Sunday, November 22, 2009

I think I have read this somewhere before...

The epistolary novel is one that is written in the form of a series of documents. Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen (see last entry) had some element of this in the diaries of Jeanne Proust. Clara Callan by Richard Wright is entirely told in this form. Primarily the diaries of the title character; Clara is a school teacher living in rural Ontario, in the same house she grew up in. It is also told through letters, between her and her sister, her and her occasional lover and a few others thrown in. Clara's sister Nora lives in New York and is a radio soap opera store.

The story is very familiar: younger more rebellious sister leaves rural Canada to pursue dreams in New York; older more sensible sister stays behind. The plot outline is copy and pasted from Student of the Weather by Elizabeth Hay. After this brief sketch is where the similarities end (thankfully). I feel like Richard Wright read my post on Student of the Weather and fixed everything I had complained about! The novel focuses on Clara and her struggle with small town life and finding her place in the world. Through the letters and diaries, Wright paints a picture of rural Ontario, big city New York and the family connections that surpass geography and time. The story is set in the 1930s, and the novel is also an exploration of the rising issues of the times (communism, fascism, loosening morals).

The only complaint that I have is the weak ending. I won't ruin it, but I didn't think it was necessary to go that far into the future. I appreciated the attempt to provide the reader with insight into why we were granted access to the private life of Clara, but I didn't need that. I was satisfied with peaking through the window, without Wright opening the door.

A lovely novel, definitely on my top list (so far anyway).


Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen

When Kate Taylor's Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen was released it got some harsh reviews for being less than historically accurate. The story, which partly takes the shape of the diaries of Marcel Proust's mother, is an historical fiction. But Taylor uses dates, names, places and events a bit more loosely than authors typically do and she does so unabashedly. Being a former history student, I was a bit concerned by this notion; yet, I quickly forgot all about it. The story is engaging, the plot she weaves does not make dates pivotal.

Beyond Mme Proust, the story involves two other females: Marie Prevost, who is in the process of translating the Proust diary (and providing us her access to the diaries) and Sarah Bensimon, a French Jewish refugee who was sent to live in Canada during the WWII. These three lives unfold over decades. They are most often stories of the everyday, un-life changing events. But they are compelling stories and the writing style of Taylor makes for an enjoyable read. Some exploration of numerous (maybe a bit too many) themes: family, self-satisfaction, bilingualism, belonging, food, Jewish identity, and a few others.

At times I felt as though there was enough in all three stories to make more than one novel, but probably not enough for three. I wanted more out of each one, they were all intriguing!

Not my favorite novel, and I was secretly hoping there would be more about food (kitchen IS in the title), but still well worth the read.


Monday, November 9, 2009

Company's Coming

So I just finished a non-Canadian book, Julie and Julia by Julie Powell, and while there really are no Canadian aspects to the book, I thought I would take the opportunity to look at an often overlooked type of book- the cookbook.

I am not going to say much about Julie and Julia, except that as a general rule- if you are writing a book about a blog, you should include the blog entries as part of the book. I felt like I was missing a lot of the story because she references her blog a lot and I have never read it. But besides that, it was decent, funny, and foody, just how I like it!

But it did remind me of the GREAT chefs, cooks, cookbook writers, and food authors we have here in Canada. Really, we are pretty lucky. I love cooking and baking but more than both of those I love reading about cooking and baking and that includes cookbooks. Out here in Edmonton we have a local heroine who has created a cookbook empire that dominates stores across the country- Jean Paré

While there are many cookbook authors I could talk about, Jean Paré holds a special place in my heart because her books, Company’s Coming, are so familiar to me (I think my mom owns everyone!).

Not only that, but right after I read Julia Child’s book, My Life in France, a few years ago, I picked up Jean Paré’s biography, Jean Paré: An Appetite for Life by Judy Schultz. Now, An Appetite for Life isn’t a bad book- it is an interesting story and fairly well written, I just wouldn’t run around calling it a must-read Can Lit book or a must-read food book either. But, for someone who knows and frequently uses Company’s Coming cookbooks it is worth the read.

Jean Paré wrote her first cookbook in 1981 (150 Delicious Squares, if anyone is curious) and has written countless books since then. The recipes aren’t particularly Canadian (especially new ones, which have a greater international flair- but with our great multiculturalism, maybe that is Canadian), but there is something so Canadian about Company’s Coming- perhaps purely because you can buy them everywhere and their bright food photographs draw much attention.

So maybe we need a food literary cannon! It can be decided the Canadian Culinary Book Award folks who just last week gave the newest Company’s Coming, Small Plates for Sharing, a gold award!


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

How to be a Canadian by Will and Ian Ferguson

And now for something completely different. I want to catch up on my blog posts, so usually you would never see two posts from me this close, but hey! I can surprise people sometimes!

Well, that is the completely different I was talking about, I am actually talking about How to be a Canadian. It is hardly the typical Canadian fiction that we are expecting to blog about, but I had it on my shelf and thought it deserved a read.

To start with, this book has hilarious parts- I did laugh loudly on more than one occasion. It is just that it wasn’t that clever. I mean we can all laugh at hating Toronto, but I have heard before, not that new. Some jokes were witty inside jokes (you had to be Canadian to get), which I appreciated, but most of those jokes were pretty dated. And when your book is only 8 years old, being dated isn’t a good thing. I know humour gets old quicker than other genres (don’t get me started on Sunshine Sketches of a Small Town) but I wanted a little more- and a little less stereotypes that have been overdone.

Now, I have to admit, some of these typical Canadian things- I do! I didn’t even know they were typical Canadian things until I read the book. So it has some merit and truth to it. I also think it is hilarious how much they hated York University. Now I lived in Toronto for only 2 years before returning West, but that was long enough to get a million York jokes thrown at me and it was funny to read about them. However, that is another worry of mine. There is definitely a “write what you know” feel to this book and while Ian and Will know a lot, they do tend to focus on what they know best. Like only talking about York University and missing most others.

Really, I would say my general observation is that the humour is pretty predictable. They make fun of hockey, politics and “eh”- nothing I didn’t see coming. So it makes you wonder, are Canadians just predictable people? Do we produce predictable humour, but also predictable literature? My last post about Thomas Wharton would say otherwise. But besides The Logogryph there is a fairly tame feeling to Can Lit. Though I hope if I keep reading I will prove this to be untrue. I bet Katy will disagree with me as well. I just need to find the gems!

So in conclusion, funny, but not the most hilarious book I have read. Not by far and mostly because it is so predictable.

Next (I will admit) I am taking a break from Can Lit to read Julie & Julia by Julie Powell- though not Canadian in any way, it is about cooking, so I think I will post about Canadian cook books, which are fabulous! Something different for you all to look forward to!


The Logogryph by Thomas Wharton

I just want to start this post by saying I have met Thomas Wharton (he is from Edmonton)- it was a long time ago, but he is a super cool guy who drives a minivan. Years ago, this minivan had a “Honk if you love Borges” sticker in it. How cool is that? Pretty freakin’ cool!

I have read other Thomas Wharton books that I love (Icefields being a favourite) and he is such a great writer. The thing with The Logogryph is you have to understand the format. At first, I was not enjoying it as much as I had hoped. I loved the story about the Canadian boy that ran through the book, but the other stuff was just short and disjointed. But then I reconsidered what I was reading and its purpose.

The Logogryph is like an annotated bibliography. It is a collection of bits that give a glimpse into stories about books. And it does a fabulous job of it. When you change your perspective from “I am reading a novel” to “I am not reading a novel, but a creative piece of fiction” then you can really understand what Wharton is trying to do.

I don’t have much to say about The Logogryph and that may be because I read it almost a month ago (I know- I suck at blogging) but it really is great and worth reading. So is every other Thomas Wharton book. There is nothing specifically Canadian about The Logogryph (unlike Icefields, which is super Canadian), but it demonstrates that even Canadians can produce cutting edge literature. It is just a great, creative, work of fiction. So go read it!

PS- When I was googling Thomas Wharton to make sure I spelt Logogryph correctly I cam across his blog, which is also on blogspot! Check it out here

-Tory (the bad twin who doesn't post much)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Student of the Weather

I might as well admit this right off the top- I didn't like this novel. Not that Elizabeth Hay isn't a good writer, she has crafted some nice pieces of prose, written some well-rounded, relatable characters; it just wasn't my cup of tea.

I like to meander my way through novels, discover connections on my own, feel proud of myself for getting a reference to another book or another point in this story. She makes it too easy, points out all those connections. For example, in one scene Norma Joyce, the novels heroine, discovers some lost art of her mother's and she affixes it to her wall, with a growing collection of things. This addition leads to the observation "it occurred to her that, again, she was reconstructing her childhood corner." I felt like the author was tapping me on the shoulder saying "hey, hey, don't you get it, she is reverting to her childhood home." But I had got it, I had already made the connection. And as often as I felt her doing this, spoiling my fun, I felt as though she was writing for the lowest common denominator.

The story itself is a good idea- a small family (2 daughters and a father) find their way from growing up in small town Saskatchewan to living in Ottawa, venturing to New York, through lovers, children, friends, jobs, etc. Naturally, one daughter is more favoured, the older, prettier, more responsible Lucinda. Norma Joyce, the younger, wilder sister, falls in love with Maurice who visits Saskatchewan from Ottawa. The trouble is, Maurice is in love with Lucinda (and Lucinda with Maurice). As the story unfolds, things fall apart between Maurice and Lucinda, largely because of some undelivered letters by a jealous Norma Joyce. The family moves from Saskatchewan to Ottawa and Norma Joyce continues her obsession. She actually continues this obsession throughout the novel. A plot point I got a bit weary of. She never seems to learn her lesson. Her and Maurice do have an affair, she has his child, but is still rejected by him time and time again. But she persists.

Truthfully, I was more intrigued by the character of Lucinda. After losing her love to her younger sister, she moves on (sort of), develops a business, remains responsible for her father. Her story is tragic and compelling. I could sympathize with her, whereas my sympathy with Norma Joyce waned fairly quickly.

So, all in all, unfortunately my first disappointing read. Not a bad novel, just not my thing.

I have also read Dracula, which I was trying to think of ways to make count as a Canadian novel. No such luck, although I did hear that one of his (great?) grandsons IS Canadian and has written some sort of sequel to Dracula- might be a bit of a stretch though.