Thursday, September 22, 2011


Birthday Books

A Good and Old Friend gave me True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey for my birthday last month. Was it ever good! As the reviewer put it, “you can pat yourself on the back for reading a clever book at the same as you’re titillated by adventure, intrigue, murder, love and lust.” Well, love maybe, but the lust is not particularly lusty, unless it’s a lust for stickin’ it to the the man, outlaw style. I loved the tragedy of Carey’s Kelly, how at every step he’s pushed along in a direction he’s not really choosing, from the time he becomes an outlaw’s apprentice to the assembly of a gang bearing his name, to the final, humorously political understanding that, whether he wants to or not, a leader must lead. I love how Carey constructed the painful, deep and damaging love of the son for his mother. I deeply admire the narrating voice—technically brilliant!

Regarding that last point, let me also recommend Inzanesville by Jo Ann Beard. Again, voice is right on and technically adroit, with a surface simplicity that demonstrates admirable restraint on the part of the author. I picked up the book because it’s a girl’s coming-of-age in the 70s, an era to which I feel a connection. There’s humour but never at the expense of our old, adolescent selves; in that respect, I might describe it as a girls’ Catcher in the Rye, except that a) a “girls’” anything seems to ghettoize (sad but true) and b) I despise automatic CitR references, which I believe most often come from people who didn’t read much fiction at all between the ages of 12 and 20, and don’t even read much fiction now. Let me say instead that if my daughter were being asked to read CitR, I’d give her this instead. If she were interested. Which she wouldn’t be.

Another reason I think of CitR is that the book was in the adult section. It was about a teen, and the coming-of-age did not involve a sexual relationship or massive drug use or cutting or self-damaging behaviour of any kind (though there is a scene with a babysitting client early on that is harrowing). It seems strange that all of that stuff can be found in YA novels (Wallflower, for example) and yet this is the book that’s on the adult shelf. Why? Because it’s too real, not black-and-white enough? Do we believe that teen readers don’t want to know about an ordinary girl with an ordinary, sadly drunken parent and a life that moves subtly from childhood to not-childhood? Or is it that the author herself, or her publisher, didn’t want to ghettoize this book? Hm.

Finally, Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest by Amos Oz, an old-fashioned fable about secrets, animals, wilderness, community mores and such. It felt a little slow and repetitive at times, and the whole whoopititus thing seemed a little silly. I’d put this in a category with The Old Country and Fish (both of which I felt were more compelling): tales to read aloud, then let the kids lead the discussion, because you’d want to know what they take from it.

Friday, September 02, 2011


Karen Cushman Said

... that this book is “Delightful! Funny and wise.” So I picked it up—The Book of the Maidservant by Rebecca Barnhouse—and took it home. I was finding it tedious about halfway through: the main character spends so much time trembling and being obedient and trying not to think about her personal history, the thing that would make her more than a powerless, uneducated, timid servant girl. Everything snaps into focus when the key bit of that history is revealed (Spoiler alert: it was her own behaviour that lost her a home and her beloved sister and put her into this put-upon position) but then dwindles away again by the end. She just didn’t come off the page.

Do I expect too much? I don't think so. Other authors have dealt with powerless females in history (Karen, for example) but have managed to infuse them with wit and interest without making them historically exceptional. How the author came to this story is really interesting, but maybe (again!) the truth of it cramped her style. All the physical abuse and humiliation the maidservant suffers throughout the book needed a like satisfaction: Margery Kempe, that self-righteous pontificatress, deserved to fall down some stairs and expose her bum, at least. So, in short, this is a competent enough book, but for real fun just go straight to Karen.

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Thursday, September 01, 2011


Not Lost Without Carol Shields

Just finished Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay (and just in time, meeting my personal goal of being at the keyboard no later than 9 am today; yes, 8 is better, but I slept badly last night, so there).

I loved every word of this book. It showed me how you can tell a family story: as it comes to you, in bits and pieces, going backwards and forwards, filtered through the changing motives and circumstances of the person telling the story. Because it is (at least presented as) completely fiction, it is free to be more truthful than truth—compare, say, The Year of Finding Memory, which was brought up short by the facts (or lack of them) and so didn’t move me as much as “Classroom” does.

 What is the truer truth? How you can never get the whole story, and how it changes as the new pieces are added and your understanding of the characters involved, your relatives and friends of the family, changes, as it does as you get older—especially your elder relatives, the ones who cared for you as a child and whom you see anew, over and over, as you move through life: teen, fighting free; twenties, setting your feet on your own path; thirties; a parent yourself; forties, that time of reassessment; and onward. And all this in the most economical, plain (meaning: not “lyrical”) but evocative and rich language. The best of prose. All the elements that satisfy me in a novel.  And then, of course, it’s also about teachers and teaching (the family trade); and about the regenerative qualities of art, and craftsmanship; and sneaky little bits about writing and being a writer.

Note: you may want to read the excellent review by Aretha Van Herk in the Globe and Mail, April 29, 2011:

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