Friday, 29 December 2006

2006, In Review

New Year’s Eve is approaching, I’d like to review something thematically in keeping with the occasion, and my spent 2006 planner is sitting conveniently on my desk, so here goes. Perhaps I should begin by saying this planner cannot be named or described too exactly as the publishing company that employs me produced it, and there would be both conflict of interest and personal security issues in my being specific enough that it could be identified. Ahem.

I hope I can safely say it wasn’t the planner for me. Not that it isn’t a handsome, nicely designed volume in its own right, and I’m not just writing that because I’ve helped edit it in the past and/or could be fired for publicly criticizing my company’s product. The planner is black-covered and gold-lettered, has gold and black satin ribbons for marking one’s place, has a lot of reference material at the back, and at 8.5” x 11” looked weighty and impressive on my desk all year. But then weightiness and impressiveness weren’t qualities I particularly needed or wanted in a planner. I take public transit and need a planner that isn’t a chore in itself to carry. And then this planner is designed to be used at one’s workplace, whereas I needed one geared to organizing my activities outside of work. I can see it being exactly right for a number of busy professionals — thousands of them, in fact. Planners are a very individual preference.

But it’s typical of me, and indicative of a larger issue in my life, that I never do find quite the right planner for me, the one that will help me feel more in control of my life, to stop me from frittering away time and procrastinating (actual Freudian-style typo: procasturbating), to accomplish more, to keep me from neglecting or forgetting to do things I very much want to do. Or failing that, I’d like FOR THE LOVE OF GOD to at least find one that lets me look at a week at a glance, gives me some actual room to scribble more than a few things down AND still fits into my already bulging shoulder bag. This past year I wound up carrying a little plastic-covered calendar style planner because the weighty black one had to stay at home, a memo pad because the little calendar had no room in which I could write, and also keeping a planning notebook because I needed some place to write down brainstorming lists and research notes on the best roofers/internet service providers/books to read/Christmas present ideas. Etc.

Again, it’s typical of me that for 2007 I’ve bought a new planner, hoping that both the planner and the year will be a better one than the one past or if not, that I can at least condense my oragnizational system from four notebooks to two. But then this is always the appeal of new planners and notebooks. I can’t be the only person who has a notebook fetish, who lusts after those beautiful covers and crisp blank pages and winds up giving away several journals for Christmas every year simply because I wanted an excuse to buy them. (As was the case with the exquisite embroidered pale green satin one I gave to my seventeen-year-old niece this year – I wanted to buy it and it matched my niece’s eyes, so she got it.) Those rafts of gorgeous notebooks and planners one sees in the stores must go somewhere. The appeal of these planners and notebooks is the promise of renewal, of a fresh start, of new things and new days to come. It’s an act of faith to buy one because it presumes that one will be living each and every one of those days named within. And, if one is a writer, there’s always the hope that the words one will write within will actually be worthy of their beautiful setting.

I don’t get a sense of this promise as I flip back through my spent planners. Instead I get a sense of the past as a thing apart from my memories and overall impressions of it. Perhaps I find I went out more often or was more productive than I thought, or perhaps less. Perhaps I discover that I wrote in some item to be done, such as signing up for a yoga class or doing some home improvement task, see that I scheduled it again and again before it finally disappeared, but realize it doesn’t matter now that I’d rather take kickboxing and have moved. This particular year I find the gold ribbon is stalled in mid-November, because I was embroiled in all sorts of real estate and moving craziness and was too overwhelmed to even be able to try to calmly order my days. This bird’s eye sense of the past — even my own past, which I should know intimately — as something significantly different from my conception of it isn’t as exciting as the sense of anticipation I get from a new notebook, but it’s probably more instructive.

The planner is a relatively modern invention. I don’t suppose it is much more than a century old, though people were certainly jotting down their daily minutiae long before that. It’s something we designed to help us cope with lives that have become more varied and hectic (though not harder overall) than they were two hundred years ago. Not that the medieval peasant whose daily to-do list might have been a one item “plant turnips” wouldn’t have had some conception of the more primal motivation that underlies our dependency on planners, and BlackBerries, and whatever other forms the planner will take in future. Like most adaptations, they help us cope with currently existing circumstances without necessarily making us any happier or more fulfilled in the larger sense than people have been in past millenniums. Nearly two thousand years ago Paul of the Bible was writing, “That which I would not do, I do; and that which I would do, I do not”, and that is a universal, eternal human lament which even the most beautifully designed Moleskine will never do more than assauge. Not that this realization for one minute dampens my ravenous desire for the said Moleskines.

Monday, 25 December 2006

A Reader's Digest Christmas, Digested

I've been meaning to write a special Christmas-themed review about O. Henry's The Gifts of the Magi and four of his other short stories, but since I am now at my parents' place for Christmas and I cleverly left the O. Henry book at my own home in Toronto, I'll have to fall back on reviewing something from my parents' bookshelves.

So, I've unearthed a somewhat battered, Reader's Digest-produced copy of A Family's Christmas, copyright 1984. And I'm actually disposed to be more gentle with it than I would have been to The Gifts of the Magi. But please don't take this as some sort of endorsement of Reader's Digest.

Reader's Digest was always in my home as I grew up because my father subscribed to it, and it does seem to me to be a sort of yardstick to my development as a reader, the equivalent of old pencil marks on a wall being used to gauge a child's height. When I first began to read it at about eight, I read just the jokes. Then, perhaps a year later, I began to read the lighter articles. Then I began to read whatever articles interested me, and by twelve or so I was reading the entire magazine. At fourteen I beguiled away a good portion of a case of mono by reading ten years' worth of back issues. (I always remember my illnesses by my reading material, and have fond memories of the time I escaped from the miseries of a 2002 bout with Influenza A into a thick, small-print collection of Sherlock Holmes stories.) At fifteen I began to notice, as with an outgrown, outworn piece of clothing, the shortcomings of Reader's Digest, and consequently read it less and less. By the age of seventeen, I had stopped reading it all together, and now can't bear to read it at all. So, now, revisiting A Family Christmas as an adult, I'm pleasantly surprised to find that the book I enjoyed so much as a ten-year-old still has some merit.

The book opens with an essay written by the excellent Jessamyn West. (Not, you understand, the living and equally excellent Jessamyn West, librarian and moderator, but the late and excellent Jessamyn West, Quaker writer.) West muses about her Christmas memories, and it's enjoyable reading, though I would enjoy it more if I didn't have to worry that Reader's Digest editors have gutted the piece — or as they call it, "condensed" it. The first time I ever read an original version of something I had only previously read as a Reader's Digest version I realized how cheated I had been, and it is this more than anything that destroyed my enjoyment of Reader's Digest materials. If the piece has been gutted, the editors certainly chose to leave in West's slightly didactic conclusion about the "heart-warmth" and religious meaning of Christmas. I can't help but suspect it would have seemed less preachy in the original form, as West, a woman who helped her own sister euthanize herself, had a very nuanced belief system and no tendency at all to proselytize.

Paging on, we enter a section called "Christmas Customs and Crafts". This section features pieces about the origin and practice of different Christmas customs followed by instructions for making your own Christmas paraphernalia. For instance, the first custom discussed is the Christmas tree. Origin of the custom, historical and present-day variations, a cute anecdote about Theodore Roosevelt's son's scheme to subvert his conservationist father's decree that there would be no White House Christmas tree, quotes from A.E. Housman, reproductions of works by Norman Rockwell, and Grandma Moses, pictures of antique ornaments, illustrations of various kinds of pine trees. Quite readable. Immediately following it we have instructions on how to make tree ornaments out of wood shavings, which look lovely. Then instructions on how to make Ecuadorian star ornaments out of yarn and foil covered squares. They're done in garish colours and look none too attractive in the book, but the crafter in me is thinking perhaps the idea has some potential...

Moving on more rapidly, there are pieces on creches, Christmas stockings, toys, Christmas cards, Christmas greens, and Santa Claus, and these are followed, respectively, by instructions on making one's own cornhusk creche, knitted Aran stockings, Cinderella doll and wooden wagon, Christmas cards, pine cone wreath and Advent wreath, and "Santa's dream dollhouse". Which I must admit mostly look attractive and damn tempting to me as a knitter, sewer, and person who loves to make things, and there's something to be said for a company that can produce crafts which still look good over twenty years later. The picture of a brooding Santa peering around a tree while a little girl plays happily with the dollhouse does look a little iffy, however.

Then we come to the "Christmas in the Kitchen" section. James Beard's Christmas recollections, and four separate menus for Christmas meals. Also a cookie section, featuring a photo of a pink-cheeked grandma happily making cookies with two children at her kitchen table. Grandma's pink cheeks are a little too obviously rouged, and there's no way any baker could possibly work on such crowded surface as her kitchen table, but we'll let that pass. The recipes certainly look good, but I'm already feeling sated on my mother's cooking, so I'll just move on to the next section.

Paging on, we find the section I remember the best, a collection of Christmas stories, which as always with Reader's Digest selections, range from the very good to the horrendous, and, as with West's piece, I cannot fully enjoy any of them for fear they have been gutted.

I would place the first story, "A Miserable, Merry Christmas" in the "very good" category. Lincoln Steffens tells the story of the boyhood Christmas he told his parents that he wanted "a pony or nothing" for Christmas, and how he awoke to find Christmas morning to find he'd been taken at his word. Steffens, so Wikipedia claims, is known for remarking, upon his return from a 1921 visit to the Soviet Union, that he "has been over into the future and it works", but let us leave that aside and give him credit for at least understanding his own past, and presenting us with an evocative representation of a childhood experience, with its wild expectations and painful hopes and sudden plunges from joy to misery and back again.

Next we find the lyrics for "Go Tell It On The Mountain". I'd say this was public domain (read: "free") filler and am musing on whether in today's cultural climate the Reader's Digest editors would still chose to subtitle the lyrics "American Black Spiritual".

On page 148, Selma Lagerlof's "The Legend of the Christmas Rose" begins, a mystical tale of monks and robbers and a forest that blooms and is visited by angels every Christmas. It's not bad, and it does achieve that certain flavour of a tale that has been passed down orally from generation to generation.

Next is Valentine Davies' "Miracle on 34th Street". I read this story before ever knowing about the movie. Now that I know about the movie and have skimmed over the story again, I found myself wondering if the story was the "fictionalization" of the movie — fiction written from the screen play. Such fictionalizations are usually flat and mechanical, like this story. Upon looking it up, I find the movie was made from the "novel". Since the story in the Reader's Digest book is just 35 pages long, I suspect the story has been stripped to the bare bones. It's hardly fair to assess it in this state.

Norah Lofts's "The Lord of Misrule" follows "Miracle on 34th Street". In medieval times, a minstrel and a penniless girl of good family fall in love. They know they would never be allowed even to speak together under ordinary circumstances, but when the minstrel is named Lord of Misrule they seize their chance. It's a good story, and is well told.

Then we come to "Mr. Edward Meets Santa Claus", as excerpted from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. Not a bad story, nor badly written. And, of course, it's imbued by all those values Reader's Digest and Wilder's libertarian daughter Rose Wilder Lane (who heavily edited and rewrote her mother's work) hold so dear — the bonds of family and friendship, and hardy self-reliance.

Next is Pearl S. Buck's "Christmas Day in the Morning", the story of an elderly man's memories of a boyhood Christmas surprise for his father. More about the bonds of family and love, but the story has a dark vein, because it more than hints at the loneliness of an elderly couple whose children are busy with their own lives.

Then we read Kay Thompson's "Eloise at Christmastime". Somehow even at ten I never cared for this story. I don't think I really had the patience to read it properly. I always liked a good story, and this one is short on actual narrative and long on nonsense rhymes and whimsy.

On to Frank R. Stockton's "Old Applejoy's Ghost". The ghost of a man from the eighteenth century pulls some strings to manage a Christmas and other matters for his great-granddaughter. It's not literature by any means, but it's readable enough.

Then we find Edna St. Vincent Millay's "The Ballad of the Harp Weaver", which is supposed to be among the best of Millay's work. I hope this isn't the case. "The Ballad of the Harp Weaver" is maudlin, subscribes to the awful mother-reverence that was far too prevalent in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, and is barely above doggerel.

Next is "Christmas Every Day" by William Dean Howells. A little girl gets her wish and has Christmas every day for a year. I hope it's not just my love for nineteenth century children's and pulp fiction speaking when I say I really like this one. I suppose it's supposed to be a morality lesson instructing little girls in the dangers of greed, but to my mind it's just as much about the excesses of Christmas and how once a year is as much Christmas as anyone can bear, and this subtext amuses me no end.

Finally, we come to "A Conversation About Christmas", by Dylan Thomas. A Welsh man describes his boyhood Christmasses to a small boy. It's a poetic piece about the nature of nostalgia.

We finish with more public domain filler — a poem from Tennyson, and then "A Christmas Prayer Book", which is a few pages of short poems and readings from various sources.

As you can tell from my description, it's a reasonably enjoyable, worthwhile book on the whole. The problems I have with it, and with Reader's Digest materials in general, are like unto the problem I have with Christmas as a whole. I don't like the painful contrast between the ideal presented as reality and the actual reality, the saccharine feel-good vibe, the unreasonable, unrealistic expectations nearly everyone develops and is subjected to. I don't like the nostalgia that laces its way through everything. The lament for "how things used to be" is literally everywhere in this book, even in the medieval-era The Lord of Misrule. But then Christmas, like such "family oriented" materials as this book, are not things that can or should be experienced every day. Perhaps they are well enough in their place.

I'll just say then, that I hope we all enjoy Christmas, and all such artificially sweet fare, on our own terms, and then enjoy equally our return to a more holistic way of living and perceiving.

Friday, 15 December 2006

Perfume That Attracts and Repels

Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a novel about the life and career of an orphan boy born in eighteenth century Paris. Suskind’s first sentence refers to Jean-Baptiste Grenouille as a "gifted and abominable man", and that does sum up Grenouille as well as any phrase that occurs to me. Grenouille is a gruesome creature, seemingly both because he’s a product of brutish treatment, and because it is his nature to be. His genius lies in his nose, as he has infallible recall for any scent he has ever encountered and a bloodhound’s ability to track the scents of beings miles away, or behind walls. The story of his efforts to experience the world through his nose and conquer the world through his ability to create scents — and the extreme and horrific methods he uses to do so — isn’t a pleasant one, but it is enthralling. I read the second half of the book in a single sitting today despite the fact that a number of pressing tasks awaited me.

It’s much more difficult to review a good book than a bad one. With the bad novel the reviewer has readymade topics and the keen if low pleasure of snarking. When I try to write a piece on a good to stellar novel I usually spend a lot of time staring morosely at the cover of the book, trying to figure out what angle to take so that I can say something other than unadulterated praise, which is boring and will make me sound like a groupie — or perhaps just intellectually lazy. At the publishing company where I work we editors are regularly asked to double-check each other’s productions. When I get, say, an especially carefully prepared newsletter to proofread I often end up putting more effort into checking for errors than usual, because I’m worried if I don’t find a single mistake the other editor will think I didn’t really try.

Also beneath all these other concerns is usually the feeling that I don’t want to pick apart a book I love, anymore than I would want to pull a rose to pieces. I’m so reluctant to maul a well-crafted book with my clumsy analysis, not because I can possibly injure the book, but because the ineptitude of my efforts show up so much more clearlywhen contrasted with its artistry. These motives are all working in me right now, and I’ve decided to solve the problem of an angle by heading off into vaguely related topic that kept occurring to me as I read Perfume.

As I read I kept reflecting on certain other books or short stories that I have read that bear a sort of likeness to Perfume. These other works also involved a repulsive, unsympathetic main protagonist, and are almost unbearable to read because of their content. I suppose the genre can be roughly classified as literary horror. I kept musing over whether each writer had succeeded or failed in what he or she attempted to do. There seems to be no formula for success, as indeed there isn’t in literature. Each work always fails or succeeds on its own merits and in its totality.

A Clockwork Orange was a book that came to mind, for instance. And it is a success, of course. The whole point of Anthony Burgess’s work is the very banality of the sociopathic narrator’s voice and mindset. He’s ordinary, he’s violent, he’s remorseless, he's nonchalant, and you don’t even mind reading what he has to say because he’s so matter of fact about it all and because there’s a certain cool style in his use of slang and nonchalance. The horror lies in the very lack of horror.

The short story Clay by George Romero is another example. In Clay a mentally handicapped, socially isolated man crafts himself companions out of clay, and his efforts to make them as realistic as possible become more and more extreme and monstrous. I deem this one a failure because it has nothing attractive in it to grip the reader. In a horror novel one must provide something that holds the reader to counterbalance the repelling effect of the horror. There certainly is horror and repulsiveness enough in this story, but as I read I found myself physically turning my head aside, pulling back from the book. Nothing made me want to read it but the fact that I had to turn the pages anyway to get the next story in the anthology that contained it. I barely skimmed the last ten pages because I found the story so unbearable. Had it been much longer than 22 pages I certainly would never have finished it.

Another book that occurred to me, that perhaps may seem an odd or unsuitable choice if I’m supposedly discussing the genre of literary horror, is Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees. Fall On Your Knees is more often described as an epic, or a multigenerational saga than as horror. Frankly, I can only call it wretched. I’ll never review it properly for this site because I can’t bear the thought of re-reading it, and I doubt I’ll ever read the sequel, The Way the Crow Flies.

I was obsessed with Fall On Your Knees in a very negative way when I read it some years back. It’s quite long, and I hated almost every moment I spent reading it. The only part I enjoyed was Kathleen’s beautiful and lyrical diary of her days as a music student in New York — which sojourn ended suddenly with a horrific incident that dragged me back into the sewer that is the rest of the book. I remember how in the week or two that I spent reading the book I complained to a friend in email after email how much I hated it. Reasonably enough, she asked me WHY I kept reading it and even tried ordering me to stop. I replied that I couldn’t, that I just had to finish it. It’s a testament to MacDonald’s sheer narrative force that Fall on Your Knees should be so compulsively readable that I finished the book despite considering it the literary equivalent of thumbscrews. And I haven’t — at least, not at the distance of three or four years — a stylistic fault to find with it.

My whole experience of being made miserable by Fall on Your Knees lasted even longer than the actual reading. I could not understand why the book was so popular. Had I missed something? Was I a prissy, limited reader incapable of the empathetic and imaginative stretch it would take to enjoy something like this book? I scoured the internet for commentary on the book looking for a key to understanding how anyone could love it. I read reviews of Fall on Your Knees which usually didn’t seem to be about the book I had read. If my memory serves me correctly, one reviewer claimed it was an evocative depiction of family life in Cape Breton in the twenties. If I were a Cape Bretoner I would object to that assessment quite strongly. Perhaps I'd also produce a statistic or two about the rarity of families boasting pedophiliac, incestuous, bootlegging patriarchs.

Oprah Winfrey later selected Fall On Your Knees for her book club. This did not faze me. Although I applaud Winfrey’s efforts to get America reading and respect that she probably has realized demonstrable success in this endeavour, I can’t show the same enthusiasm for her literary taste. Yes, her books are a step up artistically for those who normally might only read romance or detective novels, but I would hope those who made that step would keep on climbing. I don’t feel any need to align my literary taste with Winfrey’s. She is just one person, after all. I wasn’t even bothered by her pronouncement that she was discontinuing her book club because "there weren’t enough good books", because I automatically amended her statement to "she can’t possibly have enough reading time to find the good books". What did bother me was that before she had singled out Fall On Your Knees, tens of thousands of people were reading the book and independently coming to the conclusion that they enjoyed it.

I still have not settled my internal "is it my failing or is it MacDonald’s" debate over this book, though fortunately the debate eventually dimmed and quieted. I can only say again, as I said about Clay, that a book that has horrifying, repulsive content must have some sufficiently attractive qualities to compensate. Perfume has enough attractive qualities. Grenouille has genius, artistry, and achieves at a high level, which are always compelling, no matter what their context. Perfume is well plotted and suspenseful. The concept is original and the idea that scent is such a profound and unrealized force in our lives is an intriguing one. These things compensate for the repellent force of Grenouille’s cold-bloodedness — and for the silliness of the novel’s climactic scene and denouement (scent may be an unrecognized power in our lives but I refuse to believe it's as powerful as Suskind's scenario suggests).

I can’t say that Fall On Your Knees has achieved this sort of balance between attraction and repulsion. I wanted, somewhere in the course of my reading of it, to experience a positive emotion, to be inspired, to be moved, to admire, to empathize. Instead the experience was more like that of watching the lowest kind of talk show. I came to know too much about a group of people about whom I couldn't bring myself to care, and I was only repelled.

Saturday, 9 December 2006

The Witch That Cannot Bewitch

Witch Child by Celia Rees is a young adult novel about a seventeenth-century English girl, Mary. The woman who raised Mary and whom Mary called her grandmother is tried and hung as a witch, and Mary winds up immigrating with a group of Puritan settlers to America in attempt to escape the same fate. Except that she is then accused of witchcraft there, and it turns out that she does indeed have some supernatural powers. Witch Child is a respectably good young adult novel – the writing is competent, it’s very well plotted and suspenseful, and the historical research seems to be accurate. Rees also used a Blair Witch Project-style gimmick, presenting the novel as though it were an actual historical diary by including prologues and afterword notes from one “Alison Ellman”, who states that efforts to identify Mary are ongoing and requesting that anyone who might have information about her email her at the address provided. I visited the site mentioned, and found that it featured some basic historical background for the book, period woodcut illustrations, Celia Rees’ explanations of how she came up with the idea and why she used the Alison Ellman presentation, and of course a vendor’s link so that the viewer can conveniently purchase the book and its sequel. I admire the cleverness of the Alison Ellman gimmick – it will make the book seem very immediate to modern teens. But the book itself is too slick. There isn’t a lot of depth. Yes, I realize that it’s a young adult fantasy novel and so I deliberately used the phrase “respectably good young adult novel” in my assessment above. Witch Child does stand up well compared to an average teen novel. But then so many teen novels are atrocious, so this is not saying much. Which leads me to the question of why they’re atrocious.

I’m impatient with the all too common practice of classifying children’s and young adult literature as some sort of lesser art than materials written for adults. To begin with, good writing is always something to cherish, wherever it may be found. Adults should be beyond the sort of developmental superiority and condescension children often have for those a few years younger than they, and be able to enjoy genuine artistry in all its forms and at all levels. Children and young adults deserve and need good writing, and I still think it’s fair to judge a young adult or child’s novel by the usual literary standards, to expect artistic and intellectual merit rather than merely readability. It’s entirely possible to write excellent literary fiction that is suited to a teenager’s intellectual level, as say, Cynthia Voigt has done. And if we fail to demand literary work from authors in this genre and also don’t acknowledge it when it does appear, we’re only reinforcing the low calibre. So, as I say, the book is a very slight one in terms of literary merits. It’s in the Lois Duncan vein – suspenseful, readable, but flimsy. The characterizations are rather shallow, and though Rees’ physical settings may be historically accurate she has not been able to recreate a convincing seventeenth-century psychology for her characters. Mary is too modern in her sensibilities, too sophisticated for a seventeenth-century 14-year-old girl, too brisk and assured in her choices and emotional reactions, too detached in her descriptions of her environment and society. She writes as though she were a twenty-first century adult coolly assessing the ridiculously hysterical people around her. Though she knows she has some magical powers, she never wonders if any others in her settlement do. She makes friends with a native American without having to overcome a trace of the prejudice and fear the other settlers uniformly feel. She masquerades as a boy and swims naked without a qualm. Meanwhile the other characters act on simplistic motivations. Mary’s considered a witch by the ill-natured of the town and protected by the kindly ones who know her. It probably would have been a sound idea to have some of those who cared for her also show some fear of possible witchcraft, to have to resolve some inner conflicts, to have Mary progress from being a child to a self-sufficient adult, to have her make mistakes and question herself and her own values. As is, it’s a thin little suspense novel, quickly and easily read, and almost as quickly and easily forgotten.

Sunday, 3 December 2006

The Vampire Book I Read In Spite of Myself

I found out about the novel Sunshine, by young adult fantasy writer Robin McKinley by visiting McKinley's web site. Upon reading the excerpt I found there I discovered that Sunshine was about vampires, which in effect punctured my usual enthusiasm for the latest McKinley book. Those of you who like vampires can picture blood spurting from the jugular, and the rest of you can imagine a tire sadly deflating. Far be it from me to deny anyone the visual of his or her choice.

A reading of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and a half-reading of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire exhausted my limited interest in sucker lit some years ago, and it has not revived. However, I’ve read and loved all of McKinley’s books published to date and it would likely be a few years before there was another and so… I popped over to the Toronto Public Library site and placed a hold on it. I’m glad I did.

Sunshine is funny, involving, and suspenseful. There’s the usual wry, reluctant McKinley heroine, her next-to-impossible yet inescapable quest, and a complex, beautifully imagined alternate universe, complete with homely details such as how a vampire looks in a borrowed bathrobe. Aside from the vampires, there are other ways in which this book is something apart from the rest of McKinley’s oeuvre. It’s set in a modern environment with cars, sneakers, and video games such as McKinley has only used in some of her short stories, and written in the first person, which as far as I can recall she hasn’t previously done at all. She’s invented her own slang for the 25-year-old heroine to use and her own terms for computers and the Internet (a wise choice, since real slang and technology date faster than anything else). The resulting modernity and immediacy gives this alternate universe a coolness and an edge Damar never had. Moreover there is an abortive sex scene that is so incredibly erotic that its abrupt termination left me nearly as frustrated as the heroine. McKinley has been holding out on us—there were no sex scenes in any of her earlier books.

I remain uncoverted to all things vampirish, and am going to let Interview with the Vampire remain half-read (as I wish I had done with the horribly bloated The Witching Hour), but I enjoyed Sunshine as much as any of McKinley’s other novels.

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Lost in the Lake of the Woods

Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods is a novel about a man who is a Vietnam vet, a politician, the product of a troubled family, and the husband of a woman he loves desperately. In his case it’s a disastrous combination. John Wade has just lost a U.S. Senate election by a landslide. The media had managed to dig up a part of his war record he had thought he had managed to bury. So, he and his wife Kathy have rented a cottage in the Lake of the Woods in order to recuperate, and to plan their next move. But then one morning Kathy is not in the bed beside John, and their rental boat is not in the boathouse, and he can’t remember much of what he did the night before, though he knows he boiled the plants and later found himself lying naked on the dock.

The novel is at once a serious literary effort, a horror story, and a whodunit (or rather, a whodunwhat). The structure is perfectly suited to the subject matter. The chapters have documentary type names – “What he remembers”, “What he did next”, “Where they looked”, and are interspersed with chapters titled “Evidence”, which consist entirely of quotes pulled from various sources – John’s mother, Kathy’s sister, texts on the effects of trauma, various politicians, the small town cops who investigated Kathy’s disappearance, John’s campaign manager, the transcripts of the court martial trials of John’s platoon members, etc., and also there are footnotes supposedly constructed by the biographer, in which he guesses and second guesses at solutions. Then there are chapters called “Hypothesis”, which provide no less than four possible explanations for Kathy’s disappearance. The reader doesn’t, and isn’t supposed to know, what is fact and what is supposition. It’s an excellent format for this novel, and works on several levels. It’s a construct representing John’s psyche which has become so fragmented even he can’t trust his own senses and memories; it gives the reader a taste of the frustration and helplessness those dealing with him would have experienced; and it’s a psychological and literary puzzle for the reader.

Lake of the Woods is the kind of book that, although excellent, isn’t likely to be anyone’s favourite and happily re-read between sips of hot tea. It’s too unsettling, and unless you happen to really like graphic descriptions of violence, it’s almost unreadable in places. But it’s an indication of Tim O’Brien’s accomplishment that while I was repelled by the character of John Wade, I could not dismiss him as not worth whatever struggles or discomfort it might take to understand him. And given my society's less than successful methods of dealing with the violent, the mentally ill, and the damaged veterans of military actions , this seems a frame of mind worth the discomfort it entails.

Saturday, 25 November 2006

The Lives of the Incidental and the Related

Anne De Courcy’s The Viceroy’s Daughters: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters is a biography of three English sisters – Irene Curzon (1896-1966), Cynthia “Cimmie” Curzon Mosley (1898-1933), and Alexandra “Baba” Curzon Metcalfe (1904-1995). Their father, George Curzon, was a brilliant man who was born to the peerage and held a series of important posts in the British government at a time when Great Britain was the most powerful country in the world. He was Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, then Viceroy of India, then Leader of the House of Lords, then member of the War Cabinet during the First World War, then Foreign Secretary, and finally Lord President of the Council – all this in spite of the agonizing pain caused by the curvature of the spine that he suffered, and the necessity of wearing a steel corset. For a wife he chose one of the most beautiful young debutantes in America, Mary Leiter. Though Mary and George did love each other it was not incidental that Mary was also one of America’s richest young debutantes, since George could not have otherwise have afforded such a career. The viceroy’s salary, for instance, did not half finance the lifestyle thought necessary to a viceroy.

As one might expect of those born to such parents the three Curzon sisters were wealthy, titled, beautiful, intelligent, and strong-willed. This book documents their intertwined lives. It was an era when women did not have careers and the three women lived sumptuously on their inheritances all their lives anyway, but they all gave a great deal of time and energy to the public good and excelled at whatever they did. Cimmie was a Member of Parliament. Irene and Baba both did a considerable amount of charitable work, in honour of which Irene was created on of the first four female life peers in 1958, and Baba awarded a CBE in 1975. Cimmie and Baba married and had three children each. Irene never married and had no children, although she essentially raised Cimmie’s children after Cimmie died at the age of 34 from an appendectomy performed in a pre-antibiotic era. Socially they mingled with many of the well-known people of the day, and the index to the book reads like a Who’s Who of the thirties. To give a few examples of their social connections, George Curzon had a long-standing affair with Elinor Glyn, and Glyn, a kind woman, also became a fondly regarded and lifelong friend to the Curzon daughters. Cimmie’s husband was Sir Oswald “Tom” Mosley, a charismatic and power-obsessed politician who founded an alarmingly successful fascist party in England in the thirties. Prince George (later the Duke of Kent) fell in love with Baba, although not she with him. Baba’s husband was the closest male friend the Duke of Windsor ever had, and Baba had affairs with many powerful men – including her brother-in-law, Tom Mosley. Tom Mosley’s second wife was Diana Guinness, who was Unity Mitford’s sister and, like Unity, a friend of Hitler’s.

This book had me musing about the nature of history. If history is not what actually happened but our construction of what happened, why include these three particular women in it? Why was this topic worth the intensive work it must have been to document it? While reading the 454-page book I kept waiting for one of the Curzon sisters to do something to warrant such a biography. I think I must have read several hundred pages before it dawned on me that this was not going to happen. I probably should have taken the hint from the title and subtitle, which define the three women by their biological relationships, or from the four review blurbs on the back of the book, which make use of the term “social history” twice. The Curzon sisters led useful lives that are mildly interesting to the reader, but they were not of historical importance in themselves. This book about them is primarily worth reading for the social and historical context it provides. The Viceroy's Daughters is, therefore, a good book to read if one wants a sense of what life was like in aristocratic English circles during the first half of the twentieth century. One learns that the hunt was a subculture of its own and could be an entire way of life for some, as it was for Irene for a time. There are incidents that speak volumes about the social mores of the era, such as George Curzon’s summary dismissal of a housemaid who had allowed a footman to spend the night in her bed (“I put the wretched little slut out in the street at a moment’s notice.”) He saw no parallel between the housemaid’s actions and his own many affairs, and there is no mention of what happened to the footman. It is related that Baba taught Prince George to drive in a single afternoon – a few hours’ instruction from a friend being standard driver’s education at the time. There is by far the most negative and unflattering account of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s relationship and behaviour towards others that I have ever read. And there is a truly disturbing account of the growth and momentum of Tom Mosley’s British fascist movement, complete with pictures of a moustached, black-shirted Tom exhorting a fervent crowd and the lyrics for a song called “Mosley!” (“Mosley, Leader of thousands!/Hope of our manhood, we proudly hail thee!/Raise we the song of allegiance/For we are sworn and shall not fail thee.”). If the reader has any complacent notion that the threat and allure of fascism was limited to one or two leaders and their countries, or even to one era, he or she will be disabused.

The Curzon sisters have much in common with Princess Diana, and they share her specific relationship to history. They, like her, were born to the aristocracy, wealthy, beautiful, well-dressed, unhappy in their marriages and romances, successful mothers, active in charitable works, and politically unimportant. Not being a part of the royal family, nor mothers to the heir to the throne, they were less well known. And at any rate media coverage in their day, though it covered society events and the lives of the aristocracy, would have had an entirely different tone from that of Diana’s time. If the Curzon sisters had had colonial irrigations or bulimia, it was not breathlessly reported. I doubt that Irene’s excessive drinking was ever generally bruited about. Being famous, however, has always meant that people whom you have never met believe that they know you. So the Curzon sisters, like Diana, would have been objectified and treated as characters in a soap opera rather than as people, and even more idealized. It made me realize that in a hundred years’ time Diana will probably be largely forgotten, or at least have dwindled to the status of a tragic footnote, as has say, Anne Boleyn. In any case I expect her image won’t still be appearing on magazine covers and bus shelters. Because in the case of these celebrity soap opera-like stories, you probably had to be there at the time watching, and have the memories of the unfolding events interwoven with the events of your own life, in order to feel that they have any compelling meaning.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

A Frolic On the Banks

Cathie Pelletier's novel Once Upon A Time On the Banks employs a structure I particularly like. I have a fondness for the ensemble novel, which involves a large cast of characters and a number of subplots all wound around one central event. When properly used this format allows for a cataclysm of events both comic and tragic. Each subplot can be used to enrich all the others. And surely it’s an advantage for an author to be able to cast such a complex web of plotting instead of relying on a single piece of bait. The reader is bound to find one of the subplots compelling.

This novel is set in 1969 in Mattagash, a little backwoods town in Maine. The central event of this novel is the upcoming wedding of one Amy Joy Lawler, who has declared her intent to marry the French-Canadian Jean-Claude Cloutier. And one by one the other characters with their own intentions gather for Amy Joy’s wedding. Her mother, Sicily, takes to her bed at once. The Cloutiers vow that that they’ll never let their Jean-Claude marry that bossy English girl and Jean-Claude’s mother is praying to saints that have not even been canonized. Across town the two ne’er do well Gifford brothers are dreaming of the shining hubcaps they’ll glean from all the out-of-town wedding guest vehicles and their wives Goldie and Vera have begun a no-holds-barred feud over Goldie’s purchase of the town’s entire stock of Christmas tree lights. Eighty miles away in Portland Amy’s Aunt Pearl is longing to get back to Mattagash. Pearl’s husband Marvin Ivy is worrying about a shortage of customers for his funeral home. Amy’s cousin Junior Ivy is having an affair with the Ivy Funeral Home secretary, Monique Tessier. Junior’s wife Thelma is having a one-sided, Valium-aided love affair with Bob Barker from “The Price is Right” ("Come on dowwwwwn, Thelma!"). Thelma and Junior’s son Randy is racking up some true sixties experiences – dropping out, getting high, getting busted, getting VD, and getting in trouble with all of his authority figures. Albert Pinkham, proprietor of Mattagash’s only motel, is looking forward to some sure income and wondering if he should get a pool for the Albert Pinkham Motel since it’s sure to attract business and one of those plastic wading numbers can’t cost too much. And through every extravagant subplot and every tragic-comic moment, each character is aware of his or her own mortality, and of the urgent importance of living life the way it should be lived before it comes time to die.

A few pages into this novel when I first grasped the fact that it was set in a backwoods Maine town of only 456 people and ran into the first double name and double negative, I began to dread that this might be something in the Fanny Farmer vein, a novel that invites the reader to ridicule its rustic characters while expecting them to simultaneously admire what’s supposed to be homespun wisdom but is really facile platitudes costumed in picturesquely bad grammar and livestock references. But I needn’t have worried. Pelletier has Dorothy Parker’s gift for laying bare her characters’ silliness and idiosyncrasies while leaving their dignity intact, and her very own gift for creating regional flavour and characters who are simultaneously people of a specific time and place and people to whom anyone might relate. (A friend of mine who is orginally from New Brunswick assures me that Pelletier NAILED the atmosphere of a small town on the east coast.)

There is much to laugh at and the Ivys must surely be fiction’s most hilariously dysfunctional family, but there is also much that is admirable and moving, and Pelletier is perceptive and poetic in her rendering of what might so easily have slid into banality. When 23-year-old Amy Joy sits in front of the mail-order vanity table that she has had since eighth grade and gazes into the heart-shaped mirror while putting on her blue eyeshadow, Pelletier manages to make it a poignant moment. Amy Joy is thinking how her unmade-up face reminds her of the little girl she once was, who was made perfectly happy by a swim in the river, a good towelling, and the run home towards her mother’s cooking, and feels the disconnect between that joyful little girl and her surrender to the moment at hand, and her adult decision to marry Jean-Claude, a decision she sees as something that is “crystallizing” her, something that will leave her “sealed forever”. When Goldie Gifford and her children decorate their yard with all forty boxes of Christmas lights in early spring it’s Goldie’s first signal effort to save her six children and herself from their former status as Giffords, the dole-collecting pariahs of the town. Her children can pride themselves on having the most Christmas tree lights of any family on earth, and once they have felt this pride it’s easier to get them to pick up the trash in the yard and do their homework. In the end, Pelletier’s Mattagash seems less like a backwoods than like the centre of a universe where all the important things happen, and like any fully realized universe it comes complete with a gravitational pull too strong to resist.

Friday, 17 November 2006

The Aviatrix

As Beryl Markham is not well-known, I should probably begin by saying Markham (1902-1986) was Kenya’s first female bush pilot, the first person to fly solo from England to North America, the author of a very good and successful book (a memoir entitled West With the Night), and Kenya’s legendary, and first-ever licensed female, horse trainer. As I read Straight On Till Morning: a Biography of Beryl Markham, by Mary S. Lovell, I wondered why the name of Beryl Markham was not as well known as that of Amelia Earhart, since Markham set a more substantial flying record than Earhart had. Earhart was only the first woman to fly solo from America to Ireland. This was a far easier trip than a westward crossing due to the difference than air currents, and a number of men had preceded her.

In this Salon interview, Betsy Prioleau attributes the disparity between the two to the fact that aviatrix Beryl Markham’s love life “doesn’t bear inspection”, but I do not see how this could have been the reason. The media of the day showed far more restraint in what they did and did not report (i.e., although Bill Clinton was far from the first or most promiscuous president, during earlier administrations we were not subjected to accounts of presidential preferences in the taste of cigars). Although Markham’s casual promiscuity was common knowledge to all who were acquainted with her, it would not have been reported in the press no matter what her level of fame as an aviatrix (this word delighted me so much it nearly made me regret the otherwise useful and praiseworthy gender neutralization of language). Her contemporary Marlene Dietrich had literally thousands of partners of both genders and unblushingly regaled dinner party guests with accounts of her escapades, and that never seemed to affect her career adversely. A more likely explanation is that Amelia Earhart died young and spectacularly in the middle of an internationally publicized record flight, while Markham was never able to muster the financial backing for any further stunts and lived out a long life in relative obscurity. As in the cases of legendary Marilyn Monroe and the nearly forgotten Brigitte Bardot, an early death while one and one’s legend remains free from wrinkles and liver spots can make all the difference between posterity and obscurity. Also it may be pertinent that Earhart was American while Markham spent most of her life in Kenya. The U.S. has a marked celebrity culture while Kenya is not known for its self-promotion.

But although Earhart may have garnered more fame in her passage through the world, I doubt that she was any more interesting as a biographical subject. Mary S. Lovell got to know Markham quite well during the last year of her life, was fascinated with her, and so presents her as a fascinating person, and perhaps more sympathetically than a biographer who had not personally experienced Markham’s charisma might have done. For Markham would have been difficult to know. She had a phenomenal affinity with animals and an equally confounding inability to maintain relationships with other people. She did as she pleased without regard for authority or the feelings of others. She had a terrible temper. She was certainly not someone to whom one would want to lend money, as her attitude towards her debts was as cavalier as her attitude towards her marital infidelities. She was not one who ever went out of her way to help anyone, though her friends were generous with her. Markham had a remarkable talent for making friends and winning love, but the friendships tended not to be long-lived, especially in the cases of other women. Markham and Karen “Tania” Blixen certainly had a strong affection for one another at one point, with the older Blixen taking an almost maternal attitude towards the younger woman and opening her home to the divorced, penniless 20-year-old Markham, but this did not stop Markham from having affairs with both Blixen’s ex-husband Bror Blixen and current lover, Denys Finch-Hatton. It was Finch-Hatton who first took Markham flying, and it was actually Markham, not Blixen, whom Finch-Hatton invited to accompany him on his last and fatal flight, but she declined.

Amazingly, no one seems to have minded Markham’s behaviour very much, and Lovell’s quotes from those who knew Markham contain no bitterness. Her son was very proud of her and seems to have accepted that she was an unattainable figure. She did remarkably little damage to others, perhaps because she usually behaved as she did simply to ensure her survival, rather than from malice. Even those who didn’t like her respected her. Her book was rediscovered in 1982 because someone came across a reference to it in one of Ernest Hemingway’s letters. Hemingway had written that “this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers.” One of her jockeys told Lovell that Markham “was a first-class superbitch who never gave a damn about anyone but herself”, that “at times I hated her guts but by God I respected her. Now over twenty years later, though I haven’t seen her for years, I still love her like a lover.” Note the adjectives used before the word “bitch” in both cases, which are in the way of grudging upgrades from the common and undistinguished pejorative. And is it just me, or does Hemingway’s comment seem a little… personal? If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, perhaps it has nothing so spitefully sharp as the pen of a scorned and normally lionized writer.

An interesting feature of Mary Lovell’s research was that she had great difficulty separating fact from legend. Beryl Markham was well known in Kenya and even at the end of her life whenever she appeared at the track people at the track still pointed her out and whispered about her. It’s unusual for a woman in her eighties to be the subject of gossip, but Markham was. Lovell heard many rumours about Markham and many of them proved to be unfounded. Lovell found no evidence that Markham ever drank to excess, or that she had had an affair with the Prince of Wales (Edward, that is, not Charles, which would have been too far-fetched even for the most versatile gossip), proved that Prince Henry could not possibly have fathered Beryl Markham’s son, and commented wryly that if Markham had really been as promiscuous as claimed she would have spent the entirety of her adult life in a reclining position.

One rumour that dogged Beryl Markham all her life was that she was illiterate and could not have written West With the Night. Lovell concluded from her experience with Markham and her extensive research that both these allegations were untrue, but it seems odd that such a rumour should have been so persistent. Perhaps this was because her other attributes – her beauty, charisma, courage, stamina, and physical skills – were undeniable, while her literary abilities left more room for speculation, and since she was a perpetually hot topic, the gossip bloomed in what form it could.

Though as I read this book I often wondered that anyone would put up with this woman’s behaviour, at the same time I knew exactly why people did. Excellence and success attract and compel, and an unpretentious, unapologetic manner devoid of any real ill will towards others compensate for much bad behaviour. Markham was so very interesting, charismatic, and genuinely entertaining – titillating, enraging, shocking, moving, and inspiring. Unfair as it may be, people will forgive those who inspire and fascinate them far more readily than they will forgive a bore.

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

The Selected Perceptions of L.M. Montgomery

I have a confession to make here [pauses to take a deep, tremulous breath]. My name is Orange Swan, and I’m a L.M. Montgomery geek. I own all her books (all the novels, all the posthumous short story collections, even the expendable account of her early career, The Alpine Path). In the summer of 2004 I visited the University of Guelph’s Montgomery collection, looked at the photos Montgomery had taken of herself modelling the various ensembles from her trousseau, and got slightly breathless when I opened one of the legal-sized volumes containing her hand-written journal. I’ve been to Toronto’s Riverside Drive to have a look at the house where Montgomery spent the last seven years of her life. (Possibly my only saving grace is that I haven’t visited the tourist trap faux Green Gables in P.E.I.) And now I’ve read the last volume of her exhaustive journals, The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, Volume V: 1935-1942, as edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston.

Surely it isn’t just my Montgomery geekiness speaking when I write that Montgomery’s journals are fascinating on a number of levels. Of course if you know her work, there’s the obvious benefit of being able to draw parallels between her life and what she wrote. But there’s so much more to them than that. The journals have a narrative drive to them that makes them very readable in their own right. I could not take my nose out of this book until I was finished because I wanted to know what happened – did her son Chester ever manage to graduate law school? Did he make things up with his wife or did he leave her for another woman? The journals are also interesting as a record of what life was like in Montgomery’s day. In this volume one gets, for instance, glimpses of Toronto in the thirties, and insights into how the first half of the twentieth century with its tumultuous changes struck a woman who came of age in Victorian era. I should never have thought that Montgomery had ever read Gone With the Wind (and been unable to put it down) or knew of (and admired) Katharine Hepburn, yet she did. They also provide a picture of the Canadian literary scene as it then was, and of Montgomery’s experience as a public figure. Montgomery was arguably the most famous woman in Canada from Anne of Green Gables’s publication when she was thirty to the time of her death at the age of 68. She met many notable Canadians and her often acerbic and satirical comments on them are a delight.

But as I closed this last volume the thought uppermost in my mind was that these books are the ultimate example of someone who endlessly and needlessly tortured herself emotionally and made her own inner life a thing of agony, to the point that I would mentally admonish her, “Good grief, woman, can’t you ever just RELAX.”

I am taking into consideration the fact that Montgomery had very real and serious problems.
I am also aware of the fact that Montgomery’s journals are not an accurate reflection of her total mental state. Montgomery used her journals as her safety valve. Many of her problems had to be kept secret, and Montgomery was born in a time when reticence and endurance were considered key virtues. When Montgomery could not – or felt she could not – confide in anyone about her husband’s mental illness or her married son’s affair with another woman she wrote about it. At the same time Montgomery was a woman of wide acquaintance and of many friendships, did have people with whom she could share her joys and pleasures, and so would not have felt the same need to write in her journal about happier times.

Even allowing for these factors, Montgomery was a woman who was wired for pain. Her expectations - of herself and of others - were unreasonable. This is a woman who tortured herself for many months over a mistaken engagement while the reader of journal entries on this topic is thinking, “So give the ring back already.” She wrote of her then small son, “Chester told me a lie today. I can never feel the same towards him again.” She walked the floor for hours in anguish over her sons’ (admittedly terrible!) university grades. In the footnotes it’s revealed that Montgomery’s son Stuart was a superlative athlete and would have been one of the delegates to the 1940 Olympics had the Olympics not been cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II. But in Volume V, aside from a few mentions of Stuart going off to his club for the day, there is not one mention of her son’s athletic prowess. In the main his mother has chosen to discuss her anxiety over his poor grades, his boils, and abscessed tooth, and his relationship with a girl Montgomery despised. Montgomery agonized over world events. She tortured herself with imaginings of terrible things that might happen and bitterly asserted that she and all those she loved were under a curse. And she reinforced her miserable view of her life by frequent re-readings of her own journals. Given how evocatively she wrote, there could have been no better way of keeping her wounds laid open to the bone.

As I sit here wondering how to end this essay, I’m entertaining thoughts of closing either with some speculation on how Montgomery could have been helped, or with some thoughts on why it is important that one not live a life of such self-induced misery, but I feel a distaste for both of these options. In the first place it seems so useless to attempt to theoretically resolve the troubles of someone who died in 1942. And in the second, I don’t like to turn Montgomery into the equivalent of Exhibit A in some exposition on cognitive therapy and the power of positive thinking. What I want to do here is to reject Montgomery’s deathbed view of her life as 68 continuous years of thumbscrew-level torture. Montgomery certainly had her share of grief and stress, but she knew happiness as well. Her friends remember her as a vivacious and witty woman, and the charm she had for others is just as genuinely a part of who she was as the despairing words she wrote in her journals. Even in her last, miserable years she was by her own acknowledgement a woman who could take pleasure in a movie or a good book, congratulate herself on having done a good piece of work when re-reading Rilla of Ingleside, lose herself in the act of writing, and find her grandchildren “altogether adorable”. It would be a shame to accept Montgomery’s bitter, final assessment of her life at face value when the totality of her life experience is not only much less negative but also so much more complex and interesting. We don’t know her, but it doesn’t follow that she knew everything about herself.

Monday, 13 November 2006

She Who Must Feel What She Feels and Zap Whom She Zaps

In She: A History of Adventure, by H. Rider Haggard, Horace Holly, an Oxford scholar, is entrusted with the guardianship of a five-year-old boy, Leo Vincey, by the boy’s dying father. Leo’s father also makes stipulations about Leo’s education and gives Holly an iron chest with instructions that it is to be opened when Leo is 25. These instructions are duly carried out, and as it happens there’s ancient familial business to be attended to. Two millennium before, an ancestor of Leo’s named Kallikrates was murdered by a sorceress in a fit of jealous rage because Kallikrates had married another woman in preference to her. This other woman, Leo’s ancestress, escaped and had a son, to whom she imparted the story (inscribed on a potsherd) and the need for revenge. After two thousand years of forbears who, it seemed, all lacked the time, inclination, or wherewithal to undertake the quest, the buck and the broken potsherd have finally been passed to Leo. So, Leo and Holly set off for Africa, as much out of curiosity as out of any real faith in the story inscribed on the broken potsherd.

Much adventure ensues. One shipwreck, encounters with large dangerous animals and pestilent mosquitoes, and wanderings within a vast swamp later, the men are taken in charge by the cannibalistic Amahaggers, and finally presented to the Queen of the Amahaggers, known to them as "She-who-must-be-obeyed". Ayesha (pronounced Assha) lives in a tremendous network of caves that are also occupied by flawlessly preserved corpses of ancient times. She can (and does) zap anyone dead where he or she stands for the slightest disobedience, and is so fabulously beautiful that she must go veiled lest the male Amahaggers fall madly and tiresomely in love with her. Ayesha is indeed the sorceress who killed Kallikrates, declares Leo the reincarnation of his ancestor, and decides that he must undergo the same ritual as she has, and become nearly immortal as she is so that they can then rule the world together.

She, originally published in 1887, was the runaway bestseller of its day, a book that “everyone” read. Critics sniffed at it, but as with almost anything that is so very widely read it had a profound effect on the public imagination. Margaret Atwood traces its influence to a number of later, more literary works – to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to James Hilton’s Shangri-La, to the White and Green Witches in C.S. Lewis’s Narnian series, to Tolkien’s Galadriel and Shelob.

The reason for the book’s popularity is clear – the book is a top-drawer good read, well plotted, very suspenseful, and satisfyingly thrilling. Haggard provided well for the suspension of disbelief, since he lived for a time in Africa and could provide accurate geographical detail and construct a convincing African tribe in the Armhaggers. His characters Holly and Leo have learned Greek and Arabic for the express purpose of this quest of theirs, and they converse with Ayesha in those languages – she understandably doesn’t know a word of English, much less speak it perfectly, unlike say, the aliens with zipper front suits in fifties sci-fi movies. Holly, who is the book’s narrator, keeps allowing for and challenging the disbelief of the reader by sentences like, “I am almost ashamed to submit it to you lest you should disbelieve my tale.” The supernatural occurrences are never jarringly unbelievable compared to the more realistic details in the book. Ayesha keeps insisting to Holly that her powers are not magical, that she has only attained to a very advanced knowledge of nature by working in the very primitive chemistry lab that she has set up in one of her caves. As indeed she would have had ample time to do in two thousand years, especially when there is no necessity for her to earn a living (i.e., “Bring me food or die,”) and she has numerous servants to take care of the housework, or rather cavework.

The modern reader can appreciate these qualities much as the Victorian reader must have done. And of course there are what we of the early twenty-first century would consider racist and sexist mores, but that is almost to be expected when one is reading a book written in another era. But in examining my own response to this book and in comparing it the one I imagined a Victorian reader might have had, I did find myself wondering if the Victorian reader ever split a corset or waistcoat laughing at certain passages. I did not damage any items of clothing, thanks to the modern practice of including 2% spandex in many items of casual wear, but I did laugh at things that I think Haggard never intended to be humourous.

Specifically, it was Ayesha’s 2,000-year-old case of unrequited love that I found hilarious. I did take into consideration her incredible longevity – after all, when one expects to live as many centuries as ordinary people live years one needs some sort of sustaining passion. The mortals around her would have died off with monotonous regularity and she couldn’t work in her chemistry lab all the time. But still! This woman with her incredible knowledge and beauty has spent 2,000 years living in a cave and mourning a single man, and nursing her passion and preserving her virginity for Leo Vincey – Leo, with his unfortunate if socially and historically accurate habit of exclaiming, “Hullo!”, and who may be great looking and a decent, brave, honest man but really isn’t remarkable in any other way. Holly, however, doesn’t find this sustained passion absurd at all, and in fact reflects that Ayesha’s evildoings are counterbalanced by the fact that she has other virtues, like that of constancy, in a high degree. It’s very indicative of a certain point of contrast between Victorian times and now.

The Victorian era revered fidelity so much that it was often taken to extremes. I’ve often read references to what is now described as its Cult of Death. Mourning – the wearing of prescribed black clothes and the abstinence from social events – was socially compulsory in the event of a family member’s death, even if one was really thinking how jolly it was to inherit Aunt Maud’s best jet necklace and to never have to watch Cousin Josiah spit tobacco into the corner again. People wore brooches and other items of jewellery with the hair of the departed in them. Queen Victoria mourned her lost prince for 40 years. In fiction, heroines went into attractively wan declines from broken hearts (interestingly enough, no Victorian romantic heroine ever worked through rejection or consoled herself for her grief by indulging in shortbread cookies and cherries jubilee cake as Queen Victoria did). This grief as a fixed pose was idealized. It meant True Love, which was only supposed to happen once, instead of as regularly as it does to say, Jennifer Lopez. Dickens parodied this excessive fidelity in Great Expectations. His Miss Haversham was jilted by her prospective bridegroom and remained stubbornly in her wedding dress for the rest of her life.

These days in contradistinction to the Cult of Fidelity we have the Cult of Moving On. Grief is seen as something to be overcome in stages and as efficiently as possible. We’re urged to read a self-help book, get some counselling, get over it, to let it go, progress to the next thing. I don’t find either philosophy of grief to be particularly satisfactory. In both cases, we are trying to put people on an emotional schedule.

Ayesha’s 2,000-year-old passion is admirable from the Victorian perspective and ridiculous from the modern perspective. I laughed the hardest at one particular scene in which she leads Holly and Leo into her bedchamber, where she points out the slab bearing the perfectly preserved corpse of Kallikrates and the nearby slab where she has slept for two millennium “with but a cloak to cover me. It did not become me to lay soft when my spouse…lay stiff in death.” Truly, Ayesha is the ultimate Victorian mourner. No hair-encrusted brooches or collection of coffin plates for her – she’s kept the entire corpse. In her bedroom. Where she could – and did – talk to it. Beat that, Queen Victoria.

However, I must add that Ayesha’s marathon case of unrequited love is at once both laughably excessive and a refreshing counterpoint to the modern Anthony Robbins-style mores. As with Miss Haversham, I wanted to tell her, “Damn, honey! Feel what you feel! Don’t let anyone force you into some emotional mould as constructed by some facile self-help book!” But I did wish that she’d provided herself with a more comfortable bed. After all, a good mattress and cherries jubilee cake are just as much a part of life as the grief one has to endure. Why partake of one and deny oneself the others?

Sunday, 12 November 2006

You Can Think of Stars As Porchlights If You Want To, But You Might Get Severely Lost

Some months ago, I needed to buy a sympathy card, so I stepped into a nearby drugstore, where they had an entire aisle of cards for all occasions. And upon looking over their section of sympathy cards, I was taken aback by their collective atrociousness. Some seemed designed to make the bereaved feel worse, or perhaps just distracted from grief with the resulting bemusement.

One said, "When you see the stars tonight…" on the outside, and then on the inside continued, "Don't think of them as stars. Think of them as porchlights guiding your loved one home." The card was covered with glitter, some of which was clustered in star-like arrangements. That was the most spectacularly bad one, but a number of the others were also nearly as mawkish, although unfortunately for the sake of this review (if fortunately in every other respect) my mind has wiped them from my memory. They couldn’t, it seemed, just read, "We're thinking of you in this difficult time," or "In deepest sympathy". They had to hold forth about "lifted hearts", use cheesy metaphors about seashells and rainbows, discourse Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul-style about the importance of inner strength, and express pseudo religious sentiment that it seemed to me would read as asinine to the religious and the non-religious alike. Oh, and there were sympathy cards for the loss of a pet. I didn't even open those. I’m sure my bursts of appalled laughter were already attracting enough attention to the sympathy card section.

There are sympathy e-cards that will make you wish you were the one who had died. I don’t have the fortitude to actually read them, but if you’re feeling masochistic today, be my guest.

I suppose this is what we get when we, in effect, hire others to express our thoughts and feelings. But at the same time, it seemed to me that the greeting card manufacturers really ought to do better than this. The cards were almost uniformly lovely and elegant in appearance – why wouldn’t a company expect the same level of competence from their writers as from their graphic designers?

In fairness, some allowance must be made for the pressure of market forces. The greeting card writers are probably expected to re-invent the wheel on a daily basis, to be novel and original, to produce something that will stand out from the other cards on the shelf. They also have a wide audience to cater to, and presumably there are bereaved people out there who will be comforted by thinking of stars as porchlights rather than as the huge balls of burning hydrogen and helium that they actually are. And it’s up to us, the purchasers, to choose cards suitable for our needs and tastes, and to vote with our dollars on the suitability of the cards on offer.

However, even once I’ve made these allowances, I still think the greeting card writers make the same mistake as so many of us do when trying to be sympathetic and a comfort to others. We try too hard. We say too much, when we should be listening. We make efforts to be original and memorable when we should just be simple and restrained. Grief is, after all, as old as time, and there’s not much point in trying to come up with the ultimate consolation phrase at this late date. And then, at worst, there’s the pitfall of making one’s own need to be helpful, to be the MOST HELPFUL AND SUPPORTIVE PERSON EVER, the fulcrum of the one’s attempts to help someone, with usually disastrous results (i.e., the mouth shifts into high gear and the ears shut down).

I think the next time I need a sympathy card, I’ll make one myself, or buy a note card that has attractive art on the outside and is blank within. People generally understand that the gaffes and the feet in the mouth are born out of kind and sincere if misguided desire to help, and an ill-chosen card could certainly be one of those mistakes. But a collection of these poorly written cards on display in a store, unsoftened by the kind intentions of anyone who cares about you, are merely impersonally offensive, like an undertaker who thinks making worm jokes is a good way to take the edge off. No, that’s not a fair comparison, but you get the point. I may make mistakes when trying to support someone I care about, and I understand when those who try to help me do the same, but I expect hired professionals to be competent and to produce appropriate results, and when they aren’t, I shall take my $4 elsewhere. And my discourse on the pricing of greeting cards will have to wait until another time;-)

So the Orange Swan Review sets sail...

I've long been wanting a blog and mulling over concepts for it. A personal blog was out. I’ve seen personal blogs about nothing much done brilliantly, as Mil Millington did with his Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About, and I’ve seen dreary little sites that read way too much like Jean Teasdale of The Onion. Not being a brilliant writer and having an ordinary life, I decided to avoid the all too likely result of winding up in the latter category. None of my hobbies/areas of (more or less) competency seemed to lend themselves to extensive documentation, and anyway I want to actually paint, draw, sew, knit, make stained glass items, etc., not write about them.

I then got the idea of doing book reviews, and expanded that idea to reviews of all my reading material. I love thinking about and writing about the things I read. I often found myself inflicting reviews of things I read on friends via email. I thought, hmm, instead of putting this kind of material into an email that one too-loyal-for-his/her-own-good friend will be forced to skim through, why not post it to a blog no one will read? I know I often google my reading materials to see if anyone out there has anything interesting to say about them. I thought perhaps other people likely do as well. So, The Orange Swan Review was born.

Orange Swan is my usual Internet alias, chosen hurriedly and for no particular reason when I joined I do periodic Googling on the name and can be reasonably sure that whenever you run into an Orange Swan on the Net it’s probably me. Of course it also might be a fly fishing lure.

I’m just going to review whatever I happen to read. The average item reviewed here won’t be recently published, since I’m not willing to shell out the $37.50 for a new hardcover and the Toronto Public Library’s hold system can have queues of more than a thousand painfully slow readers for a recent bestseller. Some books may be obscure or even out of print. I might review some really bad books just for the fun of mocking them. Above all, I just want to enjoy reading and thinking and writing about what I read.