What I Read – July 2015

Ten Thousand Lovers – Edeet Ravel (Review Books, 2003)

This was a well-written, interesting, and engaging read. The characters are believable and fascinating. It’s easy to imagine that their lives began and continue before and after we meet them in the action of this novel. Set in Israel in the 1970s, Ten Thousand Lovers, tells the story of Lily, a young Canadian Jew studying in Jerusalem as she meets an Israeli man, Ami, and learns to see Israel with new eyes. Ravel does well at building a subtle sort of tension throughout the novel. It’s hard to put your finger on but you know things went end well here. Of course, this is aided by the general and historical tension of Palestine-Israel conflict. This is a story of grey zones, of questionable morality and that ever unanswerable question: Do the ends justify the means?

Many Dimensions – Charles Williams (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970)

If you will believe this way, then I also will believe. And we will set ourselves against the world, the flesh, and the devil.”

It’s fairly well known that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were members of a writer’s group called the Inklings. But I doubt that very many people could name the rest of the group’s members. I certainly can’t although now I at least know three of them. The third is Charles Williams.a

Like Lewis and Tolkien, Williams’ novel delves into the fantastical and the religious. Unlike the other two Inklings, Williams grounds his story in the real world of modern day (for him if not for us currently) England. One of our main characters is Chief Justice. There are questions of international relations and economic trade. All of it surrounding the Crown of Suleiman (more commonly known as Solomon). This crown bears a stone that enables one to travel through space, time, and thought. Many dimensions, indeed. And, crucially, the stone can be divided without any lessening of its power.

Williams skillfully sets up the forces of good, evil, and ignorance (perhaps equally dangerous). This is a story of right and wrong and the grey areas that those inhabit. Parts of it read like it could be an Indiana Jones adventure. Other parts delve into more esoteric ideas. The story is rather old-fashioned but readable. While it’s clear who the good guys are, there are still some big moral questions left unanswered and I think that’s how it should be. The ending is strange and a little unsatisfying (definitely not an Indian Jones-style ending) but fits with this strange novel. If you’re a fan of Lewis’s science fiction trilogy or Tolkien’s Leaf and Tree, I think you’d enjoy this novel too.

A Star Called Henry – Roddy Doyle (Vintage Canada, 2000)

I looked for a man with lovely eyes on Custom House Quay and found a fat dwarf standing on a chair and shouting out names over the heads of the dockers who waited at the quay wall.

Crude, strong, violent, handsome. This is Henry Star the second or the third, depending on whether or not you count his dead brother. Using his fists, his good looks, and his father’s wooden leg, Henry is fighting his way through early 20th century Dublin. He’s a Fenian, a cop-killer, a soldier of the streets, and an utterly unique character.

He’s also not as charming as he thinks he is. Henry is our narrator and so I started to disbelieve him when he kept reminding me of how good-looking and strong he was. He seems to get away with a lot and women seem to be willing to do a lot and put up with a lot for him. I can’t help but think that Henry Smart is very much a character written by a man.

Mostly though, this is a sad book. About a young man who has always been on his own. Who has lost or will lose every person close to him. A person who knows nothing but poverty and filth and is fighting for a society that will never offer him anything more.

Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey (Knopf, 2009)

As much as I didn’t enjoy Peter Carey’s short story collection, I love his novels. They are colourful, peopled with fascinating characters, full of depth, and a little absurd. The majority of them, as is this one, are historical. Parrot & Olivier begins in France, set during the Revolution. Olivier is a French nobleman, his family caught amid the turmoil of rebellion, their entire way of life changing. He is a bit foppish and very naive. Against his will he is sent to America for his own protection, accompanied by a servant called Parrot. Parrot is about fifty, English by birth but has lived many lives by the time he arrives in America with Olivier. The novel alternates chapters between these two very different characters, with very different voices (which Carey excels at), as they tell their own story and the story of their strange, growing friendship.

It’s an American story, really. About the changing attitudes of society, of nobility and the growing middle class, of a land where any person, at any time, can change the course of their life.

Sointula – Bill Gaston (Raincoast Books, 2005)

Vancouver Island is the farthest west a body can go. Hop a boat from here farther west and somewhere at sea you sail through the looking glass and you are east. So Vancouver Island is it. Where all young men stopped going west, but only because they had to. Everyman’s wanderlust stymied.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I generally enjoy Gaston’s short stories more than his novels. The novel of his that I’ve enjoyed the most was his most recent one, The World. Sointula holds some key factors in common.

We have a befuddled, divorced, middle aged man who sets off on an ill-advised journey, an old friend who is dying, a journey across some part of Canada. Like The World, I found the impulsive decisions that these characters made to be very stressful. Evelyn has flown across country – Oakville, Ontario to Victoria, British Columbia – to be with her first love, Claude, as he dies. She’s gone suddenly off her anti-depressant meds and starts living on the beach until she decides she’s going to head up-island and track down the son she hasn’t seen in ten years, Tom. And she’s going to get there by kayak.

I lived in Victoria for seven years. I know the beach that Evelyn camps on and I’ve been to a few spots on Vancouver Island. It’s a big island. She knows that Tom is tracking orca movement in Sointula, on Malcolm Island. It’s really far away from Victoria.

Along her way, Evelyn meets Peter Gore, a British-American trying to write a book about Vancouver Island while fighting a losing battle with his gall bladder and drinking himself into gout. (I found this guy nothing  but annoying and I think he could have been cut out of the novel without much being lost.) They join forces and start kayaking to Sointula, a one-time utopia started by a group of Finns and a charismatic leader. I spent most of their journey wondering how many months it was going to take and thinking about how much faster it would be to drive.

Fortunately, the big is well-written, as everything by Gaston is. The characters aren’t likeable but they do have a lot of depth. The descriptions of place are spot-on and Gaston captures a lot of Vancouver Island and what makes it unique. There’s lots of history and nature tied in that I found interesting.

The Red Notebook – Antoine Laurain (Gallic Books, 2015)

(translated from French by Emily Boyce and Janice Aitken)

This was a sweet and breezy little novel. A bookseller in Paris finds a woman’s purse – abandoned after a mugging – and pieces together the clues inside to discover who this woman is and to find her. There aren’t many surprises her but the descriptions are strong and the characters are likeable. There are some nice references to French authors and literature as well. (I confess I only learnt who Patrick Modiano is when he won the Nobel Prize.)

I had hoped that the story might use its Paris setting more but, aside from an encounter in Luxembourg Garden, the book could really be set in any city in the world. All in all though, an easy weekend read.

Confessions – St. Augustine (J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1949)

(translated from Latin by E.B. Pusey)

Press on where truth begins to dawn.

Finally! I read the whole thing! I can’t even remember when I started this book but I’m pretty sure it was before Pearl was born. While I obviously read a translation, I think I might have been able to get through it faster if I had had a more up-to-date version. My copy is a beautiful cloth bound Everyman’s Library edition but the English was quite old-fashioned. Also, this wasn’t a great choice to read while up in the middle of the night and trying to stay awake while nursing. What finally got me through it was reading it out loud. That made me really slow down to understand what I read. I think Pearl enjoyed it too.

And Thou, O Lord, art my comfort, my Father everlasting, but I have been severed amid times, where order I know not, and my thoughts, even the inmost bowls of my soul, are rent and mangled with tumultous varieties, until I flow together into Thee, purified and molten by the fire of Thy love.

Confessions is a classic of the Christian church. It’s one of the earliest personal memoirs and it’s frankly quite amazing to read something written so long ago that still resonates. Augustine’s doubts, fears, and joys are all emotions believers today will recognize.

But let me be united in Thee, O Lord, with those, and delight myself in Thee, with them that feed on Thy truth, in the largeness of charity, and let us approach together unto the words of Thy book, and seek in them for Thy meaning, through the meaning of Thy servant, by whose pen Thou hast dispensed them.

Currently Reading:

Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

 

Check back tomorrow for what Pearl and I have been reading together this month. (You know, aside from Confessions.)

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