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One From the Archive: ‘Dear Life’ by Alice Munro *****

Alice Munro has been heralded as a fabulous writer by many other authors.  Margaret Atwood says that she ‘is among the major writers of English fiction of our time’, and Jonathan Franzen believes that she ‘has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America’.  This high praise is incredibly well deserved.  Munro has been awarded many literary prizes during her writing career, and was given the Man Booker International Prize in 2009 for her contribution to world fiction.  Thus far, her collections have been translated into thirteen languages.

9780804168915In this, her new collection, Munro has chosen, as in many of her collections, to focus her attention upon individuals living in Canada – in this case, in the countryside and towns around Lake Huron.  From the very first page, the tales draw you in.  They are filled with very shrewd perceptions on characters and how the situations they have experienced have made them who they are, or have altered them in some way.

Munro presents emotions, particularly sadness, so well.  In the first story in Dear Life, ‘To Reach Japan’, the protagonist Peter’s mother made the journey from Europe to British Columbia with him when he was tiny: ‘When Peter was a baby, his mother had carried him across some mountains whose name Greta kept forgetting, in order to get out of Soviet Czechoslovakia into Western Europe.  There were other people of course.  Peter’s father had intended to be with them but he had been sent to a sanatorium just before the date for the secret departure.  He was to follow them when he could, but he died instead.’

Munro weaves many themes into her work.  These comments and musings contemplate such topics as politics, feminism, loneliness, relationships, social hierarchy, separation, friendship, religion, adultery, the consequences of certain actions, morality, age, illness and loss.  She builds her characters so deftly, and makes them incredibly believable as a result.  One gets the impression that she understands them so well.  A young child, for example, insists upon her mother reading her the same Christopher Robin story over and over again: ‘Children Katy’s age had no problem with monotony.  In fact they embraced it, diving into it and wrapping the familiar words round their tongues as if they were a candy that could last forever.’

Each of the stories here has been perfectly crafted.  Never does it feel as though Munro is leaving out any details due to the constraint which the short story as a form can so easily bring with it.  She is certainly a master of her craft, and this is another wonderful collection to add to her oeuvre.  The writing throughout is beautiful and so polished, and not a word has been wasted.  In Dear Life, Munro presents many slices of imagined lives which could so easily be real.

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One From the Archive: ‘Word Drops: A Sprinkling of Linguistic Curiosities’ by Paul Anthony Jones ***

Word Drops: A Sprinkling of Linguistic Curiosities is inspired by author Paul Anthony Jones’ popular Twitter feed, HaggardHawks.  Its blurb proclaims that Word Drops is ‘a language book unlike any other’.  In reality, one cannot help but notice it bears an almost striking resemblance to Mark Forsyth’s excellent The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language (review here).

Word Drops provides one thousand ‘linguistic and etymological titbits that all fall together into one long interconnected chain…  with each fact neatly “dropping” into place beside the next’.   Its ‘smattering of unexpected connections and weird juxtapositions’ is ‘here to inspire your curiosity and delight into discovery’.  It also takes into account cultures and historical facts from all over the globe.

Throughout, Jones has included what he terms ‘footnotes’, but they cannot really be described as such; instead, they are paragraphs written in tiny font beneath some of the entries, which further explain or give background to a particular fact).  These are often useful, but do detract somewhat from the chain of facts when one has to keep stopping to read them.

Word Drops is easy enough to dip in and out of, and is not too taxing to read in a single sitting either.  Some of the facts which Jones has used – more of them than one would expect, really – already sit within the commonplace consciousness of fact finders.  Others are thankfully far more quirky and interesting.  Of the latter, such intriguing factual titbits as the following are included: ‘Gossamer means “goose-summer”, probably in reference to the similarity of gossamer to goose down’; ‘Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Part 1 contains the earliest recorded use of the words upstairs and downstairs‘; ‘The Russian equivalent of “easier said than done” – blizok lokotok, da ne ukusish – means “your elbow is close, but you can’t bite it”‘; ‘In Middle English, muggle was another name for a fish tail’; and ‘The Scots word tartle refers to the awkward hesitation of having to introduce someone whose name you can’t remember’.

The facts do link into one another quite cleverly in places, and a lot of thought has clearly gone into their ordering and the general structure of the book.  We are therefore transported from such facts as ‘To perendinate is to put something off until the day after tomorrow’ to the definition of ‘checkmate’ five entries later, and from ‘In Finland, a poronkusema is the distance a reindeer can travel without stopping to urinate – roughly four and a half miles’, to ‘A quarantine was once the length of time a widow was permitted to remain in her deceased husband’s home’.  I found it rather a nice touch that it goes full circle, wherein the final fact links in with the first one, providing quite a fitting end to such a work.

Whilst Word Drops is relatively entertaining, it is not quite as wonderful or as well put together as Forsyth’s aforementioned work.  It is a real shame that the book contained a couple of grammatical errors too; rather ironic, given that the whole is a celebration of language.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Bucket: Memories of an Inattentive Childhood’ by Allan Ahlberg ****

From ‘The Bucket’

I couldn’t wait to read The Bucket: Memories of an Inattentive Childhood after I spotted three copies in Waterstone’s Piccadilly.  I was fully set to purchase one until I noticed that they were so grubby and bent that I didn’t in the end.  Instead, I checked a copy out of the Cambridge Central Library on a trip there in April.

As I am sure they did with many children, Allan and Janet Ahlberg formed a large part of my early bookishness.  When I saw that Allan had written an autobiography of sorts therefore, I was so very excited.  He is the author of such treasures as Each Peach Pear Plum, Peepo! and Burglar Bill, as well as Please Mrs Butler! and the stunningly adorable The Jolly Postman and The Jolly Christmas Postman, all of which I adore.  The work also begins with a quote from William Maxwell, another author whom I love. 

The Bucket is Ahlberg’s recollection of his childhood, a memoir told in both prose and verse.  It details his ‘early enchanted childhod [which was] lived out in a Black Country town in the 1940s’.  His little introduction to the volume is darling.

Each memory which he presents is vivid; he writes of such things as sheltering beneath the kitchen table during bomb raids, of the butcher who dealt ‘in meat and menace’, searching for worms to sell on to fisherman in compost heaps, playing games beneath the clothes horse, his Christmas presents being presented to him in a pillowcase, reminiscences of going to the barber’s, and childhood pageants which he attended.  Each memory is presented as a random fragment, and each little essay is interspersed with a poem.  Ahlberg writes so earnestly.  His prose is lovely, and it continually feels as though he is personally telling each of his readers each story.  The retrospective wisdom which he has made use of works wonderfully.

The book, as one might expect, is filled with the most wonderful illustrations by Janet and Allan Ahlberg and their daughter Jessica, and it also features photographs, photocopies of school reports and documents.  The Bucket is absolutely lovely, and it has made me want to go and revisit all of the Ahlbergs’ work once more.  (Incidentally, I met up with one of my University friends in early April and we read Each Peach Pear Plum together in Waterstone’s, which was great fun!).  Any fan of Allan Ahlberg’s should rush out and purchase (or borrow!) this book, curl up in a comfortable place and enjoy its charm.

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One From the Archive: ‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood *****

Whilst I have found some of Atwood’s work a little hit and miss in the past, I was very much looking forward to engrossing myself in this, an incredibly appealing-sounding historical novel.  Of all her works, the thread of story within Alias Grace is the one which captured my attention the most.

Alias Grace was shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, and was the recipient of the Canadian Giller Prize.  The novel has received wondrous acclaim from reviewers since its publication in 1996. It centres around the true story of Grace Marks, a servant who was arrested for her ‘cold-blooded’ part in two notorious murders in July 1843, at the age of sixteen.  Thomas Kinnear, a wealthy farmer in Ontario, and his housekeeper-cum-mistress, Nancy Montgomery, were shot and strangled respectively.  Grace’s co-worker and accomplice, a twenty-year-old stable hand named James McDermott, was hung for his part in proceedings.  Grace, on account of her sex and young age, was committed to an asylum in Kingston, Ontario, where she remained for thirty years.

Atwood is masterful at using a variety of different techniques to set the scene throughout.  As well as the story told in Grace’s own words – or, at least, Atwood’s imagining of them – we also have a narrative based upon a fictional doctor named Simon Jordan, who is researching Grace’s case.  Materials such as newspaper articles and poems have also been used to further shape the historical context.

Alias Grace is beautifully written.  Grace’s voice particularly has been incredibly tautly crafted, and Atwood’s portrayal of her feels realistic from the very beginning: ‘Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: murderess, murderess.  It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.  Murderer is merely brutal.  It’s like a hammer, a lump of metal.  I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices’.  Grace is a captivating protagonist; although we know from the first what she has been convicted of, an awful lot of sympathy is soon created for her on behalf of the reader.  Atwood is empathetic towards her young character, and makes her come to life once more upon the page.

Whilst I didn’t adore Alias Grace, it is certainly an incredibly well-crafted – and even quite moving – novel, and it is my favourite of Atwood’s books to date.  I particularly admired the way in which she tied so many historical elements together – the use of historical quilt designs and foodstuffs, for example.  Alias Grace, despite its length, is a gripping and fast-moving novel, which is sure to appeal to any reader with an interest in crime or general historical fiction.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Rabbit Back Literature Society’ by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskalainen ****

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskalainen was first published in Finland in 2006.  The novel in its lovely Pushkin Press edition has been translated from its original Finnish by Lola M. Rogers.

The novel’s protagonist, twenty six-year-old Ella Milana, is first introduced to us as ‘the reader’.  She is a Finnish language and literature teacher – ‘a dreamy substitute with defective ovaries and gracefully curved lips’ – who has returned to her hometown, Rabbit Back, to work as a substitute at the high school.  Whilst living in her childhood home once more, Ella finds herself with rather a lot to deal with – along with a stressful pile of marking each evening, her father is suffering from quite extreme memory loss, and all that interests her mother are ‘television shows and entering raffle drawings in the hope of winning a prize’.

Ella’s story begins when one of her students is found reading an incorrect version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in which the plot has been altered considerably: ‘… the existence of the irregular Dostoevky deeply offended her, and when she was offended she could sometimes do impulsive, purely intuitive things’.  When returning it to the local library, Ella becomes suspicious that the librarian is not more surprised by the incident: ‘A prank like that would take a very unusual saboteur and it was hard to imagine what the motive would be.  And how could such a book remain in circulation for nearly twenty years without anyone noticing anything strange about it?’

The Rabbit Back Literature Society of the novel’s title is ‘a collection of gifted children who would, with [Laura] White’s guidance, grow up to be writers’.  Promising students at the Rabbit Back school have work sent to local and revered children’s author Laura White, who is continually involved in ‘her search for the new members she desires’.  At the beginning of the novel, however, the society has had no new members for three decades: ‘The possibility of joining the society was practically theoretical, since the entire present membership – nine lifetime member authors – had all joined in the first three years after the Society was established in 1968’.

After one of Ella’s short stories is published in a supplement in the local paper, however, she is invited to join the Society.  We are given quite a fascinating insight into the world of the elite in consequence.  At a society get together, for example, ‘The members of the Rabbit Back Literature Society don’t seem to be talking with each other.  They pass close by each other now and then, but never look each other in the eye, never indulge in conversation.  One could very easily assume that they don’t know each other at all’.  Two elements of mystery – one of which revolves around a shadowy past member whom nobody really remembers, and the other of which deals with the sudden unexplained disappearance of Laura White herself – soon come to light.

Bookish Ella is a character whom I found myself immediately endeared to: ‘She’d read more than was healthy, hundreds of books every year.  Some of them she read twice, or even three times, before returning them.  Some of them she would check out again after letting them sink in a while.  She’d thought at that time that books were at their best when you’d read them two or three times’.

The novel’s third person perspective focuses mainly upon Ella and her place in Rabbit Back; a lot of thought has clearly gone into her character, her past and her actions. Such care has been taken over the translation of The Rabbit Back Literature Society, and it flows wonderfully.  The whole is compelling, and is filled with some lovely passages and ideas.  There is a creative aspect to be found in The Rabbit Back Literature Society, and Jaaskalainen has woven in elements of magical realism here and there, which add a wonderful balance to the whole.  The novel becomes darker as it goes on, and it has been so well crafted that it is a true joy to read.

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One From The Archive: ‘The True Story of Hansel and Gretel’ by Louise Murphy ****

First published in 2013.

9780142003077I am drawn to stories set during the Second World War, particularly when those stories are involved with survival.  I will read anything to do with this topic, from the diaries of those who hid from captors, to fictional accounts of the ways in which both capture and death could be evaded.  I also love fairytales, and modern day adaptations of old favourites.  I had therefore had my eye upon Louise Murphy’s The True Story of Hansel and Gretel for quite some time, and began it as soon as I had procured a copy.

Throughout, I found the novel incredibly powerful – unsettling so at times.  The sense of place and atmosphere which Murphy built up were truly stunning.  I loved the way in which she transferred the fairytale to a believable historical setting – World War Two in Poland, where two young children – renamed Hansel and Gretel by their father so that they appear to be more German – are left in the woods.  They soon come across the house of an elderly lady named Magda, who is purported to be the town’s ‘witch’.

Throughout, Murphy has successfully brought some of the horrors of the Holocaust back to life, and she describes the struggle for survival which Hansel and Gretel and their new family endure so poignantly.  Each scene, particularly with regard to the darker ones, were incredibly vivid.

The author has created a wonderfully crafted and memorable tale, which I found very difficult to put down.  Murphy’s ideas were so clever throughout, and the original tale woven in so cleverly, that I am hoping she will continue the theme of updating fairytales, making them fit into both our generation and our history.

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One From the Archive: ‘In Falling Snow’ by Mary-Rose MacColl ***

 

First published in 2013, the premise of the novel appealed to me immediately.  In 1978, an elderly widow named Iris Crane, who lives in a quiet part of Brisbane, is invited to a World War One reunion in France, and is quickly ‘overcome by memories of the past’.  As a young woman, Iris travelled to France at the start of the First World War, following her younger brother, Tom, who joined up and left home.  Her intention at first is solely to bring him back to the safety of Australia, but she soon finds herself working at a field hospital at an old Abbey in Royaumont.  She is tasked under the capacity of being a personal assistant of sorts to the sometimes formidable Miss Ivers, merely due to her competence in French.

Part of the present-day story which runs alongside Iris’ memories deals with her granddaughter, Grace, a doctor and mother of three.  Interestingly, Iris’ tale makes use of the first person perspective, while Grace’s is told by an omniscient third person narrator.  This technique worked well to break up the plots and different generations of characters, but Grace’s portion of the plot did also feel rather detached in consequence.  I found myself far preferring Iris’ part of the story; whilst Grace’s had some interesting elements within it, it seemed a little lacklustre, and I could not make myself like her as a person.  Some of the decisions which she made did not seem at all rational for an educated woman in her position, and she did not come across as a believable protagonist.  The only character whom I felt endeared to in In Calling Snow was Grace’s young son, Henry; for the most part, he felt like a realistic construct.  He was also the least predictable of MacColl’s creations, and I believe that this helped towards my liking him.

There is real strength in some of MacColl’s prose, but the conversations let it down somewhat for me.  They did not feel quite balanced, and at times were either unnecessary or unrealistic.  Some of the descriptive phrasing was nice enough, but a lot of the prose lacked depth, particularly given the emotion which should have been packed into every page of such a novel.  I was reminded in part of Kate Morton’s work in In Falling Snow, both in terms of the dual storylines and familial saga aspects of the plot, but I do not think that MacColl quite pulled off the story as well as Morton could have done.  I did find a couple of discrepancies within the plot too – with regard to Henry’s age, for example.

I really liked the general premise of In Falling Snow, but it fell a little flat for me.  Some elements were perhaps not executed as well as they could have been.  The denouement was also quite precitable.  Iris’ gradual memory loss was handled sensitively, however, and I admire MacColl for being able to put this element of the plot, and her sympathy for Iris’ situation, across so well.

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