Thursday, April 24, 2014

Staff Pick - Someone Somewhere by Dana Mills

This fine collection of short stories, Someone
Somewhere by Dana Mills, begins with a punch with his Journey Prize nominated story Steaming for Godthab. His stories of working class life are blunt and spare, and yet convey intense and raw emotion. Having spent months aboard a fishing trawler, the men are "broke up" both mentally and physically. Their release is a stop over in Greenland where there are liquor and girls, and not in a healthy combination. It's a difficult story to read because of its harshness, but as with so many of Mills' stories, there is a vulnerability and a softness. The isolation, the sea, the relentless hard work causes the men to behave aggressively and irrationally with each other and with the Inuit girls they find in Greenland. Mills' stories are all in some way about men and their relationships and in Steaming for Godthab a trawlerman breaks with his harsh worklife and finds tenderness with an anonymous local girls.

His stories tend to be rough yet tempered by sweet details, like the boy who wishes to dress nicely to attract a girl who knows how to keep a relationship tight. Perhaps my favourite story is 25000 Easy Steps. A boy brings home his girl Treasure to meet Matt his brother who has some unnamed developmental difficulty. The family has grown around him coping as best they can with some casualities - depression, withdrawal, anti-social behaviour. In comes Treasure with her freshness and energy - the boy is so proud of his "track and field girl" - and gives them renewed ability to cope with Matt and gives the boy a place where he fits in. Perhaps not the most powerful story in the collection, but certainly a touching one.

Lee Stringer's Watching the Road is
another collection of Atlantic Canadian stories which explore the lives of blue collar workers, this time in rural Newfoundland. "In this impressive collection of fourteen short stories, the poor and blue-collar characters dig only at the surface of their conflicts. That is until they stumble upon a defining moment that heightens their self-awareness, and for better or worse causes them to re-examine who they are. In the end, they can only live with the choices they’ve already made and keep watching the road ahead. They inhabit the tiny outport of Bluff Harbour and the larger, neighbouring town of Millbrook, places that which a world that Stringer himself grew up in. It’s just close enough to St. John’s to catch its ripples of modernization as the last generation of traditional fishermen fade away." publisher

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Stefan Zweig and the Grand Budapest Hotel

I'm a big fan of the films of Wes Anderson -- The Royal Tenebaums is my favourite all-time film -- and it was with great excitement that I caught a screening of his latest film The Grand Budapest Hotel a week or two ago. True to Anderson's style, his latest was a tale of adventure (and misadventure), nostalgia, and love with quirky comedic turns, this time steeped in the mystique of a grand hotel and a few key members of its staff. The film opens with a young girl arriving at memorial holding in her hand a copy of a book, also called The Grand Budapest Hotel. She begins to read and we are whisked into the story that is presumably on the pages in front of her. I immediately loved this device--the framed narrative based on a book, even a fictional one, certainly appealed to my more bookish nature, but a brief credit at the end "Inspired by the Writings of Stefan Zweig" sent me scrambling to do some research and find out a bit more on a true-to-life literary connection.

I had never heard of Stefan Zwieg. According to his wikipedia entry Zweig "was an Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer. At the height of his literary career, in the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the most popular writers in the world". With the popularity of Anderson's films, it won't surprise you to learn that I'm not the only person who seems to have gone off in search of the answer to the question "who is Stefan Zwieg?" Google that name and you'll get a slew of recent news stories that tie the film and Zweig together: including The New Yorker, The BBC and Time Magazine, all of which are bringing the name of a largely forgotten writer to the attention of 21st Century movie goers and readers.

Readers looking for a taste of Zweig can turn to the library catalogue, although you may have to wait a little for a large selection of titles. Indicative of the way that English reading audiences have largely forgotten Zweig, the library currently only holds one book by the author in English, although several more are on order. For now, you can try The Post Office Girl: "The post-office girl is Christine, who looks after her ailing mother and toils in a provincial Austrian post office in the years just after the Great War. One afternoon, as she is dozing among the official forms and stamps, a telegraph arrives addressed to her. It is from her rich aunt, who lives in America and writes requesting that Christine join her and her husband in a Swiss Alpine resort. After a dizzying train ride, Christine finds herself at the top of the world, enjoying a life of privilege that she had never imagined. But Christine's aunt drops her as abruptly as she picked her up, and soon the young woman is back at the provincial post office, consumed with disappointment and bitterness. Then she meets Ferdinand, a wounded but eloquent war veteran who is able to give voice to the disaffection of his generation. Christine's and Ferdinand's lives spiral downward, before Ferdinand comes up with a plan which will be either their salvation or their doom."

Keep an eye on the catalogue for the arrival of further books including Beware of Pity.  Next month, those who want to know even more about Zweig can investigate a new biography Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World by George Prochnik.

There was an irony for me to seeing Zweig's name and then learning more about him as the result of this film. Throughout watching The Grand Budapest Hotel, I kept thinking of another book I'd read, which is also by a well-respected European author who has largely become forgotten by modern English speaking readers: I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal. That book is the story of "Ditie, a hugely ambitious but simple waiter in a deluxe Prague hotel in the years before World War II." Described by another Czech writer Milan Kundera as "an incredible union of earthy humor and baroque imagination", I think it would make good companion reading for those interested in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Staff Pick: Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

It came as something of a surprise to me, having read quite a lot of 1920's fiction - including many of the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald - to discover that his wife Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald had, in fact, written a novel called Save Me the Waltz (1932).*

Zelda was born in Alabama in 1900, and 
married Fitzgerald in 1920. Shortly afterwards the couple moved to France, where Zelda would become - as Fitzgerald described her - the 'first American flapper'. Having undergone significant psychological strain during her marriage, Zelda returned to the U.S., where she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Her novel was written over 6 short weeks whilst undergoing treatment at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Zelda's novel is heavily autobiographical, drawing primarily on her experiences of life in France with Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, who was furious that Zelda had divulged so much information about their private life, forced her to revise the novel. However, some speculate that he was simply jealous of his wife's novel and the speed at which she wrote it, having spent years attempting to write a similar novel - Tender Is the Night. Tragically, Zelda Fitzgerald would later die in a hospital fire, but her novel continues to serve as an expression of her fascinating life, and fraught relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald's Save Me the Waltz
tells the story of Alabama Beggs who marries the artist David Knight (who are meant to be Zelda and Scott). Together they move to France, where their marriage begins to fall apart. David begins an affair with an actress and Alabama, determined to live beyond her marriage, throws herself into becoming a ballet dancer. Zelda's prose is frenetic and intimate, exposing her own personality and desire to make sense of her life.

I really loved reading this book because it was so fascinating to me to see another side of that idealized 'lost generation' - the voice of one of its more peripheral (but hugely influential) figures. It is interesting to read Zelda's novel in conjunction with Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, because although both are based on their lives together, they give very different perspectives on their marriage.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night:

"Set on the French Riviera in the late 1920s, Tender Is the Night is the tragic romance of the young actress Rosemary Hoyt and the stylish American couple Dick and Nicole Diver. A brilliant young psychiatrist at the time of his marriage, Dick is both husband and doctor to Nicole, whose wealth goads him into a lifestyle not his own, and whose growing strength highlights Dick's harrowing demise." - Discover

*Save Me the Waltz is currently out of print. Try Interlibrary Loan to get a copy.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Run Boston Run!!

Halifax loves Boston and we are cheering for our 125+ Nova Scotia runners today. Halifax Public Libraries Readers are also waiting for the release of Stronger: fighting back after the Boston Marathon bombing by Jeff Bauman.

"When Jeff Bauman woke up on Tuesday, April 16th, 2013 in the Boston Medical Center, groggy from a series of lifesaving surgeries and missing his legs, the first thing he did was try to speak. When he realized he couldn't, he asked for a pad and paper and wrote down seven words: "Saw the guy. Looked right at me," setting off one of the biggest manhunts in the country's history.

Just thirty hours before, Jeff had been at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon cheering on his girlfriend, Erin, when the first bomb went off at his feet. As he was rushed to the hospital, he realized he was severely injured and that he might die, but he didn't know that a photograph of him in a wheelchair was circulating throughout the world, making him the human face of the Boston Marathon bombing victims, or that what he'd seen would give the Boston police their most important breakthrough.

Up until the marathon, Jeff had been a normal 27-year-old guy, looking forward to moving in with Erin and starting the next phase of their lives together. But when his life was turned upside down in ways he could never have fathomed, Jeff did not give up. Instead he faced his new circumstances with grace, humor, and a sense of purpose: he was determined, no matter what, to walk again.

In STRONGER, Jeff describes the chaos and terror of the bombing itself and the ongoing FBI investigation in which he was a key witness. He takes us inside his grueling rehabilitation, and discusses his attempt to reconcile the world's admiration with his own guilt and frustration. And he tells of the courage of his fellow survivors. Brave, compassionate, and emotionally compelling, Jeff Bauman's story is not just his, but ours as well. It proves that the terrorists accomplished nothing with their act of cowardice and shows the entire world what Boston Strong really means." publisher

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Meet Frieda Klein... by Nicci Fench

"Internationally bestselling authors Nicci Gerard and Sean French, writing as Nicci French, have sold more than eight million copies of their books worldwide. But nothing they've written written before has grabbed the attention of reviewers and readers like Blue Monday and its iconic heroine, Frieda Klein. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it a superb psychological thriller . . . with brooding atmosphere, sustained suspense, a last-minute plot twist, and memorable cast of characters.".

Blue Monday
by Nicci French Klein is a solitary, incisive psychotherapist who spends her sleepless nights walking along the ancient rivers that have been forced underground in modern London. She believes that the world is a messy, uncontrollable place, but what we can control is what is inside our heads. This attitude is reflected in her own life, which is an austere one of refuge, personal integrity, and order. The abduction of five-year-old Matthew Farraday provokes a national outcry and a desperate police hunt. And when his face is splashed over the newspapers, Frieda cannot ignore the coincidence: one of her patients has been having dreams in which he has a hunger for a child. A red-haired child he can describe in perfect detail, a child the spitting image of Matthew. She finds herself in the center of the investigation, serving as the reluctant sidekick of the chief inspector.

"This is psychological suspense done right. The authors pace themselves and build the tension slowly while carefully developing each of the players. For fans of Tana French's and Lisa Gardner's moody, dark, twisty thrillers." - Library Journal

Tuesday's Gone
by Nicci French rotting, naked corpse of a man is found amidst swarms of flies in the living room of a confused woman. Who is he? Why is Michelle Doyce trying to serve him afternoon tea? And how did the dead body find its way into her flat? DCI Karlsson needs an expert to delve inside Michelle's mind for answers and turns to former colleague, psychiatrist Frieda Klein. Eventually Michelle's ramblings lead to a vital clue that in turn leads to a possible identity. Robert Poole. Jack of all trades and master conman. The deeper Frieda and Karlsson dig, the more of Poole's victims they encounter . . . and the more motives they uncover for his murder. But is anyone telling them the truth except for poor, confused Michelle? And when the past returns to haunt Frieda's present, she finds herself in danger. Whoever set out to destroy Poole also seems determined to destroy Frieda Klein. Sometimes the mind is a dangerous place to hide.

"*Starred Review* Psychological suspense at its best, with full-bodied characters and a closing cliffhanger, will leave fans waiting to see what Wednesday will bring." - Booklist

Saturday, April 19, 2014

"Startup" by Glenn Ogura

"Startup" by Glenn OguraIf you read novels to relax, this debut thriller by author Glenn Ogura, “Startup” is not for you.  I was at the edge of my seat – frantically turning pages throughout.  A modern yet timeless tale of good vs. evil.  People with integrity versus the morally bereft.  Set in and around California’s Bay Area and Silicon Valley, the novel features an idealistic young entrepreneur, Zack Penny and his mentor, the ruthless CEO of a major technology business.  To further complicate things, this man, Allen Henley is also his boss and the father of the woman he loves.   When events dictate he make his move from under Allen’s wing to his own startup company, Zack believes that finally he will be able to pursue his dream of heading a tech company that values its employees – and trusts that he, and it, will become tremendously successful due to a cutting-edge, flat-screen technology founded by his friend and business colleague, Dimitre.

Zack’s dreams are short lived when he encounters roadblock after roadblock with his new venture.  Industrial espionage, corruption, personal betrayal, unethical law practices and a completely unscrupulous nemesis provide Zack with disillusion, despair and heartbreak.

Startup” is a true page-turner.  A fast-paced legal/techno-thriller with a memorable – if slightly ‘over the top’ – climax which will appeal to all thriller readers and fans of television shows such as “The Good Wife”.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Midwives in Fiction

The Harlot's Tale: a midwife mystery by Samuel Thomas
"It is August, 1645, one year since York fell into Puritan hands. As the city suffers through a brutal summer heat, Bridget Hodgson and Martha Hawkins are drawn into a murder investigation more frightening than their last. In order to appease God’s wrath—and end the heat-wave—the city’s overlords have launched a brutal campaign to whip the city’s sinners into godliness. But for someone in York, this is not enough. First a prostitute and her client are found stabbed to death, then a pair of adulterers are beaten and strangled. York’s sinners have been targeted for execution." publisher

The Kept by James Scott

"In the winter of 1897, a trio of killers descends
upon an isolated farm in upstate New York. Midwife Elspeth Howell returns home to the carnage: her husband and four of her children, murdered. Before she can discover her remaining son, Caleb, alive and hiding in the kitchen pantry, another shot rings out over the snow-covered plains.
Twelve-year-old Caleb nurses his mother back to health, cleaning her wounds and keeping her fed, before they leave their home to seek retribution on the men who committed this heinous crime. As they travel from country to town to hunt the murderers, Elspeth is forced to confront her deepest secrets and question her role in her family’s destruction, while Caleb must navigate the dark places in which killers might reside. The search for vengeance becomes entangled in old lies and past mistakes as mother and son plunge headlong into the unknown future that lies ahead." publisher

The Harem Midwife
by Roberta Rich

"Hannah and Isaac Levi, Venetians in exile,
have set up a new life for themselves in Constantinople. Isaac runs a newly established business in the growing silk trade, while Hannah, the best midwife in all of Constantinople, plies her trade within the opulent palace of Sultan Murat III, tending to the thousand women of his lively and infamous harem. But one night, when Hannah is unexpectedly summoned to the palace, she's confronted with Leah, a poor Jewish peasant girl who has been abducted and sold into the sultan's harem. The sultan favours her as his next conquest and wants her to produce his heir, but the girl just wants to return to her home and the only life she has ever known. What will Hannah do? Will she risk her life and livelihood to protect this young girl, or will she retain her high esteem in the eye of the sultan?" publisher

The Midwife's Daughter by Patricia Ferguson
"Violet Dimond, the Holy Terror, has delivered many of the town's children - and often their children - in her capacity as handywoman. But Violet's calling is dying out as, with medicine's advances, the good old ways are no longer good enough. Grace, Violet's adopted daughter, is a symbol of change herself." Discover