Sunday, 25 October 2020

Short post on a chilly morning...

It’s turned chilly and cold this weekend, but I don’t mind.  So far the rain has held off, which makes this perfect weather for a long walk, then curling up with a well-earned hot cup of tea and a good book… hmmm… I think that will be my plan for today.  But first I have a book to tell you about.

The Allspice Bath by Sonia Saikaley opens in the spring of 1970.  In a hospital in Ottawa, another daughter is born to a Lebanese-Canadian family, and the father, Youssef, is not happy.  This makes four daughters, and with this difficult birth, wife and mother Samira must have a hysterectomy, making her unable to have any more children.  This means Youssef will never have a son, and this is the theme that underlies everything in young Adele’s life, the fact that she was not a boy and can never be a suitable replacement for a son.  As Adele grows up, she encounters difficulties and obstacles both with her family and in her social life.  She is torn because she was born in Canada but her parents are both immigrants from Lebanon, and they are very traditional, so is she Canadian or is she Lebanese?  She is also so much younger than her sisters that she has difficulty relating to them, and they tease her mercilessly on a regular basis.  The novel follows Adele as she grows from a child into a young woman, and follows her struggles as she learns to live her own life and follow her own path, independent of her controlling, obstinate father and quiet, submissive mother.  This book, an award-winner for multicultural fiction, was interesting, and I enjoyed reading it, but I wonder how much of my enjoyment comes from relating to the character’s situation so much.  As I was reading this novel, I felt that it could have been written by anyone in my family, as this is also my background and Adele’s age in the book corresponds closely with my own.  It was interesting to find, on the first few pages, swearing in Arabic, and mentions of delicious traditional Middle Eastern foods pop up throughout the book.  I was happy/sad to learn that my own upbringing and experiences with my father were common amongst children of Lebanese parents, and it helps put things in perspective.  I’m not sure I would behave the way Adele does near the end of the novel, but since I haven’t yet been in that position, I’ll have to wait and see what choices I will make (I can’t tell you any more without spoiling it).  I would say this is a realistic portrait of a young girl growing up in a Lebanese-Canadian family in the 1980’s, and while the writing is not stellar, the story moves along at a good pace until it reaches a satisfying conclusion.

That’s all I’ve got for you today, as I really want to get outside and enjoy this brisk fall day.   

Bye for now…

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Post on a wet fall morning...

It’s been raining off and on this morning, so I’m glad we got out to rake the leaves yesterday while everything was dry.  I don’t mind wet fall weather - it just seems to intensify the gorgeous colours of the trees when it’s overcast and the trunks are black with rain.  I’ve got a delicious cup of chai and a Date Bar to motivate me this morning.  I’ve done a few things already and am running behind, but I have two great books to tell you about, so I’ll just get to it.

Last week I read Polar Vortex by Canadian novelist Shani Mootoo.  This novel has been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and I can certainly understand why.  Priya and Alex are living what appears to be an ideal life.  They have a big old house on what is technically an island (maybe near Kingston, Ontario?), where they have room to be creative: Priya is an artist and Alex is a writer.  But all is not what it seems, and cracks begin to appear when Priya invites an old friend to come and stay, a man she hasn’t been in contact with since meeting Alex.  What ensues is an exploration into the decades-long, complicated relationship between Priya and Prakesh, and how it will affect the relatively new relationship she has with Alex.  This literary novel explores various kinds of relationships, and asks readers to consider whether a lengthy but neglected relationship is more significant than a recent but nurtured one.  It also questions whether the secrets in one’s past ever really go away.  I found this to be a truly thought-provoking novel, making me think of my own past relationships, those I’ve neglected and those I’ve nurtured, as well as consider the experiences of refugees as they settle into a new country.  I've also never really thought about the challenges gay couples face, in the past and even now, in our more accepting society. It was a short book that seemed long, packed as it was with so much to think about.  I would recommend this to anyone interested in books exploring relationships, secrets and deception.

And I finished listening to a great audiobook, Normal People by Sally Rooney.  I think this title came to my attention because it’s recently been adapted into a series, which I've heard was not as good as the book (it never is!).  The novel begins when Marianne and Connell are in their final years of secondary school in County Sligo.  Connell’s mother cleans house for Marianne’s family, and although they are attracted to one another, they must hide their feelings from others, fearing negative reactions from their classmates.  Although he and his mother don't have much money, Connell has managed to become part of the popular crowd, while Marianne is considered an outsider, on the fringes, a loner, despite her family’s wealth.  When they both attend Trinity College, Dublin, their roles are reversed, and Marianne is the popular one, while Connell, only able to attend on scholarship, is the outsider.  Once again, their relationship must be kept secret, and this goes on for a few more years as they have different, sometimes disturbing, experiences with different people, but they always remain an anchor for one another despite their involvement with others and their ever-changing locations.  I had no idea what this book was about and didn’t take to it at first, but once the story got going, I was hooked.  I found myself telling them to just get together and reveal their relationship to everyone, criticisms be damned!  I was rooting for them, and cringing at their foolish decisions.  It was a fabulous book, and the narrator, Aoife McMahon, did a wonderful job of bringing the characters and their experiences to life.  I would highly recommend this audiobook to just about anyone, but be prepared to both laugh and cry. 

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend and pick up a god book!

Bye for now…

Monday, 12 October 2020

Very short post on a very long weekend...

It was a PD Day on Friday, so I took advantage of the opportunity to work from home that day, and of course today is Thanksgiving Monday, so it feels like I’ve had four days off (well, I was really busy with video sessions on Friday, but I got to sit around in my “at-home” clothes, so it was definitely more restful than going in to work).  I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar on this gorgeously bright, sunny, mild morning.  The birds are singing (it’s mild enough to have the windows open), the leaves are out in full magnificent colour, and I’m feeling so peaceful and certainly thankful for so many things, today and every day.

Last week I read American Predator:  the hunt for the most meticulous serial killer of the 21st century by Maureen Callahan, and it was just so-so.  I’m not a huge non-fiction reader, but I have enjoyed some true crime and historical nf titles in the past, so I thought I would take a chance on this one, and I was thankful that it was short.  It follows the search for, arrest, and subsequent interrogation of Israel Keyes, a man initially suspected of abducting and killing a young woman in Anchorage, Alaska, but who, after some skillful (and some bumbling) interviewing, is linked to many other crimes and murders throughout the United States over the previous two decades.  It was interesting enough at first, and was neither well-written nor badly written, but just average - it met, but certainly did not exceed, my expectations.  But it jumped around quite a bit, and by the time I reached the end of the book, I wondered what the point of it was.  I guess it was vague and had lots of filler because it was hard to find information about this guy; he seems to be the most famous serial killer that no one has ever heard of.  Anyway, if you like reading true crime and are looking for something new, you could do worse than this one, but you could also do better.  

And I listened to an audiobook by K L (Kelly) Armstrong, Wherever She Goes, and have to say that I was happy to reach “the last page” of this one, too.  I have enjoyed several books in Armstrong’s “Rockton” series, and was quite looking forward to this standalone, but it did not meet my expectations at all.  Aubrey Finch is in the midst of domestic turmoil; she and her husband have separated and she fears the loss of custody of her young daughter.  When she and her daughter are at the park one weekend, she has a brief conversation with another young woman who is playing with her son.  Several days later, as she is jogging in that same park, she thinks she witnesses that boy being abducted, but no one will believe her.  Even she is not certain of what she saw, but when more sinister activities take place in her seemingly tranquil suburban community, she is unable to deny her gut instinct and decides to search for this boy on her own.  Sounds like an interesting plot, right?  Well, yes, it would have been interesting if there weren't so many of Aubrey’s lengthy internal monologues popping up far too regularly throughout the book.  And in my opinion, it turned out to be totally unbelievable, too.  Maybe as a print book the reader would have been able to skim the monotonous monologues and get to the “good stuff”, but with an audiobook, you can’t skim or skip parts.  Anyway, not as good as I was hoping, but also not the worst book I’ve ever listened to.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy this gorgeous day!  And have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Bye for now…

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Rain, rain, go away...

It’s raining right now, and it’s supposed to do so all day, so I guess it’s a good time to prepare for the cooler weather, both in my closet and around the house… it’s also perfect weather for reading and drinking hot tea!  Good thing I went to the library yesterday and filled my “library loans” shelf with a wide variety of books to choose from.  Right now I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a Date Bar to lift my spirits and brighten my morning.

At my Volunteer Book Club meeting yesterday, we discussed Deborah Ellis’ collection of Young Adult short stories, Sit, and we all loved it!  There are eleven stories in this short volume, and some of the stories are directly interconnected, while others just seem to so obviously belong in the collection.  Sitting is something we do everyday and never think about.  Each of these stories features a child or young adult who is facing a difficult situation, and each of these children is also sitting.  But their sitting is not something they can take for granted, and they use each of these situations to contemplate or reflect on serious issues in their lives or the lives of people around them.  A boy is working in an Indonesian furniture factory, toiling away making chairs under the watchful eye of a cruel boss.  A girl is visiting a concentration camp on a school trip and fixates on the latrines the prisoners were forced to use.  Another girl shares her views about her home situation while sitting in the pink plastic “time out” chair that she has long outgrown but that she is forced to use regularly by her callous mother.  These children face difficult situations or obstacles, but they somehow manage to overcome these challenges and come out alright in the end, due in large part to their resiliency of spirit.  This collection is clearly written for children (each story is brief and fairly simplistic), but my ladies loved them.  The overriding theme of the discussion was the sense of wonder at how Ellis was able to elicit such huge emotion from such short stories.  One of the members said that there were “so many little stories but so many life-changing events”; another commented that there was “so much emotion in so few pages”; another wondered how “something so little could be so big”.  We speculated about some of the characters: we thought the girl in the pink chair would grow up to be rebellious, and we considered the reasons behind the decisions of several other characters.  We noted that many of the stories featured children looking out for each other, and sometimes for adults.  We all agreed that it was the many small details in each story that created a clear picture of each situation, and that it was these small details that make these stories difficult to sum up if trying to relate them to someone else, that somehow the emotional impact would be "lost in translation".  Overall, it was a great book club choice, and I would highly recommend it to just about any reader.  It is short enough to read in a couple of hours, and the stories are very accessible, so there’s no reason not to try it.

And speaking of simple stories with big meanings, I also read The Wall by John Lanchester.  I was reluctant to read this novel directly after The Memory Police because it is also a dystopian novel that takes place mainly on an unnamed island, and I thought it might be too many depressing dystopian novels too close together, but I started it and was sucked in immediately!  John Kavanaugh is a young man who is beginning his requisite two-year posting as a Defender on The Wall, a concrete wall that surrounds the coast of the island where he lives to keep out the Others.  He shares details about his first days, weeks and months, the conditions under which he fulfills his posting, his relationships with the other Defenders, and his experiences both on and off The Wall.  All seems to be going well and one day is much like the next ("concretewaterskywindcold")… until the Others attack.  The early chapters of this novel reminded me of the early chapters of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, with the details of the tediousness of the characters' existence, but Atwood’s book is much more complex, while Lanchester’s novel is more simplistic, but no less powerful for its simplicity.  In fact, I think the simplicity adds to the significance: without much detail, this story could be applied to any situation, making it more disturbing.  And it’s obviously based on current controversial political agendas, which makes it even more unsettling, because it’s not just speculative; it’s actually happening.  I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys reading dystopian or speculative fiction.  Once again, it’s an easy read, but it gave this reader so much to think about.  

That’s all for today.  Stay dry and pick up a good book.

Bye for now…

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Speed-posting on a wildly windy morning...

It’s very windy and sunny and warm this morning, probably one of the last warm days of the year, so I’ve got laundry hanging out on the clothesline to take advantage of “nature’s dryer”.  I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai and a yummy Date Bar while I think about all the things I still want to get done today.

Because I have three books to tell you about, I am going to use the method suggested in one of the books I listened to and describe each book in twenty-five words or less; then I can use as many words as I want to tell you how the book made me feel, what I liked or didn’t like about it, etc.  It seems a bit like speed dating, but I’ll give it a try.  Here goes:

Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowly (audiobook):  Boy meets girl.  Boy meets another girl.  First girl moves away.  Boy loses second girl.  First girl moves back, but second girl wants boy back.  Will boy and girl find true love?   I think that was thirty words, but that was as brief as I could be.  This Young Adult novel set in Australia was an ode to used bookstores, love letters, and the joy of books and reading.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the fairly typical plot line.

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen:  Lonely crafter girl meets new boy, but both need to overcome guilt about tragic accidents in their past that have isolated them socially before they can form connections to others.  OK, once again this was thirty words, but it’s the best I could do.  Another Young Adult novel, this time from my school collection, was funny and sad and dealt with difficult topics with sensitivity.  It is sure to appeal to many of my students, especially those who have a creative flair.  I think I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t just read Tell Me Everything, which had similar themes but was much less humorous.

The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa:  Things disappear on unnamed island and people just accept it and forget about these items. But some people remember and are tracked down by the Memory Police and taken away.  This novel, shortlisted for the Booker International Prize, was a cross between 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go.  It focused on totalitarianism, acceptance and the difficulty of resistance.  It was moving and thought-provoking, and the story-within-the-story added a further dimension to the novel as a whole.  The words and phrases brought to mind vivid images, particularly of the rose petals in the river, and the text flowed smoothly despite being translated.  I would highly recommend this if you enjoy dystopian novels, but be warned that it is not uplifting at all. I know that I haven't done this excellent book justice here, so if you are interested in it, please read about it further online - here is the review from the Guardian:

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the great weather!

Bye for now…

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Last post for summer...

It’s a bit cool this morning, but it's bright and sunny and it’s going to be a lovely end-of-summer day.  The leaves are starting to change and it won’t be long before the trees will be on fire with gorgeous fall colours.  It will be getting warmer over the course of the week, but right now it’s still cool enough to enjoy my steaming cup of chai, along with a slice of freshly baked Banana Bread and a Date Bar.  I couldn't imagine a more perfect morning.

Last week I read an unexpectedly powerful novel by German defense lawyer-turned-author Ferdinand von Schirach, The Collini Case.  I had recently read The Girl Who Wasn’t There by this author, and I remember that I did not love it, but it interested me enough that I decided to get this earlier novel from the library, and I’m so glad I did!  This legal mystery opens with Italian-born Fabrizio Collini, posing as a journalist, being admitted to the hotel room of wealthy and well-respected retired German businessman Hans Meyer.  He proceeds to shoot Meyer several times and kick him in the head repeatedly.  He then goes down to the lobby, calls the police, and sits patiently, waiting for them to arrive.  Collini is offered legal counsel and young Caspar Leinen, newly appointed lawyer with his name on the roster, ends up with the case.  Little does Leinen know that the victim is Meyer, the grandfather of his deceased best friend, a man he has long considered a kind of father figure.  Added to this complication is the fact that Collini won’t offer any defense, and Leinen must search for clues as to motive on his own, digging deep into German history and examining the German legal system from every angle to come up with a reason for this seemingly random act of unusual cruelty.  What he uncovers will be sure to shock even the most historically knowledgeable reader.  It was a short novel that started off with a *bang*, then slowed to a crawl for much of the middle section, but then it picked up to a finale that was jaw-droppingly good.  If you read this novel, be sure to also read the notes and afterward, which really make this already-powerful story even more significant.  This book was recently made into a film, and I’ve just placed a hold on the DVD, which is currently on order at my public library.

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the sun and have a wonderful day!

Bye for now…

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Book club highlights on a warm, sunny morning...

It’s warm and a bit muggy this morning, after the massive rain we got overnight and early this morning, but it’s supposed to get much cooler tomorrow so I’m hoping to go for a long-ish walk this afternoon.  But right now I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar - it feels like forever since I’ve had one of those!  

Yesterday my Volunteer Book Club met for the first time since March.  The community centre where we usually meet is still closed due to COVID-19, but we brought our lawn chairs and sat outside in the sun to discuss Zoe Whittall’s novel, The Best Kind of People.  Four members showed up, an impressive number, considering that it was quite cool early yesterday morning - fortunately it warmed up as we got talking, and I think we were all happy to be back together.  It seemed a bit like a garden party, without the food or drinks (but we had books, which is just as good!).  Here is what I wrote about the book when I first read it in October 2016:

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall tells the story of one family’s experiences in the face of adversity in a wealthy white community outside of Connecticut.  George Woodbury is a well-loved and respected science teacher at a prestigious prep school in Avalon Hills where, nearly a decade before the story is set, he disarmed a school shooter and saved many lives, including that of his seven-year-old daughter, Sadie.  Voted “Best Teacher” every year since, the school, along with his family, is shocked when he is arrested on multiple charges of sexual harassment and attempted rape of minors while on a school ski trip.  Whittall then explores the emotional turbulence of his wife, Joan, a head nurse at the local hospital, daughter Sadie, now seventeen and in the gifted program at the prep school where George teaches, and son Andrew, a gay lawyer living in New York with his partner Jared, as they come to terms with George’s secrets and reconcile themselves to the facts that have been presented while struggling to retain the heroic image of the man they believed him to be.  Loyalty and trust are called into question, and each character must consider everything they thought they knew about their father/husband, as they grapple with this difficult question: Can a man still be a hero if he has also committed unspeakable acts?  It started off really well, and pulled me in immediately.  Setting George up as a hero in the first few pages had me rooting for him to be innocent for about the first third of the book.  But then the evidence begins to pile up, and as accusations mount, the balance shifts and I found myself switching sides.  Of course, the story is told through the eyes of his family members, who really, really want him to be innocent and for their lives to go back to the way they were before, and their experiences of being shunned and ostracized from the very community where they were once respected and loved were difficult to read about but also all-too-realistic.  Whittall never goes into the details of the accusations, nor does she give George a distinct voice in this novel, and she presents the dilemmas of family members caught in this type of situation with understanding and skill.  I think my criticism of this book is that it was too long, and that she presented the experiences of Joan, Sadie and Andrew in too much detail - I was looking forward to reaching the last page, but when I did, I found an abrupt ending that seemed rather rushed, considering all the time and effort devoted to presenting every single detail of everyone’s lives from the time of the arrest to the time of the trial.  The quotation she has at the beginning of the book, though, was poignant and really made me think about the unfairness of society’s views in these types of cases:  “(Rape culture’s) most devilish trick is to make the average, non-criminal person identify with the accused, instead of the person reporting the crime…” (Kate Harding, Asking for it).  I didn’t love the book, and I had a hard time identifying with any of the characters, but it was certainly well-written and well-reviewed by many, many sources, so I have to give it an 8 out of 10.”

This time around I felt exactly the same, and others in the book club had similar views.  They wanted him to be innocent, but they struggled to hold onto that belief as the story progressed.  They wanted to know more details about the accusations, and were frustrated to be left not knowing anything about George except what his family members said.  We all agreed that Whittall intentionally painted a picture of George as “the perfect husband”, and “too good to be true” so that we, like the community, would want to believe in his innocence.  We were all shocked to read about the victimization, not just of the girls who came forward, but of the family members, especially Joan and Sadie.  We thought Andrew’s situation was both interesting and sad, and we found the creepy side-story of Kevin-the-writer to also be interesting and sad, and a bit pathetic.  We all loved Joan’s sister Clara, who was as independent as they come, and we thought Elaine, Sadie’s boyfriend’s mom, was a good, solid mother figure, firm yet understanding.  We noted the importance of appearances in this novel, and people or situations were often judged on first impressions or reputation, not what is true.  No one loved the book, but no one hated it, either. I think we mainly found it a rather disturbing topic to read about.  It was a good book club selection, though, as we had plenty to discuss.  I would recommend it for anyone looking for something to recommend to their own book club.

That’s all for today.  Have a wonderful week!

Bye for now…