Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ballet Shoes

Every once and a while I hear a book I read as a child mentioned in a movie or a song and I get to feel a little smug about being in the know. The first time it happened was several years ago: I was watching You've Got Mail and as Meg Ryan sat crying in the children's section of Fox Books, she explained to a shopper what the "shoe books" were, and recommended Ballet Shoesas the one to start with.

I was given Noel Streatfield's Ballet Shoes as a Christmas gift when I was about 10. I never went on to read the other books in the series (all loosely-related not by characters but by premise), but Ballet Shoes became a book I read at least once a year for the next 10 or so years.

The story is a relatively simple one. Set in the late-1800s in London, Ballet Shoes is the story of three sisters growing up. But Pauline, Petrova and Posy are sisters by a rather unusual form of adoption. They were found (one after a shipwreck, another after her parents died) during the course of their Great Uncle Matthew (GUM)'s travels and sent home to Sylvia (his great-niece) as presents of a sort. GUM is a fossil hunter, searching the world for treasures indicating prehistoric life, and because he referred to the girls as his "little fossils" they took that as their last name.

Before he left, GUM (who is absent for almost the entire story) made sure there would be enough money for Sylvia to keep house for seven years. Then of course he threw three children into the mix and the money ran a little thin. So Sylvia opens up his big house and takes in borders, one of whom is a dance instructor at a local performing-arts school. She starts teaching the girls in her room and, recognizing the potential for talent they possess, rigs a deal whereby the girls can attend the school for free in exchange for a portion of their wages once they are old enough to earn (12-years-old in those days).

I did not take ballet as a kid, but the descriptions of the lessons fascinated me. Theatre school (which also comprised acting, although dance was clearly Streatfield's focus) seemed like a lot of fun, although Pauline and Posy enjoyed themselves far more than Petrova (who was far more interested in motor cars and airplanes).

I'm kind of a sucker for stories of poor families who do the best with what they've got. And that is Ballet Shoes to a tee. Streatfield herself grew up in a pretty poor family (her father was a very strict vicar), which may be why her descriptions of Sylvia worrying about money ring so true. The girls' dresses are frequently made-over so as to work as hand-me-downs, and there's a whole scene in which Sylvia frets that Pauline is going to an early-autumn audition in a summer dress. It might be because that kind of seasonal-wardrobe concern is so foreign to me and yet so vividly presented her that I can't help but become involved in the story of the Fossils.

If every story worked out so well in the end, I would probably be very annoyed. But sometimes it's nice to know that the hard work of the characters will get them something - even if that something isn't what you thought it would be.

Ballet Shoes
by Noel Streatfield
First published by Dent in 1936 (cover image shown from Penguin edition)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Tailor of Gloucester

According to Beatrix Potter, during the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, the animals can talk (perhaps the reason that so many Christmas stories feature talking animals). In her story The Tailor of Gloucester, the animals don't say too much, but they talk enough to help out the poor, hapless tailor experience his own kind of Christmas miracle.

The tailor of Gloucester is a poor, old man working very hard to make a coat of cherry-coloured embroidered silk for the Mayor of Gloucester's Christmas wedding. Four days before Christmas, the tailor has all 12 pieces for the coat and waistcoat cut and ready upon the table. Everything is in order for him to assemble his masterpiece (which he is hoping will bring him some fame and thus more orders) except one missing length of cherry-coloured twisted silk.

But the tailor is tired, and at the end of the day when he goes home he sends his cat Simkin to the store to buy some milk, bread and sausages for supper, and asks him to also fetch one skein of cherry-coloured twisted silk.

But while Simkin is out, the tailor hears little tapping noises coming from the sideboard. Curious, he goes over and notices several teacups all turned upside-down. Righting them, he frees a number of little mice (all appropriately dressed in little waistcoats and aprons). But when Simkin returns from the store and finds that the tailor has freed his super, he is angry and hides the twist in the teapot.

Then disaster strikes and the tailor gets sick from the worry of not having enough twist to finish the jacket and waistcoat or enough money to buy more. For three days and three nights he is bedridden while the lovely pieces of cherry-coloured silk lie ready for assembly on his worktable. But even in 19th Century Gloucester, karma has a way of making things happen.

While the tailor is tossing and turning in a feverish nightmare of no more twist, the little brown mice of the city are hunkered down in his shop, needles in hand, to sew the Mayor’s wedding jacket and waistcoat. They work all night, singing mousey little songs to tease poor hungry Simkin who sits watching through the window.

But then the mice hit a snag—no more twist! Off they scamper, leaving Simkin alone in the window and the coat ad waistcoat nearly finished on the table.

Simkin slinks home, feeling very ashamed of himself and his hiding of the twist. He fishes it out of the teapot and presents it to the tailor, who is still weak from his illness. Convinced he will never be able to finish the jacket on time, the tailor heads to his shop on Christmas morning, and there, lying on his worktable are the coat and waistcoat, beautifully finished and embroidered, with a tiny note pinned to the last unfinished buttonhole that reads “no more twist.”

But the tailor has enough energy and twisted silk to finish the pair of garments for the Mayor, who is most pleased with them when he arrives to pick them up. Never before has he seen such tiny stitches or perfect little details, and he his thrilled with his wedding finery.

Of course, the tailor becomes famous and, although he doesn’t get rich, he certainly manages to rent more than just the kitchen he and Simkin were living in.

Reading stories on Christmas Eve has always been one of our Christmas traditions and my dad reads us The Tailor of Gloucester every year. It isn’t a story about Santa, or presents, or even religion really. But it is undoubtedly a Christmas story. The generosity of the little mice and the lesson they teach Simkin about manners (among other things) fall perfectly in line with the values we trumpet during the holidays.

Less profound, perhaps, is the invocation of the magic of Christmas Eve—when animals can talk and mice can sew—which is something worth holding onto.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Letters of Note

The holidays seem to bring out the correspondent in everyone. It starts at an early age, with the all-important letters to Santa, and then develops into the less-demanding letters to people you care about. Christmas cards and more general letters from distant friends and relatives abound, and usually make for some pretty interesting reading.

That’s one of my favourite things about the holidays, actually. I love that checking the mail yields more than bills and community newsletters. I also love that it becomes socially acceptable to read other people’s cards and things—sometimes it’s actually unavoidable because they’re thrust in front of you or left open on mantelpieces and shelves, strategically placed to catch a casual glance.

So, in the spirit of being allowed to read other people’s mail (one of the lesser-known aspects of the holiday spirit), I recommend taking a gander at Letters of Note (a blog that publishes the correspondence of notable people).

I especially like the December 1944 letter from Kurt Vonnegut to his family, written after he was released from a German POW camp. I also really enjoyed the series of letters Dr. Seuss sent to a young fan over several years, as well as the more curt missives of J.D. Salinger (one to an angsty fan and one to a filmmaker).

Really, the site is a treasure trove of letters, many not written by authors, and is well worth a little browsing time.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Wind in the Willows

For whatever reason, some stories get associated with the holidays even though they really aren’t about Christmas at all. Kenneth Grahane’s The Wind in the Willows is one.

Really, it’s just one chapter of the book that has been adopted into holiday bookshelves. The fifth chapter, called “Dolce Decorum” was excerpted as Mole’s Christmas Welcome, a story about Mole stumbling upon the smell of his old home and dragging Ratty along to look for it. It’s Christmastime and when they arrive in Mole’s home they decorate and eat a nice, but simple meal. It's really very moving, actually, because the call of home is so strong for Mole that he can't ignore it and is pulled by his memories and his senses toward his old life, even though it's only for a short time. Nostalgia is a pretty common holiday feeling, and Grahame's depiction of that draw to the past it beautifully worked out through Mole.

Really, it’s a lovely little story and I’m not at all surprised that it got pulled out as a festive tale. But it really isn’t very representative of the rest of the novel, which is much more action-packed. And although the friendship between Ratty and Mole is certainly well illustrated in the Christmas story, Toad, Badger and the Weasels—all important figures in the story—are completely left out of it.

Toad is also a friend of Ratty and Mole, but instead of occupying his days with leisurely boat rides along The River he becomes obsessed with motor cars, makes very bad decisions and nearly loses his family home, Toad Hall, to the Weasels.

Normally I really dislike books with talking animals, but this is one of the few exceptions. Rather than giving his characters cutesy names, Grahame’s animals aren’t really given names. And although they wear clothes (waistcoats and all) and drive cars and take trains, they are still animals. I’m not sure what it is about Grahame’s storytelling that allows his characters to walk that line—possibly that it’s a story meant for children—but there’s something serious about his tale of animals living along a riverbank.

There are a lot of messages here about greed and responsibility, but more than anything, The Wind in the Willows is about friendship. The friendship between Ratty and Mole that leads Mole out of his tunnels and into a rowboat and allows Mole to lead Ratty into his old home to celebrate Christmas.

And the more complicated friendship between Ratty, Mole and Toad. Toad is incredibly irresponsible and selfish and, from the vantage point of the reader, Toad doesn’t seem to deserve the friendship of either Ratty or Mole. But regardless, when Toad needs them to help save his home from the Weasels that have overrun it, they are there for him. And that seems to be the real story behind the adventure and intrigue of The Wind in the Willows, which is probably a good holiday message too.

As Grahame describes it, it’s easy to get caught up in life—whether that life involves joy riding in stolen cars or peaceful boating or celebrating Christmas in an old burrow—but life only matters when you’ve got good friends to share it with.

The Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame
First published in 1908 (cover image shown from Palazzo edition)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Going Solo

Going Solo may be the sequel to Boy, but I read Roald Dahl's second memoir first. I think my copy must have come from a yard sale, because it has a blue hardback cover and no dust jacket. The inside is printed with photos of a young Dahl enjoying his first real adventures.

I always find it heartening when I discover that the authors I enjoy have led interesting lives. And Roald Dahl has certainly led an interesting life. In Going Solo he chronicles his 20s. Starting with his job with the Shell Oil Company in East Africa (now Tanzania) and following him through his adventures as an RAF pilot during the Second World War, Dahl writes about himself with the same joy and delicious language he uses in his other novels.

And like his other stories, Going Solo doesn't fit comfortably in one category. It's a story about the adventure of being young and having real responsibilities, and although Dahl may be best known for his children's writing, he knows how to speak to an adult audience.

Including details such as learning to speak Swahili (fluency in the language brought a pay-raise in those days) and the day a lion took off with the cook's wife (who ended up being alright), Dahl plays with both the adventure and the danger of the unknown, inviting you into his experiences and leading you along.

The real adventure, though, starts when war breaks out. Dahl signed up for the RAF, deciding he wanted to be a fighter pilot. The problem, though, was that he was too tall for the tiny planes and the top of his head stuck out of the top above the windscreen. But despite many suggestions that he might be better off in a larger bomber, Dahl stuck to his guns and became, by his account, a very good flier.

His adventures, both in the air shooting down enemy planes and on the ground being strafed, are described with a kind of fondness. He was stationed primarily in Greece during the war - after Greece fell to the Nazis he was moved to the Middle East and then to Egypt - and despite a near-fatal crash in Libya, he made it through the war relatively unscathed. But just because he wasn't constantly fighting air battles with German planes doesn't mean the story slows down.

Dahl is a gifted author and he knows how to use details to make a story sing. His descriptions of Greece alone make this a book worth reading, and I could almost taste the tanginess from the way he described the eating fresh olives. But what he really does in Going Solo is bring alive the realities of war for soldiers who weren't in the middle of the action. He talks about boredom and the excitement, and he instills in you the watchfulness necessary to avoid being killed by enemy strafing. And he does it all with a sly grin, reminding you that everything worked out alright in the end - he is telling you the story, after all.

Going Solo is a book I return to when I want an easy but entertaining read. Dahl has a way of pulling you into his story, and his languages skips off the page so easily that it feels more as though you're being told a story than actually reading it. And that's the beauty of a good storyteller, their story becomes your own and their memories become your anecdotes.

Going Solo
by Roald Dahl
First published in 1986 (Cover image shown from Penguin edition)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Autobiography of Red

As nice as a straightforward novel can be, it’s always exciting when a writer takes a real risk with their work. Sometimes authors take a risk in with style or with subject, but rarely do they tackle them together. In Autobiography of Red, that’s just what Anne Carson does.

The title alone is different, but when I opened the book and discovered that Carson had written a novel in verse, I think I gasped a little in excitement. There are a lot of ways to tell a story and sometimes we get lazy about it, falling back on comfortable themes and images. Carson does not do that.

Autobiography of Red tells the story of Geryon, who is at once a young man and a red-winged monster. In Stesichoros (the Greek poet who wrote The Song of Geryon quite a long time ago)’s account, Geryon is the grandson of Medusa. His form is debated, but historians seem to agree that he was a monstrous warrior; he lived on the Mediterranean island Erytheia (the red island of the sunset), where he kept a herd of red cattle. Herakles, for his tenth labour, was required to go to Erytheia and obtain all of Geryon’s cattle. In the process of doing so, Heracles kills Geryon.

In Carson’s telling, Geryon and Heracles are much more complicated and also much harder to place. She starts her story (after a couple of appendices laying out Stesichoros’ mythology in a lovely way) with Geryon’s childhood. That was when he started his autobiography. Geryon starts collecting things secretly, forming his autobiography out of objects he finds and patterns he makes—but it’s a secret (except from his mum), because for Geryon, an autobiography is an interior thing, just for him.

When Geryon grows up a bit, he meets Herakles and falls in love. Where this story takes place, in both time and space, is a great mystery, but nonetheless the two leave Geryon’s world for the world of Herakles’. It’s around this time that Geryon takes up photography, adding the images to the ongoing project of constructing his autobiography.

The scenes between Geryon and Herakles are so precise they are almost vague—it’s as if the more detail Carson gives the less real the scenes appear, which makes for a very beautiful and disturbing story. Carson, taking full advantage of the emotional power and potential for suspense offered by verse, slowly unfolds their relationship, just as Geryon slowly and uncomfortably unfolds his wings for Herakles.

Of course, Herakles cannot stay a good guy forever, and he crushes Geryon when he leaves. Geryon, who has only ever been vulnerable to abuse and neglect, sets off to travel the world and eventually runs into Herakles again. But Herakles has moved on, and his new lover Ancash becomes an awkward reality for Geryon as the three men travel on together, setting out to reach the top of a volcano. Geryon’s attraction to fire (and really, all things red) is pronounced in the latter part of the book. He becomes mesmerized by flames and describes them seductively, making them leap at you in a terrifying way. In another writer’s hands, Geryon’s attraction to fire could be an all-to-easy metaphor for his destructive lust for Herakles, but here, it is much more rich than that, and fire means many other things, including home.

Geryon’s journey, from abused child to lover to heartbroken youth to travelling artist, is the kind of story arc a writer can do a lot with. In Carson’s hands, Geryon’s autobiography become much more than a myth retold. By refusing to give her readers any sense of where the story unfolds (she mentions American money and countries in South America, but you just know that these are places you could never travel to), Carson manages to heighten the mysterious qualities of Geryon’s life while simultaneously grounding it in real, throbbing emotion and striking imagery. Geryon is, after all, a photographer.

More than anything, though, Autobiography of Red is a romance. Not between Geryon and Herakles, though, but between Geryon and life. And reading Carson’s story draws you into that life and makes you think about your own. For her, as for Stesichoros, Geryon is not just a side character in the story of Herakles’ triumph. Rather, he is the centre of the story, dominating Herakles because Herakles had to find him. And although he may be soft-spoken and gentle in his description, Geryon is someone who will draw you back to him again and again.

Autobiography of Red
by Anne Carson
First published in 1998 by Random House (cover image shown from Vintage Contemporaries edition)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Canada Reads: Prologue

The books for CBC's Canada Reads contest have been announced. The debate/contest doesn't actually start until March, though, so you have a good three months to read up if you want to be a knowledgeable debater when the time comes.

The nominees (and their defenders) are:

Generation X by Douglas Coupland - defended by musician Cadence Weapon (non-stage name Roland Pemberton)
Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald - defended by hurdler Perdita Felicien
The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy - defended by War Child founder Dr. Samantha Nutt
Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott - defended by media personality Simi Sara
Nikolski by Nicholas Dickner (translated to English by Lazar Lenderhendler) - defended by belletrist Michel Vézina

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Town Like Alice (or, The Legacy, for short)

What a wonderful storyteller Nevil Shute is. He may be old fashioned in his morals and language, but my goodness can that man tell a story. In A Town Like Alice (also released under the title The Legacy) Shute actually tells several stories.

The first is that of his narrator, Noel Strachan. Noel is an elderly man whose involvement in the story is quite distant really. At the beginning of the novel he signs a client and writes up his will. Of course, the man dies and Noel has to go and find the heirs. But it’s just a few years post-war in England and people are difficult to find.

Eventually, he discovers that Jean Paget is the only living heir—her mother (the client’s sister) died during the war and her older brother died as a prisoner of war in Malaya on the Burma-Siam railroad. It may seem like a roundabout way to introduce the novel’s central figure, but I always appreciated that Shute gave us time to get to know the narrator first because too often the narrator is just a disembodied voice and Noel is definitely a well-rounded character.

Anyway, as Noel gets to know Jean (who has inherited enough money that she need not continue working if she doesn’t want) some of her story comes out. She too was a prisoner of war in Malaya (I use the names Shute does because it’s just easier), except that instead of being in a camp, she and 31 other women and children were sent marching all across the country.

Over the course of their march, over half the party died from disease, exhaustion and tropical diseases. Jean, who had grown up in Malaya spoke the language and became their leader. After marching many hundreds of miles, the group suddenly runs into two Australian POWs who drive trucks. The more important of which is Joe Harman. Joe gets medicine for the women and tries to get them meat for their meals whenever he can. His last such offering is in the form of five black hens, which he stole from the Japanese army commander in Kuantan (a town on the southeast coast). For the theft, he is crucified and beaten and the women (who ate the chickens) are forced to watch.

After that they leave Kuantan quickly and head north up the coast until their Japanese guard dies. Jean manages to negotiate, first with the village headman and then with the Japanese military, that the women be allowed to remain in the town, tending the paddy fields, until the war is over.

So, after finding out about her inheritance, Jean goes back to that village to build a well and a wash hut for the women there, as a way to say thank you. And that is when she discovers that Joe survived the crucifixion. So off she goes to Australia to try and find him.

Meanwhile, he was recently discovered that she was not married when they met (he assumed and she let him) and has taken off to England to find her. Instead he finds Noel who tells him a bit, but not that Jean is in Australia.

Eventually, the two meet up, realize they are still very much in love and decide to get married. The only hitch is that Joe works on a cattle station in the outback, which is remote to say the least. There really isn’t anything in the local town.

So, Jean decided to change that. It starts with a building and opening a shoe factory where girls can work (there are very few women in the town). But then she decides her employees will need something to spend their wages on, so she builds a small shop. Of course, everything goes from there. Essentially, she is building a town like Alice Springs (which is “a bonza town” according to everyone in the book).

Besides the appeal of the story itself, it’s Shute’s ability to describe a setting that brings me back to this book. Rather than be exhaustive in his detail (there are no inventories of detail here), Shute gives bits and pieces of detail that give you enough information to visualize the place he’s describing without being told exactly what it looks like. He plays a similar trick with his characters.

Although I always think of A Town Like Alice as a love story, a good half of the book takes place before Jean and Joe meet up again. So really, like the majority of Shute’s other novels, this is a story about the war and what happened afterward. But it’s a side of the war that hasn’t been tackled much in fiction, which makes it rather refreshing and really quite exciting to read.

A Town Like Alice
By Nevil Shute
First published in 1950 by Heinemann (cover shown from Random House edition)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

KidLit at its finest

The winners of the Canadian Children's Book Awards were announced tonight at a gala in Toronto. I haven't been to many book awards ceremonies, but I would certainly go back to this one. Sponsored by TD Financial Group and MC'd by CBC's Eleanor Wachtel (host of Writers and Company), the food was delicious, the drinks were plentiful and the books being honoured were fantastic.

Children's literature doesn't seem to make the news the same was as the big Canadian literary prizes do, but so much of who I am now started with the books I read and was read as a child. In fact, a lot of my childhood memories involve books and I'm always a little surprised when I find out a friend doesn't know what I'm talking about when I make reference to my childhood favourites.

Good children's literature deserves to be celebrated not only because it often acts as the first step in a lifetime enjoyment of reading, but because good children's literature is something that children can enjoy alone or with their family and/or friends. Bedtime stories were a big deal in my house and I have no doubt that it was my parents' enthusiasm for reading that got me hooked so early on.

The awards for children's books may not be as hyped as the Giller Award or the Governor General's Award, but they are important. And, like many of the nominated books, they are so much fun!

Here's a list of the nominees and the winners of the four awards (in the order they were presented):

Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children's Non-Fiction ($10,000)
Winner: The Bite of the Mango by Mariatu Kamara with Susan McClelland; published by Annick Press
Inuksuk Journey: An Artist at the Top of the World written and illustrated by Mary Wallace; published by Maple Tree Press
No Girls Allowed: Tales of Daring Women Dressed As Men for Love, Freedom and Adventure written by Susan Hughes and illustrated by Willow Dawson; published by Kids Can Press
One Hen: How One Small Loan Mad a Big Difference written by Katie Smith Milway and illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes; published by Kids Can Press
Royal Murder: The Deadly Intrigue of Ten Sovereigns by Elizabeth MacLeod

Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People ($5,000)
Winner: The Landing by John Ibbitson; published by Kids Can Press
The Ancient Ocean Blues by Jack Mitchell; published by Tundra Books
The Apprentice's Masterpiece: A Story of Medieval Spain by Melanie Little; published by Annick Press
Child of Dandelions by Shenaaz Nanji; published by Second Story Press
Greener Grass: The Famine Years by Caroline Pignat; published by Red Deer Press

Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award ($20,000)
Winner: Mattland written by Hazel Hutchins and Gail Herbert and illustrated by Dusan Petricic; published by Annick Press
Chicken, Pig, Cow written and illustrated by Ruth Ohi; published by Annick Press
It's Moving Day! written by Pamela Hickman and illustrated by Geraldo Valério; published by Kids Can Press
Shin-chi's Canoe written by Nicola I. Campbell and illustrated by Kim LaFave; published by Groundwood Books
Thing-Thing written by Cary Fagan and illustrated by Nicholas Debon; published by Tundra Books

TD Canadian Children's Literature Award ($25,000 each for English- and French-language winners)
English-language winner: Shin-chi's Canoe written by Nicola I. Campbell and illustrated by Kim LaFave; published by Groundwood Books
English-language nominees:
Death in the Air (The Boy Sherlock Holmes, His Second Case) by Shane Peacock; published by Tundra Books
Libertad by Alma Fullerton; published by Fitzhenry and Whiteside
Thing-Thing written by Cary Fagan and illustrated by Nicholas Debon; published by Tundra Books
Word Nerd by Susin Nielsen; published by Tundra Books
French-language winner: Chère Traudi written and illustrated by Anne Villeneuve; published by Éditions Les 400 Coups
French-language nominees:
La Clé written by Angèle Delaunois and illustrated by Christine Delezenne; published by Éditions de l'Isatis
L'Étoile de Sarajevo written by Jacques Pasquet and illustrated by Pierre Pratt; published by Éditions Dominique et compagnie
La Nouveau parapluie de Floup written by Carole Tremblay and illustrated by Steve Beshwaty; published by Éditions Imagine
La Vraie histoire de Léo Pointu written and illustrated by Rogé; published by Éditions Dominique et compagnie

Lives of Girls and Women

I'm not sure how I got through both high school and an English degree without reading Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women, but I did. Luckily, though, I knew enough to hunt down a copy (which wasn't really that difficult).

The novel follows Del Jordan, a girl growing up in small-town Ontario during the Second World War into the '50s. Beginning when Del is pretty young (I don't think Munro is ever explicit about Del's age, but she's probably 7 or 8 at the beginning of the story), Munro charts her life in Jubilee.

And there is so much to Del. If ever there was a character so well described that he or she could wake up and walk off the page, it was Del Jordan. I think I knew at least two girls just like her when I was growing up. Maybe I was just like her.

Munro starts her story in the country where Del lives with her parents and younger brother. She introduces Del's small world in clipped, but vivid detail. Sometimes I go back just to read the scenes where Munro describes something because the words she uses bring you to the place you're reading about: you can hear the wind in the grass, smell the harvest coming and feel the mud under your feet. And you learn a shocking amount about the characters by the way they describe their setting. Early on you learn that Del's mother wants nothing more than to move to the town, something that changes Del's whole world.

Munro's ability to remember what mattered to girls at varying ages and express it without irony or a wink to the reader is pretty amazing - and not a little unnerving. There are definitely a few scenes in the novel that make me squirm every time I read them because they hit just a little too close to home.

I don't know if I have a favourite scene, but the ones of Del in school have always stuck out in my memory. The chapter about the operetta and Del hoping beyond hope to be chosen, trying to stand just the right way, so reminded me of Elementary School Christmas concerts. Every kid seems to have a secret desire (please let me be in the back row, please let me get a solo, please let them not notice me at all, etc.) and Munro's descriptions of Del's secret wishes are just so perfect. It's as if Munro is able to recreate childhood memories by having you read about scenes you were never actually involved in.

Most of the hype around the book is about how well portrayed Del's "sexual awakening" is. And I wouldn't dispute that (although I certainly think there are other details worthy of attention). Without being indiscrete about her details, Munro brings the reader into some hilarious and slightly embarrassing moments for Del, all of which are not only believable but familiar. The story does not devolve when Del falls in love and starts having sex, rather it becomes more complicated, drawing you in to the small world of a girl in love. And although Munro must like Del as much as I do, she still tells us about Del's mistakes, her blindness to certain things, reminding us that although it's fiction, Del's story is a true story.

Munro is best known for writing short stories, and although I've been calling Lives of Girls and Women a novel, it can easily be read as a collection of short fiction. Yes, all the chapters work together on one, larger story arc (how Del grows up), but each one remains distinct and complete as a story in itself. And it's the structure as well as the story that makes this a book that's so easy to come back to: Reading just one chapter is enough to reel you back in as well as make you feel like you've read a good story - which you have.

Lives of Girls and Women
By Alice Munro
First published by McGraw-Hill Ryerson in 1971 (cover image shown from Random House edition)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

It seems like no matter who I talk to, November is always a busy month. For the last six years I have been a student, and for me that has always meant that November was full of essays.

So, every year I turn to Lynn Truss to remind me of all the grammar rules necessary to write anything respectable. Her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves came out years ago and was a pretty big hit right away.

A grammar manifesto may not seem obviously rereadable, but Truss’ book is so much more than a reference guide. It’s kind of a story really, about how poor public grammar drove her over the edge. She chronicles misplaced and absent apostrophes (Grapes’ for sale, really?), how text messages and e-mails are destroying our words and generally how general knowledge of proper punctuation has gone decidedly down hill.

But like any good ranter, Truss is hilarious. Her background in radio comes across very clearly in her writing because, even though I’ve never actually heard her speak, I’m quite sure if I ever heard her in a public place I’d know it.

If she taught grammar in high school, you can be damn sure her students would graduate knowing exactly how to use a semicolon and when to use a long-dash.

Separated into handy chapters such as “That’ll Do, Comma” and “Cutting a Dash” (among others), Truss’ little manual is certainly organized to work as a quick reference work. But anytime I try to just quickly look something up I get caught by her prose and, after finishing the relevant section, end up turning back to the beginning to read the whole thing.

I generally justify this to myself by thinking that grammar is something I can always brush up on. And generally, that is true. The intricacies of comma use are not something to be scoffed at.

And beyond that, her general discussion about how all the punctuation marks we know and love came to be, and how their use has changed (or not changed) over time is really fascinating.

I am a self-professed grammar nerd, so it goes without saying that books such as Eats, Shoots & Leaves appeal to me. But it’s written for a much broader audience than just the sticklers Truss aims to unite—anyone who has ever written anything, or who enjoys sarcasm, or just enjoys a good laugh will enjoy this book.

Yes, it’s educational, but Eats, Shoots & Leaves will also absolutely make you laugh out loud, setting it apart from almost every other book you’ll find in the reference section of your local bookstore.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves
By Lynn Truss
First published in 2003 by Profile Books (cover image shown from that edition)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Verdict is In

Well, my prediction was way off. Linden MacIntyre won this year's Scotiabank Giller Award for his novel The Bishop's Man.

Set in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the novel tells the story of a priest who has been assigned the job of keeping knowledge of church-related sex-scandals from spreading. Although its relevance to the story of the Antigonish priest recently charged with possession of child pornography makes the novel topical, the story was obviously written before that story broke.

To read the Globe and Mail's coverage of the awards gala, click here.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Giller is coming

Confession: I have not yet read any of the books nominated for this year's Scotiabank Giller Award (the winner of which will be announced tomorrow), but I have been following the coverage pretty closely.

Three of the finalists were on my to-read radar before the long-list was released in September. Add to that Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood (which is still getting discussed despite its absence from the short-list) and I will have a busy few months ahead of me spent reading new Canadian novels.

This year's finalists are: Kim Echlin's The Disappeared, Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean, Linden MacIntyre's The Bishop's Man, Colin McAdam's Fall and Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault.

Because I haven't read the short-list, I'm wary of trying to predict a winner. But, I have been right for the last two years (hoping for Joseph Boyden's Through Black Spruce last year and Elizabeth Hay's Late Nights on Air the year before), basing my prediction on nothing besides which novel I want to read most.

I am torn between Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean and Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault. Why? Well, they are both novels about topics I'm not all that familiar with and that intrigues me. I also read really interesting reviews of both books when they first came out.

Both the CBC and the Giller websites have good blurbs for the five finalists, and the Globe and Mail ran a good discussion about where they think the novels will fall when the award is handed out tomorrow night and their recordings of each author reading from their nominated novel are also great.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

I’m not always a fan of movies based on books I’ve enjoyed, but rarely do they actually make me angry. The movie version of Rebecca Wells’ The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood still makes me cringe.

The novel though, is a fantastic read.

I love stories with multiple points of view. In Divine Secrets, not only are there multiple points of view, but there are also two (and maybe even three, when I think about it) distinct eras in play. The two obvious ones are past and present: The past being the story of Vivi Walker’s childhood and the present being the reality of her grown-up daughter Siddalee.

But let me back up and explain what exactly is going on here.

Siddalee lives in New York, is a playwright and is getting married. But her fiancé hasn’t met her family and the idea of her two worlds colliding is causing Sidda severe anxiety. But after a visit from her mother’s three best friends—Caro, Teensy and Necie, the Ya-Yas—Sidda gains possession of her mother’s old scrapbook “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” which offers her a much-needed perspective on Vivi’s past.

And the story unfolds. At this point, the narrative moves between Sidda’s present and Vivi’s past (which was always my favourite part, really).

Vivi grew up during the Depression and the war years; she went to the premier of Gone With the Wind, she fell in love, she had a truly wicked and vindictive mother. But most of all, Vivi had great friends with whom she had adventures—not real adventures though, but the kind of adventures that happen when you do otherwise ordinary things with great people.

Eventually, Sidda makes her way home to talk to the Ya-Yas because, although she has learned a lot about her mother, Sidda hasn’t seen enough to forgive her. Sidda blames Vivi for her own miserable childhood and can’t really believe there is an explanation for it. Sidda remembers being beaten, she remembers her mother being drunk, and she remembers her mother being gone—none of which has ever been explained to her.

This is the murky third era of the book: Between Vivi’s childhood and Sidda’s present there is a middle in which they lived as mother and daughter. It’s the most difficult part of the novel to place, because it never gets explained in the same almost-linear way that the other parts do.

It has been a few years since I last read Divine Secrets, but some scenes were so painfully vivid I don’t think I could forget them if I tried. Mostly, though, the images and the emotions Wells paints in her novel are what make it so memorable.

Wells has created such a vivid world that you can’t help but want to go back there again and again. There are not nearly enough stories that portray female friendships as complex and changing, but the relationships between the Ya-Yas are tangible and alive, and feel the way real-life relationships feel. Wells resists the usual temptation to make her characters into archetypes or female representatives; rather, she allows them to be their own women, which is much more interesting.

And, for all the fun Vivi and the Ya-Yas have, it is the dark scenes—the abuse, the despair and the hatred—that round out the story. Wells doesn’t shy away from describing her characters’ flaws and the consequences thereof, but neither is she gratuitously bleak. Rather, the lives she describes are so full they could be real, and so real you almost wish they could have been yours.

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
By Rebecca Wells
First published in 1996 (cover image shown from Harper Collins edition)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Just So Stories, best beloved

More than any other book, Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories have influenced the way I see the world. They may seem like nothing but little animal tales for children, but if that’s all they were there would be no way I could talk about them as much as I do.

My first encounter with the Just So Stories was as a little kid in the backseat. I was given the book on story-tape for Christmas (or my birthday) and it quickly became a pretty regular feature of car rides.

I didn’t buy the stories in book-form until much later. In fact, I’d never really thought of them existing on the page because they were so alive when they came through our car speakers. I can’t for the life of me remember who did the reading on those cassettes (it isn’t the same man who does the latest BBC version), but even when I read the stories to myself now I hear his voice in my head.

And I do continue to read the stories to myself. I get reminded of them all the time and then need to go back and read the original to make sure I’m remembering properly.

Although all the stories come up in real life eventually, “How the Camel Got His Hump” is probably the only story I am reminded of daily. Kipling’s explanation of the camel’s hump begins with the camel’s lazy reply of “humph” whenever any work was required of him and how it angered the harder-working animals. So, a very cross Djinn made the camel a “humph” of his own, which would allow him to work longer periods of time without rest to make up for lost time. Every time I hear someone say “humph” (or I say it myself), I think of that camel and usually have to restrain myself from telling Kipling’s story.

I wouldn’t say Kipling’s stories are morality tales—there’s too much sarcasm and humour in them for that—but they are origin tales of a sort. And despite Kipling’s general fixation on India, many of his stories take place elsewhere (the Amazon, Australia, Africa, etc.). And, although the majority of the Just So Stories revolve around animals, there are a couple of human-centric stories.

“How the First Letter Was Written” and “How the Alphabet Was Made” are stories about a Neolithic family who live in cave and go fishing. Needless to say, the writing of the first letter before there was an alphabet causes a great deal of trouble, especially for the poor “stranger-man” who becomes the victim of a very unfortunate misunderstanding. So, to keep that from happening again, Tegumai (the dad) and Taffy (his daughter) set about to make an alphabet that will describe all the sounds they notice in words. And really, the whole scenario seems rather plausible, if also hilarious.

One of my favourite things about the Just So Stories, though, is that most of the mysteries Kipling explains don’t have any other obvious explanation besides “that’s the way it is.” The very audacity of writing stories to explain things such as “How the Whale Got His Throat” and “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin” make this a pretty great book.

And as much as I loved it growing up, I think it’s almost more important for me to read now. It’s too easy to stop questioning why things are the way they are, or how things became the way they are, and Kipling doesn’t allow that. Granted, his explanations are made up, but they are so beautiful and so, so funny that they are irresistible.

And they don’t stop being relevant. Kipling wrote his stories with a wink to the parents who would be reading them aloud at bedtime, and there are several stories that had my dad laughing louder than anyone else in the car when we listened to the tapes on long drives.

Marriage and family are the focus of several of the stories, which is not something you notice as a kid. But that’s the beauty of books like this: they grow up with you and offer something different for every stage of your life. So really, it doesn’t matter when you discover the Just So Stories, it just matters that you do.

Just So Stories
by Rudyard Kipling
First published in 1902 (cover image shown from Penguin edition)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Far Pavilions

There are some books I just get a craving to read, and The Far Pavilions is one of them. I’m not sure if it’s specifically the characters I love, or the way India is described, or just the intricate plot, but there’s something about the way M.M. Kaye mixes all those elements together to create a story that is at once a romance and an adventure that just pulls me back in.

The story is set in India and begins just before the 1857 Sepoy uprising (during which time almost all the English colonizers in India were killed) and follows the life of Ashton Akbar Hillary Pelham-Martin, which is shortened nicely to Ash.

Ash is born to English parents, but after their deaths and the surging anti-English feeling in India after the uprising, he is raised as an Indian by his former-nurse Sita, who he believes to be his mother. After years of insecurity and fear, Ash and Sita eventually stumble upon the hill kingdom of Gulkote, and by luck Ash saves the prince’s life and he and Sita end up in service to the royal family.

Of course, with royalty comes intrigue and Kaye’s description of palace life is certainly enthralling. Equally important, though, is the way she weaves details about Hinduism and Indian customs through the story without making any explicit points about either. She allows you fall into Ash’s story, which is one of the reasons her very long novel is actually rereadable. Anyhow, Ash makes some friends in the palace, including the prince’s little sister Juli and Koda Dad Khan, the master of the horse, and his son Zarin.

But despite having some allies, eventually life in the palace is no longer safe for Ash. After foiling several assassination attempts on the prince’s life, he becomes the target of attempts on his own life. So he and Sita flee and eventually, on the banks of a river, Sita tells Ash who he really is and gives him the money and documents to prove it. Ash is, of course, horrified to discover that his mother isn’t actually his mother, but when Sita dies he has no choice but to head to the re-established English military encampment and seek his family.

In a short form, that is the first major part of the book (which is really three stories in one, I think). The second part begins with a very brief account of Ash’s return to England and his education there. He then returns to India when he is 18 as an officer in the Guides, gets himself involved in a relationship with a young woman (who, incidentally, has biased me forever against the name Belinda) and eventually is sent to escort a large wedding party from one kingdom to another.

Because this is not just an adventure story but also a love story, and one with a fairly elegant plot at that, Ash inevitably falls in love with one of the princesses he is escorting to the wedding. And, because no good details should ever go to waste, the princess he falls in love with is none other than Juli (now called by her full name, Anjuli), the little girl he was friends with when he worked in the palace at Gulkote all those years ago.

A great deal of drama then ensues (and by drama I don’t mean soapy drama, I mean edge-of-your seat, oh-my-goodness drama, which is the best sort) and eventually they arrive in Bhithor, where Anjuli and her younger sister Sushila are to be married. But the man they are to marry is old and unhealthy, and because his kingdom is so far north of the more colonized south, the illegal practice of sutee (wherein a bride burns herself alive on her husband’s funeral pyre) is still practiced.

But Anjuli won’t abandon her sister and, much to Ash’s chagrin, goes through with the wedding. Ash is of course beside himself, a condition that doesn’t improve after the husband dies and Shushila decides to become a sutee. Naturally, Ash can’t allow this to happen to the woman he loves, so he saves Anjuli and they flee.

Even though the second part starts off kind of slowly, it certainly picks up the pace toward the end and then catapults you into the third part of the book, in which Ash works as a sort of undercover agent for the Guides and Anjuli still has to hide for fear of being discovered.

There is adventure throughout this novel, but in the third part it really takes precedence. Ash makes numerous undercover trips into Afghanistan to spy for the British, another rebellion is around the corner, and he and Juli are in constant danger of being discovered. Really, once you make it this far, there’s no going back.

The story itself is mostly fictional, although there are some parts that are based on biographical information Kaye got from her grandfather (including a story about rifles, which I haven’t described here). Kaye also spent her childhood in India, something that comes through very clearly in her descriptions of the sounds and smells of the marketplaces and the mountains. It’s clear that Kaye has a genuine interest, not only in telling a good and compelling story, but of portraying India as accurately as she knows how, an agenda that only adds to the story.

The Far Pavilions
By M.M. Kaye
First published in 1978 (cover image shown from St. Martin’s Griffin edition)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Independent's Day

If there was ever a time to buy books, October always seems to be that time. The weather is still nice enough to wander around outside, but the chill in the air is such that you need to go inside to warm up occasionally. And what better place to warm up than in a bookstore?

Today is the Canadian Bookseller's Independent's Day. Not that I need an excuse to go out and shop for books, but sometimes it's nice to have a bigger-picture justification behind my purchases.

As much as I, admittedly, enjoy the idea of large bookstores (most often brought to you in the form of a Chapters/Indigo or a Barnes & Noble), finding small bookstores that are filled with interesting books and magazines is so much more satisfying. And small bookstores tend to give play to different kinds of books than large corporate ones, which means you can find the books you never knew you wanted to read.
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