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Archive for the ‘Read East 2011’ Category

credit: Horia Varlan (flickr)

Retrospective posts seem to be going up on blogs everywhere as 2011 draws to a close.  I have been loving the many 2011 favourites lists, which making for some excellent and very tempting reading.  My list is a few days off, both because I’m finishing off a book that might very well make it on and because I find it excruciatingly difficult to pass judgement on the many wonderful books I’ve read.  I’ll draft a list one day and then come back the next and wonder what I was thinking; how could I have though ——– was worthy of the list?  How could I have excluded ———?  List making is serious business, a delicate art rather than science, and I have some difficult choices ahead of me.

Less challenging, thankfully, is recapping the challenges I participated in this year (excluding the Canadian Book Challenge 4, which wrapped up at the end of June): the Victorian Literature Challenge and the Eastern European Reading Challenge.

My goal for the Victorian Literature Challenge was to read between 5 and 9 books.  I had an enormous amount of fun coming up with a book list for this challenge and then promptly ignored all Victorian lit for several months.  As usual when I spend hours making a reading list for a challenge, I ended up reading almost nothing from it.  It took me until April to get started on the challenge, with a wonderful reread of Wives and Daughters, one of my all-time favourite books.  I then read Agnes Grey and, in Anne, finally found a Brontë sister whose work I can enjoy.  I tried Mrs Oliphant for the first time, reading her novellas The Rector and The Doctor’s Family, and was not particularly won over (though listening to the BBC radio dramatization of Miss Marjoribanks this autumn has made me wonder if I shouldn’t give Oliphant another chance).  And, most wonderfully of all, I finally discovered Trollope.  I enjoyed The Warden but fell completely in love with The American Senator.  Reading Trollope has truly been one of the delights of 2011 and, having now amassed a considerable collection of his novels, I plan to continue my enjoyment in 2012 (and, most likely, every year after, reading and then rereading).

Here is the list of what I read for this challenge, with snippets from each review:

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (highly recommended)
“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…”

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
“This is not an affectionate portrayal of the life of a governess. It stresses the isolation Agnes feels in the households where she is employed, how powerless she is in dealing with both the children and the adults but, generally, it is by no means a dreary book. If anything, it attempts to cover too many things in too few pages, turning this into a book crammed with wit, romance, a shocking amount of moralizing (usually expressed with some painfully affected writing), and some rather heavy themes (isolation and oppression being the two main ones). It is an interesting but confusing mix.”

The American Senator by Anthony Trollope (highly recommended)
“After reading The American Senator by Anthony Trollope, I am now certain that Trollope will become one of my favourite authors. I had suspected as much before but, now that I have finally read him, I know. So chatty, so funny, so detailed, so entertaining – this book was everything that a book should be!”

The Rector and The Doctor’s Family by Margaret Oliphant
“I found Oliphant’s writing style unmemorable and uneven, with some quite clever passages followed by pages and pages of dull plodding stuff, and her tendency to moralize reminiscent of all those lesser Victorian novelists who rely on sentiment rather than skill.”

The Warden by Anthony Trollope
“What I particularly loved about The Warden were Trollope’s descriptive passages. Most of these were mere tangents to the main plot, with Trollope poking fun at newspaper men, politicians, clergymen, lovers, spouses…really anyone and everyone who could possibly be woven into the story however remotely, but they had me giggling away throughout the book. It is these passages that allow the observant, witty narrator to establish himself as the most entertaining character of all.”

And then there was the Eastern European Reading Challenge.  My aim was to read 12 books either by authors from or set in Eastern Europe.  Considering the generous definition of ‘Eastern’ (here, “Eastern Bloc” countries are all considered Eastern, regardless of their actual geographic orientation), I thought this would be a breeze.  It really just seemed like a challenge tailor made to encourage me to read more Czech literature, history, and biographies, maybe with a dash over to Russia or Hungary for a bit of variety.  Again, there was a delightful book list made to start things off and, again, I ended up reading very little from it (3 titles, somewhat better than the 1 I managed from the Victorian lit list).  I started off well but then read nothing for the challenge between June and November.  Whoops.  Readers may have noticed a flood of reviews over the last few weeks of Eastern European titles in my desperate attempt to catch up and meet my targeted 12.  But with only a few days left in 2011 and mountains of other, non-Eastern European books that I’m eager to read, I am officially admitting defeat and calling it quits at 11 books.  Though it was hectic towards the end, I had an amazing time with this challenge.  I ventured well outside of my comfort zone and found some absolute delights on my journey (The Snows of Yesteryear, The Gardener’s Year, Skylark, and Prague Tales stand out – several of which are currently in competition for spots on my Best of 2011 list).  This challenge did absolutely what a challenge is meant to do: it expanded my horizons as a reader, enriching my life by introducing me to the unfamiliar.

Here are the 11 (sadly, not 12) books I read:

A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova
“…a good but certainly not great memoir of Gorkhova’s life growing up in St. Petersburg during the 1960s and 1970s. Gorokhova is charming and at times quite engaging; overall, it was a pleasant but not particularly special or memorable reading experience.”

The Snows of Yesteryear by Gregor von Rezzori (highly recommended)
“Strictly speaking, yes, this is a memoir but really it is von Rezzori telling the life stories of those who surrounded him in his childhood and adolescence. He is their biographer but also our subject. Through portraits of five others – his nurse, his mother, his father, his sister, and his governess – von Rezzori tells the story of his family and his early life, a strangely rootless existence begun in Czernowitz (in Austria-Hungary) in 1914. His homeland eventually became part of Romania and von Rezzori seems to have accepted and love his new country though he was ethnically anything but Romanian.”

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.”

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.”

The Gardener’s Year by Karel Čapek (highly recommended)
“Even new as I am to the obsession, my own recent gardening plights, the missteps and mistakes that were weighing heavily on my soul, were perfectly echoed by Čapek, as though he had been in the garden witnessing my incompetence only a few days previously…”

The Legends of Prague by František Langer
“While these stories are definitely friendlier and less bloodthirsty than the ones I adored as a child, they are still captivating and delightful. And they do what any book about Prague should do: bring the magic of that city to life, allowing the reader, regardless of age, to take as a matter of fact that normal Praguers share drinks with known water sprites and headless horsemen, that statues act as godparents, and that saints still shape the city as they wish to see it, regardless of the bureaucrats’ intentions. Because if it could happen anywhere, it would be there…”

Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi (highly recommended)
“When the Vakjay’s beloved, spinster daughter Skylark leaves for a week to visit relatives, Mother and Father don’t know quite what to do with themselves. Their lives revolve around their much loved, ugly, dull daughter and in her absence they find themselves doing the most unexpected things. They dine out, reconnect with old friends and make new ones, go to the theatre, and Father even attends one of the Panther drinking club’s infamous Thursday nights (which all of Friday is needed to recover from). It is an inversion of the classic plot of children running wild once adult authority and supervision is removed, but here it is Skylark, the child, whose mild, loving attentions and constant presence at home restricts her parents.”

Sunflower by Gyula Krúdy
“…a strange, strange novel and not in a particularly endearing way. If I hadn’t been reading it for the Eastern European Reading Challenge, I’m not sure I would have stuck with it until the end. It confirmed all of my family’s most dearly held prejudices against Hungarians. Here, they are the dramatic, suicidal, alcoholic, crazy, passionate and rather obsessive eccentrics I have been forever warned about and yet are sadly uninteresting.”

How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulić (highly recommended)
“Although this was written twenty years ago, I was astonished by how informative I found it, how many of the essays brought new details to my attention that have never been mentioned in the histories or even memoirs that I’ve read covering the same area during the same time period. I may be astonished by that, but Drakulić would not be. She knows that the lives and stories she is concerned with, those of normal, unexceptional women, are the ones most easily ignored and most quickly forgotten. And yet by lacking any kind of political power, they were the ones whose lives most clearly mirrored the politics of the day…”

Café Europa by Slavenka Drakulić
“Here, the essays are more cynical, more disappointed, written in the mid-90s when Drakulić was clearly frustrated by the lack of change in post-communist Europe. The governments may have changed but people’s attitudes have not. Whether it is people lying to and cheating the customs officials or the widespread apathy when a democratic government behaves with the arrogance and secrecy of a communist one, citizens mourning a dictator or Bulgarians grudgingly providing customer ‘service’ with a grimace rather than a smile, Drakulić’s observations are always intelligent and absorbingly personal.”

Prague Tales by Jan Neruda (highly recommended)
“All set in the Malá Strana district of Prague…the stories were originally written in the 1860s and 1870s before being collected and published together in Czech in 1878. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect before I started reading. Neruda is primarily remembered as a poet and these are certainly not what I would expect from a poet. Tender and sharp, witty and sympathetic, each story reveals Neruda’s skill as a realist.”

I truly loved my reading challenges for 2011, despite a few issues along the way, and am now in the midst of trying to decide what to join for 2012.  The Eastern European Reading Challenge is being continued so that is a definite option but I do also like the idea of trying something new.  If you’re participating in or are hosting any challenges next year that you think I might be interested in, please let me know!

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"Zlata Ulicka in Winter, Prague" by T.F. Simon

I may be on holiday this week but I’m busier than ever, finishing up my Christmas tasks and getting together with all my friends who are briefly back in town for the holidays.  All I want to do now is curl up with a nice, long book (specifically, Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope) but with so many things going on (most recently, acting as shopping assistant for those with no idea of what to buy other family members and who are only just realising this with a few short shopping days left), this does not seem the time to savour that most fondly anticipated book.  No, it is clearly a time for short stories and essays, pieces that can be read quickly in the gaps between my other activities.

Following on from How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (which I loved), I picked up Café Europa by Slavenka DrakulićThis volume of essays focuses on post-communist life in Eastern Europe.  The book’s tone is very different from How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, which, as the title suggests, generally focused on the positives, on triumphs rather than failures.  Here, the essays are more cynical, more disappointed, written in the mid-90s when Drakulić was clearly frustrated by the lack of change in post-communist Europe.  The governments may have changed but people’s attitudes have not.  Whether it is people lying to and cheating the customs officials or the widespread apathy when a democratic government behaves with the arrogance and secrecy of a communist one, citizens mourning a dictator or Bulgarians grudgingly providing customer ‘service’ with a grimace rather than a smile, Drakulić’s observations are always intelligent and absorbingly personal.  She is not a disinterested observer but one who is deeply engaged with her subjects, often guilty of the very behaviours she believes are holding back these countries’ progress.  These are essays about nations and people trying to find their place in the world and, especially, in Europe, a place that only a few years before seemed impossibly glamourous and incredibly foreign to all they knew and had experienced.  I was most touched by Drakulić’s frustration at constantly being treated like a second-class citizen when abroad, coming up against the stereotype of Eastern Europeans as poor and dirty, cheats and thieves.

From there, I moved on to Prague Tales by Jan Neruda, which was perfect in almost every way.  I adored this book and couldn’t bear to put it down.   For one day at least I ignored all the other calls for my attention and read this straight through, even though I had picked it up specifically because it was a volume of stories that could be read in bursts.  There are 13 tales, varying in length from only a few pages to the 100-page long novellas “A Week in a Quiet House” and “Figures”, which bookend the volume.  All set in the Malá Strana district of Prague (coincidentally, my favourite part of the city), the stories were originally written in the 1860s and 1870s before being collected and published together in Czech in 1878.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect before I started reading.  Neruda is primarily remembered as a poet and these are certainly not what I would expect from a poet.  Tender and sharp, witty and sympathetic, each story reveals Neruda’s skill as a realist.  There are simply, brilliantly told everyday tragedies (“A Beggar Brought to Ruin” and “How Mr Vorel Broke In His Meerschaum”), a rather eerie tale of passion (“The Three Lilies”, the story that inspired Pablo Neruda to adopt his pen-name), wonderful comedies (particularly “How It Came to Pass”, about the ill-fated plans of several schoolboys to overthrown their Austrian rulers) and excellent domestic dramas dealing with the intertwined lives of neighbours (“A Week in a Quiet House” and “Figures”).  What is particularly striking is how different the tone is from anything that was being written in English at the same time.  There is a clarity and crispness to his prose, as well as a confidently satirical style, that reminds me more of books written in the 1920s and 1930s.  It is no surprise to find that Karel Čapek used Neruda as a model.  Neruda was also a passionate Czech nationalist.  At the time he was writing, German was the language of business and literature, of serious people, while Czech was left to the peasants.  It is fascinating to read the many comments in these stories relating to that, whether it be a manager demanding his employees cease speaking Czech in the office (our rebellious young narrator refusing to: “I speak Czech long and loudly.  My colleagues avoid me like the plague”) or a group of soldiers chatting away about a visit to the Czech theatre, which was performing a German play.    I cannot praise this book highly enough and my only concern now is how to obtain a copy of my own (having read a borrowed copy from the library).

After being so delighted by Prague Tales, I decided to move on to something very different, since any other fiction book would do poorly in comparison.  Facts Are Subversive by Timothy Garton Ash seemed an excellent contrast, a collection of political essays written between 1 January 2000 and 31 December 2009.  With sections devoted to still-evolving Eastern European countries, the idea of Europe itself as a collective (including the excellent “The Perfect EU Member”, an entertaining argument for why Canada represents the EU ideal), Islam, the US (with a historically fascinating essay written directly after 11 September 2001 outlining what Garton Ash saw as the US’s options at the time), Asia, as well as essays on specific writers, books, and films, there is more than enough variety here to choose from.  I did pick and choose somewhat, skipping a few of the essays that appealed to me the least or which I had already read when first published.  I particularly enjoyed “The Brown Grass of Memory”, Garton Ash’s response to Günter Grass’s Peeling the Onion.

And then, feeling the need for something light, I picked up Jane Austen Made Me Do It edited by Laurel Ann Nattress (of Austenprose) and promptly wished I hadn’t.  A collection of stories inspired by Jane Austen, I found only a handful of these to be worth reading and my enjoyment of those few was certainly hampered by having to wade through the others to get at them.

I’ve now worked through all the volumes of short stories and essays I had out from the library and find myself longing for a good novel or biography, something cohesive.  So on I go, to read about Tommy Douglas and finally try Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, knowing that at the end of this week, with my commitments filled and these two short books most likely finished, I will be able to pick up Trollope unhindered and escape into Barsetshire in time for Christmas.  What bliss!

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First published in English in 1992, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulić is an extraordinarily good collection of essays about women’s lives under and immediately after the end of communism in Eastern Europe.  Drakulić, a Croatian journalist and author, does an amazing job of presenting these deeply domestic glimpses into the lives of women and she and her personal experiences are very present in each essay.  Although this was written twenty years ago, I was astonished by how informative I found it, how many of the essays brought new details to my attention that have never been mentioned in the histories or even memoirs that I’ve read covering the same area during the same time period.  I may be astonished by that, but Drakulić would not be.  She knows that the lives and stories she is concerned with, those of normal, unexceptional women, are the ones most easily ignored and most quickly forgotten.  And yet by lacking any kind of political power, they were the ones whose lives most clearly mirrored the politics of the day:

Growing up in Eastern Europe you learn very young that politics is not an abstract concept, but a powerful force influencing people’s everyday lives.  It was this relationship between political authority and the trivia of daily living, this view from below, that interested me most.  And who should I find down there, more removed from the seats of political power, but women.  The biggest burden of everyday life was carried by them.  Even if they fully participated in revolutionary events, they were less active and less visible in the aftermath of those events.

After the revolutions women still didn’t have time to be involved; they still distrusted politics.  At the same time, they deluded themselves that the new democracies would give them the opportunity to stay at home and perhaps rest for a while.  There was something else, too: somebody had to take responsibility for finding food and cooking meals, a task made no easier – indeed, in some countries made more difficult – by the political changeover.

Women’s lives, by no means spectacular, banal in fact, say as much about politics as no end of theoretical political analysis.  (“The Trivial is Political”)

All of the essays are fascinating.  The most political of the essays – “A Chat with My Censors”, for instance, which recounts how Drakulić’s state censor asked to meet for a friendly chat, making no threats but terrifying her merely by announcing his presence – are important and insightful but, for my part, I found the essays that dealt with the day-to-day details of life of the most interest.  “Make Up and Other Questions” discusses fashion and cosmetics and their importance and scarcity in communist countries, where vanity items are deemed worthless for its equal citizens and so not widely produced.  Fashion, as a joyous thing, a celebration of individual style and perspective, does not exist here:

To avoid uniformity, you have to work very hard: you have to bribe a salesgirl, wait in line for some imported product, buy bluejeans on the black market and pay your whole month’s salary for them; you have to hoard cloth and sew it, imitating the pictures in glamourous foreign magazines.  What makes these enormous efforts touching is the way women wear it all, so you can tell they went to the trouble.  Nothing is casual about them.  They are over-dressed, they put on too much make-up, they match colours and textures badly, revealing their provincial attempt to imitate Western fashion.  But where could they learn anything about a self-image, a style?  In the party-controlled magazines for women, where they are instructed to be good workers and party members first, then mothers, housewives, and sex objects next, – never themselves?  To be yourself, to cultivate individualism, to perceive yourself as an individual in a mass society is dangerous.  You might become living proof that the system is failing.  Make-up and fashion are crucial because they are political.

Sometimes the simplest essays are the best, like “On Doing Laundry”, reflecting on how that most mundane task has and has not changed over the decades and through the transition from communist government to democracy.  And of course, the almost farcical “The Strange Ability of Apartments to Divide and Multiply”, on the complex maneuverings each growing, shrinking, aging, or divorcing family went through during the housing shortage.

Then there are the essays on viewing the outside world through communist eyes.  Of course, she always buys western goods when abroad and takes them back to friends and family (most disturbingly, distributing tampons throughout Central Europe where feminine products of any kind were impossible to obtain) and there is the hoarding instinct that comes to the front when exposed to unlimited goods at unheard of prices, whether that item be needed or not (“Some Doubts on Fur Coats”).  But there are also upsetting things about the West, about capitalism, and “A Communist Eye, or What Did I See in New York” is an interesting reflection of that.  In New York, Drakulić is shocked and disturbed by all the beggars and homeless people, having grown up in a country where, excepting Gypsies, that was unheard of:

Caught between two sets of values, one where beggars are not allowed at all, and the other where beggars are the consequence of capitalism, we simply are not sure how to deal with them.

Each essay had something insightful or entertaining to offer.  Overall, a incredibly powerful, engagingly written, important book, presenting fascinating glimpses into the recent past.

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A few brief reviews to help work through some of my backlog before the end of the year!

Sunflower by Gyula Krúdy is a strange, strange novel and not in a particularly endearing way.  If I hadn’t been reading it for the Eastern European Reading Challenge, I’m not sure I would have stuck with it until the end.  It confirmed all of my family’s most dearly held prejudices against Hungarians.  Here, they are the dramatic, suicidal, alcoholic, crazy, passionate and rather obsessive eccentrics I have been forever warned about and yet are sadly uninteresting.  There are ghosts, an apparently endless supply of adulterous women, plenty of amorous men, a noble, upright country gentleman whose male ancestors going back one century have all committed suicide for love of a woman…all very peculiar.  And the book is mostly concerned with character portraits of these odd people (which turn into multipage monologues, frequently describing past conquests or erotic fantasies) rather than structuring any kind of solid plot around them.  Usually, that wouldn’t be a problem but here it just didn’t work for me.  There were numerous passages where I loved the writing but just as many where I found it frustrating.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr, which I first heard about from Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust to Go.  Doerr was the recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Rome prize, which awards the winner a stipend of $1,300 US a month, an apartment, and a studio in Rome for a year.  With six-month old twins and an exhausted wife in tow, Doerr moves from Boise, Idaho to Rome.

The wonder of this book is Doerr’s beautiful way of describing the details of his deeply domestic Roman life:

Every time I turn around here, I witness a miracle: wisteria pours up walls; slices of sky show through the high arches of a bell tower; water leaks nonstop from the spouts of a half-sunken marble boat in the Piazza di Spagna.  A church floor looks soft as flesh; the skin from a ball of mozzarella cheese tastes rich enough to change my life.

Work on the novel Doerr had planned does not go well and though I usually love reading about an author’s writing process, I found these passages tedious.  They seemed such a waste of space when Doerr excels at writing about the amazing city he finds himself in and the adventure of raising twins.  I particularly loved his comments on how Romans adored and fussed over his babies:

Try this sometime: Park a stroller in the shade in Rome in the winter.  Within a minute an Italian mother will stop.  ‘They must be put in the sun,’ she’ll say.  Once a pair of ladies took the stroller out of my hands and wheeled it thirty feet across a piazza and positioned it themselves.

I finished it desperate to run away to Rome.

In a similar vein, I also enjoyed I’ll Never Be French (no matter what I do) by Mark Greenside.  In his late forties, Greenside, an American writer, went on holiday with a girlfriend to Brittany.  The relationship didn’t last even the length of the trip but Greenside fell in love with the tiny village where they had been staying.  Despite speaking no French and having no money, he soon finds himself, with his mother’s help, the owner of small house in the village, which he lives in when not working in America and rents out the rest of the time.  The memoir touches on some of his experiences in Brittany over the years, mostly focusing on the kindness of those who Greenside interacts with and how he is humbled by his new circumstances, as an Anglophone in France, an American in Europe, and a clueless first-time homeowner.

And when it comes to reading about far away places, though Italy and France may be deemed more romantic, there is something just as alluring about Oxford, which is why I picked up Oxford Revisited by Justin Cartwright, a slim volume which mixes Cartwright’s personal memories with a very interesting history of the university.  He touches on delightfully random topics, from the tutorial system to bee-keeping, and is full of quotes from and reminders of Oxford’s more famous graduates.  And I love how affectionately Cartwright views the university:

From the moment I arrived at Trinity College in the mid-sixties, I was in love with Oxford.  It plumped up my dry colonial heart; I loved the first autumn term, the darkness, gowned figures on bicycles, crumpets after rugby, the pale – although not very numerous – girls, the extraordinary buildings and the water running through and around the town.  I felt as though I had always known the place, or some simulacrum of it, in another or parallel life.

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One of the joys of being a book blogger is being aware of such a huge variety of titles.  I must read or at least skim reviews for a hundred different books every week, an alarming number of which go straight onto my TBR list.  And I find that really exciting but, at the same time, being well-educated about a book before reading it means that I’m rarely surprised by what I read.  I’m used to enjoying and appreciating books but I can usually anticipate how I’m going to feel well before I start the book, just based on what certain other bloggers have thought of it.  There’s a comfort to that and it never impairs my enjoyment as a reader but I sometimes miss the sheer delight of starting a wonderful book and finding it to be not at all what I had expected.  Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi was just that dash of unexpected brilliance that I’ve been missing lately.  Ironically, for someone who has been going on about loving surprises, this review is full of spoilers.  Be warned.

It is September 1899 in Sárszeg, an unexceptional town in the heart of Austria-Hungary (modeled on Subotica, Kosztolányi’s hometown in what is now Serbia). When the Vakjay’s beloved, spinster daughter Skylark leaves for a week to visit relatives, Mother and Father don’t know quite what to do with themselves.  Their lives revolve around their much loved, ugly, dull daughter and in her absence they find themselves doing the most unexpected things.  They dine out, reconnect with old friends and make new ones, go to the theatre, and Father even attends one of the Panther drinking club’s infamous Thursday nights (which all of Friday is needed to recover from).  It is an inversion of the classic plot of children running wild once adult authority and supervision is removed, but here it is Skylark, the child, whose mild, loving attentions and constant presence at home restricts her parents.

Mother and Father’s adventures are delightfully and very humourously told, particularly the antics of the Panther club and its intoxicated members.  From the moment of Skylark’s departure one Friday to the morning of her return the next, the novel is a charming comedy.  Mother and Father are astonished and intrigued by the love affairs of local actors, amazed by the delicious restaurant food (very different than the light, unspiced, but healthful food Skylark cheerfully prepares at home), and energized by their interactions with the townsfolk.  And through all this, their reactions are wonderful to behold.  No acquaintance goes without comment, no revelation without a full and wondrous appreciativeness.  And the Vakjays are such likeable people that you can’t help but adore them and rejoice with them in their enjoyment.  But they are simple people who for years have had just one simple wish: to see their daughter married.  Every unattached male in town presents a possibility and their hatred of one who once, by walking Skylark home nine years before, briefly gave them cause to hope is complete – and serves as an amusing insight into the Vakjay’s aspirations for Skylark:

He had at one time undoubtedly met with the Vajkay’s highest approval.  They could never have wished their daughter a more appropriate suitor.  They had always dreamed of a decent, homely type who’d wear unironed broadcloth trousers and a painfully knitted brow; who’d sweat a little and blush when he spoke.

But Skylark is now thirty-five, unmarried, and uglier than ever.  For years, the family has gone along, hoping and praying and never speaking of the thing that troubles them most, but finally, in Skylark’s absence, Father stumbles home after a night drinking and unleashes his true feelings, his full anguish to Mother.  Without meaning to, their ugly, unremarkable daughter has drained the joy out of their lives and certainly out of her own.  They have become used to keeping to themselves, eating always at home, and rarely going out to public places, convincing themselves they don’t want to when the truth is that it is painful and embarrassing for Skylark to go.  They all have suffered years and years of disappointments, hoping desperately that someone might come along to marry Skylark, knowing she’s too ugly for anyone to really want to.  And each year her future seems even more grim:

‘Do you know how much she’s suffered?  Only I know that, with this father’s heart of mine.  What with one thing and another.  The continual whispering behind her back, the laughter, the scorn, the humiliation.  And we too, Mother, how much have we suffered?  We waited one year, two years, hoping, as time passed by.  We believed it was all a matter of chance.  We told ourselves things would get better.  But they only got worse.  Worse and worse.’

So, though the Vakjays love their daughter, it is only with her away that they can forget their worries, can live for themselves and indulge in their pleasures without feeling guilty for poor, lonely Skylark.

The situation is so frustrating because no one is truly at fault.  Skylark can hardly be blamed for being ugly or for wanting to stay among family when she knows how strangers and townspeople react to her appearance.  And her parents, who love her above all things, want to make her comfortable and happy, to let her know that she is loved and cherished by them at least.  So they allow themselves to be pulled into this relatively isolated way of life.  Even when Skylark returns, there’s the assumption that their adventures while she was gone will remain secret.  Skylark is helpful and loving, always trying to please everyone and help in any way she can – she is no despot who would ask them to give up the things they love.  Her parents do it willingly, out of love.

The final brilliance of this novel is the switch in the very last scene to Skylark’s perspective.  The rest of the novel is focused on the senior Vakjays, particularly Skylark’s father, and, as I said before, it is generally quite comedic.  But Skylark, even when absent, was always the focus.  The contrast of the week she’s spent against her parents’, of her thoughts once home against her parents’ incandescent joy at having her back is heartbreaking and absolutely the perfect way to end this novel, leaving the reader with as much love for Skylark as for her parents.

Skylark is a novel of rare emotional intelligence, perfectly balancing humour with everyday tragedy.  So many of the novels about spinsters (and there are many, especially if you’re a Virago fan) focus on the woman herself and, honestly, I’ve not ever had a lot of success with those books.  They always seem to have heroines who are subservient to their family’s demands and who meekly try to be of use.  Skylark is useful, yes, but she’s also adored, cherished, and at the very centre of her family.  She seems a world away from those other women and it seems so much more realistic that her problems, her disappointments are as much hers as they are her parents.  Because what is a parent if not the person who loves and cares for you the most, who wants to give you only the happiest of endings and who feels despair and guilt when that does not come?

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When I was a child, my grandmother brought me back The Legends of Prague by František Langer when she returned from one of her trips toPrague.  Though she had been telling me Czech myths and legends for years, this was the first time I had seen any written down – and in English no less!  But while I loved to look at Cyril Bouda’s spirited illustrations, I rarely read the stories themselves.  After all, I had a real live storyteller at my disposal for years – what did I need a book for?  But ever since I was back in Prague this September I’ve been thinking of all the beautiful books I saw in the stores there, full of the country’s beloved fairy tales and legends, all of which were in Czech.  There is nothing more frustrating that spotting a book you want to read but not having the education to be able to do so.  Since I’m not likely to suddenly learn Czech, I decided to seek out for the first time in years this slim childhood book with its eight lovingly told legends.

It has been years since my babi used to terrify me with tales of the Vltava’s vicious water sprites but I have never forgotten them.  So I was rather surprised when the book began with a trio of quite friendly water sprites.  Now, most water sprites are a bit sinister, just waiting for children or fishermen to flounder in the water (occasionally helping them along the way) so that they can then collect the souls of the drowned.  Not so these gentlemen.  All three featured sprites save rather than take lives and even enjoy communing with other Praguers on dry land in local pubs, theatres, and tobacconists.  After hundreds or thousands of years in the river, all three also decamp to dry land, taking up more conventional jobs and assuming roles as pillars of their communities.  The stories are very nice and charming, and really quite funny but there is something very wrong with kindly water sprites!  I did love the third tale, of the water sprite Mr. Henry, who has spent two thousand years accumulating a vast library in his underwater home, preferring to sit and read his books rather than do his appointed work (his wife is deeply unimpressed with such delinquent behaviour).

These are modern legends, the author having realised that “if I myself did not take a hand in the creation of folklore” the many worthy stories “would be interpreted for all times in the most implausible manner or, at least, in a way unworthy of…old Prague.”  Originally published in 1956, they deal with events that are said to have taken place in the relatively recent past: from the 1840s to the 1940s.   St Ludmila worries about ugly war memorials being erected in front of her church, the children of Prague find and hide away the St Wenceslaus sword from the occupying Germans, and one of the stone godfathers of Charles Bridge watches proudly as his goddaughter becomes a heroine of the 1848 uprising.

A note of explanation about these stone godfathers: as the citizens of the island of Kampa have sworn to maintain Charles Bridge, so have the statues on the bridge sworn to look over the children of the island.  Each time one is born, one of the statue figures assumes the unknown role of godfather, looking after the child throughout his or her life from afar.  There is the strong litter carrier whose godson becomes a champion weight lifter.  There is the Turk whose ensures that not only his godson but his godson’s descendents are well provided for.  And then there is the brave knight who is horrified to find himself godfather to a little girl.  A little girl who grows up into an unremarkable young woman who works at the dye works until, bringing despair to her godfather each time he sees her until one day, during the 1848 uprising she shows unexpected bravery when delivery food to the student fighters, rallying the flagging legion who would otherwise have been overrun by Austrian troops.  Forever afterwards, even as the girl returns to a distinctly unmemorable domestic life, her godfather remains delighted with her, remembering the brief, pivotal moment when his legacy to her helped protect their beloved city:

He had a good view of her that time from his position and he was happy that when he could not himself descend from his pedestal to assist Prague, he was so ably represented by his godchild.  Whenever she passed over the bridge afterwards, his chest would swell with pride and he would raise his knightly sword in greeting and look boastfully about at the other statues.  Of course it was hardly likely anyone else would notice and, if they did, they would have been most surprised that he so highly honoured the wife of a stove-fitter, later a plump mother, who led her children over the bridge in mortal fear of them being run over by a horse and cart or a hackney cab.

The translation is a bit awkward at points but the stories still have a lovely flow to them.  All the legends are related in a very warm, confiding, conversational tone.  The stories from 1939 and 1940 are particularly patriotic and sentimental, reminding children that though the darkest days have not yet come (for, as everyone knows, in the darkest days St Wenceslaus and the Knights of Blanik will return to destroy the enemies of the Czech Lands) they must “grow well and grow strong and be of good stature so that you are brave and of firm resolve when your time comes.”  Oh yes, I teared up.  While these stories are definitely friendlier and less bloodthirsty than the ones I adored as a child, they captivating and delightful.  And they do what any book about Prague should do: bring the magic of that city to life, allowing the reader, regardless of age, to take as a matter of fact that normal Praguers share drinks with known water sprites and headless horsemen, that statues act as godparents, and that saints still shape the city as they wish to see it, regardless of the bureaucrats’ intentions.  Because if it could happen anywhere, it would be there:  “Do you understand? Prague is a vision, a dream, an enchantment.”

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I am slowly becoming a gardener.  As a child I always helped in the garden, always weeded and watered and fertilized as directed but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started taking an active interest in gardening.  Even when all I had was my little balcony in Calgary, how exciting it was to choose my plants!  To plant and care for them!  Even dead-heading became a sacred occupation, and I picked wilted petunia blossoms off with unrivalled discipline and care, snipped off browning roses with manic zeal.

And now that I have a real garden to work in – and a climate that doesn’t feel the need to have frosts in July and August – my enthusiasm has only grown, along with my anxiety.  I read The Gardener’s Year by Karel Čapek (a good Czech and friend of my great-grandfather and, yes, I’m bragging about that because it is pretty darn cool and I’ve relatively few connections to literary figures, aside from Alice Munro) in early June, just as the garden was coming to life and oh, what a perfect book and what a perfect time to read it!

The Gardener’s Year is a selection of humourous essays on a year in the life of a gardener.  It is very much about the gardener and his stresses and joys rather than the garden itself, which is what makes it so very enjoyable and timeless.  Even new as I am to the obsession, my own recent gardening plights, the missteps and mistakes that were weighing heavily on my soul, were perfectly echoed by Čapek, as though he had been in the garden witnessing my incompetence only a few days previously:

…nobody knows how it happens, but it occurs strikingly often that when you step on a bed to pick up some dry twig, or to pull out a dandelion, you usually tread on a shoot of the lily or trollius; it crunches under your foot, and you sicken with horror and shame; and you take yourself for a monster under whose hooves grass will not grow.  Or with infinite care you loosen the soil in a bed, with the inevitable result that you chop with the hoe a germinating bulb, or neatly cut off with the spade the sprouts of anemones; when, horrified, you start back, you crush with your paw a primula in flower, or break the young plume of a delphinium.  The more anxiously you work, the more damage you make; only years of practice will teach you the mysteries and bold certainty of a real gardener, who treads at random, and yet tramples on nothing; or if he does, at least he doesn’t mind. (p. 51)

As June has progresses and I’ve watched unusually savage rains beat the petals off my snapdragons and cosmos and cold snaps stunt my roses, I’ve often thought back on Čapek’s gardener’s prayer (and repeated it, to little effect):

If it were of any use, every day the gardener would fall on his knees and pray somehow like this: ‘O Lord, grant that in some way it may rain every day, say from about midnight until three o’clock in the morning, but, you see, it must be gentle and warm so that it can soak it; grant that at the same time it would not rain on campion, alyssum, helianthemum, lavender, and the others which you in your infinite wisdom know are drought-loving plants – I will write their names of a bit of paper if you like – and grant that the sun may shine the whole day long, but not everywhere (not, for instance, on spiraea, or on gentian, plantain lily, and rhododendron), and not too much; that there may be plenty of dew and little wind, enough worms, no plant lice and snails, no mildew, and that once a week thin liquid manure and guano may fall from heaven.  Amen.’ (p. 82-83)

The illustrations by Josef Čapek are no less delightful than the text, particularly the ones featuring the gardener as contortionist, hunched and bent and stretched entirely out of shape in order to service each unreachable corner of garden. 

Whether he’s lamenting the weather, lampooning the holidaying gardener’s instructions to his substitute or considering the traitorous and unpredictable nature of the garden hose, Čapek is always light-hearted, charming and, above all, affectionate.  He is able to recognize and brilliantly capture the ridiculous habits and mindsets of gardeners but he can only do it with such skill and accuracy because he is one himself and thinks as they think, feels as they feel.  Or, I suppose I should now say as a gardener, however amateur, as we think, as we feel:

Let no man think that real gardening is a bucolic and meditative occupation.  It is an insatiable passion, like everything else to which a man gives his heart. (p. 13)

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