Halloween reads: Frankenstein retold, and The Lunenburg Werewolf

I love Halloween. I love to be scared. So this time every year, I try to find a scary story or two to read after the sun goes down. This year, I found many.

First, my book club pick for October was The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Theodore Roszak. A scholar and Frankenstein ‘expert,’ Roszak rewrites the classic tale in the voice of Frankenstein’s foster-sister-turned-bride, Elizabeth. (There is of course some ridiculous irony in a man rewriting a novel that to many proved that a woman could write ‘like a man’ – in order to give its primary female character a voice.)

The premise of the Memoirs is that Victor and Elizabeth were raised to form a prefect alchemical union or the ‘chymical marriage.’ Filled with pagan and alchemical ritual and highly erotic, the novel presents Elizabeth as a partner to Victor in his early research, sharing similar goals, but recognizing danger in his ambitions. The story is told or presented by Sir Robert Walton, who also narrates the original Mary Shelley novel, and is a combination of (often disjointed) letters and diary entries written by Elizabeth.

I will say that the novel was original and intriguing, but hardly the feminist tome it claims to be. Elizabeth is still overly diminutive and dependant on Victor and not at all a ‘strong female character.’ Adding witches and midwives and lesbians to a story does not make it feminist literature.

Worth a read if you are interested in alchemy and early science, with a mystical theme.

Mass Market Paperback

Publisher: Bantam (Oct 1 1996)

ISBN-10: 0553576372

ISBN-13: 978-0553576375

Next up in my spooky reads is Steve Vernon’s latest collection of Nova Scotia ghost stories: The Lunenburg Werewolf. I love me a good ghost story – and all the better if it is a) true/based on truth and b) local – as in, there is a very slight possibility that I could also witness the phenomena, thus making it 400 times as scary.

The Lunenburg werewolf delivers, with a great collection of well-known and obscure Nova Scotia ghost stories, from the werewolf of the title, to better known stories like Amherst’s Esther Cox and the phantom ship of the Northumberland Strait. Vernon first weaves the tale, much my grandmother once would have done, and then follows up with descriptions of alternate versions and where applicable, possible non-ghostly explanations for the phenomena. This, and his earlier collection “Haunted Harbours” are both great to add to the collection of any folklore or ghost story fan.

Paperback: 160 pages

Publisher: Nimbus Publishing (Sep 15 2011)

ISBN-10: 1551098571

ISBN-13: 978-1551098579


Anna Karenina – Part Seven

OK, I’m back into it. Thoroughly enjoyed reading Part VII. Whether that’s just me feeling better, or because I’m finally seeing some plot movement again, well I’ll let you decide.

Part VII opens with the imminent birth of Kitty and Levin’s first child. They have moved to Moscow at the insistence of her family, to be near better doctors, and of course this has country-loving Levin all out of sorts, but he will do whatever is necessary for his dearest in her ‘confinement.’ (Such an elegant yet ghastly term for the end og pregnancy and labour.) Levin even manages to forgive and try to befriend Vronsky – and darn near falls in love with Anna, to Kitty’s dismay.

But the real story this time is Anna. We have seen her spiraling downward through the whole novel, and here she is truly mad. No longer just jealous, she has become paranoid and utterly miserable. Despite the fact that I am reading the novel knowing full well it is a romantic tragedy, I couldn’t help but keep hoping for her. “Maybe Karenin will relent and grant a divorce.” “Maybe she will find room in her heart for her daughter.” Maybe… maybe … but no. The end – her end – is inevitable, and heartbreaking to read.

“Now nothing mattered: going or not going to Vozdvizhenskoe, getting or not getting a divorce from her husband. All that did not matter. The only thing that mattered was punishing him. When she poured out her usual dose of opium, and thought that she had only to drink off the whole bottle to die, it seemed to her so simple and easy that she began musing with enjoyment on how he would suffer, and repent and love her memory when it would be too late.”


The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

You know what’s really fun about reviewing books – getting to read them before anyone else. Ami McKay’s The Virgin Cure is officially released today, but I was lucky enough to score a copy a few weeks ago, and read it in advance. I am not generally one to gush, but I really, really liked this book.

Set in the slums of New York City at the turn of the 19th century, The Virgin Cure tells the story of twelve year old Moth, who dreams of riches, mansions and exotic pets, desperate to leave behind her dreary life, only to be sold into servitude by her mother. She escapes the home of her new brutal mistress, and is ‘rescued’ by Miss Emmett and her girls into a life of prostitution. When inspected for cleanliness and virginity at her new brother home, Moth first meets Dr. Sadie, the physician who records and narrates her tale.

Dr. Sadie is based on the life of McKay’s great great grandmother (I think I have the correct number of ‘great’s here), one of the first female physicians in New York City, who dedicated her life to serving the destitute women and children of the slums in and around Chrystie Street.

“I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart.”

Moth and Dr. Sadie are remarkably different but equally intriguing characters. McKay skillfully recreates New York life in the late 1800s, thrilling the reader with unique tidbits of information from the doctor, but yet making the world so alive that you hardly realize you are reading historical fiction. Filled with thieves, gypsies, circus performers, prostitutes and representatives from the highest and lowest edges of society, the Virgin Cure has a little something for everyone. I enjoyed this novel even more than McKay’s first novel, best-selling The Birth House.

McKay will be at Chapters in Bayers Lake tonight at 7pm for a reading and book signing. Get yourself out there if you can. You won’t regret it.

Also, check out her new Tumblr page, Pear Tree Planchette, filled with images which help bring Moth’s world to life.

Hardcover: 368 pages

Publisher: Knopf Canada (Oct 25 2011)

ISBN-10: 0676979564

ISBN-13: 978-0676979565

Note: This review copy was not supplied but the publisher, but purchased in a silent auction at a fundraiser.


Anna Karenina – Part Six

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe the combination of houseguests followed by a bad cold and throat infection, which made me so tired all I did was work and sleep and my update is now a week late, have all combined to taint my enjoyment of the book.

Or maybe Part VI is just not as enjoyable as the rest.

Regardless, I found it a bother to read.
Levin’s jealousy over any man who speaks to Kitty has lost its original naive sweetness and is just annoying and tiresome. And don’t get me started on five chapters of a hunting excursion. I tried to see what lesson this was supposed to teach me about Russian society. Honestly I did. I just didn’t care.

“And though she felt sure that his love for her was waning, there was nothing she could do, she could not in any way alter her relations to him. Just as before, only by love and by charm could she keep him. And so, just as before, only by occupation in the day, by morphine at night, could she stifle the fearful thought of what would be if he ceased to love her.”

Levin is not the only tiresome & jealous lover. Anna is getting worse in her obsession with Vronsky. She made her choice but seems unable to accept it, constantly worrying what will become of her if her new love should ever tire of her. Get over it and get on with things, woman. Divorce your husband. Marry your lover. Make a new life. The end.

But then, that’s not what the book is about, is it?

I am almost caught up on reading, post sick delay. Hope to have Part VII posted in the next day or two.

Anna Karenina – Part 5

More than half-way through. Part V features the long-awaited marriage of Kitty and Levin, and the beginning of Anna’s life with Vronsky.

Levin, thus far ambivalent about religion, despite the fervor present throughout Russia, must attend confession before he can be married, bringing about the most interesting musings and discussions on religion and faith in the novel so far.

Levin confesses his doubts in the existence of God to the priest, and is surprised by the nonchalance of acceptance, and the perhaps arrogant belief that this will (and must) pass. But through this we discover more about Levins fears and beliefs, his willingness to try to believe something he doubts, in order to please his family and give (potential) children a proper upbringing.

The wedding is a multi-chapter detailed success, and the two retreat to the country where there is an endearing adjustment period, as neither of the innocents know what to expect from married life, and find themselves disappointed in some aspects and unexpectedly surprised in others. It is perhaps not until they are called to the deathbed of Levin’s brother that Levin (and the reader) truly knows the value of the young woman he has married.

Part 5 is also the first time we see Anna happy. Or mostly happy.  Living in Italy with Vronsky, she is relaxed and at peace with her choices.  Her only remaining sorrow is the separation from her son. She attempts to make up for this by showering attention on her infant daughter, but realizes she simply does not love her as much as her first-born (as a second born daughter, I found this mildly disconcerting). Vronsky on the other hand, finds that now that he has everything he wanted he is bored and unhappy. He does love Anna still, but misses the excitement of their previous existence.

When they return briefly to St. Petersburg, Anna attempts to see her son, and when refused, she sneaks into her former house with the help of servants, angering Karenin – whose new best friend the countess Lydia Ivanovna is as fervent (and frightening) in her religious faith and Levin is doubtful.

The overlying themes here are definitely religion and marriage/relationships. First, the contrast between Levin and Lydia Ivanovna in their approach to the church, and how it shapes their outlook on life. Second, the approach of the men to their relationships. Both Levin and Vronsky find themselves discontented when they finally get what they wanted from love. Levin, as the stronger character, deals with this much better, adjusts and lets go of silly expectations, and finds happiness. Karenin doesn’t so much miss his wife as he misses the role she played in his life, and is happy to let another woman take over the role.

Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

It was like reading two books in one: Hay introduces us to the group of lost souls staffing CBC Radio Yellowknife in 1975 – then sends four of them on an epic trek through the barrens, changing their lives forever.

Most everyone has a time they recall – fondly or not – when their life changed. It may have been a job, a trip, a semester in college, but the friends made and lost, the experiences gathered meant you could never look at life the same again. This is the story Hay is telling. Two young women, Dido and Gwen, learn the ins and outs of radio, over a year in the Canadian north. But they learn about much more than radio.

Most striking about this novel is the contrasting of the characters to their natural environment. I’ve always been a sucker for books that do this well (hence my love for Barbara Kingsolver). Late Nights on Air tells the stories of these women, and their coworkers, against a backdrop of change in the north, with the MacKenzie Pipeline hearings bring controversy and conflict to their community, pitting economic growth and advancement against tradition and environmental protection. The pipeline is not part of the story, yet the controversy affects all of the characters, in different ways.

And then the story within the story: Gwen’s obsession with the story of John Hornby, the canoe trip through the barrens, retracing the explorer’s steps, visiting the cabin where he and his companions died. The trip tests all four would-be explorers physical and mental limitations, proving their mettle, bringing glimpses of happiness to otherwise lonely characters, yet ending in tragedy.

Overall, this was a book I found hard to put down. All characters charmed me – either by being charming, or so curmudgeonly I was charmed despite myself. There was layer upon layer of detail: radio’s struggle against television, a young woman’s journey to find herself, the history of exploration in the north, the conflict between advancement and tradition in the north, and on and on. Brilliantly done. My only complaint is there was perhaps an overuse of foreshadowing. I felt like Hay was hitting me over the head with the fact that “something bad” was going to happen, to that point that when it did it was almost anti-climactic.

Still, well worth a read. Also, makes me want to revisit Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens, as I kept having flashbacks to grade six English class.

Paperback: 376 pages

Publisher: Emblem Editions; 1st Trade edition (April 1 2008)

ISBN-10: 0771040199

ISBN-13: 978-0771040191


 *Winner of the Giller Prize in 2007.

Anna Karenina – Part 4

Only 23 chapters folks. And even better – action-packed, passion-laden, desperation-filled chapters. You should all be so hooked on the book that you have completely caught up, right?

OK, maybe not. But you will. Things have gotten interesting again.

Anna and Karenin are sharing a house, but living like strangers. He makes a point of seeing her once a day, so as not to arouse suspicion, but will not eat at home. She is miserable and hating him more every day.

“Oh, why didn’t I die? It would have been better!”

She breaks her word and in invites Vronksy to the house while Karenin is out. Except he is not out, having returned early. Bad things happen. Divorce proceedings commence. Anna dreams that she will die in childbirth, and we are led to assume Vronsky has the same dream. When she is near death, she begs Karenin for forgiveness. In a rare display of emotion, he forgives her and Vronsky, even seems to discover a love for his wife, though underneath he knows it is too late.

In short: everyone is miserable and consumed by hate, passion or desperation (or some combination of the three).

“She had done all she could–she had run up to him and given herself up entirely, shy and happy. He put his arms round her and pressed his lips to her mouth that sought his kiss.

She too had not slept all night, and had been expecting him all the morning.”

Levin and Kitty finally reunite, discover they are still in love, and plan to marry. It is so sickly sweet, over-the-top romantic that I feel like something must go wrong soon. I am holding onto the hope that as they seem to be present in the story to provide a rational contrast to the desperate love affair of Anna and Vronsky, that things will continue to work out for them – this after all is what happens to the virtuous. At least in fiction.

I continue to be disgusted by Stiva’s shallowness, amused by Levin’s aloofness and angered by Karenin’s coldness. Vronsky continues to be shallow (his disappointment in Anna’s weight gain, during her advanced pregnancy, had me seething). Anna has moved from fascinating to desperate and heart-breaking (though perilously close to whiny and annoying).

On to Part V.