Category Archives: reviews

Kim Silveira Wolterbeck, A Place of Light

KSWcoverAPlaceofLightRobert of Arbrissel is one of the most fascinating characters from the Middle Ages. A truly counter-cultural figure, he was a monk and a hermit who preached poverty and renunciation of the world, and surrounded himself with the rejected and outcast of medieval society: lepers, the poor, and women, including prostitutes.

A Place of Light builds off one of the most compelling stories told about him by his contemporary, Baldric of Dol. According to Baldric, one day Robert walked into a brothel in Rouen, and preached about sin to the women inside. They, swayed by his words and moved by his vision for their future, followed him into the wilderness on his path to found a new community where they could live in peace and safety. In her novel about Robert and how he founded the medieval abbey of Fontevrauld (known best of all now as the site of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s vivid tomb) with these women, Wolterbeck asks who they might have been, what their stories were, and why they followed Robert. It is a richly imagined and gripping portrait that treats religious ideals and idealism alongside vanity, pride, envy, greed, and lust with authenticity and nuance. If you are tired of historical novels that promise “meticulous research,” then deliver cardboard characters out of step with their age (medievalist friends, I have you especially in mind), you will love this book as I did. Wolterbeck never takes the easy or obvious route with any of her main characters (who include, in addition to Robert the monk, Madeleine, the wary prostitute; Philippa, the mis-married duchess of Aquitaine; and Girard, the failed Benedictine). The unsympathetic characters have virtue and potential; the characters we love the most have flaws and hidden damage. Indeed, if there is a theme to this book, it is the relationship between damage and redemption. Its message is one the medieval audiences of Robert’s sermons would have understood: we all are sinners; we all can be saved.

I was especially excited/nervous/anxious to read this book, because it is the first published offering from Cuidono Press, the press that will be publishing my own novel, Pilgrimage and in the interest of full disclosure, the novel was a gift to me from its editor. But if you have been reading my reviews over the years, you know that I do no reviews by request, and that I only review books that I love. This is especially important to me for books about the Middle Ages. I am proud my book will be standing beside this one.

A Reading Meme

Can I create a meme? Let’s see. As you can see from my last post but one, there has been talk all over the internet about buying books as presents this Christmas. But what books to buy? I thought it would be fun to list ten books I read this year and describe why I liked them to give other people inspiration about things they may not have read. The only thing is, I realized that I have already written about many of the new books I loved this year. I picked ten books I hadn’t written too much about, just to make it interesting, but some of my favourites have already been reviewed. So check out the archives too for ideas.

And I tag — EVERYONE! List ten of your favourite new books in your blog or in the comments (or however many you can come up with). They don’t have to be new this year, just new to you this year. Here are mine:

Anthony Powell, Dance to the Music of Time. This is a link to the first of four volumes in this monumental series. I can’t beieve I had never read this before. Perfect for people who like novels about decayed upper classes in England between the wars.

Sarah Dunant, The Birth of Venus I liked this almost as much as In the Company of the Courtesan. About painters in Renaissance Florence in the time of Savonarola, if you like juicy but realistic historical fiction, this is for you.

Rebecca Stott, Ghostwalk. Nicely spooky, this blends animal rights activism with Isaac Newton and makes perfect sense.

Charles de Lint, Memory and Dream. Have I ever put up a list of books that didn’t have a de Lint book on it? This is another novel about an artist that threads together past and present perfectly.

Guy Gavriel Kay, Ysabel. Photography, magic, myth, Gauls and Romans, this is perfect or fantasy-loving adolescent. Or a fantasy-loving adult.

Gail Godwin, Father Melancholy’s Daughter. I love all her books, but I am especially partial to novels about angsty Anglicans and this is a perfect example of that genre.

Mohja Kahf, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. A novel about growing up Muslim in Indiana, beautifully written and rich with the textures and varieties of religious life.

Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees. One of the good things about this book for the would-be writer is that it is wonderful, like all of hers, but it was her first published novel and you can see how she improved in her later work. It is encouraging.

Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire. This is romance novel set in Japan, Hong Kong, and New Zealand in the aftermath of World War II. No, not a love story, a real romance novel. See for yourself. Who says literary fiction and romance are incompatible? Not me.

Steven Brust, Brokedown Palace. A fairy tale with all the requisite elements set in a magical, strange not-quite-but-almost-Hungary.

Okay, that’s ten. Now it’s your turn. Spread, little meme, and prosper, and may the authors you introduce prosper likewise!

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

It’s a light, empty, fun movie, worth it if you are looking for mindless summer fun. I also found it hilarious in ways I don’t believe the director planned. I think poor Mr. Allen learned everything he knows about Spain from the foyer of a luxury hotel and the back seat of a taxicab. And what Woody seems to have learned is that Barcelona is a lot like Los Angeles! People own handguns and drive around in massive silver SUVs and live in mansions, with pools, and invite people over to their fabulous modern kitchens with stainless steel appliances. Like, L.A., there are a lot of Spanish speakers around but it’s okay because they all speak English too. God forbid that in Catalunya they should speak, you know, Catalan. So it’s not surprising that when our heroines finally leave Barcelona (mild spoiler alert), they have experienced none of the personal epiphanies that are usually associated with the broadening effects of foreign travel. They never really left home.

Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale

I finished this last night. I tried not to, I really did, because I knew that once I had turned the last page, I’d never experience the joy of reading this wonderful story for the first time ever again. But I couldn’t help myself, I had to keep reading, faster and faster…I had to know… And what a satisfying ending.

It’s a Gothic novel about twins, and it also shares many of the same attributes as Zafon’s wonderful Shadow of the Wind: books, fire, and hidden identities. If you liked that, you’ll love this one, but it is also very much more of a “women’s novel,” written for anyone who ever loved Wuthering Heights, or The Lady in White, or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, or Middlemarch, or Jane Eyre. Above all Jane Eyre, especially if, like me, you lost interest in that book the first time you read it after the part when Jane’s first friend dies, and she returns from school.

So what are you waiting for? Go! Go! Times a-wasting. Start reading!

That means you especially, Mum.

Yaz

We all have bands that were the soundtrack for our lives at different points.  Yaz, or Yazoo as they were known in the UK (being Canadian I heard both and so am still thoroughly mixed up, as in so many things), was mine for those crucial end-of-high-school-beginning-of-college years.  Their career as a band was so short lived — two or three years? only two albums — that their original fans, those, who like me, listened to their songs over and over in dorm rooms and scruffy apartments, represent not a whole generation but a sliver of a demographic.

Yet passionate we are, and the whole Chicago branch of that demographic was present at the Chicago Theatre last night for a wonderful reunion concert of their distinctive bluesy electro-pop.  I’d like to say “long-awaited” reunion concert but really, who knew?  It was the best sort of surprise, one that you don’t even know you want until it happens.

I’d say more, but I’m tempted to revert to sullen teenager mode and just say either you get it about Yaz or you don’t.  I was asked last night when I first learned about them and the answer is that I heard about them the way all new music gets transmitted, from the older sister of a friend.  She loaned me a mixed tape, which I dubbed and still have.  It was my first introduction to music beyond Top 40 and AOR (bonus points if you remember what AOR stood for).  For the record, below the fold, the contents of “Lucy’s Tape,” named after her, not me: Continue reading

Beyond the Great Wall

As if I didn’t have enough lovely fiction to read, my favourite cookbook writing duo, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid have come up with a new one, Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China (Artisan, 2008), which i simply had to buy. When I say I am a fan, I’m not kidding. The Seductions of Rice was the first book of theirs I received, followed by Flatbreads and Flavors and Hot Sour Salty Sweet, abut the cuisines of South Asia. Then last spring, I was searching for meaning in the cookbook aisle and I thought to myself, how wonderful it would be if they wrote a book for India like the one they had done for South Asia. I looked up and, lo, there was Mangoes & Curry Leaves.
Why do I like their books so much? Two reasons. First, they’re political.  Their attitude towards food and eating is one of both delight and responsibility in a world of scarcity.  Their way of eating urges the western world away from making costly (in so many ways) meat the centre of our diet and towards thinking of meat as a delicious accent to a diet based in vegetables and staples like bread and rice.  In addition to being guardians of resources, and no more so than in this most recent book, they are guardians of cultures.  They are photographers and essayists as well as fine cooks and their stories and pictures document and defend little known cultures and peoples.

The second reason I love their books is that the food is delicious.  The receipts typically have modest lists of ingredients and they always work.  I admit that my pantry may be better stocked with unusual ingredients than most, but almost everything in their latest book can be made with things you’d find at an ordinary grocery store.  It isn’t “restaurant” ethnic food; it tastes more like home cooking, and it is often based directly on dishes they have eaten on their travels, with ordinary people.  The classics make way for unusual and unique receipts and their books will not duplicate anything else you have in your collection.

But why take my word for it?  I thought I’d make one of their receipts and present it here for you.  So, below the fold: Savory Boiled Dumplings! Continue reading

Cory Doctorow, Little Brother

I often write about books that I am reading, but today I am going to write about a book my son read.  We had to buy him a horrendously expensive calculator for school last autumn, and now that he has reached the end of the school year without losing it (touch wood — he has one more week) I told him I’d buy him a book as a reward, so last Friday we went to our local book store.

My son inhales books, but he has pretty firm tastes, like most almost-thirteen year olds I know.  When we’re in a bookstore, I usually hand him things I think he might like, and insist he read the first paragraph or jacket copy.  He tends to think very little of my suggestions (like most almost-thirteen year olds I know).  I had heard a lot of Cory Doctorow’s venture into YA fiction, Little Brother, online at places like John Scalzi’s Whatever and over at Making Light, and it sounded like just the thing my son should enjoy —  computers, hackers, terrorists, and evil authority figures.  So I handed it to him, and hoped for the best.  Dear reader, he was enthralled.  We took it home, and he kept trying to read it while we were walking.  He’d stop and say, “I really should be talking to you now,” and then he’d start reading again.  And now he’s finished it and is threatening to put something called “Paranoid Linux” on my old laptop computer.  I’m not exactly certain what that is, but somehow it is all connected.

This made me think about where I learn about new books, and it strikes me that a large number of them I hear about first on the internet, mostly through blogs.  I bought a whole pile of new books last week in addition to the Doctorow, and I am going to mention them in a future post and try to figure out where I first learned about them, and whether that might say anything useful about book publicity.

What I’m Reading Now

Anne Enright, The Gathering

I finished this while I was on holiday in Mexico, and it wasn’t what I expected. I thought it would be a heart-warming, rollicking, tragicomic family ensemble piece but instead it was much more interesting. Veronica Hegarty’s attempts to come to terms with her family’s history after the suicide of her brother, Liam, become a meditation on the relationship between memory, history, and story and the way we use all three to endure our lives.

Liam’s death challenges the stories that Veronica uses to prop up her life, and she needs to come up with a new acount of the past. The book we read is meant not only to describe but actually, in the fiction that she has written it herself, to be the path she takes to recover lost memories and discern the fictions she has told herself from the facts she must face. It recalled the process of therapy, in which a crisis has made an old narrative unusable, and the patient, by rendering an account to the counsellor, must come up with a new version of the past that can be taken into the future. The one who can survive the strongest, is the one who can come up with the best story.

What I’m reading now

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

This story of a young girl in Nazi Germany during World War II was the other great historical novel that I read at the end of last year, cover to cover in one go on a transatlantic flight. The most important thing I can tell you about it may be that even though the narrator tells you how the book will end on page 22, and reminds you a couple more times during the course of the book, I still had no power to stop tears streaming down my face at the end.

There are two big ideas in this book. The first is about the dangerous and beautiful power of story telling, and the way story shapes action, for better or for worse. The second, and more interesting, is about the consequences of these actions. The heroes of this book perform with the best of intentions acts which sometimes have very good ends, and sometimes very tragic. It struck me today as a result of a conversation about something quite different, that Zusak’s attention to this problem of our actions and their results may be derived from the way Hannah Arendt connects freedom to action. The characters are only free when they act, when Eric Vandenburg protects Hans Huberman from battle, when Hans gives bread to a prisoner from Dachau, when Leisel Meminger writes a book in the basement.

This book commands us to do good even in the worst circumstances, not because doing good will change the world and make it good, but because doing good and not just thinking good, knowing good, and believing good, is the only way to be free. In a culture that believes anything is possible if you only try hard enough, this message may resound as pessimistic, but I found it intensely hopeful.