Monday, 14 October 2019

Hot tea on a chilly morning...

On this bright, chilly morning, I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar, along with the last of the season’s blueberries.  It's been gloriously cool and bright this past week, perfect fall weather. Since it is Thanksgiving, I am thinking about things I am thankful for, such as the public library, the variety of local fruits and vegetables available at this time of year, my husband and cats, of course, and my book clubs made up of such enthusiastic readers.  I’m also thankful that, despite the busy-ness of life, I can still find time every weekend to sit quietly, enjoy a hot tea and a treat, reflect on what I’ve been reading and share these reflections with you. Thank you for reading my post and making this a worthwhile endeavour for me!.
I read a book last week that I was quite excited about, The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware.  I so enjoyed The Death of Mrs Westaway that I felt sure this one would be just as good.  What I’ve determined, though, is that Ware’s mysteries can be hit-or-miss.  I really enjoyed her first novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, then did not like her next two mysteries.  When she came out with Mrs Westarway, I thought she’d found her niche writing contemporary mysteries that are strongly influenced by classics, almost a modern retelling.  With this novel, I thought perhaps it would be a retelling of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, not just because of the similarities in the titles but also because both are about nannies who are being haunted in a remote location, and I had high hopes.  The novel begins with Rowan Caine applying for a nanny position at Heatherbrae House, located in a remote area of Scotland. She travels from busy London for her interview and finds a stunningly modernized house that combines all the latest technology, such as voice-activated touch panels to control the lights, music and temperature and a home management app called HAPPY, with traditional details such as hidden doorways and dark corners.  When she meets stylish Sandra Elincourt, Rowan is taken in by her welcoming manner and her sociability. After spending the night and meeting the girls the next morning, friendly five-year-old Ellie and sullen eight-year-old Maddie, she heads back home, all the while thinking that she desperately wants this job. We the readers sense that it’s not just because it pays so well, although that is certainly an enticement, but there is some indication that there’s more to this story than is at first apparent.  Rowan is not really bothered by the fact that the last four nannies have left under mysterious circumstances, nor does she take seriously the warning Maddie gave her just before she left for the train station, that “the ghosts wouldn’t like it” if she came back. When she gets the job, she is told that she will have a few days to settle in with Sandra around before she and her husband, Bill, head off to a conference for a week, but when she arrives, she discovers that there has been a change in plan and they will be heading out the very next day.  While Rowan feels a bit out of her depth, she is sure that her past nannying experience has prepared her for the challenge. But she struggles with HAPPY and the control panels, as well as how to manage the children, who appear to be quite at home running around the vast, startlingly wild landscape surrounding Heatherbrae unsupervised. Thank goodness Jack the handsome handyman lives in the renovated coach-house above the garage. When things begin to get creepy and she hears creaking footsteps in the middle of the night, she feels completely out of her depth. Then she discovers a mysterious locked garden and a dangerous-looking pond on the grounds.  Throw into the mix the arrival of fourteen-year-old rebellious Rhiannon, and you’ve got the recipe for a great gothic mystery. Unfortunately, there was something about this novel that left me feeling unsatisfied. The plot was interesting (it was in fact a modern-day Turn of the Screw), the setting was gorgeously creepy, the children were mysterious and unsettling, but I think what was lacking was any depth of character, particularly of Rowan.  She seemed flat and two-dimensional, and rather pathetic, which is a shame, because this could have been wonderfully sinister read. Still, it was certainly a page-turner, and I thought the ending was interesting.  I haven’t read Henry James’ classic in a long time, but I have added it to my Volunteer book club list for next year to read in October. This novel was better, in my opinion, than The Lying Game and The Woman in Cabin 10, but not as good as The Death of Mrs Westaway, so if you like gothic mysteries, you could definitely do worse than this.
That’s all for today.  Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and I hope you enjoy your day in whatever way you choose to celebrate.
Bye for now…

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Short post on a drizzly morning...

It’s warm and drizzly this morning as I write this post, and I’m sorry to say that this may be a very short post.  I was going to take a full “sick day” from blogging today, as I’m not feeling my best and it’s been a super-busy weekend.  But a steaming cup of chai tea and a bowl of fresh local fruit is sure to improve my disposition, at least in the short term.
My Volunteer Book Group met yesterday to discuss The English Patient by Canadian author Michael Ondaatje.  This novel, which won both the Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Award in 1992, as well as the Golden Man Booker Prize in 2018, takes place in a deserted Italian villa near the end of World War II and centres on four dissimilar individuals all brought together by the war experience.  Hana is a young Canadian nurse who has refused to leave with all the others when they abandon the villa hospital. Instead, she pours all her energy into caring for the English patient, an unidentified middle aged man who has suffered severe burns in a plane crash and is dying. Caravaggio is a Canadian thief and former friend of Hana’s father.  He joins the war effort and comes looking for Hana when he hears that her father has died in the war. He discovers not only the young woman, but the English patient, whom he has been following off and on throughout the war. Kip is a young man from India who idolizes the English, joining the British army and becoming a sapper, charged with dismantling unexploded bombs.  Although Hana thinks she has fallen in love with the English patient, she and Kip form a relationship that serves to offer hope in a time of utter despair. Caravaggio’s stay at the hospital serves two purposes: to watch over Hana and to try to get the English patient to reveal information about himself, his war experiences and his true identity. The English patient is nameless throughout most of the book, but Caravaggio suspects that he is really Count Laudislaus de Almasy, a Hungarian spy who, because of his vast knowledge of the African deserts, was aiding the Germans in their efforts to cross Northern Africa.  Mystery surrounding the English patient is the main thing that unites the others, but they also discover that, despite their differences, they all share similar feelings and attitudes, of love and responsibility, loyalty and the need for release. Based on the impression I got from my book club members last month when I reminded them that this was the book for October, I didn’t think anyone would have read the book, let alone enjoyed it, but they surprised me. Most had read at least half of the book, and a few had actually finished it. One member, who complained the most about it last month, raved about it yesterday!  The comment I heard most often from people was that they didn’t know what was going on, that the story was too hard to follow. This is absolutely true. It is not told in chronological order, but rather jumps back and forth in time, and is told from various points of view, too. And much of the narrative consists of sentence fragments. But everyone also commented on how lyrical and poetic the language was, the descriptions of even the smallest thing or occurrence. We spoke about the difficulty of being a spy, how challenging it would be to keep straight the different stories told to different individuals, and how the English patient withheld his identity, despite his severe physical condition, until the end.  One member mentioned the English patient’s lengthy and poetic descriptions, particularly of the desert and the sandstorms, and we wondered whether this was perhaps a ploy, a way to distract Hana and the readers, from probing too deeply for personal information. This is a novel of love and war, of loyalty and deception and betrayal, and while my response to the novel when I finished it was to wonder whether this was truly the best book written in the English language in the past 50 years (as the Golden Man Booker Prize would suggest), after the discussion, I have a new appreciation for it. Maybe with these comments in mind, I may try rereading it sometime in the near future. It was a good book club selection, and provoked interesting discussion from all.

That’s all for today.  I’m going to try to get out for a short walk, even if I have to dodge the raindrops.

Bye for now…

Sunday, 29 September 2019

Margaret Atwood on a perfect fall morning...

I finally got a chance to read the new Margaret Atwood book this week and I’m so excited to tell you about it!  I’ve got a steaming cup of chai tea and a bowl filled with the last of the local peaches on this delightfully cool day as I think about last week’s reading experience.
The Testaments is the long-awaited sequel to Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel that asks the question, “What would happen if the world were ruled by (certain) men?”  I had to qualify that, as I’m sure there are some men out there who would not force all women into servitude, even if it were allowed and strongly encouraged.  But let’s face it, it’s been proven time and again that people who are given supreme power over others will inevitably abuse it. Everyone knows what society is like in Gilead, whether from reading the book or watching the series, so I won’t spend any more time on that.  Instead I will focus on this new book, a novel that I think was brilliant in its own way. The Testaments takes us back to Gilead fifteen years after the closing of The Handmaid’s Tale, and offers a look at how the society has developed and changed.  It is told from three different points of view, the testaments of Aunt Lydia, Agnes Jemima and Daisy.  We know Aunt Lydia from the previous novel, but fifteen years later, she is the most powerful woman in Gilead, whispering straight into the ear of Commander Judd.  Agnes Jemima is a precious flower, a girl who, at thirteen, is destined to become the new wife of a powerful, and much older, man. And Daisy, at sixteen, is a sassy teen living in Toronto who will play a pivotal role in the Mayday operation to bring Gilead down.  I don’t want to give anything else away because the mystery surrounding these three characters and the ways their stories become intertwined is what makes this book a real page-turner. I hate to compare novels, but while Handmaid was introspective and character-driven, Testaments is more plot-driven.  Both showcase Atwood’s amazing use of language and her supreme skill at subverting it to create an eerily chilling atmosphere that is shockingly believable.  But in Testaments, Atwood manages to also offer readers a Gileadean political espionage thriller that kept me staying up late and getting up early to read “just a few more pages”.  My only complaint, if you can even call it that, is with the timing of the stories, but I think I need to read it again before I make any comments, as it was probably just me rushing through it that left me feeling as though it didn’t flow as well as it could have.  Against my better judgement, I read the reviews and they were not great. One reviewer said “...if The Handmaid’s Tale was Atwood’s mistresspiece, The Testaments is a misstep.  The Handmaid’s Tale ended on a note of interrogation:  ‘Are there any questions?’ Those questions were better left unanswered” I have to disagree with all of this.  In my opinion, she probably never wanted to write a sequel; it’s been 35 years since Handmaid was published, so if she really wanted to write a sequel, I’m sure she would have done so before now.  With the popularity of the series, it is likely that she felt extreme pressure to write this and answer the very questions she probably intentionally left for readers to ponder.  Like Handmaid, Testaments ends with notes from a Symposium on Gileadean Studies, in which she writes:  “It is gratifying to see such a large turnout. Who would have thought that Gilead Studies - neglected for so many decades - would have gained so greatly in popularity?  Those of us who have laboured in the dim and obscure corners of academe for so long are not used to the bewildering glare of the limelight” (p 408). I think this is a direct reference to the sudden and immense popularity of her earlier work.  She is a brilliant writer who can get away with weaving these types of jibes and comments into her narrative and have it flow perfectly - or jarringly - for the reader. The most memorable part of this book for me is when Aunt Lydia, describing how she became an Aunt, talks about her time in the Thank Tank, not so much what happened to her there, but the process leading up to and following her time there, as well as the phrase, “Thank Tank”.  Unlike the reviewer quoted above, I loved this book. As with a film adaptation of a favourite novel, the reader (or watcher) has to realize that this is a separate entity from the original and judge it on its own merit. I highly recommend this book, even if you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, but you would at least have to have watched the series or be familiar with the setting.
That’s all for today.  Enjoy the fall weather before it gets muggy and rainy over the next few days!
Bye for now…

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Book talk on a warm, humid morning...

I’ve got a steaming cup of delicious chai tea and a Date Bar on the table in front of me, and after a week of chilly weather when I was wearing a jacket and even a thin scarf, I’ve got the air conditioner on!  It definitely felt like fall last week, with the golden sunlight slanting over the changing colours of the trees in the early mornings as I left for work, but this weekend has been warm and humid, and since it rained last night, it feels especially sticky and unpleasant today.  But there are cooler days ahead, if you believe what the meteorologists are saying... 
I had almost no time to read last week, but I did pick up and finish a Young Adult book yesterday. My grade eight teacher is using We All Fall Down by award-winning Canadian children’s author Eric Walters as a novel study with his class right now.  I recently purchased extra copies so he could have a full class set, but kept one at home to read out of curiosity. This novel tells the story of Will, a grade nine student who, due to a Staff Professional Development Day at his school, will be spending the day at work with his father, something he is not looking forward to at all.  His dad hasn’t been around much lately, choosing instead to spend long hours at work, and to say that Will feels resentful is an understatement. But in the early morning of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, Will accompanies his father on the subway to his office on the 85th floor of the World Trade Centre’s South Tower. What begins as a boring, tedious day for him turns into a horrific experience that changes his life.  Of course, we all know what happened on that day, but this book offers the experience through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old boy as he tries to make sense of what happened, even as he and his father attempt to escape the building. This was a powerful read that students would surely relate to. Not only does Walters address the attacks and what they mean to Americans and to everyone in the world, but he manages to explore other pertinent themes, such as money and wealth and what is really important in life, the relationship between fathers and sons, and the value of the lives of others.  It was an interesting read, and I can certainly understand why this teacher chooses this book to study with his students just about every year.
That’s all for today.  Stay cool and take time to read a good book!
Bye for now…

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Tea and treats on a rainy morning...

It’s overcast and rainy right now, but that hasn’t stopped me from transforming the many wonderful offerings I purchased at the market yesterday into lunches and suppers for the coming week.  Local leeks, beans, kale, peaches, blueberries, carrots, celery, and much more have gone into the making of a delicious pot of soup and a yummy stir fry. And I baked Date Bread, too, so I’m enjoying a slice with my steeped tea.  What a great time of year this is…
I read Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline for my Friends Book Club, which will be meeting tomorrow night.  I’ve read this novel before for my other book group, and we all loved it, so I wasn’t disappointed when one of my friends suggested it for this group.  This novel tells the parallel stories of Molly and Vivian, two women who seem to be polar opposites: Molly is a rebellious seventeen-year-old who has been through a number of foster homes in the past nine years, and her current home is not much better than the others.  Vivian is a ninety-one-year-old widow who seems to have lived a rich and full life with her husband until his death, and now leads a quiet, if somewhat reclusive, existence. After an incident at the public library, Molly is forced to put in fifty hours of community service, and Vivian’s housekeeper suggests that she spend that time cleaning out Vivian’s attic.  Cleaning out a rich lady’s attic is not exactly an exciting prospect, but she reluctantly agrees. What she finds, however, is anything but boring. Instead she discovers that, as an Irish immigrant, Vivian was part of the thousands of orphan children who, between the 1850s and the 1920s, were gathered up and sent on trains to various towns and cities in the hopes that they would be placed in loving homes, but the reality for many was anything but loving; they were often placed in abusive environments and made to work on farms or in households and were considered little more than cheap labour.  Through their time together, Molly and Vivian discover that they are, in fact, very much alike, and they form a bond that may be stronger than any family connection. Based on my previous book club experience with this novel, I think tomorrow night’s discussion will be lively and interesting, and I think everyone will have enjoyed reading and discussing it. One of our members is away and will miss the meeting, but she sent these comments to me:
Just wanted to share with the book club that I really liked that book. It was sad but inspiring and the plot of connecting the "two orphans" was clever and made the book interesting to old and young audiences. It is a book where reading makes you a more empathetic and understanding person and gives hope that even if you think your life is behind you, incredible and great things can happen. That was a beautiful message. I give the book an A! Thank you, my book club, and see you in November.
WOW, that was quite an endorsement, and I agree with everything she said. I would highly recommend it to individual readers and book clubs.
On another note, I was thrilled to find a box from Indigo on my doorstep on Tuesday when I got home from work. I knew what it was, Margaret Atwood's new novel, The Testaments, the sequel to her 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale, which I had pre-ordered back in August. But I was not expecting to receive a cloth book bag in the image of the book cover, with a surprise message on the back. I was ridiculously happy for the rest of the evening, and the excitement has remained with me all week. Unfortunately, I couldn't start reading it right away, as I had to finish my book club selection, and while I'd love to start it today, I hardly have any time to read over the next week and I don't want my reading experience to be disjointed; instead, I want to savour every word of this delicious novel. So I will save it to read the following week, when my husband is gone away and I will have time to read and read and read, as long as I want, with no interruptions (except for the cats!). I first read The Handmaid's Tale in grade twelve, so I guess I'm so excited because I've been waiting for more than 30 years for a sequel I never thought would actually be written. Thank you, Margaret Atwood, for writing this and finally satisfying all your Handmaid's Tale fans by (hopefully!) providing answers to so many of the questions we've been left with. I can't wait to dive in!
That's all for today. Stay dry and keep reading!
Bye for now... Julie

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Book club highlights on a cool, fall-ish morning...

I have definitely felt the change in the season this week, with cool mornings and evenings and a lack of humidity in the air.  It’s been awesome, my favourite time of year, but of course, it's always a bit bittersweet, too. It’s both a beginning and an end, the start of a new school year and the end of summer holidays… *sigh*... I’m glad to have a hot cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar to help me through this time of emotional conflict.  
My Volunteer Book Club met yesterday to discuss The Tiger:  a true story of vengeance and survival by Canadian author John Vaillant.  I knew nothing about this book except that my good friend gave it to his father for Christmas a few years ago, and since my friend is such an avid reader (he reads even more than I do!), I thought it would be a good book to choose as my non-fiction selection for our book list.  This book tells the true story of the December 1997 hunt for one of the few remaining Siberian tigers near a remote village in Russia’s Far East. This tiger has gone against his nature and become a man-eater, and he must be hunted and killed before he kills again. Now I’m not a fan of hunting, and I thought this might be too disturbing to read, but Vaillant does a wonderful job of painting a full, clear picture of the situation the men on the hunting team faced as they tracked this menacing tiger.  And the book deals with so much more than just the story of the hunt, which probably takes up less than a third of the book. It provides so much information about Russian history, political changes and how they affected the people, Russia’s relationship with China, Korea and Japan, and the relationship between man, animals and the environment. It explores the psychology of people and animals, and provides historical context for current conditions. I thought it might be too detailed and rambling for my group, and was sort of dreading the reactions I was going to receive for choosing this book, but to my surprise, everyone loved the book.  They didn’t just like it, they raved about it! One member said that she was talking about it to complete strangers, that’s how much she enjoyed it. These are just some of the things we said at the meeting: This book had everything in it - Russian history, the history of tigers and their strategies for hunting, the fact that, in Russia, there seems to be no “middle class”, only absurd wealth and abject poverty, politics, ethics, anthropology, anecdotes, and animal/human interaction; Vaillant was fair, and he put everything in the book into context by providing detailed background information about people and situations; his writing was exceptional.  Someone said that it was almost as if, for these Russians in this remote area, the feelings toward and treatment of the tiger was a personification of a mythical creature. One member thought, “Oh no, it’s non-fiction; I’ll just read the first three chapters and then fake the rest” but then, like me, she was totally riveted and read every word, including the footnotes. Another member found a film mentioned in the book, “The Sheltering Desert”, online and watched it. Others are planning to read some of the books Vaillant mentions or quotes. I'm going to start using the German word umwelt to refer to my personal space and experience, my personal "bubble" (as opposed to the Umgebung or "objective environment"). I think it was one of the most successful meetings we’ve ever had, and I would highly recommend this book to all readers, even those who don’t normally read non-fiction.  
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the fall-like day. Bye for now…

Monday, 2 September 2019

Short post on a long weekend...

I have a steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar on the table in front of me as I enjoy this sunny, cool-ish morning, an extra day off before the new school year begins.  Since it is Labour Day, I got thinking about this blog. What began, in part, as something to add to my resume while I was looking for a job has become, after eight years, a labour of love.  I really look forward to sitting down at the start of each week to write about what I’ve been reading, listening to, or thinking about regarding books and reading. I appreciate the comments I’ve received from readers who have said they enjoy reading my blog;  some have even discovered some great books by reading my recommendations. Thanks for letting me know. That makes this even more worthwhile. As a bonus today, I get to listen to CBC Radio Two, as it is a weekday, not a Sunday, and so they have my favourite radio show, Tempo, airing.  This is a win-win situation, and hopefully the start of a delightful day.
Because I went back to work last week, and I also had something planned every evening, I only had time to read one children’s book, but it was a good one.  The Name of This Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch, the first in the “Secret” Series, tells the story of Cass and Max-Ernest, two children who form an unlikely bond as they investigate the mysterious death of magician Pietro Bergamon and the kidnapping of one of their classmates.  Cass and Max-Ernest both have unusual home lives; Cass’ father is a mystery, and Max-Ernest’s parents have a, hmmm, let’s say “curious” way of dealing with their divorce and shared custody. When Cass and Max-Ernest go exploring at the dead magician’s house, what they discover leads them on an adventure both dangerous and exciting.  This novel reminded me of The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket, the first in the “Series of Unfortunate Events”, in many ways.  The narrator warns readers at the beginning that they should not read this book, that it is dangerous (or unpleasant), but if they choose to continue, they do so at their own peril.  The narrator speaks directly to the reader, and uses challenging vocabulary that fits in naturally with the narrative. All of the characters are a bit unusual, but they have special abilities, the usefulness of which become clear as the story progresses.  It reminded me so much of Lemony Snicket that I thought perhaps it is the same author using different pseudonyms. But according to my basic internet search, they are not; Bosch is Raphael Simon and Snicket is Daniel Handler. If this book was not so long, I would read it aloud to my grade four classes this year, but I think kids would have a hard time staying interested for such a long time when they only get to hear me read once a week.  I think I will recommend it to teachers, though, as they read aloud to their classes every day. If you choose to read this, beware! You may become addicted to this series!
That’s all for today.  Enjoy this gorgeous holiday Monday, and embrace the new school year when it starts tomorrow.
Bye for now…