Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Alice's Adventures

Of all the many books I have read and reread, I think my copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass is by far the most careworn. I have been reading Lewis Carroll's classic stories since I was little, and every time I pick them up I get lost in the language and the fantastical world of Wonderland (and the Looking-Glass House) just as if it were the first time I was reading about them.

In Alice in Wonderland movies (including, by the looks of things, the new Tim Burton one), Carroll's two stories tend to be strangely combined. Admittedly, because my copy includes both stories, I have always read them together. But, even as a kid, I knew that the white rabbit's world was one of cards and the world of Tweedledum and Tweedledee was set on a chess board.

In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice is just minding her own business outside, sort-of listening to her sister but really playing with her cat Dinah. Then, a white rabbit in a waistcoat runs by. So naturally, Alice follows the white rabbit down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Or rather, into a long corridor filled with doors she can't open. And then she discovers a table with a key on it. But the key only fits into a tiny door that Alice is much to big to fit through. Luckily, magically, a bottle appears with a label saying "Drink Me" tied to its neck. Alice obliges (after diligently checking to see if it had the marks of poison on it - don't let it be said that Carroll was without morals) and quickly shrinks. The shrinking (and subsequent growing) motif is a common one in Wonderland and in the beginning, brings Alice to tears (mostly of frustration, I think).

But eventually she makes her way through the little door and into Wonderland. Once there, she engages in a ridiculous caucus-race, explodes into a giant inside the white rabbit's house, meets the caterpillar who sits on the infamous mushroom, attends the Mad Hatter's tea party (although I must say I always thought the March Hare and the Doormouse were the most interesting of the guests), tries to talk with the constantly disappearing and reappearing Cheshire Cat, plays croquet with the Queen of Hearts (using a flamingo for a mallet and a hedgehog for a ball), listens to the story of the Mock Turtle in the company of a Gryphon, and goes to court for allegedly stealing the Queen of Hearts' tarts. It's an absolute whirlwind of adventure (and I left bits out!) and a very quick read.

In Through the Looking Glass, Alice is a bit older and instead of playing with Dinah at the beginning of the story, she is playing with Dinah's kittens. And she is indoors, in the drawing room, which is where she notices that in the mirror there is a Looking-Glass House, which is exactly like hers only backward. So Alice decides to explore the Looking-Glass House further and visiting it, whereupon she encounters a garden of rather rude talking flowers. The main premise of the Looking-Glass world is that it's all a giant chess board, and after Alice enters the board she's obliged to play the game. In doing so, she encounters Tweedledee and Tweedledum (who tell her the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter and all the poor little oysters), Humpty Dumpty, and the Red and White Queens (among others).

Usually I hate it when the main character wakes up at the end of the story (which Alice does in both books) because it throws all the action into a wishy-washy light and often seems to indicate a lack of follow-through on the author's part. But, here it works for me. Maybe it's because the worlds Alice visits are so strange that they really work as the kind of disjointed dreamworld that most readers have experienced at one time or another. And whether or not the stories are the result of Carroll's own opium-induced dreaming, Alice's perspective and language certainly ring true.

But beyond the dreamy quality of Alice, what I love most about the books are all the extra poems and songs and stories that Carroll includes. "The Jabberwocky" and "The Walrus and the Carpenter" (both from Through the Looking Glass) are probably my favourites, but "You are Old Father William" and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat" (from Wonderland) are also excellent. Carroll has such a knack for language and parody, which makes Alice a real treasure-trove for a reader, allowing you to pick up on different angles and suggestions each time you read it.

Alice's Adventures In Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass
by Lewis Carroll
First published in 1865 (Wonderland) and 1871 (Looking-Glass) (Cover image shown from 1968 Magnum Easy Eye edition)

Monday, February 22, 2010

What is Stephen Harper Reading?

If you’ve ever asked yourself that question, you’re not alone. At least one other person wondered about the reading habits of our Prime Minister: Yann Martel (author of the really excellent The Life of Pi).

But because Martel had no way of finding out what the Prime Minister was reading, he decided to start sending him books, one every two weeks, for his entire term. Each book is accompanied by a letter and Martel has been writing about the enterprise in his blog, where you can read the letters he’s sent Harper and check out the 75 titles he’s already sent.

This week is Canada’s Freedom to Read Week (I covered the American equivalent previously) and although I think it’s worth discussing the importance of reading freely and widely all the time, this week makes it topical. And even though Martel’s blog has been around for a while now, the spirit with which he tries to push the Prime Minister into paying attention to literature and literacy fits nicely into the ideas embodied by this week.

And, besides the clear genius of this idea (Martel has turned the blog into a book) on a political/satirical level, Martel’s attempts to reach out to the Prime Minister have the lovely side effect of providing a reading list for Canadians at large. He mixes classics with more contemporary work, fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose (and children’s stories) and work by authors from all over the world (including, of course, Canada).

Of the titles on this list, to date I have only read nine (and covered only one on Books Under Skin, although that will surely change). The list is extremely varied (it’s almost as if Martel, in an attempt to get Harper to read something, has sent him a little of everything) and there are several titles here that I’ve never even heard of. But that’s what makes reading lists like this so exciting: Suddenly someone else’s sense of what’s worth reading is available to you. And if it varies from your own, so much the better.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Year in Provence

According to the Weather Network, the temperature in Provence today is 15 degrees C. That's 17 degrees warmer than Toronto, so I suppose that's why I'm feeling a little nostalgic for my life in France. And, since I can't afford to visit, on grey February days I let Peter Mayle take me there vicariously.

In his sort-of memoir A Year in Provence, Mayle charts the first year of his (and his wife's) life in France. After dreaming about it for years, the couple decides to take the plunge and buy an old (read: 200-year-old) stone farm house in France's southern countryside. But, as Mayle soon discovers, paradise is something you have to earn.

The Mayles, having moved to Provence from England, don't really know what they're getting into. They get a little complacent about the weather (it's nothing compared to an English winter!) and then suddenly the Mistral blows in and they realize their old farmhouse has no central heating. And then their pipes freeze and burst. And then they have no water and no heat. So they call a plumber, and with the plumber comes the story of how the pipes are unsuited to the cold weather of Provence (it has been getting colder every year), and really, if they're going to live there they probably ought to think about some upgrades. And just like that you're immersed in France - funny expressions, roundabout stories and all.

The book is organized by month, which is the best way to set out a memoir like this, because at the same time as Mayle is describing his renovation woes, he is also describing how his life in Provence develops. It starts with the tradesmen, who are more than happy to gossip about the history of the little town and tell him all sorts of things about French construction and style (and how these things should be applied to his new home), and continues with his forays into the culture of French food.

And as much as I love anecdotes about home renovation (and they are always funny when related by Mayle) it's his descriptions of food that makes this book such an escape. Whether he and his wife are eating in a restaurant, at the home of a friend or simply cooking for themselves (which often involves a description of their shopping expedition), the enthusiasm and eye for detail that Mayle turns to cuisine really do make you feel like you're at the table with him. You can practically taste the wine and smell the golden potato-onion galette.

Really, the only thing that could improve this book would be an accompanying cookbook, because all you want to do while reading is cook seasonal French food so you can eat it while reading Mayle's description of it. If nothing else, you should keep a bottle of wine handy, although to drink every time he does would make the words blurry very quickly. So perhaps the best thing to do is find a comfortable chair (in the sun if possible) and just dream about your own stone farmhouse, because as Mayle proves, sometimes those dreams have a way of working out.

A Year in Provence
by Peter Mayle
First published in 1989 by Random House (cover shown from Vintage Books edition)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Missed Connections

Whenever I'm on the subway (or any other form of public transit, really) I almost always have a book with me. Maybe it's because I'm conscious of being a reader, but I always seem to notice other people who read on transit. And usually I'm curious about what they're reading and how they came across the book; when it's something I've read, I always have to suppress the urge to ask them what part they're reading.

Apparently, I'm not alone. The Missed Connections blog has frequent posts about someone who noticed someone reading and was intrigued enough to try and find them. I especially like this one, about a missed connection in a library, and this one, about a beautiful commuter reading Catch-22.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Poisonwood Bible

Some novels are so vivid that certain scenes haunt you long after you've finished the story. The Poisonwood Bible is one such novel. To tell the story of the Price family - American missionaries who move from Georgia to the Belgian Congo in 1959 - Barbara Kingsolver writes each chapter from the perspective of one of the Price women. The result is a striking and layered story about the Congo's struggle out of colonization and a family's struggle for survival under the misogynistic rule of Nathan Price (husband and father) in a country they don't understand.

What is perhaps more remarkable about the novel is that Kingsolver was able to so fully embody each of the five women (mother Orleanna, Rachel, twins Leah and Adah and Ruth May, the youngest) that none of their perspectives ever seem out of character or in any way incongruent with something they may have said before. They all have difference perspectives on the Congo and what their father is doing there, and they bring their own personalities into their narratives. It's almost shocking that the family is entirely fictional, because for Kingsolver to have so fully realized so many characters seems like an exhausting amount of work.

Rachel is the oldest of the Price children. She is attractive and blonde and determined to stay that way despite living in the rural (and fictional) Congolese village of Kilanga. I think the scene I most clearly remember that featured Rachel was one in which there was a mass panic in the village and everyone mobbed together and ran for their lives. So, taking the advice of a magazine she had read, Rachel stuck out her elbows and lifted her feet, allowing the mob to pull her along with minimal effort on her part. It seems like an character-defining moment, but none of Kingsolver's characters are that one-dimensional.

Leah is essentially the antithesis of Rachel. Despite knowing little about the Congo before she arrives, she becomes fascinated by the country and its people. As the story builds, it is Leah who finds a place in Kilanga (a feat not to be discounted, her father is hated by the villagers ho have little interest in his fire and brimstone preaching) and within the Congolese culture. She becomes deeply involved in the Congo's move from colony to independent country and eventually marries Anatole Ngemba, a Congolese man and teacher. When her mother and sisters flee from the Congo during its move to independence, she remains behind.

Leah's twin Adah is quiet. She was born with a physical deformity and although she quite brilliant, she is shy and unassuming. Adah loves words and is an excellent observer. When the other characters get involved in their own lives, relating lots of character details but few linear plot-points, it is usually Adah who chimes in with an explanation of the event her siblings are fuming over. But she is more than a filler characters, and if anything is the most betrayed by her father's treatment of both the villagers and his own family. Unlike Leah, Adah trusted her father's Baptist drive to convert, so his subsequent violence and madness hits her hardest of all.

Ruth May is the youngest by quite a few years and her perspective is appropriately childish. But sometimes children make the most skilled observers because they notice things (or think to mention things) that others overlook. It is through Ruth May that Kingsolver is able to tackle the basic day-to-day difficulties of living as an under-informed expatriate. Ruth May decides to stop taking her quinine (anti-malarial drugs) because it tastes bad. The results are catastrophic, but do lead to Orleanna taking things into her own hands and finally leaving her tyrant of a husband to get her children out of the country before they all end up dead.

Orleanna we hear from less than the others. She opens each section of the book, but then fades a bit. Most of what we know about her comes from her children's observations (such as how her noisy treatment of the plates after a meal indicate that she has sided against her husband in some argument). For a while she plays the stoic wife who stands by her man. But as he devolves she becomes stronger, and it is her effort at keeping her family alive and protected that outshine any earlier missteps by the end of the book.

In many ways, The Poisonwood Bible is a scathing criticism of the evangelical missionary work that was inherent in colonization. Kingsolver's portrayal of the Congo emerging from colonization in many ways anticipates what happened to the country after Belgium gave it up, and because the Price family's saga in many ways paralleled that of the country they were transplanted to, that look to the future is pretty ominous.

What really makes this book for me, though, are the characters. I find it unbelievable that they aren't real people and the way Kingsolver moved between them, gathering multiple perspectives on events and moving the plot along is quite stunning. As is her understanding of family. The Prices are not a family I would ever wish to join, but they do move and breathe as a unit in different parts of the novel and the way the daughters reference similar memories without the details feeling forced speaks greatly to Kingsolvers understanding of how to build not only striking individuals, but also believable units.

The Poisonwood Bible
by Barbara Kingsolver
First published in 1998 by HarperCollins (cover image shown from HarperPerennial edition)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Over the moon: Ian Brown wins the Charles Taylor Prize

The Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction was handed out yesterday evening to Ian Brown for his book The Boy in the Moon: A Father's Search for his Disabled Son, a kind of memoir about his life with his son Walker.

Walker Brown was born with the incredibly rare condition of cardio-facio-cutaneous syndrome, a genetic mutation that resulted in Walker's intellectual impairment, physical disability and the inability to speak, among other things. The Boy in the Moon is about both Walker's life and Brown's relationship with his son.

Originally, Brown - who writes for the Globe and Mail - wrote about Walker in a series of three Globe articles published in December 2007.

The book came out this past September and I went to one of the Toronto post-launch publicity events wherein Brown was interviewed on stage by his wife (and Walker's mum) Johanna Schneller. It was pretty touching to listen to the two of them talk about their son and how their family life changed after he was born and diagnosed (Walker also has an older sister, who Brown mentions every once in a while).

The Charles Taylor Prize is awarded annually and recognizes the non-fiction book that "best combines a superb command of the English language, an elegance of style, and a subtlety of thought and perception."

The other nominees were:
The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of Willam Randolph Hearst by Kenneth Whyte; published by Random House Canada
Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968 – 2000 by John English; published by Knopf Canada
René Lévesque by Daniel Poliquin; published by Penguin Canada

The Boy in the Moon: A Father's Search for his Disabled Son
by Ian Brown
First published in 2009 by Random House Canada (cover image shown from that edition)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

I think I've mentioned before how much I like books with layered narratives. In Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Fannie Flagg tells two stories simultaneously. The first is set in Whistle Stop, Alabama during the Depression (it starts out in 1929); the second is set mostly in a nursing home in Birmingham, Alabama in the '80s (starting in 1985).

The stories alternate, with Mrs Threadgoode (in the present) telling Evelyn Couch the story of Idgie, Ruth and the Whistle Stop Cafe. Evelyn doesn't know Mrs. Threadgoode when the novel begins, but she has come to the nursing home with her husband to visit his aunt who hates her. So rather than endure the torment of insult after insult, Evelyn retires to the common area, where Mrs. Threadgoode approaches her and starts telling her story.

It starts when Idgie Threadgoode (Mrs. Threadgoode's sister-in-law) was just a girl. Forever getting into trouble, Idgie's childhood was a wild one. She idolized her older brothers, especially Buddy, and followed them around, learning what they knew and copying what they did. But then Buddy was killed, hit by a train, in front of Idgie and she ran away for a while to live in the woods and deal with her grief alone.

But she comes back and grows up and eventually initiates a kind of friendship with Ruth, who had been Buddy's girlfriend and also present on the day he died. But Ruth is trapped in an extremely abusive relationship with a man named Frank. And one day Ruth writes to Idgie asking for help, so Idgie goes and gets her and they open up the Whistle Stop Cafe. And then Ruth has her baby, a boy she names Buddy.

One of the things Flagg does best, besides her depiction of friendship, is her invocation of the social realities in Whistle Stop, Alabama in the '20s and '30s. Poverty and racial tensions run high and Idgie and Ruth have more than one run in with the local Ku Klux Klan for daring to sell food to the black residents from their back kitchen door.

The cafe, in fact, is famous for its barbecue, coffee and pie. And because Whistle Stop is right on the railway, the rotating cast of customers and regulars offers Flagg a way to comment on the fortunes of the outside world without being too direct about it.

And just as I was the first time I read Fried Green Tomatoes, Evelyn Couch is riveted by the story Mrs. Threadgoode tells her. Evelyn is an overweight, middle-aged woman at the brink of menopause. She's depressed, unhappy in her marriage and unhappy with herself, and in the stories Mrs. Threadgoode tells her she finds a kind of escape. Suddenly, Evelyn has something to look forward to and, maybe for the first time, she is able to envision the kind of intrepid woman she wants to be.

Typically, in a story that alternates perspective and era, there's one narrative that really catches your attention and one that you just hurry through. The first time I read Fried Green Tomatoes (which was, in the spirit of full disclosure, after I had already seen the movie numerous times), all I wanted to read about were Idgie and Ruth. Their lives seemed so removed from mine, so full of adventure and customs and politics. I think as a kid I kind of wanted to be Idgie.

But now, when I go back to the novel, as much as my love for Idgie and Ruth is unwavering, I've developed a new fondness for Evelyn. In her own way, Evelyn is fighting societal norms as much as Idgie was, it's just less obvious because the battle Evelyn is waging is internal. But Evelyn has Mrs. Threadgoode and Idgie and Ruth have each other, which is a point I think Flagg is careful to make.

The friendship of women, as Flagg presents it, has changed very little in 60 years in terms what what it means. It isn't that Flagg is in any way anti-men (except maybe Frank, who she makes disappear), but Fried Green Tomatoes is most definitely a book about women and the strength they gain from their friends.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
by Fannie Flagg
First published in 1987 by Random House (cover image shown from that edition)
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