Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Silent Rooms

The Silent Rooms / Anne Hebert; translated from the French by Kathy Mezei.
Don Mills, ON: Musson, c1974. (orig. pub. in French in 1958).
167 p.

A fine example of the Quebec Gothic, as I like to think of it, this is a fairy-tale like story of Catherine -- motherless, eldest daughter of a stern and distant father, who marries into a decadent family of local nobility. 

Her new husband has sister issues, and seems to hate women and the very idea of sex. He takes Catherine to Paris, where they stay sealed inside their two little wooden rooms, never going out. Catherine gets paler and more and more bored, stitching at her needlework all day like a princess in a tower. Michel thinks she looks so beautiful when pale and thin that he mutters "this woman is so beautiful I'd like to drown her". So much for happily ever after.

When Michel's sister Lia shows up, having broken off her own love affair, the obsessive sibling dynamic arises again. The two of them cut Catherine out, treating her like a servant to supply their needs while remaining silent and undemanding. But eventually, Catherine rebels by getting very sick -- depression and lethargy sentence her to bed. The doctor recommends a change of scene -- impossible. But Catherine finds a backbone, and leaves, accompanied by their maid, who always backs the strongest player. 

The rest of the story takes place in a small seaside town in France in which Catherine recuperates and determines what to do with herself. Will she find freedom, happiness, self-determination? This  brief story looks at all of that in its fable-like structure. It's not a long or deeply detailed story, rather it moves lightly among archetypes and characterizations. It reminds me somewhat of Marie Claire Blais' Tete Blanche, in the main male character's neurotic behaviour: I didn't much like either of these characters! 

But I found this a hypnotic read, with the writing weaving a kind of spell that I couldn't look away from until I finished it, in one sitting. It was a intriguing look at a Cinderella who becomes a Rapunzel or perhaps a Sleeping Beauty, awoken by a huntsman rather than a prince.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Engel's Bear

Bear / Marian Engel
Toronto: Random House, 1990, c1976.
152 p.

So here's another Canadian classic I never read in university, but I thought I should really get to this scandalous novel at some point. It seems to elicit salacious tee-hees from most, so I wanted to see whether it justified the response.

People always seem shocked that this novel won the Governor General's award for fiction in 1976, mostly because of the 'sex with a bear' thing going on -- that's the shock reason, I mean, not the reason it won the award. Though I sometimes wonder.

Anyhow -- the story. Lou is a young archivist, stifled in the hot summer in Toronto. She gets an assignment to head north and catalogue the collection of Colonel Cary, an eccentric man who's left his middling library to her institute. Lou finds that the library, housed in an isolated octagonal house on an island, is rather bland and will take no time at all to sort through. But who's to say no to a lakeside stay rather than a cramped Toronto apartment in the summer? So she works slowly and methodically, being rather distracted by the large and highly tame black bear that has come with the property.

There is a lot of metaphor going on. Lou is single, having desultory sex with her director now and again; she feels dissociated from herself, with no roots to rely on; she ends up trading sex for handyman chores while at the cabin; and of course, there is the bear. There is a sense that she is trying to reclaim her natural, animal self through this theme -- trying to find that essential core of self-knowledge -- trying to merge with the wilderness at the heart of Canadian identity (especially in the 70s rising of CanLit). But there is also actual, physical sexual contact with the bear. The previous owners of the house were fascinated by bear lore, and Lou reads their collected bits of information as the summer progresses, adding layers to her relationship to the bear and the wild in general. By the time she is ready to leave, she has changed, transforming her sense of self as she heads back to her regular life.

I found this novel very much of its time, with the focus on women's lives and agency and identity that was so strong in this era. The bear sex part is not as nudge-nudge wink-wink as I had expected, though I wonder what induced her to so graphically describe it, other than its beginning as a short piece intended to be part of a collection of pornographic writing by "serious writers" that she was trying to publish as a fundraiser for the newly established Writers' Union of Canada (established by Engel, in her living room). Nevertheless, this is a story about much more than this titillating content which seems to be the extent of most readers' knowledge of it. It certainly stands on its own.


A few other Canadian Book Challenge participants have read this one; you can read Eric's recent review, complete with a look at how this book has been presented via multiple covers over the years.

And you can also hear Marian Engel reading from this work on the CBC, way back in 1976, and discussing it with Peter Gzowski.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Basic Black with Pearls

Basic Black with Pearls / Helen Weinzweig
Toronto: Anansi, 2015, c1980.
144 p.

This is another of a string of 70s novels I've just finished; while this was published in 1980 originally, it holds a strong 70s feel similar to many other women's novels of the time. At least Canadian women's novels.

The main character, Shirley Kaszenbowski, nee Silverberg, takes us on a surreal trip across Toronto, revisiting her past as a Jewish immigrant in the Spadina-Dundas area. This revealing trip back into the uneasy postwar years is rather incidental -- Shirley is following clues left for her by her sometime lover, secret agent Coenraad, hoping to find him for a tryst. But does he even really exist, or is he Shirley's invention? We're not sure, but her drive to escape the routine of her numb middle-class married life could mean either is true.

The writing style is fluid; the key to it is following Shirley's thoughts, with no firm reliance on straightforward chronology or realist descriptions. Yet the sense of place comes through clearly -- Toronto really leaps to life. Weinzweig's look at a woman who is restless and ready to break out after a long stretch of marriage to a dull and controlling husband reminds me of Constance Beresford-Howe's The Book of Eve, set around the same time but in Montreal. 

Weinzweig is much less tethered to everyday detail than Beresford-Howe, and the initial set-up of Shirley's international man of mystery spy lover already makes this book much more strange and unsettling from the start. But they are ruminating on some of the same questions of women's agency and the need to seize one's own life, questions that were top of mind in the 70s, it seems. 

If you can comfortably read a story that will discombobulate and confuse you at times, that will poke at your expectations of a wifely character, that will throw you around in time a bit, this is the one to pick up. Weinzweig is a fascinating new-to-me author who only wrote two novels and one short story collection, and thanks to Anansi is now republished and ready to be rediscovered. Her own life was just as interesting as her fiction, and I'm happy to have picked this novel up in a recent sale, alongside of Irina Kovalyova's Specimen, another great Anansi discovery. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Margaret Laurence's Diviners

The Diviners / Margaret Laurence
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, c1974.
382 p.

I put off reading this book for years, thinking it was going to be a dull, good-for-you classic. I'm not sure why, as I absolutely loved Laurence's novel The Stone Angel when I read it years ago. In any case, I couldn't have been more wrong about this one.

This a story that feels fresh and modern in the way that it plays with structure and form. It asks questions concerning a woman's independence and her role as wife, mother, person. I found Laurence's method of telling the story through sections separated out as memories, inside memories, writings and so forth really fascinating. The story shifts in time like a person talking, retelling their life in back and forth fragments. Yet it's completely coherent and builds narrative tension.

Morag Gunn is from the small town of Manawaka; orphaned at age four, she is raised by the town refuse collector and his wife. Her main goal is to get out of town as soon as possible. She succeeds in leaving to go to university, and through a circuitous route, including a relatively brief marriage, ends up with one daughter and a house in the Ontario countryside, from whence she tells her story.

And she tells it, full of sensory details and clever writing, as suits the writer Morag has become. She compares moments from all over her life and reflects on her prickly nature, including being totally honest about what she's done right and wrong over the years. She's a strong, complex, completely real character with a thoroughly active internal life.

This is a Canadian classic that has the whiff of the 70s about it, in its focus on a woman's life and her struggle for individuation, and in the elements of identity, both personal and national, that arise again and again. But it's also modern and relevant and just really, really interesting to read now.

Highly recommend this one.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Weekend Effect

The Weekend Effect: The Life Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork / Katrina Onstad
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2017.
304 p.

Now this is the opposite of the last book I read, How to Be a Bawse. Instead of recommending hustle, it recommends slowing down the ever-increasing pace of 24/7 work and taking time away from identifying only as a paid worker, whatever it is you do. I don't know if the different perspective is down to age, life stage, economic status, or what -- but it seems like these two books are talking to totally different readers.

Onstad is a journalist, and that shows in this book -- it's a carefully constructed series of chapters that provide research to support the tips that are given in a quick list near the end of the book. I suggest reading the cheat sheet first, then going back to see more info on each.

How do you reclaim your weekend as restorative time-off? Take a look at these ideas:

I found the book very well laid out; lots of ideas and lots of research to back it up, told in a readable manner. It encourages readers to think of themselves as human beings with the need for connection and down-time and beauty, with a soul that needs restoration from the daily grind of making a living. 

I feel that high-powered professionals who work hours and hours a week to the exclusion of other parts of their lives could really benefit from these tips. But it also pinpoints the new entrepreneur, the one who puts everything into their business, or who is a freelancer and thus always on -- even working for yourself you need some time off from Work. 

So a great reminder for those who've been hustling for a long time and are heading toward burnout if they don't slow down. I especially loved the idea of making space, wandering, wondering. I think that every reader will find at least one or two ideas that resonate with them, as something they could incorporate into their lives. I already consciously "do less" in order to own my time, but actively searching out opportunities to play and to encounter beauty sounds like a plan. 

Do you feel that you manage your time for yourself well? If so, any tips?  But if you're feeling overwhelmed or work-burdened, I do suggest this quick read as a spur for self-care. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

How to Be a Bawse

How to Be a Bawse / Lilly Singh
Toronto: Doubleday Canada, c2017.
224 p.

I'm officially old. I didn't know about Lilly Singh or her meteoric popularity and youtube stardom as ||Superwoman|| until I saw this book in my library.

But I sure do now! I was interested in reading about how she approaches her life as a "bawse". What is a bawse?

"A Bawse is a human being who exudes confidence, turns heads, reaches goals, finds inner strength, gets hurt efficiently and smiles genuinely- because they've fought through it all and made it out the other side." 
Essentially this is a book about personal achievement and business advice for the young. After you've read this empowering set of brief essays on life skills and attitudes for success, you might age a little and read some Danielle Laporte for personal and business advice for the fiery female leader, and then age a little more and read some business advice about leadership, commitment and integrity from Arlene Dickinson. 

This book is high energy (as Singh is). It's made up of 50 short chapters on different aspects of business and life success. Each one opens with a highly coloured photo of Singh in a costume or outfit themed to the topic. The paper stock is heavy and glossy and the chapters also include the very trendy full-page text pop-outs in varied Instagrammy fonts and colours. It's an eye catching and active style that is made for short attention spans and bites of reading time. It also means there is not a lot of space to go deep, but I find that's not what these kinds of books are for.

However, I did find that Singh has some good stuff to share, emphasizing hard work, kindness to others, and persistence. 

Here's a couple of favourite quotes:

In a bawse world there are no escalators, there are only stairs.

Say what you mean, but don't say it mean.

The universe might respect the law of attraction, but it respects a good hustle even more.

And in the end, that's really the message of her book and her career, as she shares it: you've got to hustle to get what you want. Always work hard, focus on your goals, take opportunities that arise, and make opportunities, too. I liked her repetition of the concept of hustle NOT including meanness -- she restates a couple of times that being courteous and respectful is important, and that being kind and knowing which rung of the ladder you're on doesn't mean getting walked over. 
And she certainly has hustled, all the way from Scarborough to LA, and from one youtube video to hundreds of them, some viewed over 20 million times. And a world tour. And more.

I'd recommend this to some younger people I know as a good starter guide to getting ahead. And some not-so-young readers still have things that jump out, too.  My takeaway? This quote:

Procrastination is a hustler's worst enemy.


Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Mary Green: a Regency tale

Mary Green / Melanie Kerr
Edmonton: Stonehouse Publishing, c2016.
320 p.

I was intrigued by this novel, having discovered it on Stonehouse's website after reading another of their books recently (Kalyna). It's a Regency tale, fully inspired by Kerr's study of Austen - both academically, and via the tactile experience of creating and wearing Regency clothing & creating Regency events.

The novel does have a very Austen feel; it combines elements of Mansfield Park, Sense & Sensibility, and Emma; it also seems to reference Jane Eyre. The eponymous Mary Green is a young orphan two times over (her adoptive parents have died) taken in by her adopted mother's brother. This brother travels extensively, so Mary is left to the care of an aunt along with her two cousins, Dorothea and Augusta. Of course, in a Cinderella-like twist, Mary is treated badly, not even called by her real name by these tenuous relatives, instead called Polly.

But at 21, Mary finds out she is very rich and picks up and decamps to London with the solicitors the very same day. Her whirlwind life in London as a rich young woman is predictably head-turning -- but eventually Mary decides to head to her new estate in the country and live on a more even keel.

I was a little disappointed in this turn of events -- it's like Mary was another Fanny Price, too good and modest for fashionable life. I wanted to see Mary kick up her heels and enjoy herself for once, with all this newfound fortune! Instead she is sensible and goes in for good works, like supporting the orphanage where she herself started life. 

She does, of course, get her happy ending. The romantic thread is the weakest element of this story, I felt; the story seems more focused on Mary herself, finding her way to selfhood. The romance is not 'romantic' or swoony, in fact, I thought it was really unexpected and not altogether satisfying. Fanny Price again! But if you are looking for a very Austen like novel that is much more convincing than many Austen-like 'sequels', this is a great choice. Kerr has the diction and daily details down. 

You can also check out Melanie Kerr's blog for much more information on the Regency and for reviews and thoughts on other Regency retellings, both book and movie. There is info on her first book Follies Past, a P&P prequel, and videos of her reading from Mary Green, if you wish to avail yourself of the opportunity to learn more.