2 comments

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. A real book. The kind of book you always hope to find. A can’t put it down, stay up until 2am, fall asleep with your glasses still on your face sort of book. The storyline is epic and sprawling, there are tons of characters (but you’re never confused about who is who), the writing is lush and visual with no “literary trickery” says one reviewer I always trust, and the book is long, which is good because you don’t want it to end.

It’s a great book. I liked it so much, actually, that I closed another book the other night before I finished reading it. Not good enough. I love books, I read a ton of them, and I try to choose carefully. It’s a rare thing for me to abandon a book, but I think my standards have just gone up. There was a great article in the National Post recently by Keir Lowther, a PEI author who was guest editing the Afterword section. He talked about the importance of telling a good story and not just generating literary drivel, which, I have to say, is my assessment of that half-read book I’ll be shuffling back to the library this weekend.

The Night Circus was a Christmas gift last year. I put it on my wish list because I was inspired by Erin Morgenstern’s pep talk for the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge, and because it sounded like such a great story: a night-time circus. How magical. The Night Circus, a debut novel which has become a bestseller, began its life during the NaNoWriMo challenge, which happens each November. 46,991 words is the closest I’ve come to reaching the 30 day-50,000 word goal. This year will be the fourth time I’ve participated.

There are only nine days left in the challenge and for a variety of reasons I’m off to a late start: a day in, a mere 1,727 words logged. The little word tracking chart on the NaNoWriMo website makes it look like I’m at the bottom of Everest, and I suppose I am, but I didn’t want to break my tradition of participating. Only 48,273 words to go. Every attempt at a novel brings you that much closer to actually completing one, right? Better late than never, and better to fail than not try.

I believe that books find you at the right time and place in your life. If I own them, I tend to wait for them to call out from the shelf instead of reading them the moment they arrive. When November came along and I found myself thinking about the challenge but not actually participating yet, I decided to read The Night Circus. I loved it and now I’m using it to justify this ridiculous decision to try to write 50,000 words – not in 30 days (which sounds so easy now!), but in nine. By the time I was a few pages into The Night Circus, I thought, I want to write a novel just like this some day. Imaginative. Page-turning. Magical. Fun. Something a reader can’t wait to get back to and can’t wait to begin again.

Happy NaNoWriMo, writers. There’s still time to start!

November 22, 2012 at 4:13 pm 1 comment

Dorothy Livesay: The Self-Completing Tree

The Self-Completing Tree, a collection of poems by Dorothy Livesay caught my eye this morning. Its green and white spine seemed brighter than normal today, and the book was calling to be pulled from the shelf.

The Self-Completing Tree is an old friend, discovered years ago in a Canadian literature class in university. I loved it then, as I do today. Livesay’s poems have passion and spark – politics and feminism, life and death and love are her frequent subjects. Her work is nuanced, but also easy to read: Livesay wrote poems for real people, not just other poets and academics, and she lived a fascinating life well worth knowing: student, social worker, mother, grandmother, poet, seer of tumultuous times, lover of men, women, children, music, art, pear trees, geraniums. She died in Victoria, BC in 1996.

Livesay has a way of making stillness seem whole and full of being. Plants leaning on windowsills looking for the light can be found in the quiet corners of this book. Poems like this are the ones I appreciated most when I stepped back into Livesay’s words today:

Bartok and the Geranium

She lifts her green umbrellas
Toward the pane
Seeking her fill of sunlight
Or of rain;
Whatever falls
She has no commentary
Accepts, extends,
Blows out her fubelows,
Her bustling boughs;

And all the while he whirls
Explodes in space,
Never content with this small room:
Not even can he be
Confined to the sky
But must speed high and higher still
From galaxy to galaxy,
Wrench from the stars their momentary notes
Steal music from the moon.

She’s daylight
He is dark
She’s heaven-held breath
He storms and cackles
Spits with hell’s own spark.

Yet in this room, this moment now
These together breathe and be:
She, the essence of serenity,
He in a mad intensity
Soars beyond sight
Then hurls, lost Lucifer
From heaven’s height.

And when he’s done, he’s out:
She leans a lip against the glass
And preens herself in light.

October 17, 2012 at 3:35 pm Leave a comment

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