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 V├ęzina

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