"Tales From Willowshade Farm"

Tales From Willowshade Farm - An Island Woman's Notebook by Betty Howatt

Betty Howatt is a native Prince Edward Islander who farms with her husband, Everett, on land that has been in his family since 1783. Howatt's Fruit Farm, formerly called Willowshade Farm, is known for their fruit, vegetables and honey.

There are stories in this book about her personal history and what it's like now to be a full time farmer. It's full of interesting information about the history and the flora and fauna of the area and anecdotes about her family's farming experience. The sections of the book are titled The Howatt Farm, My Younger Years, Farming for a Living, Creatures of the Wild, In the Garden and Feasts from the Farm.

Published in 2003, it's a wonderful look at operating and making a living from a small family farm and a lifestyle that is too quickly disappearing. The stories were gathered from broadcasts presented by the author on a CBC radio program.

 I tried to find out if the farm is still operating but the internet didn't yield any current information, just some old references from four or five years ago. If anyone out there knows if they are still open for business please do leave a comment letting me know.

"Persuasion" and "The Incident Report"

Persuasion by Jane Austen

This is not my favourite of Austen's books but I love reading it anyway. In this one the main character is a woman who, in her youth, broke off a relationship with the man she loved because of her family's disapproval. All of Jane Austen's novels end happily ever after and this one has the same predictable outcome when the man shows up in her life after a few years and they renew their acquaintance. I wish there was more dialogue between these two characters, but there are only a few very brief meetings before they finally get together and reveal their feelings for one another. Until then it all happens in her thoughts, which is a bit disappointing. As I said, I like her other novels better. I'll keep reading them all though because there's simply nothing like Jane Austen's writing. It's in a class by itself.

The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

This wasn't what I expected. I'd read reviews saying it was the (fictional) record book of a librarian writing up reports on various incidents taking place in the library, but the tone and the direction the story took were quite a surprise. Because the main character is a female librarian I was thinking it might have a "Miss Read" or "Anne of Green Gables" feel to it. Wrong. It started out with a couple of funny incidents but the stories get much more serious as it continues. This is an edgy librarian - two words not often used together, I suspect. Many of the incident reports are about her personal life, though the book was supposed to chronicle events happening in the library. Toward the end it gets much more intense than anything I expected. I wasn't disappointed with it, just a bit disconcerted because it was so far off what I was expecting. I think I liked it. I know I'll remember it.

"Without A Guide" and "A Tale of Two Cities"

Without a Guide - Contemporary Women's Travel Adventures edited by Katherine Govier

This is a collection of short travel stories from some of the world's best known female authors, including Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Annie Proulx and Carol Shields. The stories are meant to be some of their more memorable travel experiences, but I was a bit disappointed to find them focusing less on the places they were visiting and more on what was happening to them personally at the time.

I am usually a big fan of travel storiesI'm not able to travel myself so I devour other people's travel experiences with great expectation and excitement. These stories, though all set in different places around the world, didn't make any of them seem appealing. Many of the stories are about negative experiences and one, called "On The Train To Hell And Can't Get Off", is just weird. It closes by telling us that the author is still on the train, that we are with her, and that none of us are ever getting off. Not your usual travel tale.

I did find the writing a pleasure to read, if not the stories. These are, after all, proven authors, so though  I can't say I enjoyed the book, I don't feel my time was wasted.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

There's no way I'm going to review a Dickens novel, but for those who don't know the story, it's set during the French Revolution and takes place in both London and Paris. It's tragic because it's set in a tragic time, but it's not all unhappy. As it says in its famous opening line:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only." 

The closing line is also a famous one, one I never really understood until I read the novel in spite of its being quoted frequently in other writings:

"It is a far, far, better thing that I do, than I have ever done;
it is a far, far, better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

What else can I say? It's Dickens. If you love Dickens, you'll love A Tale of Two Cities.


Sweetland by Michael Crummey

Moses Sweetland lives on a tiny island, also called Sweetland, off the coast of Newfoundland. The federal government has offered the residents of Chance Cove, the only settlement on the island, a hefty relocation incentive if, and only if, every household on the island agrees to take it. The last two holdouts are Moses and his neighbour, Loveless, until finally Loveless gives in and leaves Moses Sweetland to stand alone. As the community tries to talk, badger, then threaten him into taking the package, he resists them all.

Moses lives alone, next door to his brother-in-law, niece and her son. The boy, Jesse, has taken a liking to Moses and follows after him when he's trapping rabbits and fishing. The affection is mutual, but Moses is not given to emotional display; he shows he cares by letting Jesse into his life.

There are a lot of stories on this tiny island. The residents and their parents before them grew up here so their lives are all intricately intertwined. Although Moses Sweetland says he will never leave, circumstances lead him to eventually give in and agree to take the settlement. Agreeing and going, however, are two very different things. If his plan succeeds, he will be the only living resident of Sweetland.

Words cannot say just how much I loved this book, in spite of a lot of cursing/bad language that for me usually takes away the appeal of even a great story. Just as I didn't really understand my ambivalence to the last book I read (Noah's Compass), so I don't really understand my strong reaction to this one. I was nothing short of mesmerized by it. The characters became so real to me that I felt a terrible loss when they left the island. And Moses, he's inside my head all the time. But the thing that really got to me is the island itself. As I approached the last chapters of the book I could feel the dread of finishing it growing in me. I didn't want to leave, but those words "didn't want" don't really express it. I was heartbroken to leave it. I am so homesick for this place I've never been that I'm avoiding putting the book away. Somehow it feels closer with the book nearby. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but there you have it.

Looking at more tangible things, the writing is also very good. I can't remember which author said that his rule when editing is "If it sounds like writing, take it out.", but he'd be happy with this one. It never sounded like writing. It's one of those books that make you feel as if you're living the story, not reading it. It's that vibrant, that immediate. I don't remember there being a lot of descriptive passages, and yet many details about the place and its people clearly stand out even now, after finishing the book. The dialogue was very natural, blending in with the narrative so well it was barely noticeable. This guy can write.

It's been a while since I found a book worthy of adding to my "favourites" list, but this one is truly something special. I hope you'll read it and enjoy it, too.        

"Noah's Compass"

Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler

At sixty-one years old Liam Pennywell is forced into early retirement when the private school where he is a teacher downsizes. He's not all that disappointed at the loss of the job because, divorced with grown daughters, he has no one else to support but himself. His savings and pension will allow him time to think over whether he needs or even wants to look for another position.

He does some downsizing of his own, moving into a smaller apartment and discarding anything that won't fit into his newer, more spartan existence. The first night in his new bedroom he falls asleep satisfied with himself and the direction his life is taking.

The next morning he wakes up in the hospital, with absolutely no memory of what happened to him. He's told he fought off an intruder who gained entrance through an unlocked patio door but he can't remember anything at all. Recovering those memories becomes his focus, as much as he can be said to focus on anything.

 His ex-wife, his sister and his daughters come and go in his life with all the usual family tensions. Then he meets Eunice who actually works as a "hired remember" for someone else and who Liam thinks will be able to help him. What he gets is far more than he bargained for.

I'm having some difficulty deciding if I liked this book or not. It was interesting enough, but when I got to the end I found myself asking - so what? I've had that experience with the occasional movie but never before with a book. I'm not sure what it means, maybe just that I'm not in a place to get anything from it. Books and movies say different things to a person at different times in your life.

The reviews for this book were great. USA Today said "Gracefully written tragicomedy...seasoned with poetic images [and] gentle humor." The Observer (UK) said "...an elegant contemplation of what it meant to be happy..." I feel bad that I didn't get more from it, but there you have it. You might love the characters and the story; I was unmoved.

"Apples To Oysters"

Apples To Oysters - A Food Lover's Tour of Canadian Farms by Margaret Webb

Margaret Webb is a food writer who for this book traveled across the country visiting farms and restaurants and talking to the farmers who work long, hard hours to produce the best product possible for our tables. She listened to their stories of getting started, trying to maintain what they had built and to their hopes for expansion. In too many cases it seems that it's a losing battle with every imaginable thing against them, but they are passionate people and their stories of dedication and perseverance are both moving and inspiring.

The book is structured like a meal, in three courses. "Appetizers" takes in oyster farming in Prince Edward Island., Grand Manan (NB) dulse and the scallop fishery in Nova Scotia. "Mains" covers Newfoundland cod, Manitoba pork, Saskatchewan flax, Alberta beef and Yukon potatoes. The last section, "To Finish" takes us to British Columbia for apples, Quebec for cheese and Ontario for icewine.

What stands out to me in this book are her remarkably vivid descriptions. She does so much more than just tell you about a place - she puts you right there with her with wonderful detail. She makes it an exciting journey by taking part in the actual work of each farm and telling us what that's like, and by using vibrant language that makes every scene come alive. When was the last time you read a book about farming that was actually fun? This one will have you breathing in the salt air of the east coast and feeling the warm earth on your hands as you dig up a Yukon Gold potato. It was almost as good as a vacation. Well, maybe not so much for her.

Reading this book will leave you hungry so it's a good thing a couple of recipes are included at  the end of each chapter for anyone who can't wait to get to a restaurant where these products are featured. The book will tell you where those restaurants are as well. I haven't yet tried any of the recipes but the Yukon Gold fries (oven made) are on my menu for this week.

I wish this book was required reading for every Canadian so we'd all have a better idea where our food comes from and how much work goes into producing it. Full of eye-opening stories and a lot of information, it was never dry but fun to read from beginning to end. Try it, you'll like it. :)