Monthly Archives: May 2013

Dear Life – Alice Munro

Dear Life - Alice Munro

Dear Life – Alice Munro

I do like Munro’s short stories – here, here and here.

Here is the blurb …

Alice Munro captures the essence of life in her brilliant new collection of stories. Moments of change, chance encounters,the twist of fate that leads a person off the accustomed path and on to a new way of thinking and being: the stories in Dear Life build to form a radiant, indelible portrait of just how dangerous and strange ordinary life can be.

Many of these stories are grounded in Munro’s home territory – the small Canadian towns around Lake Huron – but there are departures too. A poet, finding herself in alien territory at her first literary party, is rescued by a seasoned Newspaper editor, and is soon hurtling across the continent, young child in tow, towards a hoped for but completely unplanned meeting. A young soldier, returning to his fiancee from the Second World War steps off the train before his stop and onto the farm of another woman beginning a life on the move.

The book ends with four powerful pieces, ‘autobiographical in feeling’, set during the time of Munro’s own childhood, in the area where she grew up. Munro describes this quartet as ‘not quite stories’ but ‘the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life’. Suffused with Munro’s clarity of vision and her unparalleled gift for storytelling, these and the other stories in Dear Life are cause for celebration.

Munro is the master of making the ordinary extraordinary. Her stories are about small lives – mostly living in rural communities – but they grapple with ‘big’ emotions: loneliness, betrayal, despair, unexpected kindness.

This book consists of 14 stories (I had read one before Amundsen) and the cover a range of themes – love, aging, adultery, society expectations. Munro’s prose is simple, but compelling I didn’t want any of the stories to finish – particularly Corrie (how could everything continue as before after such a betrayal). Munro highlights what most people (the majority of people) will and do put up with in their lives. These aren’t grand sweeping epics, but finely detailed miniatures.

I especially enjoyed the references to L M Montgomery’s work – there is this in The Eye…

And in my interpretation of the picture that hung at the foot of my bed, showing Jesus suffering the little children to come unto him. Suffering meant something different in those days, but that was not what we concentrated on. My mother pointed out the little girl half hiding round a corner because she wanted to come to Jesus but was too shy.

Reminds me of this in Anne of Green Gables

 “That,” she said, pointing to the picture—a rather vivid chromo entitled, “Christ Blessing Little Children”—”and I was just imagining I was one of them—that I was the little girl in the blue dress, standing off by herself in the corner as if she didn’t belong to anybody, like me. She looks lonely and sad, don’t you think? I guess she hadn’t any father or mother of her own. But she wanted to be blessed, too, so she just crept shyly up on the outside of the crowd, hoping nobody would notice her—except Him. I’m sure I know just how she felt. Her heart must have beat and her hands must have got cold, like mine did when I asked you if I could stay. She was afraid He mightn’t notice her. But it’s likely He did, don’t you think? I’ve been trying to imagine it all out—her edging a little nearer all the time until she was quite close to Him; and then He would look at her and put His hand on her hair and oh, such a thrill of joy as would run over her! But I wish the artist hadn’t painted Him so sorrowful looking. All His pictures are like that, if you’ve noticed. But I don’t believe He could really have looked so sad or the children would have been afraid of Him.”

And there was references to Anne of Green Gables and Pat of Silver Bush in Dear Life and how Anne must have ignored the manure as she did.

More reviews …



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Daniel Deronda – George Eliot

Daniel Deronda - George Eliot

Daniel Deronda – George Eliot

Reading this novel was definitely a marathon rather than a sprint! I read it on my Kindle and the percentage was slow to grow! Plus I still have to read Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch for my Victorian book group.

Here is the plot summary from Wikipedia …

Daniel Deronda contains two main strains of plot, united by the title character. The novel begins in mid-story in late August 1865[1] with the meeting of Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth in the fictional town of Leubronn, Germany. Daniel finds himself attracted to, but wary of, the beautiful, stubborn, and selfish Gwendolen, whom he sees losing all her winnings in a game of roulette. The next day, Gwendolen receives a letter from her mother telling her that the family is financially ruined and asking her to come home. In despair at losing all her money, Gwendolen pawns a necklace and debates gambling again in order to make her fortune. In a fateful moment, however, her necklace is returned to her by a porter, and she realises that Daniel saw her pawn the necklace and redeemed it for her. From this point, the plot breaks off into two separate flashbacks, one which gives us the history of Gwendolen Harleth and one of Daniel Deronda.
In October 1864,[1] soon after the death of Gwendolen’s stepfather, Gwendolen and her family move to a new neighbourhood. It is here that she meets Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, a taciturn and calculating man, who proposes marriage shortly after their first meeting. At first open to his advances, she eventually flees (to the German town in which she meets Deronda) upon discovering that he has several children with his mistress, Lydia Glasher. This portion of the novel sets Gwendolen up as a haughty, selfish, yet affectionate daughter, admired for her beauty but suspected by many in society because of her satirical observations and somewhat manipulative behaviour. She is also prone to fits of terror that shake her otherwise calm and controlling exterior.
Deronda has been raised by a wealthy gentleman, Sir Hugo Mallinger. Deronda’s relationship to Sir Hugo is ambiguous and it is widely believed, even by Deronda, that he is Sir Hugo’s illegitimate son, though no one is certain. Deronda is an intelligent, light-hearted and compassionate young man who cannot quite decide what to do with his life, and this is a sore point between him and Sir Hugo, who wants him to go into politics. One day in late July 1864,[1] as he is boating on the Thames, Deronda rescues a young Jewish woman, Mirah Lapidoth, from attempting to drown herself. He takes her to the home of friends of his, and it is discovered that Mirah is a singer. She has come to London to search for her mother and brother after running away from her father, who kidnapped her when she was a child and forced her into an acting troupe. She ran away from him finally because she discovered he was planning to sell her into prostitution. Moved by her tale, Deronda undertakes to help her look for her mother (who turns out to have died years earlier) and brother and through this, he is introduced to London’s Jewish community. Mirah and Daniel grow closer and Daniel, anxious about his growing affection for her, leaves for a short time to join Sir Hugo in Leubronn, where he and Gwendolen first meet.
From here, the story picks up in “real time,” and Gwendolen returns from Germany in early September 1865[1] because her family has lost its fortune in an economic downturn. Gwendolen, having an antipathy to marriage, the only respectable way in which a woman could achieve financial security, attempts to avoid working as a governess by pursuing a career in singing or on the stage, but a prominent musician tells her she does not have the talent. In order to save herself and her family from relative poverty, she marries the wealthy Grandcourt, whom she believes she can manipulate to maintain her freedom to do what she likes, despite having promised Mrs. Glasher she would not marry him and fearing that it is a mistake.
Deronda, searching for Mirah’s family, meets a consumptive visionary named Mordecai. Mordecai passionately proclaims his wish that the Jewish people retain their national identity and one day be restored to their Promised Land. Because he is dying, he wants Daniel to become his intellectual heir and continue to pursue his dream and be an advocate for the Jewish people. In spite of being strongly drawn to Mordecai, Deronda hesitates to commit himself to a cause that seems to have no connection to his own identity. Deronda’s desire to embrace Mordecai’s vision becomes stronger when they discover Mordecai is the brother Mirah has known by the name Ezra and has been seeking. Still, Deronda is not a Jew and cannot reconcile this fact with his affection and respect for Mordecai/Ezra, which would be necessary for him to pursue a life of Jewish advocacy.
Gwendolen, meanwhile, has been emotionally crushed by her cold, self-centered, and manipulative husband. She is consumed with guilt for disinheriting Lydia Glasher’s children by marrying their father. On Gwendolen’s wedding day, Mrs. Glasher cursed her and told her she would suffer for her treachery, which only exacerbates Gwendolen’s feelings of dread and terror. During this time, Gwendolen and Deronda meet regularly, and Gwendolen pours out her troubles to him whenever they meet. During a trip to Italy, Grandcourt is knocked from his boat into the water and drowns. Gwendolen, who was present, is consumed with guilt because she had long wished he would die, although after some hesitation she jumped into the Mediterranean in a futile attempt to save him. Deronda, also in Italy to meet his Jewish mother (whose identity Sir Hugo has finally revealed), comforts Gwendolen and advises her. In love with Deronda, Gwendolen hopes for a future with him, but he urges her onto a path of righteousness in which she will help others in order to alleviate her suffering.
Deronda meets his mother and learns that she was a famous opera singer with whom Sir Hugo was once in love. She tells him that her father, a physician and strictly pious Jew, forced her to marry her cousin whom she did not love, despite her resentment of the rigid piety of her childhood. Daniel was the only child of that union, and on her husband’s death, she asked the devoted Sir Hugo to raise her son as an English gentleman, never to know that he was Jewish. Upon learning of his true origins, Deronda finally feels comfortable with his love for Mirah, and on his return to England in October 1866,[1] he tells Mirah of his love for her. Daniel commits himself to be Ezra/Mordecai’s disciple, and shortly after Deronda’s marriage, Ezra/Mordecai dies with Daniel and Mirah at his side. Before Daniel marries Mirah, he goes to Gwendolen to tell her about his origins, his decision to go to “the East” (per Ezra/Mordecai’s wish), and his betrothal to Mirah. Gwendolen is devastated by the news, but it becomes a turning point in her life, inspiring her to finally say, “I shall live.” She sends him a letter on his wedding day, telling him not to think of her with sadness but to know that she will be a better person for having known him. The newly-weds are all prepared to set off for “the East”, with Mordecai, when Mordecai dies in their arms, and the novel ends.

I have to say upfront that I really struggled through this novel – it was wordy, philosophical and religious. I think it is very much of it’s time and won’t appeal to many modern readers.

Having said that I found Gwendolyn and Mirah’s stories intriguing – their stories are reasonable similar, but their lives follow very different paths because of the choices they make. By a different author Gwendolyn would be a heroine and would live happily ever after, but Eliot doesn’t allow her the easy option she must live with the consequences of her actions and choices.

To me this novel seemed almost two in one; the English country manners tale (Gwendolyn, Grandcourt, etc) and the Jewish tale (Mordecai, the Cohens, etc). And I don’t think they mesh together well. I admire the breadth of scholarship in this novel, but couldn’t enjoy it.

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Where Did You Go Bernadette – Maria Semple

Where Did You Go Bernadette - Maria Semple

Where Did You Go Bernadette – Maria Semple

I have been meaning to read this novel for a long time. I keep a list of interesting books in Evernote for whenever I am out and about and feel like buying a book and this one was very near the top. I finally bought a copy from the book depository when they sent me a 10% of voucher. I’m glad I read it.

Here is the blurb …

Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle–and people in general–has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence–creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.

It is a modern take on an epistolary novel; emails, reports, letters, however, there is a bit (Bee’s section) written in first person narrative. Some sections are hilarious the whole section about encouraging more Mercedes parents (as opposed to Subaru parents) to send their children to Bee’s alternative school is laugh out loud funny ( it might be a bit too close to the bone for some parents!).

Bernadette doesn’t want to leave the house – she outsources everything to a personal assistant in India including handing over important and secret information such as bank details, passport information, etc. you can imagine how that goes!

I loved this novel, but I am in the ‘school run’ years – Bernadette would call me a gnat! – I know people like Audrey and other people who keep track of who has volunteered and who hasn’t! Plus I know people in the IT world – even at Microsoft. I’m not sure how it would work for people at a different stage of their lives, but I found the characters believable and the plot quite plausible.

Here is a link to the transcript of the ABC First Tuesday Book Club episode where they discussed Where Did You Go Bernadette.

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