Archive for July, 2015

wild cheryl strayed 2012Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed ~ 2012. This edition: Vintage, 2014. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-101-87344-1. 317 pages.

My rating: 4.5/10

In 1995 a young woman set off to solo-hike a 1000-mile portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2663-mile-long wilderness track through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains, from Mexico to Canada.

Twenty years later writer Cheryl Strayed looked back and turned her trip journal into a book. An advance copy of her book found its way to Hollywood actress Reese Witherspoon, who quickly tied down the filming rights and produced a self-starring movie (see cover of my copy, left) which has subsequently done quite nicely at the box office. Oprah Winfrey also caught the buzz, and Wild became the newest must-read book, rivalling Elizabeth Gilbert’s earlier Eat, Pray, Love as the “woman power” inspirational tome of the moment.

Cheryl Strayed’s reason for the trek was not particularly unique: personal trauma calling for a self-challenging healing journey. In this case, the take-a-hike impulse was engendered by the death of her too-young mother from cancer several years earlier, the self-inflicted ending of her marriage, and an escalating heroin habit.

Wild is equal parts flashback memoir and hiking journal, emphasis on the flashback portions. We get the gritty details of the dirt-poor, country-girl childhood blessed with a totally loving mother and cursed with an abusive birth-father, an affectionate but elusively committed stepfather, two close but eventually unreliable siblings who abandon Cheryl at her mother’s deathbed, a saintly husband who cares desperately for the emotionally damaged Cheryl, episodes of casual sex engaged in while that husband all-unaware meekly tends the home fires, frequent hardcore drug use, brutal self-loathing. This woman has a ton of baggage, and the real-life metaphor of the overloaded backpack is a perfect fit.

Completely unprepared for the magnitude of the hiking aspect of her undertaking, Strayed makes some major neophyte errors: brand-new and too-small boots, way too much equipment, no prior physical conditioning. And, quite predictably, she suffers for these blunders, allowing for a sub-theme of how-wrecked-is-my-body to wind through the narrative.

The hiking journal episodes are mildly engaging, for Cheryl Strayed is an acceptable readable writer, and does ironic humour well. But this book is mostly about the emotional journey – likely why Oprah embraced it with such gushing enthusiasm – with the solitude of the days spent walking allowing for the replaying of life episodes in desperate detail, and their reorganization into the messy story of Strayed’s life, and how she got to where she was.

The glories of the wilderness she is walking through receive not much more than an occasional (though appreciative) mention, obviously overshadowed by the dramatic scenery of the memoirist’s inner life. Fellow travellers on the trail get some attention, as do people from Cheryl Strayed’s off-trail world, but it’s ultimately very much the account of a solo journey.

There is no great epiphany experienced here, though by the end of Wild Cheryl Strayed does seem to have found a modicum of peace. The Pacific Crest Trail trek was a turning point in Cheryl’s life, and she did seem to get herself sorted enough to move ahead in a positive way, so that’s something.

Did I like this book?

Yes (sort of), and no.

I liked the author’s matter-of-fact honesty regarding her more bizarre behaviours, and I easily accepted the reasons she put forward for her actions: the trauma of her beloved mother’s death and the difficulties of her childhood and teen years are legitimate reasons for a messed up adult life. Perhaps some episodes are dramatized, but that’s what writers do. They take the mundane and shine it up and rework it to make a story. Nothing wrong with that.

What I didn’t like is that I found myself frequently seriously annoyed at Cheryl Strayed for her continued bad decisions once she had ample time to learn from her past history. She obviously self-analyzed on an ongoing basis, and the best she could come up with for continuing to engage in less than intelligent behaviour is something like “I am what I am. So deal, rest of the world.”

But at least she didn’t come across as feeling like the world owed her anything, which I did appreciate. Cheryl Strayed does keep things real in that department, so perhaps she has grown through her experience after all.

This book was a vaguely unsatisfying read despite its good points, and it’s now going into the giveaway box – a rare occurrence, as most books that come into the house manage to find shelf space. (It also reinforces my opinion that anything Oprah embraces is to be viewed with delicate caution. You guessed it, I’m not what you’d call an “O” fan.)

No shortage of internet material if one is looking for second opinions and lots and lots of analysis regarding this recent “inspirational” bestseller. (Was I personally inspired? I confess I was not.)

Here are two “professional” reviews which may prove helpful if you’re mulling over going down the Wild path yourself.

Dani Shapiro’s New York Times Book Review: The High Road – Wild, a Hiking Memoir by Cheryl Strayed

Melanie Rehak’s Slate Book Review: Trail of Tears – Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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the house of the seven gables 1851 nathaniel hawthorneThe House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne ~ 1851This edition: Aerie Books, 1988. Foreword and Afterword by Andre Norton. Paperback. ISBN: unknown. 330 pages.

My rating: 6/10

It is midway through the 1800s, and some two centuries after the notorious Salem witch trials, the venerable New England town has settled down into sedate respectability. Its weathered old buildings slumber in the summer sun, shudder in the winter storms, and bear silent witness to the relentless march of time and of an eclectic array of local characters, whose passage through the life of the town is memorialized in local legend.

The now-mouldering House of the Seven Gables is one of the most legend-ridden of the town’s many antique structures. Built on a piece of ground once owned by a reputed “wizard” who was executed during the 1600s’ purges amidst whispered rumours of a personal vendetta and frame-up by a wealthy townsman, the building and its inhabitants are associated with a violent curse pronounced upon the accuser and his future family. Here’s Hawthorne:

Old Matthew Maule, in a word, was executed for the crime of witchcraft. He was one of the martyrs to that terrible delusion, which should teach us, among its other morals, that the influential classes, and those who take upon themselves to be leaders of the people, are fully liable to all the passionate error that has ever characterized the maddest mob. Clergymen, judges, statesmen,—the wisest, calmest, holiest persons of their day stood in the inner circle round about the gallows, loudest to applaud the work of blood, latest to confess themselves miserably deceived. If any one part of their proceedings can be said to deserve less blame than another, it was the singular indiscrimination with which they persecuted, not merely the poor and aged, as in former judicial massacres, but people of all ranks; their own equals, brethren, and wives. Amid the disorder of such various ruin, it is not strange that a man of inconsiderable note, like Maule, should have trodden the martyr’s path to the hill of execution almost unremarked in the throng of his fellow sufferers. But, in after days, when the frenzy of that hideous epoch had subsided, it was remembered how loudly Colonel Pyncheon had joined in the general cry, to purge the land from witchcraft; nor did it fail to be whispered, that there was an invidious acrimony in the zeal with which he had sought the condemnation of Matthew Maule. It was well known that the victim had recognized the bitterness of personal enmity in his persecutor’s conduct towards him, and that he declared himself hunted to death for his spoil. At the moment of execution—with the halter about his neck, and while Colonel Pyncheon sat on horseback, grimly gazing at the scene Maule had addressed him from the scaffold, and uttered a prophecy, of which history, as well as fireside tradition, has preserved the very words. “God,” said the dying man, pointing his finger, with a ghastly look, at the undismayed countenance of his enemy,—”God will give him blood to drink!” After the reputed wizard’s death, his humble homestead had fallen an easy spoil into Colonel Pyncheon’s grasp. When it was understood, however, that the Colonel intended to erect a family mansion-spacious, ponderously framed of oaken timber, and calculated to endure for many generations of his posterity over the spot first covered by the log-built hut of Matthew Maule, there was much shaking of the head among the village gossips. Without absolutely expressing a doubt whether the stalwart Puritan had acted as a man of conscience and integrity throughout the proceedings which have been sketched, they, nevertheless, hinted that he was about to build his house over an unquiet grave. His home would include the home of the dead and buried wizard, and would thus afford the ghost of the latter a kind of privilege to haunt its new apartments, and the chambers into which future bridegrooms were to lead their brides, and where children of the Pyncheon blood were to be born. The terror and ugliness of Maule’s crime, and the wretchedness of his punishment, would darken the freshly plastered walls, and infect them early with the scent of an old and melancholy house.

A bit wordy, do you think? Oh, yes, very much so. This book requires more than a little perseverance to get through, and a very high tolerance for wading through lushly ornate passages such as that reproduced above.

One is rewarded for the attempt by gems of genuine humour and authorial playfulness among all the ponderous pronouncements. Though his writing is dauntingly dense reading, I found myself won over by Hawthorne’s paradoxical charm, in particular his habit of stating the obvious over and over again, driving home his points not by mighty sledgehammer blows, but by a persistent and relentless tap-tap-tapping.

Backing up a bit, to the plot of the story. The wizard is dead, the accursed murderer is about to build the titular house upon the tainted plot of land. And who should Colonel Pyncheon choose as head architect and carpenter but the son of the murdered man! Young Thomas Maule fulfills his commission with admirable expertise, and is luckily not seen lurking about the day of the grand house-warming, which goes horribly awry upon the discovery of the Colonel dead in his sitting room of an apparent hemorrhage, mouth horribly full of blood, chest covered in gore.

“The curse! The curse!” is whispered all about, and a coroner’s jury comes up with the unarguably accurate (though not very enlightening) verdict of “Sudden Death”.

The scene is now set for generations of rising and falling Pyncheon fortunes, as the Colonel’s descendants variously flourish and decline, with occasional inexplicable tragedies occurring, bring back whispers of “The curse!”

The House of the Seven Gables is now occupied by one of the few remaining Pyncheon descendants. Elderly spinster Miss Hepzibah resides alone in the massive and musty old mansion but for a boarder residing in a remote gable, a young man engaged in the profession of daguerreotype photography.

The two enjoy a cordial though far from intimate relationship, and live their lives remote from each other, though young Mr. Holgrave appears to view his landlady with a certain humorous benevolence. He appears this morning of the opening passages of the story to wish her luck upon her present endeavour, that of opening up a room of the house as a “cent shop”, a sort of notions-and-snacks corner store locally common to those women needing to earn a few pennies by their personal labours of baking, knitting, sewing and minor retailing of odds and ends – needles, yarn, tea and coffee, small packets of sugar, flour and yeast and the like for housewives caught short.

What a comedown in the world for poor Miss Hepzibah! Gently raised, a New England “lady”, Miss H has run out of financial resources right when she needs money the most, for her younger brother Clifford suddenly has need of her shelter and assistance.

For Clifford was convicted of murder some thirty years earlier, when the uncle then in charge of the House of Seven Gables was found dead, mouth full of blood, chest covered in gore (hey! does this remind you of anything?) but this time with a damning bloody handprint found at the scene, ostensibly that of young Clifford’s. Clifford has steadfastly maintained his innocence, and apparently there were some doubts as to his complete guilt, because he has quietly been released from jail, to flee to his sister’s sheltering arms, an almost-insane, weeping, cringing wreck of a man.

Add to this ménage a young relation fresh from the country, lovely Phoebe, who is deeply good and conveniently competent and proves a godsend to Hepzibah as she struggles with the dual challenges of shop-keeping and brother-sitting.

And, entering from Stage Left, a villainous uncle, the continuously smiling but deeply evil Judge Pyncheon, spitting image of long-dead ancestor Colonel Pyncheon, complete to grasping nature and apparent lack of conscience.

There follows a not very plausible drama concerning a long-hidden secret document, complicated by the continual efforts of the wicked Judge to confront the mentally fragile Clifford regarding the circumstances of the thirty-years-ago murder.

Phoebe adds a sweetly winsome element to the soberness of the story by her innocent charm and her artless forays into gardening and chicken-keeping in the overgrown gardens surrounding the house, and rather predictably becomes involved in a romance with the handsome daguerreotypist boarder Mr Holgrave, who turns out to be not quite what he seems.

A main character dies in identical circumstances to the demise of the first cursed Pyncheon, and the townspeople gather to gossip and cast blame (“The curse! The curse!”) until all is unravelled, with various truths revealed. The bones of the wizard may now rest easy in the grave. Goodness is rewarded, and the innocent are vindicated, while the evil are indicted of their heinous crimes.

All’s well that ends well, and we close the book with vast relief at having made our laborious way through. Tick it off the list, and move on, meanwhile pitying those poor students who must read, re-read and analyze this dense period piece of a gothic novel in the interests of garnering marks for their literature classes.

Is this really a classic, or merely an example of vintage genre fiction? After this reading I incline to the second designation, for despite its inclusion on numberless literary reading lists, the book is really quite a minor novel, a fluff piece despite its wordy immensity. Its main theme – if there must be one – seems to me to be all about ancestral guilt, but the occasional supernatural occurrences used to move the story along muddy the waters enough to defy its being classified as any one thing. It’s a combination of mild horror story, clichéd romance novel, chest-thumping melodrama, and ironic morality tale.

This said, here and there the author strikes pure gold, with memorable incidents and passages of prose, and to add to its appealing aspects there is abundant humour amongst all of the curses, hand-wringings, bloodshed and drama.

In conclusion I must say that I generally enjoyed the novel, and am glad I read it. I will not however recommend it as a must-read, because it is truly a ponderous hodge-podge of a book, more gobbledy-gook than substance when one views it from a little distance after finally attaining its end.

Here’s an excellent essay by Jason Pettus on the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography website, detailing Jason’s opinion regarding The House of the Seven Gables’ inclusion on classics lists, and its historical literary significance.

House_of_the_Seven_Gables_(2)cond

The house which inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gothic romance, the Turner-Ingersoll mansion in Salem, built in 1668, and now restored as part of a collection of historic buildings associated with Hawthorne in his home city. Photo taken in the early 1900s.

 

 

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it's an old country j.b. priestley 001It’s An Old Country by J.B. Priestley ~ 1967. This edition: Heinemann, 1967. Hardcover. 247 pages.

My rating: 2.5/10

I’m a sincere J.B. Priestley fan, so this rating and following review pain me greatly. I’ll try to get it over with quickly, so I can put the book away (far away) and not have to look at it and be reminded of my disappointment.

It’s 1960-something, and 35-year-old economic historian Tom Adamson has just buried his mother in a Sydney, Australia graveyard. Tom is by birth English, having come to Australia as a toddler with his embittered mother and wee sister when his actor-artist father suddenly abandoned his family back in the old country.

Raised to scorn his absent parent, Tom has had a disquieting experience when, in her last days of illness, his mother hints that there was some sort of mystery as to why Dad cut all ties, and a deeper reason behind it all.

So Tom takes leave from his job as a Colonial Economic History professor at the local university, flies to England, and proceeds to seek his father, whom he feels is still alive (he’d know if it weren’t so, our author assures us, Tom being apparently blessed with some sort of superior filial intuition) and perhaps yearning for his long-lost son.

Tom falls in with a ne’er-do-well cousin, who in the intervals of between hitting Tom up for substantial “loans” of cash actually proves fairly useful in providing introductions to people who can give snippets of information regarding Tom’s elusive father. We meet a vast array of potentially intriguing characters – a seedy private enquiry agent, a senile noblewoman, an elegant European jetsetter (with whom Tom has an ultimately unsatisfying sexual escapade), various actors, artists, writers, pub-owners, ex-lovers of the father, ex-employers of the father, fellow workers of the father’s numerous jobs – an immense cast of secondary characters, and each one as sketchily portrayed and forgettable as the last.

I’ll tell you what Tom discovers, to save you from plodding through this thing for yourself. (Consider this your spoiler alert, though that very term implies something suspenseful or exciting, which is far from what occurs in the book.)

Turns out that Dad’s letters home were suppressed by a jealous lover – he’d really meant to return to his wife at some point but said lover maneuvered weak-willed Dad in a different direction. After failing at reaching success as either an actor or a painter, Dad enlisted in the army, fought in the 2nd World War, came out to a dismal civilian life, passed dud cheques, served time in jail, changed his name, and worked at a series of progressively less rewarding jobs until Tom finds him slaving away as an underpaid waiter in a South Devon hotel.

There is an underwhelming reunion, notable for its über-masculine soberness. Tom promises to set Dad up with an annuity and a new life in London, with the intimation that one of Dad’s old girlfriends who still carries a torch for the ineffectual but generally decent old guy will step in to provide female companionship.

Tom himself has found a love interest in a 25-year-old book editress, and the two find they share a sniffy dislike of the way English society is sliding into chaos – beatnicks versus the old guard – and decide that the happiest future shared career will be in working for the U.N. In a more developed part of the world of course: “(D)oes it have to be Ghana or Cambodia or Ecuador?…Couldn’t we make it Austria or Thailand or Mexico, my darling?”

The end.

It’s an Old Country fails to live up to expectation on every front. The plot is boring. The characters are strictly cardboard – even our “hero” Tom fails to come across as multi-dimensional in any way, shape or form. The dialogue is stilted. The style throughout reads like a first draft, a mere roughed-out outline without any living detail.

Even Priestley’s “big idea” – a reliable trope with this author is his inclusion of an intellectual motif to each book – is vague  and understated. In this novel, the gist seems to be that the youth of the day are sloppy and unambitious, a bunch of guitar-playing beatnicks, but perhaps that’s to be expected after the way the elder generation has mucked up the world with its wars and class divisions, and that the old guard is overdue for toppling. The “old country” – England, and also its colonial partner Australia – is fixed in its downward spiral – time for a forward-thinking man (that would be our Tom) to abandon ship. Hurray for tradition, it’s been swell but it’s over, see you later.

There are tiny glimpses here and there of the author’s true potential – micro-episodes and lonely glistening, gliding phrases – but so few and far between that they merely serve to remind the reader of how much better this book should be.

One could charitably excuse the absolute flatness of this dull, dull novel by maintaining that after over forty years of plugging out work after work after work the author was scraping the bottom of the barrel, getting old and tired. How then to explain the excellence of the book before this one, the quite stellar Lost Empires, published in 1965? Two years shouldn’t make that much difference. We know the man still has it in him, so where is it here?

It’s an Old Country is a hack piece, trading on the author’s good name, an underwritten, too sparse yet plodding novel that should never have made it to print.

In my opinion.

Over and out.

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goodbye to all that robert graves 1929 001Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves ~ 1929. This edition: Penguin, 1977. Revised edition, with text amendments, Prologue and Epilogue added by the author in 1957. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-001443-8. 282 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Robert Graves’ memoir has already received much publicity and is, I believe, frequently used in schools and colleges. Don’t let that discourage you – it’s not at all a “boring school book”, and it is very much worth reading for the highly opinionated voice of the author as much as for its historical context.

Robert von Ranke Graves was born in 1895 to a mother with connections to the German nobility (hence the von Ranke), and an Anglo-Irish father, the respected Gaelic folklorist and scholar Alfred Perceval Graves. This made him just the right age to head off to war as soon as he exited his prep school (Charterhouse) in 1914.

Graves served as an officer on active duty for the entire duration of the war, though he almost didn’t make it through. He was wounded so horrifically at one point that his commanding officer, assessing the bloody mess of his officer draped upon a stretcher with a gaping and presumably fatal chest wound, wrote and sent off a letter of condolence to Graves’ mother, telling her of her son’s brave and “mercifully swift and painless” demise.

Graves pulled through that episode, and later had the pleasure of being able to read his own prematurely-published obituary, and to grimly chuckle over fulsome letters of condolence sent to his parents by certain bosom enemies of school days.

Goodbye to All That was the result of Robert Grave’s bitter disillusionment with the horrors of the Great War, and with the society which bred the “good sportsmen” who perished in their wasteful thousands. Supremely sensitive and articulate – Graves was a published poet while still in his teens – he communicates his disgust at the whole British system – the “All That” of the title – which not only allowed but which actively encouraged (in his mind) the kind of blindered thinking which allowed this to happen.

Goodbye to All That details Graves’ youth and school years, the war years, and his unconventional 1918 marriage to the just- eighteen-year-old Nancy Nicholson. The narrative reads like a Who’s Who of Big Names of the time: Siegfried Sassoon, T.E. Lawrence (late of Arabia), and John Masefield (whose garden cottage Robert and Nancy and their four young children gratefully occupied for some years), among many others.

There’s a whole lot Graves doesn’t tell in this memoir, including the details of his marriage breakup and his subsequent decision to scrape the dust of England off of his feet with bitter finality. Robert Graves moved to Majorca in 1929, a week before the publication of Goodbye to All That, and from there he shrugged off the numerous shouts of dismay his then-controversial tell-all work engendered. Graves lived in Majorca until his death at the age of 90 in 1985. His life-work was an astounding 140-plus volumes of poetry, biography, personal memoir, and novels.

Full of questionable truthfulness as some bits may be – accounts of others-who-were-there occasionally vary – Goodbye to All That is superb.

Very highly recommended.

A note: Robert Graves edited the 1929 edition of Goodbye to All That in 1957, replacing pseudonyms with real names, and adding to and tightening up many of the details. He later said that nobody noticed that he had essentially rewritten the book, and that readers reported themselves surprised by “how well it had held up” since its original publication. Since the 1957 edition is the one we are most likely to encounter (my own copy is of that vintage) it might be rather interesting to at some point to also read an earlier version, if one were so inclined.

Note # 2: This post was originally part of a 3-book review published in December 2014 – 1914 and All That – Reports from The Great War: O. Douglas, Rose Macaulay & Robert Graves – and has been split off and reposted to aid in its inclusion in the Classics Club list.

 

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Ssouth of an unnamed creek anne cameronouth of an Unnamed Creek by Anne Cameron ~ 1989. This edition: Harbour Publishing, 1989. Hardcover. ISBN: 1-55017-013-9. 199 pages.

My rating: 4/10

Six (actually seven, plus a girl child) downtrodden women are brought together by circumstance and end up as business partners (and more! much more!) during the 1890s’ Klondike Gold Rush.

Sounds like a promising storyline, doesn’t it? I thought so, and opened the book all ready-prepped to enjoy – well-known B.C. writer, strong female leads, historical setting – what could be better? I happily thought.

Anne Cameron, B.C.’s rather fascinating angry-feminist-lesbian kidlit/adult novel writer, in South of an Unnamed Creek combines period drama with a liberal helping of revenge fantasy, placing her characters deep in the mire before providing them with opportunities for turning the tables on their oppressors, and the heck with plausibility. I have to say that the parts that put me off the most were not necessarily the abundant incidents of rape and physical abuse, but the utter unlikeliness of the revenge bits, which are set out by Cameron with salacious glee.

It reads to me as if the author let her opinions get in the way of her craftsmanship.

The following post is loaded with plot spoilers. Stop here if you don’t want to know. Also if you can’t handle rape scenes, conventional and otherwise.

So here’s what I came away with.

  • All women are born victims.
  • All men are natural oppressors of women.
  • And “respectable” white men are the worst.
  • All First Nations people are wonderfully spiritual and secretly heroic. (But especially the women. Who are universally victimized by society as well as by the male members of their families/communities.)
  • Ditto people of “Celestial” origin. (Cameron’s code word for Chinese.) (And especially the women. Ditto the natural victim thing.)
  • But once the female victim is pushed too far – the rape thing, in most cases – superhuman strength and cunning is magically granted, and the oppressors are chopped down (sometimes literally) at the peak of their oppressive prime.
  • And revenge feels good.
  • And men are overrated as bed partners, anyway.

Yes, dear readers, the brushes in this uneven saga are very broad indeed, and dripping with non-nuanced primary colours.

Main characters and the long, complicated setup:

  • Ceileigh is an expatriate Scottish fiddle player who has ended up in some unnamed Canadian settlement, plying her musical trade and saving her bits of copper for passage to who-knows-where. She’s followed home from a New Year’s Eve gig and brutally raped by two men, but once they are sated, the Celtic priestess element in Ceileigh’s nature awakens, and she beats them both senseless with her violin case, disfiguring at least one of her assaulters for life. She’s now on the run from the rapists and the authorities. And she’s pregnant.

 

  • Aggie is the feral child of drunken parents living on the Fraser River mudflats near (presumably) Vancouver. While still a wee child, Aggie attracts the eye of a pedophilic “Uncle”, but she soon learns how to trade sexual services for various favours, such as a dress and (I’m not kidding) shoes good for tapping. For Aggie is a naturally accomplished dancer, and is soon working the streets as an entertainer, dancing for pennies. She is taken pity on by a noble First Nations woman, adopted into a native village, and initiated into the Salish lifestyle and spirituality. It can’t last. The hapless villagers are soon wiped out en masse by smallpox, and Aggie heads back to her squalid old life and occupation.

 

  • Su Gin is the daughter of poor Chinese farmers. When bandits attack her village and kill almost everybody, she hides in the mud of the rice paddy, surfacing when it’s safe. Her uncle, coming to take over the family holdings, welcomes her warmly, then immediately drugs her and sells her into slavery. Su Gin comes to on a ship headed for the west coast of Canada, fated for a new life as a prostitute. (Being a virgin, her initial price is set high. Cameron uncharacteristically spares us the details of Su Gin’s deflowering.)

 

  • Lily is the child of a rather simple-minded, money-grasping white prostitute somewhere in middle Canada. At a still-tender age Lily is rescued by her great-grandmother, taken off to an affluent life in the city, and civilized and educated. But everyone in the family (except Great-grandmother) despises Lily for her origins and her outspoken ways. When Lily is in her teens, Granny dies, and Lily, knowing her life will change for the worse without Granny’s protection, loads up with cash (left to her in the will, to the anger of the other relatives) and with a string of the best horses in the stable (the family servants are all on Lily’s side) trots off into the wider world, heading west.

 

  • Mary is the loving daughter of a widowed coal miner somewhere on Vancouver Island. Daddy is brusque and occasionally violent, due to his hard life and perpetual state of fatigue and hunger. Mary lucks upon an Indian canoe and soon masters the craft of paddling about and fishing. This is a good thing all round, except presumably for the people now missing their canoe, but we won’t get into that. Daddy when well fed is a much cheerier person to be around, and Mary starts bringing in some extra cash with her fish sales. But things are getting too comfy to be sustained. A mine collapse leaves Mary orphaned, and she is kicked out of the company house. Making her way down the coast, Mary does quite nicely with the fishing trade, but jealous men smash her boat. (“This t’isn’t the occupation for a mere woman. Y’er puttin’ us out of business. Go back to yer sewing.”) Luckily Mary has hidden resources. She takes her savings and heads to the mainland on a ship, but only after cleverly (and fatally) revenging herself on her main oppressor. (Glub, glub.)

 

  • Cora is the eldest daughter of a family of dirt-poor prairie settlers. She loves her patient mother with daughterly affection, but desperately yearns to be a close pal to her stern father, who continually overlooks Cora and favours the boys of the family instead. But Cora has developed a strong skill set, shooting and riding as well (actually, better) than the boys, as well as becoming accomplished in all of the womanly arts. When a wealthy, widowed neighbour-man comes questing for Cora’s hand, her father pushes her to accept. Cora demurs, but the neighbour takes things into his own hands, brutally rapes the teenager, and loads her up into his wagon, with her father’s full approval. Cora, now the physically abused sex-slave of an older man, despairs of her future. When her father is killed in a brothel brawl, Cora’s still-young mother comes to live with her, and it’s not long before Cora’s unofficial husband (they never were properly married) is sampling the sexual delights of Mum as well. So Cora bides her time, organizes her escape plans, and one night packs up a substantial nest egg liberated from her husband’s secret stash, loads up food and a rifle, and rides away with two fine horses, heading west.

Much journeying now occurs, with all of the characters eventually convening in Dawson City or thereabouts. The white characters have bonded together in a business partnership – they set up a hotel/restaurant/trading enterprise catering to the gold miners. They’ve also acquired a male sidekick, a First Nations guide who becomes more than a friend to one of the party. They are joined by Su Gin, who has picked up a random white child in her travels – fellow victim of a brutal train hijacking – as well as another “Celestial” woman, Ling Ying.

Things are going wonderfully well, and the women are coining money hand over fist. Ceileigh’s baby (a girl) is born. Some time (a few years?) goes by. Then – disaster! Mary falls in love with a wicked Englishman, who absconds with the communal hidden stash of gold. Ceileigh’s male partner follows to try to retrieve it, and ends up very dead. Aggie then takes things into her own hands, pulls off a reverse coup in San Francisco, and comes home with the recovered cash, just in time for another crisis, as a gang of slick gamblers blackmail the women into signing over control of their flourishing business. (The reason for the blackmail is the illegal presence of the Chinese women in Canada. Or at least that was the case according to Cameron, though by this point I was no longer relying on her research to be completely accurate in all of its details, as it seemed to me that she was picking and choosing at will from the historical record, context be damned.)

So the women decide to yield to the blackmailers, because things are starting to decline in the business anyway, as the Klondike gold rush is coming to an end.

Off they go with their millions in gold dust, to settle down in kinder climes, some neatly paired off  – Su Gin and Aggie, Cora and Lily – and the others apparently just happy to hang out in sisterly companionship.

And the moral of the story is?

Ha. No prizes for figuring that one out.

Anne Cameron. My goodness. I wish she was a little less obvious in her agenda, because there is some interesting story-telling going on here, but I keep bumping up against the more bizarre bits, such as the sudden kung-fu powers of the Celestial prostitutes and the killer dog used in the revenge scenario in San Francisco and – probably most ick-inducing – the rape scene early on involving the use of a Chinese woman’s bound feet as a substitute vagina. (I even did a very little bit of superficial internet research on that last-mentioned scenario, because it sounded too weird to be true, and I’d never come across such an allegation before. My conclusion is that it is mostly imaginative on Cameron’s part. Perhaps?)

Anyway, I tried my darnedest to appreciate the nuances of this character-heavy, over-plotted yet paradoxically over-simplified tale. As you can see by my rating, it didn’t quite convince me to enter into its world.

Anne Cameron is perhaps most well known for her acclaimed and controversial Daughters of Copper Woman, 1981.

 

 

 

 

 

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Not my own copy, but a dust jacket of an early edition.

Not my own copy, but a dust jacket of an early edition.

The Old Ladies by Hugh Walpole ~ 1924. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1924. Hardcover. 305 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Ah, Hugh Walpole.

Protégé of Henry James, friend and compatriot of such disparate fellow writers as J.B. Priestley, Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf, yet, unlike them, mostly forgotten today. Hugh Walpole in his time enjoyed tremendous popularity, though the crueler critics dismissed his work as too facile, too easy to read, too – well – popular.

During his peak writing years, 1909 to 1941, Walpole produced a volume a year (sometimes more) of novels and story collections ranging in tone from the romantic to the dramatic, with ventures into the macabre. Some of his works are small masterpieces of their type.

Some, not so much. A prime example of the B-list is this overlong novel, wherein Walpole takes the material for (at best) a novella, and stretches it out to three hundred pages, when half that would likely have sufficed.

I must say points to the man for keeping it readable, for though The Old Ladies in their uncomfortable dotage got a bit tiresome I was never tempted to abandon them completely, though I had a moment at the close where the urge to give the book a sharp shake (in lieu of its long-defunct author) was only resisted with a strong effort. Walpole brings his tale to a tragically overwrought conclusion, then tacks on a cheerful “prodigal’s return” to the very end, which I must admit is soothing to the reader worried about the most likeable of the titular old ladies, but which was just too darned convenient for my comfort.

The plot:

Three elderly ladies (all are in their seventies) who have fallen on hard times find themselves living in a shabby rooming house in the cathedral town of Polchester (imaginary setting of many of Hugh Walpole’s tales) presided over by a mostly benevolent landlady.

One, the sweet-natured and mild-tempered Mrs. Amorest, is the widow of a poet, who died quite suddenly (in the best tradition of his kind) leaving behind nothing but manuscripts and debts.

The next, also-widowed Mrs. Payne, slovenly and indolent, regrets nothing of her slightly sordid past. She thinks back seldom of her weakly abusive husband and her deserting lover and her long-dead child, concentrating her energies instead upon the comforts of the now, indulging herself with sweets and rich food and dashes of brilliant colour – a ribbon, an ornament, an illustration – which she hoards like an obese dragon in her over-filled lair.

Joining the modest ménage is spinster Miss Beringer, who creeps into the refuge of the old house with her shivering little dog. Miss Beringer has been cheated out of her modest investment capital; her small savings are running out; her future is beyond bleak. She owns one item of beauty and value, an amber carving given to her by her one friend as a remembrance upon the friend’s marriage and subsequent removal to India.

Gentle Mrs. Amorest takes slightly-lower-class Miss Beringer under her wing, not letting on that her own prospects are also desperately declining. Mrs. Payne scorns both of the other residents of the house, despising their meekness and their willingness to run errands for her as evidence of their mental inferiority. She uses them both to the utmost of her cunning ability, and when an ailing cousin of Mrs. Amorest promises a fortune in his will, and Miss Beringer’s amber ornament catches Mrs. Payne’s eye, she begins turn her mental energies to the question of how she can obtain these treasures from her housemates.

Walpole paints a sharply detailed picture of the come-down-in-the-world existences of his three characters. Their thoughts and feelings, their many small economies and occasional overwhelming temptations, their midnight worries and daytime attempts at hiding those fears from the world around them are all sympathetically portrayed.

Small daily drama turns to smouldering melodrama when Mrs. Amorest’s cousin dies and the will is read. Balked of her bad intentions towards one of her neighbours, Mrs. Payne turns her malignant focus upon the other, with devastating results. Only one of the old ladies will walk away from the house with her sanity intact and her future provided for, even if it takes an authorial intervention to bring this about…

Recommended only for those who are already admirers of Hugh Walpole’s eclectically prolific oeuvre. All others, perhaps best to start elsewhere, with The Joyful Delaneys (1938), or Hans Frost (1929), or the critically acclaimed early novel Mr Perrin and Mr Traill (1911), or perhaps the recently rediscovered and dramatized Rogue Herries (1930), first of a four book sequence, and thought by many to be the crème-de-la-crème of Hugh Walpole’s dramatic novels.

My rather unenthusiastic rating of The Old Ladies aside, even a B-list Walpole stands up well to the interested scrutiny of a modern reader. One wishes him a revival, which does indeed seem to be occurring in a low-key way. I add my voice to those who quietly extol his better qualities, and who collect and read his many works with mild enthusiasm.

 

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boo neil smithBoo by Neil Smith ~ 2015. This edition: Vintage, 2015. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8041-7136-6. 310 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Hot off the press is this “young adult” novel by Montrealler Neil Smith.

It’s 1979, and in a high school hallway in an unnamed city in the United States, a thirteen-year-old boy has just died while standing in front of his locker. Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple wakes up in what can only be Heaven, but it is a Heaven utterly at odds with any preconceptions he or the other occupants might have had.

The place looks like a slightly run-down inner city housing development, it is surrounded by twenty-five-story-tall concrete walls, the weather is always pleasant, food and supplies show up as needed, things (including buildings) heal themselves when damaged, and every single person in the place is a thirteen-year-old American. After fifty years’ residence, during which the occupants mentally grow and mature but physically stay in their teenage form, a person (angel?) suddenly vanishes, though to where or what state no one knows.

Oliver adapts remarkably well to this new environment, though he has always been an agnostic and had not expected any sort of an afterlife. He’s not terribly shocked to have died, for he was in a life-long fragile state of health due to a heart defect. He misses his parents, and is writing an account of his experience in the faint hope that he can somehow, someday communicate with them.

Then another boy shows up, a schoolmate of Oliver’s, and as the two boys compare notes as to how they’ve perished, a troubling scenario begins to emerge, involving gunfire in the school hallway. Was there a killer, and if so who was it? Where is he (she?) now? Maybe right here in Heaven?

Stopping right here, because you’ll want to unravel this one for yourself.

Boo is firmly in the YA genre, but as with the best of these sorts of books, it easily crosses age-defined boundaries.

I liked it. For what it is, it’s very good, and I’m keen to see what my one remaining teenager has to say about it. I suspect she’ll find it as intriguing as I have.

I’d seen mention of it here and there during recent internet travels in search of other things, and thought it sounded darkly interesting, but I wasn’t moved to actively seek it out until I read more about the author and the background of the story here:

Montreal Review of Books: Boo by Neil Smith

My local indie bookstore didn’t (yet) have Boo in stock, but ordered me a copy which arrived just a few days ago. I read it in one long session, staying up into the wee hours to finish it, and I put it down with rather mixed emotions. The ending was quite neatly handled, and I was completely engaged from start to finish, but the book has some flaws, too. Mostly a certain amount of predictability, though that aspect was, as I’ve already said, well clothed with creativity.

Looking at it dispassionately, the big-reveal plot twists were not terribly surprising, and I saw the most crucial of them coming from quite some distance away, but the author has incorporated so many imaginative details that it really doesn’t matter. If you were a child of the 1960s and 1970s, you’ll catch the many pop culture references, and either smile or groan at the memories they inspire. If you’re a child of the new century, some of these might float right over. It also helps to be familiar with young adult literature of that era: Neil Smith indulges in some name-dropping which just might be playing to his contemporaries (he’s fifty)versus teens of right now.

There is, predictably, redemption of a sort after the reveal of the big and angsty main event, but it didn’t get sloppy, and – rather satisfyingly in an artistic sense –  all of the questions weren’t resolved. Some random stuff is just left there, throbbing gently in dark corners of the room, never explained. And – huge point in favour – some bits are very funny.

Several days after my reading, and after quite a lot of pondering, I’ve decided that Boo is a winner.  It’s a fine thing just as it stands. I hope to high heaven (pun intended) that the author can resist the temptation to concoct a sequel. I don’t regret my $20 investment, and I hope the writer gets a decent royalty check, because he’s put a ton of work into this book and it shows.

This is Neil Smith’s first novel, though he has also written a prize-winning collection of short stories, 2008’s Bang Crunch. That one’s on my wish list as of right now.

Buy this for your teen, and then borrow it back for yourself. And keep an eye on this writer.

Another review well worth checking out is here:

The Indextrious Reader – Boo by Neil Smith

 

 

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