Archive for May, 2013

Well, I made it through a truly challenging week involving having to be in way too many places on much too tight a schedule, and battling a wicked cold to boot. But here I am in Chilliwack, to accompany my daughter who is participating in the annual provincial Performing Arts Festival. We made it to registration with 20 minutes to spare, which was cutting it just a bit fine, but we’re here and she’s got all her stuff in order and we’ve had a late meal and the beds feel pretty comfy in our hotel room. I’m hoping to get some down time while she’s attending workshops, maybe even work on the sadly neglected blog for a bit.

It all feels a bit surreal. This morning I was working like a mad thing in the greenhouses, trying to prepare things to be left under my son’s willing but just slightly disinterested care; tonight I’m far away from it all, and enjoying the glories of the coastal spring. Rhododendrons are in full bloom, among so much else!

I brought three books along, two of them last-minute grabs from the tried-and-true shelf. Rumer Godden’s China Court is one of my favourites, and I’ve also read Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven several times, but neither very recently, so they will be welcome diversions. I’ve also been saving Elizabeth von Arnim’s Elizabeth and Her German Garden for an auspicious time; this might at long last be it.

I understand there is a marvelous bookstore in Chilliwack, The Book Man, and sure enough, in my daughter’s “swag bag” full of goodies and promotional stuff, there is a bookmark with the store info on it. My free-time agenda for tomorrow is taken care of!

That bed is calling, so I’m going to log off now, but I’ll be back shortly, to chat a bit about books. Stand outs recently were The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, and No Love by David Garnett.

Good night, all.

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Lilacs, evening, Hill Farm May 16, 2013The lilacs are once again blooming, bringing into sharp focus the swiftness of Time’s passing from year to year. Another spring – how can that be? Wasn’t it just yesterday that the lilacs faded away…? (And is it symbolic that this photo was taken in the fading light of evening, after I’d made my way past the fragrant clouds of bloom all day long, too busy to stop and appreciate their so-brief perfection? Oh my, did I just really write that?! Sounds a bit pathetic, doesn’t it? <sigh> Spring makes me just a tiny bit sad…)

It’s certainly been a while since I last posted, or at least it feels that way. The Annual Spring Crazy-Busy Time has completely taken over my life, and though I’ve been reading in snippets here and there the time to write about the books has been impossible to find.

As some of you know, I operate a small plant nursery, and the month of May is peak season in the green world. Added to this, my teen daughter, a dancer, has one more competition coming up in a very few days, and then, with only an afternoon and morning to catch our breath, a whirlwind trip to the provincial performing arts festival, so the juggling routine is in full hectic form. I barge around madly, from greenhouse to garden to prep area and into the car for chauffeur duties. It’s all getting done, but the extras are most definitely on hold. Like the book blog. Which is a shame, because I’ve read some good stuff lately, and I know by the time I can sit down to talk about it too much time will have passed for fresh and in-depth reviews.

So I’ll just mention a few of the highlights – both excellent and not so much –  here. I think the theme for May might well be “eclectic” – these are coming from every direction!

The Menace from Earth by Robert A. Heinlein – science fiction short stories from the 1950s. Heinlein at his vintage pulp fiction best. Some dark, some funny, all tremendously dated, but every one with the expected Heinlein twist. Most enjoyable! I do believe I have a review started, which I might get completed and posted at some point in the near future if I find myself in a hotel room with an hour or two to spare, which may well be the case as the dance road trip is looking good to go.

I Married the Klondike by Laura Beatrice Berton – an excellent memoir of the shadow side of the Klondike Gold Rush, of what happens when the boom fades away, and the people leave, and the once seething-with-life buildings start to collapse under the weight of winter snows. Why have I not read this before? It was very good reading indeed, both from a historical and a personal perspective. Laura Berton’s clean and concise style and her well drawn and frank descriptions of her twenty-five years in the north were fascinating. Reading this book helped to explain where the iconic Canadian writer Pierre Berton got some of his writing talent from; Laura is Pierre’s mother, and she was an aspiring writer long before her much more famous son ever came along. This one definitely deserves a proper review, which I hope to give it one day.

The Big Red Train Ride by Eric Newby – I’d tried hard to get into this one, but it felt way too much like Theroux-lite. Newby is full of snide little comments about pretty well everything he encounters in his 1970s journey into Russia, but can’t quite pull of Theroux’s trick of combining blatant bitchiness with fabulous writing. Newby’s literary talents are iffy at the best of times, but adequate for his more compelling memoirs, such as A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, and When the snow comes, they will take you away, but in Train Ride and the recently read Around Ireland in Low Gear the contrived tone dominates. So why did you make these trips, Eric? Merely to provide frameworks for new books? Tough to pull off, and with these two Newby quite frankly doesn’t quite do it.

Roman Spring and other stories by Edith Wharton – a range of short stories, most with Wharton’s trademark poignant sadness. Some forgettable, some brilliant. Just the right thing for bedtime reading; a mix of engaging and soporific – a true lucky dip!

Mexican Days by Tony Cohan is a recent travel memoir, which started off reasonably well, but which deteriorated into the kind of navel gazing “what is my life all about anyway” stuff which I really can’t get my head around when all I really wanted was witty and thoughtful observations on the country and its people. A bit self-indulgent, I felt, though parts of it were excellent. I won’t write this author off by any means, but he has garnered a nebulous question mark in my brain. His other books could be more typically “travel writing”, in which case I’m all for him, or they could be all angsty and personal, in which case I’m not all that interested.  His personal “problems” – a complicated marital arrangement and the intrusions of other expatriates into his private Mexican paradise – are rather unrelatable to me. But I’m interested enough in him as an author to add him to my library list. A reserved “not bad” is what I’ve settled on. For now.

And right now I’m engaged – in 15 minute intervals, which is all I can mange before my eyes lose focus and I drop into that sudden sleep of the completely exhausted, waking briefly to remove my glasses and click off the light as the book drops from suddenly limp hands onto my face – in Laughing Gas by P.G. Wodehouse. I think I’m on page 65 or thereabouts, or about 3 nights worth of reading – rather pathetic for this usual book-a-dayer, isn’t it? – and I’m liking it. A lot.

In other news, the Fraser River reached an apparent 10-year-high water level (for this area of the province) just a few days ago, and we were modestly inundated on the lower level of our farm. The fields are suddenly full of Canada geese – complete with several lots of adorable brand-new goslings – and an assortment of wild ducks, all dabbling happily in the-muck-that-was-the-horse-pasture. The water has receded a bit since this photo was taken, and we’re hoping this was it for the year’s high water. The field’s-edge erosion does not bear thinking about; the downside to living beside the relentless Fraser. Last year’s high water came a few week’s later, and was quite a bit more severe, so I’m rather bemused by that “10 year high” designation, though I know it varies by how much run-off is swelling the many side rivers, creeks and streams that feed the arterial Fraser, and at what point in region the water level measurements are taken. (Does this picture look familiar? If so, it’s because I posted a similar one in this space a year ago, to mark the 2012 high water episode. This is definitely not the every-year norm, so two years in a row is rather noteworthy, though we’re getting increasingly casual about it after so many years here. It comes up, it goes down. How much property are we the poorer this time? Oh well, no sense to get too stressed out about it; the river does what it does and nothing we can do will change it!)

Oh! – one more thing. The Folio books from the anniversary book give-away are IN THE MAIL, so the winners should be receiving them fairly shortly, if they haven’t already.

Happy reading, all!

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coronation paul gallico 001Coronation by Paul Gallico ~ 1962. This edition: Heinemann, 1962. First edition. Hardcover. 128 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10.

I struggled with this rating. It was a sweet, ultimately upbeat story, and my sentimental side wanted to put it higher, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. The major reason is that while the cover trumpets “A Novel” this slight effort is, in reality, only an extended short story, a novella. The secondary reason is that the characters are so dreadfully clichéd that they never truly came to life for me, though there were glimpses of what made them all tick here and there. Perennially sour and cranky Granny was perhaps the most “real” of them all, the most believable.

A working-class family of five, mother, father, two children and grandmother – the mother’s mother – decide to forego their annual seaside vacation and instead spend their meager holiday savings on a day trip to London to view the Coronation procession of Queen Elizabeth II. By a great stroke of luck, they’ve been put on to a wonderful opportunity: window seats in a grand house situated on Hyde Park Corner, plus a buffet lunch. With champagne. All this for only 10£ each – the tickets were marked down from 25£ – an amazing stroke of luck! What a good thing it was that cousin Bert in London was able to make the bargain purchase through one of his “connections”!

Steel mill shift foreman Will Clagg is bestirred by patriotic pride and a deep affection for his young, beautiful Queen; his wife Violet pictures herself elegantly sipping champagne (which she’s never tasted) like one of the film stars she so idolizes; 11-year-old Johnny, who cherishes a deep ambition to one day become an officer in the British Service, is thrilled to be able to see the massive parade of troops from all corners of the Commonwealth; 7-year-old Gwenny has her own private image of what she’ll see, the fairy-tale princess from one of her storybooks, a personal infatuation about to be fulfilled; Granny, the last hold-out to the proposed excursion, swings into agreement when it is pointed out that she saw the Funeral Procession of the last Queen, Victoria; how fitting that she should see the Coronation Procession of this one. “A living link, you are!” her despised son-in-law cries, and Granny lets herself be swayed.

In to London on the Coronation Special from Sheffield, to join the masses of humanity streaming in from every corner of England, and beyond. But when they finally struggle through the crowds to the address of their front-row-seats-and-champagne-lunch, what greets their shocked and unbelieving eyes is something very different from what they had expected…

Things I Liked About This Story:

Granny – The author creates an unlikeable character, allows us to despise her, and then strips away the surface veneer just for a few moments to allow us to understand the source of her bitterness, after which we are fully on her side. This was a delicately balanced little episode, and Gallico played it just right.

No Miracle – We are expecting some magically positive resolution to the family’s bitter dilemma. We don’t get it. The worst happens. A brave move on the author’s part; he bucks the expected trend.

The Scene – The glimpses of the actual Coronation going on very much in the background of the family’s experiences on the street, as it were. A wonderful depiction of what it musty have been like to be in the crowd of that day. A grand little novella for this reason alone, even without the contrivances – and they were sometimes very contrived – of the sentimental plot.

Will Clagg – Gallico’s tribute to the British Working Class Everyman. Will is decent, hard-working, self-sacrificing, deeply patriotic, deeply paternal, and he loves his wife dearly. Awww, how wonderful! Seriously though, he is a very decent sort, and I liked him thoroughly, saddled as he was with meek and rather silly Violet, her shrewish mother, and rather soppy little Gwenny. Which leads to what I didn’t like about the story.

Things I Didn’t Like About This Story:

The cookie-cutter stereotypes of all of the characters, from wee Gwenny to nasty-but-ultimately-heroic Granny to the policeman at the parade barricade. Every single one was true to the clichéd type we’ve come to expect from that particular place and era; no surprises there at all, though I will admit that Gallico presented his characters well.

The general meekness of every member of the family to their bitter individual disappointments, and the sops which the author created to soothe their woes. Just a little too simplistic, I thought, and the acceptance was too pat. Just a bit. (Says my inner cynic.) Is anyone really that stoic? Little Johnny in particular seemed to be very stiff-upper-lip about, well, everything. A bit of an unnatural child, surely. (But this very stoicism is perfectly suited to Johnny’s ambition of one day being a Noble British Army Officer, I’ll give Gallico that.)

Will’s misogyny towards women. This struck a rather sour note with me. Sure, he loves his wife and the kiddies, and puts up with his sour mother-in-law with good grace, and generally maintains a mild good nature. But Gallico’s little aside near the end of the story, as the family is ordering their meal in the restaurant car, set my teeth on edge.

For all of the fact that Will was a heavy, thick-set, powerful brute of a man who had fought his way up from the ranks of men to command them, he had learned something of the little things that tickled women, an extra ribbon on a dress, or some chintz at a kitchen window. They were not like men, they were more like children. And from the very beginning he had understood that the item which had sold Violet on the whole Coronation scheme and had overcome whatever scruples she might have had, or dissents she could have cooked up, was the champagne, the drink of bubbly advertised with the lunch. He had not, of course, been able to get wholly into her mind and visualize how she saw herself holding the special glass in her hand, the little finger cocked most elegantly, while she contemplated the bubbles rising in the yellow fluid before knocking it back, but he did appreciate that somehow this was to be the focus of the day for her, just that little extra something which sells or captivates a woman.

Well, speaking as a woman, when I read that passage my immediate reaction was “Ouch!” Of course men are above such trivial enjoyments. Being all thrilled at the sight of your name in a minor article in the newspaper is of course something quite different and not nearly as silly as a longed-for taste of champagne, eh Will? Ha!

My husband, who read this book before I did, was completely right, though. He passed it over to me with the comment that it was an enjoyable little story, in a minor sort of key. Which it was. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anyone, but if you come across it, it’s worth the hour or two of reading time it will take, if you are tolerant of deeply sentimental, “proud-to-be-an-Englishman”, and God Save the Queen goings on.

It was rather sweet.

And here are some other reviews, well worth checking out.

Stuck-in-a-Book liked it unreservedly.

Fleur Fisher shared my minor reservations, as did My Porch, but both nodded in appreciation to the good things that I also liked about this little tale.

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Surfacing briefly from the May supreme busy-ness which only escalate in the coming weeks – I’m in the plant nursery business –  to talk a bit about a book. Much as I’d like to maunder on in-depth about everything I’ve been reading recently, there are those pesky time constraints…

A week ago it was below zero (Celsius) and snowing; today, in our region’s typical spring weather extremes fashion, it is forecast to hit the mid-plus-20s. The sun is coming across the valley (we’re nestled at the foot of the east side, tall hills behind us) so until it hits us directly I’m off-duty, as it were, from going out and tinkering with greenhouse ventilation systems. (Well, fans, windows, doors and roll-up hoop house side panels – not very fancy – but “ventilation systems” sounds much more professional, doesn’t it?) 😉

The second Sunday morning cup of tea is at hand – I’ve already consumed the first propped up in bed finishing a re-read of Tom’s Midnight Garden –  and I’ve a short but sweet guilt-free chunk of non-work-related computer time before I need to be really up and moving again. Here we go.

extra virgin annie hawesExtra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera, Where Every Month Is Enchanted by Annie Hawes – 2001. This edition: Harper Collins, 2001. Hardcover, first American edition. ISBN: 0-06-019850-8. 337 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

I almost didn’t pick this one up, but was intrigued by the (presumably) Elizabeth von Arnim reference in the subtitle. What I found inside this densely written creative autobiography was a better reward than I deserved for my initial hesitation. It’s taken me a good week of hard-won reading breaks to get through it all, but I was never tempted to set it aside in exchange for something shorter and easier. This one was a quiet pleasure from Prologue to reluctantly-turned last page.

Back in the early 1980s, a young Englishwoman, recently turned down as a “poor risk” in her attempt to receive bank financing to buy her own home in England, is at loose ends and feeling rather sour about life in general. Her sister convinces her to come along on a working trip to Italy, grafting roses for a small commercial operation in the Ligurian hills, in the region of the “Italian Riviera”.

Annie is a rose-culture neophyte, but her obviously experienced sister coaches her through the first thorny weeks, after which, settled well into their temporary occupation, the two find themselves occasionally with time to explore the surrounding countryside. On one of their off-duty hill walks they come across a derelict stone house in a neglected olive grove, and when the local real estate entrepreneur scents their interest, they find themselves possessed of a rural Italian property for the unbelievably cheap sum of 2000 pounds. The facilities are primitive to the extreme – water is bucketed up from a shallow dug well, and an outdoor shower and “earth closet” are needed for sanitary purposes, but the two settle into their new life with optimistic tenacity.

This is a rather different tale from the usual “we bought a place in a foreign paradise and hired quaint locals to fix it up” lifestyle porn. Written several decades after the purchase, the tone is not at all cutesy and patronizing. The sisters go to and from England and Italy regularly for many years – England for the “real” jobs which earn the funds to return to Italy for the love of the place, and, increasingly, the people.

I’ll tease you by revealing that Annie is not all that forthcoming about personal details, but more than makes up for it in her portraits of others, and in her much too brief comments regarding her own family. As well as the sister of the Ligurian enterprise there are three brothers, several of whom chip in to provide much-needed labour and even fire-fighting assistance during the progressive slow Italian house and olive grove renovations which stretch over the years.

Other reviewers – I briefly scanned the book’s page on Goodreads – had issue with some of the stylistic devices the author used, but I found them to be a non-issue, personally. Extra Virgin is written from the “we” viewpoint throughout, only slipping into “I” near the end. Much ironic use of capitalized terms – the Sulky Bar, the Evil Sister, the Poor Stranger, and so on. Again, for me, not a problem. The Author stayed most consistently true to her Chosen Style.

I did just a bit of research on Hawes after finishing Extra Virgin, and was more than intrigued by what I found – Annie’s back story includes a teenage marriage and a residence in Portugal, a child of that (quickly dissolved) marriage, much travelling and a “real” career as a film editor. Not much of this comes out in the Italian tale, but apparently her succeeding books, Ripe for the Picking and A Journey to the South, are more personally revealing. There’s also a Moroccan memoir, A Handful of Honey.

Annie’s second career as a memoirist is a definite success, at least enough so that, according to an author interview which appeared on the Harper Collins website, she now has indoor plumbing in Liguria.

I enjoyed the author’s voice in Extra Virgin enough that I will be seeking out her other books as soon as I am able to. She writes with a wry, dry humour and a very individual style, just short of “travel writer” parody. In a very good way. Loved it.

Oh – one more point in favour. Annie Hawes can certainly write about food! Amazing descriptions of the wild-crafted, gardening and culinary abundance of Liguria. I absent-mindedly found myself lining out yet another flat of basil seedlings and potting up extra eggplant babies while musing on my ongoing reading of Extra Virgin while out in my own very earth(l)y paradise this past week. This book made me hungry. Again, in a very good way.

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The Father Brown Stories – LISA

Greengage Summer – TRISH MEARS

The Franchise Affair – MELWYK

I’ve just emailed the winners to ask for mailing addresses, so keep an eye on your inboxes, you three.

Congratulations, and I hope you enjoy the books!

Everyone else who entered – I wish I could give each and every one of you something special in appreciation for your many kind and encouraging and thoughtful comments over the past year. In any event, a heartfelt “Thank You” must suffice for now. I’ll be doing this sort of thing occasionally, I think, so maybe next time…

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