December was a mad rush to finish up books for my reading challenges. I ran out of time and nearly burned out on reading by cramming the massive Mordecai into the last few days of the month.
THIMBLE SUMMER by Elizabeth Enright
Winner of the 1939 Newbery Medal for Children’s Literature, this is a delightful & heart-warming story of nine-year-old Garnet Linden and one perfect summer on her family’s Wisconsin farm. It’s set in what was in some ways a much simpler time, in a self-sufficient rural environment (her father fired his own lime to make his own blocks for the foundation of his new barn).
In one of many adventures that summer, Garnet makes a trip on the bus by herself to the next town (imagine that happening today!)
I found the comparisons between town & farm life amusing because they remain similar to such observations today.
Elizabeth Enright is also the author of my childhood favourites – the Melendy Family quartet, which begins with The Saturdays.
Every child should be able to enjoy a Thimble Summer. Sadly, few ever do – or even did – and so this story provides a wonderful escape.
Read this if: you love tales of the unspoiled rural America of 80 years ago; or you believe in happy childhood summers. 5 stars
BUSH STUDIES by Barbara Baynton
First published in 1902, Bush Studies is a collection of short stories set in the Australian outback of her day. While the stories certainly convey the harsh conditions, I felt that Baynton made scathing commentary on the harsh, crude and vulgar behaviour particularly of the men, and particularly toward women.
I found Scrammy ‘And and The Chosen Vessel to be especially compelling, and if I taught high-school literature would want to include them in my curriculum, regardless of where I was teaching.
Having met only the “jolly swagman’ of Waltzing Matilda, I had my eyes opened wide.
Read this if: (obviously) you want to find out about life in the outback at the end of the 19th century; or you are interested in the history of women’s role in Australian or global society. 4½ stars
THE UNDERPAINTER by Jane Urquhart
This 1997 winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award is the third novel I’ve read by this talented writer.
It’s told from the point of view of painter Austin Fraser, living in his old age in his childhood hometown of Rochester NY. The setting moves from upstate New York to the northern shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Superior – both Canadian locations. It’s told in flashbacks from Austin’s present (1970s) to 1914 and the ensuing years. I was struck by the different affects that the declaration of war in 1914 had on Canada, and on the United States.
The title refers to the method which Austin now uses for all his paintings: blank white over an “underpainting”. Why he paints like this is revealed as the story is.
Urquhart weaves her story skillfully, building to a heart-rending climax.
Read this if: you appreciate beautiful prose and understated stories; or you’re interested in the contrast between the effects of WWI on Canada and its closest neighbour the United States.
MORDECAI: The Life & Times by Charles Foran
If you’re Canadian—and perhaps if you’re not—you no doubt recognize that this is a biography (“unauthorized, of course”) of one of Canada’s foremost ‘men of letters’, Mordecai Richler. It’s a rich, multi-layered story of a man whose life was the same – and who lived it large and controversially.
The knowledge I gained will add immensely to my reading of his novels since, essentially, he wrote his life. It also makes me want to reread the two of his works that I’ve already covered.
My only complaint is that at 704 pages, it was a little overlong. What to cut? Perhaps the explanations of the plots of each of his books.
Mordecai won several awards including the Canadian Governor-General’s Award for Non-Fiction and the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.
Read this if: you’ve read or are going to read any of Richler’s novels; or if you would like some insights into the birth of Canadian publishing of Canadian material (CanLit). 4 stars
THE CAT’S TABLE by Michael Ondaatje
“In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy boards a ship bound for England. At mealtimes, he is seated at the lowly ‘Cat’s Table’ with an eccentric and fascinating group of adults and two other boys.”
This is the story of their voyage and the after effects, felt into their adult lives.
The cover describes it as a “thrilling, deeply-moving novel”. I’d not be quite so effusive. Ondaatje’s writing is elegant and the story has some tension. But sometimes, the parts just didn’t seem to be coming together. 3½ stars
THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA by Ernest Hemingway
Winner of the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this famous novella tells the story of an aging Cuban fisherman, Santiago, who wrestles with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Perhaps better called the ‘Old Man & the Fish’?
This is my first foray into Hemingway and I’m impressed with the sparseness of his prose. I understand that The Old Man and the Sea was a bit of a departure from the norm for the author. Therefore I can’t recommend it as an introduction to him because it may not be representative at all of his work.
Read this if: if you like a good ‘fish’ story. 3½ stars
HALFWAY HOUSE by Ellery Queen
Cleverly crafted murder mystery first published in 1936 by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B, Lee, under the pen name Ellery Queen. Queen, of course, is the detective solving the mystery of a body found in a house where it’s obvious no one lived. Half way between NYC and Philadelphia Pennsylvania, the house was a place for the murder victim, who led a double life, to switch identities.
I had an inkling of who the murderer was this time, but based only on one fact, and no clues. These guys were good.
Read this if: you love a classic murder mystery; or you want a small taste of NYC society in the 1930s. 3½ stars
MISTER SANDMAN by Barbara Gowdy
Publisher synopsis: “The Canary family are unlike any other. Joan is exquisite, tiny, mute, plays the piano like Mozart and lives in a closet. Marcy is a nymphomaniac, while Sonja earns a fortune clipping hair-grips to cardboard and knits compulsively. Their parents keep their own habits secret for as long as they can.”
The secrets of the parents are that Gordon is homosexual and Doris likes to sleep with other women. The story reaches its climax when Joan reveals them to each other.
Well-written, but a bit bawdy for my taste.
(The title is derived, on one level at least, from the tunes that Doris always has running through her head. I kept hearing the beautiful tune Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream…. Here it is played by a master.)
Read this if: quite honestly, I’m not sure who should read this. 3 stars
THE ECHO MAKER by Richard Powers
This 2006 winner of the National Book Award (USA) is set in Nebraska 2001-2003. Amazon synopsis: ”On a winter night on a remote Nebraska road, twenty-seven-year-old Mark Schluter has a near-fatal car accident. His older sister, Karin, (arrives) to nurse Mark back from a traumatic head injury. But when Mark emerges from a coma, he believes that this woman–who looks, acts, and sounds just like his sister–is really an imposter. When Karin contacts the famous cognitive neurologist Gerald Weber for help, he diagnoses Mark as having Capgras syndrome. “
The Echo Maker of the title is the sandhill cranes which descend in spectacular numbers on the Platte River in Nebraska each spring during their annual migration north. “Where cranes gathered, their speech carried miles (…) One of the Anishinaabe clans was named the Cranes—Ajijak orBusinassee—the Echo Makers.”
The cranes play only an ancillary and not even necessary part in the story which reads more like a commercial novel than a literary prize winner.
Read this if : you are interested in how the brain functions, especially in making and retrieving memories; or if you enjoy the structure and pacing of John Grisham novels. 3 stars