Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Measure of Light

A Measure of Light / Beth Powning  
Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2015.
336 p.

This was a bit of an outlier of a read for me; I don't usually pick up straight-up historical fiction, especially if it's about early America. 

But I've read other books by Beth Powning before, and think she's a wonderful writer. Plus this features a Quaker woman as a main character so there was that element of religious freedom and women's lives to intrigue me as well.

I thought it was an interesting novel -- slower moving and invested in character development, as in Powning's other novels. It really examines how one lives within a particular society, especially if the social norms are stifling or limiting. Each person interacts with their surroundings differently, and in this book women like Anne Hutchinson, an intelligent and brave woman, flaunt what they consider ridiculous rules - for example, Hutchinson held a theological circle for women in her home, questioning the need for ministers, playing a large role in the Antinomian controversy.

And then there is the main character, based on a real historical figure, Mary Dyer -- a Puritan who flees religious persecution in England to come to Massachusetts in 1635, only to find that there is persecution of another kind in her new surroundings. After being accused of apostasy and having the male leaders of their colony use the stillbirth of her child as proof, she and her husband leave the colony to move to Rhode Island, but she finds she cannot love her other children or her life because of this trauma.

Taking a break to return to England, she is converted by the Society of Friends (the Quakers) and becomes a 'radical' for them. When she returns to the colonies, it's to find that Quakers have been outlawed. But this doesn't stop her.

Mary is a woman who gives up her home, and her family, to speak the truth as she knows it, and is harassed and arrested for it eventually. For the crime of believing that a committee of men was not God, that religious freedom for herself and others was important enough to fight for, in her own Quakerish way, she becomes one of the four Quakers martyred for their beliefs in New England.

This story is beautifully written, in Powning's evocative style. The natural world in both its beauty and harshness is finely observed, and the women's lives - alongside their religious ideals - are realistic and grounded in physicality. As a New Englander raised as Quaker, Powning has an authenticity in the telling that makes this historical setting believable and compelling, both in its starkness and its fervour. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light / Cordelia Strube
Toronto: ECW, c2016.
365 p.

Harriet is 11 (like many other tough and tender Canadian heroines). But Harriet lives in the Shangri-La, a decrepit apartment block full of seniors for whom she does errands for petty cash. And she survives in a dysfunctional family, her brother Irwin with a serious medical condition, her mother overwhelmed and unhappy, and an unsympathetic, messed up stepfather. 

Each chapter she is encountering another situation, either with her friends (such as they are), another family in the building, or her own. The level of oddness and "quirkiness" in the story really accretes and became almost too much for me. Harriet is tough-talking, adult sounding, when she negotiates with the seniors in the building for chore/pay equivalence. She is also a mixed media artist and has dreams of running away to live like Tom Thomson in a cabin in the north woods. At eleven. This combination of vulnerable child and artistic prodigy, a sport in her family, caused me to feel a little bit suspicious of her, due to overfamiliarity with this kind of character.

But as it turned out, I kind of liked Harriet, and by the time I started to actually root for her, well, it was 3/4 of the way through the book and then Strube really threw in a curveball that completely lost me. 

The rest of the book felt like a lengthy denouement that rambled on a bit. Or the beginning of a different story. While I admired the strength of writing and creativity in this book, I'm a little saturated with misery stories and so this tale of a young girl in a crappy situation, trying to make things better through her limited abilities and viewpoint didn't catch me in the way it has so many other readers. 

If you want a completely different opinion on this book that I found decidedly underwhelming, try reading thoughts by Kerry at Pickle Me This  or Angelene at Sad Hat Diaries, both of whom really liked it. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

My Brilliant Career

My Brilliant Career / Miles Franklin
London: Virago, 1980, c1901.
232 p.
This 1901 novel delves into women's agency, desires, and yet again, the issue of income & poverty, and its effects on women in particular.

Sybylla Melvyn is the eldest daughter of a family living in NSW, Australia, and her father's bad decisions have drawn the family into poverty. He's also taken to drink. Sybylla is a prickly and obstinate kind of girl; she doesn't click with her family --
I am a piece of machinery which, not understanding, my mother winds up the wrong way, setting all the wheels of my composition going in creaking discord.
Fortunately for her, she's sent to live with her grandmother for a while. This is a much more civilized, luxurious life, and she enjoys it - the art and culture she's exposed to are just her thing. She enjoys being free from grinding labour, and likes feeling noticed and appreciated. She even draws the attention of Harold Beecham, an older neighbour, a single man who is a fairly successful farmer. 

But then she's sent home again (and this brief encounter with opportunity and glamour of a sort, followed by a return to poverty and routine reminds me of Stefan Zweig's The Post Office Girl, a harrowing book -- though Sybylla doesn't take the same way out). She must help the family out by working as a housekeeper for a nearby family, a job that clashes with her every instinct, so much so that she has a breakdown and must return home. At this point she receives a proposal from Harold, but refuses to take the easy way out and let a good marriage save her. She is going to save herself, and have the Brilliant Career she dreams of. 

That is the basic plot, but this book is so much more. The writing is powerful and visceral, with Sybylla's longings clearly expressed. She's an interesting character - hard to like in some ways, but awfully easy to identify with in others. She is suspicious of good fortune, can't believe anyone would be able to love her, and yet is extremely ambitious and sure of herself at the same time (a bit like Elizabeth Taylor's Angel in her view of herself.)

This book also gives a strong picture of social conditions in rural Australia in the 1890s, in its casual descriptions of Sybylla's life. It's fascinating. It's also very interesting that Franklin was both pleased and taken aback by the success of this novel, and eventually withdrew its publication due to so many people assuming it was autobiography. It wasn't released again until after her death. This book was also followed by a sequel, My Brilliant Career Goes Bung, which was written around the same time but only published in 1946 for the first time. 

If you like prickly characters and strong writing, I do recommend this classic Australian novel. There a lot of interesting commentary that is somehow still relevant to our lives. 

Further Reading:

Strangely enough, Sybylla's sense of her self reminds me of two diaries published in the early years of the 20th century, both in her character and in the high literary style that comes through. Opal Whiteley's very popular The Story of Opal was told in a naive, childlike manner, while The Story of Mary Maclane was a bit darker and more desperate, but they were both writers who felt very out-of-place in their remote (US) communities. Sybylla is nowhere near as mannered and twee as either, but there are definite similarities.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Penny Plain

Penny Plain / O. Douglas (Anna Buchan)
Toronto: Hodder & Stoughton, c1920.
314 p.

I read this Scottish novel not in the reprint version shown here, but online via the Open Library -- one of my favourite places to find older, pre-copyright date of 1926 novels. I was reminded to search it out thanks to Leaves & Pages' thoughts on it - it sounded like the kind of cozy read I was in the mood for. 

Surprisingly, it also dealt with the question of income and a woman managing a family on very little. But this time, it's a little more fairy-tale like, in a pleasing way.

Jean Jardine is 23, and prematurely maternal, as she is responsible for her 3 brothers -- 19 yr old David, heading off to Oxford where Jean worries he won't be able to fit in with his wealthy classmates; 14 yr old Jock who is straightforward and lively; and 7 yr old Gervase, an adopted brother who is artistic and typically high spirited for a young boy. They live in a small cottage in the small Scottish town of Priorsford, which is perhaps a wee bit Cranford-ish. The cottage is so lovingly evoked that I wished I could join them in the sitting room for a while. 

Into their quiet round appears the Honourable Pamela Reston, who is taking a mental break from her whirlwind social life in London to *think*, now that she's 40 and decisions must be made. She immediately takes to Jean. And most conveniently, she has a handsome, single, younger brother who is coming for a visit...

I think you can guess what will happen. But Douglas does not make this seem sentimental and trite -- there is enough backbone to Jean that she takes some convincing, there is a little more work to be done before she'll just fall into anyone's arms, despite the financial benefits. Add to this all the various 'characters' we meet in Priorsford, and the undercurrent of seriousness -- it's just postwar, after all, and people have lost family members, they've lost financial security, and it all affects them. 

But Jean's essential goodness is rewarded - not by an old woman at a well giving her diamonds falling out of her sweet mouth every time she speaks, but by an unexpectedly legacy which is entirely due to her unselfish kindness unknowingly given to the right person. It feels equally fairy-taleish though! 

This is a light, enjoyable read, perfect for a few hours of comfort reading. There's Shakespeare, art, community, friendship, fashion, some humour, and of course True Love. As said at Leaves & Pages, this is "a true period piece", set in its own time and revealing its unstated norms throughout. A pleasant look at a good family moving up in the world, even if primarily by chance. 

There is a sequel, Priorsford, which I will most likely search out the next time I'm in this reading mood. It would be nice to go back for a visit sometime.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn / Betty Smith
New York: HarperCollins, 2006, c1943.
496 p.

I've always kind of put off reading this book; feeling that it was an American classic of the nostalgic kind, one that I probably wouldn't like very much. But for some reason I've been in a classics reading mood this last while, so as soon as I finished Gabrielle Roy's The Tin Flute, I picked up this one.

And there were certainly some thematic similarities - a young girl growing up in poverty, with a ne'er do well father and a mother who is working and holding the family together (and who ends up pregnant again near the end, just as the mother does in Tin Flute). Both families live in sections of big cities which, in their times, were slums, and today are gentrified, hipster places to live.

But otherwise, there are also enough differences that this was a unique reading experience. Despite my reservations about it, I read it and read it -- I couldn't put it down. I thought about it all day when I wasn't reading it, until I could get home again to finish it. I really loved it. 

The plot is probably very well known to most of my readers; little Francie Nolan grows up in Brooklyn (Williamsburg) with a brother barely a year younger, a hard-working mother of Austrian descent, and a charming Irish father. Unfortunately he doesn't seem to get much work in his line, as a singing waiter, and any tips he gets go straight to drink. Francie's mother - and her sisters - hold the family together. The story is told from Francie's perspective, and the chapters are a bit episodic, telling us about how she and her brother collect and sell junk weekly, or how they ended up getting piano lessons, how her aunt gets married and remarried 3 times without the assistance of the law, and in one particularly harrowing chapter, how a sexual predator stalks young girls over one long summer. 

The story examines this small family and both their successes and harder moments. It also creates a dream-like Brooklyn in the early 1900s, full of milk wagons, junk dealers, pawn shops, fruit stands, barbers, incipient unions, harsh schools and more. Francie's emotional development from child to young adult is the core of the book, and her fascination with books, words and education is key to her future. Her description of the tree that grows in their yard is a vital symbol of persistence, and is intimately linked with her childhood reading. The only thing that made me sad about Francie's constant reading was the depiction of the local librarian as a cold and uninterested woman who didn't like children and paid no attention to Francie despite her regular visits and clear enthusiasm for the library. But that's likely an occupational hazard, always noticing those kind of things.

I was really absorbed by this story, and by the added information in this edition on Betty Smith's life and her own inspirations for writing this highly autobiographical novel. I was also fascinated that it was so immediately popular, and that army editions were printed for soldiers to read - I can't see it being hugely popular with young men, with its frank talk about female lives and bodies, but what do I know?

I found the clear voice of the author absolutely engaging, and was really interested in seeing this perspective on growing up in poverty. Francie finds her way out via education, not through business or marriage -- as the book ends she is heading off to college thanks to a few new factors in her world. And there is definite hope for the future. I'm glad I overcame my aversion and finally picked this up. It was a wonderful read.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Tin Flute

The Tin Flute / Gabrielle Roy; translated from the French by Alan Brown. 
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1989, c1945.
389 p.

I finally picked up this classic Canadian novel a few weeks ago. Gabrielle Roy is a favourite author of mine but I'd never read this one, a story of a family living in poverty in St Henri right around the start of WWII.

It read very quickly, though I did find it a lot more event driven than most of Roy's other novels I've read. And honestly, quite a bit more boring because of it. Her other works are more nostalgic tales of the French in Manitoba (based in her own childhood) and I think that connection makes them more compelling for me. 

However! On to this book. It's set in the slums of St Henri, an area of Montreal that is now quite trendy and gentrified. When I lived in Montreal in the 90s, it was still kind of sketchy, but growing more gentrified each year. And now even Pointe St Charles right next door (even more sketchy) is experiencing the same. So reading about the reality of life in the 40s was fascinating. The characters walk the streets, all named, so I could follow them in my head. If you read this and don't know the area at all, I would suggest getting a map, as it's easy to follow them, and discover how small the distances are between streets that are slums and ones that are more respectable. At one point, one of the young men walks up to Westmount, to see the big houses and go to the lookout. I know that he walked right past my old apartment to get there, too. I loved that sense of connection. 

The story opens with Florentine Lacasse exhausted at her job serving at a busy deli counter at the Five and Ten. She's met a young man there, Jean Levesque, who is different and who appeals to her. And to her longing to escape her constrained life of poverty and this crappy job that she must work to support her family. Her father is a dreamer who is constantly losing jobs and her mother just keeps having children. Florentine, as the oldest, contributes the bulk of the family income. But she just wishes that she could catch a break.

She and Jean begin a troubled relationship, an angry one with neither of them fully trusting the other. And he is looking beyond St Henri, even when he meets Florentine, which she doesn't know. As it turns out, his friend Emmanuel meets Florentine with him one day, and instantly falls for her himself. Emmanuel is from a more middle-class area of St Henri, though, and foresees many family problems with this crush. 

These restless and demanding young lives are also shaped by the war, which reaches into St Henri to take many of the men who don't have any other options, despite their resistance to an "English" war. But the army pays well, and it means that they can support a family, so it's hard to say no.

But the book is not all about these three younger people. It also delves into the life and emotions of Florentine's parents. Azarius is always waiting for the next big thing, for their big break, and he never can quite achieve it. He's always dreaming, and always frustrated at having to work for other people. Rose-Anna, meanwhile, is the kind of matriarch who is long-suffering, hard-working, too proud to ask for help, and the emotional cornerstone of the family. She keeps them all going despite her many disappointments and responsibilities. And her family is from the country; there's a fine description of urban vs rural between the two. 

So with all the longings, sadness, ambition, anger and stifled rage at poverty, there's a strong emotional drive to the story. The way it is told is straightforward and linear, and can be a little slow moving, despite the shocking and scandalous events that are also shared in a rather matter-of-fact way. The daily struggle of counting change, trying to calculate expenses, weighing food vs. clothing, moving to smaller and smaller lodgings despite a growing family - it is all there. Their last apartment alongside the train station is covered in soot, and noisy, but Rose-Anna resigns herself to it, as long as it provides a home for her family. 

Florentine finds her salvation, so to speak, not through a new business venture or her own ambition, but the traditional way, through an advantageous marriage. But even that begins in shadow, as she keeps secrets from her new husband and allows him to think romantic inclination led her to accept his proposal. No motivations are clear in this story, they are all tangled up with survival, money, and longing. It's a deeply complex story that grows on you; I think about it more now than while reading it. It's a picture of how systemic poverty affects lives, drawn with detail and realism. And so an important read, even if a little slow going at times. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Gone to Pot

Gone to Pot / Jennifer Craig
Toronto: Second Story Press, c2017.
248 p.

For some odd reason, I found that over the last couple of weeks I've read a string of books which all have women and money as a theme. Many different kinds of stories but all with income as a preoccupation of the female characters. This is the first one.

Jess is a nice, white-haired Grandma, who has just lost her waitress job, due to the restaurant she worked at burning down. She is independent and prefers her own company and her own beloved house, so refuses her son's offer to move in with his family -- though that might also have something to do with the daughter-in-law that she doesn't get along with. 

But as her savings sink lower and lower, and ageism rears its head and makes a new job difficult to find in her small town (Nelson, BC) she has to find a way to support herself. Enter her young former coworker Swan, with the suggestion that Jess has a great income opportunity, with the perfect location in which to grow pot - her basement. 

The rest of the book is very detailed about the process of growing pot; all the problems, ups and downs and technical details are spelled out for the reader. The issue of smell, of harvesting and selling, and so on are thoroughly covered. As someone on Goodreads noted, she wasn't sure if this was a feisty-lady-making-good story or a how-to on home pot growing! It's definitely a story centred around Jess' life and experiences, and that of her circle of women friends... her "bookclub" who don't really discuss books. Add to that the problems that Swan faces, and we have a multigenerational story of women's lives which is quite effective. But it is quite chock-a-block with pot info as well.

Jess tosses in some philosophical musings too, about aging, and about morality vs legality (mostly around pot growing & using), and sometimes these authorial additions feel a bit intrusive, a bit "dear reader". I personally dislike the idea of pot being as widely used as tobacco & alcohol, so I didn't nod in agreement often at these comments. But I still found the story entertaining, often funny - in a situationally funny way, not like it was full of one-liners - and Jess was a great character. 

I thought it pointed out the difficulties of income and security, especially for older women who've spent their lives working and caring for others, in a relatable way. And Jess' solution to her money woes and those of her friends, in the end, is charming and uplifting, even if not 100% realistic. I think many people have the same dreams and will be able to understand and enjoy this tale. 

If you're virulently anti-pot, you may not want to read this. Otherwise, check out this very contemporary story of a social reality being faced down creatively by a very determined senior citizen.  Its unique and creative storyline will make you think!