Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Rajah of Renfrew

Props to the Cracker Cats, Edmonton’s oddly-named professional baseball team, for their ceremony last night, celebrating 100 years of professional baseball in Edmonton. It was May 29th, 1907 that Edmonton’s first professional team, the Edmonton Legislators (I guess Edmonton has a history of poor names!) took the field against the Calgary Chinooks (okay, now that’s a name).
Of course, baseball had been played and was highly popular for years before professional baseball arrived. But a boom was building in 1907, with Edmonton touted on the pages of the Edmonton Bulletin as "The Chicago of the North". Surely a professional team staffed almost entirely by Americans would be the best way to show Edmonton had hit the big time?
The story of Edmonton baseball is well told in Brant E. Ducey’s 1998 book, The Rajah of Renfrew. While the book is subtitled The Life and Times of John E. Ducey, Edmonton’s "Mr. Baseball" (Brant’s Dad), it actually covers baseball history before and after Ducey was active. The archival photos of teams like 1903's Edmonton Never Sweats and Thirsty Thugs are fabulous.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Meaning of Night

After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.

Doesn't that opening line make you want to read Michael Cox's neo-Victorian thriller?

Sunday, May 20, 2007


If Peter Carey is the king of neo-Victorian novels, Sarah Waters is the queen. The undisputed queen. Waters has written a trio of 19th century novels, all great reads: Tipping the Velvet (1998), Affinity (2000), and Fingersmith (2002).

Tipping the Velvet follows an oyster seller from a small seaside town to the music halls and theatrical world of London as she finds and loses love. Lesbian love that is – just one point among many that separate this from Dickens! But with the charging, intricate plot of a Dickensian tale.

Affinity, Waters’ second novel, is a darker story, more Wilkie Collins than Dickens. Visiting a grim Victorian London prison as part of her rehabilitation following a suicide attempt, Margaret Prior is drawn to inmate spiritualist Selina Dawes and is persuaded to help her escape.

With the musical Oliver! filling Edmonton's Citadel Theatre night after after (only until June 3!) Fingersmith is a timely read: a "fingersmith" is Victorian slang for a pickpocket. Orphan Susan Trindler, raised in a household of thieves, is sent to seduce and defraud Maud Lilly, a wealthy heiress. But once installed in the house as Maud's maid, things become complicated, and Waters cranks up the narrative tension until the book is "un-put-downable". Plus the usual masterful scene-setting, romance and melodrama.

Waters is clearly a fan of Victorian fiction. In an interview on her website she is asked “is Dickens a big influence for you?” She responds:

Yes, I'm a big Dickens fan. His preoccupations - with city life, and with the life of London and the Thames in particular; with class, with desire, with guilt, and with the gothic traumas of maturation and love - still seem enormously resonant to me, and are those I suppose of my own writing. But I get squeamish about pursuing the comparison, not just because of Dickens being a literary genius and all of that, but because he was writing about his own period: he was a chronicler of his own social age. I'm writing faux-Victorian melodrama. A genuinely Dickensian writer today would be someone like Zadie Smith.

In one of the Guardian’s “Top Ten” book lists, Waters names her ten favourite Victorian novels:

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
2. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
3. Vanity Fair by WM Thackeray
4. New Grub Street by George Gissing
5. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
6. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
7. Dracula by Bram Stoker
8. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
9. Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
10. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Jack Maggs

Dickens is a great summer project but our modern sensibilities require some contemporary balance. What were those Victorian starched collars and stiff upper lips hiding and just what WAS Victoria’s secret anyway?

A perfect neo-Victorian complement is Peter Carey’s 1998 novel, Jack Maggs. Carey puts a postcolonial spin on the Victorian novel, re-writing Dickens’ Great Expectations (or “writing back” against the empire, as postcolonial critics would say). Carey takes Dickens’ convict characterAbel Magwitch, turns him into Jack Maggs, and slyly upends Great Expectations in many clever and delightful ways. You don’t need to have read Great Expectations to enjoy Jack Maggs however – this is an enjoyable and rollicking read that can stand on its own, with a narrative that chugs right along.

Carey seems to enjoy the 19th century and he is a wizard at recreating it. His 1988 novel, Oscar and Lucinda, about the unlikely romance between a shy English priest and an Australian heiress, is an unusual and eye-opening story of Victorian English obsessions face-to-face with frontier Australia. His 2000 novel, True History of the Kelly Gang (2001 Booker Prize winner), re-writes the true story of the legendary Australian outlaw/folk hero, Ned Kelly, flawlessly recreating Kelly’s voice.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Bleak House

Victoria Day weekend marks the start of summer in Canada, with gardeners, campers and other ambitious folk chomping at the bit. They may have to chomp a bit longer as it is pouring rain and cold this Friday afternoon, with more of the same forecast for the weekend. English-style weather, which should cause a retreat indoors to the shelter of hot tea or perhaps a warming wee dram. Toast the memory of the (mostly) forgotten grand old dame, Queen Victoria, and crack open a tome.
For many readers the “Victorian novel” remains the ideal, with its intricate plots, social realism and satisfying length. Many of these novels have aged remarkably well, with young readers discovering them year by year. Recently PBS aired a big-budget TV miniseries version of Charles DickensBleak House, starring Gillian Anderson. I don’t have the patience to remember to watch regularly but I’ll borrow the Library's DVD copy one of these days.
But pick up the book. Bleak House may be the greatest of Victorian novels, an intruiging tale of justice delayed in the never-ending inheritance lawsuit of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce (the court case that spawned the expression “The law is an ass.”). Forget Jim Hole’s advice on low-maintenance perennials – get some Dickens or some George Eliot or a Bronte or two, perhaps a gin and tonic restorative, find a comfy chair on the deck and voila, you have an excellent, low-carbon, green-friendly, ultra low-maintenance summer project!