Monday, August 31, 2009

R.I.P (Readers Imbibing Peril) IV

Hurrah! It is that time of year again... the beginning of fall, heralded by the return of the much loved and much anticipated Readers Imbibing Peril (RIP) Challenge, hosted by Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings.

This challenge is so welcoming, as Carl offers up many options for those who want to join in. It runs September 1-October 31, 2009, and this year I think I will attempt Peril the First.

Peril the First:
Read Four books of any length, from any subgenre of scary stories that you choose:

Dark Fantasy

Another fun part of this Challenge is the tradition of posting a pool of books from which to choose during the two months of perilous reading. I've already dredged a few other pools and turned up some pretty scary looking choices! Here are mine:

1. We Have Always Lived in the Castle / Shirley Jackson*
I can't believe I haven't read this one yet. Must do so.

2. The Terror / Dan Simmons
This one has been on my list the last two RIP challenges and somehow I've never gotten to it. Hmm. Should read it this time around!

3. October Country / Ray Bradbury
I love Bradbury, and haven't read this collection of stories yet. I think this is the perfect opportunity!

4. Rebecca / Daphne DuMaurier
I know, should have read this one years ago! I have a nice copy just waiting for me to pick it up.

5. The Woman in White / Wilkie Collins
I meant to read this LAST year. :)

6. Her Fearful Symmetry / Audrey Niffenegger
I should probably take a look at at least one new book this time...

7. The last two books in the Gardella series by Colleen Gleason -- I've fallen behind and this would be the perfect opportunity to finish up!

8. Perfume / Patrick Suskind
I've owned this one for TWENTY TWO YEARS and haven't read it yet. Enough said.

9. Never let me go / Kazuo Ishiguro
Kind of suitable; and one that every single person I know has tried to force me to finally read, so perhaps I'll give it a go this time around

10. Tender Morsels / Margo Lanagan
I've heard so much about this one lately that is so intriguing; I'd love to get my hands on a copy this fall.

There's also a Short Story component to this Challenge, and although I'm not so great at reading & posting about short stories, who knows, maybe I'll be able to participate for a month or so!

*edited to the correct author's name, which all of you were too polite to point out; I had typed "Shirley Hughes" without seeing the error all day! You can tell I work with children's books, I guess. Don't know if Shirley Hughes would be too impressed with being credited with this book. ;)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Butala's Luna

Toronto: Harpercollins Canada, c1999.
246 p.

This novel is set in rural south Saskatchewan, the setting for most of Butala's novels. I am not sure what to say about it; I read it all with great interest, but can't say that I either agreed with all of the philosophizing or really enjoyed the novel in the end. Upon doing a bit of research, I discovered that this novel is the second in a loosely connected trilogy about rural life in this area of the country. (The 1st is The Gates of the Sun, told from a male perspective, and the 3rd is The Fourth Archangel) I also read on her website that this book is "a modern version of the Greek women's mysteries". This statement actually made sense to me, and clarified some of the impressions I had received from reading; at times it feels like a chorus is speaking, and in the character of octogenarian Rhea, Butala has a high priestess ready to be used. The primary female characters all have names from Greek myth as well.

The book tells us the stories of a few women from a small community, mostly ranchers and farmers' wives. Primarily focused on Selena, it moves out and back to her story, encompassing the stories of her great aunt Rhea, her sister Diane (who suddenly changes into Diana halfway through), her daughter Phoebe, various women in their church and Women's Group, and of course, reflects on all the men in their lives. I enjoyed the descriptions of the women's meetings, all the petty squabbling and gossip about who is doing what; I liked how Butala elucidates how important the women are in maintaining community celebrations and suppers, and the casual, family feeling of all these events; and how their lives are constrained by expectations and set roles, some of which are fiercely supported by the women themselves. When Diane begins to show signs of depression and restlessness, she is judged to be lazy, unwilling to help her husband on the farm or take on duties in the women's community events. She ends up leaving town to move to Saskatoon where things happen, where she can take college classes and get a job. Her husband goes with her, but eventually returns to the farm with his two young daughters; Diana elects to stay in the city. She is harshly judged, even by her own family, as a terrible mother and a selfish woman. Phoebe is date-raped, but her father doesn't believe her, and the perpetrator leaves town and nobody seems to be too worried about it.

The element of the book I couldn't quite embrace was speechifying from what felt to me like feminist consciousness raising circles. The feminist examination of women's role in this society worked when it was woven into the story and was part of the tale, but there were a few set pieces which felt like a lecture had suddenly been dropped into the manuscript. For example, when the house is full of women, Phoebe hugely pregnant and Diane back from the city with her girls, Rhea visits and takes the opportunity to tell the little girls a bedtime story. This turns out to be a quasi-religious tale of women as priestesses and bringers of life, of being dispossessed in history by fearful and jealous men -- a very mythical and sweeping vision. All the women linger in the hall listening to Rhea, being astonished and moved by her story. It just was not believable, that two little girls would sit quietly in bed and listen to this, or that everyone would get misty eyed over it. I self-identify as a feminist but I still found this bit didn't work as a fictional device. Butala says in an interview that she is part of the first wave of feminism, the era of Betty Friedan, and the overt feminist sections of this book show that influence strongly.

What I found admirable about this novel was the way in which Butala gives us the very different lives and perspectives of the many female characters, and does so in a way that does not judge or condemn them for their choices. Whether it is Selena's choice to place her identity in her roles as a mother and a rancher's wife, or Diane's dissatisfaction and need for a wider world, or Phoebe decision to not go to university but have her unwanted child, each is presented as a individual choice not lesser or greater than another. They have disagreements and judge one another, but the author is not telling us that one way is better than another.

The land itself is a major character as well. Butala's nonfiction is about the vital importance of protecting the land, and about the spirit of the West, and that focus is also in evidence here. In one scene, Selena, her husband, and their two sons are driving the cattle in for the winter. They've left it as late as possible to save feed costs, and so it is snowing and 30 below. The descriptions of the cold, the storm, the procedure of one person driving a 'bait' truck loaded with feed while the other ride horses and direct the herd, all is precise and provides a picture of the hardships of ranch life which the reader can experience with all the senses.

The cold she felt had reached the point where it was merely pain, and it combined with a growing sense of urgency. It was nothing so trivial as a mere desire to run to the truck, get in and get warm. It was some underlying, barely controllable edge of emotion that she didn't dare examine, which she had to keep forcing back so as not to let it take over. She knew what it was: it was a life instinct, they all had it. ...... Peering through the frosted windshield, trying to find the trail, checking around for the right direction, worrying, she couldn't help but think it would be nice to live a life where they didn't have to do things like this. Like in the city, she thought, people just catch the bus to work every day, stay inside warm buildings all the time, never really feel the cold, never really have to be afraid of the weather. People in the city have never known what's it's like to have that thrill of fear that if you get careless, let your guard down, or have some bad luck like getting caught in an unexpected blizzard, you might actually die, right then and there.

It was certainly an intellectually interesting read, and I did like the everyday details of small town life. But I felt like I couldn't quite place this one in time, and I didn't feel that anything was really concluded by the end. Perhaps I'll have to read the other two in this loose trilogy to see the whole picture.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Life According to Literature

I found this one over at Of Books and Bicycles. Dorothy's amusing answers inspired me to give this one a try; she's right, it's harder than it looks!

How it works: Using only books you have read this year (2009), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.
Here goes, my Life according to Literature.

Describe yourself: Friday's Child (Georgette Heyer)

How do you feel: Wondrous Strange (Lesley Livingston)

Describe where you currently live: Small beneath the sky (Lorna Crozier)

If you could go anywhere, where would you go? The Enchantment Emporium (Tanya Huff)

Your favorite form of transportation: The Little White Horse (Elizabeth Goudge)

Your best friend is: The Sweetness at the bottom of the pie (Alan Bradley)

You and your friends are: A Force of Nature (Richard Reeves)

What’s the weather like: Wild Nights! (Joyce Carol Oates)

You fear: Procrastination (Jane Burka & Leonora Yuen)

What is the best advice you have to give: Go put your strengths to work (Marcus Buckingham)

Thought for the day: People are idiots, and I can prove it (Larry Winget) ;)

How I would like to die: Making light of tragedy (Jessica Grant)

My soul’s present condition: A Thousand shades of blue (Robin Stevenson)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Blue Becomes You

Blue Becomes You / Bettina von Kampen
Winnipeg: Great Plains, c2003.
256 p.

I picked this book up on a whim; it was in the library and is set in Manitoba, so I thought I'd give it a try as part of my Canadian Book Challenge reading. I'd never heard of it before, but it rewarded the chance I took on it! It was an enjoyable read -- with a few flaws, but overall giving us an interesting main character and some enjoyable musings on life, as well as drawing a clear picture of the Manitoba landscape.

Charlotte lives in Norman, Manitoba, and is retiring from her bakery job due to heart problems. She's been working in the bakery for over 40 years; and how this came to pass is at the crux of the novel. As a teenager, Charlotte loved jazz. She played in a jazz trio at the local bar and had big plans to leave Norman as soon as she finished school, to travel the world and become a jazz musician. However, she ends up missing that one chance to leave, deciding to stay home for a little while to care for her depressed father. Then it seems to her that she is just too old, too settled to change her routine. Her thoughts and her recollections of life and what events brought her to this moment were the best parts of the book for me. I really enjoyed Charlotte, and her no-nonsense attitude; she didn't waste time wallowing in regret or despair, rather taking things as they were and realizing there was no point in feeling sorry for herself. Still, the life she wound up with, that of a baker who wakes when everyone else is asleep, and is bound by a limited circumference, is not perhaps all there is to her. The last line of the novel is pure brilliance, casting the story in a different light and opening up all kinds of possibilities in the imagination. I'll include it here for anyone who can't find a copy to read; it's too good not to share. Highlight to read it -- don't want to give it away inadvertently to those of you who will pick this book up!

After tonight, nothing would ever be the same. Finally.

Surrounding Charlotte we have a varied cast of characters. Her sister June, who did leave town but had a rather disappointing time of it, has come home in her retirement, back to the family home which she now shares with Charlotte. She's a different person than Charlotte; on a regular daytime schedule she joins clubs and gets involved in all kinds of activities. Together with Charlotte's boss, June is planning a big retirement party which Charlotte is not too excited to have to attend. Alongside June there is also the staff at the bakery -- Wade, a closeted gay man; Doris, a young high-school dropout who aspires to become an actress; and Vi, her boss, a high achieving woman who, with the city council, wants to make Norman an up and coming place to be for business. There is also the neighbour over the back fence, long time resident and immigrant from India, Kuldip Channa. Charlotte begins to feel connected to all these people as she moves through the weeks prior to her retirement, musing about what life might become when she doesn't have to wake at 2:30 am every day, or about how long her weak heart will hold out.

While I enjoyed some of these side stories, I really was most interested in Charlotte, her family history and her experiences. It felt a little like Von Kampen was trying to stuff in all aspects of small town living vs. city life; ie: views of homosexuality (using Wade the baker) or of racism (as shown in Kuldip's life). I felt that some of those elements weren't entirely necessary to the story, and especially in regard to Kuldip, not fully convincing. It is an understandable impulse; small town life is not a singular as outsiders may think and Norman seems more complex for the hints at all these difficulties. But to me, the strength of this book was Charlotte, her music, and her perceptions. An example of this is at a moment when she realizes she's walked to the bakery so many times that she could tell where she was just by the elevation of the sidewalk. This reflects on more than just one's surroundings:

It went beyond familiar, like the way people could find their way through their homes in the pitch dark of night. The way they roamed through the patterns of their thoughts, laid down over the years in the mind, always finding the same thoughts next to each other.
I liked this story because it also had a sense of humour about itself, even with some of the awful things that happen. It didn't feel like 'prairie gothic', by not taking itself too seriously, but still provides a far-from-glib read. It muses on whether missed chances are ever truly final, whether going down one road at one point means you can never branch off it again. I enjoyed it especially for the character of Charlotte, and for the inclusion of baking, jazz and some lovely evocations of dawn breaking halfway through Charlotte's work day.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Guest Post: Cathy Marie Buchanan on Libraries and Writing Historical Novels

Please welcome Cathy Marie Buchanan to the blog today! She is discussing some of the ways libraries and librarians helped her with the writing of her historical novel, as well as sharing some of the historical photos she located which are included in The Day the Falls Stood Still.

(photo credit: Nigel Dickson)

While researching The Day the Falls Stood Still, I reacquainted myself with the library of my youth, The Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library. Things had changed: Card catalogues were online. There were banks of computers. I didn’t think to ask, but I doubt the vinyl LP of Merchant of Venice that I had once borrowed to cram for high school English exam was still on the shelf. That isn’t what surprised me though. My astonishment was reserved for the richness of the local history collection housed between the walls.

I crossed the threshold of the library’s main branch, thinking I might find a useful history book or two. After all The Day the Falls Stood Still is set in Niagara Falls in 1915, and the male character central to the plot was inspired by William “Red” Hill, Niagara’s most famous riverman.

What I found beyond that threshold was a robust local history collection, an astonishingly good online image database, and a local history librarian eager to share her expertise. It was there that I found the text I turned to most often while researching The Day the Falls Stood Still, an anthology put together by the Niagara Falls Kiwanis Club in 1967. As one tiny example of the thousand ways that book helped me shape mine, consider that the name of every local boy who didn’t make it home from the Great War appears in that text, that a smattering of those names reappear in that same context in The Day the Falls Stood Still.

Still, history books were just the beginning. I was handed file upon file bursting with old newspaper and magazine articles, essays, pamphlets, and images all sorted according to topic, and I came upon gem after gem. Where else in the world would I have unearthed a pamphlet, self published by “Red” Hill to commemorate his heroics and sold to tourists for 50 cents? Where else would I have come across an essay detailing the history of Glenview, the mansion where the book’s heroine lived? There were collections of historical maps and travel books, too, many helping me get my head around Niagara Falls way back when.

I was directed to the library's online image database and was dumbfounded to find over 20,000 images there. The Day the Falls Stood Still is peppered with historical images, and even if finding the best pictures was often tedious, hitting upon a shot of William “Red” Hill or his famous scow rescue made the hours spent searching easily worthwhile. I scoured the online image databases of the Library of Congress, Library and Archives Canada, the Ontario Archives, the Toronto Archives, and, of course the Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library. I would not have predicted it, but when I tallied the images that made it into the book, the highest number came from the library’s database.

Local history librarian, Cathy Simpson, expertly culled files and books, according to my latest query. She knew to which of the local museums and historical societies to point me. And, in one of her many leaps beyond the call of duty, she tracked down the whereabouts of William “Red” Hill’s riverman kit of grappling hooks, ropes, and life saving equipment and sent me off to have a look.

The text on the cover of The Day the Falls Stood Still reads “Steeped in the intriguing history of Niagara Falls, this is an epic love story as rich, spellbinding and majestic as the falls themselves.” Any reader who finds the statement the tiniest bit true should know that without the Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library, The Day the Falls Stood Still would have been a lesser book.

Picture captions and credits:

William “Red” Hill (right) - Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library

Ice bridge – Niagara Fall (Ontario) Public Library

Collapse of Table Rock – Niagara Fall (Ontario) Public Library

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Day the Falls Stood Still: A Book Review

305 p.

Perhaps the title will give you a bit of a hint that this is a novel about Niagara Falls. It's a romantic tale awash in the history of the town of Niagara Falls as well as the ever-present awareness of the Falls themselves. These three strands, romance, history, and the power of nature, entwine to create a richly layered novel that was hard to put down once begun.

In 1915, our narrator Bess Heath is 17. She has just finished another year at the Loretto Academy, but discovers that she will not be returning in the fall. Her father has lost his job. This means their family has lost its financial footing as well as its status in the community. Her father now spends most of his days in a hotel bar; her mother has returned to dressmaking to bring in some cash, sewing for the women with whom she used to socialize. Bess' older sister Isabel is moody, despondent -- she won't eat or talk and stays in her room much of the time. Bess knuckles down and begins helping her mother with sewing, and doing much of the cooking and household work. But she has one bright spot amongst all this doom and gloom -- Tom Cole, a handsome working man she met on the streetcar the day she was returning from the Loretto Academy. He helped her with her trunk (an unwieldy burden for public transit!) and she can't seem to forget him. It helps that he continues to drop by with fish to sell, as an excuse to see her. Despite her mother's warnings Bess continues to foster both her own attraction to him and his reciprocal attentions.

Halfway into the story things change -- tragedy in Bess' family sends her into Tom's arms, without regard for her 'station' in life. She grows up quickly: she has to make a living as a seamstress, bear two children and see Tom go off to war. Through all this she never loses her strong, unique perspective. Even if the romantic arc of the story sounds predictable, Bess' voice makes it into a personal story rather than a cliché, of interest because it is happening to her.

There is a lot going on in this book in addition to the romance between Bess and Tom. Interspersed in the text are historical images of actual events and people of Niagara Falls, including one of William 'Red' Hill, an inspiration for the character of Tom. Hill was a famed riverman who knew the Niagara River in all its moods, and performed daring rescues more than once. Tom also has this knowledge of the river and is acknowledged by the town for his skill, but he does not dare to flaunt the river -- it must be respected. Tom also reveals an environmental consciousness; at the time this story takes place, hydro companies were just beginning to channel the river for their own electrical needs. Tom talks about the effects this is having on the mighty Niagara itself, raising issues about the environment, about corporate control of natural resources, which are still valid today. The war's effects on society in general, and specifically on Bess and Tom's family, is another element woven into this tale. The focus on the river, and on the historical facts of the developing town of Niagara Falls, creates a multitude of fascinating scenes and discussion points; I'd love to read this with a book club. All these elements come together in a moving conclusion which I must admit had me verklempt.

I was lucky enough to read this as an ARC, but it is available in bookstores as of today -- and Cathy will be here at The Indextrious Reader tomorrow to share a bit about her experiences in researching this novel. Lots of library love there!

The Day the Falls Stood Still: some links

Today is the release of Cathy Marie Buchanan's The Day the Falls Stood Still, a wonderful historical novel based in the real history of Niagara Falls, Ontario. My review will be up a little later today (quick preview: I loved it!) but for the moment here are a few interesting items about the book. Also, check out the sidebar for a chance to look inside the book, thanks to HarperCollins.

Cathy will be on a blog tour for the next month or so. She will be contributing a guest post here tomorrow, about her use of libraries in writing this heavily researched novel. Don't miss it! Here are her other stops, if you want to follow along with her essays and interviews:

08/21 & 08/25: Historical Novels

08/27 & 08/28: Peeking Between the Pages

08/31 & 09/01: The Burton Review

09/02: I Write in Books

09/03 & 09/04: Books Love Jessica Marie

09/08 & 09/09: Book Chatter & Other Stuff

09/08 & 09/11: Marta’s Meanderings

09/14: The Tome Traveler

09/16: Wonders & Marvels

09/17: Linus’ Blanket

09/18: Serendipitous Reading

09/21 & 09/22: Booking Mama

09/24: My Friend Amy’s Blog

09/25: Planet Books

Also, this book has been mentioned all over the place; it's listed in Elle magazine's September reading choices, and is a Historical Novel Society's Editor's Choice title. It's also the latest Barnes & Noble Recommends choice. Watch the interview with Cathy and B&N.

And watch this atmospheric trailer. Wow, beautiful.

Monday, August 24, 2009

More on Ethics in Fiction

Guy Gavriel Kay has just written in the Guardian about the issue of conscripting real people into a fictional role. He follows up A.S. Byatt's essay, which I recently discussed, and also points to another essay by Anthony Beevor, more about the willy-nilly appropriation of historical fact to create 'faction'.

Kay calls the habit of writing from the interior world of another person an "ethical dilemma which has seeped – like a toxic substance, unnoticed – into fiction, even at the highest levels". He acknowledges the fact that many of these books are well written, enjoyable, and highly regarded. But the problem seems to him to be one of privacy; a person, even if dead, has a right to their own existence, their own interior life, which shouldn't be co-opted for another person's novel. I agree, very strongly, as you may have figured out from my last comment on this topic. He goes further in the comments to his piece to explain that the use of real people should be limited to those forming the backdrop to the novel, and the narrative voice be the writer's own creation. He himself gets around this problem by writing fantasy, in which his characters and settings may be inspired by real life people or events but are clearly not purporting to be the truth of those people's lives.

As he says, when writing about someone real who has already died you may be able to avoid libel laws, but does that make it ethical? There were some great comments to my last post, bringing up different aspects of this discussion, and it was very interesting seeing another essay in the Guardian. I can see it is a widely contested issue!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

John Quincy Adams: the Ur-Twitterer

I just had to mention this one: if you are on Twitter be sure to follow John Quincy Adams! (@JQAdams_MHS )

This is a project undertaken by the Massachusetts Historical Society; they are twittering his entries from just one of his journals, one in which he noted down very brief observations about weather, the day in general, and what he was reading. They are very brief indeed -- there hasn't seemed to be any difficulty fitting them into Twitter length. I am not even an American and I have still always admired John Quincy Adams - and this project is a great use of Twitter. I think Adams would approve! :)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

India's Greatest Detective & the Case of the Missing Servant

The Case of the Missing Servant / Tarquin Hall
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, c2009.
320 p.

I began this book quite a while ago, when I was sick at home for a week. I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago, thinking I should really finish it; this time around I was much more mentally present and enjoyed it greatly.

This is the first book featuring Vish Puri, most Private Investigator. It is set in Delhi, amongst the varied classes of Indian society. The sense of place is very strong, and I enjoyed the English spoken by the characters -- and was relieved to see a review which commented on how exactly Hall had captured the Punjabi way of speaking. I have no comparison so was glad to see that statement. It makes sense, though; even though Hall is English he is a journalist based in Delhi.

Puri is a great character; a little bit of Poirot (he is fussy and his nickname is Chubby), with a touch of the Sherlock Holmes he disdains, and the rest is all his very own. The surrounding cast is also wonderful, especially Mummy-ji, Puri's determinedly bossy mother who nevertheless seems to be able to settle things to her own liking. Puri spends most of his time investigating matrimonial prospects, but as this story opens he is asked to investigate the disappearance of a servant known as Mary. She has gone missing and is presumed dead, and her employer, a well-known lawyer, is accused of murder. Puri must prove the innocence of his client in Rajasthan, while at the same time trying to discover why someone had taken a shot at Puri himself one recent morning in Delhi, as well as continuing with some surveillance of a matrimonial prospect for another client. Lots of opportunity for revealing the local society in all its variations, and Hall does so succinctly and colourfully.

One of Puri's weaknesses is food; there are many descriptions of the food he likes to eat, especially the greasy fried food he sneaks in against doctor's orders and is careful to conceal from his wife. Conveniently, there is also a glossary in the back of the book so the tempting dishes he likes are explained. Other terms are also made clear, but their use in the text gives you a good idea of what the characters are talking about even before you look one up. It is a very appealing beginning to what I hope will be a series; lots of cozy elements but also lots of social comment. Really interesting, and when it can also make me laugh, I'm sold.

Also discussed by:

At Home with Books (Alyce)

Still Waters

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Golden Phoenix; or, the Magic Tree

The Golden Phoenix & other French Canadian fairy tales / Marius Barbeau; retold by Michael Hornyansky.
New York: Scholastic, 1965.
128 p.
(also published under the title: The Magic Tree)

I first read this book long ago, in grade school, thanks to Scholastic. I loved it, already being a huge fan of folk and fairy tales at a young age. I read all the Lang colour Fairy books, a whole series of fairy tales from specific countries, and many others; but I remember this book especially as one I returned to many times. Just recently, both Kailana and Nicola read this collection, and they both enjoyed it. Because of this, it was on my mind when I went on vacation last week -- and I went to my parents where this book caught my eye, sitting on their shelf. So I reread it. And what fun that was! It was just as good as I'd recalled. There are eight tales in the collection, and as Barbeau says in the intro, they are stories from elsewhere, with long pedigrees, which had been passed down orally and eventually became particularly French Canadian tales which he gathered from old storytellers.

They use many of the familiar tropes of fairy tales -- three sons have to make their fortunes, with the youngest always the luckiest of course; princesses abound; fairies, magic and trickery appear. But in one of my favourites, The Princess of Tomboso, some of these themes are turned upside down. This story begins with a common situation. A king is dying and leaves his three sons each one magical item which will make their fortune. Jacques, the youngest, decides to go to Tomboso to try to win over the beautiful princess who lives there. Alas, it turns out she is not such a wonderful princess after all; she is a thief who steals Jacques' magic belt and sets her guards on him. Jacques, slow learner that he is, convinces his brothers to lend him their magic objects so he can go back and try again. Both times the princess steals his belongings and has him beaten and thrown out of the castle. But she has another characteristic; she is very fond of apples. And the last time Jacques is tossed out, he ends up in a magical orchard full of apples. When he eats one, his nose begins to grow longer and longer. Alarmed, he crawls over to a nearby plum tree, and as he eats those, his nose shrinks again. His big plan is hatched -- disguising himself, he returns to Tomboso with a basket full of apples. When the princess eats them, he then disguises himself as a doctor and offers her the plums as antidote, on condition that she return his stolen goods. She reluctantly agrees, but as a lesson to her, Jacques only gives her enough plums for her nose to return to a nice 12 inches long. Then he returns home to his brothers, restoring their magical inheritance, and the three brothers all live happily ever after together. It's full of clever quips and is really quite amusing in its nasty princess.

This subdued humour is also in evidence in the final story, The Sly Thief of Valenciennes. This is a more episodic tale in which the eponymous thief succeeds in many daring thefts and is unable to be caught, despite the King and his advisors' many plans to do so. Finally, on the Princess' suggestion, the King offers to make the thief his son-in-law and give him a castle to live in, if he will only turn himself in and vow to stop his thieving ways. The sly thief agrees.

"Your Majesty," he said to the King, "I had only three ambitions: to be as rich as you, to have a castle as fine as yours, and to marry your daughter. Now that I have achieved these ambitions, there is no longer any reason for me to be a thief."

And he kept his word. He gave back the treasure he had stolen from the tower, and from that day forward he never stole again. He did take money from people against their will, and in broad daylight. But princes can do that without breaking the law, and it is not called stealing; it is called taxing.

This is a wonderful collection of stories, with pen and ink illustrations in a simple style which I remembered fondly (oh, that Princess of Tomboso!). Recommended to anyone with an interest in fairy tales; there are some entertaining versions of vaguely familiar tales here.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Ontological Transgressions in Fiction Writing

A.S. Byatt has a piece in The Guardian this week that expresses something I've felt uncomfortable about for some time: the use of real people as fictional characters in novels. I am not talking about a passing appearance of a Real Life Person, who may even play a part in the plot, but usually does or says things either attributed to them in life or which are very probable considering their real character. I mean the use of an actual person as a main character, one to whom an author ascribes actions and motivations, thoughts and beliefs, a distinct voice. As Byatt explains herself:

"I really don't like the idea of 'basing' a character on someone, and these days I don't like the idea of going into the mind of the real unknown dead," said Byatt in an interview with the organisers of the Booker prize. "It feels like the appropriation of others' lives and privacy. Making other people up, which is a kind of attack on them." Oscar Wilde appears in her own Booker-nominated novel, The Children's Book, she added, but "the novelist doesn't say what he thinks".

I understand the temptation; I've felt it myself. A real life person has a life and context all ready for you, using them is shorthand for a whole array of layered meaning. However, and as Byatt has suggested, using someone else's actuality for your own novel feels to me to be an ontological transgression. In moral philosophy, there is the question of whether you can do harm to the dead; this is one example where I feel that yes, you can. I agree with Byatt that it is a kind of attack on that person, in the sense that you are overwhelming their haecceity with your own.

It is impossible, finally, to know the mind of others, even someone as close as a spouse, a parent, a child. Trying to truly comprehend the mind of someone you only know by hearsay seems even more impossible. Creating such a person, an historically based individual whose mind was shaped by a different society, seems to me a novelist's duty: creating, rather than using a ready made Real Person and doing violence to their individual identity. When the character is someone lost far back in time, such as Cleopatra or various biblical figures, it doesn't bother me as much; they seem more like an archetypal figure than an individual at this point. Is this inconsistent? I'm not sure, but I do know that I generally dislike books that have recent historical figures as the main character, even when the story itself and the writing may be excellent.

Does this bother anyone else? Does anyone feel the opposite way, that real people make great fictional devices? Please weigh in, this topic is one that has fascinated me for years.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Good Mayor

The Good Mayor / Andrew Nicoll
Toronto: Vintage Canada, c2009.
352 p.

I received this book from Random House, unexpectedly -- it looked rather charming so I began it one evening -- and couldn't seem to stop reading. I stayed up WAY too late getting to know Good Mayor Tibo Krovic of the city of Dot, his secretary Agathe Stopak (for whom he suffers an unrequited love), Agathe's slovenly and inattentive husband and his scary rake of a cousin, the proprietress of an Italian coffee bar who is a true strega, and many other inhabitants of their lovely city Dot, in which the River Ampersand runs to the sea.

Opening with narration by the town of Dot's patron saint, Saint Walpurnia -- who can see everything from her position on all the walls of Dot's houses as well as atop the cathedral -- we are led into a fabulous tale of love and longing. Good Mayor Tibo (and it is always Good Mayor, he is such a Good man) is also a sad man. He is alone, suffering such longing for his secretary that he resorts to peering under his office door in the mornings just to see her removing her winter boots and putting her office shoes on. This leads to a very funny scene in which Agathe unexpectedly opens his door...but you'll have to read it to experience it in context. Tibo reaches out one day to rescue Agathe's lunch when it has fallen into the town fountain, and suddenly there is a spark between them. They begin having lunches together, and flirting, and the Strega as well as everyone else can see what is going on. Sadly, Tibo is the Good Mayor -- so Good that Agathe loses patience and runs off with her husband's skanky cousin.

So what does Tibo do? How can he and Agathe find true love? The Strega and her sons, a phantom troupe of circus performers, and a morbidly obese judge must all conspire to shake Tibo's status from Good Mayor to that of Adventurous Lover. It is a mysterious story, beginning like a fable but becoming more and more dreamlike as it goes. The solution that Tibo and Agathe arrive at is unexpected but possible within this dreamy atmosphere; love prevails, but with a very melancholy, bittersweet and sad flavour.

This was a delightfully serendipitous discovery, a novel that I loved reading. Images from their story are still drifting through my mind, like that half-forgotten dream you try to recall in the morning. Fortunately in this case, I can just open the book again to revisit Dot and all of its citizens. If you are in the mood for something quirky and original, flavoured with melancholy and oddity, try this book.

Also mentioned by:

Luanne at A Bookworm's World

Dar at Peeking between the Pages


Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Far North, in person

As I'm on vacation this week I will not be posting much but I did find this bookish item of interest via my husband... after I read and reviewed Marcel Theroux's newest, Far North, a few days ago, we found this great video of Marcel himself taking the train across northern Russia. Enjoy!

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Third Canadian Book Challenge "Favourites" meme

As always, John at the Book Mine Set, host of the excellent Canadian Book Challenge, does things in style. As part of the first review round-up for this year, he has created a series of questions about Canadian literature. Feel free to join in!

Here are my answers, always with the caveat that they might change according to day, mood, new thoughts...

Your Favourites:

1. Favourite Canadian author?

Historical - definitely Lucy Maud Montgomery!
Current - Diane Schoemperlen

2. Favourite Canadian novel?

Emily of New Moon by LMM

3. Favourite Canadian nonfiction?

Modris Eksteins' Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age

4. Favourite Canadian picture book?
Scaredy Squirrel by Mélanie Watt

5. Favourite Canadian YA or juvenile chapter book?

I have quite a few; but lately, I have really enjoyed the YA novels of Teresa Toten & Vicki Grant.

6. Favourite Canadian science fiction or fantasy book?

Fantasy for kids: Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter by R. J. Anderson
Fantasy for adults: The Initiate Brother & Gatherer of Clouds / Sean Russell (I read these 2 books years ago but recall them as very good)
7. Favourite Canadian romantic fiction?

Although she is Welsh, and her books are set in England (Regency romances), Mary Balogh lives in Kipling, Saskatchewan, so she counts as Canadian! I enjoy her books.

8.. Favourite Canadian mystery?

I have to say that I love the whole series of Joanne Kilbourn mysteries by Gail Bowen

9. Favourite Canadian graphic novel?

Well... I haven't read too many, but I agree with John, Chester Brown's bio of Louis Riel is fantastic.

10. Favourite Canadian book blog?

Picking favourites now? Sigh, too hard. Here's a few that I enjoy: John's (of course), Sassymonkey, Bookpuddle, My Tragic Right Hip, Kate's Book Blog, Great White North, and so many more... please don't be offended if I've missed you...

11. Favourite Canadian fictional character?

Anne Shirley & Emily Byrd Starr.

Though I also enjoyed getting to know Audrey Flowers (Come, Thou Tortoise) and found the portrait of the irascible Hagar Shipley (The Stone Angel) pretty compelling.
12. Favourite movie based on a Canadian novel or story?

Whale Music by Paul Quarrington was made into a hilariously weird film. Love it.

13. Favourite Canadian short story?

I Just love dogs / Ethel Wilson

14. Favourite Canadian poet?

Don Coles, at present.

15. Favourite Canadian poem?

Archibald Lampman's Snow, Lorna Crozier's Onions... I can't choose just one.

16. Favourite Canadian play?

Here's one I read recently and enjoyed: Dry Streak by Leeann Minogue

17. Favourite novel by an established Canadian author?
Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin

18. Favourite novel by an up-and-coming Canadian author?

Fairy Ring by Martine Desjardins

19. Favourite Canadian book award?

Gillers. They are the splashiest. I'm also fond of the Saskatchewan book awards, created by the
Saskatchewan Library Association, the Saskatchewan Publishers’ Group and the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild "to celebrate excellence in Saskatchewan writing and publishing."

20. Favourite Canadian publisher?

Favourite little press is Porcupine's Quill, with Coteau coming in close behind.

21. Favourite Canadian humorous book?

Bachelor brothers' bed & breakfast / Bill Richardson

22. Favourite Canadian newspaper?

Sad to say, I don't read the newspaper enough to have a favourite. I guess the National Post online is my most frequently read.

23. Favourite Canadian magazine or journal?

I love Grain magazine, and Room. Others too, but especially those two.

24. Favourite Canadian dystopian novel?

A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright.

25. Favourite Canadian epistolary novel?

The History of Emily Montague by Frances Brooke. One of the earliest Canadian novels and still very enjoyable