Archive for the ‘2010s’ Category

The books I have read the past ten days of 2016 are already disappearing from my desk quicker than I can consider writing about them. I blame my husband, who is in his wintertime mode of reading the long evenings away, as it is too dark and cold for his other-three-seasons outside occupations. He’s hot on my heels reading-wise this time of year, as I am spending much of my inside “free” time parked at the computer, working on twin time-consuming projects – our plant nursery website, and our upcoming regional performing arts festival, of which I am registrar and program director. No winter doldrums here!

But I’ve looked in all of the obvious spots, and have re-gathered the January books-to-date. I doubt I’ll be writing at length about much this coming year – it promises to be fully as hectic as 2015 – so I am going to try instead to pull off some mini-reviews as I go along.

christmas with the savages mary cliveChristmas with the Savages by Mary Clive ~ 1955. This edition: Puffin, 2015. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-141-36112-3. 186 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Ordered in late November from England, this one arrived a few days too late for pre-Christmas reading, but it turned out not to really matter, as its time frame covered the extended after-Christmas weeks as well, and it felt most timely for a seasonal New Year’s read.

This slim book is based on the childhood experiences of the author – Lady Mary Katherine Packenham as she was christened in 1907 – as an attempt to share with her grandchildren a vanished way of life. I had assumed its depiction of a rather spoiled, prim and proper solitary child going off to spend Christmas with a boisterous house full of other children was autobiographical, but as it turns out, the narrator “Evelyn” of Christmas with the Savages is a fictional creation, though all of the children are based on real-life models – Mary, her own brothers and sisters, and assorted cousins.

Though marketed by Puffin as a “sweetly charming” juvenile Christmas story, this wasn’t that at all, being rather a gloves-off depiction of the true nature of children by a writer with little use for mawkish sentiment.

Young Evelyn is quite a horrible prig of a child – she treats her governess and nursery maid with snobbish disdain, looks askance at the rowdy crowd of upper class brats she is expected to mingle with, and assiduously courts the company of the mostly disinterested grownups who live their parallel silk-lined lives alongside the slightly grotty sub-world of the nursery.

This is quite a grand little book in its way, and though it wasn’t the “cosy” I assumed at first that it would be, it does have a dash or two of youthful joy, with Mary Clive’s unsentimental depiction of the world of Edwardian upper class childhood including many pleasurable events and the occasional thoughtful moment.

Mary Clive wrote several other memoirs for adult readers, and I am now dead keen to get my hands on them, in particular Brought Out and Brought Up, her 1938 account of her season as a debutante in 1926.

Mistress-Mashams-Repose-by-TH-WhiteMistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White ~ 1946. This edition: Putnam, 1946. Illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg. Hardcover. 255 pages.

My rating: 9/10

This gloriously involved juvenile by the brilliant T.H. White is one I’ve read and re-read with great pleasure over the years, though somehow I never did read it aloud to my own children. Indeed, I rather wonder what the 21st century child would make of its arcane references to art, architecture, history and literature. I suspect a fair bit of what makes this tale so deeply funny would sail right over the heads of the present crop of youngsters, though an interested child could certainly find a lot of scope for click-research!

Orphaned ten-year-old Maria, last of her noble and once fantastically wealthy family, resides in a tiny corner of the crumbling Great House of the Malplaquet estate, attended to only by a solitary old family retainer, and under the sadistic “protection” of her malicious governess and her official guardian, a wicked vicar.

One day, while out exploring the ornamental lake in a leaky punt, Maria decides to visit the tiny manmade island which is crowned by a now-decayed ornate ornamental temple, known as Mistress Masham’s Repose. What she stumbles upon there is a thriving population of Lilliputian people, descendents of escapees from those brought to England by the scheming but bumbling Captain Biddle, who displayed them as sideshow oddities in order to earn money to indulge in his drinking habit, way back in 1700-and-something.

What happens when Maria decides to take on a philanthropist’s role to her discovery – and when her overseers inevitably discover the tiny people – makes for a lively, occasionally philosophically meandering, deeply appealing adventure tale.

Good stuff. This one may well get a proper long post one day, full of quotes and samples of Eichenberg’s brilliantly detailed illustrations.

what maisie knew henry jamesWhat Maisie Knew by Henry James ~ 1897. This edition: Anchor Books, 1954. Paperback. 280 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Ah, Henry James. Master of the densely written social examination. In small doses, I rather enjoy him, though I am beyond grateful I’ve never had to approach his work in any sort of scholarly capacity.

What Maise Knew should be subtitled Adults Behaving Badly, as it portrays some of the least likeable parents imaginable.

Wee Maisie is the focus of her parent’s divorce trial, with each vying for possession of her small person in order to punish the other. A compromise is reached, six months per household, and Maisie shuttlecocks between mother and father, acquiring in the course of affairs two governesses, who shall feature strongly in her subsequent life.

In a few years, Maisie’s terms of residence turn from being maneuvered for to being something to be avoided; now the parental game is to see how long each can force the other to care for the increasingly unwelcome child. In the course of things, Governess Number One becomes Maisie’s stepmother, while Governess Number Two tries to imbue the child with at least a semblance of moral sense, while giving her a modicum of steadfast love and stability in a brutally uncaring world.

Parental partners come and go, until at last Maisie is disowned by both birth parents and ends up as the charge of two step parents, the kind but weak Sir Claude who has married and then been abandoned by Maisie’s mother, and the newly “freed” second wife of Maisie’s father.

Complicated doesn’t begin to describe the relationships in this morbidly fascinating concoction, thought be some critics to be Henry James masterwork. I found it hard to look away, while at the same time struggling with the bogging-down complexities of James’ über-wordy prose.

Pleasure reading?  Well, sort of. It felt like something of an accomplishment merely to make it to its odd and only vaguely optimistic (in my opinion) end.

And what did Maisie “know”? A heck of a lot, as it turns out. As a depiction of how an unwanted child remakes herself into a survivor, this is a telling little tale.

mermaids on the golf course patricia highsmithMermaids on the Golf Course by Patricia Highsmith ~ 1985. This edition: Penguin, 1986. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-008790-7. 233 pages.

My rating: 5/10

A collection of eleven rather grim, sometimes macabre, only occasionally – and then only faintly – humorous short stories. Not really what I was in the mood for, as Highsmith here portrays her characters in the least positive light possible, and I just got sadder and sadder as I worked my way through these, hoping that the next one would strike short story gold. It wasn’t to be.

This rather twisted moodiness was something Highsmith made rather a thing of in her novels as well, come to think of it. Mr. Ripley being what he was, for one example.

Several of the stories end in suicide, and one of the most subtly disturbing concerns a Down’s Syndrome child’s secretly resentful father and a brutally random murder.

People in these gloomy tales generally wander about with festering grievances which precipitate the plot lines. Endings fade into grey, and most of them left me feeling a bit suspended in space, as if I’d missed that last step – but with no subsequent bang! of a landing. Just floating down, landing with a suppressed whimper.

Not a collection I’d whole heartedly recommend, though there are compensations in Highsmith’s more than competent styling.

TheYearTheYankeesLostThePennantThe Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglass Wallop ~1954. This edition: Norton, 1954. Hardcover. 250 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Now this was an unexpected pleasure. A happily romping fantasy concerning a middle-aged real estate salesman’s inadvertent pact with the devil, and his transformation into a younger baseball superstar who comes out of nowhere (literally!) in order to assist his favourite but dismally unsuccessful baseball team, the Washington Senators, break the clockwork-precise New York Yankees’ long winning streak.

Now, I’m not at all a baseball fan, but one doesn’t have to be to appreciate this cheerfully light tale.

Will our hero Joe be able to hold the devil to his bargain? And what of the middle-aged wife so staunchly dealing with her sudden loss of a husband with good natured stoicism? And then there is the most beautiful woman in the world, who falls in love with the reinvented Joe, and who has a Faustian dilemma of her own to work out.

This is the best-selling novel behind the successful musical Damn Yankees, which I must confess to never having seen. But now I want to!

bill bryson road to little dribbling 2015The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson ~ 2015. This edition: Doubleday, 2015. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-385-68571-9. 384 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Do I need to talk about this one? Surely not, for those interested will likely already have read it, and the internet will of course be rife with reviews, though I haven’t actually checked to see, having purchased the book as a Christmas gift to my husband merely on spec, seeing as how we have enjoyed (to various degrees) everything else the author has ever written.

Bill Bryson delivers the goods as expected, though this redux of the earlier Notes from a Small Island shows American-by-birth Mr. Bryson in full curmudgeon mode, versus his earlier honestly appreciative if frequently critical take on his adopted country, Great Britain.

Basically, England is going to hell in a handbasket, and our Bill is both mournful and moved to righteous annoyance. Occasionally he finds something to appreciate, and is honestly fulsome in his praise. I laughed out loud here and there, but I also occasionally cringed, because the author’s tone is so harshly judgmental. Well, generally with good reason, but still…

It was more than okay, but not one of his best. Has the Bryson bucket gone to the travel memoir well one time too many? I wonder.

*****

And I bailed out on two books. Just couldn’t get into them, though I may try again one day.

Iris Murdoch’s The Green Knight defeated me at page 80, after a long rambling set-up filled with the complicated back stories of way too many characters. Weird things going on with phrasing and punctuation, too, which had me stopping in confusion and re-reading whole paragraphs to see if I was missing something. I wasn’t, but the editor certainly was. Browsing ahead, there are some intriguing passages, and I hope to return one day to enjoy them. Perhaps.

One Winter in the Wilderness by Pat Cary Peek sounded extremely promising, being presented as the diary of Peek and her wildlife biologist husband one isolated winter in the Idaho back country at the Taylor Ranch Field Station. It might have picked up steam farther along, but the first few sections were just the tiniest bit plodding, as if the writer were trying a mite too hard – and mostly unsuccessfully – to turn her repetitious diary entries into something more literary. Apparently the Idaho Book of the Year in 1998. Fair enough. Back on the shelf, perhaps even into the giveaway box, for someone else to take a go at.

 

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As most of you know I’m not one to get all worked up about bestselling authors, choosing instead to let the hype die down for at least a decade or two (okay, maybe a generation or two might be more accurate) and then see if the prose holds up once the buzz dies down. But there are a few exceptions to that cynical personal rule, and Kate Atkinson is one of them.

I stumbled upon Atkinson’s first book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, quite some time ago. It was a random shelf pull, absolutely serendipitous – for a number of years I had a long commute several times weekly to take my daughter to her faraway dance school and a goodly number of hours to kill while she was in session, so the public library was my refuge and source of much scope for readerly experimentation – and it (the book) was so brilliantly out there that I came back to the real world most reluctantly. That woman can write, I said to myself. That’s how it’s done. Give me more of that, please.

After Museum I of course went back to the A shelf and pulled everything else by Atkinson that I could find, which was not all that much – Human Croquet and Emotionally Weird – and though they were readable, they felt just slightly too raggedly experimental in comparison to the first book.  Third trip back, and I struck a vein of gold: a fairly traditionally structured suspense-murder mystery featuring (eventually, after a certain amount of build up) a retired police officer turned private investigator, one Jackson Brodie.

Case Histories hooked me, and One Good Turn reeled me in, leaving me chortling with glee at my good fortune in finding such a wickedly clever writer, and When Will There be Good News? nicked me where it hurt and the left me rejoicing with its several happily likeable strong females, and Started Early, Took My Dog had me poignantly amused and supremely satisfied and at the same time yearning for something, anything, more.

Then, game over on the novel front, until Life After Life – very much not featuring Jackson Brodie, but more in line with that mind-twisting first story – burst upon the 2013 book scene. (I have a copy, but I haven’t yet read it. Just waiting for the right time. This year’s Christmas break, perhaps? It’s mellowed for two years, and the buzz is quieter, as the companion book is now out.)

Kate Atkinson has said that her four Jackson Brodie novels may well have to stand alone – she’s written herself out in that area, at least for now. And I get that, and I am all for it, because heaven forbid such a stellar narrative deteriorate into an Elizabeth George-style endless saga that piles tragedy upon plot twist upon ever-more-bizarre murder until one forgets just how good the first books really were.

But I’ve just re-read all four of the Brodie novels, and all I can think of is that a really awesome Christmas treat in, say, 2016 or 2017 would be a fifth installment. Just sending that out into cyberspace. Kate Atkinson, did you catch that?

I will go ahead and list all the vital statistics as I usually do for books I talk about here. But I won’t get into details about plot and style and all that stuff. If you haven’t already read these, it might be fun to go into them cold, with no expectations. Definitely read them in order if you can, though it’s not absolutely essential – Kate Atkinson takes pity on the reader and does sketch in the back story just a bit, for those coming in part way through. (And if you’re really curious, the internet is jam-packed with analysis and reviews. Anything I say here will merely be a shadowy repeat of what others have already fluently said.)

The author’s website does have some excerpts, for firsthand exploration before committing.

Such good books. Such a good writer. Such a twisty, clever mind, and her coincidences click into place most satisfyingly, as we have cheerfully suspended disbelief early on. And very funny, too, though concerned throughout with the dismal awfulnesses of people to each other. But no wallowing.

Good stuff. Good, good, good.

Okay, I wasn’t going to say anything about the plots, but then I checked out the Kirkus reviews and I liked the first one quite well so I changed my mind and decided to crib from the pros. No true spoilers included, but you might wish to avoid going any further if you like your sagas unsullied by prior knowledge of details.

220px-CaseHistoriesCase Histories by Kate Atkinson ~2004. This edition: Doubleday, 2004. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-385-60799-7. 304 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Just looked up the Kirkus review from 2004, and by golly, the reviewer echoes my thoughts precisely, including my bemusement at Human Croquet and Emotionally Weird.

After two self-indulgent detours, Atkinson proves that her Whitbread Award–winning debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1996), was no fluke with a novel about three interconnected mysteries.

They seem totally unrelated at first to private detective Jackson Brodie, hired by separate individuals in Cambridge, England, to investigate long-dormant cases. Three-year-old Olivia Land disappeared from a tent in her family’s backyard in 1970; 34 years later, her sisters Amelia and Julia discover Olivia’s stuffed toy in their recently deceased father’s study and want Jackson to find out what he had to do with the disappearance. Theo Wyre’s beloved 18-year-old daughter Laura was murdered by a knife-wielding lunatic in 1994, and he too hires Jackson to crack this unsolved murder. Michelle was also 18 when she went to jail in 1979 for killing her husband with an ax while their infant daughter wailed in the playpen; she vanished after serving her time, but Shirley Morrison asks Jackson to find, not her sister Michelle, but the niece she promised to raise, then was forced to hand over to grandparents. The detective, whose bitter ex-wife uses Jackson’s profound love for their eight-year-old daughter to torture him, finds all these stories of dead and/or missing girls extremely unsettling; we learn toward the end why the subject of young women in peril is particularly painful for him. Atkinson has always been a gripping storyteller, and her complicated narrative crackles with the earthy humor, vibrant characterizations, and shrewd social observations that enlivened her first novel but were largely swamped by postmodern game-playing in Human Croquet (1997) and Emotionally Weird (2000). Here, she crafts a compulsive page-turner that looks deep into the heart of sadness, cruelty, and loss, yet ultimately grants her charming p.i. (and most of the other appealingly offbeat characters, including one killer) a chance at happiness and some measure of reconciliation with the past.

Wonderful fun and very moving: it’s a pleasure to see this talented writer back on form.

501124One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson ~ 2006. This edition: Anchor Canada, 2007. Softcover. ISBN: 9978-0-385-66261-1. 386 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Kirkus, again. Again, the reviewer mostly nailed it. Disregard the snarky “the author isn’t stretching herself” bit; it’s a grand book, says me. And I cried real tears at one point – a very rare response for me so noteworthy.

A murder mystery with comic overtones from the award-winning British storyteller.

Resurrecting Jackson Brodie, the private eye from Case Histories (2004), Atkinson confects a soft-hearted thriller, short on menace but long on empathy and introspection. Her intricate, none-too-serious plot is triggered by an act of road rage witnessed by assorted characters in Edinburgh during the annual summer arts festival. Mysterious possible hit man “Paul Bradley” is rear-ended by Terence Smith, a hard-man with a baseball bat who is stopped from beating Bradley to a pulp by mild-mannered crime-novelist Martin Canning, who throws his laptop at him. Other onlookers include Brodie, accompanied by his actress girlfriend, Julia; Gloria Hatter, wife of fraudulent property-developer Graham Hatter (of Hatter Homes, Real Homes for Real People); and schoolboy Archie, son of single-mother policewoman Louise Monroe, who lives in a crumbling Hatter home. Labyrinthine, occasionally farcical plot developments repeatedly link the group. Rounding out the criminal side of the story are at least two dead bodies; an omniscient Russian dominatrix who even to Gloria seems “like a comedy Russian”; and a mysterious agency named Favors. Brodie’s waning romance with Julia and waxing one with Louise; a dying cat; children; dead parents and much more are lengthily considered as Atkinson steps away from the action to delve into her characters’ personalities. Clearly, this is where her heart lies, not so much with the story’s riddles, the answers to which usually lie with Graham Hatter, who has been felled by a heart attack and remains unconscious for most of the story. There are running jokes and an enjoyable parade of neat resolutions, but no satisfying dénouement. Everything is connected, often amusingly or cleverly, but nothing matters much.

A technically adept and pleasurable tale, but Atkinson isn’t stretching herself.

3289281When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson ~ 2008. This edition: Doubleday, 2008. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-385-66682-4. 348 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Kirkus, Take Three. I strongly suspect that the reviewer phoned this one in, but it does sum up the key points of the action.

A third appearance for former police investigator and private detective Jackson Brodie in this psychologically astute thriller from Atkinson (One Good Turn, 2006, etc.).

In the emotional opening, six-year-old Joanna witnesses the brutal killing of her mother and siblings by a knife-wielding madman in the British countryside. Thirty years later, Joanna, now a doctor in Edinburgh, has become a mother herself. Her baby’s nanny is 16-year-old Reggie. To Reggie, whose own mother recently died in a freak accident, Joanna and her baby represent an ideal family (Joanna’s husband, a struggling businessman, seems only a vaguely irritating irrelevance to fatherless Reggie). When prickly, self-loathing policewoman Louise Monroe comes to call on lovely, warm-hearted Joanna, watchful Reggie (think Ellen Page from Juno with a Scottish brogue) is struck by the similarities between the two well-dressed professional women. Actually Louise has come to warn Joanna that her family’s murderer is being released from prison. Louise chooses not to mention her other reason for visiting, a suspicion that Joanna’s husband torched one of his failing businesses for the insurance. Jackson’s connection to the others is revealed gradually: Jackson and Louise were once almost lovers although they since married others; as a youth Jackson joined the search party that found Joanna hiding in a field following the murders. Rattled after visiting a child he suspects he fathered despite the mother’s denials, Jackson mistakenly takes the train to Edinburgh instead of London. When the train crashes near the house where Reggie happens to be watching TV, she gives him CPR. Soon afterward, Joanna’s husband tells Reggie that Joanna has gone away unexpectedly. Suspecting foul play, Reggie involves Louise and Jackson in individual searches for the missing woman and baby. While Louise and Jackson face truths about themselves and their relationships, Joanna’s survival instincts are once more put to the ultimate test.

Like the most riveting BBC mystery, in which understated, deadpan intelligence illuminates characters’ inner lives within a convoluted plot.

7307795Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson ~ 2010. This edition: Doubleday, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-385-67134-7. 350 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Kirkus, with errors. Another phone-in, is my verdict on the reviewer. The wee child has actually been left with his murdered mother’s body for a gruesome three weeks, and the questing adoptee Hope is from New Zealand. Otherwise the précis is more or less accurate.

British private detective Jackson Brodie, star of three previous Atkinson novels (When Will There Be Good News, 2008, etc.), finds himself embroiled in a case which shows that defining crime is sometimes as difficult as solving it.

Tracy Waterhouse, who is middle-aged, overweight and lonely, heads security for a mall in Leeds. Retired from the local police force, she remains haunted by one of her earliest cases, when she and her partner found a little boy abandoned in the apartment where his mother had been murdered days earlier. Although the murderer was supposedly found (but died before being brought to trial), Tracy never learned what happened to the child with whom she’d formed a quick bond. When Tracy sees a known prostitute/lowlife mistreating her child at the mall, she impulsively offers to buy the child, and the woman takes the money and runs. Tracy knows she has technically broken the law and even suspects the woman might not be the real mother, but her protective instinct and growing love for the little girl named Courtney overrides common sense; she begins arrangements to flee Leeds and start a new life with the child. Meanwhile, Jackson has come to Leeds on his own case. Raised and living in Australia, adoptee Hope McMaster wants information about her birth parents, who supposedly died in a car crash in Leeds 30 years ago. As he pursues the case, Jackson considers his relationships with his own kids—a troublesome teenage daughter from his first marriage and a young son whom DNA tests have recently proved he fathered with a former lover. Jackson’s search and Tracy’s quest intertwine as Jackson’s questions make the Leeds police force increasingly nervous. It becomes clear that the 1975 murder case Tracy worked on is far from solved and has had lasting repercussions.

The sleuthing is less important than Atkinson’s fascinating take on the philosophic and emotional dimensions of her characters’ lives.

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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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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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Well, now. Some of you will have heard about the recent crash-and-burn of one of Canada’s more prominent radio hosts, Jian Ghomeshi of CBC Radio’s popular “Q” music and pop culture program. I won’t go into any details, except to say that it is a rather grim sex scandal, and centered on Mr. Ghomeshi’s amatory preferences, which at first glance, were very “shrug it off, it’s a free world and I don’t care what he does in the bedroom” stories of CONSENSUAL rough sex.

Which turned out to include sudden punches to the head, choking to the point of unconsciousness, and lots else, which I don’t need to detail because a number of Jian Ghomeshi’s erstwhile partners have. And those partners have, to a woman, maintained that the rough stuff was NOT consensual. And, even more troubling, it now is starting to appear that Mr. Ghomeshi’s managers and co-workers at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation were aware of their star’s habits, and, when they spilled over just a bit into the workplace, advised the women-who-complained to just back away and avoid being alone with the man.

Oh boy.

Anyway, Jian Ghomeshi has been fired, and has countered with a self-defensive letter on his Facebook page and a 50 million dollar wrongful dismissal lawsuit. As woman after woman has spoken out about her bad-date experiences with Jian – I believe nine so far, most asking to remain anonymous – a police investigation has been launched. And in the court of public opinion, Jian Ghomeshi has been judged and found guilty. It’s been an exceedingly sordid week or so in public and social media circles, and who knows where it will all end up.

But it all got me thinking of this book review, from back in January 2013, when Jian Ghomeshi’s star still shone brightly, and he’d just published a highly anticipated memoir, which I eagerly read. That cover image now seems beyond ironic. Something is decidedly broken.

For the record.

Originally posted January 27, 2013:

1982 jian ghomeshi1982 by Jian Ghomeshi ~ 2012. This edition: Viking, 2012. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-670-06648-3. 284 pages.

My rating: 4/10.

Sorry, Jian.

Love the radio show, and you’re a great interviewer, but as far as authoring memoirs goes, well, don’t quit the day job.

*****

Here’s the promotional material that had me all keen to read this memoir by star CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi.

In 1982 the Commodore 64 computer was introduced, Ronald Reagan survived being shot, the Falkland War started and ended, Michael Jackson released Thriller, Canada repatriated its Constitution, and the first compact disc was sold in Germany. And that’s not all. In 1982 I blossomed from a naive fourteen-year-old trying to fit in with the cool kids to something much more: a naive eyeliner-wearing, fifteen-year-old trying to fit in with the cool kids.

So writes Jian Ghomeshi in this, his first book, 1982. It is a memoir told across intertwined stories of the songs and musical moments that changed his life. Obsessed with David Bowie (“I wanted to be Bowie,” he recalls), the adolescent Ghomeshi embarks on a Nick Hornbyesque journey to make music the centre of his life. Acceptance meant being cool, and being cool meant being Bowie. And being Bowie meant pointy black boots, eyeliner, and hair gel. Add to that the essential all-black wardrobe and you have two very confused Iranian parents, busy themselves with gaining acceptance in Canada against the backdrop of the revolution in Iran.

It is a bittersweet, heartfelt book that recalls awkward moments such as Ghomeshi’s performance as the “Ivory” in a school production of Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney’s Ebony and Ivory; a stakeout where Rush was rehearsing for its world tour; and a memorable day at the Police picnic of 1982. Music is the jumping-off place for Ghomeshi to discuss young love, young heartache, conformity, and the nature of cool. At the same time, 1982 is an entertaining cultural history of a crazy era of glam, glitter, and gender-bending fads and fashions. And it is definitely the first rock memoir by a Persian-Canadian new waver.

All excited and looking forward to it – I’m a happy Q listener whenever I get the chance, and I too had (have!) a thing for the Thin White Duke – I requested this book for Christmas, and my family tried their best, but it was sold out at the local bookstore. So I was very happy last week to see it on the 7-day express shelf by the library door. (These are popular books available for one-week loan, no renewals. $1 a day for every day over the week, so there’s definitely an incentive to get them back asap.) My week is up on Tuesday, and I’ve made a concerted effort to push through it, but boy oh boy, it was tough going. (On the bright side, my family saved their $30.)

What’s wrong with it, you ask?

One word: Boring.

Boring, boring, boring.

And it wasn’t that Jian didn’t have an interesting teenage life. He did, in a tame sort of middle-class, upwardly mobile, successful immigrant family sort of way. In 1982, the year more or less profiled in this “creative autobiography”, Jian turned fifteen. He was in the throes of young love, was hanging out with a bunch of good friends, and was playing drums in a band – okay, it was the community band, but still… He was listening to all sorts of cool new music, had reinvented himself as a New Wave wannabe, and was having quite a time experimenting with hair dye and styling gel and eyeliner and dressing all in black. He had a loving and supportive family, abundant parental funding, and oodles of positive reinforcement from his teachers and the other adults in his life. He did stuff. He went places. He got into a few interesting situations, and made it through them in one piece. Easily enough stuff to write a memoir about.

A short memoir. A novella-length memoir. Not the almost-300 page thing that I have just gratefully slapped shut. Jian ran every single little incident of that year completely to death. And though it was interesting in bits here and there, ultimately I just couldn’t care.

Small sample of the prose to follow.

I will sacrifice a chunk of my evening and type this out, so you can read a bit and perhaps save yourself the heartbreak of discovering the banality that dwells within the covers of this book. Or, on the other hand, maybe you’ll love it, and wonder why I’m moaning on about the boringness of 1982. The book, that is. Not the year. Because, that would be, like, really tragic. If you like this kind of thing. And then didn’t read it. Because I was, like, panning it. Really badly. For some reason. Yeah.

Oh. No. It is catching. The prose style. You will see what I mean. In a minute. Uh huh.

Okay. Here’s Jian, describing his teenage Ontario home. Or sprinklers. Or middle-aged men. Or all three.

Thornhill was the quintessential suburb. I’ve never lived in any other suburb, but I imagine they all look like Thornhill, with people who act like they did in Thornhill. It was the kind of place where men watch sprinklers on their lawns. Have you ever noticed that men like to watch sprinklers? They do. Or at least, they did. But I think they probably still do.

When suburban men reach a certain age (let’s say, north of thirty-five), they like to stand at the foot of their front lawns and watch their sprinklers distributing water on them. This seems to be a biological need. It may look like a banal exercise, but men take it very seriously. You might expect that these men are involved in another activity while watching the lawn – like thinking. But I’m not so sure they are. I think they’re not thinking. Watching the lawn is like a middle-class, suburban form of meditation for men. It becomes more common as they age. Their heads are empty and they are just watching sprinklers. Sometimes men will rub their bellies while they watch their lawns. Perhaps these men are so tired from a busy week that this is their respite. Or maybe these men feel a sense of accomplishment and worth by looking at their lawns. Maybe, in the moments when their heads aren’t empty, they’re thinking, “This is MY lawn! Look what I’ve done. I’ve got myself a lawn with a working sprinkler! I don’t have to think. My belly feels good. I am feeling my belly.” Maybe that’s what suburban men are thinking…

This goes on, the sprinkler watching monologue, for three pages. It includes a list.

I have made a short list of the lawn sprinklers that were available in Thornhill in 1982:

  • stationary sprinkler
  • rotary sprinkler
  • oscillating sprinkler
  • pulsating(impulse) sprinkler
  • travelling sprinkler

As you can see, there were distinct and varied types of sprinklers to be utilized in the suburbs in the early ’80s…

There are a lot of lists in this book. Many more lists than there were types of sprinklers in Thornhill in 1982. And reading the lists are about as exciting as standing at the bottom of the lawn watching the grass get wet.

Okay, I guess you’ve twigged that I’m pretty underwhelmed by Jian’s little personal saga.

To be fair, it did have a certain time-travel charm; a certain nostalgia factor for those of us who shared that time on the planet with Jian. Yes, we remember Commodore 64s, and rotary dial phones and twisty phone cords, and some of the more intelligible words from the major AC/DC songs. We remember Boy George, and, yes, definitely David Bowie. But we now know, those of us who’ve read your teen years – oops, year – opus, way too much about what went on in your head, way back during the time span of your fifteenth trip round the sun.

Maybe this book is all avante garde ironic, and I’m just not hip enough to appreciate it. Maybe I’m not in the right demographic. It does seems targetted at a younger set of readers, because most of it is all, “Gee whiz, when I was a kid we didn’t have all these iPods and digital cameras and cell phones and stuff. Here, let me tell you about the pathetic technology of 1982.”

But I can’t imagine anyone younger than, say, thirty-five or forty or thereabouts finding it remotely interesting.

Anyone else read this one? Am I completely out of touch? Is is deeply cool and ironic? Or just deeply boring?

*****

I do forgive you, Jian. Just don’t do it again.

No 1983. Please.

(I still like the radio show.)

More reviews:

Goodreads – 1982 by Jian Ghomeshi

National Post – 1982 by Jian Ghomeshi

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the rosie project graeme simsionThe Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion ~ 2013. This edition: Harper Collins, 2013. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-44342-266-6. 329 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Aw, how sweet!

A charming beach read of a book which felt rather odd for a Canadian snow-filled January, but then I twigged that it was set in Melbourne, Australia (a reference to a character’s skimpy dress being perfect for “hot January evenings” making me sit up and pay attention) and it all fell into place.

An unusual narrator, university genetics professor Don, tells of his hyper-scheduled life, and how it all changed when he decided to locate a suitable life-partner by undertaking the questionnaire-based Wife Project in order to pre-screen likely prospects. A friend sets him up with a certain “Rosie” as something of a cruel joke; she fails the questionnaire on all counts, but even as he dismisses her from his list of potential partners, she interests him in a number of other ways.

Do I really need to go on? This book is completely stereotypical on so many counts, up to and including Don’s reinvention of himself to fit the presumed requirements of the woman he loves, and her teary-eyed insistence (after the fact) that the original him was the one she fell in love with.

Total chick flick stuff, and I thought all the way through what a perfect Hollywood romantic comedy this thing would be, which turned out to be the case – it was originally written as a screenplay. So no points for catching that.

But it works. It’s very funny, and cute and sweet and adorable and very happy-ending-ish. Also insubstantial as cotton candy, or perhaps one should say apricot ice cream – a bit zingy here and there, but ultimately mostly just sweet. Definitely not a real meal of a book, but a delectable dessert.

Many thanks to Claire at Captive Reader for recommending this; it was a whole lot of fun, and a perfect use of my Christmas bookstore gift card, and I know I will reread it when I need a bit of a pick-me-up.

I did a brief reconnaissance of other reviews, and among the many to choose from (several thousand on Goodreads, with a substantial number of high ratings) I found this one, by Ottawa writer Zachary Poole, which nicely reflected my own pros and cons regarding the story. I was quite impressed that we both rated it the same, 7/10, and my thoughts echoed Zachary’s to a T, though I must add the disclaimer that never once was I even marginally teary eyed!

Zachary Poole at Pop Matters Review – The Rosie Project

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shadows robin mckinleyShadows by Robin McKinley ~ 2013. This edition: Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin), 2013. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-399-16579-5. 356 pages.

My rating: 4/10

I wasn’t going to talk about this book, but then I thought, yes, I have to, because I need to add it to my just-published Most Disappointing Reads of 2013 list. Which is utterly depressing, because I wanted it to be at least good enough to bring back some of my admiration for this can-be-marvelous writer. This is the woman who crafted The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword and Beauty (the first one) and, yes, Sunshine, all of which are gorgeous young adult works with cross-generational appeal set in meticulously detailed alternate worlds.

Shadows tries to get there too, but along the way it crashes and burns, and not in a spectacular blaze but just with a damp, smoky fizzle. What a sloppy book. I am most unhappy about it. So there may be spoilers coming below, because I’m feeling sulky and disappointed and cranky.

From the flyleaf:

The story starts like something out of a fairy tale: I hated my stepfather.

It’s usually stepmothers in fairy tales. Well, equal time for stepfathers.

Maggie knows something’s off about Val, her mom’s new husband. It’s not only that he’s from Oldworld, where they still use magic, and won’t have any tech in his office-shed behind the house. But what are the huge, horrible, jagged, jumpy shadows that follow him around? And why is her dog not bothered by them?

Newworld is all about science – you’re expected to give up fairy tales as soon as you’re old enough to read them for yourself – and magic is illegal. In Newworld the magic-carrying gene was disabled two generations ago – mostly. Maggie’s best friend Jill has some foresight, and Maggie’s great-grandmother was a notable magician. But that was a long time ago.

Then Maggie meets Casimir, the most beautiful boy she has ever seen. He’s from Oldworld too—and he’s heard of Maggie’s stepfather, and has a guess about Val’s shadows. Maggie doesn’t want to know . . . until events force her to depend on Val and his shadows. And perhaps on her own heritage…

So Maggie despises her new stepfather, and shuns his every good-natured attempt to make friends. He’s a weirdly dressed, odd-looking immigrant with a funny accent from a pseudo-Balkan country in Oldworld, where magic is still practised, and even though he has to have been certified “clean” to be allowed to immigrate to Newworld, those multi-legged, wavering, ever-changing, elusive shadows which no one but Maggie seems to be aware of put her off in a huge way. And no matter how happy Val makes Maggie’s widowed mother, Maggie finds it totally, like, pathetic.

Maggie rolls her eyes at the grown-ups in her life and putters along doing typical teenage girl things. Like struggling with algebra, and dodging creepy teachers, and hanging with her friends, and making eyes at the hot new guy at the local pizza joint. Not to mention making super-intricate origami, working at the local animal shelter, and training her amazing-super-fabulous border collie, and monologuing on in über-detail about all of the above.

The first person narration in this gushing fairy tale is so breathless and run-on and stream-of-consciousness discuss-every-nuance (except the really important stuff which might clue the reader in to what the heck the implications actually are of cobeys and silverbugs and what the government guys do with people who practise magic) that when big bad stuff starts to happen I was pretty jaded already. (See, the writing style is catching!)

So anyway, our heroine is a super duper animal lover with amazing communicative abilities regarding the four-legged creatures of her world, which is convenient when she needs to start figuring out the canine elements of Val’s shadows, which suddenly want to get up close and personal with her, and the werewolf tendencies of her old school chum Takahiro.

With the help of her little group of human friends and the imported Oldworld shadows and a whole bunch of animal pals, not to mention her magical algebra book (which is yet another thing never explained at all which I found deeply annoying), Maggie knits up a few bulges of magic trying to break through into Newworld, rescues Val (who is suddenly a good guy, all “creepiness” forgiven) from the bad government guys who have seized him and chained him up in an abandoned army base conveniently staffed only by a few friendly neighbourhood watch-type guards, and they all make it to the family safe haven (“mysteriously” called “Haven”) where everything will be sure to be sorted out, because wow! – Val and Mom and the aunties are all still chock full of magical powers which they’ve cleverly masked from the Newworld government scanners.  Oh, and Maggie finds love. Cute, cuddly, teenage love. Blush, blush.

I can only speculate that this is aimed strictly at the teen girl market, though the family teen girl whose Christmas present this was quit part way through in disgust. “Confusing, and not in a good way. Too much super-girl with the awesome dog training powers – we get it already. And the slang is so contrived and annoying. This is unrelatable. Where’s my new Maggie Stiefvater?”

I plugged through to the end, and though it picked up steam for a bit in the middle, it got tiresome again well before then end, and all I could think was, “Oh, Robin McKinley. Why?”

And where was your editorial advisor when you sent in this apparent first draft which made it into print?

If tightened up this could have been much, much better. In this reader’s opinion. Because I know what Robin McKinley can do; the proof is on the favourites bookshelf.

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Three “relationship” novels read this month with varying degrees of enjoyment. All three are much discussed elsewhere, so I feel justified in giving them each what amounts to a very arbitrary micro-review. Of these three I doubt I will be returning to The Mistress of Nothing or Letter from Peking. Miss Pettigrew, however, will immediately be moving onto the keeper shelf.

the mistress of nothing kate pullingerThe Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger ~ 2009.

This edition: McArthur & Co., 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-55278-868-4. 248 pages.

My rating:  6ish/10.  (Mostly for the first half of the book, which was quite engrossing, and the fact that it sent me away curious to learn more about the real Lady Duff Gordon. The last half deteriorated to a 3 or maybe, generously, a 4.)

This book won the 2009 Canadian Governor General’s Award for Fiction, to which I can only say that it must have been a quiet year in publishing.

Somewhere as I did a bit of internet research on the author and the novel, I read that Kate Pullinger worked on this for ten years. I’m assuming that it was very much a peripheral project, though I also saw that she received an Author’s Society grant to travel to Egypt for her research, and a series of Fellowships from the Royal Literary Fund. I personally think that the author should also have spent some time working on how to write a convincing bedroom scene, because the sexy bits in this one were blush inducing for all the wrong reasons, reading as though they’d been grafted into a reasonably serious historical novel from something much more slight and bodice-ripperish.

Based closely on Lady Duff Gordon: Letters From Egypt, edited by Lady Duff Gordon’s mother, Sarah Austin, and daughter, Janet Ross, and published in several volumes between 1865 and 1875, The Mistress of Nothing is, first and foremost, well researched. It is also beautifully written for the most part, making the latter plot and stylistic inconsistencies all the more glaring.

Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon was well known for her beauty and sparkling wit and moved in the highest social circles in England, though she and her husband were, relatively speaking, not all that wealthy. Lady Duff Gordon was a noted scholar, and specialized in translations of German literature. She was also doomed to an early death, for she had at some point contracted tuberculosis, and, soon after the birth of her third child, was told she must leave England for a warmer, dryer climate. Travels to South Africa and then to Egypt brought some respite, and The Mistress of Nothing follows the Egyptian sojourn which ended in Lady Duff Gordon’s death in Cairo in 1869. She was 48.

The Mistress of Nothing provides an intriguing if superficial portrait of Lady Duff Gordon, but the focus of the novel is on another genuine character, her personal maid, Sally Naldrett. Sally accompanied her mistress on her travels, and on the trip to Egypt was Lady Duff Gordon’s sole companion, as limited finances precluded anything resembling an entourage.

When the two women reached Egypt, they were fortunate in acquiring an Egyptian dragoman/factotum, one Omar, who by all reports was a devoted and efficient assistant and of great aid in every way possible. At some point Sally and Omar developed an even closer relationship; Sally became pregnant and gave birth to Omar’s child, a development unrealized by Lady Duff Gordon until the actual birth. Her Ladyship reacted in an extreme manner, refusing to have anything  to do with Sally and stating that the child was to be given to Omar’s family (he was already married to an Egyptian woman) and that Sally was to return to England. Sally ended up marrying Omar – under Muslim law he was permitted multiple wives – but there was no reconciliation between her and her mistress, and Sally disappears from Lady Duff Gordon’s narrative, though she was very much still present at least on the fringes of the household for quite some time before Lady Duff Gordon’s eventual demise. Omar stayed on, and retained his position in the household as well as Lady Duff Gordon’s good graces, being recommended by her to serve in the Prince of Wales’ household after her death.

All of this is true to the historical record, and quite fascinating it is, too. It’s very easy to see why Kate Pullinger decided to elaborate on the real life framework of this dramatic trio of personalities; the story as it stands is enthralling.

Where the fictional treatment starts to unravel is where the real life letters leave off and Pullinger’s pure invention takes over. Once the (fictionalized) virginal Sally discovers the joy of sex with Omar, the narrative changes from an interesting examination of expatriate life in 1860s Egypt to a mushy pastiche of Sally’s (imagined) thoughts and emotions and Pullinger’s inventive fabrication of what Sally gets up to once cut adrift from her once-benevolent employer. Though willing to go along with the tale, I was unwillingly lost along the way, and closed the book with a feeling of deep disappointment. It was so close to being such an excellent read…

Well, I see the above got longer than the promised micro-review, though I really didn’t say too much; it’s a largish topic and there are all sorts of things I could say about the fascinating character of Lady Duff Gordon, and the roles of women in the 19th century, and class distinctions, and the vast gap between mistress and servant despite their years of physical intimacy, and the political situation in Egypt and the whole aristocratic British person living abroad thing. But others will have said it already, so I will (and not a moment too soon – the morning typing time is running out) move on to the next book on my list.

letter from peking pearl s buckLetter From Peking by Pearl S. Buck ~ 1957.

This edition: Cardinal, 1964. Paperback. 218 pages.

My rating: 3/10

Pearl S. Buck was a prolific writer, with a number of excellent novels to her credit – The Good Earth, The Living Reed, Peony – and a whole slew of other stuff. Some of which, sadly, is not very good at all. Like this one, which sounded promising, started out not too badly, and slid downhill fast.

This might have made a decent short story, but Pearl S. Buck, by dint of much repetition and needlessly florid meanderings, padded it out into a novel.

Here’s the gist of it.

An American woman, happily married for twenty years to a half-Chinese, half-American man, leaves China with her twelve-year-old son at the start of the Communist government takeover. Her husband, due to an extreme sense of duty, remains behind in his job. (He’s the head of a Chinese university; you know already from this that it’s not going to end terribly well, what with the whole Cultural Revolution thing on the horizon.)

Back in America, the woman settles into her family home in rural Vermont, which has been conveniently waiting for her in perfect order all these years, complete with faithful (if gruff) hired man. A letter arrives. Her husband has been pressured to take on a Chinese wife, to prove his loyalty to his country. The woman puts off answering it. The son runs into issues with his mixed race ethnicity. Much emotion ensues. The woman talks. A lot. Both to herself and to anyone else who will provide a shoulder to cry on. The son decides “enough of this already, Mom’s micromanaging my life. No more confidences.” More tears.

Then the woman, all on a sudden whim, decides to track down her father-in-law, and finds him in the most unlikely circumstance, living in a small shack under the protection of a local big-wheel landowner, having lost his memory but still being cognizant enough of things to insist on dressing himself in Chinese silk gowns, of which he apparently has a whole closet full. (The father-in-law lived in China many years, and left after the death of his Chinese wife – the heroine’s husband’s mother – which was highly unpleasant. She was a revolutionary activist, and was  put up against a wall and shot. Instant martyr stuff.)

Not one but two prospective suitors materialize. “Divorce your husband and marry again!” Oh, what to do, what to do???! By the time it all sort of resolved itself (sort of) I no longer cared.

Heroine is a deeply unpleasant woman, for all of her heartfelt moanings in this first-person monologue. She is a complete and utter snob, self congratulating herself on her amazing superiority in embracing the Chinese culture of her beautiful husband – long passages on how physically gorgeous mixed-race people are – while those around her are so gosh-darned bigoted. She insists that the good old days in China were absolutely wonderful; the peasants were happy; her servants loved her; her beautiful life was so fulfilling. Why did those nasty Commies have to ruin everything? In the meantime she bosses her son around, patronizes the Vermont people who fulfill all of the roles her Chinese peasants used to, and puts off dealing with her husband’s crucial issue. Eventually she gives permission for him to take on a wife-in-absence, giving her yet another lowly person to mercilessly critique.

By the end I hoped that neither of the suitors ended up with her; they seemed nice fellows. And I wished her new daughter-in-law best of luck, and rejoiced for her sake that the son had decided to move far, far away.

Over the years I’ve read a lot of Pearl S. Buck, and enjoyed most of it. This one, as you may have gathered, not very much.

miss pettigrew lives for a day winifred watson 001Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson~ 1938.

This edition: Persephone Press, 2000. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-906462-02-4. 234 pages.

My rating: 8/10

What a relief to turn to this playfully frivolous novel after Pearl Buck’s dismal thing.

Middle-aged Miss Pettigrew, supremely inefficient governess, is on her uppers. Down to her last shilling, she knocks on the door of one Miss LaFosse, following up a lead from an employment agency.

Miss Pettigrew is welcomed in and definitely proves herself useful, but in a most unanticipated way. Dashing young men, cocktails, nightclubs…ooh, la la! Miss Pettigrew has never experienced such a whirl as she does in this utterly life-changing day.

That’s all I’m going to say. A whole lot of fun, this light and airy novel. If you haven’t already experienced this silly, happy thing, seek it out immediately, and enjoy!

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the ocean at the end of the lane neil gaimanThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman ~ 2013. This edition: Morrow, 2013. 1st Edition. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-06-225565-5. 181 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

I ration my new books quite severely, for several reasons.

One is that new books are so darned easy. I love the second hand book hunt an awful lot, and relish the finding of literary treasure in all its forms, from the well-known bestsellers of yesterday to the quirky little short-run oddities which pop up now and then, and everything in between. I generally have a wish list of authors I’m currently interested in, but the serendipitous finds are what I keep going back for.

Another vital consideration is price. New books are expensive. Case in point, Gaiman’s latest which I’ll be talking about here. This one set my back $27.99 (Canadian) at my local independent bookstore. Yes, I know I could have purchased it for less through one of the big chain bookstores, or online from the big “A”, but I am trying my hardest to limit new book purchases to the local folks, to do my small part in keeping them in business.

But $28.00 (plus tax) for one book, which, considering Gaiman’s popularity and the size of the print runs, will be readily available for pennies on the dollar in a year or two in the Sally Ann book bins, is a chunk of cash which I need to think about fairly hard before parting with. For that investment I could walk out of even the most lavishly over-priced second hand book store with a handful of volumes, or purchase a true rarity online. Something to think about…

Well, was it worth it? Was my money well spent in purchasing a book because I wanted to read it now, not in a year’s time, or whenever my turn would come in the queue at the public library?

The answer is a resounding “I’m not quite sure…” While the story itself was well up to Gaiman’s best work, it was a slight little thing, quickly devoured and leaving one vaguely unsatisfied and wanting more. Not perhaps such a bad thing, come to think of it. We’ll see how it holds up to a reread in a year or two, once all the hype has faded.

I won’t go into too much detail, as the internet is seething with detailed reviews – over 10,000 (!) on Goodreads alone. I didn’t read any of these before I read the book, but I dipped into them briefly just now, and yes, there’s a lot of words being bandied about, some very thoughtful indeed.

But please, dear fellow reader, read the story cold, if you can, which is what I did. I do feel it is a much better experience, not knowing too much going in.

From the front flyleaf:

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

Not quite sure about that last bit, the “groundbreaking work” part, and the “rare understanding of all that makes us human” puff, but I do agree with the delicate and menacing bits. This was a very creepy story, but in a good way, fictionally speaking.

Lying in bed early this morning, mulling over what to say about the story, a few things stood out for me, and I felt all clever and wise, but glancing through the other online reviews show me that everyone else caught them, too, so I don’t feel quite so special any more.

I saw that it The Ocean at the End of the Lane could be viewed as an allegorical tale much along the same lines as the Narnia books, or any of the oodles of fairy tales and legends preceding that most well-known of story-as-hidden-propaganda-for-a-worldview. Or perhaps “propaganda” is not a fair term. Let’s say “explanation”, then, or something similar. In any event, it’s as old as history, this perhaps-not-so-groundbreaking story line.

In this one, the Maiden-Mother-Crone trinity, the requirement for the protagonist – a feeble creature indeed, standing in nicely for all Mankind, if one continues with the allegory – to act with full faith in their protection, the smug “good will always trump evil” atmosphere of the Hempstock farm, and the pseudo-sacrificial bit at the end, complete with water imagery and resurrection on another plane, all feel very familiar, as they indeed should, as we’ve seen their like before. Many times.

But Gaiman’s interpretation is unique and horrible and beautiful and very well imagined. I enjoyed it thoroughly, as a piece of creative contemporary fiction. Maybe the allegory is all in my head, and the story is just a story. Works either way.

So, asking myself again, was it worth the $27.99 in reading value? I have to say, after more consideration, that the answer is probably “No.” But now I have a nice hardcover copy, still crisp and clean even after being read by everyone in the family, which will look very nice on the shelf until the re-reading impulse strikes in a few years. It’s all right. And I’m hoping that my bookstore got a decent cut!

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how to be a woman caitlin moranHow to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran ~ 2011. This edition: Ebury Press, 2011. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-06-212429-6. 305 pages.

My rating: This one was unrateable.

What can I say? It’s all been said. Multiple times.

Outspoken, thought-provoking, vulgar, romantic, profane, profound, controversial, brave, rude … and very, very funny. This is not a book I would give my mother! But I would leave it where my teenage daughter could find it.

I actually did just that, and she (the teenage daughter) dipped into it, and basically said “Ew. Too much information. And swearing. She’s a bit scary, Mom.” So that didn’t take. Which is just fine. We’ve already had all of the conversations that Caitlin missed with her mother. A lot of this one reads like a cautionary tale, a what-not-do-do manual, at least until Caitlin gets herself all grown up and out in the big world. Though even then her decisions aren’t exactly stellar one hundred percent of the time.

This is a big, bold, brassy memoir of British newspaper columnist and generally funny lady Caitlin Moran’s teenage years right up until the present. She has zero barriers; she discusses everything there is to discuss about being born with on the double X-chromosome side of the human sexual spectrum. This is Caitlin’s take on what it means to be a woman. While frequently prescriptive, it’s best taken with a good dash of salt. As one reviewer quipped, this one should perhaps have been titled How to be Caitlin Moran, because it certainly doesn’t apply – or appeal –  universally. Many are – and will be – sceptical, if not downright appalled, at Moran’s Technicolor rantings.

Menstruation, masturbation, obesity, body hair, pregnancy, childbirth –  full coverage of the biological range. Then there are drugs and alcohol and the over-the-top excesses these can lead too. Bad relationships. Good relationships. Marriage. Children. Abortion. Right along with the ethics of employing a cleaner.

And this is what seems to be getting all the attention in the reviews I’ve been reading. Capital-F Feminism. What it looks like today, and what Caitlin Moran thinks it should look like. In a nutshell, good old Golden Rule stuff. Do as you would be done by. Treat each other well.

I’ve been thinking about how to present this review for a few days now, ever since finishing the book, and since reading fellow blogger Claire’s take over on Captive Reader – How to Be a Woman . What I’ve decided is to not really say all that much about this one. The internet is crowded to overflowing with reviews; this one has received capital-H Hype, and some people are taking it really, really seriously.

Here’s the Goodreads – How to Be a Woman page. 2500 reviews. Go wild!

I’m not taking this one terribly seriously. I found it amusing, and I agreed with Caitlin Moran on her various opinions a good majority of the time. I particularly liked her chapters on marriage and motherhood, and the abortion chapter was something very unusual in its sincerity and refreshing lack of sensationalism. I don’t think I could be so detached and unemotional as Moran was, if it were me facing the same scenario, and my decision would likely have been the exact opposite, but her forthright acceptance of what she did felt genuine.

But I’m not about to bow down to her as our newest Feminist leader, our Womanly Great White Hope, as some enthusiastic fans seem to be. She’s not really breaking any new ground here, just repeating what’s already been said with a lavish dash of shazzam.

Moran is a very funny writer. I literally laughed out loud – a rarity for me when reading –  more than once – most notably during the bra and breastfeeding discussions – spot on! Loved it. I’ll likely purchase the book one day, but I’m in no rush. If I never read it again, no big deal. I’d never heard of the woman until a few weeks ago, and I strongly suspect I’ll not hear too much from her in future, but I’ve at least placed her in my personal “cultural literacy” file and can now nod knowingly if her name comes up.

And that’s good enough for me.

As a parting gift, here are some quotes I lifted from How to Be a Woman, courtesy of Goodreads. If anything here resonates, you’ll probably like this book.

*****

If you want to know what’s in motherhood for you, as a woman, then – in truth – it’s nothing you couldn’t get from, say, reading the 100 greatest books in human history; learning a foreign language well enough to argue in it; climbing hills; loving recklessly; sitting quietly, alone, in the dawn; drinking whisky with revolutionaries; learning to do close-hand magic; swimming in a river in winter; growing foxgloves, peas and roses; calling your mum; singing while you walk; being polite; and always, always helping strangers. No one has ever claimed for a moment that childless men have missed out on a vital aspect of their existence, and were the poorer, and crippled by it.

*****

I cannot understand anti-abortion arguments that centre on the sanctity of life.  As a species we’ve fairly comprehensively demonstrated that we don’t believe in the sanctity of life.  The shrugging acceptance of war, famine, epidemic, pain and life-long poverty shows us that, whatever we tell ourselves, we’ve made only the most feeble of efforts to really treat human life as sacred.

*****

Overeating is the addiction of choice of carers, and that’s why it’s come to be regarded as the lowest-ranking of all the addictions. It’s a way of fucking yourself up while still remaining fully functional, because you have to. Fat people aren’t indulging in the “luxury” of their addiction making them useless, chaotic, or a burden. Instead, they are slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn’t inconvenience anyone. And that’s why it’s so often a woman’s addiction of choice. All the quietly eating mums. All the KitKats in office drawers. All the unhappy moments, late at night, caught only in the fridge light.

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