Monday, March 23, 2015

Jane Austen, Alexander McCall Smith, and Bertie

I recently read two of Alexander McCall Smith's latest books...I can barely keep up on each of the series that he writes -- he's probably one of the only authors to whom the phrase "why can't they write as fast as I can read?" does not apply.

In any case, Volume 9 of the Scotland Street series, entitled Bertie's Guide to Life and Mothers (Random House Canada, 2015) follows the same structure of the previous books in this series. This series is first written as a newspaper column (in the Scotsman) and then compiled into the latest book. This go round, Bertie, the eternal 6 yr old, is having a birthday party. Finally! And his mother Irene once again tries to stifle all the boyish fun of it. But...she has won a trip to Dubai in a slogan-writing contest. Guess what might happen? McCall Smith is getting more and more creative about getting rid of Irene!

It also follows all the other characters who readers have become fond of reading about in the previous books -- Angus and Domenica, Matthew and Elspeth (and triplets), Big Lou, Cyril, Bruce and more. If you're a fan of this series you will, as a matter of course, read this book, if only to find out how Bertie gets along (I think he's everyone's favourite). If you haven't yet encountered this set of characters you will most likely be able to follow along anyhow, but the joys of all the backstory won't be there. Give the first one (44 Scotland Street) a go to see how it all began.

18633333Then I was on to a more unusual entry into McCall Smith's oeuvre. As part of a project to rewrite all of Jane Austen's works into more modern settings (I'm not asking why, just going with it...) he was asked to do a rewrite of Emma (Random House Canada, c2014)It's received mixed reviews, but I thought it was fairly good.

This could be because my expectations were low; not only do I find Austen's Emma a little dull, I'm also a bit suspicious of McCall Smith's standalone novels (I never find them as good as the series). So I was okay with him playing with this story.

He really does stick close to the original, which works in the sense of recognizing characters and seeing how they translate to modern-day England. But it doesn't work as well in the sense of era -- sometimes Emma feels like she is living in the 60s, but then she'll do something like pull out her cellphone. It's a bit unsettling!

In any case, she's a rich country girl who doesn't have much to do with herself, despite taking a course in interior design. So she ends up meddling with everyone's lives, and there are some pretty modern misunderstandings. Harriet is actually a fairly interesting side character in this take on the story, and her circumstances were the most fun to read about -- she lives in a school with a decidedly odd matron...

But of course, we all know how this one turns out, and McCall Smith does not vary the conclusion -- I do think that would be going too far! At least his Mr. Knightly is a little more young and sprightly...but still way, way too bossy for my tastes.

Have you read any of these Jane Austen Project rewrites? Would you? What do you think about an author 'rewriting' someone else's story?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Dreaming Spies

Dreaming Spies / Laurie R. King
New York: Bantam, c2015
331 p.

I spent some time with an enjoyable read this weekend -- this latest installment of Laurie King's Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series.

I was really in the mood for something entertaining, and Mary Russell is a great choice when I'm looking for something smart and yet simply engaging. I have read all the books in this series, and whether the action is fast and exciting or slower and more thoughtful, I always make sure I read them! The characters are wonderful, and King's settings are always fun to explore. Her writing is detailed and full of research that colours the narrative.

This one goes back in time a little, being set just before Mary and Holmes make it to California -- so the beginning is set between The Game and Locked Rooms. The final parts are then set a bit later, after Garment of Shadows. I think that's right ;)

The story starts as Russell and Holmes leave India, and a long case there, to head toward Japan. Onboard the cruise ship that they are forced to take (argh, all that society!) Holmes recognizes a blackmailer from his past. Russell, on the other hand, makes the acquaintance of a sweet young Japanese girl, Haruki Sato. Nothing, of course, is what it seems.

Suitable to the slow progress of their ship, this story is quite slow-paced. There is lots and lots and lots of information given about Japan in the 20s, from the lectures that Haruki presents to the passengers to pass the time, to the lengthy encounters with local customs that Russell and Holmes are forced to endure once they get to Japan. All this leading up to a vital meeting that (finally, halfway through) indicates what their new case will consist of -- a case with potential international repercussions.

The story jumps from shipboard to rural Japan and back to Sussex and Oxford. Each element ties together to build a complex tale, although it's less tricky of a plot than some of the other entries in this series. And it does feel like Holmes and Russell are a bit extraneous to the resolution of this mystery.

If Russell and Holmes weren't such an appealing pair, if their dynamics didn't interest me so much, I'm not sure this one would have kept me reading without any skimming. It was a bit draggy in plot, but just reading about another encounter between Holmes, Russell, and a new culture made it worth it for me. Despite the slow pace, and the extensive Japan travelogue, I did enjoy this read. Mary Russell is simply wonderful; I love reading about her internal development and her studies, especially when she heads to the Bodleian in the last bit of this book. I always love a good librarian cameo ;)

And I did learn quite a lot about Japanese culture in the 20's.  Now I really want a cup of tea. Green tea.

Serendipitously, as I was reading this, my husband pointed out this amazing story about a ryokan that has been open for 1300 years. Now that's a family business!


Further Reading:

If you are just starting with this book you must go back and read this series from the beginning. Like Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series, the first few books are definitely the strongest, even while they are all enjoyable.

If it's all the Japanese content that you find fascinating here, try some of Lafcadio Hearn's writings: he was a Westerner who moved to Japan in the late 1800s, married a Japanese woman and had 4 children, and wrote many books through the 1890's and up until 1904 when he died. His books share his Westerner's look at traditional Japanese culture, literature and more, as it moved into the 20th century.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Book of Eve

Book of Eve / Constance Beresford-Howe
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2001, c1973.
176 p.

This is an interesting Canadian classic, of sorts. It's the brief tale of Eva, a 65 year old Montreal woman who has finally had enough of her emotionally stifled (though physically comfortable) life in Westmount, and enough of her demanding husband. So, she simply sets down her things and leaves the house. And does not come back.

She moves into a small apartment in a decidedly non-comfortable neighbourhood in the downtown area of Montreal. It's a basement studio, and she makes it nicer with some fabric, a plant, and eventually a stray cat that she takes in. She also explores her own desires and longings, spending much time dreaming and remembering and trying to decide where she wants to go from this point on.

There are others living in the house that she's ended up in. The owners are upstairs, and above them there are more tenants, including a younger Polish man with whom she has an affair. While the Goodreads summary says this is about a woman who 'finds love', I don't think that her love affair is the point here. She is finding herself; finding her emotional freedom despite the financial difficulties it causes her, despite the loss of any social standing that results, despite the distance it causes between her only son and herself.

The only thing that really gave me pause was the way that Eva refers to herself a few times as elderly, as decrepit, and so forth. I felt like she sounded a lot older than the age she was supposed to be -- but perhaps that was self-perception as she struggled not to feel that she'd wasted most of her life already.

Written in the 70's, it really reflects the issues brought up in Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, and many of the concerns of 70's feminism -- the lack of agency women had in their lives, the emotional abuse that was normal for many housewives, the boredom and loss of self that resulted -- but this story is also a very individual one that relies on the character of Eva Carroll and the wonderful Montreal setting to really make it shine. I thought it captured an era really well, and was able to illuminate one small story that opens up into a larger one. It's a moving story of a woman who just has to strike out on her own, and is willing to pay the social and monetary costs to be true to herself.


Further Reading:

If you're looking for a similar kind of slower-moving story about the small moments of a woman's life, you could try a variety of Alice Munro's short fiction. While many of her heroines make subtler changes than Eva did, they are all fighting to be true to themselves.

Ethel Wilson's 1954 Swamp Angel follows Maggie Lloyd, a woman who walks out on her difficult second marriage and finds a new life working at a fishing camp in the B.C. interior. While her more remote setting brings different challenges than Eva's very urban Montreal one, both women are striving to find a place where their spirit can be free.