Archive for the ‘Canadian Book Challenge 4’ Category

Happy Canada Day all, be you Canadian or not!  In addition to endless parties and barbeques across the nation, today also brings with it the end of the Canadian Book Challenge 4 and, miraculously, a recap post from me.  I have been awful with challenges since I started blogging.  I love the initial post, particularly the creation of a needlessly detailed reading list, but it never really occurs to me to recap everything once they’re over, to show off my accomplishment.  However, since I loved so many of the 13 books I reviewed for this challenge over the last year (only one of which was on my original reading list, incidentally), I definitely wanted a chance to bring them your attention once more!

Here’s the list, with (occasionally relevant) snippets from the original reviews.  I’ve also noted which ones I’d particularly recommend to other readers:

Why We Act Like Canadians by Pierre Berton
(highly recommended)
“I can do no more to praise this than to report, truthfully, that it is the most perfect book I have ever read about the Canadian identity.  But one would hardly expect less from Berton, the undisputed authority on the history and legacy of the people who have made Canada what it is.” One of my Top 10 Books of 2010.   

Great Expectations: Twenty-Four True Stories About Childbirth edited by Dede Crane and Lisa Moore
“I would absolutely not recommend reading this while pregnant but I’m now thinking the best time to read it may be once your child-bearing years are past and, ideally, once you’ve had children of your own and can scoff at the descriptions of pain.  My mother’s reaction when I mentioned the book to her was “why on earth would you do something like that to yourself?”  She knows what she’s about, my mother (though, memorably, she is also the woman who considers a bikini wax far more painful than childbirth).”

Women of the Raj by Margaret MacMillan
(highly recommended)
“This was one of those books that I didn’t want to put down but which, at the same time, I didn’t ever want to finish.  My father, who was rather bored at the time I was reading this and was therefore a perfect victim for long, rambling conversations, was treated to daily recaps of what I had learned, down to the smallest detail and together we mused over the inconvenience of cobras dwelling in ones ceilings.  When you have a book you’re so excited about it’s wonderful to be able to gush about it to someone.”  One of my Top 10 Books of 2010.   

The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis
“Is there anything more frustrating than reading a good book that, with a judicious editor, could have been great?”

Player One by Douglas Coupland
“Given that this was written for the Massey Lectures, the entire point of which is the discussion of ideas, I say that it was a success as even now, weeks after finishing the book, I’m still pondering some of the questions it raised.”

Locavore by Sarah Elton
(highly recommended)
“Elton’s journalist approach to her topic, her graceful and engaging weaving of interviews and statistics, both educates and entertains.”

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
(highly recommended)
“Everything flows so well that it’s like one wonderful long conversation with a favourite learned friend, a master storyteller who holds you rapt for the duration of his tale which, long or short, always seems to have passed too quickly.”

Moving Pictures by Kathryn & Stuart Immonen
“…the art provides the only real energy in the book and it is strangely at odds with the dry, vague text of the novel.  More than anything, the scenes from the book felt like vignettes from a larger tale, as though the real storytelling was taking place somewhere else.  You could piece together the story from what was there but you couldn’t help but feel that there was a richer, more satisfying narrative behind this work, something you were being denied access to.”

The Russian Album by Michael Ignatieff
“…a thoughtful, intimate book, absolutely worthy of all the praise that has been heaped upon it since it was first published in 1987.”

The Vinyl Cafe Notebooks by Stuart McLean
(highly recommended)
“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.”

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.”

Stephanie by Joan Austen-Leigh
“What I loved most about Stephanie is that it is a local novel, set on theIsland.  It captures Victoria’s spirit as a colonial outpost, a place renowned for being more English than England, full of families who still send their sons and daughters to boarding school and university back ‘home’.  This spirit persisted long past the 1930s and I’m not entirely convinced that the Empress Hotel doesn’t still have some old relics seated behind palms, accessorized with topees and few gin and tonics, convinced that the sun still hasn’t set on the Empire.”

The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery
“Rereading this definitely gave me a greater appreciation for it, particularly now that I’m of an age where I can identify with Valancy’s situation at the beginning of the novel, but it certainly has not become one of my true favourites.  Worth recommending, without a doubt, but not about to join in my annual rereading cycle of some of Montgomery’s other works.”

Final Thoughts
I’m quite pleased by what a variety I was able, unintentionally, to come up with over the year and the balance between fiction (7) and non-fiction (6) titles.  I even got a graphic novel in there and two young adult novels!  And, thanks to Sarah Elton and Stuart McLean’s cross-country travels, almost the entire nation was covered (I’m afraid the territories, as usual, were rather neglected).  I’ve already signed up for the Canadian Book Challenge 5 and, with a number of Canadian titles already sitting in my library pile, I’m excited to begin reading.  This year, I’m hoping to do a better job representing the different geographic regions in my reading choices and, perhaps more importantly, to be more diligent about reviewing the titles I do read!  There were about twenty books I read over the last year that could have counted towards the challenge but which I never got around to writing up despite having enjoyed them, which made me feel both lazy and like a bad Canadian, failing to do my patriotic PR duty. 

I’m planning to use part of this lovely long weekend to pull together a bit of a reading list with some new ideas for what to try.  What could be a more delightful pastime that compiling a book list?  I may not always follow them but I do love making them!  If you have any suggestions of books by Canadians, about Canadians, or set in Canada, I’d love to hear them!

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One of the strangest discoveries I’ve made since I started blogging is just how many people adore The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery.  For years, I’ve discarded The Blue Castle as one of Montgomery’s ‘other’ novels.  Like everything Montgomery wrote, I’ve read it a few times and mentally classed it somewhere above the endless volumes of repetitive short stories but far, far below the more memorable Anne and Emily books – on par with the forgettable Kilmeny of the Orchard, really.  But with both Eva and Rachel counting themselves as fans, I knew I had to reread it again as an adult and give it another chance.

The Blue Castle is the story of twenty-nine year old spinster Valancy Stirling, who has spent her entire life living under her family’s thumb in ruralOntario until, after visiting the doctor after experiencing chest pains, she receives word that she has only a year to live.  Her unexpected death sentence gives Valancy the confidence to rebel against her family.  She shocks them all by talking back, standing up for herself, and finally moving out to go and care for an ill neighbour, the daughter of the town drunk who herself had been ostracized for bearing an illegitimate child.  From there, Valancy’s acts of rebellion only increase, culminating in her proposing marriage to Barney Snaith, another unconventional local, hoping to grasp at least some happiness in her remaining months.  Living with him on his Muskoka island, she finally finds her dream home, theBlueCastle she spent all those long, lonely years building up in her head.      

To be completely honest, I opened this half hoping to fall in love with it, half hoping to find it exactly as I remembered.  My actual reaction to it fell somewhere in between.  The first part of the novel where we are introduced to Valancy, learn of her diagnosis and witness her rebellion is quite wonderful.  Sharp and funny, it is entertaining and ageless, some ofMontgomery’s best work.  But it also vividly captures Valancy’s sense of captivity and isolation, the smallness of her life and her world:

Reality pressed on her too hardly, barking at her heels like a maddening little dog.  She was twenty-nine, lonely, undesired, ill-favoured – the only homely girl in a handsome clan, with no past and no future.  As far as she could look back, life was drab and colourless, with not one single crimson or purple spot anywhere.  As far as she could look forward it seemed certain to be just the same until she was nothing but a solitary, little withered leaf clinging to a wintry bough.  The moment when a woman realises that she has nothing to live for – neither love, duty, purpose nor hope – holds for her the bitterness of death. 

And then she marries Barney (who was clearly John Foster so why even bother to pretend otherwise for so much of the novel and, yes, he really should be ashamed of those awful descriptive passages and edicts) and moves into her Blue Castle and that is where the book looses me.  Blissful happy endings are fine, to be encouraged even, but devoting so much time to domestic details (and in, it must be said, a rather sappy manner – Barney’s pet name for Valancy is ‘Moonlight’, need I really say more?) rather does away with any sympathy I might once have felt for the couple.  Things become a little too formulaic, too much like one of the magazine stories a teenaged Anne or Emily might have written.  For a book that had been so promisingly original at the beginning, it was a let-down. 

Rereading this definitely gave me a greater appreciation for it, particularly now that I’m of an age where I can identify with Valancy’s situation at the beginning of the novel, but it certainly has not become one of my true favourites.  Worth recommending, without a doubt, but not about to join in my annual rereading cycle of some of Montgomery’s other works.  I must also admit that I had to borrow this from the library since my own childhood copy is languishing in storage.  The cover illustration (not pictured here – I couldn’t find it anywhere online) was particularly vile, portraying Valancy as a sort-of undernourished, puckish ingenue.  Oh the indignity of it!  It did have some entertaining illustrations within the book though, which, in retrospect, I should have probably photographed to share with you all before I returned it to the library.  Sorry for that oversight!

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Where was Stephanie by Joan Austen-Leigh when I was twelve or thirteen? (Answer: probably on the very same shelf at Central Branch where I retrieved it on Saturday).  As diverting as I found it now, I would have adored it at that age when I liked nothing more than a coming-of-age story and would have been ecstatic to find one with a local setting.    

Stephanie tells the story of Stephanie Carruthers-Croft from the age of eleven to eighteen as she grows up on Vancouver Island during the 1930s.  The story is set primarily in Victoria, the provincial capital, for although Stephanie leaves to attend a boarding school up island, her time there is barely covered except to stress how much she loves it.  The real focus is on her life in Victoria and her struggles there to live up to her mother’s expectations for her.  As the story begins, eleven year-old, red-headed, bespectacled Stephanie is already chaffing against the strictures imposed upon her.  She is awkward and ugly, dreading the future her mother has planned for her: boarding school in England, followed by a debutante season back in Victoria where she will be expected to find a husband as quickly as possible.  Stephanie dreams of what it would be like to be a boy instead, what freedom she would have then!, and composes wild adventures for her alter-ego, the creatively-named Stephen.

Most of the novel is taken up with her scrapes: getting a neighbourhood child stuck up a tree, making inappropriate friends, running away from home all the way to Vancouver, etc.  The typical, entertaining stuff of which all coming-of-age stories are made.  The writing is straight forward and engaging, but not particularly artful.  The characters are two-dimensional and the most intriguing ones – Stephanie’s father’s cousin Winifred, a spinster who has always supported and encouraged Stephanie and whose career, albeit as a secretary, shows Stephanie that women do have more options than marriage; and Stephanie’s next door neighbour Alice Taylor, a quiet, well-behaved girl, much admired by adults but with a deceptively strong will of her own – eclipse our heroine, showing glimpses of depth and mystery than Stephanie doesn’t even come close to matching.  Still, Stephanie is relatable as far as young heroines go, if not brilliant.  This is just the kind of book I would have gobbled up in my adolescence or early teens, particularly given the time period.  The references to current events are hardly subtle but they’re perfect for a young audience, increasing their awareness of the Depression and the escalating tensions in Europe with some level of nuance.   

I did really enjoy Stephanie’s (briefly chronicled) escape from stuffy Victoria for the freedom of boarding school.  The financial impact of the Depression meant, to Stephanie’s delight, that she could not be sent ‘home’ to Cheltenham Ladies’ College, as intended.  Instead, she is sent to the (I believe) fictitious Westcliffe, which she adores.  I loved her description of life there, of how much there was to do all the time, how much to be excited about, because it very much echoes my own high school experience (I was also rather pleased to see my own school mentioned as Westcliffe’s field hockey opponent):

‘I don’t understand Maggie,’ I confided to Sheelagh, ‘she didn’t use to be like this at all.’

‘A phase,’ said Sheelagh loftily.  ‘Typical boy-crazy high school girl.  Here at Westcliffe we’ve lots better things to occupy our time.’

Was it better, I wondered?  I, who had sworn never to get married, was hardly one to judge.  Our time was occupied indeed.  How could we think of boys when our minds were freighted with the up-coming hockey match against Crofton, the swimming gala in the town pool, the Christmas concert of the choir, the next expedition of the Girl Guides, the school bazaar for which we were knitting, and a hundred other absorbing projects.  All this in addition to six hours of lessons a day, plus two hours of prep in the evening.  The school prospectus promised character-building.  Characters, presumably, were not built at public schools or on Saturday night dates.  (p. 232)

What I loved most about Stephanie is that it is a local novel, set on the Island.  It captures Victoria’s spirit as a colonial outpost, a place renowned for being more English than England, full of families who still send their sons and daughters to boarding school and university back ‘home’.  This spirit persisted long past the 1930s and I’m not entirely convinced that the Empress Hotel doesn’t still have some old relics seated behind palms, accessorized with topees and few gin and tonics, convinced that the sun still hasn’t set on the Empire.  But then particularly, the British influence was taken for granted by the upper middle classes.  In a city with no real culture of its own and no university, London was still Mecca, an icon of refinement and a source of pride, even for those who had never been:

I began to think what it might be like if we lived in London.  I knew all about London, of course.  I’d read books, and I’d listened to my parents talk.  They spoke of it always as if it were a holy city, some sort of paradise, the heartbeat of the England for which they existed, and where they would one day return. (p. 7)

Stephanie’s mother, in particular, is a terrible snob about her surroundings, distraught that her daughters, both born inVictoria, might grow up to sound Canadian.  Poor Mrs. Carruthers-Croft, what an awful character.  There is nothing remotely redeeming about her and not a whiff of sympathy is directed her way.  She is unrelentingly cruel to Stephanie, openly stating her preference for her younger daughter Sally, only speaking to Stephanie to criticize her, and completely unwilling to take her daughter’s wishes into consideration when it comes to Stephanie making her debut after graduating high school.  She is a terribly flat character, which seems like such a wasted opportunity! 

The novel ends hopefully, with an eighteen year old Stephanie about to embark on a lengthy trip to London(in the summer of 1939…timing is everything).  After having indulged in a debutant season, even being so successful as to bag a fiancé before all the other girls, she comes to her senses and realises that this is not the life she wants.  All through high school, she had been dreaming of being a writer and had worked diligently to improve and practice her skills.  She had abandoned that dream after graduation, unwilling to oppose her mother and perhaps afraid of trying to achieve something she wanted so much but which seemed so far away.  But, with some less than gentle prodding and insults from cousin Winifred and Winifred’s flatmate Miss Grainger, Stephanie comes to her senses, breaks her engagement (her one-time fiancé is far from distressed), and sets out on an adventure not of Stephen’s but of her very own.  Happily for Stephanie’s fans, this adventure is chronicled in Stephanie at War which I’m off to start reading now!

Parliament Buildings, Victoria, BC

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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.

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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.

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After my grandfather retired in the 1980s, he and my grandmother devoted themselves to working on the family tree.  In the days before the internet with its quick online database searches, this meant filing cabinets full of meticulous notes, phone bills for long distance calls to records offices all over the world, and, most excitingly, trips around the globe to ferret out existing relatives.  They loved it.  When one family tree was done, they’d move on to another branch of the family and so they continued for years, happily gathering and recording stories before they were forgotten.  For them, this was important work.  It was important to them that they know who came before and that they pass that knowledge down to their children and grandchildren so that we too would know.  I took that to heart as a child.  I already loved history but it became more important to me when I considered events that I knew had impacted my family.  It made it more personal and, because of that, far more exciting. 

The Russian Album by Michael Ignatieff feeds directly into my fascination with family history; it is the story of four generations of the aristocratic Ignatieff family, focusing primarily on his grandparents, Princess Natasha Mestchersky and Count Paul Ignatieff, who leftRussia in 1919 with their sons, moving first toEngland before settling inCanada.  Ignatieff never met Natasha or Paul – both died before he was born – but he had their memoirs to work from as well as the recollections of his father and uncles.  The result is a thoughtful, intimate book, absolutely worthy of all the praise that has been heaped upon it since it was first published in 1987. 

This is a strange review to write at this time.  When Michael Igantieff wrote this book he was a Canadian ex-pat author and academic living in theUK.  Now, he is the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, the official opposition to the current Conservative government, campaigning across the country in preparation for Monday’s federal election.  It feels strange to be writing here about a person who appears every night on the news, who shows up every day in my newspaper.  This book has absolutely nothing to do with politics and nor does my reaction to it but the upcoming election does make me hesitant to offer an opinion on Ignatieff that goes beyond his writing ability.  I shall do so anyway but please, my few Canadian readers, do not think I am attempting to influence your vote by doing so.  This is not an attempt at political propaganda; it is just a simple book review.

The first chapter is rather daunting, full of Ignatieff’s academic musings on ethics and methodology, but it also contains some of his most personal and thoughtful passages, the ones that made me warm to him.  In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys Hector says: The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone who is even long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”  That is why I read, searching for moments, for writers, who can do that.  And Ignatieff does, distilling what I have perhaps always thought and felt about my own family and my own situation but never been able to express, in just the way I would have wished to have said it:

Between my two pasts, the Canadian and the Russian, I felt I had to choose.  The exotic always exerts a stronger lure than the familiar and I was always my father’s son.  I chose the vanished past, the past lost behind the revolution.  I could count on my mother’s inheritance: it was always there.  It was my father’s past that mattered to me, because it was one I had to recover, to make my own.  (p. 10)

My father’s family, full of farmers and teachers, librarians and ministers, has always provided stability for me.  That part of my identity is clear.  They are Canadian just as I am, they grew up in surroundings I can relate to, spoke a language I speak, were part of the history I was taught in school.  My mother’s family is different.  Alien and alluring, I cannot remember a time when I did not want to know more about them, to see the cities where they lived, to hear the languages they spoke- anything to try and understand these foresters and executioners, dilettantes and opera singers who I am descended from.  But I have their photos and painted portraits, can stare into their faces in an attempt to know them.  There is something so reassuring about having a visual record of your past:

For many families, photographs are often the only artefacts to survive the passage through exile, migration or the pawnshop.  In a secular culture, they are the only household icons, the only objects that perform the religious function of connecting the living to the dead and of locating the identity of the living in time.  I never feel I know my friends until either I meet their parents or see their photographs and since this rarely happens, I often wonder if I know anybody very well.  (p.2)

This idea of not knowing anyone well without knowing or having seen their family really resonated with me.  It is not something I had ever thought to analyse before but I am definitely not entirely comfortable with anyone until I’ve met their family or, if their relatives are too far away or no longer alive, seen their photographs.  I can know people for years but as soon as I meet their parents there is suddenly a new level of intimacy in the relationship.

However, let me be clear, this is a book primarily about Ignatieff’s ancestors and not his relationship to his family’s past (even if that is what I found most interesting about it).  I cannot claim any great knowledge of Tsarist Russia – you’ll notice it has not come up in many of my previous reading choices – but it is fascinating to see how the Ignatieff family served their homeland as soldiers and, far more interestingly, diplomats and politicians.  If nothing else, one must hope that after four generation an immunity to insult would now be inbred.  Certainly nothing said today can equal Lord Salisbury’s style back in 1877 in describing Ignatieff’s great grandfather Nicholas as a “brilliant and fluent talker who adorns his conversations with fictions so audaciously unconvincing as to become a constant source of amusement.”  If politicians could construct such well-phrased insults today then I should be pleased to listen to them!

Though it is his male ancestors who spent their time doing things that would later see them remembered in history books, Ignatieff does not ignore his female relatives.  It feels as if more attention is given to his grandmother Natasha than to her husband Paul and she is spoken of almost with awe.  Though not a warm woman, she comes across as brave and determined, more than able to face the many challenges that awaited her after the Revolution began:

That autumn of 1918 the boys first became aware of how much the times had changed their mother.  She was no longer the frail, vague, comical and retiring figure of their childhood inPetrograd.  Hardship had weathered her.  During their father’s arrest, she had been like a tigress, enraged, tenacious and unafraid.  Now that most of the servants had gone, she took over the housekeeping.  She had never so much as boiled water in her life before.  Now they watched her leave the house in the morning dressed in a shabby black overcoat, with her hair in a peasant woman’s shawl, to queue at the baker’s for crumbling loaves made out of corn, potato flour and bran.  One of the boys went with her when she travelled out into the villages to bargain for mutton, cooking far and honey.  She had become sharp and shrewd and resilient.  And she never railed at fate. (p. 136-137)

My only quibble with the book is the limited glimpse you get into the family’s life once settled in Canada.  While his uncles and his father were still alive, perhaps it seemed too intimate to discuss in more than the barest of details.  Or perhaps I am just being greedy because I desperately want to know more about George Ignatieff, Michael’s father, who was a contemporary and friend of Lester Pearson (Prime Minister) and Charles Ritchie (the noted diplomat and diarist).  I read Charles Ritchie’s The Siren Years as an impressionable adolescent and ever since have had a growing passion for the Canadian diplomats of his generation, particularly the ones, like Pearson, Ignatieff, and Ritchie, who worked out of Canada House in London during the war.  But then the purpose of this book wasn’t to chronicle a new beginning.  It is not a narrative that can be neatly wrapped up and given a happy ending.  The purpose was simply to remember:

I have not been on a voyage of self-discovery: I have just been keeping a promise to two people I never knew.  These strangers are dear to me not because their lives contain the secret of my own, but because they saved their memory for my sake.  They beamed out a signal to a generation they would never live to see.  They kept faith with me and that is why I must keep faith with them and with those who are coming after me.  There is no way of knowing what my children will make of ancestors from the age of dusty roads and long afternoons on the shaded veranda deep in the Russian countryside.  But I want to leave the road marked and lighted, so that they can travel into the darkness ahead, as I do, sure of the road behind.  (p. 185)

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I’m afraid that Moving Pictures by Kathryn and Stuart Immonen, while much praised by other, far more knowledgeable reviewers of graphic novels, left me cold.  Graphic novels aren’t my thing.  I have enjoyed a few – I’ve been particularly delighted by Guy Delisle’s graphic memoirs – but more often than not I find the medium jarring and ill-suited to tell a story that might otherwise have captivated me.  And this story, sketched out in the barest possible terms, had all the potential to be a gripping one. 

Individually, each panel is striking.  The graphics articulately express the tension that pervades the novel.  Everything is restrained and stark except for the paintings in the museum.  These are recreated in extravagant detail.  The famous subjects bend and curve and emote, breathing life into characters’ otherwise restrained existence.  But the art provides the only real energy in the book and it is strangely at odds with the dry, vague text of the novel.  More than anything, the scenes from the book felt like vignettes from a larger tale, as though the real storytelling was taking place somewhere else.  You could piece together the story from what was there but you couldn’t help but feel that there was a richer, more satisfying narrative behind this work, something you were being denied access to.   

I went into this book knowing it had a Canadian heroine (Ila) and was set in wartime Paris where museum and gallery curators were working to ‘misplace’ items from their collections before they could be handed over to the Nazi occupiers.  I’m not sure I came out of the reading knowing all that much more, which was so frustrating!  Ila’s conflicted relationship with Rolf Hauptmann – by turns her lover, her interrogator, and her rival – seems so intriguing.  I want to know more about them, I want a full book devoted to their personal interactions.  Instead I get a few lines of incredibly restrained dialogue.  I want that novel and I want it now.  Doesn’t that sound like a book you would read?  

While I’m glad that I tried another graphic novel, this wasn’t a particularly successful reading experience for me.  There’s simply too much story – or rather, the promise of a story – for such a slim, minimalist volume.

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A Reading Diary very nearly made my Top Ten Books of 2010 list so I was understandably excited to read The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel.  And, as expected, I adored it.  Manguel is one of those authors I knew very little about a year ago but then when I started blogging it seemed that everyone knew about him, had read his works, and loved him beyond measure.  And now I have (very happily) become one of those people.  Indeed, I love him even more because first and foremost he identifies himself as Canadian though he’s Argentinean by birth and currently lives in France. 

I don’t like to read Manguel quickly – even when I consciously slow my reading rate down and take lots of breaks to copy out beautiful passages everything goes too fast.  Though, in the case of The Library at Night, the book is much shorter than it first appears with huge margins and many pictures filling up the pages.  But each sentence is so beautifully constructed, each thought so worthy of appreciation and reflection that to read without consideration, just to take each new piece of information in and not to let it spark an internal monologue of your own, seems ill-mannered.  Manguel makes me want to compose decadent sentences about luxuriating in his sumptuous prose…but I think such a departure from my usual style might alarm readers so I’ll try to restrain myself.

In The Library at Night, Manguel considers the impact libraries have had on our civilization, from both a historical and personal perspective.  While I never tire of learning about libraries ancient and modern its Manguel’s personal reflections that delight me most.  Everything flows so well that it’s like one wonderful long conversation with a favourite learned friend, a master storyteller who holds you rapt for the duration of his tale which, long or short, always seems to have passed too quickly.  I envy Manguel’s friends for the evenings they spend with him in conversation for he seems the kind of man who could talk intelligently and artfully on any subject and to do so outside, as he describes, would be heaven:

Inside the library, my books distract us from conversation and we are inclined to silence.  But outside, under the stars, talk becomes less inhibited, wider ranging, strangely more stimulating.  There is something abut sitting outside in the dark that seems conducive to unfettered conversation…

In the light, we read the inventions of others; in the darkness, we invent our own stories.

The book is divided into fifteen different chapters, each an essay on the different identities of libraries (as Myth, as Power, as Workshop, as Survival, as Imagination, etc).  My favourite by far was “The Library as Order” which considers the many different ways a library can be ordered.  I never tire of ordering and reordering my books, grouping by theme first, then perhaps nationality, then changing my mind a few weeks later and trying something new and strange but sensible in my own mind (if no one else’s).  In fact, this is something that has given me much pleasure over the last few days since my belongings have finally arrived and I have many books to unpack and shelve.  Considerable thought has been expended over this and it has been a most delightful pastime.

And, rather significantly in these days of aggressive technological advancements, Manguel knows that there is more to being a reader than simply taking in the words alone:

As any reader knows, a printed page creates its own reading space, its own physical landscape in which the texture of the paper, the colour of the ink, the view of the whole ensemble acquire in the reader’s hands specific meanings that lend tone and context to the words.  (Columbia University’s librarian Patricia Battin, a fierce advocate for the micro-filming of books, disagreed with this notion. ‘The value,’ she wrote, ‘in intelligent terms, of the proximity of the book to the user has never been satisfactorily established.’  There speaks a dolt, someone utterly insensitive, in intellectual or any other terms, to the experience of reading.) (p. 74-75)

I love Manguel because he understands not just the romance to be found in books but in the act of reading.  And that is more than enough for me.

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It’s rather trendy these days to be deeply interested in your food and its origins, to want to know where and how it was grown, even by whom, or, better yet, to do the growing yourself.  I am absolutely a fan of this new agro-consciousness.  Bring on Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, The 100 Mile Diet by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, almost anything by the prolific but obnoxious Mr. Pollan, and dozens of new titles seemingly every month.  In the 20th Century, we learned how to feed the world’s growing population with the advancements of the Green Revolution.  In the 21st, our challenge is to continue to feed all 6.7 billion of us (or whatever the number is these days) but to do so in a sustainable manner, conserving resources.  In Locavore: From Farmers’ Fields to Rooftop Gardens – How Canadians Are Changing the Way We Eat by Sarah Elton, Elton explains the issue in her introduction:

The way we eat today is not sustainable.  In the years since the Second World War, we have industrialized the practice of farming around the world and created a polluting food system that is dependent on fossil fuels.  On the farm, we use machines powered by oil and gas, instead of human muscle and horses, to work the land and to irrigate it too.  The good news is that technology has allowed farmers to reap high returns per hour of labour they spend in the fields, which has meant a huge improvement in standard of living of all of us.  We’ve been freed as a society from the drudgery and poverty of subsistence farming that was the reality of life for so many Canadians over the centuries.  A farmer today is able to produce, per hour of labour, 350 times more than a First Nations farmer would have on the same North American soils.  To live free from subsistence farming is undeniably a good thing.  However, to support this way of farming, we use natural gas to make fertilizer to treat the soil so we can plant the vast monocultures – only one crop planted over acres and acres – that epitomizes large-scale agriculture.  These monocrops are more susceptible to pests, so we then make pesticides from oil to kill the insects.  Then we continue to use our precious resources to irrigate, transport, and process the crops. (P. 11-12)

Elton has written as fascinating survey of agriculture in Canada at the start of the Twenty First Century that is refreshingly reasonable and well-balanced.  Divided into two equally fascinating sections, the first dealing with the rural farmers, the second with consumers in the city, Elton managers to remain optimistic as she considers the struggles both groups face in the name of sustainable agriculture.  The farming section is, as was to be expected, the most depressing.  Most farmers in Canada are nearing or past retirement age with no children to succeed them on family farms often mired in debt.  Profit, if there is any, is usually minute, a lesson I learned well at University: my housemate started an agro-tourism business on his family farm while in high school and within two years it was generating more revenue than the cattle business they’d been running for generations.  It’s sad that farmers, so vital to our survival, can’t make a decent wage but then it’s a global market and the reality is you’re competing for supermarket contracts with overseas producers who pay their labour pennies a day.  What I loved was that Elton’s answer to this question – not so much hers as the farmers she interviews – wasn’t to subsidize farmers; it was to find new ways of distributing the yield and cutting out the middlemen who push the wholesale costs down so low.  Farmers’ markets, local co-op stands or shops, CSA boxes, agreements between farmers and city restaurants…there are so many creative and productive options available that have been successful all across the country, in some cases for decades.   

Elton also takes on the myth of food miles, the belief that eating something that was grown close to where you bought it is more efficient than eating something that was produced further away and shipped in because of the energy consumed in the transportation.  I absolutely agree that it’s more intelligent to eat a carrot or a potato grown near you than one shipped in from California or Idaho.  But are we going to give up eating bananas, or any number of delicious fruits, vegetables, and spices that have become a normal part of our diet over the last decades because we can’t grow them in our harsh climate?   Elton takes a wonderfully level-headed approach to the question: 

We don’t have to abandon coffee, chocolate and spices to support a new food system.  Rather, the ideal of a strong local food economy is to eat good, healthy food that is produced with the least environmental impact.  This usually means food that is produced nearby, but includes imports that are produced and transported sustainably. (P. 15)

Growing bananas in South America and shipping them north makes infinitely more sense than trying to replicate the South American climate in greenhouses across Canada.  The focus, really, should be not on eating what is produced locally but what is produced and transported efficiently.  In some cases that will mean eating what is local, in others what is imported:

Despite the prevalent belief that food grown closer to where it is eaten is better for the environment, food miles are not the best way to measure sustainability.  In fact, it can often take fewer kilocalories to grow food and ship it great distances to where it is eaten than it takes for a local farmer to truck food to a nearby market.  Because local doesn’t trump sustainable, the way we grow our food in Canada therefore must change too. (P. 14)

I thoroughly enjoyed Locavore. While I found the first section of the book the most fascinating, the second half dealing with city dwellers was equally well done, though I haven’t discussed it much here.  Given that this is a topic I’ve been interested in for years (mostly because it was one that interested my family – both of my father’s sets of grandparents were farmers and at university he was a rural land use major) it’s not a surprise that I was so engaged throughout the book.  However, it’s also a book that I would not hesitate to pass on to my only vaguely interested friends – both Canadian and foreign, since the issues facing Canada are the same ones facing most Western nations.  Elton’s journalist approach to her topic, her graceful and engaging weaving of interviews and statistics, both educates and entertains.  Indeed, I am certain that at least one person I know will probably receive this for Christmas!  

And, for anyone wondering how we can move forward towards a more sustainable model, here’s Elton’s conclusion:

On the farm, we need to move towards a holistic understanding of agriculture that takes its cues from nature, supports biodiversity and relies less and less on fossil fuels.  Farmers must make a living wage and be respected for their work, something achieved by rehumanizing the food chain and connecting farmers with consumers through farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture while at the same time developing new supply chains for institutions such as universities and hospitals.  When devising our new food system, we need not dwell on the past and replicate subsistence agriculture.  Instead, we can push forward to fashion something new and innovative, using our technology and our imagination to design energy-efficient greenhouses and other novel ways of producing food.

In the city, we need to grow some of what we eat and figure out how to incorporate food production into the metropolis.  By connecting with the food chain, and eating well, we will be more likely to experience a cultural shift and watch a gastronomy of place take hold. (P. 209)

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Is there anything more fascinating than the end of the world or, at the very least, society as we know it?  I’ve loved apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction ever since my father first handed me an old, beaten up copy of Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle when I was thirteen or fourteen.  Part of the reason I’m drawn to Douglas Coupland is because he seems to share this fascination: he’s certainly touched on it in several of his previous novels and with Player One: What Is to Become of Us it takes center stage.

A story told in five hours, from five perspectives (though only four characters), Player One contains a typical Coupland assortment of oddballs and losers trapped in a suitably bleak airport hotel cocktail lounge.  Even at the best of times, is there anywhere more depressing than the hub of soulless hotels, restaurants, and bars that encircle any modern airport?  Having found myself trapped repeatedly in these places, I know only too well the loss of identity that a traveler can feel surrounded by inoffensive, forgettable décor, remarkable only for its complete lack of distinguishing characteristics.  And that is where our main characters, supplemented by several welcome and unwelcome visitors, find themselves as the world as they know it comes to an end.

Trapped inside the lounge are Karen, a single mother who flew in to Toronto to meet a man she met online in a Peak Oil Apocalypse chat room; Rick, the lounge bartender and alcoholic; Luke, a pastor who stole his congregation’s savings and fled; and Rachel, also known as Player One, a teenage Hitchcock-esque blonde incapable of normal human interaction, determined to get pregnant to prove her humanity.  They’re a strange lot and it is through their eyes that we witness a rather eventful five hours as oil prices hit unimaginable heights and society, as a result, descends into anarchy.  I am incredibly appreciative that the crisis is economic rather than a more clichéd catastrophic natural disaster or act of war/terrorism. 

The novel, perhaps disappointingly for some, doesn’t have that much to do with the chaos happening outside the lounge.  Trapped inside, the characters ponder many things – including human identity, religion, ethics, and the afterlife – little of which have much to do with their new reality.  It’s an interesting character study and I was fully engaged while I was reading it, particularly with the strange but wonderful Rachel.  Perhaps the most interesting question raised was ‘what is it to be human?’  Given that this was written for the Massey Lectures, the entire point of which is the discussion of ideas, I say that it was a success as even now, weeks after finishing the book, I’m still pondering some of the questions it raised. 

Coupland clearly has an idea of what this new world will look like, where oil will never go below $350 a barrel, as he has created a complete glossary or “Future Legend” for the New Normal.  With such a complex vision of what the future will look like, it seems strange that it’s merely tacked onto the end.  This is where the creativity went, this is where his imagination ran wild, not in the body of the text but in the appendix.  I find that both strange and wonderful.  Strange because I would have loved to have read more about the evolution of this New Normal but wonderful because it’s just barely sketched out for us and each reader can imagine it for him or herself. 

In fact, Coupland seems to have been busy writing glossaries/guides lately: The Globe and Mail recently published his “A Radical Pessimist’s Guide to the Next 10 Years”, which is as fascinating, and plausible, as it is pessimistic. 

Many thanks to Trish at House of Anansi Press for sending me a copy of Player One to review after I’d expressed an interest in my Giller Prize Longlist post.  The time between when my post went up and when I got her email (less than 12 hours) was particularly impressive – if only I could be so prompt with my reviews!

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