Sunday, 23 February 2014

Books and tea on an Olympic Sunday morning...

I’m watching the Olympic Closing Ceremonies while I type this, so I’m a little distracted but determined to write at my usual time, complete with my cup of chai tea and a slice of freshly baked banana bread.

I read a book for review this week, The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden, by Philippa Dowding, a short novel suitable for 9 to 12 year old girls that begins with the sentence:  This morning I wake up on the ceiling. This sets the tone for this coming-of age story told from the perspective of thirteen-year-old Gwendolyn Golden, a young girl who, on top of coping with many of the usual issues that come with adolescence, is forced to deal with this surprising and unusual gift of flight.  Gwendolyn, or Gwennie, is an average thirteen-year-old.  She is trying to handle puberty, with all its emotional complications.  She has a best friend, Jez, with whom she has shared everything practically since she was born.  She also has a close relationship with her mother.  Her father disappeared mysteriously in a storm seven years earlier, shortly before her twin siblings, the two Chrissies, or C2, were born.  Suddenly, she is afflicted with unexpected flight, something she seems unable to control.  How can she tell her mother or Jez about this new ability?  And how can she learn to control when it will happen, so she doesn’t begin to spontaneously float up to the ceiling during class again?  The candy-store owner, Mrs. Forest, seems to be the only one who can help her, and gives her a book to read, Your First Flight:  A Night Flyer’s Handbook.  Gwennie aptly sums up her situation by thinking to herself, “Oh, I see.  Other girls just get to have their periods.  I get to have my period and start flying around the neighbourhood, too.  That’s me all right.  That’s just so me.”  As Gwennie acquires more information about her circumstances, she is able to regain control of her body as she becomes this unknown being, this Night Flyer, this Skylark, this grown-up.  As she moves from Gwennie to Gwendolyn, she learns that sometimes what appears at first to be a burden is really a gift, and that we must embrace the changes in our lives with openness and understanding.  Told with wit and intelligence, this is an entertaining, fast-paced novel that deals with very real situations, such as loss, change, and emotional struggles.  At times whimsical and fantastical, this story addresses down-to-earth issues with the maturity and strength of character that would inspire any young reader who is facing the journey toward adulthood.  Torontonian Philippa Dowding is an award-winning magazine copywriter, poet, and children’s author.

Once I finished this short book, I was at a loss as to what to read next.  I needed something I knew I would enjoy to fill the short gap I had until it was time to start next my book club selection.  I decided to reread The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck, as it’s been far too long since I’ve done so.  Although I haven’t had much time to read these past few days and so am not that far along, I’m reminded again why this is my favourite book of all time.  Steinbeck infuses this novel with so much wisdom, so many insightful comments on the Human Condition, that I could write an essay about something pertinent he addresses on just about every page.  This novel tells the story of the loss of innocence of Ethan Allen Hawley, descendent of a proud New England family who once owned half on New Baytown but who, through bad advice and bad choices, has lost everything and is now a clerk in a grocery store his family once owned.  This store is now owned by Alfio Marullo, a man who came from Sicily decades earlier, but is still considered a “foreigner”.  When one unusual occurrence is followed by  another and yet another in rapid succession, Ethan is compelled to change himself, to dare himself to become what he thinks others want him to be, regardless of his innately strong moral fiber and his belief in personal truth and accountability.  It is the picture of small-town life, and the exploration of the dynamics that work behind the facades of even the most benign-looking settings and groups.  Ethan speaks directly to the reader, and we are drawn into the journey, the exploration, the insidious corruption that steals up on him and sends him spiraling downward, so that there is no specific point at which we can say, “Here is where he went wrong, here is the point at which he betrayed himself and finally achieved the status he thought he wanted, but at what cost?”  It is difficult to describe this book, because not much actually happens.  It deals more with the deterioration of one man’s soul to fulfill the expectations others have of him.  It is a cautionary tale that reminds readers to be careful what we wish for because we just might get it, and that sometimes the treasure we seek is already all around us.  For juvenile fiction, we would call this a “coming-of-age” novel, where we would refer to the “loss of innocence” of the main character.  I don’t know if there are comparable terms that refer to adult literature, since “loss of innocence” is generally associated with youth, and surely Ethan has already “come of-age” by the time this story begins.  I’m not really a huge Steinbeck fan; in fact, I’ve read just a couple other of his novels, Of Mice and Men, which I read before going to see the movie in 1992, and The Grapes of Wrath, which I don’t really recall at all, but which I know I read in 1993 (this is where that list I mentioned a few posts earlier has come in handy - I knew writing down everything I’ve read for the past 20+ years hasn’t been a waste of  time!!)  Anyway, I highly recommend this for anyone who wants a thoughtful, insightful novel which explores small-town America and reveals the dark underside of the desire for wealth at any cost.

Time to go and really watch the ceremonies, as they have now begun in earnest.

Bye for now…

PS I just read that The Winter of Our Discontent was Steinbeck's last book, published in 1961, which went a long way toward securing for Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he received in 1962.

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