So many books to talk about! Including what’s currently in my stacks and what I’m reading with this year’s International Festival of Authors in mind.
‘Tis the season of literary prizelists, and I’m enjoying the Toronto Book Award nominees and the Giller Prize longlisters.
There’s talk of new fiction, including Jon Chan Simpson’s Chinkstar and Jonathan Franzen’s Purity and aguest post, in which ReaderWoman discusses Blanche Howard’s last novel, The Ice Maiden.
Discussion of Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness has concluded my Alice Munro Reading Project, and I am currently reading Alistair MacLeod and considering another short story project.
How about you: what are you reading these days, and what are you looking forward to reading soon?
(First time here? Please don’t be shy: there’s no such thing as too much bookchat! Please leave a comment, say hello, talk books!)
In the ninth grade we read Winston Rawlings’ Where the Red Fern Grows.
It didn’t seem strange to read an animal story in school; I’d read the Thornton Burgess books and Allison Uttley tales growing up and this was just a longer version of Robert Lawson’s stories.
Some kids are still reading animal stories. The BIP girls have both read and collected the Warrior Cats books, with the fervour I remember having for new copies of the Anne and Emily stories and the Oz books.
But I don’t know any adults who are reading them regularly now, not the way that my parents’ generation was reading Richard Adams and William Horwood when I was a girl and a teen, as serious literature which happened to be about animals.
Mostly, I avoid them myself. Still buy them sometimes (especially when the cover art is exceptionally striking), but I don’t want to weep, and often animals stories are sad stories.
And because, when I was a girl, I chose Enid Blyton over Jack London, and Judy Blume over Marguerite Henry, I now find myself with a long list of animals stories on my TBR list.
Despite having read probably a dozen abridged versions, sumptuously illustrated, of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, I’ve yet to read the “real deal”.
And although I read a few of the Rudyard Kipling stories when they had pretty pictures, my proper editions still sport pristine spines.
On my shelves, Lad: A Dog and Bob, Son of Battle are barking. Thomasina and Carbonel are meowing. Man o’War and Misty of Chincoteague are nickering. Gentle Ben is roaring. And Paddy, well, what sound do beavers make? If I read more of these books, I’d know.
Last summer, I made a gesture in this direction, pulling Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey and Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka off the shelf.
Burnford’s classic is one of the oldest books on my shelves; it was bought for me when I was four years old. My Friend Flicka had been sitting, unread, since I was twelve. You can see how the list of animal stories has gotten unreasonably long while I have been reading in other directions. I need to mend decade-wide gaps.
The Incredible Journey is not the overwhelmingly sad story I was expecting. It ends a little abruptly but with a heartwarming scene. And My Friend Flicka runs the gamut, but there are many triumphs as well.
Mary O’Hara includes a lot of information which one might not expect to find in a book commonly read by children. I wasn’t expecting to find so much about the demands of married life on the Goose Bar ranch in a story about horses. But Nell McLaughlin is a hard-working and tenacious woman, who crosses all sorts of lines and redraws some as well, when faced with restrictions and frustrations in a landscape stuffed full of men.
So, as much as I wanted Ken to get his horse, his beloved Flicka (the cover illustration and the title give that away), the story of the grown-up McLaughlins, keeping on keeping on, is now more of a draw, as I move on to Thunderhead (followed by Green Grass of Wyoming).
Sometime after the ninth grade, I forgot that these stories have a whole lot to them. There are over 300 of them on my TBR now, including both picture books and adult novels, but I’m starting small, with a short list in my notebook.
Have you read any of those I’ve mentioned? Are you aiming for any?
Three of these books were inspired by the conjunction between my own shelves and this year’s Random House Bingo, which has a CanLit theme.
The Tiger Claw filled my Nominated-for-the-Giller square, Evan Munday’s second October Schwartz for the Mystery-or-Thriller square, and Elaine Lui’s book about her relationship with her mother perfectly suits the celebrity-memoir square.
Have you been wrapping up reading challenges or games or projects too?
Shauna Singh Baldwin’s The Tiger Claw (2004)
After the Nazis invaded France in WWII, “Madeleine” went to work with the resistance, against the Occupation. You can read about Noor Inayat Khan’s life in the herstory books, but Shauna Singh Baldwin’s novel brings another layer of her experience forward.
This is not a novel about espionage in the vein of Frederick Forsyth or Len Deighton; it is not a page turner, but a lush and expansive novel which considers the life of a resistance worker. In such a position, a woman might have a series of long conversations with a mechanic, in hopes of learning one piece of information in the future: it takes time. Similarly, most of the pages in this novel are devoted to recreating the broader reality of this woman’s life, so that the scenes directly related to her espionage activities will be credible in that context.
Particularly striking is the backstory of Noor’s love for Armand (who had been declared an inappropriate match for Noor by her father) and the sense of place (especially in Paris, France but also in Pforzheim, Germany). Ultimately, the novel is about identity and courage, at the individual and national level. “She could lie to herself as well as anyone else; had she not hidden herself from herself these many years?”
Noor’s Indian heritage affords her a chameleon-like complexion, suitable for representing a variety of ethnicities, but this fluidity causes complications at the personal level. Questions of independence and occupation loom large, not only in wartime politics and colonialization, but also in private declarations of faith. “Nothing in my circumstances has altered since the Allies landed but my capacity for acceptance, my perception of my own adaptability. I am a Sleeping Beauty waiting for her prince; all of us are waiting.”
Noor, in The Tiger Claw, has many secrets; she is engaged not only in Resistance fighting, but in a personal struggle too, so betrayals cut across not only national boundaries but intimate relationships. “For both belonging and non-belonging, there’s no place like a war.”
Evan Munday’s M is for Morna (2013)
“So, welcome, dear readers, to the second adventure of the Dead Kid Detective Agency. Ta-da! You can expect the same kind of madcap exploits featured in book one — our plucky heroine with a penchant for black eyeliner and her five most deadest BFFs uncovering dark secrets that will rock the quiet town of Sticksville to its secretly rotten core and doing so in the zaniest possible manner. There may even be a few flashbacks in which we will peep in on Sticksville a hundred years in the past. Won’t that be thrilling?”
The adventures of October Schwartz continue, as do the pop culture references (skies as dark as a Marilyn Manson single, snow as fierce as Tyra Banks’ stare, etc.) and the sequential acts of loyalty and determination of our young crime solvers.
There are glimpses of serious issues lurking beneath the adventures (e.g. social injustice, bullying and mental illness), but the balance more often sways to entertainment, complete with some slapstick-y scenes, which will likely gain readers’ affections in its target audience (whereas the smartassedness of the narrative voice will have an even broader appeal).
Dear Writer: I will gladly read the third installment.
Elaine Lui’s Listen to the Squawking Chicken (2014)
It was an episode of “The Next Chapter” which convinced me to add this memoir to my bookshelves. (See this recent post for more chatter about my TNC addiction!)
Listening to Elaine Lui talk about her relationship with her mom was funny and heart-gripping too. The narrative is much the same.
This is not like Isabel Allende’s beautifully crafted Paula or Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles. Elaine Lui’s prose is unpolished and sometimes deliberately provocative. Well, she is a gossip queen, right? (Check out www.LaineyGossip.com or her TedTalk, “The Sociology of Gossip”)
Before you go dismissing her as an author, however, consider that gossip is story. And her appearance on 2015’s CBC Canada Reads (where she defended Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels like the Movies) underscores her belief in the power of stories to not only reflect but to transform our lives.
So Elaine Lui’s way of telling a story grabs hold and pulls you close, with intensity (not with finely crafted sentences). Sometimes it’s more about what she does not say: “!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (Actually, this concluded the story she was telling perfectly, but you’ll have to read the book to see if you agree.)
Everything I know about Chinese Mothers, I learned from Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, but now I have a two-book understanding. Because — wow: I feel like I really do know the Elaine Lui’s mother, the Squawking Chicken. “To me, she’s always been the main event, dominating the spotlight no matter the setting, the ultimate scene-stealer.”
Not only because her daughter did a brief impersonation of her mother’s manner of speaking during the interview with Shelagh Rogers, but because every single chapter in this memoir brings this woman off the page, vibrantly and lovingly. “I want her to be able to picture me. The world feels whole when we know where the other is.”
But because the Squawking Chicken is also the kind of person whose actions result in a passage filled entirely with exclamation marks, much of this book is not only interesting but gripping; at times one simply can’t believe that she will behave in a particular manner, and it’s mesmerizing to watch. “Everything the Squawking Chicken taught me—values, morality, discipline—was a result of her own personal brand of feng shui combined with Chinese astrology and fortune-telling.”
Nonetheless, even though the bulk of her opinions and mine might be filed in the dictionary under ‘o’ for ‘opposing’, I now find myself using some of her terms and ideas when moving through my own daily life after finishing reading this memoir. For instance, ‘low-classy': “Low Classy is the term the Squawking Chicken uses to describe coarse behaviour. Leg jiggling is a coarse motion. There is no elegance in leg jiggling.” Whether or not I am in agreement, now whenever I see someone jiggling their leg, I think of the Squawking Chicken.
David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (1999)
Even though I have long considered him one of my favourite writers, I’d never read a David Mitchell novel, until I sat down with Ghostwritten (1999) and devoured it in a couple of days.
My attachment developed based on assorted interviews which I’ve read and heard, and I was so convinced that I would enjoy his book that, as time passed, I began to worry that perhaps I would be disappointed after all — especially after hearing all the gripes about one particular chapter in The Bone Clocks. But, then again, I listened to several interviews with him about this novel and I could not resist.
So, finally, Ghostwritten. And it was everything that I was hoping for.
If you prefer a simple and uncomplicated linear plot, this is not the novel for you. In fact, it is not a conventional novel, but reads like a series of novellas, with different settings and styles and characters. (Not only is there a wide variety of settings in the novel, but they are complex too: “There are so many cities in every single city.”)
Nonetheless, the narratives are linked, and this is obvious within the first few sections, though only solidly so in the novel’s final sections (the second-last section is key – so you can see that patience is required).
It’s like that Muriel Rukeyser quote about the world being composed of stories, not atoms; that’s what makes up David Mitchell’s world for sure. “For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing, but soon that sensation too was being swallowed up.”
And the lives of the characters in Ghostwritten too. “The human world is made of stories, not people. The people the stories use to tell themselves are not to be blamed. You are holding one of the pages where these stories tell themselves, Bat.”
The gradual intertwining of characters and narrative is incredibly satisfying if one views the world through connections to begin with (think E.M. Foster’s “Only connect.”).
But if one is not inclined in this direction, it might be less enjoyable; however, the author acknowledges this directly. “Anonymity doesn’t muffle coincidence: it makes the coincidences more outlandish.”
Were you reading anything outlandish in December?
What I was not carrying in my bookbag this month: David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, Shauna Singh Baldwin’s The Tiger Claw and the third volume in G.R.R. Martin’s Ice and Fire series.
These hefty volumes stayied at home, but these slimmer books were travelling this month. And there was more to-ing and fro-ing this month than usual: nice to have good company.
Coach House Printing, 2015
First, David Hull’s novella, The Man Who Remembered the Moon. (It is published by Dumagrad Books: check out those rounded corners, perfect for readers and characters who must take care around sharp objects.)
Because it is such a short work, this story manages to straddle the line between two contrasting moods – playful and serious – and allows the reader to choose their preferred slant. (There is also a dash of romance in my interpretation of it.)
Were it longer, it might become something like Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which has whimsical touches but might intimidate readers with weighty volumes of multiple realities, dabbling in belief and scholarship and in quantum conundrums and conspiracies.
(It also brings to mind stories by Julio Cortazár, Italo Calvino, and David Mitchell. The shorter story included in this volume, “The One about the Ballard Fanatic” suggests that the author truly is enamoured with fiction which rewards passionate readers, and certainly passionate readers often become good writers.)
Nonetheless, one can explore big ideas without talking cats and little people. In fact, some readers might prefer the philosophical debates play out in a more familiar scene: patient and doctor in dialogue, set upon unravelling a mystery about life and the universe and everything. (Do you know where your towel is? Could you describe what a ‘towel’ is, if nobody else believed that a ‘towel’ existed, now or ever?)
One man can no longer see the moon in the sky and is engaged in conversation with another man who either cannot see the moon, or does not wish to admit he can see it.
Although this appears to be the only marker of the narrator’s lunacy, he cannot explain the absence (whether real or fabricated) to himself or to anyone else (both listeners are equally important and respond with a different set of questions).
It might be a story about poetry or psychiatry. Perhaps it’s about the loss of a celestial body or something indefinable. Maybe it’s about an object, else an idea.
“Several times a week one doctor or another hove towards my table and paused to regard me with a generally somewhat nauseous look, before asking for the book they needed. I understood their discomfort; it’s disquieting to observe someone you consider mad reading your books and scribbling feverish notes. Am I like that you wonder.”
Students and thinkers, dreamers and poets, lovers and losers: look down – at this book in your lap. Before you look up once more.
Somehow I missed Mariko Tamaki’s Emiko Superstar (illustrated by Steve Rolston), even though I have enjoyed many of her other stories, including Skim, (You) Set Me On Fire, and This One Summer. Nonetheless, it’s the perfect accompaniment for reading-on-the-go because it’s broken up into acts and scenes, so that you can read just a few pages at a time.
Emiko is like some of Mariko Tamaki’s other heroines, in that she is in-between, whether caught between conflicting aspects of her own identity or between differing sets of expectations or, more pragmatically, between life stages.
She is truly on the margins in some cases, particularly when she discovers the Factory, a hangout for artsy kids, complete with funky beer and scheduled performances in what is billed as the “Freak Show”. Unsure of the ‘rules’ in a place which exists to flout rules, she feels discombobulated but also inspired by this atmosphere.
One of her inspirations is a young woman who has a regular spot on the stage; this intense connection, which contains echoes of the relationship in (You) Set Me on Fire, encourages her to look for material to create a performance of her own. Her inexperience leads her to make choices which she later regrets, but unexpected possibilities also emerge along the way.
So her position on the margins actually encourages her to explore aspects of her own self, in a way which she wouldn’t have done if she had simply stayed on the couch that summer.
As in This One Summer, the adult characters in Emiko Superstar obviously have their own struggles, playing out off-stage (for the most part). So even though this is a coming-of-age story, and one which young readers would also appreciate (particularly Emiko’s character), the attention to detail in the story allows for the theme of shifting identities to layer.
Just because someone is old enough to hire a babysitter for their kid doesn’t mean that they don’t have some growing-up to do themselves. And it’s not as though the job of getting to know oneself is ever really done with.
Simon Fay’s Bulk is also about identity, but focussed on slightly older characters. The core of the novel is Barbara, a professional body-builder, who is considering some major changes in her life and, simultaneously, is unsettled by the changes that her husband is making in his own life.
Her husband, Stu, is substantially overweight, but is suddenly monitoring his portion size and talking about dieting; perhaps intuitively, Barbara understands that his enthusiasm for a new set of priorities is fuelled by a force which threatens their marital stability.
“He put as much work into my body as I did. Bodybuilding info wasn’t easy to come by back then. He’d have his trucker mates bringing back muscle magazines from Europe. Every now and again he’d surprise me by dragging a pile out from under his bed. We’d go through them like people go through interior decorating magazines. Oh wouldn’t it be nice to have shoulders like those, and, Oh I don’t like the shape of those biceps though. We made me together. Took a lot of patience and trust. Trust, that’s the main factor.”
Consider Barbara’s desire to have a baby (adding to the weight of her responsibilities) combined with Stu’s intention to shed pounds (lightening his burden and his dependence upon the generous serving sizes which Barbara prepares and procures for him): Bulk is rooted in conflict.
Nonetheless, it is not a weighty story stylistically. Simon Fay is concerned with making the pace of the narrative flow steadily and it is often humourous, although darkly funny. (I love the name of the pub: “The Cat Dragged Inn”.)
Barbara’s tone is self-deprecating and she is sharply observant and intelligent. The scenes she inhabits are filled with a surprising (to me, anyway) number of ‘arses’ (there’s a Euro for Barbara’s swear-jar from me), but the clear affection between her and Stu works to soften some of the rough edges (plot-wise, personality-wise). “Only with Stu am I the little spoon. I smile with the weight of his arm keeping me tight against him, his steady breath in my ear like a loving heartbeat.”
Bulk is not overly polished; the sentence structure can be rambunctious and in some ways, this may be a reflection of Barbara’s down-to-basics nature but there are a few grammatical errors which occasionally distract from the author’s talent for inhabiting a distinct and curious character. Nonetheless, if the ‘arses’ offend, the offense shan’t last long, for Simon Fay’s Bulk is under 150 pages long: the ultimate irony is that Barbara’s story isn’t bulky after all.
Even though Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle is also a slim volume, I wasn’t a very patient girl-reader, so if I had encountered it then, I would have been frustrated with the number of words in it. (However, were it a typical illustrated children’s book, there wouldn’t be enough of a story to take travelling with you as an adult in a bookbag.)
And even an impatient, young reader would have been begging for the next page with another illustration by Chris Riddell. (And I probably would have tried to colour them too, because they look like those fantastically detailed doodle kits that I used to love!)
For an adult reader, however, The Sleeper and the Spindle is an incredibly satisfying tale. There are many familiar tropes and if you were expected a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, you will not be disappointed.
But you might find the odd dwarf where you are not expecting to find one. And there is a most flagrant departure from the traditional, in the storyteller’s decision to have the woman counting the days to her marriage (unhappily: she does not care for being married) and determining to have a final adventure before hand (happily: she loves adventures).
There is a definite building in tension as the pages turn (less than 70, in total), and although the characterization is broad (there are no names, for instance, and that point is made directly), there are aspects to the development included here which are overlooked in the conventional tales.
“The old woman had not climbed the tallest tower in a dozen years. It was a laborious climb, and each step took its toll on her knees and on her hips. She walked up the curving stone stairwell; each small, shuffling step she took in agony. There were no railings there, nothing to make the steep steps easier. She leaned on her stick, sometimes, and then she kept climbing.”
The pacing is deliberate, and the prose style strives to feel both familiar and fresh (and succeeds overall). But much of the pleasure of the volume derives from the presention, in particular the semi-transparent cover overlay with the gold overtones (which continue throughout the story proper, both in illustrations and in the occasional few lines of text which accompany some drawings).
There is one aspect to the retelling which might strike some readers as particularly daring (given the Disney version which many of us know well), and in some ways it does seem striking indeed but, in another way, it is as though this is how the tale might just as well have been told (but there was some other version before hand). It manages to slant towards classical romance so that some particular elements of the story (e.g. courage, good will) shine brilliantly.
What have you been reading, while travelling or otherwise, in December?
One of my great pleasures is listening to Shelagh Rogers’ “The Next Chapter”, via podcast on the CBC.
I particularly enjoy the interviews and discussions when I have already read the book being discussed (or I have read an earlier book by the author, but I have not yet read their latest), and many of the recent guests have recently appeared in my TBR stacks as well: Marina Endicott on November 23, Susin Nielsen on November 9, Joan Clark on September 14, Austin Clarke on August 22, Ann-Marie MacDonald on July 25, Griffin Ondaatje on June 10, Sabrina Ramnanan on May 18, Jennifer Quist on April 20.
But there are many times that this program has encouraged (sometimes I’d go so far as to say that the show has persuaded me) me to pick up a book.
Sometimes one that I didn’t necessarily think was something I would appreciate (like Candace Savage’s Geography of Blood, here). They discuss the culture of nature, the nature of culture, and the intersection between and convinced me to spend time in Stegner, Butala and Vanderhaeghe country.
Or sometimes a book that I had thought I would find inaccessible (say Michael Crummey’s poetry, even though I had loved his fiction), here. Poetry is, he says, “still the writing that I love most”; it feels meditative and feeds him somehow. “So much of that urge to write…has been me wanting to make things hold still long enough to get them down.”
Often the show’s book panel, with a focus on a genre that I don’t necessarily read regularly, adds to my stack. (The most recent is the Children’s Summer Book Panel, here.) Did I say ‘often’? That pretty much always happens with the panels (the mystery one is brutal for my TBR).
And I love the series of remembrance episodes, like this one for Randy Boyagoda’s memories of Mavis Gallant, and this encore presentation of Shelagh Rogers’ last conversation with Farley Mowat.
Sometimes, too, an episode makes me want to reread (as with two books discussed by Robert Wiersema in this recent episode, and I’m not naming either, so that I don’t spoil the big reveal).
Or it brings out a layer of a work that I didn’t find on my own (as with a June 2015 episode which considered Lynne Crosbie’s latest).
But mostly I love the sound it makes when the recommended books land on my TBR:
David Carpenter’s The Education of Augie Merasty (2015), here
A residential-school memoir: poignant and matter-of-fact, authentic and piercing.
(A great companion for this one would be Edmund Metatawabin’s Up Ghost River, written with Alexandra Shimo, which is also discussed on TNC, here.)
Steve Burrows’ A Siege of Bitterns (2014), here
The first in the Birder Murder series, introducing Dominic Jejeune. “Human tastes, he thought; a mystery far beyond the abilities of a simple policeman.”
Janet Marie Rogers’ Splitting the Heart, here
“This is medicine. The words are medicine. The poetry is medicine.” Writer, performer, drum-maker and teacher, she is Mohawk/ Tuscarora from Six Nations territory.
Sarah Ellis’ Outside In, which Michele Landsbeg recommends in the Summer Children’s Book Panel 2014, here
Joel Thomas Hynes’ Saw Nothing Saw Wood (2014), here
A riveting tale of Newfoundland strange-ness, in a particularly attractive package from Running the Goat
Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Exclamation Mark (2013) , Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, Michele Landsberg’s pick in the Summer Children’s Book Panel 2013, here
“He stood out from the very beginning.” And thus the tale of a dot and a line unfolds. It’s charming and spirited, and I immediately wanted to buy a dozen copies. Not only for the young ones in my life. But for everyone with whom I’ve ever had a conversation about punctuation. For everyone I know who has felt out-of-step, regardless of age and stage-of-life.
Sarah De Leeuw’s Geographies of a Lover (2012)
This is a raw, muscular way to write about female sexuality, something we don’t know how to do. Inspired in part by works of Judy Blume, Erica Jong, Elizabeth Smart, and Marian Engel, she “hoped to carve some new space”. It’s about loss, distance, and relationships that tremble and break.
Cary Fagan’s Mr. Zinger’s Hat, Illustrated by DušanPetričić (2012) Ken Setterigton’s pick in the Holiday Children’s Book Panel 2012
“Every day after school, Leo took his ball into the courtyard. He threw the ball high into the air. It would hit the brick wall and bounce back, and Leo would try to catch it.” The art of storytelling can be just as repetitive as playing catch with the wall. But as every ball player knows, the trajectory is unpredictable when the corner of a brick is struck. A story can take an expected and exhilaring turn as well, whether inspired by its creator or by the responsiveness of the listener/reader. Back and forth. Around and around. The dance of story.
Amanda Lang’s The Power of Why (2012)
We are 98% creative at the age of five; curiosity shouldn’t be a problem. But we lose how to ask the question “why”, and we need to be more innovative. “Think like a four-year-old and don’t worry if you get a question wrong, just keep asking “why”.
Jack Hodgins’ Master of Happy Endings (2012) Part of the Masterclass Series
“I don’t believe in endings. Stories have to come to some kind of end, but I always feel at the end that it’s only a tentative ending.”
The dates here may be an indication of the publication date, but the great thing about having interviews like this archived is that, if your TBR list is as long as mine, it doesn’t really matter whether the book being discussed is current or not.
Because “The Next Chapter” is one of my favouite book programs, I am more up-to-date with its episodes than I am with most of my listening, but also I don’t mind listening to older episodes of bookish podcasts, because I am that-much-more likely to find the book at hand, either on my own shelves or on a public library’s.
How about you? Do you have favourite book programs?
A couple of summers ago, I reread all Beverly Cleary’s Ramona stories. My notebook from that summer would have listed all the later Ramona books I’d missed, along with some favourite quotes and scenes as I reread my favourites.
Oh, how I loved Ramona when I was eight years old. (Turns out she is nearly as appealing now.) The later volumes were published long after my initial membership in the Ramona fan club. I never realized that the series had continued.
Many times, I simply stopped reading series because the main character matured past the point of being interesting. Anne got married. Jo got married. Emily got married. If Ramona gets married, we haven’t read about it yet.
The heroines of some of Beverly Cleary’s other books were much closer to marriage, although still comfortably in the land of uncertainty.
They still had things to tell me about things which I needed to know. At least I thought they did, at the time.
And in my notebook, I have made some notes on these ideas, gleaned from a reread of Fifteen, which was originally published in 1956.
Here are some of the things which a girl needs as a prelude to living happily ever after: cashmere sweaters, rides in convertibles, bobby pins. Also, deep pore cleanser and Rosy Rapture lipstick and polish.
This will adequately prepare you to sip cokes at the counter of Nibley’s Confectionery and Soda Fountain. You may even meet a “perfectly nice boy”.
This boy will be “tall enough”, friendly, and he will have a driver’s license. Maybe he will also be tanned and be able to borrow his father’s car.
There are risks and dangers everywhere, however. “I don’t want you riding around in a car with some strange boy,” Jane’s mother declares.
Fifteen is just the sort of story in which mothers declare and exclaim. The sort of book in which fathers mention the banns when their daughter is invited to the movies.
The Teen Corner in the newspaper (likely a radical idea) advises girls to inquire after a boy’s interests. That’s easy enough for Jane, who always aims to be friendly and interested in other people.
But what is a mystery for 15-year-old Jane is the finer mystery: how can she be sophisticated enough to capture and maintain the interest of a “perfectly nice boy”?
She wants to be a sophisticated young woman with a dinner date. She knows what to do with a lipstick brush and she skips her lunch. And he s the nicest boy, “full of fun”.
But when Stan Crandall picks her up, he is driving the delivery truck that he uses for his part-time job and, even so, Jane is the less sophisticated of the two.
Stan has suggested a Chinese restaurant in the city and she doesn’t know what to order or how to eat it. Stan’s friend makes jokes about flied lice (which must have passed as humour for many of 1956’s Fifteen readers).
But it’s Jane who might not be sophisticated enough to keep the interest of a boy who “has a purpose” and who is capable of ordering something other than a hamburger.
Jane lives on Blossom Street and Stan lives on Poppy Lane. When I reread books like Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen, I find a part of my younger self there on Cleary Street.
It is no longer a landscape that I dream of inhabiting, but it is familiar territory all the same.
So, it’s past the middle of November, so I’m surprised to find myself surrounded by so many mosquitoes.
First in the fifth volume of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series, On the Shores of Silver Lake.
Living so close to the land, the other residents are regularly brushing elbows (and paws and wings and other appendages) with the Ingalls family.
There is a bear where Ma is expecting to find a cow (don’t worry: the cow is fine).
There are wolves in a den which everyone thought was abandoned.
Of course, Jack the brindle bull dog, who loyally follows the wagon, until he is too old to walk behind.
And, oh yes, so many grasshoppers. And, then, so many grasshopper eggs. Which leads, obviously, to many more grasshoppers.
So, it only makes sense to find mosquitoes there. (The grasshoppers had their own chapter too, also illustrated by Garth Williams.)
When I was a girl, I reread my favourite volumes of this series regularly. My favourite was always The Long Winter, after I was old enough to read them all, but my longest-time favourite would have been Little House in the Big Woods, because for some years I only read the volumes with the larger print (the first four, technically, but I never liked Farmer Boy, because it was not about a Farmer Girl).
As an older reader, I wonder how I crawled over the assumptions about ethnicity and gender roles which I likely read without questioning at the time. Ma declares that the “only good Indian is a dead Indian” and even though Pa has picked out a couple who pass muster with him, they are clearly exceptional in his mind.
Nonetheless, I intend to finish the series. Way back in my girlhood reading years, I learned the habit of leaving series unfinished, and I am trying to make good on some of those as an adult reader.
For even though I loved Laura’s propensity for mischief when I was younger, I had no patience with her when she got older, capable of all the same chores that Ma could do…and then she began to eye Almanzo. Even so, The First Four Years: here I come.
(This is part of a more extensive project; this past summer, I also finally finished the last volume of the Anne books, which I had avoided for many years. Another summer, I finished the Sydney Taylor All-of-a-Kind-Family series. And then there was the Ramona series (the later volumes were published after I was reading Ramona regularly). And Little Women (again, gals got married and their lives became less interesting for me). And The Borrowers too.)
The only series that I actually finished reading when I was a girl was – oh, never mind, I didn’t ever finish one. (When I was in high school, I finally got around to finishing one, I think.)
But I get distracted. Something new comes out, and then I am compelled to read it instead.
Which is what happened with Michel Chikawanine’s Child Soldier (written with Jessica Dee Humphreys and illustrated by Claudia Dávila).
An ad for one of his speaking engagements got my attention, then I was slipping Child Soldier into my bookbag.
And, there again, talk of mosquitoes. Though the bloodshed in this story is at the hands of human beings. (Both the illustrations and the text in his graphic memoir are worth reading.)
In A.S. Byatt’s “Morpho Eugenia”, a novella included in the volume Angels & Insects, there is talk of not just a single mosquito.
Instead, there is talk of a cloud of them (even though the bulk of the story is preoccupied with a cloud of butterflies).
“The primeval forest out there – the endless sameness of the greenery – the clouds of midges and mosquitoes – the struggling mass of creepers and undergrowth – often seemed to me the epitome of the amorphous.”
This was the first fiction published by her after the inimitable Possession, which I loved to pieces (literally – I no longer have my much-abused copy).
It was also an early instance of Not-the-Book-I-Loved phenomenon, in which I expected an author’s subsequent publication to be both (a) new and fascinating and different and (b) exactly like the book they wrote before, the one that I had loved.
Although mosquitoes are not at the heart of this story, there are many flurries and bursts of things, some winged and others shoed.
William has just returned from the Amazon, in which he was shipwrecked for a time, most of his collected specimens lost. He managed to salvage only a couple of pieces, but their value managed to secure a future for him all the same (though perhaps not the future he would have imagined).
There is a lot of talk about ants (and bees, to a lesser extent) and they scurry through the story like the maids scurry up and down the backstairs of wealthy homes in the 19th century. (It does not take long to recognize the queen!)
In some instances, the mosquitoes in my reading have flown off almost immediately after I spotted them on the page.
But in Griffin Ondaatje’smiddle-grade novel The Mosquito Brothers (illustrated by Erica Salcedo), they take centre stage. Er, hover above it, anyway.
Just as A.S. Byatt takes the world of insects and positions readers so that they wonder if they are viewing an ant colony or a pseudo-mediaeval manor house, Griffin Ondaatje tells Dinnn’s story – the story of a young mosquito – in the context of his everyday life, with his family and attending school.
One could read this as a nice middle-grade story about a young wanna-be-hero, who doesn’t have the same attributes as the other youngsters but learns to accept himself for who he is and sees that he really does have something unique to offer.
But I read it as someone who needed more information about mosquitoes, having had so many chance encounters with them lately (on the page).
Dinnn was named with 3 ‘n’s because his mother had 400 children to name, so it was necessary (nnnecessary) to double up eventually. This is a problem that I had never considered. (It’s one of the reasons that the interview with the author and Shelagh Rogers, on a recent episode of CBC’s “The Next Chapter”, caught my attention!)
So Dinnn’s mother has my sympathies. All the more so because she ran away to a parking lot with Dinnn’s father and only later discovered that he was a floater.
That’s right: her husband spends the bulk of his time bumping around the drive-in movie theatre screen. Then again, maybe he is struggling with the fact that his sweetheart had another family before, in an abandoned tire, with some other mister-mosquito some years back.
When Dinnn’s father goes to parent-teacher night, he falls asleep, because he’s up so late, with the movies playing every night at the Lakeside theatre. Or maybe the air is just too stuffy in the school, which is an old air-conditioning unit.
Ironically, The Mosquito Brothers was intended as my final book on the subject. But Dinnn learns some truly fascinating facts about his kind, when he attends school. Griffin Ondaatje’s book might not be the last on the subject in my reading after all.
Bundle up, Dinnn: it’s nearly December, and you’re going to need a warmer coat!
I returned to picture books when a face-to-face bookclub read Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Books without pictures still outnumber the illustrated volumes in my stacks, but I am working to adjust the balance.
The Good Little Book, written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Marion Arbona, will suit booklovers of all ages, and likely some pre-bookloving youngsters who are drawn to boldly coloured and intricate drawings as well.
The inside leaf has a bookplate with a number of readers’ names in childlike handwriting, the names of the author and illustrator and various loved ones with whom they have shared the volume.
Against a rich floral pattern, around the plate and on the facing page, it looks as though some young hands have drawn some stick figures, outlined some of their favourite things (including a dinosaur and a rocket) and an x’s and o’s grid (in which o won).
Much is revealed here: books are to be shared and readers are to interact with their favourites, to make them a part of their everyday lives. The Good Little Book does have a story, but there are only a few pages, so that’s best left for readers to discover themselves.
However, in case you need to recognize it in a crowd, here is a description of the main character: “The good little book was neither thick nor thin, neither popular nor unpopular. It had no shiny medals to boast of. It didn’t even own a proper jacket.”
And here is a hint of the action contained herein:”The silence of reading slowly filled the room.” Sometimes things get more exciting: “Then he turned back to the beginning and read it again.”
Marion Arbona’s illustrations are slightly disorienting, in a way which seems to pull readers into the story: buildings with straight lines angle towards one another and a reader in an armchair repeats across a spread-page as though the floor is never flat or still.
In collage-styled spreads, people and other creatures overlap like sardines in a can, body parts colliding, instantly creating a mood. There is a playful tone, which would appeal to children (a couple of scenes in particular will make them giggle, offering eyes on uncommonly viewed territory) but the colours and intricacy will also appeal to adults. (I would happily hang prints from this volume on my walls, the two which are not covered with bookshelves.)
As with Kyo Maclear’s Virginia Wolf, the prose is clearly written to reach young readers, but it resonates with older readers as well. It is delicately and deliberately constructed, and perhaps it’s because I so enjoyed her debut novel The Letter Opener and still remember the feeling that book created, but the prose feels inviting, warming even (the colours help with that too, of course).
If you’ve loved Sarah Stewart’s The Library (illustrated by David Small), Manjusha Pawagi’s The Girl Who Hated Books (illustrated by Leanne Franson) and Kate Bernheimer’s The Lonely Book (illustrated by Chris Sheban), you will want a copy of The Good Little Book on your shelves.
It can hang out with all the other good little books there.
Do you have a favourite illustrated bookish book?
Three of the books in my stack currently are heavy or over-sized (G.R..R. Martin: I’m looking at you), but there are several skinny options making an appearance in my bookbag this week.
First, Michel Chikawanine’s Child Soldier (written with Jessica Dee Humphreys and illustrated by Claudia Dávila); he begins by introducing himself and saying that the “story you are about to read is true”.
It is a story aimed at young readers, who may be shocked to learn that an estimated 250,000 of their peers are soldiers.
Half of this number are involved in Africa, but their experiences are shared by many on other continents as well, and the supplementary material also draws attention to the impact of other kinds of violence and crime on children everywhere.
It’s clear that this book could be immediately and powerfully put to use in classrooms, and the pages illustrated in colour seem as though they would be particularly appealing to young readers. (There are alsosix pages of supporting material at the end, including definitions and resources, whereas some terms – like genocide – are defined in the story proper.)
Yet there are pages interspersed, which are illustrated in the same style but include a few panels coloured in sepia or neutral tones, with maps or text, which also offer direct and concrete geographical and political commentary. This is presented in basic terms, so that generations of history are encapsulated in a couple of pages, and it situates readers in time and space succinctly.
Sometimes these panels contain no image, only a comment from the author which reveals a concept requiring additional explanation. “Looking back, I see it was unfair that I had been raised to think I was great because of my gender insetad of my deeds. But Congo, like most of the world, suffers from ‘boy is best’ thinking. Although my dad was smart, modern and understanding, he was still a product of his upbringing and his culture. I guess we all are.”
Perhaps younger readers would be pulled more completely into the story, for it is announced almost immediately that things are going to change, and a sense of tension lurks from the start; I find that I can only read a few pages at a time. Michel Chikwanine’s story is presented in the simplest manner, and it is tremendously affecting told in this way.
There is some grim reading in the November issue of “The Walrus”, but it, too, ends on a note of promise. “In a way, it’s harder to read about the brutalization of livestock than of humans, because we don’t put humans in Happy Meals,” writes Jonathan Kay, in his review of Project Animal Farm by Sonia Faruqi.
“Project Animal Farm penetrates our psychological defences, because Faruqi’s compendium of horrors is interwoven with the deadpan story of her own bizarre, mortifying, often hilarious interactions with a rolling cast of characters.” This one is on my reading list, thanks to the review.
I usually start reading “The Walrus” at the back (or the front) and then turn to the front (or the back) and read up to the feature article. This month, I began at the back, with Seth’s cartoon, and I loved what came next: the photographs taken by Joseph Hartman of the studios of Canadian artists (accompanied by a short piece by Kyle Carston Wyatt about the nature of the ‘studio’ and the photgrapher’s fascination with it).
Margaret Drabble’s books are often too heavy to slip into a bookbag easily, but Jerusalem the Golden does. It is just over 200 pages, and she is one of my MRE authors (MustReadEverything), so I am happy to bring her along.
This is the story of Clara Maugham. “She stayed indoors for the rest of the summer, lying on her bed, trying to read.” Readers meet her long after that summer, zip backwards to well before that summer, and then settle firmly on the other side of it once more.
“Her desire for such a life was so passionate, and her gratitude to Walter for this glimpse of it was so great that she could have kissed him in the street, and later that day she did in fact allow him to undo her brassiere strap without a word of protest.”
Passion and gratitude, bassiere straps and protest: Margaret Drabble’s novels are quietly subversive.
What’s in your bookbag these days?