A pain that I’m used to

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Lives of Short Duration, Richards’ third novel, is not an easy read, not in story nor in form. Once again Richards places his tale in small-town New Brunswick, this time following the lives of  several generations of the Terri family as well as their extended family and friends.

The novel is unrelenting in several ways. The Terries are a family falling apart and nothing feels solid and dependable, not family bonds or social structure. The narration reflects this undependability as the story is told largely through the blurry perspectives and reminisces of characters that are either drunk or suffering from illness and dementia. As a result, the story spills out in a boundless form, slipping from past to present in a timeless stream of consciousness. The dense, unbroken text continues on and on, only divided up by four section headings and the occasional one-line break. As a result, you feel as caught up and stuck as the characters are in their own circumstances, circumstances that are often appalling, painful and unfortunate.

Lives of Short Duration opens with a party that is starting to sour. The Terries are hosting, though the familial ties are difficult to unknot, even for the Terries. George, the father, is drunk and acting up. His daughter, Lois, a mother of three young children, also at the party, yells at him after he threatens to set a bridge, which connects their property to that of a life-long friend, Lester Murphy, on fire, “Goddamn George, you ruin everything,” Lois shouted. “But ya aren’t ruinin my fun, you hear that—you aren’t ruinin my fun.” Later, you discover that her words are an echo of her mother’s, who moved away from the area after leaving George. Finding fun, at the expense of others and often to their own detriment, is a reoccurring justification for their decisions.

Once the span is on fire, the RMCP arrive to inform George that the body of his father, who had been missing for a year, has been found in the woods, and that Lester Murphy has been struck by a car and died. From this party, the story spins out along the timeline, past and future, of the Terries’ lives and of the region. Midway through the novel, the perspective changes and story restarts from the hours of the opening pages as seen by the doomed Lester Murphy.

The characters that populate this novel are not easy to care for or even like. They are self-absorbed, destructive, violent, cruel, grasping people. While you begin to understand their actions, it is difficult to really sympathize, not that they would want you to, either. The struggle of their lives overwhelms the small breaks of happiness, and they constantly return to a place of frustration, “To wake in the night in the midst of a shuddering hangover when the dismal past threatens you, when faces form in slow motion before you, so every particle of their flesh breathes misery…”. The misery is pushed down and swallowed up by drinking, drugs, and casual sex. These activities cover the growing distance between the characters, between people and their history, and between individuals and themselves.

The only character who elicits any sense of hope is Packet Terri, the eldest child of George and his ex-wife, Elizabeth. The other members of the Terri family seem to yearn for him (though they also resent him for their longing). At the party, George, after burning the bridge and his hands in the process, expresses anger at Packet’s choice to skip the party, and, once the RCMP arrive, Packet’s absence is even more noted, “There was a terrible thing happening. Everyone was saying that they needed Packet there.” Packet is set apart from the other characters both physically and emotionally. He leaves the area to work in the North, earning a decent living, though not escaping the violence of his home, and he moves around, even across the country to Victoria , BC .

He manages to break away from the destructive cycle in which his family is stuck, but he also returns to them. He sees in his family the good that the police, outsiders, and even the reader, would overlook in the face of all their struggles and destructive behaviour. Packet’s understanding and acceptance of his family is seen with his brother Little Simon, who is named after their grandfather, “And he was gone through the dry field in an October afternoon, with his hands in his pockets, his cap over his ears—and Packet would love him entirely, and be sad.” Little Simon is a drug addict and dealer. He is violent and often cruel, though he excuses it as a little fun teasing, and despite his illegal activities manages to elude the police for a long time. Both old Simon and Little Simon die as they lived – Old Simon in the woods where he lived for 60 years, Little Simon in a game of Russian roulette, a bit of fun played too seriously. Between them is Packet, the one who survives.

Reading Lives of Short Duration is a challenge, and I wish I had known what I was getting into before I started reading it. The experiences of the Terries are almost buried in the form, and I feel like I missed a lot by wanting to impose an order and untangle the messiness of their lives. I missed the good in the Terries and, therefore, I believe, one point that Richards is trying to make.

 

On a side note, this past weekend I had the great pleasure of attending of reading of Richards’ newest novel, Crimes Against My Brother. The short passage that Richards shared held all the traits that I love about his writing: controlled pacing, anticipation, the quiet sorrows and joys that life holds. His reading style was matter of fact; there was no need to add emphasis to the meaning built by his words. Afterwards, I stood in line, full of excitement and terror, to get his signature. I even managed to express some sort of appreciation for his work, though I was comically tongue-tied in front of such a great wordsmith.

 

All quoted passages from Richards, David Adams. Lives of Short Duration. 1981. McClelland & Stewart, Toronto.

This is how you do it

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I intended to do a close read of The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant for re: read pages but instead the novel became a pleasure read that I devoured in almost one sitting.

The Birth of Venus is a historical fiction set in Renaissance Florence, and it grabbed me from the first paragraph. I couldn’t help but put my pen and notepad down, squish down into my chair and turn page after page. The opening lines open the story wide and already showcase Dunant’s gift for seamlessly meshing research and writing:

No one had seen her naked until her death. It was a rule of the order that the Sisters should not look on human flesh, neither their own nor anyone else’s. A considerable amount of thought had gone into drafting of this observance.

So much is said in just the first three sentences. We know that a nun has died. We know one of the rules under which she lived and the importance placed on hiding away the female form – the implication of the dangers of the flesh. And, because the rule is being pointed out, that the revealing of this nun’s flesh will yield more than just a naked body.

The opening paragraph goes on to outline the rules surrounding this observance. While Dunant’s understanding of the time and place in which the story takes place is evident, the information never feels like it is being dropped in, like a side note in the middle of lecture, but folds into the plot and drives the narrative.

I didn’t take any notes, as I usually do while reading for re: read pages. I was just enjoying myself too much to want to break away from the story, something that hadn’t happened in a long time.

The choices Dunant makes throughout the story just build strength on strength, with the historical setting supporting, influencing and revealing her characters. For example, the protagonist, Alessandra Cecchi, a teenager, is the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant. The novel is set in Florence just as the Sumptuary Laws (rules limiting conspicuous consumption, such as fur lined gowns or jewel encrusted hair pins) were being blasted from the pulpit by Girolamo Savonarola, a real historical figure who enthralled the city and enraged the pope. So the very thing upon which her family has earned its fortune, the selling of luxury, is being questioned by the highest leader in the community.

As Florence is in upheaval around her, so is Alessandra’s life. She is interested in art and wishes to become an artist but also knows her duty to her family as a daughter of a marriageable age. Her response and her intelligence never take her out of her age or time, but still give her an autonomy that is uniquely hers, especially when compared to the life of her older sister.

The novel was a pleasure from start to finish, and I will definitely be rereading this novel. Dunant’s talent is admirable, and the final pages sums up how I feel about my writing in comparison to the greatness of her own.

Alessandra is reflecting on the art she has created through the years, including painting the chapel walls in the convent in which she resides, and concludes that it is “sadly mediocre” but does not feel the lesser for the results:

And if that sounds like a statement of failure from an old woman at the end of her life, then you must believe me when I tell you it is absolutely not.

Because if you were to put it [the chapel] with all the others…then you would see it for what it is: a single voice lost inside a great chorus of others.

And such is the sound that the chorus made together, that to have been a part of it at all was enough for me.

Love by the book: Part Two

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Previously, I started a comparison of romance novels with a post about Nora Roberts’ debut novel, Irish Thoroughbred. This week, I’ll look at a more recent release from Roberts, Dark Witch.

Quick refresher for why I picked these two books – the plots are somewhat similar as in both books an isolated young adult moves to another country (Ireland to America and America to Ireland, respectively) to live with family, ends up working with horses, and falls in love with her employer.

Dark Witch was published in November of last year, 32 years after Roberts’ debut, and was her fourth book published that year. It is the first in the Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy; the second came out in March 2014 and the final installment is due out this November. As with my post in Part One, I will break down the comparison by the heroine, the man, and the romance/sex.

The Heroine

Iona Sheehan, of an indeterminate age, leaves her life in the States behind to live in Ireland and get to know her distant cousins. She has blonde hair that she cut into a short pixie style just before she left for Ireland and is described as being cute, short (5’ 3”), and slim with the body of a teenaged boy. To make up for her short stature, she wears heels and she prefers to wear bright colours.

Iona’s parents are alive but emotionally distant as are her grandparents except for her beloved Nan, her mother’s mother, who shared the family history and the twist in Dark Witch’s plot. The twist in Dark Witch is a centuries-old magical feud that ties the cousins together against an evil, seductive force named Cabhan that wants to consume their power. Iona has felt different, vaguely aware of her power, her whole life and wants to find herself in Ireland.

As with all her novels, Roberts peppers small examples of her characters’ idiosyncrasies. Iona babbles when she is nervous and, I can’t believe this is supposed to be endearing, flutters her hands. On the plus side, she doesn’t hide her feelings but just jumps right in to everything she tries, professionally and personally, including a relationship with Boyle McGrath.

The Man

I have no clue why Iona is attracted to Boyle. When she first meets him, Iona describes Boyle as a cowboy, pirate, and wild tribal horseman and compares him to the horse he is riding. He has caramel hair and gold/green eyes, a rawboned face, a strong jaw and stubborn mouth and a thin scar through his eyebrow. And he has that sexiest of attributes, a temper: “He’s all tough and cranky.” As in Irish Thoroughbred, Roberts uses Boyle’s relationship with horses to show his character – the horses in his stable are well treated boosting him in Iona’s estimation, and he gets into a physical fight with the abusive previous owner of one of his horses to protect it from going back under the other man’s care (the horse’s name is Darling, seriously).

But for all the buildup of Boyle’s attractiveness, I found him so boring and reserved. In many ways, I saw this relationship as a reversal of Travis and Adelia in Irish Thoroughbred. Like Adelia, Boyle is skittish about the romantic attention and Iona enjoys overwhelming him and watching him struggle with his attraction. In one instance, Boyle is leaving but turns back to come kiss her, which pleases Iona, “The reluctance in it only added a sexy edge.”

Boyle’s reservation is further highlighted when Iona suggests they have sex. Boyle gives several excuses to put off a night together, even though he imagines what it would be like, but Iona only jokes about his discomfort. “‘You want dinner first.’ Her smile perked up when she clearly saw he didn’t get the joke. ‘That’s fine…’” Boyle states they will go out for dinner in his “own time.” He is so hesitant it is almost like the virginal heroines of romance novels of the ’80s. When Iona shares the exchange with her cousin Branna, the tale is met with sarcastic surprise, but also highlights why I had a hard time feeling anything for this couple:

Too happy to be dampened, Iona laughed. “It’s a big step up from grunting at me. He thinks I’m a puzzle, can you imagine? I mean, seriously, who couldn’t figure me out? I’m as simple as they come.”

Ugh. This is where I stopped taking notes (on page 178 of 342). She is simple and he grunts and this is supposed to make me invested in their relationship? There really isn’t much depth to this relationship, just open spaces with lightning touching down occasionally.

The Romance/Sex

The view of the romance is one sided in the beginning with Iona being impressed by Boyle’s looks and fluttering her hands every time she talks about him. Their first kiss comes when he is picking her up to move her to her cousin’s home. She is practicing magick (as Roberts spells it to indicate we are to take this stuff as seriously as the characters; it’s for realzies magick) and he kisses her to shut her up: “‘You talk to bloody much.’ With that, he gave her a yank…And took her mouth like a man starving for it.” Just like Travis years ago, Boyle uses sexual contact as a way to make his love interest stop speaking.

The sex comes after Iona is attacked by the evil sorcerer Cabhan in the form of a wolf. She and Boyle are together and fight side-by-side; Boyle supporting Iona as she uses magick to create a wall of fire and throw balls of fire at Cabhan. Once they safe and back at Boyle’s place, they have fast, slightly awkward, sex.

The sex is where Dark Witch differs from Irish Thoroughbred the most. Roberts includes some of the first-time lovers fumbling, which matches the characters’ personalities as well, but once they are naked they become Superlovers having the best sex ever. It is described in detail, not with slang or erotic language, but clearly – hands here, mouth there, and thrust – but Roberts includes the emotions tied to the actions, too. I think when Roberts first started writing, these scenes would have been considered the stuff of erotic literature, similar to Fifty Shades of Grey territory now – the stuff in Dark Witch wouldn’t be found under general romance in the ’80s. It isn’t badly written, though the starlight in their hair and eyes get a little eye-rollie.

As for marriage, this is where the books differ as well as it isn’t forced on the couple but instead is the reward at the end of the book after overcoming all obstacles. In Dark Witch, in addition to the centuries-old curse she has to overcome, Iona overhears Boyle complain about how she pushed herself into his life and he needs some space. It is a misunderstanding, which he regrets but won’t apologize for at first, so she gives him his space. It doesn’t last long, though, as their dealings with Cabhan force Boyle to speed up his process and reconcile with Iona before their big battle. After the final (sort of) battle with Cabhan, in which Iona and Boyle risk their lives to save each other, Boyle confesses his love and they get engaged. As Iona puts it, “Love…given freely, taken willingly. There was no stronger magick.”

I haven’t really discussed the magick storyline, mostly because it was silly – the wording, the plot holes, the fact that it was supposed to be a main plot point but doesn’t get resolved properly. Roberts’ has written several series or interrelated novels (19 including the Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy) and of the ones I’ve read there is a storyline that flows through each book before being fully resolved in the final installment, but it isn’t as integral to the main character as it is in Dark Witch. I felt endlessly frustrated by the conclusion of this novel, so much so that I have no interest in picking up the installment because it will happen again.

Between the two novels, despite its outdated relationship dynamic, I preferred Irish Thoroughbred. The lower page count made putting up with its more grating aspects easier and it really was a product of its time. Dark Witch was a disappointment and took for.ever. to read (maybe I don’t like magic in any form). I usually enjoy the mindless entertainment of a Nora Roberts romance – she isn’t the queen of the genre for no reason – but this one was not worth the time.

What is worth the time is an interview with Roberts that I found while researching her work for these posts. She talks about her decades as a romance writer, how things have changed and how they have stayed the same. It is a great read and gives a great taste of the woman behind the amazing writing success.

 

Love by the book: Part One

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I use to devour romance novels. Short, easy to read, page-turning plots: what’s not to love about books about love? Nora Roberts, the reigning queen of hearts, has published over 200 novels. She also publishes under the pseudonym J.D. Robb, which was created just to keep up with her output. By her own estimation, Roberts finishes a new novel every 45 days. What?!? You can argue about the quality (and we will), but you can’t deny that she still puts words on the page at a phenomenal rate.

Given her success and influence in the romance genre, I thought it would be an interesting comparison to read her first romance novel and one that was recently published.

Her first, Irish Thoroughbred, was published in 1981 with Silhouette Books. Irish Thoroughbred tells the story of Adelia Cunane who moves to America to live with her uncle and winds up training champion horses and falling in love with Travis Grant, the owner of Royal Meadows stables.

For comparison I chose Dark Witch, published in November 2013 with Berkley Books, though it isn’t the most recent as there were three other books published after this date. Dark Witch tells the story of Iona Sheehan who moves from the U.S. to live in Ireland with her distant cousins and winds up caring for horses at a local stable and falls in love with the owner, Boyle McGrath.

Despite the similar basic plots the books are wildly different in tone and focus and highlight the progression of Roberts’ writing and, as a result, the change to the romance genre in general.

The keystones of romance novels are the heroine, the man, and the romance/sex, so I’ll break down the novels by looking at these three areas, but to keep the posts a little more manageable, I’ll first discuss Roberts’ debut and make a separate post for her more recent publication.

So, let’s begin with Irish Thoroughbred.

The Heroine

Adelia Cunane is a 23-year-old orphan who was raised by her emotionally distant aunt from the age of 10. She took care of the family farm and eventually her aunt from the time of her parents’ death until she was called to live in America by her uncle. She is innately in tune with horses and empathizes with them. She is described as having wavy auburn hair, large, deep green eyes with thick lashes, tilted nose, full mouth, and, most importantly, tiny.

Adelia is referred to as “half pint,” “little lady,” and “little thing” and her nickname from her uncle is “little Dee.” Besides these references she is also referred to as a “girl” and “child” or, alternatively, depending on the situation, as a “little wench,” “green-eyed witch,” and “blonde witch” or “faerie queen” and “faerie goddess.”

To a modern reader, these references are occasionally cringe-inducing, as in this moment early in the romance: “‘You look like a child.’ Her chestnut hair hung loose and heavy over the shoulders of her robe, and he ran a hand down the length of it. ‘A child can’t be bundled off to bed with out a goodnight kiss’, he said softly.” Nothing is sexier than being referred to as a child, right? This exchange ends with him kissing her on the cheek, though it leaves her “unsatisfied.”

The emphasis on her size and youthfulness, despite being 23, does not change as the romance progresses. Near the end of the story, Travis says he wouldn’t feel so protective of Adelia if she “didn’t continually look fifteen instead of twenty-three.” Protective, okay, but remember he is supposed to be sexually attracted to her, a person he thinks looks like an underage half-pint. Creepy. Which brings us to…

The Man

Roberts provides an unintentionally amusing description of Travis as it is almost like that of a horse: tall, powerfully built, sharp blue eyes, tanned, muscular, black curly hair, and strong white teeth. The description of his teeth made me laugh. I pictured a vet opening a horse’s mouth for inspection. Yep, all good here.

But Travis makes a good first impression on Adelia before she even meets him. First through the opinion of her uncle and secondly by the way he treats his horses. Two awkward descriptions come from this first impression. When Adelia arrives at Royal Meadows she sees how the horses are treated and warmly thinks that he “knows how to care for what he owns.” This phrasing is a little disturbing, “what he owns,” given that he will soon be Adelia’s employer and the emphasis on ownership rather than what should be an expected behaviour. It stuck out to me the first time I read it and it stayed with me as they continued to interact.

Travis spends most of their relationship overwhelming and overriding Adelia. Their first kiss comes after a brief argument and he kisses her to shut her up, a reason given more than once. Giving orders and protecting Adelia, his half-pint, is really all there is to him. His character is not as well formed as Adelia’s; while she has a relationship with her uncle, befriends Travis’ twin sister and interacts with his nephews, he is only revealed in direct relation to Adelia.

The Romance/Sex

As already mentioned, Adelia, despite being in her 20s, is depicted as a little spitfire with emphasis on the little. While her stature is meant to make her seem vulnerable, it is also exploited.

In an unfortunately common scene in romance novels, Adelia is nearly raped by a co-worker but is saved by Travis. She tries to defend herself, of course, both verbally and physically, but is too small to fight him off. Travis comes and beats him near to death until Adelia calls him off. Travis’s anger is frightening to Adelia: “His face seemed to be caved from granite, his eyes steely blue and penetrating as he started at her. She trembled at the strong, harsh mask and offered up a silent prayer that she would never have that deadly fury directed at her.”

It is meant to show the intensity of his emotion but, especially on the heels of a rape scene, the mixture of violence and love is disturbing. (I won’t get into a detailed discussion of this issue here, but check out these two posts, here and here, from Romance Novels for Feminists for more information on this issue.) It is worth noting that in Irish Throughbred Adelia refuses to call the police out of fear of upsetting her beloved Uncle Paddy but in Roberts’ later works the heroines occasionally rescue themselves (or are rescued by their love interest) and do call the police.

Travis and Adelia continue to bond through the race horses as she accompanies him to several races where, of course, their horse wins. The relationship is sped up by the ill health of Uncle Paddy. After he has a heart attack, he asks Travis to marry Adelia so that he doesn’t have to worry that she will be left alone should he die. Travis agrees and Adelia goes along with the idea.

Within the confines of marriage, sex is now allowed and expected. A storm facilitates an opportunity and, weeks after their hospital bed-side wedding, they have sex. Their lovemaking is glossed over, referenced more in comparison to the storm, and then it is the next morning. Adelia’s lost virginity is only confirmed by her remark that she never had woken up with a man in her bed.

But their relationship isn’t completely solid until the “I love yous” are exchanged so one more complication is thrown up before the story can end. In this case, it is Travis’ ex-girlfriend, who comes to the house and implies that Travis will divorce Adelia and marry her. Adelia, despite her bond with her uncle, decides she can no longer live in America and leaves for the airport to head back to Ireland.

In one of my least favourite romance tropes, Adelia and Travis are yelling at each other before finally admitting they love each other. They go from yelling, with Travis physically restraining Adelia (while kissing her), to making love. What is strange is that despite the I love yous being the final act of the story, Roberts never has the characters actually say “I love you.” It is implied, said second hand, but not provided as dialogue. With so much of the story hinging on that realization, it seems to be an odd omission.

Overall, Irish Thoroughbred is typical for its time and follows a plot that most people would associate with a book in the romance genre. At just over 170 pages in the addition I read, it was a quick read. The pace and Adelia’s generally enjoyable, if dated, character makes it easy to see why Roberts was given another book deal.

Now I’m really looking forward to reading Dark Witch to see the differences; I’m sure there will be many. Roberts is a force within the romance genre and it should be interesting to see where she takes her writing. So come back next week to hear all about Dark Witch!

 

It’s not me, it’s you

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After completing a cull of my personal library several months ago, I had a laugh over the results of the reorganization as highly regarded literature sat beside beach-read romance (see my post and photo here).

As a result I’ve decided to start a new reading series called Why Haven’t I Read This Yet? and finally read all those books that I’ve meant to read but just never found the time (some of those books may or may not be from courses I’ve already completed, cough cough).

So welcome to my inaugural post in the series!

As this book inspired the series idea, I decided to start with One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.

In the small world of coincidences, Márquez passed away this April, at the age of 87, just as I finished reading his widely adored novel.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, first published in 1967 in Spanish, tells the story of seven generations of the Buendía family. This novel has been in my to-read pile for years as one of those novels I thought I should read in order to consider myself well read. I had started reading it a couple of times before but never finished it.

I felt a pressure to read (and enjoy) this book. I could never get a good rhythm when reading it, which I chalked up to bad timing and not a bad book. A lot of people list One Hundred Years of Solitude as their favourite book or an influential or important book in their lives (Bill Clinton, Oprah, Emma Thompson). It is credited as one of the reasons Márquez won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. And I can not think of higher praise than that from William Kennedy of the New York Times Book Review, who said One Hundred Years of Solitude should be “required reading for the entire human race.” With so much acclaim, I figured I just needed to make the time to really take in the voice of the novel and I, too, would be swept away.

Having finally finished it, I think I now know why I never made it through before: I don’t like magical realism, which is my polite way of saying, I didn’t like this book.

Magical realism is a genre of literature in which magical experiences occur in a natural or realistic setting. For example, in One Hundred Years, considered one of the seminal examples of the genre, the characters live impossibly long lives. Which doesn’t sound so bad, but it is one of a thousand tiny and large instances in which the everyday becomes imbued with the fantastic throughout the novel, which makes the pace of the story is as long as the lives of the protagonists – For. Ever.

Admittedly, I do not have any detailed understanding of the history of Latin America, which largely informs the novel’s plot. Perhaps if I did I would have anticipated more and felt the narrative pull more strongly.

The blips of interest for me came with the truly inexplicable moments, such as the blood of a Buendía winding its way through the town and the family home so that the matriarch, Úrsula, could discover his death. Or the ascension of Remedios the Beauty in to the sky instead of meeting a natural death.

One point I did appreciate relates to the massacre of thousands of striking workers that is covered up by the company that enacted the violence. Only José Arcadio Segundo, who witnesses the removal of the bodies and is subsequently driven mad by the knowledge of their deaths, believes the massacre occurred. The rest of the town accepts the official story of the strikers returning to their families but accuse José Arcadio Segundo of dreaming or misunderstanding the experience. In the midst of other fantastical events, the terrible truth is the one thing that is unbelievable for the characters, which makes the event all the more terrifying.

Despite my feelings about this novel, I will try another book from this genre just to see if I need to develop a reading palette for magical realism. But I will say this: while Márquez was writing One Hundred Years he had to sell his car and get food and rent on credit in order to finish it.

I don’t plan on selling items off while I write my novel, but the belief in his own work is something I envy. There is no room for self-doubt if you’re putting yourself in debt to get it done.

I could use some of that magic.

 

 

la petite mort sanglante

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To help move along my writing and spark my interest again, I decided to pick up Lucrezia Borgia by John Faunce. This is his debut, and only, novel, though his bio included in the book, published in 2003, indicates that he has written television movies and works as a screenwriter in LA.

I debated about including my thoughts on this novel for re: read pages because no matter what I say, Faunce wrote a book that got published, which I have yet to do, and because I wanted to focus on writing that impressed me with its craft and, as you have probably guessed, this novel does not.

Despite my interest in the Borgia family (they play an important role in my own novel), I have had a difficult time finding a perfectly satisfying read about this notorious clan. The gossip about the potentially incestuous relationships between siblings seems to be too juicy to not play up in one way or another, and too many authors lose their place trying to weave these tidbits into their narratives. Faunce is no different.

Interjections of Greek and Latin meant to showcase Lucrezia as a unique mind instead of just a unique body feel slapped in more to show the author’s knowledge than his character’s. The moments of humour meant to bring levity to more serious situations generally fall flat. I’m also not sure what he intended by turning Cesare Borgia into a temper-tantrum throwing adult, complete with stomping feet and high pitched voice. Is this humour again? Is it meant to show that he is no better than his sister who shed tears in an attempt to avoid her first marriage? It is difficult to reconcile the Cesare of Lucrezia’s admiration and the captain of the Holy Army to this whiny child-man. But the worst offence is the treatment of sexuality.

Lucrezia is meant to be seen as a golden beauty from a very young age. Her value, according to her family, comes from her looks. It is one reason why she can be bartered in marriage three times in her life despite concerns about the trustworthiness of her family. But her sexuality and the role of incest in her family are so poorly executed that Faunce loses any credibility he may have built up with historical detail.

Lucrezia’s second husband, Alphonso, whom she loved, is beaten near to death in front of her eyes and she is nearly murdered herself. But Lucrezia, while surrounded by her attackers and cradling her husband’s head, isn’t overcome by fear and grief but by memories of their lovemaking:

“Remember me.” I called as loudly as I could to Alphonso, though I’m now certain what felt a yell was only a longing whisper. “Remember that even in Heaven no one will ever love you the way I do….Remember me,” I whispered again to my husband. “If you forget my voice, remember my body, the ways it loved you.”

Lucrezia’s odd way of experiencing trauma continues as she cleans Alphonso’s wounds. While washing blood from Alphonso’s body, she imagines Mary Magdalene giving Jesus a blow job. Yep. Nothing like blood on your hands to get you thinking about Jesus and oral sex. But Faunce isn’t finished yet. Alphonso still needs to die. In his final hours, Alphonso, who has been nursed back to life by a fiercely dedicated Lucrezia, makes love to his wife, but their post-coital rest is interrupted by Cesare, who has talked his way past guards at the door. He begs Alphonso’s forgiveness, admitting that he sent the attackers that caused his near death; however, once they are relaxed Cesare turns and attacks Alphonso himself. Lucresia attempts to defend him and is hurt in the act. In Faunce’s telling, this is a total turn-on:

Alphonso and I were naked. More blood kept flowing from my cut hands. An image formed in my mind…In my mind we seemed a strange, desperate ménage a trois. But I confess our threesome was oddly attractive to me, unbidden, nightmare daydream.

Ugh. If this passage hadn’t occurred near the end of the novel, I would have tossed the book aside completely. Faunce teases the reader with incest but never full commits his heroine. In another (more well-written) book about the siblings, Blood and Beauty, author Sarah Dunant puts the incestuous leaning fully on Cesare’s shoulders. While Faunce also hints that Cesare, in a kind of madness, is in love with his sister, passages such as the one above allow Faunce to indulge in sibling love scenes without really dirtying his main character (I won’t even get in to Lucrezia’s pleasure in remembering hearing her parents have sex in the next room).

Overall this book didn’t provide any insight into the Borgia family. It felt like a shallow interpretation dressed up with sex and Latin.

I hope I will do better.

All quoted passages from Faunce, John. Lucrezia Borgia. 2003. Three Rivers Press, New York.

Don’t take my word for it

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Blood Ties by David Adams Richards

Richards’ second novel, Blood Ties, came out in 1976 and is also set in Miramichi Valley, which was introduced in his debut novel, The Coming of Winter. This time the MacDurmot family gives the reader a glimpse at life in small-town New Brunswick, though characters from the previous novel make an appearance as well. Blood Ties takes place during the period from July 1967 to October 1969 (so just before the beginning of The Coming of Winter; see my discussion of that novel here).

The most frequent viewpoint is that of Cathy, a young woman finishing high school, but the story is also told through her family members’ experiences, including her mother and father, Irene and Maufat; her half-sister, Leah; and her brother, Orville, and through some of the other men in and around the MacDurmots’ lives.

The voices of the characters are very strong, and the cadence of the area runs through all their conversations and thoughts. This pattern of speech does more than localize the speakers. It reflects where they are and where they are expected to go in their lives.

There is a lot of repetition in this novel; the characters repeat the same phrase in a single conversation and they have the same conversation over and over. This repetition leaves the impression that the characters are stuck – verbally and developmentally. They think and speak more than they act, as if the forming of words could take the place of action.

Near the beginning of the novel, Leah complains about her husband, Cecil. He is a drunk and abusive, and she has come to her parents’ home after Cecil has thrown their young son against the stove. It is clear that Leah has been there before for the same reason. After venting to her family, Leah makes to return home but her family prevents her, not because of what Cecil did, but because of the hour. Leah claims that if Ronnie wasn’t around she would have left Cecil already, but her words are empty and no one responds “because everything was said and they couldn’t say anymore.” Talking is Leah’s only action and no real change is expected to occur.

The next day, Maufat returns with Leah and Ronnie to their home with plans to set Cecil straight, but after Maufat asks why he roughed up Ronnie, he leaves without confronting Cecil directly:

He hadn’t said it, not said it at all. He turned and started out the door….He went out from the stale heat of the house into the bright of the day, the burning of it. “Shit,” he kept thinking. “Shit.” He went out the gate and began walking up the highway, the grasshoppers stiff and silent and deadened in the heat. He kept thumbing cars that passed him as he walked. “Shit,” he kept thinking. “Shit.”

So Leah and Ronnie stay with Cecil, and Maufat goes to work like any other day, which, for them, of course, it is. The fighting, even the violence, between Leah and Cecil is accepted as just being part of their relationship and, more generally, anticipated from men in their town.

Cathy, experiencing her first real relationship with John, the same character from The Coming of Winter, follows the pattern set by her half-sister. She ignores or explains away John’s negative behaviour. He calls Cathy names, makes fun of her in front of other people, refuses to come into her home, doesn’t call when he says he will, talks about his ex, and, on their first date, pressures her in to jumping a fence rather than paying to enter a fair. Yet, Cathy keeps dating him despite knowing she wants better:

She felt desperate and angry with herself, and yet she clung to his arm. When she clung to his arm he moved to open the door and she said: ‘No, don’t go,’ and he turned back to her rubbed his dark hand across his black hair and straightened.

John’s behaviour isn’t unexpected. If Cathy stays in this town, it goes without saying that men like John and Cecil will be part of her romantic future. But Richards provides hope alongside the struggle. Cathy, after a shocking revelation from John, decides to head west with a friend, and Leah, after her own particularly painful encounter with Cecil, works up the courage to leave as well. But more than that, Richards provides an example of a dependable man who remains in the town.

Near the end of the novel, Richards includes a beautiful flashback to the early days of Irene and Maufat’s relationship as they go on a walk together. It is almost dreamlike in its telling, hazy with summer heat; the thickness of the memory makes his behaviour seem like a mirage, but the real love Maufat offers Irene is clear. He, among so many poor romantic examples, is trustworthy and supportive and Irene bares herself to him literally and figuratively.

Richards then proves this mirage to be reality using a bit more repetition. Throughout the book the MacDurmot family hitches rides in cars and even school buses to get around town. Maufat keeps saying he will have to get a car, but by the end of the novel the reader is conditioned to expect that he will do nothing more than talk getting a car. Except, then he does.

He stood and went to the fridge again and she looked out the window. Then he brought the beer over and went to open it, but she [Irene] threw her arms around his neck and at first she was laughing and then she was crying, feeling herself sink against him. He put his arms around her. She was shaking and crying.

“Told ya I’d get a fuckin car, didn’t I – told ya I’d get a car, didn’t I?”

The verbal repetition continues but this time it is accompanied by action, the buying of the car. Furthermore, Maufat promises to help Cathy and her friend leave town by upgrading their train tickets. After Maufat follows through about the car, the reader is left feeling hopeful for the MacDurmots and, more generally, for the characters in the town.

All quoted passages from Richards, David Adams. Blood Ties. 1992 McClelland & Stewart Inc., Toronto

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

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Over the holidays I decided to read a classic novel and A Christmas Carol just seemed like the perfect choice given the time of year. I haven’t read this novel in over a year and it was a pleasure to read again. It is such a quick read, so I fit it in between festivities, travel and power outages.

I’ve mentioned before that one of the reasons I enjoy rereading books is because they give you something new each time you read it, and my belief holds true for A Christmas Carol. I went in to the book planning on blogging about why it is such a classic tale, but instead I was struck by Scrooge’s boldness when initially confronted by the spirits.

When Scrooge is first confronted with Marley’s ghost, he behaves in an aggressive manner. Having seen his late partner’s face in the door knocker, Scrooge enters his home, checks all the corners of his room and double-locks the doors and once Marley makes his appearance Scrooge speaks first, “‘How now!’ said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. ‘What do you want with me?’” After the ghost identifies himself, Scrooge even invites him to sit down. Scrooge doesn’t become frightened until the ghost removes some bandages from his face, revealing a disfigured jaw, and rattles his chains. But even after Marley explains that three spirits will visit Scrooge in an attempt to avoid the purgatory that he suffers, Scrooge offers a cheeky reply:

“Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Jacob?” he demanded in a faltering voice.
“It is.”
“I–I think I’d rather not,” said Scrooge.
“Without their visits,” said the Ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first tomorrow when the bell tolls One.”
“Couldn’t I take ‘em all at once, and have it over, Jacob?” hinted Scrooge.

Ha. Seriously, imagine being confronted by a creepy ghost and giving attitude. He greets the first spirit as directly as he did Marley, “‘Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?’ asked Scrooge.” It is only once the spirit begins to show Scrooge is past that the old miser’s attitude begins to change, though not his personality. He still wants to try to control the situation. Scrooge is troubled by the sights of Christmases past – his boyhood, a broken engagement, his former fiancée’s new life – but after demanding the spirit release him, he forcibly removes the spirit by extinguishing the light shining from the crown of the spirit’s head.

Trying to regain a stronger position for the arrival of the second spirit, Scrooge pulls back the curtains of his bed so that he can see when the spirit arrives, “For he wished to challenge the Spirit on the moment of its appearance, and did not wish to be taken by surprise and made nervous.” When the Ghost of Christmas Present does arrive, in another room, Scrooge goes to search the spirit out. And, once meeting the spirit, he asks the spirit to teach him his next lesson. The lesson includes the most well-known section of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s observation of the Cratchits, his clerk’s family, including their ill son, Tiny Tim.

Unlike the end of his night with the first spirit, Scrooge is given no time to prepare or recover from his experience with the Ghost of Christmas Present. Instead, after the spirit disappears at midnight, he is immediately joined by a hooded phantom, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Keeping with his previous encounters, Scrooge addresses the spirit directly and, despite his fear, encourages the spirit to fulfill its purpose:

“Ghost of the Future!” he exclaimed, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear your company, and do it with a thankful heart.”

With this spirit, the one he fears most, Scrooge is most eager to accompany, “‘Lead on!’ said Scrooge. ‘Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, Spirit!’” In this experience, Scrooge learns the sad fate of Tiny Tim and of his own unmourned death. He begs the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to allow his future to be changed. As with the first spirit, Scrooge reaches out to the Ghost, but instead of trying to rid himself of the spirit, Scrooge is clinging to it, “In his agony he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it.” While the spirit does pull away and disappear, Scrooge is successful in getting his second chance and wakes on Christmas Day a changed man.

By the end of the book, I saw that it wasn’t Scrooge’s personality that had changed but his attitude. He started to take as much pleasure in Christmas and life as he use to waste in anger and hardness before the spirits’ visits. His change of heart is a source of amusement for some, but, as he didn’t care when people hated him for his coldness, he doesn’t care if they find his new attitude strange.

All quoted passages are from Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. London: Chancellor Press, 1987.

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

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I apologize for the delay in posting (a round of sickness swept my house and we were all down for number of days). Thank you for your patience. I hope you enjoy this response to a long-loved book of mine.

I don’t remember why I first read Fifth Business, it wasn’t for school, I just remember that reading it changed my life. When I first read Fifth Business, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I devoured this book and have many times since that first reading. Every time I read Fifth Business, I find something new to admire whether it be a turn of phrase or a foreshadowed event, but, ultimately, I enjoy being in the company of the main character.

Is it strange that I, a girl of 14 or 15 years of age when I first read this novel, identified with a male character in his seventies? That’s right, Fifth Business (1970) tells the life story of Dunstan (Dunstable) Ramsay, a retired schoolteacher with a scholarly interest in saints. Told in the form of a memoir written to the Headmaster of the school where Dunstan taught, the story begins with the event that would shape the rest of Dunstan’s life – the injury of Mary Dempster as a result of being hit in the head by a snowball. The snowball was meant for Dunstan and after being hit by it, Mrs. Dempster goes into labour, delivers a premature son, and turns “simple.” The guilt he feels compels a lifelong sense of responsibility for Mary Dempster, which is fed by his belief that she is a saint.  

I feel like my description is doing a disservice to this remarkable book. It doesn’t sound like a compelling read: schoolteacher, saints and guilt. But that, perhaps, is part of the point. Fifth Business, as described in the novel, is a player in an opera who is neither “Hero or Heroine, Confidante nor Villain” but is essential to making the plot come together. Dunstan writes the Headmaster after a disappointing sendoff for his retirement. He feels his life was poorly represented and sets out to show his place on the stage. The schoolteacher is revealed as magician, decorated war veteran, lover, traveller, author, and confidant. His life didn’t change, but the way his role was cast did.

Davies develops Dunstan’s character naturally, with the voice of the elder Dunstan often reflecting on the actions of his younger self. Dunstan’s choices are explained and his thought process left open, allowing the reader to see how his decisions impacted his life. A good example of showing Dunstan’s character comes after he has survived World War I and been awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions. He is called a hero but doesn’t wholly accept that role for himself:

…I knew that I was no more a hero than many other men I had fought with, and less than some who had been killed doing what I could not have done, I determined to let society regard me as it pleased; I would not trade on it, but I would not put it aside either.

He knows he is one of many men who fought and died and that it was circumstance rather than something unique within himself that made him a hero. Still, Dunstan knows his own value, knows himself and accepts himself.

The memoir defends his life’s significance, if only to one person, “…I address this memoir to you, Headmaster, hoping thereby that when I am dead at least one man will know the truth about me and do me justice.” Dunstan’s life was not in the spotlight. He was not a major world player, he did not shine brightly, but his role was still significant, still valuable. That is something a self-conscious, awkward teenaged girl needed to hear when I first read Fifth Business and a self-conscious, searching adult still needs to hear now and again.

So this post has turned out very differently from my first look at a novel (click here to read my discussion of The Coming of Winter), but I think that is okay. We all go to certain books to fill a particular need. Fifth Business is a core novel for me; it is a pleasure to read and an inspiration for my writing, and I get something more from it with each reading.

And the ending of Fifth Business never fails to put a smile on my face. It is an end that, to me, is not unlike the ending of the movie The Usual Suspects – a slight of hand that gives Dunstan a heart attack but gives the reader great pleasure.

All quoted passages are from Davies, Robertson. Fifth Business. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1996.