Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Green Tomato Years

The Green Tomato Years / Gloria Kupchenko Frolick
Toronto: Williams-Wallace, c1985.
142 p.

Another book I just happened across, this short story collection is infused with the Ukrainian experience. Even the beautiful cover is a William Kurelek painting.

The author states that "it had been in my mind to write these stories for many years. They represent a fulfillment of a vow I had undertaken to write something as a tribute to my parents and brothers and sisters... ". And this is a heartfelt collection, a little uneven, but which really illuminates immigrant life in the Depression & war/postwar years, with special attention to her Ukrainian background.

I thought the first story, "The Counsellor" was the strongest. It is light-hearted, sincere, and engaging. In it, a young girl is working for a neighbour who needs some help around the house, as she's just had her second baby - at age 40. The perspective of this young girl highlights the quirks of adult behaviour and emotional upsets, and allows for a conclusion that isn't either maudlin or too jokey; it's just her report of what's happening. This story's tone and characters remind me quite a lot of Gabrielle Roy's Manitoba-set books. They have the same sense of innocence & nostalgia, and there are echoes of Roy's style. It also reminded me of the lightness in some of Olena Pchilka's short stories about girls in Ukraine.

Kupchenko Frolick also uses a child's perspective in other stories, but more often with a focus on their own experience. As the book progresses, the stories get less light-hearted and deal more with disappointments, sorrows, and fears. In the very brief "Mrs. Paush", the lack of reproductive options for women leads to tragedy.  In "Such A Nice Young Man", a young woman and her sister take their Ukrainian background as a given, but are far more focused on being modern young people. They realize their position in the community, however, when the son of the richest family in town tries to rape the younger daughter; her story is discounted and excuses are made for him (what is new?) This was another disturbing scene that has me wondering why the three books I've just finished all include this theme: is it because I'm reading books by women about women's experience in particular? Is it that writers today are trying to remove the shroud of secrecy around these kinds of experiences? It could be all of these, but the prevalence of this kind of violence is still sad to realize. 

The book closes on a melancholy note, with the description of a youth group going carolling on a Ukrainian Christmas eve. They are out in the country, enjoying their sleigh ride, and stopping in at various places to sing. It's peaceful, beautiful, and highlights tradition; yet the bittersweet nature of life comes through. Kupchenko Frolick seems to notice the undercurrents in all situations, and can't avoid mentioning them. Even when the conclusion of this story, and thus the book as a whole, ends on a positive note, it never feels saccharine, but grounded in daily life.

The nine stories included here provide a variety of perspectives, some very brief vignettes and a couple which are a bit longer. Each of them evokes the sense of a life now gone, in a specific place and time. I liked this collection and appreciated the variety of her stories, with their balance of sorrows and joys.


 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Bohunk Road

Bohunk Road / Hope Morritt
Sarnia: River City Press, c1987.
116 p.

I found this book in a 2nd hand store and had to pick it up because of its Ukrainian content. I found it both interesting and disturbing.

First of all, the title itself is a little off-putting, even though it refers to the road on the edges of Edmonton that the main characters live on, and its common name among the city's inhabitants. "Bohunk" is quite a rude slur, in reference to Ukrainians, so it makes sense that in the 40s & 50s in which this story is set that it would still be in use. But it's still hard to read.

And a lot of this story is hard: main character Natalka is the second daughter of the Wisnowski family, and she is determined to shake off the trappings of her ethnicity. Her ideal is to leave her family's embarrassing tar paper shack and all their traditions, and marry an American soldier and become a perfect 50s wife. This seems possible as there are numerous soldiers stationed in Edmonton, building the Alaska-Canada Highway for US wartime defense purposes. I had no idea about this event so was surprised and interested to learn that loads of Americans in Alberta at this time was indeed an historical fact.

After many struggles (some quite harrowing -- the attempted murder of her new boyfriend by assailants unknown though suspected, an attempted rape by a creepy neighbour, to name a couple) she succeeds in her goal. And begins to wonder if she perhaps hadn't married a little too soon; her dream of marriage takes her to the North (to Whitehorse), and gives her two children quickly, but also takes away her university prospects forever.

The part of this short book which deals with her dissatisfaction and longing to escape home is quite elaborate and rich; once she's married the story skims ahead quickly and episodically over a number of years, until the finale, in which she returns home and realizes the value of family and identity after all.

There are moments of loveliness in the first part of the book, notably a chapter focusing on a Christmas celebration. But there is much grittiness and misery, and frank language and discussion of rough experiences. The feeling of  'overcoming' one's ethnic upbringing to become a real North American success story reminds me quite a bit of elements of Vera Lysenko's Yellow Boots.   There is also the same sense of dislocation in both books with the main character being away from home for only a decade at most, and when they finally go back, it has all changed dramatically.


Despite the reservations I had about this book's literary merits, and some of the things I found disturbing (particularly the attempted rape scene), it was an illuminating read. I thought the way in which Morritt juxtaposed Natalka, her mother Martha, and her frail grandmother Anastasia highlighted the changes that overtake a family over a generation. This is another book that really focuses on women and their experiences, and creates a wide range of women who are all very different and individual in their character and behaviour. I felt that this story speaks of a Ukrainian experience in a way I haven't read a lot, honestly expressing the urge of some younger people to leave their heritage behind in an era where it wasn't a benefit.



Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Pam Clark's Kalyna

Kalyna / Pam Clark
Edmonton: Stonehouse Publishing, c2016.
304 p.

I won this book in a contest run by a Ukrainian arts organization, and was delighted -- I really wanted to read it and really small presses like Stonehouse don't often appear in my library's collection. 

This is a historical novel, which opens with a couple from Ukraine who choose to emigrate to the great promised land of Canada a few years prior to WWI . They are leaving their homes and families in Ukraine for the promise of owning land and finding freedom in a new country.

Wasyl and Katja are young and newly married when they head to Canada, befriending a young man who is all alone on the ship as well as an alarmingly depressed woman whose husband was denied passage and so is travelling alone. Katja helps her survive and function until they get to Montreal, where she is able to wait for him to follow. Ivan, meanwhile, follows them out to Alberta where they homestead side by side in Edna-Star, a small community near Edmonton, where there are already some other Ukrainians. 

Katja is a woman who is stronger than she knows, and all the struggles of homesteading, bearing children and keeping going when disaster arrives illuminate this strength. The disaster takes the form of Wasyl and Ivan being arrested for not having papers with them, once WWI starts and immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which included Galicia, or Ukraine, at that time) are considered enemy aliens, despite the fact that they fled that empire on purpose.

Wasyl becomes a leader in the Banff Internment camps, staying calm and level-headed even in the face of what was essentially forced labour, building a mountain road by hand. Cold weather, inadequate clothing, shelter or food, and undeserved imprisonment and cruelty by some guards drove some men to try to escape, with at times deadly results. Wasyl is a determined man, however, and will put up with many things in order to be able to return home to Katja. I maybe liked Wasyl because of his strong, dependable character, or maybe it was partly because my great-grandpa who immigrated in 1911 was also named Wasyl.

The internment of Ukrainians in WWI is not a familiar story for many Canadians, but I feel it's vital for us to know, especially in this year of celebrations of our 150 year history. It is important to recognize faults and errors in order to progress without repeating them. 

There are a few weaknesses in this novel -- there is a villian of the piece, Dr. Smith, an Anglo doctor from Edmonton who is a bit of a failure, and goes to this small settlement of Edna-Star where he can be a big fish in a small pond. He has an eye for the ladies, especially the pretty young married ones, and there is a rape scene that I found quite disturbing. Later on in the book it becomes more understandable what his role in the book is, but for the first half I was not convinced this subplot was necessary. And 2/3 of the way through the book, it jumps to the story of Katja's youngest daughter, Kalyna, who is now a young woman heading to university in Edmonton, which brings up a whole other element of Western Canadian history. I was so invested in Katja and Wasyl's story though, that I would have liked more of that instead of a new element; Kalyna could have had a whole book to herself!

But I still think that this was a honest effort to shine a light on a part of Canadian history that is top of mind for many of us with Ukrainian descent. The story is straightforward, appealing to readers who would like to learn more about this part of history and/or who are interested in the particularly female experience of immigration & settlement -- I think that the women in this book are really at its heart, and are what kept me reading. 

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Further Reading:

Barbara Sapergia's Blood & Salt is another, slightly more literary novel about the internments, with a strong male lead (and also Kalynas), while Lubomyr Luciuk's groundbreaking academic work, In Fear of the Barbed Wire Fence, is the source of much of the fiction that has followed in this vein.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

Karyotype

Karyotype / Kim Trainor
London: Brick Books, c2015.
99 p.

This brief, elegaic work really caught me as I read it this week. It's another collection of poetry inspired by scientific themes, in this case, the karyotype (essentially a picture of a person's chromosomes).

At the heart of the collection is the Beauty of Loulan, a mummy found in China's deserts, along the Silk Road. Trainor uses her fascination with the Beauty of Loulan to focus on many aspects of human life, from the sweep of history to the smallest element of what makes us individual.

She illuminates family life, both her own and as a bigger theme, via a viewing of a documentary on these mummies -- and describes the Beauty of Loulan, and the scientists examining her, in poetic images which nonetheless almost made me queasy at times, as they exhume and pick her apart.

But another aspect of this collection, alongside the woven strands of DNA that provide poetic inspiration, is Trainor's look at the woven textiles that are also found with the mummies. The references to weaving, both physically and more poetically, infuse this look at personhood and history. I kept thinking of the wonderful book Women's Work:the first 20,000 Years, which explores textiles and women's history, and the vital place that these skills held in cultures from the very beginning -- and which is by the same author (Elizabeth Wayland Barber) who also wrote a book just on the textiles of these mummies, which inspired Trainor's poems.

In the middle section of the book, Trainor focuses on words and texts which are ephemeral yet have staying power: poems of Akhmatova or Mandelstam, books that were destroyed in the firebombing of the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, notebooks recovered from the fields of WWII, and so on. It's heart-rending, showing the fragility of human life (as in the other poems in this book) but also what remains. 


These themes blend very well, and create a thoughtful reading experience. Humanity remains as physical artifact or as intellectual concept; whichever one it is, there is still meaning for the contemporary viewer.



Saturday, March 25, 2017

How to Draw a Rhinoceros

How to Draw A Rhinoceros / Kate Sutherland
Toronto: BookThug, c2016.
120 p.

This is a debut collection by a law professor and poet, who also happens to be an acquaintance of mine. But that had no bearing on the fact that I adored this book of poetry.

I enjoyed it because of its cleverness, creative wordplay, and focus on science and on a specific theme - obviously the rhinoceros. I've made no secret of my love of the combination of science & poetry - from Alice Major to Madhur Anand, I've always enjoyed this combo.

This book takes the natural sciences as its subject. Sutherland examines the rhino from many angles; historical (the first touring rhino); artistic (Durer's rhinoceros sketches); biographical (sketches of some of the best known zoo owners/beast collectors in history); whimsical (Clara the rhino aboard ship, in law school, in space and more).

Each one has a different light to shed on the place that the rhinoceros has played in human history and culture. There are even some "found poems", something I always find intriguing - these ones are drawn from varied sources, from a 19th C. circus poster, from government reports of poaching, from Theodore Roosevelt & Ernest Hemingway's hunting narratives, as some examples.

The thematic thread - a rhinoceros - holds all of these witty poems together. The facets of the collection provide differing views of natural history and human interference in animal life, and hint of much more to be explored. Thankfully there are some notes on the writing of the poems at the end that may give interested readers a bit more to search out, now that the never-before-considered topic of the rhinoceros seems so fascinating. 

If you have any interest in history, natural or otherwise, and welcome an encounter with new poets and unexpected obsessions, I recommend finding a copy of this satisfyingly enjoyable read.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Kovalyova's Specimen



Specimen: stories / Irina Kovalyova
Toronto: Anansi, c2015.
295 p.

I was first drawn to this book by its gorgeous cover, which I had to highlight at the top of this post. Then I was intrigued by the content: short stories infused with science - biology mostly - all backed up by the author's cred:


Irina Kovalyova has a Master’s degree in Chemistry from Brown University, a doctoral degree in Microbiology from Queen’s University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University. She has previously interned for NASA and worked for two years as a forensic analyst in New York City. She was born in Russia and currently lives in Vancouver.
So these are some powerfully written stories, about scientists, with lots of focus on women, and diverse settings from Russia to Canada to North Korea and beyond. They are simply wonderful.

I enjoyed this whole collection a great deal. From the opening story to the last one (more a novella length) there was cleverness, complex characters and lots of intrigue. Each of them was different enough that you aren't reading the same story from different angles, as happens sometimes in debut story collections. There was so much imagination on display, and a strong feeling of a wide-ranging intelligence colouring each tale. I loved this book.

It's made up of nine stories, some brief & slightly humorous, like "Side Effects" in which a woman gets Botox with unexpected results, some more eerie and disturbing, like "Peptide P", in which scientists study children afflicted with a strange disease after eating hot dogs, and only one that I felt didn't quite fit, "The Big One", a concise tale of a woman & her daughter trapped in an underground parking garage after an earthquake. 

I loved the first story, "Mamochka", about an archivist in Minsk dealing with her daughter's marriage to a Chinese man in Vancouver. It's unexpected, thoughtful, and has a bit of an edge. I also loved the final novella, "The Blood Keeper", which I think was the highlight of the book. It's a longer story about a Russian student of plant genetics, a specialist in orchids, who ends up studying in North Korea where her father has been working for the government. He works on the preservation of Lenin's body & has been called to this fellow Communist country to help preserve the Supreme Leader's corpse. It is full of political intrigue, comparisons of Russian and North Korean communism, informers, love interests, secrets, and a long history of betrayals. It's amazing. It's a page turner but also a lovely meditation on being human and what we do in the name of dogma. As in all these stories, the facets of science and politics interact with family relationships. 

With its intelligent voice and worldly settings, I found this collection a breath of fresh air in Canlit. There are big ideas supported by excellent writing all throughout this book. Highly recommended. 


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Measure of Light

A Measure of Light / Beth Powning  
Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2015.
336 p.

This was a bit of an outlier of a read for me; I don't usually pick up straight-up historical fiction, especially if it's about early America. 

But I've read other books by Beth Powning before, and think she's a wonderful writer. Plus this features a Quaker woman as a main character so there was that element of religious freedom and women's lives to intrigue me as well.

I thought it was an interesting novel -- slower moving and invested in character development, as in Powning's other novels. It really examines how one lives within a particular society, especially if the social norms are stifling or limiting. Each person interacts with their surroundings differently, and in this book women like Anne Hutchinson, an intelligent and brave woman, flaunt what they consider ridiculous rules - for example, Hutchinson held a theological circle for women in her home, questioning the need for ministers, playing a large role in the Antinomian controversy.

And then there is the main character, based on a real historical figure, Mary Dyer -- a Puritan who flees religious persecution in England to come to Massachusetts in 1635, only to find that there is persecution of another kind in her new surroundings. After being accused of apostasy and having the male leaders of their colony use the stillbirth of her child as proof, she and her husband leave the colony to move to Rhode Island, but she finds she cannot love her other children or her life because of this trauma.

Taking a break to return to England, she is converted by the Society of Friends (the Quakers) and becomes a 'radical' for them. When she returns to the colonies, it's to find that Quakers have been outlawed. But this doesn't stop her.

Mary is a woman who gives up her home, and her family, to speak the truth as she knows it, and is harassed and arrested for it eventually. For the crime of believing that a committee of men was not God, that religious freedom for herself and others was important enough to fight for, in her own Quakerish way, she becomes one of the four Quakers martyred for their beliefs in New England.

This story is beautifully written, in Powning's evocative style. The natural world in both its beauty and harshness is finely observed, and the women's lives - alongside their religious ideals - are realistic and grounded in physicality. As a New Englander raised as Quaker, Powning has an authenticity in the telling that makes this historical setting believable and compelling, both in its starkness and its fervour. 


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light / Cordelia Strube
Toronto: ECW, c2016.
365 p.

Harriet is 11 (like many other tough and tender Canadian heroines). But Harriet lives in the Shangri-La, a decrepit apartment block full of seniors for whom she does errands for petty cash. And she survives in a dysfunctional family, her brother Irwin with a serious medical condition, her mother overwhelmed and unhappy, and an unsympathetic, messed up stepfather. 

Each chapter she is encountering another situation, either with her friends (such as they are), another family in the building, or her own. The level of oddness and "quirkiness" in the story really accretes and became almost too much for me. Harriet is tough-talking, adult sounding, when she negotiates with the seniors in the building for chore/pay equivalence. She is also a mixed media artist and has dreams of running away to live like Tom Thomson in a cabin in the north woods. At eleven. This combination of vulnerable child and artistic prodigy, a sport in her family, caused me to feel a little bit suspicious of her, due to overfamiliarity with this kind of character.

But as it turned out, I kind of liked Harriet, and by the time I started to actually root for her, well, it was 3/4 of the way through the book and then Strube really threw in a curveball that completely lost me. 

The rest of the book felt like a lengthy denouement that rambled on a bit. Or the beginning of a different story. While I admired the strength of writing and creativity in this book, I'm a little saturated with misery stories and so this tale of a young girl in a crappy situation, trying to make things better through her limited abilities and viewpoint didn't catch me in the way it has so many other readers. 

If you want a completely different opinion on this book that I found decidedly underwhelming, try reading thoughts by Kerry at Pickle Me This  or Angelene at Sad Hat Diaries, both of whom really liked it. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

My Brilliant Career

My Brilliant Career / Miles Franklin
London: Virago, 1980, c1901.
232 p.
This 1901 novel delves into women's agency, desires, and yet again, the issue of income & poverty, and its effects on women in particular.

Sybylla Melvyn is the eldest daughter of a family living in NSW, Australia, and her father's bad decisions have drawn the family into poverty. He's also taken to drink. Sybylla is a prickly and obstinate kind of girl; she doesn't click with her family --
I am a piece of machinery which, not understanding, my mother winds up the wrong way, setting all the wheels of my composition going in creaking discord.
Fortunately for her, she's sent to live with her grandmother for a while. This is a much more civilized, luxurious life, and she enjoys it - the art and culture she's exposed to are just her thing. She enjoys being free from grinding labour, and likes feeling noticed and appreciated. She even draws the attention of Harold Beecham, an older neighbour, a single man who is a fairly successful farmer. 

But then she's sent home again (and this brief encounter with opportunity and glamour of a sort, followed by a return to poverty and routine reminds me of Stefan Zweig's The Post Office Girl, a harrowing book -- though Sybylla doesn't take the same way out). She must help the family out by working as a housekeeper for a nearby family, a job that clashes with her every instinct, so much so that she has a breakdown and must return home. At this point she receives a proposal from Harold, but refuses to take the easy way out and let a good marriage save her. She is going to save herself, and have the Brilliant Career she dreams of. 

That is the basic plot, but this book is so much more. The writing is powerful and visceral, with Sybylla's longings clearly expressed. She's an interesting character - hard to like in some ways, but awfully easy to identify with in others. She is suspicious of good fortune, can't believe anyone would be able to love her, and yet is extremely ambitious and sure of herself at the same time (a bit like Elizabeth Taylor's Angel in her view of herself.)

This book also gives a strong picture of social conditions in rural Australia in the 1890s, in its casual descriptions of Sybylla's life. It's fascinating. It's also very interesting that Franklin was both pleased and taken aback by the success of this novel, and eventually withdrew its publication due to so many people assuming it was autobiography. It wasn't released again until after her death. This book was also followed by a sequel, My Brilliant Career Goes Bung, which was written around the same time but only published in 1946 for the first time. 

If you like prickly characters and strong writing, I do recommend this classic Australian novel. There a lot of interesting commentary that is somehow still relevant to our lives. 


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Further Reading:


Strangely enough, Sybylla's sense of her self reminds me of two diaries published in the early years of the 20th century, both in her character and in the high literary style that comes through. Opal Whiteley's very popular The Story of Opal was told in a naive, childlike manner, while The Story of Mary Maclane was a bit darker and more desperate, but they were both writers who felt very out-of-place in their remote (US) communities. Sybylla is nowhere near as mannered and twee as either, but there are definite similarities.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Penny Plain

Penny Plain / O. Douglas (Anna Buchan)
Toronto: Hodder & Stoughton, c1920.
314 p.

I read this Scottish novel not in the reprint version shown here, but online via the Open Library -- one of my favourite places to find older, pre-copyright date of 1926 novels. I was reminded to search it out thanks to Leaves & Pages' thoughts on it - it sounded like the kind of cozy read I was in the mood for. 

Surprisingly, it also dealt with the question of income and a woman managing a family on very little. But this time, it's a little more fairy-tale like, in a pleasing way.

Jean Jardine is 23, and prematurely maternal, as she is responsible for her 3 brothers -- 19 yr old David, heading off to Oxford where Jean worries he won't be able to fit in with his wealthy classmates; 14 yr old Jock who is straightforward and lively; and 7 yr old Gervase, an adopted brother who is artistic and typically high spirited for a young boy. They live in a small cottage in the small Scottish town of Priorsford, which is perhaps a wee bit Cranford-ish. The cottage is so lovingly evoked that I wished I could join them in the sitting room for a while. 

Into their quiet round appears the Honourable Pamela Reston, who is taking a mental break from her whirlwind social life in London to *think*, now that she's 40 and decisions must be made. She immediately takes to Jean. And most conveniently, she has a handsome, single, younger brother who is coming for a visit...

I think you can guess what will happen. But Douglas does not make this seem sentimental and trite -- there is enough backbone to Jean that she takes some convincing, there is a little more work to be done before she'll just fall into anyone's arms, despite the financial benefits. Add to this all the various 'characters' we meet in Priorsford, and the undercurrent of seriousness -- it's just postwar, after all, and people have lost family members, they've lost financial security, and it all affects them. 

But Jean's essential goodness is rewarded - not by an old woman at a well giving her diamonds falling out of her sweet mouth every time she speaks, but by an unexpectedly legacy which is entirely due to her unselfish kindness unknowingly given to the right person. It feels equally fairy-taleish though! 

This is a light, enjoyable read, perfect for a few hours of comfort reading. There's Shakespeare, art, community, friendship, fashion, some humour, and of course True Love. As said at Leaves & Pages, this is "a true period piece", set in its own time and revealing its unstated norms throughout. A pleasant look at a good family moving up in the world, even if primarily by chance. 

There is a sequel, Priorsford, which I will most likely search out the next time I'm in this reading mood. It would be nice to go back for a visit sometime.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn / Betty Smith
New York: HarperCollins, 2006, c1943.
496 p.

I've always kind of put off reading this book; feeling that it was an American classic of the nostalgic kind, one that I probably wouldn't like very much. But for some reason I've been in a classics reading mood this last while, so as soon as I finished Gabrielle Roy's The Tin Flute, I picked up this one.

And there were certainly some thematic similarities - a young girl growing up in poverty, with a ne'er do well father and a mother who is working and holding the family together (and who ends up pregnant again near the end, just as the mother does in Tin Flute). Both families live in sections of big cities which, in their times, were slums, and today are gentrified, hipster places to live.

But otherwise, there are also enough differences that this was a unique reading experience. Despite my reservations about it, I read it and read it -- I couldn't put it down. I thought about it all day when I wasn't reading it, until I could get home again to finish it. I really loved it. 

The plot is probably very well known to most of my readers; little Francie Nolan grows up in Brooklyn (Williamsburg) with a brother barely a year younger, a hard-working mother of Austrian descent, and a charming Irish father. Unfortunately he doesn't seem to get much work in his line, as a singing waiter, and any tips he gets go straight to drink. Francie's mother - and her sisters - hold the family together. The story is told from Francie's perspective, and the chapters are a bit episodic, telling us about how she and her brother collect and sell junk weekly, or how they ended up getting piano lessons, how her aunt gets married and remarried 3 times without the assistance of the law, and in one particularly harrowing chapter, how a sexual predator stalks young girls over one long summer. 

The story examines this small family and both their successes and harder moments. It also creates a dream-like Brooklyn in the early 1900s, full of milk wagons, junk dealers, pawn shops, fruit stands, barbers, incipient unions, harsh schools and more. Francie's emotional development from child to young adult is the core of the book, and her fascination with books, words and education is key to her future. Her description of the tree that grows in their yard is a vital symbol of persistence, and is intimately linked with her childhood reading. The only thing that made me sad about Francie's constant reading was the depiction of the local librarian as a cold and uninterested woman who didn't like children and paid no attention to Francie despite her regular visits and clear enthusiasm for the library. But that's likely an occupational hazard, always noticing those kind of things.

I was really absorbed by this story, and by the added information in this edition on Betty Smith's life and her own inspirations for writing this highly autobiographical novel. I was also fascinated that it was so immediately popular, and that army editions were printed for soldiers to read - I can't see it being hugely popular with young men, with its frank talk about female lives and bodies, but what do I know?

I found the clear voice of the author absolutely engaging, and was really interested in seeing this perspective on growing up in poverty. Francie finds her way out via education, not through business or marriage -- as the book ends she is heading off to college thanks to a few new factors in her world. And there is definite hope for the future. I'm glad I overcame my aversion and finally picked this up. It was a wonderful read.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Tin Flute

The Tin Flute / Gabrielle Roy; translated from the French by Alan Brown. 
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1989, c1945.
389 p.

I finally picked up this classic Canadian novel a few weeks ago. Gabrielle Roy is a favourite author of mine but I'd never read this one, a story of a family living in poverty in St Henri right around the start of WWII.

It read very quickly, though I did find it a lot more event driven than most of Roy's other novels I've read. And honestly, quite a bit more boring because of it. Her other works are more nostalgic tales of the French in Manitoba (based in her own childhood) and I think that connection makes them more compelling for me. 

However! On to this book. It's set in the slums of St Henri, an area of Montreal that is now quite trendy and gentrified. When I lived in Montreal in the 90s, it was still kind of sketchy, but growing more gentrified each year. And now even Pointe St Charles right next door (even more sketchy) is experiencing the same. So reading about the reality of life in the 40s was fascinating. The characters walk the streets, all named, so I could follow them in my head. If you read this and don't know the area at all, I would suggest getting a map, as it's easy to follow them, and discover how small the distances are between streets that are slums and ones that are more respectable. At one point, one of the young men walks up to Westmount, to see the big houses and go to the lookout. I know that he walked right past my old apartment to get there, too. I loved that sense of connection. 

The story opens with Florentine Lacasse exhausted at her job serving at a busy deli counter at the Five and Ten. She's met a young man there, Jean Levesque, who is different and who appeals to her. And to her longing to escape her constrained life of poverty and this crappy job that she must work to support her family. Her father is a dreamer who is constantly losing jobs and her mother just keeps having children. Florentine, as the oldest, contributes the bulk of the family income. But she just wishes that she could catch a break.

She and Jean begin a troubled relationship, an angry one with neither of them fully trusting the other. And he is looking beyond St Henri, even when he meets Florentine, which she doesn't know. As it turns out, his friend Emmanuel meets Florentine with him one day, and instantly falls for her himself. Emmanuel is from a more middle-class area of St Henri, though, and foresees many family problems with this crush. 

These restless and demanding young lives are also shaped by the war, which reaches into St Henri to take many of the men who don't have any other options, despite their resistance to an "English" war. But the army pays well, and it means that they can support a family, so it's hard to say no.

But the book is not all about these three younger people. It also delves into the life and emotions of Florentine's parents. Azarius is always waiting for the next big thing, for their big break, and he never can quite achieve it. He's always dreaming, and always frustrated at having to work for other people. Rose-Anna, meanwhile, is the kind of matriarch who is long-suffering, hard-working, too proud to ask for help, and the emotional cornerstone of the family. She keeps them all going despite her many disappointments and responsibilities. And her family is from the country; there's a fine description of urban vs rural between the two. 

So with all the longings, sadness, ambition, anger and stifled rage at poverty, there's a strong emotional drive to the story. The way it is told is straightforward and linear, and can be a little slow moving, despite the shocking and scandalous events that are also shared in a rather matter-of-fact way. The daily struggle of counting change, trying to calculate expenses, weighing food vs. clothing, moving to smaller and smaller lodgings despite a growing family - it is all there. Their last apartment alongside the train station is covered in soot, and noisy, but Rose-Anna resigns herself to it, as long as it provides a home for her family. 

Florentine finds her salvation, so to speak, not through a new business venture or her own ambition, but the traditional way, through an advantageous marriage. But even that begins in shadow, as she keeps secrets from her new husband and allows him to think romantic inclination led her to accept his proposal. No motivations are clear in this story, they are all tangled up with survival, money, and longing. It's a deeply complex story that grows on you; I think about it more now than while reading it. It's a picture of how systemic poverty affects lives, drawn with detail and realism. And so an important read, even if a little slow going at times. 


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Gone to Pot

Gone to Pot / Jennifer Craig
Toronto: Second Story Press, c2017.
248 p.

For some odd reason, I found that over the last couple of weeks I've read a string of books which all have women and money as a theme. Many different kinds of stories but all with income as a preoccupation of the female characters. This is the first one.

Jess is a nice, white-haired Grandma, who has just lost her waitress job, due to the restaurant she worked at burning down. She is independent and prefers her own company and her own beloved house, so refuses her son's offer to move in with his family -- though that might also have something to do with the daughter-in-law that she doesn't get along with. 

But as her savings sink lower and lower, and ageism rears its head and makes a new job difficult to find in her small town (Nelson, BC) she has to find a way to support herself. Enter her young former coworker Swan, with the suggestion that Jess has a great income opportunity, with the perfect location in which to grow pot - her basement. 

The rest of the book is very detailed about the process of growing pot; all the problems, ups and downs and technical details are spelled out for the reader. The issue of smell, of harvesting and selling, and so on are thoroughly covered. As someone on Goodreads noted, she wasn't sure if this was a feisty-lady-making-good story or a how-to on home pot growing! It's definitely a story centred around Jess' life and experiences, and that of her circle of women friends... her "bookclub" who don't really discuss books. Add to that the problems that Swan faces, and we have a multigenerational story of women's lives which is quite effective. But it is quite chock-a-block with pot info as well.

Jess tosses in some philosophical musings too, about aging, and about morality vs legality (mostly around pot growing & using), and sometimes these authorial additions feel a bit intrusive, a bit "dear reader". I personally dislike the idea of pot being as widely used as tobacco & alcohol, so I didn't nod in agreement often at these comments. But I still found the story entertaining, often funny - in a situationally funny way, not like it was full of one-liners - and Jess was a great character. 

I thought it pointed out the difficulties of income and security, especially for older women who've spent their lives working and caring for others, in a relatable way. And Jess' solution to her money woes and those of her friends, in the end, is charming and uplifting, even if not 100% realistic. I think many people have the same dreams and will be able to understand and enjoy this tale. 

If you're virulently anti-pot, you may not want to read this. Otherwise, check out this very contemporary story of a social reality being faced down creatively by a very determined senior citizen.  Its unique and creative storyline will make you think!



Sunday, March 12, 2017

Son of a Trickster

Son of a Trickster / Eden Robinson
Toronto: Knopf, c2017.
336 p.

Eden Robinson is a fantastic writer. And I was anticipating this book, her first novel in a decade. Imagine my excitement when I heard in was to be the first of a trilogy! Then I read it. 

Surprise -- it was even better than I'd expected, no let down here! Robinson takes us into the life of teenager Jared, who gets by living a very adult life even while still attending high school. He bakes weed cookies for a little income now and then, that is, alongside his paper route and yard/house work for the old couple down the street. Jared is a sweet boy despite everything. 

And everything includes a mother who is usually pretty wild, either partying, on drugs, or with weapon in hand. She is not one-note, though, and neither is her live in boyfriend, a drug dealer who is also a bit more complex than you'd expect. 

Jared has also had to deal with a grandmother who has never liked him, calling him the son of a trickster, or Wee'git. He doesn't know why, or what she means. But in this sixteenth year, he starts to see things, like a cloud of philosopher fireflies encircling his girlfriend, and to be approached by talking crows and otters. 

Add the regular 'normal' life problems of unflattering videos of him posted on youtube by the popular kids, or getting in fights when drunk, or getting rolled for cash by unknown assailants while just trying to beat some butter for cookies, and Jared is having a tough time. But when he is kidnapped by cannibalistic river otters he knows something isn't quite right. Enter Trickster. 

This is an imaginative, energetic narrative that has a wild plot, veering from banal everyday struggle to magical intervention from the indigenous spirit world into Jared's life. The characters are very strong -- Jared himself is so complicated and interesting as a protagonist, and his deep (though complicated) relationship to his mother is vital to the book. She's not a villain, despite her extreme foul mouth and bad habits; in fact she was very interesting, with reasons for the things she does. I thought his high school life was believable, the responsibility he feels to his estranged father touching, and his strong connection to the old couple down the street was powerful. 

By the end of this book we are just starting to discover Jared's true paternity and ancestry. And to see some resolution in a few relationships, while it's more dissolution of others. I can hardly wait until the next volume to find out more about Jared and his family's connection to his Trickster father. This was a great read, and a great start to a longer story.

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You can listen to a brief interview with Eden Robinson at Unreserved on the CBC

And then you can listen to the Unreserved Indigenous Reads Panel discuss this novel.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Republic of Dirt

The Republic of Dirt / Susan Juby
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2015.
399 p. 

Another amusing, light book I picked up at the library, this is the sequel to Home to Woefield, by an author better known for her YA prowess. I've read many of her YA novels and find her very funny and still warm-hearted.

Many of the expectations I had from those books were met in this adult novel as well. As for the humour, well, this novel was the winner of the 2016 Leacock Medal for Humour. 

Full disclosure, I never read the first book. And I really didn't have to in order to enjoy this volume. It is told in four voices, those of Prudence Burns (owner of Woefield Farm), Earl (an elderly farmhand with a secret), Seth (heavy metal blogger and farm assistant), and Sara (11 yrs old, keeps a flock of award winning chickens at the farm). 

Each of these oddball characters relate the story from their point of view, and as they do so you see how they make a family for themselves out of these random connections. They are each funny, sarcastic, caring, and somehow utterly charming. Plus chickens. Somehow adding a chicken always makes things more amusing. 

It's a bit of a romp, a bit over the top at times. There are some scenes that made me laugh, some that amused. I thought it was a nice story -- despite some of the darker elements, Juby keeps the story palatable for a general reader, if you don't mind two characters with a bit of a cursing habit. I thought it was entertaining, and engaging, but sometimes a little too jokey for me. But I'm not the ideal fan of humorous fiction, as it is really so individual as to what one person finds funny or not, and I often don't have quite the same sensibilities as an author. So while I did enjoy this, I probably won't go back to read the first one in the series. 

But as a light and easy read, it was solidly written, with both laughs and melancholy combined. 




Friday, March 10, 2017

All Our Wrong Todays

Great cover, though! Love the Toronto skyline
All Our Wrong Todays / Elan Mastai
Toronto: Doubleday Canada, c2017.
384 p.

This book has been getting a lot of buzz, so when it was my turn to take it home from the library I was really excited. 

And I read it very quickly, and enjoyed it. It features a young man who is a bit of schlump; he uses his father's time machine to try to go back to witness the moment that sparked the technological marvel that is his utopian 2016. But of course things go badly wrong, and he ends up in *our* 2016, having destroyed his own timeline. And ours is a poor copy. Now he has to decide if he should stay put in a 2016 in which his family loves him and he has a girlfriend, or restore his own timeline in which he personally doesn't come off so well.

It's lively and entertaining, with lots of sciencey bits on the elements of time travel that the author carefully researched for veracity. The back and forth of time travel and its effects is essential to the story; but unfortunately the ethical dilemma he faces is kind of undercut in the last part of the book when it becomes clear that his original timeline is gone and not restorable no matter what he does. And in the last pages it's revealed that a disastrous dystopia was another timeline option that he narrowly avoids bringing into reality, so it's all evenses, I guess. 

If I don't delve too deeply into the logic, and don't think too hard about how much I disliked the bro-ish main character (and for that matter, many of the male characters) I'd say this is a fun, light read. Tom is a bit of a sad sack in his perfect life though, having achieved nothing and working for his brilliant scientist father as a pity hire. The way he mopes about and feels sorry for himself I assumed he was 20 at most, but later in the story he's revealed as being in his early 30s. What? There's really no character to this character and despite the huge events he causes later, he doesn't really seem to grow up very much through his experiences. 

Anyhow, I do like a good time travel story, with all its emphasis on technology and the difficulties inherent in changes to the timeline and what that means for individual lives. So I mostly liked this one but it's probably not going to find a permanent home on my own bookshelves, even if I do live in Tom's miserable 2016 in which real paper books still have a useful existence. 

If you like fast-moving stories that depend on technological gadgets and sciencey interludes for excitement, you might also find this one a mostly engaging read, however.

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Readalikes:

Two other books I'm most strongly reminded of by this novel are:

Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, in which a young man (also with issues in his relationship to his father) travels in time, as a time travel technician. With added philosophizing.

Robert Charles Wilson's Last Year, for its focus on futuristic tech which allows for time travel, even though neither the present nor the past is too hot in regard to social conditions.