Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Middlemarch in Eliot's own words

Further to my post of yesterday, I wanted to share some of the quotes that caught my eye while reading Middlemarch over the last month. There are so many excellent bits; I love the way that George Eliot can capture a personality or a thought in just a few words, or share an extended reflection that says what we've always wanted to say, if we'd only known it! Here is a sampling from the many bits I've extracted into my commonplace book:

Will was not without his intentions to be always generous, but our tongues are little triggers which have usually been pulled before general intentions can be brought to bear.

But indefinite visions of ambition are weak against the ease of doing what is habitual or beguilingly agreeable; and we all know the difficulty of carrying out a resolve when we secretly long that it may turn out to be unnecessary.

...whatever else remained the same, the light had changed, and you can not find the pearly dawn at noonday. The fact is unalterable, that a fellow-mortal with whose nature you are acquainted solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, be disclosed as something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same. And it would be astonishing to find how soon the change is felt if we had no kindred changes to compare with it. To share lodgings with a brilliant dinner-companion, or to see your favourite politician in the Ministry, may bring about changes quite as rapid: in these cases too we begin by knowing little and believing much, and we sometimes end by inverting the quanitities.

...wrong reasoning sometimes lands poor mortals in right conclusions: starting a long way off the true point, and proceeding by loops and zigzags, we now and then arrive just where we ought to be.

"I call it improper pride to let fools' notions hinder you from doing a good action. There's no sort of work," said Caleb, with fervour, putting out his hand and moving it up and down to mark his emphasis, "that could ever be done well, if you minded what fools say. You must have it inside you that your plan is right, and that plan you must follow."

There is no general doctrine which is incapable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men.

"The best piety is to enjoy -- when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth's character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight -- in art or in anything else." [Will Ladislaw]

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Middlemarch / George Eliot
Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin English Library, 1974, c1871-2.
908 p.

Nymeth of Things Mean A Lot set up a Middlemarch readalong for this summer, which made me happy, as it was just the push I needed to finally get to Middlemarch, a book I've meant to read for ages. Her post is up, and what a post it is -- lengthy, thoughtful and thorough, as usual.

While I am afraid I didn't love this book as much as many readers seem to, it was still a great read. It was revealing of its time, with many quotable bits, and some wonderful characters (more minor characters like Caleb Garth turned out to be my favourites). However, I found Dorothea and her idealism a bit tiresome, and as she is the focus of the book, the one we're following through a difficult growing-up situation, it probably would have been better to feel some sympathy for her rather than mostly exasperation. Oh well, I could still appreciate her and all the denizens of the small town of Middlemarch.

It's a story of youth, ideals, marriages, social position, compromises and mistakes, as well as a few sort-of happy endings. Dorothea marries Mr. Casaubon, her elderly scholar husband whom she desires to idolize, but she is sadly disillusioned of this hope after marriage. Her sister Celia marries Sir James Chettam, a local worthy whom Dorothea judged too dull, but who is revealed to have a rather noble character as a brother-in-law. Tertius Lydgate, the new doctor in town, falls for the prettiest girl and marries far too young, causing all sorts of strife between the newlyweds. Working class Mary Garth wants to marry the young gentleman Fred Vincy but he has no prospects at the moment of the story's beginning. And so on. Eliot is a genius at revealing human quirks in one or two simple phrases. She catches all the shadings of social position and the restrictions that class and gender placed on the movement of all these characters' lives.

I found the beginning slow going -- it took me a while to get into the rhythm and the intricacies of the story. Once I felt like I had a grasp of who was who in Middlemarch -- names, family connections, and less obvious social standings -- it was easier to sink into the book. Eliot published the book in the 1870s, but it was set in earlier years, right around 1830, which was a time of upheaval and reform in England. Dorothea gets interested in and involved with ideas of reform right along with the men in the story (I did find that a fascinating element of the story; while it is unusual for the women of Middlemarch, Dorothea is not a pariah because of her interest). But this makes the story a historical one of sorts -- a look at a certain time from a slight remove. Eliot has had time to consider the meaning of actions and events and create a story from them which points out her interests. One such interest is in the role each person plays in creating a society, and how this society then hinders and shapes each life. The story is full of moments that could be expanded upon, and since there are so many characters, and so many pages, you could probably go on for hours about just one thread of the story.

The more I think about it and try to write about it, the more I realize how extraordinary the construction of the book is. It's the first Eliot I've read, and I think I'll go on and read more of her work. While the story may not seem as exciting or full of vigour as Dickens or Wilkie Collins -- no eccentrics or lost heirs or crazy women in white floating about -- it is a complex look at provincial society in a time of change. I can only say that reading it will repay you for the time you have to invest in it. Try looking at others' views of their reading experience at the Middlemarch Readalong wrap-up post. Then decide if it is time to read it yourself!

Coming up in my next post: a small selection of some of my favourites of the many, many quotable bits of this marvellously written book.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Vegan Victorian Tea Party

As I am participating in the Middlemarch readalong and this is the week for discussion, I felt drawn to create a menu for a wonderful early Victorian tea party for this week's Meatless Monday. What are a few of my favourite things? Victorian literature, tea, vegan scones & cake :)

Without further ado, please consider yourself invited to my tea party. Pull up a comfortable chair, have a cup of tea, and crack open a nice long Victorian novel (may I suggest Dickens, George Eliot, or Wilkie Collins?)

Selection of Teas

Murchie's Library Blend

Any Selection from Novel Teas


A Variety of Finger Sandwiches

Dainty & Unusual Tea Sandwiches


Lavender Tea Cake

Rich Chocolate Cake


Blackberry Almond Scones

Ginger Chocolate Chunk Scones

Oatmeal Currant Scones


Lemon Curd

Vegan 'Clotted Cream'

Jam (you can make your own!)


Vegan YumYum's Petits Fours

(actual photo of VeganYumYum's Petits Fours, from her blog)

Or, you can just take a look at this Afternoon Tea article in the Veg News for more inspiration, or perhaps the tea menus from The Cat-Tea Corner, or maybe the yummy pictures of Vegan Lunch Box's birthday tea. Whatever you choose, enjoy yourself :)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Happy Birthday, Ray Bradbury!

Today is Ray Bradbury's 90th birthday, and I hope he enjoys himself thoroughly in view of all the enjoyment he's given others for years and years. He has an inimitable style which I absolutely love, and his stories are true modern classics.

Celebrate the day with a reading of one of your own favourites -- they are brief, it won't take long -- I am about to reread "All Summer in a Day", "The Pedestrian", and "There Will Come Small Rains", just a few of my favourites. Maybe I will also sink into Something Wicked This Way Comes. Or perhaps take another look at The Martian Chronicles. Maybe even reread Fahrenheit 451. Oh, it's an embarrassment of riches when you're talking Ray Bradbury.

Happy Birthday to a wonderful writer and a man who is always himself.

Some videos to watch as well:

Friday, August 20, 2010

Heaven is Small

Heaven is Small / Emily Schultz
Toronto: Anansi, c2009
284 p.

Author Emily Schultz is an accomplished author, poet, and web magazine co-founder and editor (see Joyland). Nevertheless, not being immersed in the same literary circles, I hadn't really heard of her previous to this novel coming to my attention.

The premise of this book is that Gordon Small, hapless joke-store employee and single man whose life is pretty routine and dull, dies on the first page -- no, not even that, in the first sentence.

Moments after his death, an event he had failed to notice, Gordon Small sought new employment.
However, while we are aware of his recent lapse of mortality, he is not. He searches for a new job, following much of the same lifeless routine he has followed in his actual life. He lands a position at the publishing conglomerate known as Heaven Books, a huge complex out in the wastelands of suburbia (any comparisons to Harlequin & Don Mills are likely intentional, as the author worked for Harlequin for a while).

The prose itself reflects the deadened, muffled thoughts encouraged by the constraints Gordon faces while working away in a little office . He seems to be the only one who becomes aware that everyone there is in fact dead. He tries to tell everyone, to get people to believe him, but that only shakes things up and puts him under watch. He finally uses the format of the romance novels that he is editing to send out a final message to the ex-girlfriend (now very successful romance writer herself) who he has left behind. It's a scene that seemed to me to imply that the romance genre is a way readers convince themselves of their existence, through an addiction to reassurances of physicality. Or maybe it was just Gordon's one good idea.

I liked this one; the conceit was interesting and the minutiae of office life was so perfectly drawn -- even the staff room fridge has its place in inter-office politics. However, I didn't quite fall in love. The long scenes of office drudgery made me feel like I was watching another episode of The Office, while the set-up of Heaven being a kind of purgatory sometimes felt to me to be the main focus, all the details having to fit that Idea rather than a more organic storyline. But that's just me -- I lent this one to a friend right after I finished and she thought that part of it was great. Still, I have a hard time reading books that are this dependent on a specific conceit; half my mind is always trying to figure out the details - do they eat? (yes) do they excrete? (no) Is everyone in the same boat? (uncertain)

The writing itself is enjoyable, as the author is an accomplished writer and poet; some of the lines and images are startlingly poetic and memorable. It was a good read that I could admire and respect even if it didn't grab my emotional heart and make me love it. The conclusion is a gorgeous set piece, with images still resonating in my mind. But again, in retrospect, I was puzzled by how the actions of the conclusion fit in with the afterlife 'rules' set out throughout the book. So, if you want to have a fling with a clever and attractive book, do try it. This one, however, was not a marriage of true minds for me.

Other opinons:

JK of Keepin' It Real Book Club had a true romance with this book

Corey of Shelf Monkey states: Gordon's quest for more than death provides is at once bewitching, witty, and terrifyingly familiar.

Remi of Gunner's Miscellany thought it was fun and well constructed though he had a minor quibble with the cover design

Emily Schultz was born in 1974 in southwestern Ontario. She studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Windsor, where she completed her BA. Her first collection of short stories, Black Coffee Night, was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award for Best First Fiction in Canada, and for the ReLit Award. Heaven is Small is her fifth book.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Circus in Winter

Orlando, FL: Harcourt, c2004.
288 p.

I've had this book on my shelf for a long time. I chose it as one of the books I wanted to get to in Emily's TBR Challenge, and I'm glad I did so, because that finally made me read a book that I very much enjoyed. I knew I had picked it up originally for a good reason!

The book is laid out in a series of short stories. I liked this approach, as we meet various characters at the circus, from the owner and manager Wallace Porter, to Jennie Dixianna the acrobat famous for her 'Spin of Death', to Hans Hofstadter, elephant trainer whose charge turns on him. Each of these characters is fascinating enough on their own, and they reappear as side characters in the others' stories. I enjoyed how this pointed out the way we see the world - our own viewpoint holds central importance for us, but we are only peripheral to others. The writing is somehow elegiac; there is a sense of affection for these troubled characters, and a feeling of looking back at the intricacies of their emotional lives with a tinge of nostalgia - meant in the sad, protective sense of nostalgia, not sentimentality. I enjoyed the writing itself nearly as much as the stories; it suited the book perfectly, and captured a whole feeling of the lost glory days of a travelling circus.

One of the stories, though, being set outside the circus and its denizens, didn't seem to fit perfectly. It chafed a little, poking up from the smooth surface Day had created with all the other stories. The only tie it has is that it is set in the town and house of some of the circus performers from years earlier. Gathering together stories that have been previously published can sometimes have this effect; I think this particular story, though affecting on its own, could have been left out of this collection without any change to the main narrative line.

This book provided a look at an unusual setting, inspired by the author's background in Peru, Indiana, once a wintering over location for the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. She obviously knows her subject, even having relatives who had been part of that circus. A part of circus life that we don't often consider, that of the months of survival necessary when not performing, is excellently presented. After reading this I am not sure you'd really want to run away and join the circus...the life seems like lots of hard work mixed in with lots of waiting around. Read this wonderful writing for an escape instead.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Ripe From Around Here

This week, another cookbook review...the latest from Torontonian Jae Steele.

Ripe From Around Here / Jae Steele
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, c2010.
263 p.

Another wonderful new cookbook I received from the publisher, this is the second book by Toronto nutritionist and cook Jae Steele. I bought her first one and have enjoyed it, so was looking forward to this one as well.

Steele is a holistic nutritionist, so her books are each nearly half full of information and tips about healthy vegan eating, vitamins and antioxidants and so on of various foods, how to prepare foods best and all sorts of fascinating things like that. It's very useful even for those who are quite well versed in the subject and I can imagine it would be invaluable for new vegans. In this one she also talks about the benefits of eating locally, and provides a how-to on composting.

I've tried quite a few of the recipes in this book, being fortunate enough to test a few for the book in its pre-publication state. A couple of the recipes have become staples for me: the pesto potato salad was amazing and simple -- my husband thinks it should be called Dangerously Delicious Potato Salad. And I love the Arame Broccoli Salad; broccoli, sesame seeds and arame (seaweed) tossed in a luscious dressing of soy sauce, toasted sesame oil and dulse powder. I serve it over buckwheat noodles with a bit of extra dressing, and it is fantastic. Even non-seaweed eaters enjoy it.

There are many tempting recipes, using generally familiar ingredients, though a few are a bit more expensive or hard to find, especially when you're not in a big city. These are usually not quick and dirty recipes, rather some may take a little more time. They do use quality ingredients and feel a bit more 'gourmet' than instant. Not all take loads of time -- the Arame salad only takes about 20 minutes, but the focus is on fresh produce and homemade meals, not fast food or the use of ready made veggie products. She also places strong emphasis on eating locally, so if you're interested in the slow food movement or local eating or veganism - any of these are important parts of her presentation.

This book is well worth perusing, with lots of information and rigorously tested recipes. Jae Steele also has a website where she shares quite a few of her recipes so if you want to try some out, pop on over to A Domestic Affair. There are recipes for a whole meal, from drinks to desserts, shared generously amidst lots of news about what she is up to next. (my fave? Flax Maple cookies. Yum.)

Both this book and her first one, Get It Ripe, have tons of ideas for the adventurous vegan cook. They are mostly text, with a few central photos of some very delicious looking meals. This would be a good addition to a vegetarian or vegan kitchen.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Lazy Sundays

It's a lazy Sunday morning, a nice change from the busy week. Of course I'm taking advantage of this time to have a nice cup of tea and catch up on some of my reading. I have so many great books ahead of me right now -- a wide variety, actually. Thought I'd share a few of the titles I have on the stack; if you have read any of them please share your recommendations and comments.

I'm nearly done with Dorothy Sayer's Busman's Honeymoon. is so romantic. I can't believe I've left it this long to get acquainted with the delicious Lord Peter Wimsey. I first read Gaudy Night, then went back to read the first two books that feature both Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. Sadly, this is the last that Sayers herself wrote featuring my two favourites. Time to begin again!

I've begun a few Canadian novels, all of which seem fascinating thus far. I'm halfway through Aimée Laberge's Where the River Narrows, a multigenerational family story set in Quebec and steeped in history. Plus it has a librarian. I love it. I've also picked up a couple others that I've only read the first couple of pages of, to see if they might interest me. Jeanette Lynes' The Factory Voice, Rachael Preston's The Wind Seller and Kyo Maclear's The Letter Opener are all on tap for possible future Canadian Book Challenge reads.

But, after looking at my working stack and then all my shelves, then at my Sunday schedule -- parties later on! -- I must sign off and get back to the books. Hope everyone is able to have a readable day as well.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Jansson's True Deceiver

NY: NYRB, c2009.
181 p.

I've been hearing so much of Tove Jansson over the last while, especially since the New York Review of Books began issuing a few of her adult books in translation. This is the one that my library system had -- I am still looking out for both the Summer Book and the Winter Book. This particular novel has an intriguing cover, one designed by Tove Jansson for this book when she published it originally, in 1982.

It is really a story of two women: Katri Kling, a rather abrupt and unsociable woman who lives with her brother, and Anna Aemelin, a children's book illustrator who lives alone in her big old family home. Katri is practical to a fault; no-one really likes her, but they respect her skill with numbers and her completely disinterested arbitration in village disagreements. She has it in her mind that she will secure a place for herself and for her innocent brother by moving them into Anna Aemelin's house; after all it is far too big for just one old woman. To that end, she puts herself at the service of Anna, slowly and bit by bit, playing a deep game. Anna is a meek, naive woman who spends her time painting the forest floor extraordinarily well and then adding in flowery bunnies to suit her publishers. It is these flowery bunnies that have made her name, resulting in a good income and many, constant, fan letters.

Katri brings her business sense and general distrust of humanity to bear on Anna's dealings, rewriting contracts and settling fan letter responses logically and to the most advantage for Anna. However, Katri of course wants some benefit; she wants to share in the vastly improved income her efforts are bringing in for Anna. To Katri's credit, her goal is always to improve Mats' life, to secure a safe living space and bring him his dream of owning a boat of his own.

The book details the balancing act between these two women throughout a long, cold, and endlessly snowy winter. Anna goes into a sort of hibernation in the winter, sleeping through most of it and waiting for spring so she can go out into the woods and paint again. Katri is cold and dispassionate, rather like the weather. They come to a point where Katri seems to be in control -- but then Spring arrives, and the warming and the growth shake up the delicate balance, revealing Katri to have a heretofore unnoticed heart, while revealing Anna is not quite the naive, bunny-like creature she has always appeared to be. They have each changed the other: infected one another with their particular weakness, or added their own strength to the other's personality, depending on your viewpoint. It is all subtly told, with shadings of meaning in each sentence, and tiny events shaping the relationship between these women and all the townspeople.

The final question appears to be, who is the true deceiver? Which of all these people can be said to be wholly transparent? And is it best or easiest to live with other people, or without them? This is a wonderful novel that explores all these topics obliquely, without proclaiming any set answer. It reads as slowly and majestically as a winter storm, opaque yet with sudden swirls of violence that open up unexpected vistas. Really a wonderful work that proves you can't be satisfied thinking of Tove Jansson as just the author of the Moomintroll books, delightful as they are. One of the many quotes I copied out, of particular interest to the bookish:

The books still lay on the table, brand new, shiny in their tempting adventure colors. They smelled good. Anna raised one book after another to her cheek and inhaled the evanescent smell of unread book, unlike any other.

You can also find a fabulous online museum dedicated to Tove Jansson with lots of family history and her artwork. Even if the only Jansson you've ever seen is the Moomintrolls, do take a look. Beware, you can spend quite a bit of time there!

Other Opinions:

Emily Jane at Booked All Week says "The story seems a simple tale of deception, but it also deals with the complex themes of creativity, artistic representation vs. reality, and our general attitudes toward dealing with others in such a way that lends a sort of validating weight to this small book."

Ess at Book Handler states that "What this post comes down to is that you need to read "The True Deceiver" by Tove Jansson" and provides quotes to back it up

Swampwalker says "It’s a deceptively simple plot, and a small book, but I understand why the NYRB brought it back and why so many people rave about it"

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hey, Waitress!

Hey Waitress and other stories / Helen Potrebenko
Vancouver: Lazara Press, c1989.
167 p.

I picked this one up in a second hand store recently, simply because of the cover and the fact that the author is a Canadian Ukrainian. I am always fascinated by Ukrainian content, and this book had a lot of such subject matter. This is a collection of short stories by a writer I'd never heard of before: such a shame, as she is fantastic. And her book Taxi! is one of the seminal working class novels in Canadian writing, apparently -- little did I know, as I never studied such things in school!

Potrebenko has a fascinating style. She is very concerned with women's lives, and with the lives of workers of all kinds. Waitresses, of course, but also bank tellers, office temps, old women, immigrants, etc., and she speaks from a place of equality with them. Yet her work is not only 'about' issues, it is full of strong characters and excellent writing.

I really enjoyed her perspective. Each of the stories in this collection has great characters -- lots of women making the best of a bad lot, always with a sense of perseverance and quiet determination. Humour helps as well. A few of the stories deal directly with the Ukrainian experience -- 'Three Days in Kiev' is a story of Kiev in 1968, long before glasnost or the Westernization of Ukraine; 'A Different Story' reveals the misery of racism and deprivation that immigrants to Canada suffered as a matter of course; 'The Interview' follows the attempt of a young writer trying to get a life story from an old Ukrainian woman in a home, whose tales of history and family upheaval can't be kept to the lines of the interviewer's expectations.

A few of the other stories also have characters with Ukrainian background but who are just another part of Canadian life. This thread weaves in among the others, those of feminism and labour history. The women in these stories are clearly held back by politics, both of gender and class, and there is nothing about them as individuals that can be the cause of such troubles. Potrebenko has a wide vision of how each of these elements plays out within a wider society, and how ethnicity, gender and class can not be treated separately. Everything is interconnected, and to blame or assign cause to an individual in such a society is a facile argument.

If you're looking for short stories that are not insular or inward looking, that are instead wide-open and engaged with everyday life, you couldn't do better than to try Helen Potrebenko. To give you a feeling for her narrative style, I'll share a bit of the title story, 'Hey, Waitress'. In this story, Stella is a career waitress who has raised her daughter as a single parent and wants better for her daughter. The first excerpt introduces her to us, and the second is a discussion about Ginny going back to school and the arrangements they have to make to suit their new circumstances.

Mom, what's wrong? Ginny leaped up from the couch in alarm.

Nothing, Stella Sutcliffe snarled. I've just been smiling all day and now I'm resting my face.

Oh, Ginny said, relieved. Well, there's no need to snarl about it.

I'm not snarling! This is what's left of my voice after talking syrupy all day. ...


Go back? I don't know. I'm having a baby now. You must have noticed.

Sure, I noticed. Mothers are very observant. We can share the child care.

Get real, there's no way you can support yourself and the two of us. Besides, I'll want my own place eventually. I was talking to Kelly and she just works the lunch hour and gets a welfare supplement-- that way she can send Peter off to school in the morning and be home after school.

The baby isn't even born yet so it will be a few years before it goes to school.

Don't be too sure, Ginny laughed. It might be a genius, you know.

Stella would have liked to say that with a father like that, they'd be lucky if the child learned to tie its shoelaces but instead she said that while the baby was little, Ginny could work the early shift while Stella babysat and Stella would try to get changed to the late shift.

You can read many of her poems and stories at her website. I was intrigued and inspired by her fresh voice and her stalwart committment to saying what she means. Very interesting writing that anyone with a political interest would find engaging, and that I think should be rediscovered by Canadians -- and everyone else -- since it is still so relevant.

Helen Potrebenko, one of Vancouver’s most uncompromising feminist writers, was born on June 21, 1940 in Grand Prairie, Alberta. Her best known novel, Taxi, was published in 1975, shortly after her move to Vancouver. As she says on her website "My husband and I are landed gentry living in Burnaby, BC. With the help of medication, my blood pressure is now lower than my I.Q. My books can be purchased from Lazara Press or borrowed from your local library."

Monday, August 09, 2010

You are what you... read?

For my Meatless Monday post this week, I thought I would share my latest object of covetousness. Two of my favourite things, vegetarianism and reading, tied up in one lovely tshirt:

Isn't that nice? You can find it, and many other vegetarian & vegan friendly shops, on the Veg News website -- where you can also find hundreds of wonderful recipes, articles, and links -- and sign up for their e-newsletter. There are sections for recipes, for news, for job postings (mostly US), green living, travel, AND a brand-new book club blog. Here is the schedule for the first 3 months -- there are still two reads to join in on if you want to:

July: Mad Cowboy by Howard Lyman

August: Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin

September: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Friday, August 06, 2010


Fauna / Alissa York
Toronto: Random House, c2010.
384 p.

I received this book as an ARC from the publisher ahead of its recent release, and have just finished it this week. This is the second novel I've read by a new-to-me Canadian author, for this year's Canadian Book Challenge. Like the first one I read, this is set in Toronto, which is a coincidence, but an interesting one. Many of the locations are the same, and it amused me to think of the various characters from each book coming across each other as they walked the same streets.

Fauna was a mesmerizing book. The atmosphere is immensely rich. There is a large-ish cast of characters, perhaps a few too many at certain points for my brain to absorb; sometimes focusing so deeply on so many alternating lives was discombobulating, even if each person was fascinating. Fauna deals with issues of urban wilderness -- birds flying into office towers, foxes and raccoons becoming roadkill, coyotes in the city -- and skunks, foxes and raccoons have little narratives of their own within the tale. We meet one of the main characters, Edal, as the book opens. She is on stress leave from her job as a federal wildlife officer, unable to take one more experience of the hideous deaths of foreign species smuggled in to Canada by greedy humans (sadly a situation in the news just this week). She is drawn back into life, into some kind of human community, when she comes across Lily, a young street kid, and her huge black dog, who are gathering up stunned birds from under office buildings in the early dawn. Edal follows her, to a wrecking yard on the edge of the Don Valley, slightly apart from the urban sprawl she's used to. There she meets the owner, Guy, his assistant Stephen, and through them a few other characters as the book goes on. This is an idyllic group, a set of injured individuals aiding one another as they rescue and care for (and sometimes provide final resting places for) injured wildlife. As a federal wildlife officer, Edal knows that this is illegal but as they are all obviously sincere, concerned and knowledgeable she doesn't say anything. It helps, of course, that she is increasingly attracted to Guy.

This group is at the heart of the novel; their shaping of themselves into a family is a slow, steady development. One of the lovely elements of this book is how it continually and directly references and quotes from other animal books. Lily reads Watership Down on Guy's recommendation, and copies passages into a notebook (which we get to read). Edal herself is named after an otter in Gavin Maxwell's A Ring of Bright Water -- passages of which are included as Edal recalls reading it as a child. One of the habits the group has is to listen to Guy read aloud after their communal suppers. They read The Jungle Book throughout the novel, sharing relevant scenes with us as readers. The chapters about Darius, who comes in to the story later, are tied up with The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, in a really sad way. The titles of various chapters all refer to one of these books as well. This is very much a book for the bookish.

However, all is not paradisaical in this latter-day Eden. Stephen comes across a blog written by Coyote Cop, advocating the violent destruction of the coyote population. The blog exchanges between Stephen and Coyote Cop add a tech element to a very nature focused story. This part of the book wasn't my favourite storyline; the background story of Darius (Coyote Cop) was unpleasant and miserable, and though his role is not central to the story we spend many pages reading about him. Considering the conclusion, I felt my emotional investment in his story was not really worth it.

One other part of the story that niggled, for me, was the fact that none of these serious animal lovers was vegetarian. There are descriptions of their meals, Stephen's lentil stew but also meatloaf and chicken and so on. Coming immediately after sorrowful burying of wild birds unfortunate enough to fly into windows, it jarred a little on this vegetarian's sensibilities. To be fair, York does include a statement about how one couldn't function feeling the pain of every creature in the world. And all the naturalist books referred to in the story take animal eating animal as part of the cycle of life. Still, I'd have thought at least one of these gentle folk would have been a vegetarian, even just statistically.
As Stephen types in a blog comment:

There's a switch inside every one of us that I guess grew there as a necessary part of survival. How can you drag a fish up out of the river for your supper if you feel the yank of the hook in your own cheek? I get that part. We can't feel for everyone and everything all the time. We'd die of sorrow or fear or sorrow a hundred times a day. The thing is, it's gotten so we flick that switch off like it's nothing. And, more often than not, we forget to turn it back on.

However, all told, this was a magnetic tale. I couldn't stop thinking about all the engaging characters when I wasn't reading, and was in a rush to get back to the book at the first opportunity when I was forced to put it down. The obvious affection York has for the natural world and for her vulnerable characters comes through strongly, and creates an absorbing narrative. The location of Toronto is also a major character in the book, with wilder places like the Don Valley and Riverdale Farm, as well as the streets of the city, playing a huge role. The sense of place is rich and satisfying. It is a slow and deep story, full of varied rewards. It may also open your eyes to the plethora of animal life in any city, proving that the human belief in our general superiority is based on shaky ground.

Alissa York was born in 1970, in Athabasca, Alberta, to Australian immigrant parents. has lived all over Canada and now makes her home in Toronto with her husband, writer/filmmaker Clive Holden. Alissa published her first story in The New Quarterly in 1995. Her highly acclaimed first novel, Mercy, was published in 2003. Second novel Effigy was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Fairies and Frights: two young adult novels

Wayfarer / R.J. Anderson
Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, c2010.
304 p.

Book Two of Anderson's series (Faery Rebels), this has quite a different feel than the first in the series, Spell Hunter (or Knife in the UK). This one is known as Rebel in the UK, and as with Knife, I really like the UK cover better. Much more magical and representative of the story!

This book continues the story of the fairies of the Oakenwyld. In the first book, Knife has to reach out and break the isolation of her community in order to save it. She was a tough, decisive character, and I kind of missed her presence in much of this one. However, as this story opens, Timothy, a relative of Knife's husband Paul, is coming to live with them for a while. He has been suspended from school and needs a place to stay, so appears without an invitation. One of the reasons houseguests are not generally welcome is because Knife does not want anyone messing around with the oak in the back yard, and she tells Timothy (a rebellious teenage boy) that he must stay away from it. Of course he doesn't.

He meets Linden, one of the fairies from the Oakenwyld, and they head off on an adventure together, seeking the fabled Stone of Naming. This is a magical object which will free all fairies from the yoke of a disturbed and powerful queen who has most of Britain's fairy population in thrall. Timothy and Linden's travels provide a way for Anderson to explore and illuminate different kinds of fairies and communities, whether tiny forest dwellers like the residents of the Oakenwyld, or more urban fairy gangs of glamoured misfits. The fairies who supposedly hold the Stone of Naming are more like the elves of Lothlorien in Tolkien; they've taken themselves out of the world and live on a magical, invisible island which is the final destination for our two travellers.

This tale is a bit more modern feeling and dark than Knife was, as we get a glimpse of the wider world. It was just as exciting and well crafted, however, with many elements that allow the reader to ponder right and wrong, or questions of identity. I look forward to the next installments to be published in 2011/12, Arrow and Swift.

Nieve / Terry Griggs
Toronto: Biblioasis, c2010.
250 p.

Griggs, known for her wordplay and inventive turn of mind, has written a teen novel that exploits all her strengths. This is a tale of Nieve, a young teen whose parents are professional weepers. They are busy at funerals and dolorous occasions, but Nieve starts to notice that work is getting busier even as her parents' relationship is struggling. She also starts to notice strangers in town -- like a substitute teacher who rewards the class with jawbreakers that unfortunately resemble eyeballs, or a man on the road who tosses out wriggling seeds that grow into thorny, leathery black plants that choke out everything else. The sudden descent of her town into darkness and gothic horror leads her to discover, with the help of her grandmother and another stranger, young Lias, that she must save them all.

The story is delightfully inventive, and has illustrations by Grigg's son Alexander which are also dark and creepy. Gothic weirdness and reliance on Celtic myth make this into a puzzle of creative proportions. I like Nieve herself, especially at the beginning when she seems to have more self-sufficiency. The only reservations I had here were that the set-up wasn't clearly explained; why does Nieve have to save the day? How does she suddenly have access to magic and how does it work? And for that matter, how does she know how it works? Why exactly are these creatures from the Black City infesting their town? This one was fascinating and inventive, but I would have enjoyed more explication and background to deepen the story and provide more of a hook for the reader. This is the first in a projected trilogy, however, so perhaps with the next we'll learn more about the very odd place known as the Black City.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Vegan Butter Tarts a la Sarah Kramer

This week's Meatless Monday post is a review of one of my favourite cookbooks. Enjoy!

How It All Vegan, 10th Anniversary Edition / Sarah Kramer & Tanya Barnard.
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, c2010.
232 p.

I bought the first edition of this book when it first appeared and fell in love with it then. I was not and am not a vegan, though I've been vegetarian for the last 17 years or so. I lean toward vegan in my eating generally though, and have found that the only cookbooks I've bought in years have been vegan ones. This is one of my favourites.

I received this 10th anniversary edition from the publisher, and eagerly dug in to the new features: a new essay by the delightful Sarah Kramer, colour photos of mouthwatering recipes, and the addition of five new recipes including the sine qua non of Canadian cooking, a vegan buttertart. Best buttertart ever created in the history of buttertarts, in my humble opinion! I've made them for parties at which nobody was aware they were vegan but raved over them. Great, great recipe. Easy and delicious.

Things I love about this book:
  • the fun, kitschy design & 50's feel

  • Sarah & Tanya's intros

  • the way they make veganism hip and easy, no weird unavailable ingredients or 7 hour prep times here

  • tips on making vegan living easier

  • no pretension, everything comes from experience and their hard gained knowledge
Any of the recipes in this book could be easily figured out and tossed together after a long day at work, and satisfy a whole family. Nobody will be picking at their plates wondering what the heck they are eating or feeling deprived. These are vegan meals full of ease, familiarity and there are also sweets! I like how the whole feel of all of Sarah & Tanya's books is one of enthusiasm, giving you a feeling that you are getting a treat by trying out the recipes, not fighting to 'take out' ingredients and deprive yourself but rather that you are honoring your body by giving it more of what is good for it.

You can probably tell I recommend this book! New vegans will find it priceless, and established ones (if they don't already own it...) can find lots of quick new ideas. It is wonderful for non-vegans, even non-vegetarians, who just want to eat less meat, as it doesn't get preachy and alienate anyone who just wants a meatless meal once a week. Rather, as said in the intros, "Life is a gift. Don't be so serious."