Friday, February 29, 2008

Leap Day!

Since we are offered this day just once in four years, I'm celebrating by sharing four things that have made my heart leap! this week:

1. I did a preschool program this morning with the theme "Leap Frogs for Leap Year". Those kids are great; they cheer me up in the mornings -- tough to do for someone so very definitely NOT a morning person...

2. I am going to Ukraine! [happy dance] Didn't know if I could swing it, but my sister is now awaiting my arrival in the metropolis of Kiev a little later this year.

3. I found, at a very reduced price, a hardcover copy of The Bloodless Revolution : a cultural history of vegetarianism from 1600 to modern times. Well, ok, it made my heart leap!

4. Chocolate. Need I say more?

Women of Ukraine

Saskatoon, SK : Language Lanterns, c2001.

This is the first book in a series (Women's Voices in Ukrainian Literature) published by the small publisher Language Lanterns, based in my home province. They've done a wonderful job of making some of the historical writing of Ukrainian women available to English readers. Many Canadians are of Ukrainian descent, but sadly, like myself, many don't read or speak Ukrainian. So to have this writing available is really meaningful for me. There are 6 volumes in this series, and still other collections they've put together, not in this specific series. Unfortunately they are only available in these functionally bound academic copies, but don't judge this one by its cover!
This volume presents stories by two writers, Olena Pchilka and Nataliya Kobrynska. Fortunately, they've also included brief biographies of these women, to place them in their historical context. Pchilka was the mother of Ukraine's most famous female poet, Lesia Ukrainka (whose work is collected in a later volume). Both women were writing approximately in the years between 1880-1930, and were well known as activists and feminists.

I enjoyed reading this primarily for its cultural significance to me personally; the writing is of course of a rather dated style, and most of it appeared in magazines and papers of the day. I found I preferred Pchilka, as her style was a bit more concise and more universal. Her longest story, The Girlfriends, was quite illuminating in its exposition of female Ukrainian life in the 1880's. I had no idea that there was a burgeoning feminist movement in Ukraine at the same time as there was nationalist fervor among the intelligensia. In The Girlfriends, a group of friends from rural Ukraine, both women and men, go to Zurich and Vienna to medical school. They meet other Slavs, including a girl from Russia, and all become as close as any group of expats at college tends to. It's very modern in ways - and when the main character returns home to her village and begins working as a doctor and midwife (quite naturally and with no great furor), two of her male friends travel to her for a visit and she ends up marrying one of them, by her own choice and simply for love. One of their coterie is a young man from her village; their mothers are close friends, and thus he is presented as the likely candidate for romance, traditionally speaking. But Pchilka plays with this expectation, and the ending is convincing. I was continually amazed by the thoughts and actions of this group of girlfriends; my preconceptions of Ukrainian life were pretty much tossed in the air and shaken around.

Kobrynska writes shorter pieces, and they are more melodramatic, with more purple prose. Many of the pieces gathered here were based on folklore, so are valuable for that reason alone. The prose was not unpleasant, just quite old fashioned. If the stories are not all perfectly constructed, that is likely because they inspired by political motives and written quickly for that reason. Both authors write about the changing spirit of Ukraine, and the upswell in nationalist feelings; they discuss writing in Ukrainian as opposed to Russian or French, they show interest in peasants and folk customs, they discuss changing social strictures on young people. They are writing about and promoting the "Spirit of the Times", the progressive elements arising in Ukraine at that time. Of course, reading it now, in light of the brutal repression to follow under the Soviet Union, is quite a melancholy experience. I'll finish with a quote by Olena Pchilka, describing the changes in society, which seems quite prescient:

The old foundations of community life, of thinking, of taste, broke up like river ice in the springtime and, crushed to pieces, they swirled away, driven by a warm, free current. Something very fresh and very young was in the air. Old hand and heads -- surprised, dejected, stunned -- were lowered, while young ones rose boldly and confidently, diligently seeking vocations. Young people looked with shining eyes directly into the rising light of justice and freedom, without ever thinking that the light could fade...

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Gipsy's Baby

The Gipsy's Baby / Rosamond Lehmann
London: Hesperus, c2006.
foreword by Niall Griffiths

I searched out this book because it was by Rosamond Lehmann, unaware that it was a collection of short fiction, that it was in fact the only short fiction she ever published. It is made up of five stories which she wrote in the 40's for her brother's journal, New Writing.

I read three of Lehmann's books over the past year or so, and I've really grown fond of her themes and her style. In this book, she approaches once again the lives of young girls and of mature women, all struggling to make sense of a world of disappointment and struggle, both socially and romantically. The first two stories are connected, detailing different moments in the life of a well-off middle class English family and their dealings with, in the first story, a rag-tag poverty stricken family living down the lane, and in the second, a group of four adult sisters and their parents at a seaside resort. This family feels very old fashionedly English; the setting is Edwardian with their children's nursery and governess, and with parents away for extended periods. Still, they are both examinations of the mysteriousness of adult life as perceived by children, and the innocent lack of comprehension of motives or outcomes of various events. In the long lead up to The Red-haired Miss Daintreys, Lehmann discusses what is essentially her theory of writing. I found it particularly fascinating, as we've all been recently discussing in a meme what we do with leisure time. Here is Rosamond Lehmann's take on leisure time, and what a writer's writerly duty is:

Much is said and written nowadays of the proper functions and uses of leisure. Some people, as we know, are all for the organisation of spare time. Some take exercise; some sleep; some wind up the gramophone; some lean against bars or mantelpieces. Others develop the resources of the intellect. I myself have been, all my life, a privileged person with considerable leisure. When asked how I spend it, I feel both dubious and embarrassed: for any answer implying some degree of activity would be misleading. Perhaps an approximation to the truth might be reached by stating that leisure employs me -- weak aimless unsystematic unresisting instrument -- as a kind of screen upon which are projected the images of persons -- known well, a little, not at all, seen once, or long ago, or every day; or as a kind of preserving jar in which float fragments of people and landscapes, snatches of sound... Perhaps this is a wordy, unscientific way of describing the origins and processes of creative writing; yet it seems to me that nowadays this essential storing-house is often discounted... Writers should stay more patiently at the centre and suffer themselves to be worked upon. Later on, when they finally emerge towards the circumference they may have written a good novel about love or war or the class struggle. Or they may not have written a good novel at all.

The next three stories in the collection are shorter, tales of a family made up of a mother (Mrs. Ritchie), one young son (John) and one young daughter (Jane). They live in a small village during the deprivations of WWII, and experience a flood, a removal of a hive of bees from inside a wall of their house, and a village fete in support of the war effort. The first two are brief, sketches really, and I think that the story in the centre of the book, When the waters came, is my favourite piece. It is very short, but carries a sense of menace at odds with the bucolic countryside and the expectations of English village stories. The last line turns the story brilliantly. I found I could really appreciate both this story and the next, A Dream of Winter, because of their succinct form; they were both well constructed impressions of intense moments in this family's life.

The last story, Wonderful Holidays, is once again a lengthy description of the inhabitants of the village (primarily women) as they put together a theatrical with their children during school holidays. It reveals some pretty beastly children; I'm glad I wasn't around when all this was going on! Still, it gives an idea of the rationing and making-do that was expected during the war, and of the effects the war had on varied families and village society in general. It also quite strongly exhibits the class prejudices still prevalent, and is a bit shocking in the callous remarks made by our saintly heroines after going to all the work of providing a theatrical:

"Nerves are getting frayed on the committee," said Mrs. Ritchie... "The village feel we ought to be running it all for them. They're alarmed, I suppose, at the responsibility. If we butt in they think we're patronising and if we retire they think we're snobbish. Both ways they're resentful."
"My dear, I know" said Mrs. Carmichael.

Once again, I found new elements to admire in Lehmann's writing. She adroitly portrays the fearful moments in children's lives, and the necessity in women's lives to carry on despite fear or unhappiness. These stories carry within themselves so many lives, such a variety of existence among the often neglected characters of single women, widows, spinsters, children, or even damaged men. It's well worth the time to read this collection.

I'll be searching out her novel The Echoing Grove next, as it was made into a film (with mixed reviews) which I'd like to see: but I must always read the book first!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Just a quick note; anyone interested may have already seen this, but I've just discovered a list of the complete (hopefully) original Viragos. Anyone noticing a missing title is asked to add it.
I've had quite a bit of fun going through it and marking the ones I've already read. It's an ongoing project, and from the looks of this list, it's going to take me a while to make my way through it!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Meme Round-Up

I've been tagged by Antipodean Owl to catch up on a few memes making the rounds at the moment. They are all quite entertaining to read on others' blogs so here is my go:

What else do you do to pass the leisure time?

What do I do when not reading? Well...blogging, writing (creative writing, journals, and letters to many penpals), sewing - though not as much as I used to do. I spend a lot of time cooking, as I find that very relaxing and creative. I talk to my sisters on the phone a few hours a week all together, and hang out with my funky sister-in-law and her husband. Mostly, though, I just like hanging around the house, puttering, with my husband; we chat, cook together, do housework (oh, wait, no, that's just him...), play Scrabble, watch a bit of tv - all those things that somehow contrive to use up any of the time I might have left over after reading.

123 Meme:

So the rules for this one are:

1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages)
2. Open the book to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence
4. Post the next three sentences.

The book on the top of the nearest pile is Rosie Thomas' Iris & Ruby :

The unfamiliar sensation is happiness. This morning the chambers of my head all seem to stand open, with their contents reassuringly accessible. I feel weak after the fever, but better than I have done for a long time.

10 Signs I've written a book:

Now, are these characteristics of the purported book, or signs in my own life that I've written one?
If characteristics of said book, then:

1. It's probably set in Canada
2. Not epic in scope
3. It wouldn't take itself too seriously
4. Might have a librarian or two in it
5. Ditto a vegetarian
6. Would be exhaustively proof-read (I hate typos!)
7. Might just be in epistolary format
8. It would make people laugh; hopefully in delight and not in derision!
9. It would be set in relatively recent times - 19th, 20th or 21st Century
10. Quotes from my admired literary inspirations would be scattered throughout

If signs in my life:

1. I wouldn't be so neurotic about writing anymore!
2. People would say "Isn't that...." as I sashay by them on the street
3. Oprah would be my new best friend
4. I wouldn't be working elsewhere
5. I could use "In my book..." as a conversational gambit
6. I would have a new 'author' signature I'd develop to make signings quick
7. All my fan mail would necessitate my hiring a personal secretary
8. I'd have permanent ink stains on my fingertips, because of course I'd have to write my novel in longhand, with my favourite fountain pen
9. I might have to offer my basement as storage for all the remainders...see E.B. White's influence!
10. I'd have to get right back to work to top myself; oh, the pressure!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Northern Solitudes

(read as an ARC)
now available from Bloomsbury

I read this as part of my Polar Reading theme, and it was a great choice. It's quite different from many of the polar books I've read so far, in that it has nothing to do with Edwardian expeditions. It is the story of Thomas Cave, a taciturn sailor on a whaling ship, and is set in the 1600's. In 1616, Cave's ship, the Heartsease, is readying itself to return to England before it gets locked in by ice. An argument begins among the crew, and the result is a wager which leaves Thomas Cave to overwinter alone in the Arctic whaling grounds -- something which has never been done before. In his silent and lonely vigil, there is more than cold, starvation, or hungry polar bears to worry him. He must cope with his own mind, full of grief and shadows, playing tricks on him.

The story is related by Thomas Goodlard, a young shipmate of Cave's at the time of the wager. He tells it as reminiscence, in 1640; the book opens and closes with Goodlard's story. The centre section of the book (which I think is the strongest and most captivating) is "The Experience of Thomas Cave", told in third person and utterly convincing. The most startling thing about this section of the book is its silence. With Thomas Cave holed up in his small cabin, no other human for hundreds of miles, you can almost feel the quality of silence. It's as if the book absorbs all sound as you read. That's why it is so striking when Cave, having his world reduced to one small dark space, and absolute solitude with only memories keeping him company, picks up his violin:

"Yet now for just a moment the silence that has held like a taboo in the room has been broken. He takes the instrument down from its wooden pegs. Not to play it but to handle it only, he tells himself, to run the pads of his fingers down the frets, to pluck a string and see how far its tune has drifted in the cold. Just one distorted note: a flicker of memory, eyes and a swirl of skirts.... So much is contained there within its hollow body: the potential of sound and the memory of sound, and not only music but all the people and evenings past, a thousand people, a hundred different places."

We meet within his memories the woman he had loved, and begin to understand what drove him north. The tone of the writing, slowly revealing Cave's past, here reminds me somehow of the many historical novels about Dutch painters (ie: Girl with a Pearl Earring), as the air of the past and the descriptions are strong and flash almost visually across the page. There is something in this story which enchants, like a fairy tale, an original Grimm's, dark and mysterious, despite its being nominally about survival in a very harsh and real landscape.

The book concludes with Thomas Goodlard's recounting of what became of Cave in later years, after the Heartsease had returned for him and brought him back to England. I wasn't nearly as fascinated with this section. I didn't really see the need for it, and would rather have read a more compelling resolution at the end of Cave's vigil itself. This section is a bit of a tour of the misty fens of England in the 1600's and is quite haunting in itself, but Cave's actual solitude is hard to top. Still, it is a stunning first novel, and has stayed in my thoughts for the last month or so since I finished it. Harding's ability to write of sensation -- the cold, the darkness and returning sun, silence, the sounds of bears snuffling around his 'home', the taste of blood or hot food, teeth loose and sore from malnutrition, all the many tactile impressions -- is superb. I'm very glad I read this unique novel of polar experience.

**You can read the first chapter of this book, and an interesting review by Steven Heighton, author of another "Polar castaway" story, Afterlands (which I reviewed a while ago now), at the NY Times online.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Crimson Roses for Valentine's Day

No, I didn't receive any; but I don't like cut flowers. Instead, I read the rollicking Seduction of the Crimson Rose by Lauren Willig. It's the fourth volume in her series about flowery named spies in Regency England. I absolutely loved it; it features Lord Vaughn, a dark and mysterious character who is more late Georgian than strictly Regency. He's one of my favourites in the series, so it was great to read a story all about him. The settings are perfect, and the dialogue sharp and funny. The story flips back and forth between the Regency era spies and conspiracies they have underway, and the present, where grad student Eloise is furthering her relationship with the dishy Colin Selwick -- whose family papers are providing her with information for her dissertation on English spies in the Regency. Willig is quite capable of switching the tone so that both elements work well; after I finished this I was dying for the next one to be written and published so I could get my hands on it, for both storylines. Of course, that will be a while yet, so I went back and searched out the original inspiration, The Scarlet Pimpernel. It is a wonderful book, even still! Percy Blakeney, yum.

In this book, Mary Alsworthy, a dark-haired beauty, is recruited by Lord Vaughn (working for the Pink Carnation) to lure the French spy known as the Black Tulip. Mary is a bit at loose ends since her younger sister mistakenly eloped with her fiancé in the last book; she has no marriage prospects and chafes at the idea of being beholden to her younger sister's (and previous fiancé's) charity. So she agrees to work with Lord Vaughn. The Black Tulip is known to have a weakness for women with black hair, and Mary does attract his attention. She also, unwittingly, attracts Lord Vaughn's attention. The interplay between these two is wonderful; they are both very worldly and cynical and there was a lot less of the boisterous running about of the previous books' heroines. I really like Mary; she seems an equal match for a misanthropic hero we met first in the previous Masque of the Black Tulip. Read the entire series, because these are very entertaining novels from an excessively talented writer. (Really, does a writer this good have to also be a Harvard graduate and a working lawyer?!!) This was a perfect read for Valentine's, romantic and hilarious.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Phyllis A. Whitney

Gothic novelist Phyllis Ayame Whitney has died, at age 104! So many authors seem to be passing away lately, but I'd say she had a good run at it. 104, wow.

She wrote young adult novels, gothic suspense, and some 'how to write' books as well. I remember reading her gothic novels during the summers, when they were the books sitting around at my grandma's or aunt's houses. I've always had a taste for gothic romance - and Phyllis Whitney was one of the big ones.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Happy Chinese New Year!

February 7 begins the Year of the Rat! In honour of this, here is a book list of ratty-themed reading for the year.

A school-age favourite of mine, this tale of Mrs. Frisby and her family of mice fascinated me. Mrs. Frisby, a meek field mouse, meets with a group of super intelligent rats while trying to get medicine for her sick son Timothy. They help her only because her deceased husband was one of the mice in the labs of NIMH who escaped with the rats; they had been experimented on to increase their intelligence and it worked so well, they intelligently escaped. The rats are now planning on moving further away from civilization to escape their dependence on humankind, and Mrs. Frisby is able to help them in return with information on the impending arrival of exterminators. A strange but charming book.

2. The Wind in the Willows / Kenneth Grahame
In the 100th year since publication, how can I neglect the wonderful character of Ratty, who thinks that there is "nothing, simply nothing as wonderful as messing about in boats".

Who is the Amazing Maurice? Why, he's a cat, a conman of a cat who travels the countryside with his magically intelligent band of rodents and a rather dimwitted, flute-playing boy. They travel to small towns off the beaten track and make quite a living ridding these towns of their rat infestations. This time, however, Peaches and Dangerous Beans (names chosen before the rats really understood the labels on the cans they were reading) are beginning to have reservations as to the morality of their scam... Perfectly Pratchett.

Yes, that Phillip Pullman. This is a charming middle school novel about one of certain group of rats, turned into a page boy and then stuck in boy form. He finds his way to the doorstep of Bob & Joan, cobbler and washerwoman, and after much getting lost and being found, and pitfalls along the way he learns the joys of being a human boy. Also features a marvellous Princess (formerly Mary Jane the kitchen girl), and lots of interspersed tabloid pages featuring the scandal of the "Rat Boy". A wonderful story.

Definitely adult reading, this one takes on the autobiography of a preternaturally intelligent rat, who lives in a used bookshop and reads (and eats) books incessantly. Told in the first person (or first rat's?) voice his sad and indigent existence is full of winks at the bibliophile reader. My only warning is that the accompanying art is not really very good. In fact it's pretty awful.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Eva's Reading Meme

I just had to do this meme created by the ever-prolific Eva. I've seen brilliant answers from so many people, so had to think about it myself.

Which book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews?

I think I'd say The Time Traveller's Wife; I want to read it! But I can't seem to bring myself to even open it -- it's as if I fear it won't be as good as every single review I'd read. I own it. I feel pleased looking at it, but it's as if there's a force field around it repulsing my hand.

If you could bring three characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be?

I think I'd like to bring three writers to life for a great writer's workshop. I'd want Emily Starr there (from LM Montgomery's Emily trilogy) to explain how a girl from a backwater became a successful writer; Cassandra Mortmain because she's such a great diarist and would know all the 'writerly' foibles to avoid, through her father's example; and maybe Angelica Deverell from Elizabeth Taylor's Angel, as an example of how not to do it!

(Borrowing shamelessly from the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde): you are told you can’t die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realise it’s past time to die. Which book would you expect to get you a nice grave?

Many people have cited Ulysses, but I wouldn't mind that one so much, as reading it would be at least an intellectual exercise. Finnegan's Wake, however, well, I'm not sure I could make it to the end before finishing myself off first!

Come on, we’ve all been there. Which book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you’ve read, when in fact you’ve been nowhere near it?

The one I thought of first was a textbook by Steve Stern about native peoples in Peru. I had to write a paper on it and the week it was due the book was still in the shrinkwrap. Thank goodness it was a comparison of 2 books; I took my points from the first book (which I had read) and used the ever faithful index to compare ideas with Stern's book. Then I gave the shameful book away to the library I volunteered at. Only to find a couple of years later when I moved in with my husband that he had purchased that exact book from the library sale. Now it mocks me with my perfidy every day...

As an addition to the last question, has there been a book that you really thought you had read, only to realise when you read a review about it/go to ‘reread’ it that you haven’t? Which book?

1984! Was convinced, utterly, that I'd read it. Knew the plot, knew the lit crit, all the catchphrases, etc. Upon opening it for a 'reread', realized that the voice of the novel was unfamiliar and in fact I hadn't read it.

You’re interviewing for the post of Official Book Advisor to some VIP (who’s not a big reader). What’s the first book you’d recommend and why? (if you feel like you’d have to know the person, go ahead of personalise the VIP)

Well, as I've been following along with Yann Martel's reading suggestions to our Prime Minister, I'll posit that I'm now suggesting a book to Stephen Harper. In which case, perhaps Catch-22 would be a good one, pointing out the illogical, inane insanities of war.

A good fairy comes and grants you one wish: you will have perfect reading comprehension in the foreign language of your choice. Which language do you go with?

French I could probably work on to improve my reading comprehension without fairy assistance -- so I'd ask for Russian. All those greats!

A mischievious fairy comes and says that you must choose one book that you will reread once a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick?

I reread books from my childhood quite often; there's some kind of comfort attached to them beyond just the book itself. So I'd say probably Anne of Green Gables. Or maybe Watership Down.

I know that the book blogging community, and its various challenges, have pushed my reading borders. What’s one bookish thing you ‘discovered’ from book blogging (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art-anything)?

Blogging has inspired me to spend more time reflecting on what I read, and also to make conscious choices to tackle some of the books which have been on the TBR for years. Yay, reading challenges!

That good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she’s granting you your dream library! Describe it. Is everything leatherbound? Is it full of first edition hardcovers? Pristine trade paperbacks? Perhaps a few favourite authors have inscribed their works? Go ahead-let your imagination run free.

Oh my, I could really go on with this one....
My ideal would be sort of an English country house kind of library. Big, with lots of shelves lining the walls (preferably with glass doors - really keeps down the dust). Said shelves filled with nice copies (clean and attractive reading copies; nothing so fancy or rare that I'd be afraid to touch it) of my favourites plus all the books I want to read someday - with no guilt attached! A big library table in the middle with good lamps and good working chairs. A desk at one end for all that correspondence. A few cozy wingbacks and a settee at the other end, in front of the fireplace. Good lamps are a necessity throughout, actually. One or two of those really clever side-table height revolving bookcases for all the books currently being read. Plus a big French window at the desk end, opening out onto a lovely terrace and garden. Of course with all this would come a few servants, to keep everything dusted and tidy, as if it was left to me it wouldn't be very pristine for very long!

Saturday, February 02, 2008

A bit of trawling...

Some links I've noticed lately, just for fun:

Speaking of the connections between art & science, there's a gorgeous art project online, depicting the periodic table (seen first at Petrona)

On the perils of recommending books to others, Thomas Beddoes writes in 1848 that "I shd find it hazardous, because tastes & habits, or trains of thought and study render such different things interesting to different individuals". It was ever thus! He goes on to compare various German writers.

Summarizing books as if in a police blotter makes for some interesting detective work, as you try to figure out which book is under discussion. A professor has done just that in The Chronicle of Higher Education; apparently sales of The Iliad have spiked... (seen at January Magazine)

For rabid Elizabeth Gaskell fans (ok, maybe that's just me), you can watch the entire Cranford on YouTube. Amazing; even if you don't have cable you can watch the wonderful BBC production in which so many of the great British actors appear. I loved the two previous adaptations, North & South and Wives & Daughters; I thought they were very true to the books. Cranford is a bit of a mashup of three of her books but it is lovely. (you'll need tissues) Now they have to film Mary Barton, to make me truly satisfied!

Friday, February 01, 2008

Frye's Educated Imagination

The Educated Imagination / Northrop Frye
Toronto : Anansi, 1997, c1963.

Another volume chosen by Yann Martel; somehow I don't think the Prime Minister will be getting to it, even though this book carries Martel's message most clearly - how literature is valuable in all areas of life, by virtue of its training of the imagination. This is the collected 1963 Massey Lectures, by the brilliant Northrop Frye. Even though it originates in the 60's it is still relevant in many ways. This is the same reaction I had to my recent reading of A Voice from the Attic by Robertson Davies; so much has NOT changed in the last 40 years! Davies' book discusses the art of reading literature, while this one discusses the art of teaching it. They both contain a few things that forty years have made passé, but in their theories of literature they are bang on.

Many of the reviews of The Educated Imagination point out that it is the most accessible entry into Frye's work. I found it very easy reading, not overly academic, and full of thought-provoking commentary on why we even bother with literature. Karen over at U Krakovianka has providentially also just been reading this aged Canadian work, and has made some very good points about it. It's a set of six essays, and each has something to say about elements of literature. Since I've been reading quite a bit of science writing lately as well, I was struck by Frye's comparison of literature and science in his first essay, The Motive for Metaphor. Speaking of language, he says there are 3 levels inherent in a language; the level of consciousness and self-awareness, the level of social participation, and the level of the imagination. He continues:

On this basis, perhaps, we can distinguish the arts from the sciences. Science begins with the world we have to live in, accepting its data and trying to explain its laws. From there, it moves towards the imagination: it becomes a mental construct, a model of a possible way of interpreting experience. ... Art, on the other hand, begins with the world we construct, not with the world we see. It starts with the imagination, and then works toward ordinary experience: that is, it tries to make itself as convincing and recognizable as it can.... Still, the fact that they start at opposite ends, even if they do meet in the middle, makes for one important difference between them. Science learns more and more about the world as it goes on: it evolves and improves. A physicist today knows more physics than Newton did, even if he's not as great a scientist. But literature begins with the possible model of experience, and what it produces is the literary model we call the classic. Literature doesn't evolve or improve or progress. We may have dramatists in the future who will write plays as good as King Lear, though they'll be very different ones, but drama as a whole will never get better than King Lear. King Lear is it, as far as drama is concerned; so is Oedipus Rex, written two thousand years earlier than that, and both will be models of dramatic writing as long as the human race endures.

I think I absorbed the first essay most thoroughly, but there are shining bits of brilliance scattered through the book like morning dew; ie: pretty much everywhere! This is a book that is so perfectly expressed in its form that to explain it would be just to quote page after page. So, I will just recommend that you read it and enjoy Frye's unique mind for yourself. Just one more quote which may be of particular import to us book bloggers, as it has to do with lit crit - with one caveat, "he" and "his" and "mankind" are assumed mean all of us, this was written in the 60's after all:

The critic has always been called a judge of literature, which means, not that he's in a superior position to the poet, but that he ought to know something about literature, just as a judge's right to be on a bench depends upon his knowledge of law. If he's up against something the size of Shakespeare, he's the one being judged. The critic's function is to interpret every work of literature in the light of all the literature he knows, to keep constantly struggling to understand what literature as a whole is about. Literature as a whole is not an aggregate of exhibits with red and blue ribbons attached to them, like a cat show, but the range of articulate human imagination as it extends from the height of imaginative heaven to the depth of imaginative hell. Literature is a human apocalypse, man's revelation to man, and criticism is not a body of adjudications, but the awareness of that revelation, the last judgement of mankind.

If only I could be so articulate! This has been one of my favourites of the books Yann Martel has recommended so far; every essay made me think. Enthusiastically recommended!