Monday, February 21, 2011

Waiting for Columbus

Waiting for Columbus / Thomas Trofimuk
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, c2009.
408 p.

I've owned this book for quite a while and have been intending to read it for ages. I finally opened it as part of my Canadian Book Challenge reading, which has really been helpful in encouraging me to read outside of my habitual choices. This book is set in Spain and features a mental patient who believes he is Christopher Columbus. Many readers have loved it, while there are others who most definitely did not. I wasn't sure which camp I'd end up in when I began; the start of the novel felt forced to me, it didn't draw me in quickly and I wasn't convinced I wanted to keep reading. But I did.

And I am glad I kept on past my inauspicious beginning, because although I can't honestly say I loved it to the point some others have done, I did enjoy it and appreciated many of its brilliant flights of fancy. Columbus, as he is known, is an anonymous mental patient; he simply arrived one day, no-one knows who he really is or where he came from. He is so convincing in his belief that even the nurses half think of him as Columbus. It is the interweaving of the thoughts and experiences of his "Columbus" life and the modern day elements that appear in his story -- such as he and King Ferdinand playing pool, or watching tv, or the royal courtiers all with cell phones -- that I found most intriguing. Trofimuk never slips in this approach; it is clever and seamless. Columbus is a wonderful character full of intrigue, passion and a deep sorrow.

If you read it carefully it is fairly easy to piece together his real story as you go along. What really happened to him is made clear near the end, but there are hints throughout and what caused his mental breakdown is believable and tragic, almost too much so to read comfortably. He is a Canadian, from Montreal, and reading those parts of his story were as interesting for me as the days in which he was in his Columbus state. He is a rich character, full of possibility and invention. Making the story deeper and more nuanced were the side characters of Consuela, his nurse, who has her own issues, romantic and professional, as well as Emil, the troubled French detective hired to find a man who had disappeared utterly. They all meet up in the final stages and restore Columbus to his previous life, as much as he can ever be restored to it.

The book brings up interesting questions of how we deal with tragedy, and how those mental tricks and strategies are perceived by others. How useful are they, and how long do they remain useful? It was a wide-ranging book, unusual in scope for a Canadian novel, I felt. Set primarily outside of the country, and with a non-Canadian fixation (Columbus) it still made perfect sense that the main character turned out to be Canadian, from the New World, and it tied the narrative together in many deeper ways.

In fact, this is a book that can be experienced at many levels. It has a straightforward mystery: who is Columbus and how did he come to this state? It also explores love, identity, belief, imagination, survival, and interweaves eras in which anxiety and politics are in full force. I enjoyed reading it and would have liked to spend more time in the company of these characters. I am glad I finally picked it up and persevered to its conclusion.

Thomas Trofimuk is an Edmonton-born writer who writes poetry, short-fiction, and novels. His first novel, The 52nd Poem, was published by Great Plains Publications in the spring of 2002. The book went on to win a few awards including the 2003 Alberta Novel of the Year and the City of Edmonton Book Prize. A second novel, Doubting Yourself to the Bone, was published in the fall of 2006 by Cormorant Books. Trofimuk is a founding father of Edmonton’s Raving Poets movement and he’s an irregular reviewer for the Edmonton Journal book page. His poems and short stories have been published in literary magazines and journals across Canada, and broadcast on CBC radio. He lives in Edmonton with his wife and daughter.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Vindication of Love

A Vindication of Love: reclaiming romance for the twenty-first century / Christina Nehring
Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, 2010.
352 p.

This was a book that made me think, that challenged me to reconsider some of my opinions, and to argue with the author as I was reading. It is a lengthy defense of the power of love, drawing in many examples of passionate (often doomed) relationships from history. It focuses on passion and danger and the benefits of throwing yourself in headfirst into relationship, really going mad for love and not holding back for practicality. It was good reading, overall, but I felt the title was misleading -- it should have been called "A Vindication of Passion" because Nehring's focus is really on that passionate blindness of a mad love affair.

Not everyone will experience such a love affair, and not everyone wants to. Some people are quite satisfied with the quiet, mundane partnership that Nehring dismisses in her book as not really indicative of love. While I see her argument for the power of passion, I don't think it necessitates denigrating other forms of love as equally worthy. Passion is not the only form that true love takes.

That caveat aside, I enjoyed reading this book -- a perfect choice to ponder on Valentine's Day. I am not a big celebrator of Valentine's Day, but neither am I a sour cynic who thinks anyone who does celebrate is silly or sentimental. Why not have a day that celebrates the power of love? Anything that helps people open up and feel gratitude and appreciation for others is a good thing.
This book posits that the modern domesticity of marriage and relationship, the measured sense of equality, has damaged the nature of desire and the erotic. That women, despite feminist gains, can and should love madly as part of our feminism. Nehring takes inspiration from many historical figures, such as Mary Wollstonecroft, whose famous A Vindication of the Rights of Women seems to have influenced the title of this book. That sense that a thinking woman and a proponent of rights for women could throw herself madly into multiple doomed relationships and still be a valid example for us to follow today is what Nehring is tracing throughout this book.

Mary Wollstonecroft, Frida Kahlo, Sylvia Plath, Heloise, Margaret Fuller, Edna St Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson.... the list goes on. Nehring believes that the capacity of such women to fling themselves into passionate relationships, or even passionate dreams of relationship, is reflected in their artistic or intellectual output. The stronger their sense of passion, the wider and sharper their accomplishment. While I concede her argument that passion in one area can reveal a passionate personality in many areas, I am not sure that conflating mad passion with romance or 'true love' really works. As Meghan O'Rourke stated in her review of this book (in Slate)

There are many flaws in Nehring's argument. For one thing, not everyone wants to lead a "heroic" life. Plenty of people in steadfast marriages may yearn for flashes of passion but prefer, ultimately, the repetitive pleasure of routine and domesticity, or get from their children the passionate expansion of vision Nehring believes romantic love offers us. Security needn't mean a diminishment in passion...
And that is my basic problem with the book. Sometimes the arguments don't feel too convincing, at times sounding a little bit more dissertation than general interest. But, I still enjoyed reading it and seeing things anew, seeing things from the perspective of someone whose ideas of love are quite different from my own. I appreciated her discussion of women's situations in the past, how a predilection for passion did negatively affect the way writing women were perceived, in a way that men with similar habits never had to worry about. Margaret Fuller was pilloried for marrying an Italian younger than herself, so much so that when she and her husband and her new son were drowned on their way back to the United States, there were murmurs that perhaps it was for the best, after all. Accepting her into society would have been a bit of a problem for those who eagerly invited and entertained men with illegitimate children and mistresses galore.

It is an intriguing read, and one that I am sure I'll reread as well; it shakes up perceptions and enlivens discussion, certainly. Nehring lives her passion as well as writes about it, and it shows through -- her argument sweeps across the pages of this book in a great rush, bringing up examples and making grand statements, sometimes a bit melodramatic but also with a refreshing certainty in her opinions.

Well worth a go if you are interested in passion as an element of feminism, in historical women, in the idea of love itself. Thanks to HarperCollins for providing me with a copy to enjoy.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Commonplace Books of Simon van Booy

New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Why we Need Love
Why we Fight
Why our Decisions don't Matter

Have you ever copied out an excerpt from a book you are reading, something too good to lose track of, something you know you are going to quote later or which makes you feel happy or intelligent just by reading it? I have. In fact, I've been following the age old tradition of compiling my own personal commonplace book for nearly twenty years now. Flipping through the excerpts I've collected reminds me of the brilliance and humour and wisdom I've encountered in my reading, and it also reminds me of the person I was when I found a particular quote meaningful. It is a startlingly effective method of time travel ;)

Simon van Booy, a marvellous writer in his own right, has collected three books of excerpts, done in a proper commonplace book method, by theme. The three books, all bound very similarly, are small enough to slip into a pocket and take a random dip into on your travels. Being Simon van Booy, the contents of these books are not always predictable or familiar; I found some authors and some pieces new to me that I want to explore further. The selected authors are an interesting mix; not limited to one era or one gender or one school of thought, the variety of the selections makes for a more illuminating reading experience.

What is the purpose of such books in an internet world in which we can google any topic + quotes and come up with a string of related pithy sayings? Well, these books contain longer selections, not just brief quotes, and are chosen by someone for whom they have significance and represent some of the best things he believes he has to share on the topic. Knowing that they have meaning to someone else, especially someone whose work I've read and find amazing, made these books intriguing for me. I read, pondered, agreed with some thoughts and disagreed with others, and thought that overall, these books made for a nice slow informative exploration of three different themes.

If you like bits of books excerpted and shared as if another reader is pointing them out to you saying, look here, this part is good, well then I think you will enjoy this set of three books which are easy to hold and easy to peruse.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Anne's House of Dreams

Anne's House of Dreams / LM Montgomery
Toronto: McClelland-Bantam, 1983, c1922.
230 p.

Next in line in my LMM rereading project is Anne's House of Dreams. In this book, #5 in the Anne series, Anne and Gilbert have finally been married. Gilbert, now a doctor, is taking over his uncle's practice in Glen St. Marys, a town on the other side of PEI from Avonlea. It is right on the shore, at Four Winds Harbour, and Anne comments on the nearness of the ocean, something that wasn't evident in Avonlea at all. Once again, not sure the cover artist read the books...Gilbert has red hair! At least I hope that is supposed to be Gilbert walking arm in arm with Anne... ;)

This is one of my favourites of the series. While I do miss Avonlea -- it doesn't appear much after the first chapter or two, and Marilla and Rachel spend a Christmas at the House of Dreams, which felt weird and I seriously felt sad thinking about Green Gables alone and dark at Christmas! -- I also love this new setting for Anne.

The House of Dreams is a quaint cottage with a fireplace for Gog and Magog to sit alongside, with little glass cabinets, with a yard and trees and a brook in the corner. Here Anne lives the happy early days of her marriage and has her first experience of maternity. There are some twee references to pregnancy throughout the book, but Anne's first birth is anything but twee. She meets the first awful, unbearable moment of her life in the birth and death of her first daughter, Joy. LMM wrote this book during a time of struggle in her own life, and used her own experiences to colour Anne's life. In this instance, she used her emotions and reactions to the death of her second son, Hugh John. It is quite heart wrenching and emotional -- very raw. LMM also brings in questions of why such things happen, and questions the cultural niceties of accepting things like this as "god's will".

I really like this book because of the new sense of community that LMM creates at Four Winds Harbour. Anne and Gilbert have neighbours on all sides, and they are all fascinating. Captain Jim lives down at the lighthouse, and he is an old sailor who is full of tall tales and whimsy. Cornelia Bryant is an absolutely hilarious man-and-Methodist-hating woman full of spit and vinegar. Her constant refrain of "isn't that just like a man?" made me laugh, repeatedly. Her surprise ending, while perhaps not entirely predictable or believable, was still delightful. And then there's the most dramatic, thrilling storyline ... that of Leslie Moore, a beautiful middle-aged woman who is saddled with a husband who is brain damaged after a bar fight in the tropics. She is a touchy, depressed, melancholic woman with few friends, due to her shame about her husband (nasty before the accident) and her conflated sense of suffocation and duty. Each of these characters has a bit of LMM in them, and she lets her frustrations arise in the character of Leslie Moore (as Elizabeth Waterston points out in Magic Island, this character has the same initials as Lucy Maud herself.)

All of these stories weave together to make a very tightly constructed book that focuses on adult themes and the darker side of experience. I found this to be more of a novel than some of the other books in the series, which can sometimes read like a collection of brief stories or anecdotes (though always enjoyable!) I hadn't remembered much of this from my last reading, years ago. And I found it well done, full of interesting characters and situations, with of course much description of the natural world -- especially the ocean, which hasn't figured highly in the previous books.

All in all, I think this one takes its place as one of my favourites of the series, next to the first and original Green Gables. This isn't particularly due to Anne though; it's more the other, new characters, and the lovely House of Dreams which I covet. But reading the whole series at once is proving to be a great way to feel familiar with all the stages of Anne's life, and the characteristics of each. I am feeling a bit of the disillusionment of adulthood in Anne as she ages, and becomes more sensible and less fey, situated in her family life. There are parts to like about each of these life stages, but also a certain restriction of possibility. It's a strange feeling to read through somebody's life like this; it makes me wish LMM had written Anne into grandmotherly status. As it is we can just dream and surmise where their lives will go...

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Bone Cage

Edmonton: NeWest, c2007.
235 p.

I read The Bone Cage a few weeks ago now, but haven't had much of a chance to sit down and really think about it. But, I do want to share my impressions before Canada Reads begins, as this was the only Canada Reads choice I've read, not really because of the event, but even so... at least now I know one of the books well enough to follow along with the debates!

But on to the book. This is a novel set in an area of Canada I know quite well (the characters drive through my parents' small town at one point) but in life surroundings that I only know a minuscule amount about -- the lives of Olympic athletes. (Disclosure: I do have a cousin who was an Olympic athlete and I knew that her training was the focus of her life, but honestly, we never talked about it much, just as my day-to-day education and work were never discussed much)

The Bone Cage has two main characters: Sadie, a swimmer, and Digger, a wrestler. Their stories converge about halfway through the book, and although they seem so different, their friendship -- when it arrives -- seems quite natural and almost inevitable. Both characters are strong individuals, focused on what it will take to get them to their dream of competing in the Olympics. They are both coming up to the Olympic trials that will give them a place or take it away forever; they both know that they are at the tail end of possibility in their athletic lives, old in their late twenties.

While I have next to no interest in sports or organized events like the Olympics, this book drew me in and kept me fascinated. Abdou creates strong individual characters, the main characters of Sadie and Digger for sure, but also supporting characters like Sadie's coach or Digger's friend Fly. Each is unique, and speaks and acts like an individual -- there were no characters who could be mistaken for another via indistinguishable dialogue.

There is also a strong element of the physical world in this book, appropriately enough for a cast of characters who are all about their physical abilities. The sensory descriptions are amazing; for example, Sadie has to get up in the dark, very early, and struggle through the cold, dark and snow to the pool for practice. You can feel her dragging herself out from under the covers into the cold air of her room, coaxing her cold car to make it to the pool, and then pulling on a clammy swimsuit and slipping into the water. You can almost feel the water lapping at her face and hear the particular echo of splashing and voices in a cavernous indoor swimming pool. When Digger is wrestling, Abdou points out the sweatiness, the crazy pre-match rituals of sweating down their weights or of blocking out all sensory input by putting a towel over their heads to focus in on their inner strength. Or the slippery nature of the wrestling mats, the noise in the room, the rank smell of their discarded clothes afterward. It is rather amusing to me that when I think of a scene in the book, I'll often smell or hear something rather than have a simple visual in my head.

Sadie was also an English major in university, and from time to time literary references and quotes float into the story. This was the only thing I found a bit jarring at times. I wasn't sure where Sadie was suddenly coming from, and felt a little discombobulated. Still, one minor quibble for such a great read.

The story follows these two in their quest to reach the Olympics and what happens when one of them is sidelined. How can two people so focused cope when one needs something more than a physical quest? What is the value of such intense focus, one which excludes anything extraneous? And what do people with such a particular goal do once that goal is no longer an option? All these questions and more are raised in this book, and we are never given a straight-ahead, absolute answer -- instead, we are given people grappling with these issues and the complexity involved, and trusted to find our own answers.

I enjoyed this book, and found plenty to make a reader think. It feels very Canadian in its setting and in its ability to portray the expectations on athletes like these characters, without falling into patriotic blather about the importance of sport. They are simply people living their particular life. I never thought I'd read and enjoy a novel about Olympians but, I'll admit it, I liked this book, even the sports parts ;) Good luck to the author & her defender, Georges Laraque, in next week's Canada Reads debates.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Happy Year of the Rabbit!

Happy Year of the Rabbit!

Chinese New Year this year falls on February 3rd, and to continue a tradition, here is a book list featuring rabbits, in celebration of the Year of the Rabbit.

A classic tale of a group of rabbits who leave their threatened warren to start another one on the Downs of England. Memorable characters, adventure, and only a little dated now in its portrayal of gender.

2. Masquerade / Kit Williams

This gorgeous picture book began as a riddle -- the author painted illustrations that were an armchair treasure hunt, giving clues to the location of a real golden hare that Williams had had made and then hidden somewhere in England. It was accompanied by a book by Bamber Gascoigne, The Quest for the Golden Hare, following the quest by readers and fans to uncover the hiding place of the hare.

3. Peter Rabbit / Beatrix Potter

A very familiar tale of Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and of course, Farmer McGregor's garden. It was in this book that I was introduced to the word "soporific", still one of my favourites ;) There is also a delightful "Peter Rabbit" website with lots of information about Beatrix Potter and her world, and also downloadable crafts and activities (like a puppet show!)

4. Prince Babillon, or the Little White Rabbit / Nella

A forgotten gem, this is available in full text online thanks to the Internet Archive. It is a beautiful fairy tale, full of ironic humour, True Love, and wonderful illustrations by Charles Robinson. The heroine is also named Princess Melanie, which of course makes me inordinately fond of the story ;)

5. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane / Kate DiCamillo

Edward Tulane, a self-centred and proud toy rabbit, loves only himself. However, his life changes when he is separated from his comfortable life and the little girl who adores him. He embarks on a journey, acquiring new owners and listening to their hopes, dreams, and histories.

The classic tale of love and becoming real. Heartwarming pathos and the idea of love overcoming all makes this a must-read.