Archive for the ‘Canadian Book Challenge 6’ Category

Lunch With Jan WongIn a post-TMZ and Perez Hilton world, where the gleeful spreading of celebrity gossip and slander has become part of peoples’ daily lives, it is almost difficult to believe that the columns collected in Lunch with Jan Wong upset so many readers on publication.  Once called the “Hannibal Lecter of the lunch set”, Wong is a Canadian journalist who, from 1996 to 2002, interviewed celebrities over lunch for her column in the Globe and Mail newspaper.  Her aggressively forthright accounts of those meals enraged many of her subjects (and a fair number of her readers) but mostly serve to highlight the writing skills that so many “lifestyle” or entertainment columnists and gossip bloggers today lack.  She is funny and observant, sharp and, despite her reputation, sympathetic.  These are interviews, not fluff pieces; Wong was not there to write only flattering, glowing things about her subjects.  She was there to write about interesting people in an interesting and intelligent way.  And that is exactly what she did, making this a very entertaining book.

The majority of her lunch dates are with other Canadians, though a fair number of international figures also appear.  Wong is good at explaining each of her subjects’ backgrounds and accomplishments though, so it hardly matters if you’re familiar with the person already.  She talks to an impressive range of people, from all walks of life: there’s a hostile Margaret Atwood, a brawling beauty queen, sex therapist Dr Ruth, Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown, hockey commentator Don Cherry (this was the only interview that made me cry), pro-choice advocate Henry Morgentaler, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, cartoonist Lynn Johnston, Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, Hong Kong political activist Martin Lee, actor Anthony Quinn, and others.

Wong is tough on her subjects, there is no question about that, and, unsurprisingly, actors and writers caught up in the exhausting conveyor belt of public appearances and press interviews sometime snap under examination.  But, let’s be honest, that is where some of the fun lies.  The book begins with Wong’s very first “Lunch with” subject: Margaret Atwood.  Neither woman is at her best: Wong was given the story last minute and didn’t have time to do sufficient prep and Atwood is easily offended, by both Wong and their surroundings.  That is what makes this sort of interview fun: Wong is recording what happened during the brief period she spends with these people, not trying to provide a fair or balanced in-depth portrait of them.  If they were rude to the wait staff, if they were picky eaters, if they had bad table manners, Wong is sure to say.  She does not go off the record.

One of the best features of the book are the endnotes Wong provides to each interview, describing how the subject and the public reacted to the piece.  Delightfully, she quotes some of the complaints she received from readers, which sometimes seem founded and sometimes not.  Wong is marvellously thick-skinned about it all and I loved the balance these other perspective provide.

Though her subjects may complain and threaten to sue after publication, the majority of the pieces are positive.  Some of them are not quite as detailed as you might hope (her interview with Yo-Yo Ma gives a wonderful impression of his hectic schedule and impressive energy but very little insight into the man himself) while others are fascinating glimpses into the lives of less famous but no less interesting figures.  My favourite interview in the entire book was with John Cleghorn, then the chairmen of the Royal Bank of Canada, who admitted to having teared up (as I did) while reading Wong’s earlier interview with Don Cherry.

I have to admit that there was really never any chance I was not going to enjoy this book.  Wong was the reason I started reading the Globe and Mail as a teenager.  It is a paper with many flaws but, while Wong worked there, I always had something to look forward to, both in these interviews and in her more intensive feature pieces.  I have loved her four other books (three about her time in China as first an exchange student and then a journalist and one, which I will be reviewing soon, about her workplace-caused depression) and Lunch with Jan Wong, by far the lightest in terms of subject matter, was no exception.

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Holiday by Harry Morley

Holiday by Harry Morley

I’m one week into my holiday and I’ve managed to read three books already that featured vacationing characters.  I feel an immediate sympathy between myself and a book when this sort of coincidence occurs, though there is also a kind of comparison that happens: is their (fictional) holiday more appealing than mine?  Would I rather be off having the kind of adventures they are having?  But I am very happy where I am right now, thank you very much, and happier still to be able to share in these fictional holidays at the same time. 

The Honey QueenI had never heard of The Honey Queen by Cathy Kelly but that’s probably because it just came out this year.  I’d never read anything by Kelly before but, if this is anything to go by, she’s very Maeve Binchy-esque and I mean that in the best possible way.  Set just outside Cork, The Honey Queen focuses on a perhaps slightly too large cast of characters and the struggles facing each of them.  The highlight is the friendly and always sympathetic Lillian.  In her sixties, Lillie was given up for adoption at birth and taken in by an Australian family.  Recently widowed, she is still coming to terms with her husband’s death when her sons discover that she has a younger brother, Seth, in Ireland.  Seth immediately invites her to visit and Lillie, a little to her surprise, finds herself agreeing to come.  Lillie and Seth’s scenes made me tear up far more often than I should probably admit but as it is the purpose of heart-warming women’s fiction to elicit such tears I felt quite satisfied.  Lillie recognizes that Seth is going through a difficult period in his marriage and does her best to take the pressure off of him and his wife, Frankie, and allow them the time to figure things out.  She’s rather Mary Poppins-like, but less severe.  But this is only one of several households featured in the novel and all of them are interesting.  There’s even a twenty-something female character who opens up a knitting and sewing shop – something I know will appeal to some of my readers!  I will definitely be looking out for more Cathy Kelly books when I get home to the library.

Boys, Bears, and a Serious Pair of Hiking BootsBoys, Bears, and a Serious Pair of Hiking Boots by Abby McDonald was a surprise.  I found it while combing through the library’s e-book catalogue and, being intrigued by the blurb, downloaded this YA novel about a suburban New Jersey teenager who spends a summer with her godmother in the British Columbian Interior.

Jenna is an industrious seventeen year old who is devoted to environmental issues.  She cheerfully organizes protests and rallies, knows how to charm people into signing her petitions, and loves having equally passionate friends in her school’s Green Teen group.  With her parents heading (separately) out of town for the summer, Jenna finds herself going off to stay with her newly married godmother, Susie, in a small town in BC, where Jenna’s environmentalist beliefs clash with the reality of life in the wilderness.

Generally, my issues with romantic YA fiction overlap quite closely with my arguments against chick-lit: I can’t stand books about girls and women who spend all their time thinking about boys and how they look.  Thankfully, Jenna does very little of this and her only concern with footwear (the most annoying chick-lit cliché) is with having waterproof boots appropriate for outdoor pursuits.  Clearly, a girl after my own heart.  There are boys – they’re right there in the title – but they are Jenna’s friends before anything romantic begins to develop, the guys who take her rafting, fishing, rock climbing, and hiking.  That’s part of the real appeal of this book for me: Jenna does stuff.  A lot of stuff.  She throws herself into projects and I loved her excitement over the tourism website she and her new friends build, highlighting all the local outdoor activities, and the B&B that Susie and her husband are opening.  Jenna has her insecurities and concerns but mostly she is a confident, positive young woman with lots of energy that she’s trying to figure out how to channel.  She reminds me far more of myself as a teen than most fictional heroines do.

Nights of Rain and StarsMost recently, I reread Nights of Rain and Stars by Maeve Binchy.  There’s nothing quite like a Maeve Binchy when you’re on holiday and no matter how many times I read her books I am always happy to pick them up again.  (In fact, since finishing this one I’ve started rereading Scarlet Feather, one of my favourite Binchys.)  Nights of Rain and Stars focuses on four travellers who witness a tragedy in the Greek town where they are staying.  Away from their homelands, the four characters – Thomas, David, Elsa, and Fiona – find themselves drawn to the small community as they try and escape the problems they left behind.  Thomas, an academic on sabbatical, is missing his son back in California and dreading the influence the boy’s new stepfather will have on him.  David, a quiet and sensitive young Englishman, is avoiding the parents who expect him to go into the successful family business.  Elsa, a former news presenter, is trying to escape an old lover back in Germany and Fiona, a young Irish nurse, is clinging to the ne’er-do-well boyfriend her family and friends disapprove of.  With guidance from Vonni, an Irishwoman who’s been in Greece long enough to count as a local, they slowly begin to get their lives in order and face up to the conflicts they had thought to escape.

This isn’t Binchy’s best but it is still delightful.  Cathy Kelly might be Binchy-esque but nothing beats a bona fide Binchy.  Last time I read Nights of Rain and Stars, it was the dead of winter (or, you know, possibly April) in Calgary and I remember being holed up inside while a blizzard raged outside.  This time, I read it in the sunshine, hiding under an umbrella from the hot sun.  In either climate, it was a treat.

I have only a few more days left before we begin the drive home so will hopefully get some more suitably vacation-y reading in between now and then!

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Revenge of the Vinyl CafeThere is an art to telling a simple story.  Some people cannot do it.  They need to tell you all about the inner lives of their characters, even the aspects that have nothing to do with the story; they must describe the setting down to the smallest drop of dew on a leaf in a forest that none of the characters ever enter; and they must make absolutely sure that you appreciate the brilliance of the them, the author, as much as you appreciate their creation.  But it is usually the simplest stories that attract me the most, which is why I was so happy to read Revenge of the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean.

For almost twenty years now, McLean, a Canadian writer and broadcaster, has been telling stories on his CBC radio show, the Vinyl Cafe.  And for many of those years, I have been listening.  The highlight of any episode is the “Dave and Morley Story”, though these days the stories are just as likely to be about one of their children – university student Stephanie or preteen Sam – or neighbours.   They are humourous stories, particularly the ones focused on Dave (an enthusiastic record store owner who has never encountered a sticky situation he could not make infinitely worse), but they are so fondly and tenderly told that I more often than not find myself tearing up, sometimes even as I am laughing.

I love all the characters in Dave and Morley’s world and I love how their world is recognizable but also just a little bit different, a little bit nicer and warmer.  Nothing is perfect but everything is comfortable.  McLean is nostalgic but it is just the right level of nostalgia: for every story Dave recounts about his youth, there is a corresponding eye-roll from one of his children, wondering why dad has to tell that story again for the hundredth time:

Dave wasn’t fussed by that.  He knew he had told them before.  He knew what he was doing.  You have to tell stories over and over.  It is the creation of myth.  The only road to immortality.

It was the “road to immortality” stories in this collection that made me tear up.  For every screwball sketch about one of Dave’s antics (getting stuck on a treadmill, riding a bicycle on top of a moving car, finding himself trapped in the sewers, being mistaken for a patient when visiting a friend in the hospital) there was another story about memories and traditions being passed on to the next generation.  I cried over “Fish Head”, which does not seem a promising name for an emotional story but was, in the end, about Dave remembering his father and passing that memory on to Sam.  “Rosemary Honey” also got to me, a story about Dave and Morley’s ninety-year old neighbour Eugene.  Eugene longs to taste rosemary honey again, a flavour he remembers well from his Italian childhood, and enlists Sam and Sam’s friend Murphy to track the bees who congregate around his rosemary bushes back to their home.  And by the end of the book, exhausted by all the belly laughs and blinked backed tears from the previous stories, I had no energy left to withstand the final story, “Le Morte d’Arthur”, about the death of the family dog.  I cried when I first heard that story on the radio and I cried again reading it.  But they were good, healthy tears and I finished the book happy.

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I remember reading Max Braithwaite’s autobiographical trilogy of novels years ago, chronicling his (or the fictional Max’s) youth and young adulthood in Saskatchewan from the 1910s to the 1930s, and finding the books amusing but also surprisingly sombre.  Braithwaite is a humorous, colloquial writer but he is not afraid to address serious topics.  In doing so, he gives us an intriguing glimpse into the complexities of life on the prairies between the wars.

Never Sleep Three in a BedNever Sleep Three in a Bed was published in 1969 and is the gentlest of the three books in terms of the subject matter it addresses.  Covering the first eighteen years of his life, this book sees Max through infancy and childhood, his lust-filled teen years, and his emergence after graduation into a world reeling after the stock market crash of 1929.

Braithwaite is very open in talking about sex, though there’s not much to talk about given the years this book covers.  We do hear a great deal about lust and curiosity though and it is pleasingly frank.  There is nothing salacious here; just an honest record of what it feels like to be a hormone-riddled teenager in an era when adults refused to talk to children about sex.  When his father discovers Max looking at the Young Husband’s Guide to Married Sex (pilfered from his parents’ dresser), he replaces it with The Solitary Vice, a book that gave the thirteen-year old nightmares:

The writer of The Solitary Vice had the most graphic style of any writer I’ve since encountered.  He described the terrors of masturbation as they’ve never been described before.  Compared to it, leprosy, rabies, bubonic plague, syphilis even were no more than slight aggravations.  I can’t think of one catastrophe that wouldn’t befall the practitioner of this awful crime.  He would go blind, insane, hairy-palmed, impotent, until he cried out in his misery, ‘Oh who will deliver me from the body of this living death?’

I sat there on the edge of that bed, and the sweat poured off me in buckets.  I have never been so terrified of anything in my life.  Of all the good things my father did for me – and he did plenty – he came close to wiping them all out by placing that awful book in my hands.

Braithwaite maintains a cheerful matter-of-fact tone throughout the book, addressing the difficulties he faced without turning misfortunes into sob-stories.  His family was poor, constantly moving because they were behind on their rent.  In a family with eight children, there was not always a lot to go around (including beds, hence the torture of being forced to share one with two of his brothers).  With unusual anger he remembers how the teachers in Prince Albert sent his elder brother Hub back two grades after discovering that his spelling – just his spelling – was not at grade level.  An otherwise intelligent and hard-working boy, this soured Hub against the school system for life and Braithwaite takes great pleasure in ending the story by saying how successful his brother became as soon as he left school and began working.  None of this made the Braithwaite family unusual for their time and place.  In a province full of immigrants, in a time of large families and scarce jobs, they were hardly the only ones who struggled though, to a great extent, it appears that the children did not realise how difficult things were until they were much older.

Braithwaite is very proud of having grown up in Saskatchewan but does not try to ignore the problems communities faced as they tried to incorporate citizens from so many different countries, all of whom brought their own prejudices.  Catholic and Protestant, Ukrainian and French-Canadian, Chinese and Italian, there were religious and ethnic conflicts aplenty.  These are not cosy village neighbours who might spread rumours but would still be the first to help in a crisis.  No.  This is a place where the “Chink” who runs the diner is habitually scapegoated or where your angry neighbour might shoot your dog and never say a word about it.

The Night We Stole the Mountie's CarThe Night We Stole the Mountie’s Car, published in 1971, picks up four years after Never Sleep Three in a Bed (years chronicled in Why Shoot the Teacher?, which I did not read this time around), after Max has survived his first years as a teacher and acquired his wife, Aileen.   As the book opens, Max is trying to secure a teaching job in the town of Wannego.  He gets it, beating out more than fifty other applicants through a combination of determination (rather than mailing his application, he drove to Wannego to accost the school board), connections (it turned out his father knew the head of the board), and canny politics (playing the board members off against each other, farmers versus their natural enemy: the bank manager).  It is one of many reminders about the scarcity of jobs during the Depression and the lengths the unemployed were willing to go to in order to obtain a post.

The rest of the book looks at Max and Aileen’s experiences during their years in Wannego.  There are some discussions about the school and Max’s teaching but mostly Braithwaite focuses on the townspeople.  When he does mention teaching, it is usually to point out how chaotic matters were.  He had the privilege of working under an excellent principal but, even so, there was little to like about a teacher’s life:

Today, when we have better education that we’ve ever had, everybody is a critic.  Housewives, businessmen, garbage collectors, professors, sports writers – they can all tell you what’s wrong with education.  It costs too much; it doesn’t cost enough.  It’s too easy on the kids; they have too much homework.  Not enough physical education; too much emphasis on sports.  Not enough discipline; too much conformity.  Education is a hot topic in the news media.  On a slack news day every editor and television producer knows he can get somebody to make a pronouncement on education.  It beats pollution by a mile, or even the population explosion.

In the 1930’s when everything was wrong with education nobody talked about it.  Teachers were poorly trained, discontented, underpaid; school boards were made up for the most part of uneducated, sometimes even illiterate, farmers and businessmen.  But nobody cared.  When given a chance, speakers absentmindedly mouthed platitudes about how our education system was “second to none” and about how we were “building this rugged land on firm foundations.”

Only the teachers knew what was wrong and worried about it.  But the teachers were so low in the social and economic pecking order that their voices were rarely heeded.

What time Max doesn’t spend teaching is spent writing.  These years in Wannego are spent learning and refining his craft and receiving many, many rejection notices.  Though they must have been painful lessons to learn, Braithwaite is unflinchingly honest in his criticisms of his flaws as a young writer.  Having read so many plays this year and come to appreciate the skill it takes to write a successful one, I particularly appreciated his panning of his first attempt at writing one (which was staged by the town’s dramatic society):

We had our first practice in our living room, during which we just read through the play.  And I discovered a most horrible truth.  My lines were terrible.  Speeches that sounded so lively and scintillating to me as I wrote them came out trite, dull and ridiculous.  Not because the players were inept – that too – but because the lines were very bad.

Where this book really excels – and I think it is the best of Braithwaite’s three autobiographical books – is in its portraits of ordinary Saskatchewanites: their pastimes, their prejudices, and their pleasures.  There are humourous anecdotes about softball tournaments, rivalries in the rustic tennis club, and a town play (written, directed, and acted in by Max) but there are even more bluntly-told stories of the other realities of Depression-era life on the prairies: couples terrified of having another baby they can ill-afford; a pretty teenage girl whose single mother wants her to go live with one of her own male “friends” in the city; an alcoholic who tries to keep his drinking secret from a town that knows everything; and so, so many bright young men, forced to leave school early and work (when and wherever they can)  to help support their parents and siblings.  For this last group at least, there would eventually come a time when they could prove themselves:

Make no mistake about it, many of my generation of Saskatchewanites were saved by the war.  Boys I’d known at school who were brilliant and never had a chance to prove it joined the army or the air force or the navy and gained rank the way a healthy steer gains weight.  Soon they were lieutenants, flying officers, colonels.  They had a chance to prove their worth.  The war set them on a ladder of success and they never stopped climbing.

My grandfather was in this group, albeit in Ontario not Saskatchewan.  Pulled from school when he was fourteen and loaned out to neighbouring farms where he laboured in exchange for goods or to work off debts, it wasn’t until the war that he had a chance to prove his intelligence or initiative.  Like so many young men, he gained confidence there and though he stayed on the farm for a few years after the war ended he eventually ended up working as a radio and eventually television host, as well as working at both the federal and provincial levels of government.  He never stopped regretting that his schooling ended at Grade Nine but he, like many of his contemporaries, did not let that hold him back.

In both books, it is hard not to draw parallels between some of Braithwaite’s commentary on the Depression and the recession-riddled world of today.  When the Depression begins, he discusses how pervasive stock speculation had become, to the extent that “even the school-teachers, traditionally the most timid members of society, were getting into the act, and if that doesn’t indicate that something was wrong I don’t know what would.”  He also, like so many young people now, though his father and “his generation had let us down, got us into the horrible mess of the depression through neglect, stupidity, wrong values and unwillingness to change.”  Plus ça change…

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I have reviews of three excellent children’s books for you today, each containing those magic elements necessary in all good children’s books: new surroundings, limited adult supervision, and unlimited imagination.

The Magic SummerThe Magic Summer by Noel Streatfeild actually made me understand why people love Streatfeild so much.  I had never read any of her children’s books before, just Saplings, which, though children feature as major characters, is definitely an adult book.  I had been told that Streatfeild wrote children’s voices exceptionally well, but there was little sign of it in that book.  Here, on the other hand, the children come alive.

With their parents in the Far East, the four Gareth children are sent to stay with an eccentric great-aunt in Ireland.  Great-aunt Dymphna has no interest in basic domestic chores or children and so, for the first time in their lives, the children are left to fend for themselves.  The two eldest, Alex and Penny (ages 13 and 12), do their best to keep up the standards they are used to a home while their younger siblings, Robin and Naomi (10 and 9), are much quicker to recognize and embrace the freedom their great-aunt is offering.  The summer is spent exploring and learning, occasionally terrifying themselves as they test the limits of their abilities.  There is nothing fantastical about their experiences, which is part of what I liked so much about this book: the Gareths’ experiences are the same ones any child could have, consisting as they do of decidedly mundane tasks like learning to cook or memorizing a bit of poetry.  No magic spell or secret portal necessary: just determination and a willingness to try new things.

The relationships between the children were especially wonderful.  Though they all, to some extent, strike out on their own, mostly we see them together.  They try to support one another but they also snap and bicker.  With none of the pastimes they are used to available in their new surroundings, they become bored and bad-tempered.  They act selfishly and then are ashamed when they realise they ought to apologize (but really don’t want to).  They feel, in short, like real children.

Tom's Midnight GardenYou want to know who doesn’t feel like a real child?  Tom from Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.  I know people adore this book and will hate to hear any criticism, however minor, but they will have to forgive me.  He is flat but the book is not.  It is a magical story, about a boy who, while staying with his aunt and uncle, discovers that when the clock strikes thirteen each night in the lobby of their apartment building he is able to slip into the past.  Rather than the dreary, rundown apartment building of modern times (“modern” here being the 1950s, as the book came out in 1958) he finds himself back in the days when the building was a family home, when it was surrounded by a large garden instead of other buildings, and when a young girl, Hatty, lived there.  Most people cannot see Tom when he appears in the past but Hatty can and they become playmates.  Night after night, Tom visits her but with each visit she grows a little older, years passing in what for him is a single day.  Thought the ending was clear from the very beginning of the book, it still made me tear up a little.  I am so glad I finally read this.

The Secret World of OgBut the book I am most glad to have read, the one that entertained me the most, was The Secret World of Og by Pierre Berton.  Until recently, I had no idea that Berton, a Canadian historian, had written a children’s book.  Apparently, my father could have told me as much: this was one of his childhood favourites, having been published in 1961 when he was six years old.

When “The Pollywog” (otherwise known as Paul) disappears from the playhouse, his four older siblings set out to find him.  A manhole has been sawed in the playhouse floor and, lifting it, they find a tunnel descending into a mysterious underground world, full of green creatures who can only say “Og”.  Or can they?  As Penny, Pamela, Peter, and Patsy explore this foreign land, their fear and suspicion lessens with the more Ogs they meet.  Not only are the Ogs wearing familiar clothing – dress-up items that had gone missing over time from the playhouse, in fact – but some even appear to speak English, learned from the cowboy comic books that the children love so much and which, like the clothing, had been stored in the playhouse.

I loved everything about this book.   I loved the world of Og itself, with its giant tree-like mushrooms and its citizens who are happy to play make-believe all day, but mostly I loved the five Berton siblings.  Like any children, they love the idea of a world devoted to imaginative play and, even more, adore being authorities on subjects the Ogs are most eager to learn about.  But they also realise that sometimes fantasy needs limits and it can be just as exciting to discover real things as imaginary ones.  This book is so fun and clever and well written that I can understand why Berton considered it his favourite of his works and why it has remained a favourite among readers for fifty years.

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

Marg has the Mr Linky this week.

I had pretty much given up on the Eastern European Reading Challenge.  My focus the last month or two has been on making sure that I was on track to finish A Century of Books by the end of the year.  The Eastern European challenge I enjoy but – with an aim of only 12 books – it is not a point of pride for me like A Century of Books.  However, with only ten books now left to read for my Century, I realised that I might just be able to meet my goal for the Eastern European Reading Challenging as well.  Of course, on realising that, I immediately placed a number of library holds and here are the results:

The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of the War by Slavenka Drakulić – I read and love two of Drakulić’s non-fiction books for the challenge last year (How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed and Café Europa) so am looking forward to this.  Her writing is wonderful and I always feel that I learn so much from her books, about people and events I would never otherwise have known about.

The Birch Grove and Other Stories by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz – Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz’s work is familiar to every Polish reader, yet remains unknown to the outside world. The stories in this selection were all written in the 1930s, and provide an extraordinary evocation of Poland’s first brief era of independence between the wars. They are also timeless sonatas of love and loss.

When Eve Was Naked: Stories of a Life’s Journey by Josef Škvorecký – rather than write a conventional memoir, Škvorecký published this collection of autobiographical short stories featuring his fictional alter-ego Danny Smiricky.  Škvorecký had a fascinating life, from his childhood and early adulthood in Czechoslovakia to, after he immigrated to Canada in 1968, his work as a publisher and professor in Toronto.  But, as interesting as I find him, I do not always get on well with his writing so we’ll see how this goes.

Kafka’s Milena by Jana Černa – I knew nothing about this book when I placed a hold on it, except that I have no interest in Kafka.  But Milena Jesenska sounds like a fascinating woman – the flyleaf describes her as a “prominent journalist and translator, one of the most famous women in 1930s Prague” – so I am looking forward to learning more about her.

Silver Moon: Stories from Antonín Dvořák’s Most Enchanting Operas by Ian Krykorka (illustrations by Vladyana Krykorka) – I read this just as soon as I picked it up so I may as well give a mini-review now and check it off my challenge list.  This is a lovely children’s book from the Czech-Canadian mother and son team of Ian and Vladyana Krykorka, retelling the stories that Dvořák used as the basis for three of his operas.  They are all fairy tales with happy endings so it is quite natural to present them as stories for children this way – I wouldn’t necessarily do the same with La Traviata.  Silver Moon begins with “Rusalka”, the most famous of Dvořák’s operas.  It is a Czech version of “The Little Mermaid” about a water nymph who falls in love with a man.  Thankfully, it has a happier ending and a less suicidal heroine than “The Little Mermaid”.  The other two are stories I was not familiar with before: “The King and the Charcoal Burner” and “Kate and the Devil”.  “The King and the Charcoal Burner” plays with the always popular (especially with the Czechs) idea of a king wandering unrecognized among his people and then, revealing himself later on, rewarding them for the generosity they had shown.  Here he also manages to play match-maker, between a girl whose family had helped him when he was lost and hungry and a young man who saved his life in battle.  The final story, “Kate and the Devil”,  about a shrewish girl who is so irritating that even the Devil himself doesn’t want her in Hell, is the most amusing and I would love to see it performed.  The illustrations are more impressive than the text but this is still a charming book.

What did you pick up this week?

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When I was little – eight or nine years old maybe – I was utterly fascinated by the idea of one-room schoolhouses.  Reading Glengarry School Days by Ralph Connor, published in 1902 but more likely set during the 1870s of the author’s youth, reminded me very much of that old fascination.  Its schoolroom scenes have much in common with those from some of my favourite childhood books – L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series – but offer a decidedly and irresistibly male perspective on growing up.

Set in a rural farming community in Ontario, Glengarry School Days follows the adventures of the boys of Glengarry.  The existence of females other than mothers is acknowledged but not encouraged – the dark days of the Glengarry school include the period when two “girl” teachers reign over it – so instead we hear quite a lot about the boys’ games, their rivalries, their friendships and also their lives away from school, including both their chores and their hobbies.  It is an episodic book, each chapter standing alone, offering glimpses into Glengarry and its youth over a period of some years.

Though the book really centers around Hughie Murray, the minister’s son, I was most intrigued by Connor’s portrait of Thomas Finch, who is slightly older than Hughie but still a close friend.  A large and awkwardly-spoken boy at the beginning of the book, Thomas unexpectedly becomes Connor’s way of discussing masculinity.  Yes, Thomas is large and strong but when his mother falls ill with breast cancer, he is the one who does most of the caring for her, not his sister.  He is as “gentle as a woman” in nursing her and everyone in the community admires him for it.  He plays hockey and works the farm – very masculine pursuits – but at no time is that presented as being at odds with his nursing of his mother.  Connor doesn’t belabour the point – I have made more of it here than he does in the entire book – but I still think it is an important one: tenderness is just as natural an aspect of a man’s character as it is of a woman’s.

Ralph Connor was the penname for Charles Gordon, a Presbyterian/United Church minister, which explains why the book has such a strong moral tone – but not an unpleasant one.  I found it far more palatable than, say, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s or Louisa May Alcott’s books.   Hughie, for example, struggles with keeping secrets from his adored mother but rather than let things come to a dramatic crisis point, Connor lets Hughie work through his angst in a much more natural, internal way.  It felt true to the sort of dilemmas children do find themselves in and Hugh came off as a normal child who dearly loved his parents rather than a saintly one who would never sin again.

But the moral and religious strength of Glengarry is not limited to improving its boys; it also gets hold of Jack Craven, the last in a string of teachers the school has during the course of the book.  Craven comes to Glengarry after his wild ways get him thrown out of college – just the sort of reject who all too often was in charge of such rural schools.  He is not a natural teacher and prefers to follow his own preferences rather than any well-rounded lesson plan.  He also does not bother to discipline the children, though they come to love him and so a sort of discipline does develop.  Slowly, under the influence of his admiring pupils, Craven begins to feel the duty to reform.  But it is really Mrs Murray, the minister’s wife and Hughie’s mother, who inspires his transformation.  She is one of those perfect, saintly women who always say exactly the right thing and who, without a word of reproach, with only their consideration and support, can shame one into wanting to be a better man.  Such Madonna-like characters used to be very popular – especially as minister’s wives – and are now terribly unfashionable (for better or for worse).  Regardless of current standards of political correctness, it is under Mrs Murray’s influence that Jack Craven is inspired to evolve from rakish youth to theological student.

I really loved this book.  I loved the descriptions of meals that could rival even the dinners in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books; I loved the excitement of the students over the “treat” of a spelling match; I loved that it addressed – intelligently – some of the challenges about growing up and the urge that even the most polite children feel to rebel.  Mostly I just loved the fun of it, of getting a glimpse into a childhood that felt very real and very relatable but still very different from my own experiences growing up a hundred years later.

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Reading A.A. Milne’s The Day’s Play and Once a Week, both collections of pieces he wrote for Punch during the 1900s and 1910s,  this year has reminded me how much I enjoy good humourous writing.  The obvious next step was to reacquaint myself with one of my very favourite humourists and so I picked up Behind the Beyond by Stephen Leacock.

It was famously said that during the height of his fame more people had heard of Stephen Leacock than had heard of Canada.  Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town remains popular a hundred years after its initial publication but, though some of his other works remain in print, they are sadly less known.  Behind the Beyond came out in 1913 but the pieces in it are just as funny today as they were then.

The book begins with the title piece, a fantastic parody of a night at the theatre, making fun of both the play itself (here an all-too plausible melodrama, about an intergenerational love triangle with a dying heroine, the quality of which varies dramatically as the acts progress) and the audience’s reaction to it.  It is the audience that makes this piece still so funny because, honestly, people never change:

‘Monsieur Harding?’ he says.


‘Bon!  Une lettre.’

‘Merci, monsieur.’ He goes out.  The audience feel a thrill of pride at having learned French and being able to follow the intense realism of this dialogue.

All of the stories are little bits of nonsense but they are well-written nonsense, the kind of inconsequential but amusing writing that there used to be a huge market for in the popular magazines and newspapers of the day but, alas!, no longer.  Leacock muses on, among other things, visits to the dentist and barber, an encounter with a genial hustler on a train and, at length, the tourist experience in Paris.  I loved “Making a Magazine”, a satirical piece about a struggling author who dreamt he was the editor of popular magazine, the kind of man who had tortured and disappointed him so many times in his waking life:

“I came to say, sir,” the secretary went on, “that there’s a person downstairs waiting to see you.”

My manner changed at once.

“Is he a gentleman or a contributor?” I asked.

“He doesn’t look exactly like a gentleman.”

“Very good,” I said. “He’s a contributor for sure. Tell him to wait. Ask the caretaker to lock him in the coal cellar, and kindly slip out and see if there’s a policeman on the beat in case I need him.”

“Very good, sir,” said the secretary.

I waited for about an hour, wrote a few editorials advocating the rights of the people, smoked some Turkish cigarettes, drank a glass of sherry, and ate part of an anchovy sandwich.

Then I rang the bell. “Bring that man here,” I said.

I found it particularly interesting to read this after having read so much Milne this year because the overlap is so clear.  It is easy to distinguish between the two author’s styles – Milne would always be more aggressive, trying to fit in more laughs per line, though not always successfully – but their topics are very similar and they are equally playful in employing various rhetorical devices for comic effect.  What I do really do notice when comparing Milne’s youthful writings with Leacock’s more mature efforts (Leacock was 14 years older than Milne) from the same period is the polish.  Leacock’s work feels finished in a way Milne’s, however delightfully entertaining I may find it, doesn’t.  Every story in this collection is good.  Yes, some stand out but they are all amusing and, more importantly, the humour is sustained through each story, never petering out after a strong start or coming on strong after a weak beginning.  Leacock’s writing feels refined, like the art that it was, and you can easily understand why he was one of the leading humourists of the day.

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When I was little, I used to write a lot of letters.  There were the usual ones to grandparents and pen pals but the bulk of my correspondence went to my favourite authors.  Almost any time I read and enjoyed a book, I would sit down and write to the author (provided they were living – though at my most fanciful stage there might have been some letters written to L.M. Montgomery that I saved in my diary).  I kept this up for two or three years, probably from the age of nine to eleven, encouraged and provided with stamps by my parents.  But no one – absolutely no one – received (and answered, it should be noted) more letters from me than Gordon Korman after I discovered his Bruno and Boots series that starts with This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall!

There is something irresistible to a child about novels set at boarding schools.  There’s the Chalet School, there’s Hogwarts and, for me at least, there was always Macdonald Hall.  Located somewhere near Toronto, this fictitious boy’s school was the home for many years (and seven books) of Bruno Walton and Melvin “Boots” O’Neal.  When the series begins Bruno and Boots, best friends and roommates, are having a wonderful time until their headmaster Mr. Sturgeon (“The Fish”) decides to separate them after one too many of their spectacularly inventive pranks.  Bruno finds himself rooming with the brilliant but very odd Elmer Drimsdale while Boots is unfortunate enough to land with the snobbish hypochondriac, George Wexford-Smyth III.  Whatever it takes, the two boys vow, they will find a way of being reunited.

It is a slim book and the other characters aren’t as fully realised as later in the series but it is very well done.  Bruno and Boots’ plans – first to annoy their roommates into forcing another change, then to try to frame them for outrageous pranks – are simple but their tactics are typically original, from Bruno’s freeing of Elmer’s ant colony (wild creatures should not be caged, he explains) to Boots’ elaborate hoax convincing George that he is suffering from a rare and life-threatening illness that has infected half the school.  Through it all, there is The Fish, the omnipotent headmaster who has a far better sense of humour than he can allow the students to see.

Korman wrote This Can’t Ben Happening at Macdonald Hall! as an English assignment when he was twelve.  When I was ten that filled me with wonder.  Now it just makes me a bit depressed.  Bruno and Boots are loveable – as all harmless and good-natured pranksters are – and unforgettable but it was amazing to me how vivid and sympathetic some of the supporting characters are too, especially Elmer Drimsdale and The Fish.  The portrayal of Mr Sturgeon is surprisingly nuanced for an adolescent writer, capturing the adult sense of responsibility and discipline but also acknowledging the components of his personality he cannot share with the students, like his sense of humour and real affection for the boys.   But mostly I am impressed by the humour and the pacing – I find the jokes just as funny as an adult as I did when I was nine or ten and the story never lags.

I can think of countless other children’s and YA books that don’t come close to being this smart and I cannot think of any other fictional school which I would have been more excited to attend.  If only my gender hadn’t ruled me out for admission!  Though there was always something attractive about Miss Scrimmage’s School for Young Ladies, located directly across the road from Macdonald Hall, with its shotgun-wielding headmistress and innocent-looking schoolgirls whose pranks could best anything the boys ever concocted…

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A year or two ago, when sifting through family storage boxes, I came across Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down  by Zdena Salivarová, most notable for the terrifying alien girl on the cover.  (Note: there are no aliens in the actual text.  Sadly).  How this book came to be in our family, I have no idea.  It was with my grandmother’s books but I doubt she ever read it.  Presumably someone within the Czech community in Toronto gave it to her; 68 Publishers, the publishing house run by Salivarová and her husband Josef Škvorecký that focused on the works of exiled Czech and Slovak authors as well as dissidents still in Czechoslovakia (some of whom smuggled their works out via Canadian diplomats stationed in Prague), was based in Toronto and my grandmother ended up with quite a few of their books in her collection.  Some had pride of place on her bookshelves.  Not this one.  As far as I can tell, it spent three and a half decades languishing in a cardboard box.  Which is probably where it belongs.

Published in 1976, Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down is the story of Vera, a young Czech girl, who meets and falls in love with Janis, a Latvian student, while he is in Prague competing in a basketball tournament.  It seems to be set during the 1950s, as both teenage characters mention experiences as small children during the war, but the date is never definitely stated.  What is clear is the oppressive force of the communist governments in both their countries and the way it shapes their lives

The love story is very basic.  Two teenagers fall in love and go a little nutty, shirking responsibilities and desperately grabbing time together they can manage…the usual.  But what is unusual is the reason for their desperation: though both countries are communist, movement between the two is far from free.  From the start, Vera knows that Janis will never be allowed to stay in Czechoslovakia.  So she forms the plan to follow him home to Latvia.  Except even then she has to fight through the bureaucracy for permission to leave the relative freedom of Czechoslovakia for the brutally repressive USSR.  Given that the summary on the back cover describes this as “a tragic love story…a modern version of the Romeo and Juliet theme”, it is safe to say that it does not end happily.  On the plus side, there are no teen suicides so the Romeo and Juliet comparison was needlessly misleading.

Vera’s plight is contrasted by the adventures of her superficial cousin, Masha.  Masha’s mother, Vera’s Aunt Vilma, is a marvel who knows exactly how to work the system.  With the right connections (and enough money passed under the table), she gets Masha a place at university, finds her beautiful clothes, and always manages to get the most sought-after food.  And when the time comes, she is able to get Masha permission for her to marry her French boyfriend and immigrate to France.  Vera’s father is in prison and her mother has none of Vilma’s savvy so while Vera struggles fruitlessly to find a way East, she is constantly bombarded with updates about Masha’s glamourous life and unlimited freedom in the West, only further emphasizing the absurdity of the situation.

The writing was simple yet still somehow felt over-written, though perhaps over-dramatized is what I really mean.  It is written in short, staccato sentences with lots of bleak, unanswerable statements.  Not my style at all.  But, as a record of daily life at a certain period in history, it is fascinating.  The book is full of teenage couples sulking in the shadows, looking for the privacy they cannot find in their cramped family apartments where five or six people share two rooms.  Vera’s grandmother, an ardent Social Democrat, sulks about their home preaching the political ideology she still believes will triumph, despite the depressing reality that surrounds her.  And, of course, Aunt Vilma’s successes at massaging the system to work in her favour serve as a reminder of the power of a few well-placed connections and an ample bank account.

This is not a great book but it is still an interesting one.  I cared nothing for Vera or Janis but I did appreciate getting to see a new, more detailed and certainly more depressing perspective on daily life in 1950s Czechoslovakia than I had previously come across.  For me, the main value of the book was as a historical record, not as a memorable story.

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