Sunday, January 30, 2011

Lehmann's Ballad and the Source

The Ballad and the Source / Rosamond Lehmann
London: Virago, 2006, c1944.
332 p.

Another Virago off my shelf for Virago Reading Week, hosted by Carolyn at A Few of my Favourite Books and Rachel at BookSnob.

I've read quite a few of Lehmann's books and have enjoyed most of them -- I began with Dusty Answer, and was an immediate fan (even though Lehmann said herself that she couldn't stand the over-romanticized character of Judith years after writing it).

This one is a bit different than her other works; for one thing, it is her only work not set in her own time. It is set slightly earlier, from the mid/late Victorian Era to the First World War. Like my first read this week, Elizabeth Taylor's Angel, this book features another strong, self-contained, domineering central character, that of Sybil Anstley Jardine. Mrs. Jardine is considered quite elderly by the little girls who are invited up to the neighbouring big house for tea when Mrs. Jardine returns to residence there. Although their parents exchange a dubious look at this invitation, sisters Jess and Rebecca are taken by their governess to meet Mrs. Jardine, whose charms immediately win over Rebecca, a ten year old who later becomes the unlikely confidante of the infamous Mrs. Jardine.

While I enjoyed reading this, and was intrigued by many of the over-the-top plot incidents, it was rather melodramatic. In other overviews of Lehmann's work, this book has been mentioned as the most melodramatic of her works and I must agree. We have a fallen woman, family madness, sexual power trips, possible incest, kidnapping, and so on and so on. That this history is basically told out to a ten year old is a strain on the reader's belief, but the absolutely self-absorbed and self-justifying nature of Mrs. Jardine makes it just possible that this could have occurred.

The middle section of the book is essentially one character telling the story to another, which does begin to pall just a bit. But, I was driven to continue, to try to figure out this very messed up family and discover just what was going to happen to Mrs. Jardine's suddenly orphaned grandchildren, who she takes in and sees only then for the first time. At the end of this section, the Jardines move to another estate in France.

The book then jumps about five years, to return to England after WWI: the family had been stuck there during the war. When they return, granddaughter Maisie (who had become a particular friend of Rebecca's in the first instance) picks up the story and continues filling in the now teenage Rebecca on the rest of their family history, and the sudden return of her mother whom they'd thought dead.

There was much drama and angst and innocence destroyed in this book. Rebecca, as a young girl hearing all these things that she doesn't quite understand, gives us the story as she'd heard it, without any of her own inferences to cloud our judgement of the situation. Mrs. Jardine is a fright, an utterly self-absorbed woman slavishly attached to the idea of herself as a femme fatale; she can't even stand her own daughter, who is as beautiful as she is. Even as an "elderly" woman she needs to know that every male in her vicinity prefers her over all other women, even if the man and other woman in question are both twenty years younger. It was quite a portrait of an unusual personality.

The flaws in the book, for me, were simply that there was a lot of "telling". Everyone seemed to want to go over details of their past and all their intimate feelings in Rebecca's hearing. I felt as if Rebecca was simply a static receiver, nothing happening in her own life to speak of, simply present as a conduit for the Jardine family's tales. However, Lehmann wrote a later novel, A Sea Grape Tree, which follows Rebecca after a failed love affair as an adult (a favourite theme of Lehmann's) so perhaps I'll read that one for more about Rebecca -- although it was written after Lehmann's conversion to spiritualism so I'll have to see if it is readable.

Nonetheless, Virago Reading Week has been a lot of fun, and an encouragement to pick up a few of the volumes on my shelf which were awaiting a read. Check out Carolyn & Rachel's review round-ups to find a large number of Virago readers talking about what they've may encourage you to pick up one that you haven't read yet.


A bonus: something I found while looking around at information on Rosamond Lehmann online.... a look at Lehmann's views of her own writing and her life in a very interesting 1985 Paris Review interview discussing various aspects of her life story in relation to her works.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Anne of Windy Poplars

Anne of Windy Poplars / Lucy Maud Montgomery
Toronto: McClelland Stewart, 1983, c1936.

This volume of the Anne series, #4 chronologically, was actually written much later than the others in the series. It was a 'fill in' book, designed to cover the gap between Anne's graduation from Redmond and engagement to Gilbert, and their marriage three years later. According to Elizabeth Waterston's Magic Island, when LM Montgomery came to write this one, she spent time rereading her earlier books to reacquaint herself with the girlishness of the young Anne, and to make sure she wouldn't contradict anything she'd written in the later books. She was a careful and precise writer, and spent a lot of time seeding events and characters between the books.

In this book, Anne has become principal of Summerside High School, and encounters a whole set of new characters. The style of the book is primarily epistolary, with Anne writing Gilbert amusing letters about her experiences in Summerside. There are also more traditionally narrative chapters interspersed, and a few visits home to Avonlea in the school breaks.

In this book Anne is going out into the world and finding her place as an independent woman. (As an aside I am not sure that the illustrator of the books I own ever really read the this one Anne is principal of the high school in the second largest city in PEI, not a teacher at a one room schoolhouse any longer.) One thing I did find a little odd about this one upon my reread was how little time Anne spends at Green Gables -- even when she goes home for her school breaks, she spends weeks staying with others, and going off to various places for weddings and so on. We hardly see Marilla and Rachel Lynde at all.

Summerside is full of entertaining characters -- her elderly landladies are the combination frequently found in LMM's work: Aunt Kate, a stern sister and Aunt Chatty, a dithery, sweet one. They are assisted by a distant relative as housekeeper, the practical Rebecca Dew. And of course, The Cat, Dusty Miller.

Anne also has to deal with the Pringles, the first family of the town who already have a grudge against her because she got the job they thought their male third cousin should have had. After much struggle and amusing coincidences Anne gets the upper hand and the Pringles swing around to support her. She also interacts with Little Elizabeth from next door, a frail, elfin child from next door who is being raised by her stern grandmother and cruel housekeeper, after being abandoned to their care by her absent father after her mother's death. Another important character is her prickly coworker Katherine Brooke. She is a dark, drab, miserably unhappy woman who hates teaching but must make her living. She has a sarcastic tongue which her students live in fear of. Of course, Anne eventually wins her over as well, after finding out her depressing back story -- the dual miracles of a Christmas trip and Green Gables turn Katherine around, giving her a happy ending of leaving teaching at the end of the year and getting a position as secretary to a "globe trotting MP".

The interesting thing about some of these characters is that they reflect aspects of LMM herself. As Elizabeth Waterston suggests, the repressed and lonely Little Elizabeth has the same situation that LMM grew up with, with the difference that Little Elizabeth has the happy ending of her father returning and taking her away with him, happily. Kathryn seems to personify LMM's unhappiness with her lot in life and the way in which societal expectations chafed her as well as being a kind of acknowledgement of her depressive states.

In any case, I've always been fond of this volume of the series but found on rereading that I wasn't as drawn in as previously. It uses lots of episodic chapters with stories of the people around Anne, which LMM does extremely well, but for myself, I could wish for a little more Green Gables in it. There is one lovely bit right near the beginning that I found just as charming as ever, though, and that was Anne stating in one of her first letters to Gilbert that this wouldn't be a love letter, as she had a scratchy pen, and obviously, love letters can not be written with a scratchy pen! But, having written with a fountain pen that didn't feed ink very easily, I know exactly what she meant ;)

Another enjoyable volume in this series, and because of its being written out of sequence it does have a bracing touch of the darker elements that LMM included in some of her later works. A worthy epistolary novel, and still dear to me.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor's Angel

London: Virago, c2006.
256 p.

I've finally taken up this book which I've had on the shelves for ever so long, in honour of the blog world's Virago Reading Week, organized by Rachel at Book Snob and Carolyn at A Few of My Favourite Books -- it is so much fun to read this book, and then read a whole bunch of other reviews of Virago reading. There are already round-ups at Rachel and Carolyn's blogs so be sure to take a look at everyone else who has been reading this week.

Now, on to my impression of Angel. This is the second Elizabeth Taylor I've read -- the first was Palladian, and I'm sorry to say it made such a pale impression that I read it twice without realizing until the last chapter that I'd read it previously. So I was hoping that this one would strike me a little more. And it did.

Angel Deverell is fifteen at the beginning of this book, and is notable for her wild, passionate romanticism in the arena of her imagination, unleavened by any sense of humour at all, especially when it comes to herself. When she tells lovely, elaborate stories about her 'true home', Paradise House, and all its glories, she is called out as a liar and an embarrassment to her hardworking mother, who owns a corner grocery store. Angel is outraged, not by her actions but by the lack of understanding and admiration that she expects. Deciding that she will never return to the school that was the site of her humiliation, she writes, in a white heat, a torrid romantic novel. Sending it off randomly to three publishers, Angel has an unbelievable stroke of luck and has her book accepted. To her this makes perfect sense and is not a sign of luck or fortune, but only natural.

The book, laughed at by many in the publishing house, captures the public imagination and sets Angel on the path of a wildly successful writing career, writing overblown romantic sagas featuring aristocrats and huge houses and melodrama.

The novel skips the years between Angel's first book and her established career. When we meet her again, after her astonishing debut, she is living in a much more respectable area of town, where her mother feels out of place and lonely. Angel, however, is as much of a self-centred diva as always. It's Angel and her strange, domineering personality that this book centres around. In all the situations she finds herself, reality is never as important as her belief in how things should be. This chutzpah carries her through for a long, long time -- along with various meek women, like her mother, who act as her prop and support in relation to the real world.

Along the way, Angel must encounter and puzzle out various human relationships, unable to see them in their true state. Her vanity is enormous and is the root cause of all her difficulties. Only near the very end, when she is finally broke and nearly forgotten in her crumbling Paradise House, does the possibility of light dawning arise. Alas, it is too late. She is left with only two people to mourn her.

I can't say I enjoyed this, exactly. It was painful reading at times, with the reader complicit in the embarrassment of those watching Angel in her element. Her personality, while vitally strong and able to sweep all before it, wasn't exactly endearing. Only one or two of the characters in the book were able to see the desperate longing and fragility beneath her vast ego -- and I don't think that Angel was one of them. I couldn't really see where the story was going, either. What was the reader intended to take away from this? I am still not sure. There is something about Elizabeth Taylor's writing that seems to elude me. While I found this one much more intriguing and memorable than Palladian, I don't think it will be one I'll read again. I'm going to give a couple of her other books a try and see if I can find a way in.

There was also a 2007 movie made from Angel, starring Romola Garai, which I may watch someday. I am curious as to how they could portray this book on screen. Has anyone else read this? What do you think of it?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Einstein Wrote Back

Einstein Wrote Back / John Moffat
Toronto: Thomas Allen, c2010.
244 p.

The brief book trailer above summarizes this book nicely: John Moffat was a self-taught physicist who wrote to Einstein at age 19, and Einstein wrote back. But the book trailer can not capture the voice of the writer, an anecdotal, bemused and amused, narrator who is always passionately involved in study and discovery.

I enjoyed this book greatly; John Moffat was able to experience a world which has always fascinated me, becoming the first student in Cambridge's 400 year history to obtain a PhD without an undergraduate degree. He is always made aware of that fact, with some of his earlier teachers being a bit leery of his capabilities because of it. But he proves that he indeed is quite capable, meanwhile telling wonderful stories about some of the big names in physics, men who are nearing the ends of their careers as Moffat is beginning his. It was great; Moffat has an eye for eccentricity, and some of the biggest names were extremely eccentric! He is never cruel, however, and states that of all these strange geniuses, he only ever disliked one.... which one it was, you will have to read this book to discover ;)

The story begins with Moffat as a young man, inclined toward becoming an artist -- even living in Paris for a year before going broke and returning home. He grew up in Copenhagen, where you were examined at the end of high school to see whether you had the ability to go on to university; he was nervous and wasn't able to answer a question, and was told that he would not amount to anything.

But he spent a year reading all the science and math books he could find in the local university library and taught himself an undergraduate degree's worth of information in one year. Because he was a British citizen, thanks to his father, he decided he would try to get to a British university to study physics. Through a circuitous route of letters and recommendations, and heavily influenced by the letter he had received back from Einstein, he ended up meeting with Niels Bohr, then Erwin Schrodinger, then being accepted into Cambridge.

The book focuses mostly on his professional life after the biography of his early years. He talks a bit about the effects on his wife and his family life as they move from England to the US to Switzerland and finally to Toronto, but the book is primarily focused on his research and the people he worked with and for. Seeing as he met and interacted with Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrodinger, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac and many others, the story was a great and absorbing read. I also appreciated his acknowledgement of the sexism inherent in this field; he refers to a case in which three researchers made an important discovery but only two -- the male two -- were awarded the Nobel for their work, and he directly states that it was sexism at the root of this decision. Once in a while he is a little bit self-focused, when he's talking about his work, but that is to be expected really, from someone who had to fight his way into his preferred career. He considers himself a little outside the 'herd' in his research interests, and shows those of us not aware of what is being focused on in physics why he thinks so.

The science in this book is not too complex for the general reader to comprehend -- when he refers to a specific element of physics that is important to the book he provides an explanation in the footnotes. Even when I didn't always grasp the math in those explanations, it was enough to give the story meaning. Seeing his travels from Copenhagen to Canada was fascinating and entertaining. And now that he is practically a neighbour, being adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo and a member of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (after many years at the U of Toronto) I really had to read it.

Moffat has continued his work on physics until this day, even into his 70's. Some of his work has resulted in his MOG (modified gravity) theory, returning to his beginnings with Einstein's work. He states that he can not imagine not working, and that he is still creative in his work. He has much to say about the new climate in research, and how it may stifle new work. He concludes by stating:
I feel certain that this ongoing creativity is due in large part to my unusual path in physics. I was never subjected to the severe rigours of rote learning, which students undergo at universities as part of their early training as physicists, and therefore my creative abilities as a human being and a physicist were never quenched. Because I essentially taught myself physics and mathematics, I did not have to prove myself to the authorities at every step along the way that I was competent in successive areas of physics.

Overall, this was an intriguing read which I found added to my knowledge of the physics world, as well as entertaining me with its anecdotes about the great names of physics. There was humour, a bit of pathos, and much reflection on the world in which Moffat has spent his working life.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Happy Handwriting Day!

In honour of National Handwriting Day 2011, I'm pulling an old 2006 post from the archives to share again. Hope you will enjoy it. You could then take a look at my review of an exhaustively researched and eminently entertaining book on this topic, Script & Scribble by Kitty Burns Florey. It was a fantastic book that I think anyone interested in this topic would simply love.

With a fine hand

I was intrigued by an article in the Toronto Star about the loss of handwriting skills among young people. It says, among other things, that:

Handwriting is irrelevant (The Toronto Star, Dec. 5, 2006. 12:03 AMJEN GERSON)

They couldn't remember how to write the letter "I."

Is it one loop or two? Does the pen start at the top of the squiggle or the bottom? "I forgot how to handwrite," says 18-year-old Kris Tofer Baker, as he mulls over the execution of a "w." Don't misunderstand. Baker is an intelligent young man. He just hasn't needed to use cursive script since Grade 4.

"I print out or type the majority of my school work."He's not alone. On the Ryerson and University of Toronto campuses, few students were able to handwrite naturally, when handed a black felt-tipped pen. After some moments of meditation, most remembered, sort of, how to script — although they couldn't remember the last time they needed to.

Computers have turned cursive handwriting into an archaic and unnecessary form of writing. It has been relegated to an era of calling cards and heartfelt love letters crafted by candlelight and fountain pen."

One of the comments I got back on a test was `I don't understand what you wrote.' The teacher had told us to handwrite, but you saw, I had trouble with the T. I don't remember what they're supposed to look like," says Ikram Abdi, 19.

Her friend agrees. What need is there to handwrite? "Everything we do is on the computer," says Fatima Nuzhat, 19....... But Toronto-based forensic document examiner Pat Girouard ponders this new trend and remains skeptical. Sure, computers dominate our writing lives. Sure, handwriting seems somewhat anachronistic, but still, cursive seems to be an ironic sacrifice in the digital age. After all, she says, "printing takes longer (than handwriting) because it's disconnected."

I really was a bit shocked by this. I am a big proponent of legible handwriting; printing everything you write looks so childish. If I get a memo from somebody written in chunky, messy Grade 1 handwriting, my opinion of them suffers. Yes, I'm a cursive snob. I enjoy writing with pen and paper, and do it every day, almost entirely with fountain pens. Yes, the kind with cartridges; I don't carry bottles of ink around in my pockets. The physical act of writing - using your hand to shape your thoughts - has a visceral power that typing lacks.

Researchers have suggested that cursive script also assists in the formation of more complex thought processes. Also, as graphologists know, one's idiosyncratic handwriting provides clues to one's self. (UPDATE: test yourself at Thanks to DoveGreyReader for the link!)

Can this be true if one has no habitual style of writing? Can typing out one's thoughts so that they appear identical to anyone else's be the death knoll of eccentric individualism? Is one confined intellectually and/or philosophically by a keyboard? Interesting questions to ponder - feel free to weigh in.

Meanwhile, I will continue use my fountain pens to express myself, as well as my keyboard. Paper and ink, someone's carefully shaped words, still mean something. Perhaps this is why, even in this wide world of blogs, there still exists a vibrant zine culture

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

End of the Alphabet

The End of the Alphabet / C.S. Richardson
Toronto: RandomHouse, c2007.
139 p.

I picked up this book first because I've heard so much about it, and second because the design is so great. It is a small book, which looks like the travel journal that one of the main characters purchases early on in the story. It is beautiful. My husband read it first, a couple of years ago (how time flies!) and gave it a thoughtful, personal review that sparked my interest...even though it took me nearly 3 years to the day to pick it up myself.

The book tells us the story of Ambrose Zephyr and his wife Zappora (Zipper) Ashkenazi. Ambrose has just been diagnosed with a mysterious disease; he has 'maybe a month' left to live.

Ambrose and Zappora have a perfect marriage -- the depictions of their habits and their relationship is realistic yet very moving. Once they receive this diagnosis, they decide to go on a whirlwind world tour, visiting places from A-Z. (Chartres and the Eiffel Tower, for example) They make it to G before realizing that they must go home to London; travelling is no longer in the cards.

This is a quiet narrative, but the ending, though made clear from the first page, was devastating. I finished this book late one night in bed, and found myself bawling over it. It's intensely moving and constructed like a miniature painting: every detail has significance and the actual story told to us is just a microcosm, hinting at a larger, complex life of each character and of their marriage. I found this book rather extraordinary and while it would benefit from a slower, second reading, I don't think I can take the emotional wallop of a second reading right away! Maybe in a year or two...

Really, this is one book that lived up to the recommendations I'd heard beforehand. While it is short, it feels expansive and holds the power of a much longer narrative -- every scene unfolds in the reader's mind to fill in a much larger time span that is indicated by the brevity of the writing. Highly recommended. But bring kleenex.

CS Richardson is an accomplished book designer who has worked in publishing for over twenty years. He is a multiple recipient of the Alcuin Award (Canada’s highest honour for excellence in book design) and a frequent lecturer on various facets of publishing, design and communications. His design work has been exhibited at both the Frankfurt and Leipzig Book Fairs. He is currently at work on his second novel.
(biography from CS Richardson's agency, the Cooke Agency)

photo credit: Curtis Lantinga

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Bound to Last

Bound to last: 30 writers on their most cherished book / ed. Sean Manning; foreword by Ray Bradbury.
Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, c2010.
224 p.

This is a collection of essays by 30 writers, about their most memorable book. Not the book they first read or memorized or which most affected their writing style, but the physical object that meant most to them in their lives. It's a paean to the physicality of paper and print.

The contributing authors are varied, and I hadn't heard of most of them. But there were some lovely discoveries. Not only is there a mix of gender, but there are two translated essays (from Chinese & from Farsi); there are writers of fiction and of travel or non-fiction as well. And each of them has made their idiosyncratic choice of a book that has stayed with them, either in memory or in actual fact.

There are almost too many poignant, breath-catching moments to share in this one. Any bookish person will both relate and begin to wonder which book they would write their own essay about. Out of the entire collection there was only one essay I wasn't impressed with; the others surprised with their choices and their reasons for holding to that particular book.

Some examples -- Julia Glass, writing about Roar and More, a picture book I'm not familiar with. She first saw it on Captain Kangaroo and insisted her parents buy it for her, and now reads it to her children. It meant so much to her that she put it into one of her novels, and because of this, in a roundabout way met the author. Wonderful stuff, and an instant inspiration to seek out that book!

Or Terrence Holt writing about The Merck Manual -- funny and moving and making it clear why this particular reference book affected him deeply. It was oracular to him as a child reader, but as he notes near the end of his essay, "the problem with oracles, as the Greeks keep trying to tell us, is that foreknowledge never helps. With self-knowledge we may understand what our story means; but the ending remains beyond our power to change or even know."

I was surprised by Anthony Doerr's essay, The Story and Its Writer; this writer was largely unknown to me but this turned out to be my favourite piece in the book. His writing was deep, nostalgic and really beautiful. Talking about how what we read becomes part of us as deeply as what we eat, he says:

Maybe we build the stories we love into ourselves. Maybe we digest stories... Our eyes walk tightropes of sentences, our minds assemble images and sensations, our hearts find connections with other hearts. A good book becomes part of who we are, perhaps as significant a part of us as our memories. A good book flashes around inside, endlessly reflecting. Its shapes, its people, its places become our shapes, our people, our places.
We take in a story. We metabolize it. We incorporate it.

This is one I'll recommend to everyone I know who loves books. This is primarily a love song to paper and print, with very little 'anti-technology' sentiment, rather, a focus on 'pro-physical-book'. Very enjoyable reading indeed, and I am now pondering what "my book" would have been, had I been a published author asked to contribute to this lovely collection. I am holding out hope that there will someday be a second volume in the same vein.

What about you? Do you have that One Book in your life?

Other reviews:

Kerry at Pickle Me This says "Books as objects are never just about the books, of course, and so this anthology encompasses the whole wide world"

Sam at Book Chase says "This is one that book lovers will want to read more than once – a book that deserves a place of honor on their bookshelves"

Colleen at Chasing Ray says "Manning has done a killer job here of getting great things out of his contributors"

Friday, January 14, 2011

Anne & Avonlea & The Island

Anne of Avonlea / Lucy Maud Montgomery
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1984, c1909.
277 p.
Anne of the Island / Lucy Maud Montgomery
Toronto: Penguin Canada, 1987 , c1915.
244 p.

I've been rereading the Anne series, ever since I got the bug and reread Anne of Green Gables for the Readathon in October. I am enjoying revisiting these books, and the further along I get, the more I realize I've forgotten about the contents of the later books in the series.

In these two, Anne is teaching in the Avonlea school (two years) and then goes to Redmond College (four years). I never really connected with the Avonlea years as deeply as the first and third books; I was always impatient for Anne to get to college, and to find her kindred spirits and to move into Patty's Place, a home I always wished for during my own college years. One of the defining elements of Patty's Place, besides the scenery and the congenial roommates, was the pair of china dogs on the mantelpiece -- named Gog and Magog. I once mentioned these two during a conversation as a young teenager and was reprimanded for swearing ;)

Still, a reread is a marvellous thing. During this time through, I saw much more in Anne of Avonlea. Knowing how little time I'd be spending in Avonlea as I read further along in the series I relished each moment, and each of the characters who represent Avonlea at its finest. The innocence and the enthusiasm of youth, as Anne and her fellow educated young men and women form AVIS (the Avonlea Village Improvement Society), was fun and entertaining. As usual Anne finds her way into the centre of mishaps, as when the community hall that AVIS has raised money to rejuvenate gets painted a horrendously bright blue. There are light moments and there are more somber moments: Ruby Gillis, the light, flirty character from earlier books comes down with TB, and her discussions with Anne about dying and her fear of death really made me tear up. Anne grows up a bit through her hard work as a schoolteacher; her non-violent disciplinary principles are challenged by one student in particular, and another student leads her toward another romantic plot in which she plays a role in connecting lost lovers (a common occurrence for Anne). And of course, she develops a true friendship with Gilbert Blythe, who had given her the Avonlea school so that she could stay near Marilla, at the end of Anne of Green Gables.

Once Anne heads to Kingsport, Nova Scotia, and Redmond College, in Anne of the Island, I feel like Anne's future really begins. I loved this book, and the reread held up. There are a wider range of characters, some who are silly but loveable, some who are simply silly. And Anne experiences her first wild romance, with the dashing but ultimately dull Royal Gardner. I enjoyed these characters, the sense of freedom the girls had studying for their BAs (a big deal then), the friendships and camaraderie. Also, I really liked the idea, even as a very young woman, of having time to simply study -- I was always bookish, and this ideal led me to consider university a non-negotiable step in my life. The wider scope of her social circle and her classmates was also fascinating, and in this book, I felt like the entire story was based on Anne rather than being simply an episodic story of Anne's community and all its funny inhabitants.

Something I noticed in both books however, was Anne's resistance to romantic entanglements. She seems almost neurotically resistant to any of Gilbert's attempts to express his feelings for her, even while she knows exactly what he wants to say. He finally does speak, and it causes an estrangement, only broken finally when Anne hears a local report that Gilbert is dying. Anne pushes away all hint of romance and/or sexuality with an insistence that seems a bit excessive, especially considering that her best friend Diana was married at 18 and is already a mother by this time.

In Elizabeth Waterston's Magic Island, she discusses the elements that were present in Lucy Maud Montgomery's life at the time she wrote each of her books. The stresses she was under, the earlier incidents in her life that may show up in her writing, and her varied reading that influenced her are all part of these discussions. It is fascinating to read each brief chapter along with each book. Some of the highlights for me in regards to these two books were:

In Avonlea, LMM is delaying Anne's romantic trajectory; the romance in the book deals with the successful conclusion of another long-delayed romance, with Anne's assistance of course. This reflects LMM's own drawn-out engagement, as she wouldn't marry until her grandmother had passed. Also, one of the inspirations for the theme of "village beautification" in this book was LMM's reading of Elizabeth of the German Garden, one of my own favourites and an author with whom LMM felt a kinship.

LMM originally wanted the title of Anne of the Island to be Anne of Redmond, reflecting the focus of the book. But in this book, Anne does self-identify as an Islander, denying that she is a Nova Scotian even though she was born there, so perhaps that is why the title change fits. Also, Waterston argues that while the implied emphasis is on academia, Anne remains within the traditional Island expectations for womanhood, and ends up spending most of the book dealing with romantic entanglements of her roommates and eventually of her own, with the end neatly tied up with an engagement. I still think that the drive Anne has to succeed and come first in 'the lists' after exams is a powerful statement about ambition, but perhaps Waterston is correct, as later books show Anne fading in her intellectual prowess and settling in as mother of a large family.

In any case, these are fascinating reading, and I will continue this series side-by-side with the commentary on how they fit into LMM's life as she was writing them. Have you read them all? Are you an inveterate re-reader of Anne? Which volume is your favourite, if so? I'm not sure yet which is mine at this point in my life...I always loved Green Gables best as a child, but will see how this rereading shifts things!

Friday, January 07, 2011

Happy Ukrainian Christmas!

Happy Ukrainian Christmas!

Enjoy the last days of celebratory holiday spirit with Ukrainian Christmas, which falls on January 7 via the Julian calendar. On Christmas Eve, the big celebratory event, Ukrainians share a traditional meal of 12-meatless dishes, representing the 12 apostles. The meal includes: Kutia, which is cooked whole wheat with honey and poppy seeds; Kolach, braided bread surrounding a candle; meatless Borscht; fish; pickled herring; meatless cabbage rolls; perogies; sauerkraut and peas; mashed beans with garlic; Pidpenky, which are mushrooms with gravy. And for dessert there is Uzvar, dried fruit Compote; and Pampushky or Makiwnyk, which is a sweet raised dough with poppy seed, honey and cinnamon filling.

Here is one great meatless Borscht recipe -- if you cook it up and add some mushroom-filled dumplings (frozen/prepared mushroom tortellini work great) you can share in a Ukrainian tradition this week.

Thursday, January 06, 2011


Soucouyant : a novel of forgetting / David Chariandy
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, c2007.
200 p.

This was an unusual book that I've been meaning to read for ages, ever since it arrived at my library and I saw this stunning cover. It's perfect for the story, almost as if it was created by the designers immediately after reading this book! I loved the fact that the cover is an original photograph by the (very dark) visual artists The Sanchez Brothers, rather than duplicated stock photography.

The story is about a family which has immigrated to Canada from the Caribbean - specifically about the younger son and his relationship with his mother, who has suffered from increasing dementia over many years. The title comes from the Caribbean belief in the soucouyant: a vampire like creature, who appears as an old woman during the day but by night sheds her skin and becomes a ball of fire, and can travel into people's homes while they sleep in order to suck their blood. The story circles around the vague memory that Adele, the mother, seems to have of the time she saw a soucouyant, until near the end we discover what trauma she experienced in her youth that is being reexperienced as this memory.

The narrator, whose name we never learn, is the younger of two sons. After his father dies and his older brother abandons them for his own dreams of a poet's life, our narrator becomes overwhelmed. He leaves home, leaving his mother to the vagaries of chance. After two years, he comes home, to find a woman who he believes is a nurse living in the family home, caring for his mother.

This book was full of poetic, ruminative passages, as well as contrasting, sharply drawn moments. I copied out a few paragraphs about memory, about the way a homeland and a past can creep into the present and colour the next generation's lives as well. The setting and Adele's life are both drawn beautifully and the story carries you forward effortlessly. Elements of the book, such as the racism both Adele and her future husband experience as new immigrants to Toronto, were shocking. It seemed so severe, so very limiting, and I was shaken into the realization that it was really not so long ago that these kind of attitudes were common. The flashbacks to Adele's childhood were quite moving as well, and the slightly textbookish add-ins about the history of her homeland Trinidad was a necessary addition to the text for those readers who wouldn't have been able to understand the nuances (like me!)

But, there were some flaws that bothered me also. Primarily, I wondered how this woman, so clearly and debilitatingly a dementia sufferer, had been left to her own devices for so long. The neighbours didn't seem to do much except criticize the family; but if they were so concerned with the neighbourhood surely one of them would have called social services once Adele was abandoned and on her own? Also, the ending comes quickly and there are some threads that get neatly wrapped up a little too easily -- with some predictable yet ultimately avoidable situations.

Nonetheless, this is a moving and original book, well deserving of all of the award nominations it has garnered. I found it a quick read but it has stuck with me over the past couple of weeks since I finished it. The characters are complicated and contradictory, and very memorable. Really interesting read.

David Chariandy lives in Vancouver and teaches in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University. His novel Soucouyant has received great attention, including a Governor General's Literary Award nomination for Fiction, a Gold Independent Publisher Award for Best Novel, and the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Glennon's Dodecahedron

The Dodecahedron: or, a Frame for Frames / Paul Glennon
Erin, ON: Porcupine's Quill Press, c2005
224 p.

A suitable book with which to begin a new year full of bookish talk and reviews, The Dodecahedron is all about books, text, and the elusive nature of written truth. It is a collection of twelve stories which, while not linked in a traditional manner, do refer to one another as narratives. It begins with a tale of a young boy who literally eats his father's library page by page to keep it from an unnamed but menacing SS style of police force. There are stories of a monastery up in the edges of the Arctic Circle who spend the months of dark dreaming and the months of daylight creating manuscripts filled with their dreams and visions of alternate history. And there are many other creative and fascinating characters and situations -- a collector of messages in bottles, a polygamist, a lost Arctic explorer, and many others. One thing I did notice however, is that the stories are all very male, with men as the main characters and quite a masculine feel to the text. And perhaps the style of the narrative is also quite male, in that there are arbitrary limits set which shape the structure of the book -- this is something I think male authors find more appealing, generally.

Glennon set his own limits on his "novel of sorts" by following Oulipian principles (OuLiPo is a group of mostly French authors who create literature based on arbitrary constraints of their own making). Glennon explains these principles in the book’s afterword:

Each chapter was to be as self-contained and whole as any short story. As in a story cycle, each story would cast a new light on the ones that preceded it, and promote a novel-like unity of themes. What I did not want to write was a cyclical book, in which the final story is the final word, a story with more authority than all others, one that casts a sort of judgment on the rest ... I envisioned a book in which each of the twelve chapters or stories represented a face of the dodecahedron ... In A Frame for Frames these sides represent a relationship to an adjacent story…Each story must refer to or be referred to by each of the five stories adjacent to it.

I'm not sure about all the literary principles, but Glennon certainly succeeded in making each story equally authoritative. Even after reading them all and then going back to a couple of them for a second look, it is never hinted anywhere that one or any of the stories is the final authority on what to believe about all these linked narratives. It's a wonderful read for that reason, even if I did have favourites --and not so favourites -- among the stories. But, because it is so self-consciously literary, with the dense interrelated stories spiraling off into mind-bending directions at times, I did have to read it quite slowly. One story, put it down and think, then another the next day.

It was an intriguing read, certainly, and one a bookish reader may enjoy.

Paul Glennon, born in England but resident in Ottawa since 1975, has been published in Descant, Matrix, Canadian Fiction Magazine, and the Blue Penny Quarterly. He has an MA from the University of Ottawa and currently works in the software industry. He also has a young adult series on the go.