Sunday, July 28, 2013

Revivals #3: Beast in View

Beast in View / Margaret Millar
Carrol & Graf, 2000, c1955.
158 p.

I haven't done a Revivals post in a while, but I've found a title that I must share. As far as I can tell, this book has fallen out of print in North America, though apparently you can still find it in the UK and Australia/New Zealand -- and these days, can order a UK edition in via Book Depository. In any case, I found my copy in one of the great resting places of out-of-print fiction -- the Goodwill.

I first discovered Margaret Millar last year, thanks to my husband, who is a reader of Ross Macdonald (otherwise known by his given name, Kenneth Millar, Margaret Millar's husband). We had one of her novels in our old shop stock (The Listening Walls) so I picked it up and read it. And became an instant fan of the much overlooked Margaret Millar. Beast in View won the Edgar Allan Poe Best Novel Award in 1956 and was named as one of the top 100 mystery novels by H.R.F. Keating in his 1987 compilation. I can see why, as it was innovative at the time, creating a plot structure that has been endlessly copied, almost to the point of saturation.

Margaret and Kenneth are both Canadians, originating from a place just down the road from me, in Kitchener, Ontario. There's a wonderful biography of Ross Macdonald that turns out to be really a biography of the two of them, by Tom Nolan. If you are interested in learning more detail about their troubled lives, you will love it.

Millar writes mysteries that often feature women, disaffected and lonely, paired up with laconic, generally ineffective men. The women are the clever ones, and are playing the system whether heroine or villainess. The plot of Beast in View, like that of The Listening Walls, depends on uncertainty, misdirection, and the unexpected. The main character, the painfully isolated and agoraphobic Helen Clarvoe, lives in a hotel, and not a very nice one either. She can't stand her mother, and so upon her father's death and her subsequent inheritance, left home. She has a younger brother Douglas who is completely and finally utterly ineffective at anything he tries to do. He is a lost soul; when we learn more, we discover he is a repressed homosexual, fighting his nature and society's expectations. This was written in 1955, and perhaps we sometimes forget how hard life was for gay men as well as for single women in those years -- both individuals who go against the grain of expectations and propriety. Reading this novel, you will understand just how difficult life is for these two, within the rather seedy circles they seem to run in.

As the story opens, Helen receives a threatening phone call, from someone she finally identifies as Evelyn, her brother's ex-wife. She and Evelyn had been schoolgirl friends, but after the wedding and subsequent annulment debacle they've not kept in touch. Now Helen is terrified that Evelyn is stalking her. Evelyn seems to delight in making malicious phone calls to share dark secrets, which result in more damage than even she could have expected.

The story moves between Helen's and Evelyn's viewpoints, allowing us to see inside both perspectives. We are also given the chance to see them from the outside, as a former friend of Helen's father takes on investigative duties at Helen's request. This, I think, is the one weakness of this book; he falls in love with Helen, suddenly and inexplicably. Perhaps his fathering instincts have been roused by her helplessness. Who knows... but it is not acknowledged or reciprocated, and he is still rather laconic and hard-boiled about it all, so it doesn't overwhelm the narrative.

In any case, the story unravels to reveal much seediness: a photography studio run by a man who turns out to be one of  Douglas' partners; a 'massage parlour' for lonely women, run by women; dark bars with phone booths from where Evelyn likes to make her threatening phone calls; control and insult from within Helen's family; extreme loneliness and despair and much more.

It's a slim novel but leaves a huge impression. Millar's writing is so good -- her use of imagery and metaphor is really unsurpassed in my experience of crime novels of this era. She gets at the interior life of her characters in a way that is clear-eyed and yet almost painful. There is no sentimentality in her writing, but she shows a sympathetic eye toward motivation and character, rather than a cold recounting of fact. And the final line of the book -- unforgettable.

I can't reveal much of the plot, or spoilers will be inevitable. I had no idea what this story was about when I began it, which is the only way to really feel the effect of the plotting. If you haven't heard of it, don't look it up for more information. Just find the book and read it for yourself.

I added this as a candidate for revival, as it is so well written while also shocking with its outdated representation of a few different factors, but particularly homosexuality. It wasn't that long ago that this was the norm, and this is an uncomfortable reminder. It's easy to take things for granted when you forget how hard prejudice was to overcome in the first place -- gay rights or feminist advances, both. I find that mystery novels in particular are able to catch the spirit of their era, the unspoken assumptions held by society. This one, while a bit melodramatic, does catch the feeling of a life defined by its surroundings. I thought it was a great read.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The House

The House / Teresa Waugh
London: Phoenix House, c2003.
352 p.

As I was tidying up a few bookshelves recently I came across this book that I had put aside to read ages ago -- and it was a good choice for a lazy weekend. It's an epistolary novel -- written in diary entries and letters, from varied perspectives.

It was not quite successful, but made for a mostly fun read. The story is thus: post-war, Sydney Otterton, the eldest son of a rich family takes over his ancestral home, which is crumbling around him. His wife is the efficient, managing sort and starts making changes that are somewhat successful. Their children have one psychotic governess, then another. There are a number of servants, a large number it seemed to me, but considering the prewar household this is extremely bare bones. And added to that, Sydney's mother is a nutjob, a crack addict and a psychopath who tortured him all through his childhood and of whom he is still afraid. Also, there's a Polish writer who is writing a history of the family and who becomes fascinated by all of them. And don't forget the sinister renters of the flat they carve out of part of the house.

All of these eccentric and over-the-top characters interact within the mostly normal circumstances of post-war England, with the primary themes being both Sydney's difficulty reintegrating into civilian life after the heightened experience of the war, and the dissolution of aristocratic society after the war. The lack of available servants, extreme death duties, and changing expectations all play a part in the new life that the Otterton family finds itself living.

Many of the characters are more caricature, as if Waugh couldn't quite decide if this was a dark comedy or a straight-ahead novel of post-war life. It becomes both, and the two elements don't always sit comfortably together. Sydney's mother was startlingly evil, and her lady's maid was pretty terrifying also. There were a few more realistic portraits, though, and reading Sydney's diary was interesting -- you could see that he was bumbling and ineffective, but through his diary some sympathy was also roused. His horrible childhood and the loss of the camaraderie and simplicity of war both affect him greatly.

But there were other characters who I enjoyed more. My favourite sections were those of Sarah's diary and of Georgina's notebook. Sarah is a general house servant, I was never quite sure what she did, but she was important and had a long history with the house. She keeps a diary, detailing the ups and downs of all the characters in the house; she seems to quietly observe everything, and has her own dramas with two possible love interests and regret at her choices. She is the voice of the modern world breaking in on the past.

Georgina is the daughter, a young girl who keeps a surreptitious notebook. It's heartbreaking -- she records the sadistic governess' behaviour while not even considering telling her parents, as she knows they would just tell her she was imagining things. The vulnerability of childhood comes out clearly, as does the situation at school, when she notes that her brother doesn't want to go back after holidays because of the abusive conditions there. She has a clear voice, with misspellings and childish clarity of vision making her very recognizable.

I enjoyed the format of the book even if it did become a bit cartoonish in parts. The variety of letters and diaries and the overall feel of the book were both well done. But it's hard to pin down exactly what Waugh meant to do with this one.

Friday, July 19, 2013

River of No Return

The River of No Return / Bee Ridgway
London: Penguin, 2013.
546 p.

Another light summer read, this was a strange mix of modern conspiracy novel and Regency romance, thanks to the central element: it's a novel of time travel.

Nick Davenant lives a comfortable life, wealthy, single, a bit of a rake even if he does live in rural Vermont. But there is much more to him than this casual landowner lifestyle. He was actually born 200 years ago, as the Marquess Nicholas Falcott, and jumped forward in time during a moment of crisis in the Peninsular Wars.

After his shocking time jump, he had been taken in by The Guild, a secret society that exists across time, for the purpose of finding and gathering in these kind of random time travellers. They have many rules and ways in which to manage the various situations that arise from such unusual circumstances, and one of the primary ones is "There is only going forward. No-one ever goes back... it is impossible."

But the Guild is in trouble and so brings Nick into their inner circle, where they reveal a deeply held secret: there is indeed going back, for a few. The Guild needs him now, to go back to his former life as a rich, powerful Marquess in 1815 England, and find something known only as The Talisman. There is a competing time travelling fellowship known as Ofans, opposed to the way The Guild handles all this time jumping, and they are also in desperate search for the Talisman.

Unknown to both The Guild and the Ofan, but quite early on known to the reader, the Talisman doesn't necessarily want to be found. And it is something quite different from what any of them think they are looking for.

There is a wide cast of characters, lots of suspense, intrigue and deception among the powerful time travel cabals, and of course, a love story. Nicholas re-encounters his neighbour Clare who is in need of rescuing and immediately falls for her. Of course, since this is a modern and adventurous novel, she has none of the historically appropriate reservations about engaging in an intensely physical affair...

I found the combination of so many genre expectations a little bit discombobulating, but this was a quick and entertaining tale nevertheless. There is certainly room for a sequel, with all of the storylines and characters and intrigue that Ridgway has created -- there is definitely space left open for more to come, even though the story was complete, with nothing left unresolved enough to bother a reader. If you like time travel novels or even just Regencies you will probably find this one satisfying summer reading.

Thursday, July 18, 2013


Perdita / Hilary Scharper
Toronto: Simon & Schuster Canada, c2013.
424 p.

If you would like to visit the Bruce Peninsula in North Ontario both now and then, try this novel of romantic suspense. The modern day story: Garth Hellyer, an historian working for the Longevity Project, interviews a stunning woman in a nursing home who claims to be 134 yr old Marged Brice. She says she hasn't died because of the constant presence of someone called Perdita holding her back. Garth, despite his scepticism, investigates, and agrees to read Marged's journals.

Thus the past is revisited -- Marged's journals are detailed, emotional, and complete, telling a story of a life in the early years of the Bruce. Her family is based at the lighthouse, and they live there all year round. When summer visitors arrive, her world expands. Marged's attachment to the sons of a wealthy family who summer nearby shapes her life. There is also a professor studying birds who spends summers there, and who encourages Marged's naturalist interests and her artistic abilities as well, teaching her to illustrate birds.

Marged is a little bit fey, sensing presences in the local graveyard and feeling a strong connection to "her trees". She knows, ultimately, she won't be able to leave the landscape that holds her so intensely. This, alongside the love interests that arise as she gets older, sets the stage for some drama and confusion. A wild landscape, a passionate yet determined girl, and a supernatural twist: it makes for a pretty fascinating read!

Of the two narratives, I much preferred Marged's journal story. The past was so full of colour and emotion, and felt much more believable to me than the present day story. Garth was a bit of a dud, and his complicated romantic storyline involving a childhood friend felt stilted and uninteresting. I didn't really feel much intrigue with these two, rather, it seemed like Marged had all the excitement! One thing that did drag on a bit was Marged's innocence about whether the men she had feelings for reciprocated them in any was pretty obvious and I was beginning to wonder if she needed to be hit over the head with it to finally clue in.

But despite this, I enjoyed this read, and think it was the perfect summer book. It reminds me of the classic novels of gothic suspense, though the 'gothic' nature lies more in the uncanny landscape than the people. In fact, Scharper wrote a wonderful article describing this novel as "eco-gothic" -- take a look to see how she defined (or didn't define) this term. The historical setting was thoroughly envisioned, with many small details creating a lush background for her story. There were all sorts of fascinating, eccentric supporting characters, mysterious events, threatening men and more. This was a chance find that I was glad to have discovered. Quite entertaining, and a wonderful setting.

Read an excerpt and find lots of extras like bird calls and Bruce Peninsula info on the author's page at S&S

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Reading From the Heart

Reading from the Heart: women, literature, and the search for True Love / Suzanne Juhasz
New York: Penguin, c1994.
292 p.

I've owned this book for ages; my husband picked it up for me in some garage sale long ago, knowing I'd like it. Despite taking years to finally pick it up off my shelf, I enjoyed it once I began reading!

It's the story of the author's engagement with fiction as a child and throughout her life, about how reading shaped her and helped to form an identity. She comes at the topic from her perspective as an academic, with much of her focus formed upon developmental psychology, the school of object-relations, and feminist psychology. Her premise is that early mother-child attachment forms the way in which we later read to make connections, to understand the self, to feel a sense of recognition. She says in the opening pages "True love is at heart a story of mother love" (p13)

And yet it seems that reading can also be a form of resistance to a smothering mother love of reality -- Juhasz also states early on that as a child, she felt that her mother expected her to perform and achieve, to grasp what the mother had not been able to. Thus,
Even if I could find my secret self, she could never come out. Except when I was reading. The reading girl is not out producing something, being successful. Reading was the opposite of the life my mother told me to lead. Reading was not for an audience; it was for me. It differed from my performances in the world, because when I was reading, no one could tell what was happening to me. Consequently, reading met both halves of my need: to find out who I might be; to come into existence. 
While I'm not sure I entirely agree with this concept, I did find the book fascinating. Juhasz reveals her own early reading habits and her abiding love of books, and while doing so, delves deeply into some much loved novels of my own. I was familiar with the majority of the titles she uses as examples, and it was fabulous to see a deeper study of the themes and characters from her 'search for mother love' perspective.

The first section, Becoming a Romance Reader, focuses on Pride & Prejudice and Elswyth Thane's Tryst, both of which I've read and enjoyed. But Juhasz has some insights I'd never considered about both titles.

Part two deals with Wuthering Heights, part three with Jane Eyre. I dislike the first and love the second; in which I am not in agreement with her judgement of either! But still a wonderful inquiry into both books.

Part Four is entitled The Magic Circle: Fictions of the Good Mother, covering Little Women and Gloria Naylor's Mama Day. I'd never heard of the second one, nor the next two books in the following section dealing with lebsian romance. She discusses Isabel Miller's Patience and Sarah and Valerie Taylor's Prism, both books that drew a strong note of recognition from Juhasz as she moved into her own lesbian identity in midlife.

She also includes an appendix of about 20 pages that is a scholarly inquiry into the psychoanalytical theories that shaped the premise of this book. If you have any interest at all in the concatenation of psychology and literature, this will be useful and intriguing.

Throughout the book there are many references to other books, that much loved trail of reading that books of this sort often highlight. I really enjoyed the analysis of the titles that I had read myself, comparing her thoughts to the impressions I had of those titles. The thrill of recognition, as she often calls the experience of reading a book that you really get, is something I've experienced myself. But for me, that's not the only thrill in reading. I also enjoy the thrill of complete dislocation, of not quite understanding what is going on, of finding the actions of the characters foreign to my experience, and sometimes reprehensible. I don't believe that I read solely to find recognition or acknowledgement of my essential Self. However, those books that strike a chord, that easily become beloved, seem to have an element of this kind of identification at play.

Reading is a complicated process, and this just provides another facet to consider. It's well worth the read, interesting and not overly academic, even while precise enough to learn new things from. Here's something that Juhasz shares in her introduction, the concept of her book explained.  Whether you agree and would like to learn a little more, or disagree, and would like to argue the point, this book provides lots to wrestle with.

My description of reading indicates that to find the secret self -- the true self -- a person cannot go it alone. Someone from the outside has to be there, to notice, to say, "Oh, it's you!" -- for the self to know she is there. And, in a complementary manner, she needs to recognize the presence of another, to know that there is a world in which to exist. Recognition bolstered by love. All else in the way of development follows. A book is not a living person, true; but a relationship is created in the interaction between the reading mind and the words that are read. When there is no active nurture in the child's life, reading may well approximate that process to provide an environment for coming alive that is at once safe and challenging, supportive and guiding. Something to curl up into; something to push against....
To a certain extent. But for all the ways in which the book is like another person, there are many ways in which it is not. No flesh; no blood. You are alone when you read, despite the feeling that you are not. You are not actually engaged with the outside world. That is both the beauty of  the experience and its frustration, because reading enhances the loneliness as much as it reduces it. After all, engaged, stimulated, active as you may be, all of this exertion is taking place inside one person, on solitary mind.
This may well be why reading is addictive. No one book ever gets the reader all the way there. She must find another, and another, to repeat the wonderful process that is finally but a taste, or a template, of the real thing: love and recognition with a person, a mother or someone who can love as a mother should.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

6 in 6

This is a fun meme I noted first at Fleur in Her World, originating at The Book Jotter (a new-to-me blog). It's made up of six books in six categories which you've read in the first six months of the year. While I've come to it a bit late, it's not too, too late to join in!

So, using some of Jo's six categories, and a few that differ, here are my choices:

Six authors new to me

Elizabeth Savage (Last Night at the Ritz)
Rachel Wyatt (Suspicion)
Saleema Nawaz (Bone & Bread)
Janet Hepburn (Flee, Fly, Flown)
Helene Wecker (The Golem & The Jinni)

Six authors I have read before

Alexander McCall Smith
Alan Bradley
Susanna Kearsley
Barbara Pym
Helen Humphreys
Marusya Bociurkiw

Six From the Non-Fiction Shelf

Wm & H'ry by J.C. Hallman
Yours Ever by Thomas Mallon
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
Threading Light by Lorri Neilsen Glenn
Comfort Food for Breakups by Marusya Bociurkiw

Six books I have greatly enjoyed

Sir Charles Grandison by Samuel Richardson
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
An Unsuitable Attachment by Barbara Pym
Astray by Emma Donoghue

Six books that took me to other times and places

John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence Norfolk
The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley
Henrietta Sees It Through by Joyce Dennys
Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley
The Tale-Teller by Susan Glickman

Six books not reviewed yet -- in progress or recently finished

Perdita by Hilary Scharper
The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway
The History of Emily Montague by Frances Brooke
The Translation of Dr. Apelles by David Treuer
Heidegger's Glasses by Thaisa Frank
The House by Teresa Waugh

Try your own set of sixes if you wish, and be sure to share them with Jo at the Book Jotter, too.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Antagonist

The Antagonist / Lynn Coady
Toronto: Anansi, c2011.
337 p.

Gordon "Rank" Rankin Jr. relives his life story for us, in a series of emails to Adam Grix -- an old college friend, a writer who has misappropriated Rank's life for use in his latest novel. Rank is pretty steamed as he begins this correspondence with someone he hasn't seen for years, but throughout his long and one-sided conversation he begins to understand the power and the seduction of a story.

He moves from rage to a kind of understanding that he is addicted to the story he is telling himself. Through this retelling he is slowly becoming the author of his own life, not just a pawn in the hands of a larger, outside authorial presence. Rank's voice is a strong one, and a compelling one too. His long, unexpectedly erudite monologue is fascinating and effective, and the emails have a sense of verisimilitude, without being reduced to the kind of emoticon laden telegraphic speech that daily emails often hold.

I've read Coady's previous novel Mean Boy, which I thought was really wonderful as well, and which also deals with male characters. Something I see over and over again in reviews of The Antagonist is the surprise that Coady is able to carry off such a fantastic male narrator -- she does make Rank and his relationships with his friends, his father, and even his mentor all very believable. But, it's noted so frequently that it's beginning to annoy me. Why the surprise? Was anyone going on and on about Richard Wright's Clara Callan and how astonishing it was that he could write from a woman's perspective? Or David Bergen's recent Age of Hope? It irritates me.

Anyhow, the book itself was a great read. Rank is a complex character, a boy who grows into a very large man. At the age of 14 he is already being taken for an adult, and is pushed into the role of thug, goon, hockey enforcer. But he is also a sensitive man, and as we eventually discover, at age 40 he is a high school teacher. He might have been another kind of person if not for his physicality and his home life -- particularly his high-strung father, identified as suffering from 'small man syndrome'. His father's own need to have Rank be the powerful enforcer that he himself has clearly wanted to be shapes the direction of Rank's life in irreversible ways.  And it is that relationship that has the strongest hold on him throughout his story.

The narrative was wonderful; Rank circles around his story, telling us bits and leaving out other parts, then adding more detail in his next missive that finally makes the truth clear -- or what Rank believes to be the truth, anyhow. It was an easy read, in its energy and interest, and yet at the same time a difficult read, with some disturbing details of Rank's childhood and adolescence. His university years are a vital part of the story, as he is relating memories to his old friend Adam, someone who he has not seen since those long ago days. As the story develops we learn just what caused the split between the four guys who were virtually inseparable then. Coady has a keen eye for the small details of social interactions and motivations, and this strengthens all the characters' depictions, male or otherwise.

I really enjoyed this book. I thought that the email monologue format really worked, and Rank's voice comes through clearly, from his initial rage to his increasing self-awareness and resultant sense of acceptance and understanding. But it never turns into a sentimental, utopian conclusion; Rank's final words to Adam are still pretty furious. I have to admit that I do have a weakness for the epistolary style, but it's not always easy to carry it off successfully. Coady succeeds, adapting the form to her story and its needs, as well as the voice of her narrator. It rang true for me, and was both unexpectedly entertaining and emotionally satisfying.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Stop

The Stop: how the fight for good food transformed a community and inspired a movement / Nick Saul & Andrea Curtis.
Toronto: Random House, c2013.
320 p.

This book tells the story of how The Stop, a small neighbourhood food bank, was reinvented over  a decade to become a community food centre. The difference? Instead of doling out food charity on an emergency basis, The Stop began to focus on providing both food and dignity to their clients.

They conceive of a Community Food Centre as somewhere that people can come to get food hampers, yes, but also access programming like healthy drop-in breakfasts and lunches, young moms' nutrition programs, culturally centred cooking lessons, assistance with government forms and rules, intergenerational activities, and gardening -- yes, they plant and tend a community garden, with clients volunteering to learn and assist. Volunteers for many of the programs, including cooking, come from within, and this ability to give back as well as receive made a huge difference in the people using The Stop.

This story is really inspiring. It gives a lot of detail about the mechanics of developing from "just" a food bank into a more complex programming centre, and it was clearly a long process full of hard work. But at the same time there is hope and excitement about the successes and the possibilities. I found it illuminating -- the authors discuss the politics of food banks, and how some people were threatened by their new approach, thinking that they were dismissing the whole idea. But it is more that they think food banks are a temporary emergency measure and should not be institutionalized to a degree that removes governments from their responsibilities to the poor and disadvantaged.

The discussion of the politics of food was very interesting. The kind of food that is donated to food banks is often very unhealthy processed food, especially since corporations can write off these donations instead of disposing of their unwanted or unsuccessful products. Also, there is not much opportunity for choice, or the ability to serve someone with specific dietary needs.

Rather than dealing solely with front-line hunger, the authors believe that there should be an examination of the systemic reasons for the poverty that drives food bank use. Looking at minimum wages, rent policies, social security/welfare support, and similar issues is a vital element to reducing the "up stream" causes of hunger.

I really liked this book, and think that everyone interested in any kind of social justice work or food writing would be intrigued as well. They discuss food initiatives around the world as well, so there is lots to follow up on to learn more. Another element that made this of particular interest to me is the fact that The Stop has engendered a movement to create more Community Food Centres in locations across Canada. They started with two new locations, one of which is right here in Stratford. The Local Community Food Centre is a wonderful place, where I've already had the chance to give a few programs both personally and with my library. And I've had the opportunity to participate in one of their drop-in breakfasts, which was both amazingly gourmet and served to the clients at the table, with kindness. It's a wonderful place that I hope to see grow over the years.

To check out The Stop online, explore their website -- it is very inspiring.

Also take a look at Stratford's own Local CFC

And you can explore the new umbrella organization that the author of this book is now heading, Community Food Centres Canada -- you can learn how this process works and see if this is something you need in your own community, too.

Monday, July 08, 2013

The French Market Cookbook

The French Market Cookbook: vegetarian recipes from my Parisian kitchen / Clotilde Dusoulier
New York: Clarkson Potter, c2013.
224 p.

I've been a longtime fan of Clotilde Dusoulier via her food blog Chocolate & Zucchini (I mean, who wouldn't love that?) She's so charming, and unpretentious, and I've always found that she doesn't follow food trends -- she has a sense of originality. Plus she lives in Paris, so it's irresistible to follow her!

Anyhow, when I saw that she had a cookbook out that focuses on vegetarian food, I knew I had to have it. She states that while classic French cuisine focuses nearly exclusively on animal protein, there is more to French cooking than the "classic" approach. Regional French cooking tends to highlight local produce a little bit more, and she is taking inspiration from the traditional foods and flavours of the varied regions in France.

It's full of beautiful photos of Paris and still life images of shiny fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as the actual recipes. The book is organized around the seasons (very French) and contains appetizers, mains, & desserts for each section. There is also an extra section at the end, Essentials -- doughs, vinaigrettes, sauces.

I really liked it. She notes at the beginning that drowning a recipe in cheese may be a tasty way to convert your meals into veg ones but it's not very healthy or creative. So she avoids heavy use of cheese, which makes me happy as I don't really eat it much myself. She does use a lot of eggs though, so if you're vegan you may want to browse this and not buy, unless you're good at creating egg substitutes.

In any case, there are some really fun, original combinations here, and things I never would have thought of trying. Shaved Fennel Salad with Preserved Lemon ... Savoury Zucchini & Apricot Tart... Jerusalem Artichoke & Potato Canapes... just a few things I want to try soon. There are traditional French combinations too; pears & chestnuts, or leeks & tarragon, for example. Everything looks fresh and lovely.

It's a fairly straightforward book, with recipes that take some care and attention. There are no 'instant' meals, rather she focuses on fresh produce and flavourings. It's really nice, and I know that I'll keep this one on the kitchen shelf. If you want a taste of her style, check out her blog -- there is always much to explore there.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

The Photograph

The Photograph / Penelope Lively
New York: Penguin Viking, c2003.
231 p.

This is one of the few Lively books I haven't read yet, so decided that this week was the perfect time to pick it up. I found a nice hardcover a few months ago and was waiting for the Lively mood to strike me. It's very much about her common preoccupations: memory, how well we know people, the place of the past in the present.

The story is thus: Glyn, landscape historian, has married Kath, young, beautiful, rather feckless. Her elder sister Elaine, garden designer, is married to Nick, a man stuck in the big ideas/no follow-through adolescent stage of development. Kath has been dead for a number of years when the story opens, when Glyn, on the search for a paper he wants to use in an article, uncovers an envelope in his archive. It has a photograph inside, a photo of Kath and Nick surreptitiously holding hands.

This throws the whole narrative into overdrive. Glyn, furious, does what he does best -- he obsesses over it and tries to track down every last bit of information about what this photo represents. Elaine, on the other hand, wishes that she'd never found out. Things will now have to change.

Nick can't understand the fuss; it was 15 years ago, it didn't mean anything, why is Elaine getting so worked up? It's more his reaction than the original action that spurs Elaine to boot him out. He's been so dependent on her income and her patience that he is utterly incapable of surviving alone, so, he decamps to his daughter's flat in London, from where she is only too glad to press her mother to take him back.

The past rises up to shatter the present, and has everyone questioning how well they really knew Kath -- and really, how well do they know one another? The man who took the original photograph, Nick's previous business partner Oliver, gets dragged into the drama against his will. As first Glyn, then Nick, come to him about it, he muses that Kath "has become like some mythical figure, trawled up at will to fit other people's narratives. Everyone has their way with her, everyone decides what she was, how things were. It seems to him unjust that in the midst of this to-do she is denied a voice" 

In Lively's writing, there are always sharp comments on individual peculiarities, but is the person self-aware about their quirks? This is never as certain. The story, though resplendent with sound and fury, dies off into a quieter acceptance near the end. The characters seem to accept that the objective Truth will never be known, that Kath's character is a jumble of impressions made up of many different viewpoints.

The fact that there are so many incompatible couples in this narrative -- Glyn & Kath, Elaine & Nick, even their daughter and her various suitors -- gives it a melancholy realism. It's not a very happy book, tinged with betrayal, obsession, fear, and resignation. And yet Lively can write in such a fluid style, sweeping in and out of interior monologue to a wide view of history and landscape to the most minute social interaction. She can express exultant happiness and bitter anger on the same page. The writing is really wonderful, very recognizable as her particular style, and her regular themes arise, and I am greatly fond of both.

An excerpt to close -- Glyn is on a hillside in Dorset, working, in a place that he had taken Kath early in their relationship. He sees a kestrel fly over, and suddenly he is with Kath once more.

Glyn is now diverted from his reflections on the functions of time; he notes that his flow of observation -- unconsidered, uncontrived -- is a nice instance of the tumultuous, spontaneous operation of the mind. He knows enough of the theories of long-term memory to identify his recognition of the mill and the hill fort as the practice of semantic memory -- the retention of facts, language, knowledge, without reference to the context of their acquisition. He simply knows these things, along with everything else he knows that makes him a fully operational being -- a being considerably more operational than most, in his view. Whereas the vision of Kath sparked by the kestrel is due to episodic memory, which is autobiographical and essential to people's knowledge of their own identity. Without it we are untethered, we are souls in purgatory. Those glimmering episodes connect us with ourselves; they confirm our passage through life . They tell us who we are.

It is exactly this idea, that accepted moments in one's autobiographical memory can be disrupted, shifting one's understanding of reality, that this book strives to represent. I think Lively succeeds -- despite the irritating behaviour of these characters, the shifting sands beneath their once secure past are clearly drawn. The effects will go on and on into the future, beyond the 'end' of this story.

Another masterful tale, though because of the prickly relationships and melancholy outlook, it didn't find the warm and cozy spot in my heart that some of her other titles have. Still a worthwhile read, however!

Friday, July 05, 2013

Ocean at the end of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane / Neil Gaiman
New York: William Morrow, c2013.
181 p.

This small book holds a big story. But it's Neil Gaiman, so of course it does.

There's not much to say about this that hasn't already been said -- many bloggers have raved about it already. Like:

Andi, who says that "The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of those rare books that I want to re-read immediately as I turn the last page. In short, a new favorite is born!"

Nymeth who has a great point   "Interpreting any successful narrative is a bit like seeing light through a prism: a story will reveal new themes and layers depending on the eyes of the individual reader through which it’s being filtered. What this particular reader saw here was what is perhaps best described as a dark, wistful, mythologized account of the process through which a constant hunger for stories gets lodged into your heart. This hunger is part of what keeps pulling you towards a bookish life, but it’s also something that has the potential to separate you from your social world."

 or Aarti ,who points out  "In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, you are not quite sure how you feel about the narrator.  You know what he was like as a child of seven - lonely, quiet, and scared - but you don't quite know what he's like as an adult.  And that moral ambiguity - the uncertainty that the boy grew up to become a man who was worth all the effort - is really the lynchpin of this story."

(and if you have thoughts to share please leave them and/or links in the comments, too)

Still, there are some elements that I really found fascinating, that I wanted to talk about here. This is a brief book, which suits the story. There is a mythic sense to the story that is increased by the brevity, and the fact that Gaiman doesn't explain everything, that there is still mystery. I like reading and not knowing, I like that sense of the mysterious. Gaiman also shares his own spooky creations, like the existence of hunger birds, or nanny Ursula (otherworldly) and the inchoate rage of the narrator's father (very of-this-world, perhaps even more frightening).

The element that I was most drawn in by was the ocean itself, a pond on the Hempstock farm which set up echoes, for me, of the ponds in the Wood Between Worlds in C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew. It's the world's womb, the place of creation, the source of all life. It's very dreamlike, very enclosing.

I also loved the Hempstocks. Our narrator, as a traumatized 7 yr old, meets 11 yr old Lettie. She takes him home to where her mother and grandmother also live, to be cared for and protected. The Hempstocks are a clear representation of the triple goddess, Maiden, Mother, and Crone. They've been around since the Old Country drowned, and the Old Old Country exploded.

And yet, throughout the story, Granny Hempstock is both extremely powerful and given to taking long naps that she can't be woken from, despite any need for her. Mother is a vague comforting presence, one who nurtures at times of crisis. And Lettie is a practical child, leaving the farm and stumping about in both our world and the world beyond, quite regularly. She befriends our narrator and lives in the present. And in the end, she sacrifices herself for him and leaves this world to sleep in the ocean, the source.

This might also be seen as a representation of the Trinity, Father God who is all powerful but awfully hard to pin down; Holy Spirit who is more of an amorphous figure, a comforter of souls; and of course the Son of God who lived among us and sacrificed himself to save us all. The story supports both male and female conceptions of triune divinity, and makes it seem utterly believable that these 3 figures are ancient beings, that they are of course always there looking out on this world.

There's more to this book than the Hempstocks, there is the idea of trauma and forgetting, the question of how much of the child is in the man, there is a line near the end that shakes up our understanding of the narrator's return to a place from long ago. There is a lot to think about and discuss. Like the best fairy tales and myths, there are layers and layers, and many interpretations possible. The story also delves into one of my favourite themes, the reliability of memory and what role our memories play in the reality of our lives.

But I'm going to leave my further thoughts on this as mysterious as the reading, as I don't want to share any more spoilers for anyone who hasn't as yet read it. Even if you've seen spoilers already, the book really isn't about the plot anyhow -- it's about the emotion of reading it. So go and try it out for yourself!

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Golem & The Jinni

The Golem & the Jinni / Helene Wecker
New York: HarperCollins, c2013.
484 p.

This is a book that I picked up solely because of the blog buzz around it. I'm so glad I did, as it was a wonderfully entertaining, creative read.

The premise: it's 1899 in New York, and two new immigrants are stranger than any official could have imagined: one is a Golem, a woman made of clay to serve one master. Unfortunately that master has died at sea and she is now an uncomfortable free agent. The other is a Jinni, a creature of fire imprisoned in a brass container 1000 years ago, from which the jinni is freed accidentally by the local Little Syria tinsmith as he tries to remove a few dents and scratches.

These two misfits have to figure out a way to survive in their new and unexpected surroundings, and the story circles around until they meet and their lives begin to intertwine. This basic storyline takes place against a rich backdrop of supporting characters, all complex and fascinating on their own. Chava (the golem) and Ahmad (the jinni) both have deep backstories, with chapters at the beginning suddenly coming to us from new characters' perspectives, or from distant locations or times. At first, I wondered why Wecker was spending so much time on why and how Chava and Ahmad came to exist, and how they end up in New York, but as the story continues the connections get tighter and more tangled, and it all makes glorious, necessary sense.

The narrative jumps between Chava and Ahmad, and between their different communities. They both find that without meaning to, they are connecting with the people around them, they are getting involved. The people that they meet are so well drawn; they are all individuals, complete and different, not standing in as a symbol for anything-- they are real, complicated people.

Since Chava comes out of Jewish folklore, and Ahmad from Arabic, there are deeper themes running under the fantastical storyline. I really enjoyed how Wecker takes elements of folklore and weaves them into what feels like a more straightforward historical novel. She addresses little things, like what was proper for women at that time (many of which don't make sense when thinking about Chava, a strong, powerful, independent being) or whether golems or jinnis sleep (they don't) or familiarizing the rituals and habits of the Other by showing so many similarities between human beings (or not human beings).

The story moves around in time, in setting, in perspective, and kept me spellbound -- I usually read a number of books at the same time, switching between them, but once I started this I couldn't put it down until I'd finished. The book itself felt like a magical brass container, full of mystery and magic that could be released by each reader -- and I may just have rubbed that gorgeous glittery cover a little, too ;) A jinni can dazzle, and show us new vistas, and even enter into our dreams... and isn't that what a good book does too?

This was a book that was equally strong in character, setting, and language. The plot keeps you reading but the character development and the strong evocation of place really shine. I also liked how the language is complex, using phrases from both cultures as well as maintaining a sense of old New York, but it also flows, drawing the story forward. It's hard to believe that this is a debut novel; it is really fine, with only a few hiccups here and there (for example, when Ahmad is first introduced, I felt that his description was getting perilously near to Fabio territory). But Wecker so creatively situates these two -- Ahmad becomes an apprentice tinsmith, Chava a baker -- that they feel real. She is melding two traditions into a true immigrant tale. A great read.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Happy Canada Day!

Happy Canada Day to all my fellow Canucks -- hope you are having a wonderful long weekend! Mine has been great, even if not so long -- I worked on Saturday. But that's alright, I had lots of fun with our new Adult Summer Reading Program, making recommendation lists and so on, so it was sufficiently bookish :)

And of course, that's the measure of a "good" weekend for me -- how bookish is it? Since I was able to sit outside in the sun reading books and writing letters for a whole day, I guess this one passed :)

But I also  have a new Canada Day tradition these days, thanks to John at the Book Mine Set. I sign up for the Canadian Book Challenge and ponder how I'm going to challenge myself each year.....

This year it is already, amazingly, the 7th Annual Canadian Book Challenge!

7th Canadian book challenge

The Rules are so simple:
  • read 13 Canadian books from July 1 - July 1
  • Review them somewhere online
  • Link up at the Book Mine Set
Can't get better than that! The previous reviews done for the Challenge are archived at the Book Mine Set and make a great place to start if you're looking for ideas about what to read. Anyone anywhere is welcome to join in.

The original challenge was to read 13 books, one from each province and territory. But the challenge morphs  into whatever you want to make it. I've set myself all kinds of self-challenges, from authors new to me, to 13 books from one province, to reading small press books. For the 6th Challenge I tried to review every Canadian book I read. While I didn't quite make it, I really liked how it made me aware of my reading.

So this year I'm going to do the same: 
Review every Canadian book I read.

But within those parameters, I want to set myself a mini-challenge, and that is to read at least 13 titles that also fit within my own Postal Reading Challenge. There are so many epistolary novels and loads of postal related reading, but I want to find some good Canadian ones to share!

Even if you aren't Canadian, I hope you'll consider joining us -- it's a really relaxed, fun challenge that celebrates the joy of bookish discoveries. It also provides great inspiration to increase the length of your TBR list  -- if you need any help with that ;)