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The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

“There is passion here, a piercing accuracy, a rare sensitivity and power…One can only marvel.”
- NEW YORK TIMES

Grass is Singing 2I’ve had this book stashed away on a shelf with several other titles by Doris Lessing for several months now. Then one or two weeks ago, acting on a random impulse I clicked on one of my favourite sites (Heavenali: the link is on the left-hand side of this very page)and found a review there which I read completely and then went and got out my copy. Simple as that!

The first chapter is titled “Murder Mystery” and the heading is followed by this short item from a “Special Correspondent”:

“Mary Turner, wife of Richard Turner, a farmer at Ngesi, was found murdered on the front veranda of their homestead yesterday morning. The houseboy, who has been arrested, has confessed to the crime. It is thought he was in search of valuables.”

It is suggested that most people would have read the short item, “felt a little spurt of anger mingled with what was almost satisfaction, as if some belief had been confirmed, as if something had happened which could only have been expected.”

“And then they turned the page to something else.”

“But the people in “the district” who knew the Turners, either by sight, or from gossiping about them for so many years, did not turn the page so quickly.”

“The Turners were disliked, though few of their neighbors had ever met them, or even seen them in the distance. Yet what was there to dislike? They simply “kept themselves to themselves”; that was all.”

“The more one thinks about it, the more extraordinary the case becomes. Not the murder itself; but the way people felt about it, the way they pitied Dick Turner with a fine fierce indignation against Mary, as if she were something unpleasant and unclean, and it served her right to get murdered. But they did not ask questions?”

This novel was Doris Lessing’s first and was published in 1950. It is set in Southern RhodesiaGrass is Singing 4 which was a British colony (now Zimbabwe) at the time of the story (1940s). It contains much about the racial relations between British settlers and the natives they employed and it caused a stir when it was published according to Wikipedia. The cover of the first UK edition is shown to the right. The book was made into a movie in 1981 and Dick Turner was played by John Thaw (Inspector Morse in television series) and Mary was played by Karen Black. I haven’t  tracked down a copy yet but I think it might be interesting.

Lessing herself  was born in Persia (Iran) October 22, 1919 and grew up in Rhodesia on a farm where her parents grew corn and tobacco. Her parents moved to Rhodesia in 1925. Their farming experience there was apparently not a successful one.They lived in something close to a mud hut but they had many books. Read more here.

Grass is Singing 3Mary Turner’s life is examined in considerable detail in the novel. A young Englishman by the name of Tony Marston had been engaged to run the farm for a few months because Charlie Slatter, the Turners’ neighbor, had made arrangements for Dick and Mary to go away on a vacation. Charlie had witnessed Mary’s deterioration and Dick’s on-going struggle with malaria and firmly believed that neither one of them would survive if things continued as they were. Slatter had made transportation arrangements and the Turners’ were to leave on the day the murder occurred.

Marston had discovered Mary’s body: “…he wondered how all this had begun, where the tragedy had started. For he clung obstinately to the belief, in spite of Slatter and the Sergeant (police), that the causes of the murder must be looked for a long way back, and that it was they which were important. What sort of woman had Mary Turner been, before she came to this farm and had been driven slowly off balance, by heat and loneliness and poverty? And Dick Turner himself – what had he been? And the native – but here his thoughts were stopped by lack of knowledge. He could not even begin to imagine the mind of a native.”

The trial was a mere formality but the answers to Marston’s questions are what Doris Lessing’s novel deals with and the outcome will leave you wondering. An impressive debut novel and a challenging read for anyone who likes to try and understand what actually happened.

 

Word Nerd, Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen and Dear George Clooney by Susin Nielsen

This is a delightful trio about which I cannot say enough good things. In fact I will let the narrator of Word Nerd start this off:

Word Nerd“I knew that feeling. It had been eight long years, but I still knew. I peeled back the bread on top of my sandwich and, sure enough, there it was.
A peanut. Well, to be accurate: half a peanut. The other half was in my digestive tract, and I was going into anaphylactic shock. All the mucous membranes in my throat were swelling up and I could hardly breathe. I reached for my Epipen then I remembered it wasn’t with me. It was in a fanny pack in my locker, where I hid it most mornings, even though my mom would kill me if she knew. When I wore the fanny pack, the Three Stooges called me a fag because it was hot pink – a free sample my mom got at a shopping mall in Kelowna, where we’d lived until two months ago.”

Every chapter begins with letters like this in Chapter 1:

LGRYALE and below this a list of words that can be made from the letters (early, ale, all, gall, gel,real,gear,largely, lag, gale) and below the list in capitals again : ALLERGY. How many did you get?

Ambrose and his mom moved to Vancouver two months go and Ambrose goes to Cypress Elementary and is in seventh grade. He reads! He read The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke! How amazing is that!? Ambrose is a wonderful narrator and his version of his life is entertaining and, I believe, likely quite accurate. His dad died of an “aneurism (seminar, surname, armies, marines, manure, remains)in his brain, a little blood vessel that had been slowly swelling like a balloon. That day it just burst.”

You’ve got to meet Ambrose, his mom, the Economopouloses (the landlady and landlord) and their son Cosmo and all Ambrose’s Scrabble buddies! You will love them!

Having met Ambrose, you will want to meet Henry K. Larsen too. It says right on the title page Reluctant Journalthat Henry “is only writing this (journal) because his therapist said he had to, which stinks.”

Henry got sent to the psychologist because of Robot-Voice. When he had problems with his Mom at Christmas, his “furies came back” and he started to speak “in Robot 24/7″ and continued to do so “through the move to Vancouver”. “The thing about speaking  Robot is, it strips the emotion out of everything. “It. Is All. Monotone.”” “It helps me. But by the eighth day of Robot-Henry, it was freaking everyone else out, so Dad made my first appointment. And he made me keep it, even after I’d gone back to being plain old Henry.”

Cecil, the therapist, gave Henry the notebook and when he got home Henry threw it in the garbage. He got it out later, “but only because he was bored.”

On his first day at a new school, Trafalgar Secondary,:”Hes in January, Henry meets Farley Wong: “He’s the nerdiest -looking kid I have ever seen…looks like that nerd action figure you can buy in novelty stores…being seen with Farley could be like committing social hari-kari.”

Farley takes Henry to the Reach for the Top team meeting. Henry says its the kind of team that “attracts nerds the way dog poop attracts flies.” There he meets a “boy named Ambrose” who “wore a ratty-looking multicolored toque, with a pom-pom on top. Indoors. He also wore neon-green socks.” So Henry Larsen meets Ambrose from Word Nerd.

Now you have to meet Karen Vargas and Mr. AtaPattu from apartment 213 and you need to find out about Henry’s brother Jesse and Scott Martin.

Lastly, you need to meet Violet and her sister Rosie. Violet has twin step-sisters in Los Angeles and their names are Lola and Lucy. Her stepmother is Jennica. Violet says everything about the Los Angeles Christmas was phony including Jennica’s boobs. The gifts were not phoney Dear George Clooneyand included an iPod Touch and two new pairs of Converse high tops. Her dad had bought a new house in Los Angeles and as Violet says “It was nothing like our house in Vancouver.” There was a backyard bigger than the front and it had a swing set, a playground-sized sandbox and a kidney-shaped pool surrounded by a fence. Violet and Rosie’s house in Vancouver had “a rusted trampoline with a broken leg and mud.” They played with the twins in the sandbox and Violet thinks “I would have loved them with all my heart if I hadn’t hated them so much.” After dinner Violet’s dad asked her to go out and put the lid on the sandbox because both of the neighbours have cats. Violet said she would but she didn’t. In the morning, the twins went out to play in the sandbox. Dad and Jennica stayed inside drinking lattes. Violet and Rosie followed the twins outside. Lola pointed out a big cat turd in the sandbox and and asked “What dat?” Violet said “It’s chocolate…Santa must have left it. Look, one for each of you.”

“We were back in Vancouver in time for dinner. Fake Christmas had lasted just over twenty-four hours.” You can check into how things go for Violet when she gets home.

One thing leads to another and Violet thinks her mom should ask her dad for more money because he has way more than he had when he split from her mom. When her mom explains that she will not take any more money from their dad Violet gets the idea that she needs to find a better class of man for her mom. She decides George Clooney might be  right because her mom had met him years ago on a set when she had been called in to do hair when another stylist was sick. So she writes George a letter.

Oh, by the way, Violet has a whole shelf full of books and she often rearranges them alphabetically by title, then alphabetically by author (Louisa May Alcott to Paul Zindel)!

Also, by the way, Cosmo from Word Nerd and Amanda, his girlfriend, also appear in this book. Oh, and Violet has a crush on a fellow named Jean-Paul Bouchard from Winnipeg who is “seriously cute”.

You will love these whether you are in seventh grade or whether you finished university a long, long time ago when the earth was cooling. Happy Reading.

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

Andi Alpers (her full name is Diandra Xenia Alpers) is a student at St. Anselm’s, a prestigious private school in Brooklyn where tuition is thirty thousand dollars annually. She is in her senior year. The students see themselves as special, exceptional: “We’re supernovas, every single one of us.”

They talk like this: “…you can’t even approach Flock of Seagulls without getting caught up in the metafictive paradigm,” somebody says.
And “Plastic Bertrand can, I think, best be understood as a postironic nihilist referentialist.”
And “But, like, New Wave derived meaning from its own meaninglessness. Dude, the tautology was so intended.”

Andi plays guitar, wears a silver key around her neck on a red ribbon which is not to be touched – we learn this in the early pages. She also wears several skull rings. Her best friend in Vijay Gupta, “President of the Honor Society, the debate team, the Chess Club and the Model United Nations. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, a literacy center, and the ASPCA. Davidson Fellow, Presidential Scholar candidate, winner of a Princeton University poetry prize…” Andi thinks Vijay sees he as “some kind of rehabilitation project, like the loser dogs he cars for at the shelter.”

When winter break begins Andi has not turned in any college applications nor has she submitted the outline for her senior thesis. She has chosen a subject for her thesis: “an eighteenth-century French composer, Amadé Malherbeau…one of the first Classical period composers to write predominantly for guitar.” The headmistress has sent letters home,one to each of her parents. Andi’s father doesn’t open his mail and her mother is not well.

Her response to the headmistress is: “…I just don’t see it happening, Ms. Beezemyer, you know? The senior thesis. Not really. Can’t I just get my diploma in June and go?”

Andi knows completing the thesis to a satisfactory level is a condition of earning her diploma but she doesn’t care. The headmistress expresses sympathy because she understands Andi’s situation but she names Andi’s brother Truman and this is intolerable for Andi.

“The rage is there again, rising higher, and I can’t stop it.”

“It’s not about me. It’s about you,” I tell her. “It’s about the numbers. If two seniors got into Princeton last year, you want four in this year. That’s how it is here and we all know it. Nobody’s paying tuition that equals the annual median salary in the state of New Hampshire so their kid can go to a crap school. Parents want Harvard, MIT, Brown. Julliard looks good for you. For you, Ms. Beezemeyer, not me. That’s what this is about.”

Beezie looks like she’s been slapped. My God, Andi,” she says. “You couldn’t have been more hurtful if you tried.”

“I did try.”

So now you know Andi. Then you meet her mother who spends almost all her waking moments trying to draw Truman, Andi’s brother, but not being able to get the eyes right. And then we learn the story of the key Andi wears and its relationship to Truman and Andi and their father.And we learn that Andi is taking a medication called Qwellify which is supposed to control her anger,her sadness, her suicidal urges but which is losing its effectiveness.

Then her father decides to take Andi with him to Paris over winter break and she is to complete the thesis outline there. Andi goes only because she thinks it will be worse for her to stay.

They stay with her father’s friend Guillaume Lenôtre and his wife Lili who live in an old furniture factory full to bursting with artifacts of the French Revolution. The factory was located in the workers quarters which were the “heart of the Revolution”. Lili knew Andi’s mother : they were roommates at the Sorbonne.

The artifacts in Guillaume’s old factory (residence is on the upper floor) include things like Revolution“marble busts, a stuffed monkey, a wax mannequin, a collection of muskets standing upright in an old barrel, and a huge clock face. I see a wreath made of hair, painted tea chests, shop signs, glass eyeballs, and a cardboard box tied with a ribbon. Last Letters of the Condemned, 1793 is written on it in old-fashioned script. I open the box and carefully lift a letter out. The paper is brittle. The handwriting is hard to read. So is the old French.
Farewell, my wife and children, forever and ever. Love my children, I beg you, tell them often what i was, love them for both of us. …I end my days today…
I pick up another: My last linen is dirty, my stockings are rotting, my breeches are threadbare. I’m dying of hunger and boredom…I shall not write to you anymore, the world is execrable. Farewell!
And a third: I do not know, my little friend, if it will be given to me to see you or to write to you again. Remember your mother…Farewell, beloved child…The time will come when you will be able to judge the effort that I am making at the moment not to be moved to tears at the memory of you. I press you to my heart. Farewell…
God, what a bummer. I can’t read any more so I put the letters back, close the box, and keep poking around.There’s a toy guillotine on the floor, complete with executioner, victim, and victim’s papier-mâché head staring up in shock from a tiny willow basket. ” The list goes on.

Andi trips over a long wooden case, “the kind that guitars come in.” In the case she finds “the most beautiful guitar I’ve ever seen. It’s made of rosewood and spruce with an ebony fingerboard. The rosette and the purfling at the edges are inlaid with mother-of-pearl, ivory and silver. Guillaume explains that it is a Vinaccia, made in Italy in the late seventeen hundreds, very rare and very expensive. He bought it thirty years ago from a “man who found it in the catacombs. A worker. There was a cave-in in one of the tunnels.”  The guitar was apparently lying under some skeletons, “Headless ones. Which suggests the Terror. You would think the whole thing would be ruined – lying underground for over two centuries – but no. Perhaps the cool air preserved it.” He encourages Andi to play it.

Have you heard of the catacombs under the city of Paris? Join Andi in an amazing journey to the time of the French Revolution while she gets first hand information on her senior thesis subject and meets Alexandrine Paradis,  a seventeen year old  who tried to save Marie Antoinette’s son. The two time periods are linked almost seamlessly and the story is extremely compelling.

 

Independence by Cecil Foster

“In 1966, Barbados achieves independence from Britain, and a country comes of age. So, too, does a boy.” -from the inside front flap of the book cover

Canada’s relationship with Barbados is one that figures largely in the lives of the characters in this novel and you might want to check out the official information here.

Stephie (King) and Christopher (Lucas) have been left in the care of their respective Independencegrandmothers, Mrs. King and Grand, by their mothers who went north to find work. The children are now almost  fourteen years old and were just toddlers when their mothers left. No word has been received from their mothers in all that time and the grandmothers, who are neighbours, are getting older and having a harder and harder time supporting their grandchildren.

Christopher and Stephie have always been best friends but something is changing in Stephie’s world and Christopher cannot get her to talk to him about it.When he tries to do so something like this happens: “Mind yuh business,” she shoots back. “Yuh too fast. You should be in yuh bed sleeping, getting ready for school tomorrow.”

Christopher is philosophical: “…I know that giving herself mouth is Stephie’s way of talking back to people, especially when she wants to hide something. And I know that recently she has been joining with our grandmothers in hiding certain things from me, because they say I am just a boy.”

“Now there is quiet: in this house as I await the return of Grandmother, and next door too, where Stephie is also waiting her grandmother and, like me, ultimately our mothers from over-’n’-away. After all these years, me and she have not given up hope, even though at times she can be a bit strange in her talking. Tomorrow we will wait some more and keep an eye out for Postie. Maybe he will bring a letter.” In his head while waiting, Christopher sometimes hears conversations with his Grand: “…that Stephie, when you notice her these days, you can’t help but say how she is growing into a real beautiful young lady and ready to take on responsibility. I have to hand it to Eudene (Mrs. King) on that one. Stephie ain’t no little girl no more. Soon she’ll be a full woman, praise the Lord.”

“As I close the window, my eyes again catch the greenish light coming from the front house across the road from us. Must be the television set. The light has intrigued me all night long. Mr. Lashley, whom the grandmothers refer to as Lashie, came back home earlier in the day from working on the overseas program. He arrived on a big truck with so many barrels on the back that we gave up counting them. Mrs. King in particular was waiting for him, with Stephie inside her grandmother’s house looking out at the two of them talking. Mr. Lashley had asked Mrs. King to get the house wired for him when he was gone. This was because, Grandmother had explained, Mr. Lashley’s mother lived too far away and he did not want her to keep having to come up by us and look after the house. Mr. Lashley’s mother was a town woman, did not like the people in our village and could never hide her feelings about us. Mrs. King and Stephie looked after the house when Mr. Lashley was working overseas. When he wrote and said he wanted the house wired for electricity, we all knew what was coming. …With all this talk about wiring and electricity, we knew Mr. Lashley could only be thinking of bringing back one thing: a television.”

So Christopher plans to be among the children who will go to Mr. Lashley’s to watch television in the evenings as soon as the sun sets.

“People are now saying how progress has definitely come among us in this the first year of our independence. The village has its first television, making us just like town people. Now we children have something else to look forward to tomorrow.”

What will “progress” bring to Christopher and Stephie’s lives besides Bonanza and The Untouchables and The Fugitive?

A gentle coming-of-age story. Very informative. Highly recommended.

The Massey Murder by Charlotte Gray

The subtitle about sums up this reading adventure in equal parts (A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Nation) with perhaps just a little more about the trial and its effect upon the country than about the maid or about her master but it all adds up to a very entertaining read and an extremely informative one historically. I found it very compelling but would be the first to admit that readers who are not strongly interested in Canadian history particularly in the early twentieth century or in famous families might not be quite as enthralled as I was.

The Preface gets right to the deed which occurred “on a gloomy February evening in 1915″ when Massey Murdera gunshot was heard on Walmer Road in Toronto. Carrie Davies, a domestic servant worked in the home of Bert Massey and shot him as he approached his front door on his return from work (he was a salesman of Studebaker automobiles).

The author, Charlotte Gray, explains in the Preface that if Carrie Davies had not “run afoul of the law” we would never have heard of her. “There were no letters, journals, notes, or diaries”.  Gray’s sources were limited she writes: “I had to rely on the official report of the coroner’s inquest, plus newspaper articles.” Fortunately, the daily coverage of the murder was “detailed and vivid”. She also explains that “different newspapers gave radically different accounts” of the murder and this added to the fascination of the case I found.

Gray provides an exceptionally detailed account of the growth and character of major newspapers in the Toronto area at the time of the crime and this in itself is worth the read.

The author’s opening comments must be kept in mind while reading: “I have had to use all the conventions of narrative non-fiction to bring this silent witness to life. I imagine but I do not invent. I do not fabricate characters, events, or dialogue – anything in quotation marks comes from a written source. Physical descriptions, of people and buildings, come from photographic evidence. However, I speculate and interpret, based on empirical evidence and knowledge of common practice and human behaviour. I do so cautiously and only when I am confident that I am more likely to be right than wrong. In the words of historian Modris Eksteins, “For facts to become memorable, an element of fiction [is] essential.” ”

As Gray puts it,…”sometimes, that element is the only way to understand what it was like to actually be there, as the ordered world crumbled and war broke the old vision.”

Carrie’s lawyer was the canny Hartley Dewart who made full use of the currents of “militarism, imperialism, feminism and nascent nationalism” to build a case even though Carrie herself “probably knew nothing about them” as forces in her world.

A “List of Characters” is provided for the reader and is interesting to browse as well as for keeping the participants straight. I found it impressive to find Constable Mary Minty, Toronto’s first female police constable on the list along with Mrs. Sinclair, superintendent of Women’s Department, Don Jail as well as Florence Gooderham Hamilton Huestis, president of the Toronto Local Council of Women. There is a list of witnesses, lawyers, newspapers, officers of the court, and, of course, a list of the Massey Family members. The latter list includes Vincent Massey who was 27 at the time and who became Canada’s eighteenth Governor General and served from Feb 18, 1952 to September 15, 1959. He made a “successful transition”…”away from the occupants (of the office) who had been both members of the peerage and born overseas.” He was in office during my high school years and so I was interested to find him in this book: he was a cousin of the murdered man, Charles Albert “Bert” Massey.

Here is a link  to several actual items from newspapers of the time. The link also contains a photograph of the house on Walmer Road where the shooting occurred. “Bert lived in the Annex, the area between Bloor and Dupont, west of Avenue Road, that had been developed over the previous three decades as Toronto’s population exploded and streetcars allowed middle-class residents to live further away from their workplaces.” Albert and Rhoda Massey lived on the shabbier end of Walmer Road near Dupont.

“Bert’s job as a Studebaker salesman gave him a certain social flash” but “he sold on commission, and with a war on, sales had slumped.” The day of the event in question had “been particularly exhausting”; his wife Rhoda was away and “he had barely bothered to sweep the snow off the sidewalk.
Before Bert Massey reached home, he met Ernest Pelletier, the sixteen-year-old paper boy who had just delivered a copy of the Toronto Daily Star to the Massey house. Massey flashed his most charming smile as he pulled out a quarter to pay for delivery of the Star for the previous month.”

“Bert Massey turned off the sidewalk towards his front door. He had no idea what awaited him.”

Charlotte Gray’s work includes several biographies. I want to read Flint & Feather next. How about you?