Posts Tagged ‘Contemporary Fiction’

incidents in the rue laugier anita brooknerIncidents in the Rue Laugier by Anita Brookner ~ 1995. This edition: Vintage Canada, 1997. Softcover. ISBN: 0-679-30840-7. 233 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

There is no denying that Anita Brookner is a smoothly accomplished writer, for if she wasn’t I suspect I would have quietly laid this novel aside partway through without regret. As it was I had to steadfastly avoid glancing at the many more-tempting books waiting for me on the Century of Books shelves, in order to maintain my focus on this increasingly monotone novel.

The opening chapter sets the stage. An orphaned female narrator (“my parents died years ago…”) muses on the characteristics of her mother which she has started to notice in herself:

My mother read a lot, sighed a lot, and went to bed early…

Maffy, daughter of French Maud and English Edward, goes on to set up the story. She has happened upon a notebook among her late mother’s effects. There are only a few cryptic phrases jotted on the first few pages, but Maffy is inspired by these to create a speculative biography of both of her parents’ lives.

It is a fabrication…one of those by which each of us lives, and as such an enormity, nothing to do with the truth. But perhaps the truth we tell ourselves is worth any number of facts, verifiable or not.  This unrecorded story…is a gesture only, a gesture towards my mother…who told me nothing either of what happened or what failed to happen, and how she came to live with us, so far from home.

Maud grows up in genteel bourgeois poverty, living quietly with her widowed mother and waiting the days away, passively beautiful, awaiting her future without attempting to shape it in any way. This changes when Maud meets the predatory David Tyler, holidaying in France. The two have an affair, and Maud awakens to the possibilities of love just as Tyler has had his fill of her and moves on, dumping Maud on his friend Edward, who has been watching the proceedings with jealous eyes. Edward and Maud end up marrying, and move back to England, where Edward is engaged in resurrecting a musty second-hand book shop he has inherited from a family friend. Maud stays home, keeping their apartment pristine, cooking under-appreciated gourmet meals, and otherwise spending her days reading.

And then nothing else happens. Even the birth of a child nine years into the marriage only serves as a minor blip; Maud goes through a long episode of depression, but Edward provides a nurse who remains with the family for many years, allowing Maud to drift along not really taking much interest in anything, though we realize that she does indeed love her daughter in an undemonstrative way, and that she respects and feels affection for the more passionate Edward, who has never quite forgotten that David Tyler was Maud’s first and deepest love. Anything that Edward gets is very much second best; he is willing to take it but something deep inside rebels, surfacing in his last months of life in a passive-aggressive form of personal neglect which ends in his death.

Maud hangs on four more years, until she too turns her face to the wall and drifts undramatically away.

Maffy is left to ponder the meaning (or lack thereof) of her parents’ lives, and how her own personality has been shaped by her dual heritage.

The End.

Did I like this book?

Well, “like” is perhaps too strong a word in regard to this novel. And no, I didn’t exactly like it, but I did admire it, in a shuddering “Why am I reading this? I know this will leave me feeling completely apathetic” sort of way.

There were moments of strong feeling, but these were isolated and served to emphasize the bleakness of the majority of the characters’ lives. The mood of a sultry French summer in the early 1970s and Maud’s brief sexual awakening is perfectly portrayed, and contrasts severely with the ambitionless futility of the remainder of her life, and her passive submission to everything else which happens to her from the moment David Tyler walks away. (Though farther along she pulls herself together enough to reject his advances when they meet again, showing a kernel of unsuspected pride, which kept me on her side even as she offhandedly absorbed Edward’s love without really attempting to meet him half way; passive acceptance with no overt sign of repulsion doesn’t quite satisfy, as Edward bitterly reflects.)

A beautiful bit of writing, all in shades of muted blush and grey. But not a writer whose novels I could read over and over and back to back. After reading a Brookner one needs something with more vibrancy to shake one out of the enervating trance of hopelessness which immersion in this sort of thing brings on, at least in me.

While some of the novels by Anita Brookner I read this past summer – Hotel du Lac, Brief Lives – reminded me of Barbara Pym in their rather sly wittiness, Incidents in the Rue Laugier was really like nothing I’ve yet read. It reclines in Proustian solitude on its chaise lounge with the drapes drawn against the sun, so very all alone.

Some thoughful reviews:

Roses Over a Cottage Door – Incidents in the Rue Laugier

Bibliolathas – Incidents in the Rue Laugier

Hilary Mantel’s New York Times Review – Incidents in the Rue Laugier

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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 stormy petrel mary stewartThe Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart ~ 1991. This edition: William Morrow & Co., 1991. Hardcover. ISBN:  978-0-688-11035-2. 176 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Short and refreshingly sweet, this pleasant contemporary romance reads like the author was in a confident and relaxed mood when she dashed it off. It’s smooth and seamless, and a fast and effortless read. I enjoyed it.

Twenty-seven-year-old Cambridge don Rose Fenemore is ready for a break from her busy life; as well as lecturing and tutoring, she is a published poet as well as a writer of popular science fiction – the poetry under her own name, the sci fi under a pseudonym. When she sees an ad for an “ivory tower” retreat, a cottage on a remote Scottish island, she is intrigued enough to convince her physician brother to join her there for a holiday. Crispin is an avid bird watcher and photographer in his rare free time, and he and Rose have a marvelous relationship, each allowing the other plenty of space on their trips together, but also happy companionship when their interests merge.

Off to the tiny (and apparently fictional) isle of Moila, then, where Rose finds a small community of welcoming villagers, a recently renovated seaside cottage, and a stunningly beautiful natural world. Steep cliffs, shingle beaches, a few sandy coves, stands of seagrass and wildflowers, tiny rockbound lochs, a ruined Iron Age stronghold (a “broch”), and an abundant population of seabirds, seals and otters all unite to make Moila a very special place indeed. The finest part of this likeable book is Mary Stewart’s very evident delight in describing all of the previous; if Moila is a fictional place, then it must be based on a reality which the author is very familiar with. Her descriptive prose has the authentic ring, from the scent of the sedums growing on the tumbled stones of the broch to the iniquities of the “Defenders of the Highlands”, the vicious clouds of biting midges which swarm in their thousands when the breeze dies down.

But no sooner has Rose settled into her quaint cottage than things begin to go sideways; her peaceful retreat is suddenly a hive of activity. Rose wakens one night to the sound of someone in her kitchen; and stumbling down to welcome her brother – she assumes he has unexpectedly arrived in the night – she finds a handsome and charming young man making tea as if he owns the place. Which, he claims, he does. Or did. The cottage was apparently his foster parents’, and he has no idea that they have moved away, as he himself has been out of touch in an unspecified location for several years. Many apologies and all the rest, but surely Rose will forgive his unwitting intrusion?

No sooner have Rose and the smooth-talking Ewen made tentative friends over tea than another young man tumbles in out of the rain. This arrival claims he is a camper chased out of his tent by the rising wind; he has seen the lights in the cottage and seeks refuge from the storm. He identifies himself as a visiting geologist, John Parsons, but there is something about the cold and calculating glances the two men exchange which suggests something may be up. Rose sensibly retreats to her room, leaving the two young men to make do as best they can on sofa and floor, and when she awakes to find them gone, she thinks she’s seen the last of them.

She hasn’t.

I admired this heroine. She is most sensible and cool as a cucumber when things begin to tumble down around her ears. She deeply appreciates the place she has found herself in, and her rhapsodies on nature are sincere and unsentimental. She is properly cynical regarding the things that require such a view, and her musings on integrity, artistic and otherwise, are well stated and generally spot on.

A slight novel, with little in the way of true suspense; we never really fear for our capable heroine, as emotionally and physically she proves she is able to fend for herself. The romance aspect is low key as well, but comfortably there; we don’t quite know where our characters are all going to end up, but we’re pretty sure at that last page that their futures bode well.

Bonus portrayals of Rose’s two visiting students, and an intriguing glimpse into Crispin’s world and his “his life-her life” marriage. What the author doesn’t follow up is as telling as what she includes.

Nicely done. Thank you, Mary Stewart.

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And the last late reviews from February of 2013.

*****

the little bookroom eleanor farjeonThe Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon ~ 1955

This edition: New York Review Books, 2003. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-590170-489. 336 pages.

My rating: 8/10

A collection of twenty-seven delicately written fairy tales. Aimed at the younger crowd, but possibly more suited to real appreciation by adults. A few are slight, gentle and – in the very best sense of the word – childish, but others are rich in their imagery and complexity. The stories were selected by Eleanor Farjeon herself, and are deliciously and perfectly illustrated by the one and only Edward Ardizzone. Rumer Godden’s Afterword is a lovingly worded compliment to the author.

My own pretty well grown children are sadly long past the stage of being read to, but I am keeping this one close by both for personal pleasure and perhaps to one day share with as yet theoretical grandchildren.

sensible kate doris gatesSensible Kate by Doris Gates ~ 1943

This edition: Viking Press, 1969. Hardcover. 189 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Doris Gates is perhaps best known for her Newbery Award runner-up children’s novel Blue Willow, as well as the widely read Little Vic, both viewed as important early examples of “realistic problem fiction” for young readers, not a genre I am particularly fond of as a rule, but which is perfectly acceptable when the characters and their story are over-emphasized over the “problem”. Doris Gates gets a pass; these are “real” novels no matter how they’re categorized.

Sensible Kate was Gates’ third novel, and it is a pleasant example of children’s literature of its era, with the young heroine facing her rather daunting challenges with good expectations of positive outcomes. The Kate of the novel is a likeable girl, flawed enough to be realistic, but with a solid core of goodness which makes her most appealing.

Kate has been an orphan as long as she can remember, and has been cared for by various “shiftless” relatives since babyhood. Now the relatives have decided to move out of the state, and they have decided to turn Kate over to the county relief office. Kate is placed as a foster child with an elderly couple, The Tuttles, and she soon makes herself beloved of them and many others whom she meets, including a young married couple, both artists, who are the very reverse of sensible in their daily affairs, and who are most appreciative of Kate’s practical talents.

A sweet but never saccharine story, with some interesting characters and scenarios which lift it a little over the average for its vintage and genre. Possibly one might pick up on the lightest shade of Anne of Green Gables, what with the red-haired heroine being an orphan and going off to live with an elderly couple, but the parallel ends right there. Kate is most certainly no Anne, and her creator has not attempted to model her so.

people who knock on the door patricia highsmithPeople Who Knock on the Door by Patricia Highsmith ~ 1983

This edition: Penguin, 1983. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-006741-8. 356 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

A rather unusual book, a noir almost-thriller with some odd twists, including a subplot involving a teenage girl’s abortion. Despite its date of publication, it seems to be set in the 1950s, and has a decidedly vintage feel to it. This is the first Patricia Highsmith book I’ve ever read, though I’ve seen several of the movie adaptations of her work, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and of course the Venetian-set Talented Mr. Ripley, so the dark psychological elements in this one came as no surprise.

Here we have a normal middle-class family, the Aldermans, with an insurance-salesman father, stay-at-home mother volunteering a few days a week at a children’s hospital, and teenagers Arthur and younger Robbie. Arthur is getting ready to go to college, has a satisfactorily active love life, and he is poised to get on with his life when his whole world takes a sickening lurch.

Robbie falls ill with a mysterious infection and is suddenly on the verge of death. The doctors turn away in dismissal – the boy is going to die –  but Mr. Armstrong refuses to give up hope, and prays diligently to God for a miracle. Robbie recovers, and the previously un-religious father is so moved by the experience that he embraces religion and joins a highly evangelistic Christian sect. Mrs. Armstrong and Arthur view this at first with mildly perturbed eyes, but Robbie fully embraces his father’s new-found faith, with eventual horrifying consequences.

A can’t-look-away, exceedingly uncomfortable depiction of a dysfunctional family and its twisted disintegration, with none of the characters completely faultless, including our pseudo-hero Arthur, the closest thing to a chief protagonist in this tense tale.

 the wedding of zein tayeb salihThe Wedding of Zein by Tayeb Salih ~ 1968

This edition: New York Review Books, 2009. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-59017-342-8. 120 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Two short stories and a short novella – the title story – by the late Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih, set in the country around the northern Nile .

The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid speaks to the importance of tradition, and to the quiet resistance of the people of the Sudanese country to outside influences.

A Handful of Dates concerns a young boy who becomes aware for the first time of the realities of rich and poor, and the role his grandfather has played in a neighbour losing his inheritance.

The Wedding of Zein concerns an unlikely hero, a physically deformed “village idiot” (for want of a better term), who insistently falls in love with one after another village maiden, only to be disappointed as they always marry someone else. Imagine then the shock of everyone when it is announced that Zein has at last found a prospective wife, and an unexpectedly wise and beautiful one at that.

This book gives a diverting glimpse into an unfamiliar world, and the stories are told with clarity and understated, rather sly humour. A short but worthwhile collection.

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Here are a few more catch-up reviews from February of 2013.

*****

the elegance of the hedgehog muriel barberyThe Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery ~ 2006

This edition: Europa, 2008. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-9833372-60-0. 325 pages.

My rating: 8/10

I was moved to read this bestseller by the recommendations of respected fellow bloggers; sadly I cannot recall exactly who those were at this point in time! But to them I must say, “Thank you.”  For this was indeed a charming story.

In an exclusive Paris apartment building there dwells, upstairs, a snobbish upper-class family: mother, father, and two daughters. The youngest of the girls, twelve-year-old Paloma, is a strangely precocious child, given to thoughts well beyond her years. In her diary, which makes up half of the book, we learn that she is seriously disillusioned with life, and plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, unless something occurs to give her faith in the value of existence.

Downstairs is the stout, plain, elderly, and very obviously unintelligent concierge, Renée. Renée stumps around brusquely carrying out the tenants’ orders; she is blatantly uninterested in improving herself, and she carries out her duties with a sullen disrespect for her “betters”. Hers is the other half of the narrative.

Needless to say, for this novel follows the tried and true formula of loners uniting against the bitter world, Paloma and Renée find each other, and a friendship forms between the two social outcasts, who are soon joined by a third, new tenant Ozu, a wealthy Japanese businessman. And it will come as no surprise to readers that Renée is hiding an interior of the purest gold behind her prickly spikes – for she is indeed the hedgehog of the title, a creature of secret refinement, “deceptively indolent, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant”.

Predictably, tragedy does indeed strike, but from an unexpected direction.

There is also a cat.

Need I say more?

god grew tired of us john bul dauGod Grew Tired of Us by John Bul Dau & Michael Sweeney ~ 2008

This edition: National Geographic, 2008. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-4262-0212-4. 304 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

In 1987 a young Sudanese teenager was forced out of his home by a brutal raid on his village. What followed was a barefoot 1,000 mile trek through Sudan, Ethiopia, and eventually to Kenya, to a haven in a refugee camp. There John Bul Dau joined thousands of other displaced children, the “Lost Boys” of the Sudanese civil war.

Having no way of knowing the fate of his left-behind, possibly slaughtered family, John eventually immigrated to the United States, where he worked tirelessly to educate himself, all the while striving to raise awareness of the tribulations he himself went through, and to bring assistance to those still suffering from the aftermath of the war back in Sudan.

This book and its associated National Geographic film eloquently describe the situation. An earnest and strongly emotional memoir.

through the narrow gate karen armstrong 001Through the Narrow Gate: a memoir of life in and out of the convent by Karen Armstrong ~ 1981

This edition: Vintage Canada, 2005. Softcover. ISBN: 0-676-97709-X. 350 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Intriguing and occasionally bitter memoir of an ex-nun.

In 1962 Karen Armstrong, just seventeen, and child of a not particularly religious family, entered a Roman Catholic convent as a postulant, with the aim of becoming a nun. Seven years later, while attending Oxford under the sponsorship of her order (Armstrong was in training to become a teacher-nun) she realized that she had lost her faith, and she returned fully to the secular world.

Since then, Karen Armstrong has become well known for her writings on religion, and for her outspoken criticism of the Catholic Church’s more archaic practices, and of the confusion brought about by the mandated reforms of Vatican II.

This book, Armstrong’s first, is compelling reading. A very articulate writer.

The Guardian – Profile: Karen Armstrong is well worth reading if you are curious about this now high-profile public character; it references Through the Narrow Gate near the end of the article, with an amusing anecdote from Karen’s sister telling of how the family, after dropping Karen off at the convent for her entrance into her religious life, then went on to watch a production of The Sound of Music. That same sort of dark humour and willingness to smile at oneself is evident in places in this memoir, to leaven its more serious passages.

Sstarting out in the afternoon jill fraynetarting Out in the Afternoon by Jill Frayne ~ 2003

This edition: Vintage Canada, 2003. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-679311-881. 256 pages.

My rating: 4/10

This is an autobiographical memoir of the author’s mid-life crisis, and of the solace she sought and found in communing with nature.

A solo road trip, hiking, biking, camping, sea kayaking and such all help to salve Jill Frayne’s inner pain at the dual blow of both the break up of her long-term romantic relationship back in Ontario, and the moving away of her young adult daughter. Once she begins to gain a degree of competence in her new pursuits, and to feel herself physically comfortable in nature, Frayne begins a deeper exploration of her own emotions.

While I’m sure that this was a marvelous thing for Jill Frayne herself, but sadly I had trouble relating to her angsty navel-gazing, and I felt more and more like I was reading a very private diary. I eventually lost patience with the “me-me-ME” of the author’s inner dialogue; it coloured my reaction to the book as a whole.

I certainly admire the author’s courage as a woman alone going off into challenging territory by herself, and I would have enjoyed this more it had spent more time on the scenery and nuts and bolts of solo travel, and less on the touchy feely bits. But that’s just me; others may embrace the personal narrative and find meaning there which resonates with their own lives.

Back story: the author had an almost fatal accident several years before she set off on her trip; she had been told she would never walk again. She proved everyone wrong. Extra kudos to her, and I do hope the writing of this very personal book brought her comfort and much-needed inner peace.

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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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