Monday, April 29, 2013

Henrietta Sees It Through

Henrietta Sees It Through: More News from the Home Front, 1942-1945 / Joyce Dennys
New York: Bloomsbury, 2011, c1986.
181 p.

I read Henrietta's War some time back, not realizing there was a part two to the story, until I was unexpectedly given a copy of this one! This book continues the story with Henrietta's letters to her cousin Robert, overseas somewhere. Henrietta lives in the West Country, and is tired of London visitors commenting that "these people don't know there's a war on", especially on the day that a local couple hears that their youngest son has been killed.

The book was published as columns in Sketch during the war, and only published in the 80's collected into book format. Thus there are many concerns that people who didn't know the outcome of the war might be experiencing -- food shortages, short tempers from the anxiety, a fear of lack of elastic and what that might mean for undergarment availability, having to take in evacuees, loneliness (especially of young wives left unsure of what was happening to their husbands), and more.

Despite this, Henrietta has a sense of humour and can always see both the ridiculous and the small delights still to be found in daily life. The book is simultaneously charming and serious, a little heavier than the first volume but still as light-hearted as possible, including the same kind of cartoon sketches that were so entertaining in the first.

There are marriages, engagements, lots of babies (Henrietta's husband Charles is a local doctor so she always knows about these), parties, music, dancing, and even kissing games at one point. The delight the village takes simply in dressing up for a party is palpable, a relief from the self-denial and stoic carrying on that makes up their daily round during these years.

I love reading letters, real or fictional, as I believe the format can create a kind of intimacy and self-revelation that is unique. Here we get to know both Henrietta's fears and her methods for keeping on, told in a delightful way to a friend and relative who is also familiar with the people and surroundings she's talking about. The book ends with a letter announcing the celebration of VE Day, still relatively low-key, but with the whole village out in the streets dancing and singing and lighting a huge bonfire. Soldiers stationed nearby join in, and there is even mention of a Canadian solider in the last couple of pages. It's quite moving though told so efficiently. Following Henrietta and her various friends and neighbours through the war was a lovely experience, both for her humour and her good heart. I'm glad both books were published for us to explore now; the fact of living through this war on the home front shouldn't be forgotten.

(FYI: For an example of life on the Canadian Home Front during WWI, I always recommend Rilla of Ingleside)

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Women's Lives: Poetic Retellings

I'm participating in the Poetry Month Blog Tour, hosted by Serena of Savvy Verse & Wit, again this year. I always enjoy this project, as everybody has such an individual choice to share for each day of the tour. If you haven't been following along so far, you can still go back over the tour schedule and catch up on some pretty great stuff!

Today I'm sharing two collections I've just read, The World's Wife by Carol Ann Duffy, suggested by blogger Buried in Print, and one that I recently won via the Literary Press Group's poetry month cross-Canada poetry tourGlossolalia by Marita Dachsel.

The connection these two books have lies in the way they both focus in on women's lives, ones we often hear about only from a male perspective, and give us a first-person view of their experience.

I've read some Carol Ann Duffy before (loved her poem Tea) and so was eager to read this collection when I saw it mentioned by a blogger whose taste I trust.

The World's Wife reimagines the lifestories of women from myth and fairytale. It was fabulous.

Starting with Little Red Cap and going all the way to Medusa, The Beast's Wife, a bevy of "Mrs." and beyond, this was a marvellous, kaleidoscopic reshifting of what we think we know from all the stories we've heard -- none of which are traditionally told from a female viewpoint. These women explain themselves, express how the truth of their lives doesn't quite match up with the stories told about them, or simply comment on their own views of the world. Each poem works beautifully, and I was particularly taken with two, the sonnet "Anne Hathaway", and the final poem, "Demeter".

This last one, in particular, reminded me of a collection I read fairly recently, Demeter Goes Skydiving, and the ways in which that poet, Susan McCaslin, inhabited mythological women like Demeter, speaking from the perspective of this mythical mother experiencing the modern world. I think that this approach to poetry appeals to me quite a bit, and was happy to find Duffy's collection so I could sate myself with extensive examples of such!

Glossolalia, on the other hand, gives voice to the many historical wives of Joseph Smith. Dachsel is particularly interested in polygamy and the peculiar secretive way it was practiced at the time of these wives' experience. The lives of these numerous women lend themselves to exploration, and Dachsel digs in with imagination and verve.

There were so many wives. There's a list at the back, with ages and dates of marriage, and it's quite overwhelming to look at them all, ranging in age from 14 (ick) to 50's. Dachsel gives them each a specific voice, and yet a combination of 2 voices (one set of siblings) in the same poem was particularly notable. There was one poem by an unnamed wife who refuses to talk, who states that she has "nothing to say to you" -- this anonymous wife seemed to have a certain authority in her silence. Each of these women seems to be justifying her life and decisions from the grave, reminding me faintly of the famous Spoon River Anthology, though these poems are generally longer and sharper than the Spoon River examples.

Their stories reveal various reasons for their decisions to marry Smith. In this early method of polygamy, the marriages were secret, women could already be married with no requirement to leave their current husband to live with Smith, and these spiritual marriages could be as easily dissolved. There were practical reasons, like the oldest wife, who was a sister left alone when her only brother died, married as a kind of favour. There were more specious reasons, as with the youngest girls, with Smith pretending it was all for heavenly glory, ugh.

One of the most fascinating elements was the voice of Joseph Smith's first, original wife, Emma Hale Smith, throughout the book. Her perspective on his religiously permitted philandering was unexpected, and powerful. Notes in the back reveal that she approved of a small number of his marriages, mainly to younger girls who were already servants in their home. The others she either wasn't directly aware of or powerless to stop in fact, though that didn't stop her opinions on them. Here she is, around the middle of the book:

I believe I believed. Joseph,
you were everything
I believed....
I believed you
until I couldn't. ...
A person does not lose faith --
It is not a hairpin or a tooth.
Faith evolves, salvaged.
A grove becomes a house.
A fire becomes ashes.

I loved the creative impulse behind this collection, and the idea was brought to reality with great effectiveness. I enjoyed every minute I spent reading this, and will be going back to reread many parts of it again. I like clever concepts melded with a facility for language and imagery, and this collection delivered. Recommended to anyone interested in modern poetry and/or women's lives reimagined. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Grave Concern

Grave Concern / Judith Millar
Renfrew, ON: General Store Publishing House
320 p.

This is a light read, a gothic-comic novel that I came across via recommendation. It's Millar's first novel, though she has written a lot in other areas before.

It's set in Pine Rapids, Ontario -- our main character Kate has returned to her hometown from her life in Alberta after her elderly parents are both killed in a car accident. Despite this dark beginning, the book actually holds a lot of humour.

Kate sets up a grave tending business, Grave Concern, through which she offers to assuage the guilt of absent family members by looking after family gravesites. It's tough to find clients, but it does mean she hangs out a lot in the graveyard, which allows her to be on the scene for many strange occurrences.

What with old high school frenemies who still live in town, the lingering presence of her first true love, a mysterious creature seen only at dusk on the fringes of the graveyard, a talking raven, a handsome newcomer ( he's only lived there 10 years so far), and numerous memories arising from her return, the story has a lot going on. For the most part, it works.

Kate herself is a bit of a mystery to me -- she's approximately in her mid-to-late forties, but often acts much more like a stubborn 20 something. Perhaps it's just all the flashbacks that add to that feel, but especially in a scene near the middle of the book when she and her doctor friend inexplicably hold a huge party for everyone in town, she seems like a not very mature adult!

Nonetheless, this was a funny read that at times felt like it was echoing a gumshoe detective style. Kate is quick with the jokes and sees the oddity in everyday happenings. It was an entertaining look at a fictional small town and what might happen if you did indeed go home again. The slight mystery and the quirky cast of characters blend well, ending up with a story that has a lot of threads but that holds together effectively. It was a quick read perfect for a stormy night!

An interview with Judith Millar about the writing of this book can be found at Open Book Ontario

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Vital Importance of Library Teapots

At my workplace we were recently looking through some library history books from the 70's to be recatalogued. Then we came across this gem. The things we find!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Yours, Ever

Yours Ever: People and their Letters / Thomas Mallon
New York: Vintage, c2009.
338 p.

 I have owned this book for a couple of years now, bought in part, I admit, because of the beautiful cover. Beautiful to me, as I have a few similar stacks of letters tucked away in boxes. I loved reading Mallon's first book on people and their diaries, and knew I'd love this one too. Finally I've made my way through it, bit by bit, savoring the short sections that jump from one letter writer to another, loosely organized by themes like "Absence" or "Love" or "Advice". He admits that some selections could fit in various spots but has chosen just one in each case.

This made for an enjoyable read. There are excerpts from politicians like Churchill or Lincoln, opposites when it came to verbosity. There are letters from parents to children, like F. Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter (his advice: “Just do everything we didn’t do and you will be perfectly safe.”)

There are letters to and from famous people, and serious letters between obscure people who led private lives, containing details that would never make them famous but are still moving to read now. Letters to and  from lovers, business partners, relatives, and more.

Mallon includes some postal history in his telling, mostly to revel in how habits of correspondence reveal civilized society. It is fascinating but not extensive, trusting that interested readers will already know and feel much the same things. I found the structure very appealing, feeling like a scrapbook of stories, small sections that you could read then put down the book, picking it up again at the next available moment for a new tale. This suited my meandering reading style as I made my way through this book in between other reading, and between letters that I was inspired to write myself as I read some of these gems.

There is also a dangerously extensive bibliography at the end, destined to lead to some growth of my To Read list, I am sure. This was an entertaining read with enough of Mallon's own interspersed comments to keep things lively. It's best to read by starts and stops though, as too much at once causes the reading to lose its savour as the epistolary impulse becomes satiated. Inspiring, instructive, a bit nostalgic... all in all a satisfying collection.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Blue Guitar

The Blue Guitar / Ann Ireland
Toronto: Dundurn, c2013.
254 p.

Who will enjoy this book? Those who like a Canadian setting, those who revel in the details of music performance (in this case, guitar), those who find intrigue in the interpersonal machinations of closed groups -- whether in offices or in guitar competitions.

It's a short but fascinating novel about the goings-on at the International Classical Guitar Competition, held in Montreal, and the lives of a few of the competitors and judges. The main character is Toby Hausner, a performer who was full of youthful promise but who had a meltdown on stage in Paris over 10 years ago, and disappeared from the performance world. He's decided to try to make a comeback this year, something his older lover Jasper, a counsellor, deems unhealthy and dangerous. Still, Toby is off, leaving Toronto in the midst of a Flu epidemic, heading to Montreal (which later becomes an issue in the plot, leading Jasper to follow Toby, with depressing results).

Other competitors include middle-aged Lucy, who's decided to challenge herself, having never played in this kind of competition before -- and you can see why, when you read about the backstage wrangling of the judges, who argue that she's way too old to consider, even though her playing was fantastic.

There's also Trace, an unschooled young woman from a remote island in B.C., who appears as if from nowhere with amazing talent to show off. Here, sadly, one of the elements I've seen before in Ireland's writing reappears; the tendency for young, young girls to sleep with much, much older musicians who are in a position of authority. Still just as unpleasant to read about.

This older man is one of the judges, a Cuban with marriage troubles, who had a very hard time getting Cuban authorities to permit his visit to Montreal. These are the characters we follow through the book, with the pressure of performance intensifying personalities, and stirring up unlikely behaviour.

I thought that the story was pretty interesting -- great capturing of the minutiae of performance, from the chance of disaster coming from the tiniest thing like a torn fingernail, to the larger question of self-worth, talent and judgement.

But there a few elements that threw me. The over-involvement of Jasper in Toby's life, and the way that his character is built up, is reversed in the last chapters. Jasper's actions and motives in his rapid flight to make it to Montreal in time for Toby's performance changed him from a character I was actually quite involved in to a selfish, unpleasant creature I cringed from. The softness in his character turned to selfish weakness aimed right at the weak spots in his lover.

And the winner of the competition was a conclusion I hadn't really wanted to see, making the case that quid pro quo and backroom dealings are always the winners in these kind of things. I was disappointed that the conclusion felt so cynical, to me, anyhow.

But, this was still a book that explored different ground than most I've read lately, and was definitely researched extensively and written from the vantage point of all the senses. Sweat and exhaustion, food and sleep, love and despair, and music itself are all enlivened in this writing. Both Toronto and Montreal are great settings, drawn with care, and add a lot to the story. Music lovers will be intrigued.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Saturday Snapshot: Black Out Poetry

Today I am sharing a Saturday Snapshot inspired by the Poetry Month Blog Tour hosted by Savvy Verse & Wit. The Saturday Snapshot is a fun meme hosted by Alyce at At Home with Books. (basic rule: pictures must be your own and suitable for general viewing.)

I posted a photo last week, and though I don't usually participate each time, I had a lot of fun trying out a new poetic technique this week that I wanted to share.

I've been following along with the daily poetry posts in the Blog Tour, and a few days ago, The Picky Girl shared a very fun event that her university writing centre held in celebration of Poetry Month: a Blackout Poetry Party! 

What is blackout poetry? Popularized by artist Austin Kleon, it is a technique which takes an existing text -- a newspaper, magazine, book page, etc. -- and removes words, via Sharpie, to create a poem. I thought that I'd give this a try, and since I had a bunch of magazines to go through before adding them to the recycling pile it was a perfect opportunity.

It took quite a bit longer than I thought it would, as I was looking for something that caught my poetic fancy. Finally, Martha Stewart Living came through with a gardening article! Here is my very brief Black Out Poem.

This process was a lot of fun, making me look at things a little differently. I'm going to try to create a few more. Odd side note: black Sharpie on shiny magazine pages smells an awful lot like nail polish!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Mount Pleasant

Mount Pleasant / Don Gillmor
Toronto: Random House, c2013.
403 p.

This is a novel that strongly reminded me of another I've read recently, Bill Gaston's The World. It is set in Toronto and features a man in late middle-age, going through a financial and existential crisis.

But these novels also differ. Mount Pleasant is the story of Harry Salter, born of wealthy parents in Rosedale, married, with an adult son, and shuddering under a huge debtload. He is reduced to waiting for his long estranged father to die in order to receive his inheritance, which he hopes will wipe out most of the debt he is currently shouldering. Alas, when his father dies, he discovers that there is only a few thousand left for him.

He tries to trace the money, trying to figure out where it all could have gone. This involves interrogating his father's business partners, old-money shysters all, as well as forming a short-lived liaison with Dixie, his father's last and much younger girlfriend, who is also furious at the lack of the payoff that she'd been expecting.

The story tackles issues of expectations and entitlement among people who are accustomed to having money. As such, I found myself a bit disengaged with the characters. The story felt one-note to me, going over this financial ground repeatedly -- Harry's lack of money, his mother's lack of money, his father's business partners' manipulation of money, and so on. I'm sure it is a comment on the financial trauma of the past few years, but a little too much of a good thing, maybe. The author is known more as a non-fiction writer, and perhaps that's why I found the fictional aspects of plot and character a bit weak.

The narrative is carried by straight-forward writing, with clever observations, humour, and some entertaining interplay especially between Harry and his son's bossy girlfriend. The setting was great; Toronto really breathes here. The characters weren't so lively, especially the women, who seemed to be simply sketched in. But, it's likely that I am just not the right reader for this one, as I have little patience with the focus of this story: Toronto, male crisis, rich people losing some of their money. It was interesting, but ultimately fell flat for me.

other views:

Kevin from Canada muses on his own memories of Toronto while reading this

Shan from Curled up with a good book and a cup of tea says "There is much that I liked and much that I didn't "

Andrea at Cozy Up with a Good Read states "I can see many people enjoying what he has done with his story"

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The Firebird

The Firebird / Susanna Kearsley
Toronto: Simon & Schuster Canada, c2013.
466 p.

I always await new books by Susanna Kearsley with great anticipation. She is one of my favourite writers of this kind of book; romantic, suspenseful, slightly paranormal with the inclusion of psychics, those who can see ghosts, and/or time travel. The settings are always intriguing and the characters engaging.

The Firebird is no exception. There are links between this book, and two earlier ones, The Winter Sea and The Shadowy Horses. Now, the Shadowy Horses is one of my favourite of her books (full of ghosts, and archeologists, and Scotsmen!), so I was a bit worried about seeing the characters all grown up here. Would they lose their appeal? Nope. If anything, Robbie the boy (from Shadowy Horses) has grown into a handsome, charming, sensible gentleman in this book.

This novel is a little different: rather than England or Italy, it's set largely in Russia. The modern day characters travel to St. Petersburg for business -- heroine Nicola works for an art dealer, and is very good at authenticating paintings. This could be due to her strong talent in psychometry, being able to see flashes of the previous owners of an item she has in her hands. Her strong talent that she would prefer to deny.

Unfortunately for Nicola, she touches a small wooden carving that instantly enthralls her with the flash of its history she sees. And she knows that the only person who can help her now is a former boyfriend, Rob McMorran, who makes no effort to hide his particularly strong gift of the second sight.

Off they both go to Russia, ostensibly for Nicola's work but also chasing down the source of the carving. The Russian setting is lush and romantic, and Rob and Nicola encounter a vivid past wherein Scottish residents of St Petersburg in the time of the Empress Catherine live and plot as loyal Jacobites. These characters develop a wider story for those in The Winter Sea. It's very intricate, all the pieces coming together to make sense in light of the structure of the other two books. There are no gaffes, and all the writing is enjoyable. The descriptions of St Petersburg are wonderful, past and present, and though at times there does seem to be a lot of research showing, I found it enjoyably educational.

The past narrative was much deeper and dreamier than the current day, though, and I did find a bit of an imbalance in the two stories, as if both were fighting for supremacy in this book. This was a solid, entertaining read featuring a dreamy modern-day hero -- but I do believe that little Robbie and his shadowy horses will always be my favourites.

Explore Susanna Kearsley's website for a look at this book, to be released here in Canada at the end of this month. Read the opening chapter to get a taste of the style and main characters, too.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Saturday Snapshot: Playing School

This week I'm once again joining in on Alyce's great meme, Saturday Snapshot. Alyce from At Home with Books hosts this one, and the rules are simple:

Photos can be old or new, and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see. How much detail you give in the caption is entirely up to you. Please don't post random photos that you find online.

This week I thought I'd share some pretty funny items I uncovered recently, some memorabilia from childhood. My younger sister and I used to play an elaborate game of "school" together -- we created class lists of 20-30 names each for our numerous classes, we made up teacher I.D. cards for what I now realize would be a huge staff (using Sears catalogues and local flyers to cut out faces for each I.D., and creating addresses and birthdates, setting our school in the fictional city of Cannada), we even typed out correspondence with parents and the school board on wee slips of paper. Some of these are great examples of an early customer service ethic....or not....

We were really into our St. Lawrence School activities. My sister (now the Trekking Teacher) was always a classroom teacher, while I preferred to be an administrator, sending out letters, drawing up curriculum and so on. Kind of funny how we both turned out! I don't quite remember how old we were when we stopped playing this (early teens I think), but I clearly still have some of the materials from those days, and finding them brought back some very amusing recollections. Hope you enjoy them too.

Here is the staff! All nicely named and photographed...almost

Lauralee Pix (of "Charolotte" Road) was my sister's alterego. You can see she chose one face and stuck with it! Poor Francine Waite. That was me, and I went through facial changes regularly. I'm kind of sad that when we stopped playing this game I was between faces. Now I will never be immortalized in 80's catalogue style :( Although I did somehow have a presentiment that I'd move to Montreal...

Do these guys look familiar? A rose by any other name...

Some very polite notes to various parents. I don't know where we came
up with this stuff! I'm particularly fond of the missive to Mrs. Googliment.
(click to embiggen)

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Poetry Month returns...

So it's April again, and already, and I didn't get any poetry month celebrations planned out! But fortunately for me, there are other bloggers more organized, and I can leap in and participate with their well planned events :)

I'm thinking mainly of Serena at Savvy Verse & Wit, who is a champion of poetry all year round, but in April she goes all out, and hosts a spectacular month of poetry-focused blogging by a variety of poetry reading bloggers. I'm going to be chiming in on the 28th, but until then, check out her blog, and the schedule for all the poetic musings happening as part of her National Poetry Month Blog Tour Event:

April 1:  Savvy Verse & Wit Kick-Off
April 5:  Regular Rumination
April 6:  Booking Mama
April 8:  Maximum Exposure
April 9:  The Picky Girl
April 10: Tabatha Yeatts
April 11:  Book Snob
April 13:
April 14:  Rhapsody in Books
April 16:  Lost In Books
April 17:  Diary of an Eccentric
April 18:  Still Unfinished
April 20:  Bermudaonion Weblog
April 21:  Insatiable Booksluts
April 23:  So Many Books
April 24:  Lit and Life
April 25:  A Bookish Way of Life
April 26: Life’s a Stage
April 27:  Insatiable Booksluts
April 29:  Pen Paper Pad
April 30:  Worducopia


A few other fun poetry month goings-on: over at Brick Books (where it is also all poetry, all the time) they've created a Poetry Map. They note that it includes "recordings of Brick Books poets reading from their works; behind-the-scenes diaries of the writing process; excerpts and more.Check it out, it is great fun to explore -- and while you're there, take a listen to some of their extensive collection of podcasts!

Plus, the Literary Press Group has an amazing 30-Day Coast-to-Coast Poetry Project, with a lineup of 35 poets taking readers across Canada from one end to the other. They post a poem and then a Q&A with the poet, and, there's also a twitter/FB contest so definitely explore their blog!

And, of course, there is the ongoing #todayspoem hashtag on twitter, if you haven't yet participated, take a look. Post a link to a fave poem, a beautiful line, or simply explore all the poems that have been shared so far. There is also a #todayspoem Pinterest board if you prefer that method of exploration.

So just a few ways to celebrate poetry a little more loudly this month ~ hope you plan on enjoying it too!