Archive for the ‘Canadian Book Challenge #7’ Category

the water in between kevin pattersonThe Water in Between: A Journey at Sea by Kevin Patterson ~ 1999. This edition: Vintage Canada, 2000. Softcover. ISBN: 0-679-31054-1. 289 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

Breaking the too-long posting silence because this book was too good not to mention. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and its references to Chatwin and Theroux (that would be Bruce and Paul, respectively) have me mulling over just which boxes those authors’ works are tucked away in – I cleared a whole bank of bookshelves to facilitate repainting some time ago, and am starting to get jittery at my lack of easy access to a favourite segment of our personal non-fiction/travel library. (The bookshelves still need their paint, too. Maybe this will trigger a start to that project?)

It seemed at first like just another one of those “Hey, my life was so messed up that I decided to go off and so something completely out of character, and in the meantime I discovered the secret of the universe, and golly, it’s great I kept notes because here I am with this book deal…” things. But it turned quickly into something rather unexpected, a non-adventurous adventure story. And the Great Big Reason for Being – well, that didn’t materialize, though Patterson spent a lot of time (all those becalmed days in the Horse Latitudes) trying to wrap his head around his personal issues, with some success.

So – a young, complete non-sailor, ex-army doctor, desperately unlucky in love and feeling that life is flat, stale and unprofitable, buys a small sailboat on Vancouver Island and sets off across the Pacific heading for Tahiti, accompanied by an experienced sailor, another emotionally desolate man, whose marriage has recently imploded and whose personal life is understandably in tatters. The two of them have never met before, and an instant friendship does not spring to life, nor do they hate each other by the time they reach Hawaii. They just kind of rub along in a very Canadian way, being tactful and not over-sharing, but listening when the other guy has a moment of cathartic release, and (apparently) never, ever giving relationship advice.

Backtracking to the non-adventurous adventure story bit. What I liked – no – LOVED – about Patterson’s saga was that he refused to build up his adventures into anything out of the ordinary. Sure, for him, Manitoba boy, setting out in a sailboat on the ocean was legitimately a leap far beyond the comfort zone, and he talks about that. Quite a lot. But there is a continual pragmatic tone to Patterson’s navel gazing which keeps his musings from straying into that self-indulgent “aren’t-I-wonderful” mode that so very many of his autobiographical-adventure peers seem to default to.

And I learned a lot, completely effortlessly. About small boats, sailing, the Pacific Ocean and its natural and human history.

Kevin Patterson wasn’t afraid to document the squalor of his own life, and the rose-coloured glasses were seldom donned regarding other people’s, either, even those souls residing in the paradisiacal South Sea isles which he finally reached, albeit after a very slow journey.

From Christopher Buckley’s May 28, 2000 New York Times book review:

 “In August of 1994, I bought a 20-year-old ferrocement ketch on the coast of British Columbia. I did this in an effort to distract myself – at the time I was so absorbed in self-pity that my eyes were crossed.” So begins this tale of sailing back and forth across the Pacific by Kevin Patterson, who at the age of 29 found himself loveless, directionless and as sour as Hamlet after three dreary years as a Canadian Army doctor posted to an artillery base in Manitoba…He conceived the idea of refreshing his soul by sailing to Tahiti, that ever-beckoning paradise, never mind that he had never been in a sailboat before and could barely tell a rudder from a bowsprit. Acedia, incompetence and ferrocement – all the makings of a decent sea yarn. Add to those literary skills, wide reading, a decent humanity, humor, a Global Positioning Satellite receiver, a Force 9 gale and you have ”The Water In Between,” a delightful, finely written and, in the end, wise book.

It succeeds against a number of odds. First, there is no longer much novelty left in the genre. The damp, drizzly November-in-my-soul impetus to go to sea has been around since Ishmael started knocking the hats off people he passed. And it’s been over a century now since Joshua Slocum, the grandfather of modern nautical literary types, completed the circumnavigation that resulted in his masterpiece and best seller, ”Sailing Alone Around the World.” All books since on the theme of putting to sea in small sailboats – alone or not – are footnotes to Slocum. Patterson himself freely admits that no one, really, has equaled the old New Englander’s nautical or literary accomplishments…

I highly recommend that you read the rest of this review here; it is a thoughtful and clever summary and analysis of The Water In Between’s unexpectedly deep appeal.

I was myself born and raised in a relatively landlocked part of the world – hundreds of miles from the nearest seacoast – and I’m a dedicated landlubber. Beyond the fringes of the seashore I yearn not to travel; the ocean quite frankly terrifies me. Nothing I read in Patterson’s book has tempted me to revisit this notion. In fact, it has strengthened my resolve not to even toy with the idea of small-boat ocean travel, much as accounts of mountaineering reinforce my desire to stay safely on non-vertical ground.

But it’s absolutely fascinating reading about such exploits, especially when the writer is so articulate. Patterson references all the standard gurus of travel writing and solo adventuring, including a few I’ve not yet read myself, and may well have placed himself among them in a low key but more than competent way by this excellent first work.

Kevin Patterson has since gone on to publish more non-fiction (Outside the Wire: The War in Afghanistan in the Words of its Participants, 2008), a novel (Consumption, 2006),  and a collection of linked short stories (Country of Cold, 2003), and he still practices medicine, as of 2013 in Nanaimo, B.C.

 

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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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Three quick reads this past few days ran the gamut from slightly-gosh-awful to thoughtfully-affirmative to poignantly-hilarious. All are deeply imbued with sense of place. Light reading, all three, easy to pick up and put down, though I must confess I read each one straight through. Without further ado, here they are.

one happy moment dj louise riley 001One Happy Moment by Louise Riley ~ 1951.

This edition: Copp Clark, 1951. Hardcover. 212 pages.

My rating: 4.5/10

I’m glad to have read this obscure Canadian novel, for it made me stop and muse on what makes a style of writing either a hit or a miss with a reader. This one felt awkward to me, stylistically and plot-wise, and even its glowing portrayal of a landscape I have personally known well didn’t quite make up for the clunky prose and the rather cardboard characters. I opened it up prepared to enjoy it; I closed it no longer wondering why this was the author’s only adult novel, and why it (apparently) never made it past that first printing.

She lifted her arms and pulled off her grey felt hat, shaking her head like a young horse, freed from his bridle. She ran to the lakeshore and tossed the hat into the lake, laughing at it as it bobbed primly over the ripples. She tore off the jacket of the grey suit and hesitated about throwing it after the hat. Instead she ran back to her suitcase, snapped it open, and took out a pair of plaid pants and a yellow sweater. Taking a last quick look about her, she pulled down the zipper on her skirt and stepped out of it, kicking it aside. Quickly she unbuttoned her grey blouse and took it off, tossing it on top of the skirt. She pulled her slip over her head and, as she stooped to take off her shoes and stockings, the warm sun felt like a caress on her back. She pulled on yellow knitted socks and heavy shoes. When she was dressed in slacks and yellow sweater, with a scarlet handkerchief knotted around her throat, she pulled the pins out of her fair hair, shook it free, and tied it back with a yellow ribbon.

And in case you didn’t quite catch the symbolism, there’s more.

Into the suitcase Deborah shoved the clothes she had taken off, added a few rocks, hauled the suitcase to the shore, and tossed it into the lake. She watched it sink. Her hat had floated several yards away from the shore, and she waved good-bye to it. Then, slinging her rucksack onto her back, she looked for the path up the mountain side.

The young woman so anxious to dispose of her city clothes – and, by inference, her dull, grey, prim and proper former life – is one Deborah Blair, and she’s about to hike nine miles up a trail to a tourist camp somewhere between Lake Louise and Lake O’Hara, on the Alberta side of the Rocky Mountains.

Her first encounter with another person is an old man just up the trail; he pops out of the bush, startling her greatly, and then proceeds to tell her that he knows she is running away from something, and that she is like a young doe, “…frightened…by a hunter, maybe, out of danger now, taking time to be proud of her speed and to taste her freedom, but still wary, remembering her fright…”

But the mountains will give her sanctuary, he goes on to say, and Deborah parts from him, mulling over what he has said, rehearsing her new role in preparation for meeting her fellow guest camp residents.

These are a motley crew indeed. Evangeline Roseberry is her hostess, an uninhibited, provocative and sultry woman of a certain age. Young ranch hand Slim appears to be very close indeed to his employer, and when Slim is not in attendance the male guests are often to be found in “Vangie’s” cozy cabin. Middle-aged Dr. Thornton is holidaying without his wife and apparently finding his hostess a suitable substitute; downtrodden Mr. Nelson is at the beck and call of his own formidable wife, though he glances hopefully at Vangie’s lush charms when Mrs. Nelson’s focussed gaze is elsewhere, and teenage Sue Nelson cherishes a passion for handsome, red-haired, flashing-eyed yet taciturn geologist Ben Kerfoot. In the kitchen brusque Mrs. Horton reigns supreme, dispensing pithy criticisms to all and sundry along with the bacon and eggs.

Deborah gravitates toward avuncular Dr. Thornton, as nosy Mrs Nelson attempts to probe into “Mrs. Blair’s” past, which appears to be decidedly mysterious, especially when an RCMP officer appears asking questions about why a suitcase with the initials D.B. was found floating in the lake at the bottom of the trail. The plot thickens, with heaving bosoms and flashing eyes from the female contingent all round, and lusty glances and/or darkly passionate glares from the men.

One after another, the people from whom Deborah seeks to hide track her down to her mountain fastness, but she gains strength from the purity of the air and the pristine beauty of the surrounding peaks – not to mention Mrs. Horton’s hearty cooking – and stands up for herself at long last.

Though this novel started out promisingly enough, but ultimately didn’t take me where I hoped it would, and most of that was the fault of the writing, and the lack of a cohesive plot.

Deborah’s vaporings are overplayed, and her flip-flopping between men left me bemused. She is decidedly attracted to both Dr. Thornton and Ben-the-geologist, who in turn steal embraces from whichever woman is present and willing, and, when a manipulative cad from her past appears she mulls over throwing her lot in with his, before the mountain breezes blow some sense into her head. An über-controlling mother appears and is finally confounded, and Deborah prepares to set her sights on making her fortune in Vancouver, being as far away across the continent as she can get from her previous life as a meek librarian in Montreal.

The author was a Calgary librarian and storyteller, and her work with children resulted in the naming of a library branch after her in her native city; the wealthy Riley family was well-known for their philanthropy and social conscience, and Louise by all reports was a fervent advocate for childhood literacy.

Four of Louise Riley’s books were published between 1950 and 1960, the juveniles The Mystery Horse, Train for Tiger Lily, and A Spell at Scoggin’s Crossing, as well as her only adult book, One Happy Moment. Though Train for Tiger Lily received the  Canadian Library Association Children’s Book of the Year Award in 1954, a quick glance into my standard go-to children’s literature reference, Sheila Egoff’s Republic of Childhood, finds that perceptive literary critic dismissing Louise Riley’s juveniles as “insipid and contrived”, which I can sympathise with after reading One Happy Moment. Interesting though it may be in a vintage aspect, this is not in any way inspired writing.

Worth taking a look at is the commentary at Lily Oak Books , where I first heard of One Happy Moment. Lee-Anne’s review is well-considered and thoughtful, and she includes some gorgeous pictures.

My copy of the book is going on the probation shelf; I’ll share it with my mom and then decide if it gets to stay or go. The attractive dust jacket will likely tip the balance. As it arrived in fragile shape, I went ahead and put it into Brodart, and its vintage appeal might be too tempting for me to part with, though the words inside the book are not of the highest rank.

a big storm knocked it over laurie colwin 001A Big Storm Knocked It Over by Laurie Colwin ~ 1993.

This edition: Harper Collins, 1993. Softcover. ISBN: 0-06-092546-9. 259 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Moving right along to the other side of the continent and New England, for this gentle yet slyly cunning novel about love and friendship and transcending unhappy childhoods. It’s also about the terrifying act of bringing a child into the world, and an ode to the possibility of happiness, and our right to seek such out in an often unhappy world.

Does that sound impossibly twee and gaggingly chick lit? Well, it isn’t. (Okay, maybe just the tiniest bit. But it’s easy to get past. I liked this book.)

One Happy Moment has a stellar cover and ho-hum contents; A Big Storm Knocked It Over has a dreadful cover and a well-written inside. Ironically, for the protagonist of Big Storm is a graphic designer employed in the book trade, the blandness of the exterior presentation would not normally have received a second glance from me but for my previous encounter with this author. The late Laurie Colwin – she died suddenly in 1992, before this book was published – was a much-loved columnist for Gourmet magazine and  a bestselling cookbook author, novelist and short story writer. Big Storm was her fifth and last novel.

My first acquaintance with her was some twenty years ago, through Goodbye Without Leaving, about a white ex-backup singer for a black pop band – the token “White Ronette” on the tour bus – and her life after music. I read it just after my son was born, and it struck very close to home; Colwin perfectly captured that “now what?” atmosphere of the ultimate personal change of new motherhood and walking away from your past you, and I was comforted by the parallels between her fictional world and my own. It was also very funny.

In Big Storm, Jane Louise has just married her live-in boyfriend Teddy, and is surprised to find that marriage does indeed change things, even if all that is different is a piece of paper and a ring. We are introduced to an ever-widening circle of co-workers, friends and family, and watch with only slightly bated breath as Jane and Teddy find their new groove.

The gist of the novel is that sometimes family is rotten bad, but that you can always choose your friends. And that babies are quite amazing. And yes, life is terrifying, but if you can find someone to love, who also loves you, it still isn’t all shiny sparkly perfect, but it helps.

I don’t know what else to say. It was good. Not great, but definitely good. And there was a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing from the countryside to the city, and a lot of emphasis is placed on where you’re from and ancestral homes and the clannishness of small New England towns, so I figure it counts in my vaguely themed geographical surroundings thing I’ve got going in this post.

Laurie Colwin was an interesting person and a more-than-just-good writer. I still feel sad when I think about her too-soon departure from our world.

mama makes up her mind bailey white 001Mama Makes Up Her Mind, and Other Dangers of Southern Living by Bailey White ~ 1993.

This edition: Addison Wesley, 1993. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-201-63295-o. 230 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

The best is last, and what an unexpected book this turned out to be. I had picked it up along with a random selection of others at the Sally Ann one day, thinking it was a light novel suitable for dropping off with my mom for her entertainment, but not really intending to read it myself. (It reminded me of something by Fannie Flagg, from the title and the cover illustration and the blurbs about “absolute delight” and “like sitting on a porch swing.” Look away! my inner voice chirped, because I have to confess that Fannie Flag leaves me utterly cold, though Mom can handle her in well-spaced intervals.)

My husband was between books, picked it up off the stack by the door and chortled his way through it before pressing it on me. I sat down with it over dinner, and looked up two hours later after having read it through in one continuous session. Easy as picking daisies to prance through, this one was. And I must say a laugh or two escaped me as well.

This turned out to be a collection of short – some very short – anecdotes and vignettes, many centered on White’s mother, the “Mama” of the title, and others more concerned with Bailey White herself. They were originally presented on NPR in the United States, with the author reading her own pieces, but they work exceedingly well in print.

Bailey White was born in 1950 and still lives in her rural family home in Thomasville, Georgia. Until her mother’s death at the age of 80 in 1994, the two were close companions. Their joint adventures as  “a widow and a spinster” are the focus of some of these lively vignettes, but Bailey White’s scope is wide and she draws inspiration from a vast range of experiences. Bailey White worked as a Grade One teacher for over twenty years in the Thomasville school she herself attended as child, after returning to Georgia when her eleven-year-old California marriage ended in 1984.

Between the covers of this delectable smorgasbord of a book you will find tales of an antique spyglass, the best movie ever made (Midnight Cowboy, according to Mama), Road Kill (and how to decide if it’s edible), Pictures Not of Cows, an Armageddon of a storm and how prayer proved not all that useful, feral swans, an alligator which bellowed on cue, snakes lethal and benign, Great Big Spiders, the perfect wildflower meadow, how to travel unmolested by men (involving a maternity dress and a fake wedding ring), D.H. Lawrence as a life-saving substitute for The Holy Bible, and tales from the classroom.

And much, much more. Something like fifty little stories are stuffed into this book, and they are, without exception, quite excellent.

Apparently based on real people and incidents, there is likely a bit of embellishment to some of these; they have the well-polished feel of anecdotes often told, but that in no way lessens their deep charm.

Passionate, deeply revealing, kind, maliciously humorous – all of these can and do describe the author’s voice. Loved this.

And to think I almost missed it!

A great quick read for the bedside table, or to tuck into a pocket for a waiting room stint. Or to read at coffee break, or over a solitary lunch. Watch out for those spontaneous moments of glee, though. You might get some odd looks. (Or even get in trouble with your beverage.)

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the street mordecai richler 001The Street by Mordecai Richler ~ 1969. This edition: Panther Books, 1971. Paperback. 142 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

It’s been a good many years since I’ve read anything by Mordecai Richler, and reading The Street reminded me why: a little goes a long way. And I mean that in the very best way.

The Street was just long enough, at 142 pages, to be a quick one-evening read, a bracingly rude and somewhat startling experience which balanced the well-meant inanity of my other recent reading. The naïve earnestness of D.E. Stevenson’s rather silly Miss Buncle and the good natured ramblings of Georgette Heyer’s handsome dilettantes are decidedly mild pleasures in contrast to Richler’s sly, cheeky, say-anything Montreal ragamuffins and their bluntly outspoken elders. And I find that the mixing of genres here adds piquancy to all, with Richler’s pungent acidity emphasizing the good brown bread and airily sweet meringue of the others.

The Street is a collection of ten linked stories-slash-memoirs – fictionalized memoirs? – mostly following the narrator – Richler himself, one assumes – from childhood to adulthood. The anecdote here is everything, and Richler’s authorial voice is perfectly suited to these short pieces.

From the author’s Foreword:

‘Why do you want to go to university?’ the student counsellor asked me.

Without thinking, I replied, ‘I’m going to be a doctor, I suppose.’

A doctor.

One St. Urbain Street day cribs and diapers were cruelly withdrawn and the next we were scrubbed and carted off to kindergarten. Though we didn’t know it, we were already in pre-med school. School starting age was six, but fiercely competitive mothers would drag protesting four-year-olds to the registrarion desk and say, ‘He’s short for his age.’

‘Birth certificate, please?’

‘Lost in a fire.’

On St. Urbain Street, a head start was all.  Our mothers read us stories from Life about pimply astigmatic fourteen-year-olds who had already graduated from Harvard or who were confounding the professors at M.I.T.  Reading Tip-Top Comics or listening to The Green Hornet on the radio was as good as asking for a whack on the head, sometimes administered with a copy of The Canadian Jewish Eagle, as if that in itself would be nourishing.  We were not supposed to memorise baseball batting averages or dirty limericks.  We were expected to improve our Word Power with the Reader’s Digest and find inspiration in Paul de Kruif’s medical biographies.  If we didn’t make doctors, we were supposed to at least squeeze into dentistry.  School marks didn’t count as much as rank.  One wintry day I came home, nostrils clinging together and ears burning cold, proud of my report.  ‘I came rank two, Maw.’

‘And who came rank one, may I ask?’

The Jewish mothers in The Street fulfill every stereotype, being supremely ambitious for their children, yet never letting them get too full of themselves; chicken soup and sharp cuffs being administered with equal enthusiasm as maternal whim decides. To get ahead, to make good, to get away from St. Urbain Street and its taint of poverty-ridden struggle and the worst lingering despairs of the “Old Country” is what they wish for their children, and their self-imposed self sacrifice is both the bane of their families’ existence and the driving force which propels them all onward. In adulthood the children of those ubiquitous mothers begin at last to understand this and give homage; in childhood they merely endure and dodge the good advice and the blows with equal agility.

These stories are full of a sense of a very particular place and time, Montreal of the early 1940s, captured in microscopic detail of sight, sound and smell in Richler’s steel-trap memory. His boyhood companions are familiar to us from similar narrators and from Richler’s previous works; Duddy Kravitz is present, spouting off his knowing comments, and the author assumes we know who he is, assumes that his readers already know the context and are willing participants in the narrative. And while the scene here is unmistakeably this very small corner of Montreal, it is evocative of similar boyhoods and experiences in New York and London and any of the other key locales in the continual global diaspora and resettling of the Hebrew race.

For this is, above everything else, a very Jewish book, as well as being a Montreal book, and a Canadian book; Richler makes no bones about the uniqueness of this aspect of his own experience and of the importance of it in the scenes he so meticulously describes. His Jewishness is at the core of his very being; everything else is layered on top.

Heads up, gentle readers expecting a mildly humorous memoir, for this author is proud of his outspokenness and his humour has a cutting edge; it is also frequently bawdy, and full of the smuttiness of guffawing enclaves of adolescent boys. That hoary old dirty joke, “Bloomberg’s dead!”, is here on page 23, told with especial glee, and more of the same is scattered liberally throughout.

Mordecai Richler can be terribly rude, but he is also very, very good. I had forgotten quite how good. I do believe it is time for another visit with the one and only Duddy Kravitz.

Here are some other thoughts on The Street.

Kevin from Canada: The Street

Humanities 360: Erin Yorke reviews The Street

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war stories gregory clarkWar Stories by Gregory Clark ~ 1964. This edition: Ryerson Press, 1968. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7700-6027-7. 171 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Born in 1892 in Toronto, Ontario, Gregory Clark was of perfect age to fight in the Great War, heading to Europe in 1916, at the age of twenty-four. Clark entered the fray as a lieutenant, and exited a major. In the trenches and out of them – Clark received the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry” at Vimy Ridge – the young man remembered what he had witnessed, the horror and the gallantry and the moments of respite and delight, to be shared later with his audience of newspaper readers as he took up journalism in the post-war years.

Too old to take active part in World War II, Gregory Clark none the less went overseas once again and pushed his way into the thick of the action, fulfilling a role as a front-line war correspondent, and receiving an Order of the British Empire for his services. Again, his experiences found their way into his short, chatty periodical articles published in the following decades. Clark’s son Murray was killed in action in 1944 while serving with the Regina Rifles, but there is no mention of that personal loss here in War Stories; Clark keeps that particular emotion well buried.

War Stories contains a selection of thirty-eight anecdotes, three to five pages in length, about a wide array of Gregory Clark’s personal experiences. Though the tone throughout  is upbeat and frequently humorous – War Stories won the Leacock award for humour in 1965, which rather surprises me, for funny as these anecdotes sometimes are, there is a sombre tone always present – Clark makes it very clear what his opinions are as to the brutality of what the soldiers and civilians went through.

These stories laud the bravery (and the frequent giddy foolishness) of the farm boys and office clerks and travelling salesmen who find themselves caught up in circumstances beyond their most vivid nightmares, fated to kill and, frequently, be horribly maimed, and wastefully killed, merely because of the circumstance of the time of their birth. Something I noticed is that there is not much sympathy shown here for the soldiers of the “other side”; Clark’s thoughts are ever for his own, and he was reportedly a fiercely protective officer of the men under his charge.

All is not muck and death and destruction though. Interludes of inactivity brought forth pranks and hi-jinks, while there were times of repose behind the lines, time for memorable meals and quiet conversation, and musings on what was going to come after, if there was going to be an after.

An appropriate book for this Remembrance Day weekend, this time of sober reflection. Clark reports the realities, but he persists as well in highlighting the lighter moments, the bits of sanity in a world of war.

A good read.

And a much more eloquent review of this book, well worth a click-over, may be found at Canus Humorous.

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after the falls catherine gildinerAfter the Falls: Coming of Age in the Sixties by Catherine Gildiner ~ 2009. This edition: Vintage, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-307-39823-9. 344 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Wow. That was unexpected. I was tidying up some books I’d casually piled on a corner of the couch, sorting out already-read from want-to-read, and I leafed through After the Falls to refresh my memory as to how urgently I wanted to read it, or if it could be put on the maybe-someday pile.

It caught me.

Suddenly I was sitting down, and reading away like a mad thing. Clean-up abandoned, outside chores abandoned, and it’s a good thing the roast was already in the oven or cooking my family’s evening meal would have been abandoned, too. It grew dark. I switched on my reading lamp. I read this thing right through to the end. My afternoon was completely lost. Abandoned pell mell, while I lost myself in a book.

My seduction by After the Falls was so unexpected because I knew when I purchased it that it was a sequel to an earlier volume of memoir by Catherine Gildiner, Too Close to the Falls. I had a vague little plan to get the first book and read it, and then continue on with the second if the first one was indeed as great as everyone seemed to think it was. I wasn’t really thinking about it too much; I’m fairly immune to mainstream rave reviews, having been disappointed by banality too many times.

After the Falls is not banal. It is over-the-top, frequently jaw-dropping (“Did she just say that? Did she really do that?” How much of this is fictionalized???!”), and funny and sarcastic and joyful and heart-breaking and occasionally awkward and sometimes vague as major incidents are brushed over with a single sentence or two (this, the occasional vagueness and awkwardness, lost the 1.5 points in my personal ratings system), and rather contrived here and there, but never no mind those last few criticisms. It is a very readable book, and I happily recommend it. And I’ve elevated the need-to-buy status of the first installment to high on the list, and, having learned that a third volume is coming soon, have earmarked it as a buy immediately book.

So now you’re all wondering – those few of you who haven’t already ridden this particular train – what the darned book is about. Well, the internet is seething with reviews (mostly favourable) so I will cheat this morning and steal the flyleaf blurb. (Must address all the chores I neglected yesterday; must cut this short!) It’s a tiny bit inaccurate – do these blurb writers read the whole thing? or do they just ask for the high points? – but it condenses things reasonably well.

When Cathy McClure is thirteen years old, her parents make the bold decision to move to suburban Buffalo in hopes that it will help Cathy focus on her studies and stay out of trouble. But “normal” has never been Cathy’s forte, and leaving Niagara Falls and Catholic school behind does nothing to quell her spirited nature. As the 1960s dramatically unfold, Cathy takes on many personas — cheerleader, vandal, HoJo hostess, civil rights demonstrator — with the same gusto she exhibited as a child working split shifts in her father’s pharmacy. But when tragedy strikes, it is her role as daughter that proves to be most challenging.

Actually that’s a very lame flyleaf blurb. It doesn’t at all catch the spirit of the memoir. Here’s a much better blurb, from Publisher’s Weekly, November 2010:

At age 12, Gildiner and her family moved from their Niagara Falls home to a Buffalo suburb, leaving behind a family business, smalltown contentment, and the rebellious childhood chronicled in her first memoir, Too Close to the Falls. While her uprooted parents struggle to adjust, Gildiner stumbles in making new friends and edging into puberty. Her restlessness and a fundamentally outspoken and argumentative nature regularly catapult her further than simple teenage trouble, and she frequently fails at the standard American girlhood, often with comic results. The conflicts between the narrator’s individuality and conformity propel her into her first relationship at the same time that the seismic shifts in American society, culture, and politics hit home with ever-increasing force. On the page as in life, comedy, tragedy, and elegy live right on top of each other, and as with most remarkable memoirs, the straightforward, honest voice and perspective are steady even in the most painful moments.

And I’ll link the author’s website, so you can look around there.

Cathy McClure Gildiner – After the Falls

And here is what my blog friend Jenny had to say: Reading the End: After the Falls. Everything she says, I agree with. But I think you should read Chapter 4, because it explains an awful lot about how the memoirist relates to men from that point forward.

The writer also has a blog, Gildiner’s Gospel, which made me late for bed last night, as it was as compulsively readable as her words on paper. Check it out!

One last thing. The memoir is set in the United States, and at the time she writes about, Catherine was an American citizen. She moved to Canada some forty years ago, though, and reports that she is firmly entrenched in Ontario. In my mind she unquestionably deserves the “Canadian” tag I’ve given her.

Highly recommended.

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the innocent traveller ethel wilsonThe Innocent Traveller by Ethel Wilson ~ 1949. This edition: New Canadian Library, 1982. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9316-0. 277 pages.

My rating: 9/10

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

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

From the Author’s Note:

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

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

E.W.
Vancouver
British Columbia
1947

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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