Sunday, November 07, 2010
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Green Dolphin Country / Elizabeth Goudge
London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975, c1944.
I read this book in high school sometime; I can't quite remember when because all I recall about it is that I got about half way through and thought, what a dumb book! But, since I've been reading a lot of Elizabeth Goudge as an adult, and since I have (hopefully) a much wider viewpoint than I did at 14 or so, I tried again. This was partly inspired by the fact that I had bought a copy in a second-hand shop quite a long time ago, and thus added this title to my list of reading for Emily's TBR Challenge. I think I'm nearly halfway through my list of 20 reads from my own shelves, and it has certainly been a rewarding effort overall.
I still don't like this one as much as some of Goudge's other books though -- too much of a saga for me. And I had a few problems with the depiction of New Zealanders especially. The main characters are from the Channel Islands and they end up pioneering in New Zealand, where the Maori are depicted as bloodthirsty savages with superstitious traditions, and the missionaries trying to convert them are upright and holy. The missionaries are shown with a bit of complexity and she does have non-missionary characters who are more open minded, but the view of the natural superiority of the white, Christian way of life does colour the whole book. Of course, Goudge's Christian outlook flavours most of her work, but in her books with more modern settings it doesn't seem to jump out and whack you over the head quite so forcibly.
Anyhow -- here is the main storyline: Marianne and Marguerite Le Patourel are young sisters (16 and 11) on the tiny island of St. Pierre, when they meet the other main character, William Ozanne, age 13. He brings light into both their lives, with Marianne deciding that she will have him, while to William and Marguerite as well as to the reader, it is clear that they are the two who belong together.
Lots happens, they all grow to early adulthood, and William goes off in the Navy, and through a twisted but believable situation in China, misses his boat to accidentally go AWOL. This means he can never go home to his own country, so instead he heads off to New Zealand to homestead there. Eventually, once he's got on his feet a little, he writes home to ask Marguerite to join him. However, due to a bit of drink and the inherent lazy habits of thought he seems to possess, he writes "Marianne" instead, and changes the course of all three of their lives. This is the great sticking point of the book. Would someone REALLY make such an error? It feels like it is a forced moment, necessary to the rest of the story, but it certainly takes some suspension of disbelief. Goudge is at pains to explain in the introduction that this happening was inspired by the real life situation of one of her ancestors -- this really did happen, and just like in the book, her great-uncle kept quiet about his mistake and made the best of it. Nonetheless, because something is true in real life does not mean it works particularly well in fiction, and I felt like my whole reading was a bit flawed because of my lack of ability to feel that this was a natural event.
There is lots to enjoy in this book if you like Goudge's style of writing -- fairly old-fashioned with lots of descriptions of nature, of spiritual crises, of deep thoughts on various subjects. I do happen to like it, so persevered even though I was starting to feel the book was dragging on a bit. William and Marianne have to work out their troubles in New Zealand, while Marguerite, left behind in the Channel Islands, has to make some kind of life for herself, especially after her parents die. She becomes more and more religious, and her struggles provide Goudge with much opportunity for the kind of spiritual and faith-related writing she loves. There is one character in New Zealand, William's best friend and Marianne's frequent nemesis, who is a fascinating creation. I missed him once he left the story's inner circle.
Overall, if you like historical sagas and don't mind a bit of Christian content and can overlook the dated racial references, this one was okay. There is simply too much in the book to discuss all of its settings or even the different stages in the character's lives: it carries on from the girls' childhood to their old age and reunion of all three main characters in St. Pierre. As always, though, in reading Elizabeth Goudge, I found many quoteable selections. I'll share a couple of them, to give you a taste of her writing and her philosophical bent.
Nothing living should ever be treated with contempt. Whatever it is that lives, a man, a tree or a bird, should be touched gently, because the time is short.
I suppose it's always a mistake to hate, she said to herself, because when the people you hate suddenly turn around and do great things for you it puts you at such a ridiculous disadvantage.
...she knew also that what the world sees of the life of any human creature is not the real life; that life is lived in secret, a reality that moves behind the facade of appearance, like wind behind a painted curtain; only an occasional ripple of the surface, a smile, a sudden light or shadow passing on a face, surprising by its unexpectedness, gives news of something quite other than what is seen.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
Toronto: New Canadian Library, 1991, c1941.
I first read this in high school, and Hated. It. So I thought it was time to reread it, as a mature adult with a vaster pool of literary experience for comparison's sake. Well, I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it either.
This novel is set in Saskatchewan in the Dirty Thirties. I come from Saskatchewan so I had all of Ross' work shoved at me in high school (especially since he came from a small town very near to where I grew up). This really does him a disservice, I think. This book in particular is eminently unsuited to appreciation by teenagers. No wonder I hated it at age 16 -- it would have been meaningless in its emotional landscape of bitterness and obsession and misery.
And it is full of misery. Hoo, boy, it is practically overflowing with misunderstandings, bitterness, selfishness, codependence, poverty, need, as well as unfulfilled longing for emotional and sexual connection, for a child, for a solvent life, for culture.
It is narrated by Mrs. Bentley (we never learn her name), and is told in journal format. I liked this aspect of it; reading her journal gave us insights into her unreasonable and obsessive love for her mealy-mouthed, selfish, childish husband. I really, really did not like Philip. But reading the story as presented in Mrs. Bentley's journal also makes her into a complex and unreliable narrator. How much of what she is telling us is the objective truth? Can we believe her take on the way their lives have turned out?
The story takes place during one year, from the time the Bentleys move to a new parish (Philip is a minister) to the time they leave once more. The town of Horizon is the same as all the others Philip has worked in; small, inbred, gossipy, and demanding, especially for the tortured and stifled artist that Mrs. Bentley presents Philip as being. Apparently they always leave the towns once the surroundings become too much for them, but looking at Philip's behaviour during their year in Horizon I think it much more likely that their previous churches have strongly encouraged the Bentleys to move on. There are the usual characters of a small town, the doctor and his more worldly wife, the bossy matron who makes trouble, the single school teacher, the farm families surrounding the town who are worried about the drought. Philip drops into this setting and proceeds to mope around the house, incapable of doing any physical labour to smooth his wife's life, glaring at her and giving the silent treatment to end all silent treatments. And yet she continually makes excuses for his behaviour and tries to smooth it over with their new parishioners.
This is the reason I still dislike this book. Mrs. Bentley is clearly in a codependent relationship with her emotionally abusive husband, a useless, mean and selfish creation. He is rude to her, he shuts her out continually, he carefully waits until she is asleep to come to bed, he insults her appearance although it is his lack of income which limits her possibilities, he prefers the company of their briefly adopted 'son' to hers, and he repeatedly and unfoundedly accuses her of an inappropriate relationship with the schoolteacher while he himself has had an affair with a church member and impregnated her. Mrs. Bentley is unable to speak to him about his rages, in fact she records how they silently move around each other in the house, constantly on eggshells, and when she finally breaks out into accusations once or twice she fall down crying and begging for forgiveness.
Ross seems to harp on the way he thinks men and women should behave and how they are just irredeemably 'different'. He has Mrs. Bentley constantly saying, well, that is just the way men are, and a woman will thus do this or that to be a good wife. Ross seems to me to be trying to restrain Mrs. Bentley every time her journal comes close to breaking out of his mold.
There are some very skilled descriptions of the surrounding landscapes and the effects that drought, sudden rain and blizzards have on the community. The situations of farmers, ranchers and townspeople are all explored. This book does reveal the stifling sameness required of individuals in a small town, and especially the excessive expectations held for a minister's family.
But there are flaws in the tale, besides my visceral reaction to Philip and Mrs. Bentley's slavish adoration of him. One example is the convenient death of Mrs. Bentley's rival at the end of the story, freeing them up to leave Horizon and move to the city, leaving the church altogether. It is also very, very unlikely that such a person as Philip is going to make a living in the city opening a second hand bookshop. I can tell you right now that a venture such as that, with Mrs. Bentley herself saying that she is the better businessperson but will let Philip take charge as she doesn't want to be a domineering female, won't have a chance. She herself expresses uneasiness at the viability of her idea, near the end of the book.
But Mrs. Bentley seems happy to have to care for her failure-prone husband as if he is a spoiled child. At the end of the book, when they finally have the son they've been longing for, she decides to name him Philip. Here is the response:
"Another Philip?" the first one says, "With so many names to pick and choose from, you don't need that again. Two of us in the same house you'll get mixed up. Sometimes you won't know which of us is which."
That's right, Philip. I want it so.
Alright, maybe I did hate it almost as much as the first time I read it. This time, at least, I can appreciate the format of the book -- I do like fiction in journal form, and it is used well here, to create an unreliable narrator. Structurally it is a fascinating creation. I can also appreciate the setting and realize what he is trying to get across, even if I found it rather heavy handed.
But the relationship between the Bentleys just results in such an emotional reaction from me that I can not enjoy this book. I feel stressed and stifled and angry; perhaps Ross was aiming for such a reaction, who knows. But I am frustrated by Mrs. Bentley and don't enjoy reading misery memoirs, fictional or otherwise. So, still not a favourite of mine. Perhaps I will try one of his other books and see whether it is just Philip that ruins this book for me, or if it is a larger theme running through his writing. I have also read some of his short stories (again, in high school) and perhaps will take another look at those as well.
But, judge for yourselves. Read an excerpt from the publisher, or some of these other recent reviews.
Alexis at Roughing It in the Books has read it three times!
Susan Bartlett thinks Mrs. Bentley is living "a quietly tragic existence"
Melanie believes it is "Good in that dark, musty, depressing way that only good Canadian Literature can be"
Monday, December 28, 2009
Science Book Challenge -- it's as easy as pi! (love the slogan)
One of my favourite challenges, for 2010 I have a number of science books around the house which I really want to get to. I had all these on my list for last year, but ended up reading three totally different titles. So I'll try again with these three:
Mauve / Simon Garfield
The story of William Perkin, a young inventor in the mid 1800s who discovered how to make dyes from coal tar, accidentally. He was really searching for a way to create artificial quinine.
The Arcanum / Janet Gleeson
About the Western discovery of how to make porcelain
Empire of the Stars / Arthur I. Miller
One of my favourite topics: astrophysics and how discoveries are made or affected by the personalities involved, with all their human failings.
I'd also like to get my hands on a biography recently voted top science book of 09 by physicsworld.com, the story of Paul Dirac. It's entitled The Strangest Man, written by Graham Farmelo. (there is also a lecture available by Farmelo on this topic) This era of physics is one of my favourite scientific subjects to read about, so will have to locate a copy of this one. All I know about Dirac presently is what I learned from one of my favourite nonfiction reads of last year, Gino Segre's Faust in Copenhagen.
Colourful Reading Challenge
This is going to be totally random, probably all books I read for other challenges or just pick up for fun. The Challenge is to read 9 books all with a different colour in the title throughout the year. I have my Science Book Challenge pick above, Mauve, and one I have TBR for the Canadian Book Challenge, Vera Lysenko's Yellow Boots, to begin.
Yellow Boots / Vera Lysenko
Green Dolphin Country / Elizabeth Goudge
Mauve / Simon Garfield
The Woman in White / Wilkie Collins
What's in a Name 3
I've done this challenge for the last two years (though this year I didn't quite keep up!) I love its random selections. These are some of the ideas for titles to choose from - they may still change throughout the year! This year the categories are:
A book with a food in the title
Honey and Ashes / Janice Kulyk Keefer (memoir)
Plum Bun / Jesse Redmon Fauset
Daalder's Chocolates / Philibert Schogt
Read: The Spice Necklace / Ann Vanderhoof
A book with a body of water in the title
The Waves / Virginia Woolf
By the Lake / John McGahern
The Seduction of Water / Carol Goodman
Read: Cool Water / Dianne Warren
A book with a title (queen, president) in the title
Sir Charles Grandison / Richardson (also for Chunkster)
The Case of the General's Thumb / Andrey Kurkov
Mrs. Dalloway / Virginia Woolf
Read: Queen of Hearts / Martha Brooks
A book with a plant in the title
The Blue Flower / Penelope Fitzgerald
Read: The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag / Alan Bradley
The Betrayal of the Blood Lily / Lauren Willig
A book with a place name (city, country) in the title
Read: The Road to Lichfield / Penelope Lively
The Enchantress of Florence / Salman Rushdie
Return to Paris / Colette Rossant (nonfiction- food writing)
A book with a music term in the title
The Ballad and the Source / Rosamond Lehmann
Music of a life / Andrei Makine
Song beneath the ice / Joe Fiorito
Read: Trumpets Sound no More / Jon Redfern
All about rereading. This one has different levels of reading to choose from, but I think I'll sign up at the Literati level, six or more books. This is because I want to follow their suggestion of rereading childhood, high school, and adult choices.
Childhood Selections: this year I want to reread the entire Anne series by L.M. Montgomery, since I just finished the new publication of the restored Blythes are Quoted.
High School level: There are a few books I may choose from -- I haven't reread To Kill a Mockingbird since high school and might like to try that. But there are non-school books I'd like to revisit, including Watership Down or maybe Elizabeth Goudge's Green Dolphin Street, of which I remember very little - I think I was too young when I first read it.
Adult choices: There are two books I'd particularly like to reread - Virginia Woolf's The Waves, and Gwethalyn Graham's Earth and High Heaven.
Updated: actually read
As for me and my house / Sinclair Ross
Green Dolphin Country / Elizabeth Goudge
Anne of Green Gables / LMMontgomery
This was the first challenge I ever participated in, and I think it is time to give it another go. I'm only going to sign up for the Chubby Chunkster level, which is three books over 450 pages in 2010. I may read more but am just starting with this. Some ideas for the books I'm going to read are:
Middlemarch / George Eliot (880 p) [read]
The Terror / Dan Simmons (765 p)
Sir Charles Grandison / Richardson (1159 p)
Gold Bug Variations / Richard Power s (635 p)
Celestial Harmonies / Peter Esterhazy (841 p)
Ursula, Under / Ingrid Hill (476 p)
Updated: Actually read:
Green Dolphin Country / Elizabeth Goudge (575 p.)
Gaudy Night / Dorothy Sayers (557 p.)
Our Mutual Read
I love the name of the Challenge, and its potential for spending lots of time with Victorian literature! I think I will sign up at
Level 2: 8 books, at least 4 written during 1837 - 1901. The other books may be Neo-Victorian or non-fiction
And here is my list which is only a starting point:
Middlemarch / George Eliot
The Woman in White / Wilkie Collins
The Way we live now / Anthony Trollope
Bleak House / Charles Dickens
News from Nowhere / William Morris
Sylvia's lovers / Elizabeth Gaskell
Two on a Tower / Thomas Hardy
Trumpets Sound no More / Jon Redfern (NeoVictorian)