A Scottish-Canadian Blethering On About Books

Notes and reflections - not really worthy to be called reviews - written at various times over a long life of eclectic reading.

The Return of the Firebird: Evgeny Plushenko, an Image of the New Russia (Tuncay)

The Return of the Firebird: Evgeny Plushenko, an Image of the New Russia - Vildan Bahar Tuncay

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, very young well-off university men who indulged in "poetical effusions" could get them published with subscriptions from indulgent and equally well-off friends. I have read some of this innocently awful rubbish.

 

Innocently awful rubbish is also how I would describe this self-published fan biography of Evgeny Plushenko. Mercifully slight, it is the product of someone for whom English is clearly not the first language, and whose style has been further corrupted by academia. There are a few minor insights, though they are likely born of reading rather than experience; I think Ms Tuncay is likely correct in linking Plushenko's arrogance and flamboyance to the rapid emergence of materialistic culture in post-glasnost Russia generally, for instance. Not ever having been a fan of Plushenko - I found him technically gifted, but without any sort of interpretive merit, and repulsively narcissistic - I am not inclined to forgive the faults of the writer (and the non-existent proofreader) for the sake of the subject.

 

Plushenko fans may want the book to complete their collections, particularly since there is so little written about him in English; I cannot otherwise recommend it at all.

The Day the Falls Stood Still (Buchanan)

The Day the Falls Stood Still - Cathy Marie Buchanan

I'm a sucker for anything waterfall-related, fictional, non-fictional or pictorial, so Buchanan had me at "hello" with this quite charming historical novel of a middle-class World War I era young woman on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Her family hits hard times almost exactly at the same time as she falls for a young man - fictional name Tom Cole, but he is a reworking of an actual historical figure, a riverman named William "Red" Hill - who is knowledgeable about, and a passionate advocate for, that part of the Niagara River that flows through the famous falls and gorge. However, she gives her hero (and he really is a hero in the best fictional romance tradition) a different set of circumstances, and the ending of the novel will not please all readers. I quite liked the ending, but I won't say more for fear of spoiling.

 

For me, a major part of the enjoyment of this novel was the re-telling of a number of famous anecdotes about the Niagara Falls of Tom's generation, and that of his grandfather of the mid 19th-century. It was in the 1840s, in fact, that "the Falls stood still" because of an ice jam in Lake Erie, and Tom's grandfather, like Tom himself, had much ado to save the lives of fools who at various times (including that one) did not respect the enormous power and danger of the river. In fact, the cumulative effect of the anecdotes in this book - those I knew and those I didn't - was to confirm my impression that Niagara Falls stunters and barrel-riders are, to the man and woman, prime candidates for the Darwin Award.

 

The main action of the novel coincides in time with the beginning of the exploitation of Niagara for hydro-electric power, and also the beginning of the argument (which will never fully die, though it appears to have been quieted by an international agreement ca. 1950) over how much water can be removed from the river for industrial purposes - and how much by each country, since it's an international river - without compromising the truly iconic nature of the Falls as a tourist attraction. Tom, who identifies with the river at a visceral level, is of course an opponent of the development, and he has allies to this day; Bess, his wife and our narrator-protagonist, is more centrally situated in the argument, being sympathetic to Tom but the daughter of a power-plant manager (albeit one who loses his job).

 

Bess is also a seamstress (it's how she keeps her little family going while Tom is away fighting in the gruesome battles of WWI - and thereafter, as he struggles to find work) and, for my taste, a little too much of her narrative is concerned with dressmaking details - but that's nitpicking. The dressmaking has a function in linking up the various female characters of the plot, it moves the story forward in a couple of places, and some of the detail is helpful in establishing the historical feel of the novel - it's as legitimate in that respect as the horrible details of trench warfare that Tom brings home with him.

 

This was a 3-star family story read that got its fourth star because it hit upon and handled well one of my own personal hobby-horses, Niagara Falls.

A History of Canada in Ten Maps (Shoalts)

A History of Canada in Ten Maps: Epic Stories of Charting a Mysterious Land - Adam Shoalts

This work of popular history by a young man who is a "modern explorer" himself is understandably chiefly centred around exploration maps of territory now within Canada's boundaries. It has a fairly informal tone, but full scholarly apparatus. I enjoyed the thoughtful preface and afterword material, and the summaries of the exploits of various famous explorers were highly readable, with many interesting anecdotes. I also thought the tone successfully avoided any suggestion of hero-worship, and also acknowledged in a timely way the major contributions of named and described indigenous allies and collaborators, some of whom, as expedition members, ventured nearly as far away from their homes as the Europeans or Canadians they assisted. The main disappointment of the volume is one that was presumably out of the author's control: the reproductions of the maps, although coloured and glossy, are constrained to too small a size by the book's standard format to be really enjoyed. A coffee-table format would have been better (but probably too expensive). One of the chief victims of this shortcoming is the Thomson map (one I am very familiar with, having worked alongside the original for many years), but that huge, faded map would likely have been chiefly illegible even in a much larger reproduction: it is largely illegible close up, in its original.

 

This is not groundbreaking history, nor is it really cartographic analysis, though there is some discussion of the history and techniques of cartography in the preliminaries. It's a sesquicentennial project, aimed at a general audience, and, if my quite vivid recent memories of its tales about the Vikings, about Cartier and Champlain and Hearne and Mackenzie and Thomson and Franklin, are any indication, it has certainly done its job of raising awareness of the role exploration and mapping played in the early definition of the boundaries of the state we now call Canada. The roles of other forces (war, politics and statecraft) are, legitimately I think, largely left aside. As others have remarked, the one chapter on the Fort Erie battle during the war of 1812 seems a little forced and out of place. But then military history is not something I read with pleasure in any case.

 

Shoalts also seems to be quite an interesting guy, and I recommend a browse through his website after finishing this book.

SPOILER ALERT!

A Deadly Thaw (Ward)

A Deadly Thaw: A Mystery (Inspector Francis Sadler) - Sarah Ward

I enjoyed Sarah Ward's first mystery novel, In Bitter Chill. This sequel was, for me, a bit of a sophomore slump, though I'm not giving up on her. My problem with this one was that the motivations of the principal characters in the mystery seemed to me far-fetched, and those of DC Connie Childs, who now appears to be established as the lead police protagonist, off-putting if not quite as incomprehensible when she lets herself fall into a sexual relationship with a married colleague.

 

For future reference, this is the story where a woman kills her lover, but goes to jail for the murder of her husband (having deliberately misidentified the body). The husband also turns up murdered years later. I had half of the solution fairly early on (I solved the identity of who brings gifts to the murdering woman's sister), but I had a wrong suspect in mind for the second murder, mainly because I didn't find the romance between him and the sister at all credible.

 

In the police station, there were some misunderstandings because the administrator couldn't let them know they were under internal investigation for past failings in dealing with victims of sexual assault - a depressingly timely theme, and very much relevant to the main plot too.

 

I'm sticking with DC Childs for a bit - I still find the writing solid and the situations imaginative. I'm hoping the third book int he series will also have rather more plausible motivation for the crimes, and rather less of poor interpersonal judgment on Connie's part.

Richard Burton: Prince of Players (Munn)

Richard Burton: Prince of Players - Michael Munn

This biography of Richard Burton is, I would guess, highly unreliable as to details. Although Michael Munn, the author, was indeed in the entertainment business in minor capacities, I very much doubt he had the kind of access to Burton himself (or to his circle) that would allow him to quote, apparently verbatim, whole stretches of actual conversation so very focused and illuminating about Burton's life. My suspicion that in fact Munn was paraphrasing cribbed versions of secondary sources was confirmed when I compared his account of an incident involving John Gielgud with Sheridan Morley's Gielgud biography, and discovered word-for word-borrowings but written as if told to the author directly by Burton (the tip-off was the idiosyncratic phrase "idiot boards"). That said, Munn does seem to have had some access to Burton (though not perhaps in the chummy way he claims), as well as to some of the more notorious gossips in Hollywood like Roddy McDowall. He also actually gives us a bibliography of sorts, though only a "selected" one; so I suspect he did his reading.

 

This, then, was a quick read with a hefty dose of salt, reliable for at least the bare outlines of Burton's career, and likely also a pretty good reflection of the gossip about Burton over the years. It's not a very happy tale. Indeed, given whatever illness of the mind (or brain) he was suffering from, as well as his lifelong alcoholism, what strikes me about Burton is not the brevity of his working life but the fact that he managed to get as much good work done as he did.

 

I was relieved to read that despite his reputation of having slept with every leading lady he had, Julie Andrews (who shared the stage with him in "Camelot") was notoriously proof against his boozy charms.

 

There's got to be at least one better biography out there, and I remember hearing that Burton's own diaries have been published, so I may come back to him at some point. I'm really far more interested in Peter O'Toole (upon the subject of whom this particular book was pretty light, though apparently they were quite good friends), but reading this book has at least revived in me the desire to go back and watch "Becket" again.

Cranford (Gaskell)

Cranford (Penguin Popular Classics) - Elizabeth Gaskell

"Although the ladies of Cranford know all each other's proceedings, they are exceedingly indifferent to each other's opinions ... but, somehow, good-will reigns among them to a considerable degree."

 

That passage from the first chapter of Cranford is actually a pretty good summation of what we learn about Miss Matty and her circle of friends in the succeeding set of linked stories (for a novel with an overarching plot this is not). The book is short (for a Victorian work!) easy and gently humorous, and it pokes fun at manners and mores that are far enough from today's that the already gentle satire bites not at all. Though in their little day-to-day exchanges, Mrs. Gaskell's characters can be horribly selfish and ignorant, yet without exception they have a core of goodness, and in the face of economic anxiety, which is the principal villain in this book without a villain, they do come together to support each other, even as they hedge their generosity around with a significant superfluity of social ridiculousness.

 

I read this on a plane flight and it went down quickly and smoothly, with smiles and just a bit of sentiment - like a cup of tea with an old friend.

So, Anyway... (Cleese)

So, Anyway... - John Cleese

As part of his narrative schtick in this memoir, John Cleese occasionally engages in exasperated expostulations to his imagined readers, in response to imaginary comments or criticisms from them. In one of those passages, he accuses us of not really being interested in the serious passages of his life, but instead wanting just to have a good laugh. Guilty as charged, Mr. Cleese, guilty as charged. And I'm happy to say that Cleese's whimsical prose and tongue-in-cheek exaggeration frequently delivers that good laugh.

 

Cleese concentrates almost entirely on his childhood, his school and university days, and his early career in stage and TV comedy, culminating with the coming together of the Monty Python troupe. There is one additional chapter about the reunion stage show decades later (apparently a highly gratifying experience). This imbalance implies either that he considers the later part of his life (including the Fawlty Towers period) not worth chronicling, or else that he thinks there's another book in it.

 

Cleese comes across as extremely, almost painfully self-aware, but of course he deflects from anything really painful with humour. He is very careful not to criticize those around him. Some of the tensions come through anyway; he admits that the Python group was essentially two entirely separate writing teams - Cleese & Chapman on the one hand, and Idle, Jones & Palin on the other. Other than a fairly mild description of arguing with Terry Jones (accompanied by protestations that it was all beneficial creative tension), Cleese does not dwell on any discord, far less sling mud. One suspects the same is true of his descriptions of family.

 

I very much enjoyed this, and suspect that most other John Cleese aficionados will too unless they have unrealistic expectations for lots of depth or lots of dirt. I hope he writes volume 2.

The Outlander (Adamson)

The Outlander (Large Print 16pt) - Gil Adamson

Honestly, I can't imagine what Anansi Press was thinking, letting this first novel go out into the world with a title so similar to that of a pop-culture phenomenon. Otherwise, though, they have done well by Gil Adamson in both production and editing, and I'm very glad they published this interesting story.

 

Adamson deliberately distances us a bit from her characters. They are "the Reverend", "the Ridge Runner", the "Widow." The significance of "the widow" as the constant name for the protagonist -we don't get her real name until well into the book - is that it keeps at the top of our minds exactly what is always at the top of hers - that she has murdered her husband. And that same distancing relieves us of the responsibility of empathizing with her more than we want to, though you'd have to have a pretty black soul not to feel something by the end of her picaresque adventures through the Crows Nest Pass area in western Canada. The landscape is very definitely a character, and a cruel one, in this novel. It has its spectacularly climactic plot event in the Frank slide (a notorious 1903 landslide that wiped out a sizeable part of a mining town). I thoroughly enjoyed how well Adamson described it and wove it in to her story from several points of view.

 

The widow - Mary Boulton - is supported by a well-described set of supporting characters, one of whom, the reclusive Ridge Runner, becomes a romantic interest though not, thank goodness, in a conventionally sappy way that would have ruined everything we have come to know about both characters. I thought the inclusion of the Native characters was sufficiently nuanced and well-managed to meet the political correctness standards of our time, though Henry is a relatively minor character.

 

At the beginning of this novel, Mary is highly vulnerable, fumbling her way to survival and sometimes very nearly not making it. She is dependent on a series of saviours - an old lady (and her household), the Ridge Runner, Henry and his white wife Helen, and the Reverend Bonnycastle (working out his own demons of abuse in the rough mining town of Frank). But after she is finally caught by her slightly cartoonish Furies, a pair of red-headed giants (brothers of the ex-husband), Mary accomplishes her last escape from disaster without a saviour. This, I would say, is the principal emotional dynamic of the novel.

 

I did find this one a bit of a page-turner, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes period settings and interesting women's stories. I would warn off only those readers who have a strong need for emotional identification with a protagonist.

Children of Wisdom trilogy (Stephanie Erickson)

The Children of Wisdom Trilogy - Stephanie Erickson

Well that's about four hours of my life I won't get back, but since it was four hours spent on a plane, they were counted as lost anyway. This 3-chaptered novel (because that's what it is - the cliffhangers at the ends of parts 1 & 2 are even more egregious than is usual in a fantasy series) is set within a cosmology that includes elements of Greek mythology (notably the 3 Fates) merged with a version of Christianity, heavily filtered through American pop culture. God is a remote bureaucrat along the lines of "Heaven Can Wait" (or "Here Comes Mr. Jordan"), whence we also get the plot point of the too-early death. This God runs what appears to be a sort of human-processing shop, in an area of the heavens behind a third gate between those of Heaven and Hell. Purgatory, which we would expect to be that third gate, is disused (to say it's "in limbo" would just confuse everybody... ) and instead rather illogically housed within Hell, chiefly for the narrative convenience of allowing the principal characters to have Hellish adventures on their way to and from the Halloween castle shackled dungeon.

I don't mind cosmological fantasy, but this one is really not all that well thought through, and that makes the final trial and fate of the ultimate (human) villain a bit risible to me, I'm afraid. You will not convince this atheist that complete extinction, which is what she is doomed to, is worse than an infinity of the tortures of Hell, which would presumably be her "normal" fate. This is all the more uncomfortable when juxtaposed against her actual sin, which is going to extremes to preserve life in a suffering child who should be humanely allowed to die.

This was (I believe) a free Kindle offering, and I sometimes wonder with these things whether I should, instead of criticism, apply the much more generous standards of fan-fiction non-criticism, since it's essentially "gift literature."  But I do wish this author's kind, non-critical editors had explained to her that "opaque" does not mean "transparent". Worse, the error appears in both the first and the final book, so it was allowed to slide even after the first part was published.

Two stars as opposed to one, merely because, although the control of tone was iffy, the spelling and grammar were generally correct, and despite the occasional howler like "opaque", the only major objection I had to the diction was careless repetition of the same descriptive word within the same passage without any rhetorical justification.

You get what you pay for.

SPOILER ALERT!

The Birth of Venus (Dunant)

The Birth of Venus - Sarah Dunant

This is a not-bad coming-of-age story set in Florence during and after Savonarola's brief but ferocious anti-secular reign over the city. The protagonist is Alessandra, age 14, individualist and would-be artist, not at all happy about taking on the more traditional woman's role that her mother and elder sister are modelling for her. She barely has time to be intrigued by the young artist that is brought into their household (her father is a successful merchant) before Savonarola's opportunistic takeover begins and her marriage is hastily arranged with an older man who, it turns out, is the gay lover of her brother. Alessandra has a bad habit of wandering to unsafe places and into unsafe company (with the help of her Black maid Erila), and she eventually finds out that the young painter's secret is not - like her husband's - a sexual one, but an equally obsessive one with the human body as exposed through dissection. If I remember it correctly (and it has been some time since I finished), it was heavily implied that Michelangelo was one of the leading spirits of that scientific/secular movement. The young painter has a crisis of faith and she briefly "rescues" him into her husband's household and starts a sexual relationship with him, before things get more and more dangerous and everyone scatters to safer places. Her husband, who is actually a very attractive character, dies (I feared, given the hints being dropped, that he would be burned at the stake, but fortunately Dunant didn't go down that road); Alessandra ends up as a nun, and is allowed to practice her art and decorate the chapel; it was presumably well before she joined the convent that she acquired a body tattoo of a snake that shocks her fellow-nuns after her death (the framing story).

I'm not an expert on Renaissance Florence, but I thought the historical detail appeared to be researched and well-used; there were a few language slips that should have been caught by an editor (why do so many otherwise educated people have trouble with the difference between "flaunt' and "flout"?); and I acquiesce easily enough in an almost certainly historically inaccurate freedom of thought in a young female character. Dunant walks the line fairly successfully between what would have been historically accurate but difficult to read outright denunciation of the homosexual behaviour in the book and completely anachronistic acceptance of it.  She does this by characterizing Alessandra's outrage (which is considerable) as mostly caused by her husband's (and  her own family's) duplicity in not letting her know what she was walking into - especially the fact that her own brother is her rival. The description of Alessandra's wedding night is uncomfortable and fairly explicit without being outright ghastly.

This is not potboiler fiction; there is no enforced happy ending, and no use of the standard romance tropes. However, I found in it a lot of the cliche's of another genre, women's fiction in general. We must have our coming of age, our pregnancy and birth scenes described at length. There gets to be a certain sameness about all that, regardless of which historical era you set it in. Nonetheless, it was an amusing enough read, and I was at least engaged enough with Alessandra to be glad she finally had the opportunity to learn and express her art and raise her daughter quietly at a permissive and remote convent.

Recommended if you like women's fiction set in a vivid historical setting.

Away (Urquhart)

Away - Jane Urquhart

"The women of this family... were plagued by revenants. Men, landscapes, states of mind went away and came back again. There was always water involved, exaggerated youth or exaggerated age. Afterwards, there was absence."

From that excerpt from the opening page of "Away", you might be simply bemused at first. But, coming back to it after finishing this tale of multiple generations of Irish and Irish-Canadian women, it actually reveals itself to be remarkably precise and insightful.

There are three generations of women - Mary is the most remote in history, island-dweller in Ireland, who goes "away" in her mind early in her youth when she encounters the corpse of a young man washed up on her shores, and goes away again physically at the end of her life, long after she and her devoted husband make a home of sorts in the wilds of Ontario. Her daughter, Eileen, also ends up going away from reality, in a sort of dream of romance with a young man whose fate is bound up with the Fenian movement (the murder of D'Arcy McGee is one of the main historical events written in to this largely psychological novel, the others being massive flooding in Montreal, and the potato famine in Ireland).  Esther, Eileen's grand-daughter, is the third of the women who is in some fashion "away" (her last night upon the shores of the Great Lakes as her family home gives way to industrialization is the framing device of the book), and we are given to understand that she retells the entire story of her fore-mothers, not to any human audience.

This book really is all about water, and landscape, and men disappearing and reappearing in the lives of women, and women dissociating as they deal with the ills of the world. The writing is - I don't quite know how to describe it - it's light, and fluid, not at all like the staccato sound of Annie Proulx (whose "Shipping News" I recently read), but sharing with it a similar intense focus on physical detail that has undercurrents of symbolism.  I got wrapped up in the reading of it, though it seems to float on the surface of its turbulent plot, and I was not terribly emotionally involved. Rather, it was a pleasure in the reading itself that kept me in it, if that makes any sense at all.

Rather Be the Devil (Rankin)

Rather Be the Devil - Ian Rankin

Rankin is reliable for me. I enjoy his individualistic officers, and I rarely anticipate more than small parts of his plot unravellings. That said, there were so many evil-doers of various stripes in this novel that, though I followed the denouement as I was reading it, I couldn't if you paid me reconstruct for you now the interrelationships between a cold case murder of a woman in a hotel, the murder of a retired cop turned bouncer who was looking into the cold case, some nasty international goings-on (including a brutal Ukrainian money-launderer) and power politics in Edinburgh's gang underworld, featuring Rebus' nemesis, big Ger Cafferty, and Cafferty's heir-apparent.

 

Doesn't matter much. There is a curious and persistent echo between Rebus and Cafferty, both nominally retired, both pulling themselves back from the brink of possible annihilation (Rebus has a threatening shadow on his lung), both essentially and very much "not dead yet." With only a fraction of the multitude of evil-doers meeting anything like a just fate, this strange, stubborn survival is what passes for a hopeful ending in Rankin's dark, complicated Edinburgh.

Children of the Revolution (Robinson)

Children of the Revolution - Peter Robinson

I must say I'm always a bit of a sucker for the modern-day detective-novel trope of the multi-generational case, where incidents in the past affect the crime or crimes of the current day. Just as well, because it's rare to find a detective novel these days that doesn't have a "historical" element. What I find (wryly) amusing is that "history" is more and more often within my own lifetime. In this case, the Revolution of the title is the 60s revolution, political and sexual, and the key to one murder and one attempted murder in the present day is both sexual and political shenanigans at a 60s university, juxtaposed with the highly respectable life of a certain Lady Veronica Chalmers, one of whose young relatives is about to become politically very important.

 

If you see the words "politically very important", then of course you will understand that even though Banks solves the mystery, and we are kindly let in on the secret, there is a shadowy senior figure who makes sure the solution gets no further publicity and the case goes "unsolved". I thought Robinson cheated a bit on the ending - I was not in the least convinced that the murderous person who apparently committed suicide was in the slightest suicidal, but on the other hand, there was no indication that the shadowy figure was responsible for a cover-up. And believe me, I looked back and re-read, because I'm not used to saying, "well that's implausible..." as I finish up a Banks novel.

 

Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed following Banks through all the twists and turns of his detecting, including the red herrings, mostly because as usual Robinson's characterizations are marvellous. I get only vaguely peeved when the whiff of male entitlement enters into Banks' relationships with his female fellow-officers or the latest lust object; meh, it doesn't bother me much. I'm happy to objectify Banks and his brain-power, so he can go ahead and objectify pretty young things if he likes. I'd prefer it if his much more substantial female co-workers (and, incidentally, subordinates) didn't have scenes where they seemed to be spatting over getting his attention and approval, though.

 

Four stars, because none of the basic virtues of the Banks novels are missing, despite my reservations.

The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton (Brodie)

The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton - Fawn M. Brodie

Given my usual taste for actors' biographies, you could be forgiven a momentary confusion. This is not a biography of that Richard Burton, but rather of Sir Richard Francis Burton, 19th-century explorer, adventurer, extraordinary linguist and translator, and decidedly an enigmatic character. The two things most closely associated with his name are his (unsuccessful) search for the source of the Nile, and his translation of The Arabian Nights, but that does not in the slightest suggest the extent of this man's experiences or of his overwhelming curiosity about the variety of human existence around the world. He had the good fortune to be born white, male, and of a class that allowed him to pursue that curiosity first under the auspices of the army and later either with the backing of scientific societies or as a diplomatic representative in various far-flung parts of the world. In this scholarly but not dry biography, first published in 1967 (and one of many biographies of Burton), Fawn Brodie is first a faithful chronicler, with reference to all the evidence that was left history by Isabel Burton, Burton's wife and first biographer, who provided great insights in her own work, but committed the all-too-common unforgivable Victorian sin of trying to control the narrative by destroying primary sources like journals after Burton's death. (Isabel, by the way, is an interesting enough figure to have been the subject of biographies in her own right, and I may follow up on that some day).

 

Brodie is, as I said, first of all a faithful chronicler, but she does venture into character analysis, most particularly in her first two and final chapters, though always adducing generous amounts of documentary evidence from the writings of Burton and his wife. She is interesting on the subject of Burton's relationship with his mother, for whom he seems to have emphasized and developed the rebellious, even immoral side of his nature, on the understanding that it attached her to him even more firmly. Brodie says much that is plausible about the nature and development of Burton's hunger for knowledge of all things exotic, a hunger that drove him to explore both forbidden places (Mecca) and the forbidden aspects of human life in general (he was absolutely fascinated by unusual sexual practices and genital mutilation). The biographer also notes that there was a shadow that hung over Burton's career from a fairly early stage, after he made a detailed report from India (lost, according to Brodie's notes) about a homosexual brothel; and she also records without being over-dramatic about it, his fairly close associations with a couple of notorious homosexuals such as Algernon Swinburne. All the evidence, both from his writings and the known facts of his life, suggest that Burton conducted his life entirely as a heterosexual, but Brodie does permit herself some small suggestion towards the end that twin anxieties about castration/impotence and homosexuality were drivers throughout his life and particularly in the last phase of his career where he was particularly taken up with the creation of "naughty books" (a phase that sorely taxed Isabel's more conventional sensibilities and caused her to take on the role of censor both before and after his death). Remembering that this biography was written in the 1960s, I'd be interested in comparing Brodie's take on Burton's sexuality with that of more recent scholars.

 

I have overemphasized the sexual element in this review, I find. If you are fascinated by the phenomenon of the beginnings of detailed sociological observation, it seems Burton is your man. If you are enthralled by explorers who persisted in the face of all sorts of nasty illness and bodily calamity (including a javelin right through both sides of the face), Burton's career is full of that kind of incident. And if the horrors of Victorian reputation-politics and internecine feuds between geographical adventurers appeal to you, then the Burton and Speke story - two entirely incompatible men who travelled together for hundreds of miles and each came out of it with a different story - is worth reading about.

 

I admit it: when I first picked up this volume, it was under the fleeting wrong impression that it was a biography of that other Richard Burton. But I am very glad indeed that, realizing my mistake upon scanning the back cover blurb, I said, "hmm, that might be interesting" and picked it up anyway. Because yes, it was very interesting, and I would recommend it.

Funny Boy (Selvadurai)

Funny Boy - Shyam Selvadurai

If the writing is decent, as it is here, I am always inclined to be generous with autobiographical first novels. At first I was decidedly worried that this tale of a gay youngster growing up in the disapproving Sri Lankan culture would prove to be too twee and clichéd for me. After all, we do get quite a lengthy introductory chapter describing how young Arjie loves to play "bride-bride" with his girl cousins. However, the story picked up both depth and grit as it went on, and the growing racial tensions between Tamil and Sinhalese are well-introduced into the relationships of the important people - mostly women - in our protagonist's life.

There's an air of quiet menace through most of this book, but it's blunted in the first instance by Arjie's childish viewpoint, which gradually disappears of course as Arjie gets older, but also as the political situation worsens and various peripheral figures in his life disappear or meet mysterious bad ends, for reasons that can only be racial or political. In school, experiencing a first love, he also has to negotiate a bullying principal and adults' near-incomprehensible motivations. The recitation of a ridiculous colonial poem praising school takes on bizarre significance, as does Arjie's deliberate flubbing of that recitation, an act of boyish protectiveness, trying to save his boyfriend by thwarting the ambitions of the aforementioned bully. The sudden and devastating advent of war results in Arjie's family's flight into hiding, the burning of their house, and the murder of his grandparents. Though in the last chapter he finally has sex with his boyfriend, it is melancholy and awkward, and we are fully aware that Arie and his family are fleeing to Canada. Like everything else, and like the transgressive loves of all the women in the book who have reflected aspects of his story, Arjie's love falls victim to the cruelties of the larger world.

The Shipping News (Proulx)

The Shipping News - Annie Proulx

"Outside, an hour later, Quoyle at his fire, the aunt taking things out of the food box; eggs, a crushed bag of bread, butter, jam. Sunshine crowded against the aunt, her hands following, seizing packets. The child unwrapped the butter, the aunt spread it with a piece of broken wood for a knife, stirred the shivering eggs in the pan. The bread heel for the old dog. Bunny at the landwash, casting peckled stones. As each struck, foaming lips closed over it."
"They sat beside the fire. The smoky stingo like an offering from some stone altar, the aunt thought, watched the smolder melt into the sky. Bunny and Sunshine leaned against Quoyle. Bunny ate a slice of bread rolled up, the jelly poised at the end like the eye of a toaster oven, watched the smoke gyre."

It's all there in the quotation, pulled pretty much at random from the pages of this novel. Short, choppy fragments of sentences. Highly specific and unexpected physical detail. Metaphor and simile that more often than not cause a double-take. The occasional very odd word.

In some ways, the distinctive language of this book overpowers the rest of it for me. It's not that the characters aren't interesting - they are - nor that the book lacks incident - it most certainly does not! There is death, cultural discovery, peril in the wildness of nature, a gruesome revelation and even a miraculous resurrection (oh, and a lowish-key love story). But in the end, I enjoyed it but never felt fully drawn in, and I attribute that in large part to the idiosyncratic narrative. It's as if I were constantly dancing on the surface of the language, exploring it - and that was certainly enjoyable! - but I never fell deeply enough into it, past all those fleeting physical observations and curious insights, to really care about Quoyle, or his bratty kids, or "the aunt", brave and resourceful though she was.

I don't know if that really amounts to a serious criticism - it may just mean that this book had virtues different from the ones I usually remark on.