Monthly Archives: April 2014

Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue

frogmusicI’ve loved pretty much everything of Emma Donoghue’s I’ve ever read. Most people now know her as the author of Room, and that is an incredible book, but I knew her first as an author of richly evocative historical fiction. While I liked Life Mask and loved The Sealed Letter, I found that Frog Music is the Donoghue book that reminds me most vividly of the first and favourite book of hers that I read, Slammerkin.

While Room was a contemporary story, and Life Mask and The Sealed Letter dealt with the more genteel side of the past, with Frog Music we are back in the same kind of gritty, vivid, explicit underworld we visited in Slammerkin. It’s the world, specifically, of San Francisco in 1876, in the middle of a smallpox epidemic and a heat wave. (The descriptions of smallpox are very vivid and should be required reading for every anti-vaccinator, by the way).

The novel is built around a real murder from 1876 San Francisco: the shooting death of a young woman named Jenny Bonnet: frog catcher, bicyclist and cross-dresser. The story is told from the perspective of Jenny’s friend Blanche, a burlesque dancer and prostitute who was with Jenny at the time of her death, who testified at the inquest, and whose friendship may have led indirectly to Jenny’s death. Both Blanche and Jenny are fascinating and richly developed characters, as are the minor characters and the world they inhabit. Donoghue has taken a genuine historical mystery and given believable feelings and motives to people who scraped out a hard and dirty existence in a time that seems both long ago and yet oddly familiar.

I devoured this book and loved every minute of it, and would highly recommend it to anyone who loves historical fiction, although with the caution that it’s not for those who don’t like graphic or explicit scenes — Blanche is, after all, a prostitute, and Donoghue is not the kind of writer to draw a veil over the realities of her profession, so be prepared for that.

In the Afterword of the novel Donoghue gives us a glimpse into her exhaustive research and also reveals a sad fact about the ultimate fate of a key character. While I liked the fact that this novel was rooted in a real historical event, I decided that if Donoghue had gone so far as to give these people fictional emotions and motives and conversations and thoughts, I could also ignore the historical record enough to imagine a different outcome beyond the pages of the book. That’s how vivid these characters are — you want to change history to ensure that some of them might have at least a little bit of a happy ending.

1 Comment

Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

The Shadow Queen, by Sandra Gulland

shadowqueenThis novel is, in some ways, a sort of companion novel to Gulland’s 2008 Mistress of the Sun, which focused on Louis XIV’s mistress Louise de Vallieres. This novel focuses again on the court of the Sun King, but this time on a different mistress, Athenais de Montspan. Though Athenais is the “shadow queen” of the title, the main character and narrator of the novel is her servant, Claude (or Claudette) des Oeilettes, who longs for the comfort and ease of life at court but finds herself unwillingly drawn into the intrigue, deception and downright evil that life entails.

Claude grows up a world away from the glittering court of Versailles; her parents are actors with a travelling troupe, and Claude learns to act, clown and juggle while travelling from town to town seeking a stage and enough money to keep eating — while also helping care for her disabled younger brother Gaston. Eventually Claude, her mother and brother wind up back in Paris, where her mother was a celebrated actress in her younger days. After a rocky start in the big city they find a niche in the theatre world amid stars like Racine and Moliere, but for Claude, this is only the beginning of a meteoric rise in her circumstances as a chance encounter brings her into the circle of the beautiful, charming but brutally selfish Athenais.

While the glimpses of court life are intriguing and, as always with Gulland, beautifully drawn, what really fascinated me in this book is the theatre world. From the early scenes of near-starvation in a travelling troupe of players, to the “War of the Theatres” in which Paris playhouses compete to steal each other’s best actors and playwrights, that entire world is richly and vividly depicted. My favourite reason for reading historical fiction is to be taken into a world I could never discover otherwise, and the world of seventeenth-century Parisian theatre comes alive, both onstage and backstage, through Claude’s compelling voice and the events in which she participates. She’s a more memorable character than any of the larger-than-life aristocrats with whom she ends up rubbing shoulders (and in some cases, more than shoulders).

Leave a comment

Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

Perfect, by Rachel Joyce

perfectRachel Joyce’s novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was one of my favourite books last year, so I was understandably eager to read Perfect. While I don’t think this story will linger with me quite as long as Harold did, I did find it a haunting and beautifully-constructed novel.

Perfect tells two stories, separated by forty years. The book begins with young Byron Hemmings, an English schoolboy from a well-to-do family who is concerned because a friend has told him that the government is going to add two seconds to the year. Byron doesn’t understand how you can just tamper with time like that — a lot can happen in two seconds. Sure enough, a lot does happen in two seconds when Byron’s mother Diana is driving through an unfamiliar working-class neighbourhood and hits a little girl on a bicycle. From that two-second impact a series of events unspools that will lead to tragedy.

In alternating chapters in between Byron’s story, we meet Jim, a mentally ill man in his fifties who has spent his whole life in and out of a mental hospital. Currently living in a rundown camper van and working at a supermarket cafe, Jim barely holds his life together with obsessive-compulsive rituals and struggles to cope with everyday life now that the hospital where he spent so many years has closed and he’s out on the streets with no support. It’s a momentary collision with a car that also transforms Jim’s life, forcing him to interact with other people in ways that challenge and change him.

For most of the book there’s no indication of how the two stories fit together, although the reader is encouraged to draw conclusions. As with Harold Fry, there’s a revelation near the end of the story that both confirms and challenges our suspicions — it may not be what we initially expected, but it makes perfect sense of everything that’s gone before.

Intriguing as both Byron and Jim are, the really intriguing character her, the axis around which the story revolves, is Byron’s mother Diana. Byron’s childhood best friend thinks Diana is “perfect” and she certainly is trying hard to be perfect. She’s married to Seymour, a wealthy and distant man who leaves her alone with the children in an elegant home all week while he works in London, and comes home only for weekend visits that make everyone uncomfortable. Diana has married “above her station” and is trying hard to fit her husband’s expectations, but the accident forces her to confront what lies beneath the perfect veneer of her new life.

I found this a quick but very compelling read.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- general

A King’s Ransom, by Sharon Kay Penman

kingsransomSharon Kay Penman concludes her sprawling saga of the wildly dysfunctional Angevin dynasty with A King’s Ransom, which covers the second half of King Richard “Lionheart” I’s shortish life and brings to a close the story of most of his family members — the ones who haven’t died in the previous novels, that is. Richard, his sister Joanna, and his indefatigable mother Eleanor of Aquitaine all get their deathbed moments in this novel, leaving the unpopular younger brother of “King John was not a good man, he had his little ways” fame to carry on and rule England and the various bits of the France the family was always fighting to hang onto.

As the novel opens, Richard is on his way home from his crusade in the Holy Land, only to be captured and held prisoner by a not-so-Holy Roman Emperor. While his mother is scurrying around Europe trying to raise money and pressure people to get Richard freed, his brother John and the French king Philippe are doing the opposite — raising the cash for a counter-offer to keep Richard in prison forever so that John will be free to rule. Needless to say, there are some fun family dynamics here.

As with all of Penman’s novels, this one is backed by tons of solid research and a knowledge of the period so detailed you feel like a genuine time-traveller. The characters are recognizably people from another place and time with a worldview and priorities distinctly different from ours — yet they are also human and relatable, and we feel for their sorrow and anguish even when we don’t always understand the decisions they’ve made. Very few writers, if any, bring us in to the past as skilfully as Sharon Kay Penman does, and it’s always worth the wait for one of her books.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- historical

Time+OutLiane Shaw’s memoir grabbed my attention because it’s about teaching emotionally/behaviorally disturbed children, a job she fell into almost by accident. Before becoming the YA author she is today, Liane Shaw was a special-ed teacher, but Time Out tells the story of how she ended up teaching in a classroom with a handful of elementary-school boys who were such serious behavior problems that they couldn’t fit into any other program in the school system. There was no structured programming in that school system at that time designed to meet these kids’ needs, and Shaw had no training specific to their problems, but she found herself drafted into the job simply because there was no-one else to do it — and because she learned to care about these kids.

This memoir is reminiscent, in some ways, of the Tori Hayden and Mary MacCracken books about teaching severely disturbed kids which I used to read when I was in my late teens and early 20s. However, while this book shares the gritty reality of teaching these types of kids that books like One Child and Lovey,  there’s much more of a sense here of a teacher who is really just figuring it out as she goes along and wondering if she’s making any positive difference at all in these boys’ lives. In other words, there are no heartwarming miracles here. That’s not to say that the book won’t warm your heart — it will. But rather than a single moving story with a hopeful ending there’s a tangled ball of stories with a variety of endings and, in the saddest cases, no ending at all — because teachers sometimes lose touch with students, and never find out how things worked out for them.

I was interested in this story because although I’m not a special-ed teacher, some of the adult learners I work with are the same kids who were the unsolvable behavioral problems in elementary school. By high school, most of those kids have dropped out of the system; those who manage to get things together enough to come back to school eventually often do it through adult-ed programs like the one I teach in. So I was intrigued to get the teacher’s-eye-view of what their early lives might have been like.

A huge piece of my philosophy in working with young people is to remember that I can’t be the magical teacher who fixes everything for them and makes their lives OK. I can be one positive person, who person who helped and encouraged them, along with other helpers — often set against a large pile of people who were negative influences or discouraged them. To bring one good thing into the lives of the people I work with is my goal — and I felt in reading this book that that was what Liane Shaw learned too in working with these very challenging kids. You can’t do everything, and if you try to, you’ll make yourself crazy. But you can do something.

Leave a comment

April 24, 2014 · 11:39 pm

A Matter of Honour, by Jeffrey Archer

archerThis is definitely not a book I would have chosen to read on my own, since Cold War thrillers are hardly my thing (Cold War yes; thrillers no). For reasons I don’t fully understand, since it matches oddly with the more literary books on the list, this novel is one of the books teachers can select for our Grade 12 English course here in the province. I’ve never taught it, but this year I decided to let my students choose the second novel themselves from the approved list, and wouldn’t you know it, one student had to be difficult and choose the book I hadn’t read. So then I had to read the book and make up assignments on it.

After reading through it in two days, I’m no wiser as to how Archer ever made it onto a high-school reading list (if you wanted to include more mainstream, commercial fiction along with the literary fiction there are still a lot better writers you could go with). That said, I’ll give Archer this much: what the book does, it does well. The pages kept turning and I was at least mildly interested throughout to see how everything was going to work out.

The characterization is quite thin and caricatured in places. Adam, the main character, is bequeathed a mysterious letter from his dead father which leads to a priceless Russian icon with a document hidden inside that could CHANGE THE COURSE OF HISTORY. An eeeeevvil KGB spy, Romanov, is also after the icon, and pursues Adam across Europe. Adam is virtuous, noble and admirable throughout (minus telling a few lies and stealing the odd thing to help him get away); Romanov practically twirls his mustache. Both men are in top physical condition, excellent fighters, quick-witted and brilliant and disguise and thinking up cover stories. The female double-bass player with a British symphony orchestra who twice shelters Adam and helps him escape looks like she has the potential to be an interesting character, but probably in a completely different novel.

Still, as I said, it’s a page turner, and it was a quick and painless read. If you like thrillers and Cold War era intrigue, you could definitely do worse. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- general

Living With a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich

wildgodThis is an interesting book by acclaimed non-fiction writer Barbara Ehrenreich, who I know best as the author of the insightful Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. This new book is something of a memoir, but it’s more reminiscent to me of David Carr’s Night of the Gun than of most memoirs (though the subject matter is very different). That is to say that instead of telling and reflecting on the story of her life as most writers do in a memoir, Ehrenreich (who seems, throughout, very uncomfortable with the idea of telling any part of her own life story) is examining her own past with the same journalistic eye she has turned on the lives of others, not so much remembering and recreating her past as putting it under the microscope.

And “under the microscope” is an apt place for her past to be, since one recurring theme in the story is young Barbara’s development into the scientist her father wanted her to be. The father-issues, and family issues in general, which are as dysfunctional as anything Jeannette Walls or similar memoirists have to offer, are sidelined here. The focus is not on how Ehrenreich’s admittedly screwed-up family made her the person she became (though inevitably, that’s part of the discussion), but on the search for truth in which she was engaged from a young age.

This “truth” took two forms: the hard scientific truth of the observable world, which Ehrenreich, raised an atheist, early embraced as her lens for understanding the world. But breaking through that worldview were a series of odd experiences she had a hard time understanding or labelling, beginning in her early teens — moments when the observable world of the senses seemed to slip away and she was left observing reality on a different level. She clearly finds it hard, even now, to describe those experiences in language that communicates well to the reader, though she does note that they were probably similar to incidents of “dissociation” as described by some people in the mental health community. Ehrenreich did not experience these as episodes of illness and did not seek help for them, but she did seek to understand them — a quest that she laid aside for many years in adulthood and then returned to in later life as she re-read her old journals and shaped her questions into this book.

The brief dissociative episodes climaxed in her late teens with a single episode that, for a person from a different background, might easily have been described as a vision, or at least a spiritual experience. It changed Ehrenreich and changed how she saw the world, yet she had no language, no framework within which to share or understand this experience. At this point in the story she acknowledges that many people have these kinds of experiences — people from a variety of backgrounds — and that one of the uses of religion is to give people a “container” within which to hold them. So an evangelical Christian might say that the Holy Spirit overcame them; a devout Catholic might come away from such a moment convinced she had been visited by the Virgin Mary; a Hindu or Buddhist might speak of achieving a moment of perfect enlightenment. But what does a smart, convinced and rather troubled young atheist do with such an experience?

Ehrenreich’s answer seemed to be, for a long time, nothing. Put it on the back shelf and get on with life. The intense and overwhelming experience was not repeated, and only much later in life, when going through her own journals, does she return to those early experiences that might be termed “spiritual” and try to puzzle out what they meant.

Believers who note the title and expect this to be a story of an atheist’s “finding God” will be disappointed. The key word in the title is not “God” but “wild.” This is, perhaps, the story of an atheist shifting her perception of reality a little to include the one belief that unites all religions: that there is something else “out there.” Something that can’t be measured using the scientific instruments and knowledge we currently have; something that we are connected to on a deeper level. But she is adamant that she cannot believe this “Other” to be in any way analogous to the God of Christianity or any other mainstream religion. If anything, what she’s reaching for in her conclusion seems to be a kind of paganism, an acknowledgement that animists are not entirely wrong when they imbue the sky and mountains and rivers with “spirit.” There is, in Ehrenreich’s view, something out there, if not someone personified as a god or goddess. Something that is deeply connected to the natural world but not observable by us in the way the natural world is observable — something that occasionally, for some people, breaks through our everyday perceptions, that some will choose to label as God or a god or the gods.

If this review sounds a little vague it’s because the book is too, sometimes, and it may frustrate those who are looking for a more traditional narrative such as you would generally find in a memoir. It’s also, as I said, frustrating for anyone who might have hoped Ehrenreich’s quest would lead her towards traditional religion. But I, reading it from the perspective of a believer listening to a nonbeliever’s narrative, found it fascinating to hear a spiritual experience described from the perspective of a person who didn’t view the world through a spiritual or religious lens. Ehrenreich’s narrative confirms my belief that this sense of “something else out there” underlies all religion — and of course, in my view, points to the reality that there really is something out there. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir