Archive for May, 2011

I can’t remember exactly when I first read Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell, what urged me to select it in the first place.  It was a summer while I was still in high school, I know, and I remember finishing it as I rode the bus home from work, missing my stop as I read those last pages, reeling with both delight and a sense of immense loss as the story transitioned from the last rather anti-climactic sentence Mrs. Gaskell penned before her death to the satisfactory outline of an ending contributed in her absence by her editor.  Each time I reread it, I come away feeling the same: after hundreds of pages, with the happy conclusion in sight, the abrupt end is always a shock and there is always disappointment that, even though you know how Gaskell intended to end the story, you’ll never have the pleasure of seeing how she would have executed it, what artistry and skill she would have employed in giving our heroine her much-deserved happiness.

Wives and Daughters, for those not already acquainted with Gaskell’s masterpiece, is primarily the story of Molly Gibson, the daughter of a widowed country doctor.  I hesitate to call it a coming-of-age story, knowing how some readers recoil in horror from anything so labelled, though it certainly is the chronicle of Molly Gibson’s steady growth and maturation.  Instead, I shall call it a novel-ish sort of novel.  It has everything you could want: romances of every kind, comedy, tragedy, mystery, and delicious secrets.  And yet it is not in the least sensational.  There are dramas of every sort going on around Molly but they are of the small, domestic kind.  Bad marriages are made and people die of lingering illnesses but these are the worst things that happen in Molly’s world.  It is a very human story, very relatable regardless of the decade or century.  Writing in the 1860s, Gaskell chose to set the story in the 1830s, the time of her girlhood, making Molly her own contemporary, and while the fashions and lifestyles may have changed somewhat over the years, the characters that Gaskell peoples her book with are instantly recognizable.

As the novel begins, one of Mr. Gibson’s young pupils has fallen in love with the almost seventeen year old Molly, and, worse, tried to declare his love by secret letter to the oblivious Molly.  Mr. Gibson quickly packs his daughter off for a long promised visit to a nearby family, Squire and Mrs. Hamley at Hamley Hall, and sets about rethinking his status as a widower.  After all, he reasons, a motherless daughter is a sad thing to have on ones hands.  Is it not his duty to his beloved daughter to ensure that she has the proper female guidance as she transitions from child to woman?  And so, without Molly’s knowledge, he begins to think of marrying again and begins a modest courtship of Mrs. Kirkpatrick, a schoolteacher and former governess already vaguely acquainted with the family.

Molly, meanwhile, has been absorbed into the Hamley household, proving to be the perfect companion for the invalid Mrs. Hamley and a delight to the Squire as well.  The Hamleys have no daughters, only two sons: the brilliant Osborne, of whom great things are expected, and the steady, good humoured Roger, both studying at Cambridge as Molly begins her visit.  All three parents agree that it is a very good thing their children are not in the same place all at one, young people being so inclined to fall in love when placed in proximity to an eligible party of the opposite sex: Mr. Gibson because he does not think his daughter old enough to become so entangled, the Hamleys because they believe their sons should be looking a little higher than the daughter of a provincial doctor when it comes to choosing a wife.  But Osborne and Roger are the focus of Mrs. Hamley’s life, her greatest delights, and much time is spent telling Molly of them.  Molly, like any suggestible, sheltered teenage girl, falls half in love with Osborne through both his mother’s praise and his own dreamy poetry, which his mother gives to Molly to read.  So when Roger comes home from university alone to break the news of Osborne’s academic failure, she instantly takes against the younger brother who would dare to debase this household idol and “so in mute opposition on Molly’s side, in polite indifference, scarcely verging on kindliness on his, Roger and she steered clear of each other.”  That is, until Mr. Gibson visits and springs on Molly the news of his engagement to Mrs. Kirkpatrick, sending a distraught Molly sobbing into the garden after his departure, where the awkward Roger discovers her and handles the situation far more ably than most twenty-one year old men I know and, continuing to encourage and support her afterwards, establishes the basis of a firm friendship:

If Roger was not tender in words, he was in deeds.  Unreasonable and possibly exaggerated as Molly’s grief had appeared to him, it was real suffering to her; and he took some pains to lighten it, in his own way, which was characteristic enough. (p. 123-124)

He also begins to take on her education as well.  Roger is an avid naturalist, enchanted by the natural world around him, and Molly, to some extent, catches his enthusiasm.  But, as Gaskell clearly reminds us, there is nothing untoward about their relationship as they are both very young, with very definite ideas of who their future partners will be:

Every young girl of seventeen or so, who is at all thoughtful, is very apt to make a Pope out of the first person who presents to her a new or larger system of duty that that by which she has been unconsciously guided hitherto.  Such a Pope was Roger to Molly; she looked to his opinion, to his authority on almost every subject, yet he had only said one or two things in a terse manner which gave them the force of precepts – stable guides to her conduct, and had shown the natural superiority in wisdom and knowledge which is sure to exist between a highly educated young man of no common intelligence, and an ignorant girl of seventeen, who yet was well capable of appreciation.  Still, although they were drawn together in this very pleasant relationship, each was imagining some one very different for the future owner of their whole heart – their highest and completest love.  Roger looked to find a grand woman, his equal, and his empress; beautiful in person, serene in wisdom, ready for counsel as was Egeria.  Molly’s little wavering maiden fancy dwelt on the unseen Osborne, who was now a troubadour, and now a knight, such as he wrote about in one of his own poems; some one like Osborne, perhaps, rather than Osborne himself, for she shrank from giving a personal form and name to the hero that was to be. (p. 151-152)

Eventually, reluctantly, Molly has to return home to her father and her new mother and this is when the novel really begins to take off as Gaskell begins to incorporate more and more characters, some of them truly magnificent creations.  Mrs. Kirkpatrick/Mrs. Gibson is marvelous.  A pretentious but poor widow, she eagerly accepts Mr. Gibson’s offer and the improvement in her material circumstances and social standing the marriage offers.  She instantly sets about ‘improving’ his house, his diet, and his daughter and, intriguingly, putting off the return of her own daughter Cynthia, who is the same age as Molly, from school in France.  But Cynthia does eventually return and she is just as wonderful and flawed as her mother.

Gaskell’s straightforwardness has always appealed to me.  Artifice and obfuscation are the talents of her minor characters, never her heroes or heroines, admirable for their plain speaking and clarity of purpose.  Never is this contrast clearer than between Molly and her stepsister Cynthia.  Cynthia bursts into the novel and into Molly’s life in a whirl of colour and energy.  She is beautiful and captivating, spirited and somewhat mysterious.  She can be all things to all people, knowing how to act best to please each member of her audience.  And though the contrast between her and the honest, direct Molly is great, they quickly become close confidents, true sisters.  The greatest benefit by far of Mr. Gibson’s marriage is the introduction of Cynthia into Molly’s life and it is the complications caused by the beguiling Cynthia that truly see Molly mature.  Molly is thoughtful and considerate, guided by intelligence and good judgment where Cynthia is selfish and thoughtless, eager to jump ahead without considering the consequences, to run away when complications ensue.  But Cynthia adores and admires Molly, conscious of her own flaws and Molly’s moral superiority.  Cynthia may lament her shortcomings, as in this little speech to Molly, but she would much rather have and be able to laugh at them than to attempt any great effort to reform herself:

‘…I am not good and never shall be now.  Perhaps I might be a heroine still, but I shall never be a good woman, I know.’

‘Do you think it easier to be a heroine?’

‘Yes, as far as one knows of heroines from history.  I’m capable of a great jerk, an effort, and then a relaxation – but steady every-day goodness is beyond me.  I must be a moral kangaroo!’ (p. 229)

Cynthia may never be good but, like Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, she will always be interesting.  It comes as no surprise when Roger is instantly smitten by her on their first meeting – who would not be?  Things become suitably tangled after that and Gaskell makes the rather inspired decision to send her male love interest off to Africa for much of the novel, meaning no romantic conclusions can come about too quickly  – a clever tactic when writing a serialized story!

As I said before, yes, this is a coming-of-age story about Molly Gibson but it is so much more.  It is a story about families: the Hamleys and the Gibsons and the changing relationships within them: the loyalties between brothers, between sisters, the bonds of fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, and the consequences of both good and bad marriages.

Squire Hamley may be my favourite character.  He certainly suffers the most, losing his beloved wife and his son, whom he spent most of the time at odds with.  He is very emotional too, far more so than any of the other characters, male or female.  He speaks about what he feels – loudly! – while everyone else conceals their emotions.  It is not necessarily a positive trait: after all, his vocal admonishments of his eldest son only drive them further apart, Osborne taking his father’s words in his usual sensitive manner, leading him to conceal some rather significant details about his life away from Hamley.  So many readers eschew Victorian novels because of their repressed characters, mostly male.  Squire Hamley must be the antidote to such stoics yet he manages to be emotional and sympathetic without being emasculated.  He has an overwhelming personality and can be selfish in his desires and expectations; while I may not want him as a father, I will always love him as one of the most vivid and lifelike characters I have ever come across.

The love story between Roger and Molly is one of my all-time favourites.  Roger feels so real.  He is perfect in so many ways but not in all.  Like any young man of twenty two, he is easily blinded by love, falling prey to Cynthia’s numerous charms in a quite ridiculous manner.  Molly had been half in love with her romanticized ideal of Osborne before meeting him but Roger’s first love is rather more serious.  His keen analytical skills and strong morals fall rather to the wayside, unconsciously compromised by his selection of Cynthia as his future wife.  She is his ideal and the entire time he is falling in love with her, he never really sees her for what she is and how horribly ill-suited they are.  And poor Molly, only starting to realise her feelings for Roger when he begins to shower Cynthia with attention, having to watch him commit himself to a woman who she knows doesn’t care for him half as much as he does for her:

As long as Roger was drawn to Cynthia, and sought her of his own accord, it had been a sore pain and bewilderment to Molly’s heart; but it was a straightforward attraction, and on which Molly acknowledged, in her humility and great power of loving, to be the most natural thing in the world.  She would look to Cynthia’s beauty and grace, and feel as if no one could resist it.  And when she witnessed all the small signs of devotion which Roger was at no pains to conceal, she thought, with a sigh, that surely no girl could help relinquishing her heart to such tender, strong keeping as Roger’s character ensured.  She would have been willing to cut off her right hand, if need were, to forward his attachment to Cynthia; and the self-sacrifice would have added a strange zest to a happy crisis.  (p. 362-3)

Molly is good.  That is a very unfashionable thing to be, especially these days, but I do prefer my heroes and heroines to be so.  She is not angelically good like the heroines of sickeningly sweet children’s story or cheap, mostly forgotten Victorian novels.  She struggles, she talks back on occasion, gets frustrated and angry like anyone but, more often than not, she does as she believes she ought, even, most importantly, when it may bring social ruin.  And there’s something very noble and wonderful about that, about her desire to be good and helpful to others.  Roger is equally good and I love him for that.  After all, that is how Roger and Molly first became friends, when he sought to comfort and help her through a difficult time.  Finally, I love that they are both the kind of people who worry (to both the amusement and approval of their elders) about being worthy of the one they love – so different from the callous, delightful Cynthia, casting lovers aside with reckless abandon until she finds the one who seems to expect the least from her and worships her all the same.

I have so much more I could say about Wives and Daughters, so many minor characters that could be discussed, so many plot points that could be analysed!  It is a novel that I never tire of talking about, full of characters that will be with me always.  If you haven’t already read it, please do.  Take your time and enjoy it.  Or, if you’re not ready to make the commitment to six hundred odd pages of superb entertainment, do at least check out the BBC adaptation penned by Andrew Davies with Justine Waddell as Molly, Keeley Hawes as Cynthia and Michael Gambon as a truly spectacular Squire Hamley.

Read Full Post »

The urge to bake continued through the weekend and Saturday’s financiers were quickly joined on Sunday by a batch of granola.  I hate store-bought granolas (always too oily and too dry) but I love to make this Rose Reisman version, with almonds, dried apricots and dried cranberries.  I have been making it for three years now and it is absolutely perfect for those days when I’m in the mood for a cereal-like breakfast.  It also keeps really well, which was particularly useful when I was living on my own.

Have you guessed by now that all this baking talk is really just a ruse to entertain you while I stall for time in writing up my recent book reviews?  If so, clever you.  I’m particularly eager to relive my enjoyment of Wives and Daughters and to gush about Howards End is on the Landing (oh yes, I am in the ‘love’ rather than ‘hate’ camp for this one, thankfully) but I’m having trouble discipling myself to stay in one place long enough to write a review.  There are so many books to read!  So many flowers to plant!  So many walks to take on these lovely, long spring evenings!  My plan for tonight is to exile myself into my study long enough to get at least one review finished but if tomorrow brings an ‘Archive Raid’ quote rather than actual thoughtful commentary, you’ll at least know what happened!

Read Full Post »

All I want to do this weekend is bake.  I have no particular craving for anything and, as usual, don’t really care about consuming what I create, but I really just want to get my mixing bowls out, grease up all my pans, and set to it.  One of the highlights of working in an office used to be having people to feed all my weekend baking to.  Surely, the loss of this audience must be one of the saddest things about now working from home.

So far, I’ve only managed to bake a batch of Elizabeth Bard’s mini financiers aux framboises, knowing that they freeze well if my family doesn’t show much immediate enthusiasm for them (doubtful).  This is the first time I’ve made them since moving home and, knowing my family as I do, I’m sure they’ll be a big hit.  We don’t really like iced cakes and anything with lots of chocolate is apt to be ignored but fruit- and nut-based desserts are generally welcome.  Since these are made with ground almonds and topped with a raspberry, what is there not to like?  Even I, who can usually resist most baked goods, adore these.

If you’re interested, I posted the recipe on the blog when I made these for the first time last fall (this recent batch was much more photogenic than that one!).  They are wonderfully easy and quick to make – high recommended!

I am sort of reading these days, but not too diligently.  I am bouncing from book to book with alarming speed.  The only things that have managed to hold my attention for a sustained period of time have been Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours and Andrew Cohen’s biography of Mike Pearson, which I enjoy more each time I read it.  I mounted an expedition to the central branch of the library on Saturday morning and the result was impressive (though heavy and rather burdensome to haul back on the bus).  I don’t lack for options, just the ability to focus!  Also, while baking on Saturday evening, I rewatched the biopic “Miss Potter” which a) made me desperate to return to the Lake District, b) had me pondering the whereabouts of my favourite Potter book, The Tale of Two Bad Mice (conclusion: sadly, I believe it is in storage) and c) made me very sad that I hadn’t picked up the Beatrix Potter biography I’d been examining in the library that morning (Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear).  Isn’t that always the way though?

Read Full Post »

Library Lust

credit: Shoot Factory London

Back to my favourite style of library: bright and airy, with lots of natural light and plenty of seating options – including a desk, which is where I prefer to do most of my reading.  The angel in the fireplace would have to go though; I’m not quite sure what the logic is there but it seems very odd when considered both practically and symbolically.

Read Full Post »

Don’t Discard the Librarians – As schools are doing away with teacher librarians at an alarming rate, a journalist makes the case that librarians are more necessary than ever in our digital age.  (also see: Librarians Fight for a Role in a Digital World)

Anne of Green Gables may draw William and Kate to PEI during royal summer tour – is the Duchess of Cambridge an Anne fan?  Surely this has to be Tourism PEI’s dream come true.

Virginia Woolf’s Transformative Touch…in the summer, reading took on a particularly heroic quality — it provided escape from the searing misery of triple-digit heat. And in August 1991, when I turned 15, it changed the person I was becoming with a revelatory flash — the first, but certainly not the last, time literature would affect me like that.

Girls, Girls, Girls: A Trio of Epic Adventures – “From posh princesses to tough teens, the ladies of literary history are getting a makeover. Author Malinda Lo shares these empowering tales of sacrifice, hope and determination from three famous female characters.”

Read Full Post »

I have been trying to compose a response to Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman, a book of essays on various aspects of motherhood and family life, since I finished it at the beginning of April.  Despite several attempts, my thoughts have not quite crystallized or synthesized or whatever-ized but let’s give it a shot anyways.  Why not?

I think Waldman is odd.  I certainly don’t understand her or, quite frankly agree with her.  Sometimes I don’t particularly like her.  But I really enjoyed reading this, loving her writing style, her energy, and, quite frankly, her much-adored family.  As much as this is a book about asserting your right to be whatever kind of parent you like to your children (Waldman memorably got in trouble with Good Mothers everywhere for having dared to say that she loved her husband more than she did her children), it is also Waldman’s defense that yes, she really does love/adore/worship her children like any Good Mother.  She just isn’t what she would call a Good Mother.  Given her terrifying description a Good Mother, I doubt anyone would choose to self identify as one:

The single defining characteristic of iconic Good Motherhood is self-abnegation.  Her children’s needs come first; their health and happiness are her primary concern.  They occupy all her thoughts, her day is constructed around them, and anything and everything she does is for their sakes.  Her own needs, ambitions, and desires are relevant only in relation to theirs.  If a Good Mother takes care of herself, it is only to the extent that she doesn’t hurt her children.  As one of my polling samples put it, ‘She is able to figure out how to carve out time for herself without detriment to her children’s feelings of self-worth.’  If a Good Mother works, she does so only if it doesn’t harm her children, or if her failing to earn an income would make them worse off.  More important, even the act of considering her own needs and desires is engaged in primarily to make her children into better people. (p. 10)

It has never been easy to be a woman and second-wave feminism certainly added more pressure.  Women finally gained the kind of recognition and respect needed to get them into professions in numbers large enough to make a difference but no one quite knew how to balance those exciting new careers with the biological and social responsibilities of raising a family.  From an early age, Waldman’s mother made it clear that her daughter’s purpose was to have it all: she was raised to assume a future with a fulfilling work and family life, but with no particular guide on how to go about balancing the two:

Before I had children, I knew exactly what kind of mother I would be: my mother had told me.  She was a feminist of the 1970s consciousness-raising, pro-choice-marching, self-speculum-wielding school, and she expected me to fulfill her own ambitions, which had been thwarted by a society that resisted viewing a woman in any sphere other than the domestic, and by an imprudent marriage.  My mission as her daughter was to realise the dream of complete equality that she and her fellow bra burners had worked so hard to attain.  (p. 21)

Happily, Waldman found the perfect mate to support this dream life: the writer Michael Chabon (whose own book of essays on his family, Manhood for Amateurs, delighted me last year).  She gushes about him with alarming frequency and it is all very endearing but also rather excessive.  My natural reserve had me squirming in my seat when she rhapsodized about Chabon’s appeal but this is not a book that keeps much secret or holds much back, certainly not when it comes to Waldman’s passion for her husband:

Here he was, the man I’d been looking for all along, the man my mother had sent me out in the world to track down and bring home.  Funny and smart, Jewish and successful.  And harbouring ambitions of being a househusband.  He would take care of my children while I worked.  He would be an equal parent and an equal partner.  He would make it easy for me to be the kind of woman my mother and I had planned for me to be.  Is it any wonder that I proposed to him three weeks after our first date?

Not only did her, dear reader, marry me, but he followed me first to San Francisco, where I had a clerkship with a judge, and then to Southern California, where I found my dream job, as a public defender, representing indigent defendants in federal court.  His career was portable, mine was not, and, more important, my ambitions were every bit as important as his.  To this day neither my mother nor I can believe our good luck.  (p. 30-31)

I was liking Waldman, not necessarily agreeing with her but liking her, up until the final few essays when she decided to address homosexuality and racism, and those short chapters may have ruined her for me.  I am still not entirely sure.  I don’t have sufficient words to describe all the things that irked me about Chapter 15 (“Darling, I Like You That Way”) in which Waldman explains her preference for gay male friends (game for anything, darling, and always up for a bit of antiquing) and defends an essay she wrote in 2005 saying she hoped her son would grow up to be gay, thereby supplying her with a permanent mama’s boy and shopping buddy, and eliminating the threat of a daughter-in-law.  She acknowledges that she is stereotyping gay men but she clearly believes what she’s saying.  The real kicker is at the end when she accuses her opponents of being hypocritical.  They’re busy criticizing her for her “unfairly imposed expectations” on her son while they’re off planning (or assuming) perfectly heterosexual futures for their own children.  The closed-minded bigots, how dare they!

The race thing was a more general annoyance.  I will never understandAmerica’s particular brand of racism nor the liberal white guilt that accompanies it.  But most of all I hate the description of her son’s best friend as “a kid whose parents between the two of them encompass four ethnic identities: Jewish, Greek, African American, and white” (p. 192).  What?  Seriously, what?  If we’re going for broad, meaningless classifications, are the majority of Jewish people and Greeks not white now?  What even falls under ‘white’ in terms of ethnicity?  Is a Spaniard classed with a Swede?  Too ridiculous and too frustrating.

Waldman’s basic premise that women expect too much of themselves when it comes to raising their children, to the extent that they turn on each other, singling out the Bad Mothers in order to confirm their own competence is too blatantly true to argue with.  My friends and I worked this out over recess breaks in elementary school, tried of watching our mothers turn into competitive, critical warriors at our after-school events (well, not my mom so much – she thankfully didn’t do a lot of after school pick ups, thereby making it easier for me to observe other parents without the shame of watching my own parent embarrass herself in pointless competition).  There is definitely a lot of guilt built into this Good Mother mentality and I think that may forever be my stumbling block in learning to understand it.  My family pretty much rejects the idea of guilt, dismissing it as a useless, pointless emotion but, as Waldman’s essay in The Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt, which I read just prior to starting this, happily confirmed, apparently it is impossible to be Jewish without wallowing in guilt (or, even better, guilting your children and relatives once you reach a suitable age).  The whole premise is strange to me.  There is no such thing as having it all, no person able to be everything to everyone.  You have limits, you are a finite resource.  If you try your best, if your kids aren’t dead or in jail, if they are, in fact, like Waldman’s children healthy, intelligent and friendly, what is the fuss about?  You will never be perfect but then, thankfully, neither will anyone else.

Read Full Post »

Persephone Sighting

credit: The Guardian

I do love a good, unexpected Persephone sighting so I was delighted to spot this picture of Lucy Mangan, a favourite columnist and author, with not only rows of dove-grey Persephones on the bookshelf behind her but with one in her hand as well (Good Evening, Mrs Craven in the Persephone Classics edition, if I’m not mistaken).  It is always satisfying to find another kindred soul, particularly when it is someone you have long admired.

I would also recommend checking out the article this picture illustrates, all about what happens when you ‘don’t suit your years’.  Mangan, unsurprisingly for anyone familiar with her work, falls into the ‘born 35’ camp (which I can maybe, just a little bit, identify with):

But to compensate for your suffering, being old for your age enables you to see further into the brick wall of life than your peers do. I always paid attention in school and did my homework without complaint – yes, partly because I liked it and didn’t find it too taxing, but mostly because I could see the point of it. I could see that teachers weren’t trying to impart knowledge just for the fun of it. I could see that learning this stuff would pay off. At secondary school, it was easy to resist being caught up in the drive to experiment with sex, drugs and how many nights you could stay out without getting social services involved, not just because I didn’t have the big boobs or great hair that membership of such groups required, but because I could see that an array of GCSEs would serve me better in the long run than a plethora of STDs. It is an underacknowledged truth that the sooner you are able to understand the principle of deferred gratification, the better your life will be.

Against that, of course, you have to weigh the fact that your childhood will be, in many important senses, bloody miserable. You won’t ever fit in. Even if you buy the right clothes, have the right haircut, deploy the right slang in the right accent, your (putative/non) friends will sense that it’s an act. Real children, children who are good at being children, live in the present, not with one eye on the future. To have someone in the group who is running a constant cost-benefit analysis for every action – as good a definition of an adult as any – is both boring and profoundly unnatural.

Furthermore, if you are mature for your age (to quote every school report I ever received), you are likely to turn to books for solace. And although this, again, has unsought, largely academic, advantages, books age you, too. They render it even harder to live in the moment. It is difficult to surrender to an adolescent crush or a first love when you have already experienced a million of them secondhand.

Read Full Post »

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Marg and myself that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!

Only one book this week, mostly because I’ve been too busy to spend any time browsing in the library between entertaining family, handling work issues, and, yes, watching playoff hockey.  But one hold did come in and I was excited about it enough to run to the library immediately after its arrival:


The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
Are there people left who haven’t heard about this book?  Of all the talked about books that have come out recently, this is the one I have been most excited to read!  I’m only a few chapters in but am really enjoying it so far.

Read Full Post »

I am somewhat troubled by how under whelmed I was by Far to Go by Alison Pick.  This really should be a book that I have strong feelings about – it was, after all, a book I was quite excited to read, so much so that I requested a copy from the publisher; when have I ever been able to refuse a book about Czechoslovakia, never mind one set in the exciting years of 1938 and 1939 and written by a Canadian?  And yet even as I was reading it, I felt strangely disconnected from it.  It was neither glaringly bad nor especially good.

I think the single biggest problem was that I resented the modern narrator, Lisa, for her role in the story.  I liked it quite well as the tale of the Jewish Bauers, Pavel, Anneliese, and their son Pepik (Joseph), and Pepik’s loyal governess, Marta, trying to negotiate the terrifying changes brought on first by the Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland and then Hitler’s full-fledged occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, beginning in March 1939.  For a Czech nationalist and patriot like Pavel, a man who did not actively observe the faith that would see him condemned, the loss of his business, his wealth, and his autonomy are heavy blows.  Pavel and Anneliese are able to get Pepik a spot on the Kindertransport when their plans to escape as a family are thwarted, sending him to, they hope, a safe and loving home in Scotland.  And while the majority of the novel is set in the late thirties, each section begins with a first person narrative from the researcher Lisa, trying to meet up with the adult Joseph.  It is their meeting and the truths it reveals that do not sit well with me.  Her revelations completely alter the way Joseph had conceived of his past, which is upsetting for him but fine by me, but then we learn that the whole story, the entire book was really Lisa’s way of trying to make sense of what she knows of the past, a fiction within fiction, which seems too clever by half.  There’s also a sort of half-hearted reference – repeated so that you do not miss it – to a female lover of Lisa’s, which does not really add anything and seems there more to titillate than add to her character.  It seemed a bit cheap, frankly, and I could have done without it.       

However, Pick does an excellent job with her characterization of her main characters, particularly her primary narrator Marta, and the best moments are sometimes the quietest ones.  Most of the novel takes place in the home, and the domestic scenes are the best: Marta alone in the Prague apartment, venting her frustrations by vigourously scrubbing the floor; Pavel coming home and breaking the news of Beneš’ resignation; Marta and Anneliese negotiating how to tell Pepik of his upcoming journey to Scotland.  More than anything, I was struck by the scene presented by Pavel and Anneliese’s return from a night out and their recounting of the swell of patriotism expressed by their countrymen and women in a city already captured.  A scene that, like Marta, I can well imagine and be touched by, even without having witnessed it:

Only once that month did she and Pavel go out together, to the National Theatre.  They returned to the flat after curfew, cheeks flushed pink with the cold.  The Prague Symphony’s rendition of Bedřich Smetana’s patriotic suite, “Má Vlast”, had been followed by a standing ovation, Pavel said, that lasted a full quarter of an hour.  His eyes shone as he told Marta about the tears in the audience, the cheers and whistles from the otherwise refined European elite.  The applause stopped only when the conductor actually kissed the score and held it above his head, like an Olympic athlete with a medal. (p. 214)

Pick is very good with the tiny details: the untranslated bits of conversation in Czech, the mentions of delicious national dishes and timeless traditions, and the throw-away remarks about the ease of obtaining an entrance visa for Britain after the Munich Agreement, “an apology for the betrayal” (p. 157).  But her attempts at foreshadowing felt clumsy and forced and there was little grace to the flow of the story as a whole.  I cared about the characters, particularly Marta, but that did not prevent me from occasionally becoming frustrated with Pick’s writing style (there is a particularly irritating simile about Marta and Anneliese being like runners in a three-legged race that I wish I could forget).  But the story is interesting and, on the whole, the book’s positive features outweigh its flaws.

Read Full Post »

I harbour a great affection for Stuart McLean, writer and host of CBC Radio’s The Vinyl Café.  I love listening to his radio show and am always excited when he releases a new book so it was with pleasure I picked up The Vinyl Café Notebooks at my local library.  Unlike McLean’s other Vinyl Café books, which focus on the lives and friends of one family, this is a collection of short essays written over fifteen years with no real focus. McLean discusses summer jobs and curling, Bob Dylan and W.O. Mitchell…anything and everything, really.  And it is delightful.  Warm and thoughtful, McLean is just as engaging in print as he is on air and, as always, his encouraging but never cloying glass-half-full view of the world is the perfect antidote to the prevailing cynicism we are surrounded by:

It is not said enough, so I’ll say it again: the world is a good place, full of good people, and when we act out of that, when we act out of hope, and optimism, and faith in our fellow human, we act out of our best selves, and we are capable of doing great things, and of contributing to the greater good.

Hope and optimism are not synonymous with naivety.  We should be looking to the future with flinty and steely eyes, for sure, but they should be wide open with hope, not squinting in fear. (p. 147)

The book is divided into vaguely thematic sections (Notes from Home, Calendar Notes, Notes from the Neighbourhood, etc) including one entitled Reader’s Notes, full of bookish musings or encounters.  There’s a wonderful piece entitled “The Island of No Adults” about an eight-year old girl who, having read one of those children’s adventure novels à la Enid Blyton where the children are off having adventures with no adults in sight, decides to run away to a neighbouring town to become a waitress.  As you do.  And I love how he describes a reader’s relationship with his or her bookshelf:

A bookshelf is a highly personal thing, and often the books on it bristle with emotional connections that no one would ever guess.  There are the old friends that you put on the shelf and return to often, acquaintances that sit there for years, untouched; there are the ones that slip away and are forgotten, and those that seem to wander off on their own accord, yet remain, ghostlike, to haunt the library, like an old lover, with feelings of regret, or sorrow, or confusion.  These are the books you think of from time to time and wonder what became of them, and if you would have anything to say to one another if you were in touch again.  (p. 208)

I also really loved how personal this book was, how close you feel to McLean while reading it.  Honestly, I didn’t know that much about him beforehand, about his background or family, his likes or dislikes, and everything I learned while reading this, I liked.  Particularly his affection, which I share, for always taking the long way round.  I’ve never met a logging road I don’t prefer to a highway, a dirt road that wasn’t more appealing than a paved one, and it only seems right that McLean, whose radio show has provided the soundtrack for many of my road trip adventures, feels the same:

Before I can go further, you should know this about me: if we were in a car together, you and I, and you were driving and we came to one of those moments where you pulled over and looked at me uncertainly, and said, ‘I’m not sure, what do you think?  Left?  Or right?’ I would, reflexively and consistently, choose the back road.  Fast roads bore me.  I like it when roads are winding and narrow, and there are places you can stop that don’t feel like the place where you stopped two hours ago.  I like the slow way.  (p 219)

But, without a doubt, my favourite part of the entire book was a bit entitled “Parliament Hill”, describing a trip McLean took to Parliament Hill in Ottawa, originally with the intention of viewing two of the rather unique items in the Parliamentary Library (a cake baked more than thirty years ago for the library’s one hundredth anniversary and an inkwell used at the Charlottetown Conference of 1864).  The trip quickly becomes about more than that, as McLean explores the building and encounters some very small, very touching aspects of its history.  I love Ottawa as I love few other places in this world and I remain in awe of the Parliament Buildings, for all they have witnessed, all they represent, and all they can be.  I have quoted this essay at length (quite the typing exercise!), wanting so much to share what had touched me so much:

If you have never been to the Parliament Buildings, the best way to walk into the Centre Block is to imagine yourself walking into a cathedral.  It is all limestone marble and gothic arches, bathed in the soft light of a setting sun, or as the parliamentarians would have us believe, I am certain, an approaching dawn.  You wouldn’t be surprised as you walked around to spot a red-cloaked bishop padding down one of the corridors, or I wouldn’t.  Like one of Canada’s grand railway hotels, Parliament is all history and tradition.

I wandered into the Centre Block, into the Rotunda, and then down the Hall of Honour heading to the Library of Parliament.        

Before I got there, however, I was drawn to another corridor – one that the public isn’t supposed to use.  It is reserved for members who want to slip out the back door of Parliament when they are trying to avoid people like me.  And there, tucked away in a small alcove, I stumbled on a sculpture, a small bust by the great French artist and father of modern sculpture Auguste Renoir. 

To Canada, read the plaque on the pedestal, whose sons shed their blood to safeguard world freedom.

The plaque is signed, from grateful France.

I am moved by grand gestures made with modesty.  By small, determined things.

On I went, and soon enough came to the library, where Irene Brown, the librarian on duty, told me with obvious disappointment that the cake I had been sent to see had begun to crumble and was no longer on display.  The inkwell was gone too.  It was in storage. 

Irene was soon joined by her colleague, a librarian named Louis, and with the spontaneous enthusiasm typical of librarians everywhere, they soon enough had set aside their work and joined me in mine. 

‘We could show you our favourite book,’ said Irene.

‘What book is that?’ I asked.

‘It was sent to Canada by Queen Victoria,’ said Irene. ‘After the death of her husband.’

‘Yes,’ says Louis.  ‘It is a collection of the Prince Consort’s speeches.  It is inscribed in the Queen’s hand.’

‘What does the inscription say?’ I asked.

‘To the library of Parliament,’ said Louis.

‘From a heartbroken widow,’ added Irene.

I passed a pleasant hour in the library before saying by goodbyes and continuing my wanderings.

I headed up to the top floor, the sixth floor, to the parliamentary restaurant, which I have always wanted to see.  The maitre d’, a woman named Margueritte, welcomed me just as graciously as the librarians had.

‘That table there,’ she said, pointing at an alcove near the door, ‘is reserved for the prime ministerThat alcove is for Conservative members, that one for Liberals, and that is where the NDP gather.’

Then, sensing my interest, she said, ‘Would you like to see the New Zealand Room?’

She took me to the back of the restaurant and into a small and elegant dining room with a table that would sit a dozen, but not one more.

‘It is paneled with wood sent by New Zealand after the Centre Block burned to the ground in 1916,’ she said.

And it was at this moment, as I stood there under the green copper roof of Parliament, in that modest dining room with its magnificent view of the Ottawa River, that I had my little epiphany.

One hundred years ago New Zealand was pretty much on the far side of the moon as far as Canada was concerned.  And vice versa.  Yet, in 1916 someone in New Zealand heard that our Parliament Buildings had burned to the ground, and they responded to that news in such an odd and yet peculiarly appropriate way.

They sent wood.  To Canada, of all places.  As if wood was something Canada was lacking.  And someone here received that gift with the respect with which it was given.  And those two small acts of respect had served the greater good.

And it occurred to me, as I stood there all these years later, in what is now known as the New Zealand Room, that we have lost our understanding of that sort of respect.

In its place we have developed an impulse for cynicism.  Too quickly we look at our politics and our politicians as if everything was easy to figure out; as if compromises didn’t have to be made; as if you can always say exactly what you mean; as if a thoughtful person can’t reflect on something and then change his or her mind; as if the business of governing isn’t complicated.

Cynicism is an easy place to pitch a tent.  And it is worth remembering, when we are tempted by that soft and undemanding clearing in the forest, that there are more noble campsites.

Parliament has been, and could still be, the best of us.  And, I would put forward, it behooves us to embrace that possibility, to admit to that possibility, to own that possibility and, most importantly, to expect it.  These are important days.  This is an important place.  We owe it many things.  Our passions, our commitments, our truths and, yes, our respect.  The broken-hearted QueenVictoria showed that when she signed and sent that book in the memory of her husband.  Auguste Renoir showed it as he fashioned that sculpture for all of France.  Those New Zealanders showed it as they bundled together their little shipment of wood.  Those librarians show it as they guard that inkwell still.  And so should we, each one of us, as we come together in our todays and our tomorrows, to consider, as best we can, the great questions of our times.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »