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Minding Marta

Our dog has a torn dewclaw, and the vet told us to dissuade her from licking it for at least four days; to that end, we have, after smearing on the cream that he gave us, wrapped the injured place with bandages and tape. Perhaps that would be sufficient for a well behaved, docile kind of dog, but not for Marta, the canine Houdini. Not only can she have that bandage off in less that three minutes, but she can (drum roll please) ingest it so swiftly and completely that if you have, by chance, decided to take a quick five minute shower, you will find, on re-entering the room where you left her, a total absence of anything resembling said bandage, and a dog vigorously licking her now bare leg. And don’t even get me started on the (beloved by vets) collar of shame; Marta can chew through that and get back to licking and infecting said leg in the blink of an eye. Consequently, the three of us here have been taking turns monitoring Marta, 24 hours a day. She appears to be very happy, as fresh as a daisy and wanting to play, go for walks, chase sticks (and cats), and in all ways behave with doggy abandon and delight; we, on the other hand, are barely functioning.

So this has been a particularly good time to read The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks, because if any book could make short shrift of my whinging, this is the one. Set in the Lake District, this is far from the romanticized vision that is usually associated with Wordsworth country. Certainly, the world that Rebanks describes is one of extraordinary hard work, impossibly long hours and very little financial reward. However, it is a world that clearly satisfies and enriches the lives of the people who inhabit it, and it has a great deal to teach those of us who restlessly search to find our place, and who are never quite settled where we are. Rebanks’ family have lived and worked in the Lake District for over six hundred years; he is deeply aware of, and grateful for, his connection to the land and to the people with whom he shares it, people who, like him, take their responsibilities seriously and who do so with great integrity. Initially disinterested in school, he came to formal education later than most, though when he did decide to take it on his intelligence and work ethic lead him to read history at Oxford. But right from the start he was clear that, although his degree could afford him the opportunity to work in a variety of arenas, his primary work was and is shepherding; that is what he has returned to, supplementing his livelihood with valuable work at UNESCO.

Rebanks’ story is fascinating, his writing clear, imaginative, and a pleasure to read. The Shepherd’s Life is the perfect antidote for those of us caught in a world where values are too often pliable, and where discomfort is too often mistaken for hardship, and is exactly the right book when you need a dose of perspective: such as at three in the morning, when you’re once again cleaning vomited vet tape off the kitchen floor.

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The quicksilver landscape of childhood

Recently, I read Jane Gardam’s The Hollow Land; it’s unclassifiable, ageless, and I loved it. It is listed in the front of her book as a children’s story, and it won the 1983 Whitbread Children’s Book Prize, but if ever there was a book that illustrated how blurred the line between adult and children’s literature is, this is it. Probably because of the success of Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy, Europa editions has republished the book, and it now sits comfortably in the adult side of the bookstore aisle, making it accessible to adult readers; unfortunately, that may mean that kids may not know of it, and consequently that they might miss the chance to experience its wonder while they are able to have childhood’s particular understanding of it.

Whatever age you come to it, though, this is one of those books that changes the way you see the everyday world.

The premise of the story is deceptively simple. Two young boys, city bred Harry Bateman and country bred Bell Teasdale, meet when the Batemans rent a vacation home, Light Trees, in the Cumbrian countryside; through a series of linked stories and shifting perspectives we witness how their lives, as well as the lives of their families and those of the locals, connect and become intertwined. The boys understand intrinsically that their lives are deeply informed by the natural world; Bell has known and accepted that all his life, while Harry, just discovering it, embraces it for the first time, and for always.

The boys’ lives are filled with stories, the kind of stories that you hear as a child (especially if you manage to be quiet and unobtrusive, at least for awhile); the gossip, the lore, of your family, and your neighbours, of the things that are taking place, or have taken place, in your piece of the world. These are the stories told about, and sometimes by, people who would be considered eccentric if they lived somewhere else, but who inhabit your everyday world or who visit it briefly, and who are, therefore, just themselves. Bell and Harry’s world is peopled with such characters: the inscrutable Egg Witch, the gloriously garrulous chimney sweep, Kendall, and, of course, the famous Londoner interloper, The Household Word. Reading of the boys’ adventures, such as the perilous but beautiful Icicle Ride and Harry’s curious, liberating visit to the Egg Witch, feels like opening a cut paper picture book wherein the simple is transformed into the magical, and childhood, that half remembered place that we carry with us, is alive again, in all its mysterious complexity.

All children are explorers, both accepting of and intent on learning the secrets and truths of the landscape, natural and human, that they inhabit, often wondering at what they discover, catching a glimpse of some truth that they can’t name or explain. What is remarkable about The Hollow Land is that it offers us the opportunity to remember that, and it reminds us all that we are still on that journey.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

TS Eliot

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Cards on the table

     cardturner A few weeks ago, I picked up my copy of The Cardturner, by Louis Sachar, for the first time in over a year. I jumped into the middle and started reading, skimming through in the assurance that I remembered the plot well enough to simply dabble with rereading. Within ten pages, I was in tears, and I’d remembered why I first fell in love with this novel, when I reviewed it after its release: below is the review I wrote–every word is still true.

Bridge. Louis Sachar, award-winning author of the spectacular young adult novel Holes, had decided to write an entire novel about bridge. I couldn’t believe it. With all the wonderful, fascinating, creative ideas to write about, with all his genius and potential…he chose bridge. I’m a huge fan of Louis Sachar, but when I heard this, even I doubted his ability to make a book about a teenage boy who turns cards for his legally blind great-uncle exciting (an opinion which, according to Sachar’s introduction, was shared by his publisher, editor, wife, and agent). As a result, my attitude when I picked up The Cardturner, was, let us say, sceptical. Then I started the book. Not only was The Cardturner witty, engaging, clever, and wise beyond my wildest expectations, it was actually making me enjoy a card game I thought you had to be born knowing how to play. In fact, I found myself in the highly unusual position of having to force myself to put the book down in favour of things like food and sleep…I couldn’t stop reading (I love when this happens).

The novel is set in the present day, and indeed the characters and the tone are both extremely contemporary (Sachar has even managed to subtly capture the financial anxieties of the last few years). Narrator and protagonist Alton Richards is philosophical, funny, and quick, and his story, while timeless (boy goes to work for curmudgeonly relative; boy meets girl; boy learns family secrets and—well, I can’t tell you any more or I’ll spoil the story), is utterly modern. However, a compelling subplot threaded throughout also recreates a time when bridge was played in all the best houses (especially that big white one in Washington, DC), when “I Like Ike” was a national catchphrase, and when a woman was most definitely the property of her husband–however he might treat her.

Add to that a superb supporting cast of modern-day characters including Alton’s great-uncle Lester Trapp’s extremely unusual niece Toni (also known as his protégée and ex-cardturner), Alton’s financially-anxious parents, his ever-cool best friend Cliff (yes, the one who Alton’s girlfriend Katie dumped him for), and his younger sister Leslie (who shows more cool-headed intelligence than anyone who isn’t 11 would believe), and you have the recipe for an absolutely stellar novel.

Plot and characters alike are powerful, complex, and touched in turns by tragedy and joy, sorrow and laughter; issues of sexism, domestic violence, politics, romance, religion, and even the meaning of life are deftly interwoven in this unique coming-of-age story, as Alton struggles to discover his own identity and beliefs—inspired by everything from his remarkable yet caustic uncle, to Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, to the complex, fascinating game that is unfolding before Alton as he is drawn further into the world of bridge.

Indeed, as you read The Cardturner you too may find yourself drawn into a world of excitement and intelligence: Sachar, himself a devotee of bridge from a very early age, infuses the story with his passion for the game as he offers instruction on everything from the basic rules of bridge to sophisticated and intriguing ploys to aid you at the championship level. These instructions, preceded by the image of a whale (inspired by another dense epic, Moby Dick, which similarly goes into detail that, while important, isn’t strictly relevant to the main story) so, as Alton says “if that makes you zone out, you can skip ahead to the summary box,” where the play is described as briefly as possible and you can get back to the plot. However, Sachar’s intelligent, accurate, and cleverly colloquial description of the plays will have you diving deep into the details of bridge, relishing the excitement inherent in the explanation.

Louis Sachar is well-known as a smart and funny writer. But until you read this book, you cannot fully grasp just how truly and completely wise and talented he really is: he doesn’t shy away from complex ideas or profound discussion, but weaves these threads in with a magnificent deftness of touch and such an engaging tone that the most reluctant reader cannot help but be inspired. The next time you’re looking for something new to read, take a chance on The Cardturner you won’t regret it, and it might just change your life; it’s certainly changed mine.

Four years later, I still stand by my last line.

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