Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Second Canadian Book Challenge

The Second Canadian Book Challenge finishes on Canada Day, and there are still two books I haven’t reviewed for this challenge; this is partly a reflection on my feelings about them but, for the sake of completeness, I shall sum up my impressions here.

Dead Cold by Louise Penny was the second book about Inspector Gamache. I talked enthusiastically about the first, Still Life, earlier in the year, taking pleasure in its sense of place and characterisation. I enjoyed the second less, feeling that it suffered slightly from leaving a too much unresolved in order to set up subsequent books in the series, leaving me with the sensation of being cheated, rather that of eager anticipation. Penny is a new writer, and there’s a lack of balance here between open-endedness and the closure necessary to each episode in a series. The story itself moves along at a good pace, reintroducing all the favourite characters first encountered in Still Life, and Gamache himself develops nicely, though I thought his wife helping out with his unsolved cases smacked more of plot device than reality. The victim is a really unpleasant individual, and I think more subtlety is needed -– Penny likes to paint portraits of horrible people, but she does it with rather a heavy hand. I shall read the next one, but the community I enjoyed so much in the first is beginning to feel a little claustrophobic.

A Boy of Good Breeding by Miriam Toews was also a slight disappointment. As I read, I found myself comparing it with one of last year’s choices, Steve Zipp’s Yellowknife; to me, as a British reader, they have a similar sense of expansiveness and open space which contrasts with the more enclosed space of small communities, but for reasons I can’t quite define I preferred the less well-known Yellowknife. They share a quirky sense of humour and, if Toews doesn’t quite go down Zipp’s magic realist route, there are nods in that direction. She has a lightness of touch as a writer and I can see the quality there, but it doesn’t quite work for me. I couldn’t engage with any of the characters, and I found myself rushing the end. I’m interested to see that some of the other reviewers who talked about Toews’ books seemed to have similar reactions. I think I'd like to try The Flying Troutmans, though.

This completes the second challenge, and I did indeed only read books by women. I didn’t manage to finish the first, only reviewing 7 books for it, but that’s 20 Canadian books in two years, and I went to hear Margaret Atwood speak at the Edinburgh Book Festival last August. I shall certainly be taking part of the third challenge and will post about the choice of books soon!

Books read:

The “Anne” books by L.M. Montgomery

Like many women of my generation, I read Anne of Green Gables when I was young, and I saw a couple of adaptations on television, but it wasn’t until last year that I discovered how many books there were in the series, and decided to embark on them all in order. It was a year in which I considered myself fortunate, because I spent many happy hours immersed in the events of Avonlea and Ingleside.

Anne of Green Gables, the first in the series, tells the story of the orphan Anne Shirley’s arrival at the farm of Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. They were expecting a boy, and there are tense pages for Anne and the reader while the elderly brother and sister make up their mind as to whether she can stay. Once it’s decided, Anne’s natural ebullience is unquenchable, and she gets into a succession of scrapes to try the patience of her new guardians, while making friends and rivals in the community. Anne is instantly lovable, and the reader shares her despair about her red hair, and her yearning to be called Cordelia, so that when, at the end of the book, she has to curtail her dreams, we both suffer with her and admire her determination. I read this book in the edition edited by Cecily Devereux, which has an introduction and some interesting back matter, including contemporary reviews, which I found quite informative. I would have welcomed similar treatment for the whole series.

The second book follows her early days as a teacher in the local school, and introduces her adopted siblings, the twins Davy and Dora. The tone is similar to the first book, since Anne is as prone as ever to disaster, especially as organiser of the Avonlea Village Improvement Society, but the in the third book, Anne of the Island, we see her start to mature, and a quieter note begins to emerge. Anne is now at Redmond College, and sharing a house with friends. Here she begins to truly appreciate domesticity, and becomes more reflective, while still maintaining her love of storytelling. She doesn’t lose the charm that she has for the reader – instead we feel as though there is a deepening relationship as she matures.

The next book sees Anne as principal of Summerside school, learning to cope with difficult pupils and parents. This is one of my favourites, I think – I like the venture into the Gothic with Anne’s visit to Tomgallon House, and her landladies at Windy Willows (I wonder, incidentally, whether Montgomery liked cats, because they seem to be singled out for misery in her books!). Interestingly, it was written much later than the others, and is epistolatory, which I enjoyed because the letters make it a very “chatty” book.

From book five onwards we join the married Anne, and the mood is often more sombre, though her joy in her new home and new friends always resurfaces. Montgomery never, in the earlier books, shies away from the fact of death, but in the loss of her first child Anne encounters the grief which means that her happiness can never again be perfect. The story of her friend Leslie Moore, too, deals with unhappy marriage, loss and a kind of duty which is contrary to all of Anne’s experience, not joyful duty but a burden. I felt, increasingly impressed that Montgomery didn’t try to shelter her young readers from the woes of life, but was trying to prepare them for what they might meet later, and there is a presentiments of war in the next book. Anne of Ingleside is much occupied with the visit of Gilbert’s dreadful aunt, who tries the patience of the entire family, but also focuses, one by one, on Anne’s children. It’s a lovely portrait of a happy and contented family, and is followed by, and contrasts with, Rainbow Valley, which is more concerned with a neighbouring family, the Merediths, who have lost their mother and are neglected by their father.

The last book, Rilla of Ingleside, was hard to read. The youngest of Anne’s children, Rilla (named after Marilla Cuthbert) is the last child still at home, and she’s a frivolous, carefree child until war breaks out and all the young men join up. Endeavouring to be more responsible, Rilla starts organising the local junior branch of the Red Cross and, on a fundraising visit, suddenly finds herself with a baby whose mother has just died. Caring for a helpless infant is daunting, but she is determined to do her best. It’s the agony of waiting that makes the novel so hard, though, the depiction of a community in limbo waiting to hear if its children will survive, at a time when news could take weeks to arrive, and the reading of news and waiting for corroboration of secondhand reports is a constant theme. The pain and grief of the small community is exemplified by the Blythe’s elderly dog, who accompanies Jem to the station and then waits out the duration of the war – I could hardly bear it. At the same time I found this woman’s perspective on the war illuminating and rewarding.

There is a “prequel” to the Anne books written by Budge Wilson, Before Green Gables, intended to explain how Anne became the kind of child she was, imaginative and resourceful. I started to read this, and gave up, but it demonstrated to me how successful Montgomery’s books are, because they never for a moment lag, or lose your interest – there is always a sense of freshness about them. I compared them to Susan Coolidge’s Katy books, which I also returned to recently, and found much less satisfactory than I recalled; the attempt to grow up with Katy (in What Katy Did Next) was, I thought, pretty dull, whereas Anne at every stage of her life feels like an old friend, one of those people you can meet after a long period with a feeling that you’ve never been apart.

I’ve listed the books in order below, for the benefit of non-Canadian readers!
Anne of Green Gables
Anne of Avonlea
Anne of the Island
Anne of Windy Willows (Windy Poplars in the US and Canada)
Anne’s House of Dreams
Anne of Ingleside
Rainbow Valley
Rilla of Ingleside

Monday, 29 June 2009

Unless by Carol Shields

"It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I’ve heard people speak of finding themselves in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but I’ve never understood what they meant."
Some years ago I was a guest at a dinner given in honour of Carol Shields, who had given a lecture in the department where I was working, in which she talked about the writing of Unless. It was the second time I had met her, and in the interim she had become extremely ill, so that it was clear to everyone that this would very likely be her last visit to the UK. I was a pretty silent guest, as I recall, as usual preferring to listen to the conversation around me. Nevertheless (and that’s the title of Chapter Four of this novel), with a fairly recent course in bereavement counselling behind me, I felt the theme of loss was one with which I had a degree of familiarity, and I was acutely aware that she must recently have faced not just the loss of health, but also the imminent loss of her own life, for which I took the novel to be, at least in part, a metaphor. I was, I admit, fascinated and impressed that she should choose to tackle this loss by anatomising it in a work of fiction.

So it might seem rather surprising that I haven’t read Unless until now, though it has been on my shelf for some time. The initial prompt to read it came from John’s Second Canadian Book Challenge, but the reason I took it to London with me last week was the comments made by one of the guests on BBC Radio 4’s A Good Read, where it was chosen as one of that week’s three books. Children’s novelist Terry Deary (not a writer whose work I know) pronounced it a waste of time (I paraphrase, so I hope he’ll forgive me if I misrepresent him) because reading is to entertain and not to improve the reader. Why on earth, he said, would you want to read about being miserable? Now, I admit that I’d put it off all this time because I knew it would make me sad and perhaps angry, but this enraged me so much that I felt compelled to defend it, because I believe that one of the most important functions of literature is precisely to offer the opportunity to extend the scope of your imagination and thus, experience, to provide the means with which to empathise and relate to others. Just as myths and legends did for our ancestors, so modern literature does for us (and this is a theme which Susan and Nymeth have recently expanded on with much wisdom). Fictionalising experience can allow an exploration of feeling in ways which may not always be open to writers of fact, as well as providing a safer means of doing so. This is particularly true for children (what parent wouldn’t rather have their child introduced to the idea of fear through a “scary” story, than by experiencing it first-hand?), but applies also to adults: should I limit my exploration of the possible loss of a child to watching reality television? can I only understand the plight of women in Afghanistan by risking my own life? Iris Murdoch described the novel as important precisely because it allows a reflective, rather than scientific, examination of the human condition, and this is exactly what Shields is giving us here.

Unless did indeed make me sad and angry, but there was also much to be amused by. Reta Winters is a translator who has recently written a “light” novel, My Thyme is Up, and is now planning a sequel (Thyme in Bloom) in which her characters Alicia and Ramon are planning marriage. Shields has been accused by her critics of being over-concerned with the minutiae of everyday life and relationships, and so too is Reta, so that she spends hours investigating trombone playing on the web, and worrying about whether Alicia should get married. Such displacement activity is described in detail, as is her house-cleaning, recognisable avoidances of what is always near the forefront of her mind: the terrifying absence of her daughter Norah. None of the family can imagine what has driven Norah to drop out of university to sit on a street corner, begging, with a sign around her neck which says “Goodness”. Reta wonders if it may be an accretion of small things, the insidious erasure of women from the world, which
is split in two between those who are handed power at birth, at gestation, encoded with a seemingly random chromosome determinate that says yes for ever and ever, and those like Norah, like Danielle Westerman, like my mother, like my mother-in-law, like me, like all of us who fall into the uncoded female otherness in which the power to assert ourselves and claim our lives has been displaced by a compulsion to shut down our bodies and seal our mouths and be as nothing against the fireworks and streaking stars and blinding light of the Big Bang.
Her husband, Tom, meanwhile, thinks that it may be post-traumatic stress, although none of them is able to point to any event which may have caused it. Erasure is a constant theme: the young Muslim woman who commits an act of self-immolation, Reta’s unsent, angry letters and, in a wonderfully funny scene, her inability to finish a sentence when she meets her new (male) editor.

A book about a woman writing a book, it is insightful about the writing process, as in the chapter which deals with work (or the absence of it) in novels. The denouement is sly, and difficult – I don’t want to say too much about it, but I’m still musing on it. It’s interesting that Shields was writing a novel, when she died, in which one of the characters had just missed the chance to write about 9/11, thus remaining a writer, like Shields herself, concerned with small, personal, everyday tragedies – the difference being that for Shields it was a choice, whereas for her character it was an accident of timing.

This is a book to read when you’re in a contemplative mood, and it is one that will stay with you.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Forests of the Heart by Charles De Lint

Another read for the Once Upon a Time III Challenge (I’m afraid that I may not finish Marina Warner’s hefty and fascinating book, No Go the Bogeyman, because it is overdue at the library – I may have to buy a copy after all*).

As with other De Lint books, Forests of the Heart follows a number of main characters and weaves their stories around each other like a piece of Celtic knotwork. It’s set in Newport, a city neither US nor Canadian, our first step into the marginal lands that De Lint regularly inhabits, and from where it’s a short leap of the imagination to find ourselves in that other place where old and new world magics might struggle for supremacy. Because, of course, when the settlers travelled from the “old” world, they brought their legends with them, only to find that the “new” world had its own genii loci – spirits of place. So the old gods, displaced, but living on in the memories of the settlers, drift around the margins, sometimes seen by those who have the ability, nurturing the desire for a place of their own until they can find someone who has the power to bring it about.

The focus is the old house, Kellygnow, an artist’s community cared for by Nuala, a woman of obvious power. First to arrive is Bettina, a Mexican-Indian healer, who is hoping to restore her inner peace, lost when her grandmother disappeared or died. She is both familiar with the duality of this world/other world, and uncertain of it, but she recognises that the men she sees hanging about outside the house and names los lobos, belong to the other world, and she finds herself strongly drawn to one of them.

Los lobos, the Irish guys who are always there in the pub, drinking and smoking and watching, and are so sharply drawn that the reader can almost smell them, smoke and beer and something also more feral and dangerous, so that there is always a sense of threat which quickly becomes real when the unsuspecting Hunter tangles with them. The real object of their interest, though, is Ellie, a sculptor. Chosen for her magical potential, she is invited to Kellygnow, where they want her to make an artefact which will enable los lobos to oust the native spirits, the manitou.

De Lint manipulates his various mythologies with assurance, incidentally depicting, in a series of flashbacks to the Arizonan desert, some of the most enchanting “spirits” I have come across. When I finished the book I had to Google los cadejos to find out more about them, and they are still singing and performing their clickety-clack dance in my head. In fact, I found Bettina’s strand of the story the most absorbing, an intriguing acquaintance with a mythology borne of heat and dust that is largely new to me, child of northern forests and Celtic darkness that I am. I’ve read a handful of De Lint’s books – this is my favourite to date, and will, I think, remain so.

Books read for the Challenge:

* Indeed, since I wrote this it has been returned, and a sizeable fine paid!

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Please Sit up!

I will tell you by Times and Long Times—each time at a time. I tell good things and dretful things.
Those in the know will recognise the style of Rudyard Kipling from the Just-So Stories; some, I expect, will find is vomit-inducing. Thy Servant a Dog is a very unfashionable sort of book which, somewhat to my surprise, I greatly enjoyed. The story is told by Boots, a young Scottish (or Aberdeen) terrier whose master meets a young lady walking her own terrier, Slippers, in a London park: “There is ‘nother dog like me, off-lead. . . . There is walk-round-on-toes. There is Scrap. There is Proper Whacking.” The two households are quickly joined:
We are all here. Please look! I count paws. There is me, and Own God—Master. There is Slippers, and Slippers’ own God—Missus. That is all my paws. There is Adar. There is Cookey. There is James-with-Kennel-that-Moves. There is Harry-with-Spade. That is all Slippers’ paws.

There is also their arch-enemy, the Kitchen Cat, with whom insults are frequently exchanged, and the Tall Dog discovered singing sorrowfully in the woods who becomes a regular partner in crime. When Boots and Slippers restore the lost dog to his family he tells them he is called Dam Puppy, but they discover later that he is really called Ravager, son of Regan, and comes of a line of notable fox hounds. Later, too, there is Smallest, who becomes Slippers’ special charge.

(It seems relevant to interject at this point that I don’t particularly like foxhunting— though I wouldn’t have banned it—but growing up on an enormous collection of horse-y books, including my great favourite, Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man, means that I don’t in the least mind reading enthusiastic descriptions of hunting in the past; other times, other customs, as they say.)

Ravager, after a shaky start, when the Master of Foxhounds thinks that he might be “snipey-nosed”, so lacking the strong bite necessary for the leader of the pack, becomes just that, with the place of honour on the sleeping bench in the Hunt Kennels, though never too proud to talk to his friends Boots and Slippers, even if the Hunt terriers look down on them as lapdogs. So it is Boots who finds Ravager when he hit by a car, and rescues him. When Ravager recovers he is half-blind and can no longer hunt, so he is give to Smallest (Digby) for his own. This provides the book with its real tour-de-force, the chapter entitled The Great Play Hunt. When Digby’s parents say he is too young yet to ride to hounds, the dogs hatch a plan with Tags, the wily old fox who has long been the scourge of local hens, and provide him (and the hunt servant, Moore) with a hunting lesson he’ll never forget, while the two exhausted little dogs glow with pride as they refuse a car ride home at the end of the day:
We wented all across Park with Ravager and Smallest and Taffy . . . to Own Kennels—like proper Pack.
The illustration is of the three weary dogs with their tongues hanging out, walking home.

For those of us who are entirely soppy about dogs, Kipling’s writing manages to be thoroughly in-the-moment, exactly in the way we still anthropomorphise dogs to indicate their enthusiasm, their willingness to throw themselves into any activity that amuses them (“we played Rat-sticks on the lawn”), their loyalty and even their greediness. Boots has a convincing combination of self-importance and humility, and no greater understanding of the world than you would expect of a small dog. The illustrations in this edition from 1936, are by G.L. Stampa, a Punch cartoonist, and are charming line drawings.

Yes, it’s sentimental, and set in a world where dogs and servants knew their places, but I think that Kipling’s conviction is evident and there is no falsity in the writing. I suspect it’s long out of print, but secondhand copies are still available on the Internet, either on its own or as part of a Collected Dog Stories. I found the end genuinely sad—be warned, if you embark on reading it aloud to your own Smallest, there will be tears-before-bedtime, as Boots might say.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

May’s Book summary

The Brandons by Angela Thirkell
Renegade’s Magic by Robin Hobb
Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym - re-read
The Cat Who Saw Red by Lilian Jackson Braun
Stardust by Neil Gaiman - re-read
Testament by Alis Hawkins
The Cat Who Turned On and Off by Lilian Jackson Braun
A Mixture of Frailties by Robertson Davies - re-read
Forests of the Heart by Charles De Lint
No Go the Bogeyman by Marina Warner

May saw fewer completed books than usual – an extra trip south and work deadlines left little spare time, but I took the plunge and ordered the weighty Renegade’s Magic from the library, in the hope of finishing Robin Hobb’s most recent trilogy.

It was a mistake. I’d been in two minds after the first in the series, Shaman’s Crossing, not at all sure whether I’d enjoyed it, though fairly certain that I found many of the characters unappealing, including the protagonist, Nevare Burvelle, the Soldier Son that the trilogy is named after. I don’t quite know why I am so unsympathetic to this person – after all, his struggle to find and maintain his identity is a common theme in literature these days – but Nevare, throughout three long books, is whiny and self-righteous and thoroughly unattractive, an impression exacerbated by the first-person narrative. It’s true that in Hobb’s previous books I have had a similar complaint - for instance, Fitz, the main character in both the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies, also suffers, in my opinion, from an excess of self-pity, so that I regularly wanted to box his ears - but the other characters in those books are well-drawn and the setting is excellent; I also liked the way in which the Liveship trilogy dovetailed with, and complemented, the other two. With Soldier Son she moved away from the familiar Six Duchies/Rainwild world to Gernia, a country where war, frankly, seems to be waged mainly to provide employment for second sons, who traditionally go into the military at an early age. Gernia, which has suffered encroachment in the past, is now eager to consolidate trade by building a road through the forest inhabited by the Specks, a people the Gernians regard as inferior with their primitive lifestyle and magic use. Since the forest is home to the Specks’ ancestor trees, resistance is inevitable, but faced with iron weapons which destroy not only flesh but magic, the Specks seem helpless. As with the search for identity, this postcolonial theme is a familiar one and is, perhaps, handled rather better. Hobb certainly creates tension over where the reader’s sympathies lie and articulates some of the complexities we face today over self-determination for people whose nationhood has been eroded.

Nevertheless, it was an almighty battle to finish the book. I wanted to see what the outcome for the Specks would be (I’d stopped caring much about Nevare) so I skimmed the second half. I don’t think I am alone in finding this series hard to read – I’m sure there are more positive reviews out there, but I don’t remember reading them. I’ve read that lately Hobb has returned to the Rainwild setting of the Liveship books, a much more hopeful move. Fingers crossed!