Gruffalo, Gruffalo Children, and Highway Rats, Oh My!!!

From The Record, December 1st, 2017

–Shanna Bernier

This week’s column doesn’t deep-dive into any particular parenting issues or explore a particular theme. I simply felt inspired to write a review/recommendation for two books by the same talented and creative children’s lit team. When I was studying education at Bishops, I recall a teacher asking me why I chose a particular book for a lesson plan. I momentarily hesitated, because the reason was simply because I liked the book. It was fun. I enjoyed reading it. There was not a particular learning intention behind the choice. She comforted me in my hesitancy, and reminded me that instilling a joy of reading—just because!—is actually an awesome intention. These two books bring me joy, and consequently bring joy to my children and anyone else I read to.

“A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood. A fox saw the mouse and the mouse looked good.”

I first heard the story “The Gruffalo” as told by my friend Nick around a campfire. He is a Dad to three wonderful kids and when he was just a wee lad he memorized the entire text to this beloved book written by Julia Donaldson. I was delighted when I later saw the actual book, and was able to appreciate the pages whimsically illustrated by Axel Scheffler.

The Gruffalo was originally published in the UK in 1999 and has sold over 13 million copies. This book has delighted a generation of children with its rhyming tale of a clever mouse who outsmarts all the predators of the forest by convincing them that he is in fact the fiercest, scariest creature in the woods.  The mouse encounters a fox, an owl, and a snake, all of whom run off because Mouse claims to be meeting a scary creature called the Gruffalo. Then when the Gruffalo really appears, the mouse shifts gears and shows him that the animals he passed earlier are afraid of the tiny mouse because he is the meanest, most bad creature in the woods. In the end (spoiler alert!) the mouse prevails and the story concludes with one of my favourite lines ever written for children’s literature:

“All was quiet in the deep dark wood, the Mouse found a nut, and the nut was good”

The Gruffalo is a delightful read for children and adults alike. This a quality many parents and adult readers are desperately seeking in a world of at-best mindless and at-worst deeply irritating children’s media. The Gruffalo also has a sequel, “Gruffalo’s Child”. This book is also very enjoyable, although in my opinion not so much as the original. Even so, the combination of clever rhyming text and amusing art work makes this book a massive success and inspired me to investigate more works by this dynamic duo.

“Give me your buns and your biscuits! Give me your chocolate éclairs!’

The Highway Rat (available at the Lennoxville Library) also by Julia Donaldson and illustrated Axel Scheffler is a more recent publication, released in 2011. This book tells the story of a bully rat, who seeks desserts from all who pass by him on his highway. He gets more than he bargains for. He takes clover from a rabbit; nuts from a squirrel, he even goes as far as stealing his own horse’s hay. Ultimately his bad deeds and greed are his undoing, and he is thwarted by a clever duck. This book, like other works by Donaldson, is written in rhyming verse that is a pleasure to read aloud. This book is written as an ode to and in the style of the famous Alfred Noyes poem, “The Highwayman”. (Nothing like sneaking a little poetry study into your preschooler’s reading list!) Another of my favourite elements of this book and other books illustrated by Scheffler, is that he hides little Easter eggs in the illustrations. In the Highway Rat, near the end, we see young animals in a bakery eating Gruffalo shaped cookies.

As the weather gets colder and the nights are long and dark, cozy story-time seems more and more inviting. Snuggle up on the couch or your favourite chair with your children or grandkids and check out some delightful stories from your local library. There is no other reason required than the fact that they are fun to read.

Yowza! Yowza! Yowza! A chance to get out, see some fine artwork, and perhaps check off a few more on the Christmas gift list. The Lennoxville Art Group is mounting a Christmas and winter-themed exhibit. There will be an introductory vernissage and sale of mini paintings at the Lennoxville Library this coming Saturday December 2nd, from 11 am to 2 pm. The exhibit itself will run until the Library closing for Christmas. The mini paintings sale (at very affordable prices!) is only on Saturday, December 2 . Come have coffee, tea, and cookies and encourage your local artists. Free admission!

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Oblivion—Dark, Dark, Dark Oblivion

From The Record, November 24th, 2017

–Stephen Sheeran

Ever one to challenge the staid notion of a “good read” I offer today a perusal of Sergei Lebedev’s Oblivion. Originally published in Russian, the novel has recently been translated (2016) by Antonina W. Bouis. The story centers on the legacy of the Soviet gulag (labour camp) system. Perhaps not surprisingly, the read involves hard labour!

Growing up in the thick of the cold war, I was always fascinated not only by the tense espionage thrillers offered by John Le Carré, but also by the accounts of the Soviet gulags offered by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. In works such as The First Circle, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn provided terse, harrowing stories (based on personal experience) of the inner workings of these camps, especially in Stalinist Russia. The gulags were dotted throughout the Soviet Union, many hidden in plain sight in major urban centers, but the harshest ones were situated in Siberia. And one could be sent to these camps for a good reason (murder, theft) or for a flimsy one (writing a politically incorrect letter). A lesser known fact—these camps were not original constructs of the Soviet era; one can go back to Dostoevsky for a first-hand 19th -century account in The House of the Dead.

Lebedev is almost perversely vague in geographical and chronological details. He provides no dates and refuses to localize events. The narrator (who remains nameless) grows up in a dacha (cottage) community near Moscow. Later action involves a northern Siberian city, which we are told (somewhat unhelpfully) ends with a “sk”. However, Lebedev does establish links between fictional and actual events. One occurs in 1993, marked by troop mobilization during the Russian constitutional crisis. A later event (the falling of red-coloured snow in Siberia) was actually documented in Siberia in 2007.

Events in the novel don’t occur so much as unfold. We are introduced to the narrator as a young boy. In a neighbouring dacha lives a blind old man, who comes to be known as Grandfather II. He is no relation, but he sort of comes with the dacha that the narrator’s parents have bought. Grandfather II soon establishes a relationship with the family and then with the newborn and growing narrator. The latter is not a friendly relationship, but more controlling, possessive, and somewhat threatening. (When the lad develops a case of head lice, Grandfather II is in favour of a complete head shave and treatment with kerosene!) These early events culminate when the boy is attacked by a stray dog. Grandfather II provides his own blood as transfusion, an act which grants the boy continued life, but spells the end for the old man.

The boy grows up and chooses geology as a profession. This leads him away from home, and from the vestiges of Grandfather II’s influence. Nevertheless he has the eerie and unshakeable feeling of being linked through blood. He finally inherits Grandfather II’s apartment and his dacha. In them he stumbles across artifacts, curios, and an odd series of old letters from the old man’s secret past. These lead him to Siberia, where he attempts to trace the history of Grandfather II.

Spoiler alert!! Here is where the oblivion comes in. The narrator undertakes his own Conradian voyage into the heart of darkness. He discovers that Grandfather II was a notorious gulag director, who perfected his own particular brand of mindless cruelty—and on a massive scale. The camp has now transformed into a city, striking in its harshness and ugliness, and manifesting a history spanning thousands of years, from early nomadic tribes to the miners of the modern Soviet era.  Lebedev himself worked in geological expeditions for many years in the far north, and this experience grants him a unique perspective. He is able to link the geography, the ethnic and political history into a coherent whole. What he conjures up is a vision of a soul-destroying purgatory in the far north, wrought from the climate, the land, and the forces of human nature. He has a rare gift of description and rumination: “The town was named for a Bolshevik killed in the 1930’s; the name of the town communicated nothing to the place, or the place to its name. They spoke different languages and avoided each other…. It [arose] near a giant pocket of land from which riches could be mined; it was created according to the will of the regime that moved thousands or workers to the north, it grew out of barracks, temporary huts, and that spirit had not dissipated; stale, uninhabited, the spirit of a new construction, of a workshop, oiled rags, and rotting pipes.” Fair warning, the book offers masses of ore, and sometimes the resulting payoff is a bit thin. However, more often than not the reader is carried on a raw journey inward, into a realization of the almost cosmic forces involved in human memory, consciousness, and oppression.

As the story develops we encounter a bizarre cast of characters—an escaped “zek” who is insane with cold and hunger; former inmates and workers who are half-destroyed, “mineralized”, and mutated through radiation exposure, ore dust, frostbite, starvation; evil commissars and thugs who remember the glory days of the Stalinist repression; the grizzled, mad survivors of a deserted community—a village beyond a camp beyond a village far above the arctic circle.

The overall thrust of the book seems to be that it is necessary for Russians to remember the past. Thousands upon thousands of prisoners were effectively consigned to oblivion during the heyday of Soviet oppression. Lebedev, even more dramatically than his forbears, seems to carry us into a direct choking encounter with the very soul of suffering, despair, and death. Available—go figure—in the Lennoxville Library!

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Memories Are Made of This, by Ann Mitchell

From The Record, November 17th, 2017

–Melanie Cutting

Back in the winter of 2016, Jan Draper, Kyl Chhatwal and I led a series of “writing workshops” as part of the Our Stories project funded through the federal government’s Canada 150 celebrations, under the auspices of Townshippers’ Association. One of the workshops was held in the cozy confines of the North Hatley Library and was attended by local artist Ann Mitchell.  The topic at that session was the short memoir, and we were all very impressed with the quality of the participants’ exchanges.

As it turned out, Ann was already a published author, having produced a previous book of paintings and text, Where the Heart Is, in 1996. This book eventually sold upwards of 5000 copies in Canada and the United States. In the intervening twenty years, Ann had accumulated enough paintings to consider putting together another book, and the memoir workshop served as an inspiration for her to buckle down and get to it! As she notes in the acknowledgments at the start of the book, “Kyl Chhatwaal not only suggested I write another book but insisted I do so, and was constantly available with advice and support along the way.”

According to the book jacket of Memories Are Made of This, Ann’s paintings have been exhibited in galleries and museums, and many currently reside in private collections across Canada and the U.S.  Her style of art, made popular by the legendary Grandma Moses, is known as “art naïf”, or naïve art, a variant of folk art.  What makes Ann’s works so very much fun is the quirkily humorous and whimsical aspects of her paintings.  It is very much a “coffee table book”, if that term is still in vogue, but one that the reader will want to peruse carefully, rather than just admire the pictures and then set it aside.  Each of the 35 full-colour pictures is accompanied by Ann’s musings on the subject of the picture, typically a country home, including its history and geography, and most importantly, the many miniscule characters who inhabit and enliven the setting.  If you are a Where’s Waldo? fan, as I am, each picture presents a tiny, perfect puzzle, with hints from Ann as to what to look for: escaping sheep, galloping horses, swimmers, kayakers, and canoeists, cyclists, tractor mowers, gardening aficionados, pets of all descriptions, and even Ann herself, depicted with her easel and paints.  Just to make things interesting, there are often several seasons— and several generations of the same people—represented simultaneously.  The artist often breaks the literary third wall by addressing the reader directly: “Her husband Dickie worked non-stop on the farm, especially when Brad visited with the intention of ‘helping’! Note the apple trees. There’s not much evidence of hard work being done, is there?” from the segment entitled Welcome to the Neighbourhood!

Although many of the paintings are of homes in and around the North Hatley area, there are also paintings of dwellings from around the world: St-Moritz, Montreal, Caledon (Ontario), Martha’s Vineyard, Litchfield (Connecticut), Glenbeigh (Ireland), and Aberdeen (Scotland).  An especially busy painting can be found in the Tradition Meets Mischief section, showing us Stanstead College in all its hustle and bustle, with students engaging in a spectacular array of activities, from marching to calisthenics to football to chatting, and much, much more.  It takes more than a few minutes to scan the painting and see all there is to see!

The pictures are a treat for the eyes, and the accompanying texts are always warm, evocative, and informative, in a friendly and distinctly folksy way.  It is clear that Ann has lived a privileged (and as she says, blessed) life in the somewhat rarified atmosphere of the well-to-do, here and elsewhere, but she has a wonderful way of ensuring that the reader is drawn into this world in a gently humorous way.  Unlike most artists, she is not averse to making changes to her paintings when requested, to reflect the changes that have occurred over time within the painting: “Molly phoned and asked if I would be willing to add three babies born since I completed her painting. ‘That’s fine with me,” I replied. ‘I can do that’. And so, the twin girls in pink and the baby (near the front steps) took their place on the scene.” She only realized later that the children already in the painting would have to be changed as well, since they had grown beyond their original images.

Very often the properties which are the subjects of her paintings are bequeathed for the public good and, happily, The Massawippi Conservation Trust is often the deserving beneficiary.

Memories Are Made of This was launched, fittingly, to great acclaim a few weeks ago at the North Hatley Library. The book can be had through inter-library loan via the Lennoxville Library, and at 80 pages and providing hours of reading pleasure, it is well worth the purchase price of $35! Copies can be had at Black Cat Books in Lennoxville.

PS Thank you Kyl, for your contribution in bringing this beautiful book to fruition, and thank you, of course, to Ann Mitchell for persevering!

Speaking of local artists, the Lennoxville Art Group’s  fall-themed exhibition is still up at the Lennoxville Library, and it can be enjoyed for another two days—Friday  and Saturday (17-18 Nov.)  The winter and holiday-themed exhibition will open on November 28th!!!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Are You Afraid of the Dark?

From The Record, November 10th, 2017

–Shanna Bernier

I recall being afraid of the dark as a small child. I had a night-light, which essentially solved the problem. I was a nervous kid, so there was always something freaking me out, but the darkness fear was one which could be mitigated. My favourite night light, purchased at a local yard sale, was a green glowing orb made of some kind of flexible seventies plastic.

So far my own children have not displayed an overwhelming or persistent fear of the dark. Beatrice mentions being afraid if she has had a hard day, or is particularly tired but not interested in going to sleep. We just moved to a new house. For the first night we did not have any curtains in the girls’ room. Bea complained that she was afraid because she could see the dark outside. This got me thinking about how sometimes the darkness can feel almost like a character—a figure with a personality. I don’t think the darkness deserves to be painted as malevolent, but perhaps a bit mischievous and unknowable. Darkness has a special power to make our imaginations run wild, and turn everyday objects into shadowy monsters.

During the last six weeks of moving in and unpacking, we have all been getting used to and getting to know our new house. All of a sudden, last week, just before Halloween, the lights started to flicker and do unusual things. We thought it was the wind, or perhaps a ghost, but we didn’t want to worry too much about it. This past Monday morning the flickering intensified and our appliances were not working properly. It became clear that we had an electrical problem. I was home alone and it was raining outside. I waited for the professional to arrive after turning off every light and waiting in the dark. Even as an adult, it is easy to let a lack of light fill us with fear. Even in the mid-day, because of the gloomy weather my house felt spooky. In the end our problem was something easily fixable and a crisis was averted. I was thinking about what subject to write about this week and after the minor electrical crisis I was inspired to by the dark. Two special books came to mind for this theme.

“The Dark” by Lemony Snicket (of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” fame) is a book where the dark is personified, and Laszlo, a little boy is afraid of it. He learns to visit the dark where it lives and, in the process of working through his fear, he comes to see “The Dark” as a necessary part of life. The dark allows Laszlo to know about light. We all have darkness in our lives. Sometimes that darkness is real and other times it is a metaphor for other scary unknowns. Human beings, and especially children, are afraid of things they cannot explain. In Snicket’s book, the little boy faces his fear while in search of a replacement light bulb, and he is able to make friends with the dark.  It is a simple and sweet story and easy for a young child to understand. In addition, it has some of Snicket’s signature quirkiness that both parents and older children will appreciate. This book is available in the children’s section of the Lennoxville Library.

The second book on the subject of darkness—also available in the Lennoxville Library—is by the beloved Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and is titled “The Darkest Dark”. This autobiographical picture book tells the story of a young boy who has a lot of difficulty sleeping, and who is very afraid of the dark. His parents are supportive, but struggle to get him to sleep alone in his own bed.  After witnessing a lunar landing Chris is inspired to visit space himself, and gains a deepened appreciation for darkness through the darkest dark of space. This book is beautifully illustrated and has quite a lot of text (it is not a quick bedtime story). I also enjoy the historical anecdotes and afterword by Mr. Hadfield. It is a picture book that kids of all ages can appreciate.

Children and adults alike can be afraid of the dark. We seek comfort in the glow of our lights and the promise of the sunrise. We never know what could be lurking in the closet or in the mystery of shadows. Children have the special gift of untethered imagination, which can amplify fear along with joy and excitement. Spending time with the dark and getting to know the mystery, magic, and wonder it holds can help us work through this fear. Both Hadfield and Snicket have explored this in a masterful way, and readers of all ages will be delighted by their stories about the dark.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Introducing Ove the Grouch!

From The Record, November 3rd 2017

–Vincent Cuddihy

It seems I have graduated from reviewing books that I have received as gifts to reviewing books that my wife has been given. The same friend who introduced us to Max Tudor gave her A Man Called Ove (2013) by Fredrik Backman. Having read it, she passed it on to me with the endorsement “I think you’ll like this.” Give her full marks for perceptiveness.

This story is set in Sweden and is about Ove, a grouch—the sort of man who puts the “cur” in curmudgeon—and sometimes the “mud” too. He is a man who thinks that there is a proper place for everything, and who gets upset when other people are careless about where they put things. Rules are meant to be obeyed. Otherwise they are only suggestions, and if so, why bother creating rules in the first place?

This does not mean that Ove doesn’t have plenty of good reasons to be grouchy. We first encounter him on his first day of retirement. He is 59, and after more than thirty years of reliable service to the housing authority, his bosses have decided to pension him off. They are all heart: they let him come to work on Monday morning so they can send him home again. They knew on Friday that they would cut him loose, but they didn’t want to spoil his weekend!

To add to his troubles, his new neighbours are moving in. Patrick is a klutzy IT consultant. He and his wife Parvaneh have two girls, aged seven and three. Parvaneh, who is Iranian, is expecting a third child. Ove tries hard to perform the dark tasks he has assigned himself for each day. But he keeps getting sabotaged by defective equipment or by an unexpected interruption. Even in the middle of the night, when he thinks everyone else will be asleep, he finds someone he barely knows at his door begging a favour. The reader can be forgiven for thinking that the proper way to pronounce his name is “Oy vey!”

Ove’s problem is that he is competent and efficient. If you want a job done right the first time, Ove is the man to see. His father had taught him how to disassemble and rebuild a car’s motor, and Ove still knows how to do it. So he can fix practically anything. It seems the only people who can’t recognize his talents are his old bosses.

Backman interweaves Ove’s present situation with the history of his life. Backman describes Ove’s relationship with his parents, both of whom had died by the time he was sixteen, and the life lessons he received from them. Backman relates how Ove met Sonja, the love of his life and how Ove, who worked for the railroad at that time, was able to exploit his detailed knowledge of timetables to just happen to be on the same trains as she was while she commuted back and forth to teachers college.

Like most good comedy, there are also sad parts to this story. One is the rift between Ove and his one-time best friend Rune. They had been the first occupants of this housing development. They had collaborated in founding the Residents Association. But now they no longer speak to each other. For Ove, the falling out began because Rune had stopped buying Volvos and bought a BMW. But there is much more to it.

And there is the budding alliance between Ove and the “Cat Annoyance”. This is a stray that Parvaneh has suckered Ove into taking in by lying about her children’s allergies.

“Ove spent most of yesterday shouting at Parvaneh that this damned cat would live in Ove’s house over his dead body.

And now here he stands, looking at the cat. And the cat looks back.

And Ove remains strikingly undead.

It’s all incredibly irritating.”

Backman, who is 36 and a notable blogger in Sweden, has published three more major works: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (2015), Britt-Marie Was Here (2016) (both of which, like Ove, are available by Interlibrary Loan) and Beartown aka Scandal (2017) which arrived at the Lennoxville Library this week. A Man Called Ove has also been made into a feature film in Swedish (2015).

 

The Prize season is upon us. You might have heard that Katsuo Ishiguro has been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. When he was told of his award, he suspected that it was fake news…The times we live in! We have a good selection of Ishiguro’s works in the Lennoxville Library, even some audiobooks, so check them out. The Man-Booker prize this year went to an American author for the second year in a row. George Sanders, normally a short-story writer, has won for Lincoln in the Bardo, his “unique” and “extraordinary” first novel, which is a highly imaginative account of the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son. We did, with considerable foresight, order a copy for the library—in large print, no less, so it can even be admired from a distance!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Save the Banes for Henry James, ‘Cause Henry Don’t Eat No…

From The Record, October 27, 2017

–Stephen Sheeran

I have to qualify at the outset. The Sacred Fount by Henry James (1843 – 1916) is a good read—“good” as in the following:  “It’ll take a good two hours for your root canal!” or “It’ll take a good six months to recover from your surgery!” Not to put too fine a point on it, The Sacred Fount is a “good” and daunting read.

Henry James was the brother of philosopher-psychologist William James, and, although born in America, ultimately adopted England as home. He is famous for his more or less repressed homosexuality, his preoccupation with class differences in his works, and at times hugely convoluted syntax. He was a prolific reader and writer, producing novellas, plays, and a series of ground-breaking novels at the start of the twentieth century, the latter leading him to be considered by many one of the best novelists in English.  He was also an insightful literary critic.

A friend put me on to The Sacred Fount, knowing my penchant for out-of-the-ordinary reads. This work did not disappoint in that regard.

At the start we enter the consciousness of the main character as he waits at a London train station to be transported to a country estate, Newmarch, for a weekend-long party. We recognize him at once as an obsessive, analytic type. As instantiation: He engages in speculation about the types of people one might meet at a station just before a party, and how their prima facie sociability might or might not be borne out by further acquaintance. This is typical of his thought processes as the story continues, for we are trapped from the outset in his restless and overly complicating vision of the world. He soon discovers that he is to be in the company of two former acquaintances. The first, Gilbert Long, he has met before, and remembers him as a “fine piece of human furniture”, i.e., good-looking but essentially dumb as a post. The narrator is astounded now to see that he is accomplished, urbane, a confident socialite. Immediately he encounters another acquaintance whom he at first does not recognize: Grace Brissenden, who was married five years ago to a man much her junior. She, although now aged “two or three-and-forty”, doesn’t look a day over 25.  From the evidence of his senses he formulates in his private thoughts the theory that they have been magically worked upon. Long has been imbued with his witty urbanity by a lover who has been simultaneously drained of these qualities. Similarly, Grace Brissenden has sucked her youth and vitality from her husband.

Once settled in  Newmarch, he spends the entire weekend testing this theory—through idle gossip, close inspection of the interactions of the different party-goers, and secret discussions with various of the participants. With the same certainty that Einstein posits the existence of black holes, the narrator conjures up the existence of a sacred fount, which is drawn on and its effects transferred in tangible youth, smarts, vitality—in short, all the high virtues of life in civilized society. Judging from the reactions of his different interlocutors, it seems that his theories get badly on their nerves. How close he is to the truth of the matter is settled (or is it?) in a knock-down, drag-out verbal duel with one of the main characters which takes up the full last quarter of the book.

Many critics, contemporary and subsequent (including the author himself!??), have been harsh with this novel. The consensus is that it is much ado about nothing—seemingly endless ink expended over trivial human relationships. So what are we to make of it? Well, it is not a typical novel. The settings, in comparison with other James novels, are sparsely evoked. The main focus is on the conversation and the psyche of the main character. In the absence of any other authority we place ourselves in his hands. But then, as his theorizing and obsessions intensify and as he starts to wilt under cross examination, we begin to doubt his sanity.

I believe the answer lies in James’ intent. In a conversation he confessed to attempting in The Sacred Fount a “consistent joke”. In fact, in that work he attempts to do for the novel of manners what Oscar Wilde did for the comedy of manners with The Importance of Being Earnest (and, by the way, what Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David do to the sit-com with the series Seinfeld!!).

It is no coincidence that Henry James was an aspiring playwright, and that his play Guy Domville bombed spectacularly (James was booed on opening night) in St. James theatre in 1895. So demoralized was James by this that he gave up theatre and pursued his novel writing career. Guy Domville was succeeded immediately by Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which was a huge success until Wilde was arrested for gross indecency and the play withdrawn. Wilde spent two years in jail and was released in 1897. He died in 1900.

It was one year later that The Sacred Fount appeared, and it has many features that link it to various aspects of Wilde’s works. It is a novel about nothing (like The Importance of Being Earnest [and Seinfeld!]), with a focus on the verbal artifice created by the characters. There are incidents where age, beauty, and intelligence are inverted, very much in the mode of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The main character is the dandy par excellence (like Henry Wotton [Dorian Gray] and Jack Worthing [Earnest], one who combines great verbal dexterity with an acute, almost decadent, capacity to analyse and seduce (see also Jerry, George, and Elaine!).

The most important aspect is perhaps the experimental use of language. It is like an enormously complicated parlour conversation (a la Kenneth Burke) in which readers are hard pressed to keep up with what is being said. In fact, whether one keeps up or not is the whole point!

Somewhat improbably there are French translations of The Sacred Fount available through the Lennoxville Library (from Lingwick and Ascot Corner [wt*?]) but the only English versions to be had are electronic. I am, thanks to my friend, in possession of the only hard copy (well-thumbed!) of the work this side of the St. Lawrence.

—Stephen Sheeran

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Morrisey’s The Fortunate Brother Intrigues!

From the Record, October 20th, 2017

–Melanie Cutting

There is a subset of Can Lit dedicated to books by and about Newfoundlanders (with the accent on “land” when spoken).  This small but talented group of authors has fiercely dedicated followers, of which my daughter-in-law, Janine, who hails from Grand Falls-Windsor, NL, is one.  Not that she necessarily likes or appreciates all the books, but she does read them, and often passes them on to me.  Included in this list are authors E. Annie Proulx, Joan Clark, Michael Crummy, Lisa Moore, Wayne Johnston and Donna Morrissey, among others.

Ms. Morrissey, 62, is the best-selling, award-winning author of five previous novels. She was born and raised in The Beaches, an outport in western Newfoundland, and now lives in Halifax. Previous works include Kit’s Law, Downhill Chance, Sylvanus Now, What They Wanted, and The Deception of Livvy Higgs, as well as two children’s books. This, her most recent novel, was published in 2016 (and, fortuitously, is available in the Lennoxville Library!).

The Fortunate Brother picks up on the fortunes of the Now family, twenty-some years after the events of Morrissey’s 2005 novel, Sylvanus Now.  (Just to clarify, Now is the family name, not an adverb, in this context.)  Patriarch Sylvanus still lives with his wife Addie in the outport community where we first met them in the previous book, but much has happened.  Their surviving children—they lost three as babies— have grown up, and the two oldest, Chris and Sylvie, moved west to Alberta, following the recent tradition of Newfoundlanders leaving their home province in search of financial security in the oil patch.  Unfortunately, eldest brother Chris was killed in an oil field accident three years earlier.  Youngest son Kyle, the “fortunate brother”, stayed at home with his mother and father, being too young to head west when his siblings left.

The family has been indelibly affected by the death of Chris, and by other events related to living in rural Newfoundland.  Sylvanus, who suffered a heart attack, now spends much of his time drinking. He has given up on making a living in the cod fishery, which collapsed some years earlier as a result of over-fishing, but ekes out a living in construction.  Addie has developed breast cancer and opted to have a double mastectomy, but true to her nature, wants to keep it a secret from all but her closest friends and family.  Kyle is left at home, spending time with friends, usually at a bar, and feeling sad.

“At times Kyle cursed Sylvie and Chris both.  For leaving him torn between two grieving parents whose desired end could never be found in him. For feeling lame because there wasn’t enough of him to fill their hearts.  Times he wished for a sword to cleave himself in half: one traipsing behind his father, keeping him from the loneliness of his pain, the other shadowing his mother, helping her cleanse her house of grief.”

Into this unhappy scene Morrissey injects an event which changes everything. Clar, the local black sheep and bully, is found dead, stabbed and floating near the Now family wharf.  Since he was nobody’s favourite person, suspicion falls on almost everyone, including both Sylvanus and Kyle.  The more deeply Kyle delves into the circumstances of the murder, the more convinced he is that a member of his family could indeed be responsible. At this point, the narrative moves away from being a family saga and slice-of-Newfoundland-life portrait, and more of a mystery novel.  Cover-ups abound, and Kyle and his friends and relatives, including best friend Hooker and cousins Wade and Lyman, are in the thick of it.  Several other locals, Clar’s ex-wife Bonnie, the mysterious guitar-strumming drifter Kate McKenzie, and skittish loner Trapp, all play a role in first complicating and finally resolving the mystery.  A refreshing change of pace is the inclusion of a smart and kindly police officer, Detective MacDuff.

One of the pleasures of Morrissey’s novel is her very colourful depiction of outport life and language. Expressions that are heard only in Newfoundland are sprinkled throughout, occasionally giving rise to an LOL response from this reader.  At other times, though, the harshness of their existence seeps through the pervasive camaraderie and banter, and we see how difficult their lives are, often made more difficult by a natural reluctance to share thoughts and feelings.

What I liked: the often lyrical quality of the writing, including the wonderful “Newfie-ness” of it all; the evocative depiction of outport life; and the solid image of Kyle, struggling to cope with loss.  What I didn’t like: the descriptions of area geography were not clear enough, although they are important to the story line; I found myself longing for a map or two to make sense of some of the action.  Finally, too much of a good thing—I skimmed some of the barroom scenes just because I tired of trying to decipher what they were saying.

All in all, a good read.  Reading Sylvanus Now would be helpful for background, but not absolutely necessary to enjoy this book.  If you can’t actually get to The Rock, reading about it is the next best thing!

—Melanie Cutting

Yowza, Yowza, Yowza!!! Bibliophile alert, Bibliophile alert!!!The Refugee Sponsorship book sale in the Lennoxville United Church began yesterday and runs tomorrow 11:00 am to 8:00 pm, and Saturday from 9:00 am till noon. AND: Lennoxville Library Family Story Night # (Thursday from 5:30-7:0) will feature Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems. Check Lennoxville Library on Facebook for more info. Reserve spots via 819-562-4949

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment