Book Blogger Holiday Swap

bbhs_teaser_smallJust a quick heads up that the annual Book Blogger Holiday Swap is on again this year.

The holiday swap is a way for book bloggers to connect and celebrate the holiday spirit by sharing gifts. It’s done secret Santa style; all of the participants are randomly assigned a blogger to send a gift to, and these assignments are kept secret until the gift has been delivered. So no one knows who their gift is coming from!

I participated last year and enjoyed it-  anyone who wants to join in this year has until the 12th November 2009 to sign up at the website.

Runaway by Alice Munro, 2004

Alice Munro is a firm favourite of mine, and in Runaway her strengths as a writer are once again apparent. The stories focus on women trying to escape unhappy or at least unsatisfactory lives and perhaps unfortunately invoke recognition and reflection in  me as a reader.

Munro has a remarkable  abilty to make the apparently mundane suprisingly dramatic and full of interest and insight, capturing what seems to be the essential truth about a life in rarely more than fifty pages.

It is difficult to avoid a bare bones synposis of each story sounding dull (although as one character observes to another in the story Powers “I am not sure I like the word ‘prosaic’. I don’t know if this is any more a prosaic place than anywhere else and what do you expect it to be- poetic?”) and I also hesitate to ruin the pleasure of  discovering the often unexpected destination of each. Suffice it to say then that I found  each story in this collection superb and will not leave it long before reading more Munro.

(as a postscript, my Vintage edition of this contains an introduction by Jonathan Franzen which may persuade anyone who hasn’t yet read Munro to change that. It begins “Alice Munro has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America, but outside of Canada, where her books are No. 1 best sellers, she has never had a large readership. At the risk of sounding like a pleader on behalf of yet another underappreciated writer — and maybe you’ve learned to recognize and evade these pleas? The same way you’ve learned not to open bulk mail from certain charities? Please give generously to Dawn Powell? Your contribution of just 15 minutes a week can help assure Joseph Roth of his rightful place in the modern canon? — I want to circle around Munro’s latest marvel of a book, ”Runaway,” by taking some guesses at why her excellence so dismayingly exceeds her fame.” and can be read online here.)

BBAW interview swap

Now that I’ve finished sulking over the Ashes and Spring has bought the sunshine back, I thought I’d come out of hibernation. I’m currently re-reading Cate Kennedy’s short story collection Dark Roots before starting her debut novel and will post my thoughts later this week

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In the meantime, as part of Book Blogger Appreciation Week I participated in an interview swap for which fellow book blogger Jenny‘s answers to my questions are below.

My answers to Jenny’s questions will be up on her blog today, and the BBAW site will link to everyone particpating. It’s a good opportunity to get to know people, so take a look!

1. Who are your favourite authors, and why?

Jane Austen: Her accurate descriptions of people, society, and behavior during her time, and her sense of humor. 

Tasha Alexander: Victorian England never sounded so enticing and dangerous.  There are mysteries to be solved.  Her heroine is fantastic with a another good sense of humor.

2. Any authors you really don’t like? If so, why?

Not in particular.  Although, I did read Slaughter House 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, and he is not for me.  Sorry but I just don’t get it. 

3. What is your reading comfort zone i.e is there a particular genre, subject, style that you read a lot of and usually enjoy?

Historical fiction, mysteries, and a good romance book or bodice ripper every now and then.  I do try to incorporate more of the classics, but I have been hit or miss lately on those.
4. Is there anything you’ve read and enjoyed that you didn’t expect to?
 
 A wonderful little book of short stories by Melanie Haney, titled The Simplest of Acts.  I don’t normally read short stories but the majority of hers resonated with me.

5. Where’s your favourite place to read?

 Oh anywhere really, but probably outside on a bench or on my front step.

6. What do you do when you’re not reading? Any hobbies?

 Knitting and while watching television.  I watch entirely too much television!

7. Do your family and friends know about your blog? If yes, what do they think?

 Yes, they know, but I don’t believe they have ever looked it up.  I share an ignored knitting blog with my one girlfriend, and I know she checks out my book blog, but as for the rest, I believe they think I’m a little out there.  My mom thinks it’s just great I have this wonderful hobby of blogging.

8. I notice you’ve read some ARCs. Do you generally enjoy them? If there were any exceptions, did you find it hard to review them?

I only accept ARCs of books that appeal to me.  If it’s a subject I don’t read, like a biography, then I turn it down.  I have had pretty good luck so far with my ARCs, however I do have one now I just couldn’t finish.  I will write the review saying as much, but it’s still difficult, because the book will probably appeal to others.  It just didn’t work for me.  I try to be tactful and honest.

9. How do you work out what rating you give to each book?

 I am terrible!  I have yet to publish my rating system.  Generally I base it on a 100 point system, with 100-90 representing an A, 89-80, a B, and so on.  I feel I can be more accurate than using a 1-5 point system.  High A versus low A.  Very nerdy, I know, but I use numbers in my job so it makes sense to me.
 
10. What would you like to improve about your blog?
 
Oh, I am always trying to fix my blog.  I recently added two tabs up at the top, but now I’m trying to work out some pictures to represent the tabs.  Way beyond my skill set, but I keep trying.  I would also like to become better with my comments back to people.  Sometimes I email them back directly, sometimes I address them right on the post.  Oh yes, and learn HTML, or at least have a working knowledge of it.
 

Congratulations Alice!

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I am delighted to see that Alice Munro has won this year’s Man Booker International Prize. (Press release here).

Having recently read most of her work, Munro has become a great favourite of mine (to the point where I’m rationing out the few collections I haven’t read) . If you’re not acquainted with her masterful miniatures of writing, now would be a good time to fix that.

(My review of Alice Munro’s first book, Dance of the happy shades, is here for anyone who needs further persuasion.)

Catching up

As the days shorten and temperature drops here in Sydney, I’ve taken a week’s leave from work to hibernate (and alas, get cracking on some uni assignments). Those commitments aside, I’m sure to enjoy long bouts of uninterrupted reading in the next few days.

My recent reading has been a good mix of old favourites (Andrea Camilleri, Alice Munro, Ian Rankin and Deanna Raybourn) and new (Julian Barnes, Sloane Crosley and Sonya Hartnett). The two stand-outs:

1. The pedant in the kitchen by Julian Barnes, a collection of food columns originally published in The Guardian. At one point, Barnes writes that “the best books persuade readers who do not even know the author that they are friends of hers as well”. In his entertaining exploration of the dilemmas of the home cook, Barnes successfully persuaded me he was, if not a friend, a kindred spirit when it comes to cooking. A taster:

“the relationship between professional and domestic cook has similarities to a sexual encounter. One party is normally more experienced than the other; and either party should have the right, at any moment, to say, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’

The professional might- like Elizabeth David, for instance- refuse to hand-hold or sweet-talk the punter. While from the punter’s point of view, the refusal is more likely to come from (where else?) the gut. For instance, you buy a chicken, take it home, run your hand along the kitchen bookshelf, and decide today is the day for River Cafe Blue. First recipe: Pollo Alla Griglia. Sounds about right: Marinated Grilled Chicken, You read the recipe carefully and discover that the first three-quarters of it are devoted to boning the fowl. And you think: No, I’m not going to do that. Perhaps if they’d called it ‘cutting the flesh off the chicken’ I might have been up for it. But first, I don’t trust my skill. Second, I doubt there’s anything in the kitchen drawer which qualifies as a boning knife. And third and conclusively, I’ve only got one sodding chicken and I don’t want to find myself an hour from now faced with something that looks as if a fox has got at it. So that’s decided. Turn the page and look at the other River Cafe Blue Recipes for chicken. There are two of them. Both start by telling you to bone the damn thing. Well, Hello Delia again.

Lesson Two, Part Two. It’s not just difficulty, it’s also time. River Cafe Green has a terrific recipe for Penne with Tomato and Nutmeg (and basil, garlic, and pecorino), which I make regularly; the nutmeg is the key surprise element. But I did first have to overcome the recipe’s opening sentence: ‘2.5 kg ripe cherry vine tomatoes, halved and seeded.’ So that’s well over five pounds of tomatoes. And how many of the little buggers do you think you get to the pound? I’ll tell you: I’ve just weighed fifteen and they came to four ounces. That’s sixty to the pound. So we’re talking 300, cut in half, 600 halves, juice all over the pace, flicking out the seeds 600 times with a knife, worrying about not extracting every single one. All together now: NO, WE’RE NOT GOING TO DO THAT. Leave the seeds in and call it extra roughage. “

2. Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett. Hartnett’s latest novel is a painfully close-to-the-bone tale focusing on almost fourteen-year-old Plum Coyle and neighbouring housewife Maureen Wilks who befriends her. Different to Of a Boy but equally affecting, Hartnett writes with compassion and humour but above all clarity of “commonplace horrors.” (As Hartnett described her work in conversation with Sandra Yates at the SWF last Thursday). An author worth seeking out if you haven’t heard of or read her work.

The Sunday salon: A book review, belated thanks and the best choc-chip cookie recipe EVER!

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I’m afraid I’ve lost my blogging mojo of late, which isn’t entirely bad given I’ve had more time to read as a result. Undoubtedly, the best thing I’ve read since I last posted is the novel Of a boy (aka What the birds see) by Sonya Hartnett, an acclaimed Australian author who I’m now glad to say won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2008.

Of a boy is set in 1977 in a suburban Australia where “three children bought no ice-cream, did not return home” (in the novel the Metfords, based of course on the Beaumonts). It relates the quiet life of Adrian, a nine-year-old boy living with his gran and uncle Rory, a boy who:

“isn’t particularly gifted at anything except art: the other kids gather admiringly round his desk during the once-weekly afternoon sessions when they’re allowed to paint and draw. Aside from this, he goes more or less ignored. He doesn’t mind that- he prefers to be overlooked. He is bashful, and rarely puts up his hand: if he knows an answer. he generally keeps it to himself. He isn’t boisterous, he can’t run fast, he is hopelessly uncoordinated. He sometimes joins the boys playing football at lunchtime on the broken asphalt, but he isn’t a skilful player. When the captains pick their team from the mob, first one boy choosing and then the other, Adrian is unfailingly one of the last to be selected, left waiting with the fat boy and the immigrant. Adrian is the runt. But he takes the humiliation in good stead, and always feels a squeeze of pleasure when his name is finally called.”

You slowly get to know Adrian as his life unfolds one day at a time, with Hartnett creating a strikingly convincing child narrator who wants a slinkee, has many worries (including sea monsters) and is aching lonely. That is, until he meets and befriends his new neighbours, Nicole, Joely and Giles.

Hartnett herself was nine in 1977, which obviously helped her get the the context right. What is more impressive is her creation of authentic childhood moments which gave me a jolt of recognition when I read them, caused a half-stifled exclaimation of But how did she know? For example, those days when as a child you couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble: (It’s a L-O-N-G passage, but it makes the point, so indulge me.)

“As soon as he lifts her (a Royal Doulton figurine) off the mantle, she slithers like an eel from his hands. There’s something sly and traitorous in the way she shatters to pieces on the bricks of the hearth. There is a shriek behind him- a bloodcurdling scream, really. He hears cutlery dropped and the glass door flung back and as he feels his grandmother bearing down like a train he crosses himself superstitiously, awaiting the sting of the slap.

She’s still furious the next morning, and Adrian can’t find his school shoe. He has hobbled about all morning, searching frantically. When Gran’s reversing the tank down the drive Adrian is underneath his bed, scouting the dustiest shadows. The first time she blares the horn, a squeak of dismay escapes him. The second time, frustrated tears fill his eyes. He runs lopsidedly to the den, although he’s already looked there. His grandmother leans on the horn as he crouches on the carpet, cheeks scorching, unable to think. He faces the prospect of wearing his sneakers- perhaps his slippers- to school, when anything but black lace-ups is strictly forbidden. A salty tear slinks past his nose and he wretchedly smears it away. Suddenly, salvation: he remembers reading National Geographic in bed and, growing sleepy, dropping the magazine to the floor. He charges to his room, kicks Geographic aside, and there it is, the prodigal shoe.

In the car, driving to school, his grandmother doesn’t say anything, except to curse the traffic. Adrian cowers like a dog that’s been thoroughly thrashed. When he finally dares to glance at her, he sees she’s grown fins and horns, fangs and claws.

Things surely cannot get any worse, but that evening they do. His homework demands the use of black ink, so he goes to Rory’s bedroom to dig out a pen. He doesn’t like Rory’s bleak, odoriferous room and nor is he particularly welcome within it, so he hurries, eager to be out. Rory’s easel stands empty so there’s no reason for Adrian to think the spats of wayward paint on it should be wet- but some of them must be, for as he ducks by the easel a dab of British racing green touches the elbow of his jumper. His grandma nags him to change out of his uniform when he gets home from school, but Adrian is lazy and always reluctant to swap warm clothes for cold, so he disregards this decree when he can. Now there’s green paint on his school jumper and the jumper is new, not even one year old: his grandmother, already angry about Royal Doulton and the shoe, will certainly murder him.

He rummages through Rory’s painting stuff for a rag, dousing it with turpentine. He rubs the rag determinedly on the stain, and the wool of the jumper darkens and frays. The small green splat spreads to become a noticeably large teal smudge. Adrian gulps down air, mortified. He scuttles to the bathroom, hooking the latch through the eye. He wriggles from the jumper, which reeks of turpentine. He holds the sleeve under the hot tap, gouging soup through the wool. The soap foams and water spits, and the jumper’s sleeve is soaked: still the stain remains. The hot water burns him, the soap’s smell of flowers rises in the air. Adrian flops on a chair, weak with defeat and melancholy. ‘You dumb kid,’ Rory will chortle later; the boy’s grandmother will be less amused. To her, who grew up poor, the ruining of good clothes is tenfold more disgraceful than the manslaughter of a china girl: even though he doesn’t try, Gran says, ‘Don’t talk to me , Adrian, don’t say a word!’

That night he sleeps with his hands clasped between his knees, waking abruptly several times. He wonders what will become of him, a useless, hopeless boy.”

As the above extract suggests, there is a lot of sadness in this book, not always in the foreground but ever present, a part of everyone’s life including Adrian’s. With the context of the missing children, there is a growing sense of suspense (by the final pages, my stomach was knotted with dread) but when danger finally appears, it takes a shockingly unexpected form . I found what happened horribly convincing and admit I cried buckets. I will remember Adrian and Of a boy long after finishing it, and encourage anyone reading this to seek him and it out.

I’m now really looking forward to Hartnett’s latest novel Butterfly, which is awaiting me on the TBR shelf once I’ve regained some emotional equilibrium. I was also delighted to see in the program released yesterday that Hartnett will be part of the Sydney Writer’s Festival in May- definitely a must see for me.

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On another note, I want to say a belated thank you to seachanges for giving me a I heart your blog award a while back. Much appreciated, although I can’t pick just seven blogs to pass it on to. There’s a reason the posts in my bloglines account are longer than War and Peace after all.

Finally, one of my small pleasures is baking something sweet each weekend. This weekend I made these choc-chip cookies, which are so good I have to pass on the recipe. They apparently last a week, not something that will be tested in my household. It’s as if the cookie-monster in his pre “Cookies are a sometimes food” days has been to visit!

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