Back Again — With Books!

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Why is book shopping part of any vacation I take? It’s not as if we don’t have bookstores in Halifax. I think it’s something to do with the feeling of freedom from constraints that holidays bring. If I’m not responsible for work, regular meals, or housecleaning, surely I can be irresponsible in other ways too! Not that buying books is necessarily irresponsible. As my wise sister once pointed out to me (and she’s a person who has bought a book or two in her day…) a new book costs about the same as a decent (not even a really good) bottle of wine — and it lasts a lot longer and can be shared more widely! Besides, I’m an English professor, a critic, and a book blogger: books are necessities, not luxuries, right? (I feel pretty safe asking this rhetorical question here, since people who disagree are unlikely to be reading.)

My book haul this time is actually quite modest, especially considering some were gifts and one is a loan from my mother. I could actually go “book shopping” just on her shelves and make out better than in most bookstores, as there is a lot of overlap between our interests and tastes. Her Bloomsbury section alone is a treasure trove! And if you want to read about the history of the Balkans, she’s there for you. But I restrained myself and took only Carol Shields’s Small Ceremonies. I’m teaching Unless again this fall and this is one of Shields’s that I have never read. It has a great opening line — understated but immediately engaging in a way that reminds me of Anne Tyler: “Sunday night. And the thought strikes me that I ought to be happier than I am.”

olafsdottirMy mother and I made our traditional trip to Hager Books in Kerrisdale, which has a relatively small but carefully curated selection that always provides many tempting options. Here too I was restrained, though! I chose Penelope Lively’s Dancing Fish and Ammonites, which I had eyed there last year in hardcover but which is now available in a neat paperback. I liked Oleander, Jacaranda a lot; this later memoir looks as if it will focus more on Lively’s writing life. My other choice was more impulsive. In general my book browsing this trip was influenced by my frustration with the highly-touted The Goldfinch, and as a result I was drawn to books I had heard little or nothing about — which has its own risks, of course! (Serendipity isn’t always the worst guide, though, as I found when against all precedent I chose Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden a few years back.) I don’t know exactly what made me pluck Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s Butterflies in November off the shelf, but once I had, everything about it appealed to me, from the cover design to the description of it as “a charming story of a free-spirited woman who reaches a life-changing juncture and embarks on a whimsical Icelandic road trip that sets her on a new course.” Who could resist? (I’m not sure if I mean the book or “a whimsical Icelandic road trip,” which actually sounds pretty inviting to me. If you come calling in a month or two and I’m nowhere to be found, I may be in Reykjavik.)

Small-Blessings_tpWords like “charming” can be warning signs for me, and yet I was also drawn to Martha Woodroof’s Small Blessings, which has a blurb from Oprah.com calling it “a charmer.” Oh dear, right? But it’s about a college professor and a book store manager, and (like Small Ceremonies) it looked like it would have an Anne-Tyleresque vibe. I looked at it in Hager Books but decided against it. When I stopped in at Indigo a couple of days later, though, there it was again, and this time I bought it. I read most of it during my long travel day home and finished it up this morning. It is charming. It’s not as good as the best of Anne Tyler, but it has the same interest in fairly ordinary people figuring out how to be happy, which is nowhere near as small a topic as it sounds. I appreciated how unpretentious the novel was: it never seemed to be straining after something the novelist couldn’t do. Usually I admire ambition: once again, I blame The Goldfinch — which, while not exactly a failure, seemed arrogantly inflated — for my seeking modesty for a while. Small Blessings does a lot less than The Goldfinch, and it doesn’t even aspire to be a novel of ideas (as far as I could tell). But what it does, it does nicely, with (yes) charm.

My other Indigo purchase is similarly small-scale, though not necessarily unambitious: I chose a volume of Alice Munro stories to add to the too-few I already have. I’m always vowing to read more short fiction in general and more Munro in particular. I chose Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage because it includes “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which I have read and found thrilling and deeply moving. (It’s the basis for the film Away from Her, which I thought was very good.)

The only other book I bought on the trip was a slim book about Emily Carr, from the Vancouver Art Gallery. I have always loved Carr’s paintings, particularly the ones that are almost entirely trees: they so wonderfully capture the mystery and majesty of the coastal forests I grew up beside. Perhaps because her work was so casually familiar to me, I have never tried to actually learn about Carr as an artist, though I have owned her autobiography Klee Wyck since I was a child. There’s something poignant about looking at Carr’s rich, dark woods now, when fires are burning along the coast and this kind of dire forecasting is in the news:

Over the next century, climate scientists predict that Vancouver Island’s iconic trees—such as the cedar redwoods, western hemlocks and Douglas Firs—could die off in large numbers, completely transforming the island from a rainforest ecosystem to something else entirely.

The other books in my photo are also artsy. One is a collection of Arts & Crafts postcards, a souvenir from my parents’ recent trip to England. (My problem with this sort of thing is that the cards are always so lovely that I hesitate to use them as they are intended! Maybe I should buy one of those photo frames with a whole bunch of spaces and create something decorative out of them.) And finally, we visited a wonderful woman who is a dear friend of my parents and who recently celebrated her 100th birthday. Knowing my love of 19th-century literature, she very kindly gave me a beautiful Jane Austen “daybook” from the British Library. It is full of elegant illustrations and choice quotations from Austen’s novels. I hate to sully it with my not-so-elegant handwriting, but it would be very useful for me to enter the birthdays of everyone in my family: maybe if I did that I wouldn’t be late with gifts for anyone again!

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My trip was about a lot more than books, of course: that’s just the part it seems appropriate to write much about here. Most important was the chance to spend time with my parents, and with my brother and sister and their families, and to catch up with some of my cherished friends. I was very happy to be able to do all that, even in the middle of a heat wave (and even when the city was blanketed in smoke from the fires). It’s good for my soul to reconnect with them all, and it’s also always restorative to soak in the beauty of the mountains and the sea.

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Vancouver Vacation: Sun, Fun, and Family

I’m back from another trip to Vancouver, this one organized mostly around the festivities for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. It was glorious weather the entire week, which was an especially good thing for the big party — a great event featuring family, old friends, lots of food and wine, and four musical performances from Bulgarian dance music to Bartok violin sonatas.

This was a shorter trip than my last one and involved quite a few family events, so I didn’t get around the city quite as much or see as many of my own old or newer friends (sadly, including Liz, with whom I had such a delightful lunch last year). Next time! But the city was as breathtakingly, unbelievably beautiful as ever:

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And my parents’ garden was as tranquil as ever, with its colorful pots, shady trees, and soothing “gurglers”:

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And Granville Island (my happy place!) was as bustling and tempting as always:

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And, of course, there’s always time to do a little book shopping:

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My mother and I went on our traditional outing to Hager Books, which is small but nicely ‘curated’ and so always has particularly tempting options. I bought something old (Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence), something new (Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland) and something that’s a bit of a gamble (Zoë Ferraris’s Finding Nouf, a mystery set in Saudi Arabia which, if it turns out to be well-written and smart, is a possible contender for my detective fiction class — I’m always on the hunt for books that offer a different perspective or use the form for different kinds of inquiries — we’ll see how it goes).

I picked up Heyer’s Friday’s Child at Carson Books, a used book store in my parents’ neighborhood. It’s a fun place to rummage around, though overall the prices strike me as a bit high for second-hand. This is a pristine copy of a Heyer I’ve never read, though, so I snapped it up. I also bought an Inspector Morse novel there, because something about being around my folks always reminds me that I haven’t read any of these (they are big Morse fans), but I started it and wasn’t grabbed, so I left it behind for them to enjoy. (I’m sure my Morse days will come: for my sins, I’m unmoved by the TV show as well. In the meantime, though, I may try the prequel show Endeavor, which they all highly recommended.)

And then at the big Chapters downtown (which, once you get up to the third floor, past all the frou-frou stuff that comes first, has a pretty big selection of actual books) I found two books from my standing wish-list: E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia (because you can never have too much British social satire in your collection) and Harry Karlinsky’s The Stonehenge Letters — contemporary Canadian, so a bit of a rarity and a risk for me, but recommended to me by Steven Beattie, who knows a thing or two about Can Lit. I gave it a good look in the store before deciding to actually buy it, and I like his instincts: it looks meta-historical and original, but not so quirky I either won’t get it or won’t like it.

Now I have to get myself re-organized and on track for what remains of the summer!

Vancouver: By the Books!

I’m back from my trip to Vancouver. Including travel days, I was on vacation for 11 days, making this the longest trip I’ve taken in ages. It was wonderful to spend so much time with my family and to meet up with so many of my friends — among them the wonderful Liz of Something More, who is every bit as smart and witty and energetic in person as she is online. A special treat was getting to know my newest nephew, who made it to almost three  before coming face to face with his Aunt Rohan. There was lots of good food and drink and general conviviality; the weather was spectacular, and so, as always, was the scenery. A small sample will make you wonder why anyone bothers vacationing (or, for that matter, living) anywhere else:

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Sunset at Kits Beach

 

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Along the Seawall

 

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The Beach at Spanish Banks

 

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Along Kits Point

 

Plaza at Granville Island
My happy place:
the deck at Granville Island Market

 

But enough about all that! This is a book blog, so of course what you want to know about is whether I had any bookish adventures along with all that socializing and sightseeing. Well, of course I did. Here’s the stack of books I either read, bought, or borrowed on my trip:

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The Woman Upstairs and Jane and Prudence were the books I brought along to read on the plane. Barbara Pym was excellent company from Halifax to Toronto: I appreciated her much more after reading Harrison Solow’s Felicity & Barbara Pym, so I was happy to find when I arrived in Vancouver that my mother had helpfully picked Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings from her collection and put them out for me. As you can see from the picture, I have “borrowed” them to read at my leisure! (I promise, I will give them back to her … next time she visits me here. See how cleverly I’m adding in incentives for her to come all this way?) The Magnificent Spinster is hers as well: one of the fun things about visiting my parents is exploring their incredibly well-stocked and various shelves, from the rows of vintage Penguin Classics in the living room to the mysteries shelved two deep in the study to my mother’s Bloomsbury nook:

Bloomsbury Corner

From Toronto to Vancouver I made good progress on The Woman Upstairs, which I had suggested for my F2F book club for August; I finished it up a day or two after I got there. I was pretty disappointed in it: it seemed heavy-handed and straining towards significance. Nora’s anger was particularly uninteresting to me, largely because it was so insistent. Though the overt allusion is to Jane Eyre, I found myself thinking more about Villette as I read it. Lucy Snowe is a much more layered and complex character — or perhaps I should say characterization: Brontë gives us mysteries, deception, and self-deception where I felt that Messud gives us mostly clichés and plot twists. And speaking of twists, the one at the end is painfully predictable, isn’t it? I ended up feeling that I had once again made the mistake of following the hype. But perhaps as I think it over more, and after we’ve discussed it in our group, I’ll realize how this preliminary reaction is inadequate.

Also in the pile is Arabella, which I bought myself as a treat at the big Chapters downtown. I ended up reading most of it on the flights home: it was sweet and cheerful and not too demanding, which is just about right for a stressful flying day. (Overall I was pleased with how well I handled the flying on this trip — there was a minimum of armrest clutching, for one thing, and my “self-talk” strategies were more effective than usual, even during turbulence. Still, even at its best it’s a crowded, uncomfortable, and disconcerting experience, isn’t it?)

My other purchases were from Hager Books, one of the very few independent stores left in Vancouver. From their carefully curated selection, I chose Gift from the Sea, which I was inspired to buy because of Litlove’s wonderful essay on Anne Morrow Lindbergh in the April issue of Open Letters Monthly. I had planned to read it on the plane home but didn’t feel well enough to concentrate on it, so now I have it to look forward too. And I chose Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures for the contrasting reason that I’d never heard of it (or him) before and was intrigued that Hager had several of his titles in stock, as if he’s a readerly favorite. Besides that, of course, I also thought it looked interesting! Has anyone read any of Hellenga’s novels? If you hated them, probably best not to tell me that I may have wasted my Hager’s opportunity on the wrong thing!

In the Woods is there because I ordered a book for a gift to be sent to Vancouver ahead of my arrival, and I wanted something to add it so I’d get free shipping! I chose it because Tana French is a name that keeps coming up when I ask for mystery recommendations. I’d been avoiding it because it begins with bad things happening to young children, but I need to refresh my mystery reading. (Pretty soon, in fact, I have to order books for another round of the ‘Women & Detective Fiction’ seminar, so you’ll be seeing more questions about that here later.)

palfreyThe book I liked best of the ones I read on my trip is actually not shown here because I finished it and decided I really shouldn’t kidnap yet another of my mother’s books. It was Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, and it is by far my favorite of the novels by Taylor that I’ve read. It’s got the same clear-eyed, almost ruthless perspective on people’s foibles and self-deceptions but is also both funny and poignant. It was on the shelf next to Mollie Panter-Downes’s One Fine Day, which I did make off with. Really, if I lived in Vancouver, I would hardly need bookstores or libraries at all!

And now, back to my regular life. . I’m pleased with how much I got done on different projects before I left, including the Middlemarch for Book Clubs site, the reviews for Open Letters, and the draft of the Dick Francis essay (now in the editor’s hands); it’s time to think about how I want to use the rest of the time I have before teaching once again becomes the #1 priority. First, though, I have to get over my jet lag …