October 26, 2011

The Stone Angel - Margaret Laurence

For this year's Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set, I'm trying to re-read 13 Canadian Books from my past. I'm a bit behind schedule, but here is my second contribution.

Book: The Stone Angel, by Margaret Laurence (point of interest - my first re-read for this challenge also had angels in the title - The Rebel Angels)

First Read: I can be quite specific here - it was the summer of 1994, between grade 12 and 13. I had received a French language bursery and spent 6 weeks in the town of Rivière-du-Loup, living with a family and taking courses at the local CEGEP. I had limited access to English books, so read everything that I had packed in my suitcase, including the 4 Manawaka books.

Original Impressions: I didn't like it. In fact, if I hadn't had such limited book access that summer, I probably wouldn't have read the rest of the series. But I did read all of them, and found each book better than the one before, until I came to the last book, The Diviners, which I quite enjoyed.

Current Impressions: I re-read The Diviners a year or so ago and absolutely loved it, so I thought that this book was probably worth a re-read. I was staying with my sister last week, and she noticed that I was reading The Stone Angel and asked why I wanted to read the ramblings of a bitter old woman (note - she had to read it for school, while I first read it of my own free will and never had to study it). I certainly enjoyed it more than I did the first time around, but I wouldn't count it as one of my all-time favourites - I didn't click with Hagar the way that I did with Morag in The Diviners.

Hagar is a 90 year old woman who, as she approaches death, reflects back on her mostly unhappy life. She grew up as the only daughter of a relatively well-off merchant in the fictional prairie town of Manawaka. She married against her father's wishes and discovered that she wasn't happy in marriage. She became estranged from her elder son; left her husband; and then lost her younger son. She ends up lonely and resentful, living with her elder son and his wife. Come to think of it, my sister wasn't too far off calling Hagar a bitter old woman!

But really, it is a story of pride and ultimately redemption. Hagar realizes, close to the end of her life, that, "pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear. I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains within me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched." She reflects, "I must always, always, have wanted... simply to rejoice. How is it I never could? ... Every good joy I might have held, in my man or any child of mine or even the plain light of morning, of walking the earth, all were forced to a standstill by some brake of proper appearances - oh, proper to whom? When did I ever speak the heart's truth?"

So I like to think that Hagar found redemption in the end and was able to leave her bitterness aside.

It was a much more enjoyable read now than it was 17 years ago; as I can see more meaning and purpose in the story of Hagar's life. I look forward to re-reading the rest of the Manawaka books.

Regarding the cover - I was reading my mother's copy which she purchased for $1.95 in the late '60s (I suspect). The McClelland and Stewart website has 3 different editions for sale (I picked my favourite cover for this post), the cheapest of which, an e-book, sells for 12.95!

Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard - Richard B. Wright

This book caught my eye because I'm always a bit of a sucker for historical fiction. Especially good historical fiction; and the author of Clara Callan promised a good read. (As a side note, I read Clara Callan back when it first came out, and absolutely loved it. I couldn't believe that a male author could express female feelings in a first person narrative so deeply and accurately that I kept forgetting that it wasn't written by a female author.)

The plot in a nutshell? As the title implies, the main character, Aerlene Ward, is the illegitimate daughter of Mr. Shakespeare, author of such well known plays as Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Hamlet. Her mother Elizabeth had an affair with Shakespeare when she was a young woman recently moved to London, and Shakespeare was a young actor and playwright living in London while his wife and young children were left behind in Stratford Upon Avon. It is written as though Aerlene at age 80 is dictating her memoir, and jumps between the "present day" with Aerlene as an elderly housekeeper; her mother's story of growing up and moving to London as told to Aerlene; and Aerlene's own childhood.

It didn't have the same emotional clout (in my opinion) as Clara Callan, but again I was amazed that such believable female characters could be written by a male author (no offense intended to any men reading this!). It was a pretty easy and enjoyable read, and I passed it on to my sister to read as she recovers from an appendectomy. I thought it was a well crafted book in terms of the storytelling, and was sad when it ended.

And that's about all I have to say. There were no deeper meanings in this book to discuss; no controversy to pick apart; no unresolved issues. I enjoyed the book, and will leave it at that.

October 12, 2011

Practical Jean - Trevor Cole

After reading and loving The Best Laid Plans, winner of the 2008 Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, I was looking forward to reading Practical Jean, the 2011 winner. Unfortunately I was disappointed.

While The Best Laid Plans made me laugh out loud (literally), Practical Jean left me feeling depressed instead. The blurb on the back of the book describes it as "tragicomic fiction", but in my opinion, the emphasis was on the tragedy rather than the comedy. Some of the adjectives used in the review quotes include black comedy, social satire, comic portraiture, piquant, hilarious, wickedly funny, diabolical deadpan, and mischievous. While I consider myself to have a very keen and sharp sense of humour, the humour in this book was lost on me.

The Jean in the title cares for her mother over the last few months of her life as she dies of cancer; and then decides to spare her best friends the pain and torment of a lingering death by killing them now. While she is presented as being very logical and practical; to me the tragedy is that here is a woman very obviously suffering from depression to the extreme who neither seeks out, nor is offered any sort of support or help. I'm afraid that the humour of a woman with depression systematically murdering her friends was lost on me. There isn't even a comic reversal at any point that would have added to the humour.

I can almost compare it to Swift's A Modest Proposal, but without the social commentary. In that case, it was the reversal of the expected that made it funny. Practical Jean is supposed to be a satire, but to my eyes it isn't satirizing anything.

If anyone else has read this book, please help me out! What did I miss? Why didn't I find it funny?

October 3, 2011

The Stepsister Scheme - Jim Hines

Yes, I know that this book isn't usually my cup of tea. But I am now visiting a friend who was my supplier of pulp fiction (not the movie sort) through university, and her husband loaned me this book (which I finished in about 24 hours). This said friend's husband is friends with the author, and told me that the author wrote this book so that his daughter (then 8, now 12) would have a princess option other than the saccharine Disney variety.

Imagine, if you will, what happened after Cinderella's Happily Ever After. Imagine that her stepsisters have turned to magic and become witches, kidnapped Cinderella's prince, and are holding him hostage in the land of the fairies. And imagine that Cinderella's mother-in-law (the queen) has a personal body guard consisting of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. And now imagine that Sleeping Beauty, contrary to the popular tale, was actually raped by the prince sent to wake her up and was awakened by the pains of childbirth; and that Snow White was poisoned by her mother who was jealous of her magical abilities and then watched her lover choose to be murdered by the queen rather than to kill Snow White (the 7 dwarves are, in fact, the 7 Anthropomorphic Incarnations of Elemental Magic - Earth, Air, Water, Fire, Light, Darkness, and Magic).

You would end up with three supremely pissed off princesses. And the story goes on from there.

I don't read enough fantasy in order to be able to judge this one, but it was certainly an enjoyable romp as far as such stories go. And yes, it offers a radially different re-telling of the stories from the Disney versions, featuring strong female leads. I just don't know that I would want my daughter to be reading it at the age of 8, or even 12. There is a lot of violence, and a number of references to sex. It doesn't seem quite geared to the pre-YA crowd... But it was a pleasant way to pass an autumn day; though I suspect that I won't be looking up the other books in the series. Like I said, not quite my cup of tea.

October 2, 2011

State of Wonder - Ann Patchett

I wanted to like this book. Really, I did. Especially after hearing the author interviewed by Shelagh Rogers (best interviewer ever for authors, in my opinion), and downloading and listening to the full, uncut version. She was so entertaining, and witty, and I loved the passage of this book that she read.

But I come away from it with mixed feelings.

Yes, it was entertaining. Yes, there were parts that were laugh out loud funny and the author can see the humour and irony around her. And yes, it kept me reading to the end, quite quickly (a plane ride on Friday made for good uninterrupted reading time). But in the end, there was too much suspension of disbelief required to make me fully enjoy it.

The premise? A drug company in Minnesota is sponsoring a researcher in the Amazon jungle who is developing a drug that will extend fertility for as long as a woman is alive. The drug company sends another scientist down to get an update on her work. He is reported dead. They send another scientist (Marina, the main character of the book) down, to both find out what happened and finish the work that he set out to do. She ends up, by the end of the first chapter, deep in the Brazilian rain forest and clueless about how to survive.

The characters were really unique and memorable, but at times Marina (who is supposed to be intelligent) is just so stupid. I wanted to smack her and ask what she was thinking at times. And none of the characters were infallible - they all had their quirks and faults which made them much more believable.

It was when Marina reached the tribe where the women bear children well into their 70s that the plot became ridiculous. I managed to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy it for a while, but then reality came back to me and I could only sit back and shake my head. I also found the tribe to be a caricature of themselves - almost what a European in the 1700's might imagine a "savage tribe" to be...

So a mixed review overall. Like I said, interesting enough to be good airplane reading; but not good enough for me to ever want to re-read it. I've already given my copy to the friend that I'm visiting. Has anyone else read this book? What did you think?