Re-reading binge

I borrowed the first book in Jack Whyte’s Dream of Eagles cycle from my mum on Sunday. I’ve read the series maybe three times before. The books are long — I believe all are over 600 pages; some significantly more than that — and including all of the companion books, there are nine in total. Nine. Even though I love them, I usually get tired around book five, because it’s a lot of time spent in that world (generations upon generations, in fact).

It’s historical fiction, though often shelved in fantasy, which has always bothered me. Sure, it’s about King Arthur and Camulod, but it’s an historical imagining of the “real” people behind the legend. There’s no magic in it. That’s the point.

It’s Thursday now, and I’m well into the third book, The Eagles’ Brood. It’s the one where the narrator changes from Publius to Merlyn, and it always takes me a bit to get over the fact I won’t be experiencing the world through Publius’s eyes any longer. It’s like when The Doctor re-generates. It takes me a while to give the new one a chance. (You too, Whovians?)

Anyway, I truly love these books. They’re well written and the research is super impressive. For a while after I re-read them, I know a lot about the decline of Rome. I know several of the dates of significant invasions in Britain. I know quite a bit about the military structure of the Roman Legions. I know a smidgen about early Christianity. These are all things I learned on previous readings (and, in part, in World History classes), but they come flooding back, and it’s nice to feel like I’m re-visiting and refreshing my knowledge.

These books are also pretty “R-rated.” Lots of sex; lots of death. Not quite to the level of GoT (because, let’s be honest, George R.R. Martin has set that bar shockingly high), but certainly more than your average novel.

If you enjoy historical fiction or books about war or series’ that go on forever or King Arthur stories or Canadian authors or layered and flawed heroes, I would recommend these books. The Skystone is first. Enjoy!

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I’m so jealous of future people

Have you heard about the Future Library (“Framtidsbiblioteket”) art project by Katie Paterson? Basically, one writer every year until 2114 will contribute a text to the Future Library, with the writings held unpublished until then.

A thousand trees have been planted in Nordmarka, a forest just outside Oslo, which will supply the paper for the special anthology of books of the writings  to be printed in one hundred years time. As per the website: “Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the 100-year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hopes of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.”

Margaret Atwood was asked to be the inaugural writer for Future Library which is fitting, I suppose, since her most popular works have been speculative fiction. I’m just jealous of the future humans who get to read her contribution.

I love this idea, though I would love it a lot more if someone would have started it, say, 50 years ago, so I could have a chance of reading the anthology.

Umm… literature vlogs have taken over my life.

Dearest readers and friends,

How did I not hear about The Lizzie Bennet Diairies until a couple weeks ago? Please – if you enjoy being entertained, binge-watching anything, Jane Austen, attractive people with great hair, increasing the “adorbs” in your life, and appreciating a Pride and Prejudice adaptation that feels fresh and modern – watch this series. Want an opinion other than mine? Read this article.

In my consumption of the fledgling genre of literary vlogs, I’ve also devoured The Autobiography of Jane Eyre (set in BC — yay Canada!) and Emma Approved… and I’ve started on Welcome to Sanditon and Frankenstein, M.D..

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was brilliant, and I’m truly sad that I didn’t get to have the immersive experience of watching/tweeting/etc. while it was going.

The Autobiography of Jane Eyre grew on me. The production quality was slightly lower and in a different style than the Pemberley Digital productions, but Jane sold the series. However, the real stars are the actresses who play Mary and Diana, who show up for some much-needed comedy and joy at just the right moment.

Emma Approved is… as good as it can be considering that Emma is my least favourite Austen. The actress who plays Emma is actually great. It’s hard to play a pretentious, spoiled brat who interferes in everyone’s life and still be, well, likeable, but somehow she manages it (beeteedubbs, Cher Horowitz got a pass). If only they would do Sense & Sensibility. Or Persuasion! Please Persuasion!

 

Read (not so) recently: Me Talk Pretty One Day

Read (not so) recently: Me Talk Pretty One Day

Title: Me Talk Pretty One Day
Author: David Sedaris
Published in 2000 by Little, Brown and Co.
Read sometime in 2007 and then July 2010
Recommended by: The staff at Chapters as a gift for me

Synopsis from Publisher’s Weekly:

Sedaris is Garrison Keillor’s evil twin: like the Minnesota humorist, Sedaris focuses on the icy patches that mar life’s sidewalk, though the ice in his work is much more slippery and the falls much more spectacularly funny than in Keillor’s. Many of the 27 short essays collected here (which appeared originally in the New Yorker, Esquire and elsewhere) deal with his father, Lou, to whom the book is dedicated.

Sedaris also writes here about the time he spent in France and the difficulty of learning another language. After several extended stays in a little Norman village and in Paris, Sedaris had progressed, he observes, “from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. ‘Is thems the thoughts of cows?’ I’d ask the butcher, pointing to the calves’ brains displayed in the front window.” But in English, Sedaris is nothing if not nimble: in one essay he goes from his cat’s cremation to his mother’s in a way that somehow manages to remain reverent to both of the departed. “Reliable sources” have told Sedaris that he has “tended to exhaust people,” and true to form, he will exhaust readers of this new book, too – with helpless laughter.

The good:

Sedaris’s stories are funny, intelligent, and dysfunctional. With writing both fresh and bitter, his semi-fictionalized personal snapshots put on display the horrifying, embarrassing, self-doubting, uncomfortable, and ultimately triumphant moments in his life. I predict you’ll be amused. And if you somehow fail to see parallels of yourself in some of his experiences, you’ve led a more charmed life than me.

The bad:

I can’t think of any reason not to read it. Maybe it won’t be to your taste, but don’t you take that risk with every book you choose?

The other:

The first time I read this book I flew through it. It felt light and humorous and not particularly memorable. The second time I read Me Talk Pretty One Day was a totally different experience. Jay and I were on a road trip. During a fourteen-hour driving day covering the blandest part of the Prairies, I chose to flip off the radio and read this book aloud. (Me Talk Pretty One Day – and really all of Sedaris’s oeuvre – benefit hugely from being read aloud. It allows the reader to pick up on the rhythm and timing of Sedaris’ comedic precision.) While reading the essay from which the title was plucked, Jay and I were laughing so much we were ugly crying. We nearly crashed.

Ever since, Sedaris has been Jay’s favourite author. Of the 15 books in our house that we say belong to Jay, three are by Sedaris.

Jay’s bookshelf, in no particular order:

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Leather by David Sedaris
– Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling three books
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Anchorboy by Jay Onrait
Kings of the Rings: 125 Years of the World’s Biggest Bonspiel by Sean Grassie
The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester
– two investing books
– a couple of childhood favourites

Not a bad selection, actually. For an accountant.

I got the chance to meet Sedaris when he was on a book tour for Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. Note: I don’t really care if fiction authors are likeable – but autobiography relies on building an affinity with the author/protagonist, and disliking him in person would tarnish his stories for me. I’m relieved to report that he’s almost precisely as charming and awkward in person as he is on paper (and presumably on the radio, although honestly American public radio is not part of my life). I couldn’t think of anything witty to say when he signed my book, but he wrote a flattering message anyway.

As always:

If you’re a friend, I’ll lend it to you. If you’re not, please visit one of your charming, musty, local libraries. If you want to own it for yourself, try your hardest to go to a bookstore – it’s half the fun.

S.E. Lund

Read Recently: Divergent

Title: Divergent (also book 2: Insurgent and book 3: Allegiant)
Author: Veronica Roth
Published in 2011 by Katherine Tegen books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers
Read on February 11, 2014
Recommended by: no one in particular. The movie trailer, I suppose.

Synopsis from the publisher:

In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves… or it might destroy her.

The gist:

It’s a creative and deliciously readable YA dystopian future novel with a strong female protagonist and a significant romantic storyline. Did you enjoy Hunger Games, The Gift,  Star Split, The House of the Scorpian, Uglies, et cetera? If yes, you will like this book. Possibly even more than those others.

The good:

Roth writes action well and her characters are layered and interesting. The protagonist, Beatrice (“Tris”), is the character with the clearest voice and personality of the group. That’s not surprising, really. Divergent is written from the first person. What is surprising is how likeable she is even when doing some incredibly unlikable things. In that, Roth has done a very good job in making her seem real, and also sort of kick ass.

The best aspect of these novels is the setting. But let’s put aside for a moment that I’m a sucker for this dystopian future stuff. By segregating the population into four groups (well, five really if I include the Factionless – and if I paid attention at all to the lessons of the series, I should include them) Roth demands that her readers consider where we would fit, and what benefits and sacrifices we would experience because of that choice. (If you’re wondering, I’d choose Erudite without hesitation. Amity would be torture.)

A lesson in self-examination, stereotypes and labels, government interference, survival instinct, terrifying technological advances, and the generally grey and complicated nature of humanity (with a surprising amount of death. Who are you Veronica? George R. R. Martin?), Divergent is a read that should resonate with you on a personal, moral, and political level.

The bad:

Though Tris is written very well, there is one part of her character that just doesn’t fit. Roth describes her as a sort of average-looking girl who grew up for 16 years in an Abnegation house without mirrors, without vanity, without compliments. Then she chooses Dauntless and really comes into her own. She finds her inner strength and daring and spirit appreciated. She becomes less clumsy and more fit. She becomes a fighter and finds things worth fighting for. At this time people start to be interested in her romantically.

Here’s where I have the problem: Maybe the Abnegation part of her, who isn’t used to being noticed, would ask “Why me?,” but I find it extremely hard to believe that her first reaction to romantic overtures would be “But I’m not as pretty as the other girls.” Tris has always known precisely how attractive she is, and didn’t seem to care too much. She was much more concerned about not being as strong, or tall, or fast, or well-trained as the others. The interest of a cute boy isn’t going to change her character that dramatically.

Also I found that the character arcs of a couple of other characters through the series are choppy and disappointing. Notably, Four.

The other:

Roth loves to describe the scent of things. Her descriptions of smells are vivid and sometimes beautifully worded, but really frequent. Almost distracting.

The Divergent film hits theatres on March 20, 2014 with Shailene Woodley (you might know her from The Descendants) playing Tris. The trailer looks pretty awesome. Also, Kate Winslet is in it, and she can do no wrong.

As always:

If you’re interested in reading this, please visit one of your charming, musty, local libraries. If you want to own it for yourself, try your hardest to GO TO A BOOKSTORE instead of an online retailer. (As a former bookseller, I must plead with you to keep those wondrous book havens alive). If at all possible, make it an independent bookstore, but in a pinch, even the giant corporate books/music/housewares/wrapping paper/Starbucks monstrosities will do.

S.E. Lund

Read Recently: Extraordinary

Title: Extraordinary
Author: David Gilmour
Published in 2013 by Patrick Crean editions, a division of HarperCollinsCanada
Read on January 1, 2014
Recommended by: the Giller Prize award committee (long list)

Synopsis from the publisher:

“Over the course of one Saturday night, a man and his half-sister meet at her request to spend the evening preparing for her assisted death. They drink and reminisce fondly, sadly, amusingly about their lives and especially her children, both of whom have led dramatic and profoundly different lives. Extraordinary is a gentle consideration of assisted suicide, but it is also a story about siblings — about how brothers and sisters turn out so differently; about how little, in fact, turns out the way we expect. In the end, this is a novel about the extraordinary business of being alive.”

Review:

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll notice that I’m a fan of wordiness. I like the taste of lots of adjectives in a row, and I like listing things in multiples, but verbosity is not David Gilmour’s racket.

Sometimes, you read a book of such beautiful simplicity that it makes you understand what being a storyteller truly means. I’m certain one blog or another has made some wordplay witticism about the book living up to its title, so I’ll not put to much time into that endeavour here. Instead, I’ll tell you that Extraordinary is one of the loveliest pieces of literature I’ve read in a long time.

Now, this author got a lot of (deserved) flack recently for stating openly that he only teaches authors who are “serious heterosexual guys” (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/27/author-david-gilmour-female-writers). What a disappointment. However, my new knowledge of his prejudices haven’t erased my enjoyment of this book.

I was a bit surprised that the book didn’t make a more political statement about assisted suicide, but in the end I thought it stood well on the implied – let’s call it “pro-choice” – framing of the issue, without an overt endorsement. The assisted suicide, though the catalyst for the characters’ interactions, felt more like a supplementary story line to the relationship between brother and sister.

As always:

If you’re a friend, I’ll lend it to you. If you’re not, please visit one of your charming, musty, local libraries. If you want to own it for yourself, try your hardest to GO TO A BOOKSTORE instead of an online retailer. (As a former bookseller, I must plead with you to keep those wondrous book havens alive). If at all possible, make it an independent bookstore, but in a pinch, even the giant corporate books/music/housewares/wrapping paper/Starbucks monstrosities will do.

S.E. Lund

Read Recently: Ready Player One

Title: Ready Player One
Author: Ernest Cline
Published: 2011 by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.
Read: last week of December 2013
Recommended by: Matt B.

Synopsis (part me, part book jacket):
In the year 2044, the real world is an ugly place. Most of humanity is plugged into a virtual utopia, the OASIS, that lets you be anything you want to be. It’s a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets. Somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune—and remarkable power—to whoever can unlock them.

Review:
I had a wonderful time reading this book, and I would happily read it again.

The main character, Parzival… I mean Wade Watts, is incredibly likeable (especially to a reader with a particularly acute case of nerd-attraction). He’s a nice mix of self-deprecation, loneliness, sarcasm, cockiness, and heroics, and though he is clearly framed as possessing the resourcefulness, knowledge, and dedication to compete for the BIG PRIZE, the reader is able to still cheer for him as an underdog. The plot is your typical quest narrative, but creative for all that. The dialogue is entertaining, and settings are vividly drawn.

On the other hand, I found there to be some pacing issues, particularly in the mid- to late chapters of the book. These resolve well enough in the final climactic scenes (plus there are giant robot monsters).

There was an unwelcome coldness in most every character, but particularly in Parzival. Death and devastation barely receive a reaction from him. I understand that apathy is a symptom of the world in which the story is set (violence, poverty, starvation in reality; bliss and wish fulfillment in the virtual universe), but it is applied inconsistently. Also, the story is set only thirty years from now. Apathy might be contagious, but this is unbelievable.

The writing itself is pretty good. Occasionally, clunky phrasing would pull me from the world of the novel, but overall I was fully immersed in the story. It’s not a difficult read, but the volume of pop culture references are enough to give your mind and memory a fair workout.

This novel plays to a specific audience. If you were born later than 1990, you will have trouble enjoying this book. The quest of the characters relies incredibly heavily on 1980’s pop culture. It’s fun if you were alive in the ’80’s, or know enough about the decade to get by, but would be terribly frustrating or boring if you don’t. Here’s a test. Do you know who/what the following things are? John Hughes, HAL, Wham!, Alf, Schoolhouse Rock!, 42, Skynet. If you said yes to all of them, you’ll enjoy it. Less than five? You might struggle.

There’s a nerd loophole though. If you don’t know the ’80’s specifically, but you’re a general sci-fi/fantasy or video game enthusiast, there are enough in-jokes and references to keep you entertained.

Final words: If you’re a friend, I’ll lend it to you. If you’re not, please visit one of your charming, musty, local libraries. If you want to own it for yourself, try your hardest to GO TO A BOOKSTORE instead of an online retailer. (I’m not going to trash Amazon, but as a former bookseller, I must plead with you to keep those wondrous book havens alive). If at all possible, make it an independent bookstore, but in a pinch, even the giant corporate books/music/housewares/wrapping paper/Starbucks monstrosities will do.

S.E. Lund