Saturday, July 14, 2007


Should I feel guilty for being so excited about finding a brand-new Jilly Cooper novel? It's hardly Jane Austen, after all... except that, in some ways, it could be. Consider the similarities: Jane Austen wasn't considered high-brow literature in her day either; her novels are centred around relationships and romance, and mix ordinary people with wealthy high society; wit and humour caricature society's excesses and bad behaviour, and people usually end up getting what they deserve. Hmm... Well. Anyway.

I was absolutely delighted to discover Wicked!, in which Jilly Cooper takes on the British school system. Readers of previous Jilly Cooper novels will remember references to Bagley Hall; here, we get to experience the boarding school of the rich and famous for ourselves. For contrast, we also have Larkshire Comprehensive, stuffed with the county's poor and problem children. Disguised as a juicy romance, the book is really a scathing indictment of teachers and administrators who act on petty jealousies and play power games instead of actually teaching. It is also, even more pointedly, a strike against those who would sacrifice real education in favour of modernization, convenience, and the financial bottom line. Light summer reading at its best!

Essentially, the plot follows protagonist Janna Curtis, new head of the struggling Larkshire Comp, as she tries to save her school and its wild and troubled students. She's not perfect, of course— and it's not the carefully crafted "imperfections" of the typical romantic heroine either— she has a not-always-charming temper and shouts at people, she has not one but two affairs with married men, and she gets passing-out drunk on a couple of occasions. But this is classic Jilly Cooper; real-life imperfections are her trademark, and her characters get pimples and go on diets just like real people do. Admittedly, at times I felt a little less than comfortable with this one: fidelity in marriage is a pretty big thing for me, and while affairs aren't unusual in Jilly Cooper's novels, they are usually either true love rising above bad marriages, or just unpleasant people gratifying themselves. Janna is our heroine, and yet she has a passionate affair with a likeable man whose wife we also like very much.

One of my favourite things about Jilly Cooper's novels is that the recurring characters don't just become static cardboard. Relationships continue to change and develop. In Wicked!, Taggie & Rupert Campbell-Black return, along with their two adopted children, now teenagers attending Bagley Hall. Rupert and Taggie take on challenges so totally unexpected that I was blown away; quite apart from the challenges of parenting teenagers, Taggie takes on a new job and Rupert writes an exam. Jupiter Belvedon's machiavellian nature descends to a new level of, well, Machiavelli-ness, and Cosmo Rannaldini grows from a one-dimensionally mercenary schemer to a troubled wrongdoer who does actually have a redeeming moment toward the end. Really, one has to wonder whether Little Cosmo will find true love in some future novel...

I also really enjoy the side relationships, the ones that aren't a major focus of the novel but are lovingly detailed anyway, such as the growing romance between elderly Lily Hamilton (Aunt Lily from Pandora) and her neighbour. I think that's one thing that really sets Jilly Cooper apart from the chick lit and summer reading crowd: the level of detail and care that is given to the minor characters and relationships. The intertwining families and relationships sprawl and tangle together the way real lives do— so often in novels, the characters are neatly defined as major, minor, and incidental, and one or two plot threads run smoothly side by side, artfully crossing— Wicked! is tangled, exciting, convoluted, and surprising with characters popping up into prominence and then sinking back into the background as the plot rolls on.

I'll admit it, I'm a huge Jilly Cooper fan, and this is possibly my new favourite of all her novels (well, with the exception of Rivals, when Rupert met Taggie...).

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Three-Martini Playdate

Heather gave me my copy of The Three-Martini Playdate by Christie Mellor ages ago, I think it might even have been shortly before Gem was born. However, it bears re-reading every so often; a refresher, one might say (and for any parent of small ones who hasn't read it yet— get it at once, you need it!).

This is not one of those "serious" parenting manuals, and neither is it one of those collections of anecdotes designed to make you feel better about your own parenting skills and experiences. I have no objections to either of those types of parenting books; indeed, What To Expect The First Year and The Girlfriends' Guide to Surviving the First Year of Motherhood are both still on my bookshelf (with well-creased spines to show my love for them). But The Three-Martini Playdate is another order of book altogether.

Part dry humour and part common sense, it has chapter headings such as "The Childproof House: How to Know If You've Gone Too Far", "Diaper Bag or Steamer Trunk?", and "Self-Esteem and Other Overrated Concepts". Every time I read this, either piecemeal or whole-way-through, I end up howling aloud with laughter... and then vowing to live by the underlying principles of it. Not the part about teaching your toddler to mix martinis, of course. But the advice on handling things like mealtimes and screaming is pretty good.

Any book that recommends Bizet's Carmen as child-friendly music— "Explain that chien means 'dog' in French and why Carmen uses such a pejorative to her lover, and your children will not care that this is opera and sung in a foreign language."— has definitely got something going for it (Mellor also recommends The Beatles and Django Reinhardt). Plus, I love the tone of dry sarcasm (not to mention the assumption that grown-up drinks, pedicures, and adult socializing are important parts of existence) which lifts The Three-Martini Playdate up above the usual gooey the-child-comes-first-you-are-of-no-importance tone of so many parenting books. This is parenting for Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly.

Finally, the writing— the language itself— is clear and intelligent and multi-syllabic. Mellor uses words like 'egregious' and 'insidious'. She says 'paraphernalia' instead of 'stuff'. It isn't pompous at all, just well-written and a pleasure for educated readers. No talking down to the lowest common denominator here.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


I just finished reading Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. You may have heard of it... the book took the Booker Prize in 1999, the author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. A well-regarded book from a well-regarded author, obviously, and not at all my usual sort of thing. But my father was reading it on our flight home from Toronto (we had been attending Spring Reunion at Trinity College— it's been 10 years for me, and 40 for him), and he kept laughing to himself and muttering things. So, of course, I had to know what was so funny.

Disgrace is very well written, but it wasn't my cup of tea, and I doubt I'll ever re-read it. This is in no way a criticism of the writing, which is superb: it's the subject matter that I disagree with, and that is my priviledge.

The disgrace referred to in the title (or at least the chief and most obvious disgrace) comes about when 52-year-old protagonist Professor David Lurie has an affair with one of his students, a girl named Melanie, and of course he ends up being dismissed for harassment and abuse of power. I found the whole premise distinctly off-putting, and the protagonist rather distasteful: an old professor lusting after a young college student, but then acting on it (and once rather against her will too), and then admitting his guilt but refusing to be sorry. The slyness and flirtatiousness of the girl affected me in a negative way also, almost as if these attributes somehow were supposed to mitigate the professor's behaviour. Coetzee makes the point that what ostensibly started as a mutual relationship became the basis for a harassment accusation after the fact, and equally the point that a confession of guilt may be demanded but repentance can't be compelled— but that doesn't make me like these characters any better. The fact that the professor uses prostitutes, including one younger than the college student, not once but twice during the novel, only serves to alienate me further. He also has an unemotional affair with a woman that he considers dumpy and unattractive, which seems vaguely offensive as well.

Actually, I feel rather badly saying I didn't completely enjoy such a well-written novel. The prose itself is clever and beautiful. The dry humour is entertaining; I can see what made my father laugh— in particular, the portrait of modern academia is killingly apt. And there were elements of the plot that I found very good indeed. There is some political subject matter in Disgrace, which is set in South Africa, switching between Cape Town and "the uplands of the Eastern Cape"; I am no expert, but to me it was interesting and well-handled. There is also a gritty storyline about recovery from robbery and rape, which is needfully grim and distressing, and again well-handled. Coetzee is clearly a master writer.

I think what I wanted, and didn't get, from this novel was one uplifting moment. That's a personal bias of mine; I like some hope with my fiction. The professor sees himself as "just an old lag serving out [his] sentence", equating the remainder of his existence with imprisonment. And the very last scene of the book, while poignant and beautifully written, is... well... not how I wanted it to end. Just more gritty reality, no light at the end of the tunnel.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Birth of Venus

For some reason, I just had to re-read The Birth of Venus for what must be the third or fourth time.

Subtitled "Love and Death in Florence", this powerful novel by British writer Sarah Dunant is described by Simon Schama as being "a beautiful serpent of a novel, seductive and dangerous". I don't know about "dangerous", exactly, but edgy and subversive it certainly is at times. "Serpent" may also seem to be an odd choice of word to describe a novel, but in this case it makes sense on reading the book.

A classic coming-of-age tale, the story centres around Alexandra, a young girl growing into womanhood in Renaissance Italy. She is surrounded by privilege and luxury, but also by education, fabulous art and artists, creativity... and splendid fabrics; her father is a cloth merchant. All the requisite elements of the coming-of-age story are present: sibling rivalry, rebellion against parents, independence and adventurousness in the heroine, and of course love in many forms.

Be warned, though, that despite a Renaissance backdrop, this book takes a swing at a number of edgy issues, including homosexuality and adultery. People who are uncomfortable with a discussion of these topics may not enjoy this book.

Sarah Dunant, originally a writer of mysteries & crime fiction, has lost none of her skill in creating suspense with this move away from genre writing. Clever plot twists and moments of discovery keep the story moving along at an exciting pace.

Note: Try to figure out the identity of the Painter before the end of the book. Bonus points for guessing the secret that Alexandra's mother keeps.