Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Wild Rose: a prairie novel

Wild Rose / Sharon Butala
Regina: Coteau, c2015.
395 p.

Looking for a slow-paced, character-driven story of a Quebec woman who moves to Saskatchewan back in the wilder 1880s, and survives a number of devastating reversals to become a powerful woman in her own right? Feeling in the mood for a literary, descriptive style as well? You've found your book.

Sophie Hippolyte grows up in Quebec with her stern grandparents, and rebels by marrying Pierre, a lower-class neighbour who her grandparents disapprove of. To make something of themselves as a young couple, they decide to go west and homestead. Pierre discovers that he is not made of stern enough stuff to thrive as a westerner; Sophie, however, is.

Starting from her childhood and moving into her own life as a mother, the story shows Sophie's resilience and determination to survive, in any way necessary. The power of her character drives the book. Butala is also well known for her ability to viscerally evoke the landscapes of southern Saskatchewan in particular, and this is a strong element of the novel. The descriptive passages are strong in detail, allowing the reader to almost smell the dust and heat, or the bone-deep cold of a drafty shack in the midst of winter.

Sophie's character development, from young girl to mature, determined woman, is the point of the story. However, I did find at times that this was quite slow-moving, and had to just keep reading to get back into the narrative. I was also slightly disappointed by the ending, which seemed a bit deus ex machina, like a modern-day lottery win allowing Sophie to shake the dust of this small town from her feet. 

But I did enjoy the book. It was a story I haven't seen that often in CanLit, at least not recently -- the movement of Quebec settlers to the West, creating a French community in Saskatchewan in this case -- a community which still thrives. If you like historical novels that deal with the interior lives of characters, do try this one. 


Further Reading

Ivan Doig's The Whistling Season also evokes the West (this time 1900's Montana) and focuses on both character and landscape as key elements of the book. A strong woman makes her own way forward in this novel as well.

Another book set in the same general area of Saskatchewan, though set 50 years after this one (but Sophie could still be living nearby!) is Connie Gault's A Beauty. It focuses on the way that one young woman, also a newcomer to the province, takes action to change her life, and affects those around her as she does so. The literary style and through-line of one woman's life are similar to Wild Rose, though the pace is a bit quicker.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Buffam's Pillow Book

A Pillow Book / Suzanne Buffam
Toronto: Anansi: c2016.
128 p.

I picked this up after Kate Sutherland, poetry reader extraordinaire, mentioned it. And I'm so glad I did. What a charming, unusual read, one which now comes highly recommended by me.

Buffam's book, catalogued as poetry, is made up of short fragments of prose/poetry -- a style that I find particularly appealing, reminding me of a few previous novels I've read, but I think showing to better effect here in this book.

It contains brief sections of text divided by small circles reflecting the moon cycles represented on the cover. The content is creative and wide-ranging, including lists inspired by Sei Shonagon's original Pillow Book, as well as musings on sleep and lack thereof, and especially, pillows. I found the lists -- of such prosaic things as Books I'd Like to Read Someday (not as straightforward as it sounds), of Beautiful Names for Hideous Things, or a multiplicity of A-Z lists -- entertaining and yet providing a shift of perspective at the same time.

The narrator's anxiety about her chronic insomnia takes flight in her studies of insomniacs and the pillow-obsessed of the past. It all works together beautifully, with short but wonderfully twisty phrases that kept me reading past the time I should've been head on pillow myself.

Buffam is a Canadian author, living in Chicago, and the day to day realities of her life infuse the book. Her wider Chicago neighbourhood is evoked, even while she also focuses in on her daughter, known as "Her Majesty", her husband, and their routines. I found it very engaging, with lovely writing, sly humour, and much thoughtfulness. If you are new to poetry and would like to test it out with something closer to prose, this is a good bet.

You can enjoy this in snippets, like brief meditations one by one, or gulp it all down and then start over again. Pour yourself a cup of Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Peach Tea and sink into this book. You will not regret it.


Further Reading:

This book calls out for a reading of the original inspiration, Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book. If you haven't yet read it, you'll want to give it a try after reading this homage.

Another title that includes a few random lists and musings, also told in this poetic/prose style (but with gorgeous collage illustrations too) is Diane Schoemperlen's recent By the Book. Lovely read, quirky and just odd enough for delight.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Aleta Day

Aleta Day / Francis Marion Beynon
London: Virago, 1988, c1919
266 p.

I've finally read this piece of classic Canadiana, and am amazed by how current it feels, in some ways at least.

I like the slower pace of older novels, and decided to take a break from the glut of new and forthcoming books that I've been gorging on to read something close to a century old.

Aleta Day is a journalist, and a woman who has the courage of her convictions. She's a suffragette and a socialist, and works to support herself. She has an equal with whom there seems to be a one-sided affection (on his part) but poor Aleta gets knocked sideways by her attraction to another journalist, McNair, a large, blustery traditionalist with a young son. She has to reconcile her beliefs with her strong love for him and his son. It adds a strength to the story and to her character; she doesn't simply capitulate weakly like other heroines of the era in the face of sex appeal (I'm thinking of you, Verena Tarrant) Instead, she struggles with how to compromise and allow both strong feelings to co-exist. She doesn't give up herself for him.

Now unfortunately, the era and the thrust of the story don't seem to allow for a happy ending, but Aleta tries. She stays true to herself despite any barriers thrown up in her path. And she is a straight-talking, no-nonsense, determined woman who is also at the same time a woman who has the capacity for deep friendship, love, and nuturing.

And she doesn't put up with McNair's nonsense - when he starts drinking, she ticks him off about it and lays down her boundaries clearly. She knows what she will and won't accept. I just wish the author could have seen her way to creating a setting in which Aleta is allowed the compromise, is allowed to live happily ever after as a strong and independent woman. And I wish that for heroines created today as well. This novel, from 1919, speaks strongly to the same concerns that many of us have today: women's roles in business and journalism, gender-based social expectations and prejudices, and personal power in the face of men who suck up all the oxygen in the room. It's surprising to see both the changes and the lack of change side by side in Aleta's era and our own.

This book was a fascinating, solid read, but as another reviewer said, it's just on this side of greatness. It could have been much more, but I am still so glad I read it just as it is.

Finishing off with some great quotes from this novel:
"For one person to act as the proprietor of another is a crime. It is a local expression of all the intolerable tyranny in the world."

"There is no cause but a bad one which thrives on the suppression of argument."

"As I see it, tyranny wears many wigs, but he has only one complexion."

"I know that there is no more unprofitable occupation than assigning motives for other people's conduct. Each one of us has one great task sufficient to absorb all our energies if we performed it creditably, which is to bring the average of our conduct up so that our own best moments may not be used against us as an evidence of hypocrisy."

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Name Therapist

The Name Therapist / Duana Taha
Toronto: Random House Canada, c2016.
368 p.

I recently raced through this book by 'name therapist' and Lainey Gossip Blog columnist Duana Taha. I have to admit I hadn't heard of her previously but have now checked out her online hangouts, as I thoroughly enjoyed this read.

The Name Therapist is a look at, well, names obviously. Taha is fascinated by names and all their implications -- what do we choose to name our children, how do our names affect our experience of our own lives, is it better to have a common or unusual name, how do cross-cultural understandings change the power of a name -- these just some of the themes she discusses. And does so with great aplomb. She's funny, relatable, and knows a lot about her subject.

She starts out by explaining her own name, a mixture of her mother's Irish side (though that is a bit debatable when she discovers as a young woman that Duana is not such a common Irish name as she had believed) and her father's Egyptian family name, Taha. Having such an unusual and culturally mixed-up name has played a part in her lifelong fascination with the topic.

Any of us with the same kind of fascination may recall our interest in names from a young age; as for myself, I made up plenty of names for the class lists and even all the teachers in the 'playing school' habit that my younger sister and I had. I read baby name books as a teenager -- thankfully nobody seemed alarmed by it. And I had picked out names for my children which kept changing, but that didn't last as long since I knew fairly early on I didn't actually want any. That doesn't reduce my absorption in the subject, though. This book fed into all those years of obsession and was absolutely entertaining.

Do names affect the way we are perceived? Taha says that some names carry connotations that may hold us back, or give us a leg up. For example, Crystal could be considered the ultimate 'stripper name', a subset of mineral or beverage influenced names that don't carry much weight in the work world. On the other hand, names that suggest upper class, East Coast origins seem to give a person a boost. Taha's exploration of the socioeconomic factors implicit in naming was done lightly but with a clear eye.

There is also the factor of popularity. Names surge and dwindle in their own eras, as we all know, and part of that seems to be the desire to fit in, to be complicit with social norms and fashions. While there are always outliers, there are also hundreds of Jennifers or Jasons to reflect their decades of birth. And there are also those Melanies - a name she does mention - leading to a great deal of personal satisfaction since we do tend to like things and people sharing our own names, another little fact she throws in. Also, it kind of makes up for all that time waiting for the Romper Room lady to say my name at the end of her show....a theme that comes up surprisingly often in her interviews!

This was a light read and yet had a lot of solid content. It was full of those fun facts that are helpful at dinner parties ;) I recommend it as an entertaining summer read. It's very Canadian, but the ideas will appeal to name nerds everywhere.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Shakepeare's (Beautiful) Gardens

Shakespeare's Gardens / Jackie Bennett, photographs by Andrew Lawson.
London: Quarto UK, c2016.
192 p.

I was offered a beautiful book for review recently, and didn't hesitate on this one. It's called Shakespeare's Gardens, and although it is a coffee table book heavily laden with glorious pictures, it also includes a fascinating text full of historical tidbits. It's a great combination!

My husband and I both enjoyed paging through this one. I loved the history of gardens from Elizabethan times to the present, at all sorts of homes associated with Shakespeare -- from Anne Hathaway's cottage (the most painted/photographed home in England) to Shakespeare's home New Place (which was torn down by the owner in a fit of pique at the municipal government in 1759, an act which led to the locals ostracizing and driving him from the village). All sorts of fabulous historical fact and gossip in this one! It explores five gardens that Shakespeare would have known, all currently cared for by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

I personally loved the history of Elizabethan knot gardens, and how they were influenced by and had their own influence on the Jacobean and blackwork embroidery popular at that time. Since embroidery is one of my own hobbies, I found this section particularly intriguing. The illustrations around this topic were inspiring. My husband, who is the real gardener around here, loved the whole book, and appreciated the info on Victorian gardens, a style he is drawn to.

An interesting inclusion was a section on the meaning of herbs and flowers, both medical and folkloric, that Shakespeare mentioned in the plays. This helps modern readers to understand more of the allusions and double meanings of plants in the plays, and I thought it was brilliant.

This was a perfect book to read during the Stratford Festival's Opening Week, in this 400th year since Shakespeare's death. It was quite educational, apart from being gorgeous to flip through. It makes me wish I knew more about gardening...but as my favourite part of a garden lies simply in looking at it, this was the perfect book for me!

If you're interested in more info about this book, and some unbelievably gorgeous photos of the gardens mentioned, visit the blog Reep for an account of a talk by the author Jackie Bennett.