Sunday, February 28, 2010

Library goodness

A little quiet on this blog this week as I was away at a wonderful conference - the Ontario Library Association Superconference in Toronto. It was a great time, very inspiring and lots to learn and to ponder from the library world.

I was able to attend an illuminating session given by Dr. Hoi Cheu from Laurentian University on the topic of Bibliotherapy. Dr. Cheu was an entertaining speaker, and referred to the work of Dr. Joseph Gold a few times - since I've just read both of Dr. Gold's books I found that very useful for me. I like what Dr. Cheu said about language/reading and symbolic alphabets changing the brain -- we have evolved to a level of sophistication because of the ability to read symbols. Thus librarians have a job to preserve the knowledge of humanity by keeping people reading and able to comprehend and use the full capacity of our many languages.

There were also other great sessions: ones on running events, on setting up writer-in-residence programs, ones about library advocacy (see the Speak Up! for First Nation Libraries campaign for an amazing example, if you are a library employee, trustee, board member, Friends member or general supporter, it is inspiring).

One of the good things about going to this conference is getting so re-energized about library work - there are so many possibilities even in this time of gloom and doom about the future of reading.

Well, enough about my work life -- I was also able to read a few books on the train & in the evenings ... one of which was another Penelope Lively, which I'll be talking about soon. I also picked up one of the Canada Also Reads novels which I haven't read yet, and which is an unusual choice for me (it is all in 2nd person narrative so we'll see how that works out for me). I also discovered that another of the Canada Also Reads books, Fear of Fighting by Stacy May Fowles, is available as a free download until the end of March, if you'd like to get a look at it. A great chance to read one of the selections easily!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Becoming George Sand by Brackenbury

Becoming George Sand / Rosalind Brackenbury
Toronto: Doubleday, c2009.
304 p.

Oh, I wanted to like this book. I loved the cover, so beautiful. I liked the concept; a female academic studying George Sand and wanting the same kind of life. But sadly, I didn't really like that same female academic much, and her wilful naivete annoyed me.
Maria Jameson is having an affair with a fellow professor named Sean. He is Irish, lean and youthful and sexy, and sees Maria as a sexual being, something which has been lacking for her with her plodding husband and two children. He is also married, with children. She has a habit of becoming lyrical about their sex life together, part of the excitement for her clearly being the act of sneaking around. I guess what really bothered me about her is that she begins this affair realizing it is a transgression (that is evident in the text); she has sex with Sean in her own home, in her marital bed, with the chance of her children coming home while he is there. She goes on vacation with her husband and they finally have it out - he knew something was up - and unlike himself becomes very upset and cruel. And she can't understand it.

That is the part which really annoyed me. She really doesn't see why it is that her husband is so upset. It was as if she saw her affair as something which only concerned her, it was nobody else's business. And then she is comparing it to George Sand's life, how George was able to have affairs as she liked, it was just normal, how come Maria couldn't do the same? This is simply selfish blindness, to me. Of course it isn't the same, our cultures are not the same. Life in 20th century Edinburgh is not the same as 19th century France. There are different expectations and social mores. Husbands and wives are generally in an equal relationship as they were not in George Sand's day. Besides, George Sand's first affair cost her her marriage to Dudevant, then she ended up trailing around the continent taking care of musicians who didn't seem to have a sense for how to live real life. The comparisons just didn't have the type of resonance I think the text was hoping to draw out.

You can probably tell by now that this book did not really work for me. There were some elements I found interesting, mainly Maria's time with her friend in France while working on her book, or her descriptions of Edinburgh especially when she is at a writer's festival. The fascination Maria had with George Sand was communicated well, with sections of George's life interspersed with her own. It is just that I didn't like Maria, or her husband, and could not find any compassion for their situation. The trouble between them was not all that clear, and the reactions were a bit pat - he goes off to his own apartment and starts seeing a shrink and realizes that he was so upset because he was afraid of losing her, even before the affair! His hurt and angry reaction was all about his issues!

There may be someone who had more patience with this and really loved it. If so, please leave a comment and I'll link to your review as well.

Or check it out and judge for yourself.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Henrietta's War

London: Bloomsbury, 2009.
176 p.

Thanks to Bloomsbury for reprinting this collection of fictional letters, which were written during wartime for a British paper, and to Thomas of My Porch for sending this copy to me, I was able to spend an entertaining few hours transported to 1940 & 1941 in the British countryside. We are hearing directly from Henrietta as she writes to a childhood friend, Robert, who is overseas somewhere. She shares the news of their village and their daily life as they cope with war rationing and preparations for imminent invasion.

This is not as grim as it first appears. It really was entertaining reading: Henrietta is a woman of a certain age who is afraid of loud bangs as well as numerous other things. Still, she is keeping her spirits up and the village is full of other quirky characters also trying to make do as best they can. Henrietta's husband is the local doctor so she has a certain status, and her focus is very much on the middle class villagers who try to survive the presence of uncouth evacuated Londoners as well as the threat of German invasion. Food shortages, worry about those overseas, the daily adjustments of life during wartime, all appear but in a very gentle kind of way. They are illustrated with little sketches of the characters, and there are the usual suspects to be found -- the aristocratic widow, the blustery ex-Admiral, the local doctor of course, Henrietta's flighty single friend Faith, evacuees of an artistic sort, and the women of the local Institute.

It's a rather sweet and charming tale, with timely comments on the war (the letters were contemporaneous with the war) and a strong sense of the way civilians kept their spirits up not knowing what was going on with those they loved, who were out in the thick of things. It was a light read, but had some moments of pathos as well.

If you like epistolary fiction or war fiction you will love this one, I think. Amusing illustrations add to the enjoyment.

Other views:

Elaine at Random Jottings shares some of the lovely images from this story

Simon at Stuck in a Book provides comparison to Diary of a Provincial Lady

Nan at Letters from a Hill Farm points out some amusing quotes

Cornflower gives us hope for a second volume of Henrietta

Thomas of My Porch talks about Henrietta in the context of epistolary fiction

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Year of the Tiger!

This year Chinese New Year falls on February 14th, so to spread the love around a little I will wish everyone a fantastic Year of the Tiger! According to theholidayspot:

This is definitely an explosive year. It usually begins with a bang and ends with a whimper. A year earmarked for war, disagreement and disasters of all kinds. But it will also be a big, bold year. Nothing will be done on a small, timid scale. Everything, good and bad, can and will be carried to extremes. Fortunes can be made and lost. If you take a chance, gamble for high stakes, but understand that the odds are stacked against you. ... The fiery heat of the Tiger's year will no doubt touch everyone's life. In spite of its negative aspects, we must realize that it could have a cleansing effect. Just as intense heat is necessary to extract precious metals from their ores, so the Tiger year can bring out the best in us.
Hmm, interesting. But of more immediate interest to me, I will continue on with my tradition of creating a book list to suit the animal of the year. Here are a few great books featuring Tigers:

Tiger is a kitten who likes to pretend he is a REAL tiger...and after spending the day running, roaring and NOT playing with wool, he is ready for bed. A sweet story about imagination, with extraordinarily appealing illustrations. (the follow-up, Tiger in the Snow, is a wonderful read-aloud as well)

This cute retro picture book is the story of Sophie and her mummy, who are just sitting down to tea when a large hungry tiger knocks at the door. They invite him in and he eats not only all the tea but everything in the house. Just as the tiger takes his leave, Sophie's Daddy comes home from work. His response to their story is that they should all go out to a café for supper. The illustrations are delightful (especially the tiger pouring the tea straight from the Brown Betty into his mouth) and some of the outdated references are so amusing to come across in a picture book - like the tiger drinking "all of daddy's beer".

Dicamillo, better known for her Tale of Desperaux or Because of Winn-Dixie, penned a tale of loss and renewal in her second novel. I don't think I can describe it better than its summary on her website:
Walking through the misty Florida woods one morning, twelve-year-old Rob Horton is stunned to encounter a tiger — a real-life, very large tiger — pacing back and forth in a cage. What’s more, on the same extraordinary day, he meets Sistine Bailey, a girl who shows her feelings as readily as Rob hides his. As they learn to trust each other, and ultimately, to be friends, Rob and Sistine prove that some things — like memories, and heartaches, and tigers — can’t be locked up forever.

4. Tiger, Tiger / Lynn Reid Banks

A teen novel set in Ancient Rome, this is a tale of twin tigers, Boots and Brute. They are brought from their jungle home to Rome where the weaker tiger cub becomes a pampered pet of Caesar's daughter Aurelia and the stronger one ends up as a feature at the Coliseum. Danger, a whiff of romance, the right and wrong of violent entertainment...all weave together to provide a riveting read.

Richard Parker the ravenous tiger is a castaway on the ocean with Pi Patel and a few other animals in this well known novel by Canadian author Yann Martel (also well known for his habit of sending books to our unappreciative Prime Minister)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Road to Lichfield

New York: HarperPerennial, 1992, c1977.
216 p.

Another Lively to begin the year, and another novel about adultery. I seem to have had a streak of those this month. This was Lively's first novel, and it was shortlisted for a number of awards. Having begun with her most recent work and made my way back to the beginning, I didn't see this novel as being as powerful some I've already read. It deals with some of her preoccupations: history, identity, families, memory and so on.

Anne Stanway Linton's father lives in Lichfield. He has had a bad stroke and is in nursing care. She takes the road to Lichfield repeatedly this year in order to visit him and clear out his house, as it seems he will not likely be going home. This act of clearing up his papers reveals a new side of her father, one which she was not always aware of. She finds things out that perhaps she didn't really want to know, primarily the existence of a mistress in his past.

Anne also discovers a part of herself she wasn't familiar with. She meets a local schoolteacher, one who had been a good friend to her father although he is Anne's age. There is an immediate attraction, though Anne tries to rationalize it. Eventually they become lovers, on the weekends when she is in Lichfield. Their relationship is drawn with some passion at the beginning but as it progresses slowly, their real lives get in the way. Family vacations must be taken; secrets must be kept; and the everyday facts of shaving, eating, getting lost on a day trip, having to be home for their spouses and children, all begin to wear on the relationship.

Meanwhile, Anne is dealing with the trauma of an ill father, a philandering brother with medical issues of his own, and a cold and remote husband who does not like scenes or any passionate communion. She has just been let go from her job as a high school history teacher, as her style of teaching is no longer au courant with the new theories of education in the Seventies. She is being rounded up by the local activist who is attempting to save an old 16th century cottage from being bulldozed for a new development. All this allows for great moments of skewering the academic circles in which she moves as well as the minutiae of the Seventies (decor, clothing, etc.)

It is a deceptively quiet novel, as so many of Penelope Lively's books are. It is a smooth surface with so much going on beneath. Anne's loss of her job, due to the changing ideas of what history is and what it means, reflect also the questions about what purpose local history holds, in the form of the to-be-bulldozed cottage. The idea of personal history, that of the family and of a marriage, also comes under question. What should we hold onto and what should we let go? What exactly makes us who we are? These eternal themes of Lively's work are given their first airing in this novel, and it made for interesting reading in light of all the later novels of hers which I've read. The men come off rather poorly in this one, but Lively always seems most interested in women's interior lives as well as how they shape their communal identity, and that is really what I love most about her work. Another enjoyable read from my newest favourite author.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Wild Geese by Ostenso

Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1989, c1925.
309 p.

This is a classic Canadian novel, one which has been selected by Melanie at Roughing it in the Books as part of the Canada Reads Independently project hosted by Kerry of Pickle Me This. It has been on my list of things to read for a long, long time, so this finally pushed me to pick it up.

This novel, set in Manitoba, deals with a family under the thumb of a domineering, selfish man, Caleb Gare. His wife Amelia is browbeaten because he knows her life's secret; she had a son out of wedlock who was given up for adoption. Caleb uses this fact to force Amelia to follow along with his plans and his habitual thwarting of their children's desires and needs.

They have four children; the oldest, Martin, is twenty and slow thinking, but there are inklings he is beginning to see that the way they live is not quite right. Eldest daughter Ellen is completely under his thumb; she has very bad sight but is only given a hand-me-down set of glasses which are not her prescription -- she thus has continually irritated and aching eyes, but follows along with everything her father says because she does not want to have to admit that his treatment is atrocious. Daughter Judith is the focal point of the story - strong, beautiful as a wild creature, as stubborn as Caleb and full of raging desire, Judith will not be cowed. Her desire for neighbour Sven Sandbo adds drama to the story, as he would like to marry her, and Judith must decide whether to buck Caleb's orders and leave the rest of the family to pay the consequences of her escape. There is also a younger son, Charlie, but he appears at the edges of the story and does not play any real part in the action, other than to skulk around acting as selfish and sneaky as Caleb. There is no indication by the end of the book what will become of him, but one can hope he won't turn out as a replica of his abusive and nasty father. The routine of the family is one of constant work; they must all work themselves ragged, keeping the farm going to provide maximum profit for Caleb, who oversees their duties, watching rather than helping. They are not allowed to leave the farm without his express permission.

Into this dysfunctional setting comes a young schoolteacher, Lind Archer. She is to take the local school for a year, and Caleb and Amelia board her -- although this seems unlikely in one way, Caleb is on the school board and so prides himself on his importance that he must have the privilege of boarding the teacher. Lind's view as an outsider allows us to see this story as it unfolds, and her unintentional influence is just enough to drive Judith to action.

I have to say this was a really uncomfortable read for me. In style, it was very much of its time, something I am used to reading in New Canadian Library selections. But it had a dark energy, a sexuality and a violence which was disturbing. Caleb literally made my skin crawl; I wished someone would just put an end to him already - he was a truly horrible man, the more so for his habit of speaking softly and 'kindly' as he laid down his edicts and forbade anyone anything they wanted. As Judith finally has enough and reacts, his violent response was in character but so awful. I'll remember this novel for the dreadful character of this overbearing man, but also for the grit and power of Judith in standing up to it.

It was quite a read, and surprisingly for a novel of the Canadian realist tradition, it does not end in tragedy all around. Perhaps this is because there is still the influence of a more romantic tradition evident, especially in the characters of Lind and neighbour Mark Jordan, as well as some of the more lyrical descriptions of Manitoba. There is a rather satisfying ending, actually, despite all appearances. As Charlotte at Inklings says of this book, "If you’re going to make your reader hurt, you ought to give them some kind of release... Ostenso does not punish us in this manner, but instead offers us a very well-considered and beautifully executed climax and conclusion. I can’t recommend this one enough."

I'd second that: although this is not a perfect book nor one that I will likely ever love as much as some others do, it was a fascinating read, full of descriptions of the land that is the only thing Caleb really loves, and of the social milieu of this small Manitoba community of farmers - Icelandic, Hungarian, Norwegian, and more. I enjoyed the sense of place, and although I couldn't admire the Gare family (Caleb was just too horrible), Ostenso's skill in drawing these characters is significant and impressive. It's a powerful book and one with a lot more energy than some of the other New Canadian Library titles I had to read during my school years.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Mawer's Glass Room

New York: Other Press, c2009.
416 p.

I'll just give a quick rundown on this book, shortlisted for the 2009 Booker, on a serious theme by a well respected author.

It is about a house, primarily: a house which represents the coming of the new era of modernism. It is in Czechoslovakia, created by an Austrian architect for a rich couple, Viktor and Liesel Landauer. This is just before the war, so you know that Jewish Viktor will not be staying long.

And yet the book is not really about the war or the Holocaust directly. It deals with the house as a symbol of all the changes in society, and the changing aesthetic in art over the century. After the couple who had it built flee the country, it falls into the hands of the Nazis, then the Russians, then becomes part of a state hospital which allows it to slowly fall into disrepair.

I like books with a house at the centre. I usually find them wonderful, a story revolving around a fixed point. This particular house offered an obvious metaphor for the story, and was lovingly described as an object as well as a symbol of larger things.

However, perhaps it was my mood, or my state of mind, but I couldn't get into this book. I tried, patiently reading a few pages every day, then skimming a little and trying really hard to get the point. I felt that I was missing something, obviously, as I was not caught up in the tale at all. The characters are all okay, I just didn't connect to them. The setting is wonderful, but I was feeling a bit grey and bored by it. Sigh. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy this reading experience, and don't have much to say about it as I only skimmed the last quarter of the book. Read a few other reviews for some actual substance, some meaningful response to a story that by all accounts is something to pay attention to.

Isabella at Magnificent Octopus loved The Glass Room (and talks about the real house which inspired the Landauer house)

Caitlin at Chaotic Compendiums finds Mawer's writing "cliched and relentless" and doomed by predictability (whew, I am not alone...)

Friday, February 05, 2010

Making & Mending with Ruth Thomas

Things to Make and Mend / Ruth Thomas
London: Faber & Faber, c2007.
254 p.

I first heard of this novel from a few British bloggers, and it sounded quite intriguing so when I found a copy locally I picked it up, intending to read it right away. A year later I have finally got around to reading it, and once I began I finished it in one great reading day.

I've been in a little bit of a reading & reviewing slump, mostly because I've been so very busy this month with work. (fun things like organizing poetry readings, but still, time consuming). I'll begin my reviews again with this novel, which really engaged me.

Things to Make and Mend is basically the story of two best friends, Sally and Rowena. They attend high school in Sussex in the 70s, and are inseparable until the age of fifteen when an unforgivable betrayal comes between them. The story follows each of them until they meet again, by chance, in Scotland.

Sally was not the best student, ending up leaving school and focusing on needlework which she had discovered a strange facility for while in Domestic Science classes with Rowena. Rowena, on the other hand, is quite brilliant, but makes the fatal error of getting pregnant at fifteen. She thus also leaves school, but later makes something of herself, becoming a French translator and marrying a nice Canadian man she meets at a conference. At the opening of the story, Sally has won a major needlework prize and is heading off to a conference in Scotland where she is to be a key speaker, the very thought of which terrifies her.

The story follows each of them in alternating chapters, allowing us a look at what exactly happened to these friends, from each point of view. Sally is really the main character, and I was absorbed in her story, wishing I could actually take a look at her bohemian, 70s style embroideries. A particularly nice touch was Rowena's opinion of the woman in the airport before she recognized her as Sally; as teens Sally had always thought of herself as awkward and overlarge, as compared to the pretty and witty Rowena. But when Rowena sees her as a grown woman, she wistfully thinks that she would like to be as colourful and artistic-looking as the woman lugging the portfolio.

The joy of this book was in the details of Sally and Rowena's lives, the way the little things of being a teenager were brought out, including the hours they suffered in Miss Button's needlework class together. The day to day living of being adults is also finely drawn; for example, the way Sally and her coworkers at a tailors shop form a kind of family while knowing that if one of them left they would disappear quietly and not keep in touch. Or the way in which Rowena has to acknowledge that her son, who is moving to America, will be distant from her from that moment on in both geographical and emotional terms. The small eccentricities of many characters who appear briefly through the story create a full backdrop, one in which it feels that a whole world is busily moving on and we are only catching glimpses of it.

It's a slow, meandering kind of read -- if you are looking for lots of excitement and clashing personalities and romance, look elsewhere. What I really enjoyed about this reading is the voice of the author: she has a deliberate style which I found appealing. As we get to know Sally there is a technique she has of putting things into lists, for example --

By that time, Colin had begun to occupy about eighty percent of her waking thoughts in any case. She thought of him every hour of every day. She thought about:

his sense of humour (surreal, sometimes slightly cruel)
his smooth skin
the scar on his left hand
his grey eyes
his off-hand manner
his reasons for loving her (she tried not to wonder about this too much).

This is reflective of Sally's need to keep everything organized, a way to keep hold of details, something she finds difficult. As she says near the beginning, she thinks she has become a needlewoman because "There is nothing more tangible than threads sewn through cloth. She is happiest with something that is stitched down, not given the chance to slip or unravel or change."

The two girls are well drawn, with clear personalities as teenagers, then as adults both sounding a bit isolated, a bit lost. It is clear they really need to cross paths once again.

Unfortunately there were a couple of flaws which I did find a bit jarring. The listing technique which I so enjoyed in Sally's chapters appears later in one of Rowena's. This seemed to be an ill fit, as first off it doesn't suit Rowena's character or first person narrative, and secondly it blurs the distinction between Sally and Rowena too much, making the author too apparent. Still, that did occur only once.

The other problem I had was that the whole book was leading up the reconciliation of these two former best friends, and the revelation of the truth of their estrangement. When it came it was at the very end of the book, taking place over just a few pages. It felt a little abrupt, and I would have liked to see more of an adult relationship developing between these two now quite different women. Sally (and the reader) is provided with the truth in what feels like a bit of a creaky plot move, as Sally runs across their old teacher Miss Button at her needlework conference. The facts of what happened are pretty clear to the reader much earlier than to Sally but I would have enjoyed seeing Sally and Rowena hash it out a little and come to a new friendship.

Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed reading this one. I found the voice of the author and the quiet lives of our two protagonists absorbing and learned a lot as well, about needlework and about England in the 70s. Also, the cover is really gorgeous, embroidered by someone who has obviously read and loved the book. Recommended to anyone fond of English women's fiction, or who has the slightest inclination toward the Domestic Arts.

Other thoughts:

Dovegreyreader shares her needlework recollections

Lovely summary at Viola in Vilnius

Sue's Book Reviews shares her opinion at The Bookbag