Friday, December 25, 2009

The Night After Christmas: A Visit from Stephen Fry and Co.

The Night After Christmas:

A Visit From

Stephen Fry

&
Co.



Twas the night after Christmas at Hugh Laurie's house,
His dear wife was screaming, "a Mouse! it's a Mouse!"
And Hugh in his stockings jumped up on a chair,
Thinking if only his friend, Stephen Fry had been there,
But he was probably in Norfolk all snug in his bed,
With visions of ipods and downloads in his head.
So the Lauries sipped eggnog on their chair in nightcaps,
And were soon fast asleep, snoring in their laps.
When out by the pool, they heard such a splatter,
They sprang from their chair with the force of dark matter.
Away to the window they flew in a trice--
Followed by a family of adorable mice.
The garden gnomes glistened in the moon's afterglow,
While the swimming pool rippled with hints of white snow.
When what to their wondering eyes should appear,
But Stephen Fry in trunks and red snorkle gear.
With his ipod roistered, lively and quick, he managed an inpromtu twitpic--
With his Santa hat, he looked a veritable St. Nick.
More merry than beagles his dear friends they came,
And with a Baaahhh! and a trimble, he called them by name,
"Bill Bailey! Alan Davies! Jo Brand! and Phil Jupitus!
Sean Lock! Jimmy Carr! Rob Brydon! and Trefusis!
To the springboard climb up, climb up one and all,
Together we'll create one massive cannonball!"
Like dry leaves they did shed their clothes and did fly
Over to the springboard, hands raised to the sky,
And up they did mount, like coursers they flew
And with ipod and vodie, St. Stephen Fry too.
And then in a twinkling, they heard a great creak,
The board was too slender, the board was too weak.
The eyeballs of the Lauries--and the mice--rolled around
As their friends fell forward with a flubbering bound!
A bundle of bodies, some tight, some slack,
A veritable Moby spewing water from the wrack.
Their eyes--how they twinkled! their dimples how merry!
Their cheeks were all rosy (for the water was dam icey!)
Then Hugh and his wife brought them cotton terry towels,
As their friends bibble-bobbled and shivered their vowels.
Stephen, with magic, procured bottles of fine Port,
And they all raised a glass to Peter Kingdom and his Court.
Bill Bailey tickled ivories, and Bryden talked behind his teeth,
While Hugh got his head stuck in the old advent wreath.
Jimmy Carr told a joke bout garden gnomes and lubricant jelly
While Jo Brand watched David Tennant's Doctor on the telly.
Dear Jupitus sang a song bout a princess and an elf
While Trefusis and his dongle laughed in spite of himself.
Alan Davies and Sean Lock mimicked and told stories,
And had everyone laughing, including mice and the Lauries.
Then Stephen recited a moving stanzaic work
About a lingerie shop owner, Pumbleby Quirk.
Oh, the tears they did fall, they fell from each eye,
(Including the writer of this ditty, Ralph Patrick Mackay.)
They embibed some more port, and each blew their nose,
Arranging for photos in a jumbled group pose.
And then with a whistle, Hugh did show them their beds,
And told them breakfast was at seven for any sleepy heads!
Stephen visited each guest, and as he turned out each light,
Said, "Happy Dreams to all, and to all a good good night."

-by Ralph Patrick Mackay aka Chumley

Monday, October 19, 2009

Love and Summer by William Trevor

Love and Summer by William Trevor (Knopf Canada)

A Reader's Preamble
Unknowingly, memories began to stir when the new book arrived. As his hands felt the shape and texture of the dustjacketed hardcover, his eyes were absorbing information from the cover image and the four blurbs on the back. Gazing at the author's photograph taken by Lord Snowdon, the idea of senescence was roused, those aged creases and wrinkles holding shadows of experience. After having read the front flap with its succinct storyline overview, the memories began to surface, his mind initiating a recall of sensory data, emotional responses, textual and visual memories. 'When was it that I first came across the author?' 'Where was that sale?' An image of his hand holding a penguin paperback of The Old Boys, kneeling he was, a box of books under a table, a church sale, 1981, or 1982. He saw a younger self sitting back in a comfy chair, legs up, reading the penguin copy. Then, a fleeting image of himself reading the paperback on the Metro, hunched in dim light. Opening this new book, he scanned down the impressive list of titles by the author. Where was his copy of The Love Department he wondered? Oh, yes, Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel, two copies he had, somewhere. The American and the British editions. What an odd place to have found that second copy he thought, remembering the fly-by-night remaindered shop that appeared around the holiday season one year. He really must find those books, it would be interesting to revisit them. However, a sigh of frustration waffled out of him as he realised how much effort, energy and time, priceless time, would be required to search through shelves and boxes. His eyes turned to the title page, Love and Summer by William Trevor. Best to rest lightly on those memories of past reads, he mused, and he turned to the first page and began to read.


Halfway through the novel he found himself searching for a piece of music. It was only after having listened to the music did it occur to him that his post-prandial rummaging amongst older cds was unconsciously driven. He didn't know the meaning of the words, for the rich voice of Heather Rankin was singing in Gaelic, a song entitled Walk With Me, but it didn't seem to matter. He felt the tone of the music fit the mood of the novel he was half-way through. How and why his inner mind could reach back to a cd he had been passing over not only for months, but for years, left him feeling greater respect for such inner processes, and wondering if his conscious mind was but a feeble and poor assistant.

After having finished the novel, he placed it aside. He was a slow reader. Returning to the novel after a few days of unconscious gestation, his musings began to flow with the alacrity of honey. He began to make notes on the characters, the setting, the situation. What could he possibly say that had not already been said? He had yet to read another review for he tended to avoid them until he had set his thoughts on paper. His responses were not always robust, but at least they were his own. In the curiosity of discovering insights and nuances he had missed, providing colour and shadow to his understanding--or at least, a not unwarranted respect for another's style or turn of phrase--he would finally seek out professional reviews.

Love and Summer
Although firmly set in rural Ireland of the late 1950s, he found such a shared human story that he could easily imagine it to be set in rural Japan, Canada, Botswana or any other country on the planet. A sad, poignant tale told with clear yet subtle poetic lines that possess a rich silence between the words.

The story opens in the month of June. It begins with a leave taking and is rounded off with one as well. Florian Kilderry, a young man from a neighbouring house in the country, bicycles into the nearby town of Rathmoye to take photographs of architectural decay, his new found passion. Unfortunately, it is the day of a funeral for Eileen Connulty, the once domineering matriarch of the Connultys of Rathmoye, owners of the coal works, the cinema, and a well-respected boarding house establishment. She was predeceased by her husband who died in the fire that consumed their cinema, The Coliseum, the remnant of which Florian Kilderry finds ideal for his photographic desires.

We are introduced to the small cast of characters, all seemingly marred by the circumstances of life, single or alone in their relationships with others, the memories of the past, and the irredeemable present. There is the daughter, Miss Connulty, unloved by her mother, betrayed when young by a man who was a "traveller in veterinary requisites" and now a dour older woman, and new mistress of the boarding house. Her brother, a twin, Joseph Paul Connulty, is unmarried, a sober, honest member of the "Pioneer Movement" and the operator of the coal works. His early hope of a religious vocation "lost beneath the weight of his mother's doubt." The twins are adult children locked into inherited roles, trapped by the vestiges of the their parentage. There is the farmer, Dillahan, burdened with the guilt of having accidentally killed his wife and child in a farming mishap, a man gripped by the past and yet forced by the demands of tending to land and animal, to live in the present. There is Ellie, an orphan, brought up by nuns and now married to Dillahan, a younger sensitive woman who manages to live with a man who treats her well, but, whose grief has withered his passions. Their is Florian Kilderry, the young carefree spirit, a late child--possibly a mistake--of older parents who were both artists, his mother coming from a well-to-do Italian family, and his father from a penniless Irish background. There is Bernadette O'Keefe, the secretary for Joseph Paul at the coal works, a woman of a certain age with an eye for her boss, but one that is unrequited. And finally, the cast is rounded off by the Protestant librarian, Orpen Wren, wandering about the town and country, confusing figures of the present with those of the past, his mind reliving the experiences of his youthful prime. He was once the librarian to the St. John of Lisquin family and lived at the big house cataloging their library and personal papers. The house is long gone, now but an outcrop of stone amongst weeds and overgrowth.
The figures of Florian and Orpen are rather symbolic of the future and the past. Florian cycles into the town of Rathmoye, a symbol of positive movement and creative imagination. His parents have recently died, the inherited homestead is in decay and up for sale and he dreams of immigrating, possibly to Scandinavia. He discards his past, his laissez-faire upbringing, his parent's artistic heritage. What household furniture and belongings that are not sold or given away, he burns. He even burns his early attempts at writing fiction. He has spent his remnant summer preparing his departure, reading F. Scott Fitzgerald and exploring the world of photography having found an old Leica camera amongst his father's belongings. Orpen Wren is the opposite, a relic, emblematic of the past no one wants to remember, an old man whose thoughts have found comfort in the retreat and attachment to memories, memories reenacted in the present. He confuses Florian for a member of the St. John family and insists he take the family papers that Orpen carries with him.

This dance of the past and future is accompanied with the dance of present love between Florian and Ellie. Ellie first saw him while she was in town on the day of Mrs. Connulty's funeral. Ellie is a gentle creature who delivers eggs to the Connulty family for their boarding house, an overt yet natural symbol of birth and the feminine. She has a habit of using double negatives in her speech such as "you'd never not want to go," phrases which anchor her to the countryside and yet also seem to point to the psychological weight of her upbringing in the foundling hospital, raised by nuns. Their gentle love is one of bicycles, country lanes and lavender meadows, and glimpses of the past like the long shadows of trees in the rays of a setting sun. Their dance of emotion and memory is very poignant and moving and brings us full circle to another leave taking as the dog days of summer dwindle to the cooler September and their love of a summer becomes a memory in this beautifully told novel.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Yacht Sybarite or, a Minor Bibliographic Digression


Caught by the Nose:
Each day in the twitter world, there are hundreds of links to articles concerning the rise of ebooks, the pleasures of ebooks, the challenges of the Google Book Settlement and other topical items relating to the rapid changes in the world of publishing. It is all of interest. And yet, I am still very much in the old world of the physical volume. My content containers are either hard with dustwrappers or soft without. But I do read books online, mainly from The Internet Archive where difficult to find books are easily available to read in a presentable scan of the original pages. (Examples: Isabella Bird's Among the Tibetans , Ford Madox Ford's The Brown Owl , Abydos by W. M. Flinders Petrie, or The Ipane by R. B. Bontine Cunninghame Graham, for four random choices.) I think how fortunate for the youth of today to have access to such an astounding collection of printed materials, and to be able to read them on portable devices when and wherever they desire. Such freedom. I think of my youth in Montreal and how difficult it was to access books. It was a world of closed stacks and memberships. Much time and effort was required to look at a book and many of the books, due to age, scarcity, and crumbling condition, were for in-library use only. The second-hand bookshops were vital sources of reading material, as well as the major and minor booksales throughout the city. I have many memories of attending sales, and one in particular comes to mind.

In the fall of 1978, I arrived early one Saturday morning for the annual booksale at The Fraser-Hickson Institute, but a few minutes' walk from where I lived. One hour and a half later, 9 a.m., the doors opened and the few of us early bookscouts, pickers and book dealers led the now long line of book fanciers on up to the auditorium. My purchases were always modest. A small box or two depending on the combination of my financial situation, the selection of books for sale, how quick my eye to hand coordination was that morning, and how willing I was to jostle and scrape in the mild scrum that was to ensue. Luck sometimes helped. The book that holds this sale in memory is one which I picked up for a lowly 10 cents, a copy of Virgil's Aeneid translated by John Dryden. It was an edition issued by George Routledge & Sons, full red pebbled leather, raised bands, gilt titles and ruling, marbled endpapers and gilt all round. The half-title and title page were headed "Sir John Lubbock's Hundred Books." A short introduction was initialed "H.M." and dated March 1884. At the time I knew nothing of Lubbock and his list of books. Hadn't a clue who "H. M." was and why they were hiding behind their initials in so old fashioned a way. Since the title page and its verso lacked a publication date, I had to judge the 1884 as an unreliable witness. Finding information in 1978 entailed a bit more time and legwork than today. Reference books had to be sought out. Wooden library catalogue drawers had to be consulted, the stiff cards perused, their corners yellowed by many a thumb and finger. Requesting closed stacks materials was often greeted with heavy sighs, raised eyebrows, head scratching and the occasional "hmm, yes........". "The Pleasures of Reading by Sir John Lubbock, hmm, yes......". "The Life of Sir John Lubbock by Horace G. Hutchinson.......hmm, yes...". Dust had to be disturbed.

It was fairly easy to find out about Sir John Lubbock, one of those extraordinary polymaths of the Victorian period, but to discover bibliographic information about this particular edition of Virgil's Aeneid, was however, a bit more of a challenge. More dust to be disturbed. Consulting those large brown cloth volumes of Bookman's Price Index was painfully tedious and slow, but occasionally they offered up some useful information. Auction records, bibliographies, and periodicals were not as easily available. I seem to remember spending a few moments of time on trying to pin a date on this relatively unimportant volume, a finely bound issue of a standard text in a series initiated by Lubbock's then, influential list. As it was, Lubbock didn't publicly conceive his list of hundred best books until the autumn of 1885, so the 1884 introduction by "H.M." was no doubt from a previous Routledge edition, and brought out to get a piece of the action swirling around the controversy of Sir John Lubbock's One Hundred Books. [An essay on the subject can be found here.] I figured it was published around the 1890s to the turn of the century and left it at that.

The introduction was in fact written by Henry Morley, a prolific editor and writer perhaps best remembered, if at all, for editing the "English Authors" series. He also edited a series of texts called "Morley's Universal Library" which were issued by George Routledge and Sons. What Henry Morley thought of having his introduction used for Sir John Lubbock's Hundred Books is unknown to me. Morley must have known Lubbock, or at least, known of him. The London literary milieu must have been fairly tight at that time. However, since Morley died in 1894, it is likely he wasn't alive when the publishers availed themselves of one series introduction for another. Posthumous recompense was unlikely at the time. Publishers had to be versatile, innovative and thrifty; they had to know how to cut their coat according to their cloth to use an old phrase.

John Dryden's publisher, Jacob Tonson, was fairly innovative. Dryden's translations of the works of Virgil were published by Jacob Tonson in July 1697 when Dryden was 66 years of age. The first edition sold out in a few months. Henry Morley's short introduction is very good and he provides a brief bibliographic backcloth:


In modern form there was only John Ogilby's very poor translation of the works of Virgil, which had been first published in 1649, and reproduced in 1654 as a handsome folio, adorned with plates by Hollar, Faithorne, and Lambert. Jacob Tonson, Dryden's publisher used for his edition Ogilby's plates touched up, and published Dryden's Virgil by subscription, engraving under successive plates the arms of one hundred and one subscribers of five guineas, who contributed towards the adornment of the work with engravings; besides these, there were heraldic honours in part payment. The profit from the work to Dryden himself seems to have been about twelve hundred pounds. A generation later Pope earned very much more by translating Homer. As Dryden would not make friendly advance to King William, by dedicating the translation to him, Jacob Tonson, as publisher, did his loyal best by directing that, in retouching the plates, the Roman nose of the pious "Aeneas" should be made to conform to that of William III. And so Tonson hoped that His Majesty might be caught by the nose.

Whether William III was "caught by the nose" is a question for scholars, but I was certainly caught by the nose in that the smell of this volume still infuses me with the initial pleasures of reading Dryden's translation, and makes me remember how his anastrophic sentences and heightened style, were, and still perhaps are, subtle influences upon the way I write a sentence. For quite awhile I carried this volume around with me. Not the most practical edition for such reading. How much more practical are the portable devices to read ebooks today. Not just the Aeneid, but a complete library could be had in one slim device. (I can imagine that the batsmen responsible for Napoleon's travelling library might have eased their weary bones with dreams of such magic.) Being more of a sedentary person, I don't have the overwhelming need for such a handy device, but such innovation I am certainly all for. One day, perhaps, I may find myself reading Dryden's translation of Virgil's Aeneid on a ebook reader of some kind. Perhaps, aptly enough, off the coast of Italy.

Diversional Voyage:
There is one peculiarity to this 10 cent volume. In the red leather of the upper board are the words "Yacht Sybarite" blind-stamped in gilt. I didn't know what the words signified. Strangely, in my ignorance, it struck me at the time as some kind of Latin phrase. The thought that the book might have been from a collection that once found a home on a yacht called Sybarite occurred to me but to pursue such a tangent seemed as darkly unpromising as Childe Roland's seeking out the Dark Tower. While the gilt letters of 'Yacht Sybarite' figuratively faded from my conscious mind, I went on to enjoy Virgil's narrative and Dryden's vigorous and influential style.

I had quite forgotten about the gilt inscription on the upper board, until this past week, when, doing some casual research related to George Jay Gould, I came across a reference to a yacht named Sybarite. I remembered the book and wondered if there could be a possible connection.

George Jay Gould was the son of Jay Gould, and he inherited much from his father, including the steam yacht, Atalanta, originally built for his father and launched in Philadelphia in 1883. The New York Times reported in July 1900 that George Jay Gould was selling The Atalanta to the Government of Columbia where it would be converted into a gunboat. It was later revealed that the South American country was in fact, Venezuela. So, George Jay Gould, an active member of The Atlantic Yachting Club during a period that was a golden age of yachting--he was their Commodore in the 1890s--was in the market for a new steam yacht.

Almost one year later, June 1901, the New York Times reported the he had purchased a 924 ton steam yacht with a water-line measurement of 220 feet. It was originally built for Lord Ashburton in 1893 and named Venetia. Lord Ashburton sold it but a few years later in 1897 to Whitaker Wright. The New York Times mentioned that Wright had renamed it the Sybarite. It was in London, in December 1900, that Whitaker Wright's financial empire collapsed and he was first accused of misuse of investment money. (Reminiscent of a certain Canadian Lord. A good overview of the scandal can be found here.) His sale of the Sybarite to Gould six months later is telling. Wright must have been in need of cash.

[A few odd facts: George Gould's daughter, Edith Gould, was born on the Sybarite in 1901. George Gould's wife, the former Edith M. Kingdon, died in 1921 of a heart attack on the golf course of their estate in Lakewood, New Jersey. Doctors discovered she had used a rubber body suit from neck to ankle to maintain her figure. No wonder she died of a heart attack. Since George married his mistress not long after and acknowledged his illegitmate children, one wonders at the pressures Mrs. Gould suffered. And George Jay Gould died of pnemonia on May 16, 1923 on the Riviera after having visited the tomb of Tutankhamun and contracted a fever. This no doubt helped to fuel the concept of the Mummy's curse since Lord Carnarvon had died on April 5, 1923 in Cairo. For all I know, George Gould could have been reading this very copy while visiting Egypt in 1923. It would make for good dinner conversation at least.]

So, from these few scraps of information from very casual research, I could possibly conclude that this volume of Virgil's Aeneid, was part of the library aboard the yacht Sybarite, a collection that probably contained the complete Hundred Best Books as listed by Sir John Lubbock, all bound in uniform red leather with gilt edges all round, and all with the blind-stamped gilt words on the upper board, "Yacht Sybarite." It seems likely, considering Wright's proclivity to excess that it was he who ordered such a collection for his yacht, though I can't rule out the possibility that the books came with the ship and Wright had them blind-stamped in gilt to show ownership. Then again, it might have been Gould.

The answer to the question of how the volume ended up in a library sale in Montreal in 1978 seems to live in the realm of speculation. Books have lives of their own. Most outlive us. They can pass through many hands and reside on many shelves in their lifetime. This Aeneid is an orphan in a way, a stray from a larger collection. More the rule than the exception since so many book collections are sold off at some time and dispersed among various owners. Most likely, when the Sybarite was sold or broken up, the library too was broken up and auctioned off. Or perhaps the collection was passed down through the family. Perhaps there is a descendant of George J. Gould who this very day is sitting in their library wondering where that hundredth volume in that collection had gone and how. Perhaps it was a guest who availed themselves of the library for some bedtime reading and their servant inadvertently packed the volume in the luggage upon leaving. Perhaps it was with George J. Gould as he passed away in the Riviera, and was misplaced in the aftermath of his death. Any manner of stories could be conjured up. Any one of them as likely as the next.

An ebook reading device will never enjoy a long and diverse provenance like that of old bound volumes, but these devices allow us to connect with books that do have interesting backgrounds. To be able to peruse old library volumes from the comfort of our homes is an extraordinary accomplishment. Library stamps, librarian's pencil annotations and call numbers, creases, foxing, markings in the text and marginalia are revelations of the books character. I can see how many will find ebook devices perfect for reading the latest publications, but I tend to see them as devices to explore the closed stacks of so many great libraries.

Considering the death of George J. Gould, perhaps a little archaeology concerning Howard Carter and Lord Carnavon.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Making an Elephant: Writing From Within by Graham Swift

Making an Elephant: Writing From Within by Graham Swift (Random House of Canada, 2009) 401pp.: ill.

I clearly remember first coming across Graham Swift: it was a Montreal Bookshop, early 1984, a damp winter day. A stack of books at my feet as if brought in by the tide and I were at the seaside, and on top, Waterland (Heinemann, 1983). The dustwrapper cover image was very striking and certainly made me pick it up, while the back panel of the dustwrapper was an expanse of black water-beaded mystery. The picture on the rear flap revealed a young author seemingly with an expression of having seen someone in the distance and wondering whether to proceed or change direction. I read, with a slight feeling of frustration of not having heard of him, that it was not his first book, but his fourth.

The confidence of the plain back panel was impressive.

After reading the flap cover, the first lines, and glancing here and there, I bought the book--without a blurb in sight. As I hurried to the metro station where no doubt Bowie's Let's Dance or The Police's Every Breath You Take penned by Sting, emanated from the little shops trying to catch commuters as they passed, I was fueled with that sense of excitement of having come across a new author, a new voice; and each time a new book by Graham Swift was issued, that initial sense of excitement was recalled like the scent of sand and salt water. And so it did when I heard that Graham Swift had a new book out, Making an Elephant: Writing from Within, a collection of non-fiction pieces.

There is an alternating flow, or tidal rhythm within the structure of this collection. The tide is out, and the book opens with childhood memories, then moves on to the story of his becoming a writer while in Greece ostensibly working on his graduate degree. Then the tide rolls in and we are provided with memories of good literary friends and occasions in the public domain: there is the Booker Prize evening; an interview by Patrick McGrath concerning Waterland; Swift's interview with Kazuo Ishiguro, and with Caryl Phillips; an interesting long piece about seeking out Jiri Wolf in Prague; and then his experiences of the filming of Waterland where a good writer friend of his who had experience in the film business told him he liked movie people, "They stab you in the front." The tide shifts out and we are back in the very personal with a memoir of his father which gives the title to the collection; then a selection of his poetry and an interesting insight before we find the tide coming in and we have his short piece about Salman Rushdie coming to visit, followed by a short piece of journalism about reading aloud, and a longer lecture on the spirit of place in fiction, specifically the Fens (Waterland), the West Country (Ever After) and the Garden of England, Kent (Last Orders). There is a poignant memoir of fly fishing with Ted Hughes, his piscatorial acquaintance on the Torridge River in Devon, and then another piece about film, this time Fred Schepisi and his take on Last Orders. The tide shifts out again and we have an unusual essay concerning the local history of Wandsworth and an interview with himself concerning his methods of writing. It is rounded off by his introduction to a collection of essays of Montaigne, a favourite of Swift and appropriate, for after finishing Making an Elephant: Writing from Within, I have a greater sense of the man, the writer, and his world.

All things Graham Swift at the Guardian.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Geography of Discipline: Murakami on Running, Writing, Living

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir by Haruki Murakami (Vintage Canada, 2009) viii, 180pp.

The geography of discipline found in these reminiscences is perhaps both complex and simple. In talking about running, Murakami talks about writing. In talking about writing, he talks about running. In talking about living Murakami naturally talks about running and writing. This book is a very revealing glimpse of an individual, an introvert in many ways, who, with a strongly developed direction in life, has exercised his talents with composure, self-assurance and a confidence in hard work.

His style is casual, matter of fact. Everyday phrases, idioms and occasional clichés make reading this memoir feel like you are having an easy going dinner with the author, and he has started to answer your question of how he got into running after all. The reference to Raymond Carver in the title is a telling homage.

The memoir provides a peek into his past, his having run a jazz club for many years, and the day, while watching a baseball game, the thought of writing books took hold of him and never let him go. We also have his day to day existence: travel, business meetings, lectures abroad, apartment problems, which is the colourful backcloth to his more central routines and foci of this book, running and writing. He travels a fair deal, often for marathons or triathlons. Japan, Greece, Hawaii, New York and Boston all important locations for these tests of physical endurance, and also, for everyday life, for he lives in many of these locations. His description of how he developed as a runner is accompanied by his description of how he became an efficient swimmer and bicyclist, skills required for his new interest in taking part in triathlons. We learn of his training for big races and here we can find some good practical techniques from an experienced runner. He discusses the qualities necessary for a good writer and these qualities apply to running as well. In fact, they probably apply to most things. We discover why he runs, the fond memories involved and what he finds in the actual pain of such physical expression.

And of course there are references to music.

An enjoyable read and one that any reader of Murakami's novels will want to have nestled up against his works of fiction on their Murakami shelf.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Discipline of Geography, or, A Little Fry and Parker


Stephen Fry in America by Stephen Fry (HarperCollins, 2008) 313pp.: ill., maps; 25cm.

Map Addict: A Tale of Obsession, Fudge & the Ordnance Survey by Mike Parker (Collins, 2009) 330pp.: ill., maps; 19.5cm.

Here are two books whose narratives spring from an internal compass rose; narratives that follow their own cardinal points in an organic way in that each comes from a life-long fascination, one with America, and one with maps. Both books are well-written, funny and informative, and both are by residents of the UK who have had their hand in comedy at one time or another. Both authors have also been involved in writing and hosting documentaries on various subjects. Hmm, the plot thickens. Who knows, they may even have shared an elevator. Breathed the same air.

1. Stephen Fry in America:

It might be difficult to find someone who has not heard of Stephen Fry. He's even on the cover of the Video Collectibles catalog where you can order an alarm clock with his mellifluous voice proffering choice phrases to bring you to consciousness. Or you could order the latest DVD of Kingdom in which he portrays the warm and sympathetic solicitor Peter Kingdom ever calming the waters of chaos around him. Yes, from Blackadder to A Little Fry and Laurie, to Jeeves and Wooster and much before and much after, Fry is quite simply a household name. Well, almost.

I realise that Stephen Fry's book is perhaps overshadowed by his BBC film documentary of the same name, and I realise that perhaps more people have viewed the television series than have read the book, and I realise that, unfortunately, I cannot offer comparative insights for I have yet to see the BBC television documentary and therefore I may seem ironically unqualified to mention this book. Well, sod that, I'll give it a go.

If his father had accepted a teaching job at Princeton, Stephen Fry says he could have ended up a Steve instead, hence his early fascination with the United States and his phantom American doppelganger.


Among the many photographs in the book, there is a two page spread of Stephen Fry driving with seemingly unbridled spirit--to borrow a phrase--his iconic London Taxi Cab across the South Dakota Badlands; I can't tell if both hands are on the wheel or whether he was ogling his iPhone for a compass reading, but a London taxi cab in the American wilderness is a lovely juxtaposition.

From the eastern-most point of Eastport Maine to the northern-most point of Barrow, Alaska, all the way to the southern and western-most point of the cooling lava fields of Kilauea in Hawaii, his sympathetic and understandably selective rambling across the vast continent is a delight. It includes the mystery of 'hoosier', the loquacity of Ted Turner, a castle in Kansas and a great deal more. It is a fun book which made me realise how very different and diverse the States truly are. A book which had me dreaming of a road trip myself, albeit one at the helm of one of those luxurious motor homes. (My relatives in California need not worry, the likelihood of such a trip is imminently unforeseeable.) Fry's eloquent wit and writing style is present and there is a genuine interest and fascination with Americans and the American way of life. On a number of occasions, he finds himself in a location where he imagines he could live and be content. This coffee-table sized book is well illustrated and includes additional gazetteer-like facts. A very good companion to the television series. I think.

2. Map Addict: a Tale of Obsession, Fudge & the Ordnance Survey by Mike Parker:


Like most youngsters, I spent a fair amount of time ensconced in an atlas, fascinated by exotic place names, geographical landmarks, and colourful land formations. As for maps, it would have been those taken from my father's collection of National Geographics, large scale maps for specific countries. But maps for directional use were never of interest to me for they were associated with being lost on family holidays with all the stress and angst that went with that scenario. Mike Parker, however, has been a devotee of maps from an early age and his persistent interest has made him somewhat of a specialist in this area.


Map Addict is a well-written and funny book. Parker incorporates memoir, travel narrative, and a basic historical overview of maps in the United Kingdom--specifically the Ordnance Survey Maps. From his early love of the children's books by Malcolm Saville which had maps more realistic than those found in Arthur Ransome, to his ever expanding collection of Ordnance Survey maps, we journey with Mike Parker and share his fascination with all things cartographic.

It is not a dry subject. There is much humour to be found. A requisite chapter all about odd place names and locales that have erotic references is both amusing and informative--chalk landscape figures are involved. There is a wonderfully amusing chapter about maps and religion and specifically interesting is the planned city of Milton Keynes, where Parker has a rather startling interview with a security guard. There is an interesting chapter concerning the power politics of positioning the Prime Meridian. A chapter devoted to the fascination of borders and boundaries such as Baarle in Belgium, and other places in Europe as well as the border problem of certain counties in England, like ones that led to the fate of Rutland. There is of course an excellent chapter on the Ordnance Survey maps, and a great deal more including the portions of travel narrative dealing with his European excursions, mainly his visit to Yugoslavia and Albania. I learned a great deal from this book and an enjoyable time was had.

Now, there is that reference to "Fudge" in his subtitle, and I remember happening across the word only once in the book, and yet, though I could have sworn I made a note of it, it is not to be found. When I checked the index, it was not listed as it might have been between "Fucking, Austria 243--44" and "Fylingdales radar station, Yorkshire 170" but I am pretty sure it was not in reference to an edible sweet.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón translated by Lucia Graves (Doubleday Canada) 531pp.

In the last pages of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind, Daniel Sempere, the hero of the story, receives a parcel from Paris enclosing a book entitled The Angel of Mist: he "leafed through the pages, inhaling the enchanted scent of promise that comes with all new books." It was with just such an 'enchanted scent of promise' that I, and undoubtedly millions of other readers, experienced upon opening Zafón's latest novel, The Angel's Game.

We are back in Barcelona, and our hero, David Martín, born in 1900, is recalling his life as a young man making his way in the world of the scribbler's trade. The first two words of the novel, "A writer," provide us with the touchstone for this work, for, told from David's point of view, these 531 pages are his autobiographical revelations.

A single child of poverty, his mother having abandoned him to his illiterate, troubled, and at times abusive father, David manages to improve his life by being good at school, by finding solace in the written word, and by finding refuge in the Sempere and Sons Bookshop where he is allowed to read what he pleases. At one point he is given by old Sempere, a special copy of Great Expectations which becomes a key text to his life--his sympathetic imagination identifying with Pip.

His father was the night watchman at the newspaper The Voice of Industry, and David would accompany him to work and squirrel himself away there to read. But after his father was brutally murdered before his eyes, David, in shock, hides in the Newspaper printing department only to be found incoherent and lost. The wealthy and influential Pedro Vidal, a writer of true crime stories for the paper, becomes his benefactor by insisting David be given a job as a runner and allowed to sleep in the basement of the building. Weaned on lurid newspaper stories, he graduates from carrying cigarettes and coffee around the offices to being Vidal's assistant after showing promise of being a writer himself.

Like Dickens' Great Expectations, the story begins at Christmas as David recalls his being given the chance to write a story for the back page of the Sunday paper. It leads to more fiction being accepted and he creates a serial called The Mysteries of Barcelona, stories of Barcelona low-life told with exuberant Gothic excess, stories which ultimately establish his fertile career as a writer. His main character, a femme fatale called Chloé Permanyer, is much like Rodolphe, the character in The Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue, a character who prowls the dark dangerous streets, meting out justice to evil doers and helping the virtuous. One of many precursors to a character-type that continues to show up in various forms over the ages, perhaps most popularly in Batman and in graphic novels--"V" for instance in V is for Vendetta.

The supernatural thread, a spiral of Luciferian artifice, begins early on when his stories bring him to the attention of an obscure Parisian publisher by the name of Andreas Corelli. Corelli eventually offers David a commission to write a new religion for him, a fable for the times. (This Faustian pact reminded me of Balzac's Lost Illusions where the young writer, Lucien de Rubempré is saved from death by Vautrin, a Mephistophelian character who promises Lucien wealth, power, and fame if he follows his directions. It is a book that also deals with writers, journalism and publishing. Vautrin but another precursor to Corelli.) Though David is already busy churning out penny dreadful Gothic monthlies infused with Grand Guignol, The City of the Damned, using the pseudonym Ignatius B. Samson, for a publisher whose practices reveal a shady side to the business to say the least, he accepts this Faustian pact, and we follow David down this spiral into the dark wet shadows of Barcelona, a spiral that leads him, in the end, to discover he has not been alone in his endeavour.

Our initial sympathy with David is challenged by the decisions he makes and we witness his life crumbling before him while others prosper. The thread of romance is a major one and his first love, Christina has abandoned him for his mentor, Pedro Vidal. Alongside the literary, the supernatural and the romance, a new narrative thread develops as David begins to investigate the history of his newly acquired Tower House, a crumbling pile with a past and a previous owner with his own initials. We follow David into a realm of violence and death, the book taking on a semblance of a noir detective novel as a body count rises and a possibly corrupt police investigator and his two thuggish assistants shadow his every move.

This is a richly mirrored narrative, full of stories within stories and interesting characters such as Isabella, a bright resilient young Jane Eyre-like character who becomes David's writing assistant. There are amusing minor characters such as an all knowing librarian, a recalcitrant archivist, a stiff-lipped lawyer, and avaricious publishers among many others. The character of Isaac, the keeper of the Cemetery of Forgotten books returns and his usually laconic manner gives way to a bit of storytelling himself. The setting of Barcelona is a wonderful character in itself, from the cemeteries to the parks, from the libraries and archives to the bookshops, from the mansions to the slum dwellings, from the baroque old quarter to the recently abandoned buildings of the Great Exhibition and its cable car over the city.

The Angel's Game is a good read and it is a novel that can be enjoyed at different contextual levels. The narrative threads of suspense, crime, romance and the supernatural are intertwined with skill, but they are all bound by the subject of storytelling and writing which surround and permeate them. This literary thread is perhaps the most important thread we as readers should follow though this land of shadows.

A link to music the author composed around the novel can be found here

A link to a video interview with the author can be found here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton (McClelland & Stewart) black/white photographs by Richard Baker, 327pp.

My initial impression of this book was its weight. This Canadian edition is a smaller format book, so it is surprising to the senses when one first picks it up. It is due to the selection of heavier weight paper which has been used to accommodate the black and white photographs which accompany the text, photographs taken by Richard Baker. Holding the book made me think that weight is perhaps an appropriate metaphor for work itself. Images of Atlas or Sisyphus came to mind, representative precursors of the daily grind.

Alain de Botton writes that he was inspired to embark on this book by his observation of shipspotters on a pier in London. Perhaps there is a source of irony there, for the casual passerby, noticing strange individuals hanging about a pier with binoculars, would probably think they were jobless and had time on their hands. Either that, or eccentric retired folks with time on their hands. Perhaps the more imaginative would wonder if they were sailors waiting for a ship, and think wistfully of sails and the open sea. But Alain de Botton was truly inspired by their fascination with what most of us ignore.

In his essay on Accountancy, he shadows an accountant rising from their home in the Berkshires and catching the commuter train to London, and follows them through a day at the office of one of the world's major accountancy firms. He writes:


The headquarters on the bank of the Thames is the setting for a range of behaviours at least as peculiar as anything that an ethnographer might uncover among the clans of Samoa. (p. 231)



This is perhaps the thought that governs his work, for everything we do as humans, whether we are a tribe of accountants in an air-conditioned tower, tuna fishermen off the coast of the Maldives, or a single artist in a field wielding a paint brush, human endeavour is rich in consideration.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is a book with wonderful writing, sharp insights, wry humour, and thoughtful philosophical musings. Whether it is about biscuit manufacture, pylon towers, accountancy, career counselling, or the craft of painting a single 250 year old oak tree over and over, Alain de Botton uses his wonderfully lucid mind and masterly writing skills to make us see life about us in a fresh and invigorating way, and makes us mindful of the interconnectedness of humans. There is a tinge of stoic melancholy about his conclusions of the necessity and importance of work, and a poignancy that for most of us, fulfillment and happiness are not to be found in our working lives.


Alain de Botton is travelling the world promoting the book. If that's not work, I don't know what is. Here is a link to a video of one of his lectures.

And here is a shorter video of a conversation with Will Hearst.

And for the curious, the room where some of the work gets done, Alain de Botton's room.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Concord of Sweet Sounds

Concord of Sweet Sounds: Musical Instruments in Shakespeare / Gerard Brender à Brandis; F. David Hoeniger (The Porcupine's Quill)

This is the second collaboration of master wood engraver and bookwright Gerard Brender à Brandis, with F. David Hoeniger, distinguished professor emeritus of the University of Toronto. The first was A Gathering of Flowers from Shakespeare (1997), a very special limited edition folio production, printed and bound by Brender à Brandis. A selection from this initial collaboration was featured in The Devil's Artisan/DA, 50 (Spring/Summer 2002), and then a commercial edition was issued by The Porcupine's Quill Press in 2006.

This new work presents a very handsome cover and title page which leads us to superb wood engravings accompanied by the textual references to Shakespeare, selected and interpreted by F. David Hoeniger. As always, The Porcupine's Quill Press maintains a consistent quality of production with fine paper, coloured endpapers and pleasing type faces.


The Devil's Artisan/DA, 64 (Spring/Summer 2009)
The latest issue of The Devil's Artisan/DA is devoted to master wood engraver and bookwright, Gerard Brender à Brandis, and is guest edited by Marianne Brandis who provides an excellent biographical essay on his career. The work includes very helpful bibliographical checklists of Gerard's works and shows, and is illustrated with samples of his wood engravings and images of his productions. This is a must have for any follower of Gerard's work. And for anyone interested in wood engraving, Canadian small press history, and bibliography, this issue will also be of great interest.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

Nocturnes : Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, May 2009) 221pp.

Kazuo Ishigruo's latest work of fiction, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, arrived while I was in the midst of re-reading and reading the short stories of Vladimir Nabokov. (In a timely thematic wink, I had just completed Nabokov's story, Music, with its wonderful descriptions of the pianist's hands reflected in the piano.) The contrast of styles was therefore more pronounced. Moving from the richly detailed reflections of Nabokov's narratives to the clear and precise prose of Ishiguro was certainly a shift. As the spectral reflections of the pianist's hands lingered in my mind, I thought that Ishiguro's short stories were finely crafted, but perhaps slight. But after having finished the stories and having returned to Nabokov, I kept thinking about them. And the more I thought about them, the more I came to appreciate the subtle triangular dynamic between the author's intentions, the motivations and perceptions of the characters, and the suppositions and anticipations of us the readers.

This triadic concern revolves around the--for the most part-- first-person narratives of Ishigruo's protagonists, protagonists who do share something with Nabokovian characters: they are displaced in the world. This triadic pattern is also paralleled in the relationships of the characters, usually the displaced protagonist is involved with two other people, generally a married couple. These open-ended stories may seem light, but the characters stay with you. They left me thinking that most people are displaced in some form or other. The imagination has room to conjure possibilities.

In the first story, Crooner, a young man, Janeck, originally from an eastern bloc country, is working in Venice as a musician in the outdoor cafés. The musicians have to pander to the tastes of the tourists and the 'Godfather' theme music is a common piece in their repertoire. This musical piece is referred to in the final story, Cellists, and acts much like a musical motif in bringing the five stories to their conclusion, rounding off the five movements with a rondo to this initial allegro ma non troppo. Janeck is an outsider to the locals, and yet is a masked player to the tourists. He recognizes a famous older American singer sitting in the café, a singer whose records Janeck's mother found solace and comfort with back in the old communist days of his upbringing. He introduces himself and the plot develops whereby Tony Gardner, the singer, asks Janeck to accompany him while he sings to his wife from a gondola. Janeck's perceptions of what state this older couple's marriage is in, is coupled with our anticipations of possible outcomes. But Janeck, and we the readers, discover that our expectations are blind and the cool truth is down a shadier lagoon.

In the second story, Come Rain or Come Shine, the displaced protagonist is Ray, a Brit who lives in Spain teaching English. He has come back to England at the behest of his friend Charlie whose marriage to Emily is in the rough. Ray and Emily had been close when in University where they shared a mutual love of the music of certain women singers like Shirley Bassie and Sarah Vaughn. Both Charlie and Emily believe that Ray is frittering away his life and that he should really settle himself and get a decent job, a marriage, a house. This is a strange dance of a story and we find Charlie trying to use Ray to help with his troubled marriage. Ray seems rather pathetic and lets himself be manipulated, and it seems it is due to his very displacement, his lack of roots, that he can be so easily used.

The third story, Malvern Hills, the first-person narrator is a young, immature man who is trying to be a singer-songwriter and has opted to help, in a most casual way, his sister and brother-in-law who run a restaurant in the Malvern Hills catering to tourists during the summer months. He has yet to make a way for himself in the world and suffers from that late adolescent light-headedness or self-centeredness which is a type of blindness to reality. He meets a Swiss couple who happen to be musicians. They play popular tunes in restaurants in Austria and Switzerland, although they prefer Swiss folk music. This is a soft gentle story, an adagio if you will, and I was left wondering if the young man's perceptions of the world were altered after meeting the older couple, but concluded that perhaps only on an unconscious level. He was still the unsettled youth with his unknown future before him like the clouds above, floating towards the distant Worcestershire Beacon.

With the fourth story, Nocturne, the first-person narrator is Steve, a jazz sax player whose wife, Helen, has left him for a wealthy businessman. Wealthy enough to offer to pay for plastic surgery for Steve so he can reestablish his career with a fresh face. This is a bizarre story-line and it has Steve staying at a fancy hotel in order to recover from his surgery. Next-door, also recovering from surgery, is the celebrity wife of Tony Gardner the singer in the first story, Crooner. It is a rather a sad story of how individuals are willing to change their external appearance rather than work on their inner self. Both Steve and Lindy Gardner are displaced and single, and seemingly without direction. My expectations of their mutual support floundered and like life, people, unchanged, go their separate ways.

In the final story, Cellists, we have the first-person narrator, a sax player, in an unnamed Italian tourist center playing in a group much like the group in the first story. He spots a cellist out in the café who used to play with his band seven years ago, a young man named Tibor. The sax player then tells the story of Tibor, the highly trained Hungarian cellist in exile, now playing popular tunes like the theme to the 'Godfather' in tourist cafés. Tibor is befriended by an American woman, Eloise McCormack, who wants to be his teacher and mentor. She recognized his talent, his 'potential.' The narration shifts into a third-person objective view point to encompass the breadth of Tibor's story and then shifts back into the voice of the sax player. Tibor's life is altered by this encounter with its interesting twist and yet we are left wondering exactly in what way. What really became of his career and life. The sax player with a laissez-faire attitude is reluctant, or too laid-back to enquire. Life flows on; people go their separate ways and we are left wondering.

Overall, Nocturnes is an interesting deceptively light group of lyric pieces and any fan of Ishiguro would want to check them out.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Paradise With Serpents: Travels in the Lost World of Paraguay

Paradise With Serpents: Travels in the Lost World of Paraguay by Robert Carver (Harper Perennial) 2007. 376pp. map.

Being more of an arm-chair traveller, there are better odds of my winning a major lottery than ever setting foot in Paraguay. After reading Paradise with Serpents: Travels in the Lost World of Paraguay, I imagine that could be said for the majority of the world's population. A troubled country which bewilders, saddens, and makes one shake one's head in disbelief.

Paraguay: Shaped like an internal organ of an indeterminate mammal, landlocked and located in the nether region of South America. That about summed up my knowledge of Paraguay prior to my having read Robert Carver's entertaining and perceptive travel narrative. I couldn't even recall the name of the capital. (Deceptione kept coming to mind, but that was obviously wrong.) My knowledge of the rest of South America is fairly sound in a basic sort of way: countries, capitals, history, landscape, music, literature, people, culture, but for some reason Paraguay had not entered my realm of knowledge. I felt less self-conscious about this ignorance when I read of Carver's experience while waiting in Sao Paulo for the flight into Paraguay: he noticed that, though there were newspapers and magazines from the U.S., Mexico, and numerous South American countries, there was nothing about Paraguay to be found in them. In addition, there were no periodicals from this isolated country to be found, and he comments that his "destination was as invisible as it had been in England."

Carver has done his research and, like most travel narratives, there is a mixture of information and experience. He actually begins the book with an autobiographical tale of a distant relative whose extraordinary life and disappearance in the wilds of South America is indeed stranger than fiction. This relative is one of the reasons he had wanted to visit Paraguay. It seems Robert Carver is the type of travel writer looking for the unusual experience. His first book, The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania, lays the groundwork for his visit to the equally uninviting destination of Paraguay, a dangerous and disagreeable country, and therefore a desirable spot for such a writer. Carver's travel narrative is in the English tradition of the individualist adventurer seeking the unusual, the anomalous. Most of Paraguay seems rather anomalous. Then again, perhaps anomalies are relative, for he finds that Paraguayans are shocked at how many laws, orders and strictures European countries experience. (It would be interesting to read a travel narrative of a true Paraguayan who experienced Europe.) The humour, at times dark, is generally evoked by the absurdity of the extreme situations he learns of, or witnesses, and the rather stressful situations in which he finds himself, which often involve either nature: vampire bats, piranhas, crocodiles, mosquitoes--night-time and day-time-- and the dreaded candiru fish.; or humans: police, thieves, muggers, smugglers, murderous drunks swinging machetes, and mad gun-waving Nazis.


But he does meet various interesting people who are the sources of much general and detailed social and historical information on the culture and history of the country, such as the youthful Welsh Patagonian Argentinian, Alejandro Caradoc Evans--the name clues us in to his character--a type of youthful remittance man exiled in Ascuncion, critical of everything Paraguayan, and eventually, everything South American. We learn of the maté addicted male population, the failure of the banking systems, the general corruption and criminality of the political elite, and the utter hopelessness that faces the average Paraguayan every day. Firearms are as common and visible as cell-phones in our world--perhaps even more common. Along with present day realities, Carver weaves into the narrative interesting historical information about Paraguay's past, such as the horrors and atrocities of the past regimes, the British involvement in the country, the Jesuits attempts to convert the Guarani indians, and the Australian attempts to build Utopian communities. His ventures into the interior lead him to many encounters with smugglers and odd characters but also with positive encounters such as with the Mennonite community of Filadelphia where the prosperous nature of their town and area make him feel as if he was in another country altogether.

Carver winds the story up to high suspense as the impending political unrest and stress drive him to the extreme feelings of panic, wondering why he ever set foot in the country, and we are also glad to be with him on the plane fleeing the country, and thinking, with a shake of the head, a book is about as close as one would want to get to Paraguay.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Private Patient by P. D. James

The Private Patient by P. D. James (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2008) 395pp.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a mystery author in the possession of a very good story, is rarely in want of readers--especially if that writer is P. D. James.

Phyllis Dorothy James, born in Oxford in 1920, began writing fiction in the cold war era of the mid-1950s while raising a family and working at a London hospital in administration. Her first book, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962 by the venerable publishing house of Faber & Faber which at the time was perhaps more known for its distinguished list of poets and literary authors. It was an ideal marriage. P. D. James's detective, Adam Dalgliesh, wrote poetry, slim volumes to be published by Faber & Faber. James has remained with the firm for the past 46 years in what appears to be a happy marriage for all concerned.

Faber recently reported that over a specific Christmas holiday period, ebook sales of her latest mystery, The Private Patient, reached 750 copies ( 1,200 copies total when sales of her other titles were included) only challenged by Faber's ebook sales of the popular British QI books, The Book of General Ignorance and Advanced Banter at 800 copies. ( Canadians and American are perhaps less familiar with the popular British QI comedy quiz show created by John Lloyd and hosted by the wonderfully convivial and erudite Stephen Fry--who, by the way, has recently become the presiding genius in the land of Twitter--but P. D. James is certainly a household name across North America. ) Much has certainly changed in the publishing world since her initial cloth bound début: talking books on cassettes and cds, downloads to ipods and now the more recent and significantly important ebooks which, it seems, alters the very nature of publishing.

Her literary output of 20 books over 46 years is respectable and she has had a steady and loyal readership. Her latest book, The Private Patient, shows no sign of diminished power due to her age. Her prose is as finely crafted and acutely perceptive as ever, her formal diction and construction is detailed and sharp and she slips in echoes and quotes from one of her favourite authors, Jane Austen. In P. D. James's richly descriptive prose there is a delicate balance between the inner psychological life of the characters and the exterior world and setting in which they move. The settings of London and Dorset are evocative but do not dominate. As well, her stalwart detective, now Commander Adam Dalgliesh, does not dominate the book either, for his assistants, Detective Inspector Kate Miskin and Sergeant Francis Benton-Smith form a triadic balance of inquiry, and each are given stage presence.

Rhoda Gradwyn, a 47 year old investigative journalist, a private, rather enigmatic person, has decided to have plastic surgery to remove a facial scar she has had for 34 years. This scar has shaped her life. The natural reaction of adults was to look away from the scar, and so this enabled her to observe people, and she became an astute and perceptive student of human behavior. It also shaped her life's interest which was "in finding out what others kept hidden." [p.8] She has decided on an exclusive clinic at Cheverell Manor in Dorset--complete with a neolithic stone circle, the Cheverell Stones--owned and operated by a renowned plastic surgeon George Chandler-Powell, and it is here that she meets with her mysterious death. The dozen or so characters whose lives intersect with Rhoda Gradwyn and Cheverell Manor are all given their back stories with detailed yet succinct brushstrokes and each has us wondering if they could be responsible.

With Commander Dalgliesh's appearance, there is a very natural unfolding of information, and we come to learn of stories within stories, and occasional red herrings, but it all is gradually revealed in an organic way. In the last quarter of the novel, there is a concentration on letters and wills and this has a very Charles Dickens/Wilkie Collins feel, providing a resonance with the past.

When Commander Dalgliesh makes his appearance in the second section, he is in a very Jane Austen/Oscar Wilde position of being interviewed by his future father-in-law over the offer of marriage to his daughter Emma Lavenham, a character introduced in Death in Holy Orders. Marriage is a theme in the book--perhaps a nod to Austen. Although each marriage is different in nature--much like Austen again--they involve older couples which perhaps reflects modern society. Commander Dalgliesh, often referred to as AD, is also in for possible career changes as bureaucratic machinations may bring an end to the Special Investigative Squad he heads up. We are left wondering what may become of Commander Dalgliesh, and P. D. James provides us with a few rumours to think about. Dalgliesh muses that a job in the upper echelons of bureaucracy would not offer much inspiration for his poetry.

Will this be the last mystery novel by P. D. James? I hope not.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

God's Mercies: Rivalry, Betrayal and the Dream of Discovery

Douglas Hunter - God's Mercies: Rivalry, Betrayal and the Dream of Discovery (Anchor Canada, 2008) {416pp.: maps.}

The talented writer, Douglas Hunter, is not only an author of many books on sport, business, and the environment, but he is also a trained visual artist and graphic designer with a passion for sailing and yacht design. As a reader I wondered why he ventured into the area of early Canadian history and exploration, and concluded that it must have been another true interest. He spent three years working on the book and ended up with enough material for two more. He has produced, with editorial grace, a wonderfully readable, suspenseful and dramatic work of historical investigation and synthesis. By employing various narrative techniques, and by placing all source notes and bibliographic information at the end of the book, he has crafted an historical narrative which flows along with a storyteller's artistry.

In the first half of the book, the author brings to the foredeck, Henry Hudson. We find Hudson working for the Dutch in an effort to discover the North-East Passage, but instead he finds his way to North America and the eventual discovery of the Hudson River. Already we sense a bit of a rogue individualist. In returning to Europe, he just makes landfall on the English coast and later finagles his way into a Captaincy of the English vessel, The Discovery, with the goal to discover the North-West Passage--that mythic short-cut to the silks and spices of the Orient--a goal that had drawn English explorers on a quest for over thirty years. Douglas Hunter fleshes out the characters of the crew and we get a good sense of the intrigue and uncertainty that could develop. It is a story of Hudson's obsession with finding the passage, an idealist's vision versus the more limited views of the crew whose discontent, discomfort, hunger, sickness, fear and shifting allegiances, ultimately lead to mutiny after wintering over in James Bay--the bay of god's mercies. The author weaves in stories of previous mutinies such as the one against Edward Maria Wingfield in Jamestown in 1602, and against Captain George Waymooth in 1607, and how these stories would have been known to Hudson's crew, providing context and structure in how they should proceed with theirs.

Hudson's obsession is driven by fragmentary knowledge, conjecture and the misreading in a translation of a text by Samuel de Champlain. It is a story of the influence of exploration narratives and the charts and maps of cartographers. Hudson believed in the 1599 navigational chart by Edward Wright which had a vast Lake Tadouac, a lake which he hoped would lead out to the far east:

"His perspective was burdened by the arcana of the efforts of earlier explorers, these figures and their accomplishments a mix of real and imagined, and by almost hallucinatory visions of cosmographers and cartographers of the shape and nature of northern lands and seas." [p. 94]

After setting Hudson, his son and other crew members adrift in the summer of 1611, we follow the mutineers and their pathetic way back to England, and Douglas Hunter fills in the story of the voyages to find Hudson, and then the legal ramifications for the remnant mutinous crew members--all with detail and great interest.

The second half of the book follows Samuel de Champlain and his particular vision of discovering the passage to the far east. Nicolas de Vignau, one of Champlain's men, had spent a year with the Algonquins and had learnt of a story of an English survivor from the far north held by the Nebicerini, held as a gift for Champlain. With this story we find ourselves in a narrative that is filled with anticipation and suspense. The author provides us with the backcloth of Champlain's extraordinary career to date, his writings, his struggles with the fickle nature of politics, financial backers, Royal Monopolies and regional competitors such as the mariners of St. Malo and the Basques, and of course his diplomatic relations with the native tribes.

Drawn by the possibility of an English survivor of a northern expedition who could hold important information as to a salt water passage to the orient, Samuel de Champlain held the broader vision rather than the more immediate view of the profits from the fur trade. We learn of Champlain's relations with the various tribes on his arduous trek up the Ottawa River to the Algonquins and the difficulties in his search for the English survivor--and ultimately, his discovery of truths and lies.


Addendum: Douglas Hunter has completed a new book on Henry Hudson to be published in the fall of 2009 by Bloomsbury.