From Scenes Like These

From Scenes Like These From Scenes Like These by Gordon M. Williams

I am rating this about a 3.75. It’s not the most comfortable book I’ve ever read, so I can’t say I really “liked” it, but the characters are memorable, and I think this is a book I will still remember a year from now. My goal is to read several books each year from the Booker shortlist. This “year” I am selecting books from 1969 and from 2009 – not necessarily the winners, but books that interest me.

This one is by a Scottish author, and set in the small industrial town of Kilcaddie in the west of Scotland in the 1950s. The main character is Duncan “Dunky” Logan, 15, who drops out of school to work as a laborer on a farm. It is a coming-of-age story as he tries to define himself as a man, and shed the people and habits that he thinks of as childish and/or compromising his freedom as an adult. Ironically, his choices are creating a very bleak and narrow road for himself. It is a rather depressing look at the prospects for young men (and women) in that time and place. I also found it a somewhat disturbing commentary on the male psyche!

I did learn a LOT of Scottish slang. I had to keep a notebook as I read, going online to look up words and phrases – 4 pages worth! Many I could have guessed at the meaning, so this probably wasn’t necessary for my understanding. It got tedious to stop each time, so I would save up a list, and then look them up later. A few to remember: messages = groceries, pieces = sandwiches, coup = a garbage dump, Ne’erday = New Year’s Day. Among the more colorful: neds and hairies and tinks, tattie-howkers, argy-bargy, nicky tams, hab-jabs, and bawbee.

First paragraph: “It was still dark, that Monday in January, when the boy, Dunky Logan, and the man, Blackie McCann, came to feed and water the horses, quarter after seven on a cold Monday morning in January, damn near as chill as an Englishman’s heart, said McCann, stamping his hobnail boots on the stable cobbles.”

Favorite quote: “Willie wasn’t as green as he was cabbage-looking.”

And this from the last chapter sort of sums up the whole book: “If grown men could change so quickly how could you be sure of yourself? You wanted to be like other people but they did the dirty on you, one way or the other. You started off trying to be different, trying not to turn out like all the others. You ended up worse than them. You ended up knowing you were a disgrace, full of all the things you hated in other people.”

Dunky wasn’t a bad boy. But he desperately needed a good, male role model, and there weren’t any.

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The Stone Diaries

The Stone Diaries The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This beautifully written book defies classification. Is it the story of an ordinary woman living through extraordinary events, or an extraordinary woman living through ordinary events? Daisy Goodwill reflects on her birth (Manitoba, 1905) and her death (Florida, 199?) and everything in between. Sometimes it is Daisy’s story, then it shifts to the voices of her friends, neighbors, and children, or an omniscient third person. One chapter is told entirely through letters. Like a real biography, there are pictures of the family and a genealogy chart. Despite this touch of “authenticity,” one is left wondering how much of Daisy’s life was imagined or made up. The ultimate question it asks is how do we define ourselves? What is it that gives our lives meaning? Daisy struggles with these questions throughout her life, and I’m not sure she ever finds an answer. She is a strong and independent woman, and yet she is always letting others define her. She tries to be the dutiful wife and the perfect mother ala Good Housekeeping magazine. She is thrown into severe depression when her role as Mrs. Green Thumb (newspaper columnist) comes to an end. And at the end of her life she is defined by her illness. How well do any of us ever really know ourselves or the people closest to us? I know that large parts of my life have felt made up as I’ve gone along!

This book was read for the Daytimer’s book club December 2009 meeting (topic: Award Winners). It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995, as well as the National Book¬†Critics Circle Award, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.