Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies

The Enthusiasms of Robertson DaviesThe Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies
by Robertson Davies
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If your to-be-read pile is already out of control do not read this book as it will just exacerbate the problem. This volume collects reviews and essays Davies published in various (mostly Canadian) newspapers and magazines prior to 1990 when it was published. In a piece about Theodore Hook he says "Hook is now quite unknown; nobody reads him except people like myself, who like to rummage in the rubbish heaps of literature." This is a book for those people, among whom I must count myself. This title counts toward the Canadian Book Challenge.

The items I have now added to my TBR include:
  • The Performing Flea (letters of P. G. Wodehouse): " I recommend this book strongly to all writers, and to those who think that they would like to be writers. With Virginia Woolf's A Writer's Diary, it gives the most penetrating insight into a writer's life that I have seen in current literature; indeed, these two books, taken together, would make excellent material for a course in writing." (p. 37)
  • Joyce Cary's novels: "If you truly like novels, and if you like to get your teeth into something really meaty, I recommend these books to you strongly. But do not let me mislead you; if you want something on the Dostoevsky model, with agony and guilt piled high, these are not the books for you. Cary is, in the highest and finest sense a comic writer. He rejoices in the wild luxuriance of the human spirit; he is stimulated by situations which cause other novelists to pull their solemnest faces. ...This is just the kind of thing I like, because it agrees with my own view of life." (p. 159)
  • Clean and Decent, the Fascinating History of the Bathroom and the W.C. by Lawrence Wright. Possibly also The Smallest Room by John Pudney and Cleanliness and Godliness by Reginald Reynolds. (All from the 11 June 1960 piece in the Toronto Daily Star entitled "Clean and Decent". The Reynolds book is Davies' personal favorite of the group.)
  • "The best book on writing that I know is Style, by F. L. Lucas, who is himself an admirable writer, and a merciless task-master." (p. 278)
This is not just a book of book reviews, however. There are also essays where Davies explores biographical and philosophical issues. Here are two of the bits from these pieces that struck my fancy:
  • In a piece about marriage, "The Pleasures of Love": "I do not insist on a union of chatter-boxes, but as you can see I do not believe that still waters run deep; too often I have found that still waters are foul and have mud bottoms. People who love each other should talk to each other; they should confide their real thoughts, their honest emotions, their deepest wishes. How else are they to keep their union in repair?" (p. 311)
  • In "Confessions of an Editor" Davies talks about a time when he edited a small Ontario daily newspaper:
    "A few years ago a friend from a large city dropped in to see me on a busy morning, and composed himself in my visitor's chair for a long, leisurely chat. 'My dream is to buy a little paper exactly like this when I retire,' he said, 'and just run it for fun. Say exactly what I think, and not have to give a damn. I envy you--do you know that?'
    That was several years ago, when I was younger, and of a more passionate nature, and I am sorry now that I killed him. Stabbed him with a file. His paper must have been overstaffed because so far as I know nobody every missed him." (p. 329) This might also be considered a warning for people who carry on about how it must be lovely to be a librarian and get to read all day. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Night at the Vulcan

Night at the Vulcan (Roderick Alleyn, #16)Night at the Vulcan by Ngaio Marsh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Entirely set in a theater during the run up to a new play this one had me convinced I knew who-done-it and then totally surprised me.
"When she considered them all as they sat about their own working-stage, bruised by anxiety and fatigue, Jacko's ugly word sounded not so much frightening as preposterous. It was unthinkable that it could kindle even a bat-light of fear in any of their hearts." (chapter VIII)
This quote made me wonder what a bat light is. I looked around but couldn't locate an answer. It might be like a ghost-light, or there are high-power flash-lights called bat lights, but that makes no sense in the context. Any ideas?


Sunday, September 24, 2017

By the Pricking of my Thumbs

By the Pricking of My ThumbsBy the Pricking of My Thumbs
by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a bit of a Nick &Nora Charles feel to the main characters in this book, though they drink much less and Tuppence is more independent than Nora. A very casual comment from a lady in a nursing home leads the pair--separately for much of the book--into a complex plot of robbery and murder. Well crafted with lots of red herrings to keep the reader off track.
I am rereading Something Wicked This Way Comes for a read-along and when I saw this title on the library shelf it seemed like I needed to read it too.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Chronicles of Narnia, #2)The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This wonderful book has the same narrative tone that I loved in The Magician's Nephew, but is a bit more serious. Lion was the first book written in the Chronicles of Narnia but comes second in the storyline. I am reading the series, in a beautiful boxed set, with illustrations by Pauline Baynes. 

In this book we meet Aslan who is a huge and frightening powerful lion who is also kind and wise, "good and terrible at the same time" (p, 126). That seems to me the key to the whole story--characters who are both good and terrible--and it is what makes it timeless. 

My favorite supporting character in this tale was Mrs. Beaver. I love how she arranges things and lets the others know when they should have listened to her. She is very cozy and domestic--she was at her machine sewing while Mr. Beaver was out and about--but is ready with practical plans when adventure calls. 

This book counts as a classic about an animal for the Back to the Classics challenge.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Review: Endless Night

Endless NightEndless Night by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel doesn't feature a detective, it is a more subtle story than Christie's typical detective tale. The tone of it reminded me of DuMaurier's Rebecca. The construction of this novel was brilliant. It doesn't seem like much at first, but when you get to the end and see the whole thing it dazzles.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Review: Key West

Key West: History of an Island of DreamsKey West: History of an Island of Dreams
by Maureen Ogle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up this book because of the title. For the 2017 What's in a Name Challenge I needed a book with a compass direction in the title and "West" fit the bill.
This history of Key West, Florida turned out to be fascinating, though a bit repetitive. It covers the island from the days of pirates and salvaging through the civil war (when the island remained loyal to the Union despite Florida's secession), the New Deal, and wraps up with the real estate boom of the 1980s. The boom and bust cycles of the military installations on the island and the various people (mostly writers) complaining about all the tourists several times gave me the feeling that I had read a particular bit before. Overall this was a very readable tale of a place I knew almost nothing about.
Maureen Ogle also wrote Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer (2007) which is definitely going on my TBR list.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Review: The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat

The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food RenaissanceThe Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance 
by Thomas McNamee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Growing up in NYC I certainly knew the name Craig Claiborne, but really knew nothing about the man. 

This book paints a picture of a selfish, mean, alcoholic, delusional jerk. It does however make it clear that there were many people who adored him and that he was indeed responsible for changing the way Americans think about, make, and eat food. The actual facts of Claiborne's life are probably not enough to fill a book, but McNamee does an excellent job of describing the larger context, including some long sections where he wanders into things that have no direct connection to Claiborne but which must have influenced him. These sections are among the most interesting in the book. What the French Nouvelle Cuisine was actually all about, for example, and the structure of early culinary education.  

I don't think I would have liked Craig Claiborne, but I enjoyed reading about his 20th-century foodie world.

Linking up with Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

It's All a Game

It's All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of CatanIt's All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan by Tristan Donovan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


  • Trivial Pursuit was invented in Canada.
  • The planning of the attack on Pearl Harbor involved a D&D Style Dungeon Master.
  • Backgammon was a huge gambling fad in the jet set 1970s. 

These are just a few of the odd facts I learned from this fascinating look as board games. Chess and artificial intelligence technology are recurring themes, but most board games that I can think of (and a few I never heard of before) get a spotlight that shows not only how they developed, but what they influenced and where they affected stuff you wouldn't expect. If you are a fan of table top games this book is for you.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Citizens of London

Citizens of London: The Americans who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest HourCitizens of London: The Americans who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This well written history made the Blitz much more real to me than it had been before. The information about the people and the political maneuvering was fascinating, the military planning parts went into more detail than I was interested in. Reinforced my impression of Roosevelt (not that great) and it was funny to hear the contemporary accounts of how people saw Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle.


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