December 24, 2010

Island of the Human Heart

This travel book by a young Canadian woman named Laurie Gough is a sizzling and thought-provoking read. It's mostly about some months she spent on the Fijiian Island of Taveuni, but she intersperses the Taveuni chapters with descriptions of her other travels to places like Malaysia, New Zealand and Italy.

She travels all over the world for years, doing odd jobs (teaching English, working in restaurants) to pay her way and going home at times in between. This woman is fearless and almost infinitely tolerant of inconveniences, a thing I find fascinating because I'm the opposite (in the inconvenience department.) She sleeps rolled up tightly in a rug from which there is no escape until someone unrolls you in the morning. She sleeps in the same bed with a mumbling old grandmother and travels on hot trains where she's delighted to have a cooling spray on her face when she leans out of the window until she notices later that mothers hold their babies out the window to pee.

As a risk-taker, Gough gets into trouble from time to time. I was mesmerized by her various encounters with what she characterizes as Evil. My friend Florentine recently wrote in a paper about travel: "What one 'sees' is never just about the discovery of the foreign, but always also about homegrown fears and fantasies – so much so that travel literature has been characterized as 'a particularly authentic way of self description.'"
Gough doesn't shy away from such self description. Although she considers Taveuni as close to paradise as she can imagine, her values on such things as women's rights and telling the truth clash with those of the Islanders and eventually lead to her being asked to leave the island, at about same time as she's ready to leave.

She ends the book with an important thought about making the most of today: "Life isn't a prelude to something bigger. There is no prelude. Just life itself - right here."

December 16, 2010

The Dolce Vita Diaries

This is a book in one of my favourite genres - well, maybe it's not a formal genre category but Lucy and I sure think it is - the "Americans or Brits move to Tuscany or Provence, buy an old wrecked monastery, turn it into a gorgeous house and cook fabulous food" kind of book. Maybe I could work a little harder at developing a more concise-sounding category for that. Anyway, we and I suppose millions of others, have read literally dozens of these books and are always on the lookout for more, so I was delighted to find The Dolce Vita Diaries in the library. The book is written by Cathy Rogers with recipes interspersed by her husband Jason.

It is true to formula in many ways: This is a fairly well-to-do couple who had successful careers in LA and London, but who had a dream to own an olive grove in Italy. They began to go there on holidays and soon found the place they wanted in Le Marche region, about two-thirds of the way up the east side of the boot of Italy, a much less commercialized region than Tuscany. Their place had 900 old olive trees which they began to prune, eventually turning the farm into a thriving business in which you can adopt one of their trees and get your share of olive oil from that grove. People come to visit "their" tree. The business is called
Nudo, which means "naked" in Italian, reflecting the purity and simplicity of their product.

There are some nice twists on the formula. Cathy Rogers is a good writer with a natural, unpretentious style and best of all, she's reflective about the pros and cons of the move they made. They miss the conveniences, sociability and liveliness of the city, and their business provided them, at least at first, with a lot more work for a lot less money than they were used to. There's a bit of tension as to whether they'll stay. The best parts of the story are about their Italian neighbours and all the unique customs, like taking two hours for lunch, and having a two-hour conversation after dinner about the pros and cons of the pizza crust you've just eaten. The recipes are great too - some super simple and a few more complicated, but they give you good ideas about how to work with herbs and olive oil and vegetables in your own kitchen. In the midst of reading this, I made myself a pizza for lunch, using a few of the tips I was reading about and it was an excellent pizza.

If you like reading about rural life in Italy, I highly recommend this book.

December 9, 2010

The Bean Trees

This novel was Barbara Kingsolver's first book. I get tripped up like this once in a while, looking for a book to buy in an airport or something, and seeing this brand new snazzy-looking paperback by an author I really like, snapping it up and then finding it was their first book ever, written 21 years ago as this one was. I know, one has only to look on the copyright page but I just don't always.

Anyway, it's not that Kingsolver's first book disappointed me. It reminded me a lot of Miriam Toews's The Flying Troutmans, which my friend Joerg said he had to read to the end because, like watching a train wreck, you have to see what happens. Like the Troutmans, the heroine of The Bean Trees is a young single mom finding her way in the world, in this case by working in a tire shop and learning how to parent a baby that was set in her car by a desperate woman who couldn't care for her dead sister's child. Bean Trees, like Troutmans, also includes an epic cross-country trip which solves a great problem. It's a pleasant read with some food for thought, especially regarding refugees and immigration.

Of Kingsolver's other books I've read only two: Poisonwood Bible, which I found complex and riveting, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle which was a big eye-opener for me this summer regarding local food. Both books are deep and wide, whereas The Bean Trees is just a good, light read, the beginnings of the excellent writer Kingsolver has since become.

December 7, 2010

Tales of a Pioneer Journalist

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold.

Robert Service had that right. Tales of a Pioneer Journalist is the kind of book it's great to read once in a while to remind ourselves that we live in highly civilized times in Canada compared to, say, 150 years ago. These stories were written by David Williams Higgins about incidents he was involved in or wrote about as a newspaperman in Victoria and Yale BC around the 1850s. This was the time of the Cariboo gold rush and Victoria was little more than a collection of hastily slapped-together wooden structures along the muddy road (Wharf Street) between them and the harbour. Thousands of travellers stopped en route to the gold fields or on the way back to San Francisco, often either flat broke and desperate or flush with bags of gold nuggets which they spent in some bizarre ways.

There were few women and children but those few generally had it pretty rough. One woman disguised herself as a man so she could live in a mining camp closer to her husband only to have her cover blown when she went into labour. Another woman who was also having a baby sent her husband, a reformed alcoholic, out to get a doctor. He got waylaid at the bar for a few drinks, and returned home two or three days later to find his wife and baby frozen on the floor.

Add fires and duels, murders and tragic drownings of hundreds aboard creaky steamers, lawlessness and love and some hilarity and - well, this book pretty well kept me spellbound and I could hardly believe it took place in now-elegant Victoria where I bought this book. At Munro's Book Store, of course, which is hands down my favourite bookstore anywhere. Whoever buys for Munro's must have exactly my taste because I usually want every single book I see there.

December 1, 2010

Growing Pains: An Autobiography

What I knew about Emily Carr up to now was what I learned from reading The Book of Small several years ago. That book was a reminiscence about her childhood in Victoria. This one portrays her life as an artist, beginning with her many years of training in San Francisco, London and Paris.

Her parents died when she was young and she was raised by an unsympathetic older sister, and given the means to study by the administrator of her parents' estate. These were years of struggle for her, both personally and artistically - she battled loneliness, poor accommodations and lessons that were too often indoors when she longed to be out. Still she felt it a huge privilege to be studying art and worked so hard that her health was broken and she was on the verge of death more than once.

I had vaguely thought she must have been a prim Victorian matron who happened to begin to paint. She was anything but. Rebellious from childhood, she carried that alternative spirit with her to her studies and was ferociously committed to her work. She got almost no support for her art in BC until much later in her career. In fact, every time she showed any of her work at home, she was mocked for the unique post-impressionist style she'd developed. She tried to teach art, but found it hard to make a living, and eventually she turned to taking in boarders and raising dogs.

A series of fortuitous events brought her to the attention of the Group of Seven, especially of Lawren Harris, who took her under his wing, displayed her work in the East, renewed her enthusiasm for painting and encouraged her to write when she could no longer paint.

I found this book much more difficult to read than The Book of Small, although I was fascinated by it and the subject matter was much more interesting to me. Small is lyrical; this book is much rawer, reflecting the extreme eccentricity and often irritation and anger of its author.

I bought Growing Pains in Victoria a few weeks ago, and while driving near Beacon Hill, where the Carrs lived, saw a sign that said "Emily Carr House." But it was before I'd read the book, and we were tired, so we didn't go, even though we must have been only a block or two away. Now I want badly to see it. I would also like to read Carr's other book, called Klee Wyck, based on her relationship with the coastal aboriginal people.