20 May 2013

Bookshelf Roundup

A while back I started a Bookshelf section with the intention of every few months writing short reviews of the books I had read. Well apparently I’ve neglected to keep it up, so much so that it probably appears to regular readers that I don’t actually read any books. But the truth is I do, books of all types: lowbrow to high, fiction to non, even cookbooks. Normally the piles of books by my bed are such that I rarely read a book right when it’s published (there were a few years in grad school when my answer to the question “what are you reading” was “dead people”) so some of these books may seem like old news to you. Some of these I liked a lot, some not so much. Nonetheless, here is a roundup of some of the books I’ve read so far this year. 

Reply to a Letter from Helga—Bergsveinn Birgisson
This novella is written as letter from an elderly Icelandic farmer to the woman he loved decades ago, explaining why he made the choices he did. Part love letter, part confession, it’s at times beautiful in its stark lyricism and at others downright shocking. 

The silent film actress’ autobiography (compiled from tapes she made) in which she reminisces about her days on the stage and screen. Modest about her own talents, Davies heaps praise on her lover Hearst for whom her devotion and loyalty appears to have never wavered, even after his death. 

Fonseca spent four years living with Roma families throughout Eastern Europe, learning how they live and about their trials and tribulations. Although bleak and slow going at times, it’s extremely informative and makes one wish for an update to see how the Roma are faring now.

Return of the Thin Man: Two never-before-published novellas featuring Nick & Nora Charles—Dashiell Hammett, Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett, editors
Do not be fooled. This book does not contain novellas about everyone’s favourite married detectives but rather film treatments with notes that were the basis for the first two sequels to The Thin Man. Fans of the films will be interested to see what changes the studio made but others should just see the films. 

The Winter Sea—Susanna Kearsley
Carrie McClelland is a writer of historical fiction who rents a small cottage near the Scottish castle where her latest novel is to take place. As she begins to write, Carrie discovers that she is uncannily tuned in to the lives of her 18th-century characters and begins to question how much of her story is fact. Romantic and fun.

The pastry chef and cookbook author’s humorous account about living in Paris and some of the lessons he learned like one gets dressed properly to take out the garbage (no wearing of sweatpants) and one does not eat ones baguette on the street. Includes a bevy of recipes.

A biography of one of my favourite actresses that includes a look at her childhood in Montana, her rise in Hollywood from bit player to leading lady in the 1930s and 40s, and her subsequent role as an activist later in life. Includes a warranted detailed discussion of her most important role—Nora Charles in the Thin Man series. Long but worth the read.

Kiki de Montparnasse: A Graphic Novel— Catel Muller and José-Louis Bocquet
Born to a single mother and raised in poverty, Alice Prin grew up to become Kiki, a favourite artists' model and the toast of café society in Montparnasse in the 1920s. I haven’t read a lot of graphic novels but quite enjoyed this new approach to Kiki's biography.

This collection of short stories by the queen of Southern Gothic includes her usual eccentric characters, themes of race and religion, and actions that lead to tragedy. Many of the stories are disturbing, particularly “The Lame Shall Enter First,” but all are unforgettable.

The Summer of the Bear—Bella Pollen
When a British diplomat to Bonn dies suddenly, his widow decides to take their three children to a small island in the Scottish Outer Hebrides. There each of them mourn in their own way including the young boy, Jamie, who is convinced that an escaped bear on the island is a link his father. With hints of magic realism, a really well-written novel.

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt: A Novel in Pictures—Caroline Preston
It’s the 1920s and young Frankie Pratt dreams of becoming a writer. She manages to leave New Hampshire for New York where she graduates from Vassar and finds a job before moving to Paris. Filled with dozens of photographs, advertisements, and prints that serve to illustrate her adventures, this is a delightful take on the coming of age story.

The Imperfectionists—Tom Rachman 
This debut novel is about an English language newspaper in Rome and the lives of its staff and owners (and in one case, a reader). Each chapter is devoted to a different character but by the end their stories come together in an inevitable way. Very engaging.

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