Archive for the ‘Brigid Pasulka’ Category

credit: Joan Griswold

I’m never particularly eager to make favourites lists.  I love them but it’s such a brutal process: all those wonderful books that get cut!  I read roughly 200 books in 2010 and loved so many of them.  Usually I measure my favourite books by not just the initial reading experience but my desire to reread the book.  Since most of my books come from the library, the true test of a book is whether after reading it I want to search out a copy to own.  Except my opinion changes day to day, hour to hour, making lists rather difficult to compile with any confidence.  But lists, however stressful I may find them, are still fun and it was interesting to review my year with all its ups and downs and pick the ten titles that stood out for me.  Here they are, in order:

10. The Shuttle (1906) – Frances Hodgson Burnett
My most eagerly-anticipated Persephone title, I adored this tale of the effervescent Betty and her spirited quest.  The melodramatic ending, a trademark of FHB, did grate, which is why the book didn’t place higher on this list.

9. Can Any Mother Help Me? (2007) – Jenna Bailey
A wonderful collection of letters written between the women of the Cooperate Correspondence Club, mostly from the 1930s to 1960s, begun as a way of keeping active and engaged with intelligent society despite days surrounded by toddlers and dirty dishes.

8. A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True (2009) – Brigid Pasulka
Part multi-generational family saga, part fairy tale, this novel set in Poland during the 1930s and 1940s as well as the early 1990s was the best kind of surprise.

7. Why We Act Like Canadians (1982) – Pierre Berton
Combining two of my great loves – books about the Canadian identity and Pierre Berton – was always going to end well but Why We Act Like Canadians truly did the best job of any book out there at explaining Canadians both for foreign and domestic audiences.  With his usual romantic flair, Berton made this book not just fascinating but beautiful to read.

6. The Rehearsal (2008) – Eleanor Catton
The story of a community reacting to an illict relationship between a teacher and student at an all-girls school provided a very unique reading experience that forced me out of my comfort zone.  I was more than rewarded for my diligence with fascinatingly complex relationships and skillfully-executed themes.  This doesn’t seem to be a book for everyone but I loved it.

5. Mariana (1940) – Monica Dickens
Surprisingly hilarious, my first Persephone novel was nothing less than an absolute success.

4. Greenery Street (1925) – Denis Mackail
Immediately after finishing this charming book about a newly married couple I said that I wanted to live in it.  Now, not even two months after reading it, I already miss Ian and Felicity and their dear little home on Greenery Street.

3. Lunch in Paris (2010) – Elizabeth Bard
I adore this book, the story of Bard’s life in Paris after falling in love with a Frenchman.  The recipes are fantastic but Bard’s engaging voice and energetic but not overly romantic attitude towards her new French life made for a delightful read.  Easily the book I recommended the most over the course of the year.

2. Women of the Raj (1988) – Margaret MacMillan
This book may have left me with a phobia of cobras falling from the ceiling but it also provided an excellent education on the British Raj and the lives of European women in India.  It’s one of those books that I want to carry around with me always, just so I can press a copy onto random strangers.

1. Mrs Tim Flies Home (1952) – D.E. Stevenson
I fell in love with both Mrs Tim and D.E. Stevenson this year.  Mrs Tim of the Regiment was an excellent introduction to my new favourite heroine but a weak second half prevented it from being a favourite.  Mrs Tim Flies Home, on the other hand, suffers from no such shortcomings and so earned its top place on this list by being simply charming and heart-warming.

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When Eva recommended A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka ‘for those who love a good family saga’, I was immediately intrigued.  If there’s one thing I love, it is a good family saga.  And one set (at least partially) during World War Two, in Poland no less?  Fantastic – I have a terrible weakness for novels set during this period and spend much of my life lamenting the fact that so few (of the English-language offerings at least) are set in Central or Eastern Europe.

I am happy to report that, yes, I did love it just as much as Eva said I would. 

The tale follows two young women – Anielica during and just after the war and her granddaughter Beata, known primarily by the rather cruel name of Baba Yaga, in the modern Poland of the early nineties, just emerging as a free country for the first time in over fifty years.  The two tales have very different tones.  Anielica’s story, the love story of Anielica and the Pigeon, is told from a distance, like any good fairy tale.  It is the proper kind of fairy tale, with violence and without perfect Disney endings, and all the more likeable for that.  At its heart is the famously beautiful Anielica, who proves herself time and again to be just as strong as she is beautiful. 

Baba Yaga’s story, on the other hand, is told in the first person and the reader forms a much more intimate bond with the narrator.  Having come from her village to Krakow in the wake of her grandmother’s death, Baba Yaga seems rudderless in a way Anielica never was.  Anielica lived in difficult times, but she had a close family and village to rely on through all of that.  She also had the Pigeon (who, despite his less-than-dashing moniker, makes an excellent, steadfast romantic hero).  Baba Yaga has her cousins Irena and Magda but, as the novel opens, she hardly knows them.  She could do anything but finds all that choice paralyzing.  Anielica’s story is a love story; Baba Yaga’s is a coming of age story and it’s wonderful to find both handled so capably in the same volume, giving us not one but two strong and complex female characters.

I would also argue that, more than anything, this is a love story between the many characters and the notion of Poland itself – from the resistance fighters during the war to the aging dissidents of the ‘60s and ‘70s to Baba Yaga’s own hopefully generation – the first generation to be free, but also the first generation that might not truly understand what that freedom means and what respect their country is due as they embrace the invasion of Western brands and lifestyles.  This was the theme, more than any other, that resonated with me as I read.       

If, at times, Pasulka exhibits a particular kind of Slavic fatalism (think things are bad now?  Just wait!), it’s one with which I am well acquainted and which I find comforting for that reason, though that doesn’t excuse some of her overly dramatic flourishes.  Pasulka writes beautifully and engagingly but these moments had me rolling my eyes, wishing she had showed more restraint.  Like many North Americans, I think she at times falls prey to the fetishizing of ‘the Old Country’.  It’s difficult not to, wanting so much to absorb the culture and the history of a place you belong to but which is still not a part of you and which you can never truly understand as a native would understand it. 

I’d love to go into more detail but am certain I would give away far too much.  It’s a charming book that I hope everyone will consider trying!

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