Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ten days, twelve days, two weeks

It is time for us to go. Breakfast took longer this Monday morning, sitting down for toast and jam and peanut butter with Nana and Papa, and now we are running late for school. There is madness as we all jostle at the back door, the dog underfoot, eager to be on our way.

Finally, we are zipped, shod, mittened - buffered against the impending cold. We are heading out the door. Papa calls - what? No good bye hug for me? And with that she is running across the kitchen and lifted high into the air. His whiskers tickle her tummy as her jacket rides high up her body. A pretend growl, squeals of delight. Two weeks he says. We'll be back in two weeks.

The phone call comes 12 days later.

From where I sit, I can see us all frozen in the kitchen, in tableau. I sometimes wonder, if only I could go back and correct him. Not two weeks but 10 days, we'll see you in 10 days.

Perhaps he'd still be here?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Book review: The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor by Sally Armstrong

I've recently realized that my perfectionist-like tendencies, combined with my natural bent towards turning a simple book review into a university-type piece of analysis, has grossly restricted me from reviewing anywhere near the number of books I'm interested in babbling about.

To that end, this will be my first attempt at a simpler, more straightforward review.

The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor by Sally Armstrong

The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor was one of those books that I picked up over and over again on my many trips to the bookstore before finally taking it home. It seems any time I have a situation like this, I end up wondering just why it took me so long to get around to buying and reading the book, as it is invariably excellent. This was no exception.

Sally Armstrong is the great-great-great granddaughter of Charlotte Taylor, of the title. She states that she long wanted to write the story of Charlotte Taylor, the first female settler on the Miramichi Bay, and this book originally started out as non-fiction. However, after being frustrated by several gaps in the historical documentation, Armstrong chose to write the story as a fictional account, peppered with the known details of Taylor's life. The effect is a very good fictional account of early Canadian history.

There are several known facts of Charlotte Taylor's life - she left her high-society family in 1775, running away with a household servant. She spent her life on the Miramichi, where she would have three husbands and bear ten children, all of whom lived well into adulthood. She was a vehement activist on her own and her family's behalf, fighting for her land rights and the deeds to the plots that her family cleared and lived upon - going so far as to travel to Fredericton in the company of a Native man to secure those deeds. Lastly, she lived well into her eighties, passing away in 1841 at which time she had a Native service as part of her burial.

Building upon the basis of these facts, Armstrong fleshes out her story, telling of Taylor's travel across the ocean to the West Indies, to her time spent in a Mi'kmaq camp on the Baie de Chaleurs where she developed a lifelong friendship with the Indians and Acadians that lived there, before her marriage to a former captain. She describes in detail the arduous and dangerous task of clearing the land and building a life on the Miramichi during a time of tremendous unrest between the original settles, the arriving Loyalists from the American War, the privateers, and the Indians for whom the land belonged to first. Woven through all this is the story of Charlotte Taylor's relationship with Wioche, the Native man who she meets when she first arrives in the Baie de Chaleurs, maintaining a relationship with him over the course of her life. While part of the story is fictional according to Armstrong, it is well-written and believable, and offers a glimmer of light and hope in a story that is often bleak in its outlook.

Taylor does not have an easy life, and some of the best writing is in Armstrong's descriptions of the difficulties in every day life. There is a beauty in the simplicity and occasional starkness in Armstrong's writing, as though her writing is mimicking the terrain itself. I found some comparison in her writing to that of Elizabeth Hay in Late Nights on Air, in the same simple descriptions of a difficult land and the people who make their lives there against great odds.

I did feel that the book was weakest in Taylor's descriptions of the many historical events during this period (the clashes between the Loyalists and old settles, the process of parceling and deeding the land, the division of Nova Scotia into two provinces). Occasionally in Armstrong's attempt to insert the known facts, The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor starts to veer into history text territory, but without the fleshing out of the details to ensure that the reader is certain of the context. Towards the end of the novel I particularly found that there was a lot of detail hastily inserted that could have been better explained, and that events were careening towards the rather hasty ending without the deftness shown in the first 3/4 of the book. Overall though, I felt that more often than not, the book came down on the right side of the delicate balance between historical detail and the fictional narrative.

I adore historical fiction but have been disappointed that most historical fiction is set in Europe. I think this is a fine addition to Canadian historical fiction, a genre I would be delighted to see more of.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

First day of school - a triptych

Has it really been a year since this?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Fiction Friday - The to-do list

Herewith, my stab at a piece of fiction. The story, so much as it exists in my head, occurs over a period of a single day. Please be gentle...

* * *

She awoke to the feeling of his leg lying heavy over hers, his arm a solid mass on her hip. The stale smell of sweat hung in the air. From the sounds of his breathing - deliberately deep and even - it was clear that he was ignoring the kids' raised voices, drifting up with increasing volume from the living room below. Clearly there was some sort of disagreement, likely over which cartoon to watch, which was escalating rapidly. With any luck it wouldn't come to blows before she made it downstairs.

Sighing deeply and fighting the urge to elbow him sharply in the ribs, she extricated herself from his limbs, skin slick with sweat. It was not yet 7:00 am, and she was already irritable. She headed for the shower, mentally checking over the list of tasks, errands and activities she had planned for the day. Soccer practices for both of the children - at different times, of course. A trip to the mall for new running shoes for the kids and a shower gift for the secretary at work. Grocery shopping, of course, by which time she could be fairly assured that the kids would be cranky and irritable themselves, making the trip something akin to the climax of any recent horror movie. Finally, dinner with friends, planned weeks ago on a wave of optimism and now colliding disastrously with an already overfilled day.

And somewhere in this day she had to find a moment of quiet and relative privacy in which to tell her husband that she couldn't possibly live another day with him.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A love affair for all time: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Summer 1994. I was stranded in the middle of nowhere with nothing to read.

Okay, that isn't entirely true. I had plenty to read, but it was buried, for the time being, in our carefully packaged bundle of belongings strapped securely to the back of the motorcycle we were traveling on. Accessibility to those books being restricted for a least another three hours, and being entirely unwilling to face the remainder of the ride bored out of my mind with only the black flies for company, I turned my attention to the meagre selection of paperbacks offered in a half-full wire rack at the dismal gas station we were currently stopped at. Certainly not my usual fare, as I flipped past bodice rippers and testosterone-fuelled spy capers, but beggars couldn't be choosers. About to give up, I found a book that looked slightly out of place. It had the ornate lettering and step-back artwork of a romance, but the heft and description of something... more. Given the limited options, I hastily made my purchase figuring something was surely better than nothing.

I returned to my position as passenger on the back of the bike, and turned to the first page.
It wasn't a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.
Three hours later, we had arrived, and I hadn't lifted my head once from the story. I was hooked.

* * *

That is the story of how, fifteen years ago, I fell in love with one of my favorite books (later to become the whole series) - Diana Gabaldon's Outlander.

Yes, it may seem slightly strange to be reviewing a novel and series that is by no means current (the original publication date for Outlander was 1991, making it an 18-year-old book), but the seventh installment of the series is set to be released in September. By my thinking this means that there is no time like the present to convince you that if you haven't yet read this book (and the others in the series), then perhaps you really should.

A brief synopsis, shall we?
The year is 1945. Claire Randall is becoming reacquainted with her husband, Frank Randall, on a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands after serving as a nurse during World War II. On a day trip to some standing stones (think Stonehenge), she finds herself mysteriously hurtled back more than two hundred years in time, to the year 1743, where, as an English woman in the Highlands during the unrest leading up to the Jacobite uprising, she is in a great deal of danger. There she meets Jamie Fraser, a gorgeous 6'4" red-haired Highlander five years her junior who, as an outlaw, is in as much danger as herself. Due to circumstances, Claire finds herself marrying Jamie while attempting to return home to her own time and husband. Sworn by his wedding vows to keep her from harm, Jamie's passion for Claire goes far beyond duty. Claire is forced to make the difficult choice between staying with Jamie and her future in the twentieth century.

So begins the first book, Outlander. It, and the second book Dragonfly in Amber, centre on the Jacobite uprising in Scotland, in the mid-1740s. Voyager (my least favorite of the series, but necessary installment) is the hinge upon which we move forward in time, approximately 20 years to the 1770s. From there, the next three novels, Drums of Autumn, The Fiery Cross and A Breath of Snow and Ashes, are set in the American Colonies in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War.

The (eagerly anticipated) seventh book in the series, An Echo in the Bone, is due to be released on September 22, 2009. Gabaldon has stated that she sees the series ending with as-yet-unwritten eighth book.

So, if you're like me right now you are thinking time-travel bodice ripper, yes? Well, perhaps not so much, because this is a story of so much more. First off, the time travel portion of the book is merely a device to move Claire, with her modern sensibilities, into the larger historical story. She won't be bouncing around from year-to-year, in the vein of The Time Traveler's Wife. And yes, there is a love story. But oh, what a story it is. Gavin McNett, a male writer for Salon, once wrote an article about his enjoyment of the series. He sums it up far better than I could, but I'll give you a taste of it here:

The story appears to be fairly superficial as well: A man and woman are flung into romantic adventures in 18th century Scotland. They gallop across misty moors and gaze at each other from moonlit castle battlements. There's intrigue, and a period of sexual tension, and then lots of serious rutting. But the first thing you notice about "Outlander," long before the castles-and-moors part starts to kick in, is that it's a carefully written book, with three-dimensional characters inhabiting a complex, believable world. The people in "Outlander" seem to have lives. The story seems light-handed and plausible. Events seem to happen for reasons and not simply to push the plot forward. The second thing you notice, just as the book turns into quicksand and pulls you under with a big, wet slurp, is that it does all the standard historical-romance tropes spectacularly backwards and wrong.
Ok, have you gone to read the rest of his article? Go ahead. I'll be right here waiting.

At the end of the day, these are large, compelling books. This is not high-handed literature where every word must be turned over in your mind to discover the hidden depths of its meaning and relevance. This is a good old-fashioned story. A page-turner in the very best sense, rich with adventure and history and larger-than-life characters. There are the themes of loyalty and betrayal, love and passion, family and country and always questions of morality. Rarely are events black and white in these books.

Perhaps what is most important in these books though is the relationship between Jamie and Claire. When I first read the story I fell in love with the characters of both Jamie and Claire (yes, I crushed, and still do, crush on them). There's is a love story for all time, and in the first two books in the series their admittedly hot and torrid affair (with plenty of lust thrown in for good measure) fueled my imagination, particularly as a teenager. But now, as a older woman married for nearly seven years, I find the story more compelling, particularly in the later novels in which Jamie and Claire are in their 50s. Because this is not your average "romance" storyline - the novels allow us to see the characters well beyond your average "happily ever after", seeing their family connections and how the relationships grow and change over the course of a lifetime, through good times and bad, sickness and health, and through the worst that life can hand them (and over the course of the first 6,500 pages, these two face a lot of bad times). The relationship between Jamie and Claire is one of such deep respect and powerful love that my heart nearly breaks with the reading of it.

Diana Gabaldon excels at creating incredibly memorable characters that will stay with you long after the books are over. Her characters are never perfect, nor are they one-dimensional "heroes" or "heroines", they are utterly believable as people more than mere characters, and I have found that this is her greatest strength as an author, and why I return to the books again and again. She never stumbles, having a someone act or speak "out of character", and yet somehow manages to show how they change over time and with age in ways that would be completely expected if they were real people. Finally, her writing is deft and quick, and yet vividly descriptive. For 1,000 page books, they fly along and yet dialogue is never choppy, descriptions never overwrought. She deftly keeps all of the threads of the storyline in the air, and only repeats details minimally to focus the readers attention or remind as to events, as necessary. Over the course of six books I have never found myself confused as to one of the many characters or places or events. An incredible feat, considering the length of these works.

Recently I've found myself reading many books where, at the end of them, I end up asking the question "but what was the story?" Praise tends to be lavished on books where no one really understands the meaning of them, but everyone seems, somehow, to agree that they are Very Important Works (see Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje). Gabaldon's books may not win literary prizes, and they may not be considered high-brow, but they are some of the finest storytelling that I've ever come across. I have given away lent countless copies of this book, pushing it on my friends and family. Needless to say, I now have competition in my crush on Jamie. This series has become one of my favorites of all time, and I reliably return to these books time and again. They have become part of the small list of comfort reading, to be turned to for a chapter here or there when in need of a pick-me-up.

And, if after all that, I still have not won you over, did I mention that they contain some of the steamiest, sexiest scenes that you will ever have between two covers? Now go, read!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Bent to its will

Last night

I was reading


Thought I'd drag myself away from Jamie Fraser


Resurface into reality

(by James Orbinski)

About his time with Médecins Sans Frontières

during the nineties

Within ten pages

He discusses his creation of a new

humanitarian agency

His partner in the undertaking?

James Fraser.

I can take a hint

Back to Drums of Autumn it is

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A man, merely a man

My husband is a CNN junkie and, for nearly the last two weeks, I've been inundated with the Michael Jackson coverage. I have seen the newspaper coverage, the blogging coverage, the tweets. Finally, a few moments ago, I finally turned on the TV to watch some of the spectacle that is the Michael Jackson memorial service.

And I am bothered and disturbed.

It speaks, I guess, to the need these days to turn every celebrity death into a cause for national mourning - started, perhaps, with the death of Princess Diana. Every death is endlessly dissected and analyzed. The crowds gather, flowers are laid, memorials spring up over night. For some, they find greater celebrity in death than they do alive. The Michael Jackson coverage has taken on a hysteria and depth that has far surpassed all previous celebrity death coverage so far, except perhaps that of Princess Diana. But here's my fundamental problem - Michael Jackson is being canonized as a saint, which he clearly wasn't. 

I won't say that Michael Jackson wasn't a terrific musician, because clearly that would not be true. Like Mozart as a child, a young Michael Jackson was a pop genius. Like Elvis Presley in his prime, Michael Jackson contributions changed music forever while in his twenties. And like so many who have gone before him, despite all of his positive contributions, Michael Jackson had a dark streak that cannot be ignored.

Michael Jackson was accused, at least twice, of sexual molestation. Did he actually molest those children? We'll never know, although in his interview with Martin Bashir he did admit to behaviour that we would likely find highly questionable in any of our own acquaintances. As so many will tell me and is a constant refrain from the many mourners, he was only accused and was acquitted of the charges. But OJ Simpson was also acquitted of his charges, and how, as a society, do we feel about him? He, too, was a genius in his own arena - the sports arena. He was a sports great, breaking records and barriers as one of the first black sports figures to go on to success as a spokesman and actor. Would he receive the same sort of memorial? The public outpouring? I dare say, not at all.

Yesterday, the legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, one of the few talking heads I admire, as he almost always seems to have a fair and balanced take on the stories of the day, stated one of the most obvious sentiments I've heard. Essentially he said that yes, he made terrific music, but would you leave your kids with him?

(I won't go into how one of the other panelists tried to state that some parents did, sensing an opportunity for financial gain if their kids got a little close, which, in my opinion, came dangerously close to saying that hell, they had it coming, didn't they? Please, let's not even GO there.)

And this brings me to my essential problem with the coverage. By all means, let us say that the man made terrific music, was a terrific dancer. Let us even mourn the demise of that music and the amazing dance skills. But let us not forget for a moment that that music came at a terrifically high cost - a cost that the media seems to insist on referring to euphemistically as his "troubles". It came at the cost of those children whose lives will never be the same, caught up in the frenzy and insanity that was Michael Jackson's world, regardless of the nature of the relationship. For those children whose relationship was either one of exploitation, or merely skirted the edge of appropriateness, there is a cost in the loss of innocence. Somewhere in this endless coverage, it has become inappropriate to criticize Michael Jackson, to discuss in measured terms the less palatable aspects of his life.

Let us remember that music, no matter how terrific and memorable and life-altering, cannot undo later bad acts. It is not a panacea for one's more unpalatable traits. And let us not speak of Michael Jackson as some sort of modern-day saint, but as a man (merely a man) with a great deal of musical genius and potential who somewhere lost his way into a lifestyle that few of us would condone. 

Let us remember him as he truly was - and not as the saint we wish him to be and are pretending he was. 

BLITHELY BABBLING © 2008. Chaotic Soul :: Converted by Randomness