this is not a review: this is a list of unexpected literary connections having to do with escape, rum, and well-intentioned budinskis

 

Somewhere in the process of my December reading it occurs to me that three very different and unlikely books share a series of similar elements.

Don’t you just love it when that happens, when you think… rum, again?? And it all begins to feel like a kind of reading serendipity is happening.

It begins with The Book of Eve, by Constance Beresford-Howe. Written in 1973… it remains the classic, in my opinion, running away story. Woman fed up with boorish husband, chooses instead to live in a damp bare bones Montreal basement apartment, with a feral cat outside a window that’s impossible to open and a slightly mad, slightly inspiring Hungarian living upstairs. Hard to see as uplifting but of course it is. She is free, not of life’s yins and yangs, but free of those yins and yangs where the source is boorishness and which grate as intolerable because they are the yins and yangs of a life that is not of her choosing. Makes such a difference. The upstairs Hungarian is the well-intentioned budinski. There is rum (or is it whiskey?), also sherry. There is scavenging in order to survive, there is rain and redecorating with scavenged objets that indeed become a kind of art representing this new life. There is the confusion of what I have done? and there are answers.

— The book to read if you, too, have dreams of living in a damp basement apartment with not a lick of money other than what you can pawn your scavenged bits for. Or if you merely admire simplicity and living one’s truth.

 

Next up, One Woman’s Island, by Susan Toy, which surely calls to me as an antidote to all that damp draftiness (see above). The story takes place in the Caribbean on the island of Bequia, which is an almost character itself in the way Toy offers not only island customs and sounds, fragrance, colour, but the lilt of language, the tinkle of ice in a rum-filled glass. She also gives us a peek at the ex-pat experience in all its happy hour island vibe and the sense of finding like-minded souls, but also the sometimes sense of claustrophobia, lack of meaningful ways to spend one’s time, and the major adjustment to another culture. The story is about a woman who leaves Canada after the death of her husband and heads to Bequia where she rents a house for six months, intending to simply relax. Turns out relaxation is limited given the dinner and drinks invitations from ex-pats, the occasions of possible murder, various other dangers and intrigues, and her own well-intentioned budinski tendencies toward a neighbouring family. Toy has a dry sense of humour that infuses the narrative voice with a conversational tone and makes for an easy, enjoyable, and compelling read. Also, Toy’s respect for the island comes through in the way she weaves references to serious issues such as literacy, island politics, traditions, and warns of the need for ex-pats (and tourists) to understand that life for the locals, while appearing to mainlanders as possibly needing improvement, is a life the islanders love. Budinskis butt out.

— The book to read if you want a sweet slice of winter armchair travel. (Also, Toy, who actually does live part of the year on Bequia, and is a bit of a foodie, infuses much cooking and eating throughout the book and thoughtfully includes recipes for items enjoyed by the characters at the end of each chapter. I will try several.)

 

Finally,  Lynn Coady’s Watching You Without Me,  The budinski connection is huge here. His name is Trevor and he’s employed to take Karen’s intellectually handicapped sister Kelli for walks twice a week. Karen has been living in Toronto for many years but comes home to Nova Scotia after the death of her mother, in order to look after Kelli and make arrangements for her future. Trevor, the personal support worker, has an excellent relationship with Kelli, who clearly adores him and vice versa. He is helpful re info on the home care system and long term care residences, all of which Karen is grateful for. Until. Without giving too much away, let’s just say Karen learns she should have followed her own instincts, and this is where the escape element comes in. Although I won’t say in which direction said escaping occurs. I will say that rum features large throughout.

— The book to read if you’re a caregiver. A manual of both what to do and not do.

 

 

this is not a review: ‘the adventures of miss petitfour’, by anne michaels

 
The Adventures of Miss Petitfour  does pretty much what I like a book to do, it makes me hungry for cake and tea and cheese and adventures with a tablecloth; for another cat or two. (She has sixteen and no complaints at her end.) In fact the cats play a huge role in this gorgeous collection of sweet but not in any way saccharine stories. On the contrary, there’s much authorly humour, of the kind that allow two levels of reading: adult and child. Both will be amused but at different things.

We begin with an introduction to the lovely Miss Petitfour by way of an illustration “…just to be sure you recognize her”.  (And is it just me or does she look a little like the also-clever-but-in-a-very-different-line-of-work, Tabatha Southey?) By the way, Emma Block’s colour illustrations throughout are a pleasure to contemplate all on their own and, in fact, the whole book feels a little like a kind of petitfour… beautifully made with tea and pastry endpapers, a fixed ribbon marker, the kind of smooth semi-gloss pages your hands happily glide over and over and the whole thing just the right size for holding comfortably with one hand, leaving the other available for tea drinking, cake noshing or petting of resident kitty. Because after reading this you may have to get at least one.

The opening story takes Miss P. and her sixteen cats on an outing to find marmalade. This naturally includes a visit to a bookshop, which is cleverly divided, as all book shops should be, into two sides, marked ‘ho-hum’, and ‘hum’… that is, one side for people who prefer “books where nothing ever happens”  and the other for people who feel the need to “visit another planet, or to run away to sea to meet pirates, or to fall down holes, or to be blasted by a volcano, and that sort of thing.”

Wind plays a role, as wind ought. (Miss P. has a good command of air currents generally, a characteristic missing in most protagonists.)“It is often the case that the wind is not blowing in the right direction. This is just another petifour_hitiresome fact of life, like the fact that your feet grow too big for your favorite shoes, or that your favorite crayon gets shorter and shorter the more you use it.”

In the story ‘Birthday Cheddar’, my personal favourite, we go in search of Minky’s gift (she’s a “snow-pawed cat,” who fancies cheese). Correction, not merely fancies… “… she adored cheese, flirted with it, danced with it and brought it lovely presents, like pebbles from the garden, before devouring it with her little Minky teeth.”  There follows a description of how Parmesan affects the leaves of a salad and how, on cheese toast, the “cheddar melted into every little crevice and crater…”  And that’s just for starters. The whole passage is delicious. And then, because we aren’t happy/hungry enough, Michaels lists ten or so varieties of cheese. Minky of course has a cheese calendar that she sleeps with on which “Each month there was a big picture of a different kind of cheese in a mouthwatering pose: blue cheese cavorting with pears, cheddar laughing with apples, Gruyere lounging with grapes, Edam joking with parsley.” (Oh how I covet this calendar!)

Lessons on the art of storytelling are a brilliant thread throughout in highlighted, upper-case or bold type. Michaels points to words and phrases such as ‘unbelievably’, ‘by great good fortune’ and ‘by chance’, etc., revealing them as the devices they are to change the course of the story. And then she uses them to do just that. And then she might digress, telling us (in parenthesis) that this is a digression. It’s all so beautifully, tongue-in-cheekily done, like the ways of a favourite eccentric teacher.

So, yes, this is one seriously charming, creative and really quite perfect kid book (recently and somewhat reluctantly passed on to my niece) that any adult will easily love. Impossible to meet Miss Petifour, to travel with her in this tablecloth riding, tea drinking, food-filled land where you are encouraged (by Miss Petitfour herself) to hear only the parts of sentences you like the sound of… and not come away feeling just a bit lighter for it.

“Some adventures are so small, you hardly know they’ve happened. Like the adventure of sharpening your pencil to a perfect point, just before it breaks and that little bit gets stuck in the sharpener.”

One flaw, and that’s the unfortunate and (always) annoying use of U.S. spelling. Flavor. Color. Etc. Boo to that.

Three thumbs up to everything else.