Friday, November 28, 2008

Landings and Penderwicks and Benjamin Button..... with some W. O. Mitchell for good measure!

Finally! The GG award-winner for Children’s literature, Globe and Mail’s Washington correspondent writes The Landing: a kuntsleromanesque novel for young adults about Ben Mercer: a would-be violinist trapped in Depression-Era Muskoka.

A region very dear to my heart, Ibbotson carefully crafts and evokes Muskoka as a paradise amidst economic and social turmoil. A bittersweet region that is at once: mesmerizing and beautiful, dangerous and isolating.

The wealthy tourists spilling into the lake country view it as a prime position for lavish and grandiose parties. The residents whose livelihood relies on cushioning the granite and pine-treed spanse of northern Ontario , view it as a way of tireless existence.

Nevertheless, for good and for bad, Ibbotson painted home for me.

Ben Mercer is stuck at the Landing with his crippled and embittered uncle, Henry and his mother: still heavily grieving the passing of Ben’s father.

Ben dreams of leaving Muskoka, scooping up his violin and leaving the life of odd jobs aboard steamers like the Segwun ( which still ports out of Gravenhurst ), and chipping away at cottages for the wealthy and elite.

Ben wants to go to the Conservatory in Toronto and ensure that the steady fingers that move so liquidly ‘cross his violin are not smirched and worn by the hired hand work of his family.

The musical motif of the novel is pursued quite deftly. Especially with the arrival of Ruth Chapman: a Miss Havisham of a widow who smokes long cigarettes, drinks beer every day for lunch and wine for dinner ( a custom unheard of to small community Ben ), introduces hired Ben to martini olives and to stories of New York and glittering parties.

Ben sees in Ruth Chapman what his life as a musician might be. It is this vital relationship that is explored most intimately and that shadows the other relationships in the novel ( such as Ben’s rocky rapport with his equally-trapped uncle).

Unfortunately, a hefty amount of build-up as executed in a novel with eons of potential falls a little flat. Disappointingly so because I was so invested in seeing this full potential realized.

The ending speeds to an awkward and unexpected climax that staves off as quickly as it was built. It reads rather abruptly, as if the author was in a mad dash to tie up loose ends. They are tied, curtly, and with little grace.

I appreciate Ibbotson’s contribution to this year’s YA library especially because his nostalgiac retelling of a gilded age is painted on a Muskokan landscape: a region often eluding Canadian YA literature.

I will hunt Ibbotson down again… if only because he set his stage so intelligently and some of his phrasing was so compelling I returned to sentences more than once.

The end might reverberate harshly, but the journey was cleverly spun.

I give it a B+

Want more books? Fine. I give you The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by National Book Award Winner Jeanne Birdsall.

The Penderwicks make me nostalgiac. Episodic, charming, sweet. Birdsall is a first-class homage to Burnett, Alcott and Montgomery. She proves infectious.

I love the (mis)adventures of Batty, Skye, Jane and Rosalind. I love their little mishaps and the Sabrina Starr stories and their plays and soccer games. I love Batty’s chilling Hallowe’en bumping into the enigmatic Bug Man.

Each sister gets equal attention and Birdsall’s effortless narrative allows you to crawl into the characters’ thought processes and lodge there.

I especially loved clueless Mr. Penderwick: forever quoting Latin and harping on etymology. Prey, here, to visiting Aunt Claire’s blind dates, he becomes the central focus of a “Save Daddy” plot the sisters concoct to steer him from disastrous blind dates.

Not a fast paced book nor is it strewn with adventure. But, children will love it: Especially those who are champions of charming imaginative stories of home, colour and small adventures.

A peppermint-tea kind of book.

Oh. And plenty of space is given to faithful dog, Hound!

The nice people at Harper Collins sent me a hardcover, illustrated, swanky copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I am going to see an advance screening of the film on Sunday and hope that it fleshes out details that Fitzgerald’s sparse writing and the infinitesimal length of the book did not allow.

A surprisingly visceral read, Benjamin Button creeped me out with surreal illogistics. Fitzgerald and I go way back…. But I cannot say I’ve read him in the past five or so years. How odd to be thrust back into the sphere of his terse writing. I had forgotten. As a teenager, I had a major fling with Fitzgerald. I fell hard. … especially for Tender is the Night and the Great Gatsby. But mostly for This Side of Paradise .

Ironically ( and unintentionally), the lavish lake parties in the Landing immediately sparked a correlation to Fitzgerald…. Long before I knew a reading of Benjamin Button was looming.

In fact, Ruth Chapman even mentions Gatsby in one of her random tirades to Ben Mercer.

But Benjamin Button is not the flourish of languid flappers, coy mistruths, long cigarettes , gild and alcohol. No excessive ritz here. Instead, it is a bizarre circus of crude happenstance relating to a man who ages backward.

Erm… not really my thing but that distinctively Fitzgeraldian brand of clipped writing ( Scottie wrote by the sentence, or so we are told ) was missing in my life. Can I mention Fitzgerald ( or any other novelist from the Moveable Feast circle of Hemingway, Fitz, Ezra Pound and James Joyce ) without harping on Morley Callaghan? Umm. No.

So consider this my weekly reminder to go read That Summer in Paris .

Post-Benjamin Button, I picked up my jacketless, well-thumbed hardcover of Jake and the Kid: craving a different kind of short story. And THIS dropped out:

The ( unedited )words of Rachel-a-decade-ago. The ghost of my 16 year old self is here to haunt you:

Friday January 30, 1998

I guess, of all my favourite books I should write something 'bout Jake and the Kid. This is nothing short of a charming book. It adds life and pizzaz to these rainy days when nothing but the best will do. W.O. Mitchell is a literary Genius. Read the first story. If you're not hooked by the end of "You Gotta Teeter" then your imagination craves colourfulness and life. This collection of stories (added to the hard-to-find According to Jake and the Kid) makes me extremely proud that my country, Canada, owns W. O. Mitchell. I'm glad I witnessed the grandeur of the prairies these stories boast. I'm glad the RCMP are our landmark. I'm grateful our men sacrificed their perfect lives to fight overseas and I am fascinated by the history Jake expands when nonchalantly story-telling. Everyone of these phenomenal aspects are blended into the main plot about a boy and his rough-edged mentor. Both characters are masterieces and this book amazing. I always desire to embark on the great adventure through our Western Provinces. The small town of Crocus fascinates me.-- as a writer. How can so many amazing things take place in such a small area? How can such descriptions outweigh other classics? These ideas are fresh. There's only so much of foggy London or steamy Paris one can take.

I like to lay other clicheed books aside and travel to Saskatchewan. It is part of my heritage, part of my history, part of my country, and Jake and the Kid is part of me.

Wasn't I cute? Wow! I think I was blogging long before blogs existed. Also, I think I determined the path of my future long before I went into English Lit and publishing.

Trip down memory lane, you were fun!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The movie Benjamin Button is a good film to watch. Alcohol didn't play a factor to destroy the character's health.