Posts Tagged ‘Canadian Book Challenge 9’

pandora sylvia fraser 1972Pandora by Sylvia Fraser ~ 1972. This edition: McLelland and Stewart, 1976. New Canadian Library No. 123. Introduction by David Staines.  Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9223-7. 255 pages.

My rating: 8/10

First of all, a comment regarding that high rating, for those of you who are familiar with my frequent habit of discussing vintage “cosy” books.

Pandora received its high marks because it is so intelligent, so stylistically interesting, and so very much of its era – the early 1970s, when stream-of-consciousness writing was having one of its recurrent moments of being all the rage. It is not a typical “pleasure” read in the accepted sense of the word, nor do I believe was it meant to be. Paradoxically, it is frequently (intentionally, darkly) humorous.

A heads-up note that some of the subject matter may be very disturbing to some, involving as it does several instances of adult-to-child sexual abuse, as well as an abundant amount of physical and psychological violence between children, by adults towards children, and, arguably, by children towards adults. Some very dark places are being explored here, which I will address more fully when I get to the bit about the author at the end of this post.

You will have gathered by now that childhood as a state of paradise is not what this novel is about. Though one might argue that it is all about juvenile innocence. And, inevitably, the loss thereof, and the attainment of a different state of being.

July, 1937. Fourth child Pandora Gothic is born into a hot, summer-weary bedroom in a gabled house on Oriental Street, small-town-could-be-one-of-many, Ontario. She has been preceded by five-year-old twins, Adel-Ada, and Baby Victor, who choked to death. Pandora was meant to be a boy.

Pandora’s mother sings hymns as she goes about her ceaseless round of domestic duties. Pandora’s mother smells of powdered milk and dead roses. Pandora’s father is a one-handed butcher, a bitter veteran of the First War. Pandora’s father smells of blood and rage. Pandora’s older sisters don’t think much of her, this cuckoo in the nest, as they see her. And as her parents increasingly see her, as she leaves babyhood behind and her at-odds personality begins to make itself known.

Over in Europe, the Second War thunders ominously on, permeating every aspect of Pandora’s world.

Pandora knows quite a lot about the Nazis.

If the NAZIS catch you they hang you, naked, on a hook, andd they shave off your hair, and they whip you. If the JAPS catch you, they stick hot needles up your fingernails and they pull out your teeth for the Tooth Fairy. Pandora learned that at Sunday School from Amy Walker who reads War Comics, inside her World Friends, while the other children nail Jesus to the cross and sing He Loves Me.

Pandora puts her hands over her ears. She closes her eyes. She burrows to the heart of what she knows is her problem:

Adel-Ada wont play with me because ... they don’t like me.

They don’t like me because ………… I scream.

Nobody likes me because ………… I scream and hold my breath.

I have to scream because …………… because ...

The answer comes in a rush: I have to scream because nobody likes me!

It is a futile insight, too bitter to sustain. Pandora shoves it back inside her head.

Pandora does this a lot, shoving her thoughts back inside her head, but occasionally she forgets, and her outspokenness brings her into direct conflict with her elders. Her father in particular seems to find her enraging; Pandora inadvertently triggers his sullen temper, and is continually shouted down, occasionally smacked, and at last resort bundled into locked places (the closet, the basement storage room) to consider her misdeeds. Pandora responds to this by developing an even deeper inner life; she also begins to consider her words before they leave her mouth.

In 1942, kindergarten-age Pandora is marched off to school between her sisters, and her world enlarges exponentially. Here are a new set of adults to be figured out, and the politics of schoolroom and, more crucially, schoolyard politics to be learned. Pandora finds that her bluntness and physical bravery can earn her a status and a fearful respect lacking at home; she becomes one of the leaders of her peers, though the hierarchy within the student group is constantly changing, albeit at a predestined level – the outcasts remain so, the leaders swap places, the masses in the middle section sway to and fro in sycophantic chorus. And Pandora is ever hyper-sensitive to the stink of fear – her own, that of fellow “top girls”, that of the outcasts, even that of the teachers who are only ever in varying degrees of conditional control of their volatile charges.

Pandora navigates her childhood with what seems to me to be more than the usual amount of emotional trauma. Both of her grandmothers die; it is a time of displaying the dead in the best parlour, and Pandora doesn’t do well with the “Give Granny a last kiss on the cheek” expectation. She and a friend encounter a man in the park, in their “safest place to play”, who approaches them and exposes himself. An attempted good deed, giving water to the breadman’s horse, results in an invitation to ride along on the wagon, and a persistent sexual assault ending in Pandora being choked with the hissed instruction not to tell, ever. (Pandora doesn’t.)

Playground politics get progressively more brutal, as the children grow both in stature and in increased potentiality of evil: a kitten is strangled, dismembered, dowsed with gasoline and burnt, and Pandora receives its tail in an envelope from one of the boys who resent her refusal to bow to them as natural lords of creation. Various schoolmates are shamed and bullied – heads doused in unflushed toilets, gang-beaten in the back allies, shunned on the playground, fingered as scapegoats in incidents of vandalism and juvenile crime by the perpetrators. Oh, it’s a wicked, wicked world.

Where are the adults? Trudging along in their own various personal ruts, all unaware that their actions are being studied and replicated by the younger generation.

Pandora finds that schoolwork is easy for her; she heads her class in academics; she is a social leader, though she shares that role with several others. The elaborate social dance of childhood continues. Pandora has several “best” friends; they plan and attend parties, go to the movies, roam about utterly unsupervised in summer, explore the mysteries of sexuality and where bavies come from. There is an explicit incident of girlish genital investigation with an older girl, culminating in a full-on neo-lesbian romp. (Don’t tell anyone, Pandora…)

The novel ends at Pandora’s graduation from Grade Two. She’s learnt at last to diplomatically keep her mouth shut on occasion, to judge her words carefully. (She’s always been good at keeping secrets.) Her mother, though still frequently bemused by Pandora’s passionate personality, appears to be making a sincere attempt to figure her out – those high marks in school have caught parental attention and have inspired a grudging respect. A gleam of optimism for Pandora’s future appears; her mother hints that there may be the possibility of a higher education one day, college and travel and a tantalizing something more…

So. Sylvia Fraser.

In a departure from her established career as a journalist, Pandora was Sylvia Fraser’s first fiction, published when she was 37 years old. The novel received favourable reviews; the Saturday Night excerpt cover blurb on my NCL paperback gushes: “A stunner – innovative in its technique, precise to one-thousandth of a gesture in its characterization, and irrefutably humorous.”

Pandora-the-character is said to be something of a childhood self-portrait of Sylvia-the-writer, and the setting apparently comes from life as well. The 1940s-era detail included in the novel is quite remarkable, and the snapshot given of wartime domestic life in Canada is clear and memorable.

What I didn’t know until after I finished the novel and did some further research on the author was that the incidents of sexual abuse in Pandora were inspired by Sylvia’s own recovered memories of apparent incestuous assaults upon her own childish self – from the age of seven years old – by her father. Fraser’s 1989 book My Father’s House: A Memoir of Incest and Healing details this aspect of her life and her belief that the scenes in Pandora – written before the incest memories surfaced – were manifestations of that repressed memory.

This would indeed account for the overall tone of Pandora, that of a confused, questing spirit continually finding itself at odds with everyone and everything around it. Even the more light-hearted episodes (relatively speaking – there were few truly joyful moments portrayed) have a woefully foreboding atmosphere, and I hasten to stress that I thought this before I was aware of the author’s back story.

I have subsequently come across an excellent review of Sylvia Fraser’s Pandora by Mark Sampson of Free Range Reading. My response was similar to his: Pandora is a troubling though worthwhile read. “Kafkaesque” describes it perfectly. An excerpt from Mark’s review:

Fraser is clearly interested in blowing apart our perceptions of childhood as a peaceful epoch of purity and innocence. Pandora has a hard go of it almost from the minute she becomes fully sentient: she is ridiculed by her older twin sisters who resent her very existence; she is sexually molested by the neighbourhood breadman; she is treated with scorn by her mother and cruelty by her father, the town butcher. Indeed, from her fellow students at school to her community church, Pandora encounters random, almost Kafkaesque acts of viciousness wherever she goes.

Sylvia Fraser has written five more novels, and an array of non-fiction books, on a variety of topics from incest and pedophilia to spirituality and psychic phenomena.

 

 

 

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

My rating: 4/10

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

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

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

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

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

So here’s what I came away with.

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

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

Main characters and the long, complicated setup:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

And the moral of the story is?

Ha. No prizes for figuring that one out.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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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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9th Canadian Book Challenge Logo flag

The book blogging world abounds with tempting book challenges, some of ambitious proportions, and others rather more modest. John Mutford′s Annual Canadian Book Challenge falls nicely into the middle ground – why, how completely Canadian! 😉

It′s exceedingly simple. In the year stretching from Canada Day – July 1 – to the eve of the following Canada Day – June 30 – read and post/link a review of 13 (or more) Canadian books.

This will be my 4th year participating, and I must say that it is an immensely enjoyable challenge, having put me on high alert for Canadian content in everything I read (villainous cousin Walter from D.E. Stevenson′s The House on the Cliff, I′m thinking of you, though I didn’t include the book in the challenge as the connection was rather too tenuous) and leading me to ever-more-obscure Canadian B-list books (such as The Last Canadian, a recent superb example of why this thing is truly a “reading challenge”) and even some much more recent things (looking forward to Neil Smith′s freshly published Boo, winging its way to me via my local indie bookstore as I type this).

What constitutes a Canadian book is generously broadminded – no need to read the collected works of Pierre Berton to qualify(though of course there′s no reason why one couldn’t – hmmm – now there′s an idea for an ambitious reading challenge) and you’re sure to find some surprises along the way.

Check it out:

The 9th Annual Canadian Book Challenge

And please do join us.

Happy Canada Day!

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