2009 in review

Once again, SavidgeReads is inviting people to do something cool…take a look back at your reading for the year.  So, I’m making a new pot of tea and doing just that!

How many books read in 2009?

48…which is not nearly as many as some readers out there…and I am hoping to squeeze one more in before the 31st

How many fiction and non fiction?

I rarely read non-fiction, but this year I read two: The Art of Meaningful Living and Traveling with Pomegranates.

Male/Female author ratio?

20 men and 27 women and I know  the math doesn’t add up…but I read two novels by Thomas H. Cook this year.

Favourite book of 2009?

This wasn’t a stellar reading year, sadly. I had a horrible slump in the late fall where nothing appealed to me at all. Of the books I read, though, Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones was far and away the best. I said about it:

Mister Pip is a fantastic book about the power of reading and imagination. It is also a powerful and startling novel about bravery and sacrifice, love and forgiveness.”

Least favourite?

Lots of potential here:

Love: A User’s Guide by Clare Naylor was god-awful.

At a Loss for Words by Diane Schoemperlen and Dismantled by Jennifer McMahon were hugely disappointing, particularly Dismantled because I had so loved the author’s book Promise Not to Tell.

Any that you simply couldn’t finish and why?

I started several books that I had to put aside. I finished Traveling with Pomegranates last night and I am hoping to finish The Drowning Tree by Carol Goodman before the 31st. I never did get around to finishing The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson…that’s a book I will have to restart. The buzz was crazy about it and I’m not sure why I didn’t finish it at the time I started…there was just something. Other titles I started and the set aside include: The Almond by Nedjma, What Love Means to You People by NancyKay Shapiro, Under My Skin by Alison Jameson and Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

Oldest book read?

Cue for Treason by Geoffrey Trease, 1940. This is a book I am teaching to my grade nine class.


The Art of Meaningful Living and Traveling with Pomegranates both came out in September and, strangely, are the two non-fiction titles I read this year.

Longest and shortest book titles?

Longest: Charlotte and Claudia Keeping in Touch by Joan Barfoot

Shortest:  Envy by Kathryn Harrison. I had several one word titles, so I chose the one with the fewest letters. *g*

Longest and shortest books?

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski – 576 pages

The Pearl by John Steinbeck – 96 pages

How many books from the library?

None. And I do have a library card!

Any translated books?

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (translated from Norwegian)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (translated from the French)

Most read author of the year, and how many books by that author?

Thomas H. Cook, a fabulous writer of literary mysteries. I read two of his novels this year: Places in the Dark and Red Leaves.

Any re-reads?

Yes, I reread The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, a novel I first read 35 years ago. I also re-read Lord of the Flies by William Golding because I was teaching it to a grade ten class.

Favourite character of the year?

There were several interesting characters in the books I read this year. I fell totally in love with Claire Cooper, the narrator in Kelly Simmons’ terrific debut novel Standing Still. Claire is a fully realized character, fragile and brave. I also really loved that Claire is a woman who is trying to reconcile motherhood and marriage with the fact that she was, once, a very successful career woman. I loved her wild past, her ability to fall in love with a man based on a single characteristic, her yearning for that simple pleasure once again.

I also loved Caroline, the protagonist in Amanda Eyre Ward’s fantastic book How To Be Lost. Caroline is self-destructive and selfish and afraid. Her journey to find the woman in the picture (the  younger sister who has been missing for years) is ill-advised and necessary because by making the journey she is making her first real attempt to leave the past behind.

And, of course, I can’t leave out Matilda and Mr. Watts, the central characters in Lloyd Jones’ not-to-be-missed Mister Pip. As Mr. Watts unspools Pip’s story from Great Expectations,  thirteen year old Matilda begins the often painful journey from innocence to experience.

Which countries did you go to through the page in your year of reading?

Greece, France, Turkey – Traveling with Pomegranates

Norway – Out Stealing Horses

Poland, Switzerland – The Silver Sword

Brazil – The Trade Mission

England – Talking to the Dead

France – The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Papua New Guinea, Australia – Mister Pip

West Africa – The Book of Negroes

India – The White Tiger

Which book wouldn’t you have read without someone’s specific recommendation?

There are a couple books which might not have made their way onto my reading list so soon except for the fact that they were chosen by members of my book club and therefore I had to read them. For example, I would probably have never read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle – certainly not in hard-cover. I might never have given The Elegance of the Hedgehog a second chance; I really didn’t like it the first time I tried to read it, but managed to get through it the second time…and didn’t hate it.

Which author was new to you in 2009 that you now want to read the entire works of?

Lee Martin. I just finished his book The Bright Forever and it was terrific. I’ll definitely be looking for more work by him. I am also anxious to read Kelly Simmons’ new book The Birdhouse which is due out in February.

Which books are you annoyed you didn’t read?

You’re kidding, right? The bookshelf to the right contains about 200 yet-to-be-read books…so it’s not annoyance I feel when I don’t get around to those books…it’s more like panic!

Did you read any books you have always been meaning to read?

Not really, although several of the titles have been on my tbr list for a while: Out Stealing Horses, The Trade Mission, On Chesil Beach.

I’ll just add that the book I will be beginning 2010 with  is Kathy Hepinstall’s debut novel The House of Gentle Men. This novel is actually my pick for book club in January.  When Book Closeouts was having their massive fiction sale around American Thanksgiving, I bought each member of my group a copy of the book to give them as a gift at Christmas. I paid $1.24 per hard cover book. Score!

If you do this meme, I’d love the link so I can go check your answers out!

Happy New Year.

Traveling with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor

Having read The Mermaid Chair and  The Secret Life of Bees, both by Sue Monk Kidd,  I was excited when this was chosen as one of our book club selections. That was in November. I just finished reading the book now. What does that tell you?

Traveling with Pomegranates should have been a better book than it actually is. This is a mother(Sue)/daughter(Ann) memoir about travel, faith, love, creativity and writing. At the beginning, as I settled in, I thought that it was going to be quite compelling. I felt a kinship with Sue:

“I didn’t understand why I was responding to the prospect of aging with such shallowness and dread, only that there had to be more to it than the etchings on my skin” (4).

In Sue’s capable hands, this journey is – if not always engaging – at least well written and thoughtful. Sadly, I can’t say the same for Ann’s part. I found her whiny and entitled. I never warmed up to her.

Mother and daughter visit Greece together in 1998. Ann is 22 and Sue mourns the loss of the little girl she was. She is also acutely aware that something troubling is going on with her daughter. At first glance it might seem that Ann’s disappointment has to do with the fact that she didn’t get into graduate school, but as the mother/daughter writers unspool the story it turns out that they are both looking for something more complicated. And they spend the rest of the book kneeling at the feet of Madonnas (and other powerful female icons) in Greece and Crete and France…trying to find it.

Ultimately, it turns out that graduate school was never what Ann truly wanted; she wants to be a writer. And how wonderful for her that her mother is and that they could do this book together.

The Bright Forever by Lee Martin

Lee Martin’s novel The Bright Forever has restored my faith in fiction. After a long drought, The Bright Forever accomplished what all good novels should: it held me spellbound. It is beautifully written, has a cast of damaged and damned characters and is almost impossible to put down.

Nine-year-old Katie Mackey goes missing one hot July night in small-town Indiana. She’s the youngest child of Patsy and Junior Mackey. Junior is a man about town; he owns the glass factory. Katie and her older brother, Gilley, are not spoiled rich kids, though – they are smart and kind.

The Bright Forever is told from the viewpoints of Gilley, Mr. Dees (the bachelor math teacher who is helping Katie improve her math skills that hot summer) and Raymond and Clare, a couple of misfits who live on the other side of town, close to Mr. Dees. Occasionally, the story drops into 3rd person omniscient, allowing us to see how the town is reacting to Katie’s disappearance. These transitions are handled effortlessly and the various voices are distinct and original. Each perspective adds to the story’s central mystery – what happened to Katie – but also allows us to see how fragile and broken these people are.

It’s clearly early on that Mr. Dees and Ray are the prime suspects in this case, but what the reader isn’t suspecting is their complicated complicity and the way their story unfolds. Suffice to say – there is more than one victim in this story.

The Bright Forever is remarkable – it moves at a suspenseful clip and yet, ultimately, it’s a tragedy.  A worthy read, indeed.

Where the River Runs by Patti Callahan Henry

A while back I read Henry’s novel Losing the Moon and although I had misgivings when I started the novel, it won me over in the end. Sadly, I can’t say the same about Where the River Runs. I wanted to like it, I really did…but I just had so many problems with it.

Where the River Runs is the story of Meridy Dresden, lawyer’s wife and mother to a teenage son, BJ. She has a strained relationship with her mother and sister and a big secret that she’s kept since the summer she graduated from high school and her boyfriend, Danny, was killed in a fire. When she’s asked to write a curriculum based on Gulluh (descendants of African slaves) culture, she goes back to her childhood home to interview Tulu, her childhood housekeeper.

What this novel expects us to believe is that 20 years after the tragic fire that killed Danny,  Meridy’s best childhood friend, Tim, is being asked to pay for the damage to an old historically significant cottage that burned down. The novel also asks us to believe that people’s strained family relations can be miraculously resolved over iced tea on the porch. Meridy’s struggle to reconcile her past was real enough except that the secret she built her life around was ridiculously inconsequential.  I just didn’t buy into her angst. It all seemed contrived and convenient and forced.

For me, the best parts of Where the River Runs were the Gulluh sayings at the start of every chapter. Things like Death is one ditch you cannot jump and the heart doesn’t mean everything the mouth says.

Where the River Runs is part of the New American Library Accent series, novels which are meant to touch on subjects close to a woman’s heart, or as the tag line says: “Fiction for the way we live.” I don’t know anyone who lives this way.

Didn’t like this one at all…read Losing the Moon instead.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses has been on my tbr list for ages, so I was happy when it was chosen as the December read for my book club. I was also surprised because the woman who chose generally dislikes translations and this novel was translated from the original Norwegian. Anyway, I settled in and finished the book (one of the few in the group who actually did) and even after discussing it – I am not sure how I feel about the book.

The story concerns 67 year old Trond Sander who is living in isolation after the death of his second wife. The novel moves seamlessly between Trond’s every day concerns (getting his driveway plowed and stacking wood) and his memories of his youth. The summer he was 15 he and his father had left Trond’s mother and sister in Oslo and come to a cottage quike like the one Trond is currently inhabiting. It was there that Trond’s world was knocked off-kilter – not only by a tragedy that occurred in his friend Jon’s family, but also by events in his own life.

It took my a while to settle into this book. It’s a quiet novel and while the writing is quite powerful (particularly Pettersen’s descriptions of the natural world), I found the long sentences strangely difficult…too many commas or something. Still, I eventually stopped wanting to add full stops and gave myself over to Trond’s remarkable childhood recollections.

I’m not sure this book will appeal to everyone and so it’s not one that I can whole-heartedly recommend. That said – I do think it achieves something quite remarkable. As Trond’s story unfolds we learn a universal truth – sometimes there are no satisfactory explanations for life’s mysteries.

The Art of Meaningful Living by Christopher Brown


When I worked at Indigo there was an entire section of the store devoted to Well Being. People looking for help with their relationships, sex lives, food addictions, spirituality, and just about everything else related to their personal lives could be found in this section. Perhaps by some weird fluke though, Christopher F. Brown’s new book The Art of Meaningful Living could have been found over in the Art section and, strangely, it would have been equally at home there, too.

The Art of Meaningful Living is a clever hybrid which marries self-help with art.  Brown offers practical advice on how to live a meaningful life and John Palmer contributes abstract art to the book which makes The Art of Meaningful Living a rare bird indeed: it’s the kind of book you’d actually leave on your coffee people for your friends to see.

Many of us reach a certain age and  start to wonder about our place in the world. I don’t mean to be morose, but let’s face it –  we don’t have infinite time on the planet.  More often than not we push that thought away, planning for an unforeseeable future. Eventually, though, life catches up and many of us need help reorienting our ’ship’, so to speak. Brown offers thoughtful and meaningful advice on how to chart your course and he does it without psychobabble. The book is divided into four sections: Wisdom, Action, Resilience and The Art of Meaningful Lives.  Brown asks us, first of all, to consider our lives and  acknowledge our cast –  that is the people who had a hand in bringing you to the place you are right now. He also encourages us to commit to change and assures us that the book will help the reader “learn to build wisdom, take action, develop resilience… manage your mind, cope with the world around you, define what is valuable to you, and move forward with the life you want.”

Palmer considers Brown’s advice and each page offers his colourful,  (and although I can’t claim to have any expertise in art at all) often very beautiful interpretations of the ideas.

Brown and Palmer began their collaboration after they had each lost a parent. They believe The Art of Meaningful Living “provide[s] hope to move past those dark moments.”

Perhaps it is fate, then, that this book came across my desk when it did. My father died of esophageal cancer as I was about half way through it. As a person who has always struggled to balance my creative instincts with the day-to-day slog, The Art of Meaningful Living gives me the tools to move past the grief I feel and on towards attaining a life worth living.

The Trade Mission by Andrew Pyper

I hate it when a book flummoxes me. I hate it when I feel outsmarted by a book, too. Andrew Pyper’s novel The Trade Mission is probably one of those books which deserves to be read twice: once for the story and once for the deeper philosophical issues that I knew were there, but which somehow eluded me. Mostly, anyway.

Jonathan Bates and Marcus Wallace are childhood friends who have become dot com millionaires for their invention of something called Hypothesys.

“We feel that Hypothesys is something that is truly going to change the way we conduct our lives,” explains Wallace to investors gathered in Brazil. “It’s not another Internet site…Hypothesys helps you make the best decisions of your life.”

Ironically, when it comes to making moral decisions with real consequences, Wallace and Bates are left to their own devices. While playing tourist on the Rio Negro, deep in the Amazonian jungle, they (and their companions Elizabeth Crossman, their interpreter; Barry, their managing partner and Lydia, their European counsel) are kidnapped by pirates. What follows is a strange combination of violence and soul searching.

The Trade Mission is narrated by Crossman and she’s in a unique position; as the only one of the party able to speak the language she can embellish or omit.  She also seems to love and hate Wallace in equal measure.  Truthfully, he isn’t particularly sympathetic. His relationship with Bates is eerily sexual and he often seems smug about his intellectual prowess. As for Crossman herself, she isn’t the most accessible of characters and I have to admit that her role, when the story finally starts to unravel, seems a bit of a cheat. The novel’s section After was too sentimental for me, especially coming after the horrors the characters experienced.

Pyper’s a terrific writer. I’m a fan. I liked his novel Lost Girls, which I read several years ago. But I remember feeling somehow unsatisfied after reading that novel, too.  The Trade Mission is billed as a ‘novel of psychological terror.’ Sure, some of it was squirm inducing, but it wasn’t a page-turner in that ‘oh my God, what’s gonna happen next’ way.

Thus the flummox. And the am I missing something. Still worth a read, though.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

I first read Ian Serraillier’s novel The Silver Sword when I was 12. All these years later I had vague memories of what the story was about, but  very vivid memories of having loved it. We read it in school and so it wasn’t a book that I’d actually come across elsewhere. One day, while perusing the selection at Book Closeouts I came across the book and decided to order it. I wondered, after all these years, if it would stand up. Some childhood books do and some don’t.

The Silver Sword is the story of Polish siblings Ruth, Edek and Bronia. When the Nazis invade Warsaw in 1940 their father, Joseph, and mother, Margrit, are taken away leaving the children, then aged 13, 11 and 3, to fend for themselves. We hear a little bit about the father who manages to escape a couple years later and make his way back to Warsaw. There he encounters a young ruffian named Jan. It’s part luck and part contrivance that the children should meet up with Jan and together they set off for Switzerland in search of their parents.

I am sad to say that The Silver Sword wasn’t a magical experience the second time around. The story is simplistic, the characters are one-dimensional and the happy-ending is unrealistic. That said, it in no way diminishes my memories of what I loved about the book 30-odd years ago. Then the trials of these children: their hunt for safe places to sleep, finding food, trying to stay out of the way of the Nazis, searching for their parents, was both thrilling and heart-wrenching. I can only attribute my disappointment to the fact that I am older and jaded.

I think my children will love it as much as I did then.

The Moment You Were Gone by Nicci Gerrard


Nicci Gerrard writes terrific psychological suspense thrillers with her husband Sean French. As Nicci French they have written a few books I have enjoyed immensely, particularly Killing Me Softly. On her own, Gerrard is a thoughtful and talented writer, generally concerned with the minutia of  daily life and the relationships which both trouble and sustain us.

So I’m going to blame the fact that I didn’t love Nicci Gerrard’s third novel The Moment You Were Gone on the fact that August was a bit of a bust for me reading-wise. Perhaps it was the spectacular weather, but this was the third novel I’ve started in the last couple of weeks (and the only one I finished).

The Moment You Were Gone is the story of Nancy and Gaby, childhood friends. We see them as children, as young adults and then we meet Gaby  again as she’s dropping her only son, Ethan, off at university.  At this point in the story, she and Nancy have been estranged for almost 20 years, although Gaby has an inkling of where her old friend is.  Instead of going home after leaving Ethan, Gaby decides to revisit her past and hops a train to Cornwall where she tracks Nancy down. It is this reconnection which sets off a chain of events which you can see coming a mile off. What you might not see coming, however, is the way these  revelations change and shape the people involved.

This is a novel about friendship, certainly, but is also a novel about love:  the love between siblings and families, between husbands and wives and between friends. As Gaby’s life begins to unravel, Ethan’s life begins to flourish. We watch him navigate those first few weeks away from home and we watch him fall in love with his best mate’s girl.

Despite the secret that is central to this novel, there are no bad guys here. Everyone makes the choices they think are the best for the right reasons. Watching Gaby deal with the fall out from her discovery is more like watching a fender bender than a train wreck, but I think I actually mean that as a compliment. Although I didn’t necessarily warm to Gaby, I did admire the way she moved forward despite the fact that her world had been tipped over.

The last third of this book is a thoughtful meditation on what happens when you reach a certain point in your life.  From this vantage point you can look back.

She asked herself  what point there was in the frantic emotions of the past few weeks if in the end she was just a pinprick on a dot in a galaxy that was itself negligible. All the scrabbling around, the desperate search for happiness, meaning and union – while around us the millions of stars shine on, implacably distant and remote…. How strange, to care so passionately and yet to mean so little and to die alone and go where no one can follow. (362)

It would be impossible not to relate to some aspect of this book and I can’t fault either the story or the writer for the fact that I didn’t love it. Just reader’s fatigue, I guess.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Several months ago Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog was chosen as the book for the bookstore reading group I lead. We have a sort of willy nilly way of choosing our books and this novel ended up on the top of the heap. When we came together to discuss it a month later, other than the woman who had thrown it into the pile, no one else had finished the book- including me. I got about halfway through…and I just really didn’t like the book at all. So imagine my dismay when the novel was chosen by my longstanding book club as our first novel for our new reading year! I had no choice but to finish the book.

So, I started again. And strangely, this time around, I didn’t find the book so grating. That’s not to say that I found it all that plausible, either. Still, I did manage to get through it.

Barbery’s novel tells the story of Renee, a concierge at an elegant apartment building in Paris.

I am short, ugly and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth. I did not go to college, I have always been poor, discreet and insignificant. (19)

Renee has, despite what she considers her considerable flaws, a deep and abiding love for literature, art and music. Seriously, the novel opens with a rumination on Marx – which is perhaps the reason why I didn’t groove to the novel straight away the first time around: I know nothing about Marx.

Paloma lives in the building with her parents and older sister. At twelve, Paloma is already sick of the world and everyone in it.

My parents are rich, my family is rich and my sister and I are, therefore rich….Despite all that, despite all this good fortune and all this wealth, I have known for a long time that the final destination is the goldfish bowl. How do I know? Well, the fact is that I am very intelligent. Exceptionally intelligent. (23)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about appearances. Renee is forever fearful about giving away her love of the finer things; after all, she’s just a concierge. Paloma,  is keeping a journal of profound thoughts and plotting her own death. And then into their lives comes a Japanese gentleman named Kakuro Ozu. He sees straight through these women, into their very heart of hearts and changes them in ways they might have never imagined.

This novel was a sensation in France. As with any translation, it’s important to remember that you are not reading it in its original form; something is bound to be lost in the translation no matter how good it is.

I have a feeling that when we discuss this novel tomorrow night, most everyone will have loved it. I didn’t love it (in fact I didn’t like the ending at all!), but I did see the novel’s charms- even though I often found the novel pretentious (all these mini-lessons on art and literature) and perhaps just a tad contrived.