Archive for October, 2013

the halloween tree ray bradbury cover 001The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury ~ 1972. This edition: Knopf, 1972. Illustrated by Joseph Mugnaini. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-394-92409-6. 145 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

Blink your eyes and a year has passed by. Weren’t we just here, on All Hallow’s Eve? And here we are again…

Last night I went out to the car and brought in the bags of Hallowe’en candy stashed in the trunk. Many years of experience have taught me the folly of allowing it into the house too early, and numerous times I have had to buy it twice. For once it is in, all bets are off, and unless I can package it up into bags intended for neighbourhood trick-or-treaters immediately, the odds are high that some wee child will get shortchanged of his or her full share of sugar.

We live at the end of a sparsely populated rural road, and no one ever makes it this far, so part of our Hallowe’en tradition since moving here twenty-some years ago has been to take our contribution to a neighbour’s place mid-way along the traditional route. For Hallowe’en in the country is a bit different than in town. No walking is involved (though one legendary year a few intrepid teens did go on horseback) – the distances are too great. Our usual route was a 15 miles round trip, with 12 houses visited, and those houses would strive to outdo each other in creativity and quantity of goodies for the “neighbour kids” who knocked on the door.

Homemade popcorn balls, full size bags of chips, cans of pop, store-bought candy by the bagful, pickles (yes, pickles – “witch’s fingers”, don’t you know?!), and pomegranate halves (“Because they just look so weird”) and just-roasted pumpkin seeds – what a glorious haul! At each house a prolonged visit, as the costumed ones are made to sing for their treats, spun around to examine their get-ups, photographed and congratulated on their creativity and sent on their way. It’s a very big deal around here, where everybody knows everybody, and usually can predict to the exact number how many children will be showing up – a phenomenal 18 (!) last year. Until our own kids passed that elusive milestone (mid-teenish) when the dress-up thrill began to pale, it was one of our family’s favourite nights of the year.

This year, after a few seasons of non-observance of the night, the now-independently-mobile (driver’s licences and a car) teens are talking of going into town to take part in a “zombie walk”, and costume makings are all over the kitchen table, so I guess they’re not too old for it after all, though the whole concept of the zombie thing leaves their parents a bit bemused. We will be joining up for a bonfire and fireworks once it gets dark, hosted by some of our in-town relations, so it promises to be an pleasurable evening.

All of this digression out of the way, I will now turn to the original purpose of this post, which is to talk a little bit about a book. Twizzlers and Rockets and a few mini Mars Bars at hand, I’m ready to go. Let’s see what my sugar-fueled morning brain can come up with to say about the book I searched out last night as an appropriate Hallowe’en read.

It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state. There wasn’t so much wilderness around you couldn’t see the town. But on the other hand there wasn’t so much town you couldn’t see and feel and touch and smell the wilderness. The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here. And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across. And the town was full of…

Boys.
And it was the afternoon of Halloween.
And all the houses shut against a cool wind.
And the town was full of cold sunlight.
But suddenly, the day was gone.
Night came out from under each tree and spread.

Behind the doors of all the houses there was a scurry of mouse feet, muted cries, flickerings of light.

Behind one door, Tom Skelton, aged thirteen, stopped and listened.

The wind outside nested in each tree, prowled the sidewalks in invisible treads like unseen cats.

Tom Skelton shivered. Anyone could see that the wind was a special wind this night, and the darkness took on a special feel because it was All Hallows’ Eve. Everything seemed cut from soft black velvet or gold or orange velvet. Smoke panted up out of a thousand chimneys like the plumes of funeral parades. From kitchen windows drifted two pumpkin smells: gourds being cut, pies being baked.

Tom Skelton is ready to take part in this night of nights. Playing on his fortunate last name, he’s decked himself out in bones, white stitched on black, and he’s keen to get going, as are his friends.

Wham. Eight front doors banged shut.

Eight boys made a series of beautiful leaps over flowerpots, rails, dead ferns, bushes, landing on their own dry-starched front lawns. Galloping, rushing, they seized a final sheet, adjusted a last mask, tugged at  strange mushroom capos or wigs, shouting at the way the wind took them along, helped their running; glad of the wind, or cursing boy curses as masks fell off or hung sideways or stuffed up their noses with a muslin smell like a dog’s hot breath…

But wait! Shouldn’t there be nine of them? Who is missing?

One is not there, and as they run to the missing Pipkin’s house an awful foreboding forms in each boyish heart. What could be wrong?

Pipkin appears, pale and sad, moving like an old man. Not feeling well at all. But still keen to join in. “You go ahead. I’ll catch you up.”

Agreeing to rendezvous in the ravine, at the House of the Haunts (brrr!) the boys scatter into the night.

And when they get there, still no Pipkin.

…They stood at last by a crumbling wall, looking up and up and still farther up at the great tombyard top of the old house. For that’s what it seemed. The high mountain peak of the mansion was littered with what looked like black bones or iron rods, and enough chimneys to choke out smoke signals from three dozen fires on sooty hearths hidden far below in dim bowels of this monster place. With so many chimneys, the roof seemed a vast cemetery, each chimney signifying the burial place of some old god of fire or enchantress of steam, smoke, and firefly spark. Even as they watched, a kind of bleak exhalation of soot breathed up out of some four dozen flues, darkening the sky still more, and putting out some few stars.

And towering over the house, an amazing, stupendous, fabulous tree.

And it was such a tree as they had never seen in all their lives.

It stood in the middle of a vast yard behind the terribly strange house. And this tree rose up some hundred feet in the air, taller than the high roofs and full and round and well branched, and covered all over with rich assortments of red and brown and yellow autumn leaves. [And] the Tree was hung with a variety of pumpkins of every shape and size and a number of tints and hues of smoky yellow or bright orange.

“A pumpkin tree,” someone said.

“No,” said Tom.

The wind blew among the high branches and tossed their bright burdens, softly.

“A Halloween Tree,” said Tom.

And he was right.

And out of a pile of leaves below the tree arises a huge man in dark clothes, a menacing and laughing man, intoning something about “tricks Tricks TRICKS,” and before they know it the eight boys are being whisked off on a fantastical journey into the past, to glimpse the origins of Halloween, and to try to pin down the elusive Pipkin, who seem always to be just a little beyond them, a faint and ghostly presence.

the halloween tree ray bradbury illustration 1 001

I have to admit that right here, page 33, is where Ray Bradbury rather lost me. I completely bought into the nostalgic Halloween night magic of the house and the tree and the boys and the thrills of their adolescent nocturnal glories, but once their shape-shifting, darkly mysterious host materialized and whisked them off into a time travel journey, the magic thinned and the bones of the Teachable Moment shone through.

For this is a journey back to learn about the origins of Halloween, and the boys first build a kite out of a barn’s wall worth of tattered circus posters which carries them out into the night sky and beyond. The author is grandly creative in this bit, and admittedly throughout; the strength of the book is definitely in the imagery, if not in the highly contrived plot.

the halloween tree ray bradbury illustration 3 001

Off they all go to visit ancient Egypt, when the pyramids were new, and then to glimpse Night of the Souls rites in Greece and Rome. They have a seriously creepy encounter with scythe-wielding Samhain in Druidic times, watch the Romans fall the sacred groves, and the Roman golden images turn into Christian icons. A witch’s gathering attended by flying broomstick is next, merging into a visit to Notre Dame Cathedral and its fantastical gargoyles, one of which appears to be the missing Pipkin, turned to stone. Nice bit here with the wind and the rain allowing the stone creatures to speak.

Finally to the Day of the Dead in Mexico, into the graveyards and down into the Catacombs, where the eight boys are given a chance to finally save their elusive friend, but at a potentially terrible cost. Needless to say, they do the expected thing, and find themselves whisked back home, where they learn that Pipkin has indeed had a brush with death (appendicitis) but has had an operation, and has rallied wonderfully well.

Midnight strikes. All return to their homes, and the night turns quiet as the candle blames wink out on the Halloween Tree.

the halloween tree ray bradbury illustration 2 001

That felt really rushed. A whirlwind tour with too many stops.

I have mixed emotions about this short novel, this juvenile fable, this ode to youth and to the magic of an idealized Halloween.

Bradbury returns to his personal childhood world of white-picket-fence, small-town, mid-West America; his characters are those perennially adolescent boys just on the verge of the thing that comes next. Their world is ultimately clean, decent, safe and secure; the dark places are there, but there is always a refuge, and the light always triumphs in the end. Fair enough, but one can’t help but feel a bit uneasy, that there’s something missing from the scene, or maybe that there’s something more going on than we get to see. Where are the dark places in your world, dear reader, and what place of safety have you to look forward to?

Exactly.

The time travel bits are a bit too handy, a bit too contrived, a bit too screenplay-ready. Aha! And there’s the twist. This story was first conceived as just that, a screenplay for an animated movie, in 1969. That project fell through, and Bradbury dusted it off and turned it into this narrative work a few years later. This explains a lot, the abrupt switching from scene to scene, and the rushed and hyper-active speed of travel throughout. It would make a good movie, and in 1993 Bradbury helped Hanna-Barbera bring the story to the screen, winning an Emmy Award in 1994 for the project. ( I haven’t seen the 1993 film, but I am mildly curious about it now.)

An evocative juvenile novel, with interest for the adult reader in the beautifully written descriptive passages found throughout, if one can wade through the “Gee whiz!” kidspeak and the absolutely dire rhyming bits scattered throughout. (Poetry obviously is not one of Bradbury’s strengths, at least not here.) I’m not quite sure how present day youth would view this one; I suspect the dreamily imaginative ones would find much to like, but it also has a very vintage feel, perhaps too much so to appeal to the majority.

So there it is: a Halloween book review on the day itself.

Cheers, all.

Oh, and the morning candy was most tasty, but I think I’m good now for another year! 😉

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columbella phyllis a whitney 001Columbella by Phyllis A. Whitney ~ 1966. This edition: Doubleday, 1966. Hardcover. 246 pages.

My rating: 3/10

Oh, why did I read this? It was so disappointing. And I have had prior experience with this author – see here  – and went in fully cognizant of what I was about to experience. All I can say then is that hope springs eternal. And that my hope was dashed. Oh, woe!

But don’t you like the mysterious cover illustration, and doesn’t this flyleaf blurb sound promising, for a lightly diverting romantic-suspense thriller type thing?

That was a night of gold and red, with torches flaming on the hilltop and the lights of Charlotte Amalie fanning out around the harbor below. A night of water lily and sweet-smelling cereus. The night of the shell…

Jessica Abbott, fleeing her own past, finds herself the center of a whirlpool of conflict at Hampden House, high on its cliff in the Virgin Islands. She is confronted by Catherine Drew, a woman whose sole purpose is to torment and destroy. Catherine is the wife of a vital, driven man, Kingdon Drew-toward whom Jessica is irresistible drawn. Jessica must defy the beautiful, self-indulgent Catherine, who likes to affect the name of a shell – Columbella. She must fight for the very future of another woman’s child. Above all, she must find the strength to help the man she loves escape the trap Catherine has set for him. Yet each day Catherine seems to mock her in a new way – and win. Until the night of the shell…

Always, the brilliant island sun shines over Hampden House in St. Thomas and over Caprice, the plantation in St. Croix that is crumbling to eerie ruin, guarded by its unicorns. Always the threat of a hurricane looms over this exotic setting, where the past still affects the present.

So. Our lovely heroine Jessica has just lost her own sweet-faced, soft-voiced, utterly poisonous, insidiously controlling mother, and she is seeking to escape her own demons by taking on the role of companion-governess to yet another emotionally-abused girl, the teenage daughter of an architect and the aforementioned Catherine. Jessica falls in love with the hunky, broody Kingdon at first sight, and he himself is overcome with passion for her, which he manfully tamps down until it breaks free of its straining bonds. Lots of scenes of overt jealousy (on Catherine’s part) and apparent dislike (on Kingdon’s part only, for Jessica openly fawns on her employer from the get go) before the two lovers fall into each other’s arms. But there is still that pesky wife…

The final solution is of course a convenient demise – poor Catherine-Columbella! With Kingdon as main suspect, but of course he gets off the hook, thanks to a convenient confession by the true killer, who then is dealt with by the Hand of God (tree falling in a storm, crushing said murderer) and allowing everything to Work Out For The Best.

The best bits in the book were in the details. The setting, St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, is enthusiastically described, and there are nice touches of verisimilitude in the discussion of the shell-collecting business and the preparation of the specimens for sale.

But the scenarios and the characters – wow! Can something be described as both flat and melodramatic at the same time? If so, our writer has pulled it off. And the passion between Kingdon and Jessica was blush-inducing indeed, but not because of its explicit nature. No, because it was so agonizingly clichéd. I was embarrassed at myself for willingly reading such schlock.

I want to like Phyllis Whitney so very, very much. She has such a promising back story as a writer, and she very obviously goes about her stuff with the best will in the world. She was a bestselling writer in her time, and much beloved by her devoted readers. So I may continue in my occasional investigations of her oeuvre, hoping to find a semi-precious gem or two amidst the very prolific sparkly bits of her vast body of work.

phyllis a whitney bio back dj columbella 001

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the innocent traveller ethel wilsonThe Innocent Traveller by Ethel Wilson ~ 1947. This edition: New Canadian Library, 1982. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9316-0. 277 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Every once in a while a book comes along which, unexpectedly, completely delights me. The Innocent Traveller is one such novel.

There’s not much in the way of drama in this joyfully written book, but it struck a chord of shared experience and of common humanity in its delicious narrative of the irrepressible Topaz. Always witty and occasionally poignant, the tale spans a full century of one woman’s life, and simultaneously gives a lightly drawn but absolutely fascinating portrait of the times she moved through, and of the society of her peers.

From the Author’s Note:

This is the story – part truth and part invention – of a lively woman who lived for a hundred years and died triumphant in Vancouver and is nearly forgotten after her small commotion of living.

The metaphors are not mixed. The drop of water, the bird, the water-glider, the dancer, the wind on the canal, and Topaz, are all different and all the same…

E.W.
Vancouver
British Columbia
1947

Our story – Topaz’s story –  begins in the 1840s,  in a respectable and prosperous London house, at dinner with the family (and important dinner guest) all decorously present.

Far away at the end of the table sat Father, the kind, handsome and provident man. At this end sat Mother, her crinoline spread abroad. On Mother’s right was Mr. Matthew Arnold. On each side of the table the warned children ate their food gravely, all except Topaz, on Mother’s left. Topaz, who could not be squelched, was perched there on top of two cushions, as innocent as a poached egg. Mother sat gracious, fatigued, heavy behind the majestic crinoline with the last and fatal child.

Topaz in a few moments makes the expected scene and ends the evening under the table amongst the trouser legs and skirts of her elders; poor Mother is indeed doomed, perishing along with her “last and fatal” baby within the next 48 hours. After a suitable period of mourning, Father remarries in order to provide a suitable mother and guide for his large family, choosing his late wife’s sister Jane as replacement and new helpmeet.

Stepmother is absorbed into the Edgeworth family, and life goes on. We watch the brothers and sisters blossom, go forth into the world, marry, have children, and flourish (or decline into early death) each in their turn, and we return again and again to take a look at little Topaz, who, still innocent of deliberate intent to speak out of turn, does indeed manage to do so continuously.

Boarding school, an unfulfilled love affair, travels with her older siblings, and the long gentle transition into adult, then middle-aged daughter-at-home with elderly parents; through this all Topaz burbles as irrepressibly as a forest spring. Stepmother dies, and Topaz finds herself in control of the household, and sadly at a loss. Others step in, as always, and Topaz goes back to her comfortable niche as universal companion to all, talking her way through her days, greeting each new thing with cries of alarm or delight (mostly delight); persisting in her perennial girlishness until she finds herself at fifty, Mother, Stepmother and Father now all gone, at last on her own.

Now this could go very badly indeed, but luckily (for Topaz) the Victorian custom of family looking after family is one the Edgeworths faithfully and automatically practice, and Topaz is absorbed into a new family grouping, one which will see her out to the end of her days. She moves, along with her elder widowed sister Annie and her unmarried cousin Rachel, across the Atlantic to Canada, via sea journey and long train trip, all the way to Vancouver, where Annie’s sons welcome the three adventurers, “whose years added up to over one hundred and fifty”, and helped them to establish a new home.

Topaz embraces her new life with typical enthusiasm, and we follow her for the last five decades of her life until her peaceful ending, a full century after her birth.

Ethel Wilson writes this semi-biographical tale with a very personal touch – she appears just a little over half way in in the person of recently orphaned eight-year-old Rose, born in South Africa to English parents – Annie’s son and daughter-in-law. Annie, Rachel and Topaz warmly enfold this fourth person into their world, and subsequently raise her in to womanhood in her turn.

Through the fabulous social and scientific changes of the turning of the nineteenth into the twentieth century, through two world wars and the stunning growth of the colonial city of Vancouver and change after change after change, Topaz remains the same, endlessly curious, endlessly outspoken, endlessly optimistic and reaching for the next adventure. Her death is sad but not tragic; her memory persists in those whose lives she fluttered in to and out of.

Lovingly written, with warm humour and an unsentimentally analytical eye, this is a lovely ode to an individual and a family, and an absolute joy to read.

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And the last late reviews from February of 2013.

*****

the little bookroom eleanor farjeonThe Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon ~ 1955

This edition: New York Review Books, 2003. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-590170-489. 336 pages.

My rating: 8/10

A collection of twenty-seven delicately written fairy tales. Aimed at the younger crowd, but possibly more suited to real appreciation by adults. A few are slight, gentle and – in the very best sense of the word – childish, but others are rich in their imagery and complexity. The stories were selected by Eleanor Farjeon herself, and are deliciously and perfectly illustrated by the one and only Edward Ardizzone. Rumer Godden’s Afterword is a lovingly worded compliment to the author.

My own pretty well grown children are sadly long past the stage of being read to, but I am keeping this one close by both for personal pleasure and perhaps to one day share with as yet theoretical grandchildren.

sensible kate doris gatesSensible Kate by Doris Gates ~ 1943

This edition: Viking Press, 1969. Hardcover. 189 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Doris Gates is perhaps best known for her Newbery Award runner-up children’s novel Blue Willow, as well as the widely read Little Vic, both viewed as important early examples of “realistic problem fiction” for young readers, not a genre I am particularly fond of as a rule, but which is perfectly acceptable when the characters and their story are over-emphasized over the “problem”. Doris Gates gets a pass; these are “real” novels no matter how they’re categorized.

Sensible Kate was Gates’ third novel, and it is a pleasant example of children’s literature of its era, with the young heroine facing her rather daunting challenges with good expectations of positive outcomes. The Kate of the novel is a likeable girl, flawed enough to be realistic, but with a solid core of goodness which makes her most appealing.

Kate has been an orphan as long as she can remember, and has been cared for by various “shiftless” relatives since babyhood. Now the relatives have decided to move out of the state, and they have decided to turn Kate over to the county relief office. Kate is placed as a foster child with an elderly couple, The Tuttles, and she soon makes herself beloved of them and many others whom she meets, including a young married couple, both artists, who are the very reverse of sensible in their daily affairs, and who are most appreciative of Kate’s practical talents.

A sweet but never saccharine story, with some interesting characters and scenarios which lift it a little over the average for its vintage and genre. Possibly one might pick up on the lightest shade of Anne of Green Gables, what with the red-haired heroine being an orphan and going off to live with an elderly couple, but the parallel ends right there. Kate is most certainly no Anne, and her creator has not attempted to model her so.

people who knock on the door patricia highsmithPeople Who Knock on the Door by Patricia Highsmith ~ 1983

This edition: Penguin, 1983. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-006741-8. 356 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

A rather unusual book, a noir almost-thriller with some odd twists, including a subplot involving a teenage girl’s abortion. Despite its date of publication, it seems to be set in the 1950s, and has a decidedly vintage feel to it. This is the first Patricia Highsmith book I’ve ever read, though I’ve seen several of the movie adaptations of her work, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and of course the Venetian-set Talented Mr. Ripley, so the dark psychological elements in this one came as no surprise.

Here we have a normal middle-class family, the Aldermans, with an insurance-salesman father, stay-at-home mother volunteering a few days a week at a children’s hospital, and teenagers Arthur and younger Robbie. Arthur is getting ready to go to college, has a satisfactorily active love life, and he is poised to get on with his life when his whole world takes a sickening lurch.

Robbie falls ill with a mysterious infection and is suddenly on the verge of death. The doctors turn away in dismissal – the boy is going to die –  but Mr. Armstrong refuses to give up hope, and prays diligently to God for a miracle. Robbie recovers, and the previously un-religious father is so moved by the experience that he embraces religion and joins a highly evangelistic Christian sect. Mrs. Armstrong and Arthur view this at first with mildly perturbed eyes, but Robbie fully embraces his father’s new-found faith, with eventual horrifying consequences.

A can’t-look-away, exceedingly uncomfortable depiction of a dysfunctional family and its twisted disintegration, with none of the characters completely faultless, including our pseudo-hero Arthur, the closest thing to a chief protagonist in this tense tale.

 the wedding of zein tayeb salihThe Wedding of Zein by Tayeb Salih ~ 1968

This edition: New York Review Books, 2009. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-59017-342-8. 120 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Two short stories and a short novella – the title story – by the late Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih, set in the country around the northern Nile .

The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid speaks to the importance of tradition, and to the quiet resistance of the people of the Sudanese country to outside influences.

A Handful of Dates concerns a young boy who becomes aware for the first time of the realities of rich and poor, and the role his grandfather has played in a neighbour losing his inheritance.

The Wedding of Zein concerns an unlikely hero, a physically deformed “village idiot” (for want of a better term), who insistently falls in love with one after another village maiden, only to be disappointed as they always marry someone else. Imagine then the shock of everyone when it is announced that Zein has at last found a prospective wife, and an unexpectedly wise and beautiful one at that.

This book gives a diverting glimpse into an unfamiliar world, and the stories are told with clarity and understated, rather sly humour. A short but worthwhile collection.

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Here are a few more catch-up reviews from February of 2013.

*****

the elegance of the hedgehog muriel barberyThe Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery ~ 2006

This edition: Europa, 2008. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-9833372-60-0. 325 pages.

My rating: 8/10

I was moved to read this bestseller by the recommendations of respected fellow bloggers; sadly I cannot recall exactly who those were at this point in time! But to them I must say, “Thank you.”  For this was indeed a charming story.

In an exclusive Paris apartment building there dwells, upstairs, a snobbish upper-class family: mother, father, and two daughters. The youngest of the girls, twelve-year-old Paloma, is a strangely precocious child, given to thoughts well beyond her years. In her diary, which makes up half of the book, we learn that she is seriously disillusioned with life, and plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, unless something occurs to give her faith in the value of existence.

Downstairs is the stout, plain, elderly, and very obviously unintelligent concierge, Renée. Renée stumps around brusquely carrying out the tenants’ orders; she is blatantly uninterested in improving herself, and she carries out her duties with a sullen disrespect for her “betters”. Hers is the other half of the narrative.

Needless to say, for this novel follows the tried and true formula of loners uniting against the bitter world, Paloma and Renée find each other, and a friendship forms between the two social outcasts, who are soon joined by a third, new tenant Ozu, a wealthy Japanese businessman. And it will come as no surprise to readers that Renée is hiding an interior of the purest gold behind her prickly spikes – for she is indeed the hedgehog of the title, a creature of secret refinement, “deceptively indolent, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant”.

Predictably, tragedy does indeed strike, but from an unexpected direction.

There is also a cat.

Need I say more?

god grew tired of us john bul dauGod Grew Tired of Us by John Bul Dau & Michael Sweeney ~ 2008

This edition: National Geographic, 2008. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-4262-0212-4. 304 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

In 1987 a young Sudanese teenager was forced out of his home by a brutal raid on his village. What followed was a barefoot 1,000 mile trek through Sudan, Ethiopia, and eventually to Kenya, to a haven in a refugee camp. There John Bul Dau joined thousands of other displaced children, the “Lost Boys” of the Sudanese civil war.

Having no way of knowing the fate of his left-behind, possibly slaughtered family, John eventually immigrated to the United States, where he worked tirelessly to educate himself, all the while striving to raise awareness of the tribulations he himself went through, and to bring assistance to those still suffering from the aftermath of the war back in Sudan.

This book and its associated National Geographic film eloquently describe the situation. An earnest and strongly emotional memoir.

through the narrow gate karen armstrong 001Through the Narrow Gate: a memoir of life in and out of the convent by Karen Armstrong ~ 1981

This edition: Vintage Canada, 2005. Softcover. ISBN: 0-676-97709-X. 350 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Intriguing and occasionally bitter memoir of an ex-nun.

In 1962 Karen Armstrong, just seventeen, and child of a not particularly religious family, entered a Roman Catholic convent as a postulant, with the aim of becoming a nun. Seven years later, while attending Oxford under the sponsorship of her order (Armstrong was in training to become a teacher-nun) she realized that she had lost her faith, and she returned fully to the secular world.

Since then, Karen Armstrong has become well known for her writings on religion, and for her outspoken criticism of the Catholic Church’s more archaic practices, and of the confusion brought about by the mandated reforms of Vatican II.

This book, Armstrong’s first, is compelling reading. A very articulate writer.

The Guardian – Profile: Karen Armstrong is well worth reading if you are curious about this now high-profile public character; it references Through the Narrow Gate near the end of the article, with an amusing anecdote from Karen’s sister telling of how the family, after dropping Karen off at the convent for her entrance into her religious life, then went on to watch a production of The Sound of Music. That same sort of dark humour and willingness to smile at oneself is evident in places in this memoir, to leaven its more serious passages.

Sstarting out in the afternoon jill fraynetarting Out in the Afternoon by Jill Frayne ~ 2003

This edition: Vintage Canada, 2003. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-679311-881. 256 pages.

My rating: 4/10

This is an autobiographical memoir of the author’s mid-life crisis, and of the solace she sought and found in communing with nature.

A solo road trip, hiking, biking, camping, sea kayaking and such all help to salve Jill Frayne’s inner pain at the dual blow of both the break up of her long-term romantic relationship back in Ontario, and the moving away of her young adult daughter. Once she begins to gain a degree of competence in her new pursuits, and to feel herself physically comfortable in nature, Frayne begins a deeper exploration of her own emotions.

While I’m sure that this was a marvelous thing for Jill Frayne herself, but sadly I had trouble relating to her angsty navel-gazing, and I felt more and more like I was reading a very private diary. I eventually lost patience with the “me-me-ME” of the author’s inner dialogue; it coloured my reaction to the book as a whole.

I certainly admire the author’s courage as a woman alone going off into challenging territory by herself, and I would have enjoyed this more it had spent more time on the scenery and nuts and bolts of solo travel, and less on the touchy feely bits. But that’s just me; others may embrace the personal narrative and find meaning there which resonates with their own lives.

Back story: the author had an almost fatal accident several years before she set off on her trip; she had been told she would never walk again. She proved everyone wrong. Extra kudos to her, and I do hope the writing of this very personal book brought her comfort and much-needed inner peace.

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Looking back at my list of books read, February 2013 was obviously a good month for hitting the books, but not quite so good for writing reviews. Playing catch-up, then with a series of short impressions of things I read 9 months or so ago.

In approximate order of reading, here are some of the books not previously reviewed from February of 2013.

*****

shall we join the ladies eric nicolShall We Join the Ladies? by Eric Nicol ~ 1955

This edition: Ryerson Press, 1965. Hardcover. 110 pages.

My rating: 5/10

I suspect I was sated with Nicol’s particular brand of humour when I read this one immediately after an old favourite, Nicol’s first collection of essays, The Roving I. For I recollect that I was not terribly amused. The mood was hectic, the punchlines groan-inducing. Vintage humour, turned a bit “off” after years of shelf life, perhaps?

A keeper, because it has its moments, and it is Eric Nicol, but not one I am eager to re-read any time soon. Contemporary readers thought much more highly of it, and it won the Leacock Award in 1956.

Canus Humorous thought it was a gem, and I recommend a look at this link if you’d like more detail. Such a thoughtful review that I feel immediately guilty for my faint enthusiasm. I promise I’ll revisit this one and do it more justice. Some day.

the innocents margery sharp 001The Innocents by Margery Sharp ~ 1972

This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1972. Hardcover. 183 pages.

My rating: 11/10. I think this may well be my very favourite Margery Sharp, and, as you all may have guessed by now, I am seriously enthusiastic about this author to start with.

This was my second time reading The Innocents; I will be rationing myself to revisiting it, oh, maybe once a year or so, because I don’t want to wear out its already special status in my favourites list. For all of that enthusiasm, this is a very quiet book, one of those minor tales concerning a few people only, with nothing terribly exciting going on within it. But it is a compelling read, and I was completely on the side of the angels right from the get go, though fully cognizant of their failings.

In brief, then.

A middle-aged spinster living in a quiet English village is visited by a younger friend who has married very well indeed, and who is now living in America. It is immediately pre-WW II, and the married couple are hoping to squeeze in a Continental holiday before things cut loose. They are also travelling with their small child, and the unstated purpose of the visit-to-an-old-friend soon becomes clear: they are hoping that they can leave the child in the peace of the country while they continue on their tour.

All is arranged, and spinster and child settle in to a peaceful routine, which quietly turns into a longer-term arrangement as war intervenes and the parents return to America without stopping to collect their child.

Here’s the hook. The young child is very obviously mentally retarded, and though the father suspects this, the beautiful and vivacious mother refuses to even consider that her offspring may be in any way “sub normal”. The child and her caregiver form a deep and complex bond in the ensuing years before the now-widowed mother returns to collect her daughter and return with her to America, to launch into society, as it were, as a charming sidekick to her fashionable mother.

The reality is much different than the dream, and the subsequent events are absolutely heart-rending. The author lets us all suffer along with the brutally dazed child until bringing things to a rather shocking conclusion, which she has already told us about on the very first page.

Margery Sharp is at her caustic best in this late novel. Loved it. A longer review shall one day follow, full of excerpts and much more detail.

in pious memory margery sharp 001In Pious Memory by Margery Sharp ~ 1967

This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1967. Hardcover. 184 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Well, then I went on to this slightly earlier novel, and of course it couldn’t even begin to stand up to The Innocents.

An out-and-out farce, this one. Mr. and Mrs. Prelude are in a plane crash in the Swiss Alps, and while Mrs. Prelude escapes relatively unharmed, Mr. Prelude perishes. Or does he? On her return to England, Mrs. Prelude begins to second-guess her hasty identification of what she now isn’t quite sure were her husband’s mortal remains. Sixteen-year-old Lydia sets out on a quest to find her father. Much hilarity ensues.

The whole thing fell rather flat. It seemed forced, and needlessly frenetic, and Margery Sharp’s sly innuendo just plain annoyed me this time around. To be fair, I will be re-reading this one in future, and may then possibly view it with less jaded eyes. I must say that it reminded me strongly of Dodie Smith’s The New Moon with the Old, and my reaction was much the same: reluctant amusement tinged with distaste for the general tone.

the stone of chastity margery sharpThe Stone of Chastity by Margery Sharp ~ 1940

This edition: The World Publishing Co., 1945. Hardcover. 280 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

Now going back a few decades, to 1940, and Margery Sharp’s ninth novel, this one pure farce.

In the small gun-room, temporarily converted into a study, Professor Isaac Pounce was even then completing his questionnaire (later to be circulated through the unsuspecting village of Gillenham) on the subject of Chastity…

Professor Pounce is hot on the track of a piece of English folklore. He is looking for a mythical stepping stone which, when trod upon by female persons, will unfailingly support the virgins and toss off the unchaste ignominiously into the gurgling stream. Having a very good idea of where the stone might be, Professor Pounce’s first step in this very scientific study is to send his nephew Nicholas out with a questionnaire to all of the likely young village maidens. Confusion ensues as the rural rustics turn against the snoopy visitors in the Old Manor.

Another one due for a re-read, to savour the full flavour of what Margery Sharp has assembled here. She’s in fine form throughout, and the thing is most readable, though I felt that it wasn’t altogether convincing, even allowing for its obviously satirical intention.

Another snippet, to give you a taste of the flavour of the narrative within:

On the first floor Mrs. Pounce, mother to Nicholas and sister-in-law to the Professor, was lurking in her bedroom afraid to come out. She had appeared at lunch wearing a very nice necklace of scarabs and enamel, and the Professor, cocking an interested eye, had remarked that it was just such trifles – the sight of an English gentlewoman ornamented with seven phallic symbols – that made life so perennially interesting to the folklorist. Mrs. Pounce did not know what a phallic symbol was, and instinct (or perhaps a look in her son’s eye) prevented her asking; but after coffee she quietly sought out a dictionary and took it upstairs. At the moment she was feeling she could never come down again.

i the suicide's library tim bowling jacketIn the Suicide’s Library by Tim Bowling ~ 2004

This edition: Gaspereau Press, 2010. Softcover.  ISBN: 1-55447-089-7. 320 pages.

My rating: 7/10

And now, changing gears completely to something much more consciously literary.

Is it ever right to steal a book? Tim Bowling, Canadian poet, browsing a university library collection, stumbles upon a copy of poet Wallace Steven’s Ideas of Order, signed on the flyleaf by yet another poet, Weldon Kees, who disappeared mysteriously one day in 1955, with evidence suggesting his suicide by jumping of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

As Tim Bowling allows his collector’s lust to suggest certain possibilities to him – would anyone even notice if he “liberated” such a poet’s treasure from its dusty obscurity in the stacks? – his renewed interest in both Wallace Stevens and Weldon Kees leads into a book-length examination of his own life, and the parallels between himself and his predecessors.

The angst of middle age, marriage and parenting are discussed with passionate intensity, as are such things as the relevance of poetry in the world, the desire to own objects, the new importance of the internet to the serious book collector, and much, much more.

Absolutely fascinating, but it does go on and on and on, and I absolutely hated Bowling’s final decision regarding the book, which I cannot share here, as it is the whole point of working through this thing. It made me grumpy for days, and still offends me to think about it.

Has anyone else read this one? What did you think he should have done?

And I must say that this has to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing of the contemporary books I personally own; Gaspereau Press did a fabulous job of the actual production of the physical book. The paper, the fonts, the slipcover and the undercover and the graphic design – absolutely perfect.

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Looking over my year in books, I see many interesting and noteworthy books I’ve read but not yet written about here. So, in the interests of clearing the decks and tidying up my house for the coming winter, literally as well as figuratively speaking – the unreviewed books are piled in corners here and there and are a perpetual annoyance to those who share my space – I am going to see if I can say a few words about some of the neglected ones. Working from memory on most of these, with full intention of not going into too much detail; a rehearsal of sorts for the fast-approaching (!) January 1st summation of The Books of The Year Just Passed.

In approximate order of reading, here are the books not yet reviewed from January of 2013.

*****

daylight on saturday j b. priestleyDaylight on Saturday by J.B. Priestley ~ 1943.

This edition: MacMillan, 1944. Hardcover. 306 pages.

My rating: 7/10

I fully intend to re-read this one, and hope to write a fuller review one day. Though not one of Priestley’s top-rank efforts, an interesting book nonetheless, both in content and for its place in the genre of “propaganda books”, written during the war years to boost public morale.

Daylight on Saturday is set in an English aircraft factory during World War II. Priestley spent time visiting such factories in order to gather material for the novel; the title refers to the long hours which the workers spent inside the windowless buildings, with their only glimpse of daylight on their days off.

The novel is set in a series of linked chapters, each one following one particular character, foreman to girl-on-the-work bench to engineer to odd-job man. Many small daily incidents leading up to an improbably dramatic concluding episode make up the mild action of the novel; it is more of a series of vignettes and semi-analytical thoughts on the war and the nature of war work than a compelling piece of stand-alone fiction. I repeat, not one of Priestley’s better efforts, but one which I am glad I read, if only to make me better acquainted with the writer and his world.

The novel shares a setting with Monica Dickens’ similar wartime novel, The Fancy, but Dickens does characters so very much better than Priestley – at least in this novel –  that her book is one of my favourites for communicating the thoughts and feelings and the physical realities of wartime England among the factory workers. Priestley’s people verge on caricature; his world feels just a shade too stage-set and artificial.

the confidant by helene gremillonThe Confidant by Hélène Grémillon ~  2010    

This edition: Penguin, 2012. Translated by Alison Anderson. ISBN: 978-0-14-312156-5. Softcover. 243 pages.

My rating: 6/10

I started the year of with the nest of intentions of taking part in a reading challenge to go Around the World in 12 Books. Country One was France, and I managed to read several books for the country after which I got rather sidetracked and completely lost my focus.

The book starts off with an intriguing hook. It is Paris, 1975, and a young woman, Camille, has just lost her mother. In the pile of letters of condolence she finds an unusually thick and heavy envelope, full of handwritten pages, the first installment of an anonymous narrative which will start appearing every Tuesday, until the tale – concerning Camille’s own mother and eventually Camille herself – is played out to its tell-all conclusion.

The whole thing is highly improbable, and among other things involves surrogate motherhood, treachery, death and destruction, and a dash of bitter revenge, all set in World War II France. I found it quite diverting while actually engaged in the reading of the novel, but it was sadly it seems to not have been very memorable, as now, only 10 months later, only the thinnest thread of the plot remains in my mind.

Leafing through the book today, I conclude that it may go into the giveaway box; a final damning verdict. I sense that this is one I will never miss once it goes away, though it amused me for its brief time.

the feminine middlebrow novel nicola humbleThe Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity and Bohemianism by Nicola Humble ~ 2001.

My rating: 8/10

A scholarly treatment of one of my pet genres, and very readable and affirmative of our pursuit of the same. For those days when we wonder a bit if our interest in this appealing sideline branch of literature is a bit too easy, and if we shouldn’t be working harder to justify our casual enjoyment. Luckily, Nicola Humble has gone ahead and done a bunch of the legwork for us, putting forth numerous arguments in favour of its social importance and literary value. Shelve this alongside your Rose Macaulays and Margaret Kennedys, and never feel apologetic again!

From the back cover:

“Middlebrow” has always been a dirty word, used disparagingly since its coinage in the mid-1920s for the sort of literature thought to be too easy, insular and smug. Yet it was middlebrow fiction – largely written and read by women – that absolutely dominated the publishing market in the four decades from the 1920s to the 1950s. Neglected by subsequent critical fashion in favour of the work of literary elites, this literature has only recently begun to be reassessed. Aiming to rehabilitate the feminine middlebrow, Nicola Humble argues that the novels of writers such as Rosamund Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor, Stella Gibbons, Nancy Mitford, and a host of others less well known, played a powerful role in establishing and consolidating, but also in resisting, new class and gender identities in this period of volatile change for both women and the middle classes.

The work of over thirty novelists is covered, read alongside other discourses as diverse as cookery books, child-care manuals, and the reports of Mass Observation. Investigating the nature of the feminine middlebrow and its readers, the author considers its variously radical and conservative remakings of ideas of class, the home, the family and gender. Defining her period as running from the end of the first world war to the mid-1950s, she challenges the prevailing convention that sees the second world war as effecting a decisive ideological and cultural break, and offers a revision to the way we currently map the changing politics of femininity and the domestic in the twentieth century. The first work to insist on the centrality of the concept of the middlebrow in understanding the women’s writing of this period, The Feminine Middlebrow Novel uncovers a literature simultaneously snobbish and bohemian, daring and conventional, marked by an ideological flexibility that is the product of its paradoxical allegiance to both domesticity and a radical sophistication.

Sure. What they said.

Seriously though, wonderfully easy reading for a scholarly treatise.

a company of swans eva ibbotsonA Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson ~  1985   

This edition: Picador, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-230-01484-8. Softcover. 392 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Another one of Eva Ibbotson’s abysmally maltreated, highly intelligent, totally talented, and absolutely adorable heroines runs away from an overbearing father and an ice-cold aunt to join a ballet company heading to South America, where she finds personal fulfillment, oodles of true new friends, and a passionate hero type who sweeps her off her feet. Set in 1912, and chock full of intriguing references to the fabulous world of the Amazonian high society – excesses of European culture in the jungle – most prominently the fabulous Manaus Opera House in Brazil, where key scenes are played out. What’s not to like?

Well…

Second time reading this, because the first time round I thought maybe I was missing something, because it left me just a tiny bit “huh?”

The story started out very well indeed, with our sensitive young heroine being well squelched by her uptight family; I cheerfully nodded in happy approval at her decision to duck out when opportunity arose. Where the author lost me was when the predictable romance degenerated into farce, what with some over-the-top kidnappers strayed from a Roald Dahl-type children’s story, and an absolutely overwritten seduction scene which made me writhe with embarrassment at the thought of being caught reading such tripe.

Ahem.

Guess that was a bit harsh, bur really, Eva Ibbotson – you can do much better than this!

Backing up a bit to say that the book, despite its flaws, is definitely readable. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, though.

for joshua richard wagameseFor Joshua: An Ojibway Father Teaches His Son by Richard Wagamese ~ 2002.

This edition: Doubleday, 2002. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-385-25712-0. 240 pages.  

My rating: 7/10.

Spurred on by the discussion around this years Canada Reads debates, I read Richard Wagamese’s novel, Indian Horse and his collection of personal essays,  One Native Life, and continued my exploration of this author with this autobiographical collection of personal anecdotes, framed as a series of talks given to Wagameses’s estranged son, Joshua.

Growing up as a native foster child in a white family, Wagamese had a troubled adolescence, and though going on to attain a certain level of “success” early on in his working life, he also was troubled by recurring bouts of binge drinking, which resulted in the breakup of his relationship with his son’s mother.

Wagamese successfully overcame his dependence on alcohol, and set about remaking his life, fully embracing his Ojibway heritage and seeking to find peace by delving into his own conflicted upbringing and his personal response to his loss of cultural identity.

The events recounted in For Joshua are all too bitterly familiar; we have read them all before in the newspaper, and in other memoirs, but Wagamese stands out in that he has chosen to deal with his justified anger at his personal situation by seeking to concentrate on the positive things of his past, and of the optimism of his future. Terrible things have happened to him and to others, things out of their control and influenced greatly by their ethnicity and accident of time of birth – specifically, to be aboriginal in post-colonial North America – but allowing anger to take over is the ultimate admission of defeat, is the basic gist of this wrenchingly bitter yet hopeful and ultimately positive memoir. “You are responsible for your own happiness” is the moral of this very personal story.

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