Archive for the ‘1990s’ Category

Acquired Tastes by Peter Mayle ~ 1992. This edition: Bantam, 1992. Paperback. ISBN: 0-553-09027-5. 229 pages.

No doubt spurred on by the phenomenal success of Peter Mayle’s 1990 and 1991 expatriate-life-in-Provence memoirs – A Year in Provence was the first; perhaps you’ve heard of it? – Mayle’s publisher hastened to keep this cash cow at the milking station by producing this small volume of essays written for GQ magazine, all about the finer things in life.

Peter Mayle manfully goes about delving into all sorts of indulgences of the well-off people of this world. The really well off people, just to clarify, not the merely moderately wealthy. People who think nothing of dropping a casual thousand plus dollars (in 1992 dollars, mind you) for a pair of handmade shoes, or a tailored silk shirt. Private jets and stretch limousines are common as dirt to these folks; Peter Mayle stretches out in his borrowed rides and waxes eloquent on how lovely it all is.

Most of the essays are both funny and fascinating; the odd one misses the mark as Mayle tries exceedingly hard to pad out his list of topics.

Let’s see, what does this collection include?

Handmade shoes, the very long black car, the mistress (yes, this is a manly sort of list of indulgences for the most part), personal lawyers and the art of suing, bespoke suits, truffles (the fungal kind), antiques, servants, the social obligations of Christmas time, cashmere, caviar, second homes in nice places, cigars, hosting house guests, handmade shirts, champagne, a very lame piece about New Year’s Resolutions, boutique hotels (the upper end type), single malt whiskey, another rather lame piece on being a writer, tipping, private jets, Panama hats, the concept of Manhattan (I told you Mayle is reaching for some of these), and a very special Parisian café.

All in all, an easily readable, ultimately forgettable concoction of a book, probably more suitable for placing on the guest room night table versus amongst your treasured “keeper” books. If it finds its way into an overnight bag, so be it. Lots more where that came from! At a recent used book sale in my nearest small city I saw no less than five pristine copies larded throughout the M section. Seeing that Acquired Tastes was published in 1992, its relative abundance at this book sale some 26 years later is rather telling.

My rating: Just squeaks in at a generous 5/10. “Light reading” status only.

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Closed at Dusk by Monica Dickens ~ 1990. This edition: Penguin, 1991. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-012371-7. 220 pages.

Monica Dickens, middlebrow writer extraordinaire, made her name at a very young age with several creatively autobiographical books based on her pre-war and wartime jobs – One Pair of Hands (working as a cook-general) in 1939, and  One Pair of Feet (nursing) in 1942 – and a whole slew of excellent novels, all sharing strong characterizations and allowing Dickens much scope to share the thoughts generated by her keenly contemplative X-ray eye, embellished with her sometimes rather biting sense of humour.

Occasionally Monica Dickens turned her hand to mildly macabre suspense novels, and this one, published just two years before her death at the age of seventy-seven, is really quite disturbing in an insidious way.

Closed at Dusk is an increasingly eerie story of thwarted love and revenge intruding upon a normal, happy, absolutely well-meaning British family, whose main collective sin is of occasional obtuseness to the emotional lives of those around them.

The upper class Taylors own a palatial country residence, surrounded by beautiful gardens. They have worked hard to keep their home in the family and to restore it from the combined ravages of wartime army occupation and the eccentric ways of the late family matriarch, who lived reclusively in one room while the house deteriorated around her.

The estate is known as The Sanctuary, and it is open to paying visitors much of the year, who patronize the tea room, walk through the beautifully landscaped grounds, and enjoy the animal-themed statuary originally collected by the earlier generations of the current family, as they established a Victorian era rural retreat “where all things could be at peace.”

All is indeed well with the Taylors, but things are about to change…

Tessa, adult daughter of the current owners, has some years earlier made an unfortunate marriage, in that her husband has heartlessly divorced his first “bland, beige” first wife to take up with vibrant Tessa. They have a child, and then the fickle Rex is off with yet another woman, divorcing Tessa in her turn.

Tessa copes quite well with her fate as a cast off wife, for her ex-husband is, to put it mildly, an utter jerk, and she’s well rid of him and knows it, but Discarded Wife Number One is still out there, very much not coping well with her destroyed life, and she is plotting a revenge scenario against the woman whom she blames for the destruction of her marriage, and the terrible loss of her own unborn child.

Taking on an invented persona, the meek, bland Marigold transforms herself into the vivacious Jo, and she cleverly slides into a an ever-more-involved position as a trusty staffer at The Sanctuary, gaining the confidence of the family and learning what makes them all tick, in order that her eventual revenge shall hurt the hardest it possibly can.

Oh, yes, and there’s a subplot of supernatural goings-on – perhaps imagined, or maybe not – which adds a decided miasma of foreboding to this well-paced, ever-more-troubling tale.

Creepy, and very well written. Think shades of Joanna Trollope at her family drama best, blended with Shirley Jackson noir.

My rating: 7.5/10.

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Cabin at Singing River by Chris Czajkowski ~ 1991. This edition: Nuk Tessli Publications, 1997. Foreword by Peter Gzowski. Softcover. ISBN: 0-9681775-0-6. 149 pages.

Chris Czajkowski, born in 1947 and raised in England as the only child of a British mother and a Polish war refugee father, grew up surrounded by industrious creativity. As a young woman, Chris travelled the world, hiking in lonely places and working on farms, eventually fetching up in western Canada in 1979, milking cows near Salmon Arm, B.C.

Salmon Arm – with a population of 17,000 people not a particularly large metropolis – proved too crowded for Czajkowsky’s liking, and she headed even farther west, across the Coast Mountains and into the remote Bella Coola Valley some 250 miles out of Williams Lake, where she was invited to build a cabin on the Trudy and Jack Turner wilderness farm near Lonesome Lake, a day and a half’s hike on foot from the nearest road.

This is the story of Chris Czajkowski’s first cabin, how she built it mostly by herself with mentorship from the Turners, teaching herself to fall trees and erect log walls and finally, two years or so after her start, put on a roof. The eventual cabin was more than a modest log shack; it turned out to be a handsome and very livable house, where Chris spent the majority of her time for a number of years, occasionally going out to civilization to work and earn some much-needed cash.

Czajkowski was already an accomplished visual and textile artist, and she eventually found her writer’s voice as well, when her lyrical letters to Peter Gzowski’s Morningside CBC radio program caught the imagination of Gzowski and listeners across Canada.

Cabin at Singing River is a fascinating depiction of an adventurous life beyond the ken of most of us, but those of us familiar with the region are perhaps the most aware of the magnitude of what Czajkowski and her fellow wilderness dwellers accomplished in making themselves a viable home in the bush; this really is The Wild; one truly is alone and in charge of one’s destiny out there beyond the end of the last road.

Upstream from the Stillwater, the river splits and runs in braided skeins through dark strands of cedar, an Emily Carr landscape of green and gloom, a prime place for mosquitoes in the summer and grizzlies in the fall. Pale cottonwoods send vast, corrugated trunks into the canopy, and devil’s club writhes like a mass of spiny snakes beside the boggy creeks. The remnants of the settlers’ trail are visible in places, but it is rarely used and no longer maintained. Great windfalls cross it in hopeless tangles, and much of the original route has been obliterated by the vagaries of the river…

Chris Czajkowski is a highly individual and very opinionated person, and this comes through loud and clear in Cabin at Singing River and in subsequent books. She has little time or patience for dilly-dalliers, and visitors coming into her solitary domain had better keep themselves up to the mark or risk a keen critique in her writings; she’s not averse to publically calling out those she considers naïve, pretentious or unprepared.

To me, city people are frighteningly alike, aspiring to be carbon copies of each other. Their programmed world gives them no chance to grow as individuals; not only are they unbelievably ignorant about what goes on beyond the limits of their lives, but they also surmise that anything outside their range of experience is inferior and not worth knowing.

Yeah, there’s a strand of judgementalism running through these pages, taking away some of the shine on what is otherwise a deeply moving appreciation of the natural world, and the truly admirable exploits of the memoirist. But more often Czajkowski is deeply appreciative of her neighbours and friends, the unique individuals who make their homes way away from the easy-come amenities of the more “civilized” parts of the world.

This first beautifully written account of her life-so-far is in my opinion one of Czajkowskii’s best, though every one of her subsequent books – Diary of a Wilderness Dweller, Nuk Tessli: The Life of a Wilderness Dweller, Wildfire in the Wilderness, A Mountain Year, And the River Still Sings, among others – follows much the same pattern. All are very readable.

Full disclosure: I’ve had some brief interactions with Chris Czajkowski over the years, and several prized pieces of her artwork grace my walls. I admire her greatly but find her a bit intimidating, too. I suspect she is a stalwart friend to those she allows into her inner circle. I happily purchase each one of her books as they appear, for personal pleasure and for knowing how much she depends on her writings to put food on her table; she’s perennially struggling to make ends meets, because even the most self-sufficient of remotely lived lives require resources from elsewhere and infusions of cold hard cash.

My rating for this one: 8.5/10

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Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling ~ 1997. This edition: Bloomsbury, 1998. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7475-32679-9. 224 pages.

This is the book that started a pop culture empire.

Isn’t it astonishing how certain things capture the collective imagination, and what springs out of what was first a nebulous idea in someone’s brain? The only things I can think of comparable to how the Harry Potter multi-media phenomenon took off are the Star Wars sequence and, to a much lesser extent, The Lord of the Rings.

The social buzz that started with the publication of this first book in what would turn out to be a seemingly endless string of ever-bulkier sequels and spin-off novelty projects was well-deserved; this is indeed a frequently humorous novel with broad appeal, but I must say I personally have dodged the bullet of full-on Harry Potter addiction that so many have succumbed to.

I did read the first three novels in the series with great enjoyment when I had novice readers in the household, so it was rather nostalgic for me to revisit this one with an eye to its entry on the Century of Books list.

In a nutshell, this is your typical school story with a twist, in that it includes a parallel world to the one we inhabit, in which magic is part of the everyday, and there is a certain amount of back and forth between the two cultures. I strongly suspect J.K. Rowling read her fair share of Diana Wynne-Jones, because the parallels are certainly there, though Rowling took things out of the mainly-for-juveniles realm as her series grew and flourished.

A book as popular as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone went on to become needs no extra words from me, but in case you have been living in a secluded cabin in a deep dark forest and have only now been introduced to the internet, here is the publisher’s blurb:

Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy. He lives with his Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and cousin Dudley, who are mean to him and make him sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. (Dudley, however, has two bedrooms, one to sleep in and one for all his toys and games.) Then Harry starts receiving mysterious letters and his life is changed forever. He is whisked away by a beetle-eyed giant of a man and enrolled at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The reason: Harry Potter is a wizard!

Harry Potter’s story is that of the classic underling who comes into his own.

Orphaned under mysterious and shocking circumstances as a wee baby, Harry experiences a childhood of repression and psychological abuse by his “blood relations” – his mother was Aunt Petunia’s scorned sister – so his initiation into his true place in the magical world is doubly poignant. Harry finds his first true friendships with fellow students Ron and Hermione, and father figures in the school headmaster Dumbledore and school groundskeeper Hagrid. He discovers he has unsuspected athletic abilities, along with innate magical powers, both of which come in handy as he finds himself facing an astoundingly evil figure, Lord Voldemort of “the Dark Side”, the killer of his parents and now the threatener of all the good in Harry’s twin worlds.

The story is fast-moving and engaging, and deserves most of the good things which has been said about it. If you haven’t read it, you probably should, if only for a deeper understanding of all of its pop culture references in our nowadays world.

I suspect you will find it both better and worse than you expect. Better because it is a very competent example of the classic school story and the downtrodden young hero coming into his own, and quite possibly worse because you may then think, as I did and still do, that there are a lot of other similar books out there which quite simply didn’t catch the buzz that this one did.

Dissected, there isn’t a whole lot of new in this one, aside from some imaginative interpretations and enhancements of classic school scenarios. All of Rowling’s ideas are essentially secondhand, but obviously her recreation of what came before has been a stupendously winning one.

My rating: 10/10

 

 

 

 

 

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The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith ~ 1998. This edition: Abacus, 2003. Paperback. ISBN: 0-349-11675-X. 233 pages.

Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill. These were its assets: a tiny white van, two desks, two chairs, a telephone, and an old typewriter. Then there was a teapot, in which Mma Ramotswe – the only lady private detective in Botswana – brewed redbush tea. And three mugs – one for herself, one for her secretary, and one for the client. What else does a detective agency really need? Detective agencies rely on human intuition and intelligence, both of which Mma Ramotswe had in abundance. No inventory could ever include those, of course.

(Is that an Isak Dinesen ripoff in the first line? I’m thinking so.)

Our heroine in this low-key character portrait/detective novel is one Precious Ramotswe, thirty-four years old, once married but long deserted by her handsome but brutal jazz musician husband, beloved daughter and sole heir of the late Obed Ramotswe, who sells her father’s prized herd of cattle (with his prior permission) in order to set herself up in business.

Always an observant sort of person, and provided by nature with a strong moral sense, Mma Ramotswe sets out to solve problems, to right wrongs, and perhaps to lay a few personal ghosts.

This likeable book full of homey snippets of wisdom caught the attention of the reading public – could it have been helped along by its two Booker Judges’ special citations? Its Times Literary Supplement International Book of the Year designation? – and took off like a small but blazing rocket. Seventeen sequels have followed, all of them with long and quirky titles, and all just as charmingly readable as the first.

Or at least so I am assuming; I think I stalled out at number six or seven, vaguely surfeited by the constant good-natured mullings and musings of this small-town wisewoman.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully intend to catch up to Precious and her companions one day. Just not quite yet.

I don’t think I need to get into plot synopsis and suchlike here; this is such a well-known tale that the internet is crowded with all sorts of reviews. Suffice it to say that it was a notable book way back in 1998, and so serves as an ideal Century of Books candidate for its year.

And it was fun to re-read this rainy Canadian Thanksgiving Sunday, as I sit in my comfiest chair and nurse a worsening head cold passed along to me by a friend’s winsome but overly affectionate (at least while contagious) youngsters.

My rating: 8/10.

 

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A Peaceful Retirement by Miss Read (pseudonym of Dora Saint) ~ 1996. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1996. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7181-4123-7. 152 pages.

Poor Miss Read! She has been banished to a dark corner of our bookcases by fiat from my spouse/co-reader – he can’t abide her, which distresses me (mildly) because I quite like these subfusc village dramas. If we can call them dramas; that might indeed by overstating the magnitude of the action here.

I tried once again to stick up for Miss Read when he caught me deep(ish) in this one a few days ago. “I know they’re not exactly exciting,” I said, “but think of it this way: when nothing else seems to click they’re decent place-holders, requiring no effort whatsoever on the reader’s part. They’re not bad books. Maybe a bit priggish occasionally…”

“Aha!” he said. (Or an exclamation to that effect.) “Priggish. Exactly. I think that’s why they annoy me.”

So there you have it. One man’s opinion. But I will still read them, especially when nothing else appeals. So soothing, like vanilla pudding or something equally mild.

This is the last book in the long Fairacre series (20 books), which started back in 1955 with Village School, a fictional account of the observations of headmistress “Miss Read” in a two-room school in the invented village of Fairacre.

Rich with well-observed detail, ex-schoolteacher Dora Saint’s many low-key novels and novellas give a fascinating glimpse into ever-changing rural England over the four decades in which they are set. The narrator in these particular books (there is also another non-school-centered series set in another fictional village, Thrush Green), happily unmarried spinster-by-choice Miss Read, is a woman of stern morals and quiet wit; she observes, records, and only very occasionally makes an out-loud statement on things which pass under her eye. She has learned early on that the schoolmistress inhabits a specific niche in the village hierarchy – slightly above shopkeeper, just below vicar – and woe betide the unwary soul who steps out of place or makes unpopular pronouncements.

In A Peaceful Retirement, our Miss Read has recently suffered several mild strokes. Her doctor has advised leaving her work, which she does with good grace but some regret; she feels like she hasn’t quite finished with that job, but she sets her sights on taking care of herself, fully relinquishing her status and retiring to a small village a short distance away from Fairacre, Beech Green.

Here Miss Read discovers that an apparently free woman still in her capable years is seen to be the natural choice for a vast number of volunteer positions; she must become adept at saying “No!” rather forcefully in order to maintain even a modicum of inoccupation; the “peaceful” of the title is ever so slightly ironic.

So what happens in A Peaceful Retirement? A whole lot, but not much.

Our narrator copes with an old admirer, now unhappily married, who comes to lay out his woes for her advice. Another long-time suitor persists in proposing to her at every meeting; she mulls over the possibility of accepting his suit, but settles for the status quo – frequent drives and teas and dinners – with each returning to one’s own solitary abode each night.

A trip is made to Florence with a friend; nothing in particular happens; it was a pleasant change and gives much scope  for happy reminiscence in the subsequent months. A week’s substitute teaching in her old school brings home to Miss Read how pleasant retirement is; she is rather disturbed to find how tired she is after coping with children all day long; she knows she has made the right decision.

A window of new interest opens up in her life with the commissioning of an update to the local church’s historical write-up; this leads to the keeping of a journal, and, yes, the first chapter in a book about a village school…

This was Dora Saint’s last novel; she was 83 when it was published; time to lay down her own pen and move gently into what one hopes was a happily peaceful retirement, for real.

This book did what it was supposed to do: it satisfied the reading urge, it was amusing, it was restful. Judged for those reasons, and not in comparison with richer fare and stronger stuff, I must give it its due. 8.5/10. (Yes, Miss Read is indeed occasionally priggish; she lost her point-and-a-half for certain unnecessarily  judgemental attitudes here and there.)

 

 

 

 

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No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod ~ 1999. This edition: McClelland and Stuart, 1999. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7710-5567-6. 283 pages.

One of a long tradition of Canadian Family Saga Novels, set, as many of them are, in the ruggeder bits of Eastern Canada. In this case Cape Breton, with discursions into northern Ontario uranium mining country and the meaner streets of Toronto.

The particular (fictional) branch of the MacDonald family which this novel concerns came to Cape Breton from Scotland in 1779, and the tale of their journey is now legend with their descendents. There’s a lot of referencing Bonnie Prince Charlie and the rebellion of 1745 – the MacDonalds were “for” – and Culloden is discussed in the 1950s and 60s as if it happened just last week.

The title of the novel comes from a quote attributed to General Wolfe before the Battle of Quebec on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, that the Highlanders (including those of the MacDonald clan) will be useful in the assault on the French because “they are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall.”

Yes, indeed. And fall MacLeod’s MacDonalds do, in various tragic ways.

Here’s the plot summary from the flyleaf of my 1999 edition:

That was a bit of a cheat, me using the scan versus condensing things myself. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to rehash things, and here’s the reason.

Deep breath.

This is it: No Great Mischief is, for me, something of a dud.

That said, let me back up and sugarcoat that statement by agreeing with its many fans that parts of it are excellent. The opening chapters are brilliant, as are large sections throughout. It’s deeply and lovingly evocative of a very unique place. Life affirming even though brim full of tragic, too-soon deaths. Gloriously funny here and there. And earnest and sincere and sincere and earnest and so blinking repetitive that I kept thinking I’d somehow gone back a chapter or two without noticing. Oops, sugar-coating cracked just there, didn’t it?

I guess my biggest problem with this novel is that the thing just doesn’t convince; the family legends have been told too often; they are approaching facile in how they trip off the tongue of each subsequent teller. It’s the storyteller Alistair MacLeod presenting the tale of the storyteller Alexander MacDonald who is in turn repeating the stories of every generation before him. The material is over-handled. Oh, and every few pages everyone breaks into song. Crooning away in Gaelic, in perfect harmony. How nice, but it lost its effect after the tenth time or so.

The best bits are the contemporary passages, and even those are repeated and repeated, dulling the impact of the perfectly captured moment. I wanted to shout “Stop! Right there! You have me in the palm of your hand! Leave it there!” Nope, wham wham wham, MacLeod keeps driving his point home.

And the ending was ridiculously contrived. A book toss was a near, near thing.

So there we have it.

I wanted to love this novel so much. I came to it open to loving it, eager to embrace it. And then, despite its fine qualities, it ended up repelling me by the time I made it to the end.

Your experience may differ. As might mine on a second reading, if that ever happens.

The rating for right now, then.

Despite my cruel words, I will give No Great Mischief its due. Let’s say 8/10, because it was a good novel much of the time, and came so close to winning me over.  I am truly sad that it was ultimately disappointing, because I had been looking forward to it as a treat-to-myself on the strength of its stellar “Great Can-Lit” reputation, and I thought it would be an easy 10.

 

 

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