Veronique Darwin

Archive for the ‘Book Club’ Category

Why isn’t everyone reading Walden?

In Book Club, Inspiration on September 2, 2012 at 10:58 pm

I am on page 77 of Walden and I have so far read Henry David Thoreau’s take on mortgages, fashion, DIY, travel and school. Thoreau published his masterpiece in 1854, but it feels so relevant – too relevant to be so good, so insightful. I don’t know why we aren’t all reading Walden right now.

(from mapsofdeserts.wordpress.com)

Walden is the account of a social experiment. Thoreau built a cabin and lived on the edge of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts for two years in search of meaning in his life. Isn’t that what we are all reading right now? Memoirs of people looking for the meaning of life?

Thoreau is a philosopher of sorts – a trancendentalist. We read his quotes everywhere – on bookmarks and graduation gifts. His school of thought says that man is inherently good and needs to find ways to be independent and self-reliant or else he will be corrupted by organized religion and politics. Isn’t that a lot of what we’re reading right now? Books arguing for the power of the individual?

Thoreau on mortgages: “And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him.”

Thoreau on fashion: “My tailoress tells me gravely, ‘They do not make them so, now,” not emphasizing the ‘They’ at all, as if she quoted an authority as impersonal as the Fates.”

Thoreau on DIY: “Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter? … Where is this division of labor to end? and what object does it finally serve? No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself.”

Thoreau on travel: “This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it, reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once. ‘What!’ exclaim a million Irishmen.”

Thoreau on school: ” ‘But,’ says one, ‘you do not mean that the students should go to work with their hands instead of their heads?’ I do not mean that exactly, but I mean something which he might think a good deal like that; I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?”

(from nevalee.wordpress.com)

I can’t get over how much I want to be reading this 160 year old book right now. It’s exciting to feel that sometimes we can find the answers to the most pressing issues in the oldest, wisest places. I’ve maybe learned something about why people read the Bible: the answers were here, all along.

It might be that Walden caught me at the right moment in my life, and this moment in my life has coincided with the right moment in time.

Me, on mortgages: I am contemplating, in the Vancouver housing market, the possibility that if things go on this way I may never be able to buy my own home. And if by chance I am able to successfully buy my own home, still never own it.

Me, on fashion: As a young woman bombarded by media, I’ve developed a bad habit for spending money on frivolous items, such as the latest clothing and other ephemeral trends.

Me, on DIY: I’m attempting to eat and buy local in order to offset the negative impacts of globalization.

Me, on travel: I am at the point in my life where I’m supposed to travel, but also at the point in my life where I’m supposed to settle down.

Me, on school: I left school last year and am going back this year, all in search of what?

I don’t know why everyone isn’t talking about Walden right now. Then again, this headline was in The New York Times this morning. Maybe everyone is, and I just haven’t been listening.

I Ate a Book!

In Book Club on July 30, 2012 at 4:55 pm

Not really, but reading fast! So fast!

The Blue Light Project is the latest book by Timothy Taylor, the Vancouver-based author who wrote Stanley Park.

(photo taken from arts.nationalpost.com)

I will tell you nothing about the book except for this:

I will do a review once I’m done, but I’ll probably just post another Youtube video of parkour.

Timothy Taylor was previously nominated for the Giller Prize  for Stanley Park so I will take this as an opportunity to tell you that as you were busy reading and thinking about my blog posts from a few weeks ago about how I am doing two self-made, self-entertaining challenges where I read a Pulitzer prize-winning book from each decade and also a Governor’s General prize-winning book from each decade, I changed my mind.

I am doing the Pulitzer thing, because I want to read some American classics I haven’t read, but I am a lot more interested in modern Canadian authors. So I am going to choose from the past ten years of Giller-prize nominees (not necessarily winners) one book from 2001 until now.

First up: Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje.

Check out an excellently written review of my first Pulitzer book, The Age of Innocence, and then also a series of poorly-written book reviews I recorded in a journal of mine that is on paper not blog.

Anyway, I have to go sit in a hammock and read this thing.

Badly Written Book Reviews

In Book Club, Literature, My Writing on July 28, 2012 at 4:22 pm

I have a Moleskine book journal in which I write terribly-written book reviews.

(By the way, on the cover of this journal is a confusing set of titles (look closer), some of which I know are books, some of which I think, okay, this must be a book, but it’s written in Chinese characters, thanks. I’ve tried to find a forum where someone has asked what this list is all about and someone else answered it but of course I’m not going to start a forum discussion about this (I will instead write a blog post with this as my hidden intention). I think I want to know really badly because I secretly want Moleskine to dictate my reading curriculum. I miss English class!)

Parentheses aside, I keep a book journal mainly because Moleskine made this available for me. Also because it helps me to recall what I thought of books and it feels good to flip through and be proud of how many books I’ve read. What makes me less proud is the level of my book reviews.

Here are some of these convoluted reviews. If you would like my opinion on a book, you can post a comment, and if I’ve read it I will give you something similar to what you find below. If I haven’t read it yet, maybe I will read it now! Thanks for your interest.

(Disclaimer: I got this book journal for Christmas 2010 so this is sadly not me writing as a child.)

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery:

“So wonderful … This book and its movie (of which I’ve only seen bits) breathe romance. The book, and Anne herself, are a dream, but touch my emotions like they must be real.”

Bossypants by Tina Fey:

“This book is inspirational, and so exciting. I loved the description of her father, and of her job at the YMCA.”

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville:

“I love the form of the book, and how the book always comments on the form of the book, which is: how can I best tell you about the whalebut the person telling it is very, very tangential.”

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy:

“I like Cormac McCarthy’s writing and though I don’t feel like I relate to it, I’d read more, at least to feel like I do for a moment.”

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin:

“I loved this book for its use of language, its ability to take me in and display to me with everything it has another world I knew nothing about: art possession in New York City.”

On the Road by Jack Kerouac:

On the Road runs along like I’m dreaming, but then I reread a sentence and realize that no, someone else wrote this down. Someone wrote, “and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?” on the last page of his novel.”

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce:

“I am happy I have read this book, but I’m not sure I was happy all the while that I was reading this book … I wish I could be more thorough when reading, but alas, I’m not always or ever that way.”

Reading The Age of Innocence

In Book Club on July 16, 2012 at 8:37 pm

I like to review books before I’m done them, not because I’m a lazy journalist, but because I’m not a journalist, I’m a person reading a book.

The thing is I forget about a book once I’m done it. The book doesn’t lose its impact on me – I think I am probably shaped in one way from every book I read, whether it’s that I learned a new word or I changed the way I live my life – I just lose the book. I put it away or I return it to the library or I lend it to a forgetful friend and I simply don’t think about it for a while (unless I am recommending it or talking about it at Book Club). I certainly don’t ever remember a book’s ending.

I would rather tell you about a book when I am fully immersed in it, when I am breathless about it. And this way I won’t tell you the ending. I will only tell you the middle, which is by far the worst part of any book, and therefore okay that I spoil it for you.

Well, here’s the middle of The Age of Innocence: Tension is rising! Maybe Newland and Ellen will get together! Where the heck is May, Newland’s bride-to-be anyway? Oh yeah, she’s in Florida! Newland just had a pillow fight!

(from Wikipedia – not my cover, but so cute! It looks like she stapled it together.)

Yes, I know: Edith Wharton sounds like a hoot. I say this somewhat sarcastically, somewhat with honest surprise. This is a woman writing in the 1920’s about the 1870s. I haven’t ever heard the word hoot next to Edith Wharton’s name, a name I hear often in articles I breeze by in The New Yorker and other literary sources (sure, I’ll give it to you, what am I talking about?). I thought Edith Wharton was a crotchety lady writing about crotchety people. But no – it’s all about escaping crotchetiness. And Ellen Olenska is awesome!

I am actually so excited to be reading this book right now. I like reading three books at once because I like to be braggy and also because I like to discover the merits of books by seeing how much I want to read one over another.

For example, right now I am also reading The Wealthy Barber Returns, and a light-hearted French novel called Les Yeux Jaunes des Crocodiles. I’ve read enough in French that French requires equivalent brain-using skill as English does to read, so this means that a novel should win out over an old novel I am forcing myself to read through a Pulitzer Challenge, and a non-fiction book about money. All the credit goes to David Chilton from London, Ontario who is hilarious and just feels like my best friend, and also to Edith Wharton, this awesome lady from the 20’s.

My favourite lines so far from The Age of Innocence:

1) I already mentioned the pillow fight, which takes place in a brief re-telling of a party where I couldn’t quite figure out if all these things actually happened in the literal sense. If yes, so fun:

“And finally, about midnight, he assisted in putting a goldfish in one’s visitor’s bed, dressed up a burglar in the bathroom of a nervous aunt, and saw in the small hours by joining in a pillow-fight that ranged from the nurseries to the basement.”

2) Ellen says this to Newland. Ellen is from Europe!:

“Is there nowhere in an American house where one may be by one’s self? You’re so shy, and yet you’re so public. I always feel as if I were in the convent again – or on the stage, before a dreadfully polite audience that never applauds.”

3) And a few things I think apply even today:

“He arrived late at the office, perceived that his doing so made no difference whatever to any one, and was filled with sudden exasperation at the elaborate futility of his life.”

“Winsett was not a journalist by choice. He was a pure man of letters, untimely born in a world that had no need of letters.”

So, if you are following along with me in the Pulitzer Challenge, or in my Governor General’s Award challenge which I have yet to begin according to my rules, then I would recommend choosing this book!

If you are doing the challenge, I would love for you to comment about it, or to tell me which book you are choosing instead of this one. I will continue to write blog posts as though everyone ever is doing this challenge I made up. So congratulations, guys!

PS: I am writing to you from a beautiful converted green house on Denman Island, British Columbia. More on THAT to come.

Challenging the Challenge

In Book Club on July 12, 2012 at 1:37 pm

Noticing that the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is entirely American, and that I am not, I decided to challenge the challenge by also reading a Governor General Literary Prize winning book from each decade. I won’t read one for the 1920s because the award was first given out in 1936. Below is the list I will choose from. Once again, please give me any recommendations from any decade, and also any recommendations on Pulitzer books too.

The beauty is that I could one day be eligible for this one. The beauty is also that I can compare decades in America and Canada. The beauty is also Canada itself.

1930s

1940s

1950s

1960s

1970s

1980s

1990s

2000s

2010s

Pulitzer Challenge

In Book Club on July 10, 2012 at 6:38 pm

No, I’m not trying to win the Pulitzer (in Fiction) but I am going to do a self-prompted challenge in homage to the fact that the Pulitzer did not award a Fiction prize for 2012. I’m not going to try and say I care a lot about the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, because I wasn’t really bothered by it one way or the other until now. Now people are irate and I am going to do a challenge.

(I don’t know if people are irate. One of the three jury members who had to read 300 books is a little irate, but also sort of apologetic about the whole thing.)

The Pulitzer Prize gold medal award 한국어: 퓰리처상 ...

The Pulitzer Prize gold medal award (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The details of the situation aren’t all revealed, but it seems that the panel who picks the winning books was not impressed enough by the three books presented as a shortlist to pick one as their Pulitzer winner.

I just think this is so sad. Never mind not being one of the 300 books of 2012 presented to the jury, imagine being one of the three best books of the year and then making a panel of people decide for the first time in history that your three books suck so much they’re actually going to protest and not give an award.

I don’t know that this is how it went, but this how I would feel, as an author of one of those books. Maybe for a few minutes, then I’d be like, remember when I was just writing blog posts?

I feel that I haven’t given the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction enough attention until now. Congratulations, Pulitzer, if that’s why you were pulling this move. You did it.

So I am going to read one Pulitzer Prize winning book from each decade. Then I am going to read the three books that made it onto the shortlist this year. I will choose my own book from each decade unless you feel so inclined to comment below and reccomend for me a title. I’m just going to skip the 1910’s because if I didn’t I would never even start this challenge. I will post regular updates that are like, I hate the 30s!

Anyone want to join me?

1910s

1920s

1930s

1940s

1950s

1960s

1970s

1980s

Entries from this point on include the finalists listed after the winner for each year.

1990s

2000s

2010s

(list taken from Wikipedia)

 

3 Things I am Reading

In Book Club, Literature on May 15, 2012 at 11:38 pm

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway

“He used to take his wife and son to Vraca for picnics in the summer. From there you could see most of the city, a fact that had taken on a whole new significance in recent months.”

I saw Steven Galloway speak at an SFU World Literature event a couple years ago and was struck by how funny he is. This book, despite its title and cover page, isnot funny. I just read through a joke and even that wasn’t funny ha-ha:

“A woman has a friend come to visit … The friend comes in, and the woman asks if she would like a coffee. ‘No,’ the friend says, ‘thanks, I’m fine.’ The woman says ‘Great, now I can take a shower.’ “

The joke (if you didn’t get it) is about the lack of water during the siege of Sarajevo. The book provides an intense immersion into the streets of the city during the war, but doesn’t provide much of the context surrounding it. I like when novels stay novels: I’m reading this to learn about what characters might do in this type of situation. I’m not reading to learn about this type of situation.

I have so far been exposed to four characters’ points of view. No one is happy. Some are dealing better than others, but all are dealing so well. This is another thing novels can do: use stronger than life characters. There is a cellist who brings his cello out into the street, where he will most likely get killed by a sniper, in order to play the same adaggio every day. There’s a reason we root for the musicians in Titanic: beauty in the depths of horror is almost more beautiful than beauty alone.

On Writing, by Stephen King

“My mother said it was good enough to be a book. Nothing anyone has said to me since has made me feel any happier.”

Having never read a Stephen King novel, I asked myself, what does he have to tell me about writing? He claims in his three forewords that he doesn’t want to tell me anything about writing but instead about himself, and how he came to writing. Good, because I don’t know anything about Stephen King.

King is a household name in my mind’s household because I see a new book of his on the shelves every month. I couldn’t possibly read Stephen King as fast as he writes Stephen King, so I haven’t started. I imagined King to be a mix of Goosebumps* and John Grisham, though I’m not sure why.

I can tell you Stephen King is chatty. He is a wonderful storyteller. I am reading through his childhood anecdotes eagerly waiting for the punchline, the climax, knowing I am in the hands of someone who has done this before.

My favourite part of the book so far is the page before the title page. It is an excerpt of a story written by King as a child. It was printed on a typewriter so there are letters missing every once in a while. The prodigious parts that stick out to me are the way King is able to break paragraphs at the right spot, and make short, perfect sentences like “Robert Steppes was a compulsive jumper.” Perhaps this says something about my current insecurities, that I feel I don’t break paragraphs up as well as King did in primary school.

La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh, by Philippe Claudel

“‘Tao-lai,’ dit Monsieur Linh, selon la formule de politesse qu’on utilise dans la langue du pays natal pour dire bonjour à quelqu’un. ‘Eh bien, bonjour Monsieur Tao-lai,’ dit l’homme en lui souriant.”

I think it’s embarrassing that I often can’t follow stories in French, for I should be (and am) able to speak and read French fluently. It’s something about the story shape that gets lost to me when reading words that aren’t English. I understand most words, and most sentences, and most pages, but the story itself feels like parts have been taken out, like characters have merged. Maybe I fall asleep when I’m reading in French.

Philippe Claudel does a fine job of telling a story – this confusion is my fault entirely. The book reads like a parable, like an everyman story, perhaps because of its size, or  because of the distance between the reader and Monsieur Linh. We know who he is and what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, but he feels a bit like a foreigner in the book, just like he is in the new country to which he is emigrating: he doesn’t communicate with the reader directly; we don’t know his first name.

Sometimes short books seem bigger than themselves, whereas big books bring in so much that they can’t help but be confined to their size. I love little stories, because I can read them so quickly and I can also read them so slowly. As you can see by my frequency of “3 Things I am Reading” posts, I only read them quickly!

Again, I will read the first book someone suggests for me in the Comments section below, and will write about it soon in a “3 Things I am Reading.”

*Don’t click on the Goosebumps link: it’s terrifying!

Irma Voth

In Book Club, Literature on May 7, 2012 at 9:19 pm

In Miriam Toews‘ latest book, Irma Votha film director tells Irma (Toews’ quintessential sarcastic girl trying to escape her Mennonite heritage) that he wants his film’s main star to be “too big for her body, a living secret, squeezed out through here, here, and especially here.” He points at his chest, his eyes. Irma thinks he’s nuts. It’s not until later on we realise he’s a renowned Mexican film director, not just a crazy guy, and he has just made an influential film about Irma’s Mennonite town of Chihuahua, Mexico, about a group of people who have never seen a movie.

But that, believe it or not, is not the main story. The main story, like Toews’ The Flying Troutmans, and A Complicated Kindness, involves escape, relationships with sisters, and high-paced, quotationless dialogue scenes with scores of hilarious characters.

One of these is a baby sister Irma and her sister Aggie are entrusted to take care of. We get reminded of her often: “Ximena (the baby) was still very much alive.” Ximena is always doing things within scenes: “Aggie and I badly danced the tango in the dying light while Ximena punched away the ghosts,” and “she could go for ages without blinking like she was challenging you to fill the empty whites of her eyes up with something better than what she was seeing right then. She could wait forever.” Ximena is, like Irma says, “very much alive,” and that’s what I love about Miriam Toews. Every single character is so cool.

Toews’ setting descriptions should make every writer who is afraid of writing setting think oh, you can do this?:

I didn’t know what to compare the Zocale to. Maybe a very large field of corn, every stalk a human being, on a desert night sky packed with stars, or a page in a notebook where every available space is filled with ink, words, letters and parts of letters.

Toews’ subject matter is tragic and her tone is wistful but the combination is so funny. So funny.

A description of her most villainous character reads: “My father looked so tired. Daughters, I imagined him saying to himself. Who are these people?”

Miriam Toews is, I think, my favourite.

Who is your favourite?

3 Things I am Reading

In Book Club, Literature on April 29, 2012 at 10:26 pm

I like to read books in threes. This allows me the chance to avoid one while not making another feel bad. It also makes for piles.

Jonathan Safran Foer has a short story I love called “Here We Aren’t So Quickly” composed entirely of sentences of the style: “I was not…,” “You were…,” “I always…,” “You never…,” “We went…”. One sentence reads “You were not able to cope with a stack of more than three books on my bedside table.”

The three are usually of different categories: in this case, modern literature, memoir, and a German translation. Normal.

All have sticky notes on sentences I like, and all have post-it notes on the back flap with words I don’t know. Current words: syncopation,puerile, proselytizing. Please help me, because if you don’t I will never look them up.

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs

“When will it sink into my skull that there is no such thing as an obscure Bible verse?”

This book follows A.J. Jacobs as he decides to follow the Bible literally for a year. He doesn’t just try to stone adulterers with pebbles as he passes them on the street, he tries his best to devote himself to God. Though he confesses he started the year as an agnostic, one of my favourite things about this book is that it proves that changing behaviour changes the way you think.

I find Jacobs’ books so exciting (The Know-It-All follows him as he reads the Encylopedia Britannica from A-Z) because they follow absurd creative processes. As readers, we get a lot of the benefit of what Jacobs has done: we learn the Bible, and the Encyclopedia, and we see how they relate to modern life. We laugh, too because Jacobs is a truly funny person.

Listen to this TED talk by A.J. Jacobs about The Year of Living Biblically. Hearing AJ’s voice made me go, “Oh. I get it now.”

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

“There is one line of thought according to which all you can truly say of any historical event … is that ‘something happened’.”

I just started this book, so don’t really ask me about it. I found out about Julian Barnes, a very well-respected contemporary British writer, in an excellent interview with CBC Radio’s Writers and Company. I bought Flaubert’s Parrot at Companion Books on Hastings St. in Burnaby because Eleanor Wachtel read out the opening sentence to what I thought was Flaubert’s Parrot but isn’t, because I opened it and that isn’t the opening sentence.

This book reminds me of what I like about Ian McEwan and John Updike: wistful detail, and a strong, scared man’s point of view. Things I like so far include that the main character’s girlfriend’s name is Veronica and is nicknamed ‘Vron,’ something I’ve never considered, and also that he is friends with two other boys and this really cool one named Adrian. Nobody really likes each other but all are obsessed with Adrian.

Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann

Anything written about Today should be destroyed immediately, just like all real letters are crumpled or torn up, unfinished and unmailed, all because they were written, but cannot arrive, Today.

I am reading Malina because of a blog post by Bookslut. I get convinced, whenever anyone talks passionately about a book, that there’s something worth feeling from reading that book, so I do.

from Bookslut: “I can’t leave this Ingeborg Bachmann novel alone, this Malina. I keep picking at it, like you pick at a skin problem. It might be the reason that someday I learn German. All I can think about this novel is, She nailed it. She nailed it, I wonder how you say that in German, it was like there was a thing, a problem, a creature flopping around in the middle of the room and it had to be killed and she just stabbed a fork into it and it stopped moving…”

I don’t know and don’t care what Malina is about. It is covered in sticky notes for good sentences. I think the character Malina might be a product of the imagination of the main character, a woman named Ich (‘I’ in German), or she a product of his. So far she’s in a horrible relationship with this bossy man named Ivan. She is more desperate than any of us would care to admit we have been. She sits by the phone and cuts off her sentences and bows down to him, but somehow it’s cute, lovable. Now that I write it, I realize that I probably shouldn’t be feeling this way. Maybe I’ll become a bit more feminist by the end of the book. I did just finish Part 1, “Happy with Ivan.”

Now to you. What is the book you feel most passionately about?

I promise to read the first book suggested to me in the Comments section below, and to post about it in my next “3 Things I Am Reading.”

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