Sunday, January 31, 2010

Cleavage )( Theanna Bischoff

Cleavage / Theanna Bischoff
Edmonton: NeWest Press, c2008.
122 p.

This slim novel was shortlisted for the 2009 Relit Awards and the Commonwealth First Book Award (Canada). It began as an assignment for a writing class that Bischoff decided to take in a last minute decision, and it is lucky for us that she made that choice.

This novel was a great read; told in a bit of a choppy narrative style, with lists and magazine quizzes and living wills interspersed with the story, it still has a strong narrative arc. The storyline is informed by the author's studies in psychology and women's experiences of a cancer diagnosis -- I found it very convincing. On the back, the style is compared to Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness, but I just don't see that at all. This book is so much more interesting, and I don't see a great deal of overlap.

The plot is this: Leah Jordan, at 24, discovers she has breast cancer. She is in a two year relationship with Justin, who is a bit of an immature, self absorbed guy. They live together in Calgary but as the book starts they are on a road trip to British Columbia, trying to get away from the stress of daily living with cancer treatment, however they end up having a terrible fight. The title, Cleavage, thus refers both to breasts and to the divisions apparent in their relationship. Leah's experience of cancer changes the way she interacts with the world -- as the author says:

Having cancer gives Leah permission, in a sense, to do and say a lot of things that aren’t typically acceptable. Modern society really emphasizes rationality and keeping one’s emotions in check, but with Leah, I was able to really explore the dark side of a person’s psyche, and the cynical things we all think but don’t say aloud.

Leah thinks about her possible future, she waffles between hope and despair, she feels stuck in the relationship with this man who isn't all bad but just isn't the right one for her. As the book opens she breaks up with Justin - then we get a look back to see how it has come to this. By the book's end, Leah is considering leaving Calgary to move to Edmonton - that way their relationship will hopefully just fade away rather than Leah having to decisively dump him for good, but Justin, oblivious, offers to move with her. The relationship shows Leah's angst, unable to choose a strong future, unable perhaps to see one. The conclusion is ambiguous, however; will she stay with him? Will she move on? Throughout the novel we see many parts of Leah, personal moments which people often prefer to keep hidden. Her bad behaviours, unsociable thoughts, estrangement from her sister, all these things reveal her emotional trauma at going through this experience essentially alone. She tries to bridge the gap a few times, to act from a more compassionate place, but all around her is staying the same and making it hard for her to change. She doesn't seem to have any epiphanies due to her cancer, she does not suddenly see the way forward and thank cancer for making her life meaningful. But there are subtle signs that perhaps she is moving forward, beyond her passive and directionless current life. Is this due to the cancer or to the routine process of growing up? Not so clear.

The voice of the book is fantastic. Leah seems so real, and so isolated in her experience of this disease. While the story is centred around her treatment, it is more about her psychological state as she undergoes this experience, how it changes the things she has taken for granted, the things she has not committed to, like her relationship, or her working life. Her cynicism is one way of coping, of not giving in to the sentimentality that can appear in this context. At one point, Leah states:
I am sick of the pink ribbons. Slap a pink ribbon on stationery, stuffed poodles, bracelets, toques, car windshields, lapels. Silly, smiling women walking for a cure, shouting empowerment in the air, clutching their mothers and daughters to their chests. They think the pink ribbons are points – collect enough and breast cancer will disappear. They don’t understand. This game has endless levels. You can play as long as you want.

Leah's character is amazing. She is a completely believable 20-something who is coping with a terrible situation. She drifts a bit, directionless, but has a strong core within her that seems to be getting slowly drawn out by her circumstances. I loved the way she spoke, and the additions of newspaper articles, a magazine quiz, a sarcastic resume, dictionary entries, postcards, etc. between the narrative itself are intriguing, adding to the story and not at all gimmicky. They all seem like something Leah would do, keep a scrapbook of sorts of miscellaneous information along with this record of her illness and her survival. I thought the story and the form were wonderfully suited, and found Bischoff to be a supremely confident writer who has turned out a very well crafted story.

She is currently studying for her PhD in psychology - I just hope that along with her future career as a psychologist she will continue writing fiction. I enjoyed reading this novel, feeling as if I was being led through this not-so-pleasant life by someone that I could trust would give it meaning. Definitely recommended if you are interested in modern narratives about young Canadian women or about those dealing with serious illness.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Bit of This & That

Here are a few interesting bits of news I thought were worth passing on:

In yesterday's Globe & Mail business section, Sheelagh Whittaker, director at Imperial Oil and Standard Life, shared a list of "My Convictions About Leadership". One I found of particular interest was this --

"Reading fiction and biography in quantity can help you think about how to live your own life".

I loved that! Her other tips are also quite elegantly put; she seems like someone I wouldn't mind having for a boss :)

For all of those partipating in the Clover, Bee & Reverie poetry challenge, or those who simply love a good deal on modern poetry, Brick Books has announced a great sale to celebrate their 35th year in business. They are offering the chance to buy up to 5 books from their backlist for $10 each (shipping extra). I can recommend P.K. Page's Hologram: a book of glosas (includes the poem she is reading in the video I recently posted); or Karen Connelly's This Brighter Prison; or Robyn Sarah's Questions about the Stars; or many of the other wonderful authors available like Frances Itani, Helen Humphreys, Janice Kulyk Keefer, or Don McKay.

You could also get a copy of Randall Maggs' Night Work: the Sawchuk poems -- this is one I'm really excited about as Randall Maggs is reading from this book at my library this coming Thursday as part of Stratford's Hockey Day in Canada celebrations. Come to the reading (2 pm on Thursday, Jan.28) if you are in the vicinity for a fascinating study of how he created a biography in verse of a well-known personality, one which has alreaady won many awards and effortlessly leaps the usual chasm between sports and poetry.

This is just neat - graphic designer Beverly Hsu creates Helvetica cookie cutters! Typeface and cookies, can it get any better than that? :)

**Addendum: just brought to my attention, a fascinating discussion of the design behind British road signs, on (of all places) Top Gear. Start watching around 3:33 if you have little interest in the car part of it ;)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

New Challenge: Poetry

Okay, just one more Challenge... this one is a delight! I found it via Page 247, but it is being hosted right over here at Clover, Bee & Reverie's own blog, and all the details are listed at that site. There are various levels of participation, and since I do like reading poetry but it isn't as ingrained a habit as novel-reading, I'll start slow.

I'm going to be signing up at Limerick level (read 5 books of poetry, with at least 2 connected thematically). You could choose to read more, or less. Once again, this is a Challenge that runs throughout the whole year, so I have lots of time to find new poets to discover! And look at that beautiful button :)


1. Hooked / Carolyn Smart (Brick Books)

2. Grace & Poison / Karen Connelly (Turnstone)

3. A Saving Grace / Lorna Crozier (McClelland & Stewart)

4. Lost Gospels / Lorri Neilsen Glenn (Brick Books)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Tale Tellers: Fiction and Identity

The Tale-Tellers / Nancy Huston
Toronto: McArthur & Co., c2008.
177 p.

Another book in my study of fiction and how it works on us, The Tale-Tellers is by an author I really admire, Nancy Huston. I love her essay collections, they are great reading -- this book however, is a "collection of aphorisms", as it says in the back cover blurbs.

It is divided up into chapters, themes really, and the text is a series of paragraphs, sentences, thoughts, related to that theme. Yet every word is carefully chosen and it creates an effect of thoughtfulness, or of sayings which you can read and then have the space to think about before taking in the next one. This lends itself to quotable bits, of which I found numerous examples while reading, but just marked them and didn't stop to reread them until I'd finished the entire book. It was fascinating reading.

Huston's premise is that humanity is a species of tale-tellers; our lives are all story. We create stories to explain our individual lives and figure out our greater identity - my story, for example, would be that I am a Caucasian, middle-class Westerner, identified with my ethnic background (Ukrainian) as well as my educational and professional level, a part of the library world, a book lover, and so on. But all of this is a story: we can change our lives if we change our stories, if we are able to get outside of our own story to see its narrativity as opposed to its being a fixed reality. This is one of the key elements of bibliotherapy, that to use literature therapeutically we must see that our own lives are stories, and that we are affecting our present circumstances through the way we are 'writing' our own story. Huston states,
...characters in novels, like characters in religious stories but in far more complex ways, give us models and anti-models for behaviour. They afford us precious distance from the people around us, and (even more importantly) from ourselves. They help us see that our lives are fictions, and that, therefore, we have the power to act upon them and change their course.
But this does not only apply to the individual, it is also the way societies and cultures create their national characteristics. The ability to see how one's own society is constructed is made easier when you've seen other societies' realities as well; it is easier to see that a belief from a strange culture is 'just superstition' than it is to see the same about one's own. Seeing your own culture from the eyes of another can also assist in identifying the storied nature of all societies. This is another reason it is important to read international fiction. As Huston says,

Reading novels -- and, through them, learning to identify with the characters of another time, social milieu, or culture -- gives us distance from our own, received identities. This can help us to decipher other cultures, and gradually learn to identify with the people who belong to them.

A country's voluntary fictions (stories) provide better access to its reality than its involuntary fictions (History).
Huston also draws out the importance of reading fiction in developing an ethical view of life. Ethical living is closely tied to empathy for other human beings, in this case, and the novel is a vital way in which to develop such empathy. It is a strange fact that by being alone and reading, we can develop the habit of empathy. I'll leave the final word on this topic to Huston, as she points out the intrinsic value of the novel in an ethical and personal sense.

Only the novel combines the two crucial factors of narration and solitude. It espouses the narrativity of every human existence, but -- for author and reader alike -- requires silence and solitude, and allows interruption, meditation, rereading.

Narrative empathy is the basis for equality and exchange... Alone of all the arts, literature allows us to explore other people's inner existence.

That is its sovereign privilege, and its value. Inestimable. Irreplaceable

Sunday, January 17, 2010

P. K. Page, 1916-2010

P.K. Page, poet, author, painter, passed away this week at the age of 93.

She was a marvellous writer, able to move between poetry, children's books, scriptwriting, and short stories with apparent ease. I had the pleasure of reading some of her most recent works over the last year or two and was reminded of how wonderful her literary vision was. She had an eventful life, living in places like Mexico and Australia due to her husband's job a diplomat, while continuing as a writer until the very end of her life. Two books were published just in November. Her last book of poetry that I read was Coal & Roses, a collection of glosas. Inspiring and beautiful. We have lost an accomplished poet who looked at the world through loving eyes and used her immense skill to point out to us how very wonderful, yet fragile, it all was.

One of her best known glosas was "Planet Earth", which was selected by the United Nations to be read in various locations (including Mount Everest and Antarctica) in celebration of the program Dialogue Among Civilizations Through Poetry in 2001. I'll leave the final word to Patricia Kathleen Page herself.

Friday, January 15, 2010

More Matching Cover Art

Another occurence, so soon! I just discovered that three books (all of which I really enjoyed) have the same covers. One has just recently been released, which is why the similarity caught my eye and twigged my memory. The image does suit each of the stories, though... how interesting.

1. One of my favourite short story collections of the past few years, Sarah Klassen's Feast of Longing.

2. The Haunted House, a collection of stories by Dickens, Gaskell, Collins and other Victorian luminaries gathered for the Christmas issue of his magazine.

3. Marthe Jocelyn's How it happened in Peach Hill, a YA novel about a girl living with a professional psychic for a mother -- it was released in paperback last year, with this image on the US cover. (author is local to me and is a wonderful writer, btw)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Field Guide by Gross

Field Guide / Gwendolen Gross
New York: Henry Holt, c2001.
274 p.

This is Gwendolen Gross' first novel, and one I came across by chance. The cover was so lovely, and the storyline involves Australia and scientific research into bats. Irresistible, really!

Fortunately, I enjoyed reading this novel as well as admiring its appearance. It is the story of Annabel Mendelssohn, an American who has taken on a semester of field work in Australia, studying the spectacled fruit bat. She comes from a scientifically minded family, and has gone into biology while her parents and siblings have their own fields. One reason that she has gone abroad to do her field studies is an attempt to distance herself from the terrible loss of her older brother, who died in a diving accident while undertaking research.

In Australia, Annabel meets up with a few other students, all described according to how much they interact with her. She is most bothered by her roommate, a stylish young woman who doesn't much like Annabel, and in turn Annabel thinks that Sabrina will be useless at field work as she cares so much more about her appearance and about having a fling than the work. This relationship seems to me to point out a certain immaturity in Annabel, a belief that she has to be committed to her research at the expense of any other passion in life. Anyone who might care for their appearance or, indeed, for another person more than their work is somehow flawed, somehow lazy. This is, perhaps, what she needs to believe in order to explain her elder brother's behaviour to herself; his actions are sprinkled throughout the story in flashbacks and it is evident to everybody else that he has some real issues with possibly depression, possibly some other kind of social disorder. But to Annabel he is simply focused on his work and responsible only to that.

Annabel's loss of her brother is like a stone in her shoe, poking at her constantly. It's not so much the loss itself as the uncertainty as to whether it was an accident or suicide that is causing her pain, and adds to how distant she feels from her sister and parents. This separation is echoed in her physical distance from them, back in North America. She tries to settle in and make a place for herself during this dislocating experience of travelling halfway around the world to further her studies. Among her fellow students, she makes friends with Maud, an older woman who seems more sure of herself than does Annabel, and she fixates on one of her professors, John Goode, who is literally old enough to be her father. She feels a sexual attraction to him, despite the fact that he mocks himself for cheating on his wife and being cut off from her and his two adult sons as a result. He has a habit of getting so engrossed in his work that he forgets anyone is waiting for him, or indeed is right beside him. Annabel's attraction to this kind of unassailable neglect seems symptomatic of her behaviour throughout the story. She is unable to make connections, to feel tethered to anyone else.

The book is full of Annabel's thoughts and ruminations about her situation, past and present, including emails to her sister in America. It also intersperses chapters focused on Leon Goode, son of Professor Goode, who is working in a science museum in Boston. When Prof. Goode disappears near the end of the book, Leon is called home, and the two storylines converge. Annabel and Leon are clearly created for one another, and they meet and immediately feel a connection. At the end of the book, having not been able to locate John Goode, having been driven away from her research site by anti-Green loggers, she essentially gives up and goes home. This seems alright to her, however, as she is going home with Leon. She has made a connection.

The man Annabel is at first attracted to, John Goode, reminds her of Robert (she remarks upon this herself) -- and he disappears at the end, leaving her with the same sense of uncertainty as had the loss of Robert. This sense of loss, a loss with no closure, is what ties she and Leon Goode together. However, this ephemeral connection, added to Annabel's naivety and/or immaturity as evidenced by her refusal to entertain the idea that Robert's death was suicide (as the other members of her family suspect) and well as her inability to cope with her roommates, do not hold out great hope for a future for Leon and Annabel. I got the impression that eventually they would both grow up, and away from defining themselves through loss, and at that point they'd move on. I really can't see much future in this relationship, as it bears the weight of so much neediness, on both sides.

However, this analysis of the characters was one of the enjoyable aspects of the story. Why would they act like this, or want to do that? The narrative was well constructed, parallelling the experiences of Annabel's family and the Goodes, and it is not easy to write a book with a character who reveals such weaknesses but is still a compelling focus for the story. I didn't really like Annabel, but I respected her scientific work, and her confusion in trying to readjust to a life without her very strongly influential older brother. Her reactions to others; her descriptions of her time at the research site, alone in the forest watching bats; her constant watching and measuring herself against others' decisions and actions; her communications with her sister; all these are very revealing of her youthful and confused state. I also liked the way the book ended without tying everything up neatly. It reflected Annabel's state of mind, how loss is not always neat and easy to get over, but also gave us hope at the conclusion that she was coming to a point where she was ready to move on with life.

Set in a location and occupation unfamiliar to me, it offered lots to learn about. I found it pretty good for a first novel, with only a few slow bits and a couple of bumps. If you must have everything resolved definitively at the end of a book you will probably find this one a bit annoying, but if you can live with not knowing, or knowing only that the state of not-knowing is the point of the story, you will probably find something of interest in it. The complex main character and an unusual choice of setting makes this story particularly intriguing.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

More Same-Same

Look at this -- another example of the use of stock photography on book covers -- which always interests me when I find these kind of things. I've read the one on the left, which is the UK cover of The Day the Falls Stood Still. I think it's the North American cover of the Alcott bio, which I haven't read (yet).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Berenice: Cleopatra's forgotten sister

Cleopatra's Sister / Penelope Lively
New York: HarperPerennial, c1994.
281 p.

My first Lively of the year, this novel was not what I had expected at all. In fact, it made me think of a blend between Ann Patchett's Bel Canto and Madeleine L'Engle's Troubling a Star - the situation of a hostage taking from Bel Canto, and the menace and history of an imaginary dictatorship from Troubling a Star. The tone of this book also seems to be a combination of both.

The light style of the narrative meanders between the lives of Howard Beamish (paleontologist) and Lucy Faulkner (journalist), and intersperses the history of the country of Callimbia, located somewhere between Egypt and Libya. The book focuses throughout these three strands on one of Lively's favourite preoccupations: the contingencies of history. How did Howard end up a paleontologist? By coming across a fossil on a dull family holiday as a child. And Lucy? Well, she had her own childhood responsibilities which pushed her in the direction of journalism. Callimbia, meanwhile, began in the far distant past as Cleopatra's sister Berenice settled there after being forced out of Egypt. Due to her beauty she kept Marc Antony there just long enough to affect the course of history - and everything that happens is pointed out in hindsight as being the key moments which led to the present dictator's position. Randomness rules in this view of history.

But as all three strands come together, the story suddenly picks up and instead of just drawing connections between how things have come about, the narrative becomes quite serious and suspenseful. Lucy and Howard just happen to be on the same flight to Nairobi, their plane just happens to have serious engine trouble while in the area of Callimbia, which just happens to be undergoing a major coup attempt. The plane must land. The British passengers on the plane are singled out to be held hostage in return for Britain sending the Callimbian rebels who have fled to England back to Callimbia. This leaves a random group of strangers prisoner in Callimbia with no information, no knowledge of what is to happen to them. They develop a bit of group solidarity, with individual foibles still delineated sharply. Howard and Lucy also develop their own romantic relationship, and that part of the story felt a little forced to me, actually. As if the contingencies had declared it should happen thus it happened. Still, the idea behind it all was compelling and endlessly fascinating. And the second half of the book ratcheted up to such a level of tension that I did what I never do while reading -- I flipped ahead to see what was going to happen, I couldn't stand the suspense any longer.

While this wasn't my favourite Lively so far, I enjoyed it a great deal. Her whimsical history of Callimbia turns dark suddenly and surprisingly and there is a lot more depth to the story than appears at first glance. As usual, my own abiding interest in history and how it is made, as well as how people end up where they do, makes Lively's writing infinitely appealing to me. Worth reading if you are a Lively fan.

Other opinions:

A man's eye view at The Civil Librarian

Saturday, January 09, 2010


Biblioasis, 2009.
156 p.

This is the first short story collection I've finished in 2010 - and it was overall quite an enjoyable discovery! Griggs has a style which, as she puts it, "can be somewhat textured or layered, what a friend once described as a 'thicket' ... Another friend has described these stories as 'wide tales' as opposed to tall ones, and that nicely covers the stretch in them. I've always been a bit of a fantasist, wanting to let in what lurks on the edges of vision, just beyond view". Her style is definitely more playful, linguistically, than many stories I've read lately which seem to believe in the Hemingway approach to literature - the fewer words the better. Let's just say that I am not a big Hemingway fan.

This is a grouping of stories first published in 1990, and republished by Biblioasis in 2009. This new edition has an extra story added in for good measure. It shows the range and variety of Griggs' tales, full of strange happenings and odd characters, told from a variety of perspectives, most with a sense of the unknown hovering atmospherically. They are entertaining and full of clever wordplay, and some move so quickly that it feels as if the narrator is not going to pause for breath.

There are 17 stories in this collection, each fairly short. Several of them revolve around a family of females, and each has its own distinctive strangeness - in one, a baby girl is christened Michael Gabriel rather than given the name of any of her great-aunts, who all disapprove, and she must then live up to her unusual name. In another, four daughters are left an inheritance of a hotel each, the style of the hotel -- from elegant to a haunted dive -- matching each of their personalities. In the final story, Tag, a reserved woman who both loves and hates her flamboyant, demanding sister (who is fatally attracted to dangerous living and dangerous men) has to deal with the sudden disappearance of said sister. The slightly dimwitted boyfriend is under suspicion and is brought in to the police station for questioning. The investigator has found what he thinks is damning evidence at boyfriend Romeo's apartment:

Thatcher held out a tattered object and shook it vigorously at Romeo. "Just how do you explain this?"

It was a child's library book.

"The Runaway Bunny!" Romeo was thrilled. "Ok, right... uuh well, it's about the transforming power of love, and, ahhh, on the other hand, it's about how you can never escape your mother, you see --"

"What I mean, Dorkhead, is that it's twenty years overdue."

"Yeah? Gee, guess I forgot to return it."

He forgot. Sure. Thatcher knew the type. They broke spines, they dog-eared pages, they scribbled obscene comments in the margins and squashed bugs between the covers, they branded the text with coffee rings, flicked ashes in the binding, wiped freshly excavated ear wax on the end papers, used rusty bobby pins and strips of bacon for bookmarks. Small potatoes, he realized, petty vandalism, but not unconnected to greater offenses. Thatcher had a panoramic vision when it came to crime, a comprehensive view that took in the roots of evil as well as the fruit. All thanks to the firm, guiding hand of his mother, a long-suffering librarian who filled him in like the empty pages of a notepad, sparing no detail. A child who forgets to return a library book, she had warned, may well grow up to be the kind of person who "forgets" to take a knife out of someone's back. Thatcher understood that Romeo was guilty wholesale, guilty in a universal sense if not specifically in this case, because felony was his medium, his oeuvre.

This is, of course, an irresistible appearance of occupational humour -- how could I not appreciate that scene? But there are other moments in other stories which are equally amusing, and then there are some moments which are quite beautifully rendered. The sadness which a middle aged woman feels when her young lover disappears is sketched out in a line or two, but hits hard. There is a real sense that the world is full of things unknown or unseen, and a few of those things make their appearance in these stories.

It was a good collection to muse over while I had time off, taking Mavis Gallant's advice to read a story, put down the book and read something else, then go back to the next. Story collections are not novels, and there needs to be time to appreciate each story independently; in this case, the ornate storytelling certainly benefited from that spaciousness of time -- as I thought back on each story, new angles and images arose. It was a thought provoking and rewarding find.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

For your Viewing Pleasure

I've just found an amazing documentary on TVO (TV Ontario)entitled Empire of the Word.

It is all about the genesis, purpose, meaning and future of reading. It is narrated by Alberto Manguel and so far is quite wonderful (I have only watched Part I thus far).

Here is a trailer - I hope everyone will be able to view it. If you are sufficiently intrigued, click on the title of the show above to find all four episodes.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Happy Ukrainian Christmas!

Happy Christmas to you all! Enjoy the last day of the Holiday Season and celebrate the Ukrainian way - with lots of food :)

An excerpt from Vera Lysenko's Yellow Boots:
...Anton had piled a bunch of rye straw and fragrant hay on a sled and directed Lilli, "You bring in the sheaf with Petey." This sheaf was called Old Man, and was placed in an honorary corner behind the table under the holy pictures, to symbolize God's gift of a bountiful harvest. There it would remain until New Year's Day, to invoke the blessing of the spirits which were thought in olden days to haunt the grain fields.

When they returned to the house, Zenobia and Lilli set the table for dinner, which commenced traditionally with the appearance of the first star in the sky. First, Zenobia spread a white cloth over hay and as a centrepiece she placed a kolach, the white Christmas bread, flanked by two loaves of dark bread. There were twelve dishes, one for each Apostle -- beet soup, honeyed waffles, stuffed dumplings, fish jelly, cabbage rolls stuffed with rice, fish fried in oil, fruit compote, poppy seed buns, honey and wheat mixture, braided bread, apple turnovers, prunes, and a drink made from the juice of boiled dried fruits. All had been laid out on the table in decorated dishes and wooden bowls. One large wax candle was lit on the table to symbolize the Star of the East.

Lilli went over to the wooden chest and began to take out their holiday attire -- new ribbons, kerchiefs, woven belts and fresh white smocks. She caressed each garment, for he loved the feel of clean, starched linen and soft silk. "A belt, a red belt for me!" exclaimed Petey, prancing about in his white trousers and white shirt, his yellow hair slicked back. "You look like a buttercup, Petey!" exclaimed Lilli, hugging him.

When she had dressed her smaller brothers and sisters, tied their ribbons and combed their hair, she arranged them in a row on a bench to wait for dinner. She looked outside. The sky had darkened and now the first evening star was faintly visible far over the church. "I see it! I see the star!" she cried. A feeling of holy quietness came over her as she looked into the beauty of the night. In the distance, she could see the lights in the other farm houses. Turning from the window, she contemplated the food, the candles, the kolach on the table and all these gave her the feeling that Christmas Eve had really begun. At this moment, her grandparents arrived, and supper was announced.

Hunting Unicorns

London: Pan McMillan, c2003.

I wanted to read this because the title and the author's name are both so unusual! Unfortunately, though the story was quirky, it didn't live up to its promise. The writing was pedestrian, the characters a bit stereotypical and the story very predictable. However, if you were looking for a very light summer read this would probably fit the bill. On looking further into it, I discovered that this story started out as a screenplay, and that is what it would be perfect for, a light romantic comedy, of the type that sadly I don't much enjoy.

This is the story of Rory and Daniel Jones, scions of an aristocratic house which has fallen on hard times like so many others. Their parents are alcoholics and Daniel has followed the family tradition, while Rory has become a strict teetotaller. Into their story comes American reporter Maggie, who is a distinctly unlikeable character, obnoxious and pushy. Although I think she's supposed to come across as quirky and lively in opposition to the stuffiness of British culture. In any case, this journalist with no family ties comes into contact with Rory, who is overwhelmed with family responsibilities. They fall madly in love and end up together after many misunderstandings - this is fairly obvious from the beginning and they do pair off despite the lack of chemistry in evidence.

The story is a light and amusing read as long as you're not expecting much from it. It is a long string of anecdotes about staying in country houses, eccentric aristocrats, drunken relatives and lovestruck secretaries. Added to this is the 'serious' element of the American hard news journalist reluctantly assigned this puff piece in England. Her boyfriend, much older, is involved with Doctors Without Borders and appears wherever she is staying, for a break from his traumatic day job. Rory meanwhile has given up his preferred career of archeologist to open an agency matching rich Americans and tv shows with aristocratic settings - the only way he can see to bring in enough money to keep some of these people and their mansions going. He has the added incentive of now being responsible for his parents and their crumbling estate as well.

I kept reading because there were funny bits, and I was hoping for something to happen, for something to surprise me. There was so much potential but unfortunately it just didn't coalesce into a great book. What I did like, which is an element that others have not enjoyed as much, was the shift in narrators. The chapters are told from the point of view of either Maggie or Daniel, and this is intriguing because Daniel has a run-in with a bus in the first chapter and from then on narrates from the afterlife. Rory's struggles to deal with his beloved older brother's death are detailed from Daniel's point of view, which makes it rather interesting. Also, Daniel makes the perfect omniscient narrator, from his all seeing vantage point.

If you enjoy watching romantic comedies where the heroine is klutzy and/or socially inept but wins everyone over with her personality, or like stories where brashness carries the day, then you will probably enjoy reading this one. It wasn't a horrible read, but just not the one for me.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Lysenko's Yellow Boots

Yellow Boots / Vera Lysenko
NeWest, 1992, c1954.
355 p.

After all that list-making it is time to read a few of the books on the lists! I've begun with Yellow Boots, a classic of Ukrainian Canadian literature.

This is the story of Lilli Landash, a young Ukrainian living in Manitoba in the 1930s. She has ten brothers and sisters, and is considered a 'gypsy' girl: born at twilight and looking a little different she is not nurtured by her parents, rather she is sent out to work in her aunt's home from the age of six. After five years of service she becomes ill, so ill that her death seems imminent, and that is where our story begins. Lilli is taken back to her parents home, and fights the odds, surviving and living with her parents from then on. However, she is still not a favoured child, and does much of the work around the house. She is known as Gypsy until her one year of schooling, where the Scottish teacher, overwhelmed by all the Ukrainian Marys in his class, renames them all for flowers, and Gypsy becomes Lily (or Lilli as she misspells it). Her special love is the prairies, though - she loves to be outside and is rapturous over the beauties of sky and birds and sounds. She is extremely musical and this is what leads her to her future.

Each chapter describes a cultural event, as well as following Lilli's growth toward adulthood. For example, the first chapter when Lilli is so ill is also used as a way in which to explain traditional death rituals of the Bukovynian (Ukrainian) family. They have a Christmas in one chapter, a wedding in another, a funeral in a third. While this does feel a little forced, it is still full of fascinating information, revealed in a way that draws you in via all your senses. The book also has a proto-feminist feel, with Lilli knowing in her heart that she is meant to grow and succeed, not to follow her father's orders and marry an old and lascivious neighbour at the age of sixteen in order to secure more farmland. She flees the farm, moving to Winnipeg and making it as a singer, drawing together the opportunity that the new world offers with the love of tradition and her Bukovynian past, by singing traditional songs. She also learns the songs of other cultures she comes across in Winnipeg - a Yiddish tune, a Japanese lullaby. She is the example of the perfect multicultural immigrant, willing to meld her lifestyle with the dominant Anglo-Canadian culture while preserving the arts of her own. Other women's issues appear in the story - the plight of servant girls in the city, the status of a widow in the small town, and so on.

The story is engrossing for all the detail of farming in those communities - the small mindedness and superstition as well as the generosity and the hard, hard work that was expected of all. However, it was written in the fifties, and the author's multicultural idealism does show through. The change in the communities as they become more "Canadian" is clear, but Lilli does her best to retain some of the tradition through her songs. When, as a successful adult, she returns to the farm, her mother is described as wearing a house dress from a department store, and the younger girls wished to prepare a meal for Lilli using canned food and store bought ingredients on the new stove - it was her mother who knew that Lilli would prefer a true Bukovynian meal made in the old fashioned way. Since Lilli has only been away from the farm for seven years, it does seem a bit odd that all the Ukrainian habits of her family have vanished so quickly.

I wouldn't say that it is fantastically successful as a novel, but as a social document showing a possible life of that time it does prove intriguing. Lilli is a good character, full of self-analysis, ambition, talent and grit. Her absorption in beauty and in music are revealing, and her constant observation of everything around her from the point of view of the outsider creates a detailed look at a way of life which was already gone by the time this book was written. I found the first part of the book most interesting, with Lilli surrounded by her traditional family and all the habits they held. Once Lilli moves into Winnipeg, the interest shifts and we are seeing the integration of many different cultures into one big city. The role of women in this era is in evidence, across many social levels: the author was from a poor background and she held fairly socialist political views, which is apparent in the way she discusses issues from the viewpoint of the poor characters - the farm girls, the maids - as well as the matrons of the city. (She was also falsely accused of being a Communist during the Cold War Era when it was a real issue, and it stuck to her for quite a long time).

There are a few elements of the book that I found uncomfortable from my modern perspective - including the idea that Lilli could only escape from her overbearing father through the intervention of other men, like her schoolteacher, or the choirmaster she meets in Winnipeg. And I wasn't too keen on the conclusion; it was as if Lysenko didn't know quite how to end it and married Lilli off because that is what a "happy ending" should look like. Nonetheless, this is a great piece of Canadiana that should be considered part of the historical record along with better known novels of that era.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Short Stories: another Challenge

Kate of Kate's Book Blog is once again hosting the Short Story Reading Challenge. She began this challenge in 2008 and I found that it really did encourage me to read more short stories than was my habit previously. So I will join up once more, and hope to discover some great reading again this year.

There are varied levels at which to participate, but I think I will start at Option 3 -- reading at least five collections of short stories over the year. I am going to try to choose five collections by authors I have not previously read. I have a few collections sitting around on the shelves but I am not making a definite list; I will just try to read them as I feel inclined to.

Friday, January 01, 2010

New Year's Announcement

A Very Important Announcement

for all my readers:

Starting today, my blog signature is being changed from "Melanie" to Melwyk

There are so many Melanies here in the blogosphere, and I figure I may as well change my blog name to the same name I use on Twitter and Goodreads and LibraryThing and most other networks I belong to. So when you see comments from Melwyk from now on, it will only be me ;)