Tag Archives: romance

Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers

Who?

  • Women
  • Fans of the Midwife of Venice (this is a MUCH better book)
  • Canadian History fans (are there any out there?)

The Book:book cover of bride of new france

Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers  is about the “filles du roi” or King’s daughters. In the late 1600 the King of France paid for young women to move to New France to help populate the settlements.  These women were usually orphans from the poor houses of Paris.  The women married the ex-soldiers or officers already settled in New France. Prior to the King’s efforts these men seemed more interested in reproducing half-native half-french children.

Most of the women who came as a Filles du Roi had no experience in farming or sustenance living. It was a lonely life, one that would need a great deal of resolve and bravery to survive. Desrochers imagines this world through the eyes of the young woman Laure. Her spunk get’s her sent from Paris overseas on a six-week journey to the great wilderness of Canada.

Laure shows us the new world in its beauty and strangeness. She marries a man who seems decent enough, but she is left for most months of the year along while he traps animals and gallivants around with the native women.

Laure meets a young Iroquoian man. He is rough and crass, but eventually they fall in love and have a clandestine affair. She becomes pregnant as a result. I will not spoil anymore details, but she learns to comes to term with the life she must live in the new world. Laure is also able to see the opportunities available to her as a woman living in New France.

Read It?

I picked up this book for a few reasons.  I’ve always been a bit of a history buff and this book, set in the late 1600s, was a historical fiction fix.  It’s sometimes difficult to find Canadian historical fiction maybe because of an inferiority complex about our proud past.

I also have a soft spot for début books (which this is), as I enjoy new voices in Canadian Literature.  This fiction started out as a Master Thesis for Desrochers at York University. It is well researched and fully conceivable as Desrochers brings this time in history to life.

But I cannot wholly recommend this one.  I enjoyed the story enough. The plot held my attention because of its setting, but Desrochers’s introspection came through too strongly in the character Laure.  It really felt forced and I kept telling Desrochers (telepathically) the old writers motto “show don’t say.”

Laure is flat, unbelievable and too neutral or reserved to cling to.  However, if you enjoyed the Midwife of Venice, you may enjoy this one and it’s much more historically sound.

Cheers!

 

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The Book Thief by Markus Kuzak

My first reaction to this book was WOWZERS!

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief cover

What a gorgeous book.

I turned to the last pages and found a young adult study guide at the back. As it turns out, the book is actually considered a young adult book. WHAT?!? So, second reaction was, I was reading a teen book, and didn’t notice!

I am both flabbergasted about what defines youth fiction, and amazed at the care and time put into this book. What an amazing piece of fiction. Zusak in The Book Thief has given me a story I will remember for the rest of my life.

The Book Thief is set in the years of the Second World War, in Germany. The main character is a ten-year old girl named Liesel whose mother is bringing her to a foster home. Her mother must leave them because, for reasons unknown to the reader, she can no longer take care of Liesel or her brother. On the train ride there, Liesel’s brother dies.

Enter: the narrator. He makes his grand entrance by taking away the soul of her brother. This is the crux of the book and what makes it so brilliant. The narrator is death. It is a unique literary technique to personify something so tangible, yet universally feared. And it also gives something to the book that makes it very much alive (ironically). Zusak makes the book bearable, for such a sensitive soul as myself, with humour and reality. At this time, death is busy. He is busy taking souls away all over the world. But death, as portrayed in The Book Thief is tongue-in-cheek funny, poetic and sensitive. We know he has feelings for those left behind.

We follow beautiful and vivacious Liesel, through her adolescence. But the reality of her pubescent years is a harsh one, with bomb shelters, Hitler Youth meetings, and stealing from farmers because they have nothing but watery (pea) soup. The author impressed me with the absoluteness that life and love fill the cracks of human brokenness and suffering.

Hans, her foster father teaches Liesel to read, and she becomes the book thief, someone who steals books because she loves them so much (naturally I can relate to a love of books). The snatching of literature become the foundations of her life and soul. Giving flight to her thoughts and helping her to make sense of the grave world around her.

The most significant character in the book is Max Vandenberg, a hunted Jew who comes to Hans for hiding. In World War One Max’s father saved Hans’ life. To return the favour, they hide Max and feed him, but his spirit is broken, and he wishes to hide like a rat in the cold dark basement.

It is Liesel, and her vitality, that keeps him alive. She reads to him, and listens to his stories and they soon develop a depth of friendship that can allow their souls to survive Nazi Germany. In one moving chapter, Max rips out pages from his copy of Mein Kampf. He paints over the words with white paint and hangs them to dry. He than writes a story with black paint over top of the pages about surviving and about being alive.

The end of the novel is hard to get through. It is sad. But I also felt prepared for it, because in this world is death really a surprise? It is the hope that the life of those remaining continues even after the death of loved ones. For some reason, the reader is comforted as well, by the fact that life was so present before hand.

Why?

I think most people have a general interest in WWII. If you like to read about the social history of war-time in Germany, this book would interest you. It is also unique, because the perspective of a nonconformist German family during WWII is somewhat uncommon in literature. But even if that doesn’t really interest you, the characters are memorable and the writing is dazzling and full. Zusak is a talented author, with emotion spilling out of the words he writes.

In the beginning, it took me a bit to get a hold of the narrative. It was hard to place the narrator, and for good reason (but once you realise who the narrator is, you can jump right in).

The only other issue I have with the book, is that I had never heard of it.

It was published in 2006, but it was marketed as a young adult book. I think it could have been more broad than that. The book deals with love, loss, lust, survival, death and war. These are done in a mature and thought-provoking way. Please, do yourself a favour and read this one.

Cheers!

The author’s website is worth a perusal (if I piqued your interest).  An interview with him about The Book Thief can be found here.

Or read the first chapter of The Book Thief.

The Birth House by Ami McKay

The Birth House

Who?

  • Anyone anxious for a quick read
  • Women interested in natural childbirth
  • People with a love for historical fiction

The Book

Canada Reads recently announced the 2011 picks.  I decided this year would be a good year to pay attention to Canada Reads.  While perusing CBC’s website, I discovered that the criteria for the books is not merit. Canadian celebrities pick their favourite books. This made me doubt the value in reading the books.  I mean, why should Roch Voisine have a say in what I read.  (For the record, he’s yet to join the Canada Reads Alumni).  But I thought this book would be fun, despite it being chosen by a TV host and designer.

The Plot

The Birth House by Ami McKay is set in the early 1900s in rural Nova Scotia. McKay’s main character, Dora Rare, was a young woman born into a family of six brothers. Her birth was a miracle in her family – there hadn’t been a female in five generations born to Rares. As a young woman of fifteen, she begins training with the neighbourhood midwife. She learns Miss B’s trade, attending births and gaining a reputation among the women of the community as someone they can trust with their bodies and their babies.

Dora marries a local man, named Archer Bigelow. Archer Bigelow’s family has money, but he has no job. He is unloving and abusive, and forbids her from practicing midwifery. Archer often disappears for bouts of debauchery, depression and drunkenness. Dora however, believes that everything will be made right, if only she could conceive a child.  This never happens. As Archer becomes more despondent and distant, Dora becomes inspired by her friends to practice her trade of midwifery.

Dora runs into some professional discord with a Doctor of Obstetrics, from the next county,  who has opened up a modern Birth Centre with the most modern medical treatments.  Dr. Thomas struggles to gain business from traditional, rural women. He resorts to discrediting Dora’s ability and knowledge. She remains firm and convicted.

A pivotal moment in the book occurs when, one evening, an abused girl of thirteen shows up on Dora’s doorstep. She’s in labour, and abandoned by her family.  The young woman dies while giving birth, but the daughter is left in Dora’s care. She calls her Wrennie and raises her as a daughter. Archer (her husband) dies in an unfortunate sea accident, but his older, unattached brother Hart, steps up to the role of helping Dora with the house and the animals.

In the end, she is able to triumph over Dr. Thomas and the rumours of her witchery.   She practices being a midwife using the old traditional methods passed down to her from Miss B. Her house becomes a birth house, where women’s bodies are respected and cared for with love and compassion. She never remarries, but she does start a monogamous sexual relationship with Hart (her brother-in-law) and grows old and happy.

I read this book when I was pregnant with Elijah (2007), but I was interested in reading it again. It was a reprieve from the types of books I’ve read lately. The Birth House does not startle the reader with introspective character development and insight, the novel is driven almost solely by plot and interest.

I still enjoyed this book. It was light and fun. Light, because Dora Rare was not a strong character and hard to fall for.

It is my humble opinion that a woman in her place and historical time would not act the way Dora  acted. Ami MacKay certainly wanted to say something through Dora.  The theme of a woman’s rights to compassionate and intuitive care  – before, during, and after – the birth, were clear and legitimate. I believed in Dora’s cause, but I would have enjoyed this book more if it had presented her theme with tact and subtlety. This book doesn’t hint at something but rather screams it from the pages. I felt it was unrealistic that a young woman who grew up in the family she did would be able to train under a midwife;  her family was very traditional. Later, this liberal lapse in parenting is contradicted when her mother insists she marry Archer Bigelow. It was also unrealistic that this woman would take a lover (Hart), and be explicit and unashamed about it.

Dora seemed to express thoughts and feelings of a woman from the 21st Century, rather than the 20th. Something about the whole thing, just didn’t sit right with me.

Should you READ this book?

On a whole the book is a fun read. Especially for my peers, late twenties child rearing/bearing women. The desire to have respect, dignity and compassion is certainly something to fight for. We deserve it. The care I received through my Midwives for both the births of my children, is care like non other. I had never had such warm fuzzy feelings from the medical system before. I like this book because it celebrates that fact. I learned from McKay’s website that The Birth House is one of the 30th top selling novels of the last decade as reported in the Globe and Mail.  She also received a similar recognition from Chapters-Indigo.

Ami McKay is coming out with a new book soon. And, despite all my hard words I will likely read it! Here’s her website.

Cheers!

Salem, fresh born. We planned a home birth - but we had to do a hospital birth in the end.

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

Who?

Well, to be honest, I had a hard time classifying this book. I think it would be liked by a wide range of people. Just keep reading and see if anything sparks your interest.

The Book:

I just found a treasure!

For years now, I have been trying to write short stories. I have a bit of a collection under my belt now, but I don’t really love any of them.  It is completely logical, because I don’t like short stories. I would rather read a nice long novel and fall into love (or hate) while I become entwined in the characters. Short stories are just too brief to get to know someone. But, the short stories in this collection by Tom Rachman are delightfully short. Every one of them!

Rachman was shortlisted for the Giller Prize this year for The Imperfectionists. This book was easy to read and reminded me of a good BBC miniseries. It is about the last dying days of an English language newspaper set up in Rome. After being in print publication for decades, the newspaper is shutting down.  Each chapter is about a person involved in some way with the paper. Each chapter is also a different narrative and could stand alone as an individual short story. The book feels real. The plot is held together well and is clear and cohesive. It is lighthearted and soft, yet in the same moment I felt as close and intimate with the cast of characters as if I’d spent weeks reading the book (instead of two days). Each of the character’s feelings and their human drama were palpable and beautifully realized. Rachman could teach me a thing or two about character building! Wowzers!

This is Tom Rachman’s first book, although he has been a journalist for years. He brought to life a cast of characters using only a few thousand words for each, this fact immensely impressed me. Also, that one week after finishing the book, I can still recall very clearly almost all of the people in the novel and many of their idiosyncrasies.  Did I mention that I was impressed with Rachman’s talent?

There were moments while deep in the prose, that struck me as simple and profound at the same time.  He wrote one woman in an airplane meeting a potential love interest, and he writes her so well I swear he must have asked a woman exactly what goes through her mind. He nailed it right down to that feeling of being in that space. I am looking forward to reading his next work.

This book would make a great Christmas gift for someone who likes fiction, but not long fiction. It is well written and a quick read, but it is woven with non-fiction newspaper headlines from 2008.  Here is the link on Amazon!

I have a confession to make as well. Another reason I LOVED this book is because of this:

Hayden's Brooding Intensity
Tom Rachman's Brooding Intensity

This is a picture of Hayden (left) beside the author of The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman. I think they look a lot alike. Every time I glanced upon the back of the novel, I would see those big bedroom eyes and think of Hayden, who I adore.

And so, I leave you with Barely Friends, my favorite song from Hayden’s 2008 album In Field and Town, because I am a shameless Hayden promoter.

The Last Station by Jay Parini

Who:

-people who love the romanticized pre-revolution Russia

-those who enjoy a good realistic romance (not just women!)

-people interested in Tolstoy

The Book:

I found this book on the new Hamilton Public Library’s Bibliocommons. For those Hamiltonians who don’t know about Bibliocommons, it is a catalogue that is much more user-friendly than the old one. It looks and feels like Amazon. Some friendly neighbour had The Last Station by Jay Parini on their list of interesting books. I was also pleased to find out it was made into a movie with James McAvoy (swoon, swoon).

James McAvoy in The Last Station Movie
James McAvoy playing Bulgakov

The Last Station is about the last year of Leo Tolstoy’s life. Tolstoy, often considered the best novelist in the history of human kind, was also an incredibly interesting man. The events of the book are based on facts taken from Tolstoy’s letters and diaries, and also the letters and diaries of those who were closest to him before he died. Despite a happy marriage, the last years of Tolstoy’s marriage to his wife Sofiya were characterized by strife and disunity. As Tolstoy became more and more anarchistic in his final years, he felt very troubled by his life of luxury and entitlement. He had been born into an aristocratic family, but his deepest desire was to denounce all wealth and rights to his books, this unfortunately (for his wife and children) was to be extended to his will and would mean a diminished inheritance.

Sofiya does not share her husband’s lofty ideals. Her fear of losing money and entitlements drives her to insanity. She is deeply depressed and torn between the hatred of having to accept whatever fate her ideological husband decides, and the deep love for the man she has devoted her life to. I actually hated her dramatic character, paranoia, and her inability to appreciate her husband’s lifestyle, although I truly felt sympathy for her situation.  It would’ve sucked to be a woman in that time, because whatever your husband wanted, you just had to go along with it.

There is another plot in the story involving Tolstoy’s idealistic secretary Bulgakov, who has come to serve Tolstoy in his final days. At Telyatinki, the Tolstoyian commune set up near his estate there is a lovely and emancipated woman named Masha whom he falls for deeply. Bulgakov, like Tolstoy is forced to choose between his vow of abstinence, and pursuit of higher things; there is no room for romantic love and lust. While Bulgakov is uniting his soul with Masha, Tolstoy is gaining the courage to leave his wife and to sign the will which gives all the publishing rights of his novels to the public.

Masha is relocated by higher powers in Telyatinki to serve a different commune in Moscow; she was too much of a distraction for Bulgakov. Tolstoy leaves his lovely wife of 48 years and on his way to Caucasus in a train, he falls gravely ill. He dies in a stationmaster’s cottage with the entire country watching. The book ends pleasantly though, with Bulgakov and Masha returning to Moscow together.

The Point:

In Parini’s book, both pairs of lovers are separated. Tolstoy and his wife love each other very much, but neither could concede to give in to each other. It was heart breaking. Often our image of people married for a long time, is one of concession and quiet love, not of heart-break and betrayal. Masha and Bulgakov are separated by the idealistic world around them, but they are able to see that life is much more complex than a set of ideas. It is good to hold conviction, but not at the expense of things we hold dear. There are things in life we can love intrinsically and not because they are bringing about the betterment of society. It almost reminds me of Luke 14:26 (“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”) I am not trying to be controversial, but it’s hard to feel like Jesus means to put loftiness over love, disunity over unity.

In Bulgakov, we see the balance of love. Not in an “all-consuming love-must-be-our-guiding-principle” way, but a love set deep in perspective. He was living a convicted and intentional life, full of love.