Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

During my recent ill health I turned to L. M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle as a comfort read of sorts.  My mother was here to help during and after my hospital stay and when she saw me reading it she told me that it was my grandmother's favourite Montgomery.  I loved hearing that, and it is perhaps a little glimpse into my sentimental side when I say that I think it made me enjoy the book even more.  It has been years since I last read it so most of the finer points of plot and character have long been forgotten.  I remembered it as a simple romance, improbable and sentimental, but amusing.  Since that last reading I have read all five volumes of L. M. Montgomery's published journals as well as Mary Henley Rubio's Lucy Maud Montgomery: A Gift of Wings which clearly added to my reading of The Blue Castle this time around.  Remembering the scorn and frustration she expressed in her journals toward some of the members of her husband's congregations, and with her husband himself, it was clear to see that she was working out some of her angst in this story!

The Blue Castle is the story of Valancy Stirling and her transformation from a brown-frocked spinster to modern lover.  At first glance what appears to be a simple and uncomplicated romance offers fertile ground for contemplation.

The first sentence states, "If it had not rained on a certain May morning Valancy Stirling's whole life would have been entirely different."  This preoccupation with fate is explored throughout the novel.  To what degree is the path of our lives determined by mere chance, how much is preordained and what role does free will play?  A humourous but socially marginalised character challenges church doctrine on predestination and his argument prevails over those of the theologians.  Just so, the protagonist Valancy questions the validity of her status as a member of the "elect," as a daughter of the well-respected Stirling family.  She throws off the shackles of her birthright, a status confirmed on her not by merit or effort but by chance, and consciously choses her own path to self-fulfillment.  Free will here is for the courageous visionaries.  It is a new world order we see envisioned in The Blue Castle, and it is the brave, those undaunted by fear who are able to transform themselves through their own efforts and live in freedom and happiness.

Valancy's favourite author, the naturalist philospher John Foster gives us the overarching theme of the novel: "'Fear is the original sin,' wrote John Foster.  'Almost all the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that some one is afraid of something.'"  Most of the characters are ruled by fear; "What will people think?" dictates every behaviour of the dour Stirling clan: it is the wagging finger of the church leader, and the gossip of the townsfolk.  Fear has dictated the rules of belief and behaviour that make life a prison for those who abide.

L. M. Montgomery allows us to see what happens when a character is given the opportunity to cast off the fear that keeps her confined.  A natural lifestyle is equated to a modern one, and all that is traditional and established is equated with outdated, passionless, stagnant, disease-causing artificiality.  In the fantasy world free from society's artificial constraints, clothes are valued for their comfort, food is simple and nourishing, sleep comes in a rhythm that matches the needs of the body, there is a connection to the land that is entirely lacking in society, and the needs of the emotional life are fully met.  The psychological interior and exterior appearance begins to meld and the emotions break through the shell of social contraint.  When this happens, social regulations strictly delineating class structure become meaningless.  The true measure of a human is no longer the superficial attributes of wealth, social position, family name or appearance.  It's a wonderful fantasy!  And L. M. Montgomery places before us a projection of what could be possible if one were brave enough to take the reigns of one's own life, to cast off all that is unnatural, staid and conventional, to live a utopian existence where all emotional needs are met.

Of course, I am always fascinated by fictional character who struggle with illness, and Valancy Stirling is an interesting case.  Diagnosed at the beginning of the story with a fatal heart ailment, Valancy is given a year to live.  The illness narrative itself is merely a plot device, and not of nearly as much interest as the real psychological ramifications of the diagnosis.  The mind can create its own cure when it is deprived of its natural nourishment, and Valancy has created a place of peace, comfort, and escape in her imaginary blue castle.  L. M. Montgomery addresses both the cause, but also the remedy for this psychologically distressing lifestyle where, trapped in a world where creativity is stifled, solitude forbidden, novels strictly disallowed, the mind finds its own healing.  One senses that Valancy's retreat to this internal world of fantasy and of books is something L. M. Montgomery wrote straight from her heart.  This internal world served to fulfill all her basic emotional needs and soothed her soul until Valancy was able to manifest her heart's desire in reality.  When her reality was offering her all the emotional support she needed, her fantasy world was no longer needed - her inner and outer lives had merged.

Lucy Maud Montgomery

I know that The Blue Castle is one of L. M. Montgomery's quietly popular books after the Anne and Emily series.   I loved the descriptions of the Muskoka region of Ontario, of the contrast between the musty Stirlings and the moonlight canoe trips.  The darkness that often lurks just below the surface in L. M. Montgomery's writing is here; she does not shy away from social ills and uncomfortable topics such as illegitimate children, alcoholism, depression, illness, bullying, death, neglect, hypocrisy.  There is a constant undercurrent of negativity, but it is counter-balanced by her overwhelming optimism.  The old will die away, and the new world will bloom, reborn.  The new ruling religion is based not on the rules of the past but on love and joy in nature.  The "shock of joy" is the birth pang of a new life, but the resurrection is not dogmatic, but firmly grounded in the pleasure of earthly joys.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Thursday, 19 December 2013

My Favourite 13 of '13

It has been an excellent year of reading!  Going over the list of books that I read this year made me so thankful that I have access to the voices of so many talented writers, and that I am able to engage freely in conversation about the books I read.  Choosing my favourites for the year was not so easy this time around.  For my Favourite 13 of '13 I decided to limit my choices to books that I read for the first time this year.  That automatically eliminated some of my most enjoyable reading experiences so I've added my favourite re-reads at the bottom.

I have been facing some challenges to my health this fall, culminating in a 9-day hospital stay this month.  I have Ulcerative Colitis, and suffered a serious flare-up at the beginning of the month.  I had hoped to catch up on writing about some of the wonderful books I read, especially in November, but I have to accept that is not going to happen.  I have linked back to my original thoughts on each of my favourite books and will be happy to talk about the unlinked selections if you are curious about any of the titles.  I am very disappointed not to be able to share my thoughts on some of the most amazing books I read this year (Merilyn Simonds' The Holding, Irmgard Keun's The Artificial Silk Girl, Willa Cather's Shadows on the Rock...) but have decided to let it go.

1. The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata.

2. The Sacrifice by Adele Wiseman.
3. Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi.
4. La Guerre, Yes Sir! by Roch Carrier
5. Tay John by Howard O'Hagan.
6. Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster.
7. One Happy Moment by Louise Riley.
8. The Artificial Silk Girl by Imgard Keun.
9. W;t, A Play by Margaret Edson.
10. Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic by Jennifer Niven.

11. Surfacing by Margaret Atwood.
12. Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather.

13.  Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Most Enjoyable Re-reads

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.
The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler.
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.
The Holding by Merilyn Simonds.

I look forward to seeing everyone's end-of-year summaries, and the goals and challenges for next year.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Little Free Library Project

 photo credit: Ali Eminov

Have you heard of the Little Free Library?

From the website:

It’s a “take a book, return a book” gathering place where neighbors share their favorite literature and stories. In its most basic form, a Little Free Library is a box full of books where anyone may stop by and pick up a book (or two) and bring back another book to share.

Little Free Libraries have been turning up all over my neighbourhood and of course I've been having a peek, and occassionally finding a new book to enjoy.  I have decided to add this as a regular series on my blog as my way of sharing the love.

Please feel free to join me in the celebration of the Little Free Library movement!

[And special thanks to Ali Eminov for including this photograph of a Little Free Library in the creative commons of flickr.]

A list of the books I have enjoyed from Little Free Libraries:

  1. Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson (1947)

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Word to Caesar by Geoffrey Trease

In the remote Roman garrisons in northern Britain, young Paul witnesses devastating barbarian attack which destroys the fort he has called home, and leaves him an orphan.  He escapes with his life thanks to Severus, a Roman poet who offers Paul his protection.  Paul discovers that his debt to Severus can be repaid, but it requires that he travel to Rome, a homeland he has never visited, and deamands bravery, quick wit and a lot of luck.

In typical Geoffrey Trease style, this adventure is action-packed, and involves all manner of jumping into rivers from prison windows, escaping face-to-face encounters with angry lions, outrunning bloodhounds through the forest in bare feet (!), and using a diamond ring to cut a hole in a glass window pane not once, but twice! 

Although Trease wrote his stories for both girls and boys (usually including a protagonist of each gender to share the stage) Word to Caesar is disappointingly light on female characters.  There are three in total: one is a nasty spy, one an annoying brat, and the third shows up near the end and disappears just when things get really dangerous.  This aspect of the story was much less satisfying for my daughter to whom I was reading it aloud.

The historical aspects of the Roman setting were much less convincing than when he writes about Britain in the same period.  However, he does take great care in describing the details of the Circus Maximus, and that made up for any lack in the fact that Rome was otherwise fairly nondescript.  We both agreed that Geoffrey Trease writes a good adventure story, although this was perhaps not his finest effort.  However, it is exactly the kind of historical fiction Elizabeth and I both enjoy.

Geoffrey Trease

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Strange Things by Margaret Atwood

Strange Things was first presented as a series of four lectures at Oxford University in 1991 as part of the Clarendon Lecture Series in English Literature.  With her characteristic sense of humour, Margaret Atwood explores the The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature through three different themes: the mysterious, magnetic lure of the sinister North, the north as a place of renewal and the urge of non-Native peoples to connect with the aboriginal people and the land,  and the North as the home of the Wendigo, the snow monster. In her fourth lecture, these themes are re-examined through the women writers who have adapted them for their own purposes.

Concerning Franklin and his Gallant Crew

The first lecture tells the story of Sir John Franklin and his crew of 135 who left England on a polar expedition in 1845 in search of a pre-Panama Canal commercial trade route through the Arctic.  The mysterious disappearance of their ships the Terror, and the Erebus has long inspired artists and writers.  Margaret Atwood looks at work by E. J. Pratt, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Mordecai Richler and Robert W. Service, and how the lure of the north calls out to the "ancient hubris in the dreams of men".

...and my favourite: Stan Roger's Northwest Passage (link to Youtube video)

The Grey Owl Syndrome

After the death of naturalist, writer, lecturer Grey Owl, it was discovered that he was not in fact an Ojibwa, but an Englishman from Hastings named Archie Belaney.

Archibald Belaney

Margaret Atwood, refers to other white men who are aboriginal wannabes, and explores the ideas of "claiming kinship" with Native Canadians, the Woodcraft movement, the origins of the Boy Scouts, the "appropriation debate," and the complexity of defining, in Canada, who qualifies as native.

I enjoyed this lecture which gave me a new perspective on the summer camp tradition of encouraging children to become metaphorically Indian, which I certainly experienced both at school and camp, and can still sing all the words to "Land of the Silver Birch" (check out this Grade Five students' video).  This lecture also made me keen to read Grey Owl's writings, John Richardson's Wacousta, Robert Kroetsch's Gone Indian, and to find a biography of Ernest Thompson Seton.

Eyes of Blood, Heart of Ice: The Wendigo

The Wendigo, the legendary northern cannibalistic monster of the eastern boreal forest evokes fear, for along with the possibility of being eaten by one, it is possible also to become one.  It evokes fear in me because I'm not all that comfortable with the vampire/zombie kind of monsters who lack language and induce madness.  It's not really my thing, so I found this lecture the least interesting for me.  (Yes, I'm cowardly like that.)  It did make me slightly curious about Wayland Drew's novel The Wabeno Feast, but the creep-out factor is probably too high for me.

Linoleum Caves

Although CanLit is filled with wonderful women writers and has been since the earliest days of exploration and settlement (the records of the nuns of New France, the wives of British officers and settlers like Anna Jameson, Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill...) the female voice has been excluded from the writing of the north.  Margaret Atwood's fourth lecture is about what happens when women writers incorporate these traditional literary motifs created by men into their own writing.  She also briefly touches on how she has used these themes in her own writing in Surfacing (1972, novel), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970, poetry collection), and Wilderness Tips (1991, short fiction).

(photo credit: Jean Malek/Random House)

This is a captivating little book, and of special interest to anyone with a fascination with Canadian Literature.  She expands a few of the themes from her landmark 1972 Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature.  Margaret Atwood's unique sense of humour and wry wit is in evidence, and I found this work very readable and entertaining.  How wonderful it would have been to have been in attendance for the lectures!  I have now added quite a number of books to my To Read list.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Thursday, 28 November 2013

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

I have never read a word written by Marcel Proust, nor have I ever felt the urge to do so.  The reputation for difficulty earned by Proust's books has encouraged me to keep my distance, I suppose.  I have, however read a few things written by Alain de Botton and I like his style.  I also like (and firmly believe) the premise that reading can change your life.  Now, having read this book I feel quite interested in tackling Proust.

In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self.  The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself.  And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity. - Marcel Proust

Alain de Botton leads the reader through nine different themes for how to live a better life using examples from Proust's life and writing.  This is a "self-help" book of the cheeky variety.  While maintaining a respect for the man and the words, he does enjoy poking a bit of fun.  For Marcel was an inveterate Mama's Boy, and fell into the unfortunate category of being a legitimately ill hypochondriac.

  1. How to Love Life Today
  2. How to Read for Yourself
  3. How to Take Your Time
  4. How to Suffer Successfully
  5. How to Express Your Emotions
  6. How to Be a Good Friend
  7. How to Open Your Eyes
  8. How to Be Happy in Love
  9. How to Put Books Down

There were no earth-shattering revelations for me in How Proust Can Change Your Life.  There was a re-enforcement of my own beliefs and that made it a really enjoyable and easy read.  As he describes Proust's style of writing I am reminded of the calm that comes over me when I am immersed in enjoying wonderful art: savouring the delight that can be found in the smallest details painstakingly rendered.

"Glen Williams" by A. J. Casson

As I read how Proust can teach us to open our eyes, to see the beauty in the details of our daily lives I was reminded of one of my favourite places online: for a little inspiration in appreciating the beauty around me nothing moves me more than Heather Bruggeman's wonderful blog Beauty That Moves.  I especially love the photographs that she shares; the vast majority are the visual equivalent of Proust's madeleines and tea cup, a little bit of calm pondered thoughtfully in the stillness of the moment.

The moral?  That we shouldn't deny the bread on the sideboard a place in our conception of beauty... Alain de Botton

I hope Alain de Botton inspires more authors to share how their favourite writers influence their lives. This book was a success for me as an enjoyable experience of reading, and as an introduction to Marcel Proust and his worldview.  I always find it fascinating to learn how books affect different people, and the meaning they find in fiction.

Alain de Botton

Monday, 25 November 2013

W;t, A Play by Margaret Edson

Margaret Edson’s W;t was a tiny little book that jumped out at me from the classics shelf at my local library.  I always find it interesting to see what works the library categorises as Classic.  I tend to think that fourteen years isn't quite long enough to earn that distinction but reading this play has me re-evaluating my criteria!

This Pulitzer Prize-winning play begins with Vivian Bearing, an English professor, as she is diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer.  A scholar, she is used to relying on her rational mind to guide her as she untangles the metaphysical poetry of John Donne.  As her disease progresses she has a revelation about alternative ways of viewing the world and how to live.

How Margaret Edson manages to work so many layers of meaning, so many themes and perspectives into less than 85 pages, and how she manages to tackle such subject without ever straying into the maudlin or sentimental is a marvel.  As Vivian examines her own thoughts about mortality, we glimpse her relationship to her father, her students, her medical team and her colleagues.  It becomes clear that the real message is not how much cancer sucks (it does), and how hospitals could be more humane (they could), but about how we will choose to live our one precious life.  We are all moving inexorably closer to death: advanced ovarian cancer has accelerated the process for Vivian but the cancer itself is not the story.  The cancer is not the villan of the play, or of Vivian's life.  She comes to understand that the real villan is the lack of compassion with which we treat each other.

In 2001, Emma Thompson wrote and starred in an award-winning television adaptation of W;t which is entitled Wit.  This link should take you to the entire 99 minute film which is well worth watching.

I was nervous of how I would feel watching this film as the subject matter might hit a little close to home.  I am very sensitive about the whole hospital thing.  It was definitely more emotional to watch than it was to read the play, but it was not difficult.  Emma Thompson is at her very finest in this role.  I would highly recommend both the play and the film, and if you are ever lucky enough to see it live, do it!

Margaret Edson

According to Wikipedia, Margaret Edson "donated her Pulitzer Prize money to create a foundation to teach medical students how to interact more humanely with their patients" and continues to work as a kindergarten teacher with no intention of writing any more plays.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad is part of the Canongate Books series of top shelf authors retelling the greatest myths of the world.  This is an alternate look at the Odyssey in which Penelope, Odysseus' long-suffering wife tells her version of the twenty years while her husband was away fighting the Trojan War.  This novella deals with themes familiar in Margaret Atwood's writing such as gender stereotyping, the nature of storytelling and myth-making, and the exclusion of the female perspective and is told with her usual sardonic sense of humour.

Penelope and her maids are in Hades and in a sometimes whimsical, conversational tone they tell their story in prose and song.  This is their story, that which has been left unsaid in Homer's epic is now retold explaining the relevant exclusions from the accepted version.  Penelope was a pragmatist and her arch enemy was not Odysseus (who comes across as something of a jerk), but rather her cousin Helen of Troy, a conniving, catty, vixen who plays the role of the middle school bully. 

Margaret Atwood

This is a fun book to read.  It is playful and enjoyable.  The voice of Penelope is rendered with exquisite realism.  It is not surprising that it was adapted into a play; Penelope rises from the pages as a real woman and begs to be portrayed on stage.  This is no two-dimensional image of the devoted wife, the faithful helpmeet.  Penelope has foibles and faults a-plenty, but they never distract from her likeablility.  I didn't realise until I'd almost finished the novella that I'd actually read it before.  That I had forgotten it is surprising in one way - I have a very good memory, if not for the content, at least for the titles of books I've read.  On the other hand, it wasn't a book that deeply resonated with me this time either.  It was a fun exercise in revisionist mythology and story crafting, but not one of my favourite of Margaret Atwood's books.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen

I recently picked up Anna Quindlen's contribution to the Library of Contemporary Thought series entitled How Reading Changed My Life.  It's a tiny little book - 84 pages including the acknowledgements - comprising four short essays and several lists of her Top 10 books by category.  Rather than a story of transformation, which you might expect from the title, this is a memoir of Anna Quindlen's reading life with gentle diversions into topics such as censorship, how technology is changing the way we read, the literary canon, and book groups.  I enjoyed her stroll down memory lane, and found myself nodding and agreeing with much that she wrote.  My only real disappointment with the book was with her Top 10 Lists which looked as though they were compiled from secondary school syllabi: so predictable.  I expected someone of her political persuasion not to be so heavy on the Dead White Guy, especially when she writes:

Most of those so-called middlebrow readers would have readily admitted that the Iliad set a standard that could not be matched by What Makes Sammy Run? or Exodus. But any reader with common sense would also understand intuitively, immediately, that such comparisons are false, that the uses of reading are vast and variegated and that some of them are not addressed by Homer. 

I think most avid readers will recognise themselves in many of Anna Quindlen's recollections.  Haven't we all walked down the street reading the last pages of a book we just can't put down?   Haven't we all escaped into the pages of a book rather than deal with real life?  It was fun to read about her journey but what this book did, was to encourage me to look back at my own reading history. 

I was the teenaged reader of E. Nesbit and Jane Austen, of Mazo de la Roche and Charles Dickens, of Agatha Christie and Robertson Davies and the Brontes.  If I'm being completely honest here, I also spent more than one evening with books from a teen romance series called "First Love at Silhouette" which included the baseball-themed Short Stop for Romance and the tennis-themed Courting Trouble.  My siblings and I used the library frequently, and my parents were always working through some non-fiction that held no interest for me (political biographies or social histories).

I have never been a prolific reader; I have always been slow and plodding, but I finished my degree in English Literature, and then I worked for some years (whilst pursuing my studies in Art History) in libraries and independent bookshops where I was in charge of the children’s books. During that time (pre-children-of-my-own), I spent most of my time endeavouring to read all the children's books I could. I discovered all the classics I had missed, and all the new authors of which I had never heard.   I became fascinated with historical Canadian children’s fiction, and Sheila Egoff’s critical work in the field.

When I entered the next phase of my life - The Mothering Years - I was able to put all that knowledge to good use with my own children.  Sharing all my own favourites and finding even more new books together has been one of the truly wonderful aspects of parenting for me.  My focus was on their reading, and because I chose to read them books that satisfied me as well, my own fiction reading declined.  For the first time in my life I began to search out non-fiction books.  I needed to find the answers to the questions presented by daily life. So, I read parenting books, philosophy of education books, cooking, sewing, lifestyle books, books about simple living, books about yoga, illness and nutrition, books about travel and learning a new language.

I am now recognising that I have settled into a new phase in my reading life, and this blog is part of that.  The search once so pressing for practical solutions to daily life seem less urgent. I am no longer focused so much on the simple answers to the simple questions (What do I make for dinner tonight?  Which is the best hike to tackle with a three year old?).  Now that the girls can (and do) read for themselves I find myself once again free to pursue my own interests.  I now find that I am looking for the complex answers to the complex questions of life, and the books to which I am drawn are invariably authors I encountered years ago and whose work I have not finished exploring.  I first met Aldous Huxley, Jane Austen, Robertson Davies, Josephine Tey, Orwell and Margaret Laurence when I was in secondary school; Margaret Atwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alice Munro, George Eliot, Carol Shields, Hermann Hesse, Michael Ondaatje, Turgenev, and Hardy continue to appeal from my university days and all of these authors and more continue to speak to me.  I have loved being introduced to new authors through blogging and have found so much inspiration from bloggers.  I had never read Rumer Godden's adult fiction, Willa Cather, Dodie Smith, Beryl Bainbridge or Colm Tóibín's work before reading blogs.

For seven years I have been dealing with a chronic physical disease which affects my daily life.  I am fascinated by the mind-body link I have experienced during this time, and my fiction-reading has played a significant part in my treatment.  I have seen incredible links between my health and the books I am reading; the body follows where my mind leads.  I choose my reading very carefully especially when I am having a flare-up.  I will write more about this aspect of my reading life soon.

While I like my non-fiction simple and informative, I like my fiction deep and nuanced. I read non-fiction to learn what I do not already know. I read fiction to put words to the truths I feel deep in my soul. I like my non-fiction to-the-point and direct, well-organised and fast. I like my fiction with as many interpretations as there are readers, books that reward the re-reader, and the close reader. I search non-fiction for the simple answers. I search fiction for someone else's answer to the big questions that I can weigh against my own convictions. I like writing that is as complicated, and interwoven, and multi-layered, and symbolic, and challenging as life itself. I love reading.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

New Canadian Library: The Ross-McClelland Years 1952-1978 by Janet B. Friskney

On 17 January 1958, the McClelland and Stewart publishing house launched the New Canadian Library, a paperback series aimed at the general reading public, and the academic community in need of affordable, accessible texts for teaching and research.  The idea for the series had been championed by Malcolm Ross (1911-2002), an English professor who was to become the general editor.  He was able to convince Jack McClelland (1922-2004) of McClelland and Stewart to finance the creation of what would become a landmark literary series in Canada.

Author Janet B. Friskney has created a fascinating narrative using an astounding amount of documentary material.  She was able to interview both Ross and McClelland before their deaths.  The writing is accessible, and the research well supported.  The appendices are a treasure trove of information on the NCL: I found myself continually flipping back to refer to the chronology of publication, the graphs of annual sales of NCL titles and titles proposed but rejected for the series.

The collaborative process of creating the series was much more flexible than I imagined it would have been.  Ross is presented as a somewhat conservative academic mainly interested in reviving significant historical works of Canadian importance for public and scholarly consumption.  McClelland was the businessman whose main concern was the bottom line and keeping authors happy.  Their ability to find common ground explains some of the the anomolies, gaps and superfluities of the series (11 Leacock titles in the first 16 batches! and no W. O. Mitchell or Alice Munro?).  It made me more aware of how fickle the creation of a literary canon can be when a work of importance could be excluded merely because the publisher was unable to obtain the rights at the time when the market is favourable, or when trade-offs in titles were made to keep the series financially viable.

For anyone interested in the history of Canadian publishing, the early years of the New Canadian Library, or the discussion of the creation of the Canadian literary canon in the decades after the mid-century this is a fascinating book.

There is an element of nostalgia for those of us who grew up with these books.  I was assigned Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel, Martha Ostenso's Wild Geese and Mordecai Richler's  The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in high school and read a number of others on my own.  That was the beauty of the NCL series, and exactly the balance that Ross and McClelland were trying to find: how to cater to the academic market desperate for reprints of Canadian literature, and still appeal to the general public.

I had never seen any of the first covers until last year when I found an old copy of Gabrielle Roy's Where Nests the Water Hen.  I love the focus on the author's image, and the various artistic styles somehow reflecting what we can expect to find within the pages.

Jack McClelland (photo: Patti Gower)

Malcolm Ross (photo: Halifax Herald)

I know that I am probably the only person in the world who likes the post-1970 Don Fernby covers, but I do.  Their funky abstractions and wonky production value harken back to a time of brown and orange Tupperware, plastic covers on chesterfields and my dad in his brown polyester suit.

Okay, I know they are pretty ugly, but there is something about them...

Some additional bits of interestingness:
biography of Malcolm Ross
article and Robert Fulford's rebutal

Thursday, 14 November 2013

One Happy Moment by Louise Riley

[These primeval solitudes] suspend your forced sense of your own importance not merely as individuals, but even as men.  They allow you, in one happy moment, at once to play and to worship, to take yourselves simply, humbly, for what you are, and to salute the wild, indifferent, non-censorious infinity of nature.

G. Santayana, Winds of Doctrine
Published in 1951, One Happy Moment by Louise Riley has a surprisingly modern feel with its exploration of a woman's right to be her own person.  The novel begins as Deborah, the protagonist, arrives by train at a quiet mountain station, changes out of her skirt and blouse, pulls on a sweater, slacks and heavy shoes, shakes her hair free and tosses her suitcase into the lake.  Clearly, this is a woman shedding her past.  She is on her way to September Lake (set in the mountains between Lake Louise and Lake O'Hara) when she meets a wise old man of the bush who tells her:

These mountains have been here for a long time.  They will be here, real and powerful and eternal, when we are all forgotten.  They put us in our place.  But sometimes they give us something, too; strength, I guess you would call it.  Other people, like you, will come here for sanctuary.  Other people who are running away from something.

Of course, Deborah is running away from something; she is taking control of her life into her own hands, and escaping from under the thumb of a domineering mother and a manipulative lover.  Before she can begin a new life she must find solitude and peace in which to be able to come to terms with her past, to find the strength to forge her own identity, and to break free from these negative forces in her life.

near Lake Louise, Alberta

This is a coming-of-age story without any startling departures from the expected.  The really fun part of One Happy Moment for me is in the setting. There are beautiful descriptions of a landscape Louise Riley knew intimately, and clearly loved.  She uses this mountain landscape to explore the theme of nature as a source of healing.  Deborah, surrounded by the grandeur of the Rockies, is cradled and rejuvenated, gaining perspective on her own troubles, and tentatively re-envisioning her life with only her own happiness in mind.

Just ahead, with the sun shining on it, stood the green shoulder of a mountain.  To her surprise it looked friendly and protective.  Deborah gazed at it for a long time before she turned to look acros the valley at a towering peak, dazzling in its snowy majesty.  Suddenly she was conscious of a feeling of safety.

and later,

Deborah slipped away from the Lodge and found a sunny spot on the lakeshore.  She sat, with an open book on her knees, gazing toward the glacier at the head of the lake.  she was not consciously thinking of anything.  The warmth of the sunshine, the serenity of the lake, and the strength of the mountains combined to soothe her mind, and, for the first time in weeks, her body felt relaxed.

Rocky Mountain waterfall (Johnson's Canyon)

After the thrill of her escape has died down, Deborah comes to the realisation that she is still anxious about the past.  Although she has physically removed herself from her past life, she still has emotional ties - she is afraid of the power it still holds over her.  A fatherly character reads to Deborah from the poet/philospher George Santayana:

To be happy you must be reasonable, or you must be tamed.  You must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruits of your passion, and learned your place in the world and what things in it can really serve you.  To be happy you must be wise.  This happiness is sometimes found instinctively, and then the rudest fanatic can hardly fail to see how lovely it is; but sometimes it comes of having learned by experience, and involves some chastening and some renunciation; but it is not less sweet for having this touch of holiness about it, and the spirit of it is healthy and beneficent.

Soon after this quote, Deborah "felt that here was a moment, isolated and complete, when she wanted to look neither forward nor back."  From this moment, Deborah feels the comfort of friendship, of confidence in herself, and happiness in the present moment.

The view from inside Chateau Lake Louise.

I especially enjoyed this passage - it felt a bit like an inside joke:

Deborah looked.  "Lake Louise," she whispered.  There it was, the shining blue lake, reflecting trees and mountains and the glacier at its head, its beauty waiting to bring infinite solace to the minds of men.

"It is even better than the picture post cards, isn't it?" asked Andrew.  "It lifts my heart up every time I see it.  But it will look better still after a beer and some lunch.  Come on."

They ate their lunch in front of a huge window overlooking the Lake.  "The C.P.R. should photograph you looking out with that rapt expression on your face, my dear.  They could make it into a poster and call it, 'Lucky Lady looks at Lovely Lake Louise'.

And there she is...

This novel has some interesting things to say about women finding their own way in the world and having the strength to determine their own destiny.  Each of the female characters reflects a different choice available to women: there is the feisty sexually liberated lodge owner who is unconcerned about social mores and always has the upper hand because of her confidence and beauty, there is the innocent young girl who shamelessly throws herself at the man she loves, there is the elitist snob who is so concerned with superficial that she never sees what is below the surface, and there is the busy-body who maintains power over her husband by brow-beating him.  Deborah finds not only a path for herself to travel, but influences the women around her through her graceful insistence on seeking her own way.  She is a strong women insistent on charting her own path, but feminine and respectable enough to do it without making anyone else feel threatened.

I enjoyed this novel.  It was delightfully escapist, but also contained some real wisdom about life and happiness.  It was fun to scamper through the same places I know so well. As the Wise Man of the Bush said, "These mountains have been here for a long time.  They will be here, real and powerful and eternal, when we are all forgotten.  They put us in our place."  It's funny to think how little has changed in those mountains since 1951! 

Who was Louise Riley?

Louise Riley was the granddaughter of Thomas E. Riley, an early Alberta pioneer rancher who worked the land along the Bow River.  The Riley family prospered as a result of the development of their ranch into the Calgary communities of Hillhurst, West Hillhurst, and Hounsfield Heights.  Her father, Ezra Hounsfield Riley donated Riley Park to the city in 1910.  Louise Riley became a children's librarian, storyteller and author.  She worked for the Calgary Public Library from 1930 until the time of her death in 1957.  A branch of the Calgary Public Library was named after Louise Riley.