I’m with the tortoise

Standard

I decided to take my reading out of my home by joining a book club at my local library. I went to my first meeting last month to discuss Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I read it when it first came out in 2012, but went to the meeting anyway as I had enjoyed it and wanted to hear other peoples’ thoughts.

This month, we read Come, Thou Tortoise, the debut novel of Jessica Grant. I thought I would put my reaction to it here first before talking it out in book club.

Uneven. That is the first word that comes to mind when thinking back on this book.

There were moments when I couldn’t stop reading and moments when I thought I could put it down and never pick it up again. I reached page 150 before I had a genuinely pleasurable moment. If not for the book club, I may have set it aside.

But I am glad I pushed through. The traits that bothered me grew fewer in number as the plot deepened and the main character came out of herself.

Come, Thou Tortoise tells the story of Audrey “Oddly” Flowers, a young woman with a below-average IQ, dealing with the death of her father and the loss of her Uncle Thoby, who lived with them for most of her life and who abandons her after the funeral.

Her father, Walter, was a scientist trying to find the key to immortality by teaching cells to remember how to be young. Complex ideas like Walter’s work, or Uncle Thoby’s history, or how not to be afraid of airplanes are all presented through the explanation that makes most sense to Oddly. As her capacity to fully understand all that is occurring is diminished, so is the readers.

tortoise, Jessica Grant, CanLit

photo by Peter Pearson (bit.ly/1JLD0tH) License: bit.ly/1jxQJMa

Mixed into this story is the experience of Winnifred the tortoise as told from her perspective as guest of Audrey’s friends (she is left behind when Audrey returns home) and as companion to Audrey and others over her long life. I really enjoyed Winnifred’s sections; her concerns for her own well being and for Audrey or other former housemates blend well with the larger narrative. Winnifred also provides a relief from the oddness of Oddly. Think about that. The narrative of a tortoise is more normal than the thoughts and actions of the human protagonist.

Mostly this is a result of Grant’s use of wordplay. Oddly loves puns and uses them as a way to deal with or deflect from difficult situations – calling her father’s coma a comma, which I misread every time, or using French words in place of English, which worked well. The device is over used at the beginning of the novel, perhaps to help establish Audrey’s personality, but it got old pretty fast and I was glad when the plot made it more difficult to work the puns in organically. At times it is difficult to trust the narrative. Is it true or just wordplay?

I like humour in my books, but often find books that are meant to be funny to be the least funny things I read. Maybe it is the expectation that I should be laughing at every page, but most often they are disappointing. While I laughed at times while reading Grant’s novel, I think it is a disservice to the story to present it as funny book. The heart of the book is the relationship between Audrey and the two men who made up her family.

Walter’s death opens up many questions for Audrey, most of which have nothing to do with what you or I would consider important. A missing hamster. An arch-nemesis. Audrey takes for granted the stability of her family life, until Uncle Thoby’s disappearance forces her to look more closely at the people nearest to her and those she would keep at arms length.

Even with (and perhaps because of) the unanswered questions, the centre of Grant’s story and Oddly’s life holds – a family is made by love:

But my dad had explained this to me. That sometimes there is only one parent. Sometimes there are two. Sometimes there are three. But what it comes down to is who wants to be. And if someone doesn’t want to be, they shouldn’t have to be. And if someone does want to be, like my dad, who really really wanted to be…or like Uncle Thoby, then that person should be allowed to be.

And that kind of love is something you should not say no to.

Book club is tomorrow. I’ll be sure to update you on how other people took Come, Thou Tortoise. For more of my thoughts on this novel, check out my Twitter feed @rereadpages for my live tweets from reading this book under #comethoutortoise. If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

BJL

Advertisements

Love by the book: Part One

Standard

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!

 

la petite mort sanglante

Standard

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.

The Coming of Winter by David Adams Richards

Standard

The Coming of Winter hits two of my interest points as this is David Adams Richards’ debut novel.

Richards’ work first came to my attention with Mercy Among the Children, published in 2000 and co-winner of the Giller Prize for that year (the prize was shared with Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost). With 14 novels to his name, as well as plays, short stories and works of non-fiction, Richards has garnered more accolades with each offering. His writing is, for me, a stellar example of the best fiction writing has to offer, which is why, on a monthly basis, re: read pages will be working through each of his novels in chronological order.   

The Coming of Winter was published in 1974, when Richards was only 23 years old. His age in itself blows my mind, especially when I started reading it (this was the first time I’ve read it) and could see all the hallmarks of the skill I admire in his later fiction. But that’s getting ahead of things.

Set around a small town in New Brunswick, the novel is a coming of age story and covers two weeks in the life of Kevin Dulse including his twenty-first birthday and ending with his wedding. The story is told from multiple perspectives, including Kevin’s, his parents’ and his friends’, and moves back and forth in time to fill in the experiences and motivations of the characters.

Richards makes so many interesting choices and he phrases scenes so well it is difficult to select just a few to go over, so I’m going to pick one big decision and a peppering of phrases that really stood out for me as a way of narrowing things down.

The big editorial choice is Richards’ use of the pronouns he or she rather than names as scenes shift, obscuring which character is driving the story. Sometimes you have to read several pages before it becomes clear. This lack of clarity corresponds to Kevin’s struggle to define what it means to be an adult as he (and the reader) views the potential examples in his community.

Richards frames the story using this structure to show Kevin’s development. The book begins with an unidentified “he” hunting in the woods. It is only after he accidentally shoots a cow that the protagonist is named and his age narrowed down. A “man” comes toward the dead cow to speak to the hunter:

“Good afternoon,” he said in a very calm voice and with a heavy river accent, a very calm, almost kind voice. “What’s your name, boy?”

“Kevin Dulse.” The boy spoke softly, also trying to be sure of himself, trying not to fall under the man’s gaze – or be intimidated by it, frightened by it.

Kevin isn’t named, in the addition I read, for six pages, and then he is a boy – a boy who is trying to find equal footing with the man whose cow he has just shot. In the passage, Richards emphasizes not only Kevin’s desire to run but his decision to stay, “And he was very afraid now, felt the heaviness of his body, and could not shoulder his rifle again, wished to run but knew he couldn’t. Couldn’t stand the sick whine of the animal.” Despite his fear, for himself and the animal, he stays to see the event through. He kills the cow with a second shot and then, noticing the man, stays to speak with the owner. With this scene, Richards presents Kevin as poised for adulthood, still a boy but aware of his growing responsibility for his actions.

The novel closes with Kevin’s wedding and another encounter with an animal, this time a pig. Kevin, his family and his new wife’s family and maid of honour attend a small reception at a local restaurant. Kevin’s friends, including his best man, do not come but, instead, are yelling and acting out just outside. Throughout the scene his friends are not named; Richards demotes them to “they.” Kevin doesn’t want them to come in anymore and even worries about the contents of an envelope they send in containing a gift. He recognizes the difference between their behaviour and that which is expected as an adult.

When the party exits the reception, they discover that his friends have taken the wheels off the family car and trapped a young pig inside. After taking the scene in, Kevin is only thinking of one thing, “‘Christ,’ he said. Because they hadn’t stayed.” Kevin’s disappointment that they didn’t stay to help fix the mess they made parallels his own decision at the beginning of the book to face the man whose cow he shot. Kevin was ready to take that step to adulthood, while his friends still do not take responsibility for their actions.

Richards choice to use pronouns to indicate the development, or lack thereof, of the characters and to obscure which character is driving the story subtly reinforces the struggle to define and reach adulthood. I could write so much more about the themes and characters of this book but then this blog post would turn into an essay, so, instead, I will leave you with some of my favourite lines from this great debut.

Richards builds so much of his characters in just single sentences. I’ve put two of my favourite ones below:

He still smelled of the liquor, he thought – still smelled of the cheap warm wine of the night before and they, both of them smelled of soap.

He forgot about the rifle now – the hunting, but thought only of where he was and that he should be elsewhere, with his friends perhaps, perhaps drinking with John.

And the line that made me drop my book:

The rain now, like the rain that night with Joseph Paul and the engine dead and he working with the carburetor float and Joseph Paul keeping the drift line away so it wouldn’t tangle, cursing at the black swells and Kevin sitting in the corner on a crate of fish stink shivering for he was just very young and not saying a word.

This seemingly throwaway mention of Joseph Paul (he is only referred to once more in this book and in a similar fashion) blew my mind because the Paul family will feature in Richards’ Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul, published 37 years later. Boom.

Even if I hadn’t already known Richards’ writing, The Coming of Winter has more than enough going for it to get me interested in more work by this author. It is a strong debut for an author of any age and provides a taste of the quality of work Richards would later produce. I hope this post will pique your interest in this great Canadian author. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Next week Monday, I’ll be discussing Robertson Davies’ The Fifth Business – the book that started it all for me. But, first, come back this Wednesday as re: read pages will discuss the fears and motivations of being a writer.

All quoted passages are from Richards, David Adams. The Coming of Winter. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1992.