Monday, 22 December 2014

A Christmas Carol / Charles Dickens

5 out of 5 stars
Cruel miser Ebeneezer Scrooge has never met a shilling he doesn’t like...and hardly a man he does. And he hates Christmas most of all. When Scrooge is visited by his old partner, Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come, he learns eternal lessons of charity, kindness, and goodwill. Experience a true Victorian Christmas!

My first experience with Dickens and it was very pleasurable. A Christmas Carol is very short, but how much it packs in! I think this is a story that we all think we know, having seen TV versions, theatrical productions and even advertising based on it [very ironic, yes?]. Scrooge has become synonymous with grasping selfishness and we forget that he undergoes a significant transformation during the course of the story.

One theatre company in our city has been performing A Christmas Carol for over 20 years, with the same man playing Scrooge every year. He was interviewed on CBC radio this year and told a remarkable story of having a high-powered businessman come backstage one night, in tears, saying, “I am Scrooge and you’ve made me realize that I have to change my life.” Calgary is an oil and gas town and there is a lot of right-wing conservatism of the flavour that seems to think that poor people deserve to be poor and that helping them is someone else’s problem. I think that it is interesting that a story written in the 1800s still has relevance in the 21st century!

Don’t get me wrong, I am glad to live in a secular society, but I sometimes wish that capitalism was still balanced with societally sanctioned requirements to care about our fellow human beings, that companies be required to consider the good that they can do for the community, not just make money for shareholders. Many do charitable deeds, of course, but I still feel that it is mostly for public relations, rather than because they actually believe in them.

I was surprised to find that A Christmas Carol is rather non-religious. The factors that change Scrooge’s behaviour are personal, emotional, and universal—none of his motivations are about the afterlife, they are all about how people think about him in the past, the present, and at his death. We are social primates and we cannot help but care about these things.

An important reminder during a season of materialism in a society that is obsessed with consumerism that there are things that transcend money and possessions. I haven’t yet attended a performance of the play, but I think I will plan one next Christmas.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Dhalgren / Samuel R. Delaney

2.5 stars out of 5
A mysterious disaster has stricken the midwestern American city of Bellona, and its aftereffects are disturbing: a city block burns down and is intact a week later; clouds cover the sky for weeks, then part to reveal two moons; a week passes for one person when only a day passes for another. The catastrophe is confined to Bellona, and most of the inhabitants have fled. But others are drawn to the devastated city, among them the Kid, a white/American Indian man who can't remember his own name. The Kid is emblematic of those who live in the new Bellona, who are the young, the poor, the mad, the violent, the outcast--the marginalized.
Dhalgren is many things, but instantly accessible isn't one of them. While most of this big, ambitious, deeply detailed novel is beautifully pellucid, the opening pages will be difficult for some: the novel starts with the second half of an incomplete sentence, in the viewpoint of a man who doesn't know who he is. If you find the early pages rough going, push on; the story soon becomes clear and fascinating. But--fair warning--the central nature of the disaster, of its strange devastations and disruptions, remains a puzzle for many readers, sometimes after several readings.

There is a lot going on in this novel—lots of references to mythology, I think there are deliberate parallels to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and a lot of exploration of what it means to be an artist and to live an artistic life.

Our unnamed protagonist begins the adventure when he encounters (and has sex with) a woman who turns into a tree, a dryad. It is she who ensures that he receives the chains that will mark him as special in the place where he is going. He is then picked up by a truck driver, who reminded me of the ferryman Charon who delivered souls to Hades in the Greek underworld. The truck driver stops, without a word, and the main character knows that he must get out and enter the city of Bellona, which has gone through some unnamed calamity and has become a literal Underworld. On his way in, he meets a group of women who are leaving and receives from them an orchid—not the flower, but a bladed weapon worn on the wrist. Between the chains and the orchid, he is marked as a person of consequence in this new, violent world that he is entering.

Most of the people of Bellona go by nicknames or aliases and the protagonist soon receives his—Kid/Kidd/the Kid. Delaney emphasizes that he is in his 30s, but looks like he is 16 or 17 and this appearance of youth is noted in his name. He soon becomes de facto leader of a group of Scorpions, a gang by any other measure. Kid is King Arthur to a dirty, scrofulous bunch of knights of the Round Table, or maybe Hrothgar to a shaggy, stinky bunch of Danes. But this is ironic, as they seem to suffer most from boredom—having nothing of any consequence to actually do. Violence is just a way to alleviate the tedium. (They refer to their house as a nest, perhaps a nod to Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.)

The cover proclaims Dhalgren to be “The major novel of love and terror at the end of time.” I didn’t see it that way—rather there was a lot of sex and neurosis. It takes the sexual banner that Heinlein began championing in his fiction and extends it to the gay and bisexual communities. Kid’s triad with Denny (male) and Lanya (female) is central to the last half of the book—perhaps if King Arthur had crawled into bed with Lancelot and Gwenivere that myth could have had a happier ending? The sex scenes are very much like reading a porno magazine—catering only to the male gaze and often involving coercion or, at the very least, questionable consent.

Like Stephen Daedelus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Kid seems to be a stand-in for Delaney himself in Dhalgren. Wikipedia helpfully let me know that Delaney was ambidextrous and a bisexual who eventually identified himself as gay—characteristics of Kid. But the major issue that Delaney explores through Kid is the nature of the life of an author. Kid writes (or does he copy? It’s never made explicit) poetry and enjoys notoriety in Bellona society for this quirk. When his book of poetry is published, he titles it Brass Orchids (is this a play on the etymological meaning of orchid, which is testicle in Latin?), which one must have to survive the publishing world and/or Bellona. There is an especially interesting scene when, during the launch party for Kid’s book, another poet critiques his work harshly—not a safe course of action when Kid has his orchid and a loyal gang of Scorpions along with him. Lanya convinces him that the other guy is just jealous and that Kid should let go of the criticism rather than beating him senseless. Criticism is a part of being published, she tells him, and something that authors must learn to live with.

I am not a fan of modernist literature—I admit to preferring full sentences and more traditionally structured narrative. There is much more going on in this novel—I’ve only scratched the surface of all the complexities—and I could definitely appreciate Delaney’s talent at folding so many things into this almost-900 page novel. I’m sure that with study, I could write a dissertation on it. However, I didn’t enjoy the reading experience enough to re-read the book. I can appreciate why it is considered a ground-breaking work of science fiction while acknowledging that it will never be a favourite book of mine. 

Friday, 19 December 2014

Maus / Art Spiegelman

3 out of 5 stars
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story. Maus approaches the unspeakable through the diminutive. Its form, the cartoon (the Nazis are cats, the Jews mice), shocks us out of any lingering sense of familiarity and succeeds in “drawing us closer to the bleak heart of the Holocaust” (The New York Times).

Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.  

If this book hadn’t been a selection for my book club in January, I would never have picked it up. Not because I’m a snob about graphic novels—I think they are legitimate form of literature and very enjoyable to boot. But I might have avoided Maus because of the subject matter—I haven’t read very much about the holocaust and that is by choice. I guess I’m a chicken, but I hate exploring just how terribly we can treat one another. I haven’t yet read Romeo Dallaire’s book about the Rwandan genocide either—I’ve got exactly the same issue with it.

Spiegelman doesn’t shy away from showing the atrocities, the fear, and the damage done to those who survived the Second World War. And survival is never taken for granted—it happened when luck and hard work combined to keep people alive. I think that works like this are important to keep the memories of these events alive and in the public consciousness—our first hand witnesses are aging and won’t be with us much longer. The Canadian veterans that I know are in their 80s and 90s, so holocaust survivors will be in the same age range and probably experiencing health problems relating back to war time conditions. This graphic novel format makes this history accessible to a new generation in a form that they can appreciate.

I am of two minds regarding the depictions of various nationalities as animals, Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, etc. On one hand, it insulates us a little bit from the harrowing history that is being related. We can feel a bit of a remove that makes it easier to read. But I can help wondering if that is a good thing? I also a bit bothered by the nationalities being represented by completely different species. After all, we are all one species and if one nationality is capable of genocide, every nationality is capable of it. We’ve had enough atrocities take place since WWII that we know that to be true. Separate species draws the “us” and “them” boundaries just a little too clearly, when we know from the novel itself that some Jews were “collaborators” and some Germans resisted the Nazis. There’s enough bad and good stuff to go around.

I did, however, admire Spiegelman’s brave decision to explore his relationship with his father on the page. It became obvious very early in the narrative that survival itself had not made his father a happy man. Instead, he seemed to become deeply suspicious, rigid in his ideas, selfish, and generally unpleasant. The suicide of his wife (who suffered from mental illness before the war) may have solidified him into this barricaded position, to which he cannot admit his second wife or even his son. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for a man who so desperately needed human compassion and love and who kept stubbornly poking it away with a stick. How many generations will it take to remove this psychic damage from families of holocaust survivors? Spiegelman is brave to expose his struggles to help, accept, and love his father—he is loaded with guilt for not having been present during the worst years, for being the child that survived, for disliking his father, for not being able to provide the unconditional support that his father seems to expect. Smaller versions of this play out in many families (I watched my father struggle with miniature versions of these same issues), so in many ways this is a universal story.

A valuable study in human nature and family relationships as well as recent history.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Lock In / John Scalzi

3.5 stars out of 5
Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. Four percent suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And one percent find themselvs “locked in”—fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus.

One per cent doesn't seem like a lot. But in the United States, that's 1.7 million people “locked in”...including the President's wife and daughter.

Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can restore the ability to control their own bodies to the locked in. But then two new technologies emerge. One is a virtual-reality environment, “The Agora,” in which the locked-in can interact with other humans, both locked-in and not. The other is the discovery that a few rare individuals have brains that are receptive to being controlled by others, meaning that from time to time, those who are locked in can “ride” these people and use their bodies as if they were their own.

This skill is quickly regulated, licensed, bonded, and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse....

Lock In is an interesting mash-up of genres—it’s a tale set in the near-future with interesting technology, qualifying it as science fiction. Part of the scenario is a nasty illness that causes people to be “locked in” to their bodies, making it somewhat of a post-disaster novel as well. Throw in a murder mystery/police procedural where the main character/investigator is a Haden (someone who is “locked in” and using a robot-like body to manoeuvre in the real world) and you have quite the combination.

Scalzi is an excellent writer and I especially like his dialog. I find that I read his books quickly and Lock In was no exception. But I really didn’t make any emotional connections with Chris Shane or any of the other characters. I suppose if Scalzi was to write more books starring Shane, I might be tempted to read them, but I won’t be rushing to do so, which I find odd since I really liked both Redshirts and Fuzzy Nation.

If you read Scalzi’s blog (Whatever), you will find many of the same ideas and attitudes toward society in his postings and in Lock In. Perhaps that was also a factor for me—kind of a “been there, done that” attitude with regard to his ideas on discrimination. If I had never seen his blog, the ideas might have felt “fresher.” But that is my problem, not Scalzi’s.

I would recommend the book to anyone who enjoys this author’s writing or who is looking for a good quick read. If you are interested in sci-fi which explores issues surround disability and/or discrimination, this would be a good pick. I think it would be excellent to use with teens to discuss issues of how we all treat those we perceive as “other.”

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Bean Trees / Barbara Kingsolver

3 out of 5 stars
Clear-eyed and spirited, Taylor Greer grew up poor in rural Kentucky with the goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting away. But when she heads west with high hopes and a barely functional car, she meets the human condition head-on. By the time Taylor arrives in Tucson, Arizona, she has acquired a completely unexpected child, a three-year-old American Indian girl named Turtle, and must somehow come to terms with both motherhood and the necessity for putting down roots. Hers is a story about love and friendship, abandonment and belonging, and the discovery of surprising resources in apparently empty places.

This is a character driven novel and if you don’t like the characters, I advise you to set it down, walk away, and read something else. If, however, you are willing to spend a while getting to know the two young women featured, I think you will enjoy The Bean Trees. This is not an action novel—it’s an exploration of the lives of two young women from disadvantaged homes and how they sort out their lives.

Who can’t appreciate the desire to get out of Dodge after graduation and see what else the world has to offer? Marietta re-names herself Taylor and truly starts over. She bravely starts out in a hunk-of-junk car and acquires a child along the way. LouAnn takes the more traditional route out—she gets married and moves with a husband, who proceeds to abandon his pregnant wife. But the two young women, from similar backgrounds, find one another and start building a firm friendship.

There is a study in contrasts—young women from poor families and illegal immigrants. Taylor, who has felt the weight of discrimination all of her life, is suddenly confronted with her white privilege. LouAnn, who has never felt worthy of anything, is changed by a job where her enthusiasm and hard work are recognized and rewarded. Instead of mooning around, hoping for a transformation of her absent husband, she finally takes charge of her life. Both of them learn new ways to cope with life’s problems and new ways to look at themselves.

These are issues that all young women face at some point in life (independence, marriage, careers, children, relations with parents)—how we each deal with them depend on the resources, both financial and friends/family, that we have available to us. I did find Taylor’s ready acceptance of the child, Turtle, to be less than believable. She had finished high school and I thought should have known better than to take off across country with someone else’s child, no matter how abused that child was. And I found the final solution to her legal position to be most unlikely.

The significance of the title, which refers to the Wisteria vine, gets rather slapped in your face at the end of the book. The scraggly, ugly vine which, after the life-giving rain, produces luxuriant foliage and beautiful flowers, just as the underprivileged, poor girls flower into a happier life with some kindness from others. Having said that, I loved Turtle’s obsession with plants—wanting to read the seed catalog rather than a story book—even though I can see exactly how it fit into this really obvious message.

Despite my perception of flaws, however, I found the book an enjoyable read. It made me appreciate my own age and station in life—I have said it before, I would never choose to be less than 40 again! 

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Masters of the Vortex / E.E. "Doc" Smith

3 out of 5 stars
Runaway Vortex!  A churning nuclear fireball, appearing out of nowhere, bringing utter destruction--and countless numbers of them were menacing planets throughout the Galaxy!

"Storm" Cloud, nucleonic genius, set out in his spaceship Vortex Blaster to track and destroy the mysterious vortices--and embarked on a saga of adventure, discovery and conflict among the far stars that could have been told only by the incomparable "Doc" Smith.

Nice to read a novel set in the Lensmen universe, but not starring one of the Lensmen (although they still feature prominently in this tale). It was also interesting to note that computers make their first appearance in the series and that absolutely no one uses a slide rule in this book. In fact, Dr. Cloud is a human computing machine, performing feats of calculation unmatched by other mortals. He is partnered with Joan Jankowski because of her expertise with computers, which are improving but are still no match for Cloud’s brain.

In many ways, this book felt like an episode of Star Trek (TOS). There are telepathy, super-human abilities, a cast which includes many interesting aliens, a mysterious source of “nuclear vortices,” a Dudley-DoRight type main character and a romantic sub-plot. Dr. Neal Cloud starts out more like the Lone Ranger (with Joan as Tonto), but ends up with a band of aliens (largely female) who refuse to leave his side. I loved the cat-woman, Vesta, and her unabashedly sensual ways! Also loved the cigar-smoking female engineer (I pictured her as rather reptilian).

Of course, Neal and Joan end up being strongly attracted to one another. I do love Smith’s insistence on providing intelligent female companions for his heroes. Mind you, when Cloud manages to become a telepath, he rates 6 on a scale of 5 and is acknowledged by all for his superiority! (Poor old Joan is only rated a 3). No ordinary heroes with average abilities for Doc Smith. He manages to convey a lot of romantic atmosphere with very little description, no doubt necessary for the morays of the time (published in 1960).

This is book number 154 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Female Man / Joanna Russ

4 out of 5 stars
Living in an altered past that never saw the end of the Great Depression, Jeannine, a librarian, is waiting to be married. Joanna lives in a different version of reality: she's a 1970s feminist trying to succeed in a man's world. Janet is from Whileaway, a utopian earth where only women exist. And Jael is a warrior with steel teeth and catlike retractable claws, from an earth with separate - and warring - female and male societies. When these four women meet, the results are startling, outrageous and subversive.

Feminism has evolved and changed over the decades and this book was written during the Second Wave of Feminism (often referred to as Women’s Lib) during the 1960s-1970s. I know that it is difficult for young women born in the 1980s and later to believe some of these things, but there was a time when your career options as a woman were very limited—you could be a nurse, teacher, secretary, or a housewife. When I was in high school in the 70s and making high academic marks, I was strongly discouraged from taking typing classes (something akin to some of the keyboarding classes offered today, but with archaic typewriters rather than computer keyboards) because I was being encouraged to think of myself as a potential manager, rather than a secretary. In those days, bosses dictated their letters and secretaries typed them—no self-respecting man knew how to type. Even if you worked in one of these roles outside the home, it was expected that when you became pregnant, you would quit your job—often, your employer would helpfully fire you to make room for a replacement who was not pregnant. After all, women just worked for “pin money,” to supplement the household income for the fripperies that all women desire (which of course justified paying them very little, as they weren’t “supporting a household” the way that men were supposedly doing). Hard to believe in these days when there are more young women in universities than young men, isn’t it? Now, women are free to become doctors and lawyers, professions which to all intents and purposes barred female students until recently, or to take any other university courses that they desire.

Birth control drugs were not an established thing—the pill was just coming on to the market during these decades and was not always easily available. Doctors were men, generally speaking, and reserved the right to tell you whether you were worthy of birth control. And this was an improvement from earlier years when people could be arrested for giving out information on various birth control methods.

If you were female and unmarried by your mid-20s, you were pitied. Poor thing, you’d never be a whole person and never have children. Being a wife and mother was the be-all and end-all. I don’t think it even crossed most people’s minds that you might be a lesbian, because there were so few women who were out of the closet. Sure, a few folks might say “nasty” things like that behind your back, but most people just considered you pitiable.

So, the Feminist Movement of this time period was very much a reaction against enforced domesticity. Women had acquired the right to vote, but really didn’t have many options in other facets of their lives. The patriarchy was still firmly in place, and feminists had to roar in order to be acknowledged or heard at all, let alone change the status quo. They burned bras (as symbols of their sexualization for the benefit of men), and they demanded equal pay, equal educational opportunities, and equal access to the job market. Some of the more dedicated feminists declared themselves political lesbians, to protest society’s ingrained sexism and “compulsory heterosexuality.” They were removing themselves from the patriarchal structure in the only way they could find and in a way that (during those years) was guaranteed to shock.

We’ve come a long way, baby! And if you don’t understand this background, you also won’t understand The Female Man. Russ shows just how much male privilege dominated, how inferior women were assumed to be. We still have a way to go [see for example, the Jian Ghomeshi scandal at CBC or the lack of a sexual harassment procedure on Parliament Hill—places where men still seem to hold the balance of power]. Male entitlement still exists, but it's circle is shrinking. As Russ says as the end of the book, won’t it be a happy day when readers of this book don’t understand what she’s on about?

Friday, 28 November 2014

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame / Victor Hugo

4 out of 5 stars

Set in medieval Paris, Victor Hugo’s powerful historical romance The Hunchback of Notre-Dame has resonated with succeeding generations ever since its publication in 1837. It tells the story of the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda, condemned as a witch by the tormented archdeacon Claude Frollo, who lusts after her. Quasimodo, the deformed bell ringer of Notre-Dame Cathedral, having fallen in love with the kindhearted Esmeralda, tries to save her by hiding her in the cathedral’s tower. When a crowd of Parisian peasants, misunderstanding Quasimodo’s motives, attacks the church in an attempt to liberate her, the story ends in tragedy.

I don’t know about you, but I think about obsessional crimes and stalking as modern phenomena, exacerbated by life in huge cities. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame demonstrates that there is truly nothing new under the sun. Victor Hugo wrote this tale of obsession in the 1800s. The gypsy girl, La Esmeralda, has the misfortune of attracting the obsessional gaze of two men, the archdeacon Claude Frollo and his protégé, the deformed bell-ringer of the cathedral, Quasimodo. She, in her turn, is fixated on handsome Captain Phoebus, who couldn’t care less about her although he is willing to take advantage of her when an opportunity presents itself.

None of these people actually know one another—they have only observed from afar and projected their own fantasies onto other people. Quasimodo has the most reason for his adoration of La Esmeralda—she brought him water while he was incapacitated at the pillory during an undeserved punishment. Earlier, we see La Esmeralda save Pierre Gringoire, the unsuccessful playwright, from hanging by accepting him as a temporary husband. Pierre is somewhat disappointed when he discovers that she intends a platonic relationship, but is sensible enough to appreciate that her kindness has spared his life.

La Esmeralda is presented as a kind, good person. But like many women, she finds herself the focus of unwanted male attention. We often think of stalking in relation to celebrity, but in reality many ordinary citizens find themselves the object of obsession of other “regular” people. A waitress may, by serving a cup of coffee, unwittingly launch an obsessive on a mission to “own” her. Having had a small brush with such behaviour myself, I have realized how startlingly easy it is to become involved in such situations. There are so many lonely people living in our cities, who are used to being ignored while resenting it. If your job requires you to be polite and helpful, these folks may misinterpret your intentions. The crumbs of attention that they receive from you may trigger that hunger for more, beginning something that you never meant to start and which you feel powerless to stop.

At the same time, La Esmeralda is guilty of a similar behaviour—she knows nothing about Phoebus except that he is handsome and wears a beautiful uniform. She is very young and it is like a young woman today becoming enamoured of a celebrity. Unlike many, La Esmeralda has the opportunity to meet her crush and is only prevented from consummating her desires by her stalker, Archdeacon Frollo.

None of this can end well. Modern instances of stalking are liable to end in death, either of the pursuer or the pursued. The HoND deals with these apparently timeless topics—I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s tragedies, especially Othello. Victor Hugo’s tale definitely deserves its reputation as classic literature.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Still on the Right Side of the Sod

I just got off the phone from speaking to an octogenarian friend.  She phoned an out-of-date work phone number of mine last Saturday morning and left a vague message.  The recipient only just tracked me down and passed it along.

It turns out she was concerned that she would be unable to host our Christmas get-together.  This woman broke her hip two years ago--something wasn't right and she had to have surgery re-done this year.  Then she had a car accident (I don't think she should have been driving for the last 5 years or so, but I don't get a vote because I'm not related to her).  On the way into the emergency ward at the hospital, she fell again!  She's currently in a wheelchair & having home care daily to help her get breakfast & make her bed, etc.  And she's worried about a Christmas party.

I've got to spend more time visiting this lady--I've promised to go see her between Christmas and New Year's, but I think I'll slip up to see her this weekend too.

This about 3 weeks after visiting another friend who is in her early 80s--went to her assisted living facility and found out that her dementia had progressed to the point that she is now on a locked ward.  She didn't recognize me when I approached her, but after we had talked a bit, she said, "You sound like a friend of mine."  I told her, "That's because I am a friend of yours."  She agreed to visit with me & another friend and by the end of the visit she was chatting happily (about the same 2-3 things, over and over).  She probably still didn't really know who we were, but she at least recognized us as friends.  I almost cried when we left the facility!  But I'm committed to going back, just so the staff know that there are people who care about her.

Plus, one of my aunts, who just turned 90 this year, had a mini-stroke last week.  She's improving, but she has dementia too and a stroke has not improved things for her.

It's so agonizing, watching the deterioration of these strong women who have all been so influential in my life.  I'm so glad that I went to another aunt's 80th birthday party a couple of weekends ago--it was worth every penny that I paid for the plane ticket to celebrate a happy occasion, instead of a funeral.

The next few years will be all about spending time with these awesome women and appreciating the examples that they have set for me.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe / C.S. Lewis

4 out of 5 stars
When Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy took their first steps into the world behind the magic wardrobe, little do they realise what adventures are about to unfold. And as the story of Narnia begins to unfold, so to does a classic tale that has enchanted readers of all ages for over half a century.

I’m pretty sure that I read this when I was 11 or 12—but I didn’t remember it at all. In my defense, that was about 40 years ago. Here’s the funny thing though—as a kid, if I liked a book, I re-read it numerous times. So, if I did read it, lo those many years ago, I didn’t like it enough to re-read it. Around 12 or 13, I also read The Lord of the Rings, for example, and I have read it innumerable times now and continue to enjoy it every once in a while.

Now, I’m not sure if I believe this premise or not, but in The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, his mother had a theory—we are all either Narnia fans or Middle Earth fans. In her experience, people rarely loved both fantasy worlds. She and one child were Narnia people and her son Will inhabited Middle Earth in a way that both of them envied.

Reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe now as an adult well into middle age, I find the Christian symbolism in it to be obvious and heavy handed. (Mind you, if you had little exposure to Christianity, I’m sure many parts of the story line would be inexplicable!) By contrast, although many people say they see similar things in Tolkien, I seem to be blind to it. Yes, there is a struggle between good and evil, but it doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly Christian world or world view and The Lord of the Rings certainly doesn’t clobber you with Christianity the way than Lewis’ work does. (In fact, LOTR feels very pagan to me).

I guess this is my way of saying if the world really does split itself evenly into Team Narnia and Team Middle Earth, count me in as a member of Team Middle Earth. Despite the fact that I quite enjoyed the fantasy adventure, the Greek mythological beings (fauns, centaurs, dryads, etc.), plus the references to Northern European mythology (the Witch seems to be to be a relative of the Snow Queen, and Father Christmas has become a regular everywhere). Mind you, it also seems to me to be a bit unfair to compare definite children’s literature (Narnia) with a book that I began enjoying as a tween and that continues to comfort me now in my 5th decade (LOTR).

I certainly see why this book has become a classic and why it still appeals to children today. 

Monday, 17 November 2014

Studio Saint-Ex / Ania Szado

3 out of 5 stars
Set in Manhattan and Quebec City in 1943, Studio Saint-Ex is a fictionalized account of the love triangle among Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, his mercurial wife, Consuelo, and a young fashion designer. Mignonne Lachapelle leaves Montreal for New York to make her name, but is swept away by the charms of France’s greatest living writer. Nothing about their relationship is simple—not Antoine’s estranged wife who entangles Mig in her schemes to reclaim her husband, not his turmoil, and certainly not their tempestuous trysts or the blurring boundaries of their artistic pursuits. Yet the greatest complication comes in the form of a deceptively simple manuscript: Antoine’s work-in-progress, The Little Prince, a tender tale of loneliness, friendship, love, and loss in the form of a young prince fallen to earth.

Studio Saint-Ex is a deeply evocative love story of a literary giant caught between two talented and mesmerizing women, set in the glittering world of French expatriates in Manhattan during World War II. Reminiscent of The Paris Wife, Loving Frank, and The Rules of Civility, Studio Saint-Ex explores themes of love, passion, and creativity in sophisticated, literary prose.

I heard the author of this novel interviewed on CBC radio a while ago and was intrigued. I recently re-read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book The Little Prince and was inspired to try Studio Saint-Ex as a result.

I liked the book—I stayed up much too late the other night to finish it, unable to put it down. I know that many of the details are true—Saint-Ex did have a number of plane crashes resulting in serious injuries, he did spend time in the U.S. waiting to participate in WWII as a pilot, he did have a volatile, beautiful Salvadoran wife named Consuelo, they did live in twin penthouses in NYC, and he is reputed to have had affairs with young women during the time he loitered there.
This novel is told from the POV of one of these young women, Mignonne LaChapelle—her involvement with Antoine and with Consuelo as she works to break in on the fashion scene in NYC as a designer. How she uses them and is used by them during her pursuit of these dreams.

The ending was inevitable—history tells us that Antoine went missing during a reconnaissance mission in 1944, but the novel follows both Mignonne and Consuelo a little further. I am uneasy about the blend of fact & fiction—not knowing where facts leave off and the fiction begins. However, I certainly realize that this is well within the purview of the author and is fair game, it just left me with so many questions that I may have to seek out a biography of Saint-Ex in order to set my mind at ease. 

Friday, 14 November 2014

Aesop's Fables

3 out of 5 stars
The fables of Aesop have become one of the most enduring traditions of European culture, ever since they were first written down nearly two millennia ago. Aesop was reputedly a tongue-tied slave who miraculously received the power of speech; from his legendary storytelling came the collections of prose and verse fables scattered throughout Greek and Roman literature. First published in English by Caxton in 1484, the fables and their morals continue to charm modern readers: who does not know the story of the tortoise and the hare, or the boy who cried wolf?
This new translation is the first to represent all the main fable collections in ancient Latin and Greek, arranged according to the fables' contents and themes. It includes 600 fables, many of which come from sources never before translated into English.

Wow, was this collection of the Fables different from what I remember reading as a child. As the translator points out, we now think of fables as children’s literature, but they were originally meant for an adult audience and it certainly shows in this volume. There are a few rude and crude fables and a small selection of humourous fables.

As a farm child, I was always excited when we received a new box of books in the mail from the University of Alberta through their library extension program. I know that I read multiple versions of Aesop, as well as loads of Greek mythology and various fairy tales. So I was familiar with a number of the sayings that we still have today that have their origins in these little stories.

Have you ever spoken of “receiving the lion’s share” of something, i.e. most of it? How about talking of a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Ever thought that someone’s negative assessment of something was just sour grapes? It’s amazing to me how many of our current sayings can be traced back into antiquity.

Although this book was in many ways a walk down memory lane, it also included so many fables that I had never encountered before. I was somewhat disconcerted with how many of them were designed to keep people in their appointed social ranks—telling slaves that getting a new owner didn’t necessarily mean an improvement in life, that freedmen should remember where they came from (somewhat ironic, as Aesop was reputedly a freedman), and that craftspeople should stick to their specialties rather than trying to acquire new skills.

A worthwhile read for those interested in the history of literature.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Son / Jo Nesbø

4 out of 5 stars
The author of the internationally best-selling Harry Hole series now gives us an electrifying stand-alone novel set amid Oslo's hierarchy of corruption, from which one very unusual young man is about to propel himself into a mission of brutal revenge.

Sonny Lofthus, in his early thirties, has been in prison for the last dozen years: serving time for crimes he didn't commit. In exchange, he gets an uninterrupted supply of heroin—and the unexpected stream of fellow prisoners seeking out his uncanny abilities to soothe and absolve. His addiction started when his father committed suicide rather than be exposed as a corrupt cop, and now Sonny is the center of a vortex of corruption: prison staff, police, lawyers, a desperate priest—all of them focused on keeping him stoned and jailed, and all of them under the thumb of Oslo's crime overlord, the Twin. When Sonny learns some long-hidden truths about his father he makes a brilliant escape, and begins hunting down the people responsible for the hideous crimes he's paid for. But he's also being hunted, by the Twin, the cops, and the only person who knows the ultimate truth that Sonny is seeking. The question is, what will he do when they've cornered him?

Gripping. That is the word that I would use to describe this offering by Jo Nesbø. It was a difficult book to put down—the urge to read “just one more chapter” was strong.

I think it is safe to say that if you enjoy Nesbø’s writing and/or other Nordic noir fiction, you will enjoy The Son. There is unrelenting action, plenty of interesting clues to keep your brain busy, a little romance—just to confuse you a bit--and lots & lots of bad guys, plus several characters who inhabit the gray zone of being good bad guys (or maybe bad good guys).

There is much more “witnessed” violence in this novel that I am used to in Nordic crime fiction, but it certainly is no worse than some American authors. I know that prisons are not peaceful places and that all countries have crime, but somehow I had never pictured Norway as a hotbed of this kind of violence & crime!

The Son is not going to be “great literature,” but it is a great reading experience. Perfect for a cold winter afternoon.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

My Real Children / Jo Walton

4.5 stars out of 5
It's 2015, and Patricia Cowan is very old. "Confused today," read the notes clipped to the end of her bed. She forgets things she should know—what year it is, major events in the lives of her children. But she remembers things that don’t seem possible. She remembers marrying Mark and having four children. And she remembers not marrying Mark and raising three children with Bee instead. She remembers the bomb that killed President Kennedy in 1963, and she remembers Kennedy in 1964, declining to run again after the nuclear exchange that took out Miami and Kiev.

Her childhood, her years at Oxford during the Second World War—those were solid things. But after that, did she marry Mark or not? Did her friends all call her Trish, or Pat? Had she been a housewife who escaped a terrible marriage after her children were grown, or a successful travel writer with homes in Britain and Italy? And the moon outside her window: does it host a benign research station, or a command post bristling with nuclear missiles?

Two lives, two worlds, two versions of modern history. Each with their loves and losses, their sorrows and triumphs. My Real Children is the tale of both of Patricia Cowan's lives...and of how every life means the entire world.

I have waffled back and forth between giving this book 4 or 5 stars—so let’s call it 4.5 stars. It really spoke to me—I loved the way Walton was so honest about the details of women’s lives and how true, at least to my life, it rang. What a great use of alternate history and different time lines! I have often speculated on how different life would be if different choices had been made through the course of my life. Thankfully, I’m pretty happy with how this particular time line has ended up for me, but I could see wondering about other realities if I were in an unhappy place. 

I also appreciated the fact that neither time line that Pat/Trish inhabited was our time line—history was different from what I know in both situations and that somehow that added to the authentic feel of the book.

Plus, I find the central premise of the book to be so true—small decisions, as well as large ones, can change the course of a life. If I hadn’t gone to that particular workshop, then I wouldn’t have met this person, I wouldn’t have been recruited to a particular position and I wouldn’t have the same wonderful circle of friends that I currently enjoy. If I had chosen a different university to attend, I probably wouldn’t be living where I currently am with my current job. So, if there are alternate time lines, we each probably create many more than two! Life would bifurcate so often that it would become tremendously intricate.

In both time lines, Pat/Trish has a lot to cope with—all while being told that her female needs and desires are second class to those of men and/or straight people. The importance of friends can’t be emphasized enough—I have often said of my life, men come and go, but my women friends are the bedrock of a stable happy life. Mind you, I have also observed that although I have never missed having a husband, I could really use a wife to provide the support services that men rely on, sometimes without appreciation (and yes, Trisha’s husband Mark, I am thinking of you as I write this!). I think the current rash of sexual violence/harassment cases that we have experienced here in Canada in the last several weeks reveals that male entitlement is alive & well—but we do seem to be recognizing it, naming it, and starting to deal with it. It gives me hope that the next generation of women will have less of this crap to deal with. 

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Turn of the Screw / Henry James

4 out of 5 stars
A very young woman's first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children, Miles and Flora, at a forlorn estate...An estate haunted by a beckoning evil.

Half-seen figures who glare from dark towers and dusty windows- silent, foul phantoms who, day by day, night by night, come closer, ever closer. With growing horror, the helpless governess realizes the fiendish creatures want the children, seeking to corrupt their bodies, possess their minds, own their souls...

But worse-much worse- the governess discovers that Miles and Flora have no terror of the lurking evil.

For they want the walking dead as badly as the dead want them.

 I’m sure that ever since human-like hominids have had both fire and the ability to speak, we’ve been telling each other creepy stories and sleeping uneasily afterwards. These tales are best shared around a campfire, to simulate the ancient experience—when fires and candles cast flickering light and we were free to imagine all kinds of weird creatures around us in the dark.

Even with modern electricity, I found myself sometimes unwilling to read this book after dark—I’m entirely too suggestible when I’m tired. For me, it was the ambiguity that was creepy. Are the ghostly presences real? Or are they the product of a wild imagination? Do people besides the governess ever truly see them? Who knows who has seen what?

The lack of direct communication is definitely an issue. Since it’s not polite to question too directly or too persistently, many necessary questions go unanswered. Social status interferes as well, with the housekeeper feeling reluctant to push the governess to answer questions and the governess being unwilling to trust the housekeeper entirely. There is also the issue of the scandalous relationship of the phantoms—serving man and governess, crossing the social divide to the extent that she ends up pregnant. Especially since there are hints dropped that the current governess wouldn’t mind a chance at romancing her employer. (An excellent reason, on his part, to send her to the country and forbid all contact—but if he’s as successful as it is implied that he is, he didn’t get that way through ignoring problems. Very contradictory).

The unanswered questions create the tension—do the children see the phantoms? Or are they tormenting the new governess? Is this a case of mental unbalance or of the supernatural? Despite the convoluted writing (which sounds awkward to my modern ear), it certainly kept me reading (during daylight hours).

Friday, 31 October 2014

Dracula / Bram Stoker

4 out of 5 stars
Dracula - Bram Stoker's Gothic thriller recounting the exploits of an aristocratic vampire - has transfixed and haunted generations of reader. Perhaps the most seductive villain in Western literature, bloodthirsty Count Dracula has inspired countless movies, books, and plays. Few of these, however, have been fully faithful to Stoker's original best-selling novel of mystery and horror, love and death, sin and redemption.

Written in the form of letters, diary entries, and news bits, Dracula chronicles the vampire's journey from his Transylvanian castle to the nighttime streets of London. There, he searches for the blood he needs to stay alive - the blood of strong men and beautiful women - while his enemies plot to rid the world of his frightful power. The now-famous cast of characters includes the English solicitor Jonathan Harker; his fiancee, the enchanting Mina Murray; and Van Helsing, the mysterious Dutch doctor and expert vampire killer.


This is where the vampire trend got its beginnings—Stoker is responsible for the plethora of vampiric fiction that we see today. He uses the folklore and old stories to set the parameters that constrain today’s fictional monsters. Because of him, we know that vampires hate garlic, crosses, holy water and communion wafers. We know that they must have caskets to rest in during the day, must have boxes of their native earth close at hand, cannot see themselves in mirrors and can transform into wolves or bats. Plus, they cannot enter a house until invited.

This book, which was originally considered a cheesy horror novel and never expected to amount to anything, has become a classic in the genre, a blueprint for things to come. And how far we have come! Dracula was horrid, evil and dreadful to look at. How different from today’s vampire characters, who preen in front of mirrors, dress decadently, seduce humans rather than deceiving them, and, occasionally, sparkle. What is it about the Undead that attracts us so greatly?

I speculate that it is our youth-loving culture that makes the un-aging Undead so attractive to modern audiences. In the Victorian Dracula, Val Helsing is respected because of his age and experience—when things start to go south, Dr. Seward immediately summons him, pitting the master of science against the master of evil. If Stoker were writing this today, I imagine that it would be a young scientist (whose research was cutting edge) who would get the call.

I think that I have said before that I love books written in diary and/or letter format, perhaps because I am an inveterate journal writer myself. This was a re-read—-I first perused it decades ago and I had completely forgotten the last half of the book and enjoyed reacquainting myself with the story. I was left with one question niggling at me from early in the book—-how did Jonathan Harker escape from Dracula’s securely-locked castle? It seemed to me that he should have been more traumatized than he was by the experience and that he should have been in peril of becoming a vampire after his encounter with the three vampire women in that castle. So there are a few loose ends, threads left dangling from the tapestry.

I also found that Lucy was awfully easily forgotten by the three men who had all requested her hand in marriage! It seemed that within a very short time, they were all pledged platonically to Mina Harker. Very interesting to see the brainy Mina surviving while the beautiful, flighty Lucy meets a grisly end. Stoker’s comment on women, perhaps?

An excellent book for the Halloween season!

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Bell Jar / Sylvia Plath

4 out of 5 stars
Esther Greenwood is at college and is fighting two battles, one against her own desire for perfection in all things - grades, boyfriend, looks, career - and the other against remorseless mental illness. As her depression deepens she finds herself encased in it, bell-jarred away from the rest of the world. This is the story of her journey back into reality. Highly readable, witty and disturbing, The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath's only novel and was originally published under a pseudonym in 1963. What it has to say about what women expect of themselves, and what society expects of women, is as sharply relevant today as it has always been.

Reading this book is like standing in a whirlpool, feeling the water pull at you, trying to draw you into its vortex.  This work is unnerving in its honesty and willingness to share the distressing details of a life that is running off the rails.  The confusion and fear are palpable.

There are tendencies towards depression that run through my family, and I have felt the cold fingers of depression laid on my forehead more than a few times.  There, but for the grace of the universe, go I.  It is a sobering thought.  

Like Plath, I came as an inexperienced country girl to the city (though not nearly so large a city as New York).  I had to find my way through the minefields of city life, university studies, social events, and eventually finding employment.  Also like her, I could usually make high academic marks if I paid even a little bit of attention to a subject.  Believe it or not, that is not helpful—someone who administered an aptitude test for me looked at the perfectly symmetrical marks that I had scored and said, “Oh my, you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up!”  No kidding, that was why I was taking the blessed test!  Like all the best oracles, it offered no certain advice.  “You can go any direction you choose, but you will have to choose,” reported the tester.  No help there with deciding where to aim myself; I might as well have consulted a fortune cookie.

It’s hard to find good advice on life’s decisions: what employment would you enjoy, how will you know when you find a good life partner, is everyone else having as difficult a time as I am?  We all have to manoeuver through them with minimal experience and hope for the best.  I am grateful that I didn’t have to fight the black beast at the same time during that phase of my life.  

I appreciate the “female-ness” of this book—trying to deal with not being taken seriously as a potential employee, student, even as a patient.  Knowing that you must appear “ladylike” in order to make a good impression and that your clothing choices can be more important that you are.  The choices that we have to make around sexuality (especially back in the day when there was little reliable birth control available and women were still judged by their “purity”).  The Bell Jar was written just as women were starting to strain against the straitjacket of the wife and mother role that they had been shoved into during the 1950s—Plath’s female voice seems startlingly honest for the time.

The Bell Jar ends on what seems to me to be a hopeful note, stepping into the doctors’ office to be released from hospital.  If only that feeling of hopefulness had held and Plath had been able to resist the pull of the grave—what might she have created?