Monday, January 26, 2009

Review of Swiss Sonata by Gwethalyn Graham

Gwethalyn Graham's Swiss Sonata is an intriguing and well-written novel, which received the 1938 Governor-General's Award. It takes place over three days: Thursday January 10, 1935 to Saturday, January 11, 1935 in a Swiss finishing school for "girls" near Lausanne.

I put girls in quotes, because the age range is from the mid-teens to the mid 20's, although throughout the novel they are referred to as girls. To the audience of the 21st century, they are mostly young women. These women inhabit a bizarre, intermediary zone. They come from different countries and are away from their families, but for most of them, there is little inclination towards university or careers. They are adult women, and yet, they live in a girls' school. The bizarreness of this situation is emphasized during one scene in which the girls are forced to demonstrate to the teachers that they are wearing their wool underwear.

To me, the novel represents a transition to modernity. Though Graham has written her novel before the Second World War, the rampant nationalism and threat of fascism are omnipresent. Two characters in particular, Anna and Ilse are victims of the Nazis. Anna's father is trying to subvert the Nazi government, while Ilse is a Jew from the Saar. They both suffer persecution in the school at the hands of a clique of other Germans.

However, while nationalism is one theme, a nascent feminism is another. In particular, Graham focuses on the dual geographical and generational conflicts between the North American students and the European teachers. The novel is largely focused on Vicky Morrison, a young woman from Toronto with an uncanny skill for comforting others. Her best friend, Theodora Cohen, is an exaggerated spunky American Jew. While Ilse plays the role of victim, Theodora is aggressive in her behaviour. Meanwhile, Mary Ellerton, a young English women, who serves as the physical education teacher works as a bridge character between the generations and the continents. She manages to inhabit both the world of the students and the world of the teachers. Rather obviously, both in terms of age and origin, Mary Ellerton connects the traditional European teachers with Vicky and Theodora.

Mary Ellerton's important and clear role leads to one of my criticisms of the novel, namely, that Graham has a tendency to be heavy-handed. The young Torontonian up against the tradition of Europe, while simultaneously understanding that tradition, can be a bit much. Additionally, the end of the novel feels a bit rushed and unsatisfying. I feel that things are too well-resolved.

Overall, though, I would like to emphasize that this is a fine novel both in terms of literary merit and entertainment. Moreover, the prescient predictions and portrayal of a 1930s Swiss girls' boarding school make the novel very interesting in and of themselves. More importantly, Graham's depiction of the conflict between traditional and more modern views of gender roles is fascinating. Graham combines a great deal of thought with vivid characters.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Response to The Fable of the Goats and Other Poems

The first winnter of the Governor-General's award for poetry and drama is: The Fable of the Goats and Other Poems by E.J. Pratt.  Pratt's poetry collection won in 1937.  

I have to say, that for me, poetry if often a hit and miss type of experience, and this collection was mostly misses.  The title poem (''The Fable of the Goats'') struck me as an allegory, but of what?  I don't know.  Whether because I was tired, or just not in a good place to read poetry (the bus), I just couldn't get into this collection.  

There is, however, one notable exception, ''A Prayer-Medley,'' which provides a sarcastic criticism of Christianity, particularly its violent past.  Pratt critiques the many un-Christian aspects of the Old Testament.  It is humourous and thought-provoking.

Overall, I feel like in a sense, I didn't give The Fable of the Goats and Other Poems a fair chance, so I'm hesitant to pan the whole collection.  I could have gone back and re-read all the poems, or done research to give them better context, but I'm doing this for fun, so I'm not going to.  Hopefully, I will connect better with the next poetry collection.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Review of My Discover of the West by Stephen Leacock

The second nonfiction winner of the Governor-General's award is Stephen Leacock's My Discover of the West. Leacock, a McGill University professor, went on a Western lecture tour. In order to create this book, he pieced together his thoughts on various current events and current issues facing Canada. Additionally, he describes the West and tries to explain the country as a whole.

As a means to access interwar Canada, My Discovery works extraordinarily well. Leacock addresses many issues of the day such as economic depression, social credit, railways, regionalism, and immigration. In a sense, My Discovery is a survey of the issues of the day, explained in a very humourous manner. Indeed, Leacock is a very talented writer both in elucidating complex material and doing so in an entertaining way.

Reading My Discovery today, I couldn't help but be struck by the relvance, particularly in economics. Leacock seems relatively middle-of-the road from what I gather. This is a book that discusses economics, but it is most certainly not a treatise, and there is no theory. As a matter of fact, the only economic theory Leacock discusses in-depth is social credit, and only to criticise it. Leacock seems most concerned with practicality over theory and more about describing and explaining than persuading.

Overall, Leacock is a talented, humouous writer, and this book provides a nice window into 1930s Canada, particularly the West. Readers will be struck by how many of his observations, particularly his regional ones, still contain truth today.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Review of L. G. Salverson's The Dark Weaver

The 1937 winner of the Governor General's Award for fiction is:

The Dark Weaver by L.G. Salverson

The Dark Weaver is an epic novel that tells the story of a group of immigrants from Europe to Canada and their children. The novel touches on many themes in an elaborately woven story including generational differences, the building of Canada, immigration, the development of the West, tensiosn between European tradition and North American newness, and industrialisation. The book opens in the mid-nineteenth century and ends during the First World War.

It is a long and well-plotted story with well-developed characters. Salverson excels at communicating the emotions of her characters and provides very detailed descriptions. In this sense, stylistically, the novel is more akin to the Victorian era and the Interwar period.

In a sense, this novel is too big to simply summarize, but sufficed to say, there is an engaging alaborate story. It would be trite to call it the Canadian War and Peace, but while reading it, Tolstoy's masterpiece kept popping into my haed.

The most striking part of the novel is its conclusion. Without giving too much away, the destructive theme of the end is very interesting. Does it represent the all-consuming annihilation of modern, total war? Does it represent that Canada and North America are inexorably anchored to Europe? In a sense, the end seems to undercut the theme of a new continent and new country that the vast majority of the novel builds to. Is the ending a warning? Or pessimism?

Salverson is clearly a talented author and The Dark Weaver provides an engaging story with excellent characters and a conclusion that leaves the reader questioning everything. Needless to add, I highly recommend it.