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.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

To Kill a Mockingbird

I don’t think I know anybody who hasn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird. It has been on more than one of my class reading lists and I’m sure that isn’t unusual. It has also created a lot of controversy in the years since it was published in 1960.

But despite the continued hype and its essential nature in middle schools everywhere, the first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird it was just because my mum told me it was a good book. And she was right.

I have read To Kill a Mockingbird somewhere in the neighbourhood of a dozen times, and each time I read it I am struck by how much Harper Lee manages to cram into one novel. There is so much going on—summers with Dell, Boo Radley, the trial, the Finch’s family life, Scout and Jem at school, Jem and the magnolias, Atticus shooting the rabid dog—and still everything flows and stays together to give you a real picture of life in Maycomb, Alabama.

The first time I read the novel I was probably too young to fully grasp what was going on, but I do remember being absolutely fascinated by the food that Calpurnia made. To my knowledge, I have still never eaten nor seen a collard green and, mostly because of the way they come up over and over in this book (either in the kitchen or in the garden), I would really like to. It may seem like and strange detail to remember from such an important and racially-charged novel, but collard greens weren’t something I had encountered before and the discussion of racism was.

Later, though, when I reread it in high school (again, not for class purposes) I was struck by the way Lee described family life at the Finch home. And even just the way she described the house. As we get older I think we sort of forget how much your house matters to you when you’re a kid, and the way Lee describes the house is an important part of what makes Scout such a believable narrator (at least for me). Although I’ve never really been able to picture their street as anything more than a sketchy map, the specific houses described in the novel are very clear, as is the tree in front of the Radley’s house.

The trial, of course, is meant to the really chilling and poignant part of the story. And I suppose it is in a lot of ways (although the details that really stick out for me are the details Lee gives about the people present, the way the courtroom smelled, and how tired Atticus looked).

For me though, the scene that will always affect me the most is the attack on Scout in the dark when she’s walking home from the pageant.

In some ways, the very fact that she’s dressed as a ham makes the scene memorable. But in rereading it, I think it’s the confusion of what’s really going on that makes the attack so violent. I can almost feel the chicken wire on my arms and hear the sounds of the struggle and the noise of Jem’s arm being broken. That was the scene that drove everything home for me.

Looking back at that period of American history, we know that racism was rampant and that a black man on trial (even against such low-class whites as the Ewells—a detail Atticus makes sure to point out) would never get a fair verdict. Despite Atticus’ many lessons and his impassioned defense, the verdict isn’t so much surprising as it is disappointing. But the attack on Scout and Jem is shocking.

Having Bob Ewell attack Atticus’ kids, even though Ewell “won” the court case, cuts through all the academic historical context and forces you to see the violence behind the racism and the class prejudice. I’d like to think that Lee could see the civil rights movement on the horizon when she wrote this and understood that one day, a lot of readers would need something this intense to remind them of how bad things had been.

And that’s why I don’t understand all this nonsense about parents wanting to have the books taken out of school curriculum. Forgetting about an uncomfortable part of history will certainly not help us to not repeat it. And to diminish To Kill a Mockingbird to nothing more than a novel about racism does all readers a disservice.

To Kill a Mockingbird

By Harper Lee

First published in 1960 by J.B. Lippincott & Co. (cover image shown from Lippincott edition)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

When a book changes your life

This must be radio week on Books Under Skin. A friend told me about the Chicago Public Radio show This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass, which puts out a weekly podcast. And on this week’s podcast, Glass presents four people whose lives were changed by books.

“You don’t meet many people who tell you that a book changed their lives,” Glass says. “It’s an appealing notion I think, because it’s nice to think that our lives could be changed. Just by an idea, by the vision of the world that happens in a book, instead of what our lives are often changed by, you know, dumb luck, tragedies, coincidences.”

The one-hour podcast covers playwright and Hollywood producer Alexa Junge and her love for Moss Hart’s autobiography Act One, author David Sedaris’ encounter with a smutty novel, the unlikely obsession of a construction worker named Roger with all-books Louis and Clark, and writer Megan Daum’s love of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books.

The podcast covers so many lovely things about books and their ability to really change the way you think about certain things, whether the broad ideas (such as life or love) or more specific things (such as as historical event, your parents, yourself, or something else entirely).

Interestingly enough, though, each of the people interviewed for the show ended reading and rereading the books that changed their lives; one read just wasn’t enough for any of them, which makes me wonder if the first encounter just isn't enough for a book to really take hold of you.

Alexa Junge explains the force that drove her to reread Act One obsessively as a feeling of comfort, and really, camaraderie.

“It felt like I was recognizing an old friend. It felt like a familiarity of ‘Oh, I found a home. This guy wants the same home like I want’.”

And in a lot of ways that sums up why I reread books as often as I do: there is a sense of going home, of returning to old friends to relive old memories. And if a book does indeed change your life, for better or worse, returning to it over and over again just makes sense.

To listen to the This American Life podcast, click here.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ensemble, c’est tout (oddly translated as Hunting and Gathering)

Some novels demand to be reread quickly. In the case of Ensemble, c’est tout, I saw the movie, read the book, saw the movie again and reread the book in a matter of weeks. Maybe a little obsessive in hindsight, but there is so much depth here that even after rereading it for a third time last year, I feel like there’s a lot I haven’t absorbed.

Originally published in French (I have to admit that I haven’t read the English translation, though), Ensemble, c’est tout is set in Paris and revolves are the lives of Camille, Philibert, Franck and, later on, Franck’s grandmother Paulette.

I usually have trouble with stories that have more than one main-ish character or many storylines. In most cases I am dissatisfied with how the author brings everything together at the end. But that might be the key to Anna Gavalda’s novel: she doesn’t wait until the end to bring the characters together, but neither does she abandon their separate storylines once they are together. The beauty of this is that her characters feel like real people: they have lives together and lives apart, and the story doesn’t fall apart in expressing that.

Camille is an artist who works as a night-cleaner in an office building rather than acknowledge her talent. Philibert is an incredible historian who can’t get into a master’s program because of his nervous stutter, so instead he sells postcards outside of Parisian museums. Franck is a chef, highly skilled but angry at life. And Paulette is Franck’s grandmother; she’s too old to continue living by herself in her beautiful garden and, after a bad fall, is placed in a home, much to her chagrin.

Obviously, these are pretty one-dimensional portraits of the characters that make up Gavalda’s story, but in some ways that’s the most appropriate way to describe them because, at least for the first chunk of the book, they are only able to see themselves as one-dimensional. Later, though, as they are forced into human contact (they all end up living together in an apartment Philibert is looking after for his family) their view of themselves and of each other changes.

Ensemble, c’est tout translates roughly as “together, that’s all” or “together, that’s everything” and is actually taken directly from a line of dialogue spoken by Camille toward the end of the novel. It may seem like a fairly simple sentiment, but it gets at the heart of the issue Gavalda is exploring here: how do you let someone in and acknowledge that being yourself, alone, isn’t enough?

It isn’t that Gavalda is saying that you should allow other people to define your worth; rather, she’s saying that without opening yourself up to others, you’ll never really know who you are. And she does that without making this a story about the “power of love” (although it wouldn’t be fully honest to say this isn’t a love story to some degree). Rather, it’s a story about letting others see you the way you see yourself, and trusting them to understand and love you anyway.

Ensemble, c'est tout

by Anna Gavalda

First published in 2004 (cover image shown from J'ai Lu edition)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Because it all starts at the bookstore

For me, going to a bookstore has always been an exciting outing. Whether it was Woozles in Halifax, the Box of Delights in Wolfville, Gilbert Joseph in France or Novel Idea in Kingston, shopping for books has always been fun.

Today Shelagh Rogers’ CBC radio show The Next Chapter reported the closure of Pages Books & Magazines in Toronto and Granny Bates in St. John’s, both community staples in their own right (and certainly not the only independent Canadian bookstores to close in the last little while). Reports like this one are really sad, partly because I wonder whether the stores are closing because of the economy or because people just aren't patronizing them any more. I really hope it's not the latter, because we so need bookstores in our communities.

Bookstores, especially children’s bookstores such as Granny Bates, have the opportunity to make books magical. And really, grown-up bookstores have the chance to do that for adults, who almost need it more because it becomes so much harder to fit reading into your life as you get older. Either way, though, local and independent bookstores (and maybe Chapters on occasion too) are perfect places to browse, to discover new things and to find new interests.

I rarely know what I’m going to buy when I head to a bookstore, but I rarely leave empty-handed.

So, today I am celebrating bookstores. To listen to The Next Chapter, click here. To find an independent bookstore near you, check out the Canadian Booksellers Association.

(The pictured bookstore is Wayfarer Books Bought & Sold in Kingston, ON.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Rocket Boys (or maybe you know it better as October Sky)

Rocket Boys (or, October Sky, as it is more commonly known) is just the sort of book you want to be reading in October. There’s something very clear about the sky in October, after the haziness of summer, and the nights aren’t so cold that you can’t go out and stargaze a little. So it’s a perfect month, really, to pull Rocket Boys off the shelf and give it another read.

Some people’s lives lend themselves to stories is an incredible way, and Homer “Sonny” Hickam Jr. is one of those people. Growing up in the West Virginia mining town of Coalwood, Sonny became obsessed with space and rocketry after seeing Sputnik (the first official Earth satellite) pass overhead.

In his enthusiasm he recruited (well, convinced) five friends to learn how to build rockets. Their first few attempts are disastrous (Sonny destroys his mother’s fence in one accident) but as the boys start to get a handle on rocketry—how to mix the chemicals to create a longer burn-time for more propulsion, how to make an effective nozzle, etc.—their rockets start to go higher and they start to draw attention from the townspeople, some of whom are supportive and some of whom are decidedly not.

Sonny’s father fits pretty squarely in the “not” category for most of the book. He can’t envision how a hobby in rocketry will pay off and thinks Sonny should just resign himself to a life in the mine. An opinion not shared by Sonny’s mother, who is happy to see her son chase his dreams with a freedom she wishes she shared.

After their first few rockets (and Sonny’s father’s strict order that none of the rocketry happen on mine land), the boys decide to move their operation just outside of town to a spot they dub Cape Coalwood. Their rockets become more sophisticated, launches start drawing a crowd, and before you know it they’re off to the state science fair.

But there’s a lot more to Rocket Boys than rocketry and dreams of space. Hickam writes about high school, fooling around in the back seat of a car, his parents’ marriage and all the seemingly little details that make up life when you’re a teenager in a small town. And, as inspiring and exciting as the story is, it’s mostly the small details that make this book so hilarious and, in some ways, so painful. Hickam doesn’t shield you from the harsh and unpleasant realities of coal mining or how difficult it is to be a kid who can’t understand the choices of his parents.

I’m not generally a huge fan of memoirs or autobiographies, mostly because I spend so much of my time wondering why the author felt their life was so interesting and unusual that I end up missing the story. But Hickam is a writer who knows how to hook you. His story is exciting and unusual and, although I’ve never spoken to the man, I get the feeling that he doesn’t pretend bad things didn’t happen, or that he didn’t do some bad things too.

And it’s that kind of honesty that makes this book so easy to come back to. By the end, you feel like you really know the characters and rereading Rocket Boys is like spending time with an old friend, reliving the good ol’ days and remembering all the people you left behind.

Rocket Boys (republished as October Sky)

by Homer Hickam

First published in 1998 (cover image shown from Delacorte Press edition)

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