The Summer Before the War

I recently picked up The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson now that it’s out in paperback.  I noticed it last year during a phase of reading about World War I (including Famous Last Words, but decided that it didn’t merit purchase in hardcover.  While waiting, I read Simonson’s first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.

Simonson’s writing is lightweight but well considered.  Occasionally, I sensed the strain of her trying a little too hard.  As with many light, pleasant books, a good editor could have polished some of the creakier sections, but her books aren’t positively crying for editorial help in the manner of G.M. Malliet’s (which are of similar weight).

The Summer Before the War is the story of an apprentice doctor, a young teacher, and a fictional Sussex town in the months leading up to the war.  It explores the changing morals and class systems of them time.  There is lots of great material and scope for exploration in the premise and in the characters Simonson has created but unfortunately she just skims across the surface of too many possibilities, never really exploring any of them.  There is a gentle romance – and Simonson avoids the “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back” trope of many novels – but even that isn’t explored deeply.

Simonson notes in her afterword that writing a second book is harder than the first – and the struggle is noticeable in the difference in quality of her first and second books.  Both are pleasant stories to relax with when life is overwhelming, but Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is still on my shelf, while The Summer Before the War has been relegated to the donate pile.


The Art Forger

I read The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro because it was half price at the bookstore and it appeared to be a trashy romance novel.

Sadly, in this case judging the book by its cover yielded the clichéd results.  This was not a trashy romance novel, despite incorporating many components of one.  If that’s what you’re looking for, do not read this book.  It’s a little bit mystery (but not really), possibly chick lit (not really sure what qualifies as that anymore, and it’s a category I dislike anyway), a little bit historical fiction.

Immediately upon finishing the book, I wondered what the point of its existence was.  It tells the story of Claire, who is working as a painting reproducer after having been shunned from the art community.  Her backstory is that she “forged” a painting in her boyfriend’s style to help him out of a slump and then, angry at the accolades he was receiving, revealed the truth and wasn’t believed.  Hence the shunning.  She is approached with an offer to forge a Degas so that the fake can be sold and the real one can be given to the museum it was originally stolen from.  In return, she is offered a one-woman show at a prestigious gallery.  She and the gallery owner subsequently fall in love, but it turns out she has really terrible taste in men, and the trashy romance aspect of the novel abandons the reader mid-book.

Keep reading for spoilers Continue reading

The Hollow Hills

I decided to reread Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy after reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.  I hadn’t read the books in about 20 years, but recalled liking them as an interpretation of Arthurian legend.  My decision resulted in a quest of my own, as these books, normally a staple of used the used book store fantasy section, suddenly disappeared from stock.

The Hollow Hills, the second book of the trilogy, is the story of Merlin’s life from just before Arthur’s birth to his crowning as king.  I enjoy Stewart’s interpretation of Merlin not only as an enchanter but also skilled in medicines, music, and engineering.  She describes how many of the magical feats are achieved through the understanding of physics, plant lore, and psychology.

I did find it odd that Mary Stewart, as a woman, demonstrates such scorn for female magic.  I’m not sure if this is to show us later (I haven’t reread The Last Enchantment yet) how underestimating women’s magic was Merlin’s downfall, or if, as a child of the 1920s (although the book wasn’t written until the 1970s) she really believed in the superiority of men.  I’ve read several of her “romantic mysteries”, which always feature plucky heroines who, despite their pluck, are simply incapable of getting by without a man about to do things like drive and book hotel rooms.

There are some things that one hesitates to bring down into words.  Words change an idea by definitions too precise, meanings too hung about with the references of every day.

It Can’t Happen Here

I read It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclaire Lewis, because Q bought it and it sounded interesting.  It was referenced in one or two of Q’s magazines in reference to the Trump presidency – for when people were done reading 1984.

Like 1984, the author trusted the right wing more than the left to lead the country away from the dystopia he imagined.  In an afterword to our copy of the book, Lewis is quoted as saying “The Republican represents the old school of honesty and integrity.  It takes that kind of leadership to defeat fascism.”  It’s interesting to note that both books enjoying a surge in popularity because they now seem prescient were more concerned with the left wing than the right.

It Can’t Happen Here tells the story of Doremus Jessup, the editor of a small city newspaper, and his family during the rise of a dictatorship.  It follows the events that lead Americans to accept more and more tyrannical governance all the while believing that they will eventually each be given $5000 a year and probably more.  One of the major themes is that promise of $5000 a year is all that it really takes for people to allow themselves to be ruled by a dictator – even in the face of the continuing absence of that money.

The early few chapters are introduced with “quotes” from President Buzz Windrip’s ghost-written memoir/manifesto “Zero Hour”, and some of those are rather familiar:

I know the Press only too well.  Almost all editors hide away in spider-dens, men without thought of Family or Public Interest to the humble delights of jaunts out of doors, plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good and who are vulnerable because they stand out in the fierce Light that beats around the Throne.

However, it’s possible to strain oneself too hard looking for parallels.  It is, after all speculative fiction from the 1930s, subject to the events of the time, and not a guidebook to a presidency almost a century later.

Reading this has made me want to reread Handmaid’s Tale.

First snow

I love the first snow of the year.  By November, all I want to do is curl up inside under blankets, so I do not welcome good weather – which we’ve seen a lot of this fall.

The first snow gives me permission to stay inside and watch the flakes drift down.  By day, flakes catch thin sunlight, and collect in the lavender and sage.  By night, they sparkle like Christmas card glitter under the streetlights.  The snow finally sticks, whitewashing the world with a fresh, clean coat and muffling the noise of the streets.

Soon I’ll be tired of shoveling this stuff, but for tonight I enjoy the simple pleasure of the first snow.

Fifteen Dogs and Sirius

I read Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis earlier this year at the vehement recommendation of Filler Words (names have been changed to protect the innocent) – whose recommendations I’ve learned must be considered in context of the fact that he only reads dense Can Lit – and because it was the 2015 Giller prize winner (which offers about the same indication of my likely level of enjoyment as a recommendation by Filler Words does).

I just finished reading Sirius by Olaf Stapledon because Brockville told me about it.  A board game that we were playing referenced Stapledon, and Brockville described some of his work.  Sirius sounded awfully similar to Fifteen Dogs, so I had to check it out.

Fifteen Dogs was published in 2015 and is the story of what happens when two gods (Hermes and Apollo) give human language and intelligence to a pack of dogs and bet on whether any of the dogs can find happiness.  Some of the dogs decide that they are uncomfortable with their new human nature and do their utmost to deny it, refusing to speak or do anything un-doglike.  Others explore their newfound intelligence – one forms a strong and complex bond with a human woman, another begins composing poetry.   The book explicitly declares itself an apologue (the subtitle is “An Apologue”), warning us that we are meant to take moral reflections from the story.  Seeing human behaviour through the eyes of the dogs, who try to understand it and reconcile their human nature with their dog nature, allows an opportunity to reflect on humanity.

The Giller Prize jury had this to say about the book:

“What does it mean to be alive? To think, to feel, to love and to envy? André Alexis explores all of this and more in the extraordinary Fifteen Dogs, an insightful and philosophical meditation on the nature of consciousness. It’s a novel filled with balancing acts: humour juxtaposed with savagery, solitude with the desperate need to be part of a pack, perceptive prose interspersed with playful poetry. A wonderful and original piece of writing that challenges the reader to examine their own existence and recall the age old question, what’s the meaning of life?”

That commentary could easily be a description of Sirius.

Sirius was published in 1944, and is the story of what happens when a scientist (Thomas Trelone) gives a dog human intelligence, just to see if he can.  Sirius is raised alongside Trelone’s daughter Plaxy as one of the family, and forms a complex (and slightly disturbing) bond with her.  Sirius struggles with the feral urges of his dog nature against the spiritual and philosophical urges of his human nature.  Sirius experiments with poetry and music.  The book declares itself Science Fiction (it’s written in capital letters on the cover), warning us that there will be lasers.  There are none.  The only sciencey stuff involved is the ability to give a dog human intelligence, which is really just a means to provide a different viewpoint on human nature. This allows a philosophical exploration of humanity.  Written during the Second World War, there was probably a lot to wonder about.

There are many parallels between the books not worth enumerating here.  I’m sure that Alexis did not intentionally copy the ideas of Stapledon, but I wonder if he encountered Sirius at some point and the idea stuck with him, or whether, given only the idea of dog’s perspective on man, the resulting observations are inevitable.  Or perhaps there are only so many stories in the world.  I wonder, though, if Fifteen Dogs would still have won the Giller if any of the jurors had read Sirius.

I preferred Sirius because it didn’t feel like it was trying so hard to be a book of philosophy.  I think I might be biased against CanLit, but I always feel like its trying too hard to be deep and literary.

Sirius is a gently meandering story where you know the end from the beginning.  Despite being Science Fiction, there is very little science, no explosions, no mysteries, no cliff-hangers, and in fact no exciting events at all.  There’s just a gradual development of the characters, and the exploration of religion, music, and social values.

Two ideas passages resonated with me:

In a way it was easy to cling to faith and betray intelligence, though Geoffrey’s active faith was no easy-going affair.  It was easy, too, to cling to intelligence and abandon faith, like McBane, for instance.  But was there no way of being equally loyal to both?


Even in man, whose brain and body had developed in step with one another for millions of years, the large cerebrum seems to put a strain on the system, and seemed to be in fact something of a morbid growth, leading all too often to mental disorder.  In the case of the dog, when it is suddenly given an enlarged brain, the stress is far more serious.

Old stuff

I didn’t post for a while because of some family stuff and subsequent work obligations.  But I did write a few drafts while on vacation back in August, so here they are, months later, for the record.

Reasons to love PEI:

  • Houses back onto the airport, and there are no fences between their yards and the runway
  • When intersections need to be controlled for a bicycle race, it’s done by construction workers with road signs, not police
  • Islanders are relaxed and take things slow. Except for driving, when they will pass you at 30 over the limit on a solid yellow up a hill on a curve in the fog at night.
  • They will wave at you as they blow past
  • Lobster melts
  • Scallops
  • Beauty everywhere you go
  • Watching a lightning storm 150 km out in the ocean

August 26 2016 – Oyster Bed Bridge, PEI

Today I biked from the hotel to PEI National Park, and then much too far into the park.  I had 2 hours to bike there and back in order to be in town for a massage.  I cycled west along the trail, looking at herons and dunes and crashing waves.  45 minutes in, I came across the intriguingly named  Bubbling Springs Trail.  Sure, I can do that and get back in time.  The trail was lovely, with so many shades of green a picture wouldn’t do it justice, and the smell of sea air, pine trees, and soil after the rain.  I paused at a blind to watch birds playing in the rushes.  It turns out that the bubbling spring only bubbles sometimes, but no matter – the reflection of the sun on the distinctly non-bubbling pond was beautiful.  And then I was 75 minutes in to my trip.  And then it turned out I had been riding with the wind at my back all the way out and hadn’t noticed.  By the time I made it back to the motel, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it up to my room to get my things.

The massage therapist started our appointment with “any particular areas of discomfort”?

August 27

Today J and I rented bicycles from North Rustico and went along the trail toward Cavendish. Happily today the ride out was into the wind, so the ride back was manageable and I was actually able to dismount from the bicycle without collapsing to the ground. Supper at Terre Rouge – delicious as always.

When I got back to the motel, I sat and watched a lightening storm over “the Maggies” (which is apparently what islanders call the Iles de les Madeleines), which is about 150 km away (and part of Quebec despite being separated from Quebec by at least one province and a lot of water in every direction).  Lightning apparently travels a long way when there’s nothing but water between you and it.

August 28

Stopped at a scenic viewpoint off Highway 6. It turned out to be a back, uncontrolled entrance to PEI National Park. The Scenic Lookout sign should have included a cloud of mosquitos and horseflies though – I have never seen such huge swarms. I have mosquito bites on my palms.

Met up with J and went for a hike in Dromore Park – definitely a place to revisit. There are several well marked hikes, and no one else there.  Rented kayaks from Kingfisher Outdoor (Clearwater Design! from Prince Edward County to Prince Edward Island) and paddled in St. Peter’s Bay and the Morell River.  Watched a heron and a bald eagle fight over a fish – I didn’t realise there were bald eagles so far north, but J says there are many.  Had pizza from Famous Pepper’s in Charlottetown – also worth another visit, though it’s a bit surprising that they don’t have any seafood toppings.

Remember to look into Bishop’s Rest B&B for next year and West Point Lighthouse for next year.

Today, Donald J. Trump won the presidential election and became President-Elect of the United States of America.  Many people far better informed than I have written and will write many blog posts, articles, and editorials on this and many people less informed than I will do the same.  I won’t add my small voice to the cacophony, but I didn’t feel like I could post an entry about my time in PEI or the trashy novel I read in the summer as though nothing had changed.

The next 100 days will be very interesting.

Literary meal

Last Thursday, during a mini-vacation to Ottawa, we dined at Whalesbone on the recommendation of Gin and Opinion.  Since Whalesbone is famous for their oysters, we obviously got some, and since champagne goes with everything, I obviously got some of that as well.

Some administrative notes:  The oysters were “shucker’s pick” – a selection of several different oysters from both the east and west coast.  Having now done a horizontal tasting, I can conclude that I prefer east coast to west coast oysters, and that my favourite oysters are from Cascumpec.  I look forward to devouring these in large quantities, as fresh as possible, while visiting the fraternal unit next summer.  Shucker’s pick is brought to table with a selection of garnishes, including mignonette, lemon, horseradish, and blended scotch.  The shucker explained the scotch:  eat the oyster, then put a few dashes of scotch in the shell and swirl it around.  Shoot the result.  Lovely.

Dining on oysters and champagne was an experience appropriate for a James Bond novel, though I’m not sure that Bond would have appreciated being sat near the open kitchen.  Whenever I read Ian Fleming, I find myself craving a gourmet meal.  Fleming spends pages describing in detail the selection and enjoyment of a fine meal with all of its accompanying drinks in a way that you can taste every bite.  I don’t recall ever reading of Bond garnishing his oysters with Scotch, but it isn’t hard to imagine.

Whenever a life experience reminds me of something I read, I think with fleeting anxiety of the scene in You’ve Got Mail where Meg Ryan reflects that so much of what she sees reminds her of what she’s read, and shouldn’t it be the other way around.  (How meta, to reflect on my life because I’m reminded of a movie because I’m reminded of a book…).  In any case, the next time I read Moonraker, I can happily be reminded of the time I savoured a variety of oysters and drank good champagne.  Also, the fact that Q and I were able to discuss Ian Fleming while dining  deepened our enjoyment of the evening, so life experiences reminding me of something I read is clearly not always something to worry about.

The Sealed Letter

By Emma Donoghue

I loved Room, which is why I picked up this book.  The blurb on the back sounded compelling:  “drawn from the details of a scandalous divorce case that gripped England in 1864″…”a mysterious letter surfaces, threatening to destroy several lives”.

I didn’t enjoy reading the story, and actually gave up at page 225 and skimmed the rest.  Reading a few other reviews later, I came to appreciate the book for some of its observations on the role of women in Victorian society, particularly the role of feminists.  How a woman at the time needed to consider how best to advance her cause in every choice and action is well illustrated.

Keep reading for spoilers

Continue reading