Monthly Archives: November 2014

Juliet’s Nurse

julietsnuseJuliet’s Nurse is a beautifully-crafted piece of historical fiction, and a wonderful example of how to take a minor character from a well-known work of literature and make her into a well-rounded, fully fleshed-out character. Although the author made one choice that disappointed me greatly, I still thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it.

The bawdy, garrulous Nurse (whose first name, Angelica, is mentioned only once in the play) is a favourite character in Shakespeare’s famous play, and it took only a little imagination for historical fiction writer Lois Leveen to take the hints of backstory in the Nurse’s speeches and turn them into a complete life. Juliet’s Nurse begins on the day — Lammas Eve — when Angelica’s daughter Susanna is born and dies, and Angelica is hired by the wealthy Capaletti family as wet-nurse to their newborn daughter Juliet. Angelica not only bonds with the Capaletti baby but becomes completely entranced with her, willingly staying away from her beloved husband Pietro (though managing to sneak out for the odd bit of afternoon delight with him) so that she can continue to care for her beloved Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet is one of the Shakespeare plays I know best, having taught it to ninth and tenth-graders numerous times, seen many movie and stage adaptations, and even performed in an production as an extra (I danced at the Capulet’s ball, and I gasped in horror at the street fight. Years later I found the program for the production I was in and realized that Allan Hawco, now locally famous as Jake Doyle, had a speaking role in the same show where I was an extra — so we have been on stage together!). One of my problems with the play has always been that it’s a tragedy, but it’s never managed to stir any real emotion in me — I’ve always found, no matter how good the production, that Romeo and Juliet are such thinly developed characters and their supposedly great love such an obviously fleeting attraction that its hard to be emotionally invested in their deaths.

This problem is tackled wonderfully in the first two-thirds of Juliet’s Nurse, as the characters on the Capulet/Capaletti side of the feud become real people, and the Nurse’s love for Juliet so deep that I couldn’t bear to think of the tragedy that was still coming to a woman who had already lost so much in her life. One of Leveen’s most brilliant strokes is to take the nurse’s apparently odd line at the news of Tybalt’s death (“O Tybalt! The best friend I had!”) and give it some backstory. In the play, it just seems like some crazy Nurse hyperbole — why would Juliet’s aristocratic cousin be best buds with her old nursemaid, especially as we never see the Nurse and Tybalt interact with each other? But Leveen’s story reminds us that if the Nurse has been with the Capaletti household for fourteen years, she’s seen Tybalt as well as Juliet grow up. Tybalt is the character perhaps most interestingly fleshed-out in this novel, and realizing that he, like Juliet, is doomed to die makes the inevitable tragedy loom all the larger throughout the first two-thirds of the novel.

After that point, the novel catches up with the play, and here’s the part where I think (for my taste, as a reader) Leveen makes a crucial misstep. Once the action of Shakespeare’s play begins, she includes every scene that occurs in the play (at least, all the ones for which the Nurse is present or nearby), and not only sticks to the scenes as they unfold in the play, but keeps the dialogue as close to Shakespeare’s lines as possible. This results not only in dialogue that’s much more stilted and formal-sounding than the rest of the book, but turns the characters from the flesh-and-blood people in whose lives we’ve been immersed to — well, characters in a play. As soon as Shakespeare took over the plot and dialogue, I felt the characters retreat from me, become less real and immediate, and the agonizing moments of loss I’d been dreading — Tybalt’s death, Juliet’s death — became only scenes from a play again. The novel only leapt to life for me again at the very end, when we get a little glimpse into Angelica’s life beyond the tragic deaths, beyond the play’s timeline.

So, while I understand that it was necessary to keep the outline of Shakespeare’s plot, I think trying to recreate his scenes and especially his dialogue was a mistake that robbed the ending of the book of some of its power for me — but despite this, I still think it was an excellent retelling of the story that had far more emotional impact on me than the play has ever done. Though there is something to be said for the timelessness and universality of Shakespeare’s plays, setting the stories back in their historical context gives them tremendous power. This is perhaps best illustrated in this novel by the moment when the Nurse overhears one of the play’s most famous lines. Mercutio’s “A plague o’ both your houses!” sounds to our ears like a generic curse — but how would it have sounded to a woman who vividly remembers the last time the bubonic plague swept through Verona, and the shattering losses she endured then? “Plague” is a word that, for us, has been stripped of its emotional weight and become neutered; we need to imagine living through a plague outbreak, as Angelica does in the novel, to share the chilly dread she feels when she hears those words.

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The Martian, by Andy Weir

themartianI tagged this book as “Fiction — General” although it really should be tagged as “Science Fiction,” but I read so little sci-fi that I don’t have a tag for it. Jason read this book and enjoyed it so much that he kept reading me excerpts aloud, till finally I decided to read it for myself. It’s completely different from anything I would normally read — not only it is “hard” science fiction with a lot of realistic sciencey stuff that, to be honest, I kind of skimmed in places; it’s also a Robinson-Crusoe, man-struggling-alone-against-the-elements kind of story. I’ve explained before that I usually don’t like those kind of stories at all, but earlier this year I was captivated by Michael Crummey’s Sweetland which told that very kind of story. The Martian couldn’t be more different from Sweetland — it’s a short, snappy piece of sci-fi with no pretensions to be literary fiction — but it, too, managed to hold my attention with the story of a man who struggles alone, not on an island but an entire planet, to survive against the odds. Why was I interested in this type of story when I’m usually not? One word: voice.

The setting is the very near future, and engineer/botanist Mark Watney is left behind, presumed dead, when a manned mission to Mars goes wrong. But Watney’s not dead: he survives, alone on the planet with a big tent intended to support human life and a couple of vehicles, but no way to communicate with Earth or let anyone know he’s still alive. The situation requires almost superhuman courage, ingenuity and determination, but fortunately for the reader, Watney, as he reveals his story through a series of log entries, is also possessed of a snarky wit that makes his character jump off the page and makes it very easy to root for his survival.

My only disappointment is that you don’t get much backstory on Watney or much sense of his inner life beyond his determination to survive his Martian exile — which might be because it’s not that kind of book, might be because the story is largely told through his log entries which wouldn’t include that kind of detail, or might perhaps be because he’s a mechanical engineer and he’s not going to spend a lot of time reflecting on his past or his emotions. I loved his practical approach to his situation and his sense of humour, but I did feel that it should have taken more of a physical and emotional toll on him, and that there would realistically have to have been at least a few cracks in his otherwise cheery facade.

Though the character could have been a bit more layered, he’s got a great voice and he feels real immediately. As the story of his struggle to survive unfolds along with the story of the people on earth who are determined to rescue him against tremendous odds, I couldn’t put the book down. It was gripping, and I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys science fiction — and also to some people who usually don’t. Like me, you might find this an unexpected delight.


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Small Victories, by Anne Lamott

smallvictoriesIt was probably foolish for me to spend money on the e-book of Small Victories, since 2/3 of the essays in Anne Lamott’s new collection were previously published in her earlier books, and I’ve read all her earlier books. But I so enjoy anything by Lamott that it was worth the price just for the sake of ten new essays. As always Lamott is funny, honest, hopeful, angry and compassionate. While I’d have preferred a thick book full of entirely new essays, Small Victories is almost worth the cover price just for Lamott’s essay about online dating at age sixty. If you haven’t read her before, this is a great intro to her work.

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Illuminations: A Novel von Hildegard of Bingen, by Mary Sharratt

hildegardIlluminations is a novel about the life of the twelfth-century abbess and mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, which does an excellent job of bringing Hildegard to life as a character and giving us a sense of the world she lived in. We get a clear picture of the limited roles offered to women at that time and of how Hildegard managed to transcend them so spectacularly. My only issue with this novel was one of pacing. At least half the novel is spent on the least interesting part of Hildegard’s life — the years she spent in an enclosed anchorage with a nun named Jutta, who was famous in her own time as a saint and mystic. I would have enjoyed the book more if the isolation and privation of those years could have been summed up a bit more quickly to allow us to spend more time with Hildegard in the years during which she rose to a position of power, prominence and influence unusual for a woman in her time. A scene late in the book gives us a glimpse of an aging Hildegard denouncing corrupt church leadership while preaching to a crowd outside Cologne cathedral. I’d love to have known so much more about this (historical) scene, what led up to it and its aftermath, and would gladly have sacrificed a few pages of learning about how Jutta’s teeth turned back and fell out after years of extreme fasting. Definitely a good book about an interesting historical subject, and we clearly needed to know about those years in the anchorage to understand Hildegard’s motives for her later work, but I would rather have seen more emphasis placed on Hildegard’s more interesting later life.

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Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

lilaAs a fan of Marilynne Robinson’s novels Gilead and Home, I was excited to pick up the third volume in this not-really-a-trilogy, LilaGilead told the story of the Reverend John Ames, aging Congregationalist minister in the town of Gilead, Iowa in the middle of the last century. Home, which I (unlike most readers) loved even more, told a different story that was unfolding at the same time as the events of Gilead — the return home of the prodigal son of Ames’s lifelong friend (and fellow clergyman) Robert Boughton, told from the perspective of Boughton’s daughter Glory. Now, in Lila, instead of taking the story further forward, Robinson takes us back in time. This novel is told from the perspective of Reverend Ames’s much younger wife, the mother of his child.

Lila is completely unlike the characters we’ve met so far in Gilead and Home, with their comfortably middle-class lives and their worldviews shaped by church-going, Bible-reading, and education. Lila knows nothing of her birth family, having been not so much adopted as stolen by a woman named Doll and raised amid a group of migrant farm workers. Lila’s life is bare, hardscrabble subsistence; her knowledge of the wider world is almost non-existant; her only loyalty, and that a fierce one, is to Doll. As for religion, she is utterly ignorant of it until she wanders into John Ames’s church seeking shelter one day. By that time Doll and the other companions of her childhood are long gone; Lila has survived a stint as an unsuccessful prostitute and later house-cleaner in a brothel, as well as several other hard, low-paying jobs. When she sets out on the road not knowing where she’s headed, she is entirely unprepared to find love, marriage and a family with the aging preacher in Gilead.

That last sentence sounds sentimental and romantic, which is the most misleading impression I could possibly give. Lila is the least sentimental story imaginable about love and marriage. The book is narrated in a third-person limited point of view: though Lila doesn’t tell her own story, we see and know only what she sees and knows. What she knows is that you can’t trust people; as for God, once she’s informed of His existence, she doesn’t much trust Him either, especially if He’s going to condemn people like Doll to hell just for not knowing about Him. Reverend Ames baptizes Lila, at her request, but she later goes back to the water to “unbaptize” herself. Baptism is a recurring metaphor throughout the novel, as are redemption and grace. Lila’s life is saved and changed by grace and love — but she remains her stubborn, independent self within, never sure whether she can settle into this new life or whether she might just pack up and take off tomorrow. She’s a wonderful character, and it’s a tribute to Robinson’s skill that she walks with such determination off the pages of the story.

I was initially disappointed, when I learned what Lila was about, that Robinson wasn’t taking us further into the future of the story she’d laid out in Gilead and Home. Those events are still several years in the future by the time we reach the last page of Lila. Yes, I still want to know more about the other characters — about what happens to Jack Boughton and his sister Glory, about what happens to Lila and her son after Reverend Ames dies (which we know, from the first pages of Gilead, can’t be long happening). But each of these books is a treasure in and of itself, and if Marilynne Robinson wants to keep writing about Gilead and its inhabitants till she dies I’ll gladly read every book (unless I die first). No-one else that I can think of (at least, in the English-speaking world) today is writing about faith with the kind of depth, insight and honesty that Robinson brings to the topic, and I can’t wait for another novel from her pen.

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The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

payinguestsThis is one of the richest, most vivid and most fascinating pieces of historical fiction I’ve read this year — surpassed only by Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music. Like Donoghue’s novel, Sarah Waters’ latest novel deals with two women and a murder, but it’s the lovingly depicted background against which the story unfolds that makes it luminous and unforgettable.

It’s not a glamourous setting. The place is London; the time, 1922. In the aftermath of the Great War, Frances Wray and her mother are forced to go to previously unthinkable lengths to keep up the facade of their comfortable upper-middle-class life. With Frances’s father dead (of a stroke, leaving behind a trail of bad investments and debt) and both brothers killed in the war, with all the servants gone and no money to hire new ones, Frances has taken over the housekeeping chores herself. But even that’s not enough to make ends meet, and they are forced to rent out a set of upstairs rooms to “paying guests.” 

It’s quite a come-down for Frances, a lively, intelligent and independent young woman who during the war was active in progressive causes, including the women’s suffrage movement, and who dreamed of moving away from her stuffy, respectable home and starting a new life in a little flat with her lover, Chrissie. In the wake of her losses Frances finds she cannot abandon her mother alone in a home they can no longer keep up. Chrissie moves on to find bohemian Bloomsbury bliss with another woman, and Frances is forced into the uncomfortable roles of both housekeeper and landlady, neither of which fits with the person she has always thought of herself as being.

As for the paying guests of the title, the new boarders are Leonard and Lillian Barber, a young couple of what France refers to as the “clerk class.” The masterfully depicted nuances of class distinction in 1920s England are one of the best things about the book; we understand completely Frances’s discomfort at socializing with Leonard and Lillian even as she becomes more closely drawn into the circle of their lives. Frances is struggling to maintain her place in a bygone social order even as her personal passions lead her in an unexpected direction.

I didn’t know anything about The Paying Guests when I picked it up except for being familiar with its author, and for the first one-third to one-half of the book I was fine with it just being a vivid period piece with a love story nestled inside (this is Sarah Waters, folks, so expect some fairly candid scenes of sexuality between two women!). But the story takes a darker turn when an unplanned act of violence throws everyone’s lives into disarray. From this point on it becomes a murder mystery — but a murder mystery seen in reverse, where our focus is on those who try to cover up the crime, and every step the police take towards uncovering the truth becomes a step closer to disaster. At this point an already interesting book became compelling to me and I found it impossible to put down.

One thought lingers: man, you really could literally get away with murder in the days before DNA analysis!

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Not That Kind of Girl, by Lena Dunham

notthatkindofgirlWell, here’s a case where getting a little behind on my book reviews has certainly had an impact on how I discuss the book. I read the memoir before the social media storm erupted around Dunham’s depiction of her seven-year-old self peering at her baby sister’s vagina and later, as a teenager, bribing the same un-cuddly little sister into being a more affectionate somewhat as “a sexual predator might.” A third controversial reference to her sister suggests that when they shared a bed, teenaged Lena sometimes masturbated while her younger sister was asleep in bed next to her. Never having had a sibling, I have no idea how normal or abnormal this behavior is, but it certainly has gotten the young actress, who is a polarizing figure anyway, into a huge controversy.

Before a right-wing website labelled her a pedophile for those scenes in the book, few reviewers seem to have commented much on those passages. Did they make me squirm a little uncomfortably while reading them? Absolutely. But did they make me squirm any more than various other things in the book — Dunham’s depictions of her family life, her boundary-challenged relationship with two different therapists, numerous sexual encounters with different men in her life? No. The entire book is witty, well-written, and eminently squirm-worthy. There’s no suggestion anywhere (to me, anyway) that Dunham is holding her own life up as anything but a complete mess. As the subtitle suggests, her experiences are more along the lines of “cautionary tale” than “role model.”

For my money, Dunham’s exploration of her baby sister’s private parts falls firmly into the category of childhood exploration (can a seven-year-old, who presumably has no sexual feelings herself, actually be a pedophile?); her reference to masturbating next to her sleeping sister is one of a thousand examples of stunningly poor judgement in the book; and her comparison of herself to a sexual predator while trying to get her sister to kiss or cuddle with her is a clear case of where her editor should have said, “Lena, cut this metaphor — you may love it, but it’ll cause you more trouble than it’s worth.”

I think the book suffers a little from the common problem of memoirs written by people under 3o — it feels as if Dunham is too close to the events she’s writing about to have any real perspective or insight into them. But she certainly is a sharp, witty writer who doesn’t mind shining a harsh light on her own faults and shortcomings. Whether that light will turn out to have been too harsh for her future popularity, only time will tell.

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Jew and Improved, by Benjamin Errett

jewandimprovedWith my well-known fondness for memoirs about spiritual journeys, I’d picked up Benjamin Errett’s Jew and Improved a few times, loved the title, and thought “Maybe I should read that,” but never got around to actually reading it. Then I read Alison Pick’s memoir Between Gods, and noticed on the author’s Facebook page that she linked to an article about her book by Benjamin Errett, which began: “When you convene all the Canadians who have written memoirs about converting to Judaism, there’s no need to book the restaurant ahead of time. Alison Pick and I easily found a table for two at a café on a recent Friday morning.”

That sentence convinced me I had to read Errett’s book — and if I was still in doubt, this passage, later in the article, sealed the deal: “Her book is as much about conversion as it is about depression, about searching for spiritual meaning to combat a biochemical feeling of meaninglessness. (My book? My book features brisket recipes.)”

That’s Errett’s authorial voice for you — breezy, funny, self-deprecating. He’s traversing similar ground to Pick here, in the sense that the book is about the conversion process, but he treads it with a much lighter foot. Rather than unearthing a painful and buried family history like Pick, Errett converts to Judaism for probably the most common of reasons: he marries a nice Jewish girl. There’s plenty of family dysfunction in Jew and Improved too, but it’s played for laughs rather than for angst. I highly recommended Between Gods, but if you’ve read that and you’re in the mood for something light and fun, while still thinking Jewish, try Jew and Improved. I liked it; you might too.

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The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman

magicianslandThis final volume of Grossman’s Harry-Potter-meets-Narnia-but-for-grownups-so-there’s-sex-and-drinking trilogy is a satisfying conclusion to the tale that began with The Magicians and continued in The Magician King. Quentin Coldwater, the teenager who got accepted to Brakebills Academy of magic and then discovered the legendary land of Fillory, is an adult now. And the Magicians trilogy has always been as much a coming-of-age story as it is a fantasy story. It’s a coming of age that focuses not on the adolescent years but on young adulthood — what you do after you leave school, who your friends are, how you build a career and weather your quarter-life crisis, and most importantly, who are you going to be? Quentin may pass through magical portals to parallel universes and ride on mythical beasts, but ultimately, he has to face the same questions as any young man turning thirty. What is his life about? Will there always be a newer and better quest to go on, another mythic enemy to defeat?

Yes, there’s a crisis in Fillory: that magical world may just be ending. And Quentin and his crew of mismatched friends have to do something about it. But that quest, with all its deep musings on the importance of deities and what happens when we outgrow them, takes a backseat (for this reader, anyway) to Quentin’s inner world, his (potential) rediscovery of a lost love and his personal quest to create something new of his own, rather than forever being an explorer of other people’s worlds.

Looking back over my reviews of the first two books, I see that I always had a problem warming to Quentin as a main character. He’s not particularly likable and throughout the series I have often wanted to shake him, but I did find myself warming to him in this volume. Like many book series that I’ve read while the author is still writing them, this trilogy has suffered, for me, from the lengthy gaps between books. I always find I’ve forgotten a lot of the plot and characters and take the first hundred pages or so just to get myself up to speed. The good news is that this series is well-written and compelling enough that I would be happy to go back to the beginning and reread them all one after another, to get a better sense of how the story unfolds. 

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Between Gods, by Alison Pick

betweengodsAlison Pick’s novel Far to Go explores through fiction her family’s long-buried past: her grandparents were Czech Jews who escaped the Holocaust only to convert to Christianity in Canada and hide the past. Between Gods explores that same territory through the (sometimes less forgiving) lens of non-fiction. In raw, lucid prose, Pick uncovers the years during which she converted to Judaism while marrying her longtime partner, having a child, and struggling with depression. There’s a lot going on here, and what holds it all together is Alison Pick’s luminous prose and unflinching honesty. The tone ranges from dark — sometimes very dark, as Pick plumbs the depths of her own depression and her family’s wartime experiences — to funny, as she navigates the process of converting to Judaism under the tutelage of the least empathetic teacher imaginable.

Judaism is well-known to be one of the few world religions that, far from actively proselytizing, actually makes it difficult for people to convert. Rabbis want to be pretty sure that becoming a Jew is no fleeting fancy before they accept you into the fold, and as Pick goes through this process, she is forced to confront her own feelings about her childhood Christianity and the faith of her ancestors. Perhaps appropriately, given the traditional emphasis on Judaism as a religion the focuses more on how you live than on what you believe, there’s little focus here on what Pick actually believes about God or anything supernatural. Though she is obviously a deeply spiritual person, her memoir contains little sense of the presence of a personal God. But then, one of the best-loved women’s stories in the Jewish Scriptures, the Book of Esther, famously never mentions the name of God at all, yet its story is not only a key piece of Jewish history but the basis for the feast of Purim. Alison Pick’s modern story echoes the Esther scroll in suggesting that while the existence of God may be peripheral to the story of a faithful Jewish woman, the question of identity –who am I and what does it mean to be a Jew? — must always be central.

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