Monday, December 17, 2007

February Book Selection: The Stone Angel

We'll be reading Margaret Laurence's Stone Angel next. Discussion will start February 29.
"Hagar Shipley, age 90, tells the story of her life, and in so doing tries to come to terms with how the very qualities which sustained her have deprived her of joy. Mingling past and present, she maintains pride in the face of senility, while recalling the life she led as a rebellious young bride, and later as a grieving mother."
Thanks for voting everyone. I hope everyone enjoys the book. From what I've read it is considered a classic of Canadian Literature. See you in February!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Women's Lives

I had a hard time deciding what type of book we should choose for our next selection. Should we get back to the classics? Should we try something contemporary (post WWII lit)? In the end I went to my trusty copy of 500 Great Books by Women (edited by Erica Bauermeister). The last two books we read have been by male authors, so I thought I'd offer some selections by female authors. I hope you will find something appealing here:

The Convert by Elizabeth Robins. Although Elizabeth Robins was American by birth, she spent a good portion of her life in England as an actress and feminist activist. The Convert is about the British Suffrage movement, which the author knew well. Part witty and scathing commentary on the upper classes, part political rhetoric quoted directly from open-air meetings, and part muck-raking realism, The Convert moves back and forth between the personal and the political until the two can no longer be distinguished. The Convert uses as its frame the political "conversion" of Vida Levering, a beautiful, upper middle-class woman. We follow Vida's growing discontent with "country weekend" society and her increasing awareness of the common lot of women. Forthright and direct, Elizabeth Robins discusses issues that must have been shocking in 1907: unwed motherhood, the effects of the inequality of women, and the essential disrespect that underlies chivalry. Reminiscent of Jane Austen and foreshadowing the work of Virginia Woolf, The Convert is a fascinating novel. It provides us with a sense of history and a feeling of pride in what women could and did accomplish. It is also disturbing because far too many of the issues are still relevant.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. This fictionalized autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett, captured in Daisy's vivacious yet reflective voice, has been winning over readers since its publication in 1995, when it won the Pulitzer Prize. After a youth marked by sudden death and loss, Daisy escapes into conventionality as a middle-class wife and mother. Years later she becomes a successful garden columnist and experiences the kind of awakening that thousands of her contemporaries in mid-century yearned for but missed in alcoholism, marital infidelity and bridge clubs. The events of Daisy's life, however, are less compelling than her rich, vividly described inner life--from her memories of her adoptive mother to her awareness of impending death. Shields' sensuous prose and her deft characterizations make this, her sixth novel, her most successful yet.

Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker. With an arid "dry-land" wheat farm as both its geographic and metaphoric center, Winter Wheat tells the story of eighteen-year-old Ellen Webb. Her Vermont-born father and Russian-born mother, married during the first World War, have come as homesteaders to Barton, Montana - a grain-elevator and general store. It is 1940, the year Ellen will start college if the wheat harvest is good; it is September, "like a quiet day after a whole week of wind. I mean that wind that blows dirt into your eyes and hair and between your teeth and roars in your ears after you've gone inside." The harvest pays and Ellen goes off to college, where she immediately falls in love: "I hadn't meant to fall in love so soon, but there's nothing you can do about it. It's like planning to seed in April and then having it come off so warm in March that the earth is ready." Ellen and Gil plan their marriage for after the summer harvest. But Gil arrives and doesn't find Montana or the life of dry-land wheat farmers beautiful. Ellen begins to see everything, including her parents, with new and critical eyes in this unsparing and poignant examination of love and life.

Passing by Nella Larsen. Several years ago, beautiful, ambitious Clare Kendry, tired of accepting the narrow lot of black life when she looks white, chose to pass for white and cut herself off from all past relationships. Her childhood friend, Irene Redfield, can also pass, but has chosen not to, and is now married to a black man and has two sons. Each woman faces a dilemma: how much of her heritage can she keep or ignore without destroying her life? Clare, married to a white bigot who does not know about her black blood, desperately misses her old ties and traditions. Irene, living in New York with her successful doctor/husband, wants to ignore the negative parts of her heritage: she refuses to let her husband explain about lynching to their boys and rejects his desire to move to Brazil where he hopes to escape the racism he has seen in the United States. A chance encounter brings Clare and Irene together once again. As elegant, hypnotic, relentless Clare moves increasingly into Irene's life, Irene senses the danger Clare poses to her own safe existence. Although on the surface a story of passing, hypocrisy and adultery, Passing is far more complex than it might first appear, and compels us to ask ourselves where we draw our own lines.

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. The Stone Angel is a compelling journey seen through the eyes of a woman nearing the end of her life. At ninety, Hagar Shipley speaks movingly of the perils of growing old and reflects with bitterness, humor, and a painful awareness of her own frailties on the life she has led. From her childhood as the daughter of a respected merchant, to her rebellious marriage, Hagar has fought a long and sometimes misguided battle for independence and respect. In the course of examining and trying to understand the shape her life has taken, her divided feelings about her husband, her passionate attachment to one son and her neglect of another, she is sometimes regretful, but rarely penitent. Asking forgiveness from neither God nor those around her, she must still wrestle with her own nature: "Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear." She has been afraid of being unrespectable, afraid of needing too much, afraid of giving too much, and her pride is both disturbing and inspiring.

Hopefully all titles should be available here in the US, in Canada and the UK. The most problematic might be the book by Elizabeth Robins, though there are lots of used copies out there. I checked in Bookmooch and there appear to be moochable copies of Winter Wheat, Passing, The Stone Angel and lots of The Stone Diaries. I also checked my own library system locally and found all titles available--so hopefully you will also find that to be the case as well if you prefer to borrow the book rather than buy.

Please vote in the comments area of this post. Of course anyone is welcome to join in and read and discuss the book. I will tally votes on Monday December 17 and announce the next selection. Shall we plan on discussing the book on Friday February 29?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Owl Service: More Questions than Answers

I'm a bit late coming to the discussion of the latest Slaves of Golconda novel, Alan Garner's The Owl Service. I'm not sure I will have anything new to add to the many excellent posts that the Slaves have been sharing already. But shall I attempt to give my own small spin on it anyway? First, I read a review before I started reading this YA novel that said readers will either love it or hate it. I'm not sure that is entirely accurate, however. I've gone through a variety of emotions while reading this. Confusion, incomprehension, dislike (for characters that is), appreciation. I didn't hate it, though I can't say exactly that I loved it either. I did like it--or aspects of it anyway, though I am still not sure I actually understood it all. At this point it is a book that I have finished with more questions than answers. Certainly this is a good candidate for a reread. I'm not sure I would hand this book to just any young adult reader. I wonder perhaps if they should be a fairly sophisticated reader for their age to understand and enjoy it.

I am rather weak in the area of mythology and fairy and folk tales, though I am becoming more and more interested in them, which is part of the reason I did like this book. It is based on the Welsh Mabinogion, a collection of Medieval stories. More specifically it retells the story of Blodeuwedd, a woman made from flowers who betrays her husband with another man and is turned into an owl. It took a while to get into the novel and then I always felt as though I was working to dig out the meaning--actually digging just to understand what was going on at times. It was written in 1967, and the setting is contemporary to that period. Alison and Roger are stepbrother and sister. Their parents have recently married and have come to Wales on holiday, where Alison has inherited a house from her deceased father. The house is looked after by Nancy and Huw Halfbacon and Nancy's son Gywn. When I first started reading the book I assumed that Ali, Roger and Gywn were actually great friends about to undertake one of those fantastical journeys that you come across in YA literature, as they were all of a same age. In actuality there was a certain amount of tension between them.

When Ali hears scratching noises in the attic above her bedroom, they investigate and find a set of plates. They have an intricate pattern on them, and when Ali traces them they form owls. I won't go into great detail of the plot. If you'd like to know more, the Wikipedia gives a fairly concise summary. I also found this very good review, which was helpful in understanding the mythology of the story. Essentially Ali, Roger and Gywn have set in motion the events of the myth once again. Along with the mythological aspect of the story there are also the issues of class--the wealthier Ali and Roger compared to the poor son of a servant, Gwyn, and issues of nationalism--Welsh and British prejudices. And then to spice things up just a bit more there is lots of what I am guessing is British slang and colloquialisms particular to that time and place that had to be sorted out as well. I've definitely come to the conclusion that YA literature doesn't equal easy reading.

My experience with YA literature and with mythological/fantasy stories is pretty narrow, so for me I could appreciate what the author was trying to do, though it didn't always make for smooth going. Maybe there are better books out there trying to do the same thing without this extent of complexity? I have barely skimmed the surface of what this book is even about and given you only the barest description. This is not a book I would have picked up to read on my own, but I am glad that I have been exposed to it. And still I am left with more questions than answers. By the way, this was not a book with a tidy ending, but I am hoping discussion might shed more light on things. Thanks to Ann for suggesting this novel. I'm always happy to stretch my mind a bit when it comes to books! If you've read the book, please consider joining us for the Discussion.
Cross posted at A Work in Progress.

Myth and Mayhem

The latest selection for the Slaves of Golconda is Alan Garner’s award winning young adult novel, The Owl Service. I wondered what I would make of it as I remembered not liking Garner much as a child. As an adult I can see why: Garner has one of those styles that is sparse and enigmatic to the point of being gnomic at times. He is not the author to provide explanations or tie up loose ends. Instead events occur in a metaphorical, symbolic realm that is heavy on atmosphere but light on causality. He falls very much into a particular category of writer to me, producing a certain kind of masculine literature that one reads on the very brink of incomprehension. I enjoyed this novel as an adult because I felt I had the critical tools to do so, but I can see why it would have foxed and alarmed me as a child. Garner’s language is fundamental to the problem; it seems to glance off the objects it seeks to represent without ever fully landing on them. Most of the story passes in dialogue and what dialogue it is! Speech is full of colloquialisms, local idiom, antiquated sayings, casual slang, dialect. Garner’s teenagers sound like old testament prophets, sit com characters and precocious intellectuals all at once, and there’s still room in there to add in the cadences and rhythms of different parts of the country and different layers of class. Reading it gives me the sensation of having an itch I can’t quite scratch. I think it’s very clever stuff, but I do wonder whether a student reading this novel with English as a second language would have a clue what was going on.

It took me a while to get into this novel and figure out what was going on. Essentially Garner takes the story of an old love triangle from Welsh legends The Mabinogian and layers it onto three disparate teenagers brought together on summer holiday in the original valley but in the present day. History repeats itself continually, Garner suggests, unless the spell can be broken by the individuals involved finding it in themselves to transcend their feelings and gut animosities. Trying to get a hold on the structure of the plot, I realized it reminded me of two classics: Sartre’s play No Exit, in which three characters who naturally rub each other up the wrong way are trapped in hell for all eternity (source of the famous line ‘Hell is other people’) and Hitchcock’s classic horror movie, The Birds, in which natural phenomenon go out of control, possibly in response to the heightened emotions of the characters in the story. Of the three teenagers, Alison and Roger have money, class and Englishness on their side, against them they have emotional vulnerability (Alison) and stubborn arrogance (Roger). Gwyn, the Welsh lad whose mother is housekeeping for the uneasy second marriage that is Roger’s father and Alison’s mother, carries the burden of heroism for most of the novel. He has class, Welshness and lack of money against him, but he represents an outward looking force of motivation and strength that the other privileged children lack. Yet his aborted relationship with Alison wounds him so much that in the end he cannot overcome his sense of betrayal and fulfill his role of savior.

The characters who interested me more than the teenagers were in fact the terrible examples of parenting with which the novel abounds. Roger’s father Clive is perhaps the most sympathetic, but he is a weak man, giving in to everyone’s demands for the sake of a quiet life. Alison’s mother is entirely absent from the scene of the action, but provides a powerful off-stage voice as She Who Must Be Obeyed. Everyone is obliged to tiptoe around in order not to disturb her ‘resting’ but she is clearly energetic enough to exert a strong libidinal hold over Alison, forbidding her to associate with Gwyn. Gwyn wins the booby prize for parents, however, his mother, Nancy, the housekeeper being in a state of perpetual bad-tempered hysterics throughout the narrative (caused because of the bad associations of the place for her, we are told), easy with her fists on Gwyn and incapable of giving love. Over the course of the tale Gwyn discovers that his father is the semi-incoherent halfwit, Huw Halfbacon, whose primal association with the valley offers their only hope of understanding and breaking the chain of mythic events that are unfolding. It says something that by the end of the book, Huw isn’t looking too bad as parental material in comparison to the others. How could these children break free of the bonds of bad parenting and transcend their constraints, both inherited and nurtured, in order to rise to the challenge of the mythic curse on the valley? Well, they do and they don’t, and it strikes me that I would have appreciated that story more than the one I got. But then it would have been a classic children’s adventure tale, and instead we are given a frustrating but profound piece of literature. I ought to be pleased about this, but I do wish I understood who or what it was that was doing all that scratching in the attic in the very first place. A few more answers wouldn’t have gone amiss.