CanLit Challenge Book #44: The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence
Filed under: Book Reviews,CanLit Challenge — Ibis at 1:52 pm on Thursday, May 19, 2011

Book 44, The Stone Angel (1964) – Margaret Laurence
“In her best-loved novel, The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence introduces Hagar Shipley, one of the most memorable characters in Canadian fiction. Stubborn, querulous, self-reliant – and, at ninety, with her life nearly behind her – Hagar Shipley makes a bold last step towards freedom and independence.

As her story unfolds, we are drawn into her past. We meet Hagar as a young girl growing up in a black prairie town; as the wife of a virile but unsuccessful farmer with whom her marriage was stormy; as a mother who dominates her younger son; and, finally, as an old woman isolated by an uncompromising pride and by the stern virtues she has inherited from her pioneer ancestors.

Vivid, evocative, moving, The Stone Angel celebrates the triumph of the spirit, and reveals Margaret Laurence at the height of her powers as a writer of extraordinary craft and profound insight into the workings of the human heart.”

Other useful links:
the Wikipedia entry for The Stone Angel

My thoughts:
Brilliant book, just as good as I remembered (though I remembered no details, so it was like reading it fresh). I’m all teary and goopy ’cause I just finished it. Hagar’s a great character to read about but she would be hell to live with (and I don’t mean just when she’s old). I felt much more sympathy for Marvin and Doris than I did the first time reading it. I mean, imagine being in your sixties and having to deal not only with your own issues, but having to take care of a woman who seems unable to make anything easy for anyone. My own mother is 68 and suffering from Graves disease which is giving her double vision, photo-sensitivity, and constant tearing. I can only imagine what a burden it would be for her to have an even older, sicker, and more difficult parent to take care of.

Anyway, I’m wondering if Laurence was writing with a moral—since anyone can see that Hagar would’ve had a happier life if she’d married someone her father (coincidently or not) approved of—i.e. pride was her undoing. Or are we supposed to admire her independence and willingness to speak the truth as she sees it? Or are we just supposed to be neutral, afforded a glimpse into the mind of someone who finds some strange comfort in being miserable and keeping others distant?

A supremely well-crafted book.

CanLit Challenge Book #43: Glengarry School Days by Ralph Connor
Filed under: Book Reviews,CanLit Challenge — Ibis at 1:26 pm on Thursday, May 19, 2011

Book 43, Glengarry School Days (1902) – Ralph Connor
“The 15 sketches that make up Glengarry School Days look back affectionately on childhood in Ontario at the time of Confederation. Yet behind Connor’s delightful account of boyhood enthusiasms – and his clear desire for a more orderly and courageous world – lie glimpses of the moral rigidity that also characterized homesteading life in early Canada.”

Other useful links:
the Wikipedia entry for Ralph Connor

My thoughts:
Summary: This book was worth reading for the shinny chapters alone. Hockey takes its place within the Canadian canon. Longer review to come when I have some time. Eight and a half out of ten for the shinny rivalry, six out of ten for Hughie’s moral journey, three out of ten for the butchery of the bear, two out of ten for the religious conversion of Craven and crew.

Thoughts amidst reading:
Certainly not as heavy-handed as the bulk of Man From Glengarry, thank goodness. In addition to Angel Mrs. Murray, we have Saint* Mrs. Finch. Connor really had a thing for idealising (in a Christian Victorian mould) and idolising the mature women in his stories. Yet his opinion of girls and women in general is hyper-patriarchal (for the most part…I keep thinking of Kate driving that frisky team of horses). The girls scrub and clean up the school room while the boys have the freedom to go out in the woods and gather evergreen branches, playing the entire time. The man of the house is expected to lay down the law in the form of a beating and only relents when challenged by another man (his wife is yelled at and told to STFU). The denigration of the “gurl” teachers and the general consensus of everyone, including Her Holiness Mrs. Murray, that a man is required for the position.

A couple other interesting points of observation:
The gun culture is crazy. It’s really more expected than not that the boys will be playing with real guns. I know the focus in this part of the story is about Hughie’s fall into temptation, but I can’t help but be distracted by the fact that the object for which he fell was a pistol that he could shoot squirrels with.

Foxy reminds me of a baby Milo Minderbinder from Catch-22.

***spoiler for Chapter 9 ff.***
*and Martyr, one would presume


Final thoughts:
I was kind of turned off by the whole mass conversion thing. Surely Tom Finch, Hughie, and Craven could think of doing something better with their lives than becoming ministers.

Apart from that, we had the expected deathbed martyrdom of the female saint, which was also rather…I dunno, can something be maudlin and twee at the same time?

All made up for with the shinny chapters. Really got me in the mood for the World Juniors which started the day after I finished the book. It’s worth reading those chapters alone.

CanLit Challenge Book #42: The Man From Glengarry by Ralph Connor
Filed under: Book Reviews,CanLit Challenge — Ibis at 1:20 pm on Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Book 42, The Man From Glengarry (1901) – Ralph Connor
“Ranald Macdonald’s roots are in the forest of Ontario’s easternmost county and his character was forged in the small Presbyterian church near his home. When he leaves to test his idealism and faith in the rough world of the lumber business, he brings pride to the minister’s wife who was the model for his life.

Met with international acclaim when published in 1901, The Man From Glengarry is a tale of courage and an exciting portrait of life in 19th-century Canada.”

Other useful links:
the Wikipedia entry for Ralph Connor

My thoughts:
My response to this book was variable. It can be summed up thusly:
(Loooong) First Act: A sermon, a funeral, a conversion, a Christian “revival”: Tedious, painful torture. One star.
Second Act: A young man and his friends being young people in Quebec City: Great fun, enjoyable. Eight stars.
Third Act: A young man establishing himself in his career (and his love life) and single-handedly making sure Confederation with BC did not turn into a disaster: Good, but not developed enough: Six stars.

Here are the comments I made as I read it (beware spoilers ahead):
@Chapter 3
The description of Mrs. Murray is a little over the top. She’s like a living saint and gets her angel’s wings by sacrificing her own needs and intellectual stimulation to obediently serve her husband and his parishioners, a good servant of the Christian patriarchy. The description reminded me a bit of Marmee in Little Women.

I peeked ahead to read the afterword, to find out whether Alison Gordon mentions her or not, and discovered that Mrs. Murray is modelled after Ralph Connor’s mother. Ahh. No wonder she’s so perfect and idealised in her role. Apparently, there’s another female character who’s more independent coming up.


When Maimie realized that the service was really over, she felt as if she had been in church for a week.

So did I by the time I finished reading about it!

I did my Honours thesis on eighteenth century sermons, so either my patience for this kind of thing has thinned considerably or this treacly Christianity is, for some reason more difficult to bear for me.

@Chapter 8
It is very difficult for me to wrap my head around the concept that the danger of fire is just nature being itself (i.e. “don’t get too close, the wind blows out the flames”), Ranald actually saves Maimie from injury by his quick action, but all the credit goes to God, that they all have to stand around and pray to. In my book, if God is responsible for sparing the girl injury, he’s responsible for putting her in danger. If the fire acts as a result of physics, it’s human intervention that saves her and it’s Ranald and he alone who deserves praise. (In fact, I take door number 2). This worldview where God is responsible for “miracles” or good events and nature or accident or humans are responsible for the danger and the suffering that takes place makes no sense whatsoever (201 people die in plane crash. Miracle child survives!).

Oh, and this one stuck out at me:

But his wife [Mrs. Murray] came to the table with a sweeter serenity than usual, and a calm upon her face that told of hidden strength.

Um. Mrs. Murray is already portrayed as a saint upon the earth (or perhaps she walks just above it). How can she possibly be even better on Sundays? LOL.


I had to take a short break from this to read something else. I like Ranald and the clan, but I can take only so much preaching. A church chapter followed by a funeral chapter was just a bit too much. Started back up now. Oh my gawd is this the most tiresome book I’ve read in ages. All I can do is think about how much torture it would entail to live under such pious tedium. An eighteen month religious revival? What a waste of time and energy!! And all the moaning and wailing about sin and forgiveness…blah blah blah. I feel so sorry for the people who had to spend their lives like this—half the time in a panic over whether they or their loved ones would end up in a lake of fire for all eternity and the other half singing psalms and praising the god who would put them there.

I’m hoping that the book will actually have a plot eventually.


@Chapter 17
Yes! I’m through The Gauntlet of Religious Zeal™. The rest of the book looks pretty good—kind of a typical ‘love quadrangle’ (or pentagon?) shaping up. On the boys;’ side we have Ranald, Harry, and De Lacey, on the girls’, Maimie and Kate. Who will end up with whom? Only thing we can know for sure is that Maimie and Harry won’t be partnered off.

The last act of the book is a breath of fresh air. Echoes of Armand Durand with the man from the country rising up in the world. It’s rather fun hanging out with the young people in Quebec City: a bit of drinking, a bit of gambling, a bit of fighting in the street, a bit of courting, a bit of canoeing. Lots of great characters, none of them unlikeable. And Kate is quite the modern gal, more at home driving a feisty team of horses than corseted up for sermons and tea.


Finished. The final third of the book was really like reading a different novel. I wish that Connor had toned down and shortened the sermonizing sections and expanded on Ranald’s experiences in British Columbia. We know why he went there but not why and how he became so attached.

Of course, the nation-building theme is quite obvious there at the end.

Ranald and Mrs. Murray are much too idealised, both by the author and by the other characters. They’re both utterly competent to any situation, and neither have any failings. People just aren’t that perfect. And would we really want them to be?

CanLit Challenge Book #41: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Filed under: Book Reviews,CanLit Challenge,Giller Prize,Man Booker Prize — Ibis at 2:37 pm on Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book 41, Alias Grace (1996) – Margaret Atwood
“In 1843, a 16-year-old Canadian housemaid named Grace Marks was tried for the murder of her employer and his mistress. The sensationalistic trial made headlines throughout the world, and the jury delivered a guilty verdict. Yet opinion remained fiercely divided about Marks–was she a spurned woman who had taken out her rage on two innocent victims, or was she an unwilling victim herself, caught up in a crime she was too young to understand? Such doubts persuaded the judges to commute her sentence to life imprisonment, and Marks spent the next 30 years in an assortment of jails and asylums, where she was often exhibited as a star attraction. In Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood reconstructs Marks’s story in fictional form. Her portraits of 19th-century prison and asylum life are chilling in their detail. The author also introduces Dr. Simon Jordan, who listens to the prisoner’s tale with a mixture of sympathy and disbelief. In his effort to uncover the truth, Jordan uses the tools of the then rudimentary science of psychology. But the last word belongs to the book’s narrator–Grace herself.”

Other useful links:
the Wikipedia entry for Alias Grace

My thoughts:
This was a very good book, possibly my favourite of Atwood’s so far. So many layers of meaning and a wonderfully unreliable narrator. She had me guessing the entire time: manipulative? a psychopath who merely reflects back what her interlocutors expect? a victim of early abuse and tragedy who’s put out of her mind when faced with trauma and never really regains herself? or a placid philosopher who takes things as they come and reports things as they happened? And what of Dr. Jordan? and Jeremiah? and Jamie Walsh? People appear and disappear and are never surely who they seem to be. Loved it!

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