Friday, 28 November 2014

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame / Victor Hugo

4 out of 5 stars

Set in medieval Paris, Victor Hugo’s powerful historical romance The Hunchback of Notre-Dame has resonated with succeeding generations ever since its publication in 1837. It tells the story of the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda, condemned as a witch by the tormented archdeacon Claude Frollo, who lusts after her. Quasimodo, the deformed bell ringer of Notre-Dame Cathedral, having fallen in love with the kindhearted Esmeralda, tries to save her by hiding her in the cathedral’s tower. When a crowd of Parisian peasants, misunderstanding Quasimodo’s motives, attacks the church in an attempt to liberate her, the story ends in tragedy.

I don’t know about you, but I think about obsessional crimes and stalking as modern phenomena, exacerbated by life in huge cities. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame demonstrates that there is truly nothing new under the sun. Victor Hugo wrote this tale of obsession in the 1800s. The gypsy girl, La Esmeralda, has the misfortune of attracting the obsessional gaze of two men, the archdeacon Claude Frollo and his protégé, the deformed bell-ringer of the cathedral, Quasimodo. She, in her turn, is fixated on handsome Captain Phoebus, who couldn’t care less about her although he is willing to take advantage of her when an opportunity presents itself.

None of these people actually know one another—they have only observed from afar and projected their own fantasies onto other people. Quasimodo has the most reason for his adoration of La Esmeralda—she brought him water while he was incapacitated at the pillory during an undeserved punishment. Earlier, we see La Esmeralda save Pierre Gringoire, the unsuccessful playwright, from hanging by accepting him as a temporary husband. Pierre is somewhat disappointed when he discovers that she intends a platonic relationship, but is sensible enough to appreciate that her kindness has spared his life.

La Esmeralda is presented as a kind, good person. But like many women, she finds herself the focus of unwanted male attention. We often think of stalking in relation to celebrity, but in reality many ordinary citizens find themselves the object of obsession of other “regular” people. A waitress may, by serving a cup of coffee, unwittingly launch an obsessive on a mission to “own” her. Having had a small brush with such behaviour myself, I have realized how startlingly easy it is to become involved in such situations. There are so many lonely people living in our cities, who are used to being ignored while resenting it. If your job requires you to be polite and helpful, these folks may misinterpret your intentions. The crumbs of attention that they receive from you may trigger that hunger for more, beginning something that you never meant to start and which you feel powerless to stop.

At the same time, La Esmeralda is guilty of a similar behaviour—she knows nothing about Phoebus except that he is handsome and wears a beautiful uniform. She is very young and it is like a young woman today becoming enamoured of a celebrity. Unlike many, La Esmeralda has the opportunity to meet her crush and is only prevented from consummating her desires by her stalker, Archdeacon Frollo.

None of this can end well. Modern instances of stalking are liable to end in death, either of the pursuer or the pursued. The HoND deals with these apparently timeless topics—I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s tragedies, especially Othello. Victor Hugo’s tale definitely deserves its reputation as classic literature.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Still on the Right Side of the Sod

I just got off the phone from speaking to an octogenarian friend.  She phoned an out-of-date work phone number of mine last Saturday morning and left a vague message.  The recipient only just tracked me down and passed it along.

It turns out she was concerned that she would be unable to host our Christmas get-together.  This woman broke her hip two years ago--something wasn't right and she had to have surgery re-done this year.  Then she had a car accident (I don't think she should have been driving for the last 5 years or so, but I don't get a vote because I'm not related to her).  On the way into the emergency ward at the hospital, she fell again!  She's currently in a wheelchair & having home care daily to help her get breakfast & make her bed, etc.  And she's worried about a Christmas party.

I've got to spend more time visiting this lady--I've promised to go see her between Christmas and New Year's, but I think I'll slip up to see her this weekend too.

This about 3 weeks after visiting another friend who is in her early 80s--went to her assisted living facility and found out that her dementia had progressed to the point that she is now on a locked ward.  She didn't recognize me when I approached her, but after we had talked a bit, she said, "You sound like a friend of mine."  I told her, "That's because I am a friend of yours."  She agreed to visit with me & another friend and by the end of the visit she was chatting happily (about the same 2-3 things, over and over).  She probably still didn't really know who we were, but she at least recognized us as friends.  I almost cried when we left the facility!  But I'm committed to going back, just so the staff know that there are people who care about her.

Plus, one of my aunts, who just turned 90 this year, had a mini-stroke last week.  She's improving, but she has dementia too and a stroke has not improved things for her.

It's so agonizing, watching the deterioration of these strong women who have all been so influential in my life.  I'm so glad that I went to another aunt's 80th birthday party a couple of weekends ago--it was worth every penny that I paid for the plane ticket to celebrate a happy occasion, instead of a funeral.

The next few years will be all about spending time with these awesome women and appreciating the examples that they have set for me.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe / C.S. Lewis

4 out of 5 stars
When Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy took their first steps into the world behind the magic wardrobe, little do they realise what adventures are about to unfold. And as the story of Narnia begins to unfold, so to does a classic tale that has enchanted readers of all ages for over half a century.

I’m pretty sure that I read this when I was 11 or 12—but I didn’t remember it at all. In my defense, that was about 40 years ago. Here’s the funny thing though—as a kid, if I liked a book, I re-read it numerous times. So, if I did read it, lo those many years ago, I didn’t like it enough to re-read it. Around 12 or 13, I also read The Lord of the Rings, for example, and I have read it innumerable times now and continue to enjoy it every once in a while.

Now, I’m not sure if I believe this premise or not, but in The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, his mother had a theory—we are all either Narnia fans or Middle Earth fans. In her experience, people rarely loved both fantasy worlds. She and one child were Narnia people and her son Will inhabited Middle Earth in a way that both of them envied.

Reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe now as an adult well into middle age, I find the Christian symbolism in it to be obvious and heavy handed. (Mind you, if you had little exposure to Christianity, I’m sure many parts of the story line would be inexplicable!) By contrast, although many people say they see similar things in Tolkien, I seem to be blind to it. Yes, there is a struggle between good and evil, but it doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly Christian world or world view and The Lord of the Rings certainly doesn’t clobber you with Christianity the way than Lewis’ work does. (In fact, LOTR feels very pagan to me).

I guess this is my way of saying if the world really does split itself evenly into Team Narnia and Team Middle Earth, count me in as a member of Team Middle Earth. Despite the fact that I quite enjoyed the fantasy adventure, the Greek mythological beings (fauns, centaurs, dryads, etc.), plus the references to Northern European mythology (the Witch seems to be to be a relative of the Snow Queen, and Father Christmas has become a regular everywhere). Mind you, it also seems to me to be a bit unfair to compare definite children’s literature (Narnia) with a book that I began enjoying as a tween and that continues to comfort me now in my 5th decade (LOTR).

I certainly see why this book has become a classic and why it still appeals to children today. 

Monday, 17 November 2014

Studio Saint-Ex / Ania Szado

3 out of 5 stars
Set in Manhattan and Quebec City in 1943, Studio Saint-Ex is a fictionalized account of the love triangle among Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, his mercurial wife, Consuelo, and a young fashion designer. Mignonne Lachapelle leaves Montreal for New York to make her name, but is swept away by the charms of France’s greatest living writer. Nothing about their relationship is simple—not Antoine’s estranged wife who entangles Mig in her schemes to reclaim her husband, not his turmoil, and certainly not their tempestuous trysts or the blurring boundaries of their artistic pursuits. Yet the greatest complication comes in the form of a deceptively simple manuscript: Antoine’s work-in-progress, The Little Prince, a tender tale of loneliness, friendship, love, and loss in the form of a young prince fallen to earth.

Studio Saint-Ex is a deeply evocative love story of a literary giant caught between two talented and mesmerizing women, set in the glittering world of French expatriates in Manhattan during World War II. Reminiscent of The Paris Wife, Loving Frank, and The Rules of Civility, Studio Saint-Ex explores themes of love, passion, and creativity in sophisticated, literary prose.

I heard the author of this novel interviewed on CBC radio a while ago and was intrigued. I recently re-read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book The Little Prince and was inspired to try Studio Saint-Ex as a result.

I liked the book—I stayed up much too late the other night to finish it, unable to put it down. I know that many of the details are true—Saint-Ex did have a number of plane crashes resulting in serious injuries, he did spend time in the U.S. waiting to participate in WWII as a pilot, he did have a volatile, beautiful Salvadoran wife named Consuelo, they did live in twin penthouses in NYC, and he is reputed to have had affairs with young women during the time he loitered there.
This novel is told from the POV of one of these young women, Mignonne LaChapelle—her involvement with Antoine and with Consuelo as she works to break in on the fashion scene in NYC as a designer. How she uses them and is used by them during her pursuit of these dreams.

The ending was inevitable—history tells us that Antoine went missing during a reconnaissance mission in 1944, but the novel follows both Mignonne and Consuelo a little further. I am uneasy about the blend of fact & fiction—not knowing where facts leave off and the fiction begins. However, I certainly realize that this is well within the purview of the author and is fair game, it just left me with so many questions that I may have to seek out a biography of Saint-Ex in order to set my mind at ease. 

Friday, 14 November 2014

Aesop's Fables

3 out of 5 stars
The fables of Aesop have become one of the most enduring traditions of European culture, ever since they were first written down nearly two millennia ago. Aesop was reputedly a tongue-tied slave who miraculously received the power of speech; from his legendary storytelling came the collections of prose and verse fables scattered throughout Greek and Roman literature. First published in English by Caxton in 1484, the fables and their morals continue to charm modern readers: who does not know the story of the tortoise and the hare, or the boy who cried wolf?
This new translation is the first to represent all the main fable collections in ancient Latin and Greek, arranged according to the fables' contents and themes. It includes 600 fables, many of which come from sources never before translated into English.

Wow, was this collection of the Fables different from what I remember reading as a child. As the translator points out, we now think of fables as children’s literature, but they were originally meant for an adult audience and it certainly shows in this volume. There are a few rude and crude fables and a small selection of humourous fables.

As a farm child, I was always excited when we received a new box of books in the mail from the University of Alberta through their library extension program. I know that I read multiple versions of Aesop, as well as loads of Greek mythology and various fairy tales. So I was familiar with a number of the sayings that we still have today that have their origins in these little stories.

Have you ever spoken of “receiving the lion’s share” of something, i.e. most of it? How about talking of a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Ever thought that someone’s negative assessment of something was just sour grapes? It’s amazing to me how many of our current sayings can be traced back into antiquity.

Although this book was in many ways a walk down memory lane, it also included so many fables that I had never encountered before. I was somewhat disconcerted with how many of them were designed to keep people in their appointed social ranks—telling slaves that getting a new owner didn’t necessarily mean an improvement in life, that freedmen should remember where they came from (somewhat ironic, as Aesop was reputedly a freedman), and that craftspeople should stick to their specialties rather than trying to acquire new skills.

A worthwhile read for those interested in the history of literature.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Son / Jo Nesbø

4 out of 5 stars
The author of the internationally best-selling Harry Hole series now gives us an electrifying stand-alone novel set amid Oslo's hierarchy of corruption, from which one very unusual young man is about to propel himself into a mission of brutal revenge.

Sonny Lofthus, in his early thirties, has been in prison for the last dozen years: serving time for crimes he didn't commit. In exchange, he gets an uninterrupted supply of heroin—and the unexpected stream of fellow prisoners seeking out his uncanny abilities to soothe and absolve. His addiction started when his father committed suicide rather than be exposed as a corrupt cop, and now Sonny is the center of a vortex of corruption: prison staff, police, lawyers, a desperate priest—all of them focused on keeping him stoned and jailed, and all of them under the thumb of Oslo's crime overlord, the Twin. When Sonny learns some long-hidden truths about his father he makes a brilliant escape, and begins hunting down the people responsible for the hideous crimes he's paid for. But he's also being hunted, by the Twin, the cops, and the only person who knows the ultimate truth that Sonny is seeking. The question is, what will he do when they've cornered him?

Gripping. That is the word that I would use to describe this offering by Jo Nesbø. It was a difficult book to put down—the urge to read “just one more chapter” was strong.

I think it is safe to say that if you enjoy Nesbø’s writing and/or other Nordic noir fiction, you will enjoy The Son. There is unrelenting action, plenty of interesting clues to keep your brain busy, a little romance—just to confuse you a bit--and lots & lots of bad guys, plus several characters who inhabit the gray zone of being good bad guys (or maybe bad good guys).

There is much more “witnessed” violence in this novel that I am used to in Nordic crime fiction, but it certainly is no worse than some American authors. I know that prisons are not peaceful places and that all countries have crime, but somehow I had never pictured Norway as a hotbed of this kind of violence & crime!

The Son is not going to be “great literature,” but it is a great reading experience. Perfect for a cold winter afternoon.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

My Real Children / Jo Walton

4.5 stars out of 5
It's 2015, and Patricia Cowan is very old. "Confused today," read the notes clipped to the end of her bed. She forgets things she should know—what year it is, major events in the lives of her children. But she remembers things that don’t seem possible. She remembers marrying Mark and having four children. And she remembers not marrying Mark and raising three children with Bee instead. She remembers the bomb that killed President Kennedy in 1963, and she remembers Kennedy in 1964, declining to run again after the nuclear exchange that took out Miami and Kiev.

Her childhood, her years at Oxford during the Second World War—those were solid things. But after that, did she marry Mark or not? Did her friends all call her Trish, or Pat? Had she been a housewife who escaped a terrible marriage after her children were grown, or a successful travel writer with homes in Britain and Italy? And the moon outside her window: does it host a benign research station, or a command post bristling with nuclear missiles?

Two lives, two worlds, two versions of modern history. Each with their loves and losses, their sorrows and triumphs. My Real Children is the tale of both of Patricia Cowan's lives...and of how every life means the entire world.

I have waffled back and forth between giving this book 4 or 5 stars—so let’s call it 4.5 stars. It really spoke to me—I loved the way Walton was so honest about the details of women’s lives and how true, at least to my life, it rang. What a great use of alternate history and different time lines! I have often speculated on how different life would be if different choices had been made through the course of my life. Thankfully, I’m pretty happy with how this particular time line has ended up for me, but I could see wondering about other realities if I were in an unhappy place. 

I also appreciated the fact that neither time line that Pat/Trish inhabited was our time line—history was different from what I know in both situations and that somehow that added to the authentic feel of the book.

Plus, I find the central premise of the book to be so true—small decisions, as well as large ones, can change the course of a life. If I hadn’t gone to that particular workshop, then I wouldn’t have met this person, I wouldn’t have been recruited to a particular position and I wouldn’t have the same wonderful circle of friends that I currently enjoy. If I had chosen a different university to attend, I probably wouldn’t be living where I currently am with my current job. So, if there are alternate time lines, we each probably create many more than two! Life would bifurcate so often that it would become tremendously intricate.

In both time lines, Pat/Trish has a lot to cope with—all while being told that her female needs and desires are second class to those of men and/or straight people. The importance of friends can’t be emphasized enough—I have often said of my life, men come and go, but my women friends are the bedrock of a stable happy life. Mind you, I have also observed that although I have never missed having a husband, I could really use a wife to provide the support services that men rely on, sometimes without appreciation (and yes, Trisha’s husband Mark, I am thinking of you as I write this!). I think the current rash of sexual violence/harassment cases that we have experienced here in Canada in the last several weeks reveals that male entitlement is alive & well—but we do seem to be recognizing it, naming it, and starting to deal with it. It gives me hope that the next generation of women will have less of this crap to deal with. 

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Turn of the Screw / Henry James

4 out of 5 stars
A very young woman's first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children, Miles and Flora, at a forlorn estate...An estate haunted by a beckoning evil.

Half-seen figures who glare from dark towers and dusty windows- silent, foul phantoms who, day by day, night by night, come closer, ever closer. With growing horror, the helpless governess realizes the fiendish creatures want the children, seeking to corrupt their bodies, possess their minds, own their souls...

But worse-much worse- the governess discovers that Miles and Flora have no terror of the lurking evil.

For they want the walking dead as badly as the dead want them.

 I’m sure that ever since human-like hominids have had both fire and the ability to speak, we’ve been telling each other creepy stories and sleeping uneasily afterwards. These tales are best shared around a campfire, to simulate the ancient experience—when fires and candles cast flickering light and we were free to imagine all kinds of weird creatures around us in the dark.

Even with modern electricity, I found myself sometimes unwilling to read this book after dark—I’m entirely too suggestible when I’m tired. For me, it was the ambiguity that was creepy. Are the ghostly presences real? Or are they the product of a wild imagination? Do people besides the governess ever truly see them? Who knows who has seen what?

The lack of direct communication is definitely an issue. Since it’s not polite to question too directly or too persistently, many necessary questions go unanswered. Social status interferes as well, with the housekeeper feeling reluctant to push the governess to answer questions and the governess being unwilling to trust the housekeeper entirely. There is also the issue of the scandalous relationship of the phantoms—serving man and governess, crossing the social divide to the extent that she ends up pregnant. Especially since there are hints dropped that the current governess wouldn’t mind a chance at romancing her employer. (An excellent reason, on his part, to send her to the country and forbid all contact—but if he’s as successful as it is implied that he is, he didn’t get that way through ignoring problems. Very contradictory).

The unanswered questions create the tension—do the children see the phantoms? Or are they tormenting the new governess? Is this a case of mental unbalance or of the supernatural? Despite the convoluted writing (which sounds awkward to my modern ear), it certainly kept me reading (during daylight hours).