Tag Archives: Literature

Books: The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

9780349004365Why mince words I loved this book. From the opening page you’re drawn into this lovely world of 1920’s London and the lives of a mother and grown daughter whose circumstances are forever changed by the Great War.

To make ends meet they rent out rooms in their their grand old house to a young couple or ‘paying guests’ . Although awkward at first, a relationship quickly develops and before you know it the old house comes to life again with a steamy, illicit, passionate love affair.

Of course, illicit affairs are the stuff of real life and fiction. I think what makes this one unique is that it explores illicit love amidst the backdrop of changing moral fabric. The old world where women played prescriptive roles was changing. The Edwardian sensibility was fading against the rise of the middle class and the collapse of the old social genteel order. When the Barbers, a rough and tumble young couple (he’s an insurance broker, she a stay-at-home wife of questionable class) move in, their relationship with Frances and her mother becomes a microcosm of the new social order that is emerging.

This all sounds very academic but what this book is, is an extraordinary romp that’s well executed on multiple levels.  Without giving too much away I would say that the book is also a study in the slippery slope of moral indiscretion where one act begets another and before you know it,your characters are far away from who they thought they were or hoped to be. Another great read! I loved it and look forward to reading other books by the talented Ms. Waters!


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Elena Ferrante: The Neapolitan Novels: My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name


I have only recently finished Elena Ferrante’s second novel “The Story of a New Name” on the heels of having read her first “My Brilliant Friend” but I feel compelled to shout their names out loud to anyone who will listen….. to go, go pick up the first book, then the second. Today I will be go and get the third “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay”.

The books span the lifelong friendship of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo two bright young girls who grow up in a crime ridden impoverished neighbourhood of Naples during the 50s. While poverty, brutality and survival are the building blocks of their daily existence, their natural intelligence, curiosity and deep desire to learn become the push and pull, the love and hate that underlines their friendship. While Elena is taken under the wing of a Maestra at school and continues to excel, Lila who has the brasher personality of the two, is forced to quit and go to work by the time she is 12 and is married by 16. Yet, as the novels progress, the question remains, who is “The Brilliant Friend’? What is brilliance? What is friendship? What are these irrepressible bonds that fundamentally alter the course of our lives, even our souls?

What I love about these novels is the ease with which the story and the language fills your imagination creating a tapestry of Neapolitan life. These novels bring you deep into the dirt, the lives, the streets of Naples and yet it reaches high above the city to the political landscape of the time, to political theories and classical literature.

The ease of language is deceptive. For example, in book two the summer of beach romance continues on for a good part of the book. It reminded me of the Harlequin’s I used to read as a kid. Smooth, summer romantic reading…all seamlessly told through a traditional story telling structure. And yet, as Elena Ferrante says, ‘there is a magna” that underpins the narrative. This is the real stuff of life particularly for women whose lives are never their own…and it’s a reminder that these days aren’t so far away and indeed, are very prevalent in the lives of many women today. Daily life is filled with domestic and sexual violence, people are hard, because life is hard…and yet….there is this tapestry of friendship that propels the story forward…the push and pull of love and hate, of knowledge, ignorance and desire.

For those of you wanting to learn more about the enigmatic and media shy author there is a great interview in Vanity Fair which I encourage you to read. This woman has a muscular brain.

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Station Eleven: Emily St. John Mandel – Book Review

Unknown-2I have been shaken out of my reading lull with Emily St. John Mandel’s wild, beautiful book Station Eleven. The book moves back and forth between two very different but related worlds. One world is the world today as we know it and the other is the one that exists after a pandemic kills 99% of the human race.

The book opens in a theatre in Toronto where aging and legendary film actor Arthur Leander plays King Lear for his final time. He suffers a massive heart attack on stage and dies. A member of the audience runs to help him, the same man who years earlier, had as a paparazzi, stalked Leander and his wife Miranda outside his Hollywood mansion. When the paparazzi/medic leaves the theatre he calls a friend who tells him people are dying everywhere – that he should get out as soon as he can.

This last evening marks the end of the ‘old’ world. The new world order picks up with characters whose iives at some point or another have intersected with Arthur’s’ life. By moving back and forth between the old and the new world we not only find out about Arthur’s life but also of those who survived the pandemic.

The new world picks up in year twenty with Kirsten, who is now in her twenties and a survivor of the old world.She had been a child actress in the old world and now travels with a Shakespearean Theatre caravan who roam from settlement to settlement and in between dodge the dangers of a civilization that has become entirely undone. Nothing remains of the old world except ghosts of its former structures, abandoned houses, cars, buildings and airplanes – meals left half eaten, skeletons fully dressed lying in beds, on roads and in cars reminding the survivors of another life and time.

This merry band of artists and actors called the Travelling Symphony travel under the banner “survival is not enough” a line taken directly from Star Trek.  As a part of her old world possessions Kirsten has two limited edition comic books in her possession called Station Eleven which tells the story of Dr. Eleven, a physicist who lives on a space station after escaping an alien takeover of Earth. These comics at one time belonged to Miranda Leander, Arthur’s first wife, who was their author.

So what does all this mean? This book is more than just a story of a fading actor and his empty life. It’s more than a dystopic vision of post modern collapse and the end of the world as we know it. This is a rich novel where art and life are inextricably intertwined and it’s as though the world is a stage. And indeed the novel opens with Arthur in his last moments playing one of the greatest characters in literature – King Lear.

This theme continues with Miranda’s comics. She is driven to create a world that mirrors her own strange life in many ways. And as these comics get passed on they become the lifeblood of inspiration to two characters (Kirsten and the cult leader) in the new dystopian world. And in many ways the post pandemic world resembles Station Eleven  – an outpost world created out of the ruins of the death of a civilization.

And again, there are moments in the book, for example when Arthur is dining with his old friend and he notices that Arthur is no longer himself but is acting. It could be a commentary on the shallowness of Arthur and the world he lives in but it’s also the indivisibility of life and art. Life and art flow through each other like a river. Life without art is only survival as the Travelling Symphony knows. It elevates the human condition on every level and in the end it saves us from ourselves, each other and from barbarity. It’s what makes us a mensch.

I feel that Emily St. John Mandel has written a book that lays art against a bleak hopeless world (both the new and the old) and shows us that everything from comics to film and theatre including old standards like Shakespeare make the world an infinitely better more hopeful,  and more feeling place.

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Too Much Happiness: Alice Munro


Congratulations Alice Munro on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature!

‘There’s nothing much to write about here except go read Alice Munro – go now – read her . It’s true.  She must be experienced. She kept me up at night well past my bedtime pulling me line by line into each word and sentence, into each complete world she creates in every single one of her stories. Wow. And yet the stories she tells is the stuff of every day life and I have to insert ‘and yet’ in here again because there is an  unexpectedness of where these stories travel and take us to, their breadth, their depth, their ability to capture an entire world and still draw you into some lurking darkness of life’s ordinariness, the incremental blocks that build a life’s arc, a character’s failure or their greatest moment. Wow. Did I say that already? Read “Child’s Play” and see the twists and turns she takes us on or the story of a young woman who sits nude reading poetry for an older man – nothing happens yet everything happens.  Does Alice Munro write with that beautiful turn of phrase that  great literature often seduces with? No, not really. She doesn’t actually have to. She builds her stories more surgically than that – that is her master craft. Have I said ‘wow’ already? Wow, go read Too Much Happiness. Go read any one of her collections.

Not surprisingly this weekend’s Globe and Mail did a story on Alice Munro: 10 Telling Details Behind the Genius of Alice Munro.

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Blurbondency: how do you react to bamboozling book blurbs? (via Lynsey May writes down the night)

I love Lynsey’s rant on “blurbondency”. I have to say, I’ve run into this myself from time to time.

Blurbondency – The feeling of let down and confusion that follows reading a book because it has a blurb from one of your favourite authors, only to find the book disappointing and unreadable. Self doubt and a re-examination of bookshelves is also to be expected. Blurbs are powerful things. They act as the same kind of seal of approval you’re looking for when you’re eyeing up a potential date. I’ve picked up and taken home plenty of books thanks t … Read More

via Lynsey May writes down the night

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My Great Reads 2010

I started 2010 out with the ambition of reading 100 books this year. Like all great plans mine was waylaid by the exigencies of life. I did, however, still manage to read some great books.

My top reads this year are:
1. My absolute favourite read this year is Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – a great literary read that uses an interesting cultural device to tell an expansive and wonderful story.

2. Brief Interviews with Hideous MenDavid Foster Wallace – Wow, I found this book to be a breath of fresh air. It’s very literary but it breaks free from the usual storytelling devices and then on top of that it contains some really amazing stories. It’s changed the way I believe people can write about things.

3. The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery – This is just a wonderful read. Written by a French writer it explores unlikely friendships within the quagmire of the French class system. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to read it again.

4. infidel Ayaan Hirsi Ali – I don’t read very much non-fiction but I thought this offered a glimpse into a world I know very little about. It makes me want to know more about women and Islam.

5. Freedom Jonathan Franzen – Because he tells a great story that speaks to our times. And he gets bonus points for making me laugh.

6. Loving Frank – Nancy Horan – A great story about Frank Lloyd Wright‘s lover Martha Borthwick. It’s one of those books you can’t put down.

7. Room – Emma Donaghue – Well there’s no question that this is a creepy story about a woman who gives birth to a little boy while she is enslaved in a small room for seven years, but wow does Emma Donoghue ever create a singularly believable voice for young Jack.

8. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer – I’m a sucker for any books on war and this one is a great read. I’m now eager to travel to Guernsey now that I know it exists.

9. Mansfield Park – Jane Austen – I completely immersed myself in Ms. Austen’s world when I was reading this. What a testament to the durability of great literature.

10. Tuesday’s With Morrie by Mitch Album – Because this book helped me understand dying better and that’s something I needed to learn about this year.

I’m starting next year’s list which includes:
Irshad Manji – The Trouble with Islam Today
Sea Sick – The Global Ocean in Crisis
Malcolm Gladwell – Blink and What the Dog Saw

I would love to hear from others any recommendations you might have for fiction or non-fiction that I can put on my ‘must read’ list.



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