Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ahab's Wife, or The Star-Gazer

It's almost a cliché to describe someone's prose as beautiful, but I've encountered very few author's for whom the description is more apt than Sena Jeter Naslund. Her writing is lyrical and clear and all of her descriptions seem rimmed with a kind of golden light (for reasons I have yet to figure out). Her novel Ahab's Wife is the perfect vehicle for such an alluring style.

Naslund built Una, the titular wife, around an almost throw-away reference made in Herman Melville's Moby Dick in which Captain Ahab laments leaving his "girl wife" only a day after their wedding. And that's the only description Naslund had to work with when she created Una, one of my favourite literary women.

The story starts in rural Kentucky (well, the story really starts in the middle, explaining Una and Ahab's relationship, but then it moves back to the beginning). Una is an only child, named for Spencer's The Faerie Queene. Una is a pretty good kid, but her father is a religious extremist and disapproves of many things his young daughter says or does. Eventually, after a bad beating, Una is sent to live with her mother's sister and her family, who operate a lighthouse on the east coast.

After the dark woods and her oppressive father, Una finds life on the rocky lighthouse island pretty freeing. She plays with the goats and her little cousin Frannie and, despite initial reservations, she starts climbing the lighthouse tower. The steep an winding staircase exhausts her at first, but she works at it and eventually can run up and down it with ease. At the top, she trains her eyes to see ships, glaring into the sun and stretching her sights far out to sea.

One day, she spots a small boat, which eventually makes harbour on the little island. The occupants, two young men named Kit and Giles, become regular visitors to the little island and soon become good friends of Una and Frannie's. Then one day Kit and Giles announce that they are joining the crew of a whaling ship and probably won't be able to visit for a while. Una, longing for a little adventure (she's grown up on the island and now finds it a bit small), runs away during one of her aunt's visits to town and joins the crew of the same ship as a cabin boy, her job confirmed when she climbs the mast in he harbour and spots a whale.

She soon becomes friends with the captain's son, along for the journey to learn his father's trade, and eventually makes herself known to Kit and Giles, who are horrified at first but come to appreciate her presence. But the fun can't last forever, and after they've harvested a few whales, giving chase to another ends in the ship being stove and Una, Kit, Giles, the captain and his son and various other crew members finding themselves adrift in a lifeboat. Naslund doesn't shy away from unpleasant details or uncomfortable realities, and the cannibalism that keeps Una, Kit and Giles alive long enough to land on Ahab's ship is slowly revealed in painful detail.

But Giles cannot live with what he did to save himself, and he quietly commits suicide by falling from the rigging. And so there is just Kit and Una, who get married in their grief, despite the fact that Kit is already starting to lose his mind. Ahab marries them on his ship and when the Pequod arrives back in the Nantucket harbour, Una and Kit disembark to find his family (who live there) and set up house. But Kit is violent and crazed. He blames Una for his life and Giles' death. He is abusive and unpredictable, and then he is gone. Kit runs off, and although he survives he sends word that he will never return, leaving Una a widow whose husband is still alive.

And then there is Ahab, perfectly written into the story. And even though Naslund tells you in the title that Una and Ahab will be married, it's almost a surprise when it happens. But it does, of course, in the most surprising and natural way. But Ahab is captain of the Pequod and he isn't famous for his obsession for nothing. He leaves Una the day after their wedding and is gone for well over a year. But Naslund keeps him in the story, either through his musings or letters, or Una's thoughts of him, which run deep. Their marriage is real, and it's so vivid that it exists almost as another character in the novel.

She becomes pregnant and decides to return to her mother in Kentucky to have the baby. There, she loses both in a horrible snowstorm, but gains the friendship of a runaway slave, who she helps find freedom. Eventually, after Ahab's return and subsequent departure, Una does have a child, a son she names Justice. And although Ahab dies chasing the white whale (Naslund can't change the original script), she does give Una a kind of happiness in the end, like a soft bed at the end of a hard day's work.

In Ahab's Wife, Naslund gives you the life of a woman, from beginning to middle age. It isn't always a pretty or a happy life, but it's a life you want to inhabit anyway. Una is a remarkable invention, almost more so because everything about her story is so unaffected. As leading ladies go, she is one you will want to revisit and obsess over just as much as Ahab did.

Ahab's Wife
by Sena Jeter Naslund
First published in 1999 by William Morrow & Co. Inc. (Cover image shown from HarperCollins edition)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Abel's Island

Castaways are usually rather romantic figures in literature. Whether along the lines of Robinson Crusoe or the Swiss Family Robinson, stories about shipwreck victims are always more about ingenuity and courage than about the characters themselves. In William Steig's Abel's Island, as courageous and ingenious as Abel is, he remains very cerebral and much of the story is about the emotional ups and downs he faces during his year alone on an island. It bears saying, too, that Abel is not a strapping sailor like Robinson Crusoe, but is a mouse unaccustomed to work of any sort.

Abel ends up on the island because, during an afternoon picnic with his wife Amanda, a hurricane blows through. They take shelter in a cave with a number of other animals, but when Amanda's scarf pulls loose and is caught by the wind, Abel chases after it. Soon he is caught up by the wind and the storm and is swept into a culvert where he manages to scramble onto a small board before the water level rises and the board and Abel are taken into the river.

The next day, Abel wakes up on his board in the upper branches of a cherry oak on an uninhabited island in the middle of the river. After trying to build several different kinds of boats (all of which are destroyed by the river's current) and attempting to sling a piece of homemade rope across the river (which he lacks the strength to do), Abel is forced to face facts. For the time being, he is stuck on the island.

Initially, he resents the island and the sort of prison it represents. He misses his wife and his family, but because he assumes they must be frantically worried about him, he comforts himself with thoughts of their search efforts. Abel is a rather upper-class mouse and, prior to his arrival on the island, had only ever watched animals work. But soon he discovers that to survive, he must start looking after himself.

He finds a rotten log to hollow out into a home, weaves mats for the floor and to serve as window covers and begins storing away nuts and seeds for the winter. In his leisure time, he uses clay he collects from the riverbank to build statues of his loved ones, as well as construct dishes for himself. He also makes little bowls to float down the river, holding notes asking for help.

But life doesn't just fall into place for Abel. There is an owl on the island that terrorizes him and, after one perilous encounter, he is forced to fight it off using his little penknife. It's after the owl attack and as winter sets in that Steig gives us a real look at Abel's mind. Being all alone makes him a little crazy, he starts chanting curses at owl feathers he finds, after months of silence he begins to talk to himself (including full-on arguments) and he talks to his statues as though they are real people.

But Abel makes it through the winter, even if only barely, and in the spring an old toad arrives on the island, out of breath after being caught up by the swollen and swiftly moving spring river. Abel and Gower become friends, and Abel is quite devastated when Gower, after two months, regains enough of his strength to leave the island. Alone again, Abel is almost resigned to life there when a drought sets in, lowering the water level in the river sufficiently for him to risk swimming across.

And so he escapes, almost exactly one year after arriving. But on his way home he is attacked by a cat, narrowly escaping up a tree. But of course, being the hero of a children's story, Abel survives and makes it home to his lovely Amanda, who is both delighted to see her scarf again and be reunited with her husband.

Abel's Island is a deceptively simple story. On the surface, it's about a mouse who finds himself a castaway, must survive for a year and then ends up back in his luxurious life. But below that, it's about what happens to us when we are alone. In many ways, what gets Abel through his time on the island is his routine and his belief that he will make it home again. But during the winter, when he's cold and more alone than ever, his thought that there is no other world and that winter will last forever are almost painfully realistic.

Steig, by using a mouse as his hero, tells a story about a man who's a bit lost in life. Abel doesn't have a vocation and, prior to arriving on the island, he didn't really have anything to keep him going except garden parties and satin cravats. When faced with his own mortality, he fights to survive, and although it may be a little cliché now, the importance of goals and skills are privileged in this story. As a messages for children go, that's a pretty good one. And maybe it's not such a bad reminder for adults either.

Abel’s Island
By William Steig
First published in 1976 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (cover image from that edition)

Thursday, January 14, 2010


For a while there, it seemed like every few years someone would come out with a series of books retelling fairy tales. There were politically correct retellings and modern day versions and the genre had become pretty stale by the time Gregory Maguire came out with Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. He has retold other stories as well (Cinderella and Snow White, for example), but what made Wicked stand out was that he didn't simply retell L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, he created an entirely new world in which to tell an intersecting story.

Before Elphaba (every witch has a name, after all) is even born, the picture Maguire paints of Munchkinland is stark. The quarter of Oz (the nation's eastern chunk) is undergoing serious religious upheaval, and the witch is born in the middle of it, on the night her unionist minister father must address the growing mob. As if that weren't enough, she is born green, with fierce little teeth and a complete aversion to water. Given the circumstances, it's amazing Elphaba was permitted to grow up at all.

But she does, and as she gets older and experiences more of life and the different ways of life in Oz, Maguire unfolds the world he has created. And Maguire's Oz is not the tra-la-la world of the movie, or even the slightly menacing world of the original story. Rather, Maguire's Oz is a political one, filled with intrigues, poverty, boarding school and creeping Nazi-like public reforms. The Yellow Brick Road, for example, is not a merry trail to skip along through fertile Munchkinland fields, but a road built to colonize Oz and keep the various districts (Munchkinland, Quadling Country, the Vinkus and Gillikin) anchored to the Emerald City, the Wizard's seat and the hub of the country.

Elphaba hate the Wizard and is policies of marginalization and assimilation, so she leaves school before graduating and goes underground as an activist and member of the resistance movement in the Emerald City. There, despite her efforts at anonymity (not so easy when you have green skin), she is discovered by Fiyero, a Vinkus prince and former classmate. They have a love affair, but her resistance work gets him killed and the shock of it drives her to into the cloistered safety of religion, which she had previously eschewed.

After several years later she emerges with the idea to visit Fiyero's homeland in the Vinkus (the wild west of Oz) and explain things to his wife Sarima. But when Elphaba arrives, looking every inch a witch by this point despite not being particularly magical, Sarima doesn't want to hear about Fiyero's death and forbids her to speak of it. And then winter rolls in and Elphaba is stuck in the castle at Kiamo Ko. But she isn't bored. She discovers a magical text and begins working to combine her interest in life sciences with the practical necessity of magic (if she looks like a witch, she may as well be one).

It's along this point that Maguire's story catches up with Baum's. Elphaba makes an enemy of the Wizard with her work at Kiamo Ko (where she stays on for several years) and, when Dorothy visits him asking to return home, he sends her to kill Elphaba, who has become rather notorious. And you know the rest, really.

What really makes Wicked such a memorable read isn't just the politics it's laced with, but the way in which Maguire forces you to consider a story you already know from another angle. And a rather compelling one, at that. Elphaba is not an immediately likeable character. But, as you become drawn into the world of Oz and begin to understand where she's coming from with her "evil" ways, she seems far less wicked. That's not to say that Maguire has stripped Elphaba of all wickedness. Instead, his world is devoid of those black and white categorizations that make up so many fairy tales, which forces you to think about what you're reading and whether the witch really was wicked.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
by Gregory Maguire
First published in 1995 by HarperCollins (cover image shown from 1996 edition)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

White Oleander

I love books about mothers and daughters. Sometimes I love them because I see myself and my relationship with my mum reflected in the stories and sometimes I love them because they bear absolutely no resemblance to my mum and I. Janet Fitch's White Oleander falls into the latter category, thank goodness.

White Oleander is the story of Astrid and her mother Ingrid. It is also a story about the foster care system in Los Angeles and how easy it can be to get lost in yourself.

Astrid is pretty young when the novel starts (just 12) and she is absorbed by love for her mother. Astrid is young and lovely, naive but not in that cliche, youthful way because her mother has already exposed her to a kind of iciness most girls that age wouldn't believe existed. Ingrid is and artist, aloof and unattainable and both needy and beyond emotion. The novel gets its name from the flower Ingrid uses to kill her lover, a supremely selfish act that lands her in prison and Astrid in foster care.

The first home Astrid lands in is initially alright. She has siblings for the first time and a mother who cares what she eats and how she dresses. Not that Star's version of what she should wear meshes at all with the things Ingrid has taught her. Polyester was not a word in Astrid's vocabulary before Star took her shopping. But that pseudo-mother-daughter relationship was shot the minute Star's husband Ray set his eyes on Astrid.

Ray is Astrid's introduction to sex, and the way Fitch handles a taboo and disturbing relationship is pretty incredible. Especially because she couches the affair into the larger web of Ingrid's continued influence over her daughter, expressed primarily through letters.

Of course, when Star learns about the affair she is furious. But it is not a moral outrage but a jealous one that gets Astrid ejected from that home and thrust into another one, where she mainly plays babysitter. That placement doesn't last long (Astrid is attacked by dogs one night, which leaves her visibly scared), but it does introduce Astrid to another kind of female beauty embodied by her neighbour Olivia. Olivia is warm in her beauty - a perfect counterpart for Ingrid's ice - and takes an interest in Astrid. After the attack, which also destroys the cashmere sweater Olivia gave her, Astrid is devastated that she will lose Olivia, who she is kind of in love with.

Her next home is with Claire and her husband Ron. Claire is a failed actress, but her husband has a good job and they live in a big house in a wealthy area. She has always wanted a child and almost immediately loves Astrid as though she were her daughter. Astrid, who has never experienced such soft affection, full of kind words and compliments, falls rather in love with Claire and their life together. Claire encourages Astrid's art and is almost as much as sister to her as a mother-figure.

But Ingrid is horribly jealous. She hates Claire and how weak she is. When Claire attempts suicide (an act that places Astrid back in the system), Ingrid almost crows with victory, ignoring her daughter's sorrow.

By this point, though, Astrid is fairly damaged. She stays in the group home, refusing all good families, and retreats into herself. Eventually she allows herself to be placed with Rena, a Russian woman who sells clothes at the flea market and smokes hash in the evenings. Astrid has a relationship with Rena's boyfriend and wraps herself in her shattered childhood. Ingrid is horrified, but because Astrid has never lived up to Ingrid's standards, she doesn't feel pressed to change.

Eventually, Astrid runs into Paul, a boy she met in the group home. They had been friends and his youthfulness (something she has repressed) allows her to feel things she has refused herself, such as the potential for happiness.

The relationship between Ingrid and Astrid is so well worked out that you can almost believe they are real people. Despite Ingrid's general harshness, she clearly loves her daughter and is horrified to see other people raising her and getting everything wrong. Ingrid has plans for Astrid and, although it's her own fault, it's really very sad that she has to watch her daughter get increasingly messed up as she moves from one home to another.

And the relationships between Astrid and her various foster-mothers are no less complicated. Fitch writes into each woman a past and, in only a few sharp details, creates more than an archetype of a foster parent. All the families Astrid lives with have their own motivations and are written in such a way as to suggest they continue to exist after Astrid leaves their homes.

What hits me every time I read White Oleander is how well Fitch tells a story that could easily have fallen into cliche. Even the peripheral characters stand out as having full and developed selves, as though they were created for more than their cameo appearance in Astrid's or Ingrid's life. It is a thoughtful story, and although is comprises many parts, it never once falls flat or feels contrived. And, despite being kind of a devastating story, the novel doesn't weigh you down; rather, it almost buoys you with the reminder that a happy ending isn't one-size-fits-all, and neither is the way you get there.

White Oleander
by Janet Fitch
First published in 1999 by Janet Fitch (cover image shown from Back Bay Books edition)

Friday, January 1, 2010

Turning over a new leaf

It always annoys me when end-of-year lists come out before the year is over. It's as if nothing that happens from December 12-on counts because lists that sum up the year have to be made early. Because I hate that (and think things that happen at the end of December still count) I waited until 2009 was officially over to tally my bookshelf.

In more or less chronological order, here is what I read in 2009 (excluding the four or five books I read for school). I put stars next to rereads, but I'm not sure I read a bad book last year, so all these titles are recommendation-worthy.

The Paperback Book – Rick Mercer

Eucalyptus – Murray Bail *

Eats, Shoots & Leaves - Lynn Truss *

Through Black Spruce – Joseph Boyden

The Pages – Murray Bail

Things I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

Autobiography of Red – Anne Carson

Hooked – Carolyn Smart

Lullabies for Little Criminals – Heather O’Neil

The Far Pavilions – M.M. Kaye *

Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J.K. Rowling *

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J.K. Rowling *

Lives of Girls and Women – Alice Munro

Reading Lolita in Tehran – Azar Nafisi

A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute *

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

A Wild Sheep Chase – Haruki Murakami

Looking at it now, it seems like not that many titles. In some cases, that's because I got really attached to certain characters and didn't want to let them go, so I read more slowly to draw them out. It was a busy year but, for the most part, I managed to read what I wanted to read, which leaves 2010 open for all sorts of new titles (some of which Santa has already delivered).

I have stacks of books to read, really, but here are the top-five titles on the pile:

The Golden Mean - Annabel Lyon

The Year of the Flood - Margaret Atwood (also Oryx and Crake, they're sort of a pair)

Too Much Happiness - Alice Munro

Sweetness in the Belly - Camilla Gibb

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Oh, I am excited!

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