Monthly Archives: January 2008

Atonement, by Ian McEwan

Despite all the good things I’d heard about Atonement, I hadn’t read the book before going to see the movie the other night.  In fact, I’d decided not to read the book before seeing the movie, because I’d heard people who loved the book say they were disappointed with the movie.  To avoid disappointment, I decided I’d see the movie first and, if I liked it, read the book figuring it would be even better.

This proved to be an excellent choice.

Sherry and I went to see Atonement, the movie, on Tuesday night.  I loved the movie, and promptly stopped at Coles’ on the way out of the mall to buy the book. We had a snow day on Wednesday and by bedtime Wednesday night I had finished the book, so the whole thing was sort of an intensive 24-hour course in Atonement, which gave me a wonderful opportunity to compare the book and the movie.

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Symphony, by Jude Morgan

I think it’s official — I am going to have to admit Jude Morgan to my elite Pantheon of Historical Fiction authors.  Which creates some gender issues, because it used to be the Pantheon of Historical Fiction Goddesses, but I’m just going to have to work around that. 

Symphony is the kind of book I love — a novel that recreates the life of a real person whose story has largely been lost to history.  The person in this case is Harriet Smithson, a famous Irish actress of the early 19th century who was a big hit performing Shakespeare on the stages of Paris, and who eventually married composer Hector Berlioz.  Around that brief historical footnote, Morgan has woven a brilliant tapestry rich with period detail and peopled by characters real enough to break your heart.

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The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis (Old Favourites #8)

Someday I’m going to make up a list or writers who were my spiritual guides and mentors, and like a lot of Christians I’d put C.S. Lewis at the top of my list.  I read the Narnia books as a child and got into his spiritual/devotional nonfiction as a teenager.  Mere Christianity was an important book for me (even though now I think many of its attempts at logic are badly oversimplified) because it attempted to lay out a rational basis for the Christian faith, and at the time in my life when I read it (about 16) that was something I badly needed.

Screwtape, however, is probably the single book that most influenced my vision of how to live as a Christian.  In fact, it’s only rereading now at midlife that I realize how many of my views on the life of faith were originally inspired by the wily senior devil’s letters to a junior tempter on how to mislead a human soul.  Screwtape’s insights on prayer, humility, and what to do with times of spiritual dryness — all suitably reversed, of course, since his goal is damnation rather than salvation — molded my views of what it meant to be a Christian.  Over the years, there are things I’ve come to disagree with Lewis about, but I still think a young Christian could do a lot worse than use Screwtape as a primer for Christian living. 

The only Screwtape experience I’ve missed that I still really want to have is to get the audiobook and hear John Cleese read it.  Because that? Would bring the awesome.

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The Boyfriend School, by Sarah Bird (Old Favourites #7)

There’s nothing deep or life-changing about this book — it’s just a lot of fun, and I’ve always enjoyed the love story of unsuccessful photojournalist Gretchen Griner, who decides to take a stab at writing a romance novel and improbably has a romance hero fall practically into her lap.  Rye St. John fulfills every romance stereotype — he’s ruggedly handsome, exotically foreign, strong-but-sensitive, and most importantly, he’s unattainable.  Gretchen’s discovery that her romance hero is not all he appears to be makes a great read.  The humour I enjoyed so much when I first read this book 20 years ago sometimes sounds a little shrill and overwritten now — Bird is very fond of her similes and metaphors, maybe a bit too much — but for the most part I enjoyed it as much as ever on this reread.   

This silly and sweet story was very badly transformed into a movie called Don’t Tell Her It’s Me, which I’m sorry to say I watched.  Some people feel the movie’s greatest gaffe was casting Steve Guttenburg and Shelley Long as brother and sister, but that wasn’t what got me.  What got me about the movie was how completely untrue it was to the spirit of the book.  Gretchen is so completely and utterly not a romance heroine that she’s blown away to find herself living in a romance.  She meditates at length, for example, on how awful it is to have an ugly name like “Gretchen Griner,” which sounds like gears changing.  In the movie, the character’s name has been changed to “Emily Pare” and the guy who has a crush on her dreamily meditates on what a beautiful-sounding name it is.  Which I think tells you everything about the movie.  Don’t wait for the movie … but do read the book, if you get a chance.

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The Last Convertible, by Anton Myrer (Old Favourites #6)

Here’s another book I read as a young adult that had a huge impact on my view of life and particularly of love.  It’s also one of the very few novels by a male author that has remained a favourite over the years.  I read it first as a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book — yes, I know some people are snobby about those, but those brown-bound volumes were a staple in my house growing up, and many’s the fine book I read first in condensed form which inspired me to go out and get the complete novel, so no dissing them on my turf.

The Last Convertible is the story of five young men who become friends during their first year at Harvard in 1940, on the brink of World War Two — and of the women they date and fall in love with during their college years.  The story follows the cast of characters through the war years and beyond, ending in 1976 with the original characters all middle-aged and their children ready to take on the adult world.

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Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers (Old Favourites #5)

I’m sure I can’t be the only young woman whose expectations of romance were set unreachably high by reading Gaudy Night at an impressionable age. Let’s not detail exactly how many Lost Years I spent looking for Lord Peter Wimsey, and cut straight to my review.

My cousin Alison put this book into my hands, the summer I was 16. I had just finished high school and had been given a trip to Toronto by my parents as a graduation gift. I spent the first half of my trip staying with very energetic friends whose parents organized things like visits to a U-Pick strawberry farm while I was there, so I was relieved to get to my Aunt Vi and Alison’s house where nothing was expected of one except to sit in the sunshine on their back deck and read. A perfect vacation. I fell into Gaudy Night just as if I were falling in love — not only with Lord Peter, but with Harriet Vane and Oxford University and the whole world Sayers so vividly brings to life in this novel.

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The King’s Daughter, by Suzanne Martel (Old Favourites #4)

Originally published in French as Jeanne, Fille du Roi, this is another work of young-adult historical fiction I’ve loved for years, although I was older when I read this one — probably 19 or 20. It’s aimed at teenaged readers, but I enjoyed rereading it just as much as I enjoyed it the first time.

Jeanne Chatel is an eighteen-year-old French orphan who is sent to New France (Canada) as a “King’s daughter” — basically, mail-order brides for the soldiers and trappers who settled this land back in the 1600s. Jeanne is strong-willed, spunky, and resourceful — all qualities that cause the nuns who raised her to despair, but which are going to stand her in good stead in this harsh new land.

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Mistress Malapert, by Sally Watson (Old Favourites #3)

Mistress Malapert probably wasn’t the first work of historical fiction I read, but it was certainly the book that made me fall in love with the genre. It’s the story of the headstrong and selfish Valerie, who disguises herself as a boy and runs away from a harsh guardian in Elizabethan England. Valerie is taken in by a troup of travelling players; she joins the troup and (not surprisingly) turns out to be better at playing female roles than the thirteen-year-old boy who’s been playing them up to that point. She’s so talented, in fact, that she ends up getting hired by Shakespeare’s company and working with the master himself.

Before the story reaches its satisfying but poignant conclusion, Val has played (appropriately) Kate in Taming of the Shrew as well as Juliet, has learned to master her temper and discovered much about herself, and has fallen in love (with one of the players who managed to see through her cunning disguise). Re-reading this novel as an adult I can see numerous places where the story strains historical credibility, but I still think it’s a wonderful novel for young readers and a great introduction to the Elizabethan era.

Like a lot of my old favourites, Mistress Malapert is hard to come by these days, but I came across one company that’s made a business of reprinting novels for girls from bygone days, and they have not only this one but all Sally Watson’s books, which I think is just cool.

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Mandy, by Julie Edwards (Old Favourites #2)

The “Julie Edwards” who wrote this book is actually “Julie Andrews” of Mary Poppins and Sound of Music fame — she went through a period of writing children’s books under her married name in the 70s (Her name appears as Julie Andrews Edwards on newer editions). Both this one and her Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles were childhood favourites of mine.

Mandy is a sweet story about a little girl in an English orphanage who finds an abandoned cottage in the woods and sets out to make it her own special place. It captures the experience of falling in love with a place perfectly, and Mandy is a great heroine, with her longing for a home she’s never known driving her to commit all sorts of childhood crimes — lying, stealing, and being mean to her best friend. The book has an almost fairytale happily-ever-after ending, which is entirely satisfying in a book of this sort. I think I might start reading this one aloud to my daughter; it’s a truly timeless story that I hope she’ll enjoy just as much as I did.

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Kate, by Jean Little (Old Favourites #1)

For my first Old Favourite, I chose the book that I was completely in love with when I was about 13. I like everything I’ve read by Canadian children’s author Jean Little, but Kate is not only my favourite of hers, it’s my favourite YA novel of all time.

I guess I met Kate at an impressionable age. Kate Bloomfield is both the girl I wanted to be and the girl I wanted to have for a best friend. The novel tells the story of a year in her life when she is exploring her family’s Jewish heritage, discovering herself as an individual and a writer, and falling out with her inseparable best friend Emily.

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