Monday, January 31, 2011

In defence of the BOOK: in all of its glorious, dusty, old-fashioned splendour

EDIT( Feb 1): My friend Verity recently posted this response and I hope you will read it in conjunction with this post to get a more balanced sense of some of the e-reader debate out there

Call me old-fashioned; but I view the e-reader as a symbol of a society that has forgotten the pleasure of excavation. A world that struggles so harshly to ascertain a product at lightning speed it has waylaid the beauty of indolent discovery.

That’s right: hunting, finding, discovering, feeling, peeking, forging, tasting….
First off, reading for me is a tangible experience that exercises senses: smell, feel, weight, touch, friction-of-finger-and-page. I will never feel anything akin to cracking back a spine (or in my willowy carefulness, gingerly tugging back a page) or smelling the pages betwixt. For me, smell is my strongest trigger to memory. Thus, my favourite books and my favourite passages link to a scent that propels my brain into action.

A paragraph can take me back on vacation or a sentence to high school English class, or the streak of red pen under a favourite line to a perplexingly vulnerable moment. I am susceptible to a book’s marvelous passage to hallowed old depths and I am most attuned to this when I am smelling and feeling a book.

I like to book-watch: meaning I love to sneak a peek at what others are reading on the subway. Sometimes, as was the case on Friday afternoon, I looked up and saw a woman reading the Black Cat by Martha Grimes. Our eyes met and I smiled. A knowing smile. Finding a Grimes reader is labeling an immediate kindred spirit. An e-reader closes off your book from the world. It shuts out any possibility of communal readership and those magical kismet-moments and makes a private experience. Good-bye volatile moments or imaginings or snippets of hope that you’ll look up and find some dashing guy turning back the page of your favourite Sherlock Holmes edition.

Reading is an experience and books craft that experience in a way that an unfeeling digital device can never recreate. One might argue that the words are the book’s potency and transcribed any-which- way they hold their meaning. But, for me, the art of the book is part of the craft.
Book binding is an art form. The cover and design of a book is hallowed ground. Peering through a glass at a medieval bible or running your finger pads around a book owned and written in by a favourite author (I own a book that belonged to LM Montgomery) is a very concrete experience that bottling words into a crammed digital device can never realize.

Think of author signings: if we go the way of the e-reader, is it even necessary to spend delicious hours in line at IFOA inching toward your favourite writer-celebrity ( read: Ian Rankin)? Or, will Margaret Atwood concoct something that severs the tie between reader and author even more….?

As a booklover, one of the keenest pleasures I have is the exploration of bookish spaces: the library, bookstores, antiquarian markets, thrift-stores and rummage sales. The smell of a bookshop is a cherished thing indeed and the tangy taste of dust and worn pages is a thrill I find in little else. The birth of the e-reader has rendered these pleasures unnecessary.

About ten years ago, I made a pact with myself. I collect the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout. Those familiar with the canon recognize that there are several books and short stories stringing the great detective’s life together. I promised myself I would NEVER buy a Nero Wolfe book online. I wrote a list of all of the books in the series and kept it well-creased and folded in my wallet. For ten years, I would peek into used bookstores, rummage sales, bookshops….anywhere … slowly and surely collecting all of the titles I needed.

It was excavation. It took patience and time and conviction. It would have been easy to click a button and e-bay the lot of them to my doorstep; but part of the triumph was the excitement of discovery.

From Boston to London, England, to New York to Toronto to Ottawa to Midland, Ontario…. I slowly and surely collected pieces of my puzzle until finally, last year, in Victoria, BC I found the last Nero Wolfe book I needed. I caressed that book and held on to it and the proprietor of the little mystery bookstore that held my treasure and myself shared a wonderful moment. A distinctive, memorable moment. A moment that never would have occurred had it been rendered digitally.

We live in a society where everything comes easily. Everything is run on battery power and everything from takeout to movies is available immediately through the World Wide Web. I harken back to a simpler time. Technology has already stripped us of language ( abbrievations in text messages and, hell, the GRAMMAR in text messages has murdered our use of English) , and technology has stripped us of the timeless form of letter writing. One might assert the same aforementioned argument that the words are the substance and the medium does not matter. I disagree. A letter in the mail holds far more significance for me than a hastily-typed email.
One of life’s most languid and extraordinary pleasures is a book. A BOOK. .. Not words smattered on a white screen while a cursor ticks listlessly in the corner. Not font formatted in singular mode and circumscribed to conform all of the matter available on a digital surface. A BOOK. You can’t get that tingle anywhere else.

You can’t walk into a glorious bookstore in Hastings with a slanted roof and Tudor windows and smell out an age old edition of Beatrix Potter if that text is immediately drawn to you and your heartless device at the speed of sound.

Must we sacrifice everything in pursuit of convenience? Book collecting is a culture. Book-loving is my sustainability. My battery is not super-charged by a key that promises to give my device 24 hours ( or days, or months… )of uninterrupted usage. I’m super charged by books. You don’t turn them on. You don’t click on a screen. You don’t bookmark with an internalized mouse-like cursor. You flip open a page.

Simplicity is beauty and beauty, apparently, is becoming a lost art.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Because it's not books all the time (although I wish it was!)

A few media type things:

FRAMED was produced by the BBC and aired on Masterpiece Contemporary recently. After reading favourable reviews (and needing something to budge me over the 25.00 free shipping limit on amazon), I went ahead and ordered it.

It was a delightful and quiet romance set in the Welsh highlands. In WWII, priceless masterpieces from the National Gallery were transported to a small village in Wales for safe keeping in a cave. When the National Gallery is flooded, the same precautious measures are taken and thousands of paintings are lorried up the hill in protective yellow cases. The custom in the war years was for one painting to be presented in London for a month at a time while all others were holed up. Apparently, the queues were quite monumental: locals trying to grasp some semblance of beauty and normalcy in their war-torn city.

I greatly enjoyed the interior shots of the National Gallery. It has been years since I was there; but I remember it clearly.

The portion of the story in Wales includes a soft and mature love story. It also paints wonderful characters of the townspeople. Quentin, the liaison from the National Gallery, who devotes his life to expressing the meaning behind countless works of art, is shocked by the perspective of art that comes from the Welsh countrymen. However, once he is able to comprehend art in the way they see it, and mostly as it pertains to their lives, his appreciation is shaken: for the better.

A poignant scene has the local schoolteacher guiding through works of art Quentin has known innately all of his life. She expresses a completely different viewpoint and his ideas of culture and beauty are stirred.

Based on the novel by Frank Cottrell Boyce (see: Millions) this was a great January escape.


I loved this film. I remember watching snippets of the 1960s series with Van Williams and Bruce Lee and this is very much a homage rather than an adaptation. At the hands of Seth Rogen, it is ridiculously funny and I am warning you now: if you don’t prefer his type of humour and are not willing to separate yourself from the more serious hero and comic book movies of late ( Dark Knight, for example), this film is not for you.

The story is pretty basic: Britt Reid, heir to a vast newspaper empire and his innovator friend Kato decide to fight crime by infiltrating the city’s underworld. They wear slick masks and juice up their amazing super-car, the Black Beauty.

What I particularly enjoyed about this Green Hornet and what is, if anything, the centrifugal force propelling the film, is the partnership ( or lack thereof) between Britt and Kato. Kato is, at first, the kid who fixes the Reid’s cars and makes the outstanding coffee. Brit soon discovers that Kato is, in fact, a human “swiss army” knife: remarkable skilled, an innovative genius with a preternatural eye for trouble and resolution.

At first, as Kato and Britt speed off to take on the city, Kato assumes chauffeur role while Britt sits in the back playing rich kid. While Britt creates the image of the Green Hornet, Kato not only develops the name but is the reason the operation runs successfully (especially when it comes to weapons and gadgets). While Britt tries increasingly to assert himself as the hero and streamline Kato into the sidekick role, Kato is very aware of his lessened state and he rails against it! I LOVED when Kato punched his fist into a wall and threatened Britt should he ever ask him to run a coffee errand again.

The tension and jealousy between Kato and Britt( mostly on Britt’s side) results in a major physical blow-out for supremacy between the two. Britt becomes increasingly stubborn and just cannot admit that Kato has always had the upper hand. I loved this dynamic and I loved the growth of their relationship. In fact, slowly, but surely, Britt learns that the only way to be successful, get out of scrapes, and save his life is to move into the front seat aside Kato. Fabulous!


(episodes 1 and 2)

I must confess that I mostly watch this show because it is set in gorgeous St. John’s, NL: a city I often have to visit for work ( and one of my favourite cities in Canada). The show, a sort of “Newfie Noir” features a father and son Private Investigator team battling crime in a colourful Atlantic Canadian community.

Jake is played by Alan Hawco ( I love his accent and his nonchalant air) and Mal is played by Sean McGinley ( a veteran of Bleak House and Braveheart). Reclaiming a vital Canadian space, Republic of Doyle flashes a Newfoundland rarely portrayed in cinema or television. It is a modern place, peppered with eccentrics and brimming with life. The music, as provided by Canadian legends Great Big Sea, as well as several guest-spots by Canadian actor greats ( Victor Garber! Gordon Pinsent!) make it the ultimate Canadian experience. Jake and Co.’s favourite pub on McMurdo’s Lane, the Duke of Duckworth, is also my favourite pub in NL!

The second season premiered this week and I caught up on Netflix.

Unfortunately, the writing this season is a mess. It seemed to drop a lot of threads sewn at the end of the first series and never really picked up speed. It is disjointed and lacks fluidity. Moreover, the scenes are clunky and awkwardly edited. The mystery at the heart of the first two episodes ( if we can indeed call it that) were lackluster. I hope they are just finding their sea legs again.

They make the most of glorious St. John’s, however, and as long as it remains at the forefront of the drama, I am apt to keep tuning in.

Glorious St. J's!:

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Rachel's Certified Savvy Reads

Fellow Reader-friends,

I am all agog and aghast and ELATED because I am featured on the Savvy Reader blog from our EXCELLENT friends at Harper Collins Canada.

Please visit the website and see what I have to say and look at pretty pictures ( and watch pretty videos). While you're at it: you might want to visit them on twitter as well

A recap of the books I selected as my personal Harper Collins Savvy Reads:

This is my personal savvy read list (Hard to narrow down because Harper has AMAZING titles. In fact, you should separate them by genre! It’s too hard to pick generally!)
Deafening by Frances Itani : One of the most lyrical offerings in Canadian historical fiction to date. During my tenure as a bookseller (my part time job during my university years), I hand-sold this title more than any other. It appeals to teenagers, to grandmas, to men, women, girls, boys. The emotional resonance of the story and its harrowing (yet romantic) exposition is unparalleled.
The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill: I saved this for a 9 hour flight to Austria this summer and read it while the gentlemen adjacent me struggled to keep from snoozing on my shoulder. Not that I would have minded. Indeed, I saw, or heard, nothing else while enraptured by Hill’s convincing female narrative. Rarely have I read a historical novel with such a broad and impressive scope. Meticulously researched, un-put-downable and featuring one of the strongest and persistent heroines in CanLit to date, The Book of Negroesis a must read. As a Canadian, I especially enjoyed the interlude in Nova Scotia!
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: I was in the subway last year when a lady, nose stuck-in-a-book ran directly into me and spilled tea down my coat. I wasn’t angry. She was reading Wolf Halland I completely understood. A mammoth novel, Mantel turns Tudor history into a captivating thriller. I loved the dialogue and the daily vignettes of court-life. A nice addition to renaissance of Tudor Romances with all the political and religious corruption still popping up in news stories today.
Town House by Tish Cohen: The thinking person’s vacation read! Deceptively fun to read, Cohen embroiders a funny and winsome tale about an unlikely man and his inability to leave his house. In fact, his house becomes a character of its own, especially when populated by the band of eccentrics that pepper our hero’s life. This would make a fabulous movie!
Ines of my Soul by Isabel Allende: Allende’s novels stay with me long after I turn the last page. You finish the book still with that pleasant, potent aftertaste of spice and adventure on your tongue. A tragic, earthy love story painted against a lush Chilean tapestry, Allende’s heartfelt desire to dig and excavate the deepest secrets of her country’s rich history is wonderfully rendered here. I loved this book. Chilling and surreal, it will transport you across time and space.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Alatriste: Elusive no longer

Remember this post? This is three years ago...I was pining then!!!

It seems like I have wanted to see the Alatriste movie since the dawn of time. Well, at least since I first got word of it.

I have read ALL of the Alatriste books since their English publications began being released. I love them. Veteran soldier and sword-for-hire, Diego Alatriste, runs around Madrid all swashbuckling. Sometimes there is a battle; or a lover; or a boat; or tavern-drinking; or swordplay and conspiracy… the surrender at Breda….the Spanish Inquisition and a particularly gruesome auto-da-fe.

All fun.

17th Century Madrid is a remarkable canvas ---especially when rendered by Alatriste’s page ( and the series’ narrator), Inigo Balboa. Inigo’s father, Lope, was a friend and comrade of Alatriste’s during one-of-the-many-wars-he-fights-in and after he is killed in action, Alatriste takes care of his son.

Both Inigo and Alatriste have complicated loves: Diego adores a married Spanish actress and Inigo pines for the Machiavellian temptress Angelica.

The film version captures most of it.

Be ye forewarned. If you have not read the books and are not familiar with the series, the movie will make no sense to you. Because, it doesn’t really have a plot. It is just a series of vignettes about Alatriste’s life: snatching the best moments of the books.

You know those VH1 countdowns where they pick the “Top 30 scandals of the 80s” or what have you? This is sort of like that: “ Top 50 Alatriste Book Moments” and they filmed them and patched them together and that’s what you get.

So, as a film separate from the series, it is not that good of an adaptation. But, as a companion TO the series, it is a wonderful homage.

Beautifully filmed: expertly sub-titled. The second most expensive film Spain has ever produced.

It looks and feels and tastes and sounds JUST as I imagined it to. The casting is PERFECTION: from Viggo Mortensen’s swarthy and silent Alatriste, to Inigo, to Angelica ( she is divine) … even to the peripheral characters like Don Francesco.

I have rarely seen a film that so matched my conceptualization of a fictional world. For that, I am so glad I waited ( and waited and waited ) for Alatriste to be released in Region 1.

The Alatriste books made me crave Madrid and the film makes me want to go there even more so.

I really enjoyed it. I REALLY loved the guy who played Inigo.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Petite Anglaise by Catherine Sanderson

Catherine Sanderson, author of the highly popular blog Petite Anglaise has the type of life that bloggers only dream about: a platform that makes her rich and noticed and shoves her name into the spotlight. Moreover, provides a succulent and romantic real-life twist that in our age of get-famous-fast is the perfect basis for her chicklit memoir.

You'll think that she's making this up.

I have read Petite Anglaise on and off for the past few years. Only when I remember to read it, of course ( I am by no means an avid follower) and mostly because I relate to Sanderson's passion for a city.

Paris was her dream city since she was a little girl: just as Vienna was ( and is ) mine.

In fact, in the memoir ( of the same title as her blog), it is Sanderson's descriptive paragraphs of the magic Paris holds on her that most enraptured me. Sanderson has her highs and lows in the love life department ( and she is surprisingly blatent considering the widespread nature of her readers and the fact that those she is close to will no doubt regret being so present: regardless of their carefully Sanderson-sanctioned noms de plume). Sanderson works at a dead-end job, eats croissant and strolls down gardened streets. She sees film noir, gazes up at the Eiffel tower and falls in love with the french man of her dreams.

She blogs and blogs about her disintegrating relationship, her daughter ( referred to as Tadpole) and an articulate regular blog-commenter who becomes an eventual love interest. Sparks fly, first, in the comments box and then in real life: so much so, Sanderson's marriage reaches the last harrowing moment of its downfall.

Sanderson does a splendid job of discussing the way that her blog becomes a bit of an alter ego. Penning her everyday adventures in a decidedly different written voice colours perspective and memory in an interesting and somewhat biased way. Her readers are desperate for more of the drama that knits her existence. What they romanticize and yearn for: she would love to hold at bay.

Petite Anglaise is, at the very least, a very self-absorbed read. As I was pondering that effect and grumbling over how absorbed Sanderson seems in her life and tribulations, I concluded that she is not completely to blame: that's what blogging is.

Blogging is just a forum for us to talk non-stop about ourselves. If people jump on the train and follow us along our winding tracks then the audience is well-regarded. But, let us not disillusion ourselves by supposing that (most) blogging is in some way, shape or form a funnel from which we can impart something groundbreaking on the universe. That may be so for one blog or another; but, for most of us helpless, susceptible writer-minions, we just want to hear ourselves speak.

Listen to me ( no seriously: LISTEN TO ME!)

I finished Petite Anglaise in an afternoon at Starbucks taking very good advantage of their chai tea latte promotion.

This is not rocket science. This is not War and Peace. But, it is evidence of the power one's voice can find when it wiles its way through the computer screen of a reader ( or thousands ).

Sanderson will no doubt have a long and fruitful career as a chicklit writer. It is especially ironic that a stunning and engaging chicklit story just happened to be her own.

I didn't spend any money on this. The library helped.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

BOOKS in the NEWS!

Some books in the news:


The First (Ever) Mystery Novel -- and not Wilkie Collins (!??!)

Why, yes!!! Villette outshines Jane Eyre ( it always did so in my heart)

For the Love of Geekery! --David Tennant takes a turn as Benedick

He makes Christians look cool ( seriously... he does! he always does!): Eric Metaxas talks about his Bonhoeffer biography

Just in case you haven't been talking about Huck Finn this week or have been living in a vaccuum

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace

Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace was a book I had wanted to read since it popped up on numerous Christian fiction book blogs in the fall. I had first heard of the Besty-Tacy series ( surprisingly) in You’ve Got Mail: thanks to Meg Ryan’s gorgeous little Shop Around the Corner bookshop!

With the re-issue of many of Lovelace’s books, I really wanted to see what it was all about.

I was not disappointed. In fact, I can’t wait to read more. It is the prime sort of Americana that recalls soda shops and dime stores, parasols and bandstands, fourth of July fireworks and ice skating with your friends. It recalls a time of innocence so grandly painted in Pollyanna and the Music Man. In fact, the years preluding the First World War are a cocoon of splendid innocence and a wonderful setting for a great coming-of-age story.

Emily of Deep Valley made me nostalgic for a time I never lived in and made me steal into a cozy, snow-globed world of sparkle and sunshine and laissez-faire.

Emily is saddened at high school graduation. She feels like she has shut the door on a wonderfully potent part of her life and, due to her ailing grandfather and her inability to go to college as she so desires, she has little in her future to look forward to.

The sacrifice Emily makes to live with her sweet-tempered

( and awfully funny ) Civil war Veteran grandfather is at the heart of the novel and Emily’s core. So many of her flighty high school chums ( to whom a post-secondary education seems wasted amongst the debris of socializing and sororities) have fabulous stories to tell and places to go, Emily must reconcile herself to Deep Valley life.

What Emily lacks for in tangible opportunity, she makes up for in will and resourcefulness. While bound to Deep Valley, she will make the most of a life’s education that those at college could scarcely dream of. Whether it’s volunteering to plow through Browning with a favourite teacher one night a week in literary debate or helping the burgeoning immigrant Syrian community, Emily expands her circle and breaks the boundaries of her high school persona.

Moreover, she meets ( and eventually falls in love ) with a warm-heartedly delightful high school teacher whose interest in Emily stems from her social conviction.

There is a strong sense of social consciousness at the heart of the book: from Emily’s debate subjects to Emily and Jed’s recognizing of the world at the edge of Deep Valley and the immigrant community that expands their horizons.

From the moment Emily wears her hair up for the first time to a fateful New Year’s Dance, Emily establishes herself as a strong-willed, resilient, charitable and delightful heroine. Indeed, Jo March ( of Little Women) would probably have given an approving nod of Emily’s decidedly Pilgrim’s Progress spirit.

I highly recommend this to the Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett and L M Montgomery sort. The Harper P.S. edition had interesting facts about Maud Hart Lovelace and her illustrator.

My sincere thanks to Harper Collins Canada for an engaging Christmas read!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

2010 in books (and more)

( above: me wearing my spectacular traditional Austrian hat in Innsbruck this summer)

A few favourite books and book moments of 2010:

I can't tell you how many books I read. I read every morning on the subway and average about 5 books a week. During holidays, that can inflate or deflate. I probably average about 100-125 books a year in all genres. Though I don't blog about every one ( because who has time? ), I try to read one non-fiction ( biography, memoir, history, literary criticism ) a month.

Lifelong dreams inspired by books that came true: A Trip to Vienna, inspired by my childhood ( and adult love) of Vienna Prelude. I traveled from coast-to-coast for work and my favourite re-visits were Victoria, BC, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island and, of course, St. John's, Newfoundland.

I also had the privilege of attending the TD Canadian Children's Lit Awards at the CARLU (where Arthur Slade won for The Hunchback Assignments). Arthur Slade also wrote the single best author blog entry I read this year and we crashed his signing at Chapters

Once upon a time, I was a judge for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour ( here in beloved Canada), and I knew if I put my mind to it, I could read and judge things again. So, when the call for INSPYs judges was sent out, I jumped at it! I was so fortunate to read for the Historical Fiction Category of the INSPYs ---and a fabulous book won!

-A Stranger in Mayfair by Charles Finch
-Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn
-What Angels Fear by C.S. Harris
-Where Serpents Sleep by C.S. Harris
-A Royal Pain by Rhys Bowen
-The Keeper of Secrets by Judith Cutler

SERIES I GOT HOOKED ON: Victoria Thompson's Gaslight Mysteries, Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series, C.S. Harris's Sebastian St. Cyr series, Alexander McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie series.

-She Walks in Beauty by Siri Mitchell
-Her Mother's Hope by Francine Rivers
-The Bridegrooms by Alison Pittman
-While We're Far Apart by Lynn Austin
-Hear No Evil by Matthew Paul Turner
-Courting Morrow Little by Laura Frantz

General Market:
-The Help by Kathryn Stockett
-Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen
-Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace
-Venetia by Georgette Heyer
-Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer
-Scout, Atticus and Boo by Mary McDonough Murphy
-The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl
-The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
-The Piano Teacher by Janice K. Lee
-Friends, Lovers, Chocolate by Alexander McCall Smith
-Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant

-Smith by Leon Garfield
-The Dream Thief by Catherine Webb
-The Dark Deeps by Arthur Slade
-Bright Young Things by Anna Godbersen
-Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty

Favourite Book of 2010: The Dream Thief by Catherine Webb (unsurprisingly)

This was not a fantastic year for film; but there were a few stand-outs.

My favourite film of the year, is the King's Speech
followed closely by How to Train Your Dragon
I also enjoyed the return to vintage Disney with Tangled
As a Canadian, I enjoyed the Trotsky

Television was a bust this year; but I still watch House ( though it jumped the shark, in my opinion) and Republic of Doyle ( new season starts next week)

I watched Small Island this year and the 39 Steps, on the BBC front, as was the new series of Foyle's War. In media, my favourite offering of 2010 was the BBC Sherlock ( I adore it so much )