Thursday, April 16, 2015

Under the Visible Life by Kim Echlin

Under the Visible Life / Kim Echlin
Toronto: Hamish Hamilton, c2015.
348 p.

This is a fantastic read, a story of family, friendship, and the power of music. The strong writing and international focus of Echlin’s earlier novels are also found in this one, creating a captivating read. Her style, which is a rather deliberate and restrained one, works well in this overview of two women's lives, carrying through from the 50s to the 80s.

Two women, Mahsa and Katherine, are both jazz pianists who create a powerful friendship through their commitment to their art, in the face of all sorts of family ordeals.

Both women have had unusual upbringings; Katherine was raised by a single mother in 1950s Hamilton, Mahsa was raised by her strict Uncle & Aunt in Pakistan after her parents were murdered. Both of them are half American and half 'something else' (Afghani in Mahsa's case, Chinese in Katherine's). This element also shapes their experiences in art and society.

Early on, Katherine married another jazz musician and had 3 children in quick succession; Mahsa is forced into marriage with an older man in her 20s, and has 2 children quickly. Despite their differing backgrounds, Katherine and Mahsa have much in common, including their love for piano.

They develop a friendship through jazz when Mahsa moves back to Montreal with her family, and then meets Katherine in New York. Being a jazz pianist is really the expression of their most independent, essential selves, and they maintain their playing despite the vagaries of their difficult lives. They deal with their roles as mothers, as women in the man's world of 20th century jazz, and as independent individuals in relationship with their children, lovers, parents, friends and more.

The writing is so smooth, their stories told in counterpoint, it's like the entire book is jazz. The writing is deep but fast moving and the characters (even the side characters) are all fully drawn and fascinating. Music is the thread that holds together this thoughtful tale of two women’s lives. If you are a music lover or enjoy stories that delve into the deeper issues that shape the arc of
a life, you will find much to appreciate in this book.


Further Reading

Wayne Grady's Emancipation Day also covers the length of a life across the 20th century, a life based in music and complicated by issues of race and identity. It's also focused partly in Canada and partly in the US (this time Windsor & Detroit).

Ann Ireland's first novel A Certain Mr. Takahashi, and well as her latest novel, The Blue Guitar, both deal with music and/or musicians, family dynamics and dysfunctional relationships. They are both set in Canada, and deal with issues of self-actualization and individuation, whether that's between sisters or a gay couple with a significant age difference.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Welcome Poetry Month!

Welcome April...Welcome Poetry Month!

While I try to celebrate poetry year-round by reading it and sharing it, this month is an opportunity to focus on it a little, in the company of many others.

There a few neat things to investigate this poetry month.

To start off  -- I was lucky enough to get involved with this year's online Celebration of Canadian Poetry being hosted by Brick Books -- my appreciation of the poetry of Lorri Neilsen Glenn has just been posted. Check it out -- there are 4 mini-essays a week by various poets and readers of poetry, focused on a poet of the writer's choice. You will find many new names to explore by reading through the short and entertaining stories. (and you can see my original blog review of my favourite of Glenn's books from 2010 too)

As I say in the write-up, her vision has inspired me to combine my love of poetry with my love of sewing, and I am making up a poetry skirt using her words, and this pattern:

Poetry Skirt

Next, check out the Toronto Public Library's new interactive Poetry Map that has just been launched. It's very cool; they've linked lines of poetry which mention Toronto location to that spot on a map -- you can click on each link to find the poetry collection in the library's catalogue. Great idea, and it gives a great random browsing experience.

I'm also lucky to have a handful of beautiful new books of poetry, both from Brick Books and other Canadian publishers, that I'm reading this month, and will of course be sharing with you all. And don't forget to follow Serena at Savvy Verse & Wit this month -- while she always has interesting blog posts, during Poetry Month she outdoes herself and highlights her affection for verse! 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Jane Austen, Alexander McCall Smith, and Bertie

I recently read two of Alexander McCall Smith's latest books...I can barely keep up on each of the series that he writes -- he's probably one of the only authors to whom the phrase "why can't they write as fast as I can read?" does not apply.

In any case, Volume 9 of the Scotland Street series, entitled Bertie's Guide to Life and Mothers (Random House Canada, 2015) follows the same structure of the previous books in this series. This series is first written as a newspaper column (in the Scotsman) and then compiled into the latest book. This go round, Bertie, the eternal 6 yr old, is having a birthday party. Finally! And his mother Irene once again tries to stifle all the boyish fun of it. But...she has won a trip to Dubai in a slogan-writing contest. Guess what might happen? McCall Smith is getting more and more creative about getting rid of Irene!

It also follows all the other characters who readers have become fond of reading about in the previous books -- Angus and Domenica, Matthew and Elspeth (and triplets), Big Lou, Cyril, Bruce and more. If you're a fan of this series you will, as a matter of course, read this book, if only to find out how Bertie gets along (I think he's everyone's favourite). If you haven't yet encountered this set of characters you will most likely be able to follow along anyhow, but the joys of all the backstory won't be there. Give the first one (44 Scotland Street) a go to see how it all began.

18633333Then I was on to a more unusual entry into McCall Smith's oeuvre. As part of a project to rewrite all of Jane Austen's works into more modern settings (I'm not asking why, just going with it...) he was asked to do a rewrite of Emma (Random House Canada, c2014)It's received mixed reviews, but I thought it was fairly good.

This could be because my expectations were low; not only do I find Austen's Emma a little dull, I'm also a bit suspicious of McCall Smith's standalone novels (I never find them as good as the series). So I was okay with him playing with this story.

He really does stick close to the original, which works in the sense of recognizing characters and seeing how they translate to modern-day England. But it doesn't work as well in the sense of era -- sometimes Emma feels like she is living in the 60s, but then she'll do something like pull out her cellphone. It's a bit unsettling!

In any case, she's a rich country girl who doesn't have much to do with herself, despite taking a course in interior design. So she ends up meddling with everyone's lives, and there are some pretty modern misunderstandings. Harriet is actually a fairly interesting side character in this take on the story, and her circumstances were the most fun to read about -- she lives in a school with a decidedly odd matron...

But of course, we all know how this one turns out, and McCall Smith does not vary the conclusion -- I do think that would be going too far! At least his Mr. Knightly is a little more young and sprightly...but still way, way too bossy for my tastes.

Have you read any of these Jane Austen Project rewrites? Would you? What do you think about an author 'rewriting' someone else's story?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Dreaming Spies

Dreaming Spies / Laurie R. King
New York: Bantam, c2015
331 p.

I spent some time with an enjoyable read this weekend -- this latest installment of Laurie King's Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series.

I was really in the mood for something entertaining, and Mary Russell is a great choice when I'm looking for something smart and yet simply engaging. I have read all the books in this series, and whether the action is fast and exciting or slower and more thoughtful, I always make sure I read them! The characters are wonderful, and King's settings are always fun to explore. Her writing is detailed and full of research that colours the narrative.

This one goes back in time a little, being set just before Mary and Holmes make it to California -- so the beginning is set between The Game and Locked Rooms. The final parts are then set a bit later, after Garment of Shadows. I think that's right ;)

The story starts as Russell and Holmes leave India, and a long case there, to head toward Japan. Onboard the cruise ship that they are forced to take (argh, all that society!) Holmes recognizes a blackmailer from his past. Russell, on the other hand, makes the acquaintance of a sweet young Japanese girl, Haruki Sato. Nothing, of course, is what it seems.

Suitable to the slow progress of their ship, this story is quite slow-paced. There is lots and lots and lots of information given about Japan in the 20s, from the lectures that Haruki presents to the passengers to pass the time, to the lengthy encounters with local customs that Russell and Holmes are forced to endure once they get to Japan. All this leading up to a vital meeting that (finally, halfway through) indicates what their new case will consist of -- a case with potential international repercussions.

The story jumps from shipboard to rural Japan and back to Sussex and Oxford. Each element ties together to build a complex tale, although it's less tricky of a plot than some of the other entries in this series. And it does feel like Holmes and Russell are a bit extraneous to the resolution of this mystery.

If Russell and Holmes weren't such an appealing pair, if their dynamics didn't interest me so much, I'm not sure this one would have kept me reading without any skimming. It was a bit draggy in plot, but just reading about another encounter between Holmes, Russell, and a new culture made it worth it for me. Despite the slow pace, and the extensive Japan travelogue, I did enjoy this read. Mary Russell is simply wonderful; I love reading about her internal development and her studies, especially when she heads to the Bodleian in the last bit of this book. I always love a good librarian cameo ;)

And I did learn quite a lot about Japanese culture in the 20's.  Now I really want a cup of tea. Green tea.

Serendipitously, as I was reading this, my husband pointed out this amazing story about a ryokan that has been open for 1300 years. Now that's a family business!


Further Reading:

If you are just starting with this book you must go back and read this series from the beginning. Like Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series, the first few books are definitely the strongest, even while they are all enjoyable.

If it's all the Japanese content that you find fascinating here, try some of Lafcadio Hearn's writings: he was a Westerner who moved to Japan in the late 1800s, married a Japanese woman and had 4 children, and wrote many books through the 1890's and up until 1904 when he died. His books share his Westerner's look at traditional Japanese culture, literature and more, as it moved into the 20th century.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Book of Eve

Book of Eve / Constance Beresford-Howe
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2001, c1973.
176 p.

This is an interesting Canadian classic, of sorts. It's the brief tale of Eva, a 65 year old Montreal woman who has finally had enough of her emotionally stifled (though physically comfortable) life in Westmount, and enough of her demanding husband. So, she simply sets down her things and leaves the house. And does not come back.

She moves into a small apartment in a decidedly non-comfortable neighbourhood in the downtown area of Montreal. It's a basement studio, and she makes it nicer with some fabric, a plant, and eventually a stray cat that she takes in. She also explores her own desires and longings, spending much time dreaming and remembering and trying to decide where she wants to go from this point on.

There are others living in the house that she's ended up in. The owners are upstairs, and above them there are more tenants, including a younger Polish man with whom she has an affair. While the Goodreads summary says this is about a woman who 'finds love', I don't think that her love affair is the point here. She is finding herself; finding her emotional freedom despite the financial difficulties it causes her, despite the loss of any social standing that results, despite the distance it causes between her only son and herself.

The only thing that really gave me pause was the way that Eva refers to herself a few times as elderly, as decrepit, and so forth. I felt like she sounded a lot older than the age she was supposed to be -- but perhaps that was self-perception as she struggled not to feel that she'd wasted most of her life already.

Written in the 70's, it really reflects the issues brought up in Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, and many of the concerns of 70's feminism -- the lack of agency women had in their lives, the emotional abuse that was normal for many housewives, the boredom and loss of self that resulted -- but this story is also a very individual one that relies on the character of Eva Carroll and the wonderful Montreal setting to really make it shine. I thought it captured an era really well, and was able to illuminate one small story that opens up into a larger one. It's a moving story of a woman who just has to strike out on her own, and is willing to pay the social and monetary costs to be true to herself.


Further Reading:

If you're looking for a similar kind of slower-moving story about the small moments of a woman's life, you could try a variety of Alice Munro's short fiction. While many of her heroines make subtler changes than Eva did, they are all fighting to be true to themselves.

Ethel Wilson's 1954 Swamp Angel follows Maggie Lloyd, a woman who walks out on her difficult second marriage and finds a new life working at a fishing camp in the B.C. interior. While her more remote setting brings different challenges than Eva's very urban Montreal one, both women are striving to find a place where their spirit can be free.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Year of the Sheep, or Ram

Happy Lunar New Year to you all... it's a few weeks into 2015 now, so if you need a reset, take this New Year as a start-over, and begin all your plans and resolutions anew! 

The Year of the Sheep begins today. What is that all about? There's some hope for us, apparently. 

"Sheep is the symbol of the Arts. It relates to passive and nurturing times. It will help the healing process with regard to past events caused by individuals who have little respect for the human race or life itself. It will be a year of banding together in faith and in belief that good will prevail and win out over the forces that refuse to comply to a peaceful way of life. For those who trust in goodness, happiness and success will follow."

Here are a few sheepish books to read this year!


This philosophical mystery is a tale for adults to enjoy. With acerbic rams and both clever and dim-witted sheep in the herd, there is plenty to entertain you as these sheep try to determine who was responsible for the death of their beloved shepherd.

Blue Mountain

This middle-grade novel relates the adventures of Tuk, a bighorn sheep, and his herd. When their winter feeding grounds are paved over, it falls to Tuk, the strongest of his herd, to lead them to the fabled meadows of Blue Mountain where the grass is thick and plentiful. Adventure and environmental concerns mesh to make up a very readable story.


One of Murakami's early novels, this one uses the search for a mythical mutant sheep with a star on its back as a metaphor for the larger search for meaning in life. Our protagonist is inadvertently involved in the search for a sheep that appears in a photo on a postcard, one that a mad Sheep Professor has been searching for for years -- it's his Holy Grail, or should we say his Golden Fleece?


Babe thinks he's a sheepdog, and becomes even better at herding than the farm dogs...and is entered into the sheepdog trials. King-Smith's sheep are very English, with great intelligence and a wee bit of snarkiness ;)

And now to finish up...a classic picture book that celebrates sheep of all colours, involved in activities of all kinds! This is a wonderful read-aloud, great for encouraging toddler participation in the story. Also, there are many story stretching activities you can find online if you want to make this fun book the centre piece of a storytime. Such as...

Monday, February 09, 2015

Three-Legged Horse

Three-Legged Horse / Ann Hood
New York: Bantam,c1989.
293 p.

I've owned this novel for years. Really, for YEARS. So I finally picked it up and read it last weekend. It was a book I wanted to love.

I'd discovered Hood with her book Places to Stay the Night, which I'd found randomly on a library shelf years ago. I liked it so ended up reading a few of her books after that, and find her enjoyable and light for the most part.

Three-Legged Horse was an early novel, though, and it does show. It's interesting enough, but ultimately forgettable. Not one of her best.

The plot is a bit creaky: free-spirited mother who is in a folk band (named Three-Legged Horse) but who is involved in a troubled relationship with a distant, artist husband who comes and goes, sometimes for years on end. But she just can't give him up. Daughter Hannah deals with the fall-out of these emotional struggles, and with a father she barely knows. Hannah is trying to find her own way as well, now that she's a teenager, and that is causing some issues of her own. Oh yes, don't forget the glamorous New York soap opera actor Grandmother and her own dysfunctional marriage.

Too many threads trying to be woven in here. It's almost after-school special, but not quite. Hood is a good writer, and although much of the story is predictable in the sense of psychological tropes and easy answers, it still has a spark that makes it readable. It really shows the potential that Hood used to better effect in her following works.

This was a good pick to mix in between some heavier classic reads though. It's modern and it really does show some of the social norms and stock characters of the 80's. I could almost see the pastels and big hair in some of the story elements. Fun reading, but if you want to discover Hood, I'd recommend trying some of her later books first so that you can see her working at a more polished level. Her more recent books are really quite wonderful.


Further Reading:

Laura Moriarty's The Centre of Everything focuses on another 12 yr old girl, who faces a life with a mother always on the edge of employment who is having an unsatisfactory affair with a married man. Evelyn's perspective on life and love is formed in this unsettled atmosphere, and like Hannah in Three-Legged Horse, she seems more mature than the adults in the story. However, like any teenager, her tale is told from her viewpoint as the "centre of everything".

Alice Hoffman's Here On Earth tells the story of March Murray, who with her teenage daughter returns to her childhood home. There she comes across her high-school love Hollis...and learns why obsessive love is not always a good thing. (this is inspired by Wuthering Heights, the classic obsession novel)