The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Alan Bradley c2009
I am a sucker for child protagonists and this book did not disappoint me. Flavia de Luce is a brilliant eleven-year-old girl with a passion for chemistry, in particular the concocting of poisons. She lives with her father and her two older sisters, who fight with her mercilessly (guess why she delights in experimenting with poisons?!). Interesting secondary characters abound, including their housekeeper Mrs. Mullet, who, in Flavia’s words “… was short and grey and round as a millstone and who, I’m quite sure, thought of herself as a character in a poem by A.A. Milne…” and tortures them by baking “pus-like custard pies.”
Set in the small English town of Bishop’s Lacey during the summer of 1950, Flavia is confronted with a series of mysterious events that she is compelled to investigate. Racing around the neighbourhood with her faithful companion, Gladys (her bicycle), Flavia consults the library (of course!) and makes various inquiries around town that seem destined to land her in an impossibly difficult situation. Needless to say, she is quite resourceful, and since this is the first of a series of books, I don’t think I’ll spoil it for anyone by saying that Flavia comes through with flying colours! Some tense moments along the way, some funny ones, and some interesting and moving moments with her father, and his manservant, Dogger.
The story is captivating right from the start. We see Flavia’s unique brilliance and her ability to extricate herself from difficult situations from the first page. She is obviously extremely clever but is a bit of a loner and does not seem to associate with other children very much. Her association with Dogger is touching, the way she seeks revenge on her sisters is unique and quite entertaining, and her relationship with her father tugs at the heartstrings without being sentimental in the least.
The story whizzes along breezily, much like Flavia herself, and we are drawn in and held hostage. We are let go at the end, but by then we have developed Stockholm Syndrome and we do not want to leave this captivating young girl and her intriguing family. Fortunately, Flavia returns in The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, and I feel compelled to go and seek her out once more. No doubt Flavia will be as spellbinding in this mystery as in the first.

Introduction to Literature: Poems

Edited by Lynn Altenbernd, and Leslie L. Lewis

In honour of Poetry Month, I decided to revisit an old friend, slightly behind the times but still with lots to offer. Yes indeed, it is that oldtimer published in 1969, the second edition of “Altenbernd and Lewis.” This particular copy is a dog-eared and slightly stained paperback, much-loved and much-used, dating back to university days. The last poet included in the anthology is the American poet Anne Sexton (1928-1974), so obviously it is far from up-to-date, but I still find it a handy reference tool for so much that was written up to that time. I have other poetry books on my shelf, most published after this one, so I am not completely out of touch with the current world of poetry, but this one is still a favourite.

I took several poetry classes at the U. of S. in Saskatoon and remember one particular professor very fondly. Ron Marken’s love of poetry was apparent for all to see and his classes were dynamic and exciting. I can recall many instances of listening to him read with great feeling from Gerard Manley Hopkins (one of his very favourites) or T.S. Eliot. One of my own favourites dates from that time, Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I found the chorus calming and mesmerizing: “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.” Of course some of the lines are much more meaningful now than when I was a student!

And indeed there will be time

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair------

(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)

I find it very appealing to be able to pick up this book and look for some of the poems that I love and remember from my student days.

Apart from nostalgia, why would I recommend this book? First of all, despite the fact that it is not up to date, it covers quite a bit of territory. It starts with “A Handbook for the Study of Poetry,” which is divided into sections covering the nature of poetry, its language, form and content. A useful guide for the neophyte, it gives some background to poetic tradition, and explains how the form of the poem can affect the meaning.

Apart from a few anonymous lyrics from the 1200’s (of course the very first one is “Sumer is Icumen In”) and some ballads, the only known author listed from the Middle Ages is Geoffrey Chaucer. Three of his poems are reproduced, including the prologue to the Canterbury Tales. From there we jump to the sixteenth century where we meet Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, and Shakespeare, among others. The seventeenth of course includes Ben Jonson, John Donne and Milton, and the eighteenth Swift, Pope and Gray. Thereafter we move to the Romantic Period (Blake, Wordsworth, Burns, Byron, Shelley, Keats...) the Victorian Age (Whitman, Tennyson, Browning, Emily Dickinson, Hopkins) and ending with the Modern Period (Hardy, Housman, Yeats, Frost, Sandburg, Eliot, Auden, Dylan Thomas, Anne Sexton). All the mainstays are there.

For me it is a wonderful collection of old favourites and I can pick it up and find something enjoyable to read without too much difficulty. However, there are a few small points that could have improved its usefulness. It would be nice to know something about the poets, and all we are told are the dates of birth and death. Where were they born? Where did they live? When did they start to write? A few details would have made these writers come to life a bit more. Secondly, this is a book of anglo-saxon writers, almost totally British. It might have been nice to include a few examples of masterpieces from Europe, Asia or Africa, such as Rumi (Tajikistan, thirteenth century) or Paul Verlaine (French, nineteenth century) . . . Obviously, you would need some books of poetry from other countries to round out your collection.

These are minor quibbles. It is a very comprehensive book for someone who wants an overview of the development of poetry in the Anglo-Saxon tradition from Chaucer’s time to the mid-twentieth century and includes some truly breathtaking and beautiful lines.

I think continually of those who were truly great

. . .

Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.

Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun

And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

(I Think Continually of Those, Stephen Spender/1909-1995, English)

Good Harbor

By Anita Diamant

Kathleen and Joyce become good friends over the course of a summer spent in Gloucester, Massachusetts. They take walks along the beach at Good Harbor, a metaphor for the safety and support they feel as they walk and talk there together. Each one is dealing with a crisis of sorts at this point in their lives; Kathleen is facing breast cancer and Joyce is struggling with her marriage and her teenage daughter. Despite their age difference they feel a rapport soon after they meet and spend many hours together, walking, talking, and learning to support each other through their trials.

This book did not completely engage me and I probably would not have finished it were it not for my book club. But it was an interesting session that night and we had quite a lively discussion. The importance of communication, relevance of religion, dealing with grief and fear, were just some of the topics we debated. Much food for thought in this easy read.

The Time Traveler's Wife

Audrey Niffeneger’s tale of lovers dealing with the additional difficulty of literally being out of step in time.

Henry is away travelling and Clare is home waiting for him to return. Sound familiar? But this is no ordinary travel and no ordinary wait. Henry is time travelling. He was born with a genetic anomaly that sends him out of current time, visiting places and people in the past and occasionally in the future. He has no control over these adventures. It could happen anytime, he could show up anywhere, although he doesn’t stray far from familiar territory, and it can last for any length of time. When he comes back, he often returns to his own home, but sometimes not. Both in travelling away and returning, he is often thrown into unusual circumstances or dangerous situations and sometimes gets hurt. Clare never knows when he will return or in what condition. All she can do is wait.

The story is told alternately by Clare and Henry so we get a good sense of what it is like for each of them to have to deal with this problem. They love each other very much but Henry’s disappearances and the inherent worry for his safety are hard for Clare to bear. Another difficulty is their inability to conceive a child and that drains her both physically and emotionally. As an artist, she is able to express some of her grief and worry through her creations. For Henry the time-travelling is very physically demanding and he is often exhausted and ravenously hungry. He gets thinner and more wraith-like as he gets older.

In the end, it is a love story, fraught with all the ordinary worries and problems of any ordinary two people. However, since Henry is far from ordinary, they have to face problems that most people would never even have to contemplate. Despite the suspension of disbelief required of the reader, it feels very real, passionate and believable.