Shelf Life: June 2011

Happy Canada Day, kids! I love it when it falls on a Friday and we get an extra long weekend in the summer.

I mentioned yesterday how I’d like to get more social in regards to books and reading – normally such a solitary activity – so I’m going to try a new series I’m calling Shelf Life.

Each month I’ll post brief notes and reviews of the books I’ve read, and solicit recommendations from you guys.

June was an eclectic month, reading everything from cookbooks to novels to poetry. A couple of humour books, and two graphic novels which did not live up to their potential.

Yes, it is possible to read a cookbook.

56. Gourmet Preserves Chez Madelaine, by Madelaine Bullwinkel
I’m rather inexperienced when it comes to making jams, jellies and preserves – in fact, I wasn’t clear on the difference between those three terms before I read Gourmet Preserves. I didn’t know how to tell if a batch has reached its gel point. Or what that even meant. I’d made exactly one jelly before, and I required my hand to be held throughout the entire process. It turns out it’s not actually that hard.

The introductory chapters give clear step-by-step instructions for everything you need to know to make preserves work, and the recipes are delicious. I’ve tried three so far: two batches of strawberry jam, a rhubarb and fig jam, and a blueberry jam – all came out fabulously.

57. A Storm of Swords & 58. A Feast for Crows, both by George R R Martin
I read the first two books, A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, in May, and they were followed closely by the final two books in print so far (the fifth volume, A Dance with Dragons, comes out in July).

Initially I began the first one to prepare myself for the show (which was excellent). I’m not a huge fan of fantasy, but this series largely revolves around political intrigue at court with an extensive cast of characters who can – and do – die.

Ok, ok, there are hints of wights and, eventually, dragons, but they take backstage to war, betrayal, honour and, above all, complex characters worth knowing. I’m hooked.

59. A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
It’s billed as a novel, but it’s really more a series of linked short stories spanning several decades. Characters weave in and, more often, out. Narrator changes; point of view changes from first, to third and, yes, even second. One story is told through PowerPoint. The concluding tale is kind of sci-fi speculative fiction. It’s crazy.

It won this year’s Pulitzer Prize. I’m not sure how much that means. Prizes are notoriously inconsistent and given for various reasons, but I enjoyed Goon Squad. A very different sort of book.

60. Open Secrets, by Alice Munro
Many of the stories are set in Carstairs, a small town in Alberta, and loosely overlap or reference characters in other stories. She’s a master of her craft, and yet…

I love Alice Munro, I do. But her women, like Margaret (my superhero) Atwood’s, often leave me feeling depressed and annoyed with men. Real men. For reasons that have nothing to do with real men as I know them today.

Good writing, or an over-sensitive reader? Both?

61. Ripley Under Ground, by Patricia Highsmith
I read the first book, The Talented Mr Ripley, in April, and I’ve been waiting since then to find a copy of the second volume.

Oh, Tom. How I love you.

Sure, he’s a bit of a cad, scamming here and there, but it’s what he’s good at. And what can the poor boy do but kill people who get in his way? He tries to give them an out, but they never, ever take it. Foolish, foolish victims.

62. The Reprieve, by Jean-Paul Sartre
The second volume in the Roads to Freedom series, the first being The Age of Reason, which I read this time last year. (Why am I in the middle of so many series?)

The first book had a straightforward narrative, with a set group of characters who wove in and out of the story – as one might expect from a novel. This volume takes a radically different course.

The Reprieve reads more like stream of consciousness. Events take place over the course of several days, where each moment overlaps, for all characters. Meaning, characters’ conversations and inner monologues overlap, often within the same paragraph, and while switching from first to third person. Events, characters, and even place are ambiguous at times, and it’s difficult to keep plot lines straight, especially at first. Not my favourite technique.

63. Electric Light, by Seamus Heaney
I was introduced to Seamus Heaney through his translation of Beowulf, which I picked up as it has become one of those classics that everyone should read, and Heaney’s one of those poets everyone seems to adore.

I enjoyed Beowulf, I can see why it’s a classic, but I’m not sure I get Heaney.

Electric Light is his eleventh book of poems, though only the second I’ve read (District and Circle, earlier). While some lines were beautiful, as a whole the collection didn’t resonate with me for whatever reason.

64. Go the Fuck to Sleep, by Adam Mansbach
Adam Mansbach has managed to capture the sentiment of every adult who has ever attempted to get a child into bed and make it stay there.

Complimented by beautiful illustrations from Ricardo Cortes, this book delightfully reminds us we are not alone in our frustration and angst.

For more see “A-fucking-dorable”, an earlier post on the book.

65. F in Exams, by Richard Benson
Purportedly collected from real test answers, Benson has compiled some of the best and most hilarious responses to standard test questions, grouped according to subject.

There are students who completely misunderstand the question, students who clearly don’t know the material, and those who try for humour in absence of sense. (The Banana Car is a favourite.)

Some though…some make me weep for humankind. Such as the response to a question asking whether the moon or sun was more important:

The moon gives us light at night when we need it. The sun only provides light in the day when we don’t. Therefore the moon is more important.

Mind-breakingly disturbing.

67. Come Closer, by Leanne Averbach
This is Averbach’s second book of poetry, the first being Fever, which featured an accompanying spoken word CD. That she’s a spoken word poet comes across in the cadence of many of the poems.

Many of the poems play with literary and musical allusions to great effect, notably in “To the Lighthouse”, and “A Brief History of the Blues”. Great stuff.

68. Where no Window Was, by Ruth Roach Pierson
I did a three month internship at Tightrope Books when Ruth Roach Pierson’s Contrary came out. It is fierce and witty and I adored it – it’s one of the best books of poetry I’ve read this year.

After reading it, I immediately wanted to find her two previous collections. So far, I’ve only been able to locate Where no Window Was, her first collection. Her second, Aide-Mémoire, may be out of print.

This first book is, perhaps not surprisingly, not as a strong as Contrary, though there are gems, such as these concluding lines in “Oblique Light”:

[…] Standing here
on this wind-bruised corner,
the sore somewhere at my centre

harder to heal than the blister
on my right hand’s palm, I’m
like a rattled leaf that lacks
understanding of the wind’s purpose.

It’s interesting to see where she’s come from, and I hope I can look forward to reading more from her in the future.

Bonus: Spike: After the Fall, by Brian Lynch and Spike: The Devil You Know, by Bill Williams
I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Spike was my favourite character on the show. I even suffered through watching Angel (painfully bad), just for the last season where Spike turns up. So I was excited when I learned there were standalone graphic novels featuring Spike. How could I be so foolish?

After the Fall follows the final season of Angel, and there is a series of accompanying graphic novels following Angel, his friends and former co-workers. I haven’t read them, but these are standalone titles, so I figured it should be fine. Not really. Weak plot, weak villains, and – worst of all – Spike was lame. Repeat same for The Devil You Know. I guess it’s just not the same without Joss Whedon’s involvement.


So, that’s what I read in June. Any recommendations for July?

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