Thursday, August 28, 2014

Man on a white horse?

Consider the LiliesConsider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The title almost put me off but was hooked soon enough. And who are you to ask anyways you stunning excuse for a man? (Anyhow that is the tone of the old dear and I just loved it.) Aside from the feisty old lady who rules her old farm house, it is about the Scottish clearances - and the exodus to NS and other parts of Canada. The old lady is notified by a fat man 'on a white horse' that she is about to be kicked out of her farmhouse where she has lived all of her life, and is suitably indignant. It is very poetic with rural images that last and has elements of Brian Moore's "Lonely passion of Judith Hearne" and Margaret Laurence's "The Stone Angel".

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Dad's jokes are still 'Dad' jokes (in the 1850's?)

The Diary of a NobodyThe Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dad's jokes are still 'dad' jokes.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

No Rest for the Writer

Just After SunsetJust After Sunset by Stephen King

A book of recent and not-so-recent, short stories. Liked the story "Rest Stop". It had me laughing, aloud, in the library. "Rest Stop" is a justice story for cowards who beat their wives. The story had it all tension, laughs, entertainment value and was told simply. The wit and sense of humour make this story stand out. He has still got it.

A good find is also The Cat from Hell. This is a story from the 1980's archives which never made into a published volume of stories and shows why Stephen King dominated in the seventies and eighties.

There are some weaker stories in the book and you get the sense that Stephen King can stick whack them out and has a few more "Rest Stop(s)" in him.

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Down and out with Russians in Paris (and London..)

Down and Out in Paris and LondonDown and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Working in a busy hotel kitchen as a busboy/dishwasher 'plonguer'in 1930's Paris is hard work as the detailed accounts of the stress, heat and pandemonium in the Paris hotel kitchens attest; young Eric Blair describes the turbulence of the political climate in 1930's Paris with a strange youthful stoicism, especially the exiled world of down at the heels but still proud Russian Émigrés. Switching countries, the London tramp scenes don't quite have the same flair as the scenes amongst the working waiters and plongeurs in Paris and the matter of fact style will do little portray tramps as people with their own hard luck stories however this grim style is also very effective and takes you deep into the hard boiled luckless world of the petty thieves 'screevers' and 'glimmers' of London. The descriptions of tramping in and around the East End offer telling insights into the interior worlds of faceless men when one admits 'there is never anywhere to sit down for any length of time'. Before he was Orwell, Blair was a young man, trying to make it pay. The two epochs come to life in all of their dingy and grimy resolve to press on through hard times.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2014

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is the female Catcher in the Rye?

Jean Rhys: Life and WorkJean Rhys: Life and Work by Carole Angier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this book interesting, so much so that I also read the earlier edition of this same volume which was a much thinner book, a kind of sampler of the 770 pg later volume which I finished in one sitting.

I found out about Jean Rhys in Halifax Nova Scotia, in the 1990's, when I went into what was then the Trident Bookstore/Coffee Shop and asked the bookseller if he had a book by a female version of JD Salinger. "No," he said "but you might like this". He passed me After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. It is my favourite book, the one I always go to when people ask because it deals with the basics in life for an artist, in this case it is a lonely dance hall girl who is losing her looks and struggling to survive financially.
What was interesting about the two versions of the bios was I thought the writer might be lazy and simply use the chapter intros from the slimmer volume and then pad the book with anecdotes and more filler but she completely re-wrote the whole thing chapter by chapter and I found that admirable and also fascinating. However on a technical note I think the earlier slimmer volume tried to imitate Rhys’ spare writing style and for that reason, I would say it is a more true book to her. That's just my opinion. I've always had a thing for old ladies. So now you know.

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On the road with Harper Lee?

In Cold BloodIn Cold Blood by Truman Capote

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even though I come into this book influenced by "the movie" I still feel I can see the Harper Lee influence on every page. (Did Truman Capote and Harper Lee have a mutually competitive relationship like Perry Smith and Dick Hickock? It feels like you are in the car with these guys at times, like a Jailbird 'On The Road'). One of the locals shoots a mockingbird and the trial scene is quick but detailed and the prosecuting lawyers fill their speeches with biblical references in the same way the FBI build their case to try and finger the killer(s). It is poetic too, Capote mentions a Juror's bored face "so that bees would fly in and out of his mouth" and I am certain Capote gets bored at the end; there is almost a panicky writing style in places but it is a book you can't pull yourself away from even though it is terrifying and morbid it carries on from Steinbeck and the poverty of working luckless men (Grapes of Wrath is also mentioned)... Weird too but now it makes me want to re-read Morley Callaghan's book More Joy in Heaven. Takes me back to High School.

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Charles Dickens in Halifax (did he meet up with Haliburton in the Gov't house?)

Life of Charles DickensLife of Charles Dickens by John Forster

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a detailed book and gives little insights in Charles Dickens' mind from the point of view of a close friend and later executor of Dickens' will. I like this book because it gives an additional insight into Dickens first trip to North America when he stopped in Halifax NS, and after a choppy sea crossing and having his ship run aground on the mudbanks off NS, was immediately greeted with fanfare by the local politicians in Halifax and was taken to the Government Building where he was paraded as a celebrity, which he didn't care for so much.

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Saturday, August 02, 2014

Dopy Men in Margaret Atwood's poetry and fiction

The DoorThe Door by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The poets hang on, it is hard to get rid of them..."
This is the opening line of one a few 'poems' about 'poets' in this, Atwood's latest collection, The Door. I don't know much of Atwood's early poetry but Bluebeard's Egg is one of my favourite short story collections, The Handmaid's Tale, up there with a list of dystopian novels, such as Animal Farm and Brave New World and given her versatility in literary criticism and fiction and poetry it just goes to show you can never discount Margaret Atwood as a writer. I don't think she writes about cats nearly as much as she used to and BlueBeard's Egg is filled with feckless and/or dopy men living in and around the Annex part of Bloor Street though perhaps she got her fill of them in Cat's Eye which I haven't read. Is it a good book?

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Nursing the sick in the plague year?

A Journal of the Plague Year A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Surely Peter Ackroyd consulted this text in detail before writing Hawksmoor as there is a great deal of Dafoe's plague infected imagery in Ackroyd's celebrated historical murder mystery – also set in London. Where Hawksmoor opens with orphan child and future architect Nicholas Hawksmoor falling under the spell of the murderous Mirabilis, the Dafoe text, A Journal of the Plague Year (JOTPY), builds on the gradual but incessant listing of the sick and dying in London parishes. This is followed by the marking of condemned houses with a red cross and the appointing of wardens (or modern day coppers) to keep the sick shut in their houses and the hiring of mercenary nurses to see off the sick, quietly. Cries of "Throw out your dead" echo JOTPY and the descriptions of the streets are vivid, though a great deal of JOTPY is concerned with mechanical listing the parishes and the number of dead in them. This listing of bodies builds on the feeling of hysteria and the setting and descriptions around Bishopsgate and St Botolph's Church where Dafoe himself was a parishoner, is the identical setting as Hawksmoor; while Hawksmoor vividly paints a picture of the Great Fire of London and the sinister desire to get on and make London great again – at no matter what cost – Journal of the Plague Years (JOTPY) sets the course for the earlier hysteria and disaster which enveloped the city for two terrible years.

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True Tales of London by a Canadian??

Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now - As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for ItLondoners: The Days and Nights of London Now - As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It by Craig Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first heard about this book I was wondering how this would work. As a fellow Canadian living in London and having spent the bulk of my formative years in Canada, I pondered what more could a guy from the suburbs of Western Canada possibly have to say about the people that live and work in this ancient city? After all hasn't London already been covered by storied writers as varied as Pepys, Dafoe, Blake, Shakespeare, Dickens, AA Gill, John Lanchester, to name but a few? What could a Canadian writer add to literary treasures already penned by many more, British born? Well... Using a method of curating the book rather than writing it the book is a success in the same way that Paul Auster's True Tales of American Life – which asks everyday Americans to submit anecdotes and stories about their personal lives – is a memorable and compelling read; Taylor asks Londoners to pen thoughts and submit to interviews about daily rituals such as taking the tube to work. One of the most interesting stories is the tale of the northern girl who became the voice of the London Underground. I found this book very British and astute, as perhaps, the fellow Londoners whom Craig Taylor interviewed opened up to their Canadian cousin, in perhaps the same way a couple on holiday will be more candid than a couple you meet down the pub.
If so, in his role as producer/curator, the author has a kind of silent hand in guiding the myriad London voices with many surprises along the way.

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Rumbled by Mr Jingle? Charles Dickens' first fiend

The Pickwick PapersThe Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Charles Dickens' breakout success has two separate halves. The comic picturesque scenes in the Kent countryside with the double-speaking Mr. Jingle, and the unwitting Pickwick club's uncomfortable adventures in love and dating must have influenced the 'Carry On' films which came later on. The second section where Mr Pickwick gets thrown in debtor's prison after an incompetent trial, pave the way for the poignant story lines, social commentary, empathy for the poor and grimy Victorian conditions of later books. There are a couple of early ghost stories thrown in, which might come from Dickens own childhood as he was only twenty something when he wrote this. Nicholas Nickleby which comes a year or two later has one of these story lines about a count or countess and (I believe) it slows down the story. Not so in Pickwick, the stories are so fresh and filled with vitality and energy, you have to stop and wonder at the sheer single-mindedness of the man, for he had 10 children to support  in his lifetime. Could he have been practicing for his role as father later in life by writing the story of the beleaguered but well-meaning Mr Pickwick?

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