Monthly Archives: December 2019

The Cazalet Chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s four Cazalet Chronicles – The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion and Casting Off — were great favourites of mine when they came out in the 1990s, and I read them all avidly, the first couple of volumes several times (rereading them as each new one came out and a few more times for good measure). They tell the story of a wealthy English family (but not Downton-Abbey-wealthy: the Cazalets made their money in trade) in the pre-, during and post-WW2 years, from 1937 to 1947. The original tetralogy is practically the definition of “sweeping family epic”: it covers the experiences of three generations of a large extended family, ranging with a wonderful omniscient voice through the perspectives of children, teenagers, the middle-aged and the elderly as their lives are impacted by the war and all the changes it brings.

There are so many things Howard does brilliantly in this series: wonderful characterization, brilliant description, note-perfect analysis of social mores and personal relationships and so much more, that all I can say is, if this sounds like the kind of thing you might like, pick up The Light Years (the first volume) and give it a try.

When I decided to collect a proper matching set of these books instead of the random assortment I had acquired over the years, I was shocked to learn there were, not the four books I’d read and loved many years ago, but five. Eighteen years after publishing Casting Off, and not long before her own death, Howard wrote a fifth volume that jumps ten years ahead of the end of the series (covering the years from 1956-1958) and tells us where the characters are at that point. So, of course I had to read that too.

As you might expect of a one-volume sequel to such a long and complex series, both set and written many years after the original, the fifth volume (All Change) is a mixed success. I did love revisiting the characters, and some of the changes that were coming to the Cazalets by the late 1950s (deaths of older characters, threat to the family business, potential loss of the old family home) are absolutely what might be expected 10 years after the end of the war. A way of life is coming to an end; some characters are able to move forward relatively happily with it, while others find themselves clinging to a time that will never return. All of that was appropriate and well-handled.

Where things go off the rails a bit in All Change is in Howard’s gallant attempt to corral her vast cast of characters. Some of them simply get left out or forgotten about in this last book (only the most glancing of references to Jessica Castle’s entire family, who got chapters and chapters in the original series despite not even being Cazalets). Howard has always written children’s points of view really well, but in this book she spends too much time writing scenes about the under-10 generation of children who were born between Casting Off and All Change (who readers don’t know or care about) at the expense of telling us more about the teenagers and young adults whose childhoods were chronicled in the original series and who we’re anxious to know more about. (A particularly egregious example is when Hugh’s son Wills, barely mentioned throughout the entire book, doesn’t make it for the big family reunion at the end of the book, and someone offhandedly mentions that it’s too bad Wills decided to spend Christmas with his girlfriend’s family — you know darn well Howard simply forgot Wills existed and tossed in that sentence when an editor reminded her of him).

The relationships among the family members would differ of course, in such a large extended family, and not everyone would keep in touch, but some of the distance between characters simply doesn’t make sense. Why would Polly have to introduce her husband to Aunt Rachel when Rachel was at their wedding — and in the nine or ten years since then, while they weren’t likely hanging out much, surely they would have seen each other once or twice? Why would Neville not recognize his own half-sister Juliette, when that branch of the family is not estranged from one another in any way? Yes, a young adult out living on his own might not see whole lot of his teenaged half-sister and might be shocked at how grown-up she now looks, but … not to the extent Neville is, and certainly not with the same results! (Don’t even get me started on the Neville/Juliette subplot — this is something an editor should have taken a firm line on and simply said “You can’t do that; it makes no sense.”) Yes, catching up with the lives of so many different characters was probably near-impossible, but there were so many missed opportunities and so many pages wasted on characters we didn’t care about, that it was sometimes frustrating.

All this sounds like I didn’t enjoy All Change or didn’t think it was a good conclusion to the series, but that’s not really true — I enjoyed visiting this world one more time, and I’m in awe of what Howard accomplished, even if not every character resolution was exactly what I’d have hoped for. It’s a great series and one I’m sure I’ll reread again sometime a few more years down the road. Rereading it made for a wonderful December project.

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A Queer and Pleasant Danger, by Kate Bornstein

A Queer and Pleasant Danger, apart from its great title and subtitle (“The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today”), has a unique distinction on my virtual bookshelves: when I first started creating my now entirely out-of-hand “want to read” list on Goodreads, the very first book I added to that list was A Queer and Pleasant Danger. Mostly because I liked the title and subtitle, and felt like I needed to understand trans people’s experience better. I couldn’t easily get hold of it when I first heard of it, and I forgot about it for awhile until I realized I could get the audiobook on Audible. So just to cross that first of 339 want-to-read books off my list, I got it.

You know by now that my preference is to listen to memoirs on audio, read by the author. This one is not read by Bornstein, but by a reader whose kind of snarky-sounding delivery pairs well with Bornstein’s kind of snarky-sounding prose, which was both apt and, sometimes, annoying. This was actually a book I wished I had read on paper not on audio, because there are parts I would have liked to skip or skim (in fact, there are parts where the author warns the reader they may want to skip, and boy, did I ever) and that’s harder to do in an audiobook.

Kate Bornstein, a trans woman who maybe identifies as nonbinary or gender fluid (she was in her 60s when she wrote this book and says that she doesn’t fully identify as either male or female though I believe she still uses female pronouns) is a funny, sarcastic writer who has been on quite a personal journey. As is often the case with memoirs, the writer doesn’t always write as much about the thing I happen to be curious about (the spiritual journey from Judaism to Scientology to what seems to be a sort of neo-pagan Goddess-worship at the time she wrote the book) and a lot, in great detail, about graphic details of her personal life that I’d rather skim over. This includes not just her sex life in general or what it’s like to transition via genital surgery — I’m famously squeamish about reading about medical details and prefer the “draw a veil over it” approach to reading sex scenes, but that’s just me. It also — and this was the point where I really started skipping — includes the fact that she is into S&M and had a year-long “master/slave” relationship where she was the consensual “slave” of two other women — something I have a really hard time wrapping my head around. However in the bigger cause of trying to better understand people whose life experience is very, very different from mine, it was certainly an informative read.

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Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield

Like Setterfield’s previous novels The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman and Black, Once Upon a River presents a tale that is a blend of history, mystery, and magic realism (or perhaps mythology or folklore). The River Thames, winding through English countryside and past an inn called the Swan, is at the centre of this novel, as much a character as the vividly realized cast of human beings who are all touched by the river in some way.

One night at the Swan, a mysterious, badly injured stranger enters the inn, carrying what everyone takes to be a life-sized doll or figure of some kind. In fact, it is a dead, but strangely unreal, little girl — who then comes back to life, just as mysteriously as she has shown up dead. Both she and the man who carried her into the inn have come out of the river, but nobody knows for sure how they got there. And it turns out that two families in the area — two fascinating, utterly believable families — are missing little girls of about this age. For complex plot reasons I won’t get into (read the book!) nobody from either family is able to immediately identify the little girl, so both families believe she could plausibly be their missing child.

Who is the little girl? Where did she come from? To which family does she belong? All these questions are explored as the girl’s fate winds, like the river, through the loosely connected lives of a large group of characters who live along its shores. The eventual conclusion of the story is absolutely rational and believable — while, at the same time, having more than a hint of mystery, myth and magic. Though we are living in the Victorian era where a village nurse carries out scientific experiments to try to understand why a child who was submerged in cold water might appear dead, we are reminded that there are some things reason can never fully account for.

This is a lovely, haunting, thoroughly enjoyable fairy tale.

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Eyes To the Wind, by Ady Barkan

This book stands alongside Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air and Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason as a beautifully-written and painfully honest memoir about what it’s like to be diagnosed with an almost certainly fatal disease in your early 30s, just when life, family and career seem to be opening up and you should be looking forward to the prospect of decades ahead.

In the case of each of these memoirs, along with the tragedy of the circumstances and the brilliance of the writing, there’s an added layer of richness and insight. Kalanithi was a doctor (he’s also the only one of the three writers who has, to this point, died since writing his book), and his book reflects on the experience of finding yourself suddenly on the other side of the doctor’s desk, a patient in need of care. Bowler is a person of faith who has researched and written about religion in contemporary America, now confronting her own illness in the light of religious teachings that assure people God will bless them and answer their prayers if they are faithful.

Ady Barken, the author of Eyes to the Wind, was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), shortly after the birth of his first child, and experienced a rapid deterioration of basically every physical function over the next couple of years. He was also a lawyer and professional activist for many progressive causes. After his diagnosis, although spending what remaining time he could with his wife and son was a priority, he did not turn inward and neglect his work, but rather threw himself with a passion into doing all he could for the causes and people he cared about in the time time he had left. He has been, and still is, an outspoken advocate for universal health care in the US, immigration reform, and other causes the uplift the rights of the most marginalized.

His memoir — narrated not by Barkan himself, who has lost the ability to speak, but by actor Bradley Whitford who does a fabulous job with it — tells the story of his years of activism alongside the story of the rapid decline of his fast-moving degenerative illness. He doesn’t shy away from anger, or sadness, but overall this memoir is suffused with hope and passion for the things Ady Barkan cares about. It’s a privilege to read it.

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One For the Rock, by Kevin Major

I’ve been reading through all the books nominated for this year’s NL Reads awards because, as last year’s winner, I get to be one of the defenders this year (more on the wonderful book I’ll be defending in a later blog post). Kevin Major’s mystery novel One for the Rock is one of the nominees, a short and relatively light mystery novel set in contemporary St. John’s.

The premise is good: our hero is a cantankerous middle-aged man named Sebastian Synard who runs high-end hiking/dining tours of St. John’s for wealthy mainland tourists. Sebastian has a very sweet gig going (and the details of both hiking and dining in St. John’s are well-researched and absolutely spot-on, as they should be), but he is Bitter and Cynical because he’s a middle-aged man whose wife has left him for another, and also the world doesn’t seem to be giving him everything he thinks he deserves (I realize I may be a teeny bit Bitter and Cynical myself about the trope of middle-aged dudes in fiction and in mysteries specifically. Lighten up, man!).

Tragedy (but not much tragedy because it happens to an unlikeable character we barely know) strikes on one of Sebastian’s hikes when a tour group member perishes in a way that’s suspicious enough that almost everyone in the group might be a suspect. And, wouldn’t you know it, the police officer investigating the death is the very same guy that Sebastian’s wife ran off with, so Sebastian is Bitter, Cynical and Unwilling to Co-operate With the Investigation (at first, anyway).

From this premise, the mystery unfolds pretty quickly, with some wry humour along the way and lots of plot twists (some of which are more neatly tied-together than others: there were a couple of loose ends I wasn’t sure about). If you like mysteries and contemporary Newfoundland fiction (and don’t mind the odd grumpy middle-aged man), you should definitely check out this book.

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Becoming, by Michelle Obama

This was engaging, interesting, and, as is often the case with memoir, best listened to on audiobook read by the author. Michelle Obama is a warm, smart, interesting woman, and it was great to hear her life story, including the racism and sexism she’s dealt with in various forms and at many levels. It’s very clear that while she has never liked politics and didn’t really love being First Lady in a lot of ways, she valued the opportunities it gave her to shine a light on causes she cares about. Having this whole (quite long) book read on audio by Mrs. Obama herself really felt like just having her talk to me casually for several hours about her life, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

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Filed under Audiobook, Nonfiction -- memoir

The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This is a beautiful and lyrical novel about enslaved people in the southern US escaping from slavery. It reminded me of both Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, and, in a different way, of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.

Like The Underground Railroad and, even moreso, Washington Black, it depicts a searing and utterly believable picture of the lives of enslaved and free black people in that place and time. The main character, Hiram, lives uneasily in two worlds: he is a slave, but he is also the son of the plantation owner — the product, like so many enslaved people, of master-slave rape. His father gives him a privileged position in the main house and many privileges, but never considers giving him freedom or acknowledging him as a son: such things would be unimaginable in white Virginia society of that period. Only when he falls in among a group of people — both black and white — committed to freeing slaves, does Hiram glimpse the possibility of a different life.

The comparison to The Underground Railroad — and to Exit West, which of course is about modern immigration rather than about slavery — comes with the fact that there is a layer of magic realism threaded through this vividly realized historical fiction. Hiram has a supernatural power, connected to immersion in water: it saves him when he almost drowns, and, as he gradually discovers, gives him the ability to essentially teleport himself and others across great distances. It’s obvious how useful this skill would be to someone involved in helping enslaved people escape, but for Hiram his power does not come easily nor does he fully understand how to control it.

The one weakness of The Water Dancer comes, I think (for me, not necessarily for all readers) with that comparison: in both The Underground Railroad and Exit West I understood exactly why the magic realism element was in the story, what it contributed to the reader’s understanding of the otherwise realistic story. With this book, I wasn’t sure why the element of Hiram’s power was introduced to the story. It was never as fully developed or as important a part of the novel as early hints seemed to suggest it would be, and I felt like the story would be just as strong and impactful if Hiram had no superpowers but was only an ordinary man wanting to escape from slavery and eventually to help others do so.

This didn’t in any way decrease my enjoyment of the story: it just made me think about why Coates (who is a brilliant writer) made the choices he did, and whether he achieved what he intended to. For me, I don’t think the magic realism quite worked, but the historical story was a powerful and fascinating read.

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The Innocents, by Michael Crummey

This book, nominated for the Giller Prize, features the brilliant clarity of language, deft characterization and description you’d expect from a Michael Crummey novel. The subject matter is as harsh and bleak as the landscape where it’s set, and how you feel about that subject matter may determine how much you enjoy reading this book.

Sometime early in the 19th century (this is not specified, but you can work out the general time period from context clues), a pre-teen brother and sister are left orphaned in a Newfoundland cove so isolated that they are the only family there. Their parents and a baby sister have died, and at first their only choice seems to be to get aboard the next ship that puts into their cove and go to the nearest community to throw themselves on the mercy of whoever might take them in. But having inherited the fierce and stubborn independence of their parents, the siblings decide not to leave their parents’ land, choosing instead to try to survive alone. Through the cycle of the year they fish, make fish, keep house, cut wood, feed themselves and generally try to survive — assisted on occasion by a few visitors from the outside world, but for the most part relying only on themselves and each other.

Crummey does a wonderful job of capturing the innocence of these innocents — all the things they experience without having words or context for them. The language is beautiful here, as you would expect, the rhythms of speech perfectly captured.

If you’re thinking that this is the story of a brother and sister who age from about 12 to 15 during the time of this story with no other people around most of the time, and you’re wondering whether sex is one of those things they don’t have words or context for and whether the story is going to go in an incest-y direction … well, you’ll have to read it and see, but remember I told you it’s bleak, and there’ll definitely be some disturbing passages. This is probably not going to sit alongside Galore and Sweetland as one of my favourite Michael Crummey books, but I have to stand in awe of the brilliance of his writing.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical, Newfoundland author

The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler

This is a book with an intriguing concept that I enjoyed reading, but didn’t grab me quite as much as I’d hoped it would. The main character is Simon, a young man living alone in a crumbling seaside house, about to lose his job in a struggling local library, mourning the loss of his parents and trying to keep in touch with his troubled sister. When he receives a mysterious book in the mail, he begins to plunge into his family’s history, uncovering a tale of circus performers and women with a strange tie to the sea.

Simon himself has inherited his mother’s uncanny ability to stay underwater far longer than a normal person should be able to: along with this, however, comes a family history of untimely deaths by drowning, and he begins to fear that his sister might also be marked by this family curse. The story that unfolds in the present day alternates with a past story of Simon’s circus-performer ancestors, and both were interesting, but I didn’t get quite as immersed in the characters as I had hoped to, given how many ingredients of a great story were present.

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The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold

This is another one I enjoyed as an audiobook that would have worked just as well in print or ebook — the material is fascinating no matter how you consume it. For a history buff like me who is particularly intrigued by women’s lives that are often marginalized or ignored altogether in recorded history, this was a book I knew I had to read as soon as I heard about it.

The titular five are the five “canonical victims” — that is, the five women generally considered to be victims — of the murderer known as Jack the Ripper. Five women of low social status, indigent and in most cases homeless, killed (presumably) by a single murderer over a period of a few months in London in 1888. This historic serial killer has, of course, fascinated people for more than a century, spawning a whole spin-off industry of “Ripperology” and people trying to do what the police at the time could not do: identify the murderer.

Throughout it all, the unknown killer has become romanticized, while comparatively little attention has been paid to his victims. They are often dismissed with the sweeping statement that Jack the Ripper “killed prostitutes.” In fact, only one of the woman was known and identified by all around her as a sex worker; some of the others may have occasionally engaged in casual prostitution along with begging in order to survive, while others almost certainly never did, but none of them except Mary Jane Kelly, the last “canonical” victim, would have identified themselves or been known to those around them as sex workers.

What these women had in common, based on what we know of their lives which Rubenhold so brilliantly pieces together in this book, is that they were all desperately poor at the time of their murders — although most of them had good starts in solidly working-class families and, in some cases, had the chance to climb a little higher in society, aspiring to a more middle-class vision of security. A combination of misfortune, alcoholism, and laws that made life almost impossible for women after a marital breakup, all worked together to drive these women into abject poverty, moving from workhouses, to “sleeping rough,” to unsafe accommodations. In these conditions, they were easy prey for a brutal serial killer, but Rubenhold, unlike almost everyone else who writes about the Ripper murders, does not dwell on the gruesome details of murder and dismemberment. In fact, she barely touches on the murders at all, choosing instead to focus on the women’s lives from the earliest known information about them, up to the nights of their deaths. This is, as the title suggests, very clearly the story of these five women, not of the man who murdered them nor the things he did to their bodies after death.

There have been, after all, more than enough books written about the murders. What nobody has done before is pay the kind of careful and sustained attention that Rubenhold has done to these women themselves — not simply as “the Ripper’s victims” but as flesh-and-blood women with real lives, hopes, and aspirations. Along the way, we learn a lot of social history about the daily lives of poor women in Victorian England; when information is not available about a particular period in one of these women’s lives, Rubenhold attempts to fill in the story by telling us about the sort of thing that might have happened to a woman in the same position in that era. The entire book is a vivid reminder that while women are generally at a disadvantage compared to men, and the poor always at a disadvantage compared to the rich and middle-class, the very worst thing you can be in most societies is a poor woman. And perhaps the only thing worse than that is to live on forever in a kind of ghoulish historical afterlife where you are rarely even called by your name or thought of as a person, but remembered only for your connection to the man who ended your life. Rubenhold gives these five women the dignity of their own history, and it’s a fascinating read. One of my favourites of the year.

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