book review, Uncategorized

Crape, Black, and Half-Mourning: A review of The Pigeon Pie Mystery by Julia Stuart

The Maharaja is dead, the doctor has driven his bicycle into the Thames, and the pigeon pie might be poisoned. It’s all just a day in the life of the characters in Julia Stuart’s sly, crisply quirky The Pigeon Pie Mystery.

“As a matter of interest, how mad should one’s hatter be?

Tapping the tips of his fingers together, Mr. Wildgoose considered the question. “You would expect some degree of madness, of course, sir. But we advise our customers to stay clear of the certifiable. They have a tendency to overcharge, and many struggle with the brims, sir. Just nicely mad, sir. That’s what you want. Just nicely mad.”

– The Pigeon Pie Mystery, Julia Stuart

The Maharaja is dead, the doctor has driven his bicycle into the Thames, and the pigeon pie might be poisoned. It’s all just a day in the life of the characters in Julia Stuart’s sly, crisply quirky The Pigeon Pie Mystery.

The year is 1898. Daughter of an English noblewoman and an Indian Maharaja, Princess Alexandrina (nicknamed “Mink” at a young age because of her penchant for sleeping amongst her mother’s furs) finds herself without any option but to take up Her Royal Highness’s offer of a grace-and-favour warrant to live at Hampton Court Palace. Her father died in scandal and financial ruin, which has caused her fiancé to flee from the taint of impropriety. The palace is home to a number of nobles who no longer have the means to support themselves, but who have curried favour with the Queen.

Her new living quarters are free of charge though not free of intrigue, headaches, meddlesome housekeepers, and murder. Continue reading “Crape, Black, and Half-Mourning: A review of The Pigeon Pie Mystery by Julia Stuart”

Cloud Atlas Readalong

Cloud Atlas Readalong Part 3: Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery

Introduction
Part 1: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (first half)
Part 2: Letters from Zedelghem (first half)

Part 3: Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery

The Story So Far . . .
The third of our six nested stories in Cloud Atlas is the first that reads like a novel, not a true-life account. It’s a third-person, mostly omniscient, and present tense narrative. It also starts with the most direct link to the previous story of all of the narratives, beginning, “Rufus Sixsmith leans over the balcony…” (p. 90). Sixsmith, of course, is the recipient of the letters written by Robert Frobisher in part 2. It’s 1975, 44 years after those letters were written, and Sixsmith is an old man and eminent scientist who meets a 26-year-old journalist named Luisa Rey when they get stuck in an elevator together.

Luisa is the daughter of admired cop-turned-Vietnam reporter Lester Rey, who recently died. She’s cutting her teeth as a gossip columnist for Spyglass magazine and hoping for an opportunity to write about something real. Sixsmith is harbouring a secret that might get him killed, and passes along just enough information to get her interested. They talk for an hour and a half, the duration of the blackout that has trapped them in the elevator, trade stories (she tells stories about her dad, and about interviewing Hitchcock, he talks about his beloved niece, Megan), and Sixsmith remarks that “I feel I’ve known you for years, not ninety minutes” (p. 96).

Continue reading “Cloud Atlas Readalong Part 3: Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery”

Cloud Atlas Readalong

Cloud Atlas Readalong Part 2: Letters from Zedelghem (first half)

The Cloud Atlas Readalong with Dee at EditorialEyes

Introduction
Part 1: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (first half)

Part 2: Letters from Zedelghem

The Story So Far…
“Letters from Zedelghem” is the funny and affecting second section of Cloud Atlas. Though from a first-person perspective like “Adam Ewing,” this section is not in journal entries but rather is written entirely in letters. The writer is a rakish, bisexual (or perhaps simply opportunistic), musically gifted and financially strapped Englishman named Robert Frobisher.

July 29th, 1931—Frobisher is writing to his friend and, it’s hinted, (former?) lover Rufus Sixsmith throughout this section, and he begins by recounting how he is awakened in his hotel in London by a debt collector’s thugs hammering his door down. Making his escape from both the thugs and his hotel bill out the bathroom window and down a drainpipe, he hides in Victoria Station and ponders his fate. Should he borrow money from his estranged family or the classmates from the Cambridge college he was kicked out of, or take an entirely different and somewhat crazy option… Continue reading “Cloud Atlas Readalong Part 2: Letters from Zedelghem (first half)”

Cloud Atlas Readalong

Cloud Atlas Readalong Part 1: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (first half)

Part 1: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing

The Story So Far…
The adventure begins on the high seas…or stuck on a tiny island with cannibals and no escape. Or so thinks the colonial-minded American in the first part of Cloud Atlas. We open Thursday, November 7th, in what seems to be the middle of a narrative. This section is, as the title alludes, a journal kept by a man journeying in the south Pacific. The diarist, Adam Ewing, is an American notary who had duties in New South Wales and has paid for a bunk on the ship Prophetess. He seems like an earnest young man, perhaps a bit judgmental of the people around him. He is currently stuck on Chatham Isle, a small island off the coast of New Zealand, for seven days while the ship is repaired. The indigenous people of the island are said by the white visitors to be cannibals. It is somewhere around 1850.

Antique map of Chatham Isle, published in “Nouvelle Geographie Universelle,” by Elisee Reclus, Paris 1889.

In the first episode, he comes across another white man, one Dr. Henry Goose, and it’s not a pleasant encounter. Goose, once a physician to royalty, says that he has been disgraced by the Marchioness Grace of Mayfair. He has a plan, though: he’s going to collect human teeth from along the coast of this isle, teeth that were apparently spat out by cannibals. He’s going to fashion a set of dentures for the Marchioness and then reveal in front of all of high society that she now eats with cannibals’ teeth. So, not the cuddliest fellow in the world, and perhaps not the sanest. Maybe not someone to cross either…

Continue reading “Cloud Atlas Readalong Part 1: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (first half)”

book review

The fifth Mrs. Balanchine: A review of The Master’s Muse by Varley O’Connor

The kinetic world of ballet dancers and the artistic innovation of the 1950s American dance scene are the backdrop of The Master’s Muse, by Varley O’Connor. This novelization of real events is told through the first-person perspective of Tannaquil Le Clercq, prima ballerina of the nascent New York City Ballet, and the fifth wife of superstar choreographer George Balanchine. Tanaquil’s story is not just that of a ballerina, however; in 1956, during a European tour, Tanaquil contracted polio, which resulted in the paralysis of her lower body.

“Pain dilutes in the extension of time. Like ink in water it blackens, and then the water stays clear and the blackness whirls. Days come when it’s a single black thread swirling about. there it is. Hello. There you are.”

The kinetic world of ballet dancers and the artistic innovation of the 1950s American dance scene are the backdrop of The Master’s Muse, by Varley O’Connor. This novelization of real events is told through the first-person perspective of Tannaquil Le Clercq, prima ballerina of the nascent New York City Ballet, and the fifth wife of superstar choreographer George Balanchine. Tanaquil’s story is not just that of a ballerina, however; in 1956, during a European tour, Tanaquil contracted polio, which resulted in the paralysis of her lower body.

Tanny grew up in the school run by Balanchine, who noticed her prodigious talent early. She is the prototypical “Balanchine dancer,” the right sized head and long legs, the ability to travel and “eat space” on the stage, perfect technique and passion. At what point the artistic relationship turns into love is unclear but it does happen early; Tanny is already in love with Balanchine in her early twenties, when he was still married to his fourth wife, Maria Tallchief. Each of Balanchine’s wives was, at the time of marriage, his principal female dancer. She becomes the fifth Mrs. Balanchine when she is twenty-three and he is forty-eight.

Tanaquil Le Clerq and Jerome Robbins, photo by George Platt Lynes, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

But this is all prologue. The real story opens in Copenhagen, after Tanny and George have been married for several years, and Tanny is already noticing that George’s attention is wandering. Though the marriage is rocky, Tanny is at the peak of her physical and artistic career. She is stunningly beautiful, appearing on the cover of Vogue magazine, and she is sought after by choreographers who create dances for her. In Copenhagen, she thinks she is becoming a bit ill, feeling weak and seeing some swelling in her thigh, but she dances through the pain. The flu, she thinks, until she realises that she can’t move her legs. She was twenty-seven years old.

Continue reading “The fifth Mrs. Balanchine: A review of The Master’s Muse by Varley O’Connor”

book review, Cloud Atlas Readalong, fun stuff

Introducing the Cloud Atlas Readalong!

The Cloud Atlas Readalong with Dee at EditorialEyes

Click here for a complete list of Readalong posts.

It’s inevitable. When someone finds out you’re a book person, they will ask you that single, awful question: What’s your favourite book? How on earth can you answer a question like that? Narrow it down by genre, perhaps, or by the criteria that define “favourite”? Give a top-5 answer instead? Or just shrug and say “too many to count”?

Well, if I were pinned down and had to answer that question, I would have several strong contenders, including Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness, and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. And numbered among those is David Mitchell’s luminous, challenging, storytelling masterpiece Cloud Atlas. You may have heard the buzz about the Wachowskis’ movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival and opening in wide release on October 26th. In order to appreciate the film to its fullest, I’m going to re-read the stunning source novel, and I thought you might enjoy reading along and discussing with me.

The first installment will go live Tuesday, August 14th, and in it I’ll look at the first section, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” (first half). Each Tuesday we’ll look at the next section of Cloud Atlas, from “Adam Ewing” to “Sloosha’s Crossin'” and back again. The final section will take us to Tuesday, October 23rd, just in time for the movie…

Never read Cloud Atlas? Started but gave up because the language of the Pacific Journal section was too dense? Read it and want to read it again? Please join me in discussing Cloud Atlas.

Continue reading “Introducing the Cloud Atlas Readalong!”

book review

Extraordinary ordinariness: A review of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

From humble beginnings emerges a remarkable journey (or two) in Rachel Joyce’s Man Booker longlisted debut novel. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry opens with an ordinary couple, living a nondescript life in their quiet English home. Harold and Maureen are in their 60s and have been married for 47 years. They keep themselves to themselves, making uncomfortable small talk with the next door neighbour and otherwise going about life in an unremarkable way.

“He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passerby, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past.”

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

From humble beginnings emerges a remarkable journey (or two) in Rachel Joyce’s Man Booker longlisted debut novel.The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry opens with an ordinary couple, living a nondescript life in their quiet English home. Harold and Maureen are in their 60s and have been married for 47 years. They keep themselves to themselves, making uncomfortable small talk with the next door neighbour and otherwise going about life in an unremarkable way.

Then one day, Harold receives a letter from a former co-worker named Queenie Hennessy who is writing to say goodbye because she has cancer and is dying. Harold is knocked off-kilter: he hasn’t spoken to Queenie in 20 years. When he goes to mail his response, he feels it’s not enough. After a random encounter with a girl who works in a garage, Harold comes to a decision, or a realization, that is somewhat startling for him: if he keeps walking, and believes that Queenie will be waiting for him at the end of that walk, then Queenie will keep living. He calls her hospice and asks them to pass along the message that he will be walking to her, from Kingsbridge in the south to Berwick-upon-Tweed in the north, over 500 miles. She must keep living as long as he keeps walking, he insists, and off he goes.

The premise is simple, and a bit illogical, and the protagonist is fully aware that his journey doesn’t make rational sense. Continue reading “Extraordinary ordinariness: A review of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce”