Holiday Reading on Lake Muskoka

14th August 2004

I'm just back from a true vacation - two weeks with friends in one of the original cottages (built 1910, and in the same family ever since) on a private island on Lake Muskoka, a couple of hours north of Toronto. Idleness was interspersed with swimming, island walks, kayaking, and exquisitely fine dining with friends. Excursions were on my first ever fishing expedition (to a private lake, landing 10 small-mouthed bass) and on a fine 1937 cruiser to a private island, swimming its circuit before a barbecue.

On the trip to the picnic island I watched a new friend finish reading a book I had passed on. Knowing she was nearing the end I advised her to finish it somewhere quiet, but she was too engrossed. Watching her turn the final pages I was moved once again into that special transcendent state the book conjures up. It was recommended by a friend who knew I was heading to the Canadian lakes, Mary Lawson's Crow Lake. The book is set on lakes further north in Ontario. Essentially it is a woman's tale of growing up in the care of her siblings; it's also about the effects of education, placing your own expectations on other people's lives, the primal nature of working the land and pverty and family and the rhythm of the seasons. This is a very beautiful book indeed.

A large part of the vacation was simply allowing myself to read for the sheer pleasure of reading. The last months have been very strenuous. This was a time of recovery. Other reading?

F.Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was recommended by my nephew - I don't know if I was re-reading it or not! He was especially moved by the last four paragraphs, so I studied those. They imagine the landscape of the book in a time before mankind arrived, the first visitors 'face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder'. The narrator equates himself with Gatsby, finding value in this yearning for the past, Gatsby reinventing himself through myth-making, society and wealth in a bid to achieve a fleeting moment of perfect possibility that existed in his youth. It occurs to me that this is why the book is the 'great American novel'. This yearning for some bygone perfection, an inverted sense of pioneering, is perhaps what places the USA so out of touch with progress made in the rest of the world. Change the constitution to deny gay marriage, stand resolute against the Kyoto accord, drill the Arctic for oil, strive for more wealth at any price to chase a stale ideal that has not only long-since vanished it has been superceded.

My other fiction reads were Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard. I had resisted it before but warmed by another new friend's recommendation I embraced it. It's a wonderful novel. The one book of a Sicilian prince, written in 1957 and published just after he died but dealng with the previous century in the life of a Sicilian princely family, it is a rich, generous, and superbly human book. Tim Gautreaux's The Clearing is a strong tale of the people and rivalries chewing up a cypress forest and feeding it into a mill in the Louisiana of the 1920s. A new book, a fine heart-and-guts read with an acceptably satisfying ending, it was a surprisingly good complement to The Great Gatsby. Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal was fine in its way, a spinster's rather brittle tale of the life she has manipulated, though I tired of the bitterness and the narrowness of the vision. It smacks of a certain English quality I find wearying, restricted emotions taking a python hold on warmer qualities. Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake was my one foray into dystopian fiction. As my area of study and creativity just now this verged on work, but I threw it into the suitcase as anther Canadian read. It's a fine novel - a little more ordered, a little less passionate, a lot more playful than A Handmaid's Tale, a future warped by genetic engineering with an ending that is left in the balance. I missed the grand climax, but on reflection liked this didactic move of Atwood's, forcing us to make the decision as to which way the action should progress. A good book for a reading group, I would guess. In my last week's of teaching a 14 year-old boy came up to me at the end of a lesson to declare it the best book he had ever read - a writer can't want for a finer recommendation than that.

Non-fiction rounded off the reading package. Mick Brown's Dance of Seven Lives. his tale of the discovery and subsequent escape to India of the 17th Karmapa, is a fine clear read, the characters charged with discovering the new incarnation of the Karmapa filled with the intrigues of a medieval court. Strong suggestions of murder are buried in the tale, enough material is given for the reader to find characters both accused and guilty, but the spiritual standing of the new teenage Karmapa is well portrayed as well. And his predecessor, the 16th Karmapa, comes across as a magnificently strong creature.

The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman, is the 1947 account of one of the very few survivors of the warsaw Ghetto, detailing the extinction of his family and friends, the utter destruction of the ghetto as a prelude to the demolition of Warsaw, the horrors engendered by the occupying troops, all in a voice as clear as the Chopin Nocturne with which he resumed his career on warsaw radio.

At Toronto airport I discovered Tom Harpur's The Pagan Christ. It's a revelation. I'll write about it as my next piece.

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