Archive for February, 2013

moranthology caitlin moranMoranthology by Caitlin Moran ~ 2012. This edition: Ebury Press, 2012. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-06-225853-3. 237 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

*****

I searched this one out because of Claire’s intriguing posting about it on The Captive Reader recently. Click this link to read her take, and don’t forget to scroll down into the comments for an interesting side note onto the life of Charles Dickens. Here you go: Moranthology

I had never heard of Caitlin Moran before, but the lack of context was no barrier to enjoying this collection of columns originally published in the London Times. A previous book, How to Be a Woman, gets rave reviews on the back cover of Moranthology, and also, when I did my small bit of “research” for this review, all over the internet. One I may also seek out, because I liked Moran’s brash, cheeky and occasionally heart-rending voice in this later compilation.

Some articles are decidedly stronger than others, but every single one was more than readable. Moran works the pop culture beat, with frequent forays into personal memoir, and anecdotes about her own marriage and family life.

Caitlin Moran apparently had quite a counter-culture childhood and adolescence. Growing up in a self-described family of “hippies”, she frequently mentions her family’s poverty and the heavy-as-lead despair of the slow slide downward; the family lived on Moran’s father’s disability benefit, never quite enough to meet the basic daily needs, let alone afford any sort of advancement in life. Moran refers frequently to her youthful status as one of the lookers-on. As a homeschooled child, she remarks that she had zero experience in fitting in with her more conventional peers, and I suspect that it is this position outside of the norm which has helped make her such a sharp observer of the more ridiculous of the pop culture excesses splashed across our universal consciousness in this age of hyper-information.

There are poignant moments throughout Moranthology which I found most moving, in contrast to the aggressive humour of some of the pop culture critiques. Caitlin limping through London on her first visit there, astounded by the scale of the city and unable to find her way, on foot, to either the British Museum or Buckingham Palace, which she thought she’d just briefly visit before visiting the offices of The Observer; she’s won a “young writers” prize which includes a tour of the newspaper office and a chance to write a youths’ view article for publication. Caitlin and her brothers and sisters squeezed into the cab of their camper van, singing to drown out the sounds of their parents’ lovemaking in the back. Caitlin’s four years as a supremely heavy user of marijuana, and the gap in her life (and memories) this caused.

This is a strong collection with a wide variety of pieces; the range meant that it never blurred for me, as collections of newspaper columns sometimes may.

Outstanding pieces were a rather brutal observation of the ironies of Michael Jackson’s lavish funeral and the public response to it, and two interviews with rock and roll icons, Keith Richards and Paul McCartney. The Keith Richards piece is an absolute stand-out, jaw-droppingly frank and frequently very funny; a must-read for any long-time Stones fan such as myself. I learned nothing new – Keith’s excesses and the sordid details of his frequently wasted (in every sense) life are common knowledge to anyone who has been paying attention to the mesmerizing freak show of the Stones during the various stages of their rock royalty progression – but what Moran observes, and how she reports it makes for a brilliant piece of pop journalism. This article alone makes Moranthology worth buying, but there’s a lot more packed in here, too. Including, I must mention, a visit to a German sex club with Lady Gaga, a surprisingly gentle article which shows a strong affection and admiration for the blatantly controversial main character of the ongoing Gaga Saga.

Switching gears successfully from the pop world to social commentary, Moran also writes compelling, thought-provoking and serious pieces on such diverse topics as the importance of public libraries, the compassionate and economic benefits of a strong public welfare system, and the right of women to access safe abortion.

Cheeky, over-the-top, family-targeted humour abounds. Moran pens a scathing critique of the practice of providing goody bags at children’s’ parties, and gives a spirited defense of the occasional need for parental binge drinking. A slightly more serious, but exceedingly funny piece discusses the changing meaning of the word “special” to something rather dirty – references to “Daddy’s Special Lemonade” (it has limes in it!)  and playground requests for Daddy to “tickle me in my special place” (under the chin, for heaven’s sake!) – bring parental mortification and suspicious glances from other ever-vigilant parents on high alert for any shadow of anything smacking of sexual perversion.

All in all, a most entertaining read. Loved it.

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moab is my washpot steven fry Moab is my Washpot by Stephen Fry ~ 1997. This edition: Arrow Books, 2011. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-09-945704-6. 436 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10.

One word: Unexpected.

Elaboration: Unexpectedly frank, unexpectedly kind, unexpectedly excellent. To clarify that last, I did expect it to be excellent, but not quite in the way it was. Almost too much information, with some very graphic sexual details, but it works.

The .5 is lost for various vague reasons. Maybe a bit too graphic?

This is a grandly quirky memoir, which I hugely enjoyed reading.

I’m attempting to work on this review while sitting at a borrowed desk in the office of a dance studio far from home. Above my head, in the rather less than sound proof dance space, my daughter and her choreographer hammer out the last difficult 8-counts of an ambitious lyrical jazz solo, and I find myself caught up in the music, the continual repetition of the same phrases over and over and over. The song they’re working with is Ghosting, by Vancouver band Mother Mother, in case you’re wondering what some of the soundtrack of my life is like this year.

Moab itself is not at hand, so I’m writing this cold, as it were, without the book to check for passages of note. You’ll just have to trust me on this one; the writing is more than competent. Fry can spin the words, on paper as well as in person, oh yes, indeed.

I deeply enjoyed Stephen Fry’s acting before I ever read this biography, and I sought out and purchased the book because of my admiration of his dramatic and comedic performances in the comedic sketches he and Hugh Laurie performed for television in the early 1990s, A Bit of Fry and Laurie. And the Granada Television adaptations of  the seminal P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, starring Hugh Laurie as an elegantly simple Wooster, and Stephen Fry as the perfect gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves, are absolutely brilliant.

The twitch of an eyebrow, a slight inflection of tone, a fragment of a glimpse of body language – Fry as Jeeves merely stiffens and draws in his breath almost imperceptibly, and it hits like a ton of bricks. This guy – these guys, because Hugh Laurie is equally brilliant and deserving of his own rave reviews – are good. Very, very good.

And after reading Moab, I will watch and read Stephen Fry in future with an even stronger appreciation, because of where he’s come from, and what he’s all about.

Critics of his biographical works have mentioned that some of his details are a bit unreliable. It matters not at all to me. For the purposes of artistic and personal appreciation, Fry can tweak away to his heart’s content. Moab has an authentic feel. Truth is, as the cliché goes, frequently stranger than fiction, and this man has led a gloriously strange life.

Moab is my Washpot – such an odd title, I can imagine you saying to yourself, as I did –  comes from a Biblical quote, King James Version, Psalms, Chapter 60, and it make a surprising amount of sense once one has embarked upon the reading of the book.

    1. O God, thou hast cast us off, thou hast scattered us, thou hast been displeased; O turn thyself to us again.
    2. Thou hast made the earth to tremble; thou hast broken it: heal the breaches thereof; for it shaketh.
    3. Thou hast shewed thy people hard things: thou hast made us to drink the wine of astonishment
    4. Thou hast given a banner to them that fear thee, that it may be displayed because of the truth. Selah.
    5. That thy beloved may be delivered; save with thy right hand, and hear me.
    6. God hath spoken in his holiness; I will rejoice, I will divide Shechem, and mete out the valley of Succoth.
    7. Gilead is mine, and Manasseh is mine; Ephraim also is the strength of mine head; Judah is my lawgiver;
    8. Moab is my washpot; over Edom will I cast out my shoe: Philistia, triumph thou because of me.
    9. Who will bring me into the strong city? who will lead me into Edom?
    10. Wilt not thou, O God, which hadst cast us off? and thou, O God, which didst not go out with our armies?
    11. Give us help from trouble: for vain is the help of man.
    12. Through God we shall do valiantly: for he it is that shall tread down our enemies.

 Moab is an account, creatively rendered, about Stephen Fry’s youth and time at boarding school, until his breaking bounds in a most anti-social way in his late teens. He consistently lied, cheated, and stole his way through school; his juvenile life of crime ended spectacularly when he stole credit cards from the father of one of his friends and went on a spending spree which ended in a jail term, at the age of seventeen.

Fry’s personal redemption and his university days and acting career are tales for another book, but there is enough packed into the early years detailed in  Moab to keep the reader more than interested for the duration.

Warning to readers: if you have any issues about homosexuality, you should probably give this one a pass. Or perhaps not. Perhaps you should take it on as prescribed reading. Stephen Fry is gay, and much of this memoir talks exceedingly frankly about what that means to him, and how it influenced his teenage years, and the life he lives now, or, rather, was living at the time of the writing of the biography, sixteen years ago.

This is a kind, clever, amusing, thought-provoking and above all firmly confident gay man’s manifesto: “Here I am, this is me. I don’t have any issues with my sexuality. Why should you?”

Though one might say that the fact that he needs to speak at such length about it argues “issues”…

But, on the other hand, as memoirs of youth and the teen years go, if curiousity about sex and accounts of yearning love were left out of any account by a narrator of any sexuality, the narrative would not ring true.

I deeply appreciated what the author had to say, and I will be reading more by Stephen Fry.

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miss buncle married d e stevensonMiss Buncle Married by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1936. This edition: Sourcebooks, 2012. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-4022-7253-3. 330 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

Readable enough, with a few reasonably memorable moments, but not quite up to the original Miss Buncle’s Book to which this is the sequel. Definitely recommended to those who enjoyed the first Miss Buncle book, and anyone who’s a D.E. Stevenson aficionado, but perhaps not the best place to start with this author. As I explore her works – she’s a very new author to me – I am struck by the wide variance in quality of her plots and prose.

*****

And now for something completely different!

The literary hoopla of Canada Reads 2013 is just over, and my tolerance for angsty Canadiana has been tested fairly stringently. Ending up rather unexpectedly “on the road” for several days this week, I grabbed, on my way out the door, something much more in the way of “light” reading than the sincere Canada Reads candidates: Miss Buncle Married, by D.E. Stevenson.

I had ordered this one, along with Miss Buncle’s Book, and Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, from Book Closeouts just after Christmas, with some of my Christmas “buy yourself a nice book” money. I’d opened the box, briefly admired the crisp new softcovers – that lovely “new book smell”, and the physical pleasure of handling crisp, clean and unworn pages – a very different pleasure from that of handling older books with their unknown histories and traces of prior readers – signatures on the flyleaf, dog-eared pages, marginal notes, the odd old letter, business card, receipt etc. used as a bookmark – now wouldn’t that make a grand post? – the things found in secondhand books!

Oi! I’ve gone completely off track. What was I posting about? Ah, yes. Miss Buncle Married. So, what I started out to say was that D.E. Stevenson was again at the forefront of my awareness, after my recent windfall of a lovely stack of her vintage paperbacks, and after sharing that news of my good luck with my husband, and pressing Mrs. Tim upon him as a “try this author, she’s rather amusing” recommendation, Miss Buncle seemed a logical choice for a light diversion for hotel room reading.

I haven’t yet had a chance to read the first Mrs. Tim myself, though I did read and enjoy one of the follow-up books to that one some time ago, Golden Days: Further Leaves from Mrs. Tim’s Journal, so I’m interested to see what my husband’s reaction will be. I suspect he’ll return a tactful “it was all right”, which, I regret to report, is all that I’m I’m able to give to my own D.E. Stevenson of the moment.

Miss Buncle Married was merely “all right”. It certainly wasn’t an improvement on the original. And though my expectations weren’t terribly inflated, as Miss Buncle’s Book was a pleasant diversionary read and not much more, I was disappointed at how slight this next one turned out to be, despite its hefty 330 pages of physical presence.

Middle-aged (“nearing forty”) though perpetually young-at-heart (in other words, slightly gauche and secretly insecure) Miss Barbara Buncle, after her unexpected success as an author, has married her publisher, Mr. Arthur Abbott. Though the two are deeply in love, and the married state is most satisfactory to both of them, there are thorns becoming most evident in the rose garden of their new life together. An active round of teas, dinners and bridge parties has become the norm, and peaceful evenings by their own fire are few and far between. Neither Barbara nor Arthur want to say anything, each believing the other to be well suited with the social whirl, and, when the penny drops, the two decide that the only thing to do is to move house, to a fresh location, where they can establish themselves anew in a more congenial lifestyle.

After much to-ing and fro-ing, Barbara finds a lovely though exceedingly rundown house in the village of Wandlebury, and she occupies herself for months with the restoration of Archway House and the creation of the ideal habitat for herself and her beloved Arthur. In the meantime, she becomes deeply enmeshed in local happenings. She inadvertently becomes privy to the will of the village’s most wealthy woman, makes friends with the outspoken artist next door and his precocious children, and meets a kindred spirit in the person of young Jeronina Cobbe, the potential recipient, all unbeknownst to her and everyone else except for Barbara and the local lawyers, of the riches to be distributed in the aforementioned will.

There are, of course, numerous twists and turns to the narrative before everyone ends up in a state of bliss, with all dilemmas nicely straightened out, and much optimism for the future.

I felt that Miss Buncle Married started out quite strongly, with much promise, and sadly faded as it went along. It settled into a predictable and very clichéd romance involving Jeronina – Jerry – and Arthur Abbott’s nephew Sam, with every development of their courtship and romantic setbacks telegraphed loud and clear.

Not a bad book, but definitely not as wonderful as it might have been. D.E. Stevenson has her moments of brilliance, but in this case those ran out early on.

I am wondering what the third book in the Miss Buncle saga, The Two Mrs. Abbotts, will be like. Though not eagerly awaiting it, I do look forward to acquiring it at some point once it becomes available, as I hear that it is due to be re-released in softcover by Sourcebooks in 2014.

And here, from Shelf Love, is a much more thoughtful review than my rather scatterbrained assessment  – I plead lack of sleep during this very hectic week – of Miss Buncle Married:

Shelf Love: Miss Buncle Married

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february lisa moore 001February by Lisa Moore ~ 2010. This edition: Vintage, 2011. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-099-54628-3. 310 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

*****

An intense read. Absolutely impossible to put down.

February is a story about grief and memory and love and people coping with heartbreakingly dire situations the best way they can, which means not always particularly happily or successfully. The novel ends with optimism, but I could not call it happy. It is a keenly observant, uncomfortably bleak, very believable portrait of a woman and her family and their reaction to the brutally unexpected loss of their son, husband and father.

Lisa Moore has written, all clichés aside, a powerful book. Stark, often deeply uncomfortable, occasionally humorous, never maudlin, and, I suspect, one that will be quite unforgettable.

The novel is based on a true Canadian tragedy. On Valentine’s night in 1982, out on the Atlantic Ocean off Newfoundland, the oil drilling rig Ocean Ranger capsized and sank during a violent storm. All eighty-four men on board the rig died in the frigid waters, some apparently within hailing distance of a vessel which was unable to rescue them. The families of the dead learned of the disaster from news accounts on the radio; the oil company made no attempt to notify them.

Helen O’Mara loses her husband Cal that night. She has three young children and is pregnant with a fourth. Life for all of them becomes indelibly marked by their loss in ways both immediate and not always obvious until many years later.

The novel ranges from 2009 all the way back to the 1970s, when Helen and Cal were first married, in a series of memories, incidents, anecdotes, and flashbacks. A second storyline develops along with Helen’s, that of her now-adult son John, who has suddenly found out that he has fathered a child during a casual romantic encounter. As he attempts to come to grips with an adequate response to that situation, his story and that of his mother’s form a two-part composition of major and minor key, mingling and contrasting and bringing different incidents into sharp focus.

I thought this approach worked very well. A few reviewers have noted their irritation at John’s weakness as a character; I found him believable, though not at all likeable. Helen herself comes so vividly to life and we are taken so intimately into her thoughts, that everyone else pales just a bit in comparison. For that matter, I did not particularly like her, or most of the other characters, for that matter; many of their lifestyles are not at all in sympathy with my own, and I frequently caught myself getting all judgemental about some of their choices, but I will say that they all felt true and alive there on the page.

I’m cutting this review short right here, as other duties call, and I want to get it posted prior to this week’s Canada Reads debates on CBC Radio.

Would I recommend this book to “everybody”? No, definitely not.

It is an uncomfortable thing, and I’d want the reader to go in with expectations on high alert. In particular, women with husbands engaged in dangerous lines of work, heads up. This is a book you very likely should read, because it speaks bluntly to the situation and spotlights our every nightmare. The good thing about this is because it is fiction, it allows us to analyze the characters’ emotions and responses in relation to their fabricated stories, rather than agonize too deeply over what we would feel like if it were us instead.

Perhaps because it is one of the most contemporary and personally accessible of the five Canada Reads choices, I felt it was much the strongest. Every book on the list has its unique qualities, but for sheer emotional punch, this one wins hands down.

My ranking as of this evening:

  1. February by Lisa Moore
  2. Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese
  3. Away by Jane Urquhart (Actually, I’m undecided on how to place this one and Indian Horse. They’re running neck and neck, each with different strengths and types of appeal.)
  4. Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan
  5. The Age of Hope by David Bergen

I am going to work on completing Two Solitudes tonight and tomorrow, so a response to that one may be forthcoming in the next day or two as well, but no promises.

This is the first time I’ve attempted to read the Canada Reads contenders, and I must say that I have been introduced to novels I would not otherwise have chosen for myself. February I would likely have avoided because of the tragic storyline, The Age of Hope for its mediocre description as a novel of a “woman’s awakening”, and Indian Horse for its declared focus on hockey.

I’m glad I read them all. It will be interesting to see how they all fare in a “contest” situation. They are all quite different, though their universal bleakness is a point in common. So terribly sincere

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away jane urquhart 001Away by Jane Urquhart ~ 1993. This edition: McLelland & Stewart, 1997. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7710-8650-4. 356 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

*****

What a beautifully written novel this one is. I am quite in awe of Urquhart’s lyrically gifted writer’s voice. But, I find myself musing, maybe a bit too much of a good thing? There is a story in this book as well, a normal narrative tale about an Irish family’s migration from the Old to the New World, which is in and of itself interesting and compelling, but which loses some of its power because of the gauzy, mystical clouds which the author shrouds her every scene in.

Away is a hybrid of historical fiction and magical realism, both genres which are notoriously hard to master all on their own, let alone in combination, as Urquhart has attempted ambitiously and generally successfully here.  The twin threads in this case do work surprisingly well. But – and here’s my biggest objection – so much is thrown at the reader both plot- and style-wise that it tends to dull one’s appreciation of the more delicate nuances of the intricate prose after a while.

Does one concentrate on the sober narrative for the story, or does one allow oneself to be swept away into the mystical bits? I tried to do both, but it felt an awful lot like work by mid-novel. I’m glad I read Away, because now I can tick it off my Must-Read Can Lit list, and I appreciated it as a work of art, but I’m not sure I will be re-reading it any time soon, if ever. I am definitely open to reading more by Jane Urquhart, but it would need to be at a time in my life when I could block off the necessary uninterrupted time to really concentrate and fully embrace the experience. Not quite sure when this magical time would be, though!

*****

The three most short-lived traces: the trace of a bird on a branch, the trace of a fish on a pool, and the trace of a man on a woman.

                                                                 -an Irish triad

The novel begins at the end of the story, with an elderly woman bidding farewell to her Ontario lakeshore home as it is about to be erased by the relentless expansion of a limestone quarry. As she wanders through the rooms of her doomed house, we see glimpses of artifacts of her life and the lives of her family and her ancestors. The author steps us back in time, one hundred and forty years before and thousands of miles away, to the storm-washed shores of an Irish island, where a teenage girl is about to stumble upon a scene which will mark her and her descendents irretrievably deeply, hence confounding the third line of the triad quoted at the beginning of the tale.

Irish Mary wades into the surf to pull out the body of a beautiful young man, barely alive and about to die. Before he expires, he opens his eyes and whispers a name – “Moira” – which the enchanted Mary embraces as her rightful new own. And when, some time later, Mary-now-Moira is found sleeping in the embrace of the dead man on the beach, she does not respond to the people around her, being lost in a dazed trance. The obvious explanation is that she has been bewitched by a daemon lover, and has lost her true soul, which has wandered “away” into the faery realm. She must be treated with care and compassion, in order that her soul may return to her one day.

Which it does, with the help of the local priest, who also sets her up with a suitably inclined husband, Moira-turned-back-to-Mary settles back into her normal life, though the edges of the other world are always visible to her. Mary has a son, and, when the potato famine inevitably strikes, sets sail for Canada with her husband and child. They go through all of the usual miseries, and fetch up eventually in the vast Canadian forest, where fellow immigrants surreally materialize from the woods to build the new family’s first shelter for them in a sort of dream sequence.

The family is successful in their new life, and a daughter joins the son, but Mary is being called by her other world once again, and one day slips away for good, following the call of the water wherein dwells her spirit lover.

More predictable historically fictional bits follow, as Mary’s children grow into adults and set off on lives of their own. Her son pragmatically moves ahead without bothering too much about the mystical heritage of his mother, but the daughter is a true creature of both worlds, and she finds her own beautiful young man, a charismatic Fenian rebel who has sworn himself to dance out the story of the Irish immigrants’ woes to the politicians deciding their fates. As may be supposed, this all ends most badly, but the line of daughters continues on, until we are back again in the doomed house with the rattlings of the quarry blastings shaking its foundations and its lone last inhabitant, Mary’s great-granddaughter.

*****

Is Away a book all Canadians should read? From the number of high school and college reading lists this one now appears on, it would seem that the powers-that-be would think so.

I don’t.

It’s certainly a gorgeous thing as a piece of literary art, but a rarefied type of read, I suspect best appreciated by those open to the fantastical elements so liberally used here. As a piece of historical fiction, the tale is flawed in that it assumes the reader will be coming to it from a place of prior knowledge, and is perhaps rather unreliable in its narration of actual events. It somehow misses feeling quite real. It could be tough going for many, especially those without the knowledge of context to separate fact from fantasy, or to fully appreciate the inferences the author relies on throughout.

Wonderfully lush and truly lovely, but too rich and paradoxically vague for everyday and everyperson consumption, I’m thinking.

*****

On to Lisa Moore’s February, for which I hold high hopes.

At present, here are my personal picks for the Canada Reads rankings.

For #1 spot, a tie between Indian Horse and Away. I may revise this once I’ve had some thinking time, but I’d better decide quickly, if I want to beat the debates!

Two Solitudes, in its half-read state, follows. It is rather too much of a period piece, but it is not necessarily a bad book, more of a product of its time in its earnest dullness.

The Age of Hope is at the bottom of the pile. It’s a common little thing, engaging and interesting enough, I willingly admit, but not worthy of the Canada Reads top laurels, in my opinion.

Dark horse February may shake things up.

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This week has ended on a nicely high note. As you may have noticed, I’ve been very quiet on the blog posting front recently, because I’ve been deeply involved elsewhere. No worries, the involvement has been with good and enjoyable things, but oh my goodness, time consuming things, they all were.

This week I’ve put in an uncountable number of hours on the upcoming Performing Arts Festival preparations – I’m a member of the organizational committee – plus another 24 hours on the road driving the dancer of the family to classes (twice to Prince George and back, 5 hours driving each time), plus another 5 hours each day waiting around in town for her. That time was spent sitting at the laptop working on Festival stuff, so was not a complete waste of time. Yesterday off we went down to Vancouver to work with her choreographer – more hours waiting around tip-tapping on the laptop in between being summoned to watch progress – and then back home again this afternoon/evening – 14+ hours of driving for that little episode, of the 36 hours we were away. (I’m still moving. Must find my land legs …)

I was rewarded for my Super-Mom-ism when, on our single non-dance-related stop, in Hope for a flying visit to the great little secondhand bookstore there, I scored a tall stack of D.E.Stevenson paperbacks. And even better, guess what I paid? Listen to this. Two dollars each. Unbelievable. They’re all well-read, but in really decent condition.

Where should I start? I’ve read only a few of these before, and though I know these will vary widely in quality, I suspect the process of exploration will be highly enjoyable.

So the first thing I’m doing upon entering my own house and sitting down at the computer, even before checking my stacked-up email, is gloating to you, dear blog readers. I know there will be a few of you who will understand my deep inner thrill at this romantic little jackpot!

Here’s what I brought home:

  • The Baker’s Daughter (read it – loved it)
  • Vittoria Cottage
  • Crooked Adam
  • Shoulder the Sky (read it – very good)
  • Fletcher’s End
  • Rochester’s Wife
  • Green Money (read it – ho-hum)
  • The House on the Cliff
  • The English Air
  • Celia’s House
  • Katherine Wentworth
  • Spring Magic
  • Amberwell
  • Kate Hardy
  • The Four Graces (read it – liked it a lot)
  • Anna and Her Daughters
  • Music in the Hills
  • Smouldering Fire
  • The Tall Stranger

Logging off now, to go to bed. Not to sleep, though. I’ll be dallying for a while with a book, of course. Though not one of the new acquisitions quite yet. Still trying to make it through the Canada Reads books before the debates start on Monday. So far I’ve read Indian Horse and The Age of Hope, am halfway through the brutally tedious Two Solitudes, well into Away, and am frequently glancing hopefully at as-yet-unopened February, which, from all reports by fellow bloggers whose tastes I share, may well be the best of the bunch.

I’m thinking of dumping Two Solitudes unfinished, and concentrating on the other two. I think I’ve got McLennan’s theme figured out in Solitudes, and I honestly don’t really care what happens to any of his boring characters. Might be different in a less busy time, but right now the reading hours are even more precious than usual, and I’m resenting time spent on dullness. Engage me, authors, oh please!

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age of hope david bergenThe Age of Hope by David Bergen ~ 2012. This edition: Harper Collins, 2012. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-44341-136-3. 287 pages.

My rating: 7/10.

A decent enough novel in that it is well written and readable, but is this really the best we could come up with for a Prairies (and “North”) regional choice for Canada Reads?

Here were the other choices for the Prairies and North region:

Okay, then, I guess the masses have spoken. We’ll work with what we’re given.

*****

This book is about my mother. No, seriously. It really is. My mom was born in 1925, to parents newly arrived during the second Mennonite diaspora from Russia, in a rural town in southern Manitoba. The titular Hope was born in 1930, in similar surroundings, and her young womanhood was much the same; the Mennonite Brethren picnics and bonfires for “young people” which Hope attended were a pleasant diversion from the usual round – school, household chores, church and Sunday visiting, potluck dinners and occasional movie nights – all of the trappings of the middle-class North American post-war world.

Hope is the representation of an entire generation of women who lived through one of the most change-filled centuries the world has yet known. Hope and her kindred fellow housewives are an almost extinct breed today; their everyday reality, so common for their generation, is almost completely foreign to the younger generations immediately succeeding them, and the tendency in many circles is to sneer a bit at the banal stay-at-home lives they appear to have lived.

What with the abundant Canada Reads 2013 discussions taking place right now in various literary venues right across Canada, I don’t think I’ll spend too much time going into the storyline of the novel. Here’s the promotional blurb:

Born in 1930 in a small town outside Winnipeg, beautiful Hope Koop appears destined to have a conventional life. Church, marriage to a steady young man, children – her fortunes are already laid out for her, as are the shiny modern appliances in her new home. All she has to do is stay with Roy, who loves her. But as the decades unfold, what seems to be a safe, predictable existence overwhelms Hope. Where – among the demands of her children, the expectations of her husband and the challenges of her best friend, Emily, who has just read The Feminine Mystique – is there room for her? And just who is she anyway? A wife, a mother, a woman whose life is somehow unrealized?

This beautifully crafted and perceptive work of fiction spans some fifty years of Hope Koop’s life in the second half of the 20th century, from traditionalism to feminism and beyond. David Bergen has created an indelible portrait of a seemingly ordinary woman who struggles to accept herself as she is, and in so doing becomes unique.

So this isn’t a proper review of The Age of Hope at all, I’m afraid. I’ll fast forward to my personal views on the book itself, my general feelings about it after having completed it a week or so ago.

Is this a book “every Canadian should read”? In a word, no.

To elaborate: it’s a fine domestic novel, and it does track the country’s historical progress through a good chunk of the twentieth century as a vague background to the progress of Hope, but it doesn’t really say anything terribly important about either the social group Hope was part of, or the country she lived in. There are many quite nicely drawn pictures of the settings and times Hope moved through, but really, she could have lived anywhere. This book could have taken place in any of the towns or small cities of the American mid-west, or the British industrial towns, or the suburbs of Sydney, Australia.

Though I recognized many of the references, because of my knowledge of my mother’s similar background, there is nothing that stands out as marking Hope’s nationality as Canadian. She’s the sub-fusc universal everywife-and-mother, moving in her little cloud of dull angst among the others of her kind. The unquestioning daughters, wives and mothers; the generation who did their duty, were all about self-effacement and not putting oneself forward, not imposing. And though Hope has a good friend who breaks away from the norm, to separate from her husband and live her life as an independent “liberated woman” in the city, Hope gently accepts that as what someone else does; I didn’t get that there was any sort of yearning coming from Hope for the same kind of “escape”. She nods and smiles and listens and plugs along in her same old groove. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I didn’t much like how it was implied that Hope’s was the less admirable choice. It was a viable option, was it not?

Hope’s mental anguishes, which land her in a psychiatric hospital to undergo shock therapy sessions, are not terribly well presented by the author, though I’m unclear as to what degree that is a deliberate literary choice in order to emphasize the constant dull fog that Hope walks in. It’s either a very clever choice by the author, or sheer authorial laziness.

This book is well written, and I appreciated the author’s stylistic skill. I “got” Hope, and I didn’t think her husband or children were all that unrealistically portrayed – well, except for the 6-foot tall, flagrantly gay, Olympic-athlete daughter – that was a bit of a plausibility stretch, I thought –  but none of them came to life for me. The whole novel had a distance about it, a very hands-off feel. I didn’t hate it, because that would be a strong emotion, and I don’t feel at all strongly about this one.  It’s such a mild drama. And I didn’t like or dislike any single character. I couldn’t care enough to invest my own emotions in any deep way. This is not a good thing in a novel.

I doubt The Age of Hope will have much of a shelf life after its brief prominence as a Canada Reads pick, though it may linger on for a year or two on the strength of that. And from reading this one, I have no urgent, burning desire to explore another work by the same author, though I understand he’s turned out a prizewinner or two. I’ll doubtless pick up his other novels at some point and read them with mild enjoyment, but my expectations are tempered.

Other reviews to peruse:

The Winnipeg Review – The Age of Hope – a generally positive review, highlighting the novel’s strengths.

Quilll & Quire – The Age of Hope  – nailed every negative thing I thought about the story and states them brutally succinctly.

Goodreads – The Age of Hope – a very broad range of opinions, all over the map, as the readers jump into the debate.

*****

With two of the Canada Reads books polished off and mulled over, I’d have to say that at this point Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese is strongly in the lead in my personal race.

I’m currently tackling Hugh McLennan’s Two Solitudes, and finding it rather dull going. It has its moments, but it’s very much a period piece, I’m finding. Perhaps too much so for a universally recommended “must read” choice?

I’m looking forward, though increasingly apprehensively, to the last two books in the Canada Reads Top Five. So far the choices have been just a bit ho-hum.

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