Friday, 30 November 2012

I *Heart* Welsh

Elizabeth at the Cardiff Public Library

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (Part One)

My Thoughts on Reading the First Fifteen Chapters:

In the fairy world of Harley Street, London, where Titania curls up, asleep on the chesterfield, Margaret Hale inhabits a world pleasure and ease, where friends are defined as the people you dine with more frequently than any others, and emotions are never so strong that they cannot be appeased with a culinary delicacy.  But, under the superficial veneer of perfection, we see a world in which a nine-year-old girl, separated from her parents for the first time must muffle her homesick sobs uncomforted.  Margaret, surrounded by an assortment of frivolous behaviour is a model of balanced thinking and clear perception, keeping the fairy tale alive, and her individually intact (although subdued).  She is in tune with all that goes on around her and constantly fills in the gaps in courtesy created by her aunt and cousin: she sees when the guests have been left unattended, and rises unbidden to be a page-turner while Edith plays the piano.  The poor country cousin, she has lived in Harley Street as a companion to Edith for many years.  Now, Edith is to be married to Captain Lennox and will be living in Greece; Margaret will return to her parents' home in Helstone.

Helstone, as described by Margaret is like a village in a Tennyson poem; a small parish in the New Forest, too sacred and special for her to discuss flippantly with Mr. Henry Lennox, the brother of Edith's fiance, who teases her about it's fairy tale qualities.  When she returns to Helstone from London, Margaret revels in the outdoor world and enjoys long walks with her father; she visits with the local inhabitants and has freedoms she could not enjoy in the city.  But like Harley Street, the life in Helstone is couched in the language of fairy tales; Dixon, lady's maid to Mrs. Hale considers herself "the good and protecting fairy whose duty it was to baffle the malignant giant, Mr. Hale." (21)

In Harley Street we have glimpsed Margaret's self-restraint (in contrast with the behaviour of impulsive Edith), but when she returns to Helstone it is challenged in quick succession by an unwanted marriage proposal, and the revelation that her father is giving up his livelihood as an Anglican minister and relocating the family to a northern industrial town.  While Mr. Hale, dithering and indecisive, desires a change in external surroundings to distract him from the challenges of his decision, Margaret is able to draw on her own inner strength and resolve and to accept his decision.  Emotionally orphaned by her parents, Margaret is nevertheless able to move forward.  In one day, Margaret has made the transition from girl to woman (by a marriage proposal), and from child to adult, with all the responsibilities that entails.  She now joins the other adults indoors, her life of freedom in nature has been left behind. It is only through her strength of mind that she is able to survive this transition.  Lack of moral fortitude and self-control is exhibited by each of her parents in turn and serves as contrast for Margaret's strength of character.

Margaret is not without her doubts and anxieties, however.  In the privacy of her bedroom, she is able to go over all her thoughts about her day, the proposal, and her father's resignation from the church.  It is here, alone, that she is able to get in touch with her darkest fears.  This is Margaret's Dark Night of the Soul:
That morning when she had looked out, her heart had danced at seeing the bright clear lights on the church tower, which foretold a fine and sunny day.  This evening - sixteen hours at most had passed by - she sat down, too full of sorrow to cry, but with a dull cold pain, which seemed to have pressed the youth and buoyancy out of her heart, never to return. [...] She looked out upon the dark-gray lines of the church tower, square and straight in the centre of the view, cutting against the deep blue transparent depths beyond, into which she gazed, and felt that she might gaze for ever, seeing at every moment some farther distance, and yet no sign of God!  It seemed to her at that moment, as if the earth was more utterly desolate than if girt in by an iron dome, behind which there might be the ineffaceable peace and glory of the Almighty: those never-ending depths of space, in their still serenity, were more mocking to her than any material bounds could be - shutting in the cries of earth's sufferers, which now might ascend into that infinite splendour of vastness and be lost - lost for ever, before they reached His throne. (40)
Closed off, even temporarily from the comfort of her spirituality, and her religious faith, Margaret is also challenged by her isolation in society.  She realizes the implications of her father's resignation: they will no longer be accepted by their familiar society, either in Helstone, or in Harley Street.  One night whilst walking in the garden, Margaret sees the poachers who roam the New Forest in the dark.  In the past "the wild adventurous freedom of their life had taken her fancy," but this night she is very afraid.  She is entering a dark forest of her own as she leaves Helstone, and like the poachers will be outside the bounds of law-abiding, socially-acceptable, church-approved society that is her familiar home.  They will have to make their own rules and set their own boundaries in a foreign and (perceived) hostile environment.  As a child, the freedom and excitement of the poacher's life thrilled her; now, as an adult, she recognizes the dangers that come with such a life.  When she is very nearly locked outdoors in the dark, she fears her imminent exclusion from acceptable society.

But onward they must move, and Margaret maintains her role, and controlling her behaviour so well that the servants assume she does not have any strong feelings about Helstone, although her heart is breaking.  It is Margaret who makes all the arrangements for the move, taking the leadership role from her parents who have abdicated all their responsibilities.  In the transition from Helstone (Heaven) to Milton-Northern (Hell) is a short stay in Heston (Purgatory) where they are able to live fully in the present, where Margaret sits and rests, walks on the beach.  But although these Elysian Fields are enticing, she must continue to move forward.  On the train approaching Milton, they see the "deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay," (55) and Margaret is trepidatious but stolid.

The dark cloud over Milton foreshadows the darkness and gloom that will surround them as they settle in to their new home.  The fog surrounds them, pressing in upon them, and the stupour and sense of isolation that results increases the potential for lethargy.  The potential for everyone to sink into a deep lethargy and depression is very real.  Mrs. Hale has no inner strength upon which to call in these times of difficult transition.  Her fondest attributes have been her status and her beauty.  When these fail to support her she begins to collapse.  However, Mr. Hale is energized by his interactions with his pupils, the bustle of commerce, the machinery of industry and the men of power.  Margaret too, reminded of Henry Lennox's ability to change his thoughts, to put negative thoughts away from himself, begins to venture forth, and feels more comfortable in Milton when she meets local factory workers Nicholas Higgins and his daughter Bessy.  Home is where the heart is, and for Gaskell, and for Margaret, the bonds of the heart are formed by connections made with people.

Until this point, we have gotten to know Margaret through her actions and her thoughts.  While still in Helstone, Elizabeth Gaskell had described Margaret's appearance ironically, comparing her to a subservient beauty:
Her mouth was wide; no rosebud that could only open just enough to let out a 'yes' or 'no,' and 'an't please you, sir.'  But the wide mouth was one soft curve of rich red lips; and the skin, if not white and fair, was of an ivory smoothness and delicacy.  If the look on her face was, in general, too dignified and reserved for one so young, now, talking to her father, it was bright as the morning, - full of dimples, and glances that spoke of childish gladness, and boundless hope in the future." (17-18)
For the first time, we now see Margaret from the perspective of a stranger.  In Milton, she meets Mr. Thornton, a mill-owner with whom Mr. Hale has formed a connection.  When Margaret and Mr. Thornton are thrown together unexpectedly, we see a different Margaret.  He is over-awed by her undeniable beauty, by her social graces and her simple elegance.  "Mr Thornton was in habits of authority himself, but she seemed to assume some kind of rule over him at once," for:
Margaret could not help her looks; but the short curled upper lip, the round, massive up-turned chin, the manner of carrying her head, her movements, full of a soft feminine defiance, always gave strangers the impression of haughtiness. (58)
Margaret, on the other hand, is dismissive of Mr. Thornton, although she does notice that he is "sagacious and strong, as becomes a great tradesman."  Her prejudice of what she calls "shoppy people" is clear.  However, she is able to see in his attitude a man "of resolution and power."  Ironically, she has seen him at a moment of uncharacteristic weakness.

Veering again from the predominant point of view of the Hales, Elizabeth Gaskell changes perspective, and takes us inside the Thornton home as Mr. Thornton prepares to visit the Hales for tea.  In a home that reflects the well-ordered and disciplined lives of the inhabitants, the books lie in careful arrangement and the surfaces are clean and well-polished.  Mrs. Thornton and her son both share the same decisive step, just as they share the same hard resolve and uncompromising focus.  Their relationship is open, honest and easy - everything Margaret's relationship with her mother is not.  This contrast continues as Thornton enters the Hale home and sees the graceful cares and hominess that his own austere and showy home lacks.

Margaret has more opportunity to observe Mr. Thornton and although she finds that she "liked his smile," she is at odds with his defence of free market economics and his rejection of the way of life in southern England as indolent.  Mr. Thornton believes in a free market, one in which the market, free from legislative interference will find it's own balance.  He has a perspective on the industry that none of the Hales have.  He claims that "the power of masters and men became more evenly balanced; and now the battle is pretty fairly waged between us." (78) And the war-time terminology is apt, although the Hales are not comfortable with his discussion in terms of outright class battle.  To illustrate his economic theories he uses his own life as an example of how, by self-denial and good habits he has risen to a place of authority in Milton society.  His life story, although more dramatic, and more tragic parallels the transition Margaret has just made, with the loss of all that was important to him, and the necessity "to become a man (as well as I could) in a few days." (78)

North and South is a kind of inverted fairy tale.  From her place in refined and educated London society, Margaret is removed through no fault of her own, and ends up in a very different life that involves work as a scullery maid, doing the laundry in a pokey kitchen.  Mr. Thornton has definite ideas about the power of self-denial and hard work resulting in an elevation of "authority and order."  the Hale's loss of social status can be equated with Thornton's own disgrace when he was removed from school and had to become a wage-earner for his mother and sister.

Elizabeth Gaskell
A deeply ingrained sense of responsibility is a central characteristic of Margaret's socialism, and is the focus of her debate with Mr. Thornton about his workers.  He fails to see, as she does, that as a recipient of his mother's wisdom and good teaching that he has a duty to pass these skills along to his workers.  As a capitalist, he is more inclined to see that he and his workers are in an economic relationship for the duration of their working hours, and that he bears no responsibility for them afterwards. This, he claims, is none of his business.  If the workers were only to apply themselves, they too could rise to positions of authority.  Margaret asserts this as a moral responsibility (invoking Biblical teaching), although not perhaps a legal one, while Thornton looks to the rules of capitalist economics for his guidelines.

If the industrial workers are treated as children, Margaret believes they will remain infantile in their development, but if the mill owners, and others in authority were to act as mentors, to teach the skills of self-denial, and discipline, then they would stand more chance of elevation.  To re-enforce the point beyond demonstrating the obvious examples amongst the mill owners and the workers, Elizabeth Gaskell gives Mr. Thornton the most weak-willed, the most frivolous, petty and silly sister it is possible to imagine.  In the character of Fanny Thornton we see Elizabeth Gaskell's argument for the necessity of offering a guiding light to those without internal strength of character.  Raised by the same domineering mother, John and Fanny Thornton are the products of both their own natures, and the influence of their powerful mother.  Whereas she taught all these skills of discipline and self-denial to her son, she had abdicated her responsibilities for teaching Fanny.  She had accepted that Fanny was weak-willed and:
she felt instinctively that nothing could strengthen Fanny to endure hardships patiently, or face difficulties bravely; and though she winced as she made this acknowledgement to herself about her daughter, it only gave her a kind of pitying tenderness of manner towards her; much of the same description of demeanour with which mothers are wont to treat their weak and sickly children.
 If Mrs. Thornton had only exposed Fanny to the same rigorous upbringing, as she did for her more loved son, perhaps she could have overcome some of her natural defaults and been a person of more depth and less impulsive frivolity and weakness.

Illness as a manifestation of this weakness of character is demonstrated in the character of Mrs. Hale, who, unable to adapt to the changed circumstances of their new life in Milton has no inner resources left and literally cannot stand on her own feet.  The illness experienced by Bessy Higgins, the cotton worker Margaret be-friends, is not however a matter of her own individual weakness so much as an indication of the weakness of the system that caused her illness.  Like the peasants trampled under the feet of the triumphal returning generals, the Industrial Revolution has it's own innocent victims.  Getting to know Bessy greatly influences Margaret's attitudes toward the economic system she sees as responsible for her friend's illness.

It is also hearing the details of her brother Frederick's exile that re-enforces for Margaret the importance of her socialism, and her Christian moralism.  Frederick had been convicted of mutiny aboard his naval vessel, and fearing for his life had fled the country.  He had lived many years abroad, finally settling in Spain.  It is the main tenent of the Hale family that:
Loyalty and obedience to wisdom and justice are fine; but it is still finer to defy arbitrary power, unjustly and cruelly used - not on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of others more helpless. (100)
Helping the helpless is also a central tenent of Christ, and as Margaret nurses both Bessy and her mother and encourages Thornton to do the same with his workers, she is bolstered to hear the story of her brother who made such a courageous sacrifice for the weaker members of his crew.

These are my thoughts, such as they are as I read the first quarter section of North and South.  I am thoroughly enjoying Elizabeth Gaskell's writing.  There is much to ponder in every short chapter.

(Please see here for my thoughts on Part Two)

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Sent by her employment agency to the home of Miss LaFosse, a flighty night club singer in 1930s London, Miss Pettigrew finds, not the governess position she was expecting, but a door to a new world full of experiences and emotions, sights and challenges that change her internally and externally.  Miss Pettigrew has landed at the right place and the right time for a transformation.  She immediately becomes a welcome, or rather, essential participant in a vibrant and exciting world of romance, intrique, beauty and high society.  A true Cinderella, Miss Pettigrew relaxes into this world, and drops her judgmental notions of morality and proper behaviour (with the help of some alcohol).  She is accepted for her inner charm, and dons the metaphorical glass slipper with grace. 

Winifred Watson

This is a delightful romp of a book.  A healthy dose of suspended disbelief is essential!    It is fun (and funny!), light-hearted, and optimistic with snappy dialogue and well-drawn characters.  Miss Pettigrew's inner dialogue is one of the most endearing aspects of her character.  Published in 1938, it is firmly set in its time, with a few telling comments about Jews, and Italians, and women which are extraneous to the general tone of the book.  I recommend it.

Friday, 23 November 2012

How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster

Thomas C. Foster has indeed written a "lively and entertaining guide to reading between the lines," as the subtitle of his book claims.  An excellent refresher course for those who have made a formal study of literature, and an equally relevant introduction for those whose reading has been strictly for pleasure.  

What I liked about this book:
Thomas C. Foster gives a variety of examples for every topic he covers.  When he writes about, for example the theme of The Quest, he summarises the five necessary elements of the quest, and shows how they are evident in works as diverse as Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queen (1596),  Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 (1965), J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and the movies North by Northwest and Star Wars.   

He doesn't just write about novels but includes short fiction, poetry, movies, and fairy tales from a variety of genres and time periods.  This was beneficial for me in certain categories when the movies were more accessible than the works of American short fiction he frequently used.

I loved the exercise at the end of the book... a case study on The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield.  The entire text of the short story is included, and he invites the reader to examine it in context of the information in the book.  Afterwards, he includes two student interpretations of the story as well as his own which were highly enjoyable to read.

What I disliked about this book:
I was not expecting him to reveal crucial plot points of so many books.  I see why he did it, and obviously the times he did greatly enhanced his arguments, but I still would have prefered it to have been done less frequently, or in less detail, or perhaps with more obscure titles that I'm less likely to read.

Here is an example of one of the more conversational passages to give a sense of how some of the book is written in a very informal tone:
When you sit down to read a novel, you want character, story, ideas, the usual business.  Then, if you're like me, you'll start looking for glimpses of the familiar: hey, that kind of feels like something I know.  Oh wait, that's out of Alice in Wonderland.  Now why would she draw a parallel to the Red Queen here?  Is that the hole in the ground?  Why?  Always, why?

Monday, 19 November 2012

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

All I knew about Anne Morrow Lindbergh before reading Gift from the Sea was that she was the wife of Charles Lindbergh the aviator, and the mother of Baby Lindbergh who was stolen from their home and murdered.  I set all that aside as I tried to get to know the woman behind the newspaper stories.  But Anne Morrow Lindbergh lets us into her mind, not her life, and although I feel that I know who she is (was) much more, I am still vague about the details of her life.  And I couldn't be more pleased with that.  For, whatever the circumstances of her life, Anne Morrow Lindbergh has a mind that is worth getting to know.

For a couple of weeks in the middle of raising a large family and running a busy home, Anne Morrow Lindbergh escapes to a cabin on the seashore to write and replenish her spirit.  She writes and writes, mainly to work out the issues that confront her as a woman and a mother.  Using the seashells she finds on the beach as symbols, she delves deeply into the tender topics of fulfillment, and love, and marriage, and motherhood.  As she later discusses these topics with other women, she sees that she is not alone and decides to share her writing with others.  Almost sixty years later her words continue to resonate.

She writes that the challenge of every person (although she mainly focuses on issues of motherhood and womanhood) is to be at peace with oneself in order to face the demands of the modern world.  Anne Morrow Lindbergh shares her thoughts on what we can do to make it easier to stay focused and peaceful. In her beautiful and gentle manner she examines the ways we can bring ourselves back to ourselves through quiet time alone, contemplation, prayer, music, a centering line of thought through reading or study or work.  We must make time to be inwardly attentive.  It is from this place of inner calm that we will be strong enough to face our responsibilities.

I wish so much that I had read this book ten or fifteen years ago when I was on the verge of motherhood.  But, as I read the passages about valuing middle age as a new stage of living, "as a period of second flowering, a second growth, even a kind of second adolescence," rather than a period of decline, I think of her as a mentor for the next decade of my life.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

The Painted Door by Sinclair Ross

This is a story that features in virtually every winter-on-the-prairie novel ever written: caught in a blinding blizzard, a character tries to find his way home without freezing to death while at home they watch, worrying at the window for any sign of life on the barren landscape.  Pa did it in On the Banks of Plum Creek, and the Drylanders did it more than once.  In his short story, "The Painted Door," Sinclair Ross focuses not so much on the events of the story, as he does on the wandering thoughts of the lonely Ann as she is once again left on her own in the farmhouse while her husband John is out in the blizzard.  This is the story of her desperation and madness that drive us to the story's dramatic conclusion.

John has decided that he must visit his father five miles across the barren winter prairie landscape to help with his chores and check up on him.  Walking alone across the snowy wilderness is something John does with confidence.  He was raised on the prairie and has endured many such storms.  But Ann reminds him that they had seen a "double ring around the sun," a sure omen of a coming storm.   John is dismissive of her worries, comforting her by saying he will invite their neighbour for dinner and cards, and to expect him back for a late dinner.

Isolated, not only from her husband and their distant neighbours, Ann is also isolated from the landscape in which she lives.  Ann believes that his journey is too dangerous, while admitting that he was knowledgable and experienced.  The house protects Ann from the worst of the storm, but she is haunted by the silence after John leaves:
It was the silence weighing upon her - the frozen silence of the bitter fields and sun-chilled sky - lurking outside as if alive, relentlessly in wait, mile-deep between her now and John.  She listened to it, suddenly tense, motionless.  The fire crackled and the clock ticked.  Always it was there.
To fight off the silence, Ann begins to talk to herself as she paints the door and trim in the kitchen.  She thinks about how their lives have enclosed in upon them, unable to relax when they do have fewer responsibilities in the winter, and no longer involving themselves in the community.  She complains to herself about her life and voices her grievances aloud.  The storm continues to batter the house, causing it to sway and vibrate.  She feels brave enough to attempt to tend the livestock in the barn, but when she steps outside, the storm is angry and fights to get her "as if all its forces were concentrated upon her extinction."

It is at this point that she loses control and has a shift in self-awareness.  Her self-pity have overtaken her, and she breaks free of her restraints in a moment of madness.  These feelings coincide with the arrival of their neighbour, Steven, and in a state between dreaming and waking Ann fills the void for companionship.  She chooses to satisfy herself at the expense of the long-term love and devotion from her husband, John.  The consequences of her action are dramatic and immediate and the tragic irony is that it is only through discovering what she does not want that she loses what she most wants.

I am looking forward to reading As for Me and My House, Sinclair Ross's novel this year, as well as his short story collection Lamp at Noon

Friday, 16 November 2012

Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon

Louis Hémon, a Frenchman, visited Canada and lived and worked among the Francophone peasants (les habitants) of the Lac-St-Jean region of Québec in the early years of the twentieth century.  A writer with several published pieces in Parisian journals, Hémon had earned a degree in modern Oriental languages, and learned English from an extended stay in the United Kingdom.  He recorded his observations of les habitants and created a work of fiction he titled Maria Chapdelaine.  Tragically, Louis Hémon was killed by a train in Chapleau, Ontario six months before Maria Chapdelaine was published in serial form in Paris in 1914.  After publication, the novel languished until it was translated and republished in 1921 when it gained international recognition.

The titular heroine is the eldest daughter of Samuel Chapdelaine (whose name is surely a nod to the father of Québec, Samuel de Champlain); a beautiful, healthy, and gentle girl, Maria is described as an "inaccessible beauty," - not for her coldness, no, only for her geographic isolation.  The Chapdelaines live twelve miles from the church, and two miles from their nearest neighbour.  They moved into the region seven years previously from an old parish from which Maria has recently returned from a rare visit with family in that town.  For a girl isolated from regular society, it had been a thrilling adventure.  As Samuel and Maria leave the church they meet an old friend, François Paradis.  Now a wilderness guide and a coureur de bois, François and Maria are pleased to be reaquainted.  He promises to visit the Chapdelaines.

The Chapdelaines are peasant farmers, clearing their land in the harsh climate; for Samuel it is the only work he loves.  Madame Chapdelaine would prefer to live in an old parish rather than in the woods but she bares her burden with little complaint, and when pressed, defends the life of the farmer as preferable to any other.  They work together in harmony and unbegrudgingly, each with his or her own responsibilities.  Tragedy, loneliness, and struggle are the enduring themes of the farmers of the region, and the Chapdelaines are not excempt from their share of challenges, but Hémon elevates them to heroic and sacred status.

From the first paragraph, Hémon establishes the contrast between the icy, snow-covered gloomy greyness of the landscape with the "unquenchable joyousness of a people ever filled with laughter and good humour." These happy peasants are depicted as hard-working simple folk who find comfort in small pleasures and a common faith in a gracious God.

Maria is presented with three suitors, each a symbolic representation of the lifestyle choices for les habitants.  Will she choose the nomadic man of the wilderness, the settled farmer, or the ambitious dreamer who lures her with the pleasures and ease of a life in America?  Much depends on which man she chooses, for Maria herself is herself a symbolic representation of nothing less than the future of the French in Canada. 

François Paradis in the Blizzard, composition for page 123 of Maria Chapdelaine (detail), 1932. Monotype enhanced using pastel and/or coloured pencil on fine paper, bound onto cardboard. McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Gift from Colonel R.S. McLaughlin (1969.4.37)
This novel reminds me in several ways of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Evangeline.  Both are stories of the life of a sweet, pious girl in a simple peasant environment set in Canada, but written by non-Canadians and extolling the virtue and nobility of a simple woman's devotion to God and innocent love for a man.  Like Evangeline, Maria lives surrounded by "the forest primeval," and grows to womanhood pure and honest and admired by all.  Evangeline is the representation of the sad plight of the Acadians, torn from their homes and each other, and set adrift in a foreign land.  Maria, the symbol for les Canadiens, also loses her individuality when she makes her choice of husband based not on her own personal wishes, but in answer to the plee of her nation to "hold steadfast to the land of Quebec and pledge to endure."  Both women have sacrificed themselves at the altar of national identity.

I thoroughly enjoyed Maria Chapdelaine.  Hémon has set his story in a very specific time and place, but the themes of the novel resonate.  Under the lovely veneer of community cohesion and simplicity, there are other, darker themes of the danger and loneliness of such a life, of the loss of individuality and of the excessive power of the church, but Hémon does not delve into these issues.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

I *Heart* Books

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge, first published in 1974, was one of five of her books to make it to the Booker shortlist without any of them actually winning.  And that is a shame really, when you think of what a brilliant writer she is, and the benefits winning the prize would have brought.  I picked up a copy last minth on a lark, having read Every Man for Himself when it was released in 1996.  I will admit to not remembering much about the book other than that I liked it enormously, and that it was about the Titanic.

The Bottle Factory Outing is a dark comedy, hilarious, and at times put me in mind of an Arsenic and Old Lace for its ludicrous combination of comedy and tragedy.  Freda is a gregarious drama queen who dreams of being swept away to a life of romance and love, a life dramatically different than the one she lives, sharing a bedsit with a cowering, pathologically insecure roommate, and working in an Italian wine bottling factory in the dingy back streets of London.  The object of her affections is Vittorio, the mustachioed Italian trainee manager whom she attempts, rather aggressively, to seduce. 

Freda's frumpy roommate Brenda, on the other hand, seems to attract the attention of men without desiring it.  Having separated from her slow-witted alcoholic farmer husband in the north, Brenda spends a great deal of energy fighting off the advances of the men at the factory, both married and single.

Freda is a dreamer.  She dabbles in workers rights, agitating until they have crates to sit on while attaching labels to the wine bottles.  Freda has planned a Sunday outing for all the factory workers., and deams of a day of absolute romance, sunshine and comradery (and maybe even success in seducing the elusive Vittorio!).  Before the Outing, one of the older Italian ladies, Maria, from the factory visit the ladies at their bedsit and reads Freda's tea leaves.  She sees Freda in a white dress, a voyage over water, men in uniforms and horses... what can it all mean?  Surely, the Outing will be a great success!  Brenda, on the other hand is terrified of the Outing and in her cowering manner just  knows that it is all going to go wrong.

 Beryl Bainbridge is masterful at revealing with minimal description.  I especially love the way she describes characters by focusing on one aspect of their body; I see so much of Freda with those toes curling on the carpet, and in Patrick's paper white chest under the open front of Brenda's dressing gown.  The description is sparse, but there is are no gaps for us to attempt to fill.  We see the whole through the parts, and the same is true with her ability to craft dialogue.

I will be keeping an eye out for all of Beryl Bainbridge's books and will recommend them to everyone I know who loves great writing.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

I know of Colm Tóibín more for his presence on the judging panel at the Giller Prize a few years ago than for his work.  I lucked upon a $7 cloth of Brooklyn this week which I snatched up as quickly as I could.  I had heard that it was a good read, and I was curious to get to know Toibin. I spent some time in his home town of Enniscorthy, in co. Wexford, Ireland, a few years ago and was keen to re-visit, if only via the pages of a novel.

Brooklyn begins in Enniscorthy as Eilis Lacey, a young girl with a head for numbers is offered work at the village shop.  Eilis lives with her sister Rose and her widowed mother.  Her three brothers have gone to England because work is so scarce in Enniscorthy, so she is pleased to find something she can do, even if just once a week.  When Father Flood, an Irish priest living and working in New York visits the Lacey home and offers Eilis a job in Brooklyn, she feels that she must accept.  She leaves her home and family and starts a new life in America.

In Brooklyn, she settles in to her boarding house with the tempermental landlady, and her rather frequently inhospitable housemates, and begins work as a shopgirl in a department store.  After the initial excitement of transition has died down, Eilis receives her first letters from home, which overwhelms her with loneliness.  The helpful Father Flood manages to alleviate her homesickness by involving her in charity work in his parish, and enrolling her in a Brooklyn College book-keeping course.

Eilis attends the dances at Father Flood's parish church, and there she meets a young Italian-American man named Tony who makes it clear that he's madly in love with her.  She has opportunity for promotion at work and has a pleasant bedroom at the boarding house with enough room for her to comfortably study.  She spends all her free time with Tony who is deeply in love with her.  When she must return to Ireland, she has to decide whether she will return to New York, or choose to live a familiar and easy life in her Irish hometown.


Eilis is a girl without a plan.  She is given opportunities for a more prosperous life without having any personal ambition.  At every bend in the road Eilis encounters people who want to help her: Georgina, her berth-mate on the passage over shows her the ropes of ocean travel, Father Flood eases her transition into her new life, Mrs. Kehoe (her irascible landlady) offers her the best bedroom in the house because she likes Eilis.  But Eilis has no voice to declare that she does not want these favours.  This life she now lives is not of her own choosing.  She has drifted into her life by not asserting her own will, and by letting others make decisions for her.  "Even when she woke in the night and thought about it, she did not allow herself to conclude that she did not want to go."  She allows herself to be something of a plaything of fate merely by silencing her own desires.

In his calm and understated style (much like the character of Eilis herself), Colm
Tóibín has created a character who has the potential to be frustrating to read.  And sometimes she is. Because she is shy and wishes to avoid confrontation, Eilis is carried further into situations than she feels comfortable with.  She pulls back, but does not speak out, so there is a tension between what is happening to her, and her incremental acceptance that "she had no choice, she knew, but to put it swiftly out of her mind."

On her return to Ireland she is able to see for the first time how much she has changed - how much New York has changed her.  She is the focus of attention in her home town with her American clothes and mysterious life abroad.  But living in Ireland again, her life in New York seems like a dream.  She finds her stride with her old friends, is offered a job, and love, and a home.  But her other life is there waiting for her to return.  No matter which life she chooses, she will make it a good life, but having lived so many years apart from my parents and siblings, my heart was voting for her to choose Ireland rather than America.  (I was also not convinced that she loved Tony).  But more than one location or the other, I really just wanted Eilis to make a decision based on her own desires rather than being forced into her choice by others.  I'll leave you to read the book to see what she decides.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma

When I saw this book on the shelf at the public library my interest was piqued.  I was raised by parents who believed in the power of books, and as children, my siblings and I were read to on a daily basis.  Some of my most powerful and comforting memories are of my parents reading to us as we lay strewn across one bed or another, cuddled on the chesterfield, or in the car on long drives.  When I was about five, Mum bought me a complete set of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books and they were treasured possessions throughout my childhood, read and re-read and re-read.  But more than Laura Ingalls Wilder, it was Lucy Maud Montgomery who stirred my soul.  A perennial favourite after Anne of Green Gables was Rainbow Valley.  As children of the manse we felt a connection with the wild motherless children who accidentally and scandalously did their spring cleaning on a Sunday morning!  As we got older she read us more adult books such as the autobiography of Johnny Cash, The Man in Black which required, I am sure, some judicious on-the-spot editing.  I was powerfully affected by Corrie Ten Boom's The Hiding Place and even that gem of the Christian gangster genre, The Cross and the Switchblade.

This book is the story of a elementary school librarian father and his daughter who had a habit of reading together in the evening, but when she was nine years old they made a promise to read together, initally for one hundred consecutive nights, and then one thousand, and their streak ended up continuing for almost nine years.  Jim Brozina, Alice's dad, has written a touching tribute to his daughter in the foreward.  A single dad who clearly loves books, he finds a way to connect with his daughter through a daily commitment to spending time together.  What a gift!

Alice Ozma

Light-hearted and humourous, Alice Ozma (yes, named for that Alice and that Ozma) records the inspiring journey she and her father take to accomplish The Streak.  They read on the phone during impromptu middle-school sleepovers, on the train, on prom night, and touchingly, on the day he delivers her to university.  They read their way through classics and modern issue-driven stories and series.  From Dickens and Lois Lowry to Jerry Spinelli and Shakespeare, Alice Ozma reflects on what that commitment meant to her, and how it shaped her life.

In a simple writing style she presents vignettes of their life together.  Other members of their family and even friends and extended family fall into the background; this is the story of father and daughter, and their shared love of books.  Alice Ozma has a lovely narrative voice, enthusiastic and fresh, and she takes on the challenge of writing a memoir at such a young age with honesty.  At times the memoir aspect of the story unnecessarily superceded the theme of reading, and since her mother did not appear to be a big part of her reading life, it might have been more prudent to leave her involvement out.  However, by including stories of her mother's rather dramatic shortcomings (infidelity, suicide attempt and abandonment) she does make it clear that she had challenges to deal with, and that reading was a healthy escape for her, and a way for she and her father to bond during trying times.  What I feel is missing from this book, and what I would have loved to have heard more of, is how she and her father interpreted the books they read, how they were affected and challenged and comforted and supported by them.

Alice Ozma and her father, Jim Brozina are both in their own ways continuing to champion books and reading, especially for young children.  The final chapters which document the decimation of her father's life work in the public school library which led to his early retirement leaves us hanging  Apparently this will be reconciled in the paperback version which will include updates on the past few years since the book was written.  I would recommend this book for parents keen to incorporate reading into the lives of their young children, for educators, and for those with booky childhoods as a bit of nostalgia.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

These roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villan, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera compaies orgnized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.
                          Tho. Overshou (Den Danske Skueplads)
Written as a response to a flippant and factually incorrect biographical summary on the event of his retirement from teaching, Dunstable Ramsay writes his own version of his life to give to his Headmaster.  He needs to know that at least one person will know the truth of his life after he is gone.  Dunstable vows to write as honest a version of his life as he is able, but in his biased first person account we are definitely seeing life through his eyes.

Dunstable Ramsay, the son of stern Scottish Presbyterians lived in the small town of Deptford, in southern Ontario.  On his way home from sledding with his "frenemy" Percy Boyd Staunton a snowball (with a rock inside it) that Percy aims at Dunstable hits the pregnant wife of the Baptist minister and she delivered her baby, Paul Dempster, 80 days prematurely.  This one single act entwine him with Percy Boyd Staunton, Mrs. Dempster and her baby for the rest of their lives.

As a result of his feelings of intense responsibility for his involvement in Paul’s birth, and the revelation that Mrs. Dempster had suffered some type of brain injury from the impact, Dunstable devoted time and energy helping the Dempster to appease his own guilt.  He chopped wood, weeded the garden and babysat Paul, introducing him to the art of conjuring.  Even after the home life of the Dempsters collapses and they become ostracized from the community, Dunstable remained devoted.  In fact, he reveres Mrs. Dempster.

Joining the Army at the beginning of the Great War, Dunstable went to the frontlines as an infantry soldier.  His descriptions of the desperate agony of war, the loss of all individuality, of the unrelenting fear that soldiers must keep hidden, and the indignity of this “dung-coloured” world of the infantryman is powerfully evocative.  During the Third Battle of Ypres, at Passchendaele, he recounts his experiences when lost, disoriented and wounded in enemy territory he saw the face of Mrs. Dempster in the face of a Madonna in a bombed out church and interpreted it as a miraculous visitation.

Dunstable, who is "reborn" as Dunstan after the war, and after earning both a B.A. and an M.A. in History from the University of Toronto he began his career as a teacher at a boys’ boarding school.  Dunstan formalized his interest in the study of saints which took him on travels to Europe and leads to the publication of several books on the subject.  While he was in Europe he encountered Paul Dempster, reborn as a circus conjuror named Faustus Legrand and later as Magnus Eisengrim. Dunstan maintained his relationship with both Percy Boyd Staunton, who had also gone through a transformation and called himself “Boy” Staunton, and Mrs. Dempster for whom he became legally responsible. 

This novel is a fascinating exploration of truth, myth, faith, the material and the spiritual, interior and exterior reality, and of the question of whom we can trust.  Dunstan could trust no one:
But what I knew then was that nobody – not even my mother – was to be trusted in a strange world that showed very little itself on the surface. (30)
And although he tries to tell the whole truth about his life, he too keeps his secrets, and hides his true thoughts and feelings within.   

There is something in the writing style that put me in mind of Charles Dickens, especially at the beginning of the novel, with it’s jocular, ironic undertones, and the sarcastic wittiness.  

Fifth Business is the first book in the Deptford trilogy which also includes The Manticore and World of Wonders.

Thursday, 1 November 2012