A Short Story Challenge

Hey everyone,

Sorry I haven’t been all that profilic with the blog posts so far this year.

This cold winter has been sapping my creative juices, and energy in general.

I’ve quietly been chipping away at my to-do list from January. I’ve made progress on a couple of things. But I think I need to pick up the pace a bit.

I also think I need to take up a personal challenge I put by the wayside …

I’m going to take another crack at trying to read more fiction.

Yes, I know, I know, I’ve said that before. And I have been trying. (I just finished Zadie Smith’s NW a couple of days ago, in fact.)

But I think I need to change it up a bit.

I keep telling myself I should read more short stories and novellas if I can find them. I think I tried this last year, with friends making a couple of interesting contributions.

But I’m going to give it a bit more effort this year.

I’ve made a couple lists, complete with a couple of links I can refer to, and have made a couple of library requests.

While generally I stick to contemporary fiction, I’m also going to try and throw a few older works in the mix.

And if time allows, I’ll post from time to time about the ones I do read.

So, away I go! And if you have any recommendations for short story collections OR novellas, please leave them in the comments below.

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D’s Loquacious End-of-Year Reads for 2010

Hey everybody! Hope your Christmas was excellent and that you’re enjoying the remainder of your holidays.

Apologies for the severe lack of posting. It’s been due to a lack of motivation, I’m afraid. I meant to post this back in October (or was it late September?), but, well … you know.

So to rectify this injustice, here are a couple of novels – both recent AND not-so-recent – that I managed to complete in recent months.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

I did not read this in high school. Or university. This is my first time reading this book from cover to cover, without giving up after several pages and returning it to the library.

Yes, I am of sound mind (to thoseof you who can’t figure out why I’m reading this). I’m probably the last person over the age of 30 to touch this book.

So, what have I gleaned?

One: Rich people are vain, selfish, mean, possibly alcoholics, and yes, they CAN kill you.

Two: Jay Gatsby? Arrrgh. I hate him. That is all.

Three: Even after completing this book, I still don’t like it, despite the fact that it’s a “great American classic” or whatever the cliche is.

Perhaps I am too uncouth or not well-read enough to appreciate it. In which case, those of you who love this book, please use your strongest argument to convince me otherwise. ‘Cause I’m not a fan.

The Cry of the Dove, Fadia Faqir

A warning in advance: this book is so sad. But it’s good.

The Cry of the Dove tells the tale of Salma, who in her former life is a shepherdess from a family in a tiny Bedouin village. She ends up pregnant out of wedlock, which violates tribal law and causes upheaval in the village.

 To restore honour, the villagers set out to kill her, but for her own protection, Salma is thrown in prison. She gives birth to her child, who is ripped out of her arms shortly after, and spends many years in prison. She’s later smuggled out and whisked away to England to start a new life.

But even that isn’t easy, as she tries to navigate this new way of life – the culture, the customs, and the racism. Amidst all this, she’s continuously haunted by thoughts of her brother coming to kill her … and by the cries of her lost child. And even though Salma finally starts to get her life on track and truly start to enjoy the freedom she has, she never stops hearing those cries.

While the “time-shifting” narrative is often my favourite, I did find a bit difficult to follow the story in a couple of places. Nonetheless, you could sense the frustration and melancholy in Salma’s story. Despite everything that happens to her, you just want her to succeed, move forward and grow stronger. This book may not be for everyone, but I liked it and it’s one I’d recommend.

And that’s it for me for this year. Hopefully I’ll be able to tackle more – and even better books in 2011. ‘Ta for now!

D’s Loquacious Heat-of-Summer Reads

Yes, I know, it’s been a while.

But when I haven’t been busy doing what I have to do (which has unfortunately meant an enormous dearth of blogging on my part), I’ve been trying to keep my mind active – and occupied – with the following books.

I’ve been making an effort to mix it up by reading more non-fiction books, rather than just novels. And it’s been an interesting exercise so far.

Every Light in the House Burnin’, Andrea Levy

Levy’s first novel, set in 1960s England, chronicles the Jacobs family, as they tackle living in a cramped council estate home, struggling with the racism that’s rife around them, and – for the children – coming of age as British-born youth under Jamaican parentage.

Angela, the baby of the family, acts as narrator in the novel. The storyline is well-done in the sense that, while it starts out as fairly linear, it does move back and forth, depicting the collision between Angela’s childhood memories and her current life – 20 years later – as she tries navigating a harsh health care system to help her dying father.

Reading the book, I  felt the awkwardness of the little girl trying to grow up in a world where her family still isn’t fully accepted. But I found the battle that adult Angela has to fight even more heartbreaking, especially towards the end.

Having grown up in Canada in the 1980s and 1990s, I’ve largely been spared from what Angela and her siblings endured. But I do have an understanding, from the stories my mother would tell me of her time as a student nurse in the U.K., what they had to do to make it through.

Every Light might seem heavy, from what I’ve just described. But it’s a fairly read – one I’d suggest over a weekend.

Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stimgatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, Bella DePaulo, Ph.D.

Big disclaimer: Icame across this book COMPLETELY by accident.

I read a Globe and Mail article several weeks ago about people who are just too busy with their careers and lives in general for relationships and sex. DePaulo was quoted in the article, and once I read what she had to say – as well as the title of her book – I had to read this for myself.

DePaulo, a psychologist whose area of study happens to deal with singletons, uses studies, anecdotes and even stories about celebrities to address the various myths and perceptions laid out by a society which favours the ideal of a nuclear family above all other types – and to shed a little light on the reality of things.

And it’s not just those never-married folks she refers to. She addresses those who are single due to divorce, and even single parents, who seem to bear the brunt of society’s judgement.

Her message: Believe it or not, there are single people out there who are perfectly normal, well-adjusted, and not biding time until Mr or Mrs Right come along. They’re happy and doing just fine, thank you very much.

As someone who has never been married, while my friends, for the most part, haven’t been the types of friends described in DePaulo’s book, I can relate to the occasional feeling from time to time as if I’m a kid who’s gotten the privilege of sitting at the grown-ups’ table. So while the book can be a little dry in places, I completely appreciate the reinforcement that, hey, there’s nothing wrong with being single and happy with it.

I have nothing against married people or couples with families, but as a single person, the following quote was the one that has stuck with me since: “Married people are on training wheels. Singles are riding the bikes for grown-ups.”

Whale Music, Paul Quarrington

I sadly admit, I knew nothing about the late Mr Quarrington until his death back in January from cancer. But I do remember hearing about the movie adapted from the book. So when I was tooling around the Toronto Library Web site, I decided to give his 1989 novel a go.

Desmond Howl is an obscenely rich, drug-addled, often-naked, alcoholic crazy former rock ‘n’ roll genius who has been living a secluded existence for years, tinkering away at his magnum opus – the book’s title – when he’s not in and out of consciousness.

That is, until one day, 20-year-old Claire appears – seemingly out of nowhere – into his life. And what happens after that forces Des to consider the fate of the Whale Music … and of the ramshackle state of his own life.

The novel also chronicles Des’ dysfunctional family and life on the road with his younger brother as their band breaks into the business and tries to make it big in the 1960s and 1970s. It also sheds a bit of light as to why Des is the way he is.

I found Whale Music tobe funny in places and a surprisingly fast read. However, I wasn’t completely in love with it. I might give Quarrington another try on another occasion – maybe I’ll tackle King Leary before I arrive at my own personal verdict.

Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House, Meghan Daum

This is hard to admit out loud, but over the past several months, I probably become a tad more obsessive when it comes to real estate – visiting the MLS Web page, looking through the weekend classifieds, whatever. Then I heard about Meghan Daum and her new book, just released this spring.

The writer and Los Angeles Times columnist takes readers into her inner psyche when it comes to the world of real estate. She starts with her childhood, during which her parents made multiple moves through several states until she was almost nine years old, and introduces us to her parents’ (more so her mother’s) near-obsession for finding the perfect home. These early memories seem to be the basis – and explanation – for Daum’s own decisions to move constantly … first through dorm rooms, then apartments … and then her own obsession with finding the home of her dreams, to the detriment of other aspects of her life.

But while using her life’s experiences as an example, Daum also tries to explain in Life Would Be Perfect what the difference between “house” and “home” really is, and through several turns of events in her life, comes to realize – and express to those of us reading her book – what’s truly important.

I loved Daum’s writing style – although in a different situation, I could relate to her. It also had me thinking about my own mini-mania when it comes to the adulthood ritual of house-hunting. This, combined with her sharp humour, definitely makes for a good read … whether you’re in an obsessive hunt for real estate or not.

And with that, consider another reading post done.

I can’t guarantee when the next time I’ll post will be. Plus, it’s summer. Would YOU stay indoors sitting in front of a computer with all that good weather outside?

Talk to you soon!

D’s Loquacious Late Spring Reads, 2010 Edition

Hey, kiddies. It’s been a while.

Can’t believe it’s June already! Hopefully this hot, new month will spawn some creativity that was lacking in May.

In the meantime, here are some my most recent reads:

Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi

I’d heard good things about this memoir by Azar Nafisi, in which she recollects her life as a young university English professor during the Revolution in Iran.

The book certainly opened my eyes – at least, to the way she saw the events unfold around her. I liked how she paired the works by her favourite authors with anecdotes from the rapidly changing world around her – a life in which the very love for her livelihood and for English literature was threatened. I learned how it was her love of books that kept her sane.

Come to think of it, this book reinforces for me – as a lifelong reader – how astounding the power of words can be,  how books play such a huge role in regimes and periods of oppression … and how the written word seems like a threat to those who try to control.

In any case, I encourage you to give this a try, if you haven’t already.

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga

I didn’t actually plan on reading this one anytime soon, especially so soon after reading Midnight’s Children, which took me a dog’s age to finish. And after feeling disappointed, the last thing I wanted was another long, winding yarn.

But I took a chance after an impr0mptu visit to the library … and I’m so glad I did YES! THIS is what I’m talkin’ ’bout!

The White Tiger takes on the form of a very long letter to the Chinese president, from a self-made entrepreneur in Bangalore. But it’s not too long before we learn the secrets of the protagonist’s so-called success.

The book is dark, with punches of humour to match. And life portrayed in the book is rough and tough from start to finish. Is it realistic? I can only place my trust in the author that it is, to some degree.

That aside, once I started reading, I made fairly quick work of devouring The White Tiger. I highly recommend it.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

I was drawn to this book, not by anything I’d read – because I hadn’t – but simply by the cover. Who was Oscar Wao? What made his life so brief?

It literally was months before I got my grubby hands on Oscar Wao. And all I can say is, well, wow

If you like books written from a nerd’s perspective, in a sci-fi/fanboy style, complete with footnotes about Dominican history and generous helpings of Spanglish, this might be a book for you.

Oscar Wao is a thick chronicle of the de Leons,  dyfunctional Dominican-Americans with a rough family past. But a huge portion of the book is, obviously, dedicated to the title character – an obese young man with both a desire to make it as a fantasy writer … and no game whatsoever, when it comes to the opposite sex. The novel isn’t narrated by Oscar, but mostly by Yunior, a family “friend”, and some narration from other family members who give scarred flesh and bone to the family’s backstory.

Some people may not like the footnotes at the bottom of a number of the pages. But I actually found them helpful and loved the sharp style in which they were written. 

But, still. Consider giving this book a try before either putting the book down or ploughing right through it. And I hope that if you do, that you’ll end up doing the latter.

The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors, Hal Niedzviecki

It’s perhaps coincidental – or uncannily relevant – that I’d just happened to complete my read of The Peep Diaries last week, amidst all this talk about Quit Facebook Day to protest the site’s new rules on privacy settings and whatnot. 

In his tome, Niedzviecki explores the realm of Peep culture – think of it as The New Voyeurism in the age of Facebook, Twitter and reality TV, amongst other things.

Through his conversations with YouTubers, bloggers, reality TV show participants, and even performing his own experiments, Niedzviecki tries to wrap his head around why people are obsessed with seeing, as well as being seen by, others. He ponders the different ways in which people watch others, whether it’s relevant, and and whether sometimes it simply crosses the line when it comes to issues of privacy … if lines can still be drawn.

Everyone’s got their own perspective on the matter, so that might colour what you think of the subject matter in Niedzviecki’s book. But if you’re like me – or the millions of other people spending hours online – it’s a good attempt at making you take a step back and soberly think about the times we live in.

Sorry this took so long to put out. I blame an enormous lack of motivation, paired with procrastination. But until I blog again, enjoy!

D’s Loquacious Long Winter Reads

I’ve been meaning to write this and have kept putting it off for various reasons. But better late than never, I say.

Here’s my latest list of books I’ve read over the past few months …

Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, Immaculee Ilibagiza

The book chronicles the author’s harrowing experience as a young Tutsi woman trying to survive Rwanda’s bloody 1994 genocide – hiding in a tiny bathroom with seven other women for three months – as well as her miraculous escape to freedom, unscathed.

I want to describe this book as simultaneously horrifying and astounding. But I’m not even sure those words do it justice.

Obviously the underlying story is how Ilibagiza found God during her time in that tiny bathroom, and how that she was going survive that hell on earth. But it doesn’t even matter whether you hold religious beliefs or not. To read how Immaculee managed to survive – physically, mentally and spiritually – for so long while sheer horror took place outside that bathroom window – is perhaps reason enough to tackle this book. 

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

Not a new book, but one I’ve never read. Rushdie’s novel chronicles the lives of “midnight’s children” – those born at the moment of India’s independence in 1947. What isn’t immediately known is that these children have been born with unusual physical characteristics and special gifts or powers.

Narrated by the main character, Saleem Sinai – among those who hold the strongest powers because they were born precisely at midnight – the book follows the twisted history of Saleem’s family, and the act which determines fate, intertwined with fledgling India’s numerous conflicts and political struggles.

Of all the authors on this list, Rushdie has been the one I’ve wanted to read for the longest time, out of sheer curiosity.

Unfortunately, of the books on this list, this one took the longest to read – about two or three months. Not because of its size. At roughly 530 pages, it’s hefty, but not insurmountable, for an adult novel.

However, for someone not used to Rushdie’s way of storytelling – such as myself – some points along the story’s path were a bit too winding for my taste, even a bit too slow. Even trying to imagine the various scenes in my mind took some doing.

I can’t say I hated the book. But I found it a tad underwhelming, and it left me a bit disappointed.

Corked: A Memoir, Kathryn Borel Jr.

After such a long slog through Rushdie, I happily turned my attention to a book patiently sitting on my bedside table for weeks.

The first book from brand-spankin’ new memoirist (and colleague) Kathryn Borel, Corked is the story of Borel’s wine trip through France with her father Philippe, a hotelier and wine connoisseur.

As the trip winds through France, the book also takes us into Borel’s deepest thoughts about love, her attempts to learn about wine, and death. The trip is also opportunity she seizes to hash things out with Dad over a life-changing event five years earlier.

Having gotten flashes of Borel’s off-beat personality in real-life, I could hear her voice loud and clear as I turned the pages. I also recognize a couple of the people she talks about. Yes, I snickered here and there (hopefully where appropriate). But even though I can’t say I know her very well, Corked helped me understand a bit more about her. I appreciate who she is because of what she’s written.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

My personal goal for Black History Month was to take on a what was considered a classic novel – although acclaim at the time it was published was heavily divided, and then it fell out of sight until it was rediscovered again in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The novel follows the life of Janie Crawford, who transforms from girl to woman (through the course of two marriages) in the Southern U.S. of the 1930s.

The book is supposed to be an ode to African-American culture and heritage (so says the explanation on the inside front flap of the jacket). It was a bit of a challenge to me, navigating the dialect, and trying to imagine what the characters were all thinking and doing. The male-female dynamic between Janie and her husbands was certainly something interesting. And ever-present were some the issues, such as class and skin tone – something that seems to be around, even in this day and age.

I wasn’t bowled over, but I’m glad I gave it a read anyway. It’s not a long book, so I’d recommend anyone to give it a go.

C’est tout, y’all. Maybe I’ll find some meatier morsels to tackle for the spring.

Happy reading!

D’s Loquacious July Reads

Hey y’all …

It’s been a bit busy for me lately, but I’ve been making a point of reading when I can. Here’s the next batch of books I finally got around to:

 

alchemistbook2The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

On more than one occasion, I’ve heard people say, “I LOVE The Alchemist!” when talking about this book. I finally understand why. And I also LOVE this book.

It’s an eloquently written tale about a Spanish shepherd boy who leaves everything he knows to search for a treasure near the Egyptian pyramids. He also learns valuable life lessons along the way, through the people he meets and the obstacles he faces. 

It’s a philosophical book, about following your dream, and listening to your heart. And it’s a fast read.

It’s taken me months to get around to reading this book. But I think now was the perfect time to read it. I’d definitely recommend it, if you haven’t read it already. 

 

high_fidelity2High Fidelity, Nick Hornby

This one, strangely enough, I came across while at a friend’s cottage last month. I remember when the movie came out – I must’ve had a thing for John Cusack, because I was determined to go see this movie.

I still have yet to sit down and watch it. But it’s on The List (which is a LONG one, by the way). In the meantime, I’m glad I read the book first.

What to say about this book? It’s about relationships. And music. But mostly relationships. It’s also about this central character that does and says ALL these things that give you absolutely NO reason to even respect him, never mind like him.

But still you have to read on, giving him the benefit of the doubt, in the hope he changes or has some sort of redeeming quality in the end. And no, I’ve never read any other Nick Hornby novel, so this probably makes my assessment a naive one, right? But it’s a good read nonetheless.

 

whatbook2What Is The What, Dave Eggers

I just finished this one a couple days ago. There are so many words I could use to assess this book. But I’ll simply start with “wow”.

The novel is based on the true story of Valentino Achak Deng – a Sudanese refugee and one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. The narrative flip-flops between Deng’s current struggles in his adopted homeland five years on, and his horrific memories of the civil war and his flight from the conflict.

I found some of what was described very hard to read at times, but necessary in order to understand. It’s always difficult to comprehend just how cruel human beings can be to one another, over what start out as small things. And it’s definitely an eye-opener to anyone who ever thought Darfur has been the only horror to befall that country.

It also got me interested in knowing a bit more about Deng. As it turns out, he has his own non-profit organization, which goes towards helping the Sudanese people both in the U.S. and in Sudan. Among the projects, the foundation has built a secondary school in Deng’s home town.  

If you want a seriously good read, pick up this book. It’s worth every single one of its 475 pages.

That’s all for now. Happy reading, bookworms!

D’s Loquacious Spring Reads

I just recently realized that I have this really horrible habit of being inconsistent when it comes to books.

I’ll read book after book for weeks on end, then just go cold turkey and read nothing but magazines for a month and a half.

It’s probably why I haven’t posted any of my most recent reads since sometime last year.

But have no fear. I’ve been slowly getting myself back up on the hobby-horse. Especially now that I’ve restored my good standing at the library and have been trying to avoid slipping back into my book-refugee ways.

Here’s what I’ve ingested since April. All of them – in the order in which I read them –  are fairly short, and each have a story (or stories) behind my selection.

kinkbookcoverHideous Kinky, Esther Freud

Morocco was my main inspiration behind reading this story. I actually borrowed it from the library before I left, carried it with me across the Atlantic, around the country and back again. But I didn’t start reading it until I went back to work. Go figure. 

It’s definitely a strange little book. Set in the early 1970s, it’s told by a five-year-old girl who herself isn’t quite sure what’s happening, as her mum drags her and her older sister to Marrakech, where they live the Moroccan lifestyle (translation: hippies surviving hand to mouth), and are introduced to a number of characters – and a c0mpletely alien culture – along the way.

I’ve never seen the movie adaptation. Too bad it was made before I got my hands on the book. All I could picture while reading it was Kate Winslet as the mum, which kind of wrecked things for me. 

(Note: the version of the book I read had was an original printing, with the little girl on the sleeve cover, not Kate Winslet as seen here.)

 

secretgardencoverThe Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

This one, I read because of a list. You know the one. BBC’s List of Books You Should Read, which has probably made its rounds on e-mail forwards and Facebook for weeks on end? 

Well, that little list made me realize (a) my reading repertoire – at 15 books – sucks, and (b) one of the books listed (#73) has been sitting in our basement, collecting dust, for at least two decades.

It was only when I was cleaning out the basement bookcase about five weeks ago that I found it and decided give it a go.

The book was actually my brother’s. Years after he’d abandoned it, I tried on at least two occasions to try reading it, only to discard it about five pages in. (Seriously. Does the image of a jaundiced little white girl living in India make you want to read it?)

The story, in case you don’t know: a little English girl is sent from India after the death of her parents to live with an uncle in Yorkshire, England, and it’s there that she transforms as a person. She also discovers the secret garden of the title, and the “secret” behind it, as well as another one she didn’t bargain for.

In any case, I finally did read it, and I’m glad. It’s a nice classic read for kids. As an adult, I appreciate it more. I even found myself trying to imagine what a thick Yorkshire accent sounded like.

And by the way? That’s number 16, bitches.

 

basilbookcover

 From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsburg

I found this book the same day as The Secret Garden. It was one of a pair of books awarded to me by my fifth-grade teacher, for my third-place standing in the class Short Story Olympics. (The winner won romance novels, which I secretly coveted).

Until I sat down with it last month, not once had I read the book, in the 21 years I’ve owned it. Ungrateful little bitch, aren’t I?

So, the story: Eleven-year-old girl thinks life is unfair and boring. Girl takes second-youngest of three brothers (who happens to have a LOT of allowance money saved up) and takes off to New York. But not just anywhere. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. What happens – and who Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is – I won’t say. You (or your child) will just have to read it.

As for what I thought of the book … it is what it is.  And it’s not a terribly long read. But it definitely was something to occupy the time. And it also makes me want to revisit Manhattan and nourish my inner museum geek.

Now, where did I put Hey, That’s My Soul You’re Stomping On?

 

barbookcoverLater, at the Bar, Rebecca Barry

After the previous two books, it was high time to return to some adult fiction. This one, I inherited from a friend’s clothing swap/book exchange in late April.

The book isn’t a book of short stories, as I originally thought, but rather a novel in stories. (The author, Rebecca Barry, herself states in a Q & A at the end of the book, “I am completely intimidated by the mere idea of a novel – the main reason being I’m not very good at plot.”)

That aside, I liked this book, which follows a motley crew of regulars at a local small-town watering hole, at different points in their lives. 

The cast of characters, the salty dialogue, their messed-up lives and how they cope (or don’t) – everything makes this an enjoyable, light read. If Rebecca Barry does complete a novel, as she’s trying to do, I’d love to see how it all turns out.

I was hoping to add a fifth to my list – Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist – but I’m still reading it. But I will certainly include it next time. Provided all those parties, dances, barbecques, long weekends and weddings don’t get in my way.