Monday, April 12, 2010

La's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

La's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

The setting is England just before and during WW2, and then skips ahead to the Cuban Crisis. This book was lent to me by a friend with whom I had been in a TMI course in which we had been discussing the Cuba Crisis. It is unlike the other McCall Smith books I have read, although the love that the writer shows for English countryside reminds me of the love that Mme Ramotswe has for Botswana. People who love England will love this book.

It is beautifully written, with much attention to setting, both place and time. The behaviour of the characters is appropriate for the time. It is a thought-provoking little book, and a pleasure to read.

The protagonist, Lavender, or 'La,' does not have an easy life, but takes happiness where she can find it. In many ways she does not live up to early expectations. She belongs to that age of women who were accepted into universities, where they tended to study liberal arts and find upon graduation that they had to find their own niches, and there were not many of them. La does well in music and English lit at Cambridge but lets herself fall into an unhappy marriage and then is left a widow before the war. She is well provided for by her in-laws, and carries on with her life, doing whatever turns up, and as time goes on, she realizes that she has never reached out and accomplished very much.

But she did do one thing, and that, in the end, seems to have been enough. She organized an orchestra as a morale booster during the war, and held a peace concert during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Just as the concert was underway, Krushchev made his announcement that he would withdraw the missiles.

Everyone in her circle felt that her life was associated with music and peace, and that is what she was loved and respected for. But apart from the orchestra, her life seemed empty.

There is a love story that runs through the plot. During the war, she meets a Polish airman, and a love affair could have developed, but curiously, she reported him as a possible German spy.

In another incident, some money was reported missig by a farmer for whom she worked, and she reported her suspicions of the culprit to the policeman. She turned out to be quite wrong in both cases. So there is a strange sub-plot about informing on people on the basis of suspicion and conjecture before sufficient evidence is obtained. This may be the effect of wartime thinking, although no mention is made of the secrecy warnings that were common then.

She paid for this busybodyness because Feliks, the Pole, who was quite innocent, was taken away for interrogation and naturally felt resentment. However, he turns up for the Cuban concert, and events take a happier turn.

So the strength of the novel is that it is well-written, a pleasure to read, and thought-provoking. It considers an ordinary person and her contribution to her own small world and concludes that if everyone made just her own little contribution to what she believed in, then that is sufficient reason to rejoice. But she is a woman with faults. There is this nasty lack of trust and compulsion to report on others, and there is a failure to reach out and make her life into something. But when she finally becomes proactive and organizes the second concert, her life takes a turn, and she does find happiness.

McCall Smith is a professor of medical law at the Univ. of Edinburgh and serves on many national and international bioethics boards. He has written many books in many series: First Ladies' Detective Agency, Isabel Dalhousie Series, Portuguese Irregular Verbs and 44 Scotland Street Series. La's Orchestra is not in a series.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Still Alice Lisa Genova

This book epitomizes everything that is bad about books that hit the NY Times best seller list.
The author said to herself, "What topic can I choose that will fascinate because it is everyone's worst fantasy? Sharks have already been done. I know, I'll choose Altzeimer's."

Then she mapped out a plot, stuck in some actors - characters is too complimentary a word - and they all read their lines.

No need to develop these characters, no need for any plot twists, no worry about being heavy-handed. The audience is held because it is imagining its own worst nightmare, testing itself in the doctor's office, wondering about its own symptoms and prognoses. It's like Shutter Island - except Shutter Island was better.

Every cliché is here: the adored daughter who is more concerned about her own genes than her mother's, the difficult daughter who turns out to be the most sympathetic. There is no tenderness, no passion, nothing original. Even when Alice announces her condition to her children, no one says, "Poor Mum."" It's not in the script. The plot dictates that at this point we must examine the heredity issue.

The saving grace is that the book is a quick read. One need read only the first and last line in every paragraph. There is no need to worry about missing a surprise twist or an apt turn of phrase, a beautiful description or a true piece of conversation - there aren't any.

Book groups will discuss the issues raised in the book, but they will be discussing Altzheimer's, not literature.


Old School by Tobias Wolff

Old School by Tobias Wolff

Opening Quotation:
"Why did you lie to me?
'I always thought I told the truth'
Why did you lie to me?
'Because the truth lies like nothing else and I love the truth.'"
Mark Strand - Elegy for my Father

The old question, 'What is truth?' is the main theme of this book and the thesis is that truth is elusive, complex, and not always where we expect it to be. It reveals itself at the most unlikely times and once lost, the price to reclaim it is high.

The pivotal event, which takes us by surprise despite clever foreshadowing, takes place when the narrator submits a short story for an essay competition, of which Hemingway will be the judge. Running out of time because of his own procrastination and also his laudable responsibility to a commitment to the school literary magazine, he submits a story written by someone else. On the face of it this is certainly plagiarism, and the crime is punished severely. But the truth of the situation is elusive. The perpetrator was so struck by the truth in the story that he never considered what he was doing.
"Anyone who read this story would know who I was." p.127
"I had to see what Ernest Hemmingway thought of my work." p.132
"I didn't know what this was about…I'd never thought of Summer Dance as anyone's story but mine" p.142

Throughout his years at school, the narrator had striven to fit in by denying his background. He had created a persona for himself.
"I had begun this series (of stories) innocently enough, in unconscious tribute to the Nick Adams stories, but over time it had evolved into something less honest. I wanted to be taken for Sam by my schoolmates, who knew nothing of my life back in Seattle." p.32
His posing had prevented the boy from excelling at that which he most loved: writing stories. When his teacher read the Summer Dance, he was excited that the boy had finally dropped his mask and written from the heart.

Finally, the narrator decided to be truthful about himself, but he was punished rather than rewarded.

The truth in the story also confused the boy's roommate, Bill, a Jewish boy, who had also obscured his background and played a role throughout his school years. He was incensed when he read the story because he thought that his own story had been stolen. It was so true to his own experience.
"That was my story, you fucking leech." p.140

Our narrator is expelled, his life falls apart, and he must begin again. He leaves deceit behind, eventually builds on his true talent, becomes a famous author, and is invited to be a guest speaker at his old school. But in admitting his true identity to himself and his school, he paid a hard price.

This theme of the price and elusiveness of truth is further developed in the story of Dean Archibald Makepeace. 'Arch' has allowed the legend to develop around him that he is a friend of Hemingway's. His stature has been increased by this deceit, and he has been more effective in his work because of it. With the prospect of an imminent visit to the school by Hemingway, Arch admits the truth and resigns.
"This boy had laid false claim to a story, whereas he himself had laid false claim to much more - to a kind of importance, to a life not his own. He had been in violation of the Honor Code for many years now." - p.187
In his unemployment he discovered truths about his own vulnerability. He was eventually rehired by the school, but was never as effective as he had been when he had the respect accorded him by the Hemingway aura.

The search for truth is developed in the setting of a 60s-era boy's school which promotes a love of literature. Dean Makepeace helps the boys to discover truths about themselves and their world through their study of the literature he loves.
"English teachers...knew exactly what was most worth knowing….They made you feel that what mattered to the writer had consequence for you, too." p.5

"Stories, though - one could not live in a world without stories…Without stories one would hardly know what world one was in….It has to do with self-consciousness…knowledge of ourselves as a thing apart and bound to die….it's a wonder we're not all barking. And of course we would be if we hadn't any way to use self-consciousness against itself…. The dross of self- consciousness transformed into the gold of self-knowledge." p.132

"Writers formed a society of their own outside the common hierarchy. This gave them a power…And why would Caesar fear Ovid, except for knowing that neither his divinity nor all his legions could protect him from a good line of poetry." p.25

The power of literature to guide the development of youth is a strong theme throughout Old School. The narrator probes his troubled relationship with his father through reading Faulkner's "Barn Burning." Until he meets Ayn Rand in person, he is enthralled by her values and strives to be a second Roark.
"I was discovering the force of my will…I understood that nothing stood between me and my greatest desires… but the temptation to doubt my will and bow to counsels of moderation, expedience, and conventional morality, and shrink into the long, slow death of respectability." p.68

In the chapter, Slice of Life, the maturing narrator selects Hemingway as his inspiration.
"Hard things happened in these stories, but the people weren't hard. They felt the blows. Some of them gave up and some came back for more, but coming back wasn't easy….The truth of these stories didn't come as a set of theories. You felt it on the back of your neck." p.96-97

Wolff's prose is a pleasure to read. He is always faithful to his voice, that of a troubled adolescent. He can sum up a character in a paragraph or probe him layer by layer. His perceptive vignettes are delightful for their carefully selected details.
"Mr. Dufresne was also very rich and rained money on the school - most recently the new science building and the Wardell Memorial Hockey Rink, named in honor of his roommate here, who'd been killed in the war. He visited often and liked to give the blessing before meals, serving up plenty of Thees and Thous and Thines; and afterwards he would join us in Blaine Hall and lend his surprisingly high voice to the singing - a big, happy- looking man with an obvious orange hairpiece and a shiny round face and little square teeth like a baby's." p. 63

"The other two (literary magazine editors) would be no help at all, George in favor of everything and Bill cryptic and elusive. There are a lot of cats in this story, he'd say, or I didn't know it rained that hard in Athens, then shrug and fall silent. Though never overtly so, his responses were much more destructive than Purcell's. They left you feeling dazed, flatfooted. It was exactly the way he played squash - never slamming the ball head-on, like I did, but breezily tapping it through some sly angle so it died in the corner." p. 114

Major characters are multifaceted and a mixture of the admirable and the troubling. The English teacher, Mr. Ramsey, loses his brashness as he grows older. The roommate, Bill White, is racked with problems, but keeps his urbanity; the Dean is a loyal and supportive friend to Ramsey and the headmaster.
The understanding of the meaning of an Honor Code is questioned as we see the many ways in which a character can maintain and betray his principles.

Although Wolff's plot is never predictable, he makes good use of foreshadowing as he leads up to the school expulsion scene. In the context of Frost's visit, the headmaster says, "a true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life." (p. 47) In relating the difficulties of editing the literary magazine, the narrator says, "All of us owed someone, Hemmingway or cummings or Kerouac. We wouldn't have admitted to it…Once crystallized, consciousness of influence would have doomed the collective and necessary fantasy that our work was purely our own." (p. 14)

Wolff is a master of irony and uses the technique to question our values and assumptions. Many things are the opposite of what the world perceives them to be. The over-riding irony is that the narrator broke the honor code when he was most truthful about himself. Through dishonesty, the boy discovered honesty. There is an ironic side to many events. Just after hearing the story of the Dean's duplicity, the narrator remembers how the boys used to listen in on the conversations of the masters, "These sure and finished men, our masters." (p. 175)
Hemingway explains why he has selected Summer Dance in the words: "This is the story of a conscience and that kind of story if it's honest always has something for another conscience to learn from." (p.135) It was the disgraced Dean's probing questions about the literature the boys were reading which made them understand the truth about the problems they were facing as they matured.

Wolff is well-known for his short stories, and sometimes the novel suggests a series of them. There are has several chapters that could stand alone for a reader, most notably Uberwench, the chapter about Ayn Rand. The book would seem to end with the chapter, When in Disgrace with Fortune. The following chapters serve to develop our understanding of truth and retell the events from another viewpoint. The story of the meeting with the real writer of Summer Dance reads like a Hemingway short story. The novel is not diminished by the long denouément, but the reader must pause and adjust his viewpoint.

As well as raising interesting questions about the nature of truth, this book makes us reflect on our own education and the teachers and books which influenced us. As I also attended a boarding school in the 60s, it made me reflect on my own education, and was of special interest to me. But what I enjoyed the most was the author's mastery of language and storytelling.

Esther MacLeod

Unless by Carol Shields

Unless by Carol Shields
(FYI… Book Group May 16)

This is a complex book with lots to say about the human condition as we live it here, in Canada, in the 21st century. I related to it, and I liked it.

In a way, it is not memorable, because it is not about a distant time or place and I did not learn anything about other cultures or times. Years from now, I won’t say, “Oh, yes, I remember that book about the search for the North Pole, or Montreal during the 40’s. But to dismiss it because it has every-day themes is to say that our own lives are not worth recording or examining. Shields expresses our own experiences with a skill at observing and synthesizing which gives insight and perspective that many of us do not arrive at on our own. I have read that some critics dismiss her work as not really being about anything. All of the chapter, “Any” (p247) is a rebuttal of that criticism: “Way back in high school we learned that the major themes of literature were birth, love, understanding, work, loneliness, connection, and death. We believed that the readers of novels were themselves ‘small individual lives,' and so were the writers.”

I also was left feeling an unearned relief, and disbelief, at the happy ending. But then I read that Shields was dying while she wrote this book, and I decided that she deserved a happy ending. And also, I decided that the ending was not important to the book. What makes this book good are its complex layering of themes and reflections on personal growth and family life. Notice that the same criticism could pertain to the novel within the novel. It is Reta’s puzzling through who her characters were that is important, not whether or not they marry in the end.

And the title of the book, Unless, says that things could so easily have gone another way. This is one of the themes of the novel; happiness is fragile and depends on a fortuitous combination of circumstances and can disappear if just one event does not work out as expected. In the chapter called, “Unless” (p.224 in my edition) Shields writes: “Unless is the worry word of the English language…….. Unless you’re lucky, unless you’re healthy, fertile, unless you’re loved and fed, unless you’re clear about your sexual direction, unless you’re offered what others are offered, you go down in the darkness, down to despair.”

There are many themes that kept me thinking. One is the interconnectness of family and the debilitating tentacles that can reach out from one member with a problem and rob the whole family of happiness and yet bind them in their shared despair. There is the scene of the whole family crying in the car after they visit the shelter where Norah is living. There is the grandmother’s refusal to talk. There is the normal blow-up between Reta and one of her daughters that is cut off because the daughter realizes that the shared pain over Norah is more important than her teenage issue.

Ironically, it is Norah’s search for “Goodness” that brings unhappiness to everyone else. The nature of goodness is another theme, although I didn’t see that there was a definitive answer to this question. But it is, after all, one of the great questions of humankind. Reta is impressed by the great goodness of the church people who run the Promise Hostel. “Where did this goodness come from?” Shields asks in the chapter, “Thereupon.” (p.191) Shields describes goodness as, “a powerful tide of virtue flowing from the veins of men and women who will not be much rewarded or even recognized for their efforts.” Reta rejects the “theory of goodness being a kind of problem solving.” as described by the author of The Goodness Gap. (Chapter, “Only”p. 219) She is surprised when her publisher tells her that Alicia, her fictional heroine, has “profound human goodness.” (“Hardly”, p. 212)

Another theme is how to carry on with normal life when one’s heart is breaking. What are the ways that we cope with personal heartbreak? This theme must stem from Shields’ own expected and imminent death. The sky may be falling, but we still must attend to our daily chores. In “Despite”, (The girls) “are both studying for exams. Just because their older sister is living the life of a derelict doesn’t mean there will be no exams…..I am calmly wiping down the kitchen counters after a dinner of shepherd’s pie and spinach salad.” (p.196)

Shields also looks at the ways we cope with personal heartbreak. Reta escapes into fantasy through writing her novel. She carries on with her normal routine. She uses the resources that she has, her loving husband and her close women friends.

Different people respond to disaster in different ways. Reta reviews her mothering skills, and we read the poignant and symbolic story about her effort to buy Norah a perfect scarf, and how she failed, in the end, to give it to her daughter. As she puzzles over the motivation for Norah’s odd behaviour, Reta projects onto Norah her own frustration stemming from living as an intellectual in a male-dominated world. Reta convinces herself that her own concerns are the trigger for her daughter’s collapse, whereas, at the end of the book we discover that Norah had quite different concerns. (“Any”p. 248: “It happens that I am the mother of a nineteen-year-old daughter who has been driven from the world by the suggestion that she is doomed to miniaturism.” Reta also creates a personality for the former owner of her home, Mrs. McGinn. Yet Lois knew Mrs. McGinn and hints that she was quite different from the fantasy which Reta has woven around her. Tom, on the other hand, uses his medical background to analyse his daughter’s problem, and comes up with his trauma theory.

Another theme is feminism and women’s place in history. I have read that the lack of communication within families is another of her themes, although I personally disagree with the importance of that theme in this particular book. But the great number of themes which can be identified in this book illustrates the complexity of Shield’s writing and the many issues that can be raised even while writing about non-memorable, commonplace events.

So, I liked the book because of its many interesting themes. But I also loved the writing. It is full of little insights and observations and apt descriptions. She describes “the arbitrariness” of the other library patrons (p.45) and says that the reason people want to write is “to remake an untenable world.” (p.208). She observes patterns of speech, how conversations often start with the word, “So.” (p.74). She has a freshness of thinking: “The examined life has had altogether too much publicity.” (p.107). She has wisdom; “They (the daughters) don’t know it, but they’re in the midst of editing the childhood they want to remember and getting ready to live as we all have to live eventually, without our mothers.” (p. 158)

Other writing techniques that Shields uses well are symbolism (the scarf-buying incident), the varying of pace by the inclusion of the letters which are clever and humourous, and the layering effect produced by the novel within the novel. As Shields creates the characters or Roman and Alicia, we are aware that she is using the same technique to create the characters in the primary narrative. We read that the characters must be given little traits and interests to make them seem realistic, and then we reflect that Tom has an interest in trilobites. Or rather, the author has given him an interest in trilobites. Trilobites?!

And there is also the foreshadowing. On rereading “Since” (p. 213) I found this passage: I…grabbed her by the hand. She screamed horribly and pulled back from me. I felt her glove coming off. It was as though she were an incendiary object, a hot coal.” And on the next page, daughter Chris says, “What happened? What terrible thing happened to her? There has to be a thing.” Wow! The evidence was certainly planted.

Shield’s creation of characters is excellent too. Or rather, the characters seem to reveal themselves. Lois blurts out her life history to the publisher (and don’t we love the thought of this city-slicker trapped in a farm kitchen listening to his author’s mother-in-law for hour after hour?) But we also learn through this event that Lois is lonely, that other adults don’t take her seriously, and that she has communication problems with her family. And Reta, our protagonist, endears herself through her actions. In the scene where she has a potential conflict with her daughter over smoking, she could have turned away in her own grief. But we see that she is a good mother, and she bridges the gap with her daughter with a hug.

I do make one criticism, and that is that sometimes I find that the comparisons are so elaborate that they interrupt the narrative flow. On page 207, we read, “this certainty arrived like a bullet-shaped slug of pewter.” And on page 178, “the air stretched out on every side like sheets of muslin.” I find that these comparisons are stretched themselves!

I am still puzzling over the role of Danielle Westerman. She has influenced Reta’s entire life, and Reta’s theories about the reason for Norah’s behaviour stem from Danielle’s philosophy. She is a crucial influence in Reta’s life, but I am not sure about her role in the novel.

The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of Bees

Sorry, Ladies, I’m still not happy!

I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy The Secret Life of Bees. I went into a time warp with it, and enjoyed it the same way that I enjoyed books when I was a girl. It was lovely to relive that uncritical relaxing into a tale. I missed my hammock. But at the end, my adult self re-emerged and asked, “What exactly did this book have to say that was new?”

Yes, the plot was well-woven. Yes, the characters were adequately drawn so that I could believe that the actions they did were reasonable, and in keeping with their prior actions. And certainly, yes, the setting was authentic. The author returned to her roots and wrote about what she knows. There was a lot that was technically good about the book.

It reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird. And it was in comparing it to that classic that I realized why this book did not satisfy me. Both are coming-of-age books set in the civil rights movement in the deep South. But what a difference! The civil rights movement was just window-dressing for this new novel. In To Kill a Mockingbird, it was integral to the story.

Ultimately, this book seems superficial to me. It’s a nice book for feminists because the female characters are strong, and the only fleshed-out male character is T-Ray, that unsympathetic T-Rex of a father. Even Zach, the boyfriend, is just brought in to accomplish certain plot twists, and then he pales out. Mostly the men in the book are used to drive the wagons.

It’s a good book for women who are interested in feminine mysticism. But the Pieta says more to me about the female side of God than the piece of driftwood which is called, “Mary” in this novel. I don’t think that we have a very deep examination of the nature of God here.

So how did this book move me, inform me, challenge me? Not at all, really. It would seem to be set in momentous times, dealing with important issues: coming-of-age, female strength, mental illness, child abuse. All the politically correct issues are there. But nothing new or profound was added to the discussion. It reminds me of the saccharine Christianity which I suspect inspires its author. Ultimately, this book fails to contribute anything new to literature or to the issues which it raises.

Silk by Samuel Merwin

By Samuel Merwin

This is an ancient Penguin, price 1 shilling, reprinted in 1944, with an apology in the front cover about 'wartime production difficulties.' I remember that Granddad loved this book. My friend, Pat, was reading a book by the same title for her book group, so I dug this out of the basement, thinking that we could talk about it together. But when we compared notes, it turned out that she had read a different book with the same title!
The book takes the form of a journal written by a young Chinese man, Jan Po. It is difficult to establish the era and location of the book, as it is set in the time before the west knew how to manufacture silk, and before geographical locations assumed their present names.
I found a biography and critical review of Samuel Merwin, written in 1921, I think before Silk was written, as there is no mention of it. Merwin did indeed go to China, but never followed the entire route of this novel, as far as I could determine. He was doing research on the opium trade and got far off the beaten track, was arrested on suspicion of being a spy, and had several adventures.
Merwin was an American writer and magazine editor of popular fiction, much of it historical. He wrote before there was a demand for accuracy in this genre, and when the only criteria of a good book was that there be lots of adventure.
Silk starts on the Chinese side of some mountains that separate China from the steppes. The young Emperor, who lives in the court at Lo Yang, has received gifts from the Queen of the Yue Che who lives in a place called Balkh, on the other side of the mountains. Whether this was in the Balkans, or on a lake called Balkash in Kazakstan, I was unable to determine. The location, like the ancient story, seems clouded in mist and myth, and is probably not important.
The importance of maintaining the secrecy of the production of silk is a key theme throughout. Should the round-eyed people discover how to produce it themselves, the economy of China, fuelled by the camel caravans that transport it to the west, would be ruined.
Young Jan Po is sent to Balkh to find out information about the queen and her country, and the tale is about his travels and experiences among the Yue Che. The whole tale is filtered through his Chinese view that China is the only civilization in the world, and he is surprised to hear stories about Rome, and even meet some Romans when he is in Balkh.
The adventure becomes a love story. He falls in love with Mosulla, a handmaiden provided to him by the Queens vizier, and at the end, she follows him back to China.
Jan Po receives an education about ways and values different from his Chinese ones. Mosulla does not have her feet bound, and she entrances him with her graceful dancing.
The Queen, who is a descendant of Alexander, is under the malign control of her vizier, the Wa Zir. The Chinese prince turns up incognito, recognized by only Jan Po. Jan Po arranges a rendezvous between them and they fall in love, but it is not to be, because she has her duties in Balkh, and the Prince must go home and rule China.
There is drama when they manage to kill the nasty WaZir, and the Queen is able to resume her rightful throne.
The story has the allure of a fairy tale. It is fun to read and to speculate what life must have been like in those far off times and places. There are unfortunately some nasty lines in it about Jews, which tempered my enjoyment at the time of reading, but now I just remember the good read of a good tale.

The Navigator of New York by Wayne Johnston

Review of The Navigator of New York
Wayne Johnston

Nobody called ‘Wayne” should ever write a novel. Waynes are cowboys, addicted to action, with no time for insight and no interest in probing depths of characters.

Wayne Johnston’s The Navigator of New York has enough action packed into it to drive three novels, but it is short on theme and sympathetic characters. It overplays its plot devices and botches its climax.

“Write about what you know.” This is the first lesson in every creative writing class. Part One of this book is set in Newfoundland and follows the first twenty years of Devlin Stead. Johnston comes from Newfoundland and draws on first hand experience. I loved the first section of this book. It has a frisson of authenticity. I developed an interest in young Devlin as the plot unfolded through the eyes of a child growing up in this interesting outpost.

But by the time Part Two started I was already losing interest in this self-centred young man who threw away the affection of the one person who had loved him consistently and unconditionally. However, a theme was emerging: Can we choose our own adventure in life, or are we doomed to recreate the failures of our parents? Aunt Daphne’s fleeting worry that Devlin might have inherited the instability of his parents is the pretext for the cruel way in which this self-absorbed young man treats her. But how is this theme developed? Throughout the rest of the book, Devlin undertakes nothing without the direction of Dr. Cook. He is a lifeless puppet, animated by Cook. He accomplishes nothing through his own initiative. Then we find out that Francis Stead was not his father, so, oops, guess he doesn’t have to worry about those genes. Then we find out that his mother was murdered, so, guess we don’t have to worry about his being suicidal either. So it’s pfsssst, fizzle for that theme.

You could say that the setting is a strength of this novel. I concede that I found the descriptions of New York City at the turn of the century interesting, although they lacked the vigour of the first-hand observations that authenticated the descriptions of Newfoundland. Ultimately, I thought that Johnston had done a lot of research on the subject and was showing off what he knew. For a plot-driven novel this was a bit of a brake. Certainly the scene of the Washington Congress of The National Geographic Society was interesting. The excitement surrounding the possible planting of the American flag at the North Pole was like the excitement of the flight to the moon. It was interesting to learn about Peary and the emotional climate supporting exploration at that time. The descriptions of the calving of an iceberg, and the colours of the polar icecap were interesting, and quite a challenge for Johnston to write, seeing that he has never been further north than St. John’s. Guess he watched some videos.

And how about those plot devices? How tiresome did you find those letters? Couldn’t anybody just speak face to face? And how many letters forbade replies? I return to poor Aunt Daphne, the character for whom I had the most sympathy. Why was she forbidden to write to Devlin when he was in New York, for heaven’s sake? And what’s with this final enigmatic letter from Dr. Cook? Could he not have met Devlin in that ridiculous “Dakota” one more time?

Well, I admit that I was getting tired of Cook’s revelations. How many times did we get new twists to his tale? His revelations were the chief driver of the plot. It was like taking part in a murder mystery parlour game.

As for Cook’s character…. As he revealed more of his nefarious doings, I had the feeling that we were peeling the skin off an onion, and that eventually, there would be nothing there. How right I was! His character disintegrated before our eyes. From being a man with an answer to every problem, whether it concerned partying with the Vanderbilts or organizing an Arctic expedition, he disintegrated into a liar and a murderer, among other things. But where was the lead-up to this sudden unravelling of the heroic fabric that wrapped the driver of our plot? Has Johnston ever heard of foreshadowing? This little device does a lot to draw a reader into a plot and explain sudden twists in a tale. That’s lesson two in the creative writing course, and we don’t think that Johnston ever got there.

Now about the plot: How much was packed in there? Do we really need to have that unconvincing romance with Kristine? And let’s cut out Dr.Cook’s complicated relationship with his wife. I guess they had to be on the outs so that she wouldn’t go along to the parties and spoil all the fun. And all that strange behaviour in the “Dakota”, where did it lead? Let’s cut out the whole chapter about boyhood bullying, and if we are fiddling with fact and fiction in this book, let’s just have one trip to Mt. McKinley.

I am sorry to say that when I finished this book, I did not have sympathy for a single character (except Aunt Daphne!) Johnston does not know how to create believable characters. Good writers speak of how their characters become so real to them that they end up driving the plot. Johnston is so hurry-up with his plot development that his characters become mannequins.

Let’s think for a moment about Uncle Edward, as an example. This is a man who took in, sheltered and financed a child abandoned by his brother, suspecting that he might not be his brother’s son. Edward does a post-mortem on Amelia and has a choice: say nothing and let her death be interpreted by the townspeople, or announce a murder and unleash a certain scandal, maybe implicating his brother. He has Devlin in his house for ten years. His wife forsakes his company for the boy’s, and Devlin is a constant reminder to him of his brother’s disappointment. There is material here to make a complex and interesting character. But we see only his negative side. Johnston has not taken the time to get to know him.

The big character problem is the lack of sympathy elicited for Devlin, who, by the way, does not even visit his uncle when he returns to St. John. I guess he didn’t mature very much, despite his adventures. In the end, we don’t know him at all. What makes him laugh? What can we admire about him? What are his interests? What would break his heart? What endears him to us? What problems did he have at the beginning that he resolved at the end? All we get is this constant narrative featuring the word, “I.” By the end of the book, I was heartily sick of this self-centred, egoistic bore.

Finally, there is the botched climax. What is this? What sense does this make? Cook took three men for months on a perilous trip to nowhere? They walked all that distance across the polar icecap to nowhere? What was he trying to prove? Who would be his witness? Devlin was known to be his slave, the Eskimos were not traceable, he left his notes with the employee of his enemy. What is all this about? And do I really care? A climax is followed by a dénouément (lesson three). Readers are not supposed to be left with unanswerable questions.

I had to write this response to this book because all I could find in my internet research were glowing reviews. But I do not think that this is good literature. It is an adventure story in the genre of Crichton and Grisham. Maybe not as good.

Esther MacLeod

Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter

Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter

This a girlhood book, beloved by Mummy and me, which I reread during my TMI course about the love of reading. Another woman in the course mentioned it as being a childhood book that she had loved, so I reread it.
Although I still appreciated the good narrative pace, and the description of the forest, the Limberlost, as an adult reader in the 21st century I was struck by several features which I had never noticed as a girl.
The first was the didactive quality of the book which took precedence over any realistic character development. Freckles, although a sympathetic character, had emerged from an unhappy childhood without any blemishes on his character. "The Angel," was such a perfect little missy that she was bound to make any girl reader feel inadequate. Although only 16, she was able to step commandingly into any situation, be it providing medical succor or organizing of a crew of workmen twice her age. Freckles put her on a pedestal, and there she reigned, perfect in every respect.
The second difference from today's literature which eroded my modern appreciation was the attitude towards economic development. Although Freckles loved the forest and befriended all its creatures, there was no doubt in his mind that its proper destiny was to be cut down for the financial benefit of "the Boss." It was interesting to notice this change in our attitude towards nature; heartening to see how our thinking has developed, but a barrier to recommending this book to unformed minds today.
I was sad to reread this book and not love it as much as I had loved it as a girl, but interesting to see how children's literature can influence our development. For sure, children reading this book 50 years ago would have felt that the Angel and Freckles were role models, and also they would have adopted the exploitation model of our use of forests.
Another interesting sideline is the noble birth which Freckles was discovered to possess at the end of the book. Despite his humble upbringing, his sterling qualities were accounted for by the noble blood coursing in his veins!
I hate to be critical of this book, because I did love it when I was nine, but times change.
Another postscript is that the woman in the course thought that my collection of Stratton-Porter books might be worth something because they are such old editions!

Evolution's Captain by Peter Nichols

Evolution's Captain Peter Nichols

I must confess that I read this about six months ago, and and have forgotten some details now, but I do remember liking the book, feeling great empathy for the misfortunes of Captain Robert Fitzroy, the captain of the Beagle, and interest in the many things that I learned from his biography. It was well written and researched, and a great read for those who like biography and sailing, as I do.
Much of the book was about the several voyages of the Beagle, the geography and weather of Tierra del Fuego, and the adventures of the crew and the Fuegians who they took aboard. It was all pretty miserable. The weather and the sailing were grim. The Fuegians seemed an unredeemable lot, hardened by their environment where only the tough and nasty survive. Theft and lying were means of survival. The British lured four of them aboard and took them to England to trot them around and to "civilize" them. They were eventually returned to their native land, and quickly shed the niceties of the civilizing veneer they had gained by their experience.
The rest of the book was about Fitzroy and Darwin, and their interaction. Fitzroy was a fundamentalist Christian, urged on by his wife, and he could not accept the conclusions that Darwin came to regarding the origins of life on earth. The very fact that as captain, he had enabled Darwin to make his discoveries was a source of anxiety to Fitzroy.
Fitzroy was a brilliant man. He was an excellent navigator, and a good captain. But he didn't follow the protocols and often spent his own money on projects that seemed essential to him, but had not yet received authorization from the navy brass. For instance, he bought and outfitted a ship, thinking that he would be reimbursed, but he was not. Fitzroy inherited a small fortune, but he died penniless because of his impetuous investments. He was a man who always knew best, and he didn't know how to play political games. He was rigid and headstrong, and paid the price.
He was a long period without a job, and finally got a job with the British Association for the Advancement of Science. There was a terrible shipwreck off the coast of England, and the public wanted help in forecasting weather. Fitzroy designed a barometer that bears his name to this day. He had them manufactured in great quantities and sent out to fishing villages all around the coast of Britain. He included instructions and a book of weather rhymes which he collected and made up. It was a phenomenal work and well researched and executed and should have made his fortune and reputation. I would like to have a copy myself if I were undertaking a sea voyage:
"When rise begins, after low,
Squalls expect and clear blow."

"When rain comes before wind,
Halyards, sheets and braces mind!
But when wind comes before rain,
Soon you may make sail again."

All this success was not enough to outbalance the anguish that Fitzroy felt because of his role in the development of the theory of evolution. He was not a well-balanced man emotionally. Sadly, this brilliant man committed suicide, and a collection had to be taken up to support his wife, to which Darwin contributed 100 pounds.
A Far Cry From Kensington
By Muriel Sparks

It’s been a few months since I read this book, and my memories are hazy, but I do remember liking it and deciding that Sparks is a good writer whom I would read again.
The story is told in the first person, and the narrator is an overweight 28 year old woman who is known to everyone as ‘Mrs. Hawkins.’ She lives in a boarding house in Kensington and the story centres around the characters who live in the boarding house and a menacing character called Hector Bartlett whom she meets through her work as an editor.
Sparks has a talent for characterization and for the telling anecdote. Many characters drift into the plot, as they do in boarding houses, but their tales are well woven into the whole.
The character of Hector Bartlett is a memorable one. At first he appears to be an annoying but avoidable poseur, untalented, but with literary aspirations. Mrs. Hawkins loses patience with his pretensions and name-dropping and tells him that he is “un pisseur de copie.”
As the story unfolds, it develops that Hector Bartlett, and by extension, others who, lacking talent of their own, try to live off the success of others, is a venomous man. Mrs. Hawkins’ name for him stuck, and rang true to other people who were trying to shake him off. He had devious ways of promoting himself and sucking up to talent and a lot of people didn’t like him. He attributed the cold shoulders to Mrs. Hawkins’ epithet and developed a complex and really evil plan to get retribution. Unintellectual that he was, he got caught up in radionics, a cult that believed in the power of a black box, and he tried to use its magic powers to get revenge. He took advantage of a simple dressmaker, Wanda, who lived in the boarding house, and in the end, caused her to commit suicide.
The Hector Bartlett story is paralleled by Mrs. Hawkins’ own battle to find a new life now that she is widowed. She finds a better job, loses weight, finds a new boyfriend, and her life works out. But she retains her dislike of Hector Bartlett and the evil that he is masquerading behind his pretentiousness, and she unearths the full extent of his plot against her and the power that he gained over Wanda.
Thirty years later, rich and famous, the narrator meets him again in Tuscany. Once again, he is trying to impress a group of acquaintances, and she goes up to him as she did at the beginning of the tale, and hisses the same words at him and discredits him in public. When she leaves the restaurant, her husband asks, “Did you settle the bill?” She answers, “Yes.” And then concludes, “It was a far cry from Kensington.”