Archive for July, 2013

enchanted summer gabrielle roy 2 001Enchanted Summer by Gabrielle Roy ~ 1972. Published in French as Cet été qui chantait. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1976. Translated by Joyce Marshall. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7710-7832-5. 125 pages.

My rating: 8/10.

This is a slight and delicate compilation of short (some very short) vignettes written by the esteemed francophone author during one of her summers residing in a little house she had purchased in 1957 in the rural village Petite-Rivière-Saint-François, Charlevoix County, Quebec.

People come and go throughout Gabrielle’s summer; her husband Marcel Carbotte, various acquaintances from far and wide, her local friends, and, most frequently, her closest neighbours, Berthe and Aimé, with whom she peaceably shared a fenceline.

Many of the vignettes are fragmentary glimpses of nature and landscape, snapshots of a moment captured in words. Gabrielle and Berthe walk along the railroad line to a small pool inhabited by a responsive bullfrog, Monsieur Toong; Gabrielle ponders the wild garden which grows on an uncultivated bit of farmland; the intellectual capabilities of Aimé’s placid cows are considered; the gentle life of  Jeannot the crow is captured in words as he sways in the wild cherry tree, and his sad fate is documented.

Wildflowers, birds, domestic animals are all considered and watched with interest and the author’s observations are gently and humorously related to the reader. The beauty of the landscape is frequently detailed, and the sights, sounds and fragrances of what seems to be a time of great peace and contentment; even the occasional storm does not break the mood of repose. These summers by the river were Gabrielle’s time of retreat and (relative) solitude, in which she refreshed herself from the busy social life of her winter residence in Quebec City, and from the cares of her family – two ailing sisters in Manitoba were often visited – and a time of concentrated writing.

Most of these small stories are centered on animals, but the two most poignant, and to my mind the most memorable, involve people.

Elderly cousin Martine comes for a two weeks’ visit in the country; living in a small city apartment and frail to the point of immobility, she longs for a glimpse of the river of her childhood. One day, without telling Martine’s sons what they are planning, Berthe and Gabrielle laboriously support and carry her down to the river, where for a while she revisits her long lost youth.

For my part, the more I looked at her the more I was reminded of those pilgrims of the Ganges in Benares, whom one sees with loincloths tucked up, frighteningly thin but their faces illuminated with fervour…

…Suddenly, barefoot on the rim of the summer sky, she began to ask questions – doubtless the only ones that matter.

“Why do we live? What are we sent to do on this earth? Why do we suffer so and feel lonely? What are we waiting for? What is at the end of it all? Eh? Eh?”

Her tone was not sorrowful. Troubled perhaps at the beginning. But gradually it became confident. As if, though she didn’t quite know the answer, she already senses that it was good. And she was content at last that she had lived…

And, in a remembrance of a long-ago month as a substitute teacher in a very small, poor, rural Manitoba settlement, Gabrielle recounts her visit to the house of one of the school pupils, who has just died of T.B. The other schoolchildren, who have been apathetic towards their temporary teacher, unbend as they tell her about the sadly fated Yolande. With sudden inspiration, Gabrielle suggests they pick the wild roses growing in the clearing outside Yolande’s cabin, to give tribute to their friend.

On our return we pulled them gently apart and scattered petals over the dead child. Soon only her face emerged from the pink drift. Then – how could this be? – it looked a little less forlorn.

The children formed a ring around their schoolmate and said of her without the bitter sadness of the morning, “She must have got to heaven by this time.”

Or, “She must be happy now.”

I listened to them, already consoling themselves as best they could for being alive.

But why, oh why, did the memory of that dead child seek me out today in the very midst of the summer that sang?

Was it brought to me just now by the wind with the scent of roses?

A scent I have not much liked since the long ago June when I went to the poorest of villages – to acquire, as they say, experience.

As I said early on, this is a slight and quickly read memoir, but one that has a decided charm and a strong sense of atmosphere and place. Very well suited to a peaceful summer afternoon read, preferably in the shade of your own particular tree, with birdsong and dancing shadows for counterpoint.

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hostages to fortune elizabeth cambridge 001Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1933. This edition: Jonathan Cape, 1933. Hardcover. 304 pages.

My rating: 10/10. Not only met but exceeded all of my expectations.

He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.

~Francis Bacon

I loved this book on so many levels; I suspect it will be high on my “most memorable books of 2013” list. Not only is it beautifully written, but the themes of marriage, motherhood and personal fulfillment struck very close to home; I couldn’t help but recognize many parallels with my own experience, which (of course!) is not unique, as Elizabeth Cambridge so eloquently demonstrates.

*****

Catherine lay still. Through the slats of the blind she could see the hard white light of early morning; the bars were like a ladder. Black, white, white, black … was the white the rungs of the ladder or was it the space between? A white ladder or a black ladder?

Water splashed. The voice of the newcomer, hoarse and uncertain, rose and fell, broken by deep, sobbing breaths.

A girl. An anti-climax. A girl … after all that! Oh well, William would be pleased. A ‘nice little girl’. That was nurse, standing up for another woman.

‘Can I see her?’

‘Not yet. I’m just giving her a bath.”

Catherine closed her eyes. She wondered if being born hurt as much as giving birth. Somebody pulled up the blind and opened the window. Instantly the room filled with the smell of slaked dust. It had been raining in the night, but the morning was windless, damp, and fresh. An early tram clashed and rattled down the hill, the overhead wires sang as it passed. Out in the Sound a tug hooted. The tide must be falling now … all down the coast over miles of brown rocks, the gulls screaming in the pale June morning.

A girl. But who wanted girls, now, in the middle of a war? Catherine had never believed in the equality of the sexes. Women simply did not have the same chance as men. Nature had seen to that. If you wanted to produce a human being at all, it was common sense to want to produce the kind of human being that was going to have the best time.

Best time? The expression was the wrong one. Surely? What did she mean by the best time?

… She opened her eyes. Nurse was standing over her, the baby held upright against her shoulder, like the bambino on a Della Robbia plaque.

Catherine stared. So that was her baby. Baby? Babies were sleepy, amorphous, unconvincing and ugly. This creature was not amorphous, it was not even ugly. It stared at life with bright, unwinking eyes. Its underlip was thrust out, tremulous, indignant.

‘My word,’ Catherine thought. ‘That’s not a baby. It’s a person.’

And with that delicate little epiphany, the stage is set for the years to come of Catherine’s motherhood. The girl child, Audrey, is eventually followed by two more siblings, Adam and Bill, and through it all, the tedious business of ministering to infant needs, the small heartaches and exquisite joys of mothering toddlers, small children, increasingly independent and opinionated school children, teenagers, Catherine finds herself secure in that attitude, that these are, above all, persons, not merely extensions of herself or William, though of course there are glimpses of genetic imprint which for a moment here or there stand out and give sharp pause.

This is an episodic novel in which “nothing ever happens”, but it is a beautifully observed and documented series of vignettes of family life, with a view to the broader scene in which it is set. It reminded me most strongly of another book that has a similar tone and an equally well-depicted mother, Margery Sharp’s 1935 novel Four Gardens, another hidden gem of a book which I wish would receive the same attention from modern re-publishers of almost-lost small literary treasures.

These women are, of course, more than “just mothers”, but their maternity is an inescapable part of their lives, and though it does not define them, it forms their lives in various unforeseen ways, and their emotional and intellectual responses to their motherhood are well worth considering. Elizabeth Cambridge’s Hostages is said to be semi-autobiographical; Margery Sharp was childless; but both writers have identified and played upon a strong chord of shared experience which resonates with me, a person (and mother) of several generations later, living in a very different time and place.

I am having a hard time putting into words the deep appeal this book had for me; not only regarding the subject matter but how strongly the author’s voice came through. I will therefore leave it, at least for now, with a strong recommendation, and links to other reviews.

Hostages to Fortune is extremely readable, frequently very amusing, thoroughly thought-provoking, and occasionally poignant. An excellent book. Other readers agree; I don’t believe I’ve seen a single negative review.

Here is an excerpt from Claire at The Captive Reader‘s post. Please click over and read the whole review; she says much more.

Cambridge gives us a very ordinary, unremarkable story about ordinary, unremarkable people, just trying to do their best as they move through the years.  The focus is primarily on Catherine, mother and wife, who begins as a not unusually selfish young woman, concerned with her writing aspirations and her husband and, eventually, her babies.

…(S)howing a … mature marriage, I was incredibly impressed by the portrait of Catherine and William’s union through the years.  The novel begins during the First World War, with Catherine giving birth to Audrey while William is away.  When he returns, invalided out, they settle in the country and William begins his stressful work as the local doctor.  With William running about the countryside at all hours and Catherine struggling to manage at home with first one, then two, then three children, both spend the early years of their marriage frazzled, pressed for time, patience, and money.  They go through phases where they don’t particularly like one another, where they can’t even remember what they used to like about the other, where they question why they ever thought marriage was a good idea.  But, in the end, they are partners and, however distant they may have felt over the years, they shared the same vision and values.  They can respect the work the other has done over the years and, year by year, that brings them closer together…

…(T)his is truly a novel about parenting, about the limits of control.  Catherine’s greatest struggle is learning that she cannot give her children everything she’d dreamed or planned for them.  That she must “not grab nor claim, nor try to insist on what they do and what they are.”  There comes a point where, if you’re going to keep them close and on good terms, you have to let go rather than attempt to orchestrate their lives for them.  And you have to resign yourself to the fact that the fates they chose for themselves will be different than the ones you planned for and that they will potentially achieve much less than what they’re capable of…

Hostages to Fortune is a thoughtful novel full of well drawn characters and relationships, presented with admirable simplicity.  I was so taken with it, was so easily able to relate to not just Catherine but also William and their children, that I’d say it is now probably one of my favourite Persephones…

And a few more links:

A Window to My Soul – Hostages to Fortune

Heavenali – Hostages to Fortune

Fervent thanks to Persephone Press for re-publishing this novel. Here’s hoping that many more forgotten books which still speak to us today will continue to be brought back into circulation, and to garner the attention which they so richly deserve.

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the young clementina d e stevensonThe Young Clementina by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1935. Original/alternate titles: Divorced From Reality and Miss Dean’s Dilemma. This edition: ACE, 1975. Paperback: 0-441-95048-5. 320 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

Completely met expectations, up to and including the blush-inducing ending, which lost the story its single “you’ve got to be kidding!” point. Golly, D.E. Stevenson often bobbles in those last few pages, doesn’t she?!

Well, really, the ending’s not that bad. Just…hmm…maybe just a little bit rushed? And a little too good to be true? But hey! – that’s why I’ve come to quite adore D.E. Stevenson. This story in particular is escape literature at its delicious, romantic, improbable, suspend-your-disbelief for hundreds of pages, period-piece-vintage best.

Okay, here’s a brief overview of the set-up of this novel. It’s very nicely done indeed; one of the author’s melodramatic (versus her more placid and thoughtful) minor masterpieces.

I wonder how a hermit would feel if he had spent twelve years in his cell and were called back to the world to take up the burden of life with its griefs and worries and fears; if he had passed through the fire of rebellion and achieved resignation; if his flesh had been purged by sleepless nights and his mind had found the anodyne of daily work. Would he feel afraid of the world, afraid of the pain awaiting him, afraid of his own inadequacy to deal with his fellow men after his long, long years of solitude? Would he refuse to listen when the world called, when his conscience whispered that his duty lay outside his cell, or would he gird up his loins and go forth, somewhat reluctantly, into the world which had turned its back upon him for twelve years?

My mythical hermit is standing at the parting of the ways, and so am I. Two roads are open to me, one lonely but well known, peaceful and uneventful; the other full of dangers and difficulties which I cannot foresee…

Our narrator is middle-aged Charlotte Dean, inhabitor of a dreary London flat, efficient and self-effacing librarian at a quiet geographical library – repository of “any book that adds to the geographical knowledge of the world” – recluse from that very world. Her only friend, aside from her kind employer, Mr. Wentworth, and her dedicated charwoman, Mrs. Cope, is her diary, in which she records her daily doings as she has done from childhood.

Ah, childhood. Happy days, indeed, when Charlotte was the beloved child of the Parsonage in green and flowery rural Hinkleton, running wild with her bosom friend, Garth Wisdon, equally beloved child of the Manor. Charlotte and Garth were inseparable, and their friendship was not at all disturbed by the advent of Charlotte’s small sister, Clementina – “Kitty”, as she was soon named. Not then, not in childhood. But as the years passed and friendship ripened to something deeper, Kitty had her part to play in the dissolution of the bonds that held Charlotte and Garth together…

The Great War tore Garth away from Hinkleton, and upon his return it is, unexpectedly, Kitty who becomes the new lady of the Manor, while Charlotte remains at home to care for her failing father, and then creeps off to London when his death leaves her alone and penniless.

For some strange reason Charlotte and Kitty are no longer the close friends that they were in childhood, and Garth openly sneers at his once-beloved “Char”. She meets them only occasionally, and so is rather surprised to be asked to act as godmother to her young niece Clementina  – named after her vivacious mother – and to visit at Hinkleton Manor for the occasion. But Garth is still dismissive and sarcastic, and Kitty disturbingly self-centered and complaining, so Charlotte returns to her quiet life with no thought but to regain her hard-won peace of mind, and to leave the dead past buried.

Then, twelve years after her flight to London, Charlotte’s world is turned topsy-turvy by the dramatic re-entry of Kitty into her life, and she faces the dilemma referred to at the start of the story…

For another look at the story, and an enthusiastic recommendation, a visit to Fleur Fisher‘s review will be in order.

I greatly enjoyed this grandly melodramatic and deeply romantic tale. Most engaging and deeply readable, and for that I’ll even forgive the rushed and too, too predictable “surprise” ending, my one perennial gripe with this author’s style. She builds up her story wonderfully well, rockets it along in fine style, and then chops it off with a hurried ending, almost every single time. Grrr. (And do please ignore this complaint; it’s a very minor one, and in no way puts me off reading these books with genuine enjoyment.)

I can see why this novel is so highly thought of by D.E. Stevenson devotees; she’s in fine form throughout. I do believe this one has just been re-released on July 2, 2013, so it should be readily available, just in time for your summer reading pleasure. Here’s the Amazon.com link, which includes an excerpt of the first chapter.

And I’ll say once more, this is a very vintage romance, written in the 1930s, with all of the expected clichés. It is, perhaps, even a bit old-fashioned for its time; it rather reads like something out of the closing years of the century before. With that in mind, enjoy!

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a breath of fresh air betty cavanna 001A Breath of Fresh Air by Betty Cavanna ~ 1966. This edition: William Morrow, 1975. Hardcover. 223 pages.

My rating: 4/10.

I had to look back and see how I rated the previous three Betty Cavanna vintage teen novels I reviewed, and I see I gave a 6 to the strongest one, Jenny Kimura, and a 5 to both The Country Cousin and Lasso Your Heart. A Breath of Fresh Air is definitely down a level from these already minor novels, both in plot and execution.

Despite the low rating, this book is already back on the keeper shelf, as it is a decent enough story for a quiet hour or two’s modest diversion.

Seventeen-year-old Brooke Lawrence and her thirteen-year-old brother Peter are reeling from their parents’ announcement that they are getting a divorce. In the staid middle-class circle the family inhabits in quiet Concord, Massachusetts, divorce is still a matter of whispers and concerned glances. Both Brooke and Peter feel horribly stigmatized by their situation, even though everyone (except the two young Lawrences) agrees that they could see the split coming.

Competent Harriet will be better off not saddled with her dreamy and ineffectual husband, Austin, and he in turn will be happier living with (and being supported by) his older sister, who truly appreciates his penchant for tinkering with hopelessly complicated inventions which never quite make it through the patent office to production. For some years now Harriet has taken on the role of family breadwinner with her antique store business, and Austin’s cleaning out of their joint bank account just as she’s written a (bounced) cheque for a stock order is the final straw in a long series of like episodes.

Brooke, “smart and very pretty”, is a scholarship student in her final year of high school at an exclusive girls’ school, and her pride is bruised and her confidence shaken by the failure of her parents’ marriage. She is questioning everything that she once took for granted, including her own budding romantic relationship with the quiet and loyal David Hale.

Brooke’s research project on author Louisa May Alcott, the local historical celebrity, brings the parallels in Brooke’s and Louisa’s lives into focus, and is the sub-theme of A Breath of Fresh Air. Impractical father, driven mother, and a strong desire for self-expression through writing are common grounds, and as Brooke muses over Louisa May Alcott’s teenage decision to eschew romance and marriage, she wonders if she should do the same. David, naturally enough, does not agree, nor does a charismatic Harvard student who pops up out of nowhere to actively pursue the delectable Brooke, and to add a bit of romantic tension to this rather dull story.

The details regarding the antique buying and selling business are the most interesting aspects of this novel, and the related humour relieves the earnest tone; I had to chuckle over Harriet’s classification of some of her casual browsers as “bathroom customers”. The main characters are (aside from Harriet, whom I quite related to) decidedly flat; I never got a sense of any of them being real people; they fulfilled every stereotype of their imposed roles. The plot is predictable and completely unsurprising; Brooke’s final decision regarding her own romantic life is absolutely no epiphany to anyone, including the patient and slightly patronizing David.

As the author did produce something like seventy novels in her prolific career, it seems reasonable that their quality would fluctuate. A Breath of Fresh Air has a potentially interesting theme, but it never really gets off the ground to fulfill that promise.

This “teen novel” is a lightning fast read and good for a momentary diversion, but, sadly, not much more. A period piece of mild interest and mild enjoyment, not bad enough for a toss into the discard box, but not good enough to wholeheartedly recommend either. Cavanna was a competent enough writer for her chosen genre, and I appreciate what she was trying to do with her themed storylines, but this particular story is not one of her best.

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cornish years anne treneer 001Cornish Years by Anne Treneer ~ 1949. This edition: Jonathan Cape, 1949. Hardcover. 284 pages.

My rating: 8/10.

This is the second volume of Cornish writer and poet Anne Treneer’s trilogy of memoirs. The first, Schoolhouse in the Wind , was such an unexpected treat that I immediately decided to track this author’s other works down. I did all of the usual searches, and decided my best bet was to order the re-released trilogy published by the University of Exeter Press in 1998, under the (slightly altered) title of the first book, School House in the Wind.

Imagine then my delight upon finding this first edition copy of the second volume in a tiny antique store in the micro-community of Barriere, B.C. on a quickie road trip last week. We were out in our old Spitfire convertible, investigating promising narrow, winding (and must be paved – not a given in this part of the world) side roads in the Kamloops area, and were ready for a break from the wind and sun when a sign in the window captured our notice: “Used Books”. Well, that was irresistible, so I pulled a quick U-turn (an easy feat in a tiny little Triumph) and in we went. Lots of china and glassware, but the promised used books were only a shelf or two, quickly scanned and dismissed. However, as I made my way carefully out through the shelves of fragile treasures, something caught my eye in the showcase beside the cash register. There, side by side, were this book, and another, The Angels’ Alphabet by Hilda van Stockum, a first edition picture book by another author-illustrator I’m mildly interested in.

I’m guessing these were featured because of their intact dust jackets and general “vintage” appearance? Anyway, for well under twenty dollars I walked out of the store clutching my treasures with ill-disguised glee. And that proved to be the bookish highlight of the day, as our subsequent visit to our real destination, Kamloops’ excellent At Second Glance Used Books, source of so many wonderful finds over the past ten years, left us standing in bemusement peering through the windows of an empty store front.

“They’ve moved!” I said optimistically to my husband. Across the street to the Kamloops Art Gallery we trotted, and upon inquiry we were stunned to hear that the bookstore had indeed closed just a few months ago. “So many people are asking about it, and they’re all so disappointed,” said the helpful girls at the admissions counter.

Turns out that a steady decline in sales over the last few years had left the owner debating the state of the used book business. She sold off as much as she could in a series of escalating sales, and at the end had dumpsters brought in, and binned the remainder.

I am very sad. What a dismal ending to such a grand bookstore.

Two more of my local used book sources, Nuthatch Books in 100 Mile House, and The Final Chapter in Prince George, are also debating closure, as their margins are steadily decreasing. Every bookseller I’ve spoken to has blamed e-books for the decline in the print book business.

Meanwhile the charity shops are overflowing with books – most, admittedly, the epitome of “trashy” (in so many ways) – which may indeed be an indication of shelves being cleared as people embrace the new technology.

There is no adequate substitution for a well-established, well-organized used book store staffed by fellow book lovers. I tremble at the thought of more of these dying out, much as I understand the seduction of having your reading material to hand in a compact electronic format.

But used book sellers have grocery bills too, and once the point of too-little return is reached, what options do they really have? I know many are turning to internet sales, but to do that properly is a job in itself, and the competition is fierce unless you are prepared to vigorously establish a lucrative niche market of some sort, often not a very viable option for those in small communities with limited book-sourcing opportunities…

Ah, well. It is what it is. Back to this book.

*****

Cornish Years decidedly lived up to my high expectations. Ann Treneer continues her life story of the years between 1906 and 1932 with cheerfully pragmatic anecdotes about her own doings, and affectionate reminiscences of the places and people she rubbed up against. As in Schoolhouse, the narrative is never twee or gushing, but it is cheerfully positive in tone, and the mood feels genuine throughout.

As much as it is a personal narrative, Cornish Years is also a loving ode to place, both Treneer’s home region of Cornwall, and places farther afield. Anne Treneer spent time as an adult student pursuing studies at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, and her memories of those days are beautifully evocative and full of love and appreciation for her experiences there.

The snippets of Anne Treneer’s poetry in Cornish Years – she was a published poet from an early age – show much more style and polish than those in School House; I wonder if she has included these small samples of her work in some sort of chronological order? If so, I would be most interested to see what the third volume of memoir, A Stranger in the Midlands, contains, both in the way of poetry and in the continuation of Anne’s personal story.

school-house-in-wind-trilogy-by-anne-treneer-paperback-cover-artAs I can’t count on bookish serendipity to bring me the third book as it did the first and second, I have taken things into my own hands and ordered the 1998 trilogy. And if I do come across an old copy of Stranger, I will of course be more than happy to add it to the bookshelf.

In my internet travels, I came across an interesting reference to Anne Treneer at this blog, The After Life of Books, written by Gillian Thomas, an English literature teacher and resident of Cornwall. She writes about the experiences of her parents and grandparents in relation to the books they read. (Fascinating website, well worth a look-around.)

She (Gillian’s mother) was particularly proud of having a personal connection with another Cornish writer, Anne Treneer, author of the childhood memoir, Schoolhouse in the Wind, and Cornish Years, a reminiscence of her college education and early years as a schoolteacher. Treneer had been my mother’s English teacher at the local grammar school and, as well, had rented a cottage from my grandparents. They, along with other villagers, appear in one of the chapters of Cornish Years, and both my grandmother and mother often proudly mentioned these references. They were flattered to find their names in a book, even as faintly amusing village “characters.”

My mother’s pride in the Treneer connection may have originated in the prestige of a personal aquaintanceship with a published author, but it was sustained by her fascination with Anne Treneer’s apparent independence from conventional restrictions.  During the time the author taught at the grammar school she used a motorcycle to explore the area, a detail which always figured in my mother’s recollections of that time as well as in Treneer’s happy reminiscences about her Velocette in Cornish Years. Similarly, my mother recalled visiting her former teacher years later and finding her fuelling the fireplace in her rented seaside cottage with an enormous driftwood spar that she had just scavenged from the beach. In all these reminiscences Anne Treneer seemed to embody an insouciant air of independence, a relishing of her own solitary company and an unconcern about conventional behavior. In the letters and postcards from her that arrived from time to time throughout my childhood, she always seemed free to travel at will. We imagined, I think, that this apparently carefree independence, came with the role of being “an author.” It was, of course, mainly made possible  by Treneer’s generally frugal tastes and habits. Also, it’s likely that  travel funds came from the author’s older brother, Maurice, who had emigrated to the US and become senior chemist at Miles Laboratories in Elkhart, Indiana. He is credited with creating the original formula for Alka-Seltzer, a product whose launch was fortuitously timed to coincide with a flu epidemic as well as the end of Prohibition. While he does not seem to have personally owned the patent to that lucrative cure for hangovers and other malaises,a number of other patents in his name, as well as his salary as head chemist at Miles Laboratories, would have enabled him to be generous in funding holidays for his sister…

And here, as another side note, is the Wikipedia page regarding the Velocette motorcycle, one of which Anne Treneer tenaciously learned to master and rode about on with undisguised joy, which she so eloquently described in Cornish Years.

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the lost salt gift of blood 2 alistair macleodThe Lost Salt Gift of Blood by Alistair MacLeod ~ 1976. This edition: New Canadian Library, 1989. Afterword by Joyce Carol Oates. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9969-X. 160 pages.

My rating: 10/10 for the writing, no debate there. For reading “pleasure”, which of course is an extremely individual definition, I’m struggling with a rating. I’ll willingly put this on the keeper shelf, but I strongly suspect I may never read it again. The well-turned phrases are lovely in and of themselves, but the subject matter is so very bleak. This book makes me so glad I’m not in high school any more. What a godsend to keen Can-Lit teachers!

I started off reading this book with no foreknowledge of what the tone would be, though I suspected less than frivolous, what with the earnest back cover blurb:

The stories of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood are remarkably simple – a family is drawn together by shared and separate losses, a child’s reality conflicts with his parents’ memories, a young man struggles to come to terms with the loss of his father.

Yet each piece of writing in this critically acclaimed collection is infused with a powerful life of its own, a precision of language and a scrupulous fidelity to the reality of time and place, of sea and Maritime farm.

Focusing on the complexities and abiding mysteries at the heart of human relationships, the seven stories of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood map the close bonds and impassable chasms that lie between man and woman, parent and child.

These seven stories are intense and perfectly crafted; I can easily believe that Alistair MacLeod spent a year writing each one; they feel perfected, pared down, edited for maximum effect to the nth degree. Marvelous writing.

But I came away from my reading – which I spaced out over a week or so because this isn’t the sort of stuff one can take in all at one sitting – feeling so terribly sad, which may in itself be the strongest tribute I can give to the power of MacLeod’s writing.

*****

These are all stories of “place”, very specifically regional, focussed on Cape Breton. The sea and the land are characters as much as any of the sentient creatures that occupy their worlds.

  • In the Fall ~ The teenage narrator, the oldest of six children, remembers the autumn his father was forced to sell his beloved old horse to the knacker. Heart-wrenching.  I have a very low tolerance for betrayal of old animals scenarios – hence my real-life situation of supporting a number of geriatric creatures in various stages of decline – so I almost bailed on the book at this point, but doggedly kept on. Though it never got much more cheerful…people started dropping in the following episodes. But, oh! – the evocative writing!

It is hard to realize that this is the same ocean that is the crystal blue of summer when only the thin oil-slicks left by the fishing boats or the startling whiteness of the riding seagulls mar its azure sameness. Now it is roiled and angry, and almost anguished; hurling up the brown dirty balls of scudding foam, the sticks of pulpwood from some lonely freighter, the caps of unknown men, buoys from mangled fishing nets and the inevitable bottles that contained no messages. And always also the shreds of blackened and stringy seaweed that it has ripped and torn from its own lower regions, as if this is the season for self-mutilation – the pulling out of the secret, private, unseen hair.

  • The Vastness of the Dark ~ A boy leaves home on his eighteenth birthday, with little plan but that he must get away from his here and now, and travel forward into something different.

(After the Cumberland No. 2 coal mine explosion)… I remember again… the return of my father and the haunted greyness of his face and after the younger children were in bed the quiet and hushed conversations of seeping gas and lack of oxygen and the wild and belching smoke and flames of the subterranean fires nourished there by the everlasting seams of the dark and diamond coal. And also of the finding of the remains of men flattened and crushed if they died beneath the downrushing roofs of rock or if they had been blown apart by the explosion itself, transformed into forever lost and irredeemable pieces of themselves; hands and feet and blown-away faces and reproductive organs and severed ropes of intestines festooning the twisted pipes and spikes like grotesque Christmas-tree loops and chunks of hair-clinging flesh. Men transformed into grisly jig-saw puzzles that could never more be solved.

  • The Lost Salt Gift of Blood ~ A successful Toronto businessman returns to the Newfoundland community he has long left behind, to take a look at his illegitimate son who has recently been orphaned by the death of his mother and stepfather. Yearnings of fatherhood stir within him; should he tell the boy who he is?
  • The Return ~ A ten-year-old boy makes the trip from Montreal to visit his Cape Breton grandparents for the first time.
  • The Golden Gift of Grey ~ A teenage boy lives a secret life, visiting the pool hall after classes and forming a friendship with the man who was the cause of his father coming to Cape Breton from Kentucky ten years ago.
  • The Boat ~ An adult son remembers his father, and their life together on their fishing boat.
  • The Road to Rankin’s Point ~ This was the most personally moving and my favourite of all these seven stories. A terminally ill grandson returns to his elderly grandmother’s farm, seeking peace and a place to die.

I could easily have included excerpts from each of these stories – the most difficult task would have been deciding what to highlight among so many memorable passages –  but I will instead leave you to discover them for yourself, if you so choose.

A good review from another blogger is here: City Scrivener – The Lost Salt Gift of Blood

A very readable scholarly examination of the stories is here: SCL – Studies in Canadian Literature – The Lost Salt Gift of Blood

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the shout & other stories robert graves 001The Shout and other stories by Robert Graves ~ 1965. This edition: Penguin, 1978. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-00.4832-4. 300 pages.

My rating: 7/10.

A generous and widely eclectic sampling of Robert Graves’ short stories and personal anecdotes. While a bit uneven, as might be expected in an anthology spanning some forty years or so of one man’s writing career, but there is enough excellent reading in this book to make it a certain keeper.

The stories are grouped under three broad headings: English Stories, Roman Stories, and Majorcan Stories, but the first and third categories show quite a wide range in style, settings and topics. The three Roman Stories are the tightest grouping, theme-wise.

I enjoyed reading most of these, and came away feeling keen to continue to develop my acquaintanceship with the prolific Robert Graves. I do believe I might be ready to tackle his ambitious I, Claudius. If it is anything like the three Roman Stories in this collection, it will be very good indeed. I’ve been holding out for a better edition, as mine is a fat paperback with a cracked spine and tiny print (these unreliable middle-aged eyes are giving me grief lately), but I think I will dip in and see how it goes. If I like it I’ll upgrade to a physically nicer edition. Anyway, I’m straying off topic. Back to the volume at hand!

*****

From the author’s Introduction:

The first of these stories, The Shout, was written in 1924; and the last, Christmas Truce, in 1962. Most of them, including such improbable ones as Kill Them! Kill Them!, The Whitaker Negroes, Old Papa Johnson and A Toast to Ava Gardner, are true, though occasional names and references have been altered. Nor can I claim to have invented the factual details even of She Landed Yesterday, or An Appointment for Candlemas. In fact, a correspondent who read She Landed Yesterday reproached me for not mentioning the two French copper coins found in the coffin-doll’s pocket; and An Appointment for Candlemas brought members of the revived British witch cult to my door in search of information about flying ointments and such like. Pure fiction is beyond my imaginative range; I fetched back the main elements of The Shout from a cricket-match at Littlemore Asylum, Oxford.

ENGLISH STORIES: A variety of anecdotes and stories, most with some sort of “twist”.

  • The Shout ~ The otherwise seemingly normal resident of an insane asylum claims he has the power of the “terror shout”, which brings madness and even death to anyone within hearing range. Occultish and dark. Not one of my favourites, though it is memorable enough. 7/10.
  • Old Papa Johnson ~ “Old Papa Johnson” was once Crown Agent on Antarctica’s Desolation Island. His solitude is intruded upon by two uninvited guests, with dire consequences. 6/10.
  • Treacle Tart ~ In this short anecdote, eight-year-old Lord Julius Bloodstock unexpectedly descends upon a surprised prep school, but runs afoul of dietary rules, refusing his treacle tart and sparking something of a minor rebellion among the schoolboys. 6/10.
  • The Full Length ~ A portrait artist is asked to paint a picture of a recently deceased young lady whom he’s never seen, and who has never had her photograph taken. His solution is quite clever, and rather improbably lucky. 5/10.
  • Earth to Earth ~ A macabre little tale of an interest becoming an obsession. Dedicated composters, take warning! Queasily humorous; I laughed out loud with horrified glee at the ending. I *hope* this one was not true! This story would be right at home in a Roald Dahl (adult) story collection. 7/10.
  • Period Piece ~ A humorous little tale of a marital misunderstanding. 6/10.
  • Week-End at Cwm Tatws ~ Still channelling Roald Dahl at his darkest, Graves tells the story of a visit to a dentist gone very, very wrong. 6/10.
  • He Went Out to Buy a Rhine ~ A mysterious suicide turns out to have an esoteric explanation. 5/10.
  • Kill Them! Kill Them! ~ A poignant remembrance of a young man killed in the war. 6/10.
  • The French Thing ~ Gloriously funny tale of village life. Beware the vicarage daughter! Unexpected. Loved it. 10/10.
  • A Man May Not Marry His… ~ An odd little theological, medical and ethical debate about the implications of sex change operations. (I think.) 4/10.
  • An Appointment for Candlemas ~ An interview with a modern witch. Cheeky and funny. 8/10.
  • The Abominable Mr. Gunn ~ Memories of a sadistic schoolmaster. 6/10.
  • Harold Vesey at the Gates of Hell ~ An ironic little tale of village life. Nicely done. 7/10.
  • Christmas Truce ~ Christmas in the trenches, World War I. Enlightened commanders from the German and British sides arrange a temporary truce. 10/10.
  • You Win, Houdini! ~ The rise and fall and rise of a crooked minor magician turned army officer. 8/10.

ROMAN STORIES: That would be ancient Rome. These were all humorous in tone, and all excellent.

  • Epics Are Out of Fashion ~ Falling afoul of Emperor Nero is never a healthy idea, especially when one is a poet writing a thinly veiled mockery of that vindictive lord himself… 8/10
  • The Tenement: A Vision of Imperial Rome ~ This was my favourite story in the collection. An episode detailing daily life in ancient Rome. Brilliantly done; very funny, despite the tragic sudden ending! 10/10.
  • The Myconian ~ A provincial visitor from the island of Myconos is made acquainted with the dramatic and sporting diversions of Rome. Another 10/10.

MAJORCAN STORIES: Written during Graves’ long residence in Majorca, Spain.

  • They Say…They Say ~ gossip in the marketplace. 5/10.
  • 6 Valiant Bulls 6 ~ An epistolary episode detailing Spanish bullfighting, from “Margaret” to “Dearest Auntie May”. Not quite sure about this one; didn’t quite hit all its attempted high notes. 6/10.
  • A Bicycle in Majorca ~  The author’s personal anecdotal tale about civil bureaucracy in relation to the importation and retention of his sons’ British bicycles in Spain. Rather good. 8/10.
  • The Five Godfathers ~ Here’s Margaret gushing on to Auntie May again, this time detailing a confusing christening. Sort of amusing, but perhaps not as much as the author intended. 6/10.
  • Evidence of Affluence ~ A tale of revenge. This one works out very well, though I guessed the ending from a long way off. 8/10.
  • God Grant Your Honour Many Years ~ A misunderstanding and a happy resolution. Another amusing personal anecdote, well presented. 8/10.
  • The Viscountess and the Short-Haired Girl ~ A humorous tale of three Spaniards involved as witnesses in a slightly nefarious divorce case. In the end, everyone gets what they want. Complicated, but funny. 9/10.
  • A Toast to Ava Gardner ~ An appreciation of Ava Gardner, whom the author knew personally. Goes off on a divergent tangent or two. Rather sweet. 9/10.
  • The Lost Chinese ~ Another complicated tale, this time of playwrites and mistaken identities. Diverting. 7/10.
  • She Landed Yesterday ~ A nobleman commits suicide after dabbling in the occult. Love, betrayal and wounded pride move the narrative. 9/10.
  • The Whitaker Negroes ~ A horrifying portrait in an Irish antique shop leads back to America, and to a very strange story – part truth, part fable. 9/10.

*****

Note: Robert Graves is also the author of the recently reviewed Antigua, Penny, Puce, which I stumbled upon recently and subsequently found very diverting. A writer of broad range, well worth exploring.

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outside the line christian petersen 001Outside the Line by Christian Petersen ~ 2009. This edition: Dundurn Press, 2009. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-55002-859-1. 213 pages.

My rating: 6/10. I must admit I gave this one an extra dash of “like” because it is by a hometown author. If it was by someone from somewhere else, it would likely only rate a 5. Maybe not even that high…

Christian Petersen has also had published two volumes of short stories. I read, greatly enjoyed, and subsequently reviewed the first collection, Let the Day Perish, so was eager to read Petersen’s first full-length novel.

*****

Middle-aged Peter Ellis is an auxiliary probation officer attached to a busy office in a small, unnamed city in the interior of British Columbia. (And though never named, it is very obviously Williams Lake, with a few creative liberties taken here and there; not quite sure why Petersen didn’t just go ahead and “locate” his place; the caginess is perhaps a self-protective measure by an author who lives and works in his own – though obviously slightly fictionalized – setting.)

As a former student of literature and lower-case communist who once attended rallies and freely signed all manner of petitions, (Peter) had never had any interest or intention of getting involved in the Justice System. When he first began working as a probation officer, a few of his friends questioned the move, and thereby his values. With these keen defenders of human rights he took an almost apologetic tone, claimed the job was a trial run, just a means of survival, certainly temporary. He chews gum at a range of paces, aggressively at the moment, while he swivels back and forth in his chair, prioritizing the work at hand. What he didn’t admit to anyone, even to himself for a long time, was that this job hooked him immediately. Every day it places him at the crisis point in someone’s life, tangent to a stupid mistake, a rage, an arrest.

Peter shies from judgement, despite or maybe partly to spite his Baptist upbringing. He suffers with imagination like vertigo lately, glimpsing life’s infinite heartbreaking scenarios. He wonders whether it is some errant part in himself, some piece askew, that enables his rapport with the probation clients, the offenders.

Then a client walks into Peter’s life whom he can find no common ground with, no sympathy or rapport.

Twenty-four-year-old Todd Nolin is, despite his relative youth, already washed up, and dealing with it badly. As a teenage hockey star and National Hockey League draft pick rookie player, Todd’s potentially brilliant career has gone sideways on him; he’s been quietly let go from the team with no real reason given, and he’s gone from being totally focussed on hockey and rolling in cash to working in the sports store in his old home town, where he’s come to lick his wounds after his ego-crushing letdown.

While Todd was flying high, he bought a lavish (well, lavish by small-town B.C. standards) house in the upper scale neighbourhood he grew up in, hosted wild parties, and took up with a gorgeous local girl, Marina Faro. Now, two years after the “big time”, all that remains of Todd’s fleeting time as an elite athlete is a hometown hero reputation, an appetite for alcohol and cocaine, a condo, and the lovely Marina. And he’s just screwed up the last two. The reason Todd is in Peter Ellis’ office is because of a recent enraged physical and sexual assault of Marina; one of the terms of Todd’s probation is a restraining order barring him from both his home and girlfriend.

Todd’s not taking it well at all. He takes an immediate dislike to his probation officer, and the feeling is more than mutual, especially once Peter meets Marina and feels stirrings of multiple emotions; a paternalistic protective instinct combined with admiration for her physical beauty, plus the unmistakable stirrings of sexual attraction.

Against his better judgement, Peter lets himself go with his feelings. You see, Peter’s own personal life is a bit of a mess, what with his beloved wife of eight years having walked out on him six months or so ago. She’s left Peter for another woman, and is now living in California, only connecting with Peter to inquire why their house, purchased several years ago with the idea of starting a family, hasn’t sold yet.

Facing personal bankruptcy both emotional and financial, Peter has been letting himself go in more ways than one, and when he breaks that ironclad taboo not to get personally involved with a client, he goes down hard. And Todd is on to him…

The rest of the story falls into predictable patterns, and the dramatic ending is par for the course with this type of novel; nothing out of the ordinary.

This is actually a very ordinary story, an ordinary drama. It’s a step back in some ways from Petersen’s edgy short stories, much more cliché-ridden and safer and tamer, despite attempts to keep it moving by tossing in references to the cowboy culture of the area, and a continuous scornful sub-theme of the bad attitudes and deep stupidity of the local “rednecks”.

That last term was what I found most troubling about this novel, because it shows up way too often. C’mon, Christian, is it you or your character Peter talking here? A few too many cheap digs at the less intellectual inhabitants of our “fictional” town, in my opinion.

That, and the totally stereotypical situation with the gorgeous Marina and Peter’s “urges” being too strong for him to control. No matter if she made reciprocal moves of her own, what was the man thinking?!?

Oh, right. Plot device.

*****

Outside the Line is billed as a mystery novel, but it isn’t any such thing. It’s more of a dramatic-suspense, noir-lite type of story. It also reads very much a “first novel”, a bit rough around the edges here and there, especially in the final dramatic scenes, as if the author was not quite sure how to handle his characters during the physical action. He does seem more at home with the cerebral stuff.

I think the word I’m looking for here is “promising”. What is good in Petersen’s writing is very good indeed, as his well-tailored short stories prove. This novel moves in a different direction, and Petersen occasionally falters along the way. I think I made allowances for the weaknesses in the narrative and especially the plot because I did so want to like this book, and I was curious as to what the author would make of a setting familiar to me from my own experience.

Petersen’s Peter Ellis kept reminding my vaguely of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie, in that even though he pulled off the most desperately stupid moves, I still liked him at the end. There’s some good writing going on here, and the characterization of Ellis was one of the better aspects of Outside the Line. (The plot, however, was the weakest bit.)

And as for that whole “first novel is autobiography” thing, it seems alive and well in this case. Christian Petersen is intimately familiar with the B.C. interior’s Cariboo-Chilcotin region, as he grew up in Quesnel, and currently lives in Williams Lake, where he works as a probation officer. Well, “write what you know” is good advice, and in this case it works out fairly decently. This novel was just good enough that I would readily read a second, if it ever makes it to the bookstore shelf.

Kudos to Mr. Petersen for his persistence in honing his writerly craft and branching out genre-wise. Here’s hoping that that more than abundant promise is refined even further in future books.

Note: I don’t personally know Christian Petersen, despite being the same age as he is and sharing the same communities. His author photos look darned familiar though; I’m sure we’ve crossed paths in our daily rounds. Williams Lake is really just a very small town at heart, despite its bold claim to cityhood. I’m looking forward to one day meeting the author in person, perhaps at his next novel launch, if and when that occurs. Despite this rather damning review, I have a genuine liking and admiration for his writing style.

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Delphiniums in the nursery garden, Hill Farm, July 7, 2013

Delphiniums in the nursery garden, Hill Farm, July 7, 2013

FRAGMENTARY BLUE

Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?

Since earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet)—
Though some savants make earth include the sky;
And blue so far above us comes so high,
It only gives our wish for blue a whet.

~ Robert Frost, 1920

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turtle diary russell hoban 001Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban ~ 1975. This edition: Picador, 1977. Softcover. ISBN: 0-330-25050-7. 191 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

The only thing better than looking forward to a read with a cozy preconception as to what the story will bring, and being satisfied with your expectation, is to be blanket-tossed up in the air by a book that tightens up and bounces you unexpectedly into a very different direction, leaving you to freewheel for a while, scrambling for a sense of where you’re going, then catching you and returning you, more or less gently, to solid ground. Turtle Diary is that second kind of book.

The plot is easily condensed. Two middle-aged and currently unattached Londoners, William G. and Neaera H., both struggling with a stagnant state of being, visit the Zoo and are, separately, attracted to the sea turtle tank and the stoic inhabitants within. Musing on the cosmic injustice of these far-roaming creatures being confined to a tiny volume of water, William and Neaera each consider the possibility of somehow freeing the turtles back into the sea. As each of them in turn carry on their separate narrations, we see that their thoughts are uncannily similar, both regarding the turtles and other aspects of their solitary existences, and their relationships (or lack thereof) to those around them. Inevitably William and Neaera meet, speak, share their turtle-liberation impulses, and formulate a practical plan to carry it out, helped by the like-minded zookeeper. Can you guess where we’re going from here? Two lonely people, sharing a joint goal, yearning desperately for love…?

Well, abundant blessings to Russell Hoban. He faces up to and jumps the clichés quite nicely, and while his characters do ultimately find themselves in a different and presumably better emotional place, it’s not their ultimate fate to rest in each others’ arms.

There is so much packed into these strange and wonderful book that the whole turtle thing turns out to be merely a unifying theme, a subplot. This is not as much a book about animal liberation as it is about human liberation. Or, as William G. would doubtless remind us, perhaps there isn’t any difference between the two, humans being just another sort of animal, after all. The trick being to find a state of existence where one can satisfy one’s biological and emotional needs, whether one is sea turtle (source of sea turtle soup) or William G. (source of William G. soup) or octopus or oyster-catcher or water beetle or zookeeper or Balkan expatriate…

It’s so strange (and wonderful) that I picked up an old edition of this book completely at random some weeks ago, merely on the strength of the author’s name. And yes, I already knew who Russell Hoban was – what reading parent could not miss the identity of the originator of the adorably contrary Frances? And of course The Mouse and His Child, which is, most emphatically, not a book for small children, or possibly any age of child, despite the repeated references to it as a “children’s classic”. Whoever has designated it as such has perhaps not read the actual book. But I digress.

As I was saying, I picked up Turtle Diary completely serendipitously, only finding out when another blogger mentioned that he too was reading it that it has been recently reissued by New York Review Books, and is currently receiving much popular press as literary readers “rediscover” Hoban-the-writer-of-adult-fiction.

Without further ado, and without wasting my words in attempted repetition of what Guy Savage of the excellent His Futile Preoccupations book blog has already said, I refer you to that review:

Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban

Guy states that this might well be one of his best books of the year. I know it will be high up on my own list.

And on the strength of Turtle Diary, I will be searching out my copy of The Mouse and His Child, which I acquired when my children were small, thinking that it was a children’s story – it was, after all, shelved in the juvenile section of the bookstore. It was tucked away when an initial reading showed a deep unsuitability for the highly imaginative, nightmare-prone younglings of the household, despite the message of unconditional love yadda yadda yadda. Now that the children in question are in their advanced teen years and decidedly bombproof in their reading habits they might even be interested in exploring Hoban’s adult works for themselves. The dystopian Riddley Walker sounds like something my son in particular might enjoy; must seek that one immediately.

Russell Hoban. If indeed his works are coming in for a time of resurgence, it is because they richly deserve it. Check him out.

Edited July 24, 2013 to add this link to another brilliant review: Seeing the World Through Books – Mary Whipple Reviews Turtle Diary

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