Archive for the ‘Canadian Book Challenge 5’ Category

It’s July 1st, Canada Day, which means that another year of the Canadian Book Challenge is over – but also that a new one is beginning.  So before I start the delightful process of creating a book list for this year, which I know will give me endless hours of joy to research but which I will no doubt completely ignore when I start reading, it is time to recap the 22 books I read for the Canadian Book Challenge 5.

I actually read 4 of the books from last July’s book list, which is the highest compliance I have ever had with a challenge-themed reading list.  That was completely unintentional since I had forgotten they were even on the list but I’ll give myself kudos anyways.  My picks were suitably varied, including some lit crit, a graphic novel, a play, a surprising number of fantasy novels, and all four volumes of Charles Ritchie’s diaries, which I had a particularly delightful time rereading.  But there is one book that stands out above all the rest: Earth and High Heaven, Gwethalyn Graham’s extraordinary 1944 novel of love and anti-Semitism in wartime Montreal.  If you have any way of getting your hands on it, do.

Now, without further ado, the complete list:

Making Avonlea: L.M. Montgomery and Popular Culture edited by Irene Gammel
“…to finally read an entire book devoted to Montgomery, full of the kind of discussions and analysis I love best, made me irrationally happy. I loved reading this, both because it engaged me on an intellectual level and because, finally, I felt I had found other readers who connected with Montgomery on the same emotional level that I did.”

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) by Ann-Marie Macdonald
“Macdonald has written a very fun, very imaginative story of how an academic, transported into ‘Othello’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’, manages to turn the tragedies into comedies while learning far more about Shakespeare’s heroines than he ever revealed. Quite delightful…”

The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass: L.M. Montgomery’s Heroines and the Pursuit of Romance by Elizabeth Rollins Epperly
“I had great fun reading this, nodding my head alongside most of Epperly’s arguments, disagreeing with others, and generally being fascinated by the analysis of things I had certainly never picked up on as young, uncritical reader.”

Essex County by Jeff Lemire
(highly recommended)
“If all graphic novels were this thoughtful, well-plotted, and emotionally honest, I’d certainly read more.”

Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham
(highly recommended)
“The entire time I was reading this, I kept thinking how Persephone-like it felt in tone, quality and themes. And, really, could there be higher praise than that?” One of my Top Ten Books of 2011.

A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay
“From the first page to the last, it was a book that made me remember how exciting, how entertaining reading can be, how one story can deliver all the adventure, romance and intrigue that have been missing from my recent reading in an intelligent, captivating way.”

An Appetite for Life by Charles Ritchie
(highly recommended)
“Ritchie is, as always, marvelously candid and his daily ponderings – here, unsurprisingly given his youth, focused on women, sex, and school – manage to be both amusing and touching.”  One of my Top Ten Books of 2011

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
(highly recommended)
“I loved The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. I loved it even more than I loved A Song for Arbonne. Admittedly, if anyone had seen me while I was reading the last hundred or so pages, crying my way through them, they might have questioned if it was really love but, for me, it is only the really good stories, the ones that pull me in so completely, the ones with characters and conflicts that engage me intellectually and emotionally, that can make me cry and, in doing so, only make me love the book more.”

A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel
“Reading Manguel allows me to indulge in the fantasy that I am more intelligent, more sophisticated and far better reader than I am in fact. It is a valuable fantasy that brings me a warm, if deluded, inner glow. Part of Manguel’s magic is making his readers feel included rather than condescended to, whether they are familiar with the books he is discussing or not.”

The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay
“A wonderful, entertaining read, certainly one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read, but not quite as brilliant as Kay’s other books.”

The Siren Years by Charles Ritchie
(highly recommended)
“The Siren Years
remains the finest book I’ve ever read about wartime London. It is more comprehensive and more stylishly written than anything else on offer, with the beguiling, sophisticated Ritchie at its heart.”

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
“Honesty, I would have enjoyed this without the dragons (for I do love a nice, busy Victorian family drama) but the dragons add a touch of brilliance to an otherwise familiar story with even more familiar stock characters. Around them, Walton has created a rich, rigid fantasy world, with social conventions every bit as strict as the Victorians’, a world made so much more fascinating by its originality.”

Among Others by Jo Walton
“It is a gripping read – Walton has a special genius for writing in a way that makes it impossible to put the book down – but there was nothing about it that resonated with me, no character I became attached to, nothing that stood out as particularly memorable or special.”

Farthing by Jo Walton
“But if Walton is clever with her pacing and her entwining of Lucy and Carmichael’s stories, she is completely lacking in subtlety. If a point is going to be made, it is best to hammer it in five or six or more times in the most blatant language possible… It was just so heavy-handed that it became almost embarrassing.”

Ha’penny by Jo Walton
“The single best thing about this book is Viola’s family. A family of six sisters, the Larkins (Viola changed her name for the stage) are clearly based on the Mitfords (though they too exist in the Small Change universe). Tess’ progression from the politically naive and disinterested woman on the first page to willing accomplice only a few chapters later was an unconvincing stretch but, oh well. She was Mitford-esque and I can forgive any number of sins for that.”

Half a Crown by Jo Walton
“Half a Crown rewards the reader’s investment in the first two, less impressive books with an outstanding conclusion that makes full use of the terrifying society Walton crafted.”

Diplomatic Passport by Charles Ritchie
“Where he once wrote about drunken nights at university (excellent training for a career as a diplomat) or affairs with ballerinas, he now writes with equal animation about Suez and the Congo. Though his topics may have changed, his diaries remain just as entertaining as ever, chronicling a truly fascinating life.”

Storm Signals by Charles Ritchie
“It is impossible not to grow attached to a diarist when you’ve followed him over the course of almost fifty years. He is wonderfully familiar to me; I know him as a reckless, enthusiastic youth, a sophisticated, heartless bachelor about town, an eager new ambassador, and a middle-aged veteran who is granted the very best postings. When I come to the end of the diaries, it is always difficult to say goodbye.”

Mariana by Susanna Kearsley
“Mariana was the first of Kearsley’s books that I read and I really do think it was a perfect introduction. I didn’t adore it but it certainly eases the uninitiated reader into Kearsley’s realm, introducing you to her interest in the supernatural and captivating you with her skilful, easy writing style.”

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley
“Kearsley misses nothing. All of the details in her descriptions of people and places are absolutely and absorbingly perfect from the opening sentence. No one, even the supporting characters, is poorly drawn.”

The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley
“As much as I enjoyed The Rose Garden, my fondness for it pales in comparison to my obsession with The Shadowy Horses. I adored this book.”

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley
“The story is intriguing but never quite as absorbing as it really should have been.”

Overall, it was a wonderful collection of books and I had great fun reading them all.  Now, time to start thinking of what to read this year…thank goodness I have the long weekend to devote to this enjoyable task!  If you have any favourite Canadian books (by Canadians, about Canadians, or set in Canada), please let me know!  I am always looking for recommendations.

Read Full Post »

I long ago lost count of the number of bloggers who I’ve seen rave about the novels of Susanna Kearsley.  I know Eva, Marg, Teresa, Jane, Danielle, and Lyn have all enjoyed her works.  With such stellar recommendations from such trusted sources, I knew I had to try her for myself.  Luckily, because Kearsley is Canadian and if there is one thing Canadian libraries love it is stocking books by home-grown authors, I had no trouble tracking down her books and I am pleased to say that, having now read four of them, I can completely understand what all the fuss is about.  Kearsley writes beautifully and has that most coveted gift of being able to draw a reader in, quickly and completely.  I, who am usually am to put a book down in the middle of a sentence never mind a chapter, found myself whispering “just one more page” and “just one more chapter” to myself as I read late into the night.

Of course, not all books are created equal.  While I loved The Rose Garden, I only liked Mariana.  I enjoyed The Winter Sea but I adored The Shadowy Horses.  Still, each and every one had its good points (sometimes extremely good) and I enjoyed reading them all.

Counting them down in order of preference, here are my thoughts:

4. Mariana (1994)
Mariana was the first of Kearsley’s books that I read and I really do think it was a perfect introduction.  I didn’t adore it but it certainly eases the uninitiated reader into Kearsley’s realm, introducing you to her interest in the supernatural and captivating you with her skilful, easy writing style.

Shortly after Julia Beckett moves in Greywethers, a sixteenth century house she’s been drawn to since childhood, she begins having alarming hallucinations.  She suddenly finds herself slipping into the seventeenth century, where she is Mariana, a young woman caught up in a passionate affair with the local squire.  Of course, the logical deduction here is that Julia is actually Mariana reincarnated.  No big deal.  (This is the point where I warn all my fellow sceptics that suspension of disbelief is essential for the enjoyment Kearsley’s work.)  The memories come on unpredictably and hold Julia in a trance – in them, she is Mariana and remembers nothing of her 20th Century life.  But when she comes out of them, Julia remembers everything and can’t help but wonder if the attractive current squire, Geoff, is the reincarnation of Mariana’s lover, Richard.

To me, it seemed obvious from his first introduction who Julia’s romantic match was going to be (good rule of thumb: writer’s rarely waste that much time and detail on secondary characters who are going to languish in the background), which rather spoiled some of the suspense I think I was supposed to feel later on.  This book actually combined a number of things I loathe: fated lovers, reincarnation, and poorly-drawn, red-herring love interests, and yet, somehow, in Kearsley’s hands I enjoyed it.  I came away not particularly impressed by the plot or characters but very impressed by Kearsley’s skill as a storyteller and desperate to read more of her work.

3. The Winter Sea (2008)
Carrie McClelland is a best-selling historical novelist who has come to Scotland to research her new book.  Her intent is to focus on the attempted Jacobite uprising of 1708 and she chooses to centre her story around nearby Slains Castle, which belonged to Jacobite supporters.  When her editor encourages Carrie to add a female character, Carrie draws on her own family history for a name, inserting her ancestor Sophia into the tale.  But once Carrie begins writing about Sophia, the story takes on a life of its own.  Carrie starts having unusually vivid dreams about her characters, full of details and people who never appeared in her research.  Confused, she decides to fact check these imaginings, only to find that her ancestor Sophia had in fact lived in the castle before the uprising and that all the details that Carrie dreamt of or which came to her while she was writing are true too.  As Carrie delves into Sophia’s story, she is troubled by the question of how she can know so much about a distant ancestor of whom the family barely had any documentation.  And, as she discovers Sophia’s passion for the outlaw John Moray, she can’t help but wonder what happened to him, knowing that Sophia would go on to marry a man named McClelland…

Jacobites are always a romantic topic and I am always happy to read about them.  The story shifts back and forth between Carrie’s life and the passages from her novel detailing Sophia’s life at Slains, including her romance with John Moray.  At first, I was far more concerned with Carrie’s life and found the snippets from her novel intrusive but Sophia’s story soon takes possession of the reader’s attention and it is Carrie’s sections that end up feeling superfluous.

The story is intriguing but never quite as absorbing as it really should have been.  Kearsley clumsily tries to create parallels between Carrie and Sophia’s lives, a technique that completely backfires.  While it made sense for Sophia, given John Moray’s status as an outlaw, to keep her lover secret, it makes absolutely no sense for Carrie to do the same.  The unnecessary slyness exhibited by Carrie and her otherwise unobjectionable lover reflected poorly on them both and soured me against them.

But my main issue with this story has to be the obvious, the absurd reason why Carrie knows so many details about Sophia’s life: genetic memory.  That is, the idea that we inherit our ancestors’ memories along with their genetic traits: I get grandmama’s hands AND great-great-great-grandpapa’s memories.  With all of  Kearsley’s books, I kept having to remind myself to let go and just accept the story, however absurd I thought the paranormal element, but this was a step too far for me.

2. The Rose Garden (2011)
This was the book every single Kearsley fan told me I had to read.  I had been promised something impressive but, picking it up just after Mariana, I wasn’t quite sure.  Having read enough reviews by then to have a rough idea of the plot, I rather expected a workmanlike romance with perhaps a touch of heavy handed time travel.  Instead, I was presented with this enjoyable book.

When Eva’s beloved sister Katrina dies, she returns to the house in Cornwall where they spent their childhood summers to scatter her ashes.  Once there, she connects with her old friends and meets new but much older ones when she finds herself occasionally and uncontrollably slipping through time to the 18th Century.  As you do.  There, she meets Daniel Butler, who kindly and surprisingly calmly accepts her presence when she appears and with whom, unsurprisingly, Eva soon finds herself falling in love.

The difficulties of building and then maintaining a relationship across the centuries, particularly given the unpredictability of Eva’s movements and the danger posed by Daniel’s smuggling activities – and his Jacobite sympathies –, are intriguingly considered.  Eva has no control over when she moves between her time to Daniel’s, though she does come to realise that her movement is tied to the house when Daniel lived in the 18th Century and where her friends the Hallets live in the 21st: only when she is in or near it can she travel.   But as their relationship intensifies, Daniel’s situation becomes more and more dangerous in England.  Eva can only travel between the centuries when she is near the house – if Daniel has to leave, she will never see him again, and if Eva leaves with Daniel, she will never get back to her own time.

Kearsley misses nothing.  All of the details in her descriptions of people and places are absolutely and absorbingly perfect from the opening sentence.  No one, even the supporting characters, is poorly drawn.  They behave just as they ought, given what we know of them and of human nature, and Eva and Daniel, the time-crossed lovers, are wonderful.  The way they relate to one another, the way their acquaintance progresses, makes their growing attachment seem natural in the most unnatural circumstance imaginable, given that Eva is from the 21st Century while Daniel lives in the early 1700s.

The Cornish setting is wonderfully evoked and made me desperate to visit, though I did find Eva’s description of it as “wild” a bit amusing, especially since Eva is supposed to have grown up in British Columbia, where it is not unheard of for bears and cougars to find their way into the cities, never mind what you’ll find in the legitimately wild remainder of the province.  There is some wildness to any place by the sea, obviously, but I can’t help it: to me, Cornwall seems pretty tame.

1. The Shadowy Horses (1997)
As much as I enjoyed The Rose Garden, my fondness for it pales in comparison to my obsession with The Shadowy Horses.  I adored this book.  It had just the perfect level of the paranormal to make me completely comfortable, which, I have to admit, is the main place the other books fell down.  I find reincarnation ridiculous, genetic memory absurd and time travel intriguing but far-fetched.  A simple ghost and a boy with second sight, on the other hand, seemed humble and common enough to be believable.  It also helped that the ghost was particularly unthreatening, being very fond and protective of our heroine and on friendly terms with a local dog.

When Verity Grey receives the call to come to the Rosehill estate in Eyemouth, Scotland for work on a mysterious archaeological dig, she can’t resist.  But this dig is not like any she has ever worked on before.  The aged and eccentric Peter Quinnell is determined to find evidence that the Ninth Legion of Rome was there, his only evidence coming not from scientific or historical sources but from a small boy with second sight who claims to communicate with the ghost of a Roman legionnaire who guards his comrades’ final resting place.  As the dig begins yielding finds, the archaeologists, particularly Verity and historian David Fortune, begin piecing together what they’ve found – but what does it all mean?

First of all, let us get one thing perfectly clear: David Fortune is perfect.  He is, without a doubt, the most appealing romantic lead I have come across in ages.  If Kearsley had consulted my personal list of traits that a romantic hero should possess, she would have found David Fortune reflected there.  He is tall with black, curly hair; he has blue eyes; he is Scottish; he is kind and polite; he lectures at the University of Edinburgh…he is, in short, perfect in every way.  The plot does not revolve around his and Verity’s romance, which is perhaps the most brilliant choice in this book, and it plays out with a minimum of fuss.  He and Verity both have fascinating work to do and it is delightful when they are together but not of major note when they are not.  Unlike so many female characters, Verity does not spend all her time moping about when her love interest leaves the room: she has exciting work to do, not to mention ghosts to cross-examine, and it absorbs her attention.  David and Verity treat each other well, with both respect and affection, and sadly that is remarkable – far too few books from any genre show healthy relationships like this.

Unlike Kearsley’s other books, where the heroine is the one experiencing paranormal phenomena first had, Verity is only a witness, which I think is a very clever choice.  Verity sees extraordinary things but, unlike young Robbie, cannot see the ghost or hear him.  Like the reader, she has to trust what she is told and suspend her disbelief, making her instantly more relatable than any of the other characters in the books reviewed above.

*   *   *

Kearsley’s books are fun.  Whatever quibbles I might have had with some of them, that never prevented me from enjoying the reading experience and that, after all, is the most important thing.  And I will certainly be rereading The Shadowy Horses – I cannot wait to get my hands on my own copy.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

Read Full Post »

When I finished reading the last diary entry in Storm Signals by Charles Ritchie, I was reluctant to put the book down.  I have been a fan of Ritchie’s diaries since I was twelve years old and first discovered them on the shelf of my school library.  I always enjoy any time I spend reading his books and never tire of rereading them.  It is impossible not to grow attached to a diarist when you’ve followed him over the course of almost fifty years.  He is wonderfully familiar to me; I know him as a reckless, enthusiastic youth, a sophisticated, heartless bachelor about town, an eager new ambassador, and a middle-aged veteran who is granted the very best postings.  When I come to the end of the diaries, it is always difficult to say goodbye.

Since last autumn, I’ve reread all four volumes of Ritchie’s diaries in chronological order.  I started with An Appetite for Life, covering Ritchie’s late teens in Canada and England, moved on to The Siren Years, a record of Ritchie’s wartime experiences in London and easily one of my favourite books, and enjoyed Diplomatic Passport, chronicling Ritchie’s first years as a diplomatic representative (as opposed to staff member) in post-war Europe and America.  The final volume, Storm Signals, is a selection of Ritchie’s diaries between 1962 and 1971, during which time he served as Canadian ambassador to the United States before moving on to his final diplomatic posting, as Canadian High Commissioner in London.

As usual, the focus of the diaries is more personal than professional.  A reader looking for specific details about the business of the day would be disappointed.  Ritchie records his impressions and opinions without ever dwelling on anything that could be considered sensitive information.  For the general reader, this is more than enough detail.  We learn what he thought of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, of the political crises of the day, and of the tensions between the Canadian and American governments at the time that created a rather stressful working environment for Ritchie in Washington.  Both presidents kept their distance from Ritchie because of disagreements between the two nations about major issues like nuclear weapons, economic sanctions for communist nations, and the war in Vietnam.

These tensions did keep Ritchie busy during his US posting but he still had plenty of time to keep his diary, thankfully.  One of the delights of Storm Signals is that he takes this time to look back on his life and ponder the strange workings of fate.  Finally, the reader gets to learn a little of how Ritchie spent the undocumented decade between the end of An Appetite for Life and the start of The Siren Years.  He was briefly – and unsuccessfully – a schoolmaster and then in the early 1930s, with few other options available, applied for a fellowship at Harvard (where he had studied for a year after leaving Oxford) that would, as he says, ‘prove a turning point’:

There were two fellowships on offer: one to proceed to France to explore the significance of the word ‘sensibilité’ in eighteenth-century French literature, the other to advanced studies in the origins of the First World War.  I coveted the first and obtained the second.  It was to prove a turning point, for had I been delving into ‘sensibilité’ in the cafés of Montpellier I should not have been in Boston to take the examination for the Department of External Affairs and ergo I should not now, as an aging Ambassador, be sitting at my desk in Washington wasting the government’s time with this excursion into the past when I should be studying the statistics of Canadian lumber exports. (8 July 1963)

I would just like to say how enjoyable I think either subject would be, though I can easily understand how in 1931 he was more drawn to the idea of studying in Paris than in going back to Cambridge.

After Washington, the London posting was a dream.  Ritchie got to return to a city he loved, to live in a gorgeous house, and to be near many of his oldest and closest friends.  It was an undemanding, pleasurable appointment and Ritchie welcomed it:

I looked forward to it in a spirit best expressed by my friend Douglas LePan, who wrote, in congratulation, that my motto should be that of the Renaissance Pope – ‘God has given us the Papacy, now let us enjoy it.’

A large part of what makes Ritchie so irresistible to me is his tendency to spout rather romantic images.  He could be, I think, a rather reserved man, as befits a career diplomat, and certainly his early affairs were more about physical pleasure than any kind of spiritual fulfilment, though he did find that in his thirty-year long relationship with Elizabeth Bowen and in his happy marriage to wife Sylvia.  But his sentimentality does show up in his writing and I love when it does:

Voices and music from a next-door party sounding from behind the screen of heavy-leafed trees bordering the garden.  The music plucks at some lost feeling.  The women’s voices sound languorous and exciting.  It is true, no doubt, that the encounters between people at that party are as forced as at the party I have just left, that most are looking beyond each other’s left ear to sight someone more important to talk to.  The laughter in most cases does not contain in its volume one hundredth part of real laughter and is as tasteless as frozen ham, but perhaps it is worth coming to a garden setting under the glossy, unreal light of late evening if two people on the outskirts of the party remember it as the moment when they first met, and carry the memory that it was there that it all started.  (30 June 1962)

I also loved this image (and could certainly relate to his wish):

When I woke this morning and saw sun on the melting snow I closed my eyes, pulled the eiderdown over my head, and wished that I lived by myself in an isolated autumnal château in France with high walls round it, with books, a fire in the library, the smell of leaf mould in the garden outside.  (22 December 1962)

And, of course, there are Ritchie’s credentials as a reader.  He is always reading, frequently something I have never heard of.  His notes on reading remind me of Alberto Manguel, not because they read the same books (though there is some overlap) but there is something about the way both men approach reading and the way they both write about it that seems similar.  How could I not be drawn to someone who says “I can’t go on reading Vanity Fair as I am bogged down among Amelia’s tender tears and rhapsodies and I will not skip to get back to Becky Sharp”?  Or who finds Shakespeare’s plays so stirring that they hinder his recovery from illness: “I spent the afternoon recovering in bed.  Read Antony and Cleopatra and became so moved and inflamed by it that I could not get to sleep at night.”  Ritchie reacts to books like the best kind of reader.

Though Ritchie’s relationship with Elizabeth Bowen was intense and long-lived, it is rather nice to read about his appreciation of his wife Sylvia in these entries.  Though, it must be noted, he edited these diaries for publication himself and they are highly censored, holding back the most personal and potentially hurtful details about his affairs.  Still, both his casual and more thoughtful comments about how much he loves Sylvia are very welcome.  He seems to be almost surprised at his real affection for her and at how highly he values her company and misses her during her absences.  Theirs was a pragmatic marriage but, at least from his viewpoint, a very successful one – quite surprising given Ritchie’s heartless promiscuity in his youth.

As I finished reading, knowing that I had come to the end of Ritchie’s elegant and entertaining diaries once more, I felt the same way as I always do when I finish this cycle: thankful for Ritchie’s gifts as a diarist but frustrated that he did not publish more.

Read Full Post »

My love for Charles Ritchie’s An Appetite for Life and The Siren Years is well documented.  I adore those books.  I wish everyone would read them, particularly The Siren Years, as examples of what really well-written, well-edited diaries can be like and if you, dear reader, take only one recommendation from me, let it be this: try Ritchie.  Just don’t start with Diplomatic Passport: More Undiplomatic Diaries, 1946-1962.

It is not that it is a bad book – far from it – but it is not a good introduction to Ritchie.  In his younger years, both as a student in Halifax and at Oxford (An Appetite for Life) and as an energetic and sociable staff member at the Canadian High Commission in London (The Siren Years), Ritchie had plenty of time for introspection and an active personal life, making for a number of both thoughtful and highly entertaining diary entries.  But Diplomatic Passport covers the first years of Ritchie’s very successful career as a diplomatic representative, when he was working all hours and barely had the time to have a personal life never mind write about it.  It’s a wonderful book if you already know Ritchie and are happy for him to talk very little about himself but I think it might prove frustrating for unfamiliar readers who would probably want to have some idea about the author.

The diaries begin in 1946 in an uneasy post-war world.  The changes wrought by the Second World War only put more pressure on the men and women trying to rebuild and to create a lasting international peace. The strain is intense and the worst of it, Ritchie thinks, is borne by the young men who not only have the anxiety of tending to their young careers but also of searching out or attending to their wives:

International affairs have become a battlefield where the rules of war are relevant, and the strains on the combatants are as gruelling as on the battlefield.  You need physical, mental and nervous strength.  But, hardest of all, you cannot afford too many distractions.  That is not so bad for the old men who live only for ambition.  It is hard on the young; they tire more easily and are more vulnerable to their own mistakes.  The Old Boys have made so many that one more or less does not matter to them.  Then the young ones have the other battles of love to contend with.  They are fighting on two fronts.  They must have time to sleep with their wives or someone else will do it for them.  (21 August 1946)

In the years documented in Diplomatic Passport, Ritchie covers a lot of ground.  It is a short book, with some years barely mentioned and others only captured with a handful of entries, but it tracks Ritchie from Ottawa to Paris to Bonn (West Germany) to New York and finally to Washington.  Exhausting.  He also picks up a wife, Sylvia, along the way and, though she is barely mentioned in these diaries, there is a noticeable lack of female conquests (which took up a considerable amount of his youthful energy).  I am sure these years were a whirlwind to live through, as each move brought with it a more impressive job title: counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Paris; Ambassador to West Germany; Permanent Representative to the United Nations; Ambassador to the United States.  Because Ritchie preferred to focus on his personal life when he published these diaries, there are very few details about his work and achievements, just impressions of those who he worked with, general thoughts on the issues of the day, and humorous anecdotes from various events, like this one from his time in West Germany:

I went over today to Dortmund to open an exhibition of Eskimo art.  I have already opened three exhibitions of Eskimo art and am becoming sick of the sight of it.  This exhibition was in the museum at Dortmund and the museum officials had told me that they had very few funds to provide refreshments, so I sent over several cases of rye whisky.  The people at the museum had never seen rye before and the Director asked me if it was ‘a kind of liqueur or a sort of wine.’  After the speeches were over, tall glasses filled with undiluted rye whisky were handed round on trays and drunk recklessly, so that before the reception was over everyone was more or less drunk.  It was by far the most successful exhibition of Eskimo art I have ever attended… (21 February 1957)

The most enjoyable, light-hearted entries are from Ritchie’s time in post-war Paris.  The country may have been devastated but the company of fellow diplomats was excellent and always entertaining.  Ritchie’s observations of the social and political changes taking place (and the telling quotes he took down from others) made for some fascinating reading.  I particularly loved this account of a dinner party for the Dominion delegations at the British Embassy in Paris, with the uneasy melding of classes after Labour had come into power:

The prevailing social tone of the evening was British lower middle class.  Since Labour came in in England they are the rulers – the politicians.  Their servants of the upper class – the professional diplomats and officials – joined benevolently in the fun, taking the attitude ‘they are really rather dears and it is nice to see them enjoy themselves in their simple fashion and we must not seem patronizing,’ except for one who remarked to me, ‘This is where experience at Servants’ Balls and Sergeant’s Messes comes in so useful.’ (13 October 1946)

I already mentioned the greatest, most bizarrely fantastic Parisian escapade here a few weeks ago, but it bears repeating.  Ritchie had counted Lady Diana Cooper, wife of Duff Cooper, Britain’s then ambassador to France, and Nancy Mitford as friends during his days in London (both show up several times in The Siren Years) and they all found themselves together again in Paris.  I can only wish I had friends this glamourous or extravagant:

Not long ago I was sitting next to Diana at a lively luncheon party where the cross-five of conversation was sizzling away. Twice – three times – I attempted to join the fray without success. Turning to Diana I said: ‘I cannot understand it. Am I invisible, or inaudible? I have so much to say and no one pays attention to me.’ She fixed me with her azure eyes. ‘Something,’ she said, ‘must be done about that.’ Something was – with Nancy Mitford acting as her lieutenant, Diana organized Ritchie Week, a week of non-stop parties, dinners, even a ball in Ritchie honour. She roped in half Paris – surprised French hostesses found it was the smart thing to join in this charade. Old and new friends showered us with invitations. Whenever we appeared, a special anthem was played to signal our entrance. Verses were addressed to us – on the walls of the houses in our street someone had by night chalked up in giant letters the slogan ‘Remember Ritchie’. Nancy I think it was who had an even more daring inspiration – a clutch of coloured balloons inscribed ‘Ritchie Week’ were let loose over Paris. (The newspapers reported that one of these had floated as far as Boulogne, where it was picked up by the mystified inhabitants, who asked themselves what it might portend.) It was an apotheosis of a kind, and who but Diana could have devised such a fantasy? (21 June 1948)

Isn’t that extraordinary?  Part of what makes Ritchie’s diaries such a delight are these unexpectedly sensational moments, which happen with greater frequency than you would believe.  The people he collects around him or just encounters are extraordinary.  It’s thrilling enough to come across the truly famous names but he is also wonderful at introducing me to people I’d never heard of before (generally diplomats or journalists) and making them seem completely marvellous, convincing me that I must track down all the information I can about them.

Though I would recommend new readers start with one of the earlier volumes of Ritchie’s diaries, this is nonetheless an excellent book.  As usual, Ritchie provides a captivating, intelligently observed perspective on the events of the day.  As Ritchie’s jobs change and he becomes more important, the focus does shift more towards his work, his thoughts on political and diplomatic matters becoming the most common topics while friends and family are largely unmentioned – a change in priorities for both Ritchie and the reader!  But, more importantly, the diaries never become dull.  Where he once wrote about drunken nights at university (excellent training for a career as a diplomat) or affairs with ballerinas, he now writes with equal animation about Suez and the Congo.  Though his topics may have changed, his diaries remain just as entertaining as ever, chronicling a truly fascinating life.

Read Full Post »

Having now read five of Jo Walton’s books, it’s probably time I said something about them.  But what to say?  They are all solidly entertaining and competently written yet, with each one, there was always something just a little off.  Sometimes I could pinpoint what that was; other times it was just a niggling sense while reading that something wasn’t working properly.  It wasn’t entirely distracting (except in Farthing, which I’ll talk about later) but it was certainly something I felt while reading each book.  Before I start picking things apart, do know that I did enjoy reading these and think they are fun, intelligent novels that I would heartily recommend to any reader.

I started with Tooth and Claw, which is absolutely my favourite of Walton’s books.  Both Ana and Marg wrote excellent, detailed reviews when they read it and it was their enthusiasm that led me to it in the first place.  Inspired by Anthony Trollope’s works, particularly Framley Parsonage, Walton has created a loyal tribute to the Victorian novel, opening at the deathbed of the family patriarch then moving on, like any good Victorian novel, to the ensuing feud and lawsuit over the will, the romantic concerns of the maiden daughters, the tense political machinations in one son’s city workplace and the crisis of conscious faced by the clergyman son, troubled by his father’s last confession.  The twist, as you’re almost certainly aware, is that all of the characters are dragons.

Honesty, I would have enjoyed this without the dragons (for I do love a nice, busy Victorian family drama) but the dragons add a touch of brilliance to an otherwise familiar story with even more familiar stock characters.  Around them, Walton has created a rich, rigid fantasy world, with social conventions every bit as strict as the Victorians’, a world made so much more fascinating by its originality.  I had been so sceptical going in (because, really, dragons?  In a Victorian-style novel?) but I was shocked by how quickly Walton pulled me into their world.  Within a few pages, it seemed perfectly natural that yes, these were dragons and of course this is how they behave.  Admittedly, a little more energy was put into creating a fascinating society than into original characters but I think it was a wise choice.  The characters and the dilemmas they face are familiar which, in a novel so full of the unfamiliar, anchors the reader.

From there, I moved on to Walton’s most recent book: Among Others.  Now, the first thing to love about this book is that the heroine, Morwenna Phelps, is a reader.  Before anything else, that is how she defines herself, which means the novel is full of glowing passages about books and libraries and their general wonderfulness (example: “Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization”).  Can’t complain about that.  Specifically, Mori is a huge fan of science fiction and there are a number of book-specific discussions that I am sure would delight anyone who shares her reading tastes.

The story begins with fifteen-year old Mori preparing to head off to boarding school while currently living with a father she barely knows and sinister, disapproving aunts.  Her twin sister is dead, Mori is crippled, and her mother is an evil witch, all of which adds something distinctly different to this story.  It is not every heroine who can commune with faeries.  The real interest and virtue here, though, lies in Morwenna’s intellectual development, mostly through her reading and her discussions with the book group she meets at the public library.  At school, she is a conscious outsider, generally happy to maintain her distance from and her prejudices about her classmates, but among her fellow readers, people who share her tastes in books, she comes alive.

I found Mori’s reading, her search for friends and her adjustment to her new school and her unknown father all very interesting but I’m not sure if the fantastic element of the book (encounters with faeries and her mother the witch) really added anything.  Mori spends a lot of time explaining (the book is in diary format) how evil her mother is and how she and Morganna had to stop her but the reader never really sees the evil Mori is so determined to destroy.  When Mori’s mother does appear, it felt bizarrely out of place.  In a novel that is so much about internal development, this external villain seemed awkwardly tacked on.

It is a gripping read – Walton has a special genius for writing in a way that makes it impossible to put the book down – but there was nothing about it that resonated with me, no character I became attached to, nothing that stood out as particularly memorable or special.  I know a lot of other readers adored this and found it amazing but that did not happen for me.  The only thing that really stands out in my memory is my frustration with Mori’s need to constantly assert that, though she attends a nice boarding school and her father lives in a nice house, they didn’t have money.  Why was it necessary to a.) make Daniel poor and dependent on his sisters, and b) have Mori be so ashamed of the appearance of wealth?  All the wealthy girls at the school are, unsurprisingly, disparaged.  I am so frustrated and disappointed when a writer stereotypes in this way.

Somewhat more sceptical after that, I started in on Walton’s Small Change trilogy.  Beginning in 1949, these books take place in post-war Britain but not as we know it.  In 1941, Britain made ‘Peace with Honour’ with Hitler, handing over complete control of the Continent, allowing the Reich to devote its energies to war with Russia, and creating a very different world from the one we live in.  British civil liberties have been distinctly curtailed, anti-Semitism is, if not officially condoned, then at least more blatant than ever before, and, within parliament, a set of politicians sympathetic to the style and aims of the Third Reich are seeking to gain more power, by any means – even murder.

Farthing, the first book in the trilogy, begins with the death of Sir James Thirkie, who, in 1941, was the architect of the Peace, at Farthing, the country house where the influential, semi-fascist politicians of the so-called Farthing set gather.  The married daughter of the house, Lucy Kahn, and her husband David had been unexpectedly invited to join the house party that weekend.  After the murder, it quickly becomes clear that David was invited so that the murder could be blamed on him.  As a Jewish person in an increasingly anti-Semitic Britain, he is the perfect scapegoat.

The book alternates between two perspectives: that of Lucy Kahn and of Scotland Yard Inspector Peter Carmichael.  Lucy’s babbling first-person narrative overwhelms the reader with significant details that the police are completely oblivious to, as Carmichael’s steady approach to the case turns up all the logical but misleading answers.  The two perspectives merge into one engrossing story, revealing not just the murderer but a society even more disturbing than the reader had imagined, where justice and truth have very little place.

But if Walton is clever with her pacing and her entwining of Lucy and Carmichael’s stories, she is completely lacking in subtlety.  If a point is going to be made, it is best to hammer it in five or six or more times in the most blatant language possible.  The most ridiculous example has to be Walton’s ‘casual’ insertion of homo- and bi-sexual characters (pretty much every second person who showed up).  Oh dear, it’s awkward and clumsy.  And the hilarious significance attached to how characters took their tea made me wish desperately that they would all switch to hard liquor.  In a country-house mystery, you can imagine how many times tea is served.  When Carmichael isn’t rhapsodizing about his favourite tea (I wanted to drown him in it by the end) someone else is making suggestive remarks based on his choice.  It was just so heavy-handed that it became almost embarrassing.

However, as usual, Walton has created a very real world and, despite my frustrations with Farthing, I immediately moved on to Ha’penny, eager to be back in this menacing alternate Britain.  Here, Carmichael is still our detective and Lucy Kahn is traded in for a new female narrator: Viola Lark.  Viola is an actress from a privileged background who is rehearsing a new production of Hamlet, to be performed in front of the Prime Minister and Hitler, on the German leader’s much-anticipated Friendship visit to London.  When her co-star is killed by a bomb, Viola suddenly finds herself back in contact with one of her estranged sisters and pulled into a plot to assassinate the two leaders.  Carmichael, while investigating the other actress’ death, slowly begins to uncover the murder plot and even more of the conspiracies at the heart of the government.

The single best thing about this book is Viola’s family.  A family of six sisters, the Larkins (Viola changed her name for the stage) are clearly based on the Mitfords (though they too exist in the Small Change universe).  Tess’ progression from the politically naive and disinterested woman on the first page to willing accomplice only a few chapters later was an unconvincing stretch but, oh well.  She was Mitford-esque and I can forgive any number of sins for that.  Just see how the family is described:

We were strange obsessive children, and we became strange obsessive adults.  Tess went to Oxford and had her debutante year and got married appropriately, safely, to Sir James Thirkie, baronet.  Pip demanded, and got, a finishing year abroad to learn German, did learn German, contrived to meet Hitler and managed to hook a leading Nazi as a husband.  During the war, when German bombers were flattening London, and killing poor Tess in her shelter for government wives, we felt bad about Pip’s position, but all was forgiven later, as all was forgiven the Germans generally.  I became an actress. Siddy came out, married, had a baby, divorced, caused scandal by leaving the baby with her husband, visited Moscow and became a real communist, married again, and rapidly divorced again.  Dodo paints, and has the occasional exhibition, is married to a prominent scientist who has something to do with atomic research, and has two delightful children.  Rosie, whose obsession was the most normal, came out, rode to hounds, met and married the Duke of Lancashire and produced sons…My sisters – I don’t necessarily like them, and I’d rather be stuck with pins than spend a week alone with any of them, but I love them.

Yeah, subtlety: not really Walton’s thing (further proof of that: the ‘leading Nazi’ husband is no one less than Himmler).  It’s all amusing nonetheless, particularly for Mitford-loving readers.

Finally, there is Half a Crown, the strongest of the three novels, made so by its convincing female narrator and much more logical progression.  There is a lamentable return to tea as the prime topic of conversation but I can just about forgive that.  The contrast of Carmichael, now head of the Gestapo-like Watch as well as the leader of the secret Inner Watch (which rescues and ships Watch detainees and Jews to safety – a sort of underground railway) and Elvira Royston, his debutante ward who begins the book oblivious to the evils of the government, believing fascism is ‘fun’, is the most effective juxtaposition of the series.  Both characters develop more over the course of the novel than anyone in the earlier books and do so, more importantly, in a rational manner.  Set in 1960, the tension, after more than 10 years under an intrusive and constructive government, is far more extreme than in the earlier books and much more terrifying.

Of all the characters we are introduced to in the three books, Elvira is the only one I felt real sympathy towards.  Elvira is granted no extraordinary powers.  She is intelligent but young and trusting, a product of the society in which she was raised.  She knows that if you see something suspicious, if you hear someone disparaging the government, you should report it.  That is what keeps society ordered and safe.  She even believes that after she is arrested and interrogated.  It isn’t until after her second arrest, having committed no crime, that she begins to really understand just how sinister and dangerous the establishment has become.  She is not cunning but she is brave and capable and the dramatic ending is rather magnificent.  A bit absurd and optimistic in the world Walton has created and wildly contrary to the tone of the series, but magnificent nonetheless.  Elvira still has faith and trust that at least one person can put everything to right again and that person does.  It is completely wonderful and ridiculous and I loved it.  Half a Crown rewards the reader’s investment in the first two, less impressive books with an outstanding conclusion that makes full use of the terrifying society Walton crafted.

I’ve voiced a lot of my annoyances with these books but I really must stress how much I enjoyed reading them.  Some authors, very few, have the talent of plotting and executing stories in such a way that the reader can’t tear him- or herself away.  Walton does this brilliantly.  I am not sure I’ve ever come across someone who is as effortlessly readable.  Even when I was cringing during Among Others and Farthing, I could not put them down.  One sentence flowed into another, I flew from one page to the next, and so on until I came to the end.  Sometimes Walton’s and my tastes and styles did not align but I remain convinced that these are solidly good books and imaginative, entertaining reads.

Read Full Post »

I started two books on New Year’s Day, knowing that if the first failed me (it did not) the second, a perennial favourite, would still guarantee a wonderful beginning to the year.  After more than a decade of reading and rereading, The Siren Years by Charles Ritchie has never once let me down and remains the finest book I’ve ever read about wartime London and one of my top five favourite books of all-time.

For those who missed being introduced to Ritchie a few months ago when I reviewed An Appetite for Life (it was also one of my favourite books of 2011), a few words: Charles Ritchie was a Canadian diplomat who, at the height of his professional career in the 1960s, served, among other postings, as Ambassador to  the United States and as the Canadian High Commissioner to the UK.  But more importantly, he was an unparalleled diarist.

I have read so many volumes of war time diaries over the years but this remains my favourite.  While this collection begins during Ritchie’s time with the Canadian legation in Washington and ends in 1945 with him back in Ottawa (after an excursion in the spring to the San Francisco Conference that established the UN), the bulk of his entries deal with his time in London where he served as private secretary to Vincent Massey, the Canadian High Commissioner.  Ritchie had such a magnificent prospect on the events of the day: at the High Commission, constantly dealing with refugees, Brits and ex-pats trying to flee to Canada for the duration; in conversation with various embassies and both foreign and British politicians; and in his dealings with his large and varied circle of friends, full of intellectuals and major literary figures.

I first read this book when I was twelve years old, giddily exploring my new school’s library and coming upon all sorts of treasures.  I fell in love with it immediately and now, looking back, I can see how well it armed me to analyse much of my future reading.  Then and now, I have always loved reading about the Second World War, particularly novels or memoirs that focused on life on the home front.  But I was always bothered by books that portrayed a tirelessly optimistic Britain – the Britain of wartime propaganda and Churchill’s speeches – full of brave citizens sure of victory, conspicuously free of anyone who would dare to contemplate a successful Nazi invasion.  And, after rereading Ritchie’s diaries, it’s clear where that scepticism came from:

My office is the door of escape from hell.  Day after day the stream of people press in.  Today, for example, some of the Austrian Rothschilds (escaped from a concentration camp) are trying to pass their medical examination to go to Canada.  Would I arrange a financial guarantee for them?  The wife of one of the wealthiest men in England is trying to get out of the country.  Her husband is a Jew and a leading anti-Nazi.  Will I get her a letter to prove (on very flimsy grounds) that she is a Canadian?  Lady B, looking radiant, comes to ask if I would arrange for her son’s prep-school to be affiliated with a boys’ boarding school in Canada and to migrate there en masse.  The Marchioness of C, in the uniform of the Women’s Naval Auxiliary Unit, wants to get three children out to Canada at once.  Two Canadian journalists want to get their wives out but there is a mysterious delay in getting their exit permits.  The Spanish Ambassador wants us to get accommodation for his daughter, his mother, and a troop of maids and governesses on board the next ship.  They are going to Canada for a little rest from the nervous tension of the war.  He knows he is slipping with his own government and may be in exile himself any day.   The Polish Ambassador wants us to take the wives and daughters of one hundred high political and diplomatic dignitaries.  Count X, the anti-fascist with a price on his head, must leave for Canada at once on a mission of great importance.  I have only touched the edge of one day’s work.  I do not mention my own friends and relatives who want to get out.  Here we have a whole social system on the run, wave after wave after wave of refugees, and these are only the people at the top, people who can by titles, letters of introduction, or the ruling manner force their way into Government offices and oblige one to give them an interview.  What of the massed misery that cannot escape?

The sense of the dissolution of civilized society is overpowering.  (26 June 1940)

Ritchie and his political and diplomatic friends spend a lot of time contemplating various outcomes of the war, both before it begins and once it is in play.  In conversation with Canadian, British, Australian, and Hungarian friends, the possibility of defeat is a very real option and everyone seems to have thought through how they think the terms of surrender should be structured.  These are practical men, considering all possible outcomes, and a number of their proposals are quite plausible.  After all, they are not military men, they are diplomats: they think in terms of negotiations, not battles.  The idea of redrawing the map of Europe is exciting to them, a chance to correct the errors of the Treaty of Versailles, an opportunity to create real, lasting peace and forge strong, cooperative relationships between nations.  Ritchie makes you see how exciting the possibilities were, even as destruction raged across Europe.

Mostly though, Ritchie is frustrated by the war, by the noncommittal yet interfering Canadian Prime Minister, the bane of everyone at Canada House (particularly Mike Pearson, judging by the biographies I’ve read), and by the terrifying ignorance of the British Foreign Office, who laughably propose to win favour with French-Canadians by forming close bonds with France (“I only hope to God that they know more about other foreign countries than they do about Canada”).  He is bothered by the sentimental theatrics of Winston Churchill’s speeches (while acknowledging his oratorical style) and he loathes the aggressive vilification of the opposing forces that allows the Allies, with callous indifference, to ignore the devastation being brought down by their bombers on major cities throughout Europe:

Talked with George Ignatieff [also with the High Commission] today about this ghastly raid on Sofia where we have wiped out the whole centre of a town, which has no shelters, is built of wood, and is inhabited by people most of whom seem to be pro-Ally.  The horror of these destructive attacks on the cities of Europe!  It is such a revolting way of waging warfare and no one seems to try and realise what we are doing.  It may be necessary, but at least we should accept the guilt and not send out brave, callow youths as our scapegoats to bomb in our names while we treat the news like a cricket score.  (19 January 1944)

Though I am (clearly) fascinated by the political, Ritchie’s diaries are primarily focused on his personal life: his friendships, his day-to-day engagements and, of course, his affairs.  Though humble in appearance, Ritchie was an incorrigible and wildly successful Lothario.  He begins in London with an irritating, snobbish American ballerina (whose absences he characteristically looks forward to as a chance to stray) but in the spring of 1941 he meets Elizabeth Bowen.  So begins the great friendship and love affair that would last until Bowen’s death in the early 1970s.  She becomes a fixture in his diaries, with frequent mentions of their conversations, parties with her friends, and her work on the novel she would dedicate to Ritchie, The Heat of the Day.  Ritchie, enthralled by her, is at his most poetic:

Of what is her magic made?  What is the spell that she has cast on me?  At first I was wary of her – ‘méfiant’ – I feared that I should expose my small shifts and stratagems to her eye which misses nothing.  Her uncanny intuitions, her flashes of insight like summer lightening at once fascinated and disturbed me.  Now day by day I have been discovering more and more of her generous nature, her wit and funniness, the stammering flow of her enthralling talk, the idiosyncrasies, vagaries of her temperament.  I now know that this attachment is nothing transient but will bind me as long as I live.  (2 June 1942)

Ritchie’s social life is a bit of a marvel.  Bowen introduces him to a few of her literary friends but even before meeting her he is surrounded by authors, socialites, intellectuals, and aristocrats.  His life is a dizzying array of busy nightclubs, dinners out and house parties in the country.  There are lunches with Nancy Mitford, Christmases with the Sacheverell Sitwells, and on-going friendships with misplaced Central European royals.  How he picked up most of these people I have no idea but he seems to have known most of them before taking up his work at Canada House.  As a sophisticated, intelligent, witty man, I have no doubt that he was an entertaining guest:

I suffer less than usual during this party as a result of consuming one glass of champagne after another in quick succession.  I realized that this was necessary when somebody came up to me and said ‘You look like Banquo’s ghost’.  After that I felt I must go home immediately or get tight.  I am glad I chose the latter course.  (12 Jul 1938 – Washington)

Yet even Ritchie the sophisticated bachelor could get tired of his hectic life, though knowing how he loves his mistresses one can hardly take his wishes for domestic bliss too seriously:

I am sick of my present hectic life – the work, the miscellaneous loveless affairs, and the mixed drinks.  I wish I lived in a small provincial town and spent the evenings reading aloud the Victorian novelists to my wife and adoring daughters. (29 March 1941)

Though Ritchie does not include a lot of specific details on daily domestic life (not in the way that Mass Observation diaries do, for instance), focusing instead on his work and social engagements, some fascinating glimpses do slip in.  For instance, he marvels at being able to walk through all the garden squares in London, now without the foreboding gates that kept them private for so long, and records how, after his flat is hit during the Blitz, he finds himself living in first a hotel and then one of his clubs with only one suit and one pair of shoes.  “The Depart of External Affairs will never approve replacing suits from Sackville Street at twenty pounds per suit,” he sadly reflects.

I had also never realised how frequently Ritchie refers to his personal reading: seeking refuge in “the warmly-coloured, variegated women’s world of Colette” during the Blitz, longing for Halifax after reading Hugh MacLennan’s Barometer Rising, rejoicing in Shakespeare, thrilling to the romance of Joseph Bédier’s Tristan et Iseult…the list goes on, including countless titles and authors I have never heard of.  It is always comforting to feel that one is in the company of an appreciative reader, as though that similarity alone suddenly makes him more trustworthy (but doesn’t it?).

This review is rapidly growing out of control, but indulge me one last nostalgic ramble.  I am endlessly fascinated by the stories of Canada House during the war and this is the book that launched my interest.  Wartime London in general interests me but, as a Canadian, it is amazing to me to think of Mike Pearson, Charles Ritchie and George Ignatieff, all major post-war political and diplomatic figures, working together under Massey, developing their ideas of what Canada should be alongside one another.  All three were Oxford educated and comfortable (particularly in Ritchie) in English society but they all developed into passionate Canadians who dedicated their lives to serving Canada, believing in its promise and their shared vision for its future.  Throughout my teens, they were my heroes, both for their strong sense of duty and their inspiring idealism.

As I said (many, many paragraphs ago in the introduction), The Siren Years remains the finest book I’ve ever read about wartime London.  It is more comprehensive and more stylishly written than anything else on offer, with the beguiling, sophisticated Ritchie at its heart.

Read Full Post »

While I’ve loved GGK’s historical fantasies (A Song for Arbonne, The Lions of Al-Rassan), there is something so irresistible about Tolkien-esque high fantasy, which The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay definitely is.  Indeed, there may be too many Tolkien references for some but in a novel like this, where an entirely new world has to be explained to the reader, it is actually quite useful to encounter such familiar features. 

The Summer Tree (1984), the first book of the trilogy, begins at the University of Toronto in Convocation Hall, where the reclusive Professor Lorenzo Marcus is giving a lecture.  Later, our five main characters – Kevin Laine, Paul Schafer, Dave Martyniuk, Kimberly Ford, and Jennifer Lowell – find themselves in conversation with the professor, only to be told that his real name is Loren Silvercloak and that he wishes to take them back to Fionavar, his world, as guests, to the celebration of the King’s 50th year on the throne.  Five strangers, one for each decade of the King’s reign.   I love the idea of five U of T students being transported into this other world but I find it more than odd how willing they are to go (except for Dave, making him my immediate favourite).  But go they do, into a world very different and far more dangerous than the one they have always known.

The first book is mostly a set up for the rest of the trilogy, introducing characters and creating the tense standoff between dark and light that provides the focal conflict.  Important work since this is a plot-driven story and it is vital that the reader have a good understanding of everything that is at stake.  Tension and atmosphere are more important than characterization (again, reminiscent of Tolkien and just about everyone who has ever written an epic fantasy series).  The Wandering Fire (1986) and The Darkest Road (1986) continue the story and with each volume it only gets more complex and more intriguing.  There are some logical leaps that I wasn’t quite able to make or crucial events and actions that seemed to make no sense in any kind of context but I found it was best to just suspend my disbelief and enjoy the journey.  Kay is masterful at pacing – probably his most remarkable skill in these books – and I was constantly breathless while reading, always eager to turn the page and to continue on the journey.

Since plot is the focus here, it seems a shame to give too much away.  But there are elves, dwarves, an exiled Prince, a chilling villain, a child of dark and light who truly controls the fate of Fionavar, and, as if that weren’t enough, an overwhelming dose of Arthurian legend, with King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot playing significant roles.  With so much happening, there is no chance to ever be bored.

But the characterization was a problem for me.  I cared deeply about the fate of Fionavar and came to love many of the characters from that world but never felt any real affection for most of the five travellers from my world.  The only one whose fate I was really concerned about was Dave.  The other four find themselves wrapped up in mystic, magical plots and I was concerned and intrigued by the challenges they faced but Dave was the only character whose emotional reactions and responses registered with me, the only one who felt authentic through all three books.  And perhaps most tellingly, he is the only one who truly evolves over the course of the story, going from a reserved, insecure young man to a confident member of a close-knit clan, able to accept the love of others and express his own.

While there were many things I loved about this story, I think it is clear in his later books how far Kay has come in terms of characterization and his writing style.  There are a few too many Yoda-esque passages here and far too many moments where characters suddenly understand or see what sad fate awaits them and where all the reader is told is how sad it is, not what the fate is.  Alright and vaguely intriguing the first dozen times, quite irritating every time after.

But Kay does write truly magnificent action scenes.  I would be perfectly happy just reading about one battle after the other, even though that would make for a ridiculously illogical plot.  But he writes them so well, paces them so perfectly, and never focuses too long on any one place or person.  They are magnificent and they are done just as well here as in any of his later works.

A wonderful, entertaining read, certainly one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read, but not quite as brilliant as Kay’s other books.

Read Full Post »

I adored the first two Alberto Manguel books I read: A Reading Diary and The Library at Night.  I am always searching for books about books and, of the ones I have read, Manguel’s have been by far the most eloquent.  He has a gift for describing his library and his reading experiences in a way that is very intimate but also recognizable.  I always come away feeling that he’s captured my experience exactly, though he is talking about himself.  For example, I think that most bibliophiles view their book collection not just as a library of knowledge and favourite stories but as a repository of very personal memories and experiences, specific to each book and the circumstances under which it came into their life.  Manguel understands this perfectly:

The library of my adolescence contained almost every book that still matters to me today; few essential books have been added.  Generous teachers, passionate booksellers, friends for whom giving a book was a supreme act of intimacy and trust helped me to build it.  Their ghosts kindly haunt my shelves, and the books they gave still carry their voices, so that now, when I open Isak Dinesen’s Gothic Tales or Blas de Otero’s early poems, I have the impression not of reading the book myself but of being read to out loud.  This is one of the reasons I never feel along in my library.

A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel is full of wonderful quotes like this but on the whole I can’t say I adored it as much as I did his other books.  I think I was just overwhelmed by the amount of information here and the dizzying array of topics covered.  The book is a collection of essays and while all of them incorporate Manguel’s experiences as a reader somehow, a large number are not particularly book-ish in focus: these are definitely essays by ‘a reader’ but they are certainly not always ‘on reading’.  Argentinean politics, gay literature and how to classify it, Voltaire and Frederick the Great, lots of Borges and Homer (as usual), ponderings on the digital age, even a consideration of proper comfort reading for hospital stays (Cervantes)…Manguel covers an overwhelming number of issues, of varying degrees of interest to this reader.  I certainly skimmed some of the sections – if you’re interested in Borges you will be well served by one section; I am not, so it was dispensed with quickly – but on the whole I was enraptured by Manguel’s thoughts, in awe, as always, of his vast literary knowledge.  This was also a more personal book than the other two I’ve read, giving more insight into his family background, his cosmopolitan early childhood, his school years and the many different book-related jobs he’s held as an adult all over the world.     

Reading Manguel just for the beauty of how he writes is always a pleasure but there is also a joy that comes with all of his literary references, particularly the obscure ones.  I am in awe of Manguel’s familiarity with all these books and poems and people and can only dream of what it must be like to have such a broad range of interests and to be so knowledge about them.  The reverence and respect I feel for him as a reader, not even as a writer, is part of what makes every Manguel reading experience so precious and why I take my time with his books.  Manguel, bless him, is a prodigious quoter, dropping in lines of poetry and passages from novels with delightful frequency and whether they are familiar to me or brand new they are always perfectly chosen and worth contemplating.

My favourite of the essays was “The Gates of Paradise”, a consideration of how erotic love is expressed by writers.  He examines the works of St John of the Cross, John Donne, a Sumerian poet circa 1700 BC, Nabokov, D.H. Lawrence, Marian Engel…the list goes on and its variety is part of what makes this essay so engaging. 

And then there are his lists: “Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Library” and “Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader”.  I love any kind of list but these – so delightfully random! – are better than most.  Here are a few points from each:

Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Library

  • The ideal reader is a cumulative reader: every reading of a book adds a new layer of memory to the narrative.
  • Ideal readers never count their books.
  • Reading a book from centuries ago, the ideal reader feels immortal.
  • For the ideal reader, every book reads, to a certain degree, as an autobiography.
  • The ideal reader is not concerned with anachronism, documentary truth, historical accuracy, topographical exactness.  The ideal reader is not an archaeologist.
  • The marquis de Sade: ‘I only write for those capable of understanding me, and these will read me with no danger.’
  • The marquis de Sade is wrong: the ideal reader is always in danger.

Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader

  • The ideal library has comfortable but supportive seats with armrests and a curved back, like those of the lamented Salle Labrouste at the Bibliotheque nationale de France.  The ideal library has ample desks, preferably with smooth leather tops. Sockets for electrical equipment (on condition that they perform in utter silence), and soft individual lights that remind you of the green-glass reading lamps at the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires.
  • The ideal library allows every reader access to the stacks.  A reader must be granted the freedom of chance encounters.
  • In the ideal library there are no forbidden books and no recommended books.
  • The ideal library (like every library) holds at least one line that has been written exclusively for you.

Reading Manguel allows me to indulge in the fantasy that I am more intelligent, more sophisticated and far better reader than I am in fact.  It is a valuable fantasy that brings me a warm, if deluded, inner glow.  Part of Manguel’s magic is making his readers feel included rather than condescended to, whether they are familiar with the books his is discussing or not.  I love writers who write about the books I read – the wonderful Anne Fadiman for instance, – love recognizing my own reactions in theirs and love getting to know a familiar book better through other eyes.  But I love Manguel for reminding me just how vast the world of literature is, how many centuries and continents I’m yet unacquainted with, and how beautifully poetry, novels, history, memoirs, etc all compliment one another, how all have something new and thrilling to share with their readers.

Read Full Post »

I loved The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay.  I loved it even more than I loved A Song for Arbonne.  Admittedly, if anyone had seen me while I was reading the last hundred or so pages, crying my way through them, they might have questioned if it was really love but, for me, it is only the really good stories, the ones that pull me in so completely, the ones with characters and conflicts that engage me intellectually and emotionally, that can make me cry and, in doing so, only make me love the book more.

For me, a huge part of Kay’s appeal is the historical roots of his fantasy novels.  Just as A Song for Arbonne examined a fictionalized medieval Languedoc, The Lions of Al-Rassan looks to medieval Spain, when the peninsula was divided between Christian kingdoms in the north and Moorish regions in the south.  In Kay’s fantastical interpretation, the Asharites, rulers of the rich, highly cultured, religiously tolerant Al-Rassan represent the Muslims; the Jaddites from the north, slightly rough and skeptical of refined arts, the Christians; and the Kindath, dressed always in white and blue, scholarly and scientific, ghettoized even in Al-Rassan, clearly the Jewish minority. The novel deals with the conflict between these religious groups.  As the Jaddites wage a holy war on a weakened Al-Rassan, bent on destroying those of other faiths, the Asharites are forced to look south across the water for support from the desert warriors who share their faith but not their culture of tolerance.  In such a bloody war, both victory and defeat are absolute. 

At the center of this conflict are our three main characters: Jehane, a female Kindath physican from Al-Rassan, Ammar, an Asharite poet, solider and diplomat, and Rodrigo, a Jaddite military commander.  All cultured, educated and well-travelled, they form a devoted if troubled trio, able to look beyond their differing faiths but always conscious that, eventually, their faiths and old allegiances will force them apart, onto opposing sides of the inevitable war. 

The story is told from a number of view points but Jehane’s dominates.  This has less to do with her personal importance than with the unique perspective she has to Ammar and Rodrigo and their relationship.  Constantly with them, the reader sees through her eyes their first fateful meeting and the close friendship that follows.  Both unusually skilled and knowledgeable in the ways of politics and war, they are always planning well ahead of anything Jehane could have anticipated, always perfectly in step with one another.  Kay is heavy handed with his foreshadowing here and from the (heavily dramatized) moment Ammar and Rodrigo meet it is clear how it must end but that does not make their conclusion any easier to bear, not after having followed their adventures and their friendship for hundreds of pages.  Hence the crying. 

As much as I came to respect Jehane and to admire both Rodrigo and Ammar, it was another member of their company, the youngest with the most to learn, the solider Alvar who was the most intriguing character for me.  The others are all extraordinarily tolerant of the unfamiliar and of those of other faiths because their past experiences have exposed them to other peoples and other cultures.  But twenty-year old Alvar, raised by a religious Jaddite mother, initially shares the prejudices of his fellow northerners.  As he comes to know and love Kindaths and Asharites, he still retains his old loyalties but is conflicted even as he is thrilled by King Ramiro’s vision of the entire peninsula united under a Jaddite ruler.  As a soldier, he now knows what the human cost will be, and, as a tolerant man of the world, he now knows the ‘unbelievers’ who will die are innocent of the crimes his faith would charge them of.  Alvar’s fate is revealed in the epilogue and, though it is not the great one he once seemed fated for as the protégée of Rodrigo, it makes a great amount of sense given how events unfolded. 

As in A Song for Arbonne, with its focus on troubadours, Kay uses poems throughout the book, generally presented as the creations of thoughtful Asharites, frequently Ammar.  They are quite beautiful and I was interested to read Kay’s note in his acknowledgements about those whose works inspired him: al-Mu’tamid, ar-Rundi, ibn ‘Ammar and ibn Bassam.  Their names mean nothing to me now but I love knowing where to turn if I want more information.  I am always so pleased when authors give any insight into their research process, especially when it is a topic so completely foreign to me (and medieval Islamic poetry of the Iberian peninsula certainly counts as foreign). 

I am certain that my poor knowledge of Spanish history made me oblivious to some of Kay’s careful parallels but ignorance in no way impaired my enjoyment of this book.  Because Kay writes fantasy rather than fact-based historical fiction, his books are able to stand on their own and always provide sufficient explanations about the politics and history at the heart of his stories.    

I found this to be a thrilling and complex tale of personal loyalties tested in extraordinary times.  It is quite miraculous how – rare for fantasy writers – Kay is able to balance the opposing forces, keeping the reader’s loyalties divided between Al-Rassan and Esperaña, never certain which we hope will prevail.  Each is equally flawed, equally alluring, just like Ammar and Rodrigo, the men who represent them.

Read Full Post »

I cannot invent.  I shall never, never be a novelist.  At the same time, I must write.  Why?  God knows.  So that I’m left with this diary, this useless, driveling diary.  If that is all I have, I had better get on with it.  (19 September 1924)

How wonderful it was to reread An Appetite for Life: The Education of a Young Diarist, 1924-1927 by Charles Ritchie!  I’ve read The Siren Years, Ritchie’s diaries written while working at the Canadian High Commission in London from 1937 to 1945, so often that I long ago lost count but I think I’ve only read this earlier volume once or twice, which is a shame but also a delight since everything seemed fresh to me.  Ritchie is, as always, marvelously candid and his daily ponderings – here, unsurprisingly given his youth, focused on women, sex, and school – manage to be both amusing and touching.

I shall let Ritchie introduce himself as I certainly could not do any better:

I am seventeen years old at the moment but will be eighteen next week.  By occupation I am a freshman at King’s University here in Halifax.  I have no character that I know of.  I try to be the characters I read about or the people I admire, to enter into their skins and act as they would, but no one notices.  They think I am just the same as ever.  My main vices are selfishness, vanity, self-consciousness, and talking too much.  Also, what the masters at school used to call ‘impure thoughts’, but I don’t know if that is a vice or not.  I am not altogether lacking in intelligence but I do not care about that.  I want to be handsome and dashing and self-assured, but I am angular, beak-nosed, narrow-chested, and wear glasses.  I am quite tall, but where is the good of that?  I am a compulsive diarist and a greedy reader.  (19 September 1924)

While the diaries do technically range from 1924 to 1927, only 1925 and 1926 are covered in any depth.  They follow Ritchie through his studies at King’s University in Halifax and, of more concern to the diarist, his romantic sufferings, on through to his first term atOxford, which proves to be very different than what he had imagined and planned for.

Ritchie’s pursuit of and conflicted feelings over his first love definitely enliven his time in Halifax.  Part of the joy of reading diaries from any period is recognizing that no, really, most things don’t change, that people are essentially the same with the same feelings and urges whatever century or country they may be from.  Ritchie’s group of young Haligonians seem to spend most of their time paired off in the back seats of cars, on sofas in dark rooms, or, when the weather allows, in remote outdoor settings.  Even as he’s pining over his fickle love, that doesn’t prevent Ritchie from enjoying what else is on offer (and, it must be said, there do seem to be a fair number of girls willing to do almost everything without any expectation of emotional attachment, which, clearly, is irresistible to the teenage boy).  But poor Ritchie, his libido is a trial to him, though his angst over it makes for amusing reading:

Wouldn’t it be nice if for one day and night I could stop thinking of sex.  I wonder if other people think of that one subject as often as I do, and not only thinking it.  I sometimes wonder whether I am a bit crazy and this spring weather makes it worse.  What would it be like to be castrated?  A jolly good idea I should think, then I could concentrate on my work, pass my exams, save money, and have a brilliant career.  People say that playing games takes your mind off it: ‘A healthy mind in a healthy body’ and all that stuff.  Certainly I don’t think fencing will make much difference.  Anyway I have not got a healthy mind and I am not sure that I want to have one.  (19 March 1925)

And just as it was interesting to know what young people were doing in the backs of cars in Halifax in 1925, it’s equally interesting to read Ritchie’s observations on how different things were among his British acquaintances once he arrived in Oxford in 1926:

It is quite true that these English undergraduates do seem incredibly young.  It’s the way they have been brought up.  For one thing, they have never had anything to do with girls except sisters and the odd girl they met at a tennis party or a dance.  They have never talked to a girl about anything.  They are mostly virgins though they would rather die than admit it, and they don’t know anything about petting as we practice it at home.  They talk about sex a lot but it is mainly smut and endless limericks.  There don’t seem to be any available girls at Oxford, only undergraduates and whores.  (30 October 1926)

What is particularly interesting to me is how the reality of Ritchie’s life at Oxford completely disregards the dreams and expectations he had built up for it.  Looking back regretfully at the end of his first term, Ritchie can only sigh over what has happened to him:

I went into the musty, empty Union to write a letter to Mother, and could think of nothing to say to her that would not be a lie.  She has an idea of my Oxford life that I used to have before I came up here – that I am taking advantage of a wonderful opportunity for which she is making sacrifices, and how can I explain to her what is really happening to me, especially as I don’t understand it myself.  Perhaps it is a sort of education, but not what we planned.  (15 December 1926)

On first arriving, Ritchie chose to ignore the established, close knit groups of other Canadian students and fell in with a fast set of assorted characters.  He developed a fondness for gambling, which he could not afford, started to be interested in a young married woman, “an enthusiastic amateur” prostitute popular among undergraduates, and, to cap it all off, hosted a disastrous dinner party that saw the guests taking pot shots at street lights from his window, one of which hit a young lady (happily, only a flesh wound).  If nothing else, his life offered variety: one day he’s tagging along when a flamboyantly gay friend goes to a notorious local pub looking to pick up, the next he’s off to a meeting of the Oxford Group.  Oh, Oxford in the 1920s.  Through all of this, he constantly laments his actions in his diary, vowing to turn over a new leaf every few weeks: to devote himself to hours of steady reading each day, interrupted only by exercise, tutorials, and lectures (which he confesses to finding pointless and quickly developed the habit of skipping in favour of reading the lecturers’ books).  The excitement, the guilt, the disappointment, the giddiness – it is an intoxicating mix, the essence of youth and particularly those first few months at university:

I wonder where the notion of ‘carefree undergraduates’, as described for instance by E.F. Benson in his novels, ever came from.  Most of my friends are hag-ridden by debts; dreading exams; and sexually frustrated in one way or another.  Yet who would want to be any where but at Oxford?  Certainly not I.  (14 December 1926)

These diaries were edited by Ritchie himself after the success of The Siren Years and there are obviously passages that were consciously selected because of how they reflected the course of his life: his lament at having no adventures, affairs, or encounters with famous people to record; his mother’s hope that he will people a great, important man of the world; and his own thoughts at various points on entering the diplomatic service:

So little happens to me that is worth recording.  No great adventures or tremendous experiences, or passionate love affairs.  I know no famous people whom I came describe for posterity.  (19 September 1924)

Ritchie went on to become one ofCanada’s most influential diplomats.  Among other postings, he was ambassador to the United States from 1962 to 1966 and was the Canadian High Commissioner to the UK from 1967 to 1971.  He came to have all the adventures and experiences he’d hoped for as a child, met countless people of note, and had a lengthy, very passionate love affair with the writer Elizabeth Bowen.  And, thankfully, it’s all very well and entertainingly documented through his diaries.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »