CanLit Challenge Book #36: Antoinette de Mirecourt by Rosanna Leprohon
Filed under: Book Reviews,CanLit Challenge — Ibis at 10:46 am on Sunday, April 18, 2010

Book 36, Antoinette de Mirecourt (1864) – Rosanna Leprohon
From the back cover:
“Originally published in English in 1864, yet acknowledged by French-Canada as a classic of its literature, Antoinette de Mirecourt occupies a singular position in the literature of Canada. This unique product of Quebec’s bilingualism and biculturalism tells an intriguing story of love and French-English social conflict in the years following the Conquest of 1760. Major and minor characters come alive against vividly drawn scenes of Montreal and its vicinity during that period. Sharp, witty dialogue and lyric descriptions of the city and its seasons are woven into a novel that possesses a depth and texture rare in the early literature of Canada.”

Other useful links:
the Wikipedia entry for Rosanna Leprohon

My thoughts:
I’d been looking forward to reading this for a long while. Until I started my CanLit Challenge, I’d never even heard of Rosanna Leprohon, though she was one of the most popular Canadian novelists of the nineteenth century and is still much admired in translation in Quebec. In fact, she is very well known for being one of the first Canadians to advocate a homegrown literature:

Although the literary treasures of ‘the old world’ are ever open to us, and our American neighbors should continue to inundate the country with reading-matter, intended to meet all wants and suit all tastes and sympathies, at prices which enable every one to partake of this never-failing and ever-varying feast; yet Canadians should not be discouraged from endeavoring to form and foster a literature of their own.

I was very keen to find out how she compared to other female novelists of the time with which I am much more familiar, such as Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot. I was also interested to see how much of a relationship I might see between Leprohon and those Canadian female contemporaries who were writing non-fiction, especially Susanna Moodie.

Funnily enough, when I read it, it seemed like Leprohon was rather a throwback to the century previous, the tone reminding me more of Emily Montague or Vicar of Wakefield than anything post-Austen. But perhaps that was some intentional anachronism since the story itself took place in the eighteenth century. Like a typical eighteenth century novel, this one was full of melodrama and secrets (though in this case the reader is in on it) and featured a pathetic, virtuous heroine in Antoinette. The other characters are also well-drawn (though it’s a little hard sometimes to figure out exactly why the villain is so cruel—other than mere sociopathy). I particularly enjoyed the distinctly Canadian touches (French/English tensions, wintery sleigh rides, and nice descriptions of the weather & seasons).

I’m very much looking forward to reading more from Ms. Leprohon.

Possession by A. S. Byatt
Filed under: Book Reviews,General Reading — Ibis at 1:13 pm on Wednesday, April 14, 2010

From the publisher:
Possession, for which Byatt won England”s prestigious Booker Prize, was praised by critics on both sides of the Atlantic when it was first published in 1990. ‘On academic rivalry and obsession, Byatt is delicious. On the nature of possession–the lover by the beloved, the biographer by his subject–she is profound,’ said The Sunday Times (London). The New Yorker dubbed it ‘more fun to read than The Name of the Rose . . . Its prankish verve [and] monstrous richness of detail [make for] a one-woman variety show of literary styles and types.’ The novel traces a pair of young academics–Roland Michell and Maud Bailey–as they uncover a clandestine love affair between two long-dead Victorian poets. Interwoven in a mesmerizing pastiche are love letters and fairytales, extracts from biographies and scholarly accounts, creating a sensuous and utterly delightful novel of ideas and passions.”

My thoughts:
At first glance, this looked like exactly the type of book I love. It has all the right elements: a complex plot (actually multiple plots), partly in the past (Victorian England), partly in the more recent past (1986), somewhat interesting characters, academia and erudition, a collage of styles (including “quoted” Victorian poetry, journals, and letters), discussions of symbolism, and a mystery at the heart.

It’s not often that a book like that wins a Booker and gets glowing reviews, so I was prepared for a masterpiece. I was prepared for this one to make my all-time favourites list. Objectively speaking, it is undoubtedly the former, but sadly it didn’t achieve the latter. I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps when it comes down to it, I didn’t really care for any of the characters. They all seemed so unlikeable and self-absorbed. I also found much of the poetry tedious and rather uninteresting. I did enjoy the narrative variety and the setup and revelation of the mystery (though I was left at the end still wondering about one specific part of the Victorian timeline story). So, in the end, I have to say I liked it but didn’t love it.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
Filed under: Book Reviews,General Reading — Ibis at 1:37 pm on Monday, April 5, 2010

From the publisher:
“In this provocative must-read, the preeminent scientist-and world’s most prominent atheist—Richard Dawkins—asserts the irrationality of belief in God and the grievous harm religion has inflicted on society, from the Crusades to 9/11. The God Delusion makes a compelling case that belief in God is not just wrong, but potentially deadly. It also offers exhilarating insight on the advantages of atheism to the individual and society, not the least of which is a clearer, truer appreciation of the universe’s wonders than any faith could ever muster. With rigor and wit, Dawkins eviscerates the major arguments for religion and demonstrates the supreme improbability of a supreme being. He shows how religion fuels war, foments bigotry, and abuses children, buttressing his points with historical and contemporary evidence. This is a book that challenges all of us to test our beliefs, no matter what beliefs we hold.”

My thoughts:
When I first heard about all the hype surrounding this book (when it first came out), I was kind of turned off. It (along with Hitchens’ book) sounded, well, it sounded mean. I’ve never had belief in the Christian god, though in the past I’ve flirted with both a kind of philosophical/spiritual Platonism (you know, the one that says “God is real (and perfect and good) but religions aren’t factually true”) and spiritual pantheism/panentheism (“Nature/the Universe is divine and religions are just ways of communicating with that divinity, and some of those ways are morally & intellectually better* than others”). So I didn’t have a vested interest in protecting Christianity from condemnation. However, I still retained that very liberal attitude that Culture (including Religion) should be respected to the degree that it does no harm: if you want to believe that the execution of some Iron Age carpenter-cum-preacher somehow makes you a better person, well, okay, who am I to judge you? And why should I dismiss the possibility that supernatural things could happen (albeit perceptually filtered through different cultures’ mythologies)? It just seemed like Dawkins was going out of his way to rain on the parade, and to do so without having proof that there wasn’t something real lying behind all those trappings. I didn’t really care to read this book at that time.

But I did read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Which sparked in me a renewed interest in science. From there, I searched for other sources of scientific writing (both in print and online). One day, Carl Zimmer posted about Carl Sagan’s tv series Cosmos and I promptly watched the whole series from beginning to end. But I wanted more so I looked on YouTube for more vids about science and when The Greatest Show on Earth came out, I was quite keen to read it. It’s very difficult to learn what’s going on in scientific circles today without bumping up against the attack campaign of the Creationists.

All of which eventually led to my becoming quite acquainted with Dawkins, both as a biologist and as an advocate for Rationalism. So by the time I picked up this audiobook, I was pretty much so familiar with the contents from recorded lectures and interviews, nothing came as a surprise. Not only have I ventured to read The God Delusion, but I have to say that I agree with it for the most part. Under the banner “harm” I no longer include just physical harm, systemic discrimination (e.g. racism, misogyny, bigotry against homosexuals), an unhealthy attitude to the planet & its other inhabitants, and cultural genocide. Now I include violence to truth, obstruction of education, personal indoctrination of children, and the waste of (financial and human) resources sucked up by religion.

The problem with doing this review is that I don’t really recall much of the book! I finished listening to it back in February and because I was listening, the content has kind of blended into all the lectures and interviews I’ve watched and listened to over the past year or two. A few things do stand out though: discussions of agnosticism and Spinoza’s/Einstein’s pantheism; a discussion about morality without gods; and Dawkins’ appeal to quit saddling children with the religions (and corresponding labels) of their parents.

Oh, and one more thing: I didn’t find it mean at all. Though often caricatured as “strident” and “shrill” Dawkins is actually rather kind and rational (fancy that). He’s just passionate about scientific truth, and like all lovers wants everyone to share in his joy. Hmm. Yes, that and he can’t abide those people who knowingly and deliberately hide it, lie about it, and brainwash others about it. It’s well worth reading—even if you’re religious I doubt you’ll actually be offended by most of what Dawkins says and all of it is well worth considering.

*Many who are adherents of this general belief would say that no religion is inherently inferior, that we should all just accommodate each other’s religious without analysis or criticism. But I had early on formed a dislike of some aspects of Christian theology so I always discriminated between religions.