Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Road Past Altamont

The Road Past Altamont / Gabrielle Roy; translated from the French by Joyce Marshall
Toronto: New Canadian Library, 2010, c1966.
168 p.

I picked up this collection by a favourite writer when I was in the mood for something quiet and gentle. And as always, Gabrielle Roy delivered. But this collection also has a bit of an emotional edge, a strong and biting nostalgia and sorrow about the fact that we all age and all die, woven throughout each story.

All four stories focus on Christine, the main character from Street of Riches, which I also loved.

In the first,Christine is six years old when she is sent to spend time with her grandmother over the summer. Her grandmother, a stern woman, is getting forgetful. But on this visit, she makes Christine a doll, and in this long day of focused creativity she seems to be, to Christine, god-like in her ability to make something from nothing. Christine thinks, "For a long time I was haunted by the idea that it could not possibly be a man who made the world. But perhaps an old woman with extremely capable hands." It's all the more of a struggle for her, therefore, when her grandmother comes to live with her family a few years later, and is weaker every day, eventually nearing her end -- understanding that connection between the self as a young person such as herself and the self inherent in her grandmother is a point of maturing for her.

The second story continues with another relationship Christine, now 8, has with an elderly neighbour. He is a charming old man whom Christine finds compatible with her imaginative play -- he goes along with her pretend play and encourages her imagination. It's a long, hot, dry summer when they meet though, and eventually he tells her about Winnipeg Beach at the beautiful lake like an ocean, only a couple of hours away by train. Her mother agrees to let her take a day trip to see it alongside her friend (it was a more innocent time) and Christine and her elderly neighbour (in his 80s) have a day of revelations about life, eternity, and permanence/impermanence. All in Roy's calm, nostalgic style. 

In the third, The Move, Christine is extremely eager to go along with a friend whose father is a mover, taking families and households from one little shack on the outskirts of Winnipeg to another. Her mother thinks this is sordid, but Christine sees it as romantic -- seeing people on the move, making new beginnings and so on. Though her mother says no, Christine sneaks out one morning to go along, and sees that the day's moving is indeed sordid. Sad, exhausting, and the promise of change unmet as the family they are moving goes from one unpalatable circumstance to another identical one. 

And the last, title story, is perhaps the most moving. In this Christine is an adult, driving her mother to her uncle's for a summer visit. They get turned around on the highway and end up in the hills, a seeming mirage in the flat prairie of Manitoba. This recalls her mother's youth in Quebec to her, and Christine sees her mother as the young woman she once was before children and her move to the prairies. It's a bit unsettling, especially as they aren't sure how they got there or if they'd be able to return. A second visit the next year is nearly as satisfying, but a later one, their last, is unfulfilling -- her mother insists that they've missed their secret road, that they didn't pass by the ghost town of Altamont on the way. The impossibility of permanence, of being able to hold on to the ghostly nostalgia that Roy continually evokes in her stories, is presented as part of life and part of maturity. Christine's mother, in her second childhood, finds this distressing; their roles are now reversed, and Christine is the more pragmatic of the two, looking outward to her new life rather than back, like most of Roy's characters. 

The female relationships in this book are so powerful, so deep and convincing. I loved the grandmother's story, with creative making lighting her up again in the midst of her loneliness and incipient dementia. She was strong and independent, and yet susceptible to life's disappointments as well. The mother-daughter relationship between Christine and her own mother is also deep and abiding. There is a closeness there that reverberates through every element of Christine's story. 

As always there are lovely quotable bits -- for example:
And so we lived, rather like everyone else on the face of the earth, I imagine, little satisfied with the present, in constant expectation of the future, and often in regret for what was past. But thanks be to heaven that, whatever happens, there remain always, on either side of us, those two open doors.
All in all, this is one of Roy's strongest books, for me. It holds together thematically and in style, and is really touching, with strong characterizations and a setting that is viscerally evoked. I really loved it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Golden Tresses of the Dead

The Golden Tresses of the Dead / Alan Bradley  
Toronto: Doubleday Canada, c2019.
336 p.

If you haven't discovered Flavia de Luce yet, you are missing out. This latest book in the series, the tenth, is just as fresh, charming and unexpected as the first. 

In this volume, Flavia has just started a detective agency with family retainer Dogger; they are quickly stuck into their first case when a severed finger is found in Flavia's sister's wedding cake (aside - can I just say UGH!) Poor Ophelia is understandably distraught, but Flavia, quick-thinking as ever, whisks it into a napkin and takes it home to her laboratory to analyze it and hopefully discover the mystery it is pointing to. 

The finger just begins their search into a wider and deeper mystery, and as always with Flavia, things are more than they appear. The joy of these books lies in more than the always intricate and unpredictable mysteries, delightful though they are -- it's in the relationships and the self-awareness that Flavia has (or doesn't have) as a 12 year old precocious chemist/sleuth  and little sister. 

The title and its source give big clues to the heart of the mystery, but I didn't see it coming. I was really more focused on reading quickly to find out how Flavia was managing after the last book, and the status of her family affairs. It's the kind of book I like to whiz through to get the lay of the land, and then read again later for more of a studied look at the plot and how the clues are laid down and so forth. 

It's a charming read, with the family ending up in a good place. The last few lines feel very final -- I know I said that the last book, The Grave's a Fine & Private Place, felt like it could close out the series, but I was still awfully glad to see another. That said, I have heard rumours that this one is indeed the last -- and I hope not -- but if so it ends on a high note, with a satisfying conclusion all around. 

Excellent series, I can't recommend it highly enough. 

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Literary Sewing Circle, 2019

It's that time again! Over on my other blog, the first Literary Sewing Circle of 2019 is happening. The group read this time around is The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan (who also happens to be pretty good with a sewing machine). 

As always, anyone interested in reading along and making something inspired by your reading is welcome to join in. There's already an intro post, inspiration post, and an author interview posted. If you want to read along, please do -- you can also discuss it via Goodreads if you prefer. 

And there are even some sponsor offers this year! Check it out, and you'll now know why I haven't had as much time to post book reviews here in the past couple of weeks ;)

Friday, February 01, 2019

12th Annual CanBook Challenge: February Roundup

1. Click on the icon above
2. Add a link to your review. (Please link to your specific review, not an entire webpage.)
3. Add your name and in parentheses the title of the book, such as Melwyk (Anne of Green Gables)
4. In the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. "This brings me up to 1/13")
5. In the comment section below, note whether you've read a book which meets the monthly challenge set via email for participants.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Jane & Prudence

Jane & Prudence / Barbara Pym
London: Virago, 2013, c1953.
240 p.

An enjoyable reread, I found I appreciated this much more on the second time around! I think I first read it three or four years ago now. Perhaps my sensibilities have become more refined with age ;)

Jane and Prudence are unlikely friends, a decade apart. But they are old university acquaintances and have maintained their friendship. Jane is married to a Vicar, and they've just moved to a new country parish. Jane is a bit dithery and wears whatever clothes come to hand -- domesticity is not her strength, she'd rather be thinking about the 17th century poets she studied at Oxford so long ago.

Prudence on the other hand is a London girl, always dressed and groomed beautifully, but with a penchant for unsuitable love affairs. She fancies herself in love with her employer, a distant, gruff, married academic who works in some 'vague cultural organization'.

But now that Prudence is nearing 30, and Jane has a whole new social circle to explore, Jane starts thinking about matchmaking... and discovers that it is harder than it looks.

Like every Pym book, this one is full of wry observations, amusing reflections, and a reflection of the ways in which women prop up men in every way. And there is the reappearance of characters from her first novel, Crampton Hodnet But Pym's characters are often eccentric, not in behaviour as much as thought, and Jane lives up to this tendency well.
“Prudence’s flat was in the kind of block where Jane imagined people might be found dead, though she had never said this to Prudence herself; it seemed rather a macabre fancy and not one to be confided to an unmarried woman living alone.”
Jane's first try at matchmaking goes sideways, but Prudence has other irons in the fire anyhow. She has a few interests in London, and starts up a flirtation on her own. However, Jane is not dissuaded and comes up with a brilliant idea.

The joy in this book is in Pym's wonderful writing. The observations, the quiet humour, the archness of some characters, and the way in which she subverts any expectation that she writes as a repressed spinster. She has no qualms about love and all its ramifications, and about the worthiness of men.
“Prue hadn't really been in love with Fabian. Indeed, it was obvious that at times she found him both boring and irritating. But wasn't that what so many marriages were - finding a person boring and irritating and yet loving him? Who could imagine a man who was never boring, or irritating?” 
And she doesn't shy away from earlier characters who are quite realistic about the niceties of a woman's situation.
“Brides over thirty shouldn't wear white,' said Jessie, who had now joined them.
'Well, they may have a perfect right to,' said Jane.
'A woman over thirty might not like you to think that,' said Jessie quickly. 'There can be something shameful about flaunting one's lack of experience.” 
Anyhow, I should stop quoting her now as I could probably add twenty more funny bits before I'm done. This is such a sharp and charming read, and one that gets better each time. 

Sunday, January 27, 2019

A Pure Clear Light

A Pure Clear Light / Madeleine St John 
London: Carroll & Graf, 2000, c1996.
240 p.

Another of Madeleine St John's small oeuvre, I finished this one this week, much more slowly than I read the last two.

I didn't feel as engaged by this book as the others I've read: it focuses on Simon and Flora's marriage and the moment at which Simon is overcome by his attraction to Gillian, a cool blond accountant, and starts an affair -- while Flora is feeling like something's missing in life and so starts exploring a return to the church. She even goes so far as to help out at the jumble sale, in a Pym-like twist.

Flora and Simon have 3 children and both work in artistic fields, with artistic friends abounding. Like her other books this is told in a lot of dialogue, and at times I had to stop and reread a number of times, even aloud, to figure out who was saying what. There's a lot of introspective waffling by many of the characters here, and not always very interesting thoughts, especially by the self-justifying Simon. 

There's is also a whole chapter that is just a sermon by a vicar, completely inserted whole cloth into the story, loosely stitched in by having Flora enter and leave the church. It was a bit much for me. I think it must reflect St John's personal reflections and her thoughts at the time of writing; it feels like a glimpse into the lives of a rather arty, well-off strata of Londoners. And because of that it doesn't feel quite as sharp as The Essence of the Thing (though Nicola and Jonathan from that book make an appearance in this one too). It's a small circle, of a particular kind of person, that she is writing about.

This one feels a little surfacey, a little bit artificial. Simon's choice is laid out as a dichotomy between stable marriage that is pretty good and wild passion. Flora doesn't seem to have much of a choice, though at times she finds it easier to live without Simon around. 

The struggle just seems a little bit, dare I say, cliché? I was not convinced by Simon -- I thought he was a bit of a twit all along. And St John's use of language to show the difference between the 'nice' home life and the more sexy, modern, affair (lots of curse words) jar with the tone of the book as a whole, for me.

So while she can sure write, and is clever and leavens her story with wry observations and humour I just didn't love this one. It took me longer to get through it, and I didn't love any of the characters much. It is good -- but not a keeper. 

Friday, January 25, 2019

But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes

But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes / Anita Loos; illustrated by Ralph Barton.
New York: Penguin, 1998, c1927.
123 p.

This is Part Two in this edition of Loos collected works about Lorelei. I read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in the fall, and so just had to read the next one to see what happened next. 

Well, what happened was a sequel to a hit novel that does not live up to the original.

In this story, Lorelei is married but still carrying on much as usual; meeting gentlemen, throwing parties, trying to get what she can out of men. Her friend Dorothy is still giving practical advice, this time telling Lorelei that having a child as soon as possible will cement her advantageous marriage, then she can do what she wants again. 

The story turns out to be a lot more about Dorothy, her past, her present, and the future which Lorelei is working hard to make happen, since she wants Dorothy as well settled as she herself now is. But Dorothy is a tiny bit more realistic than Lorelei's rather flighty character and so there is more of a serious undertone -- at times -- than there was in the first story. 

There is still the funny flippancy and the winks at the reader which appeared in the first book. There is social commentary of a sort, and definitely lots of 'innocent' comments on the state of women in this society. It was still entertaining to read about Lorelei and Dorothy's shenanigans, the parties that last all night, the way they make themselves the centre of attention in déclassé ways which they think are charming and delightful. While it wasn't as sparkling and funny as the first, it gave a nice sense of continuation and a bit more depth to these two characters. 

I wouldn't recommend reading both of these right back to back as you may tire of the style and the characters. But as a refreshing interlude between more serious reading, both of these books sparkle and entertain.