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)

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