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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Schatje's "Best Books Read in 2015" List

Today is the last day of 2015, so I’m presenting my list of the Best Books Read in 2015.  Please note that these were not necessarily published in the year – they made it off my “To Read” pile in the calendar year.

In total, I managed to read 75 books.  I’ve organized my list into three categories:  Best Canadian Fiction, Best Mysteries, and Best International Fiction.  Within each category, the books are not ranked.

Best Canadian Fiction
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (reviewed on July 20)
The Illegal by Lawrence Hill (reviewed on September 19)
His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay (reviewed on August 18)
The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens (reviewed on October 30)
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue (reviewed on October 24)

Best Mysteries
Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (reviewed on October 31)
Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell (reviewed on October 27)
The Hanging Girl by Jussi Adler-Olsen (reviewed on September 16)
Malice by Keigo Higashino (reviewed on September 6)
Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck (reviewed on December 5)

Best International Fiction
Harvest by Jim Crace (reviewed on November 10)
The Children Act by Ian McEwan (reviewed on December 27)
Florence Gordon by Brian Morton (reviewed on December 28)
Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian (reviewed on August 27)
Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (reviewed on August 22)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (reviewed on August 10)
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (reviewed on July 23)
The World before Us by Aislinn Hunter (reviewed on December 29)
Whiskey and Charlie by Annabel Smith (reviewed on December 30)
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (My Brilliant Friend reviewed on November 29; The Story of a New Name, December 9; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, December 12; and The Story of the Lost Child, December 18)

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Review of "Whiskey and Charlie" by Annabel Smith



4 Stars

Charlie and Whiskey are twin brothers, once inseparable but now barely speaking. As the result of an accident, Whiskey is in a coma. As the chances of Whiskey’s recovery wane, Charlie is forced to reflect on his relationship with his brother and examine his role in their estrangement.

This novel describes Charlie’s journey of self-discovery. Charlie has always seen his brother as bold and carefree, someone who steals the limelight and always gets what he wants. He certainly blames his twin for their problematic relationship. Gradually, however, he comes to realize that perhaps he himself is not blameless and bears some responsibility for the situation.

Characterization is a definite strength, particularly that of Charlie. The use of a foil helps develop Charlie’s character through contrast. Rosa, Whiskey’s wife, is Charlie’s opposite. She is very forthright and “’looks for the good in people and doesn’t worry about the rest.’” Charlie is a very realistic character with both flaws and positive qualities. There are instances when the reader will understand his behaviour and fully sympathize with Charlie and yet at other times will want to slap him for his self-righteous judgements of others. Charlie tends to see the flaws in others rather than in himself, but then that is human nature. I found myself both liking and disliking him; in other words, he arouses contradictory emotions like many people one encounters in life.

There are 29 chapters with titles taken from the two-way radio phonetic alphabet, beginning with Alpha and ending with Zulu. Charlie and Whiskey used this alphabet on the walkie-talkies they had as children and used to talk to each other. This structure is very effective and appropriate. Not only does the word of the title feature in the chapter, but a major theme is that of communication.

It becomes clear that one of the major reasons for the dysfunctional family dynamics is the lack of communication. Difficult subjects are never discussed. Even with his mother, Charlie “dreads the thought of having to talk to her about the situation or, worse still, talk around it. Easier to avoid her altogether.” And when Whiskey is in a coma, Charlie makes excuses not to talk to him, and he admits that if someone did something he didn’t like or approve of, “’I stopped talking to him.’” A member of Whiskey’s medical staff speaks about how he would have to relearn how to talk should be awake from the coma: “’Talking is, of course, a learned response. . . . talking is an extraordinarily complex process.’” And one that Charlie must learn.

The style of the book makes it very readable. The tone is conversational. Though there are frequent flashbacks, they do not jar. The point of view is consistent: third person limited omniscient focusing on Charlie’s viewpoint. This point of view means that the reader is faced with determining the accuracy of Charlie’s portrayal of his brother, but a discerning reader will soon realize that Charlie is insecure and not very self-aware so his conclusions about his brother should not be taken at face value. This point of view adds to the interest of the narrative.

I definitely recommend this book. It is skillfully written and has believable characters. The topic will be relatable for most readers since sibling rivalry is not an uncommon experience, and it could be argued that everyone’s family is probably dysfunctional to at least some extent.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Review of "The World Before Us" by Aislinn Hunter

This book won the 2015 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize which is awarded annually to a British Columbia or Yukon author for the best original work of literary fiction. The award, established in 1985, is named in honour of Canadian author Ethel Wilson.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter
4 Stars
The title, which can be interpreted in more than one way, signals the thematic depth of this book which gives readers a different way to look at the world before us while, at the same time, suggesting that those who lived in the world before us are still affecting the world before us.

When Jane Standen was fifteen, Lily Eliot, the five-year-old girl she was minding, disappeared near Inglewood House and was never found. Two decades later, Jane is an archivist at the soon-to-close Chester Museum in London. Research leads her to discover there was a connection between the Chester family which founded the museum and the residents of Inglewood House; in fact, she learns that a young girl, known only as N, disappeared from the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics near Inglewood House in 1877, near the same area Lily went missing. Jane decides to try and discover what happened to N.

There is an unusual element to the narration. Jane’s story is narrated in third person, but she is accompanied by an invisible chorus of voices, the leader speaking in first person plural. This collective comments throughout on what Jane is doing and how she is feeling, much like a Greek chorus would in a drama. One of the mysteries is the identity of this group. They are not exactly ghosts; one of the children in the group “thinks it’s fun to pretend he’s dead.” Jane is unaware of them but they can sense each other: “every presence has a kind of weight, something felt: moods and shifts and feelings, a steady pulse of being.” The narrator speaks of their being lost with Jane being “the closest thing we’ve got to a map.” Their hope is that “eventually we might discover who we have been, what purpose we serve and what use we might one day be.” At first, I was perturbed by this “supernatural” element, but gradually realized that the presence and commentary of this otherworldly group provide thematic depth.

A major theme is that of the interplay of past and present. Jane’s sections are narrated in the present tense, but it is obvious that she is very much defined by her past. The trauma of Lily’s disappearance has had lasting effects. As an archivist, she has an intense relationship with the past: “so much can be recreated; all the bits and snippets – the receipts for roses, inventories tucked into books, even sherry glasses or cigar boxes or the worn clasp on a velvet band – are enough to conjure whole lives.” Gradually it becomes clearer who the unseen presences were; it seems almost as if they were revived by Jane when she began her research: “This is why we’re here: because Jane thinks about us almost as much as she thinks about herself, because the distance between her life and ours is not as great as with others.” “The living only see what’s useful” and so tend to disregard much. Like Jane, when she visited the cave paintings at Font-de-Gaume and didn’t realize she had been “surrounded” by drawings, we are surrounded by the past. In the end perhaps it is best to think of the chorus as a reminder of past lives who “are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” Perhaps those who lived in the world before us now have “a different way of relating to the world, another mode of being,” another way of seeing the world before us.

Besides the unique narrative technique, there is also the inconclusiveness of the ending that will discomfit some readers. There are several unanswered questions. I don’t like unnecessary loose ends, but the ending of this novel is appropriate to its subject matter. Who knows what ripples into the future, Janes present and past will have. Thus the closing sentence is wonderful: “And across the road the clock tower strikes six o’clock – a strong brass chord – and a chorus of bells follows.”

The book is beautifully written; it possesses strong lyrical qualities. At the same time, it examines serious themes for the reader to contemplate. Readers have reasons to read it more than once.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Review of "Florence Gordon" by Brian Morton

This is another book I read earlier in the year and really enjoyed.  I love books about difficult women!

Florence Gordon by Brian Morton
4 Stars
The centre of this novel is a 75-year-old feminist intellectual. Florence Gordon treasures her solitude: “The strain of being with other people was sometimes close to unendurable. The strain of other people’s need” (24). People, however, keep intruding on her life, especially Daniel, her son; Janine, her daughter-in-law; Emily, her 19-year-old granddaughter; and Saul, her ex-husband. Each has his/her own drama which we learn about through shifting third person limited narration. This drama Florence tries to ignore as much as possible.

This book is a character study of a “gloriously difficult woman” (9). Florence describes herself as “a strong proud independent-minded woman who accepted being old but nevertheless felt essentially young. She was also, in the opinion of many who knew her, even in the opinion of many who loved her, a complete pain in the neck” (2). These observations are entirely correct. Also, while referring to her physical appearance, Florence mentions that “Her craggy old-fashioned teeth, rude and honest and unretouched, were good enough for her” (2). The five adjectives she uses to describe her teeth could very well be used to describe her personality.

Florence’s audacity has no bounds. She has no compunctions about avoiding her son and his family, drowning a friend’s cellphone in a drink, walking out on her own surprise birthday party, and publicly chastising both a man for jumping to the front of a queue and the woman at the front of that line for not standing up for herself. “One day she told a beggar to stand up straight and look people in the eye as he begged” (148).

Florence is also consistent. She never compromises the principles by which she has always lived her life. That makes the ending of the book perfect. It might not be the ending a reader would wish, but it is absolutely in keeping with the stubborn, tough, cantankerous woman she has been her entire life.

The points of view of Daniel, Janine, and Emily are given in some chapters. What stands out is how little the family members communicate. One character is in hospital for three days and tells no one. Often the thoughts of more than one character are given about an event and the gap in their understanding of each other is emphasized. For example, at one point, Emily doesn’t make eye contact with Daniel because “She was vibrating with guilt” (203), but her father concludes “It was as if she were embarrassed for him” (206). Perhaps herein lies the tragedy of Florence’s life; she refuses ever to unburden herself to anyone, and her family, constantly having to contend with her caustic bluntness, has retreated into silence. And, as a result, no one really knows anyone. Emily tries to understand her grandmother by becoming her research assistant, but though she learns why Florence is a master of “the art of the hammer” (284), she ultimately finds, “The old lady had eluded her” (305).

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It is a quick read with its 111 short chapters, but it is totally engrossing as well. Florence is a feisty curmudgeon who arouses both anger and sadness and also earns the reader’s affection and admiration.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Review of "The Children Act" by Ian McEwan

To end the year, I thought I’d post some reviews of books I read early in the year – before I started my blog in July.  Today’s feature, written by one of my favourite authors, is one of the books that made the longlist of the 2016 Dublin Literary Awards.

The Children Act by Ian McEwan
4 Stars
Fiona Maye is a British High Court judge in the Family Division. Her well-ordered personal life is disrupted when her husband informs her that because of the paucity of sex in their lives, he is going to have “’one big passionate affair’” (7). At the same time, while feeling humiliated and betrayed, she has to make an emergency ruling on a complex case involving Adam Henry, a teenaged Jehovah Witness refusing a blood transfusion which would save his life. Her ruling has unforeseen consequences which leads to her entire world being shaken.

The characterization of Fiona is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. At the age of 59, she has proven herself to be an intelligent and competent adjudicator who has won the admiration of her peers for possessing both “’Godly distance [and] devilish understanding’” (15). She herself believes she brings “reasonableness to hopeless situations” (5) though she admits that with “each passing year she inclined a little more to an exactitude some might have called pedantry” (15). Her concept of the good life is revealing: “Economic and moral freedom, virtue, compassion and altruism, satisfying work through engagement with demanding tasks, a flourishing network of personal relationships, earning the esteem of others, pursuing larger meanings to one’s existence, and having at the center of one’s life one or a small number of significant relations defined above all by love” (17).

Fiona is the key to McEwan’s examination of human emotions under stress. “A professional life spent above the affray, advising, then judging, loftily commenting in private on the viciousness and absurdity of divorcing couples, and now she was down there with the rest, swimming with the desolate tide” (53). Just as the detachment required in her professional life seems to invade her personal life, her personal emotional turmoil during Adam’s case seems to affect her professional judgment. She should be scrupulously rational in deciding “what was reasonable and lawful” (36) in Adam’s situation, but she decides to visit him in the hospital, a decision which she knows is both “a sentimental whim” (37) and an “unorthodox excursion” (96). The repercussions of that visit are far-reaching: Fiona, like her husband, has to face the consequences of disrupting another person’s well-ordered world.

Unfortunately, the behaviour of characters is not always credible. For Jack, a man of 60 years of age, to decide to have an adulterous affair because he and Fiona have not had sex for ‘’seven weeks and a day’” (21) seems ludicrous. Likewise, Fiona’s “impulsive folly” and “ludicrous and shameful transgression” when she is “not prone to wild impulses” (180) may stretch the credulity of some readers, though for me it is the nature of her indiscretion that is problematic. Clearly, McEwan is questioning a person’s ability to totally turn off one’s emotions. When Adam’s hearing opens, Fiona claims, “She no longer had a private life, she was ready to be absorbed” (65), but obviously this is not true. I agree with the author’s opinion, but I question whether Fiona could be “defenseless before [that] moment” (174).

I would not classify this novel as one of McEwan’s best, but there is much in it to recommend. The description of various cases on which Fiona must rule is certainly interesting. For me, since like Fiona I am, “in the infancy of old age” (47), the book has especial appeal with its examination of various aspects of aging. Though Fiona is a family court judge, every parent and anyone working with children and youth will certainly have occasion to question his/her decisions and actions concerning what is best for a child. And certainly we can all use a reminder that kindness is “the essential human ingredient” (8).

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Adopt the Icelandic Jólabókaflóð and Make it a Boxing Day Tradition

Today is Boxing Day, a holiday traditionally celebrated the day following Christmas Day, when servants and tradesmen would receive gifts, known as a "Christmas box", from their bosses or employers.   I recently read about an Icelandic tradition known as  Jólabókaflóð (Christmas Book Flood), and I thought it would be a great tradition to import into North America and celebrate a version thereof on Boxing Day.


The  Jólabókaflóð  begins with the release of Bókatíðindi, a catalogue of new publications from the Iceland Publishers Association.  That catalogue is distributed free to every Icelandic home!  Until about 15 years ago, paperbacks were rare because Icelanders didn't see books as something to be read and bought cheaply.  And the book in Iceland is such a serious gift that a physical book, rather than an e-book, is usually given (http://www.npr.org/2012/12/25/167537939/literary-iceland-revels-in-its-annual-christmas-book-flood).   

“Christmas gifts are opened on 24 December and, by tradition, everyone reads the books they have been given straight away, often while drinking hot chocolate or alcohol-free Christmas ale” (http://jolabokaflod.com/welcome/).  Obviously, Icelanders love books.

An in-depth article about Jólabókaflóð was recently posted online: http://2seasagency.com/publishing-iceland-reading-national-sport/.   Entitled “Publishing in Iceland Where Reading Is a National Sport”, it is written from the perspective of publishing but it has lots of interesting background about the Christmas Book Flood.

And even The New York Times featured an article on the country that has a nearly 100% literacy rate, where at least 90 percent of the people read just for pleasure, and where the gift most requested by children at Christmas time is a book:  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/travel/reykjavik-iceland-tours.html?WT.mc_id=2015-DECEMBER-FB-INYT-MC9-AUD_DEV-1201-1231&WT.mc_ev=click&ad-keywords=IntlAudDev&_r=0.


Why not spread this love of books?  Though many of us do give books as Christmas gifts, why not turn Boxing Day into Book Giving Day for everyone?  Now, many people spend the day looking for Boxing Day sales.  Why not end the day by exchanging books and then spending the night reading?  That sounds like a perfect way to relax after the hectic pace of Christmas.  

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas! My Gift to my Readers: A Christmas Day Reading Recommendation

Today is Christmas Day, so my blog entry will be brief.  During the day, if you have time to read, I’d recommend a short story.  It’s a perfect one for this day and it is a great story to read aloud.  I first heard it on CBC Radio’s The Vinyl Café, and I laughed so hard I cried.

The short story is entitled “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  I have it in a book entitled Home from The Vinyl Cafe:  A Year of Stories by Stuart McLean, but the story has also been published in a small book all by itself.  It makes a great gift.  Its size makes it ideal for mailing.

In the story, Dave agrees “to look after the turkey” for Christmas Day dinner.  On Christmas Eve, he realizes that “meant buying it as well as putting it in the oven.”  He contemplates moving “to some deserted Newfoundland outport and [living] under an assumed name,” but decides to try and provide a turkey for his family’s festive meal.  The result is a Homeresque struggle to beat all the odds and somehow get a turkey roasted in time for Christmas dinner.  The tale is hilarious and only about 14 pages long so it’s perfect to be read to the family before or after your dinner.

Of course, you might not have a copy of this story at hand, so you can listen to this story read by Stuart McLean at https://soundcloud.com/cbc-radio-one/vinyl-cafe-dave-cooks-the. And for next year, make sure you have purchased a copy of the story and make reading it a family Christmas tradition. 


For the first time, I made a book tree for my library.  Here’s a photo: 


Merry Christmas to all my readers.
Joyeux Noël à tous mes lecteurs.
Wesołych Świąt dla wszystkich moich czytelników.
Vrolijke Kerstmis aan al mijn lezers.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day 24) - "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak

Day 24, the last day of my Book Advent Calendar has arrived.  The “Z” author I’ve chosen is an Australian, Markus Zusak.  His book is a fitting ending to a book calendar since it is one of my all-time favourite books and it emphasizes the power of words and books.

Day 24:  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
5 Stars
The narrator is Death, a sympathetic character who is tired of the countless millennia of collecting souls.  He tells the story of Liesel Meminger, focusing on for years in her life.  At the age of nine, she is “adopted” by Rose and Hans Hubermann because Liesel’s father is imprisoned as a Communist and her mother is ill. 

Leisel grows up on Himmel (Heaven) Street during World War II near Munich.  She becomes fond of Papa, the silver-haired accordion play who teaches her how to read.  Her foster family hides a Jew and her keeping the secret is necessary for everyone’s survival. 

The street is populated by several vivid characters.  One that stands out is Rudy, a blond-haired boy who becomes her best friend and constantly tries to get a kiss from her.

Liesel, often with Rudy in tow, becomes a book thief.  She steals because so much has been stolen from her, her family specifically.  Books become her solace. 

The book is about the power of language, with emphasis placed on how Hitler was nothing without words.  The book is also about the struggles of ordinary Germans living under the Nazi regime.  The common folk are humanized and shown to possess dignity.  Some feign allegiance to the regime; others make small but nonetheless meaningful acts of defiance.

This book is a worthy addition to the canon of Holocaust literature.  

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day 23) - "Effigy" by Alissa York

The penultimate day of my Book Advent Calendar brings me to “Y”.  (“X” was skipped because I know of no authors with a surname beginning with that letter.)  Today’s author is another of my Canadian choices.

Day 23:  Effigy by Alissa York
4 Stars
Set on a Mormon ranch in nineteenth-century Utah, and inspired by the real events of a massacre in 1857, this is a story of a polygamous family united by faith but separated by secrets.

Erastus Hammer, a horse breeder and hunter, has four wives:  Ursula, who rules the house with an iron hand; Ruth, who is obsessed with silkworms and bears the children whom Ursula claims as her own; Thankful, a former actress who provides Erastus with sexual pleasure; and Dorrie, a taxidermist.  Erastus is going blind so it is Dorrie’s role is to create trophies of his kills. 

Erastus is assisted by Tracker, his Indian guide who cannot bring himself to help Hammer kill a lone wolf who prowls the ranch looking for his lost pack which Erastus had killed earlier.  It is the nocturnal searching of this wolf that will unearth the secret tensions of this complex and conflicted family.

Dorrie becomes friends with Bendy Drown, a hand hired to work with the horses.  He used to be a contortionist and so acts as a model for Dorrie as he copies the stance of animals.  We learn about the background of Erastus, his wives, Tracker, and Bendy through flashbacks.

A backdrop to the events in the novel is the Mountain Meadows Massacre in which Mormons disguised as Indians attacked a wagon train of settlers.  Tracker was one of the Indians duped into taking part; Dorrie is a child survivor of the attack. 

There is an interesting point of view.  Dorrie dreams of a crow who describes the massacre and Dorrie’s escape, which she does not remember.  Dorrie’s “mother”, dying, writes letters to Dorrie describing how she was rescued.  Tracker gives Dorrie a gift:  a book of drawings done by her mother before she was killed.

There is a great deal of suspense throughout.  There are tensions among all the characters and as time passes, a collision course is inevitable.  What remains to be discovered is the nature and consequences of this event.

This book was a 2007 Giller Prize nominee, and it is definitely a good read.  

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day 22) - "Annabel" by Kathleen Winter

Day 22 of my Book Advent Calendar means an author beginning with “W”.  I’ve chosen another Canadian writer.

Day 22:  Annabel by Kathleen Winter
4 Stars
 
This book was a nominee for the 2010 Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The setting is 1960s Labrador.  The main character is a hermaphrodite.  In deference to the more obvious of the child’s sex organs, Treadway, the father, decides his child will be named Wayne and raised as a boy.  Jacinta, the mother, had been tempted to do nothing but accedes to her husband’s wishes; nonetheless, Jacinta nurtures Wayne’s female side in her own secretive way as does Thomasina, a family friend who is the only other person to know about the child’s ambiguous gender.

As the child grows, the parents are divided:  Jacinta mourns the daughter who might have been and Treadway pushes the child to become more masculine.  Puberty brings all conflict to the surface and Wayne learns the truth about himself, although his other self had been manifesting itself earlier. 

This is a novel about secrets and silences.  Almost everyone around Wayne backs away from difficult truths as he continues to puzzle through the contradictions of his existence.  Wayne’s interest in bridges serves as an analogue for the possibilities inherent in his existence.

The novel is less about chromosomal anomaly than it is about human potential for cruelty and neglect and ignorance as much as for tolerance and generosity and strength.  We are shown the human traits that override gender.

Setting plays a big role in how characters are shaped or misshapen, isolated or liberated, together or alone. 

The novel challenges ideas of what is normal; it encourages us to accept what is underlining the pain and shame we create when we try to make people fit into stiff categories when they simply can’t.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day 21) - "The Toss of a Lemon" by Padma Viswanathan

Day 21 of my Book Advent Calendar brings us to “V” with my chosen author being a Canadian.
Day 21:  The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan
4 Stars

This is a multi-generational epic set in India, mostly in the first half of the twentieth century.

Sivakami, a child bride, is widowed at eighteen when her astrologer husband dies on the date he predicted.  She is left to care for her daughter Thangam and her son Vairum.  Her odyssey extends into her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  After Sivakami, much of the story is told from the perspective of her granddaughter Janaki.

The focus is on the day-to-day life of a Brahmin household, especially a Brahmin widow who must live in almost complete seclusion because widows were seen as bad omens.  Sivakami is very orthodox and accepts her fate unquestioningly.  She becomes a symbol of purity, avoiding touching anyone in daylight.  Her loyal servant, Muchami, serves as her representative in the outside world.

The novel traces the conflicts between the traditional India and the modern, secular one.  Sivakami represents the former and her son represents the latter with his progressive ideas about a non-caste India.  It is difficult to feel sympathy for Sivakami because of her extreme orthodoxy which includes a sense of inviolable superiority over everyone else.  She has a fear and disgust of “pollution”. 

A major theme is the incompleteness of knowledge.  Sivakami must make decisions for her children while being functionally illiterate about the outside world.  Her traditional certainty encounters a modern future that is unknowable. 

The title refers to the practice of having someone toss a lemon out the window when a baby crowns so that a male outside can determine the precise time of birth for horoscopic purposes.  We never learn the horoscope of Sivakami’s son:  the unknowable future.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day 20) - "Sanctuary Line" by Jane Urquhart

For the 20th day of my Book Advent Calendar, it’s time for the letter “U”.  My author of choice is Jane Urquhart, a Canadian writer from northern Ontario – a part of the province dear to my heart.

Day 20:  Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart
4 Stars
 
The narrator is a 40-year-old entomologist, Liz Crane, who uses her memory to describe the golden era of a prosperous Irish-Canadian farm family and the crisis that brings about its demise.  She lets her mind wander back to the fun-filled summers of her childhood spent amongst her cousins and the rest of the extended family.  Individuals and relationships are revisited again and again, revealing a bit more each time, although questions remain so far as the family saga is concerned.

The theme of loss is central.  Liz loses her innocence, her cousin Mandy to death in Afghanistan, her uncle, and her first love.  These loses perhaps explain her aloofness from commitments and her decision to live a solitary life.

The monarch butterfly is a strong symbol.  Its harsh, brief, beautiful life echoes that of her extended family and their apple orchard empire.  They serve as constant reminders of impermanence which is also foreshadowed by the family members who choose careers as lighthouse keepers.  The monarch butterfly’s migratory habits and generational permutations are parallels for the Butler family saga with its tales of immigration and “the Great-Greats” lives.  Like a monarch, Liz seems to have a genetically imprinted sense of orientation and interconnectedness which leads her to return to her summer home. 

Reflection (mirrors, water, glass) is another symbol attesting to the superficiality and fragility of appearances.  Liz’s aunt shatters her treasured collection of glass after her marriage is shown to be a sham.    Crumbling buildings, old furniture, useless appliances and rusty implements serve as metaphors for transience. 

This is a book work re-reading.  What is revealed at the end makes one want to start again from the beginning to reconsider events and people.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day 19) - "The Testament of Mary" by Colm Tóibín

For Day 19 of my Book Advent Calendar and the letter “T”, I’ve opted for a novella by an Irish critic and novelist.
Day 19:  The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
4 Stars
This daring novella is a first person narrative by the Virgin Mary as she recounts events in her life and that of her son, culminating, of course, with the crucifixion. She is being interviewed by two visitors who want to record her testament for the narrative they are writing about her son.

She is not very co-operative since she knows they have a specific agenda: they want stories which will substantiate that Jesus was the son of God, and they become angry and impatient when what she says does not accord with their version of events. She resists their badgering, their “vast and insatiable . . . [and] earnest need for foolish anecdotes or sharp, simple patterns in the story” and refuses to be manipulated to say what they want to hear. She says, “I will do for them what I can, but no more than that. . . . I cannot say more than I say.” She has reason to suspect them when she discovers that a dream she shares of her son’s resurrection becomes recorded as fact.

Mary is not the paragon of endless patience, loving kindness and mercy central in Marian doctrine. She is a stubborn, intelligent (though uneducated), and independent woman. She dislikes her son’s followers, calling them “a group of misfits, who were only children . . . or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. . . . Not one . . . was normal.” She flees before her son actually expires because she is convinced she must do so in order to survive, and she admits, “I must let the words out, that despite the panic, despite the desperation, the shrieking, despite the fact that his heart and his flesh had come from my heart and my flesh, despite the pain I felt, a pain that has never lifted, and will go with me into the grave, despite all of this, the pain was his and not mine.” These are hardly the words we would expect to hear from someone considered by some to be the blessed mother of all mankind. Mary remains fiercely devoted to her deceased husband and finds comfort, not in a synagogue, but in the temple of Artemis.

Most significantly, she is skeptical of her son’s identification as the son of God. She sees her son as someone who fell in with the wrong crowd: “Gather together misfits . . . and you will get anything at all – fearlessness, ambition, anything – and before it dissolves or it grows, it will lead to what I saw and what I live with now.” She has a profound sense of loss and waste: she says that her son “could have done anything, . . . he had that capacity also, the one that is the rarest, he could have spent time alone with ease, he could look at a woman as though she were his equal, and he was grateful, good-mannered, intelligent.” She feels he was not genuine when he was preaching to his disciples; she says “his voice was false, and his tone all stilted.” She does, however, acknowledge that she did sense something extraordinary about him: “I saw a power fixed and truly itself, formed. I saw something that seemed to have no history and to have come from nowhere.”

There are people who would regard this book as blasphemy, but I see it as a humanization of Mary. She is a human mother who suffered unimaginably by seeing her son suffer in unimaginable ways. Speaking of the crucifixion, she says, “I had been made wild by what I saw and nothing has ever changed that. I have been unhinged by what I saw in daylight and no darkness will assuage that, or lessen what it did to me.” Who cannot sympathize with the portrayal of a lamenting mother who expresses grief at the sacrificing of her son by crying, “’I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.’”

I highly recommend this book; it is beautifully written and challenges the reader to consider another view of a woman mentioned in both the Bible and the Quran.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Review of "The Story of the Lost Child" by Elena Ferrante

4 Stars

This is the culmination of the Neapolitan series of books.  At the beginning, Elena has left her marriage to pursue a relationship with Nino so much of the first half of the book deals with how that relationship evolves.  Lila, in the meantime, has been successful in starting a business in the computer field.  Eventually, the two friends end up living in the same building in Naples in the neighbourhood where they first met and becoming pregnant at the same time.  Then tragedy strikes.

A number of conflicts are experienced by both Elena and Lila.  Both must try to balance career and a family and family life and personal freedom.  Elena, for example, bemoans the restrictiveness of being a wife and mother and speaks of the chains of marriage (26).  The women also struggle with reconciling strongly held beliefs (about women’s roles, for example) with the compromises required in their daily lives.   

Motherhood is examined in detail.  Elena especially struggles with that role.  She is really not a very good mother; her career and her relationship with Nino take precedence over her daughters.  One of her children even tells her, “It’s impossible to have a real relationship with you, the only things that count are work and Aunt Lina; there’s nothing that’s not swallowed up inside them” (418). Of course, Elena and Lila compete over motherhood as they do over almost everything else.  Each wants her youngest child to be better than the youngest child of her friend.  And Lila has no difficulty chastising Elena for poor parenting:  “she took every opportunity to show me that, because I was always traveling around Italy, I neglected [the girls] with serious consequences for their upbringing” (320).

So nothing has changed in the relationship between the two.  They may support each other one but they are also fiercely jealous rivals.  It is interesting that Elena sees her relationship with Lila repeated in the relationship between her daughter Imma and Lila’s daughter Tina:  “[Imma] was the slave of Tina’s joyful expansiveness, of her elevated capacity for verbalization, of the way she aroused tenderness, admiration, affection in everyone, especially me.  Although my daughter was pretty, and intelligent, beside Tina she turned dull, her virtues vanished, and she felt this deeply” (321).

In fact, one of the themes of the book is the connections between past and present.  It is not just Imma and Tina that repeat the behaviours of their mothers; Elena often complains about her mother’s coldness but she herself feels distanced from her three children and Lila tells her she doesn’t think enough about her daughters (361).  Elena even develops a minor limp like her mother.  Nino who hated his father’s womanizing becomes a philanderer as well.  Even minor characters suffer fates similar to their parents: Pasquale ends up in prison like his father, and the Solara sons have the same end as Manuela.  The resentments of old betrayals do not fade. 

In my review of the first novel in the series, I wrote about Elena and Lila being foil characters, but the subsequent novels have shown that observation to be incorrect.  Elena says she was “likable, [Lila] malicious” (157) and claims Lila was guilty of “defensive manipulation of persons and things” (179), but Elena can be as cruel and manipulative.  The best evidence is Elena’s decision to write A Friendship, the book for which she takes devastating events from Lila’s life and uses them for her fiction when her writing career is flagging.  She does this knowing she is “violating an unwritten agreement” (463) but then wonders “Where had I gone wrong?” (465)! 

As with the other books, the title is very apt.  Who is the lost child?  It seems to point obviously to the child who goes missing, but there are so many lost children.  Rino becomes a lost child.  All three of Elena’s daughters are in some ways lost to their mother, as Elena acknowledges:  “Was it possible that while I was devoting myself to making literature they were getting lost?” (271).  And aren’t Elena and Lila lost as well?  As indicated from the beginning, Lila has chosen to disappear.  More significantly, Elena claims to have learned that “Every intense relationship between human beings is full of traps, and if you want it to endure you have to learn to avoid them” (451), yet she doesn’t so the two friends are lost to each other. 

This book has appeared on several Best of 2015 Lists and deservedly so.  It is a great ending to the quartet, taking the reader full circle to the beginning of the saga.  The novel makes me want to go back to My Brilliant Friend and start all over again.

Book Advent Calendar (Day 18) - "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" by Helen Simonson

For Day 18 of my Book Advent Calendar and the letter “S”, I’ve chosen a gentle read suffused with humour.
 Day 18:  Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
4 Stars
 
This is a romantic comedy set in an English village.  The protagonist is Major Ernest Pettigrew, a retired British army officer and teacher who left the profession “when the school allowed movies in the bibliographies of literary essays.”  He is rigidly proper and sees himself as a defender of civility, responsibility and tradition.  One reviewer calls him “a walking thesaurus of irritation:  We see him annoyed, dyspeptic, displeased, disapproving, disappointed, dismayed, horrified, outraged, angry, appalled, exasperated, resentful, wincing and flinching.”  He makes wonderfully sarcastic jabs at the emptiness of modern values.

He meets Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani shop owner, and the two develop a gentle, reticent affection which seems to surprise both widower and widow.  Their romance disrupts their well-settled lives as well as the narrow-minded community with its rigid, tweedy women and restrictive social clubs.  The major learns a great deal about the life of a person of colour living in a rural English village.

The characters are all clearly delineated.  Roger, the Major’s son, is a hilariously obnoxious, totally self-interested financier.  Lord Dagenham is the local nobility who raises ducks which he shoots during his annual duck hunt.  Frank Ferguson is the vulgar American who wants to start a housing development which will ruin the charm of the village. 

This is a romance but one that touches on issues of race relations, urbanization, and a clash of culture and religion.  There is a sensitive portrayal of Mrs. Ali’s conflict:  she is torn between her family, especially her controlling brother-in-law, and the freedom of the broader, liberal society, but one which is not very accepting.

This book is reminiscent of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, a book I would also recommend.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day 17) - "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson

It being the 17th day of my Book Advent Calendar, I should be recommending a book by an author whose surname begins with “Q” but, as I indicated on Day One, I decided to skip “Q”.  In my 3,000+ book collection, I have only one book by a Q author:  Matthew Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook.  I have not read it.

So we move on to the letter “R” and I’m suggesting Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.  It won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and was followed by Home (2008) and Lila (2014).

Day 17:  Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
4 Stars
Gilead is a Biblical allusion to an ancient city east of the Jordan referred to as a refuge and the source of a healing salve.  This novel is set in Gilead, Iowa, in 1956.  John Ames, a septuagenarian minister with a young wife and child, decides to leave his son a family history.  He writes about his fire-and-brimstone abolitionist preacher grandfather and his pacifist preacher father. 

Ames’ is a spiritual diary of a country pastor, an intelligent man who seems amazed by and thankful for the blessings and limitations that have been his over his lifetime.  It’s a mixture of wry commentary on the ministerial life, heartfelt reflections on God, and passing observations on everyday events.  He discovers the sacraments in ordinary events and memories of daily life.  He meditates on the sacredness and inscrutability of faith and forgiveness. 

A major theme is father-son relationships.  The narrator discusses his father’s belated attempt to forgive and be forgiven by his father.  He wishes he were able to live to see his son into adulthood.  He sees the parable of the prodigal son reenacted by the return of his namesake, the son of a friend.

The book is not flawless.  The book is sometimes bogged down in dry, scriptural analysis, and the narrator is a truly good and virtuous man whom the reader might sometimes wish were a bit less good.

The second book in the series, Home, is also set in Gilead, this time in the household of Reverend Robert Boughton, Ames' closest friend.  Jack, Ames’ godson and namesake, the prodigal son of his family gone for twenty years, comes home, looking for refuge and trying to make peace with a past littered with torment and trouble.

The third book in the series, Lila, is the story of Ames’ young wife.  She tries to make sense of her days of suffering that preceded the secure life she found once she married the minister.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

CBC Radio's Canada Reads 2016 Longlist

The theme for Canada Reads 2016 is all about starting over.  "The show will feature books about transformation and second chances, stories of migrants, immigrants and others who are choosing - or forced - to make major changes in their lives."  Considering world events, this is a very appropriate theme.

The longlist of 15 novels was announced today:

Sitting Practice by Caroline Adderson
The Hero's Walk by Anita Rau Badami
Sweetland by Michael Crummey
The Illegal by Lawrence Hill
All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson
Birdie by Tracey Lindberg
The Amazing Absorbing Boy by Rabindranath Maharaj
Niko by Dimitri Nasrallah
Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz
Landing Gear by Kate Pullinger
Buying on Time by Antanas Sileika
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Swamp Angel by Ethel Wilson
Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter

For more information about the books, check out http://www.cbc.ca/books/2015/12/the-canada-reads-2016-longlist.html

I've only read three of the titles:  The Hero's Walk, Sweetland (reviewed on November 18), and The Illegal (reviewed on September 19).  I loved all three!  I had best get to reading the rest.

The five finalists will be revealed on January 20 in preparation for the debates March 21 – 24, 2016.

Book Advent Calendar (Day 16) - "501 Writers" edited by Julian Patrick

For “P” of my Book Advent Calendar, I thought I would do something different:  suggest a reference book to enhance reading.   As the editor states, the book provides “glimpses down roads you may, one day be traveling” in your reading.

Day 16:  501 Writers:  A Comprehensive Guide to the Giants of Literature edited by Julian Patrick
This book is a guide to leading writers from different eras and cultures.  It is divided chronologically into 13 sections beginning with “pre-1500” and ending with “post-1960”.

Each entry includes brief biographical data, a list of signature titles, a note on the writer’s style and genre, and an appraisal of his/her literary innovations, cultural impact, and contributions to the canon of world literature.  Quotes, interesting anecdotes, and photos/illustrations enhance the text. 

Here’s an alphabetical list of some of the writers featured:  Chinua Achebe, A. S. Byatt, Giacomo Casanova, Roald Dahl, Umberto Eco, John Fowles, Gao Xingjian, Vaclav Havel, Henrik Ibsen, Henry James, Milan Kundera, Pär Lagerkvist, Haruki Murakami, Anaïs Nin, Ovid, Orhan Pamuk, Pascal Quignard, J. K. Rowling, Vikram Seth, Colm Tóibín, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Jeannette Winterson, W. B. Yeats, and Émile Zola.

Julian Patrick, the general editor, is a professor of literature at the University of Toronto.  It is his name which first drew me to this guide.  It is no surprise therefore that a number of Canadian writers appear  (Margaret Atwood, Marie-Claire Blais, Robertson Davies, Michael Ondaatje, and Alice Munro) as well as writers with a definite Canadian connection  (E. Annie Proulx and Carol Shields).

Obviously, this is not a book to read in one sitting.  It is one to peruse at leisure.

I even like the title of 501 as opposed to 500.  The editor explains that the addition of “1” is intended to “indicate the possibility of the additional, thus signaling that a list such as this can never be comprehensive or complete.”  As you go through the pages of this book, you will undoubtedly find yourself suggesting writers you think should be added.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day 15) - "Jack of Spades" by Joyce Carol Oates

The 15th day of my Book Advent Calendar and the letter “O” bring me to Joyce Carol Oates, an award-winning, prolific writer.  I’m recommending her most recent novel, published earlier this year.
 Day 15:  Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates
4 Stars
 
Andrew J. Rush is a successful, award-winning mystery writer. In secret, he also writes a series of ultraviolent noir thrillers under the pseudonym “Jack of Spades.” His dual identities exist in harmony until Rush is accused of plagiarism by C. W. Haider, a wannabe writer. Feeling threatened and under stress, Rush becomes subsumed by his dark Jack of Spades persona who wants revenge against Haider.

The point of view is first person with Rush as the narrator. It soon becomes obvious that he is an unreliable narrator so what he says cannot be taken at face value. The opposing forces within his mind become clearer as his knavish alter ego takes precedence. Then, as a childhood incident is described and Rush’s relationship with his family more closely examined, one begins to wonder whether the Jack of Spades personality is the true one and Andrew J. Rush is merely the public façade.

In many ways, the story is an homage to Edgar Allan Poe. Allusions, both direct and indirect, are made to several of Poe’s stories. At the beginning, Oates quotes from Poe’s story “The Imp of the Perverse,” and her story does suggest there is an imp inside each of us – we are all susceptible to impulses which may lead us to perform irrational acts.

Numerous studies have demonstrated correlations between creative occupations and mental illnesses, and this novel does reinforce the idea that there could be a connection. Certainly, there is almost a “madness” to how the Jack of Spades novels are written: after midnight in “a protracted siege of concentration” so “entire passages and pages, even chapters, by ‘Jack of Spades’ passed in a rabid blur leaving [Rush] exhausted.” (Edgar Allan Poe is thought to have had bipolar disorder.)

This book is best described as a psychological suspense novel. Certainly there is a great deal of suspense as aspects of Rush’s personality are revealed and his downward spiral continues. Will Rush be able to resist the dark side of his soul? My one complaint is that there is, however, a predictability to some events. I guessed, for example, what Rush would find in Haider’s house. Anyone who has read Poe will certainly see similarities and so be able to predict events.

But what is to be made of Haider’s writing of works like The Glowering, Sister Witches of Hecate County, Ghost-Tales of the Chilliwick Club, and Murder at Dusk? What Rush discovers cannot be dismissed as mere coincidence. Unfortunately no explanation is offered. Could cryptomnesia be so prevalent?

Perhaps the best indication of the quality of this book is that it is one I will probably re-read in the future. Even a quick second skim hints at wonderful touches (like the misspelling of Rush’s surname and the mishearing of Haider’s) which might be initially missed.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day 14): "Everything I Never Told You" by Celeste Ng

For the 14th day of my Book Advent Calendar and the letter “N”, I am recommending a debut novel which I read earlier this year.  It appears on the longlist for the 2016 Dublin Literary Award.
Day 14:  Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
4 Stars
Set in 1977 in Ohio, the novel begins with the death of 16-year-old Lydia Lee, the favourite child of James, a Chinese-American history professor, and Marilyn, a Caucasian woman who dropped out of medical school to become a mother. The book is a mystery and a family drama which uncovers how she came to drown and what the impact of her death has been on her parents and two siblings.

The point of view is third person with the perspective shifting from one family member to another. These transitions between characters and time periods are done smoothly. In the end readers know the characters better than they know each other because we learn everything they have never told anyone else. Even Lydia’s viewpoint is included, so the reader knows her better than anyone else in the family. The siblings prove to be quite perceptive about their lost sister, but they too are missing pieces of the puzzle.

A major theme is the lack of understanding due to poor communication. There are so many missed opportunities for connections; feelings are not expressed “to ensure the terrain of the family did not change” (161). It is not just Lydia who kept secrets; everyone in the family has secret desires and motivations. James and Marilyn, for instance, do not discuss the past; when they married they made a pact “to let the past drift away, to stop asking questions, to look forward from then on, never back” (49). Hannah, the youngest child, often “vanishes into her room without a word” (68), her bedroom being “in the attic, where things that were not wanted were kept” (160). Nath and Lydia have a strong bond at first; the brother “as the only other person who understood their parents . . . had absorbed her miseries” (168); however, Lydia’s position as the favoured child causes Nath to become resentful and their relationship deteriorates.

Another theme is how our pasts affect our lives and those of our children though we may think otherwise. Because of their upbringings, the parents take actions that impact their family; several times, for instance, we are reminded that Marilyn’s absence from her family for nine weeks had an influence for ten years. Certainly James wants Lydia to be popular because as a child he had no friends, and Marilyn wants Lydia to become a doctor because she was not able to do so. And much of Lydia’s behaviour is explained by her having “absorbed her parents’ dreams” (160).

Prejudice is another theme. James feels he is not accepted because he is a visible minority, and certainly he has received his share of taunts. His children, the products of a biracial marriage, are also subjected to racial slurs. The newspaper headlines announcing “Oriental Girl Found Drowned in Pond” (60) highlight societal attitudes.

What is particularly impressive about the book is its realism. Because we are given characters’ backstories, their motivations and behaviour are totally understandable. How they react makes perfect sense.

I highly recommend this novel. Its three-dimensional characters, realistic plot, and thematic development make it a book of exceptional literary quality.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day 13) - "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey" by Walter Mosley

Day 13 of my Book Advent Calendar brings us to “M”.  My recommendation is a book which I voted as one of the best I read in 2012.
 Day 13:  The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley
5 Stars
Ptolemy Grey, a 91-year-old Black man, is suffering from the early stages of dementia. After the death of his primary caregiver, Robyn Small, a 17-year-old family acquaintance, comes forward to help him. She challenges his hoarding and hermit existence. As Robyn tries to get medical treatment for Ptolemy, she inadvertently brings him to a Mephistophelean doctor who offers him an experimental drug that will give him lucidity for a short period of time, lucidity which Ptolemy desperately craves so he can get his affairs in order. Think of Flowers for Algernon for dementia sufferers.

Ptolemy is a character who will stay with the reader long after the last chapter has been read. He is a wise, gentle soul who lives by the simple truths he was taught by his mentor, Coydog McCann. Some of these life lessons he passes on to Robyn. Even though he is frail in body and increasingly feeble in mind, he struggles against injustice and tries to live like a rich man whom Coydog defined as "the man [who can] live in his own skin."

Much of Ptolemy's life is narrated via flashbacks as he increasingly lives in his past, especially the memorable people and life-shaping events in it. Various racial issues are addressed since Ptolemy and his family were not always treated fairly by Whites, but members of Ptolemy's family are not portrayed as totally innocent either. Characters are realistic and neither demonized nor sanctified.

It is the portrayal of Ptolemy's thought processes that struck this reader. His thoughts are fragmented as one would expect in someone suffering from his medical condition, but gradually the reader can construct the pivotal events in his life and thereby understand the emotions that colour his life.

This book has it all - suspense, historical accuracy, a memorable protagonist, and themes applicable to contemporary times. It would take a very unfeeling person lacking in empathy not to be moved by this novel.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Review of "Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay" by Elena Ferrante


4 Stars

The third of the Neapolitan novels continues the story of the lifelong relationship between Elena Greco, the narrator, and Lila Cerullo who grew up together in poverty in post-war Naples.  The book covers eight years (1968 – 1976) when the two young women are in their twenties and early thirties.  The focus is on Elena’s engagement and marriage to the son of prominent intellectuals, the birth of her children, and the publication of her first book.  Lila works in a factory and is raising her son virtually single-handedly but begins studying computer technology and working in this nascent field. 

As in the previous books and as this title suggests, one of the young women leaves and one stays.  Elena has left her home neighbourhood and ventured out into the larger world; in much of this novel, she lives in Florence.  Lila, on the other hand, does not venture far.  She describes their situation:  “’You’re strong . . . I have never been.  The better and truer you feel, the farther away you go. . . . I’m scared’” (177).  But Elena admits that there is courage in staying:  “I feel like the knight in an ancient romance as, wrapped in his shining armor, after performing a thousand astonishing feats throughout the world, he meets a ragged, starving herdsman, who, never leaving his pasture, subdues and controls horrible beasts with his bare hands, and with prodigious courage” (172).  At one point, Elena regrets, “How much I had lost by leaving, believing I was destined for who knows what life” (346). 

And of course the two women take turns leaving the other behind.  One will come to help her friend but will eventually feel, “I absolutely had to go” (217) and “it was really time to get out” (224).  When the life of one is happy and successful, that of the other takes a downturn.  For example, when the career of one stalls, the other finds a new career which brings wealth.  Elena admits, “I had wanted to become something . . . only because I was afraid Lila would become someone and I would stay behind” (347).

One of the themes that takes prominence in this novel is that of the limited role of women in a male-dominated society.  Elena discovers feminism and also the restrictions of marriage and motherhood.  She marries an intellectual but he is very narrow-minded, objecting to her taking birth control pills.  She explains that “my husband never praised me but, rather, reduced me to the mother of his children; even though I had had an education he did not want me to be capable of independent thought, he demeaned me by demeaning what I read, what interested me, what I said, and he appeared willing to love me only provided that I continually demonstrate my nothingness” (298). 

The book also addresses sexuality and male sexual self-centredness.  “To be made badly when it comes to sex means, evidently, not to be able to feel pleasure in the male’s thrusting; it means twisting with desire and rubbing yourself to quiet that desire, it means grabbing his hands and placing them against our sex . . . ignoring his annoyance, the boredom of one who has already had his orgasm and now would like to go to sleep” (176).  Elena describes sex with her husband:  once satisfied, he did not seem “to understand that I wanted some part of his body to consummate, in turn, my desire” (253). 

The two women remain true to the traits indicated in the previous novels.  Lila is as mercurial as always and Elena as insecure as ever.  It is increasingly obvious, however, that Elena can be as selfish, ruthless and manipulative as the friend she has described as mean.    A mutual friend tells Elena, “’What you have, you deserve, you got it with hard work, without hurting anyone, without bullshitting with other people’s husbands’” (338), but that analysis proves not to be entirely correct.  An acquaintance of both women says to Elena, “’You’re two pieces of shit and nothing can change you, two examples of underclass filth.  But you act all friendly and Lina doesn’t’” (287).

Elena’s husband tells his wife that, “’[Lila] wasn’t at all my friend, that she hated me, that she was extraordinarily intelligent, that she was fascinating, but her intelligence had been put to bad use’” (340), yet the emotional attachment continues.  Elena relies on Lila “to set my imagination in motion” (261), and claims that Lila’s intelligence has “influenced everything I’ve done” (225).  On the other hand, Lila tells Elena, “’you’ve helped me since we were children, without you I’m not capable of anything’” (273).  Elena claims that she is going to change:  “I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult outside of her” (347), but that seems unlikely.  Lila tells Elena that she cannot protect herself, “’Not from me’” (29) and Elena is the one who writes about her relationship with Lila after she disappears. 

And now I’m off to begin the last installment in that story!

Book Advent Calendar (Day 12) - The Rainbow Fairy Books by Andrew Lang

It’s Day 12 of my Book Advent Calendar; we are halfway through and at the letter “L”.  This time, I’m going to suggest twelve books which I was given as a child and which I still possess:  the Rainbow Fairy Books of Andrew Lang.

category-header

Between 1889 and 1910, Andrew Lang published twelve collections of fairy tales, each with a different coloured binding, with a total of 437 stories collected, edited and translated.  These tales are from cultures and countries around the world. The books, ordered chronologically, are as follows: The Blue Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, The Green Fairy Book, The Yellow Fairy Book, The Pink Fairy Book, The Grey Fairy Book, The Violet Fairy Book, The Crimson Fairy Book, The Brown Fairy Book, The Orange Fairy Book, The Olive Fairy Book, and The Lilac Fairy Book.  All have illustrations.  It's the ultimate fairy tale collection.

I recently learned that The Folio Society is publishing the full series of Lang’s fairy books in beautiful hardback editions with classic illustrations (http://www.foliosociety.com/category/9319/andrew-lang-s-fairy-books).  I don’t usually recommend specific publishers and with each book costing $94.95(CAN), this set is pricey, but the few Folio Society books I have are wonderful – heirlooms to be sure.  Maybe Santa can bring me one a year for the next twelve years?

Friday, December 11, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day 11) - "Flight Behavior" by Barbara Kingsolver

Day 11 of my Book Advent Calendar brings us to “K” and I’ve opted for a well-known author, Barbara Kingsolver.  I could have chosen any number of her books, The Poisonwood Bible being one of my favourite, but I thought this one was appropriate considering the climate change conference in Paris.

Day 11:  Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
5 Stars
 
Near her hardscrabble sheep farm in Tennessee, Dellarobia Turnbow discovers millions of monarch butterflies who have deviated from their normal migration pattern to Mexico. The discovery brings the world to her doorstep, the tourists, the eco-activists, and the media among them. Also to arrive is Ovid Byron, a lepidopterist who hires Dellarobia to help research why the butterflies have arrived in Appalachia.

The answer soon becomes clear: climate change as a result of global warming. The butterflies’ Mexican home has been destroyed by flooding exacerbated by deforestation. Initially, Dellarobia is not a believer in climate change; gradually, however, she changes her mind as evidence is presented to her. Unfortunately others in the community are not so open-minded; her father-in-law, for example, wants to log the mountain which the butterflies have chosen for their winter home. The blindness of climate change deniers is addressed strongly by Ovid: “’What scientists disagree on now . . . is how to express our shock. The glaciers that keep Asia’s watersheds in business are going right away. . . . The Arctic is genuinely collapsing. Scientists used to call these things the canary in the mine. What they say now is, The canary is dead. We are at the top of Niagara Falls . . . in a canoe. . . . We got here by drifting, but we cannot turn around for a lazy paddle back when you finally stop pissing around. We have arrived at the point of an audible roar. Does it strike you as a good time to debate the existence of the falls?’’’ (367)

The serious social message is expertly intertwined with a personal story. Dellarobia is unhappy and frustrated with her life. She feels trapped in her marriage to Cub, a dim-witted, unimaginative, passive man overshadowed by his parents. Though he is decent, good-hearted, and well-meaning, he cannot provide her with an escape from their economically and intellectually impoverished life. Working for Ovid serves as an awakening for Dellarobia. She gains self-confidence as her horizons expand and decides to seek personal fulfillment, searching, like the butterflies, for the place where she belongs. Obviously she metamorphoses from caterpillar to butterfly, although at the end she, again like the butterflies, is faced with an uncertain future.

There are many Biblical allusions in the novel. Dellarobia sees a flaming forest, like Moses saw a burning bush. References to Noah’s flood appear more than once. I foresee students of English literature writing essays analyzing Kingsolver’s use of Biblical allusions to add depth to her novel.

This is literary fiction at its best; it combines an interesting plot and a dynamic protagonist with an urgent message: the world is a “mess made by undisciplined humans” (25) who must stop behaving like “ignorant little dumb-heads” (41) or “the world [will] fall down around them” (25).

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day Ten) - "The Son of a Certain Woman" by Wayne Johnston

Day Ten of my Book Advent Calendar means an author whose surname begins with the tenth letter of the alphabet.  I’ve decided on a Newfoundland writer, Wayne Johnston.  My review is of his most recent novel, though several of his others I would also recommend:  The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, The Navigator of New York, and A World Elsewhere.

Day Ten:  The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston
4 Stars

The “son” is Percy Joyce, a disfigured child born in the 1950s in St. John’s, NL. The “certain woman” is Penelope, Percy’s unwed mother, whose Elizabeth Taylor beauty and Sophia Loren voluptuousness are such that Percy begins his story with this statement: “Most of the people who knew my mother either slept with her or wished they had, including me, my aunt Medina and a man who boarded with us” (3). These four people live secret lives in the shadow of the Basilica-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist: Penelope and Medina are lovers, although Penelope occasionally has sex with Pops, the boarder, so he will help pay the mortgage. Penelope justifies her actions by saying, “Better I be a prostitute than we all be destitute’” (113).

Of course living in the middle of “Catholicism Central . . . [where] there were seven Christian Brothers-and-nuns-run schools within a stone’s throw of each other” meant there was “no separation between Church and Fate” (23). The Archbishop interprets Percy’s birth on June 24, the feast day of St. John’s patron saint, as an indication of his specialness and so “directed his assistants to find out everything they could” (45) about Percy and his family. Brother McHugh, the principal of the boys’ Catholic school across the street from the Joyces, is set the task of bringing Percy, “an unbaptized, non-denominational renegade,” and Penelope, “a recalcitrant, non-churchgoing maverick,” (9) into the church. The scrutiny placed on their home is not welcomed: “It was not a good time or place for anyone to be known to be sleeping with anyone they weren’t at least engaged to. A woman caught with a woman or known to be in love with one would likely be sent to jail or deemed to be insane and committed until she was ‘cured.’ For certain [Percy would] have been taken away” (22-23).

A main conflict is the residents of 44 Bonaventure who wish to live as they see fit versus the power of the Catholic Church. The institution is repressive and corrupt; members of the Archbishop’s congregation have “the power to do his bidding without discovery and with impunity” (388). Brother McHugh, the main representative of the Archbishop, for example, brags about how he can punish students who misbehave: “’I know how to hurt boys in ways that leave nothing but little red marks that can easily be explained away’” (229). He places the Joyce family under constant surveillance and bullies them into doing his bidding. The price of non-conformity is high in a place where earning the ire of church leaders would “lead to being snubbed or ostracized . . . [because] to disobey the Archbishop was to disobey God and there was no telling what would come of that” (45).

The portrayal of the almost reptilian Brother McHugh is rather stereotypical, but the social control of the Catholic Church in the 1960s is shown very realistically. As a child growing up in a predominately Catholic community, I heard priests using sermons to tell people what films not to see; I attended a wedding where the bride was not allowed to wear white because she had had a child out of wedlock; and I witnessed sadistic punishment meted out by a nun to a child who was academically challenged. I have no disagreement with the author’s indictment of the church, but some readers may take exception to his biting critique.

The novel also examines the impact of beauty and ugliness. Percy, who is perceived as a “slobbering, jabbering aberration,” (6) muses, “I admit that it might be that my inner self has been altered by my outer one. It might be, as my mother suggested, that a life of looking as I did made me think and act the way I did” (184) and wonders “how I would have turned out if I had not been so different” (211). On the other hand, Penelope, who is renowned for her beauty, suggests that exceptional beauty can also be a curse: “My mother had several times read to me [Yeats’] ‘prayer’ for his daughter: that she not be granted beauty overmuch . . . lest she consider beauty a sufficient end . . . and never find a friend” (252).

There are some very funny scenes in the book. The exchanges between Pops and Medina are scathing but hilarious, as are Penelope’s skewerings of the church. Her “Yeah Papists” cheerleader chant (86-87) and her rambling speech about the church’s misogyny (364-368) are comically brilliant. The author’s wit and literary knowledge are obvious throughout; I particularly enjoyed his almost page-long list of oxymoronic names for St. John’s (17) and the many literary allusions, both direct (33) and indirect (256).

My complaint about the book is its length. Parts of it are repetitive. Percy’s attention-seeking lies (“give me myth or give me death”) and his constant lusting after his mother become tedious. The plot also becomes predictable: Percy constantly misbehaves and so Brother McHugh and Penelope end up in constant confrontations. The book could have been about 100 pages shorter and still have achieved its aim.

I understand why the book made the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist: it is intelligent and will make readers laugh and cry. I also understand why it did not win: it addresses some controversial issues and may make some people very uncomfortable.