Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden (January)

Fleur Fisher, in her post about The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady at the end of December got me thinking.

I've loved this unique and inspiring book since I found my copy of it in a second-hand shop years ago.  When the girls were little we used to frequently head out with our sketchbooks to try to capture little items in nature - twigs, snowflakes, squirrel nests, flowers.  The impetus for these outings came from Edith Holden and our love of her delicate, intimate nature journal.  We would settle down on a blanket in a field or in the back garden or beside a mountain trail and try to capture on paper a little piece of the natural world.

If I were of an artistic bent I would get out the watercolours.  Alas... these days I have accepted my lack of abilities in that vane and the watercolours remain (thankfully) tucked away - but I do love photography.  I have decided to read along month-by-month in the Country Diary and find inspiration for seeking out the beauty in nature in my own corner of the world.  All the photos I will post will be my own, inspired in some way by this beautiful book.

Coyote beside the road on the edge of town.
Hoar frost at my front door.
We call these "Magic Rowan Berries"

Prairie dog on high alert
Hoar frost in the neighbour's garden.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

In my early 20s one of my absolutely favourite books was Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist.  The lure of Macon Leary's reclusive, idiosyncratic lifestyle contrasted with Muriel Pritchett's charming extroversion helped me figure out my own place in the world and where I wanted to fit, and who I wanted to be.  I identified so strongly with the characters in that book in all their diversity, yet had never read anything else by Anne Tyler until this month when I picked up Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.  I didn't know what to expect, but I don't think I was expecting it to be quite as bleak as it was.

The Tull family is a cautionary tale of bad parenting and communication failure.  Abandoned by her husband, Pearl Tull raises her three children on her own.  Each of the children is scarred in secret and unknown ways by this void as well as by their mother's emotionally closed off personality.

Anne Tyler

I found this story frustrating because of the lack of emotional resolution, and the blindness that each of the characters deals with and never overcomes.  Each is searching for a way to satisfy some deep need: one son is overwhelmed by his ambition for control, money and power, the daughter is incapable of being serious about anything or of maintaining a marriage, and the youngest son searches for a loving home life, first at the home of his friend, later in his creation of a home-style restaurant.

This book left me cold.  I didn't connect with any of the characters, even with the telling of the story from many different perspectives (which was stylistically very well done) I failed to really invest in the challenges or dramas.  I just found myself getting more and more frustrated that none of these characters would stand up for themselves - or take a stand about anything! The youngest son, Ezra, is so determined to have the whole family around the table together eating, yet his efforts are constantly belittled and undermined by every member of the family.  Still he never stands up for himself.  It made me wonder why they didn't all just cut their losses.

 I know that Anne Tyler is a well-loved author who has won the Pulitzer Prize and that her novels are included in countless syllabi in American secondary and post-secondary schools so clearly I am in the minority in my disappointment.  This was very easy reading and I did find the changing points of view refreshing but although the style allowed me to make it through to the end of the novel the content felt unresolved and contrived.  I often think of a quote I heard years ago: "If you can't be a shining example at least be a cautionary tale."  Clearly I enjoy books about shining examples much more than cautionary tales.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

To Everything a Season: A Year in Alberta Ranch Country by Marilyn Halvorson

Marilyn Halvorson lives on a cattle ranch near Sundre, Alberta.  She is a teacher, and the author of several well-known YA novels set in ranch country such as Cowboys Don't Cry, and Nobody Said It Would Be Easy.  This is a year long journal beginning in September 1989 in which the author documents her life on the land, her work as a cattle farmer, and (the focus of every farmer's life) the changing weather.

I really enjoyed the passages in which she shares her observations on the natural world.  There were moments of profound insight that had me appreciating her perspective:

Though nature can be cruel, she will not take without giving in return.  Hope walks hand in hand with despair.  I met it on the creek bank as well.  There stood a grove of young balsam poplars, shedding their coloured leaves and preparing for the death season ahead.  But as I looked more closely at the trees, I made a discovery.  Beside each dying, falling leaf was a leaf bud, sticky and tightly curled but as complete and perfect a leaf as it will be next May.  Surely this is hope - and faith.  A tree not yet stripped of this year's leaves, with eight months of fall and winter ahead of it, yet ready and waiting for that first warm week in May.


While I am out poking around in the field I hear a sound far above.  I look up.  A long, ragged line of geese is plowing purposefully southeast across the heavy sky.  I count, surprised at how hard it is to keep up with the moving line.  There are ninety-five of them.  They disappear into the distance, still calling back ever-fainter farewells to the north.

But along with the inspiration and occasional wonderful descriptions of the nature world, there also seemed to be a cynical undertone that I found quite depressing.

The butterflies are out today in the hot Indian summer sun, orange and brown velvet ones.  Happy.  Unaware that, surely, in a few days they will be dead.  What does that matter?  That will be then.  Today the sun is shining.  The world is wonderful.

Marilyn Halvorson comes across as a slightly cranky farmer, and a bit curmudgeonly living a life divided between the farm and her teaching (she rarely mentions that she is a writer).  Often the daily entries seemed like a few rushed words jotted down at the end of a busy day when summary of the weather and few incidents from the day come to mind.  There was not a lot of narrative flow, and not often did I find it was insightful or inspiring or even very elucidating.  Overall, I was disappointed by this journal, although there were some moments when she captured the reality of life on the land with clarity and precision.

Marilyn Halvorson

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Little Free Library #1: Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson

The Little Free Library Project

I decided at the beginning of 2014 that I would read exclusively from my own shelves for the first six months of the year: I have enough books to keep me busy for twice that amount of time without hardship, and until I clear some space on my shelves I really have nowhere to put any more books anyway.  However, I also decided to bend the rules for a once-a-month dip into one of the Little Free Libraries that have sprung up in my neighbourhood.  I was thrilled to find a copy of Hetty Dorval in a library decorated as a purple dinosaur, so I left a book from my own collection and happily headed home with my find.

Just like my favourite read of 2013 (Surfacing by Margaret Atwood) I immediately turned from the last page back to the first and re-read every word.  It is entirely possible that my second book of the year may well end up being my favourite - it was just that good!

Although Hetty Dorval earns the title of the novella, this is really the story of Frances "Frankie" Burnaby, and her coming-of-age teen years first in a village in British Columbia, and later in England and France.  In her first person narration Frankie reveals more to the reader than she realizes about herself, and her developing personality; we see how she grows into her place in society.  It is a tale not of Hetty Dorval, but of Frankie's reaction to the idea of Hetty Dorval.

There is ambiguity in Hetty's portrayal; we never really get to know her.  She desires isolation from the complications of deep personal interaction, and as a result is both unknown and unknowable to those around her.  Is this perniciously anti-social behaviour deserving of absolute rejection?  And how exactly is one to go about ostracising a recluse?  Is it even possible to cut oneself off from the rest of the world?  The recurring references to John Donne's "No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent..." inform one interpretation of Hetty's character.  There are groups of outsiders who populate the periphery of the story who demonstrate the socially acceptable ways of being separate:

The Indians, in small groups, moved always together, as by some inner self-protective compulsion, like certain birds, with their own particular kind of awareness.

Both the Indians of Lytton and the visiting circus folk keep together as a group even in their social isolation.  But what do we do with a single woman who breaks all the rules of acceptable behaviour without appearing to be in any way affected?  These are the questions this story raised for me, and continue to make me ponder.  The answers are not in the story but in our personal reaction to it, just as the novella is a document of Frankie's reaction to an alternate way of being in the world.

Hetty Dorval, the novella, is about the essential inscrutability of human nature.  Can we ever really know each other?  Can we ever really know ourselves?  Are we even aware of the prejudices and social customs that act upon us in ways that allow us to adopt specific and unbending beliefs and rules of behaviour?  Does Frankie realize that she is unquestioningly perpetuating the same narrow social parameters of her parents, and even allowing them to colour her younger, more honest perception of the world?

Like all great writers (and Ethel Wilson is most certainly one) there is enough ambiguity in the story for us to make up our own minds about the characters.  Do we believe Frankie's narration without question?  Is there room for other interpretations of the story she has told?  It is a reminder that we all go through life seeing the world through our own eyes, and this perspective can be too narrow to be the whole truth.  Opening our eyes to the possibility that there are other completely valid perspectives is the work of a great story.

Although this book is widely available in Canada, I suspect it would have been more difficult to find in other countries until Persephone Press reprinted it.  I believe Ethel Wilson is the only Canadian author represented in their catalogue.  I would highly recommend this book, and would love to discuss it!

Ethel Wilson

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

I found another unfinished review from last month.  I am feeling well enough to read now that I no longer have to take pain killers that muddle my brain, but have not been able to sit at the computer for longer than a few minutes so things have been relatively quiet here.  I have given myself the grace of the month of January in which to rebuild my strength and health, and am very grateful that I am able to get out for walks around the neighbourhood between blizzards and record snowfall, icy sidewalks permitting.

I read Willa Cather's Shadows on the Rock at the end of November and enjoyed it so much that it made my list of favourites for the year.  I had a lot more to say about this fantastic book, but since I know that I will be returning to it again, I have decided to go ahead and post these rather abrupt thoughts.

I have come to the writing of Willa Cather quite late.  Her writing was never assigned to me in school, even in the American Literature class I took in university, and until I found a copy of My Ántonia in a charity shop I knew very little about her writing.  I enjoyed My Ántonia - the first book of 2013 for me.  When I was looking through the appendices of Janet Friskney's New Canadian Library I was surprised to see Shadows on the Rock in the list of titles considered but never included in the series.  Why would a writer so American as Willa Cather be considered for this series of books that are historically significant to Canada?  I took myself to the library and found a beautiful Vintage Classic copy (the cover above) and devoured the work during one chilly Saturday.

This is a work of historical fiction set during one year (which begins in October, 1697) in colonial New France.  It is the story of twelve year-old Cecile Auclair, who, along with her apothecary father Euclide Auclair is just as transparent and open as their name suggests. This is a quiet novel in which the focus is on the small events, the everyday occurrences of relatively unimportant people living in exile from the rest of the world in the isolated colony.  The story is episodic rather than plot-driven, and begins with the return of the last ships to France in preparation for the long winter of seclusion that is to come.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the novel is the theme of the immigrant never quite belonging to the culture from which they come, or to the one in which they live.  Although I have always lived in Canada, and never been an international "immigrant," I have lived in twenty-two houses in five provinces in my lifetime, and strongly identify with the immigrant's quest for "home."  My daughters have lived in the same home in Alberta their whole lives, while my husband and I consider Kingston, Ontario - 4000 km away - to be our emotional centre. This leads to frequent discussions about home in our house!  When I was a girl, I felt much like Cecile for whom Quebec is home even though for her father, France is home and Quebec is a temporary place to stay.

She put the sled-rope under her arms, gave her weight to it, and began to climb. A feeling came over her that there would never be anything better in the world for her than this; to be pulling Jacques on her sled, with the tender, burning sky before her, and on each side, in the dusk, the kindly lights from neighbours’ houses. If the Count should go back with the ships next summer, and her father with him, how could she bear it, she wondered. On a foreign shore, in a foreign city (yes, for her a foreign shore), would not her heart break for just this? For this rock and this winter, this feeling of being in one’s own place, for the soft content of pulling Jacques up Holy Family Hill into paler and paler levels of blue air, like a diver coming up from the deep sea.

This is the story of how the French colonists became Canadian.  Cecile becomes like Maria Chapdelaine, the Mother of the Canadians.  Generally speaking, psychological development of the characters is minimal, although the depth of Cecile's fears of upheaval in the impending return to France are vividly realised.  I think this book would deeply resonate with immigrants of all kinds (international, or interprovincial!).  It is about making "a place to stay" into a home, and the use of story to do that.  Stories that are told become the history of the community, and the way of knowing about one's past, one's surroundings and one's place.  We are grounded and rooted through the emotional links we create to the land, to our neighbours, to our institutions.  Willa Cather has given us a sense of the creation of home in Quebec through the stories she includes.

Now that I have read it, it is less surprising to me that this novel was considered for the New Canadian Library series than that it was rejected (this decision may have been a matter of copyright logistics rather than content) for Cather did not just set her novel in what became French Canada, but just as significantly, adopted many of the prevailing themes of the literature of Canada.  We see Northrop Frye's "garrison mentality" at play (Quebec is a refuge in the wilderness), and we see the theme of "home" and stasis explored (as opposed to the expansionist and movement-prone themes in American literature).  I am looking forward to reading Death Comes for the Archbishop to see if she is able to achieve the same thematic sympathy with the New Mexico Territory that she does with seventeenth-century New France.

Although this novel must have taken an astounding amount of research, Willa Cather never turns it into a history lesson.  The intimacy of the setting and the characters gives this novel a human scale which is its true charm.

Here are some images of some of the real characters found in Shadows on the Rock:

Frontenac: "The Fighting Governor"

Bishop Laval

Jeanne-Le Ber by Bottoni, 1908
Jeanne-Le Ber website

Mother Juschereau de Saint-Ignace
Mother Juschereau de Saint-Ignace website

You can read the entire text of Shadows on the Rock at the Gutenberg site online.
I highly recommend it!

Willa Cather

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I had a vague recollection of having written something about Cheryl Strayed's Wild at the beginning of December, but a lot of things from the first week of December are fairly foggy for me.  When I opened the draft I was surprised to see that it was as complete as it is.  So, I am posting it as it is:

The travelogue is a particularly favourite genre of mine.  A travelogue written by a woman hiking an extended wilderness trail alone is sure to catch my interest.  I was surprised when I saw the 2012 publication date on Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail because it seems as though I've been hearing about it for years.  I heard her interviewed when the book was first released and I thought, "That sounds right up my alley!"  But then I stumbled on a few online reviews, the jist of many expressing the opinion that the author was whiney and self-pitying, perhaps a bit self-indulgent, and with boundary issues about how much private information is Too Much Information.  And then Oprah gave it her stamp of approval.  Well, I read it anyway, and have to say that I really, thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Wild is a memoir of the summer of 1995 when the author treked long portions of the Pacific Crest Trail in California and Oregon.  Cheryl Strayed hiked 1100 miles on her own in an attempt to come to terms with the loss and pain in her life.  With connections to The Pilgrim's Progress continually coming to the surface, Strayed records her journey carrying her enormous rucksack she named "Monster."  As she progresses, the weight of her burden is lighter as she becomes stronger.  This book is heavily weighted with this kind of symbolism.

The entire journey is examined with almost twenty year hindsight, but never feels nostalgiac or sentimental.  Strayed is a bluntly honest writer, telling all even when it is unflattering and embarassing.  There were definitely some squirm-inducing moments, but I respected her need to tell the whole story.  She explores her family history, the death of her mother, the abusive birth father, the traumatic death of a horse.   I will admit to reading some of these scenes through squinted eyes, skimming first to prepare me for what was to come. But it never got so bad I had to skip or stop reading.  She writes with the same frankness about sexual encounters, menstruation and heroin use, and with an unvarnished honesty that I admired even whilst feeling a tad uncomfortable with the bluntness of it.

I suspect it has probably taken Cheryl Strayed all these years to appreciate how important that summer was in her life.  Many of the revelations must have happened long after the trek was complete, for as she says, the expectation that she had before her trip (that she would be filled with catharitic experience sitting by a mountain lake at sunset) was pushed aside by the reality of just surviving the ordeal of traversing the land every day with too-small boots and a too-heavy rucksack.

When I was twenty-two I left Canada for a six-month trek around Europe alone.  While my journey was considerably less physically arduous, and I definitely had more opportunities for bathing, I could identify with many of her experiences as a woman traveling alone.  It brought back many wonderful memories of the deep bonds that can form between travellers, and the transformational quality of long-term travel.

Cheryl Strayed

Some of my favourite travel memoirs:
  • A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson
  • The Voyage of the Northern Magic: A Family Odyssey by Diane Stuermer
  • Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
  • Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts
  • Slow Journeys: The Pleasures of Travelling by Foot by Gillian Souter
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert Pirsig
  • Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer
  • Long Way Round: Chasing Shadows Across the World by Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor
  • Giant Steps: The Remarkable Story of the Goliath Expedition From Punta Arenas to Russia by Karl Bushby
  • The Woman Who Walked to Russia: A Writer's Search for a Lost Legend by Cassandra Pybus
  • Scraping Heaven : A Family's Journey Along the Continental Divide by Cindy Ross
  • How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children's Books by Joan Bodger

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro

My first book of 2014 was intended to start me out on the path I intend to follow this year.  I have decided that I need to read more short fiction - especially more collections of short fiction - and what better place to start than with Alice Munro?  Early in 2012 I read the title story of this collection (and recorded a few thoughts here).  But the story read in context of the whole collection becomes richer, more nuanced, even more powerful.

The View from Castle Rock is a book that defies categorisation; it sits on its own with elements of memoir, short fiction, and the novel weaving in and out.  After years researching her family history, Alice Munro found herself fascinated by the people in her past.  The stories in the first half of the book are her imagined histories of these ancestors who emigrated from Scotland in the early nineteenth-century to the area now known as Alice Munro Country.  In the second half of the book she writes about the family she knows, about her parents, her relatives and herself.

I found a lot in this book that resonated with me, especially in the latter stories.  As the descendent of those same Presbyterian Scots who emigrated to the area just a county or two south, a generation or two later than her ancestors I saw reflections of my own family history in more than one story.  But the unique ability of Alice Munro to create characters with such humanity, such depth, such truth, without resorting to cliche or sentimentality is astounding.  They are characters who stick with me.  I find myself thinking of them long after closing the book, remembering the way Aunt Charlie sat at the sewing machine, or the way Russell walked when he carried his trombone, the light on the apple blossoms and the feeling of swimming beside the boathouse on Georgian Bay.  She writes about herself in such a disarming manner - she seems to have such clarity about how it felt to have been herself so many years ago, for I recognise the truth of her discomfort, her inability to know what to say at the right moment, her hesitations, her secret desires.

I am looking forward to reading more Alice Munro this year, along with a few other collections by Diane Schoemperlen and Margaret Laurence and Lisa Moore and Mavis Gallant.

Alice Munro photo credit: Paul Hawthorne/Canadian Press