Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Railway Children

Something about the holidays makes me want to read old children's books. It probably has to do with being at home in my old room, surrounded by my old books, many of which I received as Christmas gifts. Christmas is a pretty nostalgic season anyway, and if you throw old books into the mix, I'm toast. One of my favourite books when I was a kid was Edith Nesbit's The Railway Children, which was given to me by my mum's sister the Christmas I was 6 (I know this because, like a good book-giver, my aunt wrote the date and who it was from on the first page).

The Railway Children tells the story of a well-to-do London family who are forced to move to a small country cottage after the father is arrested on charges of espionage. This is all set pre-WWI, so the transition from the city to the country is quite a shock, not simply because the children have lost their father, but because they are living in very different circumstances. They no longer have the money for fancy food or large closets, which is hard on the mother but kind of an adventure for the three children, Roberta (Bobbie),  Peter and Phyllis. 

At the bottom of the garden of the new house ran the railway, and the children became fascinated by the trains and all the regular passengers, especially a man they called The Old Gentleman, who always waved back to the children, who would stand on the fence and wave at the trains. It didn't take long for the Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis to become a regular fixture along the railway line, and soon the conductors and the local station master came to know them quite well. The novel is filled with adventures the children had along the railway line, including one that involved the girls tearing up their red petticoats so they could flag down a train after they saw that a rockslide had buried part of the tracks. 

Of course, this is a story about family as much as childhood adventures, and a lot of it takes place in and around the little cottage. Details such as how the mother is concerned about money around birthdays and how Peter injured himself with a garden rake are as central to the children's lives as the railway that they love, and Nesbit manages to wind the adventure around the mundane in such a way that the story seems as if it could really be true. 

Nesbit's descriptions of Three Chimneys (the family's country cottage) and the nearby town and the countryside are just so vivid that I have to believe it's all based on somewhere real that I would very much like to visit. When I was a kid I dreamed of having the sorts of afternoon adventures Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis had, and now when I read this book I rather taken by how nice their cottage sounds. There's a bit of romance around the penny-pinching the family is forced to do, and Nesbit plays on the idea of a simpler life in the country without losing sight of how financial matters and worry over the father would have made life less than idyllic. That day-to-day awareness, and the fact that the children's adventures aren't too outrageous, pull the story into the realm of the plausible, which makes for a much more compelling read.

Behind the scenes of all the happy and sunlit adventures the children have, though, is a kind of political story that I totally missed as a kid. The father is arrested at the beginning because he has been charged with spying for the Russians, and later in the story the family takes in a Russian man who they find half-dead. He tells them that he is a writer and was thrown out of his country for the stories he told. The Railway Children was published in 1906, and Nesbit seems to have been working out some political backlash in the edges of her children's novel. The political in no way overtakes the more light and cheerful story of the Waterbury family, but it does add just a hint of something weightier that sets this novel apart from many of the other children's books of the time. That being said, you just know that Nesbit worked out how to give the family a happy ending.

The Railway Children
by Edith Nesbit
First published in 1906 (cover image shown from Scholastic Canada edition)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

There are all sorts of reasons that it's great to be a kid (or around kids) around the holidays. They get so excited about everything and even when it's clear that you're gearing up for a green and rainy Christmas day, kids don't lose one ounce of spirit. But besides just having the big day to look forward to, kids of a certain age also have their school Christmas Concert to prepare for, although these are usually called Holiday Concerts or Winter Concerts now so as to be more inclusive. I didn't grow up going to church, so I never had to be involved with a Christmas nativity play, but if they were anything like the one described in Barbara Robinson's The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, then I think I'm alright with it.

I must have been in Grade 2 or 3 when I first came across this book. I think it was read to my class a few times by various Elementary teachers who had a good sense of humour, and I'd pretty much forgotten about it until I saw it on my sister's shelf after coming home for the holidays this year. It's a short read (maybe two hours) and man, what a different book it is now.

The story is kind of a classic one. In an unnamed (presumably American) town at Christmas, the church's Christmas Pageant is pretty much the biggest deal in the kids' lives. Even though the roles go to the same people every year, and the pageant plays out exactly the same way, the predictability of it doesn't diminish its importance. This year though, things are different. Mrs. Armstrong, who usually runs the pageant, breaks her leg and the narrator's mom has to take over (the narrator being an unnamed girl of about 9 or 10). Already, some of the predictable structure has changed. Enter the Herdmans.

The Herdmans are six children from the bad end of town. They steal, they bully the other children at school, they don't go to church, they all smoke cigars (even the girls!), they talk back – well, you get the idea. Basically, they are bad kids. The story goes that their dad hopped a train years ago and hasn't been heard from since and their mum is too busy working two shifts a day to really keep an eye on them, so they run wild. Basically, all the kids are kind of afraid of them.

The Herdmans have never shown any interest in church or the Christmas pageant before, but this year they've heard refreshments are provided, so they turn up and then bully the rest of the Sunday school class out of their usual roles. Suddenly, the six Herdmans have the six most important roles in the pageant. Then, of course, it turns out that they've never even heard the Biblical Christmas story and have no idea what's supposed to happen in the pageant. Of course, they have lots of questions about all sorts of things (what are swaddling clothes? why doesn't anyone kill Harrod? why didn't Joseph beat up the innkeeper?) and by questioning the story, new meaning is brought to it for the young narrator.

Not that the whole book is about the Christmas story – it isn't. Most of the story revolves around the antics of the Herdmans and their reign of terror over the children in the community. And it is hilarious. So is the description of the final pageant (which, as the title suggest, goes very well). The Herdmans, as Wise Men, bring a ham (from their charity food basket, no less) instead of the traditional gold, frankincense and myrrh; Mary (the oldest Herdman) burps Baby Jesus before laying him in the manger; and youngest Herdman (as the angel who visits the shepherds) yells the only spoken line in the whole play in untraditional language. It could have been a disaster, but instead it was perfect.

Not being religious doesn't mean I can't appreciate the importance of religious stories and traditions. Linus' speech in A Charlie Brown Christmas is wonderfully moving, and so too is the pageant in this little story. It isn't about the religion behind it so much as it is about being overcome by the spirit and warmth of the day. And, in a whole side of the story I missed as a kid, it's about the community accepting a poor and wild bunch of kids into their annual tradition. The Herdmans are pretty marginalized and, although their antics are really funny, their lives are pretty sad; being in the Christmas pageant may have been the first time they were really expected to achieve anything, and they rose to the occasion.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is not a religious story, really. Anybody who has ever participated in (or watched) a children's Christmas/holiday/winter concert will relate to the total chaos and stress that goes on behind the scenes as well as how happy and surprised the performers are when it all goes off without a hitch. These concerts are about bringing communities together and, in Robinson's story, that the Herdmans get to take part in such a central way is what really makes this such a great Christmas read.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
by Barbara Robinson
First published in 1972 (cover image shown from Avon Books edition)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Oryx and Crake

Raccoons make me nervous. Sure, they're cute from a distance, with their little black masks and that weird rattly sound they make when they shake their heads, but they also have fingers and I a kind of predatory fearlessness. I'm not saying my nervousness about raccoons affects my day-to-day life or anything, but it's there. There are all kinds of other animals that people have problems with, so many that you wouldn't think it was necessary to create new ones to make people uneasy. Margaret Atwood thought differently. In her novel Oryx and Crake Atwood presents a vision of the future in which technology isn't used to build fancy flying cars and hovering buildings, but strange hybrid animals and an entirely new race of "people." 

Often, with futuristic or science fiction novels, when the story begins the author orients the reader in the new world. Strange things are explained (at least somewhat) in concise, one- or two-sentence blips and by the end of the first chapter, you know most of the rules of this new place and time and can settle in and enjoy the story. Atwood does not do this. 

Oryx and Crake opens after some kind of natural disaster has ravaged the world. The only human left alive (that we, or he, know of) is Snowman, and he is not exactly the adventure hero type. He lives in a tree on a beach, teaches things to a group of "people" he calls the Crakers (human-like, but not human) and spends a lot of his time trying to keep his skin protected from the sun and drinking. We don't know what happened, it's not clear that he knows what happened, the world is a mess but still surprisingly recognizable.

Rather than offering up all the explanations at once, Atwood builds the story by alternating between Snowman's present and his memories of the past – when he was still called Jimmy. The picture is not a pretty one. Advances in science have spurred a kind of heyday for genetic engineers, but instead of splicing together different kinds of apple trees (like they do today) the geneticists of the future splice together animals. Hence rakunks (raccoon-skunks suitable as pets) and wolvogs (animals that look like friendly dogs, but are bred to be vicious and feral as wolves). But the genetic fun doesn't end there, Atwood also dreamed up ChickieNobs (chickens engineered to only grow one body part, such as a chicken growing twelve drumsticks, for the food industry) and Pigoons (pigs shaped like balloons that grow specific organs for hum transplant). 

In the safe world of Snowman's memories, all the bioengineered animals are confined to the various pharmaceutical or bioengineering compounds (highly prestigious gated communities with a specific corporate interest) but in his precarious present they are running wild. 

Snowman is a bit of a pathetic character, but he is generally good natured and as he takes you through his childhood memories, his friendship with Glen (who eventually becomes Crake) and what happens to them, the world unfolds. Not that it's a particularly nice world, with its bioengineering and incredibly vulgar and violent commodification of sex and poverty, but Snowman is so genuine that you can't help but understand his longing for it.

Atwood's story, though, is more than a simple apocalyptic cautionary tale. It is also a love story in a strange way, with Oryx at the centre of both Jimmy and Crake's lives. Oryx, the former child sex slave who Jimmy and Crake discover in an Internet video and become obsessed with – Jimmy openly and Crake secretly. For the "people" living near Snowman on the beach (who, of course, have been bioengineered), Oryx and Crake are like their gods – Crake because he created them and Oryx because she taught them. In this strange reality, Snowman is suddenly a prophet because he was a friend to these gods.

As novels go, Oryx and Crake is incredibly dense, in that it's packed with various storylines, events, political and biological suggestions and characters. I'm not sure that it's a novel you enjoy, exactly (because there are some quite disturbing scenes and suggestions), but it's an incredible piece of fiction and I can certainly say that I liked it very much. Perhaps what I liked most about Oryx and Crake is that it doesn't have that blinding sense of inevitability to it that so many science fiction stories do. Rather, Atwood offers her characters many chance to turn back, and even though they don't, we still can.

Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood
First published in 2003 (cover image shown from Seal Books edition)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Golden Mean

For pretty much every level of education, December is a busy month: there are final exams, major projects, term papers – lots of things come due at the end of the year. In the haste to calculate marks and study for exams, the whole goal of education (learning) can get pushed aside in favour of cramming. Aristotle would, I think, be appalled. His philosophy of education, as laid out in Annabel Lyon's novel The Golden Mean, was that it should never end, and if anything represents a full-stop in the classroom, it's a final exam.

In philosophical terms, the Golden Mean was Aristotle's attempt to create and define a balance between extremes. The mean is golden because it represnts the middle point best suited to the situation, not the mathematical centre of a problem; basically, it recognizes that not all situations require a meet-in-the-middle solution. This philosophy encompassed much of what Aristotle did, as a man, a teacher and a philosopher and Lyon's novel gathers that and, rather than stating what the golden mean is, infuses it into all the layers of her novel. And you might think a story that avoids the extremes wouldn't be all that interesting, but Lyon takes care of that too.

Lyon's Aristotle is based on what must have been years of research, but by making him the narrator, she gets around the trap some writers fall into of trying to display their research on the page. Aristotle sees things and thinks about things and remembers things, and as he tells the reader about them, Lyon is able to couch her material in character-building details that teach the reader about some relevant Aristotelian details, all the while expanding on her fiction.

Like all good historical fiction, The Golden Mean centers around real events, namely the time Aristotle spent as the tutor for a boy who would grow up to be Alexander the Great. Aristotle also spends time with Alexander's older, severely disabled brother, drawing him out of his filthy conditions and teaching him to ride a horse, which gives him great and sudden joy. Education and the the process and importance of learning are through lines in this novel, which is one part present day in Macedon and one part Aristotle's memories of his own childhood education. Life is about learning, Lyon's Aristotle seems to be saying at every turn, you can never really know it all.

There are also a lot of really compelling details about Aristotle's home life and his marriage, which bring out some fascinating bedroom scenes. Sexuality and marriage are facets of Aristotle's life that I had never really thought about (not that I think about Aristotle all that often), but Lyon's rendering of his whole life – both inside and out of the classroom and the home – make him feel like a proper character and not just a historical name. 

And really, Aristotle is a full character, and The Golden Mean is an incredibly seamless novel, which makes you wonder where research ends and fiction begins. The city of Pella is so fully realized that you can almost feel the grime from the dusty roads. The Golden Mean is as escapist as it is educational, a combination it seems Aristotle might approve of.

The Golden Mean
by Annabel Lyon
First published in 2009 (cover image shown from Random House edition)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Golden Spruce

Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the woods. We lived in the country and both my parents are pretty outdoorsy so it's no real shock that we spent a good portion of our summers camping and that family holidays generally meant a pattern of hiking one day, sightseeing the next. One of our holidays took us to the West Coast, and the size of the trees on Vancouver Island totally blew my mind. How could you ever destroy such a tree, I wondered. Well, John Vaillant did some research. In The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed Vaillant uses one tree – and one man – to explore what happened when forestry took off as an industry.

The Golden Spruce is one of those non-fiction endeavours that leaves you a little breathless in its ability to tie extensive and detailed research with a compelling storyline. But Vaillant didn't just do that once, he did it three times – exploring the Haida people and colonialism, the tree and its forest, and Grant Hadwin and the mining industry – and then braided all his pieces together. Like the best layered narratives, removing one of these elements would mean taking out a vital part of the story Vaillant is telling, which is found as much in the little details as it is in the bigger picture.

The golden spruce is exactly that: a spruce tree that grew with golden needles instead of green ones. For a tree to sprout with that kind of genetic anomaly is rare, Vaillant finds out, but not as rare as you'd think; for a golden spruce tree to not just survive, but flourish, is practically unheard of. If high school teachers could describe photosynthesis the way Vaillant does, they would have all their students hanging onto their every word. But Vaillant's description of the spruce range beyond the biological into the mythical and the social, because it seems everyone in the Haida Gwaii (BC's Queen Charlotte Islands) has a theory about the spruce, including the loggers.

Forestry took off on the West Coast hundreds of years ago. The trees were enormous and old and very straight, all attributes colonizers look for when assessing trees. And the English needed a lot of trees, for ships, house, forts, fires, you name it (and Vaillant does). From this need for trees comes the forestry industry, which has devastated BC's rainforest, but it fascinating to read about. I'll admit that I was never all that interested in logging, but Vaillant's explanation of procedure and character is truly absorbing. He develops logging all the way to present day, which is where we find Grant Hadwin, the logger turned environmental crusader who eventually hacks the golden spruce to death.

But killing the tree has affects he perhaps couldn't envision. The Haida – the islands' Native inhabitants – are devastated by the loss of this spiritual centre. Vaillant gives a similar historical and social analysis to the Haida as he does to the tree and logging (and Hadwin), but he resists tokenizing them. The Haida are not stand-ins for "the old ways," nor do they represent a pure relationship with the earth (so often in stories about nature and its destruction, this is the role Aboriginals are given). Rather, the Haida are complicated, both in their relationship to logging and the land. For Vaillant, nothing is one dimensional. 

It's hard to believe that a book, ostensibly about a tree, could be dramatic. But The Golden Spruce is a real page-turner, and as the narrative moves around in time and place, a sense of dangerous inevitability starts to build. Vaillant doesn't use this book to preach lessons, but he does give a conscientious reader enough information and history to understand the possibilities and their likely outcomes. The Golden Spruce is a book about a forgotten (or ignored) history, but Vaillant gives such vitality to it I find it hard to believe it could remain tucked away for much longer.

The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed
by John Vaillant
First published in 2005 (cover image shown from Vintage Canada edition)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Canada Keeps Reading

Last week, CBC's Canada Reads announced the finalists for this year's literary showdown, to take place in the February. In previous years, CBC has announced the panelists and they in turn have announced the Canadian novel they wish to champion.

But, for the 10th anniversary, CBC decided to spice things up. They had booksellers and writers and critics assemble a longlist that was then voted on by the public. This led to a shortlist of 10 books, from which this year's panelists would choose they novel they wanted to defend. Problems with this method have been pointed out, but nonetheless, this year's top-5 (supposedly the top-5 novels of the decade, although I'm not so sure about that) are a more interesting assortment than last year's.

So, here are the five novels that will be debated on this year's Canada Reads, along with their defenders:
The Birth House by Ami McKay - defended by Debbie Travis 
The Best Laid Plans by Terri Fallis - defended by Ali Velshi
The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou - defended by Georges Laraque
Essex County by Jeff Lemire - defended by Sara Quin 
Unless by Carol Shields - defended by Lorne Cardinal 
But, if you're looking for something a little more off the beaten track, Pickle Me This has posted her panelists (and their picks) for the 2011 Canada Reads Indies:
Play the Monster Blind by Lynn Coady - championed by Sheree Fitch
Truth & Bright Water by Thomas King - championed by Nathalie Foy
Still Life With June by Darren Greer - championed by Chad Pelley
Home Truths by Mavis Gallant - championed by Carrie Snyder
Be Good by Stacey May Fowles - championed by Robert J. Wiersema
Now, if The Afterword would just announce its picks for Canada Also Reads (and I'm hoping and assuming there will be another round this year) the season of the literary cage match would be all set to get going.
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